Ayahuasca, Entheogens, and Sacramental Plants

The Accidental Shaman: Journeys with Plant Teachers and Other Spirit Allies - Howard G. Charing 2017

Ayahuasca, Entheogens, and Sacramental Plants

There is a transcendental dimension beyond language. It’s just hard as hell to talk about it.


Interest in ayahuasca and plant entheogens has surged in the past three decades. It is part of the renaissance of expanded consciousness and new thinking that was kindled in the 1960s. This resurgence has brought together a novel way of perceiving the visible and invisible patterns composing our world. Thought-provoking books from pioneers of consciousness research, such as The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra, and those of Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary, have not only drawn parallels between the spiritual teachings of the East and the concepts of modern physics but at their heart have accentuated a universal consciousness permeating all things.

There is little doubt that an intimate relationship between the human world and the plant world has existed for thousands of years. Entheogenic plants were crucial in the religious and spiritual development of humans, awakening us to the ecstatic spiritual experience. In Terence McKenna’s book Food of the Gods, he postulates the involvement of entheogens in the evolution of human consciousness and in the accelerated development of the human brain. Entheogens provide a powerful route for directly experiencing the sacred. They enable us to seek out the meaning of being human and our place in the universe; they allow us to perceive the blessings of the world that surrounds us and that we help to form.

Without a doubt entheogens offer the potential to explore and transform human consciousness, allowing us to bring an inclusive spirituality to our society and to alleviate the alienation from nature that has brought humanity to a grave ecological crisis.

Entheogens are not recreational and are not suitable for everybody. Working with them requires a certain attitude, discipline, and mental stability. Some Westerners view entheogens as a universal panacea and might believe that one session with ayahuasca would solve all their problems. Although I cannot exclude that possibility, in my experience, it is unlikely.

Ayahuasca is a combination of two primary plants, although other plants may be added to elicit certain visionary or healing experiences. The first is the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the second, chacruna leaf (Psychotria viridis); together, they operate in a specific manner to affect our neurochemistry. The leaf contains the neurotransmitters of the tryptamine family (identical to those present in our brain), and the vine acts as an inhibitor to prevent our body’s enzymes from breaking the tryptamines down, thereby making them inert. Science defines these as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and they form the basis for many of the antidepressant pharmaceutical medications, such as Prozac and Seroxat. The MAOI principle was discovered by Western science in the 1950s, yet interestingly it has been known by the plant shamans for thousands of years, and when you ask the shamans how they knew of it, the response is invariably “the plants told us.”

I have discovered that ayahuasca is a medicine, and unlike the Western understanding of medicine, it works on every level—on our physical bodies, our consciousness, our emotions, and our spirit. It is as if you are not just drinking a liquid brew but imbibing an “other” intelligence that knows exactly what is needed to help you. This is a communion in the true sense of the word, an intense experience of euphoria and ecstasy. It takes you on a journey of deep and profoundly meaningful personal and transpersonal insights, turning a searchlight on hidden thoughts and feelings in the subconscious mind, allowing an erasure of the ego boundaries and a merging with the greater field of consciousness.

We humans have a special relationship with and dependence on plants. Since our beginnings, they have been the source, both directly and indirectly, of our food, our shelter, our medicines, our fuel, our clothing, and of course the very oxygen that we breathe. This is common knowledge, and in general we take it for granted. Yet in Western culture we view plants as semi-inanimate, lacking the animating force labeled soul, mind, or spirit. Many people ridicule and regard as eccentric those who say they communicate with plants.

The biggest challenge for a Westerner undertaking this communion with plants is to accept that a person can experience nonmaterial reality by seeking out plant consciousness, and to do this requires a significant leap of the imagination.

How can we enter into a communion (in the true sense of the word) with plant consciousness? This can indeed be difficult, as Western culture has long forgotten this body of knowledge. However, we can learn from those peoples who still live within the paradigm of human and plant communication. The body of practices known as the diet in Amazonian shamanism opens the door to this world.

