On the evening of Thursday 15 March, I was fortunate enough to participate in an ancient Amazonian ceremony called Ayahuasca (pronounced “aha-waska”). Aya means ‘spirit’, while huasca means ‘vine’. It was an event which will leave an indelible mark on my life.
Missionaries from Spain first came across the Indigenous people of South America using the ‘vine of the dead’ in the 16th Century.
In essence, Ayahuasca is a ritual intended to cleanse the body, mind & spirit. However, some gringos approach it solely as a means to get high – which I feel is doing this time-honoured custom a serious disservice. It’s a great deal more complex than that.
Some people report giving up drinking, drugs, meat, etc. Some people resolve long-standing personal issues. Others say they have become a better spouse, parent or child as a result of partaking in a program of Ayahuasca.
I was fascinated. I decided to approach this with an open mind. If nothing else, I was keen to at least observe the ritual.
One of the key elements of the ritual is drinking a decoction which is prepared by a Shaman. It consists primarily of a jungle vine called Banisteriopsis caapi (this is what is considered to actually be Ayahuasca) and is mixed with the leaves of hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine (DMT)-containing shrubs (which are simply agents).
Traditionally participants fast for three days before the ceremony to assist the purification process. It is recommended that one abstains from alcohol, caffeine, meats (especially pork), excess fats, salt, sugars, spicy foods, acidic foods, as well as sex before and after the ceremony. Except for the booze, spicy foods & sex – probably just good practice anyways.
Jon (the owner of La Serrana) organised for the Shaman he regularly works with to come to us at his other property just up the dirt road. It’s a lovely farmhouse with a large living room with floor-to-ceiling windows offering vast views of the sweeping valley which surrounds us. It was the perfect place to wrap ourselves up in the warmth of a fireplace, and yet be able to get a clear read on nature & her spirits.
Eleven of us convened around 11pm. The Shaman was there with his two assistants, a woman who would assist with female cleansings, and a group of four musicians. They were all dressed in white smocks & white pants with traditional woven finishes on the cuffs.
On a small table there laid a neat spread of various jugs holding different brews, a stack of wooden cups, and some bunches of dried leaves. There was also a discreet head-dress, and some incense. Underneath the table was a bucket of dirty looking liquid.
They lit a fire and turned the lights out. We all took a place on a sofa or on the floor. I found a yoga mat and an extra blanket. It had been raining earlier and there were still lots of clouds. Despite this it was a really cold night. Every now & then, a shard of lightning snapped across the sky.
At midnight, we were welcomed by Señor Carlos (or Titan, as Jon called him) and then he came around to talk to us individually (in Spanish). He asked us if we were on medication, had consumed any drugs, and also about our diet that day. Finally he asked us what we hoped to get out of the night.
One of the girls couldn’t participate as she was menstruating. A woman’s energy is not considered optimal for cleansing during this time, and the consumption of Ayahuasca has been known to cause excessive blood flow. She was very young & didn’t seem to grasp this concept. She left very upset.
The musicians started playing softly and barely ceased throughout the night. They played several instruments including a guitar, a mandolina, pan pipes, some Colombian drums, and a harmonica. They really used the music to steer the group’s state of consciousness & mood. Sometimes the music would be deep & tribal, sometimes soft & meditative, sometimes trance-like & uplifting. My old hippy friend Gavin would have been beside himself over the music.
The Shaman came around with the bucket of dirty looking liquid which I learned later is ‘flower water’ and we each washed our head, face, arms and ankles. We then sat down to listen to the music while the Shaman cleansed the room.
After a while, the Shaman spoke with Jon and asked if we were ready to start. Jon took the first drink. We then took it in turns to drink the brew.
It was intensely earthy and woody and barky. Which makes it sound somewhat pleasant. It wasn’t. It was also thick, gritty and bitter.
The drink is said to affect the human consciousness for anywhere between ½ an hour – 6 hours after consumption. The effects of Ayahuasca include psychedelic visual & auditory stimulation. They say the tea has the power to take you on a psychological excursion that may lead to illumination or even enlightenment. The Amazonians believe the drink can empower our soul to ascend from the physical. Most drinkers will need the guidance of an experienced drinker in order to successfully achieve this mental state.
After our first drink we all sat around listening to the music and more or less just waiting for something to happen. I fought an overwhelming sense of tiredness for a while, not wanting to sleep in case I missed out on something. Eventually it got to the point where I needed just ‘rest my eyes’ for a bit. I was so so drowsy. The music gently closed the deal. I drifted off.
When I awoke, one of the girls was standing in front of the Shaman with her eyes closed and he was in the process of performing another component of the ritual on her: the cleansing.
He took a mouthful of a drink from a thermos and sprayed it from his mouth in her face and on different parts of her body. He then took a deep breath and exhaled forcibly with a loud whooshing noise. Symbolic perhaps of expelling a toxin, a dark element, or maybe an evil spirit. Simultaneously he brushed her down with his fragrant sage leaves.
Other people in the room were in various states of sleep and awakeness and it appeared that strange space that lies in between. I kept drifting in & out of a light sleep… dreams & reality began to merge & I started to confuse the two. Every time I ‘came to’ – the music resonated with me on a different level…
The night sky began to take on shapes and somewhere around 4 in the morning, we took our second drink. The girls were given theirs in a more egg-shaped cup. It was stronger this time. The smell more pungent, the taste more sharp. It was difficult to consume. I took mine in several sips.
