Experiencing a San Pedro ceremony was enlightening, but I knew the deep challenge for my psyche during my shamanic yoga training in Peru would be presented by ayahuasca.
Prior to my arrival in South America, I was more or less ignorant about plant medicine, although I understood that ayahuasca, when taken during a traditional ceremony with an experienced medicine healer or shaman, has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to accentuate root emotional disturbances and bring them to the forefront of consciousness.
The idea of set and setting as a vital component to healing with ayahuasca crops repeatedly; one cannot simply ingest a cup of the special tea and absolve oneself of core issues. The ritual and the presence of a trained and reputable shaman is an important element in harnessing the sacred and offering a safe space to re-integrate the traumatic experiences which lie at the root of any psychic imbalance, including addiction.
Pia Mellody in her work at The Meadows addictions treatment centre in Arizona and in her numerous books and lectures, says as much: the mother of all addictions is codependence and at the root of codependence is trauma, where trauma is defined as anything less than nurturing. Ergo, we all have trauma.
Yogic scholar Georg Feuerstein describes spiritual recovery as “an uncovering of the spiritual dimension.” My research indicated to me me that this is precisely what ayahuasca offers as it uncovers the illusions of the self-divided ego personality—the small self who is normally under the influence of the rational consciousness.
Under the influence of ayahuasca, the rational mind is apparently dissolved into a higher state of awareness—some describe the individual consciousness as being fused with the ancient plant consciousness—and the ego experiences a ‘mini-death’ which enables the seeker to witness the reality that lies beneath our petty human behaviors, fears, resentments and addictions.
I had come to Peru for my own healing, yes, but also because I have made a commitment of service to others who suffer from the same afflictions I’ve been labelled with at various points in my life: alcoholism, addiction, PTSD, anxiety, depression.
In an episode of The Nature of Things called The Jungle Prescription, I watched how, deep in the Amazon jungle at Takiwasi, a detox and treatment centre, French doctor Jacques Mabit demonstrates to internationally acclaimed addictions specialist Dr. Gabor Mate how he uses ayahuasca and other traditional plant medicines to treat hardcore addicts.
Takiwasi—which means the house that sings, no doubt a reference to icaros, the traditional songs sung by a maestra during ceremony—is having tremendous impact, roughly quadrupling the average success rate for other addiction treatment modalities. Part of the reason for this, claims Dr. Mabit, is that ayahuasca is a visionary formula that unlocks emotional memory, causing life-changing catharsis in those who drink it.
Notwithstanding the process I went through with San Pedro, I was apprehensive, bumping up (still) against the paradigm I have lived in and fortified during my own recovery for the past 11 years: I struggled with the reality that the use of psychotropic medicines would be frowned upon gravely by many people I currently deal with in recovery.
I was also trepidatious about the impact of putting a substance in my body that I knew would so powerfully alter my perception. I wrote to Dr. Gabor Mate, asking him for input into how I could reconcile the limiting beliefs of my healing tradition in addictions-based medicine with these ancient shamanic practices of using sacred plant medicine.
“I understand [your tradition’s] suspicion of ‘drugs,’” Dr. Mate wrote back, “But ayahuasca is not a drug anyone uses for recreational purposes. Unlike addicted drug use, the purpose of which is to lower one’s level of consciousness and awareness, ayahuasca—used in the proper context with the right leadership—gives access to higher awareness. It does not encourage ongoing use.”
Having a green light from a leading addictions specialist who has himself experienced ayahuasca, I was more or less comfortable moving forward.
This ‘blessing’ was important to me and the reason it was stems from the training I’ve experienced in recovery thus far, specifically the frequent reiteration that my own thinking and my own will can be poisonous to me, and is thus not always to be trusted. Being an alcoholic in recovery makes you question your own thinking, because at times your thinking is hardwired to get you to consume the very thing that is killing you.
This perspective—that my own thoughts are prone to dupe me—encourages regular sounding out of ideas with others in recovery. This ‘sounding-out’ process can be as healthy, or unhealthy, as the person one is speaking to. I resolved to proceed and on the 23rd of September 2012, I experienced my first ayahuasca ceremony at a yoga shala in a very remote spot near Calca, Peru.
The area was a natural sanctuary, surrounded by trees, cactus, mountains and a waterfall. The entire week prior I had been vacillating between nervousness and courage—and when all seven students of my current course and our teachers took our places in the moloka, this anxiety intensified.
We hung around on our yoga mats and mattresses for several hours until it was dark. At around eight pm, the Shipibo shaman, who had come from a small village in the jungle, showed up and she laid in front of her a bowl for burning palo santo, which produced the traditional fragrant and cleansing smoke, two clear plastic water bottles filled with a dark viscous liquid that I assumed correctly to be ayahuasca, a bottle of agua de florida, and a plastic pail for la purga.