The diet, as mentioned previously, is a complex and challenging discipline required of Amazonian shamans, who wish to learn directly from the plant spirits. It implies much more than the mere dietary restrictions of avoiding salt, sugar, meat, and alcohol. It also means refraining from libidinous thoughts and sexual activity. The diet should be carried out in isolation without any social activities or stimulation. This attenuation of our primal human instincts cultivates us to become more “plantlike,” thereby incorporating the plant consciousness into our own, allowing us to access plants’ knowledge. During this time of intense communion, shamans learn the ícaros to invoke the power of the plants and methods for using the plants for healing.

The power of plants can take many forms—the colors of the flowers, the perfume, the shape, and so on. Maestro Artidoro Aro Cardenas explains:

A smell has the power to attract. I can also make smells to attract business, people who buy. You just rub it on your face and it brings in the people to your business, if you are selling, people come to buy. I also make perfumes for love, and others for flourishing. These are the forces of nature, what I do is give it direction with my breath so it has effect. I use my experience of the plants which I have dieted. I have a relation with the plants and with the patient—I can’t make these things on a commercial scale. When I diet I take in the strength of the plant and it stays with me. Later I find the illness or suffering of the person, or what it is they want, and the plant guides me and tells me if it is the right one for that person, and I cure them.1

In my quest for shamanic knowledge, I dieted some of the teacher plants such as ajo sacha (Mansoa alliacea). When I first reached communion with this plant, I felt my senses being altered, expanded in some ineffable way, and I became aware of the song, the very rhythm, of the rainforest. Sounds, smells, and sights surrounded me that I had not been aware of in my normal, everyday waking state. I have been dieting ajo sacha for years now and continue to experience the fascinating phenomenon of heightened senses. With this incredible plant I can zoom in to hear or amplify distant sounds in the rich rainforest panorama. I can also hear high-pitched sound that usually is out of my hearing range. It is like floating within a living, three-dimensional sensorial experience of sound, color, smell, movement, and vibration—all in harmony and great beauty. In this state of expanded awareness, I realized that the rainforest was one entity, with the insects, birds, and animals being a part of its totality. I tried to diet this plant back in England, but I had to stop because the everyday clamor of traffic and machines was too harsh and jarring.

The work with the visionary plants not only provides a philosophical frame of reference for my life but is a path for deep soul healing. It generates a desire to engage fully and enthusiastically with the world around me. Celestial visions are always very nice and pleasing, but they must never cloud, disguise, or distract our real purpose, which is to fully embody our humanity.

I’d like to share a personal anecdote to exemplify this idea. In the late 1990s I led a group to the Amazon rainforest. Our initial gathering to introduce ourselves took place in the presence of our shaman, Javier Arevalo. Javier was very curious about Westerners and was interested in knowing what we were searching for with the visionary plants. One participant stood up and said she wanted a clear and definitive understanding of the male and female principles of the universe, the cosmic “yin and yang,” as she literally put it. Well, Javier was totally mystified by this question; when I have attended his sessions with local people who visit him for a consultation, they ask about everyday problems and concerns, such as “Is my boyfriend (or husband, or girlfriend) cheating on me?” or “Why am I unlucky in finding a job?” We worked with the participant to explore the real question behind her initial enquiry, and finally she said that she was really looking for love in her life. Of course, Javier could understand this deep desire completely and was subsequently able to help her discover and reconcile the inner obstacles that had been preventing this.2

The teacher plants can provide a doorway to great and meaningful insights in the adventure of personal growth and healing. This allows us to access our higher order consciousness, a flowing, omnipresent force guiding our life. Among the many gifts that I have received from ayahuasca are unexpected insights into the world, humanity, what makes us what we are, why we do what we do, with all the permutations of these concerns.

In one experience in 2001 (an interesting synchronicity), while in the Amazon, I drank the brew and moved into a deep reverie. It felt as if everything around and within me was moving simultaneously, as if I had become part of a spiraling vortex of consciousness. I beamed into what I felt to be the center of creation. I was in the cosmos witnessing its totality: the formation of planets, stars, nebulas, and entire universes. Intricate geometric patterns stretched as far as the eye could see, changing size and form with fluid complexity. The chanting of the shaman filled every cell with an electric force, and every part of my body vibrated. It felt as if I was bodily lifted into the air, where I existed within a temple of sound, vibration, and bliss. Gathered around me were giants in ornate costumes of gold and multicolored feathers blowing smoke and fanning me. These were the spirits of ayahuasca.

