Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ayahuasca


The universal reaction I received upon telling people that I was going to the Amazon to engage in an ayahuasca ceremony was: "So, you're going to Peru to do drugs".

I wished I could have refuted it at the time, but the truth is, I didn't know what ayahuasca was. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to see what it was all about. I knew that some people traveled deep into the jungle because they had problems they needed to address. Deeply repressed feelings of inadequacy. Sexual abuse. Depression. Anxiety. Me? I just wanted to take a peek behind the curtain. But I had no idea what I was getting into.


Ayahuasca as Medicine


The first thing they teach you flies in the face of everyone's initial reaction: that ayahuasca is not a drug, but in fact a medicine. And this is reflected in the rules of everyday living at the workshop. No drugs are permitted at camp (anyone concealing any banned substances will be expelled from the workshop). No alchohol (I haven't had a sip of beer in 11 days). No sugars, sweets, or fruits. No pork. No music. No sexual contact, including kissing or holding hands. No masturbating. No caffeine. Fasting from 2pm onwards on ceremony days.

When the head shaman was going through these rules with us on the first day, he said that he could make no guarantees of anything, but if we were to strictly adhere to these rules, he could guarantee that we would live. Anything beyond that, and we were on our own.

This is a place of healing. It is a place of spiritual discovery. If you were under the impression that this was going to be a psychedellic party scene, you were sadly mistaken. Think of Burning Man, only the exact opposite.

The first few hours in camp feel a lot like what celebrity rehab must feel like. You're all kind of looking around at one another, wondering just exactly who everyone is, trying to imagine what they're here for, and trying to figure out exactly where you fit in. Everyone is eventually introduced, and you begin to understand some of what has brought everyone together. There are many repeat visitors. One lady from Alaska was here for her seventh tour. My good buddy from Martha's Vineyard was here for the fourth time (he said that he broke the "no sex for 30 days after leaving camp" rule, and had been doing everything in his power to fix himself ever since. Ayahuasca was the only thing that could straighten him out). As for me, I was the first "walk-on" in the history of the tour (I had shown up the day before, looking for some ayahuasca shamanism). They couldn't believe that I would just... show up for something like this. What can I say? That's how I roll. They loved it.

The head Shaman told us the story of how he became a Shaman, and that tale is a novel unto itself. Some of the most amazing things I have ever heard. Spirits giving direction. Thinking you're going absolutely insane. Bushes transformed into living entities and screaming obscenities at you... A guy from Oakland told me that he learned more in his first two hours of ayahuasca than he'd learned in his entire life up to that point.

We fasted on the first night and drank a mixture of treebark and camphor that was supposed to give you vivid dreams of learning and healing. All I can tell you is that the dreams I had at night during my stay were among the most vivid of my life.


I don't claim for a second to know the entire history or chemical makeup of Ayahuasca, but here are a few pieces that might shed a little more light on the subject: (Ayahuasca: The Vine of the Souls, The Medicine of Love, by Ross Heaven; An Introduction to Ayahuasca, by Robin C. Flynn). All I know is that we woke up at 7am on our second day and actually made our batch of ayahuasca ourselves.

The best way to describe what Ayahuasca is, is to say that it's basically a tea made from a variety of different plants, vines, and tree barks (we used 17 different plant species in all, including: the ayahuasca vine, chacruna leaves, capirona bark, remo caspi bark, uchu sanango...), brought to a highly concentrated mixture through hours of reduction through boiling. All the while, the Shamans were blowing mapacho smoke (mapacho is a natural tobacco - the cigars are fantastic) into the mixture as a means of blessing the spirits in the ayahuasca. People were encouraged to write a list of the things they wished to purge through ayahuasca, and to drop those lists into the fire. Someone had a list that was six single-spaced pages long. It almost made me feel guilty for having had such a loving family and a happy upbringing.


The First Ceremony

There is no way to adequately describe an ayahuasca ceremony.

While tripping out at one point during my fourth ceremony, I found myself wondering aloud what it would be like if I could just switch places with one of my friends, even for just a minute, and to get their reaction to having been dropped smack dab in the middle of this scene. What would they possibly think? It is unlike anything I've ever been a part of.

To begin, we are all in a ceremonial house. It is this magnificient wood and thatch roof structure that our Shaman; having absolutely no experience with building anything in his life; was directed to build by following the advice of the spirits (my reaction to hearing this was probably much the same as yours: "Get the fuck outta here..."). All of the guests are scattered throughout the ceremonial house, some laying on mats, some sitting in chairs. Soon, the Shamans and their apprentices enter, and the house is blessed to ensure that we are not attacked by witchcraft or dark spirits during the ceremony. After that, the Shamans sing Icaros (songs sung by the shamans which deliver spiritual energy) to bless the sacred medicine. Then each of the guest comes up and drinks a cup of ayahuasca.

