This article was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK print journal (2013 Vol.2). It also appears on PsyPressUK.com.
Looking back on it, my friend “Jim” and I still can’t remember how we decided to go to Peru to experience ayahuasca. Whose idea was it? And why did we go?
I was certainly influenced by a powerful dream in which a puma presented itself to me in three different scenarios. First, I mistook it for a large dog being taken for a walk. Then I was riding on its back through choppy water, being sick into the waves. Finally, I was humbled to realise that this was no dumb animal, but a superior being with an ancient intelligence far beyond my comprehension. This dream puzzled me for some time. Why the purging? Why the puma, a spirit animal strongly associated with Amazonian shamanism? I wondered if I was being invited to experience ayahuasca; the healing vine whose tendrils are believed to draw in those who are ready.
Over the past few years, the ritual use of ayahuasca has gone from being a relatively obscure Amazonian ceremony to becoming the focus of earnest pilgrimage (or “spiritual tourism”) from the Western world. Not knowing anyone in South America, Jim and I could only rely on the internet to locate some way of accessing a raw experience that would take place deep in the jungle far from the world of electricity, let alone computers. It seemed a ludicrous plan to hatch from my back room but we persisted.
We were wary of trips that cost as much as a luxury holiday in Barbados. We didn’t mind spending whatever was necessary to obtain the right setting for such an important initiation, but couldn’t help wondering if ayahuasca was sometimes being used as a “posh way to get shitfaced” –– the spiritual equivalent of a luxury health farm for people who might hesitate to take acid at a music festival. All we wanted was something simple and sincere, with no fancy trimmings.
Eventually, we wired our money to a woman near Pucallpa, “Tara”, who promised “an authentic experience for genuine consciousness seekers” and had lined up a Shipibo shaman to work with us. On receipt of the money, however, Tara disappeared into the jungle to follow a dietà of her own for several weeks; at this point, we realised that we would be landing in Peru around the time that she was expected back, and in the meantime had no way of confirming arrangements. Until then, she had talked a good game, it had not occurred to either of us that some ayahuasca guides, however enthusiastic, might be about as reliable as a bunch of stoners. Not wanting to chance things, we made other arrangements, effectively paying twice for the same thing, but at least confident that our flight across the world would not end with us sitting on our suitcases in Lima for a fortnight, like a confused Paddington Bear.
Once the plans were finalised we prepared carefully, avoiding salt, sugar, meat, fats and alcohol; not easy when we were in the habit of tucking into crisps and a glass of wine together. Most of all, we missed this on the interminable flight to Peru, but knew it would be worth it, or, to be more precise, we didn’t dare risk the consequences of not observing tradition. We were constantly pulling each other’s legs about who deserved the biggest slap from “Lady A” and our laughter was always slightly nervous.
The minute we landed, I realised how silly I’d been to tell the shaman (“Juan”) what we looked like so that he would be able to find us at the airport. The only gringos on a tiny plane full of small, dark Peruvians, we stuck out like moomin trolls. We were led straight to his motorbike rickshaw and he somehow managed to secure our suitcases to the luggage rack. I soon felt foolish for bringing the complicated wardrobe of a European vacation; in the jungle, things get dirty very quickly (especially when your holiday plan involves vomit!), yet they also dry very quickly.
The sights, sounds and smells of Peru, and the details of our fortnight in the jungle, are beyond the scope of this article. Perhaps I should record the taste and heavy texture of the medicine: something like sump oil distilled from bitter plant matter, with an odd syrupy tang. The strangeness of the jungle isolation; the swift and penetrating darkness; the background thump of disco music from the village; the cluck of a deadly bushmaster snake sliding close to the flimsy flyscreen at the unglazed windows; odd ploops and whoops from alien birds; the electric shudder of sudden thunderstorms, resonating through the trees and bringing rain that turned the sandy path into a cascading gully; the rustle of monkeys and rats in the thatched roof; the hovering throb and sweeping lights of a UFO*, circling us with detached curiosity.
Above all, there was the strangeness of the ayahuasca ceremony –– conducted at 9pm precisely on Tuesdays (to receive blessings) and Fridays (to give thanks). Once the foul treacle had been swallowed from the small wooden bowl and the candle on the altar snuffed out, there was 5 or 6 hours in heavy darkness, crouched on the floor with heads bowed over our raised knees as instructed… sometimes transported by the icaros, often just feeling wretched with back ache, anxiety and turmoil in the gut, vomiting into the plastic bowl provided, postponing the need to go to the toilet as long as possible, knowing what lay outside, yet eventually yielding, wondering just how much shit one person can contain, metaphorically and literally. Let’s just say: a lot.
