I recently caught up with Sara Mason, a young Canadian woman who’s in the process of settling into new digs in Hamilton, Ontario after moving back from British Columbia — the province to which she’d retreated after an exotic and rather difficult experience living in the Peruvian Amazon.
Sara said she felt like she’d finally “landed back in her body” after a lot of jostling around and the kind of anxiety some of us create for ourselves during times of upheaval with travel, time changes, and changes in expectation.
It didn’t surprise me that Sara had felt tumult and I was happy she felt “in her body.” This is a young woman who had, after all, lived for a year off and on in a tree-house retreat centre in the Amazon rain forest, where she was a partner in an enterprise bringing tourists and spiritual seekers to experience shamanic ceremony, centering on Shipibo traditions and drinking ayahuasca — the sacred psychedelic plant brew that’s become increasingly popular with gringos from abroad.
“Goodness, I’m spending some time with my folks in Grand Bend and it’s awesome to have spent time at the beach again, at long last!” she said, adding that there was lots of catching up to do with relatives in her close-knit family after being away for most of the past 15 years.
I first encountered Sara online when I was researching my own trip to Peru last year to drink ayahuasca and explore the Amazon wilderness with Canada-based Pulse Tours. At one point it seemed like I’d be staying at Canto Luz — the retreat centre where Sara was living and working at the time communally with friends and co-workers. I’d corresponded with Sara, asking a lot of novice questions about the plant medicine, and we began exchanging interesting articles and music suggestions on Facebook. (I recall being amused at her once downloading a book from I’d recommended from Amazon onto her Amazon Kindle, while living in the actual Amazon!)
Eventually a period of time went by when I didn’t hear from Sara, and she made some cryptic remark on Facebook. Had she been eaten by a jaguar, I wondered? Then she posted that she’d gone through some sort of personal crisis and wouldn’t be online for a while. I later learned — from a profoundly detailed account she posted — that she’d experienced a kind of nervous breakdown from the stress of it all: living in the jungle with the heat and humidity, the daily chores, and ensuring the safety of visitors while serving their needs, all the while participating in shamanic ceremony and receiving major downloads from the universal consciousness of issues she really needed to work on, without the time to do so.
“The stress wasn’t just from looking after guests and fighting eternally against termites and ants,” Sara said. “We had some unhappy neighbors who constantly questioned our being on that land, and could be quite threatening.”
My goal, I told Sara, was to present readers with an insightful and honest account and get inside the head of a young woman who embraced an alternative, spiritual path.
What follows is the conversation we had.
GUY: Sara, let’s start by having you give readers a sense of your growing up.
SARA: I’m from a small, rural town in Ontario called Exeter. My childhood revolved around my curiosity for the outdoors and immersing myself in the surrounding marshes, small woods in farmer’s fields, train-track exploration and the beaches of Lake Huron. My entire family was born and raised in that area.
GUY: What kind of folks were your parents?
SARA: They were sweet and gentle. My mom worked at the high school and my dad at a large farm machinery warehouse. They were children of the sixties but you wouldn’t know it, aside from some really awesome ’45s my dad had and some wicked vintage clothes my mom owned. I’m not sure how I evolved the way I did. Neither are they. Ha ha.
GUY: How was high school for you?
SARA: The best thing about high school was socializing with friends, getting high and learning about drama and music. I had incredible friends and encouraging teachers, although I had no interest at all in being in a classroom. In 1990 I started to explore various hallucinogens such as mushrooms, mescaline, and hashish. I’d say my real education and self-discovery began at that time.
I was influenced greatly by music, theatre, sex ed and science. I was always into psychedelic rock from the ’60s and Greek tragedies. Basically anything with occult or esoteric undertones invited my scrutiny. As I said, I had very supportive teachers throughout my time in school and university. I majored in Drama in Education, and then went on to complete my Education degree as well. I suppose I rocked that pretty well; I finished the year as Valedictorian. These years were deeply influenced by myriad personal psychedelic research.
GUY: I’d like to know more about how you came to what I’ll call a “spiritual path.” Not everyone comes to this, especially at a young age.
SARA: Hmm. I think I have always been on a “spiritual path” as I have always recognized myself as a spirit. I’ve always worshiped nature. I remember being four or five, lying on the grass and speaking to the clouds about weather creation. I had a special ring that I attributed to changing conditions. I recognized the significance of flora and fauna. I understood that humans were part of nature and not simply observers.
