Healing as a Magic Act: An interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky

Poet, writer, actor, playwright, avant-garde filmmaker. Alejandro Jodorowsky is a luminary, but refuses to be called a guru. Some of his films have reached cult status, his comics have become legendary, he is a well-known Tarologist who reconstructed the Tarot of Marseille, as well as a transformative healer and spiritual teacher. In honor of the publication of his autobiographical book “Dance of Reality” in Hebrew, Nadav Nadler met with his spiritual hero to talk about Psychomagic, poetry, and healing.

On the very first pages of his autobiography, Alejandro Jodorowsky, now a sprightly 90 years old, instantly transports the reader into a world of magic and mysticism. He begins by introducing the place of his birth as such, “I was born in 1929 in northern Chile, in a region conquered from Peru and Bolivia. Tocopilla is the name of my birthplace. It is a small port city that is located, perhaps not by coincidence, on the 22nd parallel. Each of the 22 arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles is drawn in a rectangle composed of two squares. In the Andean language of Quechua, Toco means ‘double sacred square.’

“At times I have wondered whether it was the influence of having been born at the 22nd parallel that caused me to be so absorbed by the Tarot for much of my life, or whether I was born predestined to do what I still do sixty years later: to renew the Tarot of Marseilles and to invent Psychomagic. Does destiny really exist? Can our lives be oriented toward purposes that surpass the individual interest?”

From the get-go Dance of Reality dives right into the big questions that Jodorowsky has been asking his entire career. Luckily for the Israeli reader, the book has recently been translated into Hebrew. As a long time fan, I am elated to be able to read his work in my mother tongue.

Metaphysical Aspirin

My first encounter with Jodorowsky or “Jodo” (the nickname given to him by his students) took place a few years ago when my eyes caught the phrase “Psychomagic” in one of the late Dr. Yoav Ben Dov’s articles, may he rest in peace. I eagerly read each and every word in the article. It described Jodorowsky’s work and methods of combining shamanism and psychotherapy in order to change people’s lives. I couldn’t put the article down, I read it over and over again, I was hooked.

What excited me, even more, was discovering that his unique methods drew influence directly from the original deck of Tarot cards, the Tarot of Marseilles. Numerous versions of the tarot, along with different styles and reading techniques, have been generated from the original design. I needed to learn more about this visionary and went on to immerse myself in every one of his books I could find.

My search lead me to his guidebook that is based on an ambitious reconstruction project of the original version of the Tarot of Marseilles. Better yet, the plan was conceived in conjunction with Philippe Camoin, a descendant of the Camoin Tourrasse family, who for hundreds of years, ran the famous factory loyal to the ancient printing methods of the Tarot.

When reading the stories about Jodo, one cannot help but claim that the events of his life are impossible, a miracle of sorts. The best way to describe these events is to borrow a term from the famed psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung in what he referred to as “synchronicity.” This refers to a sequence of meaningful events occurring for no apparent reason. Indeed, Jodorowsky’s life is a chain of continuous coincidences that begin with an unhappy childhood in Chile in the 1930s and continue to rebellious adolescence far from the bloody ruins of World War II.

Jodorowsky’s father, a strict and stern atheist, disciplined his son to deny any religious beliefs, as well as a vehement rejection to mysticism. Due to the spiritual impotence forced on him, Jodorowsky searched all his life for what he calls “metaphysical aspirin.” This refers to the confirmation of the existence of the beyond. With the help of this   transcendental drug, Jodo would overcome his fear of death that had constantly haunted him. “Learning how to die,” he found, meant “learning how to live.”

Endless search

Most Wednesdays you can find Jodo in a coffee shop near his home where he provides free Tarot readings and Psychomagic counselling. Nearby, he holds monthly workshops called “The Mystical Cabaret” where he performs in front of hundreds of people. His most recent venture is promoting his new film “Psychomagic: An Art That Heals” as well as planning to shoot his third film based on his autobiographical trilogy novels.

Jodorowsky’s acceptance to conduct this interview is by no means random. It is a display of the “synchronicity” that has followed him for decades. As a descendant from Jewish Russian immigrants, Jodo sees the publication of his book in Hebrew as a sort of closure. Since infancy, his Jewish rights had been denied from him. Today, shortly after celebrating his 90th birthday, the same rejected child that resides in him feels that he has finally been accepted into the Jewish community.

