What follows is my account of the events that took place during my visit to the Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre, near Iquitos, Peru, between December 31, 2013 and January 4, 2014 when I took part in three ayahuasca ceremonies conducted under the supervision of master curandero (shaman) Ricardo Amaringo and two other shamans.
My four-day stay at Nihue Rao was the second part of an eight-day “Amazon adventure New Year’s Eve” tour organized by Dan Cleland of Pulse Tours. Our group included three other Canadians (Mike, Sid and Carl, all men in their twenties who’ve known one another since childhood) and John, a young man from Florida who was born in the Philippines. John was my roommate throughout the tour, and the whole group bonded as a team that I later called the Ayahuasca Test Pilots based on a sign I saw painted on the back of one of the three-wheeled motorcycle mototaxis that are ubiquitous in Iquitos. (I would have called us the Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss but that title was already taken by enthobotanist Dennis McKenna for his autobiography that also recalls his life with brother Terence McKenna, the famous pop philosopher and “psychonaut.”) My stay was followed by two extra days in Iquitos that I’d added to the end of the trip out of a (well founded) apprehension that I’d need time to reintegrate before returning home to Canada.
I won’t recall too many details of the first four days of the trip, interesting though they were, as that would be better suited to a travel and tourism article of the kind that aren’t in short supply. Suffice it to say that for the first four days we did a lot of somewhat standard (but very “raw”) adventure tour things.
After touring the markets in the shabby, lively port town of Iquitos, we traveled by bus, mototaxi and boat to a remote jungle lodge on the shores of the Amazon River, and made at least two daytime and one nighttime trek each day into the jungle with our very capable guide Victor who showed us all types of animals, birds and insects. Highlights for me included the pink-footed tarantulas (that would play a role in my later ayahuasca visions), the snakes, scorpions and (especially) the monkeys on “monkey island” who climbed on our boat for hand feeding. The most fun and unusual event (and one that really brought our team together) was traveling by boat to a small Amazon village (where the houses are on stilts) to play an impromptu soccer match against our South American guides. (They won after Sid, whose idea this all was, injured his toe and I had to take his place. The match suddenly went from four points each to 8-5 for the locals.) I’ll never forget the smiles and laughter of the guides, who had never played soccer with clients before. Eating grubs and “jungle rat” was also a highlight, of the Fear Factor variety.
Eventually this part of the tour concluded and we parted ways with Victor, and made our way by boat and mototaxi to the Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre. Spartan though that place is, it felt like a five star resort after our simple jungle accommodation. (Let’s put it this way: at Nihue Rao at least the big spiders are on the outsideof the window!)
Nihue Rao is a jungle lodge of a variety that’s become fairly standard over the past two decades of increased ayahuasca tourism on the new Gringo Trail. A variety of buildings with thatch roofs sprawl across a sandy clearing in the forest. A generator hums to life for a few hours each day to provide electricity for lights and recharging of cell phones and cameras. A small coterie of mestizo (mixed race) staff attend to the groundskeeping, preparing simple “ayahuasca diet” food in the kitchen (i.e., no salt, no pork or red meat, no spices, no alcohol, etc.). A few patrol the perimeter with shotguns: roaming security.
It’s comfortable enough but not a place a North American traveler would seek out, except that in such jungle lodges the experience sought doesn’t belong to this dimension. This is the setting for trips into what Terence McKenna and others have named “hyperspace” or what the indigenous people might call the spirit world. This is a place not to just think about God or the Earth Mother, but meet her in person, ask her questions, and maybe have your ass handed to you in the process, as she works on “defragging” your mind and body (as Rak Razam eloquently describes in his book Aya: a Shamanic Odyssey which has been adapted as the must-watch documentary film Aya Awakeningsthat you can watch on Vimeo:https://vimeo.com/ondemand/ayaawakenings I also recommend the documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule —http://www.thespiritmolecule.com — that you may be able to find on Netflix or YouTube.).
And it is to the description of my experiences during three ayahuasca ceremonies to which l now turn, with minimal preamble. Except I must first offer a disclaimer.
I already anticipate the groans from seasoned ayahuasca users and psychonauts as they consider reading yet another written account from a newbie, infatuated by their first journey into aya land. And I admit I’m indulging in what Brad Warner, the punk rock bass player and Zen Buddhist writer whom I greatly admire, calls “enlightenment porn.” Is there anything more painful than listening to a neophyte getting all gaga over his or her embarrassingly fresh experiences in the spiritual or psychedelic realm?
And yet… I am compelled to set out this account. I won’t posture that Mother Ayahuasca herself instructed me to do so, but I feel a sense of responsibility to share a written retelling of my experience, in as straightforward a manner as possible, for the benefit first of my family and friends (who have wondered what the hell I’ve been up to), with the extra benefit that it saves me endlessly retelling the essential facts of the story, and thus diluting the power of these experiences (to me).
And second, I feel it’s important to record and share my experiences for the benefit of other seekers who may choose to travel to Peru or other places where ayahuasca can be consumed legally, and under the supervision of experienced shamans. If readers take nothing else away from this account, I hope it will be the importance of doing your research and only drinking ayahuasca under the supervision of a legitimate curandero (shaman or healer) with, say, 10 or 20 or 30 years experience and training. Please do not do this on your own, or with someone who has a month of experience and presents themselves as your guru guide to the far side.
Please also understand that this account is of my experience, which was unique to me. Although there may be similarities and resonances with the experiences of other people, my visions were very different even from the six other people who sat with me during my three ceremonies. My own three ceremonies were very different from one another, and some of the people on my tour experienced no visions at all: for them the experience was entirely physical (and demanding), but they also realized they were experiencing a cleansing and purging in the spiritual realm, so there is nothing “superior” in the fact that my experiences were more mental and visual.
Finally, I hope that what I’ve written here comes from the right intention and a place of humility and kindness. Mother Ayahuasca (as you will read) taught me some tough love lessons in humility, and not using what she showed me to gain bragging rights at the bar, or to be “the coolest guy at the New Age party.” This is a straightforward, factual account of what I experienced at Nihue Rao, and I don’t have any illusions about being the next Terence McKenna or any kind of expert. I’m also not writing this to encourage anyone to do this. If you feel called, great! Book your flight. If not, don’t worry about it. Ayahuasca is not for everyone.
The way I look at it (now) you’ll get to meet her eventually anyway… after you die.
Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre, Peru. December 31, 2013 (New Year’s Eve)
Along with the other participants I took a “flower shower” before the ceremony at around 4:00 pm. This consisted of pouring flower-saturated water over myself from a bucket in an outdoor shower stall. We were instructed to let the water dry from our bodies without toweling and to allow any leaves and petals to remain on our skin. This ritual, performed behind a small building at the back of the property near the open pit where the ayahuasca is brewed, is meant to clean but also make one’s body smell sweet and appealing to the plant energy.
Shortly afterward I had a final drink of water and ate one apple; we’d had lunch but were instructed not to eat any dinner: ayahuasca is imbibed on an empty stomach.
Our group met in the main maloca (a round temple structure) with Rapha (Raphael) and Anna — the two assistants staying at the centre who were on their own extended dietas and who helped the curanderos with practical matters before and during ceremonies. (A “dieta” is an extended period of ingestion and study of a particular plant that can last weeks or months.) Rapha is an Argentinian-born American yoga instructor studying the plant medicine who works as translator for the main curandero/shaman Ricardo Amaringo at the centre. We sat on our mats on the right side of the maloca; Rapha and Anna sat on the left in the area occupied normally by the shamans. We each took turns sitting on a large mattress in front of them, and were asked what our “intention” would be for that evening’s ceremony, which would later be conveyed to the shamans who would help us in our individual work with their attention and icaros (sacred songs).
