Ancient Songs and Green Magic (Part II)
ANCIENT SONGS AND GREEN MAGIC
– A Search for What Is Real in the Amazon Jungle of Peru
By David P. Crews
“Ayahuasca is a symbiotic ally of the human species; its association with our species can be traced at least as far back as New World prehistory. The lessons we have acquired from it, in the course of millennia of coevolution, may have profound implications for what it is to be human, and to be an intelligent, questioning species within the biospheric community of species.”
– Dennis J. McKenna, Ph.D., Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History
(Ayahuasca; ed. Ralph Metzner, (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999) p. 207.
One reason I took years to study Ayahuasca before working with it was to be as certain as I could be that this was an authentic and valuable encounter that would take me beyond what I know and can see, and not merely a drug encounter. There are powerful chemicals involved in the Ayahuasca tea, but taking this brew is the farthest thing one can imagine from a recreational drug experience.
One takes Ayahuasca advisedly and with the help of experienced leaders and supporters. It requires commitment and some sacrifices to experience it safely and authentically. For many who work with it, Ayahuasca is the most intense event they have ever experienced. At times, it is physically demanding and difficult. It has the potential to be extremely frightening. However, it can also give a person the most beautiful, glorious, joyful, and richly fulfilling experience of their lifetime. Its healing and teaching effects extend into the life one leads afterwards and affects the quality of that life. It can be genuinely life changing.
I had to be certain I knew what I was doing and with whom I was going to work because I am not actually a very likely or typical person to explore psychoactive medicines. My father is a pharmacist and I was conservatively raised to respect drugs and to never abuse them for “fun.” Also, I’m a teetotaler. I have never used alcohol – ever. Nor have I smoked tobacco – ever. A virgin to mind altering substances, I set out for the Amazon to ingest the most powerful one there is. Why would I want to take such a radical path from the one I was on?
In Plato’s famous cave, the allegory can be interpreted to depict humanity seeing the universe only as if by shadows cast on the wall by a great pyre of light. It is a light and a true world existing behind us that we can never turn and perceive directly. In studying religions, I’ve come to understand them as the human-made shadows we project from a greater reality – the reality that Ayahuasca can show to us. Ayahuasca gives us the opportunity, for the very first time, to turn our heads and look outside the cave into a greater view of What is Real.
So, this is a journal of my particular experiences in the Upper Amazon in Peru in 2006. I was determined to conduct this direct experiment in ontology. Knowing from my deep research that I would be physically safe, my intention was to see for myself what I might make of the visions and information that would come with working with Ayahuasca in a controlled, sacred, indigenous, and ritual setting. This would be a journey to try to determine what is real and what might simply be illusion or masterful creativity.
SHAMANISM – THE PROCESS OF SEEING
In 1951, Carl Jung wrote:
“In psychology, one possesses nothing unless one has experienced it in reality. Hence, a purely intellectual insight is not enough, because one knows only the words and not the substance of the thing from inside.”
C. G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (p. 33)
I was determined to go “inside” and see for myself. It would turn out to be an intense set of experiences – one that challenged my physical body through limiting diets, strong physical exertions and purging, and more to the point, challenged my mind and spirit on levels that can only be described as awesome and unexplainable.
This general approach to gathering information about things outside our everyday world by direct personal experiences is what we generally refer to as Shamanism. It is the oldest spiritual practice of humankind, stretching back tens of thousands of years and still being practiced in tribal and modern societies all across the globe today. Shamanism is not a religion, but a practice or a set of techniques that are used to investigate non-ordinary realms or states in order to learn and gather information useful to us in this world. Modern religions have emerged out of these practices with many specific personal shamanic stories becoming reduced to historical myths. These myth stories are often presented as magical proof texts for followers of a particular religion – those who are not afforded the opportunity to experience the magic for themselves.
Shamanism is the opposite of religion’s controlled beliefs and limited access to personal experience. Instead, it is defined by personal, direct experience of “spiritual” realms, beings, and other mystical encounters without relying on any other person’s testimony or doctrines or information. In a shamanic practice, each person goes through the process in order to see for themselves. Each person has to make up their own mind what the information consists of and whether it is meaningful or actionable. No one else can gainsay what you see or what I see in a shamanic state. We can compare notes afterwards and begin to draw maps of the realms we enter. Some knowledge has emerged by consensus over the millennia, but it is still a direct personal experience by nature.
There are many ways to approach shamanic states, including meditation and trance work, asceticism, drumming, sensory deprivation, dream work, and so on. The most direct method, especially for the Western person who cannot devote a lifetime to mastering certain techniques, is to use the power of plants. Ayahuasca is, arguably, the world’s most direct, powerful, and useful form of shamanic experience.
