“Oh my God, I want to live here!” a woman in a long, flowing skirt shouts as she takes in the scene at the Alchemist’s Kitchen: vines growing along the walls; tables laden with exotic teas and jars of cannabidiol oil; shelves overflowing with books on shamanism and astrology. The crowd skews young and hip. Several of the women look like they might be professionally good-looking. Fifty of us have gathered at a new herb shop in the East Village for a “sacred cacao ceremony”: we are hoping to have a spiritual experience by drinking a concentrated chocolate brew, in an elaborate three-hour ritual said to be based on a South American practice.
Over the past few years, seekers — of spiritual enlightenment, and of more ordinary highs — have found creative uses for the ancient bean. Cacao ceremonies are popular with New Agers in Canada, Australia, London, and New York. (The Alchemist’s Kitchen hosts one every other month.) In a different scene, cacao has been gaining a reputation as a club drug. At a monthly Berlin dance party called Lucid, clubbers forgo alcohol in favor of cocoa drinks and powder. A decade ago, Belgian chocolate-maker Dominique Persoone designed a device to enable people to snort cacao powder; he’s since sold tens of thousands of his “chocolate shooters.” Scientists, meanwhile, have been exploring the plant’s physiological and cognitive effects.
At the Alchemist’s Kitchen, the other participants are hoping for a mind-altering experience as we descend into a dimly lit basement. I cross the threshold, and a woman in harem pants starts silently blowing fragrant smoke over my body with a feather. I ask her what she is doing. “It’s sage,” she says, by way of explanation. “For your energy.” We take off our shoes and kneel in a circle around a makeshift altar, featuring candles, tarot cards, and a cauldron of hot brown liquid. A bearded man bangs on a giant metal gong. Our shaman for the evening, dressed in a white costume with a red sash, introduces herself. Sarah Eve Cardell has been studying shamanism for a decade, and she first encountered cacao on a trip to Panama. “I had this magical experience tasting the live plant,” she said. “It took me to a very meditative state.” She says it helped her overcome a lifelong allergy to chocolate.
“The best way to work with cacao is to have no expectations,” she went on. “She may show you something tonight, in your dreams. She may show you something in three days.”
We pass around a “healing stick,” and announce our intentions for the ceremony. Laura is here to invite the spirit of happiness. Ruby calls on the spirit of collaboration. Alexa has come for love.
“Focus on the space between the eyebrows,” Cardell instructs. “Inhale something positive.”
We raise our hands and invoke the spirits of the birds. A woman ladles the brew into glasses, and passes them out. Each one contains 40 grams of cacao (which, Cardell promises, has been blessed by Guatemalan shamans), cut with cayenne, cardamom, and a black Himalayan resin called shilajit. Cardell advises us to scarf down the “medicine” as fast as possible, warning that it “doesn’t taste pretty.”
This turns out to be an understatement. It looks and smells like strong hot chocolate, but goes down like sludge and tastes like dirt. It’s only a few ounces, but the cup seems bottomless. Expressions of Zen give way to grimaces and retching. To my surprise, the aftertaste is pleasantly bitter. This is important, since I’ll spend the next hour dry-heaving.
We lie down on our yoga mats. It’s time to embark on our journey into the spirit world: time to imagine walking through a door, to commune with love and understanding and maternal energy. (Cacao is a “feminine spirit,” according to Cardell; “she helps us connect to the divine mother.”) The room smells like incense and feet. Cardell shakes her rattle. I’m not seeing any visions, but I do feel something. Nausea, maybe. My heart seems to be beating faster.
Elsewhere, a vegan chef is crying. The woman to my right told me afterward that she had had an out-of-body experience. Another of my neighbors said she encountered a mother-figure, who reassured her that everything in the world was connected and encouraged her to spend more time volunteering.
“Quite often in the ceremonies, there will be people who are crying, people who are releasing,” Cardell told me. “People will tell me about an experience where they’ve reconnected with their mother or let go of a painful relationship. People are elated. They feel more relaxed, more joyous.”
The ritual and medicinal use of cacao dates back thousands of years. Among the Aztecs, liquid cacao was reserved for priests and high-status men, who might offer it to the gods or use it themselves on special occasions; men who were selected as human sacrifices drank cacao on the eve of their execution. The Maya honored cacao — which they believed to be a gift from the serpent god — with an annual feast, complete with the sacrifice of a cocoa-colored dog. Doctors, meanwhile, have prescribed cacao for a host of ailments, some in contradiction to each other. Cacao products have been said to perk up the tired and to calm down the overexcited; to stimulate the appetite and to cure indigestion; to encourage sleep, and to ward it off.
Some of these effects stand up to modern scientific testing. One study found that theobromine — a stimulant present in cacao — could lead to an increased heart rate and feelings of being high. (Most of the research, though, focuses on the effects of regular consumption of chocolate, rather than a single hit.) Stefan Gafner, chief science officer at the American Botanical Council, says that long-term consumption of chocolate can yield cardiovascular benefits, but wouldn’t expect one dose to have any “euphorizing effects.” He thinks it’s more likely that the physical effects I experienced — pounding heart, lightheadedness — were due to the amount of caffeine I ingested.
If the effects of cacao are real, why was I mostly just burping while the vegan chef was crying? Anthropologist Michael Winkelman, author of several academic books on shamanism and veteran of psychedelic ceremonies, explains that our past experiences can shape our reaction to a new drug. “If you’ve already participated in a variety of ritual processes for entering altered consciousness, then when you enter into a setting like this, your brain already has the network laid down to move into these altered experiences,” he said. “Just the expectation can be enough for some people — laying down and relaxing. Music, drumming can set people off.”
And the act of participating in a group ritual can have a powerful effect in its own right. According to Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, even collective rituals that are obviously contrived have a tangible impact on people’s mood and behavior. “We have groups of random strangers come in, and and we create a ritual for them,” he explained over the phone. “When groups do these things together, they like each other more. If we have them do tasks together afterwards, they try harder.” By the end of the cacao ceremony, participants were hugging and exchanging words of love.
Norton and his team have identified two variables that enhance the psychological power of group rituals — both of which apply to the cacao ceremony. “One is how elaborate it is. The more steps, the more powerful it is,” he said. “The other factor is that they’re imbued with meaning. One of the best ways to imbue something with meaning is to say it’s from some ancient practice. If I have you clap your hand three times and turn around, that does something to you. But if I tell you that’s a ritual that was practiced by some tribe for thousands of years, it seems to have even more of an impact.”
You probably have to believe it, though. Which might explain why — though I felt woozy, though I kept trying to swipe my MetroCard upside down on the way home — my experience wasn’t as profound as the real believers.