“You have little time left, and none of it for crap. A fine state. I would say that the best of us always comes out when we are against the wall, when we feel the sword dangling overhead. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
– Carlos Casteneda, Tales of Power
You may have noticed a recurring theme in this blog: that of Space and Time expressed in photos and essays about time and about the spirit spaces of our minds, as well as the grand physical spaces of America’s western landscapes.
I recently had my time sense recalibrated in a very direct way when my mother died this April. She had many illnesses and we knew her journey on this plane was limited. I was prepared for the event of her death, but, being very close to her, I wondered, aside from grief, how it would alter me after the fact. Grief is one thing – a powerful and human reaction that cannot and should never be denied. Beyond grief, however, I have been intrigued with the time perspective that her death has given me. This new and rather visceral perspective I have found to be valuable, rather unexpected, and somewhat alarming. All these reactions are useful ones, I believe.
When someone close dies, even expectedly, beyond the loss itself is the factual realization that that person’s timeline has stopped. That sounds simplistic and obvious, but I’m not referring to an intellectual realization of this raw fact. Rather, I mean a gut-level, “now I get it” effect. It is a combination of the cognitive knowledge with the emotion of that loss and then the application of that to one’s own self.
As I consider my Mother’s life, I know she lived 31 years of time before I was born. Now, barring accident or illness, I will have approximately that long to live after her life’s time is over – some 30 years if I’m lucky. I have a true feel for what 30 years is now. I’ve lived it almost twice. I can remember things from 30 years in my past as if they happened yesterday. I can project 30 years into my future with ease. I can see myself reaching that point she has reached as if it were tomorrow. That vision, so clear now, makes me flinch a bit.
This perspective, hammered home by Mother’s actual passing, levers me to be aware of and to appreciate my days more. It compels me realize with a deep inner understanding that I did not previously have, that my time, too, is very limited. I now view this future segment of my time as a new kind of resource, different in some sublime and deep way from the previous timelines in my life.
We are inundated by stories and reports of death every day in our various entertainments and news. It is another kind of thing to view it in stark reality and yet apply it boldly to one’s own life. This is the perspective change that brings the Third Act of life and can either make one angry and fearful, or inspire one to create and to play in the world to make a difference for one’s self and for others – what Carlos Casteneda called “following a path with heart.”
One of the very useful ideas in Casteneda’s books is when he has Don Juan talk about “death as an advisor.”
“Death is our eternal companion . . . It is always to our left, at an arm’s length. . . . It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps you. . . . One of us here has to ask death’s advice and drop the cursed pettiness that belongs to men that live their lives as if death will never tap them.”
– Carlos Casteneda, Journey to Ixtlan, p. 54 – 56.
For myself now, I am glancing over my shoulder from time to time and asking my own death whether what I am doing is worth doing in my time. Is it a path with heart for me? The time for just “going along” is over. It is time for new ventures and the pathway to fulfill old dreams beckons me.
My long professional career has been fun, but not very successful monetarily, so it’s time to create something new and put into action a “plan B” for those very distinct 30 years I may yet have. That is what I am engaged in now with the full intention to follow my dream. I’ll not describe my plan until it is better underway, but perhaps this new perspective I received from the event of my mother’s death is just the catalyst I needed to begin such a major change, creating my dreams as I walk time’s path, each day weighed for value and for heart. If so, it is the final, potent gift of a very loving parent to me, the son who loved her from the moment my time started.
“As a boy I once rolled dice in an empty house, playing against myself. I suppose I was afraid. It was twilight, and I forgot who won. I was too young to have known that the old abandoned house in which I played was the universe. I would play for man more fiercely if the years would take me back.”
– Loren Eiseley, “The Invisible Pyramid”, (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons) 1970, 2-3.
From one of my favorite authors and one of the great writers of the 20th century, Loren Eiseley.
Of all the
I do love
– David Crews
Endless was my journey over broken
Lands and through forests green;
Between great white mountains,
Across cobalt deeps – desolate seas:
Ahead, my goal. My path a road – now a trail.
Steps pursuing lands of promise. I was not
Where I should be. I must campaign to the end.
At last I carved a path from unknown soil
To reach that storied land. I could not stop. I was
I stood at last upon a jutting rock,
A stony islet black as a forgotten dream.
Vast waters lay ahead. Somber waves roiled against
My feet, then became singularly quiet.
