My final ceremony in the Amazon was not with Ayahuasca, but with the ancient medicine of the Chavin culture of the northeastern mountains and coastal areas of Peru. Huachuma is the most common local name for the plant whose post-colonial name is the San Pedro cactus. As both cacti contain mescaline, Huachuma can be considered South America’s parallel, if decidedly not equivalent, to North America’s peyote. Just as with peyote, this cactus has been used for thousands of years to bring humans into a powerful spiritual dimensional experience for healing and for enlightenment.
The ritual and ceremonial forms associated with Huachuma are based on the mesa, a literal table or layout of ceremonial power objects in the form of a cross. Much of this has been co-opted by the Catholic church and most “San Pedro Mesa” ceremonies are very syncretic and include objects, references, and appeals to Jesus, Mary, the saints, etc. My interest was to find the older, more authentic, pre-Columbian version of the cactus ceremonies, representing true ancient shamanism. In today’s Amazonian or Andean cultures, this is not easily found, but Howard Lawler is, surely, the best source for this kind of experience. He has been restoring this ancient style and level of Huachuma ritual for decades, and has been able to attain and establish a truly non-syncretic and very powerful mesa ceremony. His Huachuma Mesada Pilgrimages are intense, nearly two-week long expeditions to the ancient sacred sites in northeastern Peru to engage with the plant in the way and in the very places that the ancients did.
He also offers an introductory mesa ceremony in the Amazon for those, like myself, who are there to work with Ayahuasca but also wish to have an initiation into Huachuma. This actually makes a lot of sense, as Huachuma began in the Amazon with the concept of the water mesada.
Yacumama is the serpent spirit that represents water and the essence of life springing from the great Amazon. He is pictured as a serpent and as the serpentine river that winds through the great forest of life, enlivening all the inhabitants from plants, to animals and us. Water is the essential ingredient for life.
In Ayahuasca rituals, one works with Pachamama, the great female spirit of the plants and animals – this is Mother Ayahuasca, the “mother earth” spirit who engages, teaches, and heals within the context of the Ayahuasca medicina. When working with Huachuma, one encounters a complementary male spirit, a Grandfather Huachuma. He is expressed in the Amazonian ritual in the form of Yacumama, the essence of water.
The ritual begins at the great mesa that don Howard has created inside the ceremonial molucca at the sanctuary. This large layout begins with the lower world, then the crossbar mesa representing the middle world (our everyday dimension), and the mesa at the top representing the upper worlds. There is also a lancon or stone stela like the one at the great temple of the Jaguar. This stands at the cross point and represents the “axis mundi” or the world axis. It leads up into the heavenly realms as well as down into the unconscious worlds. The mesa is a three-dimensional map to a multi-dimensional universe.
Huachuma cactus is reduced to a liquid that is intensely bitter, but is not disgusting or nauseating as Ayahuasca is. Also, there are no dietary restrictions with Huachuma as there is in Ayahuasca. One drinks the liquid and is offered an immediate chaser of limonade – a tart and non-sweet lemonade that really helps to offset the bitterness and slight discomfort of drinking the medicine. This will be offered at various times throughout the length of the ceremony, which can take eight hours or so.
[Click on any small photo for a larger view.]
Unlike Ayahuasca, this does not occur at night with darkness and the singing of icaros. Huachuma is an animating and animist agent and it is useful to take it during daylight and, in the initial stages, get out into nature to see and experience it. We took the medicine at about two in the afternoon and after the initial rituals, immediately got into the boat for a trip some miles upriver to a tiny settlement. We pulled into the bank and walked along a long covered wooden walkway to get to the village. A few locals came out to see us and some of the kids played in the river or with a soccer ball while one boy presented a monkey for us to see. As this is happening, I was coming alive with the energy of the Huachuma medicine. A gentle rain began to fall, and the individual drops were superimposed over the verdant green fields surrounding the settlement. Each drop vibrated like electric diamonds and the greens beyond seemed to glow with life and energy. This is a very active medicine that, in this initial phase, engages us in a physical and super-awake mode that leads to a strong sense of joy and happiness.
Everything is alive! This is what animism feels like! As we returned to our boat, I settled in and took a fresh apple to eat. It’s flavor was enhanced in the same energetic manner as the objects I saw. It was delicious! A truly wonderful sunset glowed in orange and red like an open kiln under the rain clouds that began to gather.
As we motored back down the Rio Momón, that rain began to fall in earnest – a true tropical downpour. This was no ordinary rain, with or without our enhanced senses. It rained in sheets until the boat was literally encased in a tube of water. Water below the hull, water rushing the canvas above our heads as if we were under a huge waterfall, and not rain streaks, but walls of solid water on all sides of the open-sided boat. The pilot had to slow to a crawl and use his searchlights to make our way safely back to the sanctuary. Howard said that in his quarter century of living here, it was the hardest rain event he had been in on the water.
Rather than feel in danger during this huge rain, I and the others felt safe, curious, and engaged. It was obvious to us that we had truly invoked Yacumama – the Water Spirit – and he had manifested for us in a very big way.
With a safe return to the ceremonial molucca, and with darkness upon us, the next phases of the medicine began. In the presence of the mesa, we entered into a more internal space where introspection and visioning can happen. This lasts until about ten o’clock when the medicine begins to dissipate and we retreat to the dining hall for a good meal. This was the first meal in about two and a half weeks for me that had any salt in it. We had some bits of chicken that were fried with some salt, and they were truly delicious after the long diet and having just been sensitized with the Huachuma.
