Drinking ayahuasca is one of a number of shamanic practices that can be utilized to heal psychological and emotional wounds through a mystical experience. Ayahuasca can provide a conscious awakening of the mind and help one gain a better understanding of the self and human condition. However, it is not a quick fix. It is not for everyone. It is not a cure all and it requires follow up work and processing to integrate its teachings into the psyche so that the magic remains within. That being said, the medicine, if properly used, can change a life in dramatic ways. It did for me, and this is my story…
The nickname I received from my parents when I was a very young child was “how it works?” Apparently, as a curious youngster I spent my days seeking out anything that moved and asked the same question over and over until the name stuck. Hour after hour was spent in our backyard examining insects, mushrooms, worms, dandelions, bees, trees, ants and plants. I stared into the street at the passing cars and bicycles and looked upwards towards the sky to see the animal shapes in the puffy white clouds. Indoors I watched the mechanical movements of the cuckoo clock high up on the wall and reveled when the little bird finally poked its head outside the wooden box and sounded her call. It all fascinated me. The world was a magical place. It was a wondrous time and I wanted to know the spells that made it all work.
As time passed, I grew and developed. My curiosity expanded. At some point the questions went from how to include the “five w’s”; who, what, when, where and why? Who am I? What is our purpose? When did the universe begin? Where does life come from? Why are we here?
Unfortunately for me, as I am sure is the case for many, the rush of information that flowed inward from family, school, teachers, news, religious organizations and the leaders of our country did not always add up. Questions were answered, but they did not always make sense. Pieces of the puzzle were missing. Something was not quite right and it nagged at the back of my mind. It seemed as though the story that was told (or sold), was not the reality discerned.
I saw hypocrisy and lies everywhere and it disturbed me. I was told by my rabbi that we were created in the image of God, but when learning about the big bang and evolution in school the scientific narrative was paramount and that view that favored the material world as being deterministic could not be challenged. I heard from the country’s leadership that the United States was “The Greatest Nation On Earth.” After all, we were the first nation to land on the moon. We saved the world from Hitler and were underway again to rid the world of communists, later the axis of evil (today the terrorists and ISIS). But, I thought, how could we call ourselves the greatest nation when we had to commit genocide to illegally obtain the land of the native americans for our own purposes? Until the emancipation proclamation our economy thrived on the backs of slaves captured and taken from their homelands, transported against their will, deemed property and frequently treated as if they were animals. The list of symptoms of a sick society grew. Pollution. Environmental damage. Thalidomide babies. Poverty. Income inequality. Bigotry. War. Racism. Injustice. Greed.
By the time I became a teenager the magic had died. I became disillusioned and distrustful of authority. I became a rebel. I rebelled against everything. My parents, my teachers, the world around me. I turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. I experimented with just about everything. If it was a pill, I popped it. If you could put it in a pipe, I smoked it. I found it difficult to conform.
As time went by, I tried to learn how to fit into the mainstream. I stopped my drug use, went to college and graduated school, receiving degrees in anthropology, economics and an MBA in international business. I got married and had a beautiful daughter. I tried my best to live what is considered the normal life. However, this band aid approach did not work. Conformity took its toll. I developed severe anxiety, began to suffer from depression, was diagnosed with ADHD and developed a sleep disorder from working nights for three and a half years. My marriage had ended. I started drinking and partying to excess. I bounced from one relationship to another. And I went from job to job trying hopelessly to find one that I enjoyed. I became increasingly distraught, bitter and angry.
They say ayahuasca finds you, and that was certainly the case for me. While I had studied cultures that used ayahausca during my anthropology coursework, I was unaware that ayahuasca had been quietly winding its way around the globe and into the consciousness of Westerners. When I needed her most, she found me. At a monthly gallery event in the Chicago arts district of Pilsen I met a shaman. We chatted for a while and he asked me if I knew about ayahuasca and whether I’d want to try it. The shaman explained it could help me. I said yes to the idea not knowing what would soon happen. In a few weeks he introduced me to another shaman who I will call Hummingbird. She would be the one who would perform the ayahuasca ceremony. We talked for a while. I felt a good connection and decided to accept the invitation.