We were told that intentions could be as simple as, say, “cleansing” or more complex, such as, say, “I wish to overcome the fear that’s blocking further success in my career.” I told Rapha and Anna that I wouldn’t set a specific intention for this evening, my first ayahuasca ceremony, and would instead simply approach the experience with openness and learn whatever the plant wished to show me, whether that was healing, visions or specific information. If I had an intention, it was simply to meet ayahuasca. It was like a first date.
Rapha seemed to think this was a good idea. We agreed that I could set an intention for the second and third ceremony if I liked. I returned to my mat, my mind reviewing concerns about vomiting and diarrhea, which often occur when ayahuasca “purges” the body of its various blockages, both physical and energetic. (There’s a theory that ayahuasca was originally discovered and used thousands of years ago as an emetic, to rid the body of the intestinal parasites that are a concern for jungle dwellers. The plant’s psychotropic properties may have been a surprise and bonus. To this day many people drink ayahuasca for its purging effects and less for its capacity to trigger visions.)
After all seven of us set our intentions with Rapha and Anna, we were free to leave the maloca and rest in our tambos (rooms) or otherwise pass the time until ceremony.
At about 7:30 pm I returned to the maloca and lay on my mat, my back and shoulders propped up on a pile of pillows against the building’s curved inner wall. As other participants trailed in and took up positions on their mats, I looked up at the enormous round inner vault of the maloca and the wagon wheel structures at the top that held it together. I was filled with apprehension and a feeling not unlike that of sitting in a roller coaster as it climbs the largest hill just before it plunges over the other side.
Just before 8:00 pm the shamans entered the building, with little fanfare. Ricardo sat directly across from us, with another shaman on each side. He was dressed in simple clothing — a T-shirt and shorts. Ricardo is a man of medium height and build, with tan skin and black hair. Trained in the Shipibo tradition, I was later told that Ricardo has been a practicing curandero for more than 20 years and regularly practices dietas with different plants. In fact, he had just finished a six-month dieta of one plant from which he was still drowsy on his arrival at the centre.
On his right sat Erjomenes (pronounced er-hom-eh-ness, though many defaulted to the Anglicized Geronimo) — an elderly man with high cheekboned Inca features, who would sing me my personal song in each of the three ceremonies. On his left sat Ersilia, the sister of Ricardo and a shaman in her own right. Ersilia is a very warm and kindly person who smiled and hugged me when we first met, unlike her brother who’s a bit more aloof, though kind enough. Ersilia also makes crafts in the Shipibo style such as brightly colored and highly detailed bead bracelets, ornamental blankets, necklaces and other jewelry. I bought some of these from her later.
At 8:00 sharp we were invited individually to sit on a mattress directly in front of the shamans and drink the ayahuasca. I was the last
to drink. While the others sat and downed their servings from a small clear glass, I thought about what we’d been told earlier during an initial orientation meeting with Rapha and Anna, when we first arrived at Nihue Rao: that the ayahuasca brewed here does not contain any additives other than the ayahuasca vines and chacruna leaves favoured by the Shipibo. (I had expressed concern about stories that some shamans add other powerful hallucinogenic plants like Toé to guarantee visions for gringo tourists; these are often nightmarish and not gentle or healing in the way of ayahuasca.) I would later also receive reassurance that we should have confidence in Ricardo and not be concerned about his being a bruja (sorcerer); such practitioners of dark magic normally practice alone and are secretive. As we could see at Nihue Rao, Ricardo lives openly in a house with his relatives and children right in the centre of the complex, and is oriented to his community and service. (He would later state that experiences that concern only the individual don’t count in the game of life: it is service to the community that matters.)
Our group was comprised of seven members: myself plus the four other male travellers, and trip organizer Dan Cleland (owner of Pulse Tours) and his girlfriend Tatyana. We were joined this evening by another guest — Geoffrey — a middle-aged seeker from Baltimore on a month-long retreat here.
I was called up to drink and was handed a thick clear glass about the size of a regular scotch glass, filled about half-way (two fingers more or less) with the ayahuasca brew. I braced myself for the objectionable taste, which I’d read was like a drinking a blended toad. I was pleasantly surprised that the brew wasn’t so bad; it tasted a bit like coffee that had sat on the heat element for too long, with overtones of bark and nuts. I knocked it back in one gulp and returned to my mat, where I worked to keep it down (the idea being that you don’t want to vomit, at least not in the first half hour, so the brew has a chance to enter your body fully).
My initial reaction to the brew was that it made me fill slightly ill, but not in the sense of a chemical reaction: it was simply unpleasant drinking this sticky liquid on an empty stomach. If I sat up, I felt queasy; I found that lying flat on my back made the feeling manageable.
I had no watch, but started to estimate the minutes passing. The shamans drank the medicine and everyone sat in silence. The electric lights remained on for about ten minutes. At some point Anna got up and turned them off from a switch near the main door. We remained quiet with just a candle for light for another ten minutes or so. Then this was extinguished and we all sat silently in the maloca. The noisy generator shut down in the distance, and soft jungle sounds filled the night air. It was totally dark except for some evening light that entered the maloca through the screen windows that ran around the whole structure. Distant lightning occasionally lit up the space: we would have a large rain storm that night. Music pulsed in the distance from a nearby village: it was New Year’s Eve and the sounds of revelers and their stereos were the only distraction in the otherwise pristine setting.
After what felt like 30 to 40 minutes I began to feel the effects of the medicine. Warmth spread from my stomach throughout my body and extremities. I sat up as a dizzying rush pervaded me. “Oh boy, here we go,” I thought.
When I sat up, a brilliant geometric pattern began to fill the centre of my vision. It’s difficult to describe and no words can ever do it justice, but what unfolded in front of me was a pattern that became the standard fare for the beginning of each of my ayahuasca journeys. Imagine a black background with a pattern superimposed on it. The pattern is somewhat like the weaving of a basket, but larger. Each shape is dark, or hollow, and is outlined in brilliant colour. The colour started as a deep red, but soon grew in brilliance and pulsed into green and red, then blue or purple or mauve, with orange accents. These were not the colors from a painter’s box; instead they were neon bright, like the lasers used in certain kinds of theatre productions or rock concerts.
There was nothing “uncertain” about the design. The geometry was crystal clear, exact, and the thin outlines of each component of the design was razor thin, and completely uniform. A computer could not do a better job rendering the outline of each shape with great precision. The outlined shapes initially looked flat, two-dimensional, and covered my entire visual field. I noticed that they remained exactly the same and vivid whether my eyes were open or closed. When my eyes were open, the geometry was superimposed on the dark shapes of the maloca in the background.
I was aware that this was hyperspace — the other dimension of reality referred to by psychedelic writers such as Terence McKenna. I was seeing it, and it was real. No matter where I looked, the pattern maintained its integrity in every detail.
“My imagination simply could not make this up,” I thought to myself again and again.
As the first icaro (song) began, the geometric pattern grew in intensity and began pulsing. Over time the pattern became more complex and even three-dimensional. The shapes had a decidedly Haida or Navaho flair. Now I understand where those designs on pottery and blankets come from, I thought to myself.
It’s tricky to convey what these shapes looked like, but picture it this way. Imagine you’re looking into an enormous bowl of macaroni, with all the macaroni noodles intersecting and jibing with one another in different ways. Now imagine the noodles are black, each one outlined in brilliant laser-sharp lines. You can look at the whole bowl, or you can focus your attention on different areas or even individual noodles. That’s what it looked like.
