The Murui Huitoto tribe lives in the northern part of the Upper Amazon in Peru and northward into Columbia. The name Huitoto refers to their use of the Huito plant (Genipa americana), which provides a permanent dark black-blue stain for the skin. This is used ceremonially and will naturally exfoliate after about two weeks.
As with most Upper Amazon tribes, the Huitoto use and honor the Ayahuasca vine and psychoactive tea made from it. Wisely, they also cultivate the vine in order to replenish it and make it continually available. This is done in a synchronistic manner in the jungle environment, not in planted rows. Ayahuasca likes to grow on or around trees, so they will plant vines at the base of certain trees in their tribal areas.
[Click on images for larger photos.]
In 2006, I was privileged to meet one group of this tribe on the Amazon, just downriver from Iquitos. We hiked in a couple of miles from the great river and brought in some medical supplies. They honored us with dance and friendship, and we also swam in the small river there.
It is always intriguing to see the Ayahuasca vine growing in its natural setting, surrounded by all the wondrous plant life and animal life (including us) that stretches for thousands of miles. Ayahuasca is a great Spirit that lives in the heart of the life of the Earth.
See my five part series on Ayahuasca starting here.
– 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.
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. Please read the rest of Part II here.
along the Rio Nanay
© 2011 David Crews