There are no words to describe just how vile the taste of ayahuasca is. Putrid does not do it justice. (I'm actually dry-heaving as I write this) And it gets worse every time you drink it, as you begin to more fully understand what it does to your insides. The lady on her seventh visit began vomitting almost immediately. I eventually made my way up to the Shaman and as he handed me my cup (approximately 4 ounces, though on the first night it was filled only halfway), I said "let's rock and roll" (cocky bitch), and slammed it back.

The first ceremony was about as chilled out as you could dream. The lights are turned out and you find yourself leaning back onto your mat, and letting the sweet sounds of the icaros (some of the most beautiful and melodic songs you have ever heard, sung a capella, in quadraphonic, and en Espanol by the four Shamans) and their accompanying chacapa shaking (leaf tambourines, for lack of a better description) take you away.

I puked pretty violently about an hour in (as is expected), and spent the rest of the time giggling away at the juxtaposition of these beautiful icaros interspersed with the sounds of people purging uncontrollably. I didn't have any real colourful visions, per se, but I could see each and every person I knew and loved and was sending out vibes to each and every one of them. I was also keeping the beat of the chacapas with my feet to the point that they were actually sore the next day. Oh yeah, and a spent a great deal of time on the toilet... umm... purging from the bottom. Apparently, that is also expected.

All in all, my first ayahuasca ceremony was nothing short of a pleasant experience. When it was all over, the head Shaman ran back to his cabin and made a phone call (he has a satellite phone in the event of an emergency), and when he returned, we learned that Barrack Obama had been elected President of the United States. A resounding cheer filled the ceremonial house (I don't think a lot of Republicans are into travelling to the Amazon to drink hallucinagenic medicines), and we were assured that there did exist a hope for this world. It also provided an interesting answer to one of those "Where were you when..." questions, as I will forever be able to answer that I was in the jungle, experiencing my first Ayahuasca ceremony the night Barack Obama was electred president. That's pretty tough to beat.


Medicinal Benefits of Ayahuasca

Native Amazonian peoples have considered ayahuasca a cure-all for countless ailments for aeons. And their logic and track record is difficult to argue with. Gather a bunch of medicinal plants; plants that have been deemed "healers" through centuries of Shamanistic trial and error experience; mix them together into one vile tasting concoction, follow a strict diet of healthy living, and let the medicine do its work.

The purging that takes place one of you consumed ayahuasca is also difficult to argue with. I was thinking to myself that drinking ayahuasca is the great equalizer. You can look the Shaman directly in the eye, tell him "let's rock and roll", and then half an hour later you'll be writhing on the floor, believing that you've been poisoned and that coming here was the worst decision you've ever made, and fully expecting to die in this Godforsaken place.

It's the medicine doing it's work. It is literally taking all of the bad stuff in your body - all of the booze remaining from that Halloween gong show; all of the refined sugar that you've been poisoning your body with while pounding back Inca Kolas since arriving; that fantastic bit of local cuisine(Cecina {fried dried pork} and Tacacho {deep fried pork fried in a ball of plantains}) you had for dinner Sunday night even though you were explicitly told to stay away from pork - and it is drawing it out, only to be expunged through purging.

You read stories about ayahuasca curing people of sicknesses and diseases that Western medicine has no cure for. It´s one thing to read these stories; it´s quite another to hear them first hand.

One of the guys at the workshop had suffered from a hideous skin disorder for year. It had started in his foot, and had eventually spread to the entirety of his body. His skin was literally oozing an indescribably foul black liquid, and doctors had absolutely no diagnosis or cure (apparently the doctors said it was a severe case of Eczema). All of his hair fell out. There were days that this guy could not get out of bed for the pain. He had given up all hope. It was only a matter of time before he would be dead.

As a last gasp effort, he came to Peru to see if ayahuasca could help. In his first ceremony, the Shaman saw some bad energy in his foot and literally sucked the talisman of some evil witchcraft from out of his foot. This guy believes he had stepped on it while at a rave in Africa, and that the effects had been spreading ever since. After having had the talisman removed, this guy believed himself to be cured. But soon thereafter, the skin disorder began getting worse. He came back to Iquitos, and has been here for the past 18 months, drinking ayahuasca as often as possible, purging for hours at a time everything from his body that the ayahuasca will remove.

When I met him on that first day in camp, I could see no traces of any kind of skin disorder. He´s hoping to be home by next summer.


Vine of the Soul

DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic tryptamine that occurs naturally both in plants and animals; and yes, we humans are animals. DMT is the drug that allows us access to other channels. As humans, the three occurances in which the most DMT enters the brain are birth, death, and when drinking ayahuasca.