GUY: It sounds almost as if you were a shaman in a previous life. I’m starting to see what led you to the Amazon and ayahuasca. Tell me about your first ayahuasca experience. How did you find about about the medicine and what did you expect to get from it? And how did your actual experience compare to your expectations?
SARA: I was first introduced to the medicine in Thailand in 2004, days before the tsunami. I didn’t drink there, but I was captivated by the properties and mythology of the plants, not to mention the specific alkaloid DMT.
[NOTE: Dimethyltryptamine is the active psychotropic chemical in ayahuasca; specifically the DMT is contained in chacruna leaves or other plants that are mixed into the brew, where the mashed up ayahuasca vine acts as an MAO inhibitor, allowing the chemical to be taken into the body and brain and not be destroyed by the digestive system. DMT is a natural chemical that exists in the brains of all animals and is present in plants.]
I read research and talked to a few people about personal experiences, but felt very strongly about keeping an innocence for myself, so as not to overly influence my first drinking ceremony [with preconceptions]. I wasn’t new to psychedelics and I certainly admit to having some arrogance about my aptitude with this potion.
I drank aya for the first time on Vancouver Island in BC. That was in 2008 shortly after my grandmother passed away. All I wanted was sweet softness and gentle lessons. “Gentle lessons” was the intention I set while sitting in the teepee where the ceremony was held.
I had no idea what to expect beyond a night of barfing my guts out. Yet I didn’t purge that night. The medicine came on very quickly for me…The entire space filled with the scent of my grandmother –– Nana — and the air became powder pink heaven. I couldn’t stop smiling or prevent the tears from flowing from my eyes for the duration of my journey.
There were incredible visuals and auditory hallucinations. At one point an owl guide called me from outside and I carefully glided out to meet him in the meadow.
SARA: My first experience was bliss. I was cuddled all night by my Nana, her voice close to my ear, her scent permeating the air and her hands cradling my face. She embraced me until I was called by the owl, many hours later.
GUY: Hmm. That owl sounds pretty significant…
GUY: I’d like to know more about the Canto Luz project and how you got drawn into that. I first met you online when I thought Pulse Tours was taking our group there over New Year’s Eve 2013-2014, but it turned out we were going elsewhere. As you’ll recall that’s when we became Facebook friends and started corresponding. I remember thinking it was pretty cool having a friend who lived in a tree house in the Amazon.
SARA: Canto Luz was the birth child of three dreamers all working with the medicine in different capacities and for different reasons. The entire project sprung to life with incredible force. There was a proposition for me to join forces and from the time I said “yes” in April 2012, liquidated my life in Vancouver, BC and arrived in Cusco, we broke ground in January 2013 with the work quarters, kitchen and “casa grande.” The tree house platforms were completed in July and it only took until November of that year for the entire construction to be completed.
The facility includes a worker’s house, a stilt house, a separate kitchen, compost toilets, and a shower. The most important structures are the stunning maloka [ceremony building] and three heart-meltingly charming tree houses. You have to remember we started with tents, hand-held GPS and machetes when we first laid out the site in raw jungle. It was a big project. Fortunately we had a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign that exceeded our goals. The support we received from our community and families was encouraging, to say the least. I think the three of us dreamed of living in tree houses from our youth and we had very similar ideas about what we hoped the facilities would look and feel like.
GUY: Yes, the place is beautiful, from what I can tell from the website. I often recommend people go there.
SARA: The experience was intensely humbling on every level for me. I have never felt more human and alive that I did in the Amazon. The Canto Luz project rekindled my vitality but it drove me well beyond my capacity, mentally and physically. It was a double-edged sword. But I still think it as exactly the experience I needed to manifest at that time.
GUY: Tell us more about what it was like living in that environment.
SARA: There is simply no way I can really impress upon readers what living in the Amazon is really like. It is staggeringly beautiful. It’s also brutal in terms of weather. There are more vicious and also delicious types of rain than you can imagine. Ancient trees fall in the distance and you have to be hyper-aware of your surroundings at all times.
GUY: What about the critters? I saw some choice ones when I was there, and got bitten by some “punishment ants” when I jumped off a boat to pee one time, only wearing sandals in tall grass. That was a mistake I only made once!
SARA: The place is teeming with life. There are caterpillars who’s beauty will literally burn you for days if you touch their bristles. Moths will lay tiny eggs in your damp hanging clothes. There are gorgeous deadly snakes and also benign snakes who disguise themselves as poisonous ones. (So we always assumed any snake was poisonous.)
