Before I started my journey into the Amazon to experience Ayahuasca in all her beauty, I read a variety of books and useful journals online about this medicine, the plant structure, and how it affects the brain. I listened to interviews and podcasts talking for hours on end of the intricacies of people’s journeys and outcomes. Many of today’s articles that pop up fail to preface that this kind of work must be done with the utmost awareness, knowledge, and with the right intent.
I firmly believe this medicine can be used to provide some extremely positive outcomes physiologically, but also in the same respect has the same potential to damage one’s psyche if taken out of the right set and setting. People get all too caught up in the ‘white knuckle hell ride’ visionary states, but as whimsical and exciting as they sound, the visions are not inevitable, as some people have a higher propensity for them… They are also not the main component to the healing.
Ayahuasca is a traditional medicine and must be taken like one; visionary and sometimes divinatory states of consciousness occur with psilocybin, LSD, and dimethyltryptamine (or DMT), but they do not have the capacity or capability to heal you quite like ayahuasca does. Be of sound mind and consider how much you trust the people you decide to take this with; I would strongly recommend reputable sources in South America where the tradition has come from and has long been kept.
“If you’re not moving forward, you’re standing still or slipping.” — Don Howard
To some, the prospect of getting on a plane for twenty-five hours, including flight time and lay-overs to enter Peruvian territory, to grab a connecting flight into Iquitos, from there to be chaperoned by bus and boat up the Amazon into the heart of the jungle to drink a magical brew of plants that connects you with the universe and to talk to the divine could be called lunacy. For me it was a calling…
Ayahuasca is called the ‘master medicine’ by the healers of the jungle and is one of the most profound experiences that anyone may be fortunate to come across in their lifetime. It is the quintessential holistic medicine, which brings deep personal cleansing, rebirth of the spirit, and a higher consciousness through a deep enriched tradition of authentic archaic shamanism of the Amazon, Andes, and the north coast of Peru. It may just be one of the most effective treatments for addiction and depression and a complete cure in some cases. The catch? Find the grace and strength to surrender to it.
Iquitos Flight 3217
Four months prior to my retreat in May 2015, I was filling out, very thoroughly, a questionnaire sent by maestro Don Howard, which asked extremely deep, open-ended questions regarding my fears, my hopes, and what I expected to get out of this work. I knew this was the first port of call and, knowing how much I wanted to quench my spiritual thirst, gave an extremely candid submission and crossed my fingers that my intention and dedication to this work was of purpose.
As I read [Aldous] Huxley’s Island, waiting for our boarding gate to open, it struck me that after years of research on the plants, hearing people’s accounts and recollections of the medicine, I was finally set on my own voyage, following the beacon of light emanating out of the jungle. It wasn’t too hard to find the others in the small area of Gate 13 in Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima — it may have been the fact we were the only gringos to be boarding a tiny plane [otherwise] filled with locals heading back to their homes in the remote Pucallpa…
We were two days before our first ceremony and deep into our diets — abstaining from alcohol, sex, pork, salt, chili, and fatty oils (to name a few) for two weeks (and for some even longer) — when we were presented with sodas with ham and cheese rolls by the flight attendants. These were all tossed into the seat holder in front of us and claimed by many on the plane as ‘anti-ayahuasca.’
As most of us were at the back of the plane, we all got into deep energetic conversations with each other. I noticed early on that we were all called to this work, which transcends age, gender and location. Two out of twenty-seven had previously worked with the plant before, so for the majority of the group we held onto our ayahuasca virginities and were diving headlong into our own journeys toward uncharted territories…
Our bags were collected on arrival and we were soon out of the airport doors. The humidity and temperature felt like home in the height of summer — sticky and hot. As I got my things together and made headway for where a bus was waiting for us, I saw a tall figure with long white hair [and] a smile from cheek to cheek greeting everyone with a big-hearted hug that encompassed a ‘welcome home’ sentiment. He would go on to be a very prominent figure of knowledge, trust and compassion, and was known as Don Howard, the white wizard and even for some, ‘Gandalf.’
I heard so much about this man, watched him explain in great detail what ayahuasca incorporates and how he defines it as an accelerated form of deep psychotherapy. His energy, that of which I have come to understand a great deal more, was overwhelming even at a distance; you could really feel a distinct atmosphere or quality that seemed to surround him. I gave him a great hug and expressed my feelings of appreciation and eagerness.
Forty minutes through the dusty, dirty metropolis of Iquitos we see from the confines of our bus an abundance of poverty, rubbish, and the feeling of despair as we, and the twenty-five thousand rickshaws (or tuk tuks) drive past tents that have been set up along the road [as temporary] housing [for] locals forced out of their homes by a recent devastating flood. We reach our destination at an extremely tiny load off point where three long, thin Amazonian boats with the smiling jaguar painted on them await their ‘patients.’
After six days traveling and exploration around the bustling city of Lima, it was a rush to be finally hurtling up the Amazon River. Jungle was now at the forefront as we passed tiny villages and other local retreats nestled in the trees, and tribes in boats traveling or fishing. The pink dolphins of the Amazon even decided to show up. The engines were roaring and we took it all in as best we knew, as it was really one of the last times many of us would see things quite the way we did that day.
We arrive to the sanctuary, home for the next 14 days, and start to get our bearings on this human environment in a natural rainforest. [The buildings are] all made of stained timber, wooden floors and thatched roofs, with plenty of spots for relaxation and reflection that will be highly useful in the coming days. We drop our bags off at the meeting point and are guided to make our way to enjoy our first feast of sanctuary food.
Fresh fish, plantains, beans, vegetables, rice, and fruit for dessert was very welcoming to our starved bellies. This meal was to be the same for the coming 8 days for lunch and dinner; breakfast was to be the only meal where we had a choice of what we ate — but we all didn’t know that yet or how this tasty fish of today would become a very bland staple diet. The spices, salt and condiments were now non-existent and you don’t realize how tasty they all are until 3 or 4 days [without]. It was really our first chance to get to know each other and make early connections as we finished off our meals and sat in widespread anticipation.
Huge drum-like sounds started to echo from our meeting place, which meant one thing, our first orientation and introduction to the shamans, plants and the ‘space.’ We gathered at the meeting space, which was just in front of the ceremonial moloka, took our chairs, and prepared for a long afternoon of orientation, which went into the night.