THE PEOPLE AND THE PLACE
After much research, I decided to work with a group called SpiritQuest, based in Iquitos, Peru. As one of the oldest organized providers of authentic Ayahuasca experience, but not as publicized as others, I found this venue to be everything I was looking for and none of what I was fearful of. Howard Lawler is an American/Peruvian shaman who has built an excellent retreat just north of the city of Iquitos along the Rio Momon. His circle includes a master mestizo shaman, Don Rober Jurama, who, along with Howard, led the ceremonies I will describe below. Howard is himself an accomplished shaman, working to revitalize other ancient plant-based shamanic traditions of South America, notably that of the Chavin culture.
Don Rober is a banco Ayahuascero – a lifetime accomplished master of the brew from the Lamista tradition. He has been working with Ayahuasca since he was a boy of eight and he brought authentic care and knowledge to the ceremonies I took part in. My hosts for this immense journey were to prove impeccable in their set and setting, their knowledge, their love and compassion, and their guidance for this adventure of the soul.
Part of the wonder and power of working with Ayahuasca here is the environment itself. This is the Upper Amazon – “La Selva” or the Forest, the locals name it. The lungs of the world. I had seen photos and read stories all my life about the Amazon, but nothing short of seeing it in person could have given me the immense scale of this place. Flying some 400 miles beyond the Andes over endless seascapes of green canopy to get to Iquitos (only reachable by air or boat), I marveled as I realized this was only a small portion of the great jungle that stretches yet another 1,700 miles eastward to the Atlantic. It is simply the largest concentration of life on the planet.
This has a bearing in the shamanic work with Ayahuasca, as there seems to be an empowering of the work one does when you are literally surrounded by thousands of miles of living matter, a potent part of which you just took into your own body. This is the home of the Ayahuasca vine, and her spirit is strong in this place.
from my trip journal:
“After arriving in Iquitos, I was picked up for the journey to the SpiritQuest lodge to begin my work with Ayahuasca. After a noisy ride in a motorcycle “rickshaw” taxi through the busy streets of the jungle city here in the heart of the Amazon, we arrived at the dock and boarded a small motor launch for the rest of the trip up the river. We went up the Rio Nanay a bit, then turned up the Rio Momon and passed other boats and some barges made of tied logs, docking at the retreat a few miles upriver.
Howard Lawler is our guide, teacher, translator, and facilitator for the “SpiritQuest – Listening to the Plants” spiritual retreat. Originally from the U.S. and now Peruvian, he conducts shamanic retreats with the support of his wife, Reyna, his two children, and a great staff who cook, serve, act as boat captains, and are aides during the Ayahuasca ceremonies. He turned to me as I came in and said, “Hi, I’m Howard, and I have a monkey on my back.” Indeed, he did! This was Rufus, the lodge’s pet monkey, who’s always mooching or grabbing food and plopping from one lap to another, or crawling on our backs or shoulders. Howard introduced me to the rest of the group of about 15 participants as we were all eating a breakfast snack of fresh jungle fruits and juices – a very good start to our Ayahuasca diet.”
Once mysterious and unknown to Westerners in general, today there are many descriptions of the Ayahuasca brew available. A brief orientation to this powerful medicine is appropriate here, as it is important to understand the nature of this brew as it exists here in this world before we invoke its powers to take us into other worlds.
We have called Ayahuasca a psychoactive plant medicine and asserted that it is not a drug of abuse. In fact, like all other entheogens, it is not addictive. It is not physically dangerous when used properly, basing that use on the vast and ancient experience of the shamanic societies that use it every day and heeding some basic information about diet and possible reactions to other medications (just as we do with all our Western allopathic medicines).
Ayahuasca is decidedly not a recreational substance. It is notoriously difficult and unpleasant to work with. It is very demanding and is not predictable in its effects from one person to another, or from one session to another for the same person, a characteristic that sets it apart from “recreational drugs” that are desired for their nominally predictable effects.
Ayahuasca is a very potent Spiritual Teacher Plant. Its effects are profound and mysterious, but are becoming more known and better documented in our times. It is used primarily in a healing modality for both physical and psychological and spiritual illnesses or disorders. It is very effective at treating and preventing addictions to drugs and alcohol and is being used in a therapeutic manner in many places for just this purpose. The results have been excellent, far surpassing traditional treatment methods.
