Notwithstanding all my research and conviction, there was a tremendous amount of fear in my heart about taking San Pedro when it came time for the first medicine ceremony.
I was walking, fully conscious, into a ritualistic plant medicine ceremony and it was not lost on me that the wisdom of this plant, echinopsis pachanoi, which contains, of principle interest, the alkaloid mescaline, is part of a sacred healing ritual which has been around for at least 3000 years.
I was also cognizant of the certainty that despite my best efforts at recovery, I’ve been struggling for several years now with profound depression, the return of a gnawing anxiety and the re-emergence of cravings for behaviours that will numb me out in a manner similar to how drugs and alcohol worked for me. It was no use pretending I was at peace; my thought patterns were increasingly repetitive and unsettled.
Bryan Kest once mentioned a study that claimed to prove that 80% of human thought consists of the same old thoughts we think every day, day after day.
That, at times, seemed like a lowball figure to me—yes, I was stuck—and whenever I realize this anew, I reach out for a new experience, a new period of withdrawal or engagement, as the case may be, in search of spiritual growth. In search of the elusive inner peace, during these periods of spiritual funk, I generally recharge my practice with new vigour and often find relief but the relief is often fleeting.
My spiritual advisor recently told me that I get miserable at times simply because I am not living a spiritual life—I didn’t have much of a response to this. It must be so frustrating for him, from where he stands, to see the answers he sought and found, to see them in front of him so clearly and concretely and to watch me consistently bumble around and miss everything he knows to be true.
It appears I can take the long way around things; I suppose I’m stubborn and I’m not always a quick learner. Still, I have to consider the possibility—likelihood, even—that my spiritual advisor’s specific answers or methods might not all apply to me directly—maybe what he knows and holds to be true isn’t necessarily true for me.
It is comforting to me that at the root level, we all seek the same thing: happiness, love, peace and a sense of connection. However, I have become convinced in my travels that all practices or paths must eventually lead one to the guru within.
A unique path is vital if any spiritual experience is going to be authentic.
Our San Pedro ceremony would include a trek into the mountains around the sacred valley of Cusco, Peru. At nine a.m., I met with the other students and our teachers at San Blas market—from there we hiked up the mountain towards Sacsayhuaman, to a small bowl in a nature preserve.
The leader of the ceremony, Milton, oriented his ceremonial cloth with a compass and we all prepared offerings of three coca leaves infused with our specific prayers and intentions, which were then burnt in the ceremonial bowl, where the alternately fragrant and pungent palo santo was burning, doused with agua de florida.
I took my quinto between my fingers and held it up to my mouth; I was supposed to blow my prayer or intention into this offering but I started sobbing instead, overcome with a rogue wave of grief. The grieving was timeless and seemed intrinsically to the numinous, to the understanding of spirit I had held as a child. I was vibrating and conscious and un-self-conscious and this wasn’t happening right now, but had been in process for some time.
Before I could take one step further, I had to grieve the loss of my old knowledge of recovery; I needed to die to my old ideas and perceptions about recovery and spiritual growth.
To enter fully into this first ceremony, to find a deeper sense of connection to myself and the natural world and to ultimately amplify the understanding, meaning and effectiveness of the recovery journey, I had to abandon all knowledge of recovery as I knew it. I was compelled to consciously cut myself off from certain deeply-rooted beliefs of the tradition that had saved my life and from the understanding of many people I respect and admire and owe my gratitude to.
But I was compelled to explore, in greater depth, the cracked foundation in the self and the psyche that we addicts try to obliviate with chemicals and booze. But drugs and alcohol only mask the problem—sometimes very effectively and for years—but they do nothing to unearth it, expose it or mend it.
There is no healing in addiction; there is only temporary stupefaction and a spiral of shame.
As I understood it, the role of the sacred plant medicines is to bring out these cracked areas, these foundational issues and hold them up so that there is no denying their existence and it is the awareness of these root causes of suffering—usually the illusion of separateness or disconnection—that brings relief. The substance is not needed to change the addicts reality, since the reality does not need to be buried in denial any longer.
This is the theory, anyway but right now, I was stepping through the old boundaries into a new awareness without fully knowing if it was going to be beneficial to me or anyone else. I held these three stale coca leaves at heart level and wept, intuitively sending loving kindness high up over the Andes and flying North to my children.
Then, I imagined the whole globe, looking at our planet as if suspended above it from the highest realms of our atmosphere and surveyed the countless people who were destroying themselves and their families with their addictions.
My prayer, finally, whispered into the quinto three times, was to better serve others who suffer; it was a prayer whispered from the centre of my being…at that very moment, there was no other prayer worth uttering.
The San Pedro was in a bright green slimy liquid form, held in a Mason jar; I was taken back that it was the exact colour of a green tea I had shared earlier with Panda during a shamanic journey. We all went through the ritual of burning our quintos in offering before drinking. I had chosen an amulet from my teacher, a figure of Pachamamma and Pachapapa back to back, the unifying of opposites, the non-dual reality that I was drawn to by its weight and the verdigris of the copper; it proved to be effective as a grounding piece for me.