Listening to Don Howard speak and be in his presence, you really feel a certain different kind of energy. With such an incredible and vast knowledge of the plants and shamanism, it is a great delight to be in his company. He is the type of guy that in the middle of a deep conversation with everyone will lock eyes with you and not break his hold for some time. It grips your soul [as if] he is looking deep into it. He explains the plants in extensive description and treats them as his masters. He clarifies that everyone here is a maestro and an apprentice. We all have something to teach and learn from one another, which becomes more and more apparent as the days go on.
As night falls, the mosquitoes tend to play a big role within the comfort of some of us… We are introduced to the shamans, Don Rober, his wife Dona Eliana and their son Don Carlos, [who] will be our guides through this experience. They enter with great warmth and energy…
Don Rober has had fifty years of experience with the plants and from what I can see and feel knows much more than he lets on. His eyes are relaxed but with a striking sense of clarity and peace. We begin to dissect the leaves of the chacruna plant, the complimentary plants like the toé blanco and really find out what green smells like. Our intent was on the smell and the feel of these leaves, to put a little of our own energy into them before they are added to the mix tomorrow during the cooking of the medicine.
Ayahuasca vine, known as Banisteriopsis caapi, are brought into the middle of all of us and we are invited to bash some up and prepare long slithers, again for the mixing of tomorrow’s sacrament. This interaction with the plants, and [the process of] helping with the cooking of the ayahuasca itself, has an impact on the experience and sets intent, within us and the ayahuasca. Don Howard goes on to explain the importance of this and for all of us within our relationship and new understanding of these sacred plants.
After dinner and long conversations into the night, I break away towards my room and settle down. The lodging quarters surround the ceremonial moloka and the general meeting area, the importance of which is paramount when needing to go to the bathroom during ceremony.
The rooms are very basic, with two beds in each and a private bathroom [adorned] with jade colored tiles. With wooden floors, walls and ceilings, and the strong smell of earth, these rooms hold a sense of antiquity with them. As I lay in bed and make notes, I listen to the crickets, insects, and the ‘bamboo rats’ laugh out from the jungle that envelops us. Once asleep, it doesn’t take long before my body and mind wake up — I haven’t adjusted too well to sleeping throughout the night since I landed in South America. I awake in pitch black with the sound of rain thumping down and ayahuasca calling — getting us ready for the night ahead…
“The process has already started and has been working on all of us before we arrived,” Mark says as I sip on a herbal tea, looking out onto the Amazon listening to nature’s song. The river is still, but I feel it beating against my spirit. This morning is the day of our first ceremony and I find myself in great focus and feel ready but extremely apprehensive of the medicine. I meditate upon the fact that today begins a journey that may keep on unfolding over the next few months, if not a lifetime. A quote then begins to take shape in my mind: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
As I observe my insecurities, my fears, and feelings, I start to focus on my intent stronger than ever throughout the day. My intention is to break down and release what no longer serves me, to build upon the cultivation of a more fulfilling, healthier, loving, and compassionate life. A better understanding of my path and purpose. Not a bad place to set such an intention within the lungs of the earth.
The first journey out of the sanctuary is toward the ayahuasca kitchen. It is key that ayahuasca is cooked and made as close to source as possible — the jungle — surrounded by the energy of the plants and spirits themselves.
We all gathered our things and made headway into the jungle around midday to have our mapacho ceremony and help cook the ayahuasca. As we all sat down, Don Howard discusses the importance of the sacred tobacco plant and the use of it within shamanic history. We all received a mapacho, which resembles a big rolled up joint as thick as your forefinger with no filter, and are told to light it up and smoke it with intent.
With mapacho, you do not breathe the smoke into your lungs, but you fill your mouth up with smoke and with force blow it out with intention. The taste is unlike normal cigarettes the Western world knows well, but is a pure tobacco that tastes rich in earthy tones.
Don Rober, Eliana and Carlos sit with Don Howard as he speaks about setting our intention towards the companion plants we held. We were going to add them, along with a handful of chacruna leaves from the night before, to the energetic brew boiling away in front of us.
Groups of three added their energy to the mix, [infusing] their handful of leaves and mapacho smoke into the ayahuasca… Don Howard then gave the floor to the shamans, who sing a protection arkana as they begin coming round to us one by one (as they do before and after every ayahuasca ceremony), to blow mapacho into our crown chakras on the top of our heads (to open us up to the medicine and give protection) and to pat our heads with an instrument called a chakapa (a shaker/rattle made from bundled leaves, which the shamans beat against their hands and knees to make a rhythmic beat).
A sense of calmness grew with the smell of mapacho and I felt my analytical mind start to quiet down. My body seemed to sink deeper in the chair, so I closed my mind and waited to be taken away with the icaros. The shamans shuffled back to their seats and started to beat the chakapa leaves on their knees. They begin with Don Rober’s whistle and evolve into spoken word in their native language, which is layered with Eliana and Carlos’s voice in unison. As they begin to sing, the beat started to resonate in my bones, like age old music reaching back to the roots of our species.
The icaros are said to have been taught to the shamans by the plant spirits, which differ from shaman to shaman — it all depends on the personal relationship between them and the spirits. In ceremony, they are used to lower or intensify the visionary element of the medicine, call in plant spirits and energies within the ceremonial space, protect the space from dark energy, and to generally guide and manage the ceremony. The icaros are the grounding mechanism, the guide through the auditory channel; they are a key to a portal and enable energy to move from a metaphysical realm to a physical realm.
The surrounding jungle seemed to beat louder and nature seemed to come alive once the icaros took hold of the space. The insects, birds, and even the wind seemed to sing with them; songs that they are very much familiar with. I gradually got weary with the constant mosquito hybrids and other such insects landing on me and kept ‘shoeing’ them away as they interrupted my concentration.
Immediately a proverb by Ram Dass, Be Here Now, struck me as loud as the icaros itself. I was signaled to accept what comes… within this journey of letting go. The flying pests kept their pursuit for my skin, and I gave in and surrendered, they landed and flew off and I wasn’t bothered again. A very small but first lesson learnt.
We break for lunch and then start to prepare for our 9 PM ceremony start, which may last until 5 the next morning for some of us. As I lay in one of three hammocks looking out into the jungle and onto the river, I can really feel the presence of change and connection within this setting… Mother Ayahuasca has begun her work.
