As I prepare myself for a series of ceremonial Ayahuasca sessions in June, I’m reading and re-reading many things about the great spirit medicine. I always enjoy Steve Beyer’s blog on Ayahuasca and I wanted to share a link to one of his very best essays from about a year ago, called “What Do the Spirits Want from Us?”
Link to article here.
In an orthodox, received-religion setting, this might remind us of a question posed by a preacher or teacher who rhetorically asks, “What does God want from us?” and then proceeds to answer their own question (often at great length) based on his or her own ideas – their own presumptions, fed by their own interpretations of the sacred texts they’ve “received.”
In the case of Ayahuasca and shamanism in general, it is very different. When Steve or his shaman or someone taking Ayahuasca asks this, he is being literal and expects an answer to come from without, not from within our ego mind. That is, he looks for an answer in the form of information available to be gained when we enter sacred dimensions and literally ask the spirits themselves. This is not a presumption. Anyone can go do this and see for themselves what they will see and ask what they will ask. The spirits are there whether we approach them or not. If someone does not “believe” in spirits but never approaches them in the way that those who do so find effective, then that person is speaking an opinion, not an observation based on knowledge or experience, which is to say it is also presumptive.
In his essay, Steve speaks about how we cannot be a tourist when dealing with the spirits, while being on a vision fast, engaging in a talking circle with others, or within our dreams. Doing these things requires a commitment and one’s full involvement and attention – a “being there” in the moment and being fully engaged.
This is especially important for me as I contemplate what I “want” from my ceremonies, and how I should approach those rituals and the spirit beings themselves in terms of attitude and expectations.
“We cannot just go to the spirits and expect them to give us what we want. They may well have other plans for us. In fact, rather than asking — or, as some people do, demanding — that they heal us, or transform us, or make us into someone else, we should just pour out our hearts to them in prayer. We should not go to them with requests or demands or even expectations.
We should tell them what we need; tell them what we fear; tell them what we regret. We should speak to them honestly from our hearts, and then listen devoutly with our hearts to what they tell us.”
In my initial ceremonies back in 2006, I found this to be true. Once I stopped listing out what I wanted to see and experience, I was able to listen, comprehend, and receive the wisdom, love, healing, and guidance I was hoping for. I had to get my own ego out of the way and out of the process by basically telling it to shut up and sit still for a while.
One of the most important points Steve makes is one I try to remember within the consensus reality of our everyday lives. This is the understanding that the Spirits are not “elsewhere” but are with us always and can and do influence our lives. We, ourselves, are Spirits as part of our constitution as human animals. Whether we envision them in this way as part of our own Self (which they are) or see them as alien entities (which I believe they also are), we can work in harmony with them and the energies they bring to us if we are aware and open – listening and understanding what we are shown with a heart open to love.
Ayahuasca is the great Spirit Medicine of the Amazon. It brings one directly into a different realm of reality. Whether one wishes to name that state as another dimension, a spirit or spiritual realm, or simply non-ordinary and alien, it is the most amazing transformation any human can safely experience and still remain on this planet in this human form.
After seven years of life reaction to my first Ayahuasca journeys (for which story see here), and processing and integrating the life changes it caused for me (all challenging but totally necessary to heal me and re-create me into a better man), I’m making plans to return to the Upper Amazon this summer or fall to continue my studies and explorations with that supreme medicine of the jungle. In doing so, my goal is to re-engage with the spirits of the plants and learn what I can about the things that I do not know. Sounds simple enough, right? However, this is a bit like saying, “I think I’ll go to Mars next month and do particle physics research.” The trip is extremely challenging, and the knowledge one is after is esoteric and in many ways alien to our current understandings or way of being.
Even though that is so, it is what I and others who work with Ayahuasca attempt. It’s exhilarating, to say the least, to cast one’s self into the raw frontiers of human perception – a pioneer in a fragile human ship, tossed by waves and seeking a comprehensible and attainable shore. It is even more remarkable when said pioneer suddenly realizes he is being guided by an interested, even friendly hand, but a hand that is distinctly and obviously not human. This force, this spirit, seems to want the pioneer to understand this new and intimidating realm and to help him or her process the information. This spirit also seems to want to influence the explorer’s own human life, both to heal the body and to affect the life path they take from that encounter going forward.
