Ayahuasca.2: true power of the Shaman guide

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.


Ayahuasca: an experiential study

The ancient tradition of drinking ‘Ayahuasca’ brew is common to many Amazon tribes, and it is considered by all of them their most sacred and powerful medicinal and spiritual practice.

The brew is based on the combination of stems from the Ayahuasca vine and leaves from the Chacruna vine, and the chemistry is as follows.  The active agent, from the Chacruna plant, is DMT – the most powerful psychotropic chemical known to science, but strangely abundant in most living things, with a function as yet undetermined.  It is released into the human brain during gestation, and at the point of death, suggesting its function in such ethereal and mind-expansive experiences as those of ‘near-death’.  Its simplicity as a molecule that is almost identical in structure to many essential amino acids, its observed transcendental effect, and its inexplicable abundance, have let to it being dubbed ‘the spirit molecule’.  We cannot normally ingest this molecule however, as enzymes in our stomach tear it apart, hence the function of the Ayahuasca vine, which contains specific monoamine-oxidase inhibitors that allow the absorption of the active molecule through the stomach and small intestine into the blood.  It is not known how the Amazon Indians discovered the synergistic properties of these two plants.

The brew is traditionally medicinal, and is imbibed as both a physical and spiritual purgative and cure.  Users widely experience nausea, laxative effects, intense psychedelic and mystical visions, profound emotional analyses, and cosmic sentiments of universality.  A shaman is present to invoke various spirits and to guide and support the user that they may ‘dominate’ the Ayahuasca, avoiding the emotional ‘freak-out’ that can result from the typically introspective character of such intense psychedelic experiences.  Such a personal psychological challenge, so steeped in mysticism and traditional significance, such an experience of life, but on another level, was a big part of why I came to the Amazon.

And so I found myself hitching a ride downriver to the native Ese-Eja ethnomedical Centro Ñape – a traditional healing centre with several large medicinal gardens in a pristine patch of forest alongside the river.  I stayed here for 3 days, with the native family that live there, following a strict diet of mainly fruit from the surrounding trees.  The ceremony happens only at night, as it is important to hear and feel completely surrounded by the sounds of the jungle; so at 10pm I drank the bitter tasting Ayahuasca in an open-sided circular ceremonial hut with 2 shamans – or ‘maestros’ as they prefer to be called, as it places emphasis on their deep knowledge of curative plants as opposed to mystical wizardry.  For hours they each sang their icaros – personal chants of invocation to the spirits of various plants – and I lay back and waited.  I had some purgative physical effects, and mentally experienced nothing too intense other than seeing for a while many vague sinister shapes and more specific frightening forms, but I was able to rationalise myself away from this unwelcome darkness.  I fell asleep briefly toward the end and awoke to their chants, to an ethereal light although our candle had gone out, and a serene feeling of bodily cleanliness.  I mentioned all this to the maestros and they told me that the Ayahuasca had dominated me, but that this was normal, because the first time it must cleanse the body and prepare it; only the second time can one ‘see’.

So I stayed for the following night as they had invited me to join a group of ‘paisos’, indigenous local people, who would be gathering to drink that evening.  They told me that this time I would feel it, and this time I would start to ‘see’ after half an hour.  I was as open as ever to the experience, but sceptical of what they said – after all, everything was the same, anything that had chemically impeded the experience the first time was, surely, still effecting me one night later, no?  No.

This time, funnily enough, it went down exactly as they said would.  Their brazen confidence was vindicated.  The whole experience has now blurred into an amalgam of what happened during the ceremony, what came immediately after, and the thoughts I elucidated during the following morning of pondering and writing.  But I remember a sense of vibration, and a strong sensation of ascending at great speed to some ultimate point that manifested itself, along with the physical sensation of reaching some zenith, with a vision of white rocks, tinged by rainbows, cleaving magnificently from the force of some rushing white light.  Although obviously not witnessing the beginning of time, as I suggested to myself in the moment, the notion of spiritual universalism was palpable.  I had subsequent visions, of the jungle and other things, that I seemed able to direct, or control, but what has really stayed with me are the very personal thoughts that the experience prompted.

As the voices of the maestros quieted and waned, as did the intensity of the experience, and when they stopped chanting many hours after we drank, the maestro Dionysio counselled the paisos regarding the experience, whilst laying hands on them to cure their aching bellies.  He explained that we were cleansed in body and mind, and that we had taken part in a proud tradition sacred to the native peoples of the continent.  He spoke of their shared civilisation, and sang ancient songs of indigenous unity mentioning Lake Titicaca, the jungle, and the mountains.  Witnessing Dionysio express this rich cultural bond, and impart sound rural wisdom as to how they should lead their lives as proud indigenous people, and in reflection witnessing their deep reverence for this man, the chief of his community, the question occurred to me how much I can ever have appreciated how utterly different my whole perspective is from so many others.  But how the basis of any judgement I pass rests on an arrogant presumption and imposition of my individual perspective on another.  So what truth, or useful meaning, can be elucidated from any situation without restraining this automatic, obstructive mode of thought? i.e. without maintaining the necessary humility of non-judgement?

This thought, and others regarding judgement and perspective, pressure and anxiety, revealed themselves to me in the hours of and the hours following the Ayahuasca.  It seemed to catalyse the makings of thoughts I have had in the past and recently, and I was delivered a clarity of mind that was quite affecting.  I found useful meaning by deciding it was important not to look for it, not to pressure it, but only to think about what I had experienced.  And I only drew out useful meaning as a result of this thought the morning after.  So I asked myself how much was the Ayahuasca and how much was me?  But decided that, really, it doesn’t matter.  An experience like that can make a difference in your life only if you decide it will.

So the experience was many of the things I had hoped for, but not really what I had expected.  It showed me something subtle and vague, far more complex than I could have imagined, and far more inclusive of my will.  Since that night I have felt physically cleansed, with an uncharacteristic disinclination towards cigarettes and alcohol, and psychologically my confidence is boosted, particularly with my Spanish – in a very strange way it has almost delivered my playful presentiment that it could precipitate immediate fluency.   I feel, in all seriousness, a marked mental clarity and peace: a very simple, direct happiness, free from burden.  In short, I feel more like myself, having been beforehand unaware of the deficiency.  It is notably uplifting, and it pertains.

Just to witness the traditional ceremony, with local people, for local people, was incredible in itself.  But to take part, and for the plants, the jungle at night, the shamans in their traditional dress, their talismans, and their chants, all to affect me just as they said (to my genuine surprise); this was profound.  The experience, just as any experience, has changed me in that the time has come and gone, so I am left, of course, with a new perspective.  The question is how new?  How different?  It feels, I think, like a subtle shift over some significant threshold.  It feels like ‘just enough’.

So to those to whom this sounds like ‘hippie bullshit’, I challenge you to reserve your judgement and come, with an open mind, to experience it yourself.