I was no longer in my body, and my mind was set free to roam. Then a magnetic force drew me into Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was not just observing but present three-dimensionally in the opening scene, the prologue entitled “The Dawn of Man,” set millions of years in the past. I knew it was a movie, but it felt totally real. In this scene a group of hominids face extinction because the only water hole has been taken over by a different group of hominids. I watched as one of the disenfranchised group sees the black monolith that has materialized, and then in some form of telepathic transmission the monolith expands the mind of the hominid. The scene moves to where the hominid is contemplating a pile of bones, and then, in that moment, light flashes in his eyes, and he becomes aware of the possibility of using a jawbone as a weapon. (He sees himself in his imagination actually killing animals.)

The group then use this discovery to hunt for food, killing and eating meat rather than scrabbling for edible roots and leaves. This discovery (and perhaps the change in their nutrition) leads to attacking and killing with these weapons the hominid group that had occupied the water hole. I realized how this act forever transformed our relationship to the natural world. With a single leap of imagination, we had divorced ourselves from a passive coexistence to become the species that would dominate the world.

Then the proverbial light of realization switched on, and I knew that this coding to dominate was embedded in our primordial ancestors well before Homo sapiens evolved. It is the distinctive characteristic separating us from other primates, the drive to dominate nature. Sadly, this made sense, and I felt that humanity would always be impelled by this inborn code, regardless of any attempt to mitigate it through social or cultural mores; the impetus to dominate would always be there. I understood that this was the root evil behind the homicidal insanity of belligerent conquest and war that has been a plague on humanity since time immemorial.

The vision suddenly metamorphosed, and I was sitting in a forest clearing among a gathering of people in a circle. We were sharing the anguish, mourning the loss of the compassionate bond between humanity, the biosystem, and the sentient cosmos. Behind each person I could see other people, more incorporeal, and the circle of the living was the innermost part of an immense series of concentric circles of people who had lived before us. We were an intrinsic portion of the spiral of life, and then the exquisitely soft and sensual voice of the spirit of ayahuasca spoke to me: “and we are an evolving jewel in the maelstrom of creation.”

I was shown how we could teach our children to redress this imbalance. I saw adults instructing children about our place in the immense web of life and how humans, other animals, and plants are each an element in nature. The vision revealed an immeasurable cosmic tapestry, with all life woven like gems into its fabric. Then the voice of the spirit said that the period of perceived separation from the natural world and the falsehood of domination that sets us above nature are going to change. A new dream of interconnection with the spiritual forces that underlie the natural world is already unfolding. People will be more and more drawn to explore their inner selves and discover a sense of community with other people and subsequently with all sentient life.

I understood that this was the potential direction of humanity, and I had the inescapable sensation that maybe the domination code embedded in our DNA could eventually be erased from our collective. In the ongoing evolution of consciousness of our species, the time has come to transform the competitive, dominant predisposition that has brought us to the brink of ecological devastation and to fashion a balanced, cooperative, and creative existence. This will take generations to realize, but the metamorphosis has already begun. This was a beautiful revelation, and it has certainly given me hope and a long-term optimistic outlook.

The following day, swinging gently to and fro on my hammock, I realized that Kubrick was an absolute genius, and of course he purposefully envisaged the analogies in his movie to explore the potential evolutionary destiny of humanity. To me his movie is an unparalleled prophetic vision. I see that the monolith is a metaphor for the higher order universal field of consciousness, and hallucinogenic plants allow us to enter into communion with this consciousness. Without a doubt the monolith can be seen as an analogy for ayahuasca as it spreads out from its rainforest home to bring illumination, healing, spiritual wellbeing, and a new sense of interconnectivity with life. I recommend 2001: A Space Odyssey without hesitation to those who are working with mind-expanding plants and practices.