I was the first student to drink after my teacher and followed her example, drinking three times from the cup, finishing almost all of what had been poured out for me. Milton advised us to abandon fear and trust San Pedro, this ancient teacher, to show us what we needed to see.
There. It was in my system and now that there was no turning back; the pressure I’d been feeling let up.
I sat in contemplation until the drinking part of the ceremony was completed by everyone, at which time we strapped on our packs and headed out into the wilderness. We took a narrow path, away from some Peruvian men who had started a vigorous soccer game in the same clearing and started climbing, ascending through a forest that was patchy with small clearings and surprising views of the surrounding mountains. The smell of pine was acute and I noticed my senses sharpening then, particularly my olfactory and vision. The pine scent permeated the atmosphere and brought me back to my youth and scattered images of time spent in various Canadian forests.
We continued our walk in silence for I know not how long; I slowly started to perceive an enhancement of emotional awareness which grew subtly until I quietly but firmly understood that I was as intimately connected with the natural world around me, every tree and leaf, as with the people I accompanied.
We came to a bluff high above a waterfall and small river. Everyone picked a spot to work in silence with the medicine. I lay beneath a massive pine tree in a patch of sunshine and closed my eyes to try dream yoga (a variant of shamanic journeying where the subconscious is allowed to bubble to the surface, rather than going to meet it with a sonic driver) and the phosphenes immediately showed me an owl.
I assumed this meant that my teacher, who worked with owl medicine, was looking out for me.
I entered a lucid dream-like state; crows came down from the sky and lit beside me to eat the tension out of my guts—they pecked at hard knots of anxiety that I’d been carrying for years. As soon as they started this and as they were doing it, I felt better. Clearer. When the crows finished they vanished; I was then swarmed by a mass of butterflies who released a type of milk over my abdomen and intestines to heal me where the crows had been working.
This was old medicine, ancient medicine; I could feel it. There was the quiet understanding growing in me that San Pedro was, in a grandfatherly way, connecting me to his old soul, grounding me to the earth, even as I flew out of my body and up into the trees, absorbed by the butterflies and now one with them. My faculties and senses were all intact, in fact I was keenly more alert than normal, but nothing was frightening any longer.
I thanked San Pedro for the insights it was gifting me and for holding me so gently and for helping remove these knots of fear which have plagued me like a cancer for years.
I opened my eyes and looked up past the swaying treetops into the blue sky and became charged with the conviction that the timing for spirit recognition, for all of us, is now.
We are here. We have arrived. Let’s look at each other in the way we initially intended, when we chose to come to this place, this planet, this time, in this body. Let’s remember why we are here and bask in the experience of being human and waking up.
My ego was also still very much intact, as I questioned most of these insights and thought that even if they were genuine, there was no point in sharing them with anybody, unless I want to be dismissed as a loopy new-age flake on psychedelics that I self-righteously refer to as entheogens. That stereotype is part of the ongoing meme war, though and it can’t last any longer than our crumbling economic and political infrastructure—which is not very long.
I made my way down to the waterfall and meditated for a bit before washing my hands and face in the river. I retraced my steps back up the hill and to where the other students were gathering.
Our teacher was holding the rest of the San Pedro; there was enough for two more cups, so only a couple of people would be given a ‘booster’. She asked who wanted it and three people put up their hands. I did not raise my hand and did not particularly want any more medicine—but I already knew, with certainty, what was going to happen next.
My teacher put her hands around the jar and closed her eyes. When she opened her eyes again she looked directly and purposefully at me.
“If you think so,” I said with a shrug and a smile, slightly amused at having already been prepared with the knowledge that it was going to be offered to me.
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She approached and kneeled facing me, putting her hands, palms-up, in front of her. I rested my hands in hers. She closed her eyes. I was overcome almost immediately with a mixed sense of relief and grief. After a longish silence she opened her eyes and rapped at my sternum with her knuckles.
“God, John,” she said, shaking her head, “You’re carrying a hell of a lot of sadness in there.”
Once again, this old sorrow and nameless heartache poured out of me but from a deeper place this time—a long line of suffering strung together in my cells that seemed so old it was almost forgotten. What was this? I grieved openly, unselfconsciously but for what exactly, I had no concrete idea. There was too much of it to start pinpointing, so I just had to let it out.
There was no stopping it.
My teacher took agua de florida between her palms and rubbed my face, neck, head, arms and body with it, muttering some kind of prayer as my chest heaved with the engine of this old-world, instinctual sobbing and tears and snot streamed from me. I forgot myself, forgot my classmates (who, I noticed later, were sitting at a close distance from me forming a kind of semi-circle in the woods).