This is what has happened to me, and I’m thrilled with the prospect of setting sail once more and, hopefully, encountering that elemental spirit in some form again.
I was brought up as a Christian and I took it very seriously for over 40 years, even to the point of writing an influential book on New Testament interpretation. Taking the path of shamanism and exploring beyond the borders of current knowledge (religious, political, societal, and scientific) is viewed askance by those still embedded in orthodox structures of belief. It is often judged as a negative moral choice, influenced by the devil or the “world.” For the person who seeks knowledge beyond those structures, however, the process has nothing to do with moral choices. The acquisition of knowledge (especially “new” knowledge from unknown and untapped sources) leads to completely different and unexpected perspectives on everything, especially our worldview and the philosophies that worldview engenders in us.
In my search for What Is Real, the old orthodox religious worldview is simply inadequate and it has been left behind me as I have grown into new paradigms. Now, I and others like me, seek knowledge where it is most different from what I know. We seek not what is known, but what is unknown. This is the mantra of science and of humanity.
The unknown exists beyond the borders of our paradigms. We must seek it by traveling to and beyond the true frontier. Wish me a good journey and I promise to report any curious sightings in the new worlds beyond the veils of our mundane lands.
La Selva – The Forest. That’s the name given by the locals to that greatest forest on Earth, that unimaginably immense ocean of green we call the Amazon Jungle.
It contains the greatest diversity of animals and plants in the world, and is the source of much of our breathing air and medicines. It is a vast repository of bio-chemical riches that we have only just begun to learn about, even as the trees and life systems are so carelessly and ignorantly destroyed en masse, every day.
Those who work with the traditional great psychoactive medicines of La Selva, like Ayahuasca, see this green sea as something more than “just trees.” For those who have traveled into the enigma of the jungle beyond the physical matrix, being in the midst of the jungle is a powerful experience. There is a palpable sense of the life force animated as a conscious and intentional entity. Gaia is not a metaphor. Mother Earth becomes a very real person. There is great mystery here and great capacity for gaining knowledge and for healing.
This is not a secret experience, reserved for an elite. It is available to anyone who would learn or who would be healed, but it is rarely an easy path. Dealing with one’s own personal psychic challenges can be the hardest work one has ever accomplished. And then, it can be challenging to actually come face to face with an Elemental being and live to tell of it, even if she should prove to be kind and loving. To paraphrase Terence McKenna, one might in that situation be most in danger of expiring from astonishment.
Having braved the journey and traveled through the amazing veil and returned to the physical world of trees and rivers, we are never the same. What unknown new measure shall we use to describe our new perspective of ourselves and our world? The old ones are surely as mundane as the lives left behind us, and will not suffice.
Regardless, it is better to have dared to see a marvel than to settle inside an old skin, fearing anything that changes us.
“I would rather know a fearful truth than remain deceived by comforting falsehoods.”
(A saying I wrote down many years ago, and one that in my life has typified that other old saying about being careful what you wish for, for you might get it.)
You can read about this kind of ancient and authentic journeying in my five part series on Ayahuasca, here.
[GoogleMaps image of Iquitos, Peru (the lighter area center), the Amazon River on the right, and the Rio Nanay as the black squiqqle on the left side.]
(Click on any photo for full size.)
Ayahuasca is the great spirit medicine of the Amazon. When it is taken in context in the jungle environment and with an appropriate “set and setting,” the power of the tea is enhanced greatly. This mesa incorporates elements of mestizo shamanism from the Amazon and the Andes to reinforce the spiritual/dimensional space that the participants will be working in. The fractal patterns of the Shipibo tribespeople are especially potent in this regard, as they represent the actual dimensional space that one enters when working with the Medicine.
This is from Spiritquest, near Iquitos, Peru, just off the Rio Amazonas itself. I’ve developed quite a love of Shipibo design and I have obtained some mandalas and other designed artifacts and ceremonial clothing both from on-site there in Peru and from my home in the USA, but the textiles shown here are of superb quality, not available elsewhere. I believe they were made especially for the shamans and venue there on the Rio Momón.
