Ceremonial cacao - Is it healing or harming and how can we move forward?
I've been hesitant to publish this blog. On the one hand, I may be biased, because I run my own cacao business and could be trying to convince you to trust my brand over others. And on the other hand, I may be a hypocrite, because I ran cacao ceremonies throughout New Zealand for a number of years.
And yet, here I am, nervously sharing my current state of being about the ceremonial cacao movement with you. Nervous because this may be an unpopular point of view and I'm a recovering people pleaser! Also, a part of me feels ashamed, because I gave away my power to what I call the 'underbelly' of the ceremonial movement and betrayed my inner knowing. It's taken me a while to recover and fully trust myself again in how I relate with cacao.
Being here now and connecting with you makes me feel vulnerable and tender. I share these thoughts from a loving platform and my intention is to invite you to figure out what feels good for you. Something might shift your perspective on cacao. Or not! I hope that my heartfelt respect and love for cacao and its modern day growers translates in this post. I really don't want to come across as a c$ntY! finger pointing know it all.
Let's start at the beginning, because there is a lot to unpack.
Cacao is the original form of chocolate. It is the fermented, dried and roasted seed of Theobroma cacao, a small evergreen tree native to Central and South America. At maturity, the cultivated cacao tree stands 4.5 to 6 metres tall, though the tree in its wild state may reach 15 metres or more. Cacao trees have been known to live 200 years in their natural environment, but they are most productive for about 25 years. Each cacao fruit or pod contains a sweet, goopy pulp and 30 to 50 large seeds, or ‘beans’. The pods are a rather unusual site, growing directly from the trees trunk and major branches.
Everything about the cacao tree is just as colourful as its history with which humans have had a long and passionate relationship.
Not everything about ancient cacao is rosy and happy ever after. Elements of control, domination and division were present from the start of cacao's story.
The ancient Olmec, Mayan and Aztec people were the first to attach great value to cacao.
As a nutrient dense crop it was a source of nourishment and sustenance.
As a currency it generated wealth and security - cacao beans were traded as money for goods and services. This also sparked violent turf wars and unrest.
Interestingly, the colour of cacao paste resembles the colour of human blood and this held much significance for these ancient cultures. For instance, midwives used cacao to support women during child birth and warriors would go into battle and take with them cacao beans to eat for stamina and focus.
As a tangible vessel to connect with the mystical spirit world, cacao was thought to evoke strength and power. Great leaders were buried with clay vessels filled with cacao beans as this promised a lavish and rich afterlife. Cacao was also used during rituals and human sacrifices to please the gods and call in super natural powers.
When the Spanish colonised Central America in the late 15th century the demand to produce cacao grew rapidly. Europeans of high class and royal titles developed an expensive and insatiable appetite for this newly discovered exotic beverage that could produce feelings of euphoria and heighten one's libido. Cacao was, in fact, prescribed as a medicine by pharmacists and doctors of this time for digestive ailments, fatigue, nausea, infertility and convalescence.
In stark contrast to this opulence, the hands that tended to the cacao were treated poorly and with little regard. A greedy, profit focussed and extractive hunger for cacao placed an enormous amount of pressure on the indigenous communities that had been growing cacao sustainably for centuries.
Only the privileged could enjoy this ancient fruit and sickly amounts of money was made by those who traded in cacao. Spain was no longer the only powerful country that recognised and exploited cacao's value as a commodity. Cacao's seeds started to spread across the globe due to French, Dutch and British interest. Large plantations owned mostly by European companies erupted on fertile tropical lands and the workers, often enslaved and forced into growing cacao, and their communities became an unseen, yet indispensable link in a very long supply chain.
This is why today we can find cacao not only in Central America, but also in Africa (the largest cacao producer), Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, the Philippines, Caribbean, India and Madagascar. Multiple generations of modern day growers have been gifted new wisdom from their forefathers as a result. These farmers are unsung heroes in the recent history of cacao. Heroes who carry many scars.
