The chance came up to take Ayahuasca again – this time here at the lodge. The shaman was a young white guy from Lima, who had been a tourist guide in this area, before training in the local community to become a maestro of plants. Master, however, he was not.
I had this intuition beforehand, but decided the cultural dilution of the tradition is inevitable, and probably necessary for its survival, so I wanted to give the guy a chance.
From the off his whole act seemed contrived, and influenced more than a little by his sizeable ego. When we entered the room he was smoking nonchalantly, sitting in a chair situated much as an ecclesiastic pedestal, central to a semi-circle of three mattresses. He wore a suit of white cotton, with gap-tragic Peruvian trim, and had piled his regalia, along with crucifixes and pictures of the Virgin Mary, on a little candlelit altar to himself. He draped himself with necklaces of gaudy colours and cheap patterns – the likes of which can be found at any one of Peru’s tourist markets. And he blessed himself obsessively with various rosaries before placing each reverently over his own spinning head. His actions were heavy with absurd self-belief, or rather, as I decided later, self-deceit.
He moved about the room signing the cross fanatically in all directions, and had us stand for a Christian prayer, in which none of the three of us partook – it simply wasn’t what we had come for.
After we drank he proceeded with the ceremony, singing his icaros, or songlines, venerating Christ, the Virgin, and himself over and over – rarely mentioning plants or the jungle. The icaros of the other maestros I had drunk with had been honest and pure, rising and falling with the landscape of feeling, an effortless expression of their spirit, some power. Their voices had lilted at a strange pitch, like nothing I had heard before, weaving layers of an ancient culture into the experience. In contrast the icaros of this guy had the distinct cadence of hymns; he scrabbled for words at times, and more than once resorted to repetitive monosyllabic babbling that was so obviously the expression of nothing at all – the chatter of an empty head and empty heart, a voice with nothing to say.
He danced, or pranced, like something he’d seen on TV, and like some sad imitation of ‘youth in a club’. In his hands the traditional props became preposterous, and he a posturing puppet, rendered ridiculous by his own bold confusion.
The brew itself was very strong, and affected me in a completely different way to the last time. There were none of the rushing physical sensations I had known, as my physical sense of space dissolved very early on; when I felt present at all it was sometimes a little to my body’s right, sometimes a little to the left. I experienced a full and violent purge, and then lost myself utterly in a world of light and reverberating colour – to the point that I had no attachment whatsoever to a sense of self. I was simply experiencing, and as soon as I tried to note that, even just observe it, a minor panic erupted, because observation requires a point of reference – i.e. the self – and I had lost this completely. I had a snapshot, and tiny ponderment, of what it might be like to be ‘insane’, and detached from reality so, in a world where nothing, nothing at all, mattered. That entire sentiment, import, seemed to belong to another realm, and here was pure momentary experience. To ‘matter’ seemed mundane, an unnecessary analytical imposition on experience, which I was now above, and I thought, “How could anything ever ‘matter’ again?” It was briefly terrifying, but I had no real existential crisis, as I decided, either consciously or subconsciously (or superconsciously?), that that simply didn’t matter right now. I was happy to slip back into the immediate world of floating fascination – which I didn’t so much embrace as it embrace me completely, leaving no space for thought. Spaced out.
I became captivated in turn by the empty corner of the room, my hands, a water bottle. It was unbelievably intense, the visionary aspect and this feeling of non-feeling, but at the same time it was bland – completely devoid of meaning.
At times I laughed inanely, or at least in a way that must have appeared inane, but was really childlike intrigue at the world of colour and this silly clown of such toy-like appearance strutting around and looking as cracked as I felt. He embodied and defined the preposterousness of it all. Everything was ridiculous – funny, crazy, but ultimately stupid. I was feeling the drug and not the plant.
This brought me to realise the essential function of the maestro in the ceremony, the real power he holds, or in this case lacked. He is the guide in this realm that we have never known, and in which we have no control. He guides with his interpretation, the meaning he gives to the experience; for without meaning, experience is nothing. And without a guide in this unknown realm, you are lost – in a world of no meaning, where the mind flutters but the spirit becomes cold. His very real power therefore is his interpretation of the experience, and I saw this guy’s interpretation as such a twisted farce, so ridiculous, that I was left treading the iridescent waters of DMT alone.
The Catholic Church has penetrated indigenous culture across South America, and forest cultures are no exception. Some shamans are converted believers, and the Christian god can even play some part in their ceremonies. The Ayahuasca tradition is never, however, a devotion to this God – it is older than this God, so how could it be? The foundations of the practice lie in the plants, and in the culture from whence it came; while this culture may now have integrated some alien religious ideas, it has not come to define itself by them.
The tradition expresses a connection of a people bound to their natural environment – physically and in spirit. I think that to really understand the tradition, to be able to administer it, perhaps you must grow in this culture, where your world and everything you understand is the forest. Only then can you express such a deep connection, imparting something of it in order to allow others insight on their own perspective. I realised that this shaman and I were on completely different planes of meaning – his a misinterpretation, and mine non-existent, pure experience, a psychedelic unreality. For meaning is the substance of experience; what has meaning manifests itself in your reality, therefore it is ‘real’ regardless of its verifiable existence. It is the maestro who gives the deep meaning to the experience, he who makes it ‘real’. This is not to say one meaning is all-defining, but it is a culturally appropriate platform of interpretation, a real perspective, from which one can gain a starting point toward insight, and revelation. I see the shaman as a painter of reality, for without him I am lost in a world that is truly unreal, and with him I can come to understand a little of his world, in order to reflect on my own.
This shaman betrayed the foundations of the tradition in subjugating them entirely to his imperial Christ. It was not his faith that was the problem but the way he employed it, imposed it, without a shred of cultural respect. And how could he possibly understand? For he had not grown with the culture to which this ancient tradition is so intimately bound – like the vine itself, inescapably and endlessly entwined with all the trees of the forest.
To me the man was clearly confused; much less a maestro than another deluded evangelist twisting something he doesn’t understand into a barbarous shape with the doctrine of his faith. But this is story of South America since 1533.