I feel like I have internalized much of the work I did with Huachuma and will be processing it in my life for a while to come, just as with the work with Ayahuasca. I was unable to continue on with Maestro Howard on his Mesada Pilgrimage this time, but hope and intend to do so next year. These ceremonies: five Ayahuasca, one Bobinsana, and one Huachuma over two and a half weeks, is enough for me for now. I am very happy to have had the opportunity, however, to work with Huachuma this time and experience the great Chavin Mesa and the power of this level and style of shamanism, based as it is on the very work that our ancestors were engaged in over three thousand years ago.
San Pedro ceremonies are rather common in the Andes and are generally not nearly as powerful in terms of the actual medicine used. They also blend in all the syncretic religious elements that tint the experience and give it a shape that does not originate with the plant and its spirits. I feel very fortunate to have encountered Howard’s mesa, an authentic, pre-Columbian shamanism that resonates with the power and energy of the great Spirits.
I’m back to some blogging after taking a few hard-work weeks off to remodel my old house for sale and then move myself and all my stuff into a new place. This has been a physical task that has taken a toll on my now aging body, but it is just one of those passages in life that re-adjusts us into a new set of possibilities going forward. It is also an apt metaphor for the kind of spiritual/mental “remodeling and moving” that I will be engaged in with my upcoming trip to Peru to work with Ayahuasca once again.
I will be in the Upper Amazon during most of June to participate in a number of ceremonies with Ayahuasca and Huachuma. These two are sometimes spoken of as Grandmother and Grandfather spirit medicines, complimentary in their effects and influence on us. This will be my first encounter with Huachuma, also known as the San Pedro cactus. This is South America’s version of the peyote cactus, and contains similar compounds.
It will be my second series of encounters with Ayahuasca after my initial passages in 2006 (see my five-part series here). I have been thinking about and longing to return to re-engage with Ayahuasca ever since those special days, and I am flooded with a wide range of emotions and thoughts. At the same time, my cognitive brain is busy figuring out all the travel and logistical arrangements. Good to let each part of me do what it is best at!
From airfares to immunizations, the travel details can get a bit complex, but they all work themselves out, of course. The emotional/spiritual aspects are far more interesting and are the focus of my work, so it is good to sort through them and express them at each stage of this new journey. So, here are some of the things I’m thinking and feeling about this upcoming encounter.
Stories of Ayahuasca visions can make it seem like a marvelous, loving, and wondrous experience only. They certainly can be a marvelous, loving, and wondrous experience – but not only. Ayahuasca has also been spoken of as the ultimate in psychic inner work, usually in a phrase like “One Ayahuasca session is worth 10 years of psychoanalysis.” However it manifests for each individual, it can, indeed, be an extremely powerful self-work and self healing experience. Sometimes dark and terrifying. Intense.
I touched on this in an earlier post, speaking of how this kind of teaching vision experience will come to us, but we do not know when it will come or how intense or troubling it will be for us. That’s where the apprehension comes in. There are also apprehensions about the physical rigors of taking the tea, of course. It is not a pleasant drink, and Westerners often have scruples with the strong purging that is part of the process. These are not things to be dismissed or ignored, nor is our apprehension about them something we should consider as wrong or misplaced. The apprehension is useful and is a good sign that the partaker understands what category of experience he or she is getting into and does not take it lightly or for granted. Drinking Ayahuasca is a sacred act, and one that demands our full participation, even as we know it may not be easy – even as we know it may be very hard and uncomfortable.
Or, it may be wondrous, marvelous, loving . . .
So, yes, I feel apprehension about my upcoming experiences. It has been seven years since I’ve partaken, and I’m curious about how I’ll handle and interact with the brew this time. Many have reported that after a long hiatus like this, when they take the tea again, it’s as if they continued right where they left off last time. I hope that is true for me. I would like to build on my experiences and insights and go deeper into my self-work and on further into the spirit dimensions to learn and to understand more.
I also recently touched on the joyfulness of being with others when working with Ayahuasca. This is the flip side of apprehension. I am truly looking forward to meeting a new group of fellow travelers. My particular everyday life does not include many who understand or “approve” of working with psychoactive spirit medicines, so it is a fulfilling and enriching experience to be surrounded for two weeks by a group who is nothing but sympathetic, interested, and encouraging in these matters. I felt this way when I attended an Evolver conference a couple of years ago with Graham Hancock and Alex Grey and about 40 others of similar mind and spirit. We were at home together.
So, I’m anticipating the joy of being with like-minded people from all over the world, gathered in this most unlikely and magical of places for such wondrous and useful work and play.
Just a little more than a month away. I am eager to begin.
I’ll continue to post my pre-trip thoughts. When June comes, I will be off the grid for at least two weeks (as far as I know) and will be journaling on-site every day for future posts and other creative works. Then, I will catch everyone up on my new experiences after the fact. I’ll be traveling a third week through Panama, but will have internet access for certain there.
For those interested in the entheogenic San Pedro (Huachuma) or Peyote cacti, this is an interesting article on the near-mythical Cactus of the Four Winds.
It is very possible that humans have caused some ancient, powerful psychoactive plants to go extinct. Soma is the most notable one of these. It may be that some of these plants were/are very rare, and we simply loved them to death. It will be interesting to see if this one (if truly a separate plant) can be found still living in some strange nook of the Peruvian mountains or deserts.