Ancient Songs and Green Magic (Part III)
ANCIENT SONGS AND GREEN MAGIC
– A Search for What Is Real in the Amazon Jungle of Peru
WORKING WITH AYAHUASCA: REQUIREMENTS AND EXPECTATIONS
“It is said in the Amazon that Ayahuasca has a jealous spirit. This is a culture-bound concept which often seems strange to the western mind. How could a plant considered sacred also be jealous? One has to step outside the usual human concept of jealousy to understand what is meant by this. It simply means that the conscious spirit of Ayahuasca desires our undivided attention when in Her presence.”
– Howard Lawler, aka Otorongo Blanco, from the SpiritQuest website: http://www.biopark.org/peru/sqcleansing-01.html
from my trip journal:
“Monday – Preparing for our first Ayahuasca Ceremony
It rained softly through the night. The jungle emerged from a misty sunrise. I met don Rober coming from the kitchen tambo – short, wiry, muscled. He looks very normal, even nondescript as he comes and goes around the camp, but I know he is a master shaman and will be in full control in tonight’s first ceremony.
We had a good breakfast of eggs and fruit and potato fries (unsalted, of course). This meal is larger and more protein oriented than lunch, which will be light – fruit only. No dinner tonight as we head into the sessions around 8 pm. Ayahuasca is a strong purgative and any excess food in our systems can be problematic during the sessions.
Howard called in each of us one at a time to formally meet and speak with don Rober and express our intentions and needs for healing during tonight’s session. The formulation and stating of authentic intentions is crucial to the work with Ayahuasca. It can strongly affect the way the plant works with you to heal and to teach.
My emotional self is apprehensive about the intensity of what is to come, but I am in Peaceful Warrior mode, using my power to choose and to Do in order to gain information and power. Not power over others, but power over my own self-limitations and self-deceptions. The sacred space of this place and the ritual of the pacing, activities, and food have been very helpful to calm me and let me focus on the work. This will not be easy. It may be very difficult at times. This is part of the medicine and the work that is to be done.”
Those who come to work seriously with Ayahuasca over a long period of time will engage in several different special diet sessions lasting days to a week or more. In each of these sessions, they will work with and ingest only one specific plant to learn its spirit and to internalize (literally and figuratively) its powers and effects in their body and person. These diets can be difficult and are not for everyone, but they are enlightening and useful for those who take them. Those who wish to become shamans work with these diets literally for years before becoming adept at their healing and visionary work.
For those who come to work with Ayahuasca for the first time or for occasional ceremonies, diet is still an important part of the experience, but it is not such an imposing trial as the dedicated diets are. There are differing opinions, usually based in long standing traditional views of the tribal and mestizo shamans, about the specifics of the required diet and its duration, but I have come to understand certain things about it.
There are two fundamental concerns in dieting prior to an Ayahuasca ceremony. First is the necessity of avoiding any chemicals in one’s system that might interfere with the chemical reactions of the medicine. Physically, Ayahuasca is a very safe substance. However, it is a mild MAO inhibitor and serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, and the partaker must avoid anything that will over-potentiate the medicine, which can cause a hypertensive reaction. Certain foods are problematic in this way and must be avoided for at least two to three days before ceremony and for as long after the last ceremony. These include pork, salt, sugars, spices and hot chilis, alcohol, and oil. Pork and lard, in particular, are problematic and many advise avoiding all pork products for as much as two weeks prior to and after working with Ayahuasca.
During an Ayahuasca retreat, food is actually plentiful and attractive, including fish, some chicken, grains, vegetables, eggs, honey, and lots of wonderful jungle fruit! All this food is taken from the bounty of the great forest and is fresh and very good for you!
Also a part of the “diet” is abstinence from sexual stimulation, which conserves one’s vital energy and heightens receptivity to the profound spiritual dimensions of the medicine.
Certainly, any MAOI medicines (Prozac, Zoloft, etc.) being taken must be carefully (with a doctor’s guidance) discontinued for some weeks prior to working with Ayahuasca.
All shamans I have worked with or whom I have read about, without exception, emphasize the importance of intent in working with Ayahuasca. Howard Lawler refers to it as “the most important personal factor in work with Ayahuasca.”
The Spirit that lives in Ayahuasca is itself intent on working with and teaching humans who come to her. That means that she will respond to how we approach her. If we come to the medicine without physical preparation (diet), we will have to deal with difficult purging to cleanse our bodies before any other work can be done. If we come with flippant or disrespectful mental intentions, like wanting merely to have a recreational “trip” or assuming the experience is going to be some kind of primitive show, then the medicine will likely present the patient with difficulties they did not anticipate. It may take them very deep into their own psyche when they were expecting shallowness. It may find their true fears and weaknesses and force them to face them fully and right now – a spiritual purging.