“I was a boy when the Jews received a state,” says Jodo. “In Chile half of the population supported the Nazis, and the other half the Allies – I did not understand that I was a Jew because my father identified himself as a Stalinist communist, and expressed his aversion to Judaism. No one wanted to sit next to me at school, they insulted me, and I suffered anti-Semitic humiliations. That is why I fought a lot. The children accepted me after many battles.”

“But in the end, my father and Chile gave me a wonderful gift. Because my father hid his religion and Chile did not accept me as a Chilean, I had no nationality, tradition or background; I was free of everything. Therefore, I love all the traditions. It’s a decree of destiny; my inner child was waiting for the day he would be accepted. The publication of my book in Israel gives me the acceptance I was waiting for, and I am pleased about the opportunity of closing a big chapter in my life.”

The social boycott he sustained along with his parents’ ongoing emotional abuse forced Jodorowsky to withdraw to an inner world, one of creativity and imagination. Due to extreme isolation, he was left with only one person, himself. No doubt, a deluge of existential questions began to flood his head.

“From the moment you are conceived in your mother’s womb, your parents form ideas on who are you and on what you have to be in this life. From the beginning of life, they manage you not to be who you are. I began to search for who I was and asked questions such as, ‘Who is in this body?’, ‘What does it mean to be alive?’, ‘What is it to see, to communicate, to taste and to touch?’ My quest began, and all my life I was searching…  ‘Who is the man that is speaking to you now?’”

When he was nine years old, his father suddenly announced that the family would be leaving Tocopilla, Jodo’s childhood sanctuary, to live in the large gray city of Santiago de Chile. The next morning, three hours before departure, Jodo woke up with a terrible rash and hallucinations due to a high fever. Jaime, his stubborn father, refused to postpone the trip despite the doctor’s recommendations to stay.

Deeply disdainful of Western medicine, Jaime took Jodo to see three elderly Chinese brothers, masters of ancient medicinal practices. They rubbed his body with heated coarse grains of salt wrapped in small packets of cotton cloth and whispered to him, “You go, but you stay here as well.” In half an hour the brothers had healed his skin, his fever, and his sadness. This was his introduction to Daoism.

Jodo continued to burrow into the depths of his soul. He began practicing meditation, along with exercises of the mind and body, which constantly felt physically heavy and was a symbol of his abundant depression. Finally, the feverish search ended when he discovered poetry.

“Chile was poetically alive like no other place in the world during the 1940s and early 1950s. Poetry permeated everywhere. People drank wine without limitation, and there was always some drunk reciting the verses of Pablo Neruda.”

“In those years,” he continues, “while humanity was suffering from the effects of World War II, far-off Chile observed the struggle between the Nazis and the Allies as if it were a soccer match. The whole country was seized by a collective madness at sunset. The lack of solidity in the world was celebrated.” (Dance of Reality, Chapter 4.)

Kismet among chaos

Although chaos surrounded the world then, Jodo spend time with like-minded people, poets, and artists who would expose him to the secrets of the arts. Contradictingly, the chaos would actually allow Jodo to connect to his individuality. It was in the puppet theater where he discovered the ultimate therapeutic tool. He could, through the use of an object, convey his deepest emotions to the world. The magic of the puppet theater allowed him to vicariously relate his deeply embedded family issues to the world.

It was during his time in the theater that Jodo started to lay the foundations of Psychomagic. It all started through the performance of what he calls “poetic acts.” These are theatrical actions designed to transform the grace of written poetry into a sort of ritualistic action. These conscious actions that break conventions lead to small material miracles whereby hidden layers of meaning are uncovered and exposed.

His first poetic act was to arrange a meeting with a friend. The meeting itself was by no means out of the ordinary, it was the process of the meeting that held poetry. Jodo would try to reach his friend by walking through the city in a straight line, without deviating in any way, along streets full of angles and curves. In another, bolder action, Jodo, and his friends entered a refined restaurant. They ordered the most expensive steak on the menu over and over again, yet instead of eating them, they rubbed them on their clothes, paid and left. This outrageous poetic act created an atmosphere of complete shock among the diners.

