Cacao ceremony | Cacao practitioner | Ceremonial cacao | Conscious relationship | Consciousness | Creativity | Happiness | Keith wilson | Keith's wisdom | Meditation | Spirituality | Travel
Step off a water taxi onto the small public dock in San Marcos La Laguna, and it’s only a matter of time before the term cacao ceremony enters your consciousness.
San Marcos is one of the sleepier Mayan villages hugging the shore of Guatemala’s stunning Lake Atitlán. Surrounded by volcanoes, some still active, the lake is a sacred site for the Maya people, a hashtag heaven for Instagrammers, and a travel magnet for backpackers with yoga mats.
I belong to the last group.
I don’t know a soul out here, but my own having been flagged as lost and directionless, I arrive ready to meditate. Or at least stare quietly at volcanoes.
Instead I find myself staring at two cryptic words. The town’s cozy main street beckons with colorful flyers for cacao ceremonies. They manage to stand out even amidst posterized competition for “soul retrieval” treatments and magic mushroom growing workshops. (Toto, I don’t think we’re anywhere near Kansas.)
Cacao next catches my eye on the village white board of daily events, scribbled in black Sharpie: Cacao Ceremony & Ecstatic Dance.
I am still weighing the prospect of dancing ecstatically when it appears yet again, audibly this time. Waiting for my veggie burrito lunch order, I begin chatting with a fellow traveler at the next table. Already in town for a few weeks, he replies decisively when I ask for recreational recos in this mysterious hippie hideaway.
“Let’s see, what day is it? Friday? Check out Keith’s on Sunday.”
Okay, the only part of that I got is Sunday. This Keith character must be locally renown, doubling as a person and an address.
But why is everyone acting like cacao ceremony is the most self-explanatory phrase in the world, like it’s wine tasting?
At first I mistake the vagueness for hippie arrogance—you know, to keep any half-hearted soul-seekers in the dark. Weed out the weekday vegetarians. But I would soon learn that the mystery was without malice. Cacao ceremonies are, quite simply, hard to articulate.
And yet I feel compelled to try. During my first stay in San Marcos, I would end up spending three Sundays on Keith’s porch—about twenty hours total—and the things I learned yearn to be overshared with strangers. Prior to my first cacao ceremony, here is what little intel I had gathered:
San Marcos is a tiny town, so Keith’s house proves much easier to find than any workable description for cacao ceremony. I arrive early, pay the 200 Quetzal ($26 US) fee for first-timers—it’s half for subsequent visits—and find a spot on the covered porch as its floor pillows begin to fill up with butts.
Thirty of us sit barefoot in loose rows facing the house. Our ages span five decades, and from the accents, at least a dozen countries. A guy who has clearly been here before remarks that our crowd is large for this time of year, the rainy low season, but would be considered paltry in high season, when up to fifty cacao enthusiasts will cram onto this cozy porch twice a week.
The ambient chatter wanes as our leader emerges from a doorway of hanging beads. He welcomes us and takes his ceremonial seat, a foldable camping chair, as his cat Squeaky jumps into his lap for a ceremonial nap.
Keith Wilson is an American ex-pat who has lived in Guatemala since 2003. He has the gravitas and hair of Gandalf the Grey, the bluntness of Tony Robbins, and the sharp observational wit of George Carlin (minus the cynicism).
Keith is the Chocolate Shaman, a nickname bestowed by his students when he began using cacao as a facilitator in his healing work. Keith introduces a woman named Barbara, whole-heartedly as his sweetheart, and half-jokingly as the Cacao Whisperer. Together they make a chocolate power couple, hosting these gatherings and producing a high quality “ceremonial grade” cacao under the label Keith’s Cacao. It is served on tap at local restaurants and available for purchase online, servicing Keith’s international tribe of cacao disciples.
Barbara passes around a tray of reusable plastic cups half-filled with a warm brown liquid while Keith rattles off some health advisories.
“First I’m going to tell you why you shouldn’t drink this. Your heart rate will rise by 20%. Don’t climb a mountain today if you have high blood pressure. Don’t drink it if you’re on high doses of an anti-depressant. And if you’re a dog, cat, parrot or horse, this stuff will kill you.” (Luckily, Squeaky doesn’t seem to care for cacao.)
After a brief intention-setting, we raise our cups in gratitude to the Cacao Spirit. Then it’s down the hatch.
Cacao is bitter. Nature’s built-in portion control. It’s like drinking pure 100% dark chocolate. Optional sweeteners are passed around for those of us with tainted taste buds from years of sugary sodas and mocha Frappuccinos. While we wait for the effects to fully kick in—forty minutes, we’re told—Keith launches into the most fascinating monologue of all time. Or maybe my cacao buzz has simply kicked in early.
“This is a school,” he says. “A school for how to get out of your own way. It’s a school for healers, teachers, energy workers, creators, artists, manifesters. But we don’t teach techniques in those subjects. Because you don’t need it. Everything is already inside, ready to roll. All you need to do is get out of your own way. And you’re all absolutely terrified to do that.”
Standing In My Own Way could be the title of my autobiography. The man has my attention.