Now cacao is even bigger business - it is listed on the stock exchange and generates billions of dollars every year. And despite this, most of todays cacao farmers don't know what their cacao is being used for or what their cacao tastes like. They will use their small cacao wages and buy a can of Milo not knowing that they grow the core ingredient. Sadly this is how disconnected modern day growers are from their cacao, to no fault of their own.
The ceremonial movement - how did it all start?
This might surprise you, but Keith Wilson, an American and former geologist, started the ceremonial cacao movement some 20 years ago when he connected with cacao in a mystical way after he arrived in Guatemala. Keith recognised that high quality pure cacao paste, minimally processed, intentionally sourced and delivered, can open people's hearts and guide them back into connection with themselves and one another. These are the definitive guidelines that are used when grading ceremonial cacao.
Keith began using cacao as a facilitator to get people in an open-heart space that was conducive to his personal and group offerings as a processing intuitive healer. These gatherings became very popular with western travellers. Soon, he became known as the Chocolate Shaman, and the travellers who shared time with him started referring to his sessions as Chocolate/Cacao Ceremonies. These ceremonies have no direct connection with how the ancient cultures used cacao.
Ceremonial cacao - how it heals the world
A lot of good has come from the modern ceremonial cacao movement. Before Keith Wilson there was very little, if any, awareness about the sacredness of cacao in the minds of western consumers.
Keith brought our attention to intention.
He wove his personal healing experience with the spirit of cacao into a powerful story. It had a profound ripple effect across the globe. Almost overnight cacao was no longer just a super food with life giving, nutrient dense properties or the source of chocolate. A big shout out to David Avocado Wolfe on this point. He raised our awareness and opened our hearts to the nutritional abundance and power of cacao. A visionary in his own right. Cacao gained much popularity amongst raw food enthusiasts because of David in the late 1990's and early 2000's.
What Keith did was lift cacao's story once again. It became infused with holiness and new age spiritualism.
As a result we started to gather in beautiful full moon circles and during festivals to share our truth with one another whilst sipping on a strong cup of this seemingly new take on an ancient plant medicine. It captivated and moved the hearts of millions - including myself. My long relationship with cacao took on a whole new dimension.
How many hugs and vulnerable, tender, raw, open conversations have been shared thanks to ceremonial cacao?
How many of us have experienced a sense of belonging and acceptance during and after a cacao ceremony?
How many of us have released sadness and grief in a safe space thanks to ceremonial cacao?
How many of us have danced all night and all day thanks to ceremonial cacao?
How many of us have reached new levels of awakening and creativity thanks to ceremonial cacao?
How many of us have made the most delicious and satisfying love thanks to ceremonial cacao?
This is 'powerful - lets elevate our frequency - tune into love and be connected to something bigger than ourselves - in a wholesome - sober - healing way' kind of sh!t.
Seriously though, so much beauty and light has come from it and I have a lot of gratitude for Keith and his original vision for ceremonial cacao.
And then there's a dark side.
Unfortunately there's an underbelly in the 'spiritual/wellness' arena especially when something or someone can be capitalised.
Where things get a bit blurry...
Keith Wilson's definition of ceremonial cacao is deeply rooted in ancient Mesoamerican culture. The ceremonial container states that if cacao is grown outside of Central America, by people who are not descendants of the Mayan, Aztec or Olmec cultures that it cannot be termed as ceremonial. Mmmm, okay. Let's park that for a moment.
Over time, as the ceremonial movement became more popular I think Keith's core message unfortunately got lost in a sea of misguided information.
Right now ceremonial cacao is what açai and goji berries was twenty years ago. It's hot, it's trendy and everyone wants a piece of it. In a competitive commercial fight for shelf space, I feel some are creating a sense of superiority with their copy. This not only confuses well-meaning consumers like yourself, but it goes against the essence of cacao's message for humanity.
With more interest did the original ceremonial grading t&c's become a little blurry and more self serving? Did this start to fuel a false narrative on social media that implied that it is disrespectful to the spirit of cacao, even sacrilege, if I didn't use cacao in the 'right' way? Do any of us actually truly know what all of this means?
In a capitalist world we create calculated problems that disempower us and then we come up with a solution - that has a price tag - that would appear to be the answer to the problems we didn't even know we had to begin with!