As the activities intensified, Jodo and his friends came to the conclusion that destruction and confusion was not the answer. They would rather use their art as a tool to point to the beauty of life.

The radical premise that art only has one purpose, to heal, penetrated Jodo since his early days as an artist. It grew stronger over the years as he mastered numerous artistic fields and excelled in each one. During that time, Jodo was introduced to what would become his life’s project — the Tarot.

One morning in a drunken stupor, Jodo and his friends knocked on the door of Marie Lefevre, a local mystic who was always willing to feed the starving poets with hot soup she received from a nearby restaurant in exchange for Tarot readings.

Lefevre predicted that Jodorowsky would go on countless trips around the world. The encounter with Lefevre had left its mark on Jodo. He would start to learn Tarot himself and from then on would always give his readings free of charge as an act of kindness.

Knowledge hidden in genealogy

While we spoke Jodorowsky explained further about his deep bond with the Tarot, particularly illuminating what he calls “Meta-Genealogy.” This is a method of Tarot he developed where he looks into the consultants’ family trees, along with the traditions of the particular society and culture which shaped them, in order to heal.

“I read in the book of Eliphas Levi (a French occult author and ceremonial magician who worked in the 19th century) about the magic of Tarot cards being the most significant artwork of humanity. He claimed that the Tarot had stored all knowledge, and that intrigued me. I read books on Tarot that either had a different interpretation of the cards or repeated insights that had already been claimed by others. Finally, one day I discovered the original version of the cards, which is the Tarot of Marseille.

“I saw the cards as a game to be deciphered, I composed a mandala from them and learned their secret language. Some say that the cards were created by representatives of the three major religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – because all the religious symbols are in the paintings. I started doing readings, neutralizing the future and concentrating on the present. Future predictions belong to a school of small people who wish to feel powerful, but it is not real, there is no future, we are creating the future now, at this moment.

“Over the years, I discovered through the cards, step by step, the claim family members have on a person – brothers, parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents, great grandparents – all generations create a system of repetition. A woman tells me, ‘I’m afraid I’ll have breast cancer,’ because her mother had breast cancer, and it turns out that her grandmother also suffered from it.

“When we analyze our family tree, we see all the repetition that has taken over and imposed limitations on us. Past generations affect us today, and unconsciously we agree to take this burden because we must be part of the tribe. It is a prehistoric need; if someone has been rejected from the tribe, he was actually sentenced to death. We depend on the tribe and want to be part of it, and from there, problems arise.”

Significant meetings

At the age of 24, Jodorowsky would leave the country of his childhood without looking back. Not only did he leave behind a successful career in the performing arts, he also said goodbye to his friends and his parents, who he would never see again.

His travels led him to Paris where he encountered the Surrealism movement and the world-renowned mime Marcel Marceau. Jodorowsky’s endeavors into mime began with his successful troupe called “Teatro Mimico” in Chile. Marceau and Jodorowsky connected through their art and became extremely close.

They went on to tour Mexico together and Jodo fell in love with the country. He stayed on in Mexico and established the “Panic Movement,” an avant-garde theater that provided about 100 performances over a ten year period. Although his theatrical performances were a source of entertainment, above all they took on a therapeutic dimension. Jodo had graduated from actor and director to spiritual advisor.

Jodorowsky’s spiritual quest deepened when he met Zen master Ejo Takata. Takata would go on to be Jodo’s teacher and guide for the next five years. Under Takata’s supervision, Jodo practiced meditation and learned koans or Zen puzzles. When talking about Takata, Jodo lights up. One can clearly see the positive impact that the Zen master had on him. He even dedicated a separate book on koans (The Finger And The Moon) to him, including various chapters in his second autobiography, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Another dramatic chance encounter that changed Jodorowsky’s life was when he met the Mexican curandera (witch), Pachita. She is famous throughout Mexico for her unexplainable spiritual surgeries.

Unexplainable healing powers

In Mexico and most of South America, spiritual mysticism is embedded, not separate, from religious practices. It is a part of the daily life, culture, faith, and lifestyle of its people. The channeling of spiritual beings is in fact considered an essential and routine practice in religious ceremonies where a medium allows a divine entity to integrate into her body and, while in a trance-like state, transmits messages and healing to those in need.