The plant teachers can show us how to transcend linear time itself, to journey within the eternal now to the very place in time where we experienced a difficult event or suffered a troubled period in our life. We can reexperience this, albeit from a different perspective, learn what happened, the reasons why it occurred, and the subsequent impact and consequences on our life, and then release any pain and trauma locked within our being. This release within the ayahuasca experience is called la purga, or the purge, when we literally purge this pain from our being. We release not only the contents of our stomach but also the deeply stored bile and sourness in our bodies generated from these difficult events. The plants offer us the potential for deep soul healing so we can become stronger and more able to engage fully in the precious gift of life.

Westerners have a disturbing tendency, in my view, to project a form of guruship onto shamans. Traditional shamans are not prepared culturally or psychologically for this type of adulation. Making shamans into superstars is damaging and can reveal the dark underbelly of human nature. This is an invitation to malpractice and abusive behavior that is ultimately destructive.

In general, the two main distinguishing characteristics of shamans are their mastery of expanded states of consciousness and their ability to establish a relationship with the transpersonal forces that we call spirits. Because of this relationship, which comes through a rigorous apprenticeship and self-discipline, they are able to harness the spiritual forces to serve their community.

When asked to describe the role of a shaman, mestizo*9 shaman Javier Arevalo replied, “He learns everything about the rain forest and uses that knowledge to heal his people since they do not have money for Western style doctors. He uses Ayahuasca to discover in his visions, which plants will be effective for which illnesses.”3

Amazonian shamans work with the everyday prosaic mess of life, illness, curses, and saldera, meaning a pervasive run of bad luck. Good luck and bad luck are not regarded as purely chance. Local people come to see shamans to find out why they are unable to find work, to discover if their partner is cheating on them, or to receive a remedy for illness. They do not come to seek answers to deep questions about the transcendent nature of reality.

I am using the word shaman loosely in the narrative; the term shaman, or in Peru, chaman, originates in the Turkic Asiatic word šaman. The term shaman is a recent Western import into the Amazon in the past thirty years. In the Amazonian tradition there are many specializations and categories. The traditional generic term would be vegetalista, which denotes they have received their power from the plant kingdom. There are many subspecializations of the vegetalista, for example, palero, a specialist in the bark and roots of trees; perfumero, a specialist in the perfumes of plants and flowers; and ayahuasquero, a specialist in ayahuasca.

Iquitos, the capital city in the department of Loreto in the Amazon rainforest, has developed into a veritable mecca for those seeking the ayahuasca experience. Until the road to Natua was finally completed in 2007, there were no roads to the city, and the only route to get there was by airplane or river boat. The city in the nineteenth century was the center of the rubber industry, but by the early twentieth century, the rubber boom was over and the trade had moved to the Far East. The city had fallen into neglect and disrepair. It is now a place without an apparent purpose, resplendent in its postcolonial splendor literally in the middle of nowhere, a true frontier town. It is still an exhilarating experience standing on the esplanade called the Malecon at the edge of the city, overlooking the river, and knowing that some three thousand miles of rainforest is spread before you.

One thing I witnessed at close hand in the region around Iquitos is the effect caused by the relatively substantial influx of money into the shamanic and jungle lodge economy. To put it into perspective, Cusco receives hundreds of thousands tourists a year, and Iquitos just a few thousand. Even so, ayahuasca has become big money in the poor and impoverished region, in effect creating a small-scale “gold rush.” This is not mass tourism by any means, but the revenue has created an imbalance in what was (and still is) the traditional niche vocation of the shaman. I reject the term ayahuasca tourism; it is pejorative and neither values nor respects the traveler’s motivation, which I consider to be a pilgrimage or quest for healing and enlightenment. Nevertheless, an ayahuasca economy has sprung up, and visitors should not suspend their cognitive faculties and allow shamans and their associates to exploit their inner desires and personal aspirations.

I was present when a shaman offered to solve a woman’s family problems by supplying a bottle of holy water collected from seven churches for 500 soles (the official currency in Peru is the sol, plural soles; 500 soles is around $180 in U.S. currency). I calculated it would have been the work of an hour and at most would cost him 5 soles in a motokar (a motorcycle-rickshaw) to dash around to seven churches. Placed within the context of a daily wage in the region, which is 20 to 50 soles, it shows how payment for shamanic assistance has been distorted. Fortunately, the woman said she would think about it, so I had an opportunity to take her aside and discuss it. The deal did not sit right with her, and she intuitively knew that it was not kosher.