Is this perhaps part of the problem?
Do the blurry, yet very structured ceremonial 'rules' also insinuate that I can only share and 'work' from a place of integrity and respect once I've completed an extensive/expensive facilitator training course that is accredited by a cacao brand? Is my genuine love and intuitive felt sense no longer enough to certify me as a cacao user? Is it good business to use these courses as an influential, value added tool or are they born from a place of deep devotion for cacao where there are no monetary strings attached? Can I only be trusted and seen as woke and authentic with the spiritual/ceremonial crowd if I invest in these courses? And is making cacao this exclusive damaging and harmful?
Looking back at history, cacao's entire chronicle was built by individuals who felt superior and abused their power. Is there a sinister force lurking in the shadows of the current ceremonial cacao movement that is perpetuating elitism? Is this why some of us feel 'icky' about the ceremonial scene?
For a long time I felt something within me was 'off' when I spoke about cacao in a ceremonial way and I couldn't figure out why it started to leave a bitter taste in my mouth - to the point where I stopped running ceremonies and distanced myself completely from the term.
I don't know for sure what the answers are to these questions, but having cacao helps move me into a coherent intentional heart space and out of my noisy head space that tries to intellectualise it all. I go down deep rabbit holes to the point where I feel like I'm being swallowed whole by overwhelm, self doubt and confusion.
There are brands that have a very true, clear and transparent connection with their growers. This gives me hope. Keith Wilson is one of them. So is Jonas, from Ora Cacao. And Oonagh Browne from The Cacao Ambassador. You will hear more about Oonagh's ground breaking innovative work in the future. I believe the history books will mention her name for her noble and radical efforts to reform the cacao industry. She is the ultimate embodiment of cacao's pure heart.
But cacao is broken and needs a lot of love...
When one is single minded it's easy to forget about the bigger picture. I lost my way, went very quiet and questioned everything about cacao and why I run my business.
This became clear to me - the whole of cacao is aching to be seen - not just some parts of it.
I think of all the modern day growers who cultivate cacao across the globe and who get no mention in this current exclusive ceremonial narrative. Farming communities who deserve to be seen and heard, only they are not because of their geographical location and ancestry. As a result their crops are labelled as inferior in comparison to others.
How can we move forward?
What if we just stopped for a minute and breathed the same sacred and dedicated intention of ceremonial cacao into the entire global cacao industry? An industry that is deeply corrupted and exploited.
What if we revered all of cacao's forms and expressions, not just the paste? What if we made our chocolate sourcing guidelines purer? Imagine that. Could we? What if we liberated every single hand that was forced into growing cacao and turn them on to the beauty, abundance and delight of this ancient food by empowering them on the ground, in their own villages, whilst respecting their customs and traditions?
What if we acknowledge all the growers, ancient and modern, so that we can celebrate true diversity and inclusivity? Is this not what cacao requires to heal the past?
No discriminating classification terms. No superiority. No division.
Just one global cacao? Is this even possible?
This remains to be true, cacao has sown her seeds for us all to enjoy. Regardless of how this occurred historically, I believe strongly that all cacao carries beauty, delight, wisdom, nourishment and healing.
Whether you buy Mamamuti or not, I'm simply gaga about cacao and I want to encourage you to take back your power and question what you’re being sold. From a place of sovereign empowerment reactivate the joy of cacao in your life - fully - without any restraint. Trust yourself, choose your source wisely, have fun and follow your curiosity with childlike wonder and innocence. It's that simple.
I don't want you to think that I'm anti or against ceremonial cacao. Not at all! But I feel there's more love to be shared and I trust that cacao will open me up and help me to figure out my next.
After all, cacao is not bound by borders, labels or timelines. It invites us to transcend these old ways and create a new paradigm where unity, inclusiveness, accessibility and equality rule.
I don't have the answers and I know nothing, but I'm pretty sure we can inspire change for good with open hearts, side by side.
Thankyou for your strong and tender words. They make such sense to me and I am grateful for the honesty, integrity and courage it must have taken you to write them xx
Celebrating global cacao!! thanks Irma