Except the whole thing was moving now, and as the icaros developed in intensity so did the pattern and the vision. I began to see that I could “travel” into the pattern, which was now very three-dimensional, with my consciousness “flying” into it our out, at will. It was a bit like Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star in Star Wars: he flies over the Death Star’s exterior, then flies into the crevices and valleys of its exterior pattern. My point of view was like that, looking at the pattern from outside, then traveling into it.
As I moved around and inside the pattern, I realized I was learning to navigate in hyperspace. A thought occurred to me, that the geometric designs on Shipibo blankets and other crafts were not simply designs: they were maps.
This went on for some time, perhaps an hour. Once in a while I’d check myself. Could I return to ordinary reality? I was pleasantly surprised to find the answer was “yes.” I simply had to turn my attention to the physical objects around me and I was perfectly grounded in the regular world. In the darkness to my left I could feel my water bottle, my flashlight, a roll of toilet paper, and my shoulder bag. I could focus on the maloca and the dim outlines of the trees outside the building, dark against the night sky that occasionally flashed with lightning. Simply put, I could “toggle” between the psychedelic dimension and the realm of ordinary reality. With the knowledge that I was in no danger, I worked at staying in the psychedelic reality — the hyperspace — as much as possible, pushing further and further into it, wondering what secrets it might hold.
I noticed two things as the ceremony continued. First (and thankfully!) I never stopped “being me.” My core consciousness never went away and the little inner voice that I associate with “me” — which I came to think of as my ego — never dissipated completely nor was I ever confused on that score. Though I will say that the ego voice held a less commanding position in the scheme of what unfolded. It was like a friendly and familiar companion, along for the ride, chatting away and taking it all in with as much surprise and elation as the deeper part of my consciousness, my true “self.”
Second, I noticed the importance of the icaros. How on earth, I wondered, would anyone get anything out of using ayahuasca without those songs? For it was evident that the shamans were literally singing this world — this spirit realm — into existence. When their songs grew in tempo and intensity, the visions grew stronger and stronger, and increased in complexity. When they subsided, the visions began to fade, and tapered off completely when the songs ended.
How can one describe an icaro? I hesitate to try, but they are strange and powerful, otherworldly and at times astonishingly beautiful, lyrical, sweet and sad. Just as I learned to visually “fly” into the geometric patterns, I learned to “ride” the waves of the songs. The more I paid attention to the icaros (which we’d been told to do) the more structure the visions held, the more purposive everything felt that was being presented.
With eyes open at some points the laser-like brightly-colored outlines disappeared entirely and my visual field was filled completely with a pattern that looked like it had been carefully carved out from frosted glass; it was semi-transparent and maintained its “design integrity” in every respect.
I played games with the designs, trying to find flaws in them. I’d look at one spot, then look away, then look back quickly to the same spot. It would be there, solid and real, just as a building in ordinary reality would be there if one looked away and then back suddenly. Again and again I asked myself if what I was seeing was “real” — again and again the answer was “yes” although admittedly it was real in another dimension, a dimension I realized is always present and always around us, everywhere (though we don’t see or feel it, because it exists on another energy vibration).
I felt an analogy was apt that I’d read, that our minds are like transceivers set on a particular channel. Ayahuasca moves the dial and reveals the programming on another channel. This has two effects: first, you realize there’s a whole other reality on another channel; second, you realize for the first time that you’ve been trapped inside one channel your whole life. Because you’d only ever seen what was on that channel, you thought that was the totality of existence. Like a fish that’s only known the world underwater and is suddenly pulled above the surface and shown the sky and the land, the ayahuasca medicine pulls you up and out of your familiar reality and shows you another dimension, the dimension that you grow to realize is the “permanent” reality. Our ordinary dimension is the impermanent one — the place where beings live and die, where change is constant, where nothing remains.
I wafted in and out of feelings of motion sickness. Again, there was no feeling of a chemical reaction inside my stomach. Instead, the sickness came from having no horizon. Like a boat passenger who gets seasick from being below deck in rough seas, I began to feel queasy. I tried to find a horizon but there was none. There is no “up and down” in hyperspace, no right and left or north and south. I realized I was in for a long and difficult night, and that this was going to be work. Sitting or lying down made little difference to how I felt, although I grew to find lying down flat with my arms to my side settled down my stomach. I spent most of the evening in this position. My notes say, “This is also the position where the visions are most intense. If I want to soften the visions, I can sit up, but then the motion sickness returns.” Mother Ayahuasca is a wonderful teacher, but she exacts a price for her lessons, and that is physical discomfort. I’m wasn’t able to fall asleep, even though I eventually felt tired. I had to just stay with it.
“I’m here now,” I kept saying to myself. “I might as well tough it out and learn what Mother Ayahuasca has to teach me. At some point this will end and I’ll be able to return to ordinary reality and go to sleep.” And that was true.
Ricardo stood up at some point and sprayed some sort of liquid from inside his mouth (aqua de flora?) three times over our heads. He appeared to be clearing the space, purifying it somehow.
I learned over the hours that followed that my thoughts have a huge impact on how I feel. If I focus on the feeling of needing to vomit, that feeling grows and grows. If I focus instead on the visions and patterns, I forget about feeling sick, at times completely, and for this I am thankful.
In between icaros, perhaps two hours into the evening, I allowed myself a break from the visions and turned my thoughts to feelings of gratitude. I realized I was not going to experience diarrhea of the kind others seemed to be suffering, judging from their frequent trips to the bathrooms. I checked myself periodically and realized I couldn’t shit even if I wanted to! I heard others puking loudly near me, and on the other side of the room. Buckets filled with slurpy, gurgling sounds. I started to wish I could throw up as this would lessen or eliminate my feelings of nausea. But this never happened for me.
I lay in the darkness thinking how fortunate I was, that my preparation appeared to be paying off. I had maintained a plain ayahuasca diet for some time. Not perfect, but enough it appeared. I had been eating healthily for a long time anyway, mostly raw with lots of green smoothies and homemade granola and salads. This appeared to please Mother Ayahuasca, as well as my sexual abstinence for God knows how many months, and my deliberate effort to be a good father to my two sons, putting on an excellent Christmas for them before coming to Peru, and spending all of Christmas Day (after they went to their mother’s) cleaning my apartment, tidying up and putting an extra spit polish on everything. My house and my life were in order, and I came prepared.
I also had a feeling — which grew in intensity in the next ceremony — that I was being given credit for my almost 25 years of work as an environmental journalist. Like a university that accepts credits from other post-secondary institutions, ayahuasca recognized I had worked to protect the environment for many years, editing magazines on pollution prevention and waste recycling. Although this wasn’t clear to me on the first night, I was about to be shown amazing things. I’m 53 years old, and Mother Ayahuasca had plans for me. Perhaps she realized I don’t have as much time as the twenty-somethings who were beside me, writhing and retching.
I felt in the first ceremony I was being shown the Google home page of the ayahuasca realm: and there was an organic software feeling to what I was seeing. I was reminded of the flowing numbers inThe Matrix film trilogy and, in later reflections, decided Neo’s taking the red pill from Morpheus and waking up into the real “reality” is a good analogy for what I experienced. Another analog is the lead character Jake Sully in James Cameron’s epic film Avatar, who uses virtual realism technology to enter the world of the Na’vi on the planet Pandora, discovering a spirit-imbued forest under threat from the mining operations of human beings.