I had the privilege of seeing a jaguar one day. I had to flick a little black scorpion off a toilet seat more than once. I also came face to face with an 8-foot black-and-yellow snake who was acting highly territorial that day.
There were always sightings, songs, sounds, and scents… There is no place in all my imagination, no experience as overstimulating and sensual as the Amazon! Not the Moroccan Sahara. Not the mountains of Korea, the markets of Mumbai, or the highlands of Thailand. Nothing compares to that jungle!
I felt as close to life and death as I ever had to pleasure to feel. The humidity is relentless, except for a few blessed weeks where the temperature drops (sometimes as low as 10 degrees… delightful). My clothes were usually damp, my bedding was usually damp. In the Amazon you must –– must –– concede to the ultimate power of the mighty ants! They are master and commander of the Amazon!
I think the rain forest might be the most beautiful place on Earth, and one that displays its power without mercy and with utter grace. I feel completely blessed to have had such an opportunity to live in her embrace!
GUY: What was it like doing a dieta? [A dieta is a period of time that can last weeks or months during which a shaman or “curandero” consumes a medicinal plant to learn its properties and effects first hand, while living in a simple jungle hut and eating only bland dieta foods like plantain.]
SARA: I love dieta. My first dieta was in a facility called Sentaurio, near Pucullpa, Peru about ten days after I arrived in that country, which was my first time in South America.
I can’t remember the name of the tree I consumed but this tree was chosen for me for its digestive and intestinal support. It’s more common to have a small plant or shrub for an initial dieta, as the trees are generally very strong. This is always case by case, though, and I trusted the plant maestro from Sentaurio (who had worked with a friend for about four years).
I drank a large jug of “tree tea” and eventually found myself on the toilet for quiet some time. There was no pain or hallucination. It was very cleansing, all that toilet time! [laughs] In total, I was in isolation for 16 days, half of the intended time (for political reasons at the facility) and I loved every minute of it.
I began to find meditation in each nuance of the forest, from the rustle of giant beetles in the fallen leaves, to the foot falls of giant ants, to the clicking and chewing noises of birds with seeds or insects in their beaks. The wind, the breath of the forest, the crashing of tiny monkeys through the trees, every utterance of life around me became a meditation and a prayer. I spent many hours practicing various personal rituals (thelema — a religious practice) and making prayer malas [Buddhist beads].
GUY: Did you do other dietas?
SARA: My most recent dieta was with tobacco. That was only six days but I was so much more in tune with my surroundings and with my intentions and with the plants that I got more out of it. I received a number of beautiful and powerful icaros [sacred songs] and some incredible insight from the most handsome tobacco spirit. I had taken the tobacco tea and was sitting with the effects for about 45 minutes when a man appeared with whom I interacted. It took me some time to realize he was not from this dimension.
He had long dark hair that instead of hanging down went up from his shoulders, and was very soft, in the way of tobacco leaves. I recall him telling me I had to quit smoking, which was quite ironic coming from a tobacco spirit!
I was pretty blessed to have a treehouse to conduct my dieta in, even though I will be the first to admit that is missing part of the point of the dieta, which is sacrifice. [Dietas normally take place in simple grass-roofed tambo huts in the jungle where one is highly exposed to the elements.] But since I was spending so much time “roughing it” in the rain forest I think a week in solitary in a treehouse still counts towards “earning my stripes!” [laughs]
Anyway, it’s pretty unhealthy to compare our journeys. That was mine and I learned more in that week with tobacco than I could have imagined!
GUY: I recall interacting with you on Facebook and you made quite a few posts about heavy metal rock. Did that music help you while living in the rain forest?
SARA: Sheesh. Heavy metal is part of my cellular make up. I have a wide range of musical appreciation but I cannot get enough progressive metal since it affords me the opportunity to get into my darkness with a more authentic sense of compassion and leads to some brutal self awareness. Metal, all kinds of metal, reminds me that I really, really do have to go out and scream till my throat bleeds sometimes. [laughs] That there are safe places to express myself and my passion without expectation is a good thing. I need reminding that I don’t have to be pretty and proper all the time.
I was recently at an Anciients show in London, Ontario and I was in tears with joy. Joy from the raw, growling and unbridled truth of wailing men on guitars and drums! Creation, expression…Yes, more please!
GUY: Eventually it all caught up with you. I recall you sort of went AWOL online for a bit, and then wrote a Facebook post about having a nervous breakdown of sorts.