As this form of spiritual counseling is a religious practice, it is customary to be free of charge or through a donation according to the patient’s ability. Offerings to the gods often replace monetary transactions.

In his book, Jodo also describes black magic, the dark side of that culture, that he tried to stay away from. Luckily, he received an invitation to watch Pachita’s “white magic” surgery. It was considered a great privilege and he leapt at the opportunity. This was his deep plunge into the real world of magic.

Pachita’s operations occurred in a way that science could never explain. After entering a trance state, an entity called “The Little Brother” (El Hermanito in Spanish) took over her body. Her assistants, along with a crowd of followers, worshiped that entity, which spoke in a manly voice through the curandera’s throat. Through Pachita, he performed thousands of complicated surgeries without anesthesia or medical supervision.

“This phenomenon was repeated in each operation,” Jodo writes in his book. “Pachita held up a section of intestines, for example, and as soon as she placed it on the “surgical patient,” it disappeared into his insides. I saw her open up a skull, remove cancerous pieces of brain and put it in new gray matter.

“These tactile and optical illusions, if that is what they were, were accompanied by olfactory effects as well as auditory effects. By the third operation, everything began to seem natural to me. We were in another world, a world in which natural laws were abolished.” (Dance of Reality, Chapter seven.)

For three years Jodo had watched countless operations. Many of the patients recovered while others died. During these operations he discovered the enormous influence of the unconscious and will-power in the healing process. He noticed that those who believed in Pachita and her powers managed to recover. Moreover, it was essential to obey her instructions accurately to allow the full potential of the treatment to manifest.

He later applied the same principle to his Psychomagic consultations, which are carried out as a contract between him and the recipient where that recipient needs to be committed to the process. If they refute the process, the unconscious denies the therapy and the healing will not take place.

“I can guide a person on his way, but I cannot force him to do anything,” states Jodorowsky. “I show the consultant his boundaries, and together we can search for his limitations. There are those who wish to go beyond their limits and those who do not, I have to respect that, and I only reach the limit that the consultants present to me.

“You cannot cure a person but only give him the opportunity to find the cure on his own. If he does not desire to be healed, he will never recover from his condition. The greatest illness is not being who you are.”

Jodorowsky himself passed under Pachita’s surgical knife to remove a tumor in his liver. He recalls it as the most terrible and painful encounter he had ever experienced. At the end of the operation, which lasted for a few minutes, but felt like an eternity, the curandera put her hand over his open stomach, and the wound was closed, the pain disappeared.

Miracle or illusion

Pachita did not perform surgeries on all her patients. For some, she recommended unusual ceremonies to cure their predicament. In one example she advised a man having difficulty in making a living to urinate in a pot every night until it was full. He would then have to keep the pot under his bed and sleep over it for 30 days. The logic was simple, yet it was hidden to the patient.

If a person cannot earn a living even though he or she does not suffer from any physical disabilities, it is because some part of that person rejects money. By following this prescription the patient then would unconsciously establish a symbolic relationship with his act. In this case, the symbol is that urine is yellow, like gold.

By performing this act, the patient was forced to master his repulsion and eventually realize, through symbols, colors, and smells, that the money is only “dirty” when it does not circulate. Moreover, the execution of such a meticulous ceremony required that the patient have a strong willpower, which is a significant part of the healing process.

Many years after the encounter with Pachita, Jodorowsky would try to decipher whether what he saw was an indeed real or just a miraculous illusion. He concluded that his belief in primitive magic was not profound enough to overcome his doubts, but he could use aspects of the ceremonies to build a foundation for his own therapeutic work.

While he did not become a curandero, the encounter with this remarkable woman set him on the right path. Jodo delved into the history of magic, seeking its very core. What he eventually found was a way to distill the elements used in magic (i.e. history, culture, etc.) and then consciously use them in his practice to heal his clients.

The difference between a traditional curandero is that Jodo would explain the symbolic meaning directly to his clients instead of prescribing the magic act to the patient without any explanations.

Classical psychoanalysis interprets or analyzes the patients’ dreams through the language of logic. Jodo’s newly formed therapy was to bring the language of dreams and the unconscious into everyday reality. He called this form of therapy Psychomagic.