Along with its many medicinal qualities, however, Ayahuasca is the quintessential vision-producing plant. There are many terms used to describe “vision-producing,” including “psychedelic” and “hallucination.” These terms are almost all problematic due to their incorrectness, incompleteness, and the bias caused by the unfortunate cultural attachments we have to them based on the way such things were presented and abused in the 1960’s. “Hallucination,” in particular, implies that the visions one sees are fictions created by the brain and are therefore decidedly not real. Whether the visions are real or not is a crucial ontological question, but for most people, this term prejudges in the negative. In my writings, I will simply say “visions” and leave the judging out of the terminology.
The Ayahuasca vine is a woody vine that contains several potent psychoactive substances, namely: Harmine, Harmaline, and Tetrahydroharmine. None of these chemicals is vision-producing, but there are many benefits to the Ayahuasca vine alone and the shamans consider it to be the “power” in the brew. Ayahuasca is called the Mother of Plants and while other ingredients are somewhat changeable, the tea always contains Ayahuasca and it is always referred to by the name of the vine, not the other components. The visions come from the admixture plants, usually the leaves of the chacruna plant – scientific name “psychotria virdis”, (which tells you something). If the vine is the power, the shamans refer to these plants as the “light.”
“No longer is the show we are watching everyday reality, Channel Normal. DMT provides regular, repeated, and reliable access to “other” channels. The other planes of existence are always there. In fact, they are right here, transmitting all the time! But we cannot perceive them because . . . our hard-wiring keeps us tuned to Channel Normal. It only takes . . . the few heartbeats the spirit molecule requires to make its way to the brain – to change the channel, to open our mind to these other planes of existence.”
Rick Strassman, M.D., DMT The Spirit Molecule (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2001) 315-316.
These admixture plants contribute an important chemical called NN-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT for short. DMT is one of the family of tryptamines that have a very similar physical form to Serotonin. It is believed that this is why they are so potent in the brain, since they lock into the same receptors as serotonin. Pure DMT is the most potent vision-producing substance known to exist. It exceeds LSD or any other tryptamine, natural or man-made (and LSD is an artificial, man-made chemical). It also has a very different effect from other substances, an effect that is enhanced and moderated properly in the matrix of Ayahuasca.
DMT is actually present in many plants, but is not normally active if ingested, due to enzymes in the stomach that break it down before it can get into the brain. If you just eat chacruna leaves, you won’t see any visions at all.
It is an authentically amazing fact that out of all the millions of possible combinations of plant recipes in the jungle, the ancient tribal peoples discovered this combinational recipe. When Ayahuasca vine and the chacruna leaves are broken up, mixed together, then boiled for over 10 hours and one drinks the reduced tea, the vine acts as an MAO inhibitor, essentially neutralizing the enzymes in the stomach that prevent the DMT from reaching the brain. This vine and leaf combination has been noted and described as one of the most astonishingly efficient chemical delivery systems known to exist – a combination that in no way should be obvious or discoverable by sheer experimentation.
If one asks the shamans how this came to be known, they have a simple if disturbing answer for us. They will tell you that the plants themselves told them how to do it.
DMT, like LSD and other tryptamines and most other entheogens, is a controlled substance in the United States and other western countries. It is completely illegal to make, possess, or ingest it. In Brazil and Peru, it is fortunately considered a part of the rights of the citizens as a “National Cultural Heritage” and is protected, at least for now.
It is intriguing to know that DMT is a substance that is endogenous – that is, we produce it ourselves within our brains in small amounts. It may be, as Dr. Strassman suggests, the “spirit molecule” that gives us access and passage from one realm, one universe, to the next. Perhaps this is why, from a chemical viewpoint, this brew is so effective a tool to transport us into these realms.
from my trip journal:
“It rained most of the night – a wonderful jungle rainstorm with occasional thunder and some downpours. I was snug and safe under my thatch roof. In the morning, as we were eating a good breakfast, a large tree crashed in the selva (jungle) behind the lodge, almost coming down on top of the Ayahuasca cooking tambo or hut.
The morning’s work was to watch and help with the cooking of the brew. Two huge pots boiled over wood fires, and Don Rober was watching things closely and blessing the ingredients with mapacho smoke. We all smoked the mapacho, and blessed the Ayahuasca. Mapacho is a large “cigarette” of a sacred tobacco, made from the species “nicotiana rustica” – a completely different species from commercial tobacco. It has none of the tars and other additives, and it is considered a sacred and visionary plant by the shamans. When used properly, mapacho is a true medicine plant rather than an unhealthy substance.
I had never smoked, but it is not necessary to inhale the mapacho smoke into the lungs and it is an integral and somewhat mind-altering part of the ritual process. This ties us in to the sacred space of the great teacher plants. We worked and watched all morning as the brew was condensed and cooked down. The entire process of cooking the Ayahuasca can take more than 12 hours.
Everyone is thinking about our journey tomorrow – the real journey that will redefine us.”