The mesa serves as a representational symbol of the space or dimensions that will be accessed, both positive and negative.
For much more on Ayahuasca, please read my five part series titled, “Ancient Songs and Green Magic.”
The Shape-shifter’s Tale
(a fragment of a myth)
He asked the Turtle, “Would you like to learn about things? Would you like to see what the world looks like for a horse?”
The Turtle replied, “A horse? That big thing? I don’t know what that would be like. It is too different from being a Turtle.”
“Yes, but you would learn what it is like!”
“I like being a Turtle. Turtle makes sense. Turtle is comfortable and safe.”
The Horse whinnied at him and said, “Neigh – OK, that was a joke. So is that little Sparrow. I’m a Horse and I am happy to be a Horse. That’s the mane thing!” And he whinnied several more times causing the Sparrow to fly away in disgust.
He did not bother to remind the Horse that he might learn what other things are like.
He came up to the Boy and said, “Would you like to learn about things?” The Boy smiled at him, so he continued, “Would you like to see what the world looks like for a Lion?”
The Boy said, “I AM a Lion!!” and, still smiling, he ran around the meadow making a roaring sound.
[Click on any photo for a larger image.]
The petroglyph panels above are from the remarkable (and remarkably accessible) Newspaper Rock State Park site, right along the roadway to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.
Sitting in the center
Sitting up high
Sing your song
Make the sky.
Sitting in the center
Weaving a web
Spinning our song
Make it spread.
Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “deh Shay”) is in the heartland of the Navajo Nation in NE Arizona. It is a very worthwhile destination for its scenic beauty, but take some time to learn about the trying history of this place as well. I have very mixed feelings about Kit Carson. He was more in-tune with the native peoples than almost any white man at that time, but then he did the Army’s bidding in Canyon de Chelly and the results still echo hauntingly off the canyon’s red-brown cliffs today.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2012) – available for free viewing on Hulu (only in US for now). Click HERE or on title below:
This is an excellent film made by a friend of mine here in Austin, Texas, Mitch Schultz. It was inspired by the seminal book by Rick Strassman, M.D., by the same title. Strassman conducted the first DEA approved clinical research into DMT in the early 1990’s. (Book highly recommended, btw!)
The film is “An investigation into the long-obscured mystery of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a molecule found in nearly every living organism and considered the most potent psychedelic on Earth.”
The film features interviews and commentary from some very interesting and well-known writers and explorers like Graham Hancock and Dennis McKenna.
DMT is an integral component of the Ayahuasca tea – the great spirit medicine of the Amazon. You can read my series on my own amazing Ayahuasca experiences in the Upper Amazon in this blog, beginning here: Ancient Songs and Green Magic, Part I.
Here lies the luminous and numinous edge of the continent of mankind’s knowledge. Many fear the great Unknown and recoil from it. Others venture out to explore, to learn, and to bring back untold treasures for themselves and all of humanity. We must not allow the fearful to forbid the brave, or we may lose our birthright and our heart.
Towards an exploration of the mind of a conquered continent.
Sacred plants and Amerindian epistemology
By Luis Eduardo Luna, Ph.D., Dr. H.C., F.L.S.
This excellent essay by Dr. Luna about shamanism and the use of sacred plants in the Americas, was recently posted on my friend, Graham Hancock’s, website. In it, Luna gives a useful overview of shamanism and its role in the pre-Columbian Americas and how it was repressed by the European influx (and is still repressed today).
In one of the most interesting aspects of this essay, Luna talks about how the Amazon is not the primeval wilderness we all think of, but is largely the result of massive human cultivation and manipulation over long periods of time. He says:
“The people of the Amazon live in one of the areas of the largest biodiversity on the planet. It is becoming increasingly evident that the biodiversity of the Amazon is to a great extent the result of the natural resource management of the pre-Columbian people. . . . To a certain extent the Amazon is an anthropogenic forest, a gigantic garden partially created by human beings through millennia of interaction with the natural environment.”