Each one of us had been given a pail.
Roughly an hour after the shaman’s arrival, the lights were dimmed in the moloka and after a brief introduction, during which she asked us to abandon fear and trust the medicine, the shaman called for a ceremony full of force and love. She set two crystal classes in front of her. We were called in pairs to come and drink. I was one of the last to drink before the shaman and our teachers swallowed their cups.
There was a moment before drinking when I knelt in front of the shaman, glass in hand, incapable of recalling or making sense of why I was doing this or how I’d come to be in Peru in the first place.
Despite all my preparation, deliberation, meditation, contemplation, I was momentarily incapable of reconciling how I’d ever decided, as a recovered alcoholic and addict, to drink ayahuasca. There were no clues into my behavior that had led to this decision that could bring me to an understanding of why I was in the situation I was in. The real-time 30 seconds or so it took me to wrestle with these magnificent doubts stretched out across the ages and enveloped my entire psyche; slowly, after much deliberation and internal struggling, I remembered to trust my own process and that I had come here with a humble, albeit fearful, heart.
As my San Pedro ceremony had shown me, I was here primarily to help myself help others and I rediscovered my gut instinct that there was something of value in this, not just for me but for others who are suffering.
I breathed my vague but earnest intention into the thick black liquid: Give me the teaching that is most useful to me right now. The shaman smiled at me gently; I sensed she had a kind and trustworthy heart. Feeling now relatively safe and protected, I drank all that she had poured out for me. It seemed more than I wanted; tradition holds that the medicine informs the shaman how much to portion out for each person. The liquid went down slowly, but tasted less vile than I’d imagined, something akin to liquified coffee grinds that had gone sour, mixed with lemon zest and the contents of an ashtray into which my Uncle Brian had been ashing his cigars.
I returned to my cushion and attempted meditation by bringing my attention to my breath. Time passed unendurably. In the darkness, I was visited by a naked, raw apprehension; the anticipation of the effect the jungle medicine would have consumed me. I opened my eyes at one point and saw small pale ghosts dancing outside the yoga shala—it took me several moments of hard staring to discern that it wasn’t a vision or hallucination but the movement of Tibetan prayer flags under the influence of the wind and the moon.
I waited some more; each moment was now interminable.
The nervousness lapped over me in waves and at times I forgot my initial courage and resolve completely. I knew instinctively, or perhaps the medicine was warning me that I’d have a much easier time with whatever was in the mail if I just surrendered to the process, which was at this point utterly inevitable. I was still fighting whatever it was that was already washing through my heart, coursing its way through my bloodstream and into my grey matter. It was a choiceless situation: I was living in fear.
I had to feel it, and with the dreadful knowledge that it was going to get much worse before it got better, I steeled my mind against what was coming. True, I was capable of creating my own reality but I now felt that the only reality available to me was one whose origin was my own profound horror.
Then it took me—like a serpent, ayahuasca crawled up into the seat of my consciousness, coiling itself around the centre of my brain, spilling out of the top of my head in a stark fountain of terror. It happened quickly. At first I breathed long and deep, falsely confident that I could make it through this. Then, as soon as I felt that confidence and trusted in it, it was ripped out of me with bodily sensations so cold and treacherous and unpredictable that I was suddenly and irretrievably lost. Lost, and rudderless.
It was as if every panic attack I experienced during the seven worst years I suffered from anxiety were layered on top of each other, woven together in a thick cloak of dread. It was so heavy, so shocking, that for several moments I was incapable of drawing a breath.
But eventually I inhaled, quickly and greedily, and when I did so I lost what little vision I had had in the darkness of the moloka. Blinded. My eyes were wide open but there was only a deep oily darkness.
Then I lost my hearing.
My world was suddenly fully and completely internal—and something told me that if I cried out for help, there would be no voice available to me. I was stricken with a new variety of alarm, a distress so penetrating that every cell of my being vibrated in panic. I brought a few more breaths into my system but the cold and the dark wouldn’t leave me and still there was no sound or vision.
Even with all of this palpable fear, a fear I could literally taste, my ego was intact and perserverant enough to not want to be the only one in ceremony by crying out for help, especially because I was the only male student and I have a significant amount of programming installed about what it means to be a man.
So I held myself; I huddled my mind around itself with quick choppy breaths, jerky movements of a disturbed person trying to keep himself from flying off into countless irretrievable pieces.