Shortly after laying down, I snapped back up in a sitting position. I felt an overwhelming desire to throw up. The purgative (‘la purga’) properties of the drink are important. The intense vomiting and occasional diarrhoea the drink induces cleanses the body both on a physical and metaphorical level.
I stood up and nearly lost my balance. I felt fine for a fleeting moment and considered sitting back down. But my stomach started gurgling uncontrollably. I went to the bathroom and vomited several times. It was very much a simple purge as opposed to being violently ill. All that earthy, woody, barky stuff was awful coming up. It reminded me of the Chinese herbal teas my mother used to give me whenever I was ill. Immediately after flushing the toilet, I had to sit down for what was a rather intense session of diarrhoea. That, fortunately, was all over fairly quickly and I soon returned to my space on the floor, feeling quite flushed and a lot less nauseous.
This component is known as ‘balancing’ – where the participant starts to feel more at one with nature. I remember looking up at the night sky through the windows. I felt incredibly alert and in tune with all of my senses but particularly my auditory senses. I listened to the sound of the fire crackling loudly in an otherwise almost silent room. I observed a bird crowing off in the distance. And I heard the measured rise & fall of my one of my companion’s breath as she slept.
I sat listening to the music and soon I felt compelled to get up and have a little boogie to the beat of the drums. I was ensconced in a big blue blanket and imagined I looked a little like a dancing monk. I remember feeling a bit self-conscious as I was dancing on my own in a living room where everyone else was not. When I was able to switch off the self-conscious talk, I had a lovely time. I closed my eyes and went into a little trance consumed by the sound of the drums.
I suddenly felt a wet spray on my face, and opened my eyes to see the Shaman circling me. Part of me felt I should keep my eyes closed and focus on what I was thinking and feeling. My more curious self wanted to see what he was doing. I alternated between the two.
He performed the cleansing on me for maybe ten minutes… hard to be precise. I kept slipping into a vague space which I can only compare to that time when you’re just starting to wake from a good night’s sleep, and you’re remembering your dreams as you become more aware of your physical surroundings.
When he was done, I felt little euphoric. I sat down on my yoga mat to absorb that feeling.
Then, I had two very clear visions in rapid succession. Not all drinkers experience visions the first time. I guess it’s a matter of when the time is right.
My first vision was an old man’s face in the clouds. He was an ancient man. He seemed (Australian) Aboriginal in appearance. He smiled at me kindly. I sighed deeply and felt comforted by what I saw. I feel like I have seen this man a couple of times before. Both in conscious and subconscious states. I closed & opened my eyes and shook my head to check if I was definitely awake. I was. In fact, I felt incredibly lucid.
My second vision came minutes after. In the reflection of the window, I saw the woman who was assisting the Shaman pass him a baby wrapped in a white cloth. My first instinct was that it was my baby. I felt a sense of relief, and elation. It was such a fleeting moment. Then my conscious mind started questioning whether the baby was alive or dead. I wrestled with this and my first more positive thought for a few moments. I decided to fall into the positive realm. I’m not sure if this was my mind creating something I want. Or if it was me tapping into some sort of private line into the universe. I choose to believe the latter.
I drifted off into a peaceful, deep kind of sleep soon after this.
When I awoke a new day was dawning and the Shaman was in the midst of summoning the other women in the room. Three chairs were set up in a row by the fireplace. The Shaman and his female assistant began their cleansings. I was the only female who wasn’t included. Which was fine. I figured it was because I had already had my time. And besides, I was interested to observe. It was fascinating to me that they spent a lot more time on one particular girl. Having already had some intimate conversations with the girl, I knew she had a lot of stuff going on in her life. She was in need of some healing. And they knew this.
The cleansings went on for quite some time and around 7 in the morning, the while process seem to come to a natural conclusion. Some of us wandered outside to just sit in nature while the Shaman sat and rested momentarily.
We each took a turn to go sit with him and thank him for his time. He wanted to know how we were feeling, if we had any visions. He spoke only Spanish. And the nuances of what I wanted to discuss with him required very specific words. I had one of my friends translate for us.
As I told him what I had seen, I started to cry. But they weren’t tears of sadness. More tears of truth. He told me that the man I saw in the clouds was my spiritual guide. He was always looking out for me and I could turn to him whenever I needed. With regards to my second vision, he reassured me I had seen the future. We hugged and I felt warm for the first time that night.
I watched as the others went up to him. The Shaman seemed so serene. For a man who had been dedicating so much energy to others, I couldn’t get over how un-exhausted he seemed to be.
He and his colleagues had been working so hard all night. The musicians had barely stopped all night. The woman had played an integral part in the healing of the women in our group. The Shaman’s two protégés had taken turns to help out with the ritualistic components of the evening.
We all started to dissipate…wandering the fields, talking quietly in pairs, making moves to go back to La Serrana. I said my goodbyes and wandered off in a bit of a daze. I spent the rest of the day going over the night’s events in my mind, trying to find words to put to them, dozing off into a deep sleep, eating well and just enjoying an overwhelming sense of what i can only describe as calm euphoria.
“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.” Aldous Huxley