If we understand this, we can prepare for it by following the diet and coming into ceremony with well thought-through intentions for the night. These are simply things we wish to work on, or information or experiences we wish to gain from the medicine. Ayahuasca is essentially unpredictable. One never really knows what will likely happen in any particular ceremony. Ayahuasca never acquiesces to our demands, but if we come to it with strong and valid intentions, very powerful results can and often do occur.
A NOTE ABOUT THESE VISION REPORTS
So called “trip reports” can be interesting and useful, but are by nature factors of intensity lower for the reader than for the reporter. I present my three such reports here for several reasons. First, to give some idea of a real Ayahuasca vision session as it happened to someone who came to it for the first time. Second, to illustrate the dynamic range and variety of experience, from sheer terror to great wonder and bliss, and third, because I happened to have received what I now understand to have been a very fortunate arc of experiences over the three ceremonies I partook of. Though brief, it was a range of experience that seems to encapsulate the essence of what it means to engage with this great plant medicine and spirit.
THE FIRST CEREMONY
from my trip journal:
“Darkness fell, and we convened in the ceremonial room. We had arranged our small rocking chairs and brought our pillows and blankets. It is best to sit during the ceremony so that one does not become tempted to sleep or otherwise become lost in the vision space.
The helpers half-filled our purge bowls with water and eight candles were lit on the mesa at the end of the room. These provide our only light. The mesa or table contains many spiritual and symbolic items, including a loop of the Ayahuasca vine. It is surrounded by wonderful textiles made by the Shipibo people. Each has a mandala painting depicting a cross section of the vine with vision geometry surrounding it.
The Yahua tribe chief joined us for the ceremony and many of the other tribe members came and sat outside around the room to also take part.
Don Rober made an opening statement, translated by Howard, then began his first healings by going around the room, cleansing each of us with mapacho tobacco smoke on our heads and torsos, and patting our heads with his shacapa while whistling his arcana, the songs of protection. This is very comforting and sets the tone for the ceremony.
The shacapa is a leaf fan that acts as a soft rattle throughout the ceremony. The icaros and arcanas are the songs the shaman sings or whistles that guide the visions during the night. This is an essential and very important part of the ceremony and don Rober will sing them for the next five or six hours straight.
Now, all but one candle is extinguished. Don Rober blesses the Ayahuasca with mapacho smoke and whistles an icaro song into the bottle – singing to the Spirit of the plant.
Then, the moment came and we were called up one by one to take the Ayahuasca drink. I went second. I went to the mesa and kneeled before the two shamans. Howard poured the tea into a small earthen cup and don Rober handed it forward to me. I silently expressed my Intentions to the Spirit of the plant, then held my nose and took the drink in one draught.
Ayahuasca has a well-deserved reputation for tasting terrible. Up until now, I had been very focused on what this would be like and how nasty the drink would be and whether I would gag or throw it up immediately. In fact, for me, it was surprisingly not-so-bad and I had no trouble drinking and holding it. It has a definitely unpleasant earthy, pungent, oily taste, but it was not viscous, and truly had the consistency of tea or water. The taste is quite difficult to describe.
I thought long about my Intention for the ceremony. There was so much I wanted to know, to experience, to see and learn. It was hard to choose and hard to focus down on one thing. Finally, I decided on this combination: “Let me SEE; Let me LEARN WHAT I NEED TO LEARN; and please HEAL me.”
Once everyone has partaken of the brew, including the shamans, the final candle is extinguished and the rest of the ceremony is conducted in total darkness. Only the occasional flare of a match for lighting a mapacho breaks this darkness, but after a while, my eyes adjust and I can make out the shadowy outlines of the people in the room. Don Rober ceases his icaros now as we wait for the onset of the Ayahuasca effects over the next 20 – 30 minutes. Later, he will begin the singing icaros that guide us throughout the night. For now, however, only the susurrus of the jungle night sounds, with the occasional eerie barking of the bamboo rats nearby and far away, surround us as we wait silently in the darkness.”
Darest thou now, O soul,
Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?
No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.
I know it not O soul;
Nor dost thou–all is a blank before us;
All waits, undream’d of, in that region–that inaccessible land.
. . . .
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass – 1871-72
It is something of a known phenomenon that a person’s very first Ayahuasca experience is often an especially difficult and trying one. It is as if the medicine has a lot of work to do with us, “rewiring” the mind and spirit to be able to tune in to this new frequency. It must deal with our physical form and all the toxins of it and illnesses of it. It must also deal with our psychological form and all the mental toxins and dis-eases of it. None of this is done with gentleness or restraint. That is not Her way.
