Ancient Songs and Green Magic (Part I)
ANCIENT SONGS AND GREEN MAGIC –
Ayahuasca and A Search for What Is Real in the Amazon Jungle of Peru
By David P. Crews
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I realized that I was now in the presence of the Spirit of the vine, Mother Ayahuasca herself. She never spoke to me in words. Her expression was one of contained joy, waiting to share something with me. She widened her expressive eyes, like an inquiry, and then she showed me something.
It was a coin.
It is pitch black. I am shaking violently from my head to my feet. My heart is racing – pounding like a mad drummer. Hot sweat is pouring off my hair, my arms, my nose – for I am facing down, crouched on my hands and knees. I do not know who I am. I do not know where I am. I do not know what is happening to me. I have just this moment emerged from a truly terrifying nightmare that was far more potent than anything I have ever experienced. The only sound is my heartbeat, hammering hard, and my frantic breaths, coming too fast as I crouch in the dark. I concentrate on those breaths – trying to calm them, willing them to slow down. Just slow them down. Push the panic back. I’m regaining some control. Wondering now, I turn my head to look up to the right and I am startled to see just the faintest dark silhouettes of human shapes, lined up in a long row fading off into the blackness. I am fearful of them. They make no sound and do not move. I begin to remember things, and I reach out my hand to feel the surface beneath me. It is a rough plank wood floor. I realize with some chagrin that I am, indeed, on the floor, trembling like a windblown leaf and draining sweat into a pool below my face. Then it comes to me, a memory I ran away from so fast that it could not catch up to me until this moment. Now it quick-streams into my mind in a flash of comprehension. I am in a sacred ceremony. I have partaken of a very powerful plant medicine. It is late at night. I am in a rude hut somewhere deep in a jungle beside a dark river. I remember. It is the Amazon Jungle. I am with others who have also partaken of this medicine and whose shapes now surround me in the darkness. I remember who I am. All of this has taken only a moment, and now, suddenly, a man is kneeling beside me. He is singing! I realize that he has been singing all this time, but I did not hear him until this instant when my mind focused on him. I know him. He is a shaman – the leader of this ceremony and the one who gave me the medicine. He begins to tap my head and body with a small fan of dry leaves that make a shushing sound with each beat, and then he leans down to my neck and then my forehead and makes a sucking sound as he draws some of this energy out of me – the energy that has frightened me so much that I have instinctively leapt through the dark onto the floor of the hut in order to escape. He spits that energy away from me, into the vast darkness, and immediately I begin to regain full control of my body and my mind. I am immensely comforted by the Shaman and by his singing and his ministrations, although I am still very shaky, upset, and drenched in salty sweat. A helping angel takes my arm now and supports me as I rise from that rough wooden floor and gingerly step back over to my seat, becoming another one of the silhouettes myself – lining up against the wall of the malluca, in the dark of night, surrounded by the chitters and cries of the night frogs and strange insects, somewhere along a fast brown river deep in the greatest and most potent forest on planet Earth.
That scene is an accurate portrayal of the aftermath of the first, terrifying stage of my experiences, as I pursued a philosophical and spiritual dream: to travel to the Upper Amazon and work with a special medicine that the indigenous peoples of South America refer to as the Mother of all Plants, a very special and unique substance known as Ayahuasca. My work with this spirit medicine would end, several nights later, with a remarkable encounter and an overwhelming and unanticipated flood of beauty and pure love directed towards me – a counterpoint more powerful than the true terrors of that first ceremony. Why, though, would anyone subject themselves to such an ordeal, in such a strange and alien place? Simply, Ayahuasca presents us with a direct window into a realm or dimension that Science says does not exist. It is a place that is not on any map and it contains inhabitants that are decidedly not human beings. It is, in plain language, a powerful portal or doorway into the world of Spirit. My first experience was alarming, but I found that if Ayahuasca takes the traveler into areas of great pain and fear, it does so in order to cleanse and to heal. There is an amazing intelligence behind it that seems to truly care for human beings.
“I was utterly free at every level of my being. Joy filled me, and I felt fresh, clean, whole – lost to my ego self and at one with the All That Is.” [Ayahuasca, c. 2003, Joan Parisi Wilcox, p. 167.]