“You’re in a war between your head and your heart,” he continues. “But you’re all a bunch of wizards. Magicians. Absolutely magic people, hiding in the closet. So my job is to threaten you with the scariest thing on Earth: who you really are.”
Wait. Who am I? Cue the existential crisis I seem to have fortnightly these days. Keith offers an answer, but it only brings up more questions. “You are not a human being. You are a being of light…that chose an expression in a human body. For whatever you came here to do.”
The Chocolate Shaman is circling a question that has nagged me for decades. What’s my damn purpose in this life?Is there something specific I should be doing in this pesky human body that I apparently chose? (And why didn’t I choose one bearing closer resemblance to a Brazilian supermodel?)
Keith resumes his spiritual pep-talk with the news that we are all expert healers already. Which is handy, because the world is going to need plenty of those in the coming years. A lot of people will be in pain, dealing with personal dramas and the dismal state of the planet. He cites the exceedingly extreme weather, the downplaying of the global damage from Fukushima, the imminent collapse of the euro and eventually the world market, and whatever shady shenanigans are going on in Antarctica. (A recent surge in scientists to the area, plus the installment of enough fiber-optic cable to only make sense “if the penguins are getting online.”)
I nod instinctively. Conspiracy theories aside, one doesn’t need psychic abilities to suspect that Mother Nature is agitated or that the global economy is fragile or that today’s governments keep enormous secrets from the public. (This gathering took place in Pre-Pandemic Times, circa 2018.)
Our modern Nostradamus warns that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better (Oh, hey, 2020)—but we have the power to ease our own suffering and that of others.
Well, phew. How?
“You can take the hard bus, the easy bus, or the magic bus. Which one do you want?”
Jesus, Mary and Chocolate, give us the magic bus!
Keith must have sensed the group’s cacao buzz peaking, because he abruptly shifts gears from monologue to guided meditation.
“Okay, close your eyes. This stupid-simple meditation called Glow takes about a second and a half to activate. [Dramatic pause] Ask the smile in your heart to find you. And as it does, smile. Let that energy spread over your face. If you’re having trouble smiling because you’ve been taught that meditation is a serious pursuit, I’ll come over and tickle you! [Scattered laughs] If you’re willing to smile, you’ll notice that you are radiating energy. Gently glowing. Yes? Feel it?”
I feel myself nodding, eyes closed. Over the next few minutes, I feel a lightness I have never quite felt before. Ca-cao! My heart seems doubled in size. Heart opener, indeed. It’s an effortless, natural high that eclipses what I’ve felt in far lengthier meditations and intense yoga classes.
Keith concludes with the practical applications of Glowing. “When you’re crossing borders, dealing with cranky customs agents, Go to Glow. Talking to customer service reps on the phone? Go to Glow. Hanging out with a friend who’s in blame-or-complain mode? Go to Glow. Watch their energy shift almost immediately.”
If this were a late-night infomercial, I’d have already picked up the phone and dialed 1–800-GLOW. The next testimonial would double my order. Keith’s former student went to Glow at an airline check-in counter and got upgraded to first class for no apparent reason. (The full meditation can be found on Keith’s YouTube page by searching “the chocolate shaman”.)
Over the next few hours, it’s a spiritual smorgasbord of talking to our higher selves, healing childhood traumas, and learning how to jump between parallel universes. Just your average Sunday at the Church of the Holy Cacao Spirit.
Keith says cacao is a doorway to connect more easily and deeply to whatever you want, be it other people or your inner self or an experience. But doorways don’t cross themselves. If you expect to be passively taken somewhere, the way psychedelic drugs take you on a trip, you’ll be disappointed.
Step through the door, and the rewards are compelling. More clarity and focus for writers, artists, programmers. Enhanced productivity and collaboration for corporate teams. Deeper intimacy with loved ones. Cacao can be a creative muse or a couples therapist. The benefits listed on Keith’s blog make it sound like a multi-vitamin for your higher self: there’s almost nothing in your life it won’t make better.
I suspect Silicon Valley will soon tire of chugging bulletproof coffee, popping Adderall and micro-dosing LSD—and switch to cacao to maintain a competitive edge. I have already found it more brain-waking than my morning coffee and more socially lubricating than a glass of wine. Several travelers I meet at Keith’s soon become dear friends and one becomes my soulmate. (I meet Herb through Keith’s ceremonies, although we will not start dating for several years, as Chapter 1 explained.)
The word chocolate itself spawned from xocolatl, an ancient Aztec word for a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. A drink thought to have divine powers, whose metaphorical meaning was “heart blood.” The ancient Mayans and Aztecs often get credited as the world’s first cacao drinkers, but the use of this heart-opening medicine plant can be traced back over 5,000 years.
So liquid love was consumed long before it turned into solid heart-shaped candy exchanged on Valentines Day. In the centuries between xocolatl and Hershey’s, cacao got grossly diluted and sugary—and the link to love went from spiritual to commercial. Keith is resuscitating an ancient tool to help us connect more deeply to ourselves, to each other, and to the divinity in everything. The scientific genus name for the cacao plant? Theobroma, or Food of the Gods.
