Before I jump into my ceremonial experience with ayahuasca, I want to tell a bit about ayahuasca itself. It is a vine that grows in the Amazon. The indigenous people of South America have been using ayahuasca for centuries for healing, as a religious sacrament, and as a means of communicating with nature. A shaman, or curandero, combines it with one or more plants as they see fit, and brew it into a tea. The tea is then administered by the shaman, in a ceremonial setting, to those that want to experience it.
After getting back from Peru and arriving in Montana, I picked up a book, “Visionary Plant Consciousness, The Shamanic Teachings of the Plant World”, edited by J. P. Harpignies. A friend gave it to me before leaving Utah (another synchronicity). A few quotes that I found powerfully descriptive come from the book. The book is a collection of presentations from the annual Bioneers Conference which is a gathering of environmental and social visionaries that explore how plant consciousness affects the human condition. I find the presenters’ descriptions match my experience in many ways, so I have included several in this story.
“Indigenous and traditional cultures honor them (shamanic plants) as profound healing and spiritual forces that people must approach with caution, sobriety, and humility.” (p. xii)
“…visionary plants offer those who are properly attuned a visceral way to communicate with the intelligence of the natural world, and there has never been a time when hearing what that intelligence is trying to communicate has been more crucial.” (p. 6)
“And it should be said that it does not suffice to drink ayahuasca to understand the world. It requires training and preparation. It is a powerful hallucinogen, and its consumption is not without risks for casual users. For example, it can cause you to change your worldview without having bargained for it. Ayahuasca is deep water.” (p. 17)
My “training and preparation” consisted of reading a fantastic book by John Perkins called “The World is as You Dream It, Teachings of the Amazon and Andes”, talking to others who have drunk ahayuasca, and following the dieta, a strict regimen consisting of a lot of things you cannot eat or drink. Coffee, booze, sugar, pork, etc. were no-no’s. Basically, it is a very bland diet that avoids foods that have been fermented in addition to those previously mentioned. References I found varied on the timeframe to follow the dieta, but I followed it for about two weeks. Knowing the potential for purging is a part of drinking ayahuasca, I held pretty firmly to the dieta in hopes it would reduce my purging. I do not like to puke and feared losing control of “other bodily functions”. I think my training and preparation seemed pretty light looking back on it. More training should be pursued before experiencing ayahuasca.
The setting for the ceremonies was within a maloka, which seemed the same as a gazebo. Ours was large, probably a 30-foot diameter, had a thatch roof, dirt floor covered in woven mats, and pony walls made of mud bricks. It was open air between the pony wall and ceiling. We sat with our backs against the wall, in a circle, with 8 of us on most nights plus our shaman. We had 2’x2’x4” cushions to sit on, make into a bed, or arrange however you wanted. Participants are instructed to wear white clothing and can bring any sacred items they wish to have with them (e.g., crystals, stones, etc.). The mosquitoes and gnats were terrible, so I wore a long-sleeved shirt under my ceremonial shirt and wore ceremonial pants. The little suckers found any exposed skin you had during the ceremony. An open air bathroom was immediately adjacent to the maloka. It was a regular flushing toilet with a regular sink. The walls were bamboo and the ceiling was corrugated plastic with large openings in the bamboo walls looking out into the tropical forest.
Ceremonies began at dark (~6:30pm). Our shaman, an extremely gentle, kind, and generous woman, would begin each ceremony slightly differently, speaking in Castilian Spanish, with one of our participants acting as interpreter. She would set the tone for the night’s ceremony. We would go to her, one-by-one, with those that have slower uptake going first. The taste of the ayahuasca tea is terrible. It is a bitter, thick brown liquid that makes my body cringe thinking about it. Fresh ginger is offered to chew on to take the taste out of your mouth. I found taking the ginger with the ayahuasca was causing me to cringe when I’d later eat food with ginger in it. I stopped taking the ginger.
As you are drinking the tea in front of the shaman, a prayer is said for you. Personally, I would state my intention in my own head before drinking. My heart was typically pounding at this time. After drinking, you return to your cushions, wait for everyone to receive their tea, and then the shaman blows out the candle used to see during the administering of the tea, and then begins the icaros, usually whistling the songs and working into singing them. I had been told to listen to the music, especially if you feel lost in your experience, return to the music. Before experiencing a ceremony, I wasn’t sure what that might mean, “getting lost”.
“And half the experience is the singing of the maestro. The experience is not just about guzzling ayahuasca: it’s about whom you drink it with and what you drink it for. It’s something that one does to explore very important questions. “ (p. 33)
Once the lights are out and the music begins, you sit, or lie with your eyes closed. It is important to keep your eyes closed as that’s where the visions occur. We were told to open our eyes if we need to, to get to the bathroom, or to ground one’s self again. As I listened to the music, I started to notice a slight shift in sensory perception. The crickets, which sound different from the North American crickets I’m used to, got louder, and suddenly, I started to see and feel things. Each of my ceremonies was a completely different experience. The ceremony usually lasts about 5 hours, followed by a brief sharing from each participant, and then we would eat a meal.