I awoke in the dark with faint echoes of whistling and a terrible feeling I may be running late to something very important. I check my watch, 21:08. The candles have been lit in the moloka and the twenty-seven have been waiting, meditating for probably 15 minutes and there are two missing, myself and my room partner.
As I put on my cleanest, purest, and whitest regalia, I enter the moloka to see everyone in two circles, an outer and an inner, and Don Rober halfway through his protection arkana. My anxiety and apprehensiveness has now skyrocketed as my sleepy haze has yet to clear… “Still the mind and open the heart” was definitely not my mantra going through my head as I wished it had been.
As we all sit down and watch Don Rober circle the room with his smoke, everyone sits with great focus, some [with] a look of apprehension, and I feel my heartbeat slowly start to calm down. I look up towards the ceiling and take in the tapestries made by the local people that show the ayahuasca vine, icaros, and a bold jaguar entwined with snakes… Once the inside and outside of the moloka has been protected by… plumes of smoke, Don Rober takes his seat and Don Howard welcomes us all and gears up our first ceremony…
The day before we set up our mats on the floor, twenty-seven of us in a medium round ceremonial space. There were a lot of people bunched up; I found a spot just behind and to the right of the shamans, next to the altar, thinking it was the perfect spot for me. Don Howard, with a hand on my shoulder then said, “You’ll be starting us off.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and replied that somebody has to got to do it. So the first cup had been poured and I hear three feet to the left of me, “Luke.”
As I stood in front of the maestros, I see Don Howard’s beaming smile and the shamans staring deep into my eyes, with Don Carlos holding the cup out to me with great energy. I held it high in front of me, with locked out arms, and set my intention in my mind; to break down and release what no longer serves me and to build upon the cultivation of a more fulfilling, healthier, loving and compassionate life.
I chugged back the thick ayahuasca, which tastes like days old coffee mixed with dirt for good measure — an extremely earthy taste that stuck around in my mouth and intensified when it hit my stomach. Once back to my mat, I patiently waited for the others to ‘enjoy’ their cup. [They], like myself, would be soon feeling that energy inside their gut, vibrating through their system.
Usually it takes thirty to forty minutes before everyone has their cup and the candles are then blown out to a pitch black room. Only then do the icaros begin to help guide the experience. My visions started maybe twenty minutes in, and as I closed my eyes I found myself gazing into giant walls of richly colored tapestries constantly moving and morphing — gigantic spheres of energy riddled with patterns and otherworldly symbolism in what felt a never ending expanse.
With its rapidity of movement, it was a very dizzying effect, along with the onset of nausea in my stomach. I opened my eyes to ground myself. Instead, I saw the room start to vibrate. My visual and aural perception heightened, and quickly broke the barrier of every day perception. Colors were incredibly vivid and bright, to the point where the candle to my left was excruciating and I had to shift over a few inches to avoid seeing it altogether. I could hear people ten feet away from me breathe or sniff like they were sitting right next to me.
Once everyone had their cup, Don Howard would then blow out the three candles on the altar and leave only two candles in front of them flickering until it was time to blow them out to embrace complete darkness. Once ceremony begins, the whole sanctuary becomes void of light, the electricity is turned off and the staff become helpers who wait outside the moloka to be of assistance if anyone needs to go to the bathroom…
As my gaze begins to be drawn to the floor, I watch it start to light up with fluorescent colors, flickering towards the middle like a landing strip. Patterns, as I just previously saw with eyes closed, emerged in any space that now was available. The lights went out and the icaros started.
I instantly melted into my mat, engulfed with the sound of the most beautiful song I have ever heard, which was the opening arkana for each ceremony. I closed my eyes and the visions started from where they left off. Many diverse symbols were being shown to me as I felt I was traveling down what felt like a spine of a great being. Suddenly everything became blank until a giant wall of shimmering metallic eyes, thousands of them, started to come from every angle and stack upon each other, filling my full range of view, leaving little to no gaps. I was in a place now that wasn’t moving or morphing. I felt still and I gazed with great focus and awe as this wall of eyes stood there as far as I could see; each set of eyes twitching and flickering. They were very stylized, not fluid or round, but sharp and focused. They were alive and they were all looking right at me.
Icaros seemed to vanish at this point. I was in astonishment, staring at countless eyes, when another larger pair of eyes started to build up in front of this first wall. These were Egyptian-like, female eyes, which appeared in an extremely complex otherworldly yet familiar design made of ‘energized marble.’ This gaze was undeniable. I was in complete respect and in reverence to what I believe [was] my first interaction with the spirit of Mother Ayahuasca, Nature or Source.
Purging began around the group, loud roars of release snapped me back to being completely conscious to where I was and what I was seeing. My visions started to drift away and I became very aware of my posture and my breathing and began to meditate in mindfulness. With the fairly new obtrusive sound of people purging around the room, I started to observe my own nausea and became analytical [as to] whether or not I should try and purge — if not force myself to. The thunder in my stomach was heavy though, it wasn’t so much as wanting to come up. As I remembered from the past two days, to be open to ayahuasca you must show a high degree of trust, significant amount of courage, strength and will — you cannot control your experience.
I let go of the analytical thoughts and began to just ‘be.’ If I must purify through vomiting, then it will just come up naturally I thought. Some took the purge itself to be the experience through physical purification, but you can purge through vomiting, diarrhea, sweating or crying. I began to let the roars of others become a part of the experience, rather than that of an obtrusion to my own, and suddenly everything became still in my mind and once again the great feeling of connectedness erupted inside of me.
The sound of the chakapa started to come alive again in unison with its quick beat. A new icaro was now in full swing and I felt full of love and light. I soon realized I was sitting straight up with palms facing up and the bottom of my feet connected, knees flat. This sort of posture in any other moment would have felt quite unusual, but in this moment it was completely natural and the most comfortable I have been and felt in years. I did not remember consciously getting into this posture. I looked up and saw a dense purple beam coming down from the ceiling in a straight line and encompassing my being, as if I was sitting in the base of a teardrop. As I continued to gaze upon the path of light down towards my body, I saw white light shooting into the top of my head, out the tips of my fingers and through the soles of my feet. I watched energy come and go from this interaction and I felt significant changes arise in my states of being.