In a grand sense of balance, or perhaps in compensation, it also takes one into realms of incredible beauty and overwhelming joy and love, but more about that later. I have been on a life-long quest to understand the nature of religious claims about spiritual things. After 45 years spent working, writing, and living inside traditional Christianity, I had come to doubt the claims of a spirit world called Heaven and spiritual beings, angels and a God, who all supposedly exist but who have no measurable interactions – measurable interactions – with human beings here in this life. I had become agnostic, even atheistic in some ways, but I always wondered about the nature of life. It is such a grand question that we don’t often remember or realize just how fully unanswered it is. The American naturalist Loren Eiseley once wrote of finding, still present in the soil beneath his feet, the actual raw chemicals that once raced through the veins of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life. Then, a flock of birds hurtled high overhead:
“There went phosphorus, there went iron, there went carbon, there beat the calcium in those hurrying wings. . . . I dropped my fistful of earth. I heard it roll inanimate back into the gully at the base of the hill: iron, carbon, the chemicals of life. . . . I made my sign to the great darkness. It was not a mocking sign, and I was not mocked.” [The Immense Journey, c. 1946, Loren Eiseley, pp. 172-173.]
What is Life, then, if not a miracle? And, what then, is a miracle? Is there more to Life than just chemicals? What is the animating force? If it comes from another dimension or realm that we cannot normally see, is there any way to see it? And, what of all the wonderful stories from along our human pathway – stories of unexplained phenomena and visions that have accented all of our history? Stories of encounters with beings that are not human beings? Stories of glimpses into strange and beautiful realms? Is all of this just the return of fertile and creative human brains? Are the skeptics justified in a retreat to the simplistic postulations of reductionism – that everything is merely machinery grinding away for no purpose other than blind, unthinking survival? I decided to go to Peru because I had come across information about an experience that was reported to convey the participant directly into the spirit realm. It was said to be completely convincing and to be in a totally separate class from any similar experiences. So, for over a decade, I learned and researched all I could about this ceremony and the substance at the center of it. So many claims have been made and so many different ideas have been proclaimed as truth. I wanted to find out and know, not, perhaps, “What Is True,” but more fundamentally, “What Is REAL?”
“The Ayahuasca experience forced ontology on me. Often, things I saw under the intoxication impressed me as being so real that the conclusion seemed to be unavoidable: truly existing other realities are being revealed.” – Benny Shanon, Professor of Psychology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. [The Antipodes of the Mind, c. 2002, Benny Shanon, Oxford University Press, p. 165.]
Ayahuasca means “Vine of the Soul” or “Vine of the Dead” in the ancient Quechua language that was once spoken by the Incas and is still spoken in various dialects throughout the Andes and the Amazon basin. Ayahuasca is a highly psychoactive plant medicine that has been safely used by the indigenous peoples of South America for literally thousands of years.
“. . . . Vine of the Spirits, Vine of Gold, Vision Vine, Vine of Lightness, Green Magic. . . .” [Ayahuasca, c. 2003, Joan Parisi Wilcox, p. 39.]
“Psychoactive Plant Medicine.” That phrase alone is enough to scare most people and to cause instinctual jumps to conclusions. If something affects the brain and mind, is it a drug? It’s a Yes and No thing. Alcohol affects the brain and mind. Caffeine. Sugar. Some things are stronger – some milder. Some things are dangerous. But, we don’t always place things in the right category. Some strongly psychoactive chemicals are approved and used every day by Western society. Some to heal – we call them medicines – and some to soothe or entertain, like alcohol and tobacco. A large number of our allopathic medicines have their origins in the plants of the Amazon jungle. Ayahuasca is a venerable tribal medicine. It is a remarkable combination of plants that provides us with, perhaps, the strongest psychoactive experience in all of nature. Is it an ancient gateway to the Spirit World, or just a “drug experience”, to be painted immediately as taboo with a brush named “Dangerous”? The truth of what Ayahuasca is and where, exactly, it takes you, cannot be found in either of these views and is still very much uncharted. It seems to fly in the face of our Western cultural mores and some deeply ingrained societal fears. The native curenderos (healers) and ayahuasceros – those who specialize in working with Ayahuasca – see it as a true portal to a Spirit world that they casually accept as a natural part of reality. They travel there in order to learn how to heal people, to gain information for the hunt, and, sometimes, to empower themselves to do good – or harm – to the lives of others. It is beyond question that the Amazonian Ayahuasca ceremonial tradition is one of humanity’s great healing cultures – one that has been in use safely and successfully for thousands of years. This blog journal sets compass to South America and the sights and sounds of Peru. Then, into a deeper journey – a necessarily personal passage to search for meaning and for evidence of the reality of things beyond our everyday world. A search for portals into the unknown night.