The Power of Cacao: The Latest Trend in New-Age Consumer Spirituality

Cacao pod close up
Organic and fair trade cacao trees from Finca la Florida in Quetzaltenango. Photo/Aisling Walsh

On the 22nd of December, 2019, I found myself sitting on a shady porch overlooking Guatemala’s spectacular Lake Atitlán. As I sipped lukewarm and bitter cacao from a plastic cup, I jotted down the words of Guatemala’s “famous” chocolate shaman, Keith Wilson. A native of Connecticut, Wilson moved to Guatemala over fifteen years ago and started holding cacao ceremonies. These are now legendary among Lake Atilan’s “expat” and backpacker communities, who flock to the same porch on which I was sitting to imbibe his sacred drink and gain the wisdom of the cacao spirit. 

It was my first time meeting Wilson and participating in his famed ritual. With me were 30 or so others — mostly white westerners — sitting in perfectly erect lotus postures, smiling earnestly and hanging onto every word that came from the bearded and bespectacled shaman’s mouth. But unlike many of these followers, I wasn’t there to discover a new path to self-enlightenment. Instead, I was there as an observer, curious about this new phenomenon and what it all meant for larger questions of power in a global capitalist hierarchy.

My Journey to the Shaman

Lily Tomlin as Frankie leading a cacao ceremony in her living room
Lily Tomlin as Frankie leading the gang in a cacao ceremony. Grace & Frankie/Netflix

Despite having lived in Guatemala for almost six years, the first time I ever heard of a cacao ceremony was exactly a year before, while on a trip home to Ireland for a family wedding. Taking a break from our whistle-stop tour of the Irish countryside, my partner Simón and I took refuge from the gale-force winds of Connemara in my favorite Galway pub. It was jammed with revellers on their Christmas holidays and we got chatting with some of the locals. 

Upon discovering that my partner was Guatemalan, a woman wedged into the bar next to us extended an invitation to a Guatemalan cacao ceremony that very evening. Curiosity piqued, I enquired as to what such a ceremony might involve. She explained that we would be served hot chocolate, imported directly from Guatemala’s chocolate shaman (Keith Wilson), and when the cacao had “taken effect” we could get up and dance, or just do some stretching if we wanted. Simón and I exchanged knowing glances and tried to suppress our grins. It sounded exactly like the kind of new-age hippy nonsense we were used to seeing at Lake Atitlán, although we were a bit surprised it had made it across the ocean to Ireland. Preferring to savour the fruits of Ireland’s own sacred imbibe — a pint of stout — we politely declined.

I promptly forgot all about cacao ceremonies and shamans until a month later, when we were back in Guatemala and curled up together watching season five of Grace and Frankie. My partner and I were bowled over when, in episode 8, Frankie cajoles Grace and her new boyfriend Nick into participating in a cacao ceremony. It was then that I realized cacao ceremonies had permeated the global mainstream. So I started looking into what exactly this ritual was all about. A quick Google search of “cacao ceremonies” showed that they were proliferating at an astounding rate from San Francisco to Sheffield, from Guatemala to Galway, and Keith Wilson seemed to be at the center of it all. 

And thus began my obsession with cacao ceremonies. My need to interrogate this instance of new-age, consumer spirituality was largely fueled by my own ties to Guatemala, a place I’ve come to know as a second home and as a country where indigenous Maya people have already been subjected to centuries of exploitation and appropriation of their land, spirituality and culture. Like the tourism that has developed around the consumption of ayahuasca (a sacred plant from the Amazon) or recreating Native peoples’ sweat lodges in North America, cacao ceremonies seemed to me like another example of white shamans making a living appropriating reductive and exoticized notions of indigenous spirituality. 

I decided to go to the source, a cacao ceremony on Wilson’s porch. Upon moving back to Ireland to begin a PhD in September 2019 I also tracked down one of Wilson’s protégés, Paula Gibson. She’s the owner of a Dublin-based wellness business called Heart Tribe Cacao and one of the principal proponents of cacao ceremonies in Ireland. In addition to experiencing the ceremony first-hand, I talked to American and European followers of this new-age ritual along with friends and colleagues in Guatemala, as well as Maya spiritual leaders, about their thoughts on this phenomenon.