At the precise moment when I could not bear the terror any longer, I came to the understanding that death was the only way out. Something suggested to me that I had to die—or at least become fully willing to die. In the absolute internal darkness a small aperture opened up in my mind’s eye and I knew I had to pass through it. I thought I might be literally passing on to the other side. In a sense, I was.
I took a deep breath and let go, surrendering completely to my circumstances. I passed through the interstice and came through on the other side. There was a suddenly peaceful blankness vibrating at a low hum and I sat in the dark, still twitching and took in this place of nothingness as my hearing gradually returned and my body shuddered silently in the blackness. I remembered my breath again and I drew in expansive lungfuls of air; my vision came back.
Little death. I was forced to accept it unconditionally before living again. A thrill ran through me as it dawned on me that I was now prepared for just about anything.
Though still vibrating, I eventually relaxed a little further into my seated position, watching and waiting, making mental note of how the fluctuations of my mind danced with the medicine—or, more accurately, the medicine danced in perfect step with my thoughts, meeting me at every turn. This is when the more subtle teachings started.
The cold left me completely and now my entire body/mind was a series of interdependent pinpricks of fire. I ripped off my alpaca hoodie and my medicine bag that I’d got from a Q’ero shaman at the beginning of my training. Eons ago.
Lifetimes had already passed since I drank the ayahuasca tea. I threw my hoodie and medicine bag beside me in the dark and then realized all the care and concern I’d taken with my gear, the circumspect attention I’d paid to placement and order of blankets and pillows and water and headlamp, etc. was now completely fucked and meaningless.
After working like this for a long time, I was overcome with a profound feeling of compassion for myself, for my fearful mind and my insecurities, for this earnest work I was doing all in the name of love, health and inner peace. This compassion for my own being entered in my heart with light and warmth and never really left me.
It’s still with me as I write this.
Eventually, the heat subsided and I lay down and wrapped myself in my sleeping bag. A series of light tremors passed through my entire body and I felt from head to toe that small adjustments were being made to muscles, ligaments, fascia, bones. I had a palpable sense that the medicine was running a chemical diagnostic on my physical structure and fixing things as it went along. It turns out that there is a chemical hypothesis for this activity, but much has been written about DMT and MAO inhibitors and the effects of ayahuasca on brain and body chemistry, including serotonin, and such scientific analysis, including the reasons why SSRIs and ayahuasca in combination can be lethal, is beyond my ken or the scope of this piece.
As I lay there, anything I turned my mind to was suffused with meaning and I seemed capable of penetrating insight.
I held an acute awareness of my internal organs, my bowels, the weight of my skin, the movement of my cells. It is from this place of awareness that I spontaneously set out to visit myself throughout the ages, focusing primarily upon the boy I was in this lifetime. Across time and space I flew to him—truly encountered myself as a child. I stared at his bright eyes, full of hope and imagination and, yes, fear.
I saw his shy smile and remembered it as mine, the cowlick on his head. I held him in my arms and told him that he was the sweetest kid—he moved me to tears. I took him to a park and pushed him in a swing and he smiled and laughed and trusted me. There was nothing made-up or artificial about our encounter and I felt my love for him healing him. Healing me.
Later, I would find out that this type of journey is known in traditional medicine parlance as spontaneous soul retrieval.
The night moved on and we moved with it but in another dimension. There was more sitting up, lying down, adjusting clothes, adjusting pillows. I could hear others shifting in the darkness. Presently someone started vomiting, again, and the sound sparked the sharp and immediate awareness that I needed to purge, too. After some fumbling around I found my bucket and started heaving, but it was only spasms. After a few minutes of this dry retching I returned to my supine position.
Now: every single thought, of which I had hundreds or perhaps thousands each minute, became a question exploring why exactly I thought that way. Each question blossomed into a compassionate lesson about the habit patterns of my own mind. The lessons, as endless as my thoughts, were so instructive and illuminating into the prison of my own conditioned thinking, that they flowed through consciousness like a river of insights flooding my usual habitual patterns of operating in the mental landscape, exposing all sorts of narrowed vision, denial and judgement in areas where I typically considered myself open-minded.
It seemed as if I had access to a virtually endless stream of information from a source contained within another dimension—the dimension I’d obviously passed into during my ‘little death’ as the medicine first took hold of me. I felt I was on the verge of reaching up to pluck a fragrant kantuta out of the night air in the moloka and decoding the fibonacci series.
Anything, everything was accessible; and then the icaros, the high-pitched melodic singing of venerable ceremonial songs, started. Our shaman, Elysa, filled the space inside and outside with her voice. A new dawn broke in my mind.