I was beyond the consensus paradigm for much of the evening, as is reflected in my detailed notes from the next morning. “The medicine conveys to me somehow that I will not see beings, entities or elf-like creatures this evening,” I wrote. “Aya wants to show me that other visual elements and textures are possible, and so various indescribable phantasmagoric scenes are presented, like surrealist paintings by Max Ernst in which cathedrals and vast landscapes are teased from dripping paint and random splashes of turpentine. Yet unlike such static pictures, these images are moving and dynamic.” Elsewhere I noted that it’s “like being inside a video game, but vastly more complex.”
The ceremony seemed to last about four hours before it wound down, around the same time as the noise picked up from the nearby town of New Year’s celebrations. Distant music pulsed and I heard fireworks. I realized it was now 2014. The shamans took a break from their icaros and talked casually amongst themselves, occasionally laughing. The evening became casual all of a sudden. I lay on my mat feeling gratitude at the privilege of being accepted in this sacred and deeply ancient space. I had partaken of the sacrament of an indigenous people, who shared it freely with me, allowing me inside the holy of holies of their culture.
My feeling for these people was as far away as possible from the National Geographic impression of primitive tribes in the jungle or any stereotype. I recognize now, from the inside, that they are the custodians of a many thousands of years old civilization whose cathedrals and spires exist in a landscape just outside the perceptual boundaries of ordinary experience. A feeling of sorrow rises up whenever I think about the wanton destruction and virtual genocide inflicted on these people — all the Amazon people — by invaders and colonists, turn of the century rubber barons and modern pastoralists with their chainsaws and grazing cattle.
I felt glad I declined an earlier offer of a second cup of ayahuasca brew. No violent purging, no nightmares, nothing to fear or regret. I was thankful for the icaros that started up again briefly. The songs of Ersilia, the female shaman, moved me to tears. I had never heard such beautiful, mournful singing. I have read that the indigenous people of the Amazon have a tragic view of life, and her songs spoke to this, the bittersweet songs of loss and the passing of time. Then I started to hear something new. Very high up and far away, an angelic choir — made up of hundreds of voices — female voices — was singing in chorus with Ersilia. I couldn’t tell if she was copying their melody or if they were accompanying hers. It became clear to me that Ersilia learned her song from this divine source. I was astonished and more than a little unsettled by this development, which mirrored the concept of angelic choirs in Christian folklore. Could they be one and the same?
I navigated in what I started to think of as the Akashic Field, the woven pattern of the universe’s memories. My feelings became gentler and my nausea lifted completely. My mind floated like a boat bumping gently against a dock, buoyed by an ocean of consciousness, the cosmic background that was there before we were born and out of which we emerged, and to which we return when we die. There’s no sense of time here.
Except time did return. Ricardo spoke some words in Spanish, which Rapha translated loosely as “The ceremony is now closed.” We were invited to stay a while or return to our rooms. I lay on the mat for a long time, suspended like an embryo in the womb, my only distraction being flashes of light from people lighting up hand-rolled mapachos made from strong tobacco — considered a sacred plant. The smell is sweeter than that of North American commercial cigarettes as there are no additives, but nevertheless it caused my nausea to return. I toyed for a while with the idea that there should be No Smoking malokas. I thought about the violent downpour from the storm that passed most of the night, about which I was only faintly aware, lost in my revery. Much of the night became a blur. I recall receiving a song from Erjomenes at one point, and being guided to him by Anna with her subdued flashlight. I recall kicking over the plastic bucket at the end of my mat, but being unconcerned as it only contained an inch or so of water.
Erjomenes had performed a ritual of touching my forehead, my temples and the crown of my head, concluding with strong upward movements and blowing. I felt he had somehow detected something I withheld from the shamans, which was that I’d been using hemp oil to fight a precancerous growth on my forehead, the second such growth I’d detected within two years. The doctor back home had told me not to be concerned about it, that it was not malignant, but he’d burned off the first one with liquid nitrogen on the end of a Q-tip. I had a very small scar from that. I had somewhat tested the shamans by not disclosing this medical concern. And here was Erjomenes working on exactly that area. Incredible.
As the energy in the maloka faded I began to feel it was safe to return to my room. I gathered up my belongings and strode out into the night air making my way into the room and organizing my bed, being careful to tuck in my mosquito netting on all sides of the mattress. It felt wonderful to lie down and drift into sleep, though this did not come quickly. The laser light show continued inside my head (and perhaps outside of it) for some time. I noticed the geometric patterns increasing when I focused on certain thoughts and questions, and faded when my mind was less active.
At some point my roommate John entered the room to check up on things, then left. I assumed he went back to sleep in the maloka, but I was fast asleep myself within minutes, falling into a realm of dreams, tossing and turning. It wasn’t a deep sleep but whatever sleep it was, was welcome.
Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre, Peru. January 2, 2014
We had a day off after Ceremony One in which we relaxed around the Nihue Rao property and reflected on our amazing fist introduction to the plant teacher. Our next ayahuasca experience was scheduled for the night of January 2, 2014. Once again we skipped dinner, had a floral bath or “flower shower” as I prefer to call it, had yoga with Rapha at 6:00 and then gathered again in the maloka where the ceremony started at 8:00 pm.
For this evening I set my intention as “healing whatever inside me may prevent deeper relationships.” I wanted the medicine to open me up to all relationship possibilities, and make sure nothing inside me would prevent real intimacy. This intention was communicated by the assistants Rapha and Anna to the shamans during a short debriefing we’d had that morning (conversación). At this meeting Maestro Ricardo was more on top of things, having recovered from the drowsiness of the dieta he’d been on just before he arrived the day before. He instructed our group to “concentrate, concentrate, concentrate” on our intentions, to work hard, and not just be distracted by simple colors and patterns.
Again the experience started with geometric patterns outlined in colour, first a deep red and then green and other colors of laser-like intensity. However, I made a deliberate effort not to pay too much attention to the geometric patterns and focused, as Ricardo suggested, on my intention.
This led to my first experience that had nothing to do with the visual geometric patterns. I felt at one point while sitting up as though I’d been picked up and was being swayed in the arms of an enormous mother. I couldn’t tell if the whole room was swaying or just me, but I was definitely being rocked back and forth in very large pendulum movements. At some point I wondered if I was inside the womb, with the rocking back and forth being the swaying of my mother walking, or the Earth Mother walking. In any case it felt nurturing and the message was obvious: I am loved and some higher power cares about me, or some deeper Earth Mother.
The next experience was one that also started with me sitting up straight with legs crossed, using pillows to support my back. I felt a strong energy in the centre of my body (the heart chakra) and was invited to look down, which I did slowly, and to place my hand on my heart. I felt this message was being conveyed by the shaman telepathically, though in that space it could have been directly from the ayahuasca itself.
I was able to see my heart — not the red heart of my physical body but a golden spirit heart. It was beating and radiant, and looked like it was made of burnished gold. Light poured from it and I could direct energy from my right hand into the spirit heart. I remembered my Radiance Technique Authentic Reiki training from the fall, and realized I was being shown how to heal my own heart, and maintain it, with Reiki energy. It was moving, seeing and feeling this spiritual heart, and coming to know for the first time that it existed. I was told — not in words but through a kind of cosmic feeling — that I must embrace my “warrior heart” and that women admire men who invest wisely in their warrior heart energy. (The idea of the warrior was not violent, but more in the way of standing up for what you know is right.)
Then I lay down as though for an operation and had a keen sense of being operated on by the shamans, who seemed to focus on my spirit heart somewhat like a surgical team. I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness and was told repeatedly to stay awake, that there was great peril in falling asleep during this procedure. I was told to keep breathing, which I did.