Inviting the Cacao spirit in to Play

Wilson has been in Guatemala since 2003, during which time he’s developed a reputation as the world’s premier cacao specialist. According to his website, he was visited by the cacao spirit shortly after arriving in the country, who guided him to use cacao as a plant medicine to facilitate his healing work with westerners. He harvests, processes, and sells his own brand, Keith’s Cacao, described as “ceremonial grade cacao,” which Wilson asserts is specially selected by the cacao spirit (who he says visits him regularly) for optimum ceremonial energy. His cacao is distributed to the rest of the world from Belgium, Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand. 

Despite Wilson’s increasingly global presence, the heart of his work continues to be the two cacao ceremonies he holds each week on his porch. The ceremony, performed by Wilson in English, involved little more than a perfunctory toast to the cacao spirit where we raised our mugs, invited her in to play, and thanked her. It was followed by a lot of talking by Wilson, who boasted proudly about working with executives and stock traders to improve his product’s performance. Wilson dispensed financial advice alongside lessons in spiritual enlightenment, and gave predictions for 2020 of global chaos, currency collapses, food shortages, and “blood on the streets.” The assembled crowd nodded along enraptured. Not one of the mostly 20- to 30-something crowd raised an eyebrow when he dismissed climate change as a scam to raise taxes and allow socialists to control the economy. 

Wilson took a pause from his predictions of doom and looked around, reassuring us that we would be OK, because we were the solution the world was looking for: by focusing on our own inner work, we would be poised to help people when the global economy collapses. The ceremony continued for hours as he worked through the crowd one by one, everyone eager to share the traumas they were healing or the moments of enlightenment they had received from the cacao spirit, resulting in many tears and even some wailing. I lasted only five hours before a pounding headache, mild heart palpitations, a bellyache and general disgust at the fervor that Wilson had managed to whip up among the crowd sent me running for the door. 

Three weeks later, I was back in Ireland and found myself sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat for one of Paula Gibson’s bi-monthly cacao ceremonies held at a Dublin wellness center. The wet and bitterly cold January day couldn’t have been more of a contrast with the sunny lakeside location of my first ceremony. Although Gibson follows Wilson’s ritual almost word-for-word, this ceremony was far more low-key than my last. We drank from mugs we had brought ourselves as we waited for the cacao to “take effect.” Then we were guided in a short meditation and told of the different “heart-opening” and energy effects we may experience. After that, we were pretty much left to ourselves, although Gibson provided one-on-one attention to those who called her over. Still jet-lagged after my recent return from Guatemala, I took the opportunity to have a nap and woke up quite rested two hours later to share the final blessing. 

Cacao Ceremonies and Cultural Appropriation

Colorful candles arranged in a circle. Mayan altar.
Mayan altar for victims of the civil war. Photo/Aisling Walsh

Cultural appropriation is a term that increasingly attracts controversy: where do we draw the line between the appreciation and appropriation of a culture for our own personal gain or profit? White people participating in ayahuasca ceremonies, wearing Native American headdresses at Coachella, recreating Native sweat lodges or sporting kimonos are all practices that have faced a steady critique across the media. My deep-dive into the world of cacao ceremonies, however, did not produce a single article on this topic, save for a couple of blog posts advising practitioners on how to avoid such criticisms. I would suggest that this is simply because cacao ceremonies are a relatively new phenomenon, rather than such criticisms being unmerited.

Considering the similarities to the above-mentioned phenomena, the question of cultural appropriation seems a given, especially considering the circumstances (white “shamans,” vague spirituality, and a focus on self-improvement through individual “wellness”). Latinx travel writer Bani Amor has critiqued the continued pillaging of indigenous plants and spiritual practices for the new age wellness industry. Writing about the exploitation of the sacred, hallucinogenic Amazonian plant ayahuasca, Amor says that: “In the wake of every used and abused wellness trend is an endangered plant, a knockoff shaman, an exploited Native community, and an unregulated economy of spiritual hustling.” The same critique could apply to Wilson’s cacao craze.

Thus, for many (myself included), cacao shamanism is too similar to other examples of appropriation to be trusted. Writer Lola Méndez attended a cacao ceremony while on a press trip in Costa Rica, and reflected, “I didn’t know it would be led by a white woman or else I would have opted out of the experience…I find it extremely problematic when white folks appropriate these ceremonies and then profit off of them without giving back to the community who owns the rights to these ancestral activities.” In fact, according to the Bribri cacao farmers Méndez met in Costa Rica, “Cacao ceremonies have never been a part of their culture and [they] were baffled that it would be a tourist activity in the country as it has zero relevance to the destination.” 