The day arrived. I hopped into my car and drove out to a typical middle class Chicago suburb. I entered the split level home and descended into the basement where the ceremony was to take place. Hummingbird, who had performed ayahuasca ceremonies for ten years, set up the space in a nice and comfortable way. There was an altar at the end of the room where she sat. There was plenty of room for the dozen or so people to lay down their sleeping bags. Once the darkness of night settled in we were asked to introduce ourselves. Hummingbird gave some instructions and described in basic terms what was to take place. We went around the room smudging ourselves with Palo Santo and stated our intentions. The ceremony began.
I was the third person called to the altar to drink. I ingested the foul brew in one gulp, returned to my sleeping bag and sat down. After everyone drank, we sat in silence for about 40 minutes. Then the medicine kicked in and hit me like a brick wall. One moment I was in the basement and the next I was gone. I was an experienced psychonaut, but was a bit nervous about ayahuasca as I understood it could be incredibly potent. In this case it was.
My physical reality disappeared and I found myself in another place. To me it was as real as anything, except I was conscious of ingesting the brew and had a buzzing sensation running through my body like a strong current of electricity. It was a visionary experience in the sense that it brought me to another realm. I met with spirits and spirit guides. I talked with them as if they were as solid and material as the computer I see and touch in front of me as I write these words. At first I was brought to a cave. I was scared. The walls were bright red. It seemed hellish. There were a number of spirits lounging around. They picked on me. They knew everything about me and exploited my weaknesses. They were mean-spirited and their words burned. They showed no mercy. We talked about who I was as a person. What made me tick. They listed everything I had done wrong and every bad thought I had ever had. They were relentless and unforgiving. It was the opposite of pleasant. The leader was brutal in his assessment of my flaws and life story. I was scared it would never end. What saved me was a medicine song.
After some time Hummingbird began to play music. I listened to the words and they guided me from the dark into the light. I was now out of the cave and suspended about twenty feet above the ground. I began to move forward, floating through the air. I flew over deserts, saw prophets and camels and caravans. I saw symbols everywhere. Ancient symbols. Hebrew symbols. Sanskrit symbols. Egyptian symbols. Others unrecognizable and seemingly alien. My conversations with the spirits here were the opposite of what was spewed in the cave. Everything was light, everything was good. We talked about the good in me, and everything I had said or done right. The experience was warm and beautiful and filled with love. It was incredible. I rejoiced. Eventually, the visions subsided. The medicine was still in me, but I was able to reflect on the experience. My mind started to process. I replayed the conversations I had had and the visions I saw. The mirror that had been reflected on me allowed me to see myself clearly for the first time. The good and the bad. I saw what I needed to see. Ayahausca, more than any entheogen or psychedelic I have worked with, provided me with information. It showed me who I was and what to do. It delivered a message and offered a new path.
As I mentioned earlier, I had studied anthropology in college. Studying and understanding the human condition was my passion but I had decided to enter the business world instead. It was a decision of conformity — I had buckled to its pressure. Ayahuasca gave me the courage to walk the path that I wanted, not the one I had chosen. Ayahausca gave me the message that I needed to do what I love and wanted to do — to seek and explore the human condition. Ayahuasca returned the magic to me and gave me the courage to change my course.
After a few months of thinking about the experience and revisiting the question of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I decided to visit Peru and study shamanism. I had been blessed by a layoff from the company where I worked so I had the time to travel. I had also been saving and had enough money to fund a journey for a couple years if I was careful and watched my pennies. Peru currently has a growing economy, but it is still a third world country and costs significantly less to live and travel there than it costs to live in a city in the U.S.