He also includes an interesting section on Shipibo shamanism and their wonderful geometric artwork. It’s one of the best explanations of the origin and function of the fractal-like designs I’ve read.
He also talks about the powerful cognitive transformations that can occur with plant teachers like ayahuasca. He relates an ayahuasca shape-changing vision that occurred to a French anthropologist, Dr. Françoise Barbira-Freedman, who took on the form of a jaguar (a common theme and experience in ayahuasca visioning). She said:
“Nothing I ever read about shamanic animal metamorphoses could have prepared me for the total involvement of my senses, body, mind in this process. . . . This vision engaged my whole self experientially in a phenomenological approach, which was blatantly at odds with the empiricist standpoint I intellectually favoured.”
He also relates Dr. Dennis McKenna’s transformation into a sentient water droplet who then directly experiences photosynthesis within a plant. Luna states that these kinds of experiences, “point to a new alter-ego, to an alternative epistemology: the gaining of knowledge through a radical self-transformation, by taking an alternative – non human – point of view, by cognitively merging with the focus of one’s attention.”
He concludes by stating that even though our science has explored the depths of space and the tiniest realms of quantum matter, “the exploration of consciousness is still a forbidden realm, vastly explored by shamanic societies yet neglected in contemporary science due to a great extent to religious preconceptions carried throughout centuries.”
I recommend this and other articles by Dr. Luna and also highly recommend Graham Hancock’s excellent book on shamanism entitled “Supernatural”.
– A Search for What Is Real in the Amazon Jungle of Peru
By David P. Crews
FINAL AYAHUASCA CEREMONY
A Vision of the Spirit and Heart
Note: This longer post concludes my Ancient Songs and Green Magic series on Ayahuasca. Please read beyond the fold for the final extraordinary visions and my Five Years Later postscript.
VISITING THE MURRAY HUITOTO TRIBE
from my trip journal:
Today, we boarded the boats to travel down the Rio Momón and on to the true Rio Amazonas: the Amazon itself. We rode a short way downriver from Iquitos to take a longer jungle hike and meet the Murray Huitoto people. This tribe lives a couple of miles inland from the great river, so we landed at a rough riverfront town and hiked through the beautiful dense jungle to find them.
The tribe was happy to dance for us and invite us in to see their world. We also delivered some needed medical supplies.
The chief was very welcoming, and although he spoke only Spanish to me, and I spoke none, we still had a very friendly conversation.
We swam in the small river here, enjoying the cool water and also the soothing mud from the banks – an exclusive facial and body treatment that would be costly in any big city salon! Rufus, don Howard’s red uakari monkey, joined us for some fresh jungle fruit and kept us laughing with his constant antics.
Back at the tribe’s camp, the matron of the group showed us their ayahuasca vines, planted at the base of certain trees and growing strong. As the vine is used, it is important to keep it cultivated.
Back at our lodge once more, it was time for our third and last ceremony.
THIRD AYAHUASCA CEREMONY
There is an ancient practice or technique in shamanism called “soul retrieval.” It is a healing for someone who has lost part of their spirit – their spiritual body. Perhaps they simply wandered away into a spiritual place and part of them did not return to our everyday reality. Perhaps someone stole that part of the person, or borrowed it and never returned it. Now the person is ill with a kind of emptiness or depression that cannot be cured by normal means. The shaman goes into trance state and travels off into the past or alternate realities, finds the part that is missing and invites it back. He or she recovers that spirit essence and reunites it with the ill person, making them whole and happy once more. This kind of healing is something a human shaman does, but it may not always be a human who heals.
“Anything will give up its secrets, if you only love it enough.”
– George Washington Carver
As my final opportunity to experience the tea approached, I re-evaluated my set of Intentions for it. After thinking about it, I realized I had been unconsciously self-centered in my original intentions. Instead of being completely open in my heart, I had been trying to get what I wanted while couching the request in careful language. I had been requesting, as if off a menu, to be shown the visions I desired. I wanted to see and learn what I wanted.