The examples of many Psychomagic acts are described in detail in his books The Dance of Reality and Psychomagic. He conveys a story, for instance, about a sad woman who did not have any joy in her life. After much analysis, it turned out that when her mother was six months pregnant, her father abandoned her mother for another woman.

Jodo’s prescription was for the woman to visit her father disguised as a sixth-month pregnant lady. She would then have to demand that he kneel before her and beg for forgiveness from the fetus he once abandoned.

The woman also expressed so much anger at her mother that it seemed as though she would kill her. In the second phase of the prescription Jodo ordered the woman to take two watermelons, symbolizing her mother’s breasts, and crush them with animalistic blows. She had to then put the crushed pieces of watermelon in a leather bag she’d make herself, throw it into the Seine river at midnight and walk away without looking back.

Over time Psychomagic developed into Psychoshamanism, and Jodorowsky imitated the curandero’s actions using tricks and diversions, yet without any invasive procedures. He found that despite the recipient knowing about his manipulative tricks and gestures, the conviction of the Psychoshaman, along with the heightened senses that come from a ritualistic performance, influenced their consciousness, generating a healing response. The Psychoshamanistic approach includes “surgery”, initiatory massage, skin scraping and stretching, and rituals designed for healing traumas from the consultant’s past.

A true teacher

In an era steeped in confusion, Jodorowsky often recommends that his consultants find a spiritual teacher. The reason is twofold. First, the guide compensates for a lack of a parental figure in their past. Secondly, it helps them to obtain the tools and guidance to understand their true selves and their presence in the world.

“A master is a person who has developed his or her awareness, sees the limits of your consciousness — emotional, economic, ego and in every field — and helps you cross them,” says Jodo.

“When someone reaches a higher level of consciousness it means he or she has attained the ability to cherish the value of others. Most people are busy with criticism, you say something, and they will look for a way to criticize and judge you as a means of showing their wisdom, but that is a sure path in staying stupid and immature. Intelligence is the agreement to develop one’s consciousness and overcome one’s limitations.

“There are two types of masters: the first is a Guru-Master, who accompanies you along your life’s journey, and even after his or her departure from this earth, you will still think of that person and use their knowledge. The second type is the Uppa-guru, which is any entity that can teach you something, even an animal. I learn a lot of things from my cat. Also while walking down the street, I can pass someone who is just shouting something, and that person will give me the answer I was looking for. A master learns all his life, he learns how to be free from his limitations.

Dance of Reality was revolutionary for me. I wanted to be a writer and write novels, but I understood that a novel is like a film – it tells a story, and that was not the feeling I was looking for. The purpose of art is self-healing, so I wanted to write books that talk about my personal life and share my release and transformation into a free man, at least as best I can. I do not perform miracles, but Psychomagic miracles. I came as close as I could to spiritual liberation.”

Our conversation did not end until Jodo gave my partner and I a random reading of the Tarot. He no longer needs the cards themselves, since he has memorized the numbers, the colors, the looks of the characters and each miniscule detail attached to every card. So, with a swift gesture, he asked us to pick three numbers, and from there he already knew what to say.

Throughout the conversation he spoke to me at eye level, paying close attention to the interpersonal details and less to the purpose of the interview. That is the nature of the conversations with Jodo, he expresses what he feels at that particular moment, without filters, and always with a generous intention to see who is in front of him. That is the spirit you sense in the presence of a true teacher.

At his advanced age and despite his many occupations, his activity in social media is impressive. He posts inspirational texts, Tarot readings, poems, memories, and occasionally Psychomagic acts daily to more than 3 million followers.

To answer the question I first asked about the rare coincidences that are intertwined in his life, Jodo replied that this was due to a certain type of magic. “Things start to happen to you when you focus your attention; we live without drawing our attention to the real things. You can look at a stone, a cloud, or a person, and find the magic in them. People are living in an illusion rooted in their definition of the world. When you succeed in losing your limitations, then the life of magic begins. Magic for me is made up of beauty, goodness, and truth.”

The interview was originally published in the magazine different life in Israel, August 2018.

The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography, Inner Traditions, 2014

The Hebrew version was published by Babel Publishing, 2018

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Hi, I’m Nadav. I’m a spiritual life consultant, a writer, and a passionate traveler.

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