Before I go further into what eventually led me to make my film, The Path of the Sun, I need to back up for a minute and answer the question: How does one go from being a business executive with a Fortune 500 to a filmmaker? This did not happen over night, but rather over a decade. In 2003 I bought a digital camera with video capabilities. I spent much of my free time teaching myself how to shoot and edit photographs and video. It was a hobby, but I was dedicated to learning everything. At that time, I was involved with an amazing group of friends that were artists, photographers, video artists and electronic music producers. Chicago, where I lived, was a laboratory of creative talent. Several of my friends were video artists and I learned how to project and manipulate live video feeds. We were invited to project at clubs, Burning Man events, warehouse parties, festivals and raves. We formed an artist collective and I became passionate about pursuing the then new art form of the VJ (video jockey). I was invited to perform with Mixmaster Mike from the Beastie boys at Lollapalooza and at many other places with well known electronic music producers and DJ’s. Eventually though, the psychedelic and abstract eye candy I made became repetitive and I yearned to create something different with the filming, editing and animation skills I had developed. I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to make a film, and now ayahausca provided the path to allow me to unify my skills with my passion for understanding the human condition. So, when I made the decision to go to Peru to study shamanism I decided to document the experience and this is how The Path of the Sun was born.
I left for Peru on 11/11/11. I spent two years filming, visiting shaman in the mountains and in the jungles. I continued to drink the medicine and I continued to receive information. Each experience led to learning and understanding. Ayahuasca and the shamanic work I was learning from the Q’ero* guided me and continued to provide a path to recovery. My anxiety was under control. My depression gone. I drank socially and was able to enjoy a glass of wine without drinking the entire bottle. I was able to focus and enjoy life. The dark clouds gave way and my heart felt good.
It has been eighteen months since my last ayahuasca journey. I am still processing and learning. I get anxious and depressed from time to time. But, it is infrequent. I focus much better and the ADHD does not seem to be much of an issue. I drink socially. I still have the sleep disorder. It’s called restless leg syndrome. Ayahuasca did not help with that. But another plant medicine does. It’s called marijuana. I do feel the calling to work with the medicine again as I believe there is something more to learn and it helps me creatively.
I have often asked myself, “What is it about the ayahausca experience that makes it work and what can we do to ingrate what we learn into our lives so that the teachings remain permanent?”
After completing The Path of the Sun, I began to research this topic and came upon the writings of Joseph Campbell, who was a professor, author, anthropologist and mythologist. Campbell says that myths are metaphors describing the “spiritual potentiality of the human being.” He writes that myth provides you with stories that describe and connect you to yourself, nature and your place in the natural world. Campbell says myths serve four critical psycho-social functions.
The first is that they have a mystical function — they are stories that place you in awe and wonderment of the great mystery. Upon reading this passage I thought of the questions I had asked as a child: Who am I? What is our purpose? When did the universe begin? Where does life come from? Why are we here? The second function is cosmological. These myths attempt to describe and measures the universe. Today, science has this role, but the difference between the scientific explanation and the mythical explanation is that science diminishes the mystery by stating emphatically that while not all the answers we seek are currently known they will be one day. In other words, science removes the awe — which is necessary for a proper functioning human experience — by concluding without doubt that the mystery is solvable. Campbell describes the third function as sociological. These myths help a person fit into their particular society or culture. The fourth function is pedagogical and describes how you can live your life under the most adverse circumstances including the absence of a mythology.
When myth is absent from the human experience of the individual, a culture or society becomes sick and deteriorates. We lose our connections to the ancients who provided the lessons and guideposts that are necessary for a healthy individual or society. We become destructive to nature and ourselves. Individuals, societies, cultures and civilizations begin to decline and crumble. They tear themselves apart. Sound familiar?
Campbell suggests a solution to the dilemma is to get back in touch with our natural surroundings and the wisdom of ancient cultures that shared a brotherhood with plants, animals, the water, the sun, the earth, and the cosmos. Many of us who seek out shamanic practice are doing just that. We are looking for ways to provide ourselves with a pedagogical experience to bring back and connect with the mystical, cosmological and sociological myths that are absent to us in the modern age. The ayahuasca experience can therefore be considered a pedagogy that helps us create a personal myth that connects us to the mystical realms, to the cosmos and society in a way that is healthy and healing. It returns the myth that is missing and makes us whole.
