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The Four Insights – Alberto Villoldo [Understanding Perception and the Human Brain]


Visit Alberto 


  • The Body and Physical Perception: The Level of the Serpent

The Serpent is an instinctual creature with extraordinary senses that it can rely upon to tell it where there is food and where there is a predator. Similarly, in the physical realm, we humans rely upon on our senses to give us a picture of ourselves and the world. This is a very material level of perception, where everything is tangible, solid, and difficult to change; where reality is 1 percent spirit and 99 percent matter.

From this perception of serpent, we can see, touch, and even smell an object in front of us, such as a loaf of bread, and we know that it’s there, physically  present. We don’t imagine the stalks of golden wheat in the bread, the kneading of the baker, or the fire that transformed it into a loaf that we can eat – we only see an object that can satisfy our desire for hunger. Similarly, we don’t see sex as an act of Love; we see it as an act of longing that will satisfy our desire.

At the level of the serpent, the language we use to depict reality is molecular and chemical. We could describe bread scientifically, [ – making executive decision to edit out some details. I trust you will ‘get’ these concepts!]…

… When we see problems through the eyes of the serpent only, we try to come up with physical solutions. We want to change the job, trade in the car, find a new partner, or have an affair…

…At serpent, we rely totally on our instinctual senses and don’t reflect more deeply on our problems. We’re operating from  that part of the brain we share with lizards and dinosaurs – that is, we’re aware of our physical bodies, but we’re not cognizant of our mental, creative, and spiritual selves. In this state, we perceive outer form and accept only the obvious, remaining blind to our feelings and those of others. We’re devoid of rich, complex thinking, and simply act and react. This state can be very useful for operating in the physical world. After all, we need to pay bills, mow the lawn, and drive the kids to school without reading any more meaning into these actions. And, as Sig. Freud once famously remarked, ” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Remaining in serpent – that is, putting one foot in front of the other – is especially helpful for getting us through immediate crisis. Our reptilian brain is in charge, working from survival instincts, and we simply do what has to be done without wasting valuable energy thinking about it, analyzing it, or getting emotionally distraught about it. We all know how wearying it is to meet someone who refuses to function at this level even when it[‘s very practical to do so, choosing to read deep meaning into eve the most trivial of matters instead of just getting the work done.

The instincts of serpent are also very helpful because they can alert us to danger before we consciously perceive it – we get a “bad vibe” about a person or place and avoid it without knowing why, or we sense that a police officer with a radar gun is up the road, so we take our foot off the gas pedal.

Serpent is an essential state to master, as we have to be effective in the physical world and take care of business in a practical way. But when we allow our need to survive at all costs to dominate, we’re not always so pleasant to be around. We reach for the most literal signs of security… … We coil up and contract, striking out before the other guy can clobber us;  we amass weapons and build fences. In fact archeologists found excavating neolithic sites have found that the earliest defenses built by humans weren’t designed to protect them from physical enemies but from the invisible ghouls and dangers they perceived from the level of the serpent.

Unfortunately, much of humanity has lived at the level of serpent for thousands of years. Many people who take the Bible and the Koran literally, with their instructions to slay infidels, still live in this realm. It’s important to be able to take our perception up a notch, for the good of ourselves and our world, because serpent is the cold-blooded domain of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

  • The Mind and Emotional Perception: The Level of the Jaguar

In this perceptual state, jaguar, the mind interprets our reality. We recognize that the mind can create psychosomatic diseases or restore health, that repressed anger can cause cancer, and that a positive attitude brings joy and peace to ourselves and others around us. We’re aware that our experiences are influenced buy our thoughts and that everything isn’t necessarily what it seems to be in the physical realm.

Now when we look at a loaf of bread, we know that it came from the fields of wheat, and the baker… [possibilities with bread; eat it, butter, store it, give it away, food fight etc] but we’ve been taught certain beliefs about bread, and those beliefs influence our decision about what to do with it. We know that it’s not right to waste food, so we quickly brush aside any temptation to throw it across the room just for fun.