Next it was transmitted silently that I should sit up and pay attention. At this point Ricardo was coughing up enormous amounts of phlegm and bile into his plastic bucket. It was extraordinary how much he evicted from his mouth, and it went on for a long time with dramatic sounds. I remember reading in Stephan Beyer’s book Singing to the Plants how shamans put on performances and make a big deal of displaying how they can suck the illness from a person and throw it up, but the description there made it sound like a con job to impress a gullible audience. (Beyer acknowledges that the actions could be real in the spirit realm, I must add.) But I felt there was simply no way a human being could spit up so much bile, for so long, or fake what I was witnessing and hearing.
I was told to pay attention in the manner of “he’s doing this for you; the least you can do is watch!” It was clear to me that the bile and phlegm was gunk that had been removed from around my heart. While it could have included sickness from others in the room, I had a strong sense that most of it was mine, and I silently thanked Ricardo for doing this for me. I wondered at the strength of shamans, and their willingness to do this difficult work for their patients.
With my golden spirit heart cleared of this blockage I became very open, which may have set the stage for what happened, which was not a pleasant experience at all, though one that was necessary. The best way to describe it was that “I had my ass handed to me” by Mother Ayahuasca, by way of a very tough lesson in humility.
For about an hour I felt tremendous shame as the medicine revealed to me my own narcissism in coming to Peru to experience ayahuasca. It was as though the plant was saying, “So, asshole, you thought you’d come down here and drink this brew and then go home and brag to your friends about it, huh?” or “So you thought you’d become the “cool guy” back home with all your New Age friends, having done the ‘real deal’ aya ceremony? Huh, asshole?” It went on like that for a long time, and like a puppy having its nose rubbed in the spot where it peed on the carpet, I was made to look at the shamans singing their icaros while being reminded they had invited me into their sacred space and shared their ancient secrets, and here I was, the rich gringo wearing their “folkloric costume” like a total fraud, ripping off their culture to feed my own ego and get some kind of healing for self-centered purposes.
My head hang in shame as I felt like a modern colonial, the New Age version of a rubber baron, looking suddenly ridiculous in the Shipibo pants and tunic I was wearing. “Look at the shape of this room, asshole,” the medicine said, as I noticed it was round — round as in inclusive, a container where all are equal. “This is about community,” the medicine told me, “not just about you.”
Eventually I couldn’t take it any more and, gathering my flashlight and water bottle, I stood up on shaky legs and made my way through the darkness across the wide maloka floor and out the double doors into the evening air. A night assistant’s flashlight guided me from afar as I made my way back to my room where I took off the ceremonial clothing and changed into my regular shorts and T-shirt.
I stood there, not sure what to do. Part of me wanted to just go to bed and sleep. It felt like the medicine had worn off anyway. But then I felt bad about walking out on the ceremony. I felt I should be there for my friends, to show support for them, and appreciation for the shamans who were working so damned hard for all our benefit.
I had just reached the conclusion I would go back when Anna appeared at my door and asked me to return.
“You must come back for your song,” she said. “You’ll feel a lot better.”
I agreed and said I’d come with her, except I needed to make a stop at the bathroom on the way. When I returned to the maloka, I felt warmth and love. I was welcome again. Mother Ayahuasca had scolded me like a mother teaching a lesson to a child she nevertheless loves.
I sat in front of Erjomenes and received my song. My head was hanging low. Shame is not the right word for what I felt. Instead, I felt humility. Real humility.
I thought the medicine had fallen off and so was now present only to be supportive of my friends and to show respect for the shamans. I was mistaken: what had transpired was only the first stage of a long and powerful evening, with much work remaining. Mother Ayahuasca had prepared me for a very privileged experience: she was going to show me something very special, but needed to know I was humble — truly humble — first, so I would never misuse what I was about to see (to feed my own ego).
I lay back on my mattress and the geometric patterns returned, very powerfully, with more brilliant light and colored edges than ever. I was invited again and again to think about what I was looking at. The designs started to pulse and grow increasingly complex and three-dimensional. “What are you looking at?” I was asked. “WHAT are you LOOKING AT?” it asked louder and louder.
And then I had the breakthrough. The realization fell on me hard, with the same emotion as watching the birth of a child. What I had thought before — that the geometric patterns were just a “preview” of the spirit world, or some kind of entry-level navigational tool for this realm’s strange internet, was nothing of the kind. It was — or it had now become — the very centre of the organism. I was standing, or lying, in the Central Operating Unit of the mainframe computer of the universe, the brain or mind of creation.
“Oh my God!” I said silently and aloud. “Oh my God!” over and over again.
I was experiencing God, unmediated. She was showing herself to me as The Creator, and though she was genderless, she felt very female and maternal. She was showing herself in the only way my limited mind could comprehend, and I began to sob as the realization of what I was seeing sank in.
Once I “got it” and The Creator knew I understood what I was seeing, she began to show herself to me in more and more complex ways. The geometric designs modulated into more organic shapes, becoming beings, animals, insects, fish, birds… It was like an organic factory manufacturing all of life and creation, and the raw material was pure consciousness. It was as if the consciousness was saying, “This is how I make birds! This is how I make snakes! This is how I make people!”
The images were very detailed, but the finishes were other-worldly. They were made up of lines, very much like the curved lines animators use in creating 3D computer-animated creatures and objects, before they put the digital “skin” on them. White lines on a dark background, blueprint-style. The creatures never fully formed or walked away. Instead, they emerged and pulsed back into the overall consciousness or organism from which they emanated. This was the morphogenicity that Rupert Sheldrake writes about, the memory of the cosmos from which everything emerges and to which everything returns. I was being shown how life is made, not the end result with which I was already familiar.
This continued for a long time and I was overwhelmed. I kept thinking and feeling that this was a privileged sight, and I wondered why I was being shown, why I was worthy. I would later think about this a great deal, and conclude that perhaps it’s because I’m a writer and communicator, and The Creator’s creations are in jeopardy from human greed and avarice. For now it was all I could do to absorb and think to myself, “I must not forget this! I must remember! I must remember!” As I came down I wondered why I had been shown no serpents, at least not in some powerful and three-dimensional way. I had read about people on ayahuasca interacting with enormous 500-metre long snakes with fluorescent skins and glowing eyes, and part of me longed to see them.
And then ayahuasca again asked me to answer my own question. Ayahuasca shows but does not tell. You must decipher her lessons for yourself, and always ask, “What is the lesson here? What is the lesson?”
It hit me hard when the answer emerged. “Why would I not see serpents?” I asked myself. “How about… it’s because… I am a serpent!”
“I’m a serpent?” I asked. “A snake?” almost out loud.
Then I realized that the colors I was seeing are from the ultraviolet spectrum that snakes see and humans do not. I had been looking all this time through the eyes of a snake.
And then another rhetorical question emerged.
“And what kind of snake doesn’t see other snakes?” an inner voice asked.
I pondered this for a while.
“A snake of which all other snakes are afraid!” I said.
And then I realized I was looking through the eyes of an anaconda. I had been given this spirit animal.
Images of anacondas presented themselves in front of me, but not anacondas as they exist in this dimension. Just as my spirit heart was gold and shining, the anaconda was golden and emitted light, and its eyes sparkled as though made from jewels. I was both looking outward through the eyes of the spirit anaconda, and into the anaconda’s dazzling eyes.
Gradually the medicine wore off and the shamans closed the ceremony. I lay for a long time curled on my mat, listening to the shamans talk, and smelling the smoke of mapacho cigarettes people lit up around me. I became aware of my fellow travelers in the room, who I could tell also had long and difficult nights. We had been told to sit up and pay attention, and most of us had been given tough lessons, it would emerge.
Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre, Peru. January 3, 2014
It was difficult to face another ceremony right on the heels of the ceremony the night before, with no recovery day in between. Many of us spent the day preparing by resting as much as possible, but I found it difficult to sleep; my mind was buzzing from all I’d seen the night before.
My morning began with a long discussion with fellow Ayahuasca Test Pilot Mike. We came across one another in the kitchen, both intent on writing down our experiences. We had spent much of the day after our first ayahuasca journey writing in the art maloka. It was clear we were the “writers” of the group. I asked Mike about his experiences the night before and this unleashed a long story of multiple lessons and travels Mike had experienced in the other dimension, and encounters with beings. I really enjoyed Mike’s stories and the confirmation that another bright and skeptical person was convinced of the reality of the hyperspace realm.
We were joined by a couple of others who arrived early for breakfast and I shared highlights of my experiences from the night before. I recall being close to tears with my voice trembling. It was clear that both Mike and I were still — if not tripping exactly — on the descent from powerful experiences. While I don’t regret sharing what I’d seen, or perhaps sounding a bit odd, choked up with emotion, I reckon we must have looked like real newbies to the very experienced American woman Sita who joined us, who had sat with the shamans the night before and leads ceremonies of her own back home. I expect that on future trips I’ll delay sharing my experiences, at least until I come down from the high of it all a bit more. But again, no regrets.
I looked forward to our group conversation with Ricardo in the maloka, but he didn’t show up at the appointed time. It later emerged he was delayed with business in nearby Iquitos. We had a meeting in the maloka with Rapha and Anna instead, where everyone shared their experiences. Then, later in the afternoon, Ricardo showed up and a second meeting was called just as I was taking my flower shower in the back of the property. Each person took turns sharing their experiences while Rapha translated and Ricardo nodded knowingly, and occasionally offered commentary.
I was struck by the fact that, thankfully, this curandero did not present himself as some kind of “guru.” He took interest in our experiences and offered useful advice here and there, but it was fairly minimal. He certainly didn’t make it “about him.” He respected the fact that aya journeys are very individual and to be enjoyed and endured pretty much on one’s own. The conversation was not an opportunity to psychoanalyze us or interpret our dreams: instead, it felt more like a visit with a doctor. The shaman — I believe — was checking on how we were responding to his healing work, and looking for opportunities to fine tune it.
According to the reports, most of us had had a tough night and had worked hard through various challenges. For some people the experience had been almost entirely physical and related to some sort of deep cleansing, while for others it was more mental, with lots of visuals, encounters with beings or (in my case) engaging with a massive and throbbing universal consciousness.
Prep for the third ceremony began as before with a flower shower around 4:00 pm and no dinner. Rapha informed us there would be no yoga that evening. I felt trepidation as I relaxed in the hammock in my room, sometimes talking with roommate John who offered pieces of sage advice that I incorporated into my intention setting and interpretation of prior events. My intention for the evening was simple: I would ask Mother Ayahuasca for guidance in integrating what she had shown me the night before into my life, and using that knowledge to create community back home, or whatever purpose she might have for me. Some of the group would be flying home the following evening. Myself, I’d added a couple of days to the trip to hang out in Iquitos and recover from what I (rightly) assumed would be a demanding experience. I wanted to use this third and last ceremony to gain insight in processing the knowledge, and applying it.
Ceremony began as usual at 8:00 pm. I was one of the last to drink, although I noticed we were joined by a couple of new people, including Hillary — a young American woman from Los Angeles who had lived for six months in Iquitos working for a non-governmental organization affiliated with another ayahuasca centre — the Temple of the Way of Light — where Rapha had previously worked.
I lay back and waited for the medicine to hit, which it did right on cue after about 40 minutes.
Ricardo had mentioned that this evening we’d drink from a batch of ayahuasca brew that had just been cooked. He told us that on the previous evenings we’d been using up the vestiges of an older concoction, and that this night we should expect “strong medicine.” Fellow traveller Tatyana had suggested to me that I might want to ask for a little less this time, but for some reason when my turn came to drink I asked the assistant to pour me a little extra. I suppose that, knowing this was my last ceremony, I wanted a powerful experience, and didn’t want to ask for more later.
I wasn’t disappointed: the medicine was indeed powerful and the appearance of the geometric patterns was the beginning of what could have been a six hour journey (or possibly longer — I lost all sense of time). As in the previous nights, the experience started with the now-familiar geometric patterns, starting with red outlines, then red and green, then other colors. Again the icaros increased the effects and guided the meditation, which grew or subsided with the songs.
My notes remind me that “overall it was a very long ceremony and night that ran the gamut of light and dark visions or experiences.” Physically I felt very weak through most of the night, with extended periods of nausea, but no vomiting or diarrhea. I remember wishing I could vomit (the very thing I’d dreaded before the first ceremony) and the relief it would bring. The only relief I had came from deep yawns (another form of purging) and some tears.
When the medicine took hold I went through a period of regretting the whole thing, wishing I could avoid what I knew was in store. There was no comfortable position, no way of escaping the sea sickness. I felt dizzy when I sat up. When I lay down, the nausea subsided, but then I felt dark forces engulfing me, as though lying down brought me closer to the grave and shadowy insects and parasites that would devour me, so I’d sit up again. I spent much of the night propped up in a compromise position, leaning back on pillows, staring at the ceiling.
However, much as I suffered, I was keen for the visions and teachings, and kept reminding myself it would all be worth it. I tried to focus on my intention, which was surprisingly difficult. “Integration,” I would manage here and there. Or, “Community, I must focus on community…”
There were too many visions and teachings to ever recount, but it’s fair to say that the third ceremony built on the previous two, like the third act in a play, a kind of logical “unfolding” of the information. Overall the visions were more vivid, and more three-dimensional.
I’m thankful for the detailed notes I made the following morning, while everything was fresh, because events late in the experience made it otherwise difficult to recall the positive lessons I received early in the night.
The first lesson was loving and gentle. I felt relief that Mother Ayahuasca was showing me her nurturing side; perhaps this would be a gentle night after all. I was shown how the answer to my questions around integration lay within the question itself. I had grown up surrounded with quite a bit of anger and dysfunction, with divorced parents and no small amount of alcohol abuse on one side, and a strained relationship with my stepfather. This had conditioned me to initially “react” to situations, often with anger as the conditioned response. I needed to reprogram my initial reaction to events and challenges, softening it and acting from a position of humility and compassion. (I was flooded with the feeling again of humility from the previous night’s lessons.)
I was taught to start each and every time from this position of humility, which would then translate into actions of love and kindness. Remember to look through the eyes of the anaconda, whenever challenges arise, I was told.
Next I was invited to always remember the “ayahuasca dimension of reality” that operates in the background of our normal reality, like the programming in The Matrix. The forces at work in that other dimension interact with and affect this dimension. We might, for instance, feel anger or jealousy or some other emotion, thinking it’s because of the actions of another person, when it may actually be a dark energy permeating from the other side. Clearing up dark energy and letting the light in is an ongoing process, I learned. (Where this information came from, I can’t honestly say.)
The next lesson was profound. I was told to be careful about how I “intervene” in various situations. I learned that sometimes intervention deprives other beings of their “teaching moments.” Whether they learn from them or not, it’s their karma in this life’s journey to have experiences and learn from them; I am not responsible for their experiences. In a difficult situation in which someone’s actions or reactions pose a threat to others, it’s reasonable for me to redirect a person or, if that fails, protect the weak and innocent. But I must not interrupt someone else’s teaching moments.