The central focus of my first few experiences was my car wreck that happened 21 years ago. The emotional and physical trauma came back with a vengeance. I had driven on black ice, lost control, and t-boned the end of a guard rail. The guard rail came in the driver’s door, wrapping the door around me and pinning my legs. Everything on my left side got hit, all bones in my left arm were broken, everything but my artery was stretched until it snapped, my pelvis was broken in several places, and my hip ball joints were cracked. I was trapped in a sideways position, unable to move except for my right arm. I was essentially impaled onto the guardrail in the middle of a winter storm in Montana, with no door to keep the weather out. I had no coat on, but was able to reach my leather coat in the back seat and drape it over me.
I was there for about 3 hours before I was rescued. People drove by me and the snowplow plowed by me. I was in the middle of the I-90/I-15 interchange in Butte, MT. My car had tinted windows so apparently no one could see that I was still in the car. Once I heard the snowplow accelerate away after it had slowed down on its approach, at that time giving me hope, I knew I was in serious trouble. I knew the cold and shock could be my demise if I didn’t get help. I resorted to screaming for help, which was difficult because I was squished and couldn’t take a deep breath. I would take many short breaths, building up until I could belt out a good scream. Eventually, someone heard me. I’ll never forget the feeling of relief hearing a yell in response to my plea for help.
Then the emergency response crews came and employed the Jaws of Life to cut me out of the car. I remember well the feeling of pressure getting worse on my legs when they first started cutting. It was pushing the door down. After screaming, they readjusted the position of the jaws and cut the door free. At that point, I passed out and they thought I had died. They explained later that it is a common occurrence due to the surge of blood out of the body’s core, into the extremities, after having been cutoff for so long. However, I didn’t die, and woke up in the ambulance. I was later told that they gave me about 20 minutes longer due to hypothermia had I not been rescued. I spent the next 22 days in the hospital and the next several months traveling to Seattle for reconstructive surgeries on my arm. I had to learn to walk again as my pelvis healed. As those that know me are aware, I have permanent nerve damage in my left arm and hand. Surgeons told me at the time that if it had happened 5 years previous, they would have amputated my arm. The technology simply did not exist at that time to swap parts in one’s legs to their arm to promote the regeneration of nerves. I began with no muscle movement from the shoulder down – my arm would come out of the shoulder socket without a sling to support it. Today, I lack a few muscles in my shoulder, most in my forearm and hand, but I can still mountain bike (very carefully)!
This was not just a story of what happened 21 years ago; it is the story of where ayahuasca took me. It took me to the emotional trauma that I had never dealt with, and the cellular memory of the physical trauma. Was this a pleasant experience? Could it be considered a fun, recreational psychedelic experience? Hell no. It was damned unpleasant. There was a lot of purging, from all orifices, including bawling my eyes out. After the emotional release, after being brought back to the scene of my wreck, being in my car, having to feel the emotional terror of being trapped, of facing possible death, did I come out of it feeling better? Hell yes! After being shown cellular memory and that it takes a lot to transform this; that part of my energy body is still in that squished position; after feeling like a branding iron was being poked into the point of impact in my hip, of a radiating pain spreading down my hamstrings and across my lower back; after experiencing the feeling of something else crawling through my left arm, “looking” at it, feeling the twitching and contracting and relaxing of the muscles; after feeling the uncontrolled convulsions in my left leg, hip, and back, do I feel better? Hell yes!
Do I understand all of it? No. What I do know is it seems I had to be taken back to the whole-body experience of that night to truly begin the healing process of what was never healed. To me, that is absolutely amazing and I am grateful for the experience. I know I want to help others heal from trauma, especially combat Veterans suffering from PTSD, and I think something from my experience with ayahuasca is going to help. It’s just not clear yet how it is going to help others.
After having the focus on my car wreck, I then had an absolutely awful experience in the next ceremony. I experienced total and complete insanity and overwhelming hopelessness. My skin was crawling off, my hands and fingers had uncontrollable twitching and jerking, breathing felt difficult, and I could not be still. I had to hold my head in my hands to remind me of the reality I was in; I kept opening my eyes to try to get grounded, but the outside world was spinning out of control. I saw myself as a man in a mental institution, in a wheelchair, completely insane. I purged and purged and the experience would not lighten up. I knew I just had to ride this out. I received a clear message of “NO MORE”, meaning no more ayahuasca, and “This is not your path”. This confused me as I had felt so guided to go to Peru and experience this medicine. At the same time, I questioned the source of these messages as I felt a part of me crying “Uncle” in the midst of this vile tasting, smelling, looking, feeling, experience. I felt like I wanted to change my flight and go home early and never think of ayahuasca again. It was very upsetting to say the least! Making a long story short, our shaman was very supportive after I reported what happened, I talked to my friend who knows a lot of my life story, and got back in the boat. I was reminded of the pattern I seem to have in this life of being trapped and close to death. She thought I may be processing all of my fears that are in the way of me being who I truly am; of experiencing Oneness. This really clicked with me and I decided I would stay the course, but drink less tea in the next ceremony.