In short, we understand that that we have choices, but we also know that those choices are limited by our beliefs about bread. We also comprehend the bread’s symbolic meanings: We understand that it represents life, as in ” the bread of life”; we use the expression “white bread” to denote a person who lacks dimension and personality; and we say: “I have no bread” to express a lack of money. A loaf of bread represents more than the satisfaction of our hunger, and having sex represents more than the satisfaction of our need – it can be an act of intimacy.

The realm of beliefs, ideas, and emotions is associated with the jaguar because this type of perception can suddenly transform situations, causing them to be seen in a new light, and such a creature is the archetype of sudden change. The jaguar spots [its] prey and pounces on it, quickly extinguishing its life – yet this helps keep down the population of the other animals and maintain balance in the rain forest, thus making it possible for other life to thrive in the ecosystem. In the same way, a single insight can allow us to break free from our negative feelings or an old way of operating that’s preventing us from moving forward.

The jaguars’ instincts are different from those of the serpent, which is solely concerned with survival and preservation. Jaguars are curious and inquisitive – our cat instinct leads us to the right people and situations (or the wrong ones, if our feline instinct is flawed). Jaguar perception is associated with the mammalian brain, that of emotion and deep feelings of Love, intimacy, family, caring, and compassion. Yet it is also the brain of aggression, superstition, amulets, and Nostradamus and Genghis Khan. The language of the level of jaguar is spoken or written words, which we use to  form and express ideas, beliefs, and feelings. Here we understand symbols and signs and can agree that certain sounds are words that mean something specific.

From jaguar, we recognize that we can give a hungry man a fish, but a more practical long-term solution is to teach him how to fish. We know that we can give a starving child a piece of bread, but we also know that one does not live on bread alone. We rise above the literal level and see a wider range of possibilities in any situation. If we have a migraine, we ask ourselves, “What could be the cause? What is my body trying to tell me?”

Just as the mental level encases the physical, in Jaguar we incorporate what we experience at serpent state. So if we have a headache, we’re aware of our pain, but we also think about what might have caused it, such as chocolate or red wine [too much responsibility, worries about business or a fight with a Loved one ~ our body is responding with a headache].

Through the eyes of jaguar, we look at the child who is acting out in class and ask, “Is he actually unable to sit still and keep his hands to himself and if so, why?” We consider whether the child ate a lot of sugary treats and has a strong physical urge to move, if he’s bored by what the teacher is saying and so on. We’re able to perceive much more about the situation than we would at serpent state; consequently, we’re able to think of many more solutions. We don’t just punish the child that acts out, we make sure he eats a healthy breakfast and has a chance to walk and run before he has to settle into his seat and focus on listening to the teacher. We don’t just pop a pain pill – we learn to say no to our extra responsibilities and start expressing the anger we’ve been repressing. Because we have so many more possibilities, we’re able to make effective changes and solve more complex issues.

  • The Soul and Sacred perception: The Level of Hummingbird

The next domain of perception (which also encases the other two levels) is that of the soul. The language of this level is image, music, poetry, and dreams – it’s the realm of myth, where the soul can experience itself on a sacred journey, ans is thus symbolized by hummingbird. Although tiny, this bird manages to navigate thousands of miles in its yearly migration from Canada to Brazil. It never loses its sense of direction or its drive to press forward, and never wonders if it has enough food or strength for its voyage. In the domain of the mythic, we are all like hummingbird, on a grand voyage and yearning to drink only from the nectar of life. When we don’t perceive our journey as sacred, we become mired at the level of the mind and its complicated analysis of the world. From hummingbird, we perceive all of our experiences as part of an epic journey.

The hummingbird perceptual state is associated with the neocortex, the most recent addition to the human brain. The neocortex evolved around 100,000 years ago and is responsible for our ability to reason, visualize, and create. It is the brain of Galileo and Beethoven, science, art, and mythology.

At the soul level, solutions to problems that we can’t solve with the mind suddenly become evident. In Peru a few years back, for instance, the native people had begun to perceive that the inexpensive, healthy, homemade, wholegrain bread that they’d been eating for generations was inferior to store-bought, heavily processed white loaves that they saw the wealthy eat. As a result, they were eating less wholesome bread, and it was affecting the well-being of the population.