As my teacher continued to do her thing, I adopted the sense that everything around me was supporting me in whatever was going on and threw away the desire or perhaps need, to understand it in any rational manner. With eyes closed, I accepted the maternal and healing touch that was teasing the pain out of me very gently. I don’t know for how long I was releasing like this. When it was finished, I felt much lighter than I’d been in a very long while.
My teacher then put the jar in my hands and instructed me to ask San Pedro if it was for me. I closed my eyes and did as she instructed but had intuited that it was for me already and that feeling remained unchanged. I took another three swallows, which were more difficult to swallow than the first cup and contained several slimy solid pieces. The residue from the brew created a viscous line from my lips to the cup as I handed it back to her.
I’d been planning on lying back down after this ordeal, especially with more medicine in me but everyone was packing up and wordlessly preparing to move. It was difficult to discern where this direction was coming from but I was a little confused; the extra medicine was already starting to take effect.
One of my colleagues observed this and asked me if I’d like her to follow me up the path—which surprised me, because that’s exactly what I wanted. Later, she mentioned she had watched my inner child come out for the hike but I wasn’t aware of what she had observed, to warrant this remark. We climbed a long, meandering path, affording us breathtaking views. Finally, we made it to a cliff with a very scenic vista named el balcon del diablo by the Spanish, a mystical place where women used to come when they were looking to have a child.
We found a secluded spot away from random hikers coming to visit the cliff and were led on an internal journey by my teacher’s rattle.
Heron came to me in the middle world, took me from the womb of the cave we’d just visited. I asked if I could ride on her and she conveyed in her subtle way that she’d been waiting a long time for me to ask her that. This time with her was playful, as we flew up a spiral rainbow, past the clouds to a mountain peak where Grandmother spirit was waiting.
In the back of my mind, I was amused at the thought of trying to convey this internal journey to some of my old army buddies. The ego reared its head again and was almost enough to make me panic about where I was and what I was doing. I went back to Grandmother and the previous thoughts dissolved. She was thoroughly engaging and warm and looked to be Chinese.
When she smiled broadly I saw she was missing her eye-teeth. We hugged and kissed each other; it was obvious we were known to each other for a very long time. I gave her a figurine of Bear I’d carved out of wood.
Grandmother then made buns, using flour and salt and her own spit. As she kneaded the dough, I felt her hands at work in my shoulders. She baked some and then took one and broke it open and told me to take a close look. As I did, observing the tiniest details, we then instantly entered into this bread, as it was an entrada and came out at the same place where I was lying in ordinary reality, except that we were in a different dimension.
We walked and held hands and watched the sun set; Grandmother wanted me to know that I was being looked after, as were my children. We enjoyed each other’s company in this way, until the rattle signaled that it was time to return. Our work with the medicine was officially finished, although San Pedro continued to bring awareness…and perhaps still does.
My group had been fasting all day and now everyone was grateful to finally drink some water and share our snacks; we broke fast with dried corn, tiny oranges, finger bananas, chocolate, flat bread and cucumber with sea salt.
The release of eating and joking with each other was enthralling and there was much laughter, which to me (possibly because I was on-guard against such elements or familiarities) was slightly reminiscent of a post magic-mushroom trip. It brought me some joy but also underlined my original sense of discomfort that this was just another “trip” on a psychedelic substance and not actually real medicine. This thought didn’t stick, nor did the fear, as I have come to share the shaman’s view that everything—food, air, people, places, thought, sunshine, the stars—is medicine.
I see the application of San Pedro as useful for an addict or alcoholic by showing them, through a naturally expanded consciousness, how our pervasive connection to everything is much different from the oblivion and isolation of booze and drugs or the band-aid remedies of modern pharmaceuticals, which generally come with a whole host of unhealthy side effects.
It would also, I believe, prove particularly helpful for someone suffering from depression, for the same reason—it unmasks isolation, separation, disconnection as the illusions they truly are. I would caution, though, that there could be a tendency to develop an attachment to the ‘mystical experience’ provided by the plant—although my teachers have told me that San Pedro has a built-in measure against this; numerous accounts claim that it generally stops ‘working’ for those who become too attached to the expansive consciousness it can bring.
There is no denying all of the connections San Pedro demonstrated to me, connections I still carry within me as deeply as they were experienced and felt during the ceremony. I still struggle with meaning and my rational mind but on the whole, I can’t deny that the experience, partly due to set and setting and the support I had with me, was a gift.
*This piece has been adapted from it’s original, which can be found here.
John-James (JJ) Ford’s first novel, Bonk on the Head, won the 2006 Ottawa Book Award for fiction. He is a Canadian Foreign Service Officer who has worked in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India, where, in the Himalayas, he rediscovered yoga with Yogi Sivadas. JJ’s poetry and short fiction have been published in Grey Borders, Papertiger, qwerty, Carousel, sub-Terrain and Prairie Fire. He is currently a LifeForce Yoga practitioner who teaches yoga for depression, anxiety and PTSD, as well as for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. His greatest teachers are his son, Jackson and his daughter, Samia.
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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