Carmen Alvaréz is a Mayan spiritual guide who runs a small organization called Healing Consciousness X’tuxinik, which offers spiritual guidance based on the Mayan cosmovision (worldview). When I approached her about this topic the first thing she said to me was, “I know nothing about cacao ceremonies.” This is not because the practice has been lost in Guatemala, but because it’s rare to have a ceremony dedicated solely to cacao. Alvaréz said, “Cacao is a sacred seed, like all seeds that bear fruit, but this depends on its connection to the land. Cacao is not native to Lake Atitlán, but there are other parts of Guatemala where it has been grown for millennia and it is deeply embedded in local spiritual practices.”  

Alvaréz stated that in Guatemala, “We don’t have shamans, that is an imported concept. Here we have Ajq’ij or contadores de tiempo (time keepers) for whom this is part of their destiny, and are chosen by the abuelos (elders).” In essence, the idea of a “chocolate shaman” does not come from Mayan spiritual traditions, and the ceremonies themselves are not even widespread in Guatemala.

For his part, Wilson preempted any criticisms of appropriation by insisting during the ceremony that the cacao spirit continues to guide his use of the plant for work with westerners, and thus that he’s not claiming to represent Mayan tradition. He also said he “checks in” regularly with the cacao spirit about the intention of his work.

I raised the issue of cultural appropriation explicitly with Gibson in Dublin, who responded that while this is an important conversation, especially in North America, she doesn’t feel her own ceremony is problematic: “I think if I was doing a Mayan ceremony it would maybe feel a bit more like I was culturally appropriating.” She also seemed to skirt the issue by suggesting that Maya spirituality is not widely practiced in Guatemala, claiming that most inidgenous people are evangelicals.

In other words, both Wilson and Gibson implied that appropriation only happens when there’s a direct lifting of another culture’s religious ceremonies. Following this logic, since cacao shamanism is a “spin-off” based on loose interpretations of religious practices, there’s nothing much wrong with it. However, this line of reasoning fails to recognize that Wilson’s cacao empire relies on the commodification of a fantasy-driven, decontextualized Mayan spirituality, not a real, in-depth religious practice. This is exactly why Méndez and Alvaréz are so suspicious of “well-meaning” white cacao enthusiasts.

Further, Gibson’s dismissal of Mayan peoples as evangelicals fails to recognize centuries of colonial religious repression. Mayan spiritual beliefs were condemned and pushed underground throughout the Spanish colonization of Guatemala, and Mayan spiritual guides were targeted by the State as subversives during the 36-year civil war. Most recently, the ever-growing evangelical churches have branded Mayan religion as witchcraft. Nevertheless, it continues to be practiced across Guatemala’s 23 Mayan indigenous communities.

How the Spirit Moves Us

Woman in a red skirt standing in front of a fire
Lorena Cabnal from the Red de Sanadoras Ancestrales guides a Mayan ceremony in Guatemala City. The ceremony commemorated the massacre of 41 girls at a state care home in 2017. Photo/Aisling Walsh

Though a confirmed religious skeptic when I first moved to Guatemala, over my time there I found myself participating in multiple Mayan ceremonies led by indigenous Ajq’ij (spiritual guides). These ceremonies are usually convened for a specific purpose, such as to give thanks to mother earth or ask for guidance on a particular matter. They usually, though not always, are centered around a fire and include offerings to mother earth and the ancestors over a number of hours. 

I was surprised at the comparative lack of ritual in the ceremonies offered by Wilson and Gibson, despite how moved the people around me seemed at both ceremonies. For example, Daisey Schlakman, from Washington DC but based in Guatemala, has attended Wilson’s ceremonies in San Marcos La Laguna on and off for the last ten years: “I find his work to be beneficial and powerful. He is welcoming in a new age where we co-create our lives instead of accepting what the world has to offer.”

Nonetheless, as Wilson, Gibson and other proponents of cacao ceremonies advertise these spaces by listing the plethora of benefits that might be derived from the “heart-opening effects” of using cacao — including  improved nutrition, concentration, creativity, sports performance, connectivity, insight, and healing — it was difficult for me to tell to what extent reactions like Daisey’s were a result of the cacao or simply the power of suggestion. 