How does ayahuasca help us to create a personal myth? The answer can be found in the concept of the Hero’s Journey, Campbell’s best known theory that describes common patterns found in mythological stories from all over the world, throughout history and across all cultures.
The Hero’s Journey can be summed up by this quote by Campbell:
“A hero — [a person who faces danger and adversity, has a weakness or vulnerability, and displays courage and self-sacrifice] — ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
The Hero’s Journey includes a number of stages. It begins with a call to adventure, then a refusal of the call. There is a crossing of a threshold or entering the abyss. One meets supernatural guides and threshold guardians. There is a road of trials, a meeting with goddesses and an atonement with the father. After which, the hero returns with a lesson learned that can benefit her and those around him. Ultimately, there is an integration of the teachings and personal transformation.
If you have ever worked with the medicine you will acknowledge that these stages, seventeen in total (perhaps not all in every session…), have a strong correlation to an ayahuasca journey.
Let us now turn to the question of the longevity, or permanence, of the ayahuasca experience. How long does it last? The experience stays with you no doubt, but is it permanent? I am not sure, but without an ongoing action of some type it is likely to fade.
C.Michael Smith, PhD and Jungian psychologist states:
“One of the great challenges of any shamanic ceremony resulting in profound vision, insight, or healing, is how to integrate the experience and implement what you received in your actual daily living after the ceremonies… Indigenous peoples of the region have a social context and an ancient supporting mythological cosmology…When modern Western people descend on the Amazon for ayahuasca ceremonies, this social context and mythic cosmology rich in supporting archetypal structures is not in place…As a result, the only thing that has changed is our conversation…”
Many who work with the medicine in foreign lands must eventually leave those places to return home. They are removed from and, due to cultural differences, do not relate well to the ongoing mythologies that are created by and for the indigenous communities that have worked with the medicine for centuries. This is the reason that Westerners use ayahuasca differently than the cultures that we seek to provide the medicine. Stephan Beyer PhD, in my film uses the example that in the past the Shipibo shaman would drink the medicine to identify a social wrong that is for them the cause of all illness and disease. The patient did not drink the medicine. Westerners, on the other hand, insist on drinking.
Since we do not have a fully developed cultural myth to support the experience nor a method to properly integrate it into our daily lives, the benefit can dissipate. For this reason, some with financial means travel to these places, like Peru on a yearly pilgrimage to drink again. Unfortunately, due to the high cost of travel, this opportunity to work with ayahuasca is not possible for most.
What is needed is a new therapeutic model that teaches integration methodologies alongside the shamanic experience, so that we are able to keep and share the boon, or gift, that ayahuasca has provided. Dennis McKenna, PhD alludes to this new paradigm in my new film Ayahausca Nature’s Greatest Gift. It is a phenomenon in which people in search of a healing experience with the medicine can go to a new type of shamanic center in countries like Peru, where the laws are favorable and outside of FDA limitations, to provide a new type of therapy that includes, ayahuasca, shamanism and integration practices. In this sense we would be creating a new mythology that works for us in our current time.
Seti Gershberg is an anthropologist and filmmaker. His recent documentary series The Path of the Sun has received a number of great reviews including one here on Reset.Me. C. Michael Smith, PhD a medical anthropologist, clinical psychologist and Director of The Crow’s Nest Center for Shamanic Studies says Ayahuasca Nature’s Greatest Gift, the second film in the series is “a must see for anyone interested in exploring the world of Amazonian plant medicines, especially ayahuasca and its various admixtures...” Seti spent two years living in Peru and traveling to the Andes and the Amazon to study with shaman and curanderos. In 2013, he returned to the U.S. to edit The Path of the Sun, and is currently planning a West Coast community based film tour and several mystical journeys to Peru in 2015 .