This time, I let go. I decided to simply open myself up and let Ayahuasca take control and lead me where, perhaps, I did not know I needed to go. She certainly did that in the first session! Having confronted Fear itself and then allowed to get my bearings in session two, I felt like I was oriented enough now to trust her and not be anxious or fearful this time. My new intention was: “Open me up. Show me Love. Let me be love.”
The Ayahuasca tea seemed slightly more viscous tonight. Once again, I felt fortunate that the drink went down rather easily and I had no problem with it. Since this was our final ceremony, don Howard and his wife Reyna placed wonderful little bead necklaces around our necks, each with a small pendant of Ayahuasca vine. Now, we waited in the darkness once again – waited for our next inexorable leap into the true unknown.
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrifying.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
As we waited for the onset of Ayahuasca space, don Rober began his icaros. Several of the other participants were inclined to join in, and then many of the tribespeople in and outside the molloca also began to sing along, with a group energy that I found myself caught up in as well. It was a wonderful antiphonal surround-sound beginning to tonight’s ceremony and it boded well for the nature of this journey.
Once more, and to my relief, I entered Ayahuasca’s dimensions easily. As my head and extremities began to hum and vibrate with the powerful electric energy of the medicine, it grew in strength, then leveled off and remained a neon body buzz throughout the session. I saw some geometric patterns and some colors, but they were muted. Visual effects are easier to describe than other more internal effects, but now I noticed a different internal feel to this space from the previous ceremonies. The vine felt strong and it was deepening into me moment to moment. After some time, I was very deep, indeed, and I drifted on into another dimension.
Without warning or sign, I realized that something was coming towards me. There was no sound. As it drew near, it looked like a train or subway vehicle, which now pulled up at my left side and came to a stop. This seemed like an obvious invitation to board, but the train was too small to enter it. I thought, though, that I could probably get on top of it and ride it the way they do rail cars in India, so I climbed up and onto the top of the second car from the front. In a twinkling, as I did so, the train changed its form – morphing into a gigantic snake. I knew it was common in Ayahuasca visions to encounter these huge Ayahuasca snakes or jaguars or other elemental animal forms. It is sometimes a challenging test, but this seemed straightforward enough. I was going to ride the Snake!
– A Search for What Is Real in the Amazon Jungle of Peru
By David P. Crews
FLOWER BATHS and THE SECOND AYAHUASCA CEREMONY
Expressions of Normalcy in an Abnormal Realm
The rituals and ceremonies I am describing are those of mestizo shamanism, a mixture of tribal Indian and Hispanic traditions. One of the Hispanic healing influences is that of a “limpia” or cleansing bath. In the Upper Amazon, the flower bath is an important part of the Ayahuasca ritual. This is a literal bathing in water that has been infused with fragrant and beautiful blossoms. These also serve a spiritual purpose to cleanse and ward off negative spirits or energies. This limpia is administered by the shaman (Don Rober, in my case) who also ritualizes the procedure with shacapa and sung or whistled icaros and arcanas of protection.
Howard informed me that the flower bath serves to “close up” the spiritual space around the participants to keep us from being too open and vulnerable to negative magic. Thus, it is the crucial conclusion of the previous night’s ceremony.
Our flower baths were conducted first thing in the morning, with each of us receiving the bath individually at the hand of don Rober.
from my trip journal:
Tuesday – First Flower Bath.
I’m feeling very good this bright morning after a short but good night’s sleep. I am still bothered by the strong episode I had last night. In all my years of reading about Ayahuasca experiences, I’d never heard of the kind of thing I had just experienced.
Maybe this reaction was something specific to me? If so, it might happen again! I guess I looked worried as don Rober approached me and asked if I was “bien?” I assured him I was fine and he smiled and patted my back. Other participants also came up to me and gave me their love and encouragement. This is such an affirming and responsive group experience. It is reassuring and powerful.
Later, I talked with Howard about my episode and he assured me that “Ayahuasca can do that!” The type of episode I experienced, where one loses awareness of one’s self as participating in a ceremony, is rare. It is, he promised, something that can turn out to have much deeper meaning later on. He said I was unlikely to encounter that kind of experience or vision again, but if I should do so, “You’ll know how to handle it.”