Mayan ceremonies can be a powerful source of healing, particularly in a country which has been torn apart by a brutal 36-year conflict that ended in 1996, where multiple indigenous groups were targets of a genocidal campaign of state violence. Spirituality is key to a number of local feminist organizations in Guatemala who work with women survivors of violence to heal the legacy of racist and sexist violence. These rituals, however, are almost always tied to collective political struggles for justice and social transformation. 

The trouble with cacao ceremonies as they are performed by the likes of Wilson and Gibson, is that they’re very much focused on the western individual overcoming his or her personal challenges. Such a vision is far removed from the understanding that many of these ills are rooted in structural injustice or that personal healing without collective transformation remains a hollow endeavor. Moreover, the marketing of cacao as a “heart-opening” cure-all for our spiritual, emotional and physical ills is misleading, in that no one plant can possibly offer so many things or be “the solution,” particularly when it has been completely removed from its cultural and spiritual context, and when the healing offered also comes with a hefty price tag.  

The Money Factor

The minimum suggested donation to participate in one of Wilson’s bi-weekly ceremonies is US$13, though newcomers are expected to pay $26. I counted 30 people on his porch that afternoon, meaning he had a minimum intake of $390 that day. Assuming this was an average turnout, a conservative estimate would be $780 a week and $3,120 a month, all in a country where the agricultural minimum wage is $195 per month and a well-paid civil servant would be happy to earn $975 a month. Keith’s Cacao is available to purchase online for $50 a pound. A pound of organic cacao seeds costs around $5, meaning that even taking into account processing and packaging, Keith’s Cacao makes a considerable profit.

As for Gibson, the cacao ceremony I attended in Dublin was fully booked, with at least 20 people paying €40 euro each to attend. Gibson charges between €60 and €70 euro for private sessions across the various spiritual services she offers. Alvaréz also weighed in on this issue, stating, “Some people think we should only accept offerings and others believe we should charge. People are willing to pay $30 for therapy, so why not for a spiritual guide? There needs to be some kind of reciprocity. When it comes to westerners in Guatemala, however, there is often an imbalance.”

And there’s another way that Maya spiritual guides are at a disadvantage: even though some cater to tourists by offering cacao ceremonies, they don’t have easy access to the global market like Wilson and Gibson do, due to the barriers of language and access to technology. Finally, whether there are true healing benefits of cacao ceremonies or not, they are out of reach for most Guatemalans. Participation is largely limited to westerners, usually backpackers and expats who have settled in Guatemala in search of the “good life.”

Forty Euro for a Cup of Healing 

Lake Atitlán. Photo/Aisling Walsh

“Healing,” in these contexts, becomes just another meaningless buzzword sold to people searching for a solution to their feelings of alienation, either from an authentic experience of spirituality or due to the ills of late stage capitalism. In a world with record-level rates of anxiety and depression that are tied to deep structural inequalities, and the ever-increasing economic and environmental precarity (or pre-catastrophe) that we’re struggling to confront, cacao offers a seemingly benign, quick, feel-good, fix.

Wilson’s success seems to be a product of the turn to new age spirituality as an answer to the prospect of the impending doom he himself foresees, as well as a very particular enabling environment: in San Marcos La Laguna, you can become a certified shaman in just three days. The glow of wellness in San Marcos, however, really is skin deep. The subtle strains of the Best of Putumayo and the Muslin drapes that are the hallmark in most San Marcos establishments mask deep resentment between the local Kaqchikel population and the kashlans (white people) that have virtually taken over the tourist industry. 

On the surface, it may seem that sitting around with new-age hippies drinking cacao is unlikely to cause any direct harm to anyone. It’s also unlikely that the production and sale of the so-called “ceremonial grade cacao” is any more exploitative than the global cacao industry, which is infamously problematic in terms of labor rights. However, we need to consider the possible harm done when white westerners cherry pick spiritual practices from indigenous cultures for their personal healing, and often financial gain.

Costing €40, the Dublin ceremony was the most expensive cup of hot chocolate I ever had. I fell asleep for two hours and went home on the bus with a belly ache. Was it my intolerance for cacao or karma for infiltrating a sacred space with my profane (investigative) motives? Either way, my deep dive into the world of cacao ceremonies confirmed my worst suspicions that this phenomenon is, in fact, nothing more than the latest new-age trend of spiritual hustling, a panacea for neoliberal ills for those whom hallucinogens, such as ayahuasca, are, perhaps, a step too far.

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