Throughout our stay, Juan was struggling against psychic threats from a neighbouring bruja, this conflict contaminating our ceremonies despite his increasingly agitated preparations. No wonder medieval Europe had wanted rid of its witches; there could be no peace in a place like this. With so many darts of mutual animosity flying around, there was no end to the many layers of cleansing and protection required, like a kind of spiritual OCD. Juan was getting more frustrated and angry with each ceremony that he felt had been sabotaged. I worried that he was fighting fire with fire, and in desperation attempted my own “water” approach –– gathering flowers from the garden and mentally inviting plants of my own to help us create a more gentle environment for that night’s ceremony. I had no idea what I was doing, but perhaps it did help. On lighting the candle to close the ceremony, Juan declared a breakthrough: the bruja had appeared, as usual, but this time, instead of causing trouble, she had settled down peacefully to sleep at his side.
Within this murky framework, and amid the yelling and commotion of other people’s unique journeys into the heart of darkness, Jim and I did our best to yield to the medicine and let it take its course. Friday, Tuesday, Friday, Tuesday, Friday: we drank for five ceremonies. Each time, I eagerly awaited the cinematic revelations I had so avidly read about. And each time, apart from swirling neon ribbons and a sense of deep immersion, it seemed to me that I got nothing but a blank screen. Again. And again. And again. Hearing Jim describe his own colourful adventures, I felt excluded and wondered what I must be doing wrong.
One night, I disobeyed the strict rules about how to sit. Instead, I lay on my back with my palms facing upward, like shavasana in yoga, and gave myself up completely and unconditionally to whatever was taking place. The sensation was one of being scanned by zillions of tiny little pinpricks, probing me at a subcellular level. This was accompanied by glooping, swallowing sounds and visual impressions of vivid green textures, like plant cells seen under electron microscopy. I was somehow being digested by a plant; yet this had a maternal quality, as though I was being fussed over –– “How did you get into this mess?” –– and things set right.
When the candle was lit at the close of the ceremony, we sat around as usual talking about our experiences. This was my favourite point, after what always seemed like an eternity of isolation, the reconnection with Jim and the chance to compare notes. Suddenly I announced, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to be sick!” Although we had grown accustomed to purging, this was urgent in a way I had not yet experienced. Juan urged me to wait, but there was no stopping it: the waters had broken, and I must NOW give birth through my mouth, NOW NOW NOWWWWW. He came and sat by me, gently coaxing it out, like a midwife. I felt that my entire jaw must unhinge to release whatever this was. Finally, with relief, I was aware of a dark, bristly, cockroach-like entity exiting my body and scuttling off into the darkness.
I cannot explain the vomit-birth, but know that it signified deep healing of some kind. Nobel physicist Niels Bohr declared that “if quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet,” referring to the fact that material objects we consider to be solid, including ourselves, are not. The more you drill down, the more everything turns out to be held together merely by a whirr of energy. And what influences the direction this energy takes? What knocks it out of alignment, and how can this be corrected?
Western science assumes that physical form precedes consciousness, as though awareness somehow enters a body in much the same way that electricity is installed once a building is complete. Though the notion of a body–mind connection is becoming more widely accepted, the reality is clearly even more complex than this. In ways we have yet to understand, it seems that, generally, psychedelics can be used to run a kind of defrag/anti-malware/registry cleaner/system restore on human consciousness. Through a medicine like Ayahuasca, I believe we can access a kind of operating system, like Windows, where the physical/metaphysical interface can be seen and manipulated, recalibrating energy patterns to their intended coherence.
Peruvian Shipibo embroidery and painting traces intricate maze-like patterns, featuring what seem to be directional arrows and pathways. This is also a form of musical notation: traditionally, a pattern could be sung, just as a song could be transcribed as a visual pattern, with notes corresponding to colours and shapes, and vice versa. In the synaesthetic suspension of the plant trance, a colour = a note = an instant and direct understanding of myriad things that are inexpressible in words or thoughts. Everything merges inexplicably to make perfect sense.
Since my return from Peru, I have embroidered copies of the Shipibo patterns, as a contemplative exercise, and it seems to me quite obvious that they represent maps for healing. It doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to see representations of processes such as those that Western medicine would describe as metabolic pathways, signal transduction and receptor agonism. But these are just labels for processes that we don’t actually understand; indeed, the entire world of pharmaceutical R&D struggles constantly with the dilemma of fiddling with one set of meticulously defined dependencies, only to find that this has unexpected consequences elsewhere in the complex web of biochemical interrelationships. We seem to be getting no closer to embracing a complete picture of what’s actually going on; so our medicines, for all the sophistication of their design, remain crude and reactive.
One of Juan’s many entertaining anecdotes described his first successful healing, of a woman with uterine cancer. In their final ceremony together, to his surprise and relief, a puma and two cubs suddenly presented themselves to him, asking why he had summoned them. What followed was like a video game, in which he and the puma descended through the crown of the patient’s head and followed directions from guides posted at intervals, who pointed them on their way until they reached her uterus. Here, they found themselves in a stable with a dead baby hanging in each stall –– apart from the very last one, which was occupied by a malevolent crone. The puma killed her with a vicious blow, then departed with her cubs.