Rain started to pour over the ceremonial moloka and the wind came with it, rushing in with great force. The temperature dropped a little and a few cracks of thunder were heard from a distance. The jungle became a cacophony of sound, and the state of mind I was currently experiencing was of complete stillness and tranquility. Love and happiness flowed out of each tip of my smile as I took long deep breaths of the freshest air I have cherished in years.
After a final personal icaro and healing arkana at the end of the ceremony, my body felt even more connected with the ground and source. A sense of complete peace and quiet washed over me like a tidal wave. Only one candle now was lit, signifying the end of the ceremony and the shamans left, with Don Howard watching over for a little while longer for anyone still fairly deep in the medicine.
I steadily left the moloka as I felt the greatest sensation since the start of the night for the medicine to come up. Standing outside my room leaning against the handrail feeling rejuvenated and ecstatic, I peered into the darkness and watched the rain fall on the soil beneath me. I had no obtrusive thoughts, no background analytical processes, no monkey mind chatter, just serenity and a feeling that I was exactly where I needed to be at this point of my life.
As I awoke from a few hours sleep with my new sense of clarity, I was more than ready to engage in another new experience, which was described to us yesterday as the ‘final closing’ to any ayahuasca ceremony. Floral baths known as “banos florales” are a staple of shamanic healing. They are used to wash away unhelpful spirits so that blockages are removed. [These baths] help the body accept the new information from the medicine and “close up” the spiritual space around us to keep us from bad or negative energy; thus it is the crucial conclusion of the previous night’s ceremony.
We were to get out of bed and head towards the meeting area where refresco (unsweetened lemonade) was waiting for us. From there [we went] on to our flower bath meeting place, where two huge tubs of water sat, infused with fragrant and beautiful blossoms from the jungle.
As I sip on my lemonade standing alone, awaiting Dona Eliana, Don Rober, and the rest of my new found family, I start to really absorb the sheer stillness of mind and clarity; no interrupting thoughts, monkey-mind chatter banished. I felt as if I was glowing incessantly, feeling a very high vibration pulsating around me, and being hyper aware of my connection with my spirit and everything around me. As a few others started to line up with their very own glow, you could notice instantly that their faces were radiant and they were vibrating also with a higher understanding of themselves.
The maestros strolled down just after the stroke of 6 AM with enormous smiles and warmth; I undressed and sat in my underwear on the plastic chair ready for this cold awakening and for the final sealing arkana. Dona Eliana started to pour the icy flower water over my head, back, arms, and legs and cleaned my skin with as much love as any loving mother. Don Rober was behind me and blew a plume of mapacho smoke over my head and started beating the chakapa, to which they would sing their icaros over.
Nothing in the world at that moment mattered. Through the shivers I closed my eyes and felt the wind from the shaking leaves from behind and in front. I listened to the icaros with my auditory channels heightened and clear, and felt an abundance of love and warmth. My mind was still and my heart was open. There has only been a few moments in life I have ever been this present, still and compassionate for everything and everyone, and most importantly myself. I felt my consciousness moving into my heart space, knowing full well that this is the beginning of where healing occurs.
The flower bath is then meant to be worn throughout the day. As you walk around smelling like an alluring flower, the copious amount of insects are attracted to you and buzz around your body and connect with you. You feel the interaction with nature, and you can feel the energy of all things around you enhanced. At that moment, whilst observing these creatures laying in the hammock, I begin to strongly recognize that we, and all life around us, are supposed to be here; that we belong here as much as the sun, the trees, the wind, and earth itself. I was becoming intimate with all things and discovering rest, well-being and wholeness in my own body on a whole other level.
As we gather [in the] early afternoon around the meeting place, we take our seats and wait until everyone is quiet and ready to share their experiences, thoughts, techniques, and anything else that would like to be released to the rest of us. The sharing circle was a very necessary tool to get out our feelings and our stories, and to connect and learn from each other — and was in itself an extremely heart warming and cathartic practice. A talking stick was handed to the first speaker and it would make its way to each of our hands over the course of three hours or longer.
To listen to people’s history, along with their fears, faults and attributes they wish to release, was a very humbling experience. As I was one of the first few to start off the discussion, I went over my fairly mild experience, as most of us experienced, and I realized I barely opened up to the group. My walls with sharing were still fairly visible; these would be broken down after hearing a few other’s immensely moving talks and following my next ceremony.
I talked to others about it and they provided me with more stability within myself — to not tell just a story, but express the main feelings, unrestrained, and the impacts they made on the ceremony and the self. These sort of conversations lasted the rest of the afternoon. We discussed the benefits of the sharing circle to each other and everyone took something from it that will benefit them highly. As Don Howard says, it’s not all in the cup.
To be awake and observing the sun rise over the river and to listen to nature awake around you in the middle of the jungle is something to witness at least once in a lifetime. I watch the reflections of the trees build upon the water in front of me with such unique form and read a book [I] brought with me for this trip; The Dhammapada. It is a collection of sayings of Buddha in verse form, and this morning I seemed to repeat and meditate on this excerpt up until the smell of breakfast snapped me out of my reflecting stupor.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unbreakable.
— Ch. I. Twin Verses
Throughout the day I reflected more on The Dhammapada and also found The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby, which screamed out at me within the hundreds of books that the sanctuary held to quench our thirst for literacy within the different fields of shamanism, plant medicines, and spirituality.
Lunch is our last meal before ceremony, being 6-8 hours before we begin our work with the medicine. This gives a good window for the sensitivity to the medicine to peak and to be balanced by not being too hungry. The menu hadn’t changed and the fresh fish caught locally began to repel some as they opted for just the beans, rice, and vegetables. Finishing my meal and appreciating every drop of camu-camu (a South American fruit highly rich in vitamin C), I focus on tonight’s ceremony and my intent into my second encounter with the vine of the soul. Silence and stillness remained until the candles were lit later that night.
Don Rober whistles an icaro into each of the bottles filled with ayahuasca and I knew instantly that tonight the intensity will be turned up a notch. It was confirmed when Howard said to us all that tonight may be very different for some of us and that we will be working with the medicine on a deeper level. I came into the moloka with great energy. I made sure I was on time and sat in meditation; I was ready for the entire gamut of feeling.