My first visions are what precipitated the events I described in the beginning – visions so strong and disturbing that I involuntarily leapt out of my seat, and upon regaining my self-awareness, found myself trembling and sweating on the floor of the ceremonial molucca. The first thing I noticed was my body swaying back and forth in a distinct rhythm. This was not physical – I was sitting quite still in my small chair. The feeling of swaying, however, was very strong. It dawned on me that this was the same swaying as I felt while lying in a hammock earlier in the day. Was Ayahuasca rocking me to comfort me, or was she simply about to rock my world? The feeling lasted only a minute or so.
A buzzing began in my fingertips and toes. This is a common effect of Ayahuasca and it did not alarm me. I observed it as it increased and traveled up my limbs. Now, my entire legs and arms were buzzing strongly, like they were connected to a high voltage electric line, but no pain – only strong buzzing vibration. We were less than five minutes into the onset of the effects of the medicine. The buzzing increased in intensity and now my entire form was vibrating! The buzzing increased steadily – relentlessly more and more. I began to become alarmed at the intensity of it, but it increased even more.
Now, the vibration was all through my body and my head and the buzzing still increased. I suddenly realized that this would keep going until I fainted. It felt just like that moment before a faint, when you realize it is going to happen but you cannot prevent it. I remember actually thinking the words, “I’m going to faint!” The buzzing was reaching an immense crescendo and it was also very loud – a huge roar in my perceptual ears, drowning out any and all other sounds and thoughts. I am resigned to the faint that I know is coming right now.
Then it happens, but I do not faint. Instead, it is as if someone
CHANGED THE CHANNEL.
It is not that often in Ayahuasca experiences that the drinker becomes totally disconnected from his or her self, totally unaware of their surroundings or of the fact that they are in an Ayahuasca session. One is almost always aware of it – always some “observer” part of us watching. For me, however, at this instant, it was truly as if some outside agency decided to change my channel and put me directly and totally into a living dream. For me, at this instant, the Ayahuasca session disappeared entirely. No thought of it or echo of it existed in my mind in this new place.
No longer was I the adult man who had just been sitting in a room full of people in the Amazon darkness. Instead, I felt like I was floating freely in jet-black space and that I was just a little boy – my own child self from many years past. Just as I began to orient myself in this new reality, very precise images began to appear, arranged like an endless stack of playing cards and approaching me rapidly. They began to fly by me on my left side: hundreds and hundreds of cards. They were a highly confusing collage of images, textures, surfaces, people, places, geometries – all streaming by far too fast for me to comprehend any one of them. It seemed rich in content, a library of information, but like any library, impossible to ingest all in one moment – one single moment’s reading. I felt stunned, and a childlike frustration with such attractive and meaningful riches just out of my reach and comprehension, began to grow and to turn into fear.
I was beginning to panic. The imagery was flying by me so rapidly now that it was like putting my face into a waterfall and looking up at all the millions of droplets cascading into my face and eyes. Here, something began to change in my perceptions, as the flooding images became less of the focus of my attention than the raw fear that had been growing stronger with each passing second – a rising tide of panic. This seemed like an expression of primal fear, not caused by something in particular, but rather as if I were experiencing Fear Itself – pure, unrefined, unholy, uncalled-for, and overwhelming.
I was fully panicked – my heart and breathing racing hard. I was struggling very hard now, trying to process the images as they cascaded blindingly past me. It was difficult to remember anything at all in this onslaught. I was lost in a nightmare of truly alien forms – a monstrous and overwhelming rush that came to a sudden end with one last image.
It flew up and became vivid as all the other cascade of images flew on and faded away. This was a picture of a wooden door with a red knob. As the image settled, it became real. I was here, floating in space before this door. It was dark here on this side of the door. There was light beyond it. It seemed that this was the door to my childhood bedroom and I felt a panicked need to open it and escape from this darkness into the light beyond, where safety and life still existed. I knew I only had a bare moment to accomplish this before it would be too late. In this moment, in this place, the fear was sharp and real – primitive “fight or flight” instincts kicked in as the panic increased to a truly howling crescendo of emotion. I HAD TO reach that door and open it! If I failed, I would be swallowed up by this black void. I would be lost in the alien cascade and I would never come back. My very life and existence depended on this one task: open the door!
I felt my body spasm in reaction. I was fighting now, as hard as I could, but there was no purchase – I was floating in space. I kicked and swam and reached out for the door. I came a little closer, and I lunged out with my right hand, trying for the door knob. The door receded away from me, just out of reach. I lunged out again, desperate to grab the knob, and again, it receded away from me. I had reached the end of the time available for my task.