I was shown various situations from my own life where I could have changed things up instead of reacting in a predictable way, embracing my “warrior heart” but acting from humility and compassion. “Remember the sparkling eyes of the anaconda and her teachings,” I heard. Healing and the creation of community would follow.
As the icaros trailed off I struggled again with nausea and discomfort, but then as the next song began I was hit with a big download that expanded on the last lesson. Whereas the previous lesson could have been delivered by Dr. Phil, the next one showcased Mother Ayahuasca’s awesome power. Over what felt like a very long time, I was shown what I call the Story of the Mother.
In essence, the mother is the most universal and constant story. The universal mother — cosmic consciousness — creates all reality. I was shown how — at the macro level — she creates galaxies that are in turn the mother to stars, that are in turn the mother planets, that are in turn the mother to ecosystems, that are in turn the mother to plants, animals, insects, birds and fish. At every level the experience of the mother is both beautiful and sad; although mothers experience the joy of creation, giving birth, they pay a price (always) which is the pain of setting their offspring free, of saying goodbye.
Mothers must come to terms with the fact that after all the love and kindness and nurturing they show the beings they create, their children will leave them to pursue their own lives. The mother must not interfere, even though it breaks her heart to see them leave, for otherwise she will prevent her offspring from fulfilling their own destinies.
Recounted this way, the lesson sounds powerful enough. But ayahuasca made me feel the pain of the mother, to feel her suffering as she says goodbye, and it was beyond what I could endure. I felt the pain of many mothers, like the lioness or cheetah that nudges it’s cubs out into the world and turns her back on them, forcing them off into their own destinies. I was shown human mothers saying goodbye, hiding their pain. I was shown a cascade of all mothers’ pain from the largest cosmic level down to the microscopic. I remember “feeling” the universe creating galaxies and then letting go of them. I remember “feeling” the spider laying her eggs in the safest place, suspending them on silk threads, knowing she won’t be around or even alive when they hatch.
Somewhere in the midst of this I was informed of my role as a male, which is that of “warrior.” Again, this was not a violent image, but related to the warrior’s duty to protect mothers and their offspring. I was shown ways in which I could improve my honoring and helping my own mother, and also my ex wife, mother to my children. Feeling the pain of the mother clarified my vision of the male role, my role, in the scheme of things.
Then the lesson expanded and built at a cosmic level on the earlier lesson about not interfering with people’s “teaching moments.” I was given a lesson in accepting, like a mother, the destiny of other people, other creatures, and in fact whole civilizations and ecosystems. Much as I’m disturbed by the appalling harm humans are inflicting on whole ecosystems, and how this could trigger an eventual collapse of the current civilization, I was shown that this is nevertheless part of an ageless cycle of life, death and rebirth. The body of one life, society or ecosystem becomes the compost from which the next manifestation arises. I was shown how many earlier eras and life forms (from the Cambrian period, the Age of the Dinosaurs, the Age of the Megafauna, etc.) passed, which was sad for them but allowed for human beings to arise (for example). We too will eventually pass from this world, taking down ecosystems with us, but who can say what will take our place, and that it will necessarily be worse? The Creator will continue minting new life forms from her infinite creativity. The process will go on and on, everywhere in the universe. We are not so special after all.
It’s not that The Creator wants human beings to destroy themselves, or harm the environment. Again, this is the point of the Story of the Mother. She created us and now must let us go. She has said goodbye and must not interfere — otherwise she’d be interfering in our destiny. Why create us at all if she’s going to micromanage us? We’re just another creation that must make independent choices. Yet she is not uncaring. She cares for us more deeply than we know, and feels a mother’s pain when we make mistakes or inflict harm on ourselves and her other creations. She listens to us when we approach her through ayahuasca and other sacred plants, and she shows us the truth if we ask for it. But she never commands what to do: we must solve the riddles ourselves and make our own decisions.
I was also shown that each and every creature has an equally valid life, from the perspective of Mother Earth or The Creator. Each of those tiny cutter ants we’d seen a few days before on the jungle floor, transporting their leaf cuttings to their enormous ant hill, were as important and valid as any other being in her eyes. We delude ourselves thinking that some famous person or couple living in New York, getting the best seats in fancy restaurants, and appearing on TV are any more important in the grand scheme of things than ants or snakes or fish that live their entire lives unknown to human beings. And they don’t need our help, at least not exactly. What we need to do is respect their work: spiders have a job to do, as do flies. We need to appreciate them and then get out of their way, not interfere. The spider doesn’t fret about the experience of the fly; the fly doesn’t ponder the perspective of the spider: each has a life to live and experience its own teaching moments.
After this astonishing lesson I went through a blurry stage of sickness, as though a price was being exacted from my body in exchange for these heady teachings. I thought about the strength and courage of shamans. How, I asked, can they endure this night after night, week after week, year after year? I came to think of them as Olympic athletes, achieving extraordinary feats in the dark surroundings of malokas and jungle lodges, their achievements more or less unrecognized by the rest of the world. This was only my third ceremony and I felt beat, utterly whipped!
I struggled to hold on as the first lessons ended and the visions dropped off. I sat through my song with Erjomenes, and hoped that perhaps the night was winding down and I’d be able to return to my room to sleep.
But this was not to be the case (at all). The last stage of the night lasted for what felt like many hours and was dark. I was shown visions of dying and felt myself sinking into the earth, into the dirt, with the grass above me, and earthworms and insects around me.
I wondered why I was being shown this or, more accurately, made to feel this, and then I remembered an intention I had set (without thinking of it that way) before I even came to Peru, which was that I wanted to see where my stepfather went after he died last spring. I felt that seeing The Creator — the cosmic consciousness — had already answered that question. We come from, and return to, that great pulsing intelligence that permeates everything.
But there was another side to death, actual physical death, that I was being shown now, more or less against my will. It was as if the medicine was saying, “So, you really want to know what death feels like do you?” with me pleading, ‘No, no, I don’t need to experience this!” Again and again I felt myself sinking down into my mat, prostrate on my back or lying sideways, looking up at the earth and grass above me, unable to move, unable to lift my hand or head, everything over. I was experiencing the death of the body, so different from the liberation of the consciousness. Mother Ayahuasca could only take me so far. She was showing me what death felt like as much as possible without actually killing me. She was also teaching me to be very careful what I ask for.
After a time I felt I had to fight my way back to ordinary reality, or risk actually dying. With all the energy I could summon, I eventually sat up and slowly reoriented myself to the space in the maloka. I heard Ricardo say something in Spanish and assumed (wrongly) that the ceremony had concluded. The shamans were talking, like musicians taking a break.
I focused on the spatial coordinates of this dimension, and finally stood on my feet, flashlight and water bottle in hand, and headed out into the night air to use the bathroom. I found it easily and regained my composure. The sky was overcast but it had stopped raining. I walked to the bathrooms and entered one of the open stalls, a candle burning in the corner. I sat on the toilet for a long while, and then had the most extraordinary experience. Ayahuasca was going to show me lessons even as I sat on the toilet!
It was really freaky William S. Burroughs stuff. I looked down at the concrete bathroom floor, which was stained and discolored, like an old wall. As I did so, a powerful hallucination took hold. I gradually noticed that the floor was not made of concrete, but of thick ice, and there were large cracks in the centre. The more I looked, the more convincing the illusion appeared. Intellectually I knew this was a completely solid concrete floor, and yet it was semi-transparent, and if I moved my head from side to side, the deep dark cracks in the floor moved perfectly in three-dimension, just as if I was looking at real cracks from different angles. I closed my eyes and looked again, but nothing I did could shake the illusion.