Receding spume erased my former trail. The
Setting sun reflected in darkling waters, now still as
I gazed up at two golden towers. Needles –
Silent gnomons attesting a single message:
There is no East or West. There is no
South or North. There is no Down.
We speak for the Zenith. Look
I looked into the fading air above,
My wandering paths all lost from view,
Nor any new paths seen. Only the sharp tips of
Gold and the sweet air beyond.
There is but this one place – this one
Here, all the pieces of Time collect and
Converge around a mass that compels
All to become one moment, ever moving,
Ever lasting, ever evolving, ever
The Mystery opened my soul,
And I knew I was where I should be,
At the Center. where all things are – beneath
The Gates of Forever.
The word “zenith” is derived from the Arabic: “samt ar-ras”, meaning “the road above one’s head.”
“Perhaps time is after all merely a device to prevent everything from happening at once – or the illusion that prevents us from seeing that in fact everything is happening at once. For time really dwells within the vastness of Eternity – where all things exist simultaneously without any past or future: as that most ancient of all texts, the Rig-Veda, tells us so pointedly.”
– Paul William Roberts, In Search of the Birth of Jesus-The Real Journey of the Magi (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995) 278.
Note: recently reissued (more appropriately) as The Journey of the Magi.
By the way, this book by Paul William Roberts is one of a very few that have actually changed the course of my life and my philosophy when I encountered it by chance in the mid 90’s. He traces the history of modern religions back through Zoroastrianism to the Vedas. That logically leads the intrepid seeker on back to shamanism. I highly recommend his book for its truly important insights, plus it is also a great travelogue and one of the most outrageously funny such books I’ve read.
– 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!
The red wind whispers – calling me
Out to the sharp world, the cold land,
The place of polished stone, the land of keen breath,
The clean and parched country
Where the river of moments slows its crawl,
And the world runs far, far away to the
Uttermost limb of blue and brown.
The blank places beckon and chide, reaching
Long and deep to find my invented corner, to
Lift me up from my comfortable blindness,
To bring me out to my real house.
The hollow lands fill up my eyes
And the empty flank of the world
Supports my soul.
– 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.
Illusions can be entertaining, but what if, suddenly, you realize you are living right inside one? Driving through the thick, green hills that ruffle up just west of my home, I got a glimpse – hiding in plain view – of just such an illusion, one that has haunted me ever since.
I love to drive and to travel, and deserts and wastelands have long enchanted my soul. Why, I wonder, do they so attract me, these lands of limited life and dangerous conditions? Certainly, there is a unique beauty to the sublime emptiness and harsh terrain, but there seems to be a deeper reason. After my recent startling discovery, I’ve concluded that this has to do with a grand illusion – the illusion of the ubiquity of life.
The illusion that now haunts me was revealed by a simple highway road-cut, sliced cleanly through one of the larger rolling hills near my decidedly non-desert home that made me pause. It was a wide slot, carved by man and his explosives to let the hard road through. I had driven through this rock-cut many times, but this day I noticed something about it and it felt like my view of the world had slipped sideways.
Living upon the dry land of this planet, we take as a given the world of life that surrounds us. Green grasses, great forests, flowers of every description, fields of crops, fresh water coursing over moss – all the very stuff of the world as far as we can see. Surely, all of this combined is what we consider our Earth to be truly made of – what defines it as Earth. On the continents, only the rarified deserts and mountaintops are thinned of this great green and living mass. Those are places with enough scarcity that we tend to think of them as exceptions to the mundane majority – accent pieces to the Green World. All this is true enough from our everyday perspective, but it is still a terrible illusion. The highway cut showed it to me plainly.
I saw the green hill as I approached in my car, then I was inside the cut. The Green World was not here. For a moment, it seemed some alien place had peeked out from behind its mask, giving slip perhaps to a false front that nature has arranged for our naïve comfort. This hill, this tiny lump of land, had risen up long ages past and now we humans had cut a slice right through it revealing it brazenly like some giant stony x-ray. Inside the fully green hill was nothing but stone. Of course, of course, but look how thinly the green grass and trees cling to the outer surface! Life on the skin of this simple hill is a vanishingly thin veneer. Underneath is nothing – nothing but stone.