I am clearly drinking the chocolate Kool-Aid at this point, literally and figuratively. But does one have to gnaw on a solid block of pure cacao or drink a ceremonial dose of ancient heart-blood in order to reach a heightened state? Of course not.
“If you want to be spiritual, here’s what you have to do,” Keith says. “Have more fun. More light. More love. Stop hating things. Start loving everything.”
That’s it? Love is all you need?
The Beatles preached that fifty years ago. So has every religious type with long hair and a beard across millennia.
But maybe that’s the point. The answers we keep searching for have been here all along. Love. Joy. Everything is already inside, ready to roll. Can getting on the magic bus be as simple as a smile that starts in your heart?
I’ve been aboard the painfully slow bus, where the path to love, joy and purpose is potholed with uncertainty and doubt. Failed relationships. Soul-crushing jobs. Feeling lost and directionless. I keep hoping for an epiphany to strike while I’m high on cacao, or stretching in a yoga class, or meditating on a mountain, that will connect all the dots and point to my life’s purpose with a giant blinking arrow.
As I write this, I notice the mouse arrow on my screen and the blinking cursor next to my typed words. I smile, connecting my own dots. Getting out of my own way. At least long enough to publish something.
In the five years since I first met Keith and had the honor to attend the porch ceremonies described above, he has become one of my greatest teachers and his sweetheart Barbara has become a dear friend. I intentionally left intact my first impressions of Keith’s cacao ceremonies, as they remain accurate and capture a particularly lost era of my life.
I have now learned a great deal more about cacao, and ceremonial cacao in particular. Enough to fill a whole separate book. There is no superfood more underestimated than cacao, and no term misunderstood more than cacao ceremony.
Keith draws undue criticism for being a white man “appropriating” a Mayan tradition, when in fact he uses no Mayan rituals or cultural elements in his ceremonies. Present-day indigenous shamans were not working exclusively with cacao when Keith made it his sole mission to make cacao more accessible to Westerners. He also began training a new generation of cacao practitioners in Guatemala and around the world. Trace any modern cacao ceremony leader (of any skin color) back a few teachers, and there’s a good chance that one of them studied with Keith at some point. His unique ceremonies don’t incorporate fire, special clothing or drums, as some indigenous ceremonies do. They simply harness the healing power of cacao as a medicine plant, the healing power of the Cacao Spirit consciousness beyond the plant, and the healing power already inside us all.
Keith gets visibly tearful when asked if cacao belongs solely to certain indigenous peoples. “What makes anyone think they can own a plant medicine? That someone can own the Cacao Spirit?” He recalls how he tried to learn about cacao from the local shamans when he first arrived in Guatemala twenty years ago, but none of them were really working with cacao. “I had to connect with the Cacao Spirit myself." She guided Keith to create a more potent, higher quality cacao that was ideal for inner work. Since then he has helped cacao spread across the globe, citing an ancient legend as his guiding mission: When humanity falls out of harmony with the natural world, Cacao emerges from the rainforest to open people's hearts and restore the balance. Recently a Mayan shaman told Keith that he is the first non-indigenous (white) person to truly understand cacao in 500 years.
Some who lack understanding are holding their own ceremonies and selling their own cacao to capitalize on its surging popularity. Keith doesn’t mind the competition, but he is concerned about the poor quality and high caffeine content of many cacaos on the market today claiming to be ceremonial-grade. Unlike Keith’s Cacao, they lack the active biochemical compounds needed to support real inner journeying, emotional processing, and healing work.
The products we all know more commonly as chocolate and cocoa powder have been largely stripped of the beneficial compounds that make pure, minimally processed cacao a uniquely powerful superfood: theobromine, anandamide, phenylethylamine (PEA), cacao butter, and oodles of antioxidants. Even much of the “100% pure cacao” sold today has been stripped of its potency through farming and production processes that favor profits and automation over retaining the healing properties that made ancient civilizations regard cacao as a divine medicine.
Keith’s Cacao is sourced from the purest, rarest, non-hybridized Criollo variety of cacao—the hardest to grow and increasingly harder to find, accounting for just 1-5% of global cacao production. For many years Keith has employed dozens of local families in Guatemala with good wages and flexible working conditions, allowing many women to work from home while raising their children. He also helps finance emergency medical care and sponsors the local women’s soccer team, the Pumas. The workers appear to regard Keith as family, and vice versa.
I knew none of this when I first stumbled onto Keith’s porch back in 2018 for my very first cacao ceremony and first sip of real cacao. I could not imagine all the ways that experience would redirect my life in the years to come. The dear friends and future life partner I would meet on the porch, the personal and spiritual growth I would have as I continued working with Keith, the education on cacao that would inspire me to develop and teach an intensive course about its history, biology, health benefits and more.
“Someone should really write a book about this man,” I remember thinking with awe on the day I first met Keith. I never imagined that someone would be me, nor that Keith would become inextricably linked to my own life story, my own purpose.
For those who are ready to get out of their own way, there is unimaginable love, meaning and magic brewing in a cup of cacao.
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