The onset began before the last candle went out, which seemed now to be a running theme, the light seemed to strobe and the floor of the moloka came alive again with bright fluorescent colors, pulsating with energy and purpose. Along the walls, I gazed into intricate patterns which seemed to be coming from outside and looked very much like the patterns of the Shipibo tapestries and on the ceramics around the retreat. These same patters have been described as what the shamans see in us…
I looked around and saw everyone pulsating with their own vibration and could see their energy building and becoming more dense around them. I felt the room come alive with spirits and started to feel energy coming down from the ceiling. As I look up, there were long thick snakes slithering down the vertical beams of the moloka. They were slowly traveling down in a trance-like state with extremely vibrant neon colors starting to beam off them. As they slowly got lower and lower, I could see they had patterns running through them, strands of energy like Alex Grey paintings. I was seeing them on a molecular form and as they got to the bottom of the floor they started to vanish into it.
Don Howard blew out the last candle and the room fell into darkness. I leaned back into the wall with heavy limbs. I felt the medicine streaming through my body, through my veins like the slow snakes that made their way down the pillars of the moloka. The icaros begun and were slightly different from ceremony one, they felt much slower and warmer in pace. They were songs of deep work and purpose.
Fascinating warm, subtle, pastel colored designs came into perspective as I shut my eyes so my focus could be entirely on these graceful and elegant songs. They begun as small intricate designs, not geometric, but more symbolic and meaningful — constantly evolving into something more intricate and refined. If you could picture love and compassion without any physical imagery, but as shapes and colors colliding with each other to continually perfect what seemed to be the image of feeling — that’s what I was seeing. And what I was seeing was a reflection of exactly how I was feeling: loving kindness, attachment, and light. My heart felt whole. There wasn’t a piece out of place.
Mother Aya had opened my heart for this ceremony and filled it with her touch. Like a child in its mothers arms, I felt safe, trust, and love like no other. I felt energy rush into me and suddenly my head fell back, and I watched as light entered my mouth under my tongue. I closed my eyes and felt a great rush of vitality deep within my being. My spirit was being revitalized. I felt a strong presence of the divine constantly around us and working within the room. As I opened my eyes for the first time in what felt [like] forever, I watched these beings, as balls of light, jump around from person to person, disappear and re-appear as if they are being called in and out to work on us. I then remembered seeing a rough translation of a certain icaro that calls in the ‘little doctors’ to come and work on us and could hear these words in the icaro of present.
As quite intense groans of pain and fear came from one side of the room. I watched as the shamans shuffled towards [the person emitting them] to try and lower the intensity, as it was becoming too much — his deceased mother was being shown to him. Don Howard, with help from the staff that are on call just outside the moloka, took him towards his room to not hinder the rest of the group’s focus. As the room became quiet again, and focus came back to the room and onto the icaros, I felt a great pressure on my stomach. My visions had now started to dissipate a little and as I pulled myself from the wall and over my Don Rober-certified purge bucket, I released a great ball of hard substance from deep within — and I have never done so with such a great smile on my face. My first deep physical purification. I sat up straight and fell back into the state of loving awareness as the ceremony started to wind down.
As the closing candle was lit and the shamans left, I was exceedingly grounded within myself. I was shown what it was to feel and be in deep love and compassion, and now I felt it was my duty to encompass that and watch over the five or six left in the moloka. There were some still tossing and turning and a few that were asleep. As I was sending packages of compassion, I felt an energy start to build and I started to hear that familiar sound of small beads clink together. They were of course the beads of Don Howard’s bag, and as he slowly entered the moloka, having made sure everything was now okay with the other member, he stood as tall as the moloka itself. Dressed in his white ceremonial regalia from head to toe, [which featured] markings of the vine and embroidered patterns, he stood next to the ceremonial altar and with great focus and deep concern scanned everyone there slowly. Standing for at least twenty minutes in deep meditative practice, his passion and commitment was undeniable. Standing as tall and as rigid as a cement statue he collects his things and slowly leaves the room once satisfied that everyone is secure. I fall asleep on my mat with a rug pulled over… with a giant smile across my face.
Waking up early in the comfort of the moloka… I grab my things and head towards the river to make notes and to sit within the stillness of the morning. Sitting at breakfast and in deep conversation with the group of six or seven at our table, I feel a hand fall on top of my shoulder and look up to see Don Howard looking down with a huge smile and kind eyes. [He] says, “You are really a beautiful man Luke.” As I was sitting facing the river, I did not see him arrive into the space and was completely surprised with the comment. All I could do was smile and thank him graciously. Howard then pulled up a chair and settled into breakfast.
Most mornings start off with a few tables talking amongst themselves… Howard then makes his way down, mostly late in the morning or early afternoon, and takes a seat. Once he starts talking, everyone around becomes very quiet and takes notes mentally or physically as he begins to answer questions and discuss, with great wisdom and depth, anything that arises.
As early afternoon became visible and the conversations started to peter out, we were told to get our day packs ready for we were to take a short boat ride out to a neighboring village to visit the Bora Bora tribe. The boats weaved through manmade tunnels through the dense shrubs of the Amazon jungle and it didn’t take long to reach our destination.
As we arrived, kids ran out of their thatched homes and greeted us. The village chief, dressed with feathers flaring to the sky and jaguar teeth hanging from his neck, took us all by hand and smiled with great warmth. As soon as we entered into their communal space, the tribe was in full dance, children grabbing us to join in the ‘dance of the anaconda.’ We learned a little about their tribe, the ups and downs of their rubber era, and bought some of their arts and crafts. We were there for a few hours playing with the kids, taking photos and getting involved with some errands around their homes. It was an extremely rewarding experience.
We returned to the sanctuary for our second sharing circle in which, for many, was an immensely cathartic release. Everyone really opened up this time and expressed great gratitude… I felt an immensely deep sense of connectedness within the group that was to keep growing. I spoke third and it was a lot easier to open up, firstly explaining my shattered heart and its inability to fully receive love and compassion. [I also spoke about] my propensity to try and feel compassion through vices that weren’t conducive to a healthy mind and body. I expressed my feelings towards the medicine, my absolution of guilt, and a newly found sense of forgiveness for myself.
That night we had a bobinsana ceremony a little earlier than our usual ayahuasca time. The moloka was set a little different. Apart from mats circling around the room, there were deck chairs in a smaller circular shape, [offering] a more intimate feeling.