As Juan lit a candle to conclude the ceremony, the woman called him over and told him she had seen everything: the stable, the dead babies, the hag, the puma and two cubs. And she knew she was cured –– a feeling that was confirmed at her next hospital visit.
What I treasure about the plants is the sense of a collaborative exercise. We have evolved alongside each other for millennia; even our respiration depends on the symbiotic exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Their key fits the lock of our understanding so precisely that there can be no question that we were meant to work together –– perhaps, following the principle of alchemy, to achieve something more than either can manage alone. It’s obvious that they impart much intelligence to us; it’s slightly more mysterious what the payback might be (although, as ethnobotanist Terence McKenna conjectured, perhaps “animals are something invented by plants to move seeds around.”)
Yet, it was a while before I felt any benefit from ayahuasca. Perhaps I’d read too much before I went, fanning expectations of dramatic insights into my place in the universe and magical healing from a shaman who could see deep into my soul. Jim and I had often mused that the British Isles must have its own ayahuasca –– either long forgotten or yet to be discovered. I’d imagined being triumphantly initiated into such secrets (my brain works like this: I count chickens before eggs are even laid). In retrospect, this was about as realistic as hoping to remember a past life as Cleopatra, but feeling silly about it did not diminish the disappointment at having “seen” nothing at all. Why had my prayers gone unanswered? Was my sincerity doubted? Was I in disgrace?
Worse, I felt deeply disrupted by the polarity of Amazonian shamanism. Until Peru, my own understanding of things had been fairly abstract and Zen; but I’d returned from the jungle unnerved by all the shenanigans with darts and brujería and the potential for eternal limbo or suffering. I worried for my parents, who (in their 80s) are presumably closer to death than me. Should we be doing something to prepare? If so, what? It terrified me that our culture has so badly lost its way in these matters. I felt a massive responsibility to fill the gaps –– indeed, the consequences of not doing so were too awful to contemplate –– but I was at a complete loss to know where to begin, and felt utterly unqualified to attempt it. I began reading books by Castaneda et al., looking for clues, but only found myself confused by tricky power games and dismayed by the emphasis on dreams –– mocking my most earnest efforts, my dreams were persistently banal –– and it seemed that I could spend all night negotiating the price of a lip salve.
Finally, I took a holiday in Australia, a country where I had once lived for 6 years. Swimming alone in a secluded bay, with no company but the myriad fishes in the sea and a 2-foot King’s skink that kept darting from the rocks to steal my sandwiches, and swerving around a lethal dugite on my cycle ride back to the tent, I remembered that I do know what I do know: everything, everything, is perfectly and exquisitely OK in ways that we cannot possibly understand or control. It’s not my job to fix anything. I can relax. The calmness returned.
“Many Westerners are possessed and don’t even know it,” Juan had remarked. Both Jim and I, in different ways, and without being able to fully explain it, know that our experience in Peru somehow released us from a deep-rooted negativity that poisoned our lives.
I now have a sense that we must be our own gardeners, and supply ourselves with the fertile ground in which to grow, give ourselves appropriate nutrients and care, and last, but not least, remove toxic influences. I no longer waste precious energy on draining, parasitic relationships. I also have a newfound sense of self-reliance. Without being entirely rid of self-doubt, I’m aware of a gentler and more positive voice that encourages me forward.
In one of his visions, Jim saw me proliferate upwards and outwards to adorn the beams of the dormitorio like a beautiful flowering vine. And, indeed, my life is now truly flourishing. How this works, I have no idea, but it seems that, just as plants photosynthesise, so we are constantly filtering experience and processing energy, and the world around us takes shape from the ideas and impulses we choose to feed. I do my best to keep the media at arm’s length, ignoring its cacophony of anger, resentment and fear.
And what of magic? Is it real? Uncannily, many dreams seem to have come true in the few years that have passed since Peru. Not the grandiose dreams I had before going, but the buried hopes and desires that I could not have articulated back then. Astonishing changes have taken place. I now find myself living serenely in an extraordinarily beautiful place, surrounded by the Welsh equivalent of remote jungle. Though I didn’t plan it this way, I realise that I could not be more deeply immersed in the plant spirits of my native land.
When preparing to move here, I found an old notebook in the attic and came across a written account of my dream about the puma –– the dream that first prompted me to seek out ayahuasca. I read it with curiosity, stopping in amazement when I came to the description of “a puma and two cubs.” I’d forgotten the two cubs.
* I record this observation neutrally, with no idea what to make of it (Jim and I experienced this before, as well as during, ceremony), but notice that UFOs also feature in the paintings of Pablo Amaringo.