It is no coincidence, then, that we feel like we are dying while experiencing the effects of ayahuasca, or that we oftentimes feel like we´ve been reborn as we begin to come out of it.

As was explained in my previous entry (Crawling From the Ashes), I saw my entire life flash before my eyes during my fourth ayahuasca ceremony. Let me tell you that this isn´t necessarily the most pleasant experience one can have. But there has to be a value to this. To know what it feels like to die? How can this not give you a greater appreciation for the life you have? For the life that you still have the opportunity of living? I truly feel that it is impossible to put a price on this. Ask any man, on the verge of death, what he would pay for just one more healthy, happy day; a day in which to do all the things he never got to do, to say all of the things he never got to say, to hug all of the people he loves but didn´t get the chance to hug nearly enough in his time in this life... He will surely tell you that he would gladly give every last one of his worldly possessions for just one more chance to do these things.

I made a habit of taking one of those digital camera self-portrait photographs before and after every ayahuasca ceremony I participated in. I wanted to see if there was a discernable difference in my appearance after having gone through each ceremony. The first three before and after photos look strikingly similar: I am happy before, and thrilled afterwards for having survived. The first three ceremonies were largely enjoyable experiences. I was given a glimpse into the meaning of life, I was afforded some ridiculously impressive psychedelic visions of shapes and colours... I was even able to articulate some profoundly accurate revelations (as the ayahuasca was beginning to take hold of me during the second ceremony in a way far beyond what it had in the first, I turned to the guy from Venice Beach laying beside me and in the understatement of the century boldly proclaimed: ¨Dude, this shit is no joke¨). But that fourth ceremony was something altogether different. In the after photo, I look unequivocally terrified. I appear as though I have looked into the eyes of my maker.

In many ways, I had.

They say that ayahuasca makes you more yourself; that it takes away all of the bad stuff, and leaves only the good. Strangely enough, I feel more myself today.


The Doors of Perception

In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", William Blake wrote: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern."

More than anything else, Ayahuasca obliterates the structures that govern the life that we know. Everything you have ever known comes unglued in those moments, the doors of perception are cleansed, and we are able to see, all at once, the infinite.

When faced with the infinite, life seems awfully small indeed.

Much of Shamanism is about communing with spirits: plant spirits, animal spirits, good spirits, evil spirits, light spirits, dark spirits... you name it. I didn't necessarily see any of these spirits during any of my ayahuasca ceremonies (although I could swear I heard the plants laughing at me as I stumbled my way back to my cabin after my fifth and final ceremony); but that isn't to say that this wasn't a spiritual experience for me. Quite the contrary, in fact. Because as our master Shaman so eloquently put it: "There is nothing more spiritual than life". And these ayahuasca ceremonies showed me more of life than I ever believed possible. But ayahuasca isn't really about belief; it's about experience.

And there's a happiness that comes over you when you finally experience the beauty of life. And for me, the beauty of life came in finally understanding that all living things are one and the same. That we're all made up of the same things, and that we all need and desire the same things. We're all living on this same rock spinning around and around in this space we can't even begin to fathom, breathing the same air and drinking the same water. We're all in this thing together. And we all need to be loved.

Life is a finite thing. In the grand scheme of things, it is over almost at the very instant it begins. It's the way things have always been, for all living things. But here's the thing: life is beautiful, not in spite of the fact that all living things are one and the same, but because of it.

It took an annihilation of everything I ever knew to finally see that.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great story. Great revelation. There isn't a better person I know to actually put it into words.

M@ said...

Is it fucked up that I already wanted to try this after reading your first entry? We must chat when you're back.

TanyaVB said...

Amazing. Something I would love to experience one day. Finding your higher self is hard to acheive with the world we live in and with all the "bad stuff" we hold inside of us. Great depiction of your experience, I felt like I was there.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the live recap on the way to hockey in a snow storm, but this entry is one for the books!

Ryan

tristan lush said...

smitty told me about ur trip...had to check out the blog...u write real well man...that was an unbelievable story.

Anonymous said...

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Shaman And Ayahuasca said...

This has lead me to my personal fascination with knowledge of self and the universe we inhabit. Shaman And Ayahuasca I share my experiences, opinions, and information I have come across with the world.

Richie Benaud said...

Very informative writing about Ayahuasca retreats.

Clancy McNamara said...

One of the best, if not the best account I've read of many. cheers sir, mucho appreciated.

I'm off thursday morn for a 12 day retreat a ways away from Iquitos ... any advise you have on how to kill my last 5 days after the retreat or if I will even be in a frame of mind to want to do anything other than process the "therapy"?

Keep writing brother, you gotta nack for this shit

Richie Benaud said...

Good writing mate, keep on the good work.

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