As we finished our breakfasts, individuals took turns going to a tiny side platform, open to the jungle, to have don Rober administer their flower bath. Under a small thatched roof, a hard chair and a large galvanized bucket of water are the only things here. In the water, lovely purple and blue blooms float about – their fragrance strong and sweet. I took my turn and sat down in the chair.
Don Rober began the bath by dipping the water out and pouring it right over me, covering me head to toe with several waterfalls. This may be the hot jungle, but that river water is very cold – so cold and unexpected that I could not help but squeal loudly as I took huge breaths, my heart racing. Don Rober laughed and began his ministrations with smoking a mapacho of rustic tobacco and blowing the smoke into the crown of my head. He began to whistle his icaro and pat me with the shacapa.
After recovering from the initial cold water shock, the overall effect of the flower bath is one of comfort. I always left the flower baths with a feeling of being grateful and of being at peace.
INTERLUDE AND SHARING
Today will be a short interlude before diving back in to the strange dimension of Ayahuasca. Howard gave us a couple of days before the first session to become acclimated and let our bodies heal and settle before the first ceremony, but now we will move directly into the second session tonight.
Don Howard and don Rober led all of us on a day trip by long boats up the Rio Momón to search for shacapa leaves and wild Ayahuasca vine. We landed at a tiny rough village and hiked into the jungle about a mile or two to find a chagra or farm that belongs to another shaman.
Here, don Rober showed us the Ayahuasca vines growing naturally and other admixture plants like Chacruna. Shacapa leaves were also gathered and we returned to the boats for a good ride back down the river to our lodge, passing other small boats and several rafts of logs, each with a few people on board, floating them to market.
Today was the first opportunity to share experiences with the others who participated in last night’s ceremony. After visiting individually with most of my new friends, we all gathered at dusk to hold a traditional “talking stick” session to have a more formal interaction. Here, each person holds a ritual staff and in doing so, holds the floor for as long as they want to speak before passing the staff to the next person. It is relaxed and there is no hurry in this, so everyone can give as much detail as they wish or need concerning their experiences in the ceremony.
With as strong and harsh a first session as I had experienced, I expected others to relate similar tales, but to my surprise, most described their own sessions as mellow and pleasurable and even commented on how weak the Ayahuasca mixture seemed! It is one of the mysteries of the brew that it is so unpredictable in how it affects one person as opposed to another, even with the same mixture during the same ceremony. The shamans teach that this is because Ayahuasca is a Spirit being that works in a teaching and healing mode with each person and gives that person exactly what they need at that time. As each of us is different, the manifested effects are also vastly different from one to another participant.
Today’s sharing and story telling has helped me to settle down and not be so concerned about my difficulties in the first ceremony. In a couple of hours, we are going right back in to that other world and I feel more confident now. While waiting for the start of our experience tonight, the Amazon sky quickly turned dark and several of us spent this time star-gazing on this very nice, clear night. I was hoping to spot the Southern Cross, which I’ve never seen before, but it was too far south into the trees. Here in the dark skies of the Amazon, however, the Milky Way shined like a luminous bracelet around the world.
It was 8:30 and time to enter the molloca to begin our second ceremony with Ayahuasca. I had feelings of good camaraderie and joy mixed with a real sense of anticipatory nerves as I found my small chair.
SECOND AYAHUASCA JOURNEY
I will refrain from repeating a description of the ceremonial ritual procedures as they are essentially identical at each session, but there is nothing mundane about going into a new ceremony when it happens. I concentrated on my Intentions for the upcoming work, and I modified it somewhat from last night. I decided to make it: “Let me SEE; Let me LEARN without hurting me; and please HEAL me.”
Once again, it was time to take the Tea. For many of the others, it was obvious that the drink was truly disgusting and difficult to get down. For me, however, it was about the same as last night – not really that bad. I think holding my nose helps and just getting it on down quickly, but I had no trouble ingesting it or keeping it down. Just lucky, I think. Others have told me that I should not assume it will always be so easy.