Not everyone is as intuitive as this woman. At another meeting a woman loudly complained of her husband’s inability to raise an erection. She started to laugh and then described in detail his problem in an acerbic and sarcastic tone. The shaman promised to prepare a special elixir for her husband, guaranteed to resolve this problem. The following day the shaman turned up asking the exorbitant price of 500 soles for a bottle of special elixir. She asked him what the ingredients were; he was completely taken aback by this question and was at a loss for words.

However, as it happens, the previous day I had looked into this matter and had discovered that he had not personally made the elixir; he had subcontracted the task to another shaman and paid him 15 soles. I had asked the subcontractor about the contents. I was therefore in a position to help the shaman out of his awkward situation, as he would have lost some serious face. I prompted him by naming each ingredient in the elixir, and I also mentioned some nonexistent constituents, such as pene del mono (monkey’s penis); he nodded his head with enthusiasm to each ingredient. It was clear that he had not a clue what was in this elixir and had not even taken the trouble to ask the shaman who had made it on his behalf. I negotiated the price for the elixir to a reasonable 25 soles while the woman proudly held the bottle and continued her sarcastic invective about her husband. Listening to this disparaging rant I knew that if I was in her husband’s place, I wouldn’t want to get it up either.

I was disappointed at this rip-off. I had known this shaman since the 1990s, and he had always acted in a helpful and trustworthy manner, but over the years I saw how adulation and money had gone to his head. This kind of situation does happen; it’s best to acknowledge it and move on, and so I decided not to work with him again. As a side note, although we tend to regard the concept of “losing face” as primarily Asian in origin, in Peru it is also significant. If you force an issue and thereby cause a Peruvian to lose face, that person will not be well-disposed toward you, and you may even make an enemy. It is in your best interests to avoid this, even though you may be in the right; smile if as nothing has happened, move on, and let it go.

Sometimes shamanic situations in the region do get serious. For instance, a friend of mine who had accompanied me to a few ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon got into a dangerous situation when she went on a solo trip. One of her endearing characteristics is that she is forever complaining about everything. It has never bothered me. I see it as a sort of surreal comedy, and I find the whole thing amusing; in fact, I would be concerned if she wasn’t complaining because then something for certain could be amiss. On her solo visit she went to a lodge to drink ayahuasca, but there her complaining was not welcome. She was not happy and complained about the food, the insects, the accommodations, and the weather, and she demanded a refund of her money (which she had paid up front). The lodge owner said that wouldn’t be a problem, and he would give her a refund the following day.

That evening she attended the ayahuasca ceremony. The shaman came over to her, made some sopladas,*10 and chanted ícaros. The next thing she knew, she was waking up by the side of the Iquitos to Nauta road (quite some distance away), in her underwear, with her passport tucked into her underpants. This is awful and shocking without a doubt, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse. It would have been just as easy for these people to take her out on a boat, weigh her down, and dump her into the river, where she would be fish food. It was a horrific ordeal, but she was lucky. She was too intimidated to report this to the police, and even if she had, it would have led nowhere because the charge would have been denied, and there was no concrete evidence. Even if she’d had a solid case, the owner would have encouraged the police to drop the matter.

Unfortunately, these vexing situations do happen, so be careful if you are on your own. At the end of the day, you are in “Wild West” frontier territory. I have had my run-ins with the police there; not much you can do except grit your teeth, smile, pay up, and move on.†1

I’d like to add a cautionary note on the importance of knowing what is in the ayahuasca brew. Some shamans add to the ayahuasca the plant called toé (Brugmansia suaveolens), also known locally as tomapende or floripondio. Brugmansia is a psychoactively dangerous deliriant with toxic anticholinergic effects that wreak havoc with the human nervous system and mental faculties, and can lead to a horrendous experience in extremis. Shamans do work with toé even though it has a shady reputation because of its use for brujeria.*11 There are valid reasons why a shaman needs knowledge of the plant if he is to heal victims of the brujos who use toé for harmful purposes.