Bobinsana is a native plant found in the Peruvian Amazon and planted all around the retreat with both ayahuasca and its companion plants. It blooms every month in synchrony, and bright pink and purple starburst flowers were in bloom since we arrived (when we left all the flowers would have dropped off). An alcohol tincture made up of the stems, leaves, flowers and bark of the plant is taken to open and heal the heart, to increase empathy, to strengthen one’s connection with nature and provide spiritual grounding. Another great effect, that was incredibly strong in the coming days, was its powerful [ability] to produce lucid and extremely colorful visionary dreams.
Our ceremony lasted only an hour or so after we drank the tincture. It tasted strong in alcohol, which I had not tasted for going on two months, and I noticed a little distaste towards it. But after about 30 minutes in, and with loving warm icaros, everyone seemed to be smiling and beaming with joy. I felt complete contentment for everyone and everything, and was happy to be exactly where I was in life and with the events that have led up to this point in my 27 years within this human embodiment.
The closing of ceremony ended with a group hug and everyone including the shamans welcomed the warmth of the room. Feeling overwhelmed with such joviality and astonishment [as to] how far everyone has come mentally since arrival, I mentioned to Howard, “What a journey!” Knowing I was staying for the huachuma (San Pedro) retreat, he acknowledged and replied, with a great smile, that it has only just begun.
Today I feel on top of the world… During the day we visited the Shibipo tribe, who set up their incredible art and craft at the other end of the sanctuary. Such distinctly beautiful rugs, table runners, clothing, artwork, jewelry all glowed with their intricate patterns — patterns that I have seen through my visions the past two ceremonies. I try to take it all in and take pictures as unfortunately my wallet wasn’t quite ready for this opportunity. I was able to trade a few of my Western shirts [that] I brought specifically for trade and a small donation of currency to purchase a custom white ceremonial shirt with Shibipo patterns sewn in the back and the vine down both sleeves, and icaros down the front with bold neon stitching. I thanked the shaman that created this piece of art and shook his hand. He then expressed ‘muy potente’; very powerful.
Tonight I felt comfortable with my preparation for the dynamic interaction with Mother Aya and my own state of being; I repeated within myself my intention, which was becoming more and more refined as the nights went on. With ceremonial shirt adorned, I took the cup and swallowed what I thought was far less than the other two ceremonies. As I sat patiently waiting for everyone to drink their cup, I was consciously keeping my eyes open so I could start my visionary experience once the candles were blown out and the icaros could lead me on my journey.
As 20 minutes or so passed, maybe three quarters of everyone were sitting with the pulsing energy in their stomachs. I watched everyone start to surge with that familiar electricity, the fluorescent colors in the floor started to flash again like an aircraft runway. I watched as patterns changed into snakes, which swirled around the moloka, and — without realizing — my eyes were shut and I was deep, really deep, in the medicine.
With the state of surrender I was now in, with closed eyes, the visions were unlike anything I have ever seen — nothing like my previous ceremonies or any other visionary or divinatory states I have experienced using any psychedelic or substance. I was starting to observe what seemed like rooms of breathtaking colors, shapes and undefinable symbols, and entities that continued to expand and implode to produce something even more inconceivable.
Nothing in our conscious reality could compare. I would hear snippets of sounds from someone sniffing, a long deep breathe or swift movement, and the sound would then bounce around the space I was in… My sensory input all melted into this intense visionary journey. The only coping mechanism to observe and be at ease was mindful meditation; to observe, make note and continue to focus on the breath. The only explanation to what I was experiencing was that I was inside my head, inside my mind, traveling through it, watching it unfold into endless and indescribable states. With each state being overwhelmingly exquisite, I found myself constantly asking how this could be anymore magnificent; anymore possible? I would then see the room crack open and was shown something even more unimaginable.
Within my journey introspectively through the beauty of the mind, which must have been an hour or two at least, the journey then became too extreme. Too astonishing. I started to question it more and more. I was becoming more aware and my analytical thoughts started to creep in. My courage was now running thin and I thought I may be caught in this space and not able to return, so I started to subliminally control my experience. I was fearful and wasn’t trusting in the medicine and opened my eyes. The candles were out and the icaros were in full swing. It was the first time I really listened to them and they were soft, quiet yet forceful.
The room was dark and all that was in front of me were giant orbs of energy, two beaming eyes like that of a jaguar that would stay there for the duration of the night. Spiders and snakes moved through the floor and up the beams of the moloka, not like you would see them in nature, but as huge thick cords of energy and symbolism. I saw the blending of the three energies of the spirit animals of ayahuasca; the snake (underworld), the jaguar (middle world) and the eagle (upper world). I saw an intense spark as snakes started to intertwine within these giant eyes and gaze upon flying birds flowing out of them with great energy.
Already being quite uncomfortable after traversing the expansion of my mind, seeing giant flashing eyes staring at me, an abundance of animals flying and crawling through the floor and into a giant expanse above, it was all becoming slightly unbearable. Realizing the intensity was building and building, I shut my eyes to hone in on the icaros…
[The] visions did not let up. My feet were constantly tapping and moving as to make sure they were still attached. I was witnessing symbols and patterns moving and flashing into view, and feeling drained was not helping me surrender to it. There were short restful periods within this profusion of chaos as the icaros died down for a short while. In the peace and quiet was some grounding, which I would take as a breather because as soon as the icaros started up again [so] did the intensity and the frenetic energy that my visions were to be that night…
Others in past sharing circle’s had certain questions answered, and in my case the questions kept stacking up. I was still getting pushed to the edge with what I was enduring and I wasn’t getting any answers back — until this great vision of a mountain started to build. I was looking up at this daunting and ominous mountain with a peak as high as the eye can see and a voice that was as deep as the root of the mountain itself beckoned to me: “Become the mountain.” The words cracked into my soul and everything else seemed to fall away. The mountain-like smoke disappeared and the words “become the mountain” echoed through my being and a feeling of importance welled up inside.
For the rest of the night until the shamans left, the medicine was still very confrontational and blunt, pushing me to states of fear, holding me there, and then pulling back. It was a tough lesson of letting go of the control mandate within my sense of insecurity. Soon after, the shamans went around to finish the ceremony with a personal icaro for everyone and left, with Don Howard sitting in for another half an hour to make sure everyone left comfortably…
I felt a strong pressure within my stomach and instantly had to run to the toilet. Still fairly under the medicine, I knew this wouldn’t be an easy task. Your equilibrium isn’t too in tune while you’re up and walking, and it seems as if the floor under you isn’t stable. You rock back and forth, and make headway with hands firmly on the hand rails. My only guide within the dark of night, a small torch that I held onto tightly as I didn’t want to step on any physical or non physical snakes in this state.