With my eyes shut, my inner vision filled with warm light and the melody extracted fear from me as if that was its prime purpose and then helped me look at it before leaving it behind. I saw birds spiraling softly around the moloka, carried on currents of this ancient strain.
Having already explored compassion for myself, I was filled with a genuine metta, a compassion for all beings. Then the icaros tugged at the darkness that had been brewing in my gut for about an hour and I finally purged; not much came up but what did seemed to come from the pit of my being.
I was vomiting residual fear.
I lay down and for a long time I explored my relationship with Mrs. X, my ex-wife. I saw her anger and judgement and denial and ignorance and hatred and seeming greediness and bitchiness with compassion; the medicine then took me further into the seeds of her thoughts and reactions, her need to control and held up a mirror to my own ignorance and judgement and aversion and fear—and how many of my actions were were the seeds that grew into the fruit of Mrs. X’s actions.
Some of the very behavior I couldn’t reconcile in her came from her parents, yes, I could see this clearly—but of greater interest were the elements of her behaviour that actually had their origin in me.
I spent a long time going over the details of our interactions in this prescient dimension, seeing in granular and vivid detail how the smallest energies had a knock-on effect not only for Mrs. X and I, but for our children; I could actually see what effect these interactions would have on our children’s children.
Dismayed with my ignorance, judgement and denial, I imagined a new way of sharing vital bonds of trust and respect where the best interests of our children were concerned.
Under the clarity of ayahuasca, I saw that this was possible and even how. I constructed it in my mind and could see it all play out, not only in this life but in lives to come. Every single blessed action counts; every thought counts, too. Thoughts, I realized experientially, are potent forms of energy. I had suspected this for a long time but now I knew it first hand.
I could also already see that this insight was a genuine gift and that it would be very difficult to maintain both awareness and compassion objectively when I returned to the sacred normal.
I sensed that the spontaneous soul-retrieval, where I’d visited myself at various stages of my childhood and youth, was setting me up to view my other relationships more honestly and compassionately.
The next item up for ayahuascan analysis was the nature of my relationship with a teacher I’d slept with during one of my teacher trainings; I had subsequently written an article about this relationship, exploring not only her methods of manipulation and seduction but the nature of training and the ethics involved when sleeping with students.
For the sake of authenticity I had opened myself wide up in the article and questioned seriously whether it was possible for a man to be taken advantage of by a woman.
Even though I had kept the identity of the studio and the teacher in question anonymous, this article had been picked up and published online, which quickly caused a veritable shitstorm in my hometown, resulting in blowback comprised of hate mail and vitriolic comments from agitated people, many of them sniping from behind false names and a veneer of self-righteous centered bliss.
This feedback had been voluminous and heated enough to start my training in Peru off with a healthy jolt of ego-reduction and self-analysis.
Now, I could truly examine the moral posturing of all this feedback objectively and in the darkness of the moloka I turned it over in my mind. I saw how raw this exposure had been for my former teacher/lover and saw how I had rationalized her pain and humiliation and betrayal.
Now, through the help of ayahuasca, I felt it.
I saw how I had been willfully blind to the very principles of ahimsa I discussed in my article, in the interest of speaking my own truth. While my intention had not been to cause suffering, I not only saw but felt, both qualitatively and quantitatively, exactly the suffering that had been caused—and not just for myself and my teacher, but for other people as well.
I scanned through other relationships—family, friends, lovers. There was no denying the connection I held to all sentient beings, especially the people who lay in the moloka sharing this journey with me. I sent them love like guided missiles through the night air and several times trembled at the power, the great force behind my affection for all living beings, including myself and all my stupid, ignorant, petty but well-meaning habits and ideas.
What the medicine seemed to be doing was giving me an unbiased capacity for empathy.
I could see and feel my role in every interaction and relationship I turned my mind to. And the night went on like this—illuminating thoughts, thousands of them, each one with an awareness or insight that I tried to remember until it became clear that there was no human capacity to store all of this information intellectually; I had to trust that what I was learning would evolve in my body, in my gut and in my heart. Separateness was an illusion.
Hours later, thoughts spent, I fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning I awoke, surprised by dawn and the light. I felt rested and at ease with the medicine, the effects of which seemed to have completely disappeared apart from the pressing need for a bowel movement.
It wasn’t over, though; I knew before going into ayahuasca ceremony that this medicine is a two-part affair. My teachers and the shaman, as well as the M.D. in training with us, all recommended that the medicine be taken on at least two separate occasions, as the medicine (often referred to reverently as Aya, a mystical feminine entity unto herself) will show very different aspects of her consciousness to an aspirant at different times.
This, as I was about to find out, is profoundly true.
*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.
Ed: Bryonie Wise
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