Another of my new friends told me of her practice of making an offering before ceremony and asking her body to open to the medicine and the medicine to open to her. I had not yet done this, so she offered to show me her practice. I went through this with her, calling in the 7 directions, making an offering of tobacco, and saying what I felt needed to be said. I’m not sure if this is the source of the shift of my ceremonial experience, but what happened in the next two ceremonies was absolutely awesome.
“You bring nature to nature because it shows that you have paid attention and understand reciprocity. You don’t take without giving something, and then you’re always grateful for what you get. That’s medicine.” (p. 104)
I was shown that the icaros, the songs of the medicine, do induce the healing, they seem to provide direct access to the sense of healing, to the purpose of your presence in this life and in the ceremony. Questions are answered by singing the songs, even when you don’t understand the language of the lyrics, your tongue finds the words of the song and belts them out like a professional performance. That was a strange and awe-inspiring experience.
“A very important element in Amazonian shamanism is the use of songs inspired by the spirits; mestizo practitioners call them icaros. …through ayahuasca, one gets in touch with the plant spirits, they will teach you their songs, and you can use these songs to heal. Only if the song doesn’t work do you have to go back to using the actual physical plant.” (p. 162)
I was shown that nature is our ally; that there are natural allies – animals, plants, human spirits – there to help us at all times – all we need to do is ask. We are all connected, all humans and the natural world, it isn’t about just ourselves and our own path; what we do is for the collective. I met my own soul; I was shown what it is like to be completely present as my soul, without ego, and only love; to look at the world through my eyes, and not through others; that life is joy and there is nothing to fear in this life. Follow joy without fear.
“Psychedelics are not a magical panacea, but they can lift the veil on the intention of the Gaian Mind. And we are but atoms in that Gaian Mind. If we do not follow its purpose, we have no purpose. Who do we think we are? Western science is 600 years old. Human beings have been on this planet two million years, and life – 1.4 billion years. There is an enormous wisdom in biology and we must become able to tap into that, articulate it, and activate it. We are the crowning achievement of the evolutionary process. Let’s not betray it. Let’s make the ascent to angelic being that is, I am sure, the intention of the Gaian Mind and all the rest of the life with which we share this planet.” (p. 62)
“The ancient sacred plants can offer us a deeper kind of wisdom about the places that we live in and how to live in them. They can show us that all things are alive and constantly talking with each other, and that we need to honor those conversations, even if we can’t understand them.” (p. 122)
“…plant allies help us pause. They stop us in our tracks. We set aside sacred time to reflect on what really is important in our lives and in the larger world.” (p. 125)
To sum up the gifts I received from drinking ayahuasca in ceremony: I encountered a visceral experience of the consciousness of the natural world and of her healing powers. I got to feel viscerally that we are not alone; we are connected to each other and everything in the natural world. Plant medicines are powerful and are to be respected. I don’t feel like I need to keep drinking ayahuasca to know what I was shown. I now know what to aim for when meditating, journeying, seeking something greater. One of the greatest gifts is that of my state of being. It has been mirrored to me by family and friends that I seem different; that I seem much more relaxed and “more fully in myself”. I feel that way – more relaxed, more present, and I feel much less fear and anxiety over the future.
“We don’t all need to imbibe in ayahuasca or psilocybin or peyote to appreciate the sophistication of indigenous ecological wisdom, but some of the most profound teachings on our species’ relationship to the web of life have emerged from shamans in those cultures for whom visionary plants are a central method of knowing, of “reading the mind of nature””. (p. 4)
I am forever grateful to the ancestors who discovered this plant medicine and learned how to properly use it; to those who brought me to the journey to Peru; and to those who have supported me through the processing of my experience. I am in awe of the natural world. She is our greatest ally and deserves our constant reverence, care, partnership and protection.
“We have to have a paradigm shift, so that we can recognize the fact that we’re all in this boat together and that we have tremendous possibilities of gaining knowledge from these plant and mushroom entities as long as we learn how to listen.” (p. 126)
Harpignies, J. P., Ausubel, K., Narby, P. J., Huxley, F., Mohawk, P. J., Davis, P. W., et al. (2007). Visionary Plant Consciousness, The Shamanic Teachings of the Plant World. Rochester: Park Street Press.