Suddenly, I heard myself screaming at the top of my voice, “I CAN’T REACH IT!
I CAN’T REACH IT!
Then, everything stopped.
Someone changed the channel again.
Who am I? Where am I? What is happening to me? I am on my hands and knees. Sweat is pouring off my body, rolling off my eyes and nose. I’m trembling very hard. I’m panic-breathing like I’ve been running away from something for miles and miles.
I open my eyes and turn my head up to the right. Just barely visible are ghostly forms of shadow people, all in a row. They are frightening and I am completely at a loss.
Then, it dawns on me. “Wait a minute . . ., this is still part of an Ayahuasca session. Those are the other people from the group! I’ve had some strange episode and now I’m here on the floor. On the floor??” I reached out with my hand and felt the floor boards of the molluca. I had apparently launched myself out of my chair and landed here.
As my perceptions returned, time itself seemed to regain its normal pace. All this seemed to take a long time, then only a second or two. Now, just at this moment of realization, don Rober reached me and I heard his voice and felt his shacapa patting my head. Howard’s wife, Reyna, who assists the ceremonies, was there, too, with a comforting hand. Don Rober sang healing icaros over me and performed several “extractions” called chupando, where he placed his lips on my skin at my neck and forehead and sucked out the negative energies or spirits and then vigorously blew it all away into the dark distance where it could do no more harm.
“Thus, the key to don Roberto’s healing is his chupando, sucking, like other shamans, throughout North and South America, who suck out sickness from the suffering body. Healing by sucking is widely distributed among the indigenous people of the Amazon.”
– Stephan V. Beyer, Singing To The Plants (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2009) 104.
This healing with music, touch, and ritual effort, quickly grounded me and I began to concentrate on slowing my breath and calming my panicked psyche. I took deep, slow breaths and the trembling began to subside. After a minute, still bent over on the floor, I heard Reyna whisper if I was all right to move, and I felt helping hands guide me up and back through the lightless room to my seat.
Fully myself now, I settled into a strange new space of buzzing limbs and physical discomfort. For the rest of the session, I did not lose my sense of self and I was able to observe my own reactions. These were mostly to the physical discomfort. I was still drenched in a full sweat that lasted the rest of the night. The buzzing in my extremities, limbs, and face, was still very strong and uncomfortable, especially in my legs.
Ayahuasca sessions typically last four to six hours. At this point in this ceremony, after all that had happened to me, we were still only about 10 or 15 minutes into it. Conventional time had ceased having meaning for me during this first harsh vision, but only a short period had actually passed. We had another five or so hours yet to go.
During this time, I felt like I was in “enduring mode” until the end and I saw only mild, unimpressive and fragmentary visions throughout the session. They were either negative or mysterious and somewhat menacing. A very detailed black stone statue of the Egyptian god Anubis appeared and floated around in an arc before disappearing. A huge black spider with spindly curving legs scuttled away. By midnight, about three hours in, the effects had diminished to perhaps twenty percent.
Many of the participants purged, sometimes quite strongly, throughout the night. Don Rober and Howard purged also. Some people do not purge during one session or another. As it happened, I did not purge this entire session. Body temperature can vary unpredictably with Ayahuasca, and I began to grow cool, even though I was still very sweaty, so I pulled up my blanket to wrap up in it a bit.
For the last hour or so, certain people would be called to a small cushion in the center of the room for don Rober to perform specific healings on them with icaros, mapacho smoke, and chupando sucking and blowing. Afterwards, he made the rounds of everyone in their chairs, performing a final shacapa and icaro healing on each of us in turn. This was a very welcome and settling thing to me.
At 2:30 am, Howard broke the darkness by lighting a candle and broke the silence of hours by stating, “Well, friends, we have come to our intermission.” Now, the vision ceremony was over. By “intermission,” he meant that the entire ceremony is not officially over until all of us participate in a flower bath in the morning, which I will describe below.
We all were free then to make our way back to our rooms and sleep if we can. I was feeling much better now, but dizzy and very tired from the incessant sweating and high voltage buzzing. I made it up the long wooden walk, lit by dim oil lamps, and fell into a deep sleep.
My initiation into Ayahuasca’s world of visions and spirit was harsh – again, not at all unusual for a first time experience. I experienced real, raw fear. I truly feared for my life during the vision’s crucible. It was an exposure to extreme emotion that I needed to fully face to give myself a different and useful perspective on what it means to be alive. Going forward, I would move on into different realms and, in my final ceremony, be a part of something truly wonderful. It would be a true expression of that Spirit of Life that would culminate in a life-altering gift from the heart.
Next in Part IV: Flower Baths and the Second Ceremony