Usually unable to see things in any ordinary state of consciousness in the night, tonight was much different. I could see energy or an aura coming off the surrounding trees and shrubs, [and] what I can only explain as spirits jumping from leaf to leaf and flying around. I saw dense patterns in what would be the roots of these trees, which would vanish as soon as I would try to confirm it all with my small torch.
Being in an outside toilet with physical insects crawling around you, a torch that was shining around like the Blair Witch Project, and seeing things that otherwise would be completely unusual to the normal realm was an adventure just in itself. I slowly became aware of dark energy and felt vulnerable to it, either to what had been purged or what was around at that time of early morning, but I made haste back toward the moloka where I felt a little safer.
As I laid upright, I looked onto the others fast asleep and could feel this sort of uneasiness. The first time I looked around I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary but two others asleep on their side. On the returning look I saw in between those two people a circular patch of dark black energy within the shadows of the singular lit candle. At once I was compelled not to look at it or give it any thought or energy. So I laid down, drunk some water, closed my eyes, and focused on the sounds of the jungle and the icaros that tend to linger on in your head.
Visions lasted until I passed out with sheer exhaustion and not too long after that I heard small waterfall noises; I opened my eyes to sunlight and saw the sanctuary’s assistants pouring out twenty-seven purge buckets. I took that cue to force myself up and back to my bed to try and get at least a couple more hours rest.
Today was going to be the fourth and last ceremony, and my feelings toward it were of distress and extreme discomfort. I felt exhausted when I woke up and tried to get to the flower bath early so I could retire to some more rest. I had breakfast with a couple of others, but did not eat too much or discuss much about my experience as my mind was worn out with trying to comprehend and I was still putting the pieces together myself. I wrote down my notes instead and headed to the hammock to try and get to a conscious state where I wasn’t so afraid of tonight’s final closing ceremony…
I knew I had yet another seven days after this, with three ceremonies working with huachuma, and my nerves were getting the better of me. I failed to even remember my own words after the second ceremony during the sharing circle, where I put forward the notion that each ceremony builds upon the previous and gets you ready for the next. All I wanted was just a rest day, but I had to step up to the plate and bring as much energy as I could for tonight’s final phase…
I shared a few small intricacies of my experience to everyone during today’s sharing circle, but it was very condensed and cut short due to my shambled state. I took a lot away from everyone else’s thoughts. As always, I learned a lot about myself and even my own experiences through other’s perception and thought analysis… I wrote down a number of things that day but the boldest was: ‘“Become the Mountain” — Mother Ayahuasca, the insightful therapist.’
I spent the rest of the day recovering, sleeping, and ruminating on thoughts of the mind being an obstacle in our every day lives — and that connection to one another, nature, and the collective consciousness is far deeper than that just of the mind. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions are but of a subset of what’s really going on in a deeper level. Coming into the next ceremony, I observed the thoughts and emotions rigorously and kept a firm belief that the only thing to fear is fear itself.
Coming into the ceremonial moloka for the last time to experience and interact with ayahuasca, I was both exhausted and apprehensive — though strength in courage to surrender was still on my side. For now I was meditating on my mat listening to the jungle awaken, as it does each night, and started to externally project myself into their energies, realizing they’d get to listen to us, to the icaros, and feel our energy pulsate soon into a deeper and higher consciousness. I started to think about nature in my visions and how that connection may have been with the spirits that are singing to us now. As I start to come back to myself, I realize my cup is surely to be poured soon. [I] started to relay through my mind to Howard to let my cup give warmth and light, as my energy was not at all fully recovered.
I stared at the back of his head and shared this information to him. As I stand in front of all four of these extremely respectable, warm-hearted, and devoted maestros, my smile is from cheek to cheek, my heart is completely open, and compassion quickly engulfs me. I take the cup from Don Carlos for the last time and raise it and set my intention. To pursue a healthy life fulfilled with commitment, compassion, and happiness for myself, everyone, and everything around me. My intent has come a long way from a whole bundle of questions of this and that. A lot of noise. For now I was clear.
As I head back to my mat and sit down in great appreciation and privilege to be sitting here, I find my stomach feels settled and the feeling of tightness within myself evaporates. The feeling of nausea did not hit me like it did previously and I felt at great ease within myself, an effortless composure. A strange feeling then hit me, it was neither a thought or an emotion, but I just felt that last night’s ceremony and most of today was a test of willpower. A test of surrender and of overcoming fear. Thoughts then came into play and I seemed to repeat like a mantra, ‘Learning manifests itself once the individuals behavior changes.’
As the candles were blown out and everyone was deep within their journeys with the medicine, I found myself to be in complete equanimity. As the icaros swept through the room, so did the patterns I was so comfortable with. Snakes slithered in and out of them, and I welcomed them to interact. I felt what seemed like an ocean of presence fill the room. The room was flickering and showing a temple-like structure, giant pillars with spiders and insects crawling all over them, marching in and out of each of us. As I watched this all unfold, I was in the state of buddha mind, clearer than I have ever felt. This sort of visual stimulus, plus what I was feeling energy-wise, would not be for the poor-spirited. I, myself, would not have been ready unless my previous three ceremonies built me up to this state of acceptance and trust. This went on and became a lot more complex to a state of ineffability, just as my third ceremony, but without any such fear or alarm. I asked questions within this state and began to gain insights into self-awareness and spirituality, but for the most part of the ceremony, I was in a state of letting go and being at peace with that.
As I began to smell a thick dense aroma of tobacco, I came back to full consciousness and opened my eyes to realize that Don Carlos was standing over me tapping on my head with the chakapa leaves, wanting me to sit up. As I sat up straight, I saw the shamans slowly starting their final personal icaros for everyone. My visions for that moment completely dissipated and I felt [the] immense happiness of my experience [as] if it were over and didn’t think for one second that they were about to get incredibly profound.