SARA: Yes, indeed, things certainly caught up. So to give some background, I have been living with PTSD since 2005 and have coped with other mental health issues without prescription meds since my teen years. I adjusted my diet and got into various healthy physical practices, including yoga and swimming, and also started a few styles of meditation. After returning from India in 2005 I was pretty traumatized from an abusive relationship.
I had significant physical pain while living in the Amazon jungle. The high-stress living absolutely caught up with me and on a journey from Nelson, BC to Lima I had a wild anxiety attack. I was having hallucinations about tearing open the back door of the plane, I wanted out so desperately! I recognized the sensations and visions. My body was saying “No! No way!”
There was no rationalizing the experience. I know that I had been neglecting my process regarding the medicine. I was not integrating my lessons and I didn’t learn how to balance the obligations of life at the retreat centre with the medicine work (although they are somewhat one and the same). I was having some of the most incredible ayahuasca communications in my experience. These were entirely about love and family and dreaming. I also had some lessons on addiction and isolation.
When I finally landed in Lima I contacted a dear friend who is a psychotherapist and has training in other disciplines. He insisted that I come to him to explain what was happening. Essentially there was a physical revolution and a psychological break down. I explained as best I could to my partners, which was a challenge since I was very confused.
Dr. (Andrew) MacLean treated me with talk therapy, acupuncture, tinctures and ceremony. His ceremonies were the most powerful I have ever known. Madre [Mother Ayahuasca] took my face in her hands and peered into my eyes. You have to dream, she said, while telling me I can walk my medicine path and be outside the jungle.
I was heartbroken to have to leave the Amazon. I was heartbroken to shift out of a business partnership that changed my life. But I had to be true to my heart and lead my own way. Ayahuasca lifted veils from my heart. I have never known such love from a medicine spirit as I have known from her.
GUY: How did you get well again? What was that process like?
SARA: Man, I searched for a somatic trauma release therapist and was delighted to find Dimitrije [Wentner] who worked with me two hours per day for about 20 days while I was in Lima. He was incredibly supportive with treatments that encompassed movement, meditation, dance, holotropic breath, drawing…It was just a beautiful healing experience.
I worked with Dimitrije for about three hours a day and with Dr. MacLean for two hours a day, more or less. This was for six days a week for the month of April. I was dedicated to understanding what exactly was going on in my body and mind.
Did I really go too far with the medicine? We are all different so who knows what my capacity really was…I wasn’t really scared but I was very curious about what was going on. There were visions all the time during meditations. Aya spoke to me and was very insistent about mountains and family.
GUY: What was it like returning to North America? Where did you go and how did you integrate? And how are you doing these days?
SARA: After Lima I planned some healing follow-up time in the mountains. I decided to move to Nelson, BC. I needed physiotherapy for my knees and I had to access peace.
I think I am going to be recovering from this for a long time. I have made some lifestyle shifts that I’m still getting a feel for. I have many lessons, transcribed, that I am working through. Lots of meditation and mind opening. Some of the visions and messages from aya are not easy to adopt.
It was the most peaceful moment returning to Canada. I was delighted to smell mountain air, to see the majestic ValHalla Mountain range from my window… My housemates were supportive, beautiful people who literally brought me back to life. My reintegration was smooth with lots of yoga and dance. And incredible food!
GUY: What’s the future looking like for you right now? You’re back in Ontario. What’s the motivation there and what’s your next plan, on a practical level and also for your spiritual path?
SARA: These days have been paradise. I’m in love. I’ve moved back to my roots and I feel wildly creative. I’m so excited to be connecting with people who were “online” friends only, when I was in the rain forest.
My roots are in Ontario. My community is in Toronto and the surrounding area, and my family lives on Lake Huron. It’s so beautiful and with all the friends and music happening I cannot deny the attraction.
As I mentioned, I’m in love and want to be with my partner and work on the future from here. My entire spiritual practice from 2011 onwards has been on weaving all threads: my plant medicine work, my love and passions, yoga, nutrition, meditation, and work into one fluid manifestation.
Postscript: Sara later shared this poem with me, to signify where she’s at in her life, and how she feels about her experiences:
In order to see you,
your face, your eyes,
one must first clean the surface
of the heart’s mirror with love
Guy Crittenden is a writer with 25 years experience in newspaper and magazine journalism, focusing on environmental themes. He writes and speaks regularly on spiritual topics and plant entheogens. He lives in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada. Contact Guy at gcrit*AT*rogers*DOT*com.
You can find Sara Mason on Facebook as Sara Valhalla Astra.