Then I noticed there were forms moving beneath the ice — shadowy vines and algae, then creatures, serpentine and mysterious. I began to worry that if I looked much longer the creatures would develop into something frightening, or might surface through the ice. Yet I couldn’t tear myself away — it was just so damn interesting!
Fortunately I thought to go past the mere visual entertainment aspect of the hallucination and ask myself, “What is the lesson here?” After thinking about if for a few minutes the answer came. And it was one of the most powerful lessons of my whole trip to Peru. The floor was solid, I realized, but Mother Ayahuasca — or “the universe” if you prefer — could turn it into a sheet of ice with creatures underneath if she wanted. She could create anything she liked for my mind to experience. The teaching was not simply that I was seeing a hallucination: rather, the teaching was that my entire world is a hallucination… everywhere and at all times.
I was seeing how the world is created, by having it perturbed in this undeniably realistic way. The universe, I had read, is holographic. Everything is a hologram. This is supported by some of the latest quantum science, and not the daydream of a fiction writer. And here I was, seeing it. I will always know and remember now that we are like Neo in The Matrix— every seemingly solid wall, floor, table — even the concrete floor of a bathroom — is a hallucination created from consciousness. Our minds fix in place a reality to live in, in this dimension, made from energy and consciousness, of the very same material as the realm I had entered in my ayahuasca visions.
Eventually I remembered Rapha’s instruction not to hang out too long outside the maloka or in the bathrooms. The circle of protection — which felt very real for me — was strongest in the “container” of the maloka. I washed my hands and made my way back to the sacred space, lay down on my mat, and assumed (wrongly again) that my evening was largely over.
I felt exhausted — more tired at a deep body level than I can remember ever feeling before. I sank down into the mat and, after a while, became aware I’d been lying there for a long time. The icaros were continuing and I became vaguely aware that the ceremony had not ended earlier, as I had thought. The whole time I’d been in the bathroom the ceremony had been fully underway. I began to see insect silhouettes around me, mostly spiders, and felt I was again going to be taught something, although this time it would concern my fears, as I’m somewhat an arachnophobe.
It dawned on me that I was paralyzed and, more precisely, had been venomized by an enormous spider of the black widow variety. I was pinned to the mat and couldn’t raise my hands or head no matter how hard I tried. I kept slipping out of consciousness, only to wake up and realize again and again I hadn’t been breathing. I had to deliberately inflate my chest and force myself to breath, in great gasps. I felt I was in real trouble but was unable to ask for help. In fact, I was so venomized that it didn’t occur to me. I just lay there, semi-comatose, for what must have been an hour, possibly two. I watched the spider come and go, going about her business. I was being stored, kept barely alive for later consumption. This no longer felt like a lesson from Mother Ayahuasca; instead, I felt I was under the spell of a dark and sinister force. I wondered if my lingering in the washroom stall outside the maloka had created an opportunity for this dark for to slip inside.
Thankfully, at some point Ricardo detected this dark force, if not my predicament, and jumped to his feet, stepped toward me and blew some kind of liquid forcefully into the air above me, and the people to my left. I felt the dark energy retreat almost immediately. (Note that this was a separate second clearing of the area, in addition to the routine clearing of the air that Ricardo incorporated into every ceremony.) And yet I was still venomized and incoherent. In future, if I ever find myself in such a situation, I will remember to call for help, with every fibre of my being.
I don’t remember which happened first: the ceremony ending or my ripping myself from the grip of the spider’s poison, but I eventually realized I needed to fight my way out of this situation. I recalled Mother Ayahuasca’s lessons and how she could create any creature at will. “You want spiders? I can give you spiders,” she had said. “You want snakes, I can give you snakes.”
So I focused my attention on different animals and insects and reptiles until, after a long time, the impression of spiders faded and I slowly roused myself. In time I was able to sit up, but then lay down again, listening to the conversation of Sita and Hillary to my right, who were fully alert and “in the moment” in a way I envied. The normality of their conversation was like a rope floating on the sea of consciousness that I could use to gradually pull myself back toward the boat of normality.
I have ambivalent feelings retelling the story of the spider and my poisoning in the spirit realm. At some level I wonder if it really happened, or if it happened as I remember. But the notes I wrote down the following morning when my memory was fresh don’t lie. They even recall how I continued to remind myself to breath well into the morning, when I’d take a gulp of air. I also don’t wish to turn off people who are considering ayahuasca, by telling frightening stories. Yet I feel responsible to share this story, as it underscores the importance of drinking ayahuasca in the presence of a skilled and experienced shaman. God only knows what would have happened if that dark energy had got hold and there was no one there to dispel it.
Interestingly, in the group conversation the following morning I recalled this story and Ricardo said he’d seen the spiders too, which is why he’d risen and dispelled them. He told us in detail how a dark energy had taken over the inner ceiling of the maloka structure a few months prior, that took the form of giant spiders, and how he and the other shamans had fought and dispelled them finally by blowing a spicy liquid at them. He told me that this dark energy did not emerge from inside me, but was a sinister force from outside. As Ricardo confirmed my suspicions, I lay on my mat looking up at the wooden beams whose wagon wheel structure held the building together. They looked like great spider webs, and the dubiousness of installing such a shape in a maloka was not lost on me. Maybe they have to be built that way, but a rectangular support structure would be a better choice, in my opinion. Anything but a spider’s web!
This is where my notes end. The day after the third ceremony we lingered, all of us, and daydreamed, compared notes, or got lost in conversation. It was with a sweet sadness that I said goodbye to the first bunch of participants who departed in mototaxis, heading for Iquitos where we’d all share one final dinner before the group broke up and everyone faced the long journey home. Mike, Sid and Carl were the first to go, young men in their 20s, friends since childhood, with so much in store for them: careers, marriage, children, successes and failures — and all of them now transformed by their encounter with Mother Ayahuasca. This must have been what it felt like, I thought, saying goodbye to one’s platoon mates at the end of a tour of duty in Vietnam as helicopters arrived and the soldiers sat on their duffle bags, smoking one last cigarette together.
I stayed in Iquitos for two more days, first saying goodbye to my roommate John, perhaps the most transformed of all of us, who plans to move from his apartment in Tampa, Florida to one of the more remote islands in Hawaii. He had discovered his true identity as a healer on this journey, and I wished him well and gave him one final hug before his mototaxi arrived and he headed into his new life.
I spent most of my final time in Iquitos hanging around the Karma Kafe (a gringo magnet) where I made friends with a young man from Norway and had some long conversations with Hillary, who was at the end of her NGO contract and planned to travel for a few months and visit friends in Brazil. Eventually I took my final leave of the tour organizers, Dan and Tatyana, and flagged down a mototaxi. It took me more than 24 hours to fly home to Toronto, where the temperatures were minus 15 degrees Celsius and my car was buried under a foot of snow.
As I write this, four days have passed and I’m home in Collingwood, Ontario. My sleep is deep now and my dreams are not disturbing. I don’t know how long it will last, but sometimes when I close my eyes and really focus, I can see those geometric patterns in the darkness, with their red outlines. They’re faint, but they’re there. Perhaps Mother Ayahuasca is inside me now, and will be with me forever. I certainly hope so.
And now, having shared these profound things, I leave you with something light: a short video clip I shot of a monkey at Nihue Rao who reminded me a lot of Curious George!
Guy Crittenden is a Canadian journalist. You can read more of his work here.