The sacred tobacco used in the ceremonial space is a communication tool, a bridge to a higher realm, and it fell over me like a blanket. The chakapa beating on my head was vibrating my entire being as I felt smothered in tobacco. I couldn’t hear the icaro, or anything else for that matter, as my vibration became colossal. Eyelids were flickering as I held my eyes closed, trying to encompass this higher vibration, to stick with it and be in complete awareness of it. A giant plume of smoke hit me stronger than it ever did, as it washed down my face from where it was blown into the crown of my head. I felt Don Carlos walk to the next person as I fell back into the wall, overcome with an immense feeling like I was literally about to blast off.
As my eyes closed I fell out of my body and mind as I knew it, and felt I was now in a state of ‘non-existence.’ Out of nowhere came a voice, [which] asked how I would feel and what would it be like to live like this. A distorted body or being came into view, something quite familiar to humankind but also something a little different. I couldn’t make out whether or not it was human, spirit or something else. It looked a little distorted, but I felt strongly that it was being shown as the interpretation of the future of humanity.
I surrendered to the strange feeling that was happening inside of me as I came to actually enter this being and took it as my own. I instantly became connected with the feelings, emotions, and thoughts of this being. I was struck suddenly with a sense of incredibly improved functionality towards feeling and being. How one can utilize their time in the best possible way in one’s own self?
I find it extremely hard to completely describe in words what came next, but life within this state began to unfold in front of my eyes. Expanding slowly, I was shown a series of developments and ways to reach the maximum human potential for deep connection within universal consciousness. Every action was detrimental to compassion and the biodiversity of life. For the most part, universal consciousness was something I read about and tried to improve my understanding of, but now I was watching it in full motion and reaping the benefits.
This was a revelation, and for the most part was hard to grasp at the time, when suddenly I was shown all of us in the room as patients. My eyes were still fixed closed, and as I begun to open them, I felt as if I was still on a higher plane of consciousness. I watched with ‘fresh eyes’ as we were all getting worked on; all getting healed by a higher power. I watched spirits float around each one of us as small bright lights as they transferred energy and healing. Humming came from my right, and as I looked I saw the same bright light spirits scan my head and my heart. I closed my eyes feeling I didn’t want to be intrusive in any way. I heard the hum and the flow of wind from their movement and they slowly flew away.
As my eyes were once again closed, I saw a giant stone gate, like that of an Incan gate of piled stone. There was a tremendous fire burning within it and I was instantly aware of its dark energy. This was the gate where bad energy was being cast into everything that was dark and deceased. Old fears, insecurities, trauma’s and cancers of being were entering into this fire. This sort of energy can also come out of this gate, and [I] was certain that… in the wrong context without the guidance and oversight of the experienced curanderos, this energy would come out unrestrained into one’s psyche…
I opened my eyes and saw the candle was lit and my first undisturbed view of the night was of Don Rober, his wife Dona Eliana, and son Don Carlos slowly getting up in a beeline, hugging Don Howard on their way to depart. I saw them in their human form, like every other day, but sparkling, radiating extreme positive, glowing vibrations. Their knowledge, compassion, and dedication was irrefutable at that point and as powerful as the medicine itself. They began to take another form and started to grow in stature as ancients with powerful symbolism starting to become visible on their skin. I quickly understood the gravity of their importance within this kind of work. Everything from their input into cooking the ayahuasca, their input within the retreat, the flower baths, protecting the space, singing the icaros, and their compassion and guidance during ceremony. It was unquestionable in my mind that this experience was of its maximal potential and truly unique. Their presence, I pictured, were that of Salvador Dali’s paintings of the long-legged elephants — ancient, towering and powerful.
There was one mapacho left on the ayahuasca table as everyone started to leave to [go to] their rooms. I got up and gathered my things along with the mapacho and set [off] towards the tower in the middle of the retreat, where I could be with the energy and the sounds of the jungle. As I hang in the hammock in the dead of night, with the smoke seeming to keep the mosquitos away for a moment, I stare into the stars above and revel in the resonance the jungle produces. I listen to the jungle’s own icaros and perfectly lose myself in being.
It was our last day with the original cast and crew that arrived to the sanctuary, as over half of them will depart tomorrow. There will be twelve left, including myself, carrying on our journey with the grandfather spirit of the huachuma cactus, or as it is more widely known, the San Pedro cactus.
Our last flower bath was full of glowing, youthful and wholesome faces. As I looked around, it was clear to see some of the faces now looked ten years younger. The expression of most was of complete contentment, and we were all very much in harmony with nature and one another. It was quite a sight to behold how far we had come in such a short amount of time. We all felt our significant jump in connectedness within ourselves and spirit, in place of what we had previously felt in the modern world.
We all discussed the medicine and our experiences with it during breakfast. We discussed the interactivity of it, the integration of it. When some went home, or as they took off on their travels, we mostly observed and certified the fresh perspective we all had on our lives. These conversations continued throughout the day whilst we visited an Amazonian zoo up the river, where there were monkeys on arrival that would jump on your shoulder and steal any loose objects that they may think of value.
As we made our way through this zoo on stilts over the river, we came into contact with sloths, toucans, exquisite looking turtles and anacondas. We fed and played with the monkeys as we sat around before leaving. One in particular stole a bottle of eye-drops and proceeded to drink it, minutes later he was curled up on my lap wincing, with two others jumping on board to give aid. Pain was all long forgotten when more bananas appeared and we were on our way back to the boats.
As the sun started to set, we found ourselves floating down the Amazon, following the pink dolphins that welcomed all of us eight days ago and the colors that reflected off the river. It was simply breathtaking. Ethereal pinks and oranges in a cloudless sky, with a few birds overhead. All you could see was beauty magnified.
I was in Peru, South America, cruising down the Amazon River after seven days of intensive ancient tradition of ayahuasca that I had searched for for years; the beauty of the moment and the sudden recognition of what had just been made me misty-eyed. I felt nothing but compassion and everything else stood in its shadow.
On our way back to the sanctuary my hand was flowing in the water and I created a mental picture of the radiating clarity of my mind, body and spirit that I will find extremely hard to ever forget.
My next seven days were to be involved with another quite intense experience, that of the huachuma, which hopefully one day I will also be able to put in words and be able to share with you.
“We change the world not by what we say or do, but as a consequence of what we have become.” — Dr. David Hawkins
This story has been edited lightly for typos, clarity and length.
Andrew Mantle says
Excellent read and so well written, thank you for sharing I too wish to make the journey.
Thank you for sharing, Luke. It sounds beautiful and inspiring. More power to you!