It looked like a baked potato. The white rock here was skinned with a narrow dark green line that followed its every curve. Inside the hill? Nothing but potato meal. What was left of my green life was the extraordinarily thin “peel.” What if that peel was all that kept me alive, all that any of us can ever depend on for our very lives, forever? It made me shudder.
Then, it began to truly sink in. This is just a hill. It is a molecular protrusion – a mere grain on the side of an immense sphere, and that sphere is made up solely of more hill-stuff. Compared to the size of the hill, that green peel of life is gaspingly thin, but what of the ratio of that same green veil’s same thickness when gauged against the size of the entire planet?
I stopped my car and walked up to the spot where the grass shell’s edge met the face of the cut. This blade of grass at my feet and its roots extend some inches down into the soil. That tree descends perhaps several tens of feet. It all gives way in a breath to crusty dense stone that stretches thousands of non-air miles from here to the far foothills of another land’s evening, and there at the last blink, one more faint and incredibly thin curtain of green life clings to the stone face before the void beyond. In between these green ghosts? Only unbroken and ungodly fathoms of dense, unfeeling minerals twirling through the radiant night of space, viscous and fierce at the deepest heart where its own heady mass sits down. Is there red and glowing light at the very core, where no eye can perceive?
Perhaps this is the underlying reason I am attracted to deserts. The wonderful deserts! Where the green skin is worn away like a threadbare dress, revealing the true physical nature of rocky planets like ours, lurking beneath the living skin. Not that I disdain life – not at all! Rather, that it is here that the illusion thins enough to sense the reality of our situation. It is seeing through the illusion that gives me perspective. Life is thin and precious. We live by the benefits of an environment that is truly a soap-bubble skin – one atom thick and easily punctured, even by road workers with dynamite. Does our life-filled world of greenness seem so thick and full to us because we never really look below its broad, but incredibly thin face? Or is it because we ourselves are so amazingly tiny, lost within it? In the desert lands, one can feel the sizes.
The illusion revealed by the highway cut was as if someone had taken life’s movie camera and tilted it down, clean off the green set, revealing the stage hardware and support beams below. This camera, I found, can be tilted up, also.
We’ve all watched a blue sky full of unreachable white clouds and imagined shapes in their fractal forms. To me, as a young child, this cloudsky was a vision into a deep, vast land full of unknown ethereal beings and golden cities that no earthbound human could ever reach. The sky was endless – deeper than any ocean. Surely none of our activities, even flying, could truly penetrate its awesome mysteries. When the first rockets rose to space, I watched in rapt pleasure, sensing even as a small boy that a completely new perspective on things was to be had. I was always intrigued to see pictures of the earth from the high vantage of orbit. One of the most curious views to me was that of the limb of the planet with the sun rising. Curving above the dark planet below was a narrow bright band of light. It was our atmosphere illuminated from behind.
But wait! This couldn’t be the sky I know! This skin of air was so very thin – so thin it looked like a mere hand swipe would splash it all off and make it float away into hard black space. It could not be the true nature of that deep and unknowable sky world that had always fascinated me! Yet, this was our atmosphere – our sky, our clouds, our sunsets, our fresh air after a storm, the very pulsing breaths we consume and that sustain us. So thin?
So, the vast sky above my head was another illusion. The camera had been craned up this time, out of the set, and was looking back down with a cold, real eye.
I once had a pet fish. It swam around in its round bowl, eating its fish food and thinking its fish thoughts. Did it know that the water in which it swam extended only a very short way out from the center? Did it presume, as perhaps I did of the sky, that it must extend great and grand distances because it appears to do so? If I removed it from its bowl, say in a small water-filled plastic bag spaceship, would it have looked back upon its bowl world home and exclaimed, “So small?”
Now, we have extended ourselves out of our bowl and into the hard, waterless universe beyond. We can look back and see that the illusion of the ubiquity of our life-giving environment is comforting but also dangerous. Now, we begin to see how our actions are affecting this incredibly crucial and fragile resource.
We truly live within a thin margin. To see it as limitless and beyond our ability to alter or even to destroy, is to succumb to the illusion – something we can no longer afford.
The stars in space do not twinkle from our high orbital platforms. They shine crisp and cold for we see them there from outside our potato skin of air. As we walk across our gossamer greenswards, we might pause and think of the illusions revealed by a road-cut. As those cold stars call to us, we might also look up and gaze into the forever night, wondering what new worlds might exist in, or perhaps even outside of, our visible universe.
It seems so big.