Ayahuasca tourism has become a big deal in the past decade or two, with dozens of retreat centers in Peru, Ecuador and other Amazon basin countries doing brisk business with spiritual and health seekers from around the world. La medicina is spreading her green vines around the globe, with clandestine ceremonies being held in urban centers all over North America and Europe. Though it remains controversial, recent coverage in the mainstream media (CNN and Newsweek, among others) has made it less of the secret thing it was just a few years ago. And with mainstream awareness, the volume of scientific articles, books and documentaries about ayahuasca is increasing, often focusing on case studies about its healing power. Detailed first-person accounts of actual journeys on the medicine, and the ways it can transform a person’s life, are much more rare, at least outside of online diaries, communities, and blogs.
A new book by a young Canadian entrepreneur and advertising exec, Michael Sanders — Ayahuasca: An Executive’s Enlightenment — is just that. Similar to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, it examines human nature through a tale of riverine travel. But whereas the fictional hero of Conrad’s novel, Charles Marlow, meets the shadowy colonial Kurtz, in this nonfiction account Sanders encounters a plant teacher that brings him into the light of higher consciousness.
The “plant teacher” in this case is often called Mother Ayahuasca — the distinctly feminine spirit that seekers say interacts with them in the tryptamine space after they consume the eponymous shamanic brew.
This book will interest a general audience of “armchair travelers” but especially intrigue young entrepreneurs of the sort involved in business startups in Silicon Valley who might, say, go each year to Burning Man. The author is clearly a very sane person, but open to thinking way outside the box (as many successful business people tend to do).
The first part of the book focuses on a period of five or six days during which Sanders traveled as part of a small group tour from Iquitos, Peru to a simple jungle lodge on the banks of the Amazon River, on the edge of a small village called Libertad. The second part of the book recounts in detail Sanders’ experiences at the Nihue Rao Spiritual Center in another part of the jungle, where he participated in three ayahuasca ceremonies under the auspices of maestro curandero Ricardo Amaringo and two other healers (shamans). The book is a well-written account of what it would feel like and what one might encounter both in the rainforest and the spirit world on such a voyage, and I can attest to the authenticity of the account because I was part of the same group of travelers on this expedition, which was organized by an adventure travel company.
In the first part of the book, Sanders describes his arrival in Iquitos with a couple of close friends from Canada, the first day touring the crowded jungle port city and riding around in three-wheel mototaxis, and a memorable walk through the enormous open-air Belen Market where everything from fruits and vegetables to butchered jungle rat or jars of homemade aphrodisiacs are available for purchase. The story then recounts the stay in Libertad and treks (during day and at night) by boat and foot to view exotic animals and insects. There are encounters with small primates on “monkey island,” near-misses with scorpions on eye-level leaves, and the discovery of a leaf-cutter ant hill the size of a large children’s playground.
This part of the story reminded me quite a bit of Malcolm Lowry’s novel Ultramarine. I don’t know if Sanders will go on to write the Great American Novel as Lowry did (with Under the Volcano) but he does an equally good job recounting his inner life during the adventure — including flashbacks to earlier formative episodes in his life and also the detailed conversations he had with the other travelers about a wide range of topics.
These include spiritual or ontological matters, and some very New Age concepts with one person — Jon — who Sanders initially regarded as very “out there” but, by the end of the book, not so much. Other times Sanders recalls discussions about fitness and health — he was one of several guys on this trip who are very athletic, and some of the conversations were a bit like the Joe Rogan podcast when the host is talking about the Onnit equipment he likes, or the superfoods one should eat. (As I was on these treks and boat rides, I can attest that Sanders recollections of the conversations are accurate — a feat I could not have pulled off!)
Some of Sanders’ descriptions are as imaginative as the jungle is lush. For example, this description of our encounter with the true rules of the rainforest:
“Walking along the path, I notice hundreds of tiny leaves moving across the ground in our direction. I wonder whether these are leaf insects before realizing the leaves are being carried by ants. In the opposite direction, other ants march without leaves. I follow the slightly impacted path — a human wrist-width path sunken two centimeters below the surrounding dirt — for ten minutes. It’s an ant superhighway! Tens of thousands of ants carry leaves in one direction while tens of thousands of ants head in the opposite direction to collect more leaves. The leaf-carrying ants disappear into a mound the size of a small submarine as leafless ants exit it.
I imagine the series of intricate pathways, highways, arteries and veins inside the subterranean ant city-state. I’m struck with awe and a subtle sense of fear, the same feeling I get when I stare at photographs from space that show our planet as a blue spec of dust. There is no ant with a hardhat and clipboard directing the others. These ants just know what to do: a collective consciousness, some divine design governing what needs to be done.”
All of this is an excellent buildup to the real focus of the book, in which Sanders reports on his psychedelic ayahuasca experiences. As I read these, I was reminded that both he and I had done a lot of preparation for the trip, including healthy eating and so on, but both also had histories of meditation and examination of spiritual matters. Perhaps because of this, both he and I “popped” big during our very first encounter with the entheogenic brew, as though the plant teacher it purportedly contains gave us “credits” for previous study. I recall (and Sanders reports) our both sitting in the “art” maloka the morning after our first ceremony, writing and talking about the many things we’d seen or been taught. We both saw visions our first time drinking (which doesn’t always happen).
Sanders’ accounts of his three ceremonies could become classic accounts in the psychedelic genre, reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s mescaline journeys in The Doors of Perception. Ayahuasca and its admixture chacruna — or other plants — is essentially a mechanism to deliver high levels of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) to the brain, the naturally-occurring chemical that makes us dream and is implicated in NDE experiences. Visionary experiences on tryptamine plants are notoriously difficult to recount in words — try describing Disney’s Fantasia verbally. What’s perhaps most difficult to convey is the sense that one’s interacting with an otherly intelligence. The visions literally radiate a familiar-yet-alien consciousness — an awareness that’s an extension of one’s own mind, which one discovers is not unique to “you” (the ego self) but part of an infinite spectrum.
Hence, Sanders’ title that includes the word “enlightenment.” I support the implication that one can achieve the kind of satori sought by meditators in Zen temples or in Tibetan mountain monasteries, though with the twist that the path here is shamanic and not just concerned with “being here now.” The “here” on ayahuasca can include other dimensions — strange realms into which our consciousness may travel after death. (It’s not for nothing that ayahuasca is called the Vine of Souls and the Vine of the Dead.)
This passage gives a feeling for how the author tackles this elusive subject matter:
“The colours expand, all different colours flower and line my perceptual energy field amongst the loving darkness. I open my eyes to see whether this dimension is a hallucination. With eyes open, the visual of the dimension weakens softly while the energy remains present and accessible. I realize the dimension is not a hallucination, but ever-present. With the opening and closing of my eyes, I can toggle between the physical reality and this new dimension; two dimensions that intersect harmoniously, but with a degree of separateness, like the way the air meets the ocean’s surface. This space is unfamiliar to my conscious memories, but somehow familiar to my being, as though I’ve been here before. But, I can’t place my finger on when.”
Sanders’ book is a welcome addition to the literature about entheogens and personal transformation, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in either.