The president of Peru could have tried to resolve the problem at the level of the mind and attempted to convince people through a public-relations campaign that brown bread is good for you, or he could have worked with the legislature to pass a law raising the taxes on white bread to try to force people to buy more affordable loaves. Instead, he chose to address the situation from the hummingbird level of perception.

The president recognized that to the village people of his country, white bread had come to represent success and sophistication, while brown bread symbolized poverty and ordinariness. He knew he had to change their perception that white bread is better, so he made a television clip that showed him dining with with his family in the presidential palace, eating brown bread. He knew that this would deliver the message that brown bread is the food off the successful and the sophisticated, and it worked. Indigenous people in Peru returned to eating brown bread because this was the bread of kings, not peasants!

When I eat a restaurants in Peru, I always load up my bag with extra rolls that are served, because I know I’ll have an opportunity to help someone out by giving them a roll that may be their only meal of the day. Once when I was traveling with a Laika elder, I found myself in a bus station surrounded by several children who had gathered around me in the hopes that I might give them some coins or candy. I began to take the rolls out of the bag and distribute them, but the elder told me, ” This is not the bread these children need. The kind of food my people need is the food of the soul, not the stomach.” He took the rolls from me and distributed them to the children himself, but as he did, he also began telling them stories about their Inka ancestors.

Afterward, the elder explained, “These stories are the nourishment that they are craving. I gave them not the bread that will feed them tonight, but the bread that will feed them their entire lives.” He was perceiving with the eyes of the hummingbird – to him, the stories were nourishment for the soul. When he saw me handing out rolls, he intervened at the level of the sacred by offering these people the mythology of their people.

At the level of the soul, things are what they truly are: an expression of the sacred. A house is not simply a roof over your head, it’s a home. A spouse is not merely a person you share household and child-rearing duties with, but a chosen partner, a fellow traveler on a great journey. In this state, you look at bread and ask, ” Am I hungry for bread, or am I hungering for the nurturing it represents?” You’re able to understand the importance of breaking bread with others and how your belly can never be adequately filled when others go hungry in the world.

At the level of hummingbird we listen below the surface of conversations and hear their hidden meanings. We operate in metaphors, so if we have a migraine, we ask ourselves, “Am I going out of my mind? What thoughts are stuck in my head?What is this a sign of?” In Chinese medicine, unexpressed anger is said to reside in our liver, so if we have liver trouble, we know it can be a sign our our repressed rage. So if our liver function is sluggish, we ask, “What medication can I take?” but also, “How can I practise forgiveness, both with myself and others?” We understand illness to be the warning light that tells us there’s something going on that needs our attention, and we don’t treat the symptom alone.When we look through the eyes of hummingbird and we see an overly active child, we ask, “How is this child’s ‘problem’ a positive opportunity?” We recognize that giving Ritalin to a hyperactive child may make him stay in his seat and focus on what the teacher is saying, but it takes away his natural ability to multitask. In a jungle, this child’s “problem” behaviour or “learning deficit” would actually be an asset – he would be able to hear the birds call to each other and the rushing of the waterfall and still engage in a conversation, all the while remaining alert to possible danger. In hummingbird, we perceive the child’s distractibility as a gift that’s invaluable for his soul’s journey.

  • Spiritual Perception: The Level of Eagle

(To be continued! Or – just read the book; it’s really good, and recommended 🙂

In the naïveté of my pure, unbroken soul, I intentionally left this section blank, many years ago, as a ‘nod’ to Language-less Divine Perception – which, I have since learned, is actually rare. Almost no-one sees things from here.

In the book, this is summarised by “We do not see a rich man giving a poor man some bread; we see Spirit nourishing Spirit.”

This is also best described by the actualities of the greetings in some languages, that allude to Unity Consciousness:
Namaste‘, in Sanskrit, means: “The Light in me, acknowledges the Light in you.”
In Lak’ech‘ in Mayan, means: “You are another myself/I am another yourself.”
Mitakuye Oyasin‘ in Lakota, means: “We are all related.”

This level is the Macrocosmic perception that also dwells within the Microcosm. One eye is here, one eye is there. Macro sees Micro; participates.
Micro – en-masse – cannot see Macro. Unless: gnosis.)