In my view, adding toé to the ayahuasca brew without informing people is very irresponsible. I have had trouble on two occasions with this. On one of these, I knew the shaman and gave him the money for the brew, but the problem (as I later found out) was that he had not made the brew himself and was thus ignorant of its contents. We drank the ayahuasca concoction, and after a half hour or so the shaman went into a panic, muttering toé and holding his hand over his mouth so his vomit wouldn’t spray everywhere, and he along with the two other participants in the ceremony ran out of the ceremonial cabin locally known as a maloka. I sat there abandoned in the dark with the effect of the brew gradually increasing and realized that I could be in seriously deep shit. Even thinking that one could be in a tight spot in these circumstances is in itself dangerous, so I avoided going into a negative spiral of thinking. I decided that I would be better off in my hut, but in hindsight that was maybe not such a great idea. To this day I have no idea how I made it back to the hut. My vision was an unfocused blur; I could neither see nor walk straight. I staggered through the jungle, bumped into trees, tripped over logs, and pushed my way through dense bushes, and the following day I was covered in scratches and a myriad of insect bites. I desperately wanted to vomit to get the brew out of me, but even though I tried, I couldn’t. Anyway, somehow I made it back to the hut, laid down on the bed, and then one of the longest and weirdest nights of my life began.

I heard a loud crunching sound coming from the toilet. I sat up and saw a group of huge rats eating the toilet bowl, and suddenly I heard a loud splash and an anaconda reared up from the bowl, grabbed one of the rats in its mouth, and withdrew into the bowl. This looked so real, I was not even sure if it was a hallucination, so I got off the bed, slammed the bathroom door shut, and barricaded it with my bags and whatever else was at hand. I was too scared to go to the toilet that night.

Then with a rushing noise, I found myself out of my body, fully conscious, and cognizant in a half-luminous, eerie jungle. I cannot accurately describe the distinctive quality of the illumination. It was neither dark nor light, but a metallic pewter color, and my body was translucent silver. To either side were massive lianas (vines) hanging down from the trees, twisting and moving like snakes. The leaves on the bushes rustled, and the bushes made whispering sounds as if talking to each other. I heard the sounds of animals and watched the floating, flickering lights of firefly clusters, which was mesmerizing. At times I sensed a jaguar stalking me. This was unnerving, and I kept on looking back to see if I was being followed. At one point the pathway became a gigantic serpent, a sachamama, winding its way through the jungle, and it felt as if I was on a living, undulating conveyor belt.

I knew I was somewhere, but in a strange supernatural somewhere. I was gripped by a mixture of total fascination and anxiety, and at times waves of icy fear moved through me. I was certainly uneasy, to say the least, but I was very aware that this would be a very bad moment to come unglued. If that happened I would be absolutely and unequivocally fucked. I started to think about the difficulty that I had in getting back into my body during my previous toé experience, many years earlier, but on that occasion I had some help, and here I was on my own. It was critical to master my thoughts and not allow them to spin down into a maelstrom of hysteria.

I stopped walking, and marshaled my thoughts and feelings. I started to focus on the joyful, funny, and beautiful things in my life, and I recalled the silly songs about polar bears, elephants, and kangaroos I used to make up and sing to my daughters when they were little. I felt as if I was drawing them to me. My spirits lifted, I became calm, and then I knew with certainty that I would get out of my difficulty. I smiled and sang the Animals song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Then suddenly I was not there; I was back in my hut lying on the bed. I assume that I had fallen asleep (although I really can’t be sure of that), because I awoke feeling a very heavy weight on top of me. I opened an eye and saw a very large snake coiled on me. I thought, “Don’t panic. . . . You are hallucinating. . . . This is not happening.” I was really trying hard not to freak out because it looked and felt so palpable. I laid there for what felt like hours without making the slightest movement to keep from disturbing the large and heavy snake lying on top of me.

Somehow I must have fallen into actual, bona fide sleep because when I awoke it was daytime. The snake was not there, and I saw my bags piled up against the bathroom door. I tiptoed to the door and gently opened it. The rats had also gone, and the toilet bowl, to my surprise, was unchewed. I felt exhausted, dehydrated, and generally wasted, something that I don’t get with ayahuasca. I took my water bottle and sat outside sipping it. The water tasted like the nectar of the gods; it was the best water I had ever drunk in my life; it was beyond exquisite; it was sublime. That was one of my toé experiences; yes, it was interesting, but it’s not one that I would care to repeat. Later in the morning I returned to the maloka, found the bottle of ayahuasca, and emptied out the remaining dregs on the earth outside. There was a lot to reflect on: I had experienced a subjective reality through the meshing of my mind and senses, and I had entered the mythological world of the Amazon and it felt completely real. It was if a Pablo Amaringo painting had come to life.

It is critical that you know what is in the ayahuasca brew. If the shaman prevaricates, that is a sign that he does not know what plants have been added, which means he bought it from another shaman or from the market. You really need to be very fussy about this, and if the information is not forthcoming, then I would personally decline to drink it. It really is best if you are present at the actual brewing of the ayahuasca. Aside from the admixture issue, being present and participating in the brewing is a rewarding and meaningful experience.

Entheogens like ayahuasca are catalysts for spiritual insights and offer direct encounters with the great mystery. In this exploration, safety is an important matter, but also keep in mind that it is an adventure, and in my view it is good to have adventures, to boldly go and all that. Adventures keep you young, and an adventure standing prominent above the mundane gives life additional meaning.

In November 2007, I had an extraordinary, momentous, and reality-shattering experience. I was in the Amazon at Mishana, living in my cabin or tambo at the edge of the River Nanay (see color plate 10). Mishana is part of the Allpahuayo-Mishana Nature Reserve, about three hours by boat from Iquitos. One morning around dawn, I was roused from my sleep by a resounding and deep bass sound like a foghorn. I jumped out of the hammock to find out what it was, and there in the river was one of the most amazing things that I had ever seen, an enormous pucabufeo (pink dolphin) leaping out of the water. I was spellbound watching this wonderful creature with its dusky red color diving into the river, disappearing from sight and then suddenly bursting out of the water further along. Then it submerged for a few minutes, and just when I thought it had swum away, suddenly it shot out of the water right in front of me. As I watched it soared and rolled through the air before diving back in. Then it was gone and did not return.

This was one of the most awesome events that I have witnessed in my life. I had seen the gray Amazonian dolphins along the Nanay, but never a pucabufeo. Later, still buzzing with excitement, I met up with the others in the group at breakfast in our big house with a deck called the casa grande. I was surprised that no one else had heard or seen the huge pink dolphin. I never imagined that a pink dolphin could be that large; I had read that they grew to two meters in length, but this dolphin was the size of a large car. That was a sensational start to the day, yet I had no inkling of what would lie ahead in the next twenty-four hours.

That evening we were having an ayahuasca ceremony with a skilled Shipibo shaman named Enrique, with whom we had worked before. There was also José, a Huitoto shaman who had been working with a group the previous week and was staying over for a few days. (The Huitoto are another group of Peruvian Indians.) A few years earlier I had stayed at a Huitoto village when I was traveling around with Chuck, an ayahuasca buddy from Oakland, California. We hung out at the hut of Mario, the village chief, and were made very welcome. The Huitoto were very hospitable and affable. The ayahuasca ceremonies were different than what I was used to, as instead of sitting or lying down we were on hammocks, which I really liked. Mario played the arpa de duendes (a wooden stringed instrument) with great gusto, and the ayahuasca was different too, having chiricsango (Brunfelsia grandiflora), guayusa (Ilex guayusa), and ajo sacha added to the usual brew of ayahuasca vine and chacruna. I did drink ayahuasca with José and his group, but for some reason he preferred to hold the ceremony in an enclosed space with the group having plastic bowls to vomit in. This for me was a bit icky. Purging is important in ayahuasca because it is not just the contents of your stomach that are discharged (from either end) but deeply buried emotional trauma, toxic energies, and disease. So if you are going to purge, get out there and give it all to nature. Your purge is a deep cleansing, a purifying gift from ayahuasca, and throwing up into a bucket or a toilet bowl for me is definitely disgusting.

In the evening, before the ceremony started, I was relaxing in a hammock in the large open area overlooking the river when I noticed José come in and go to the table where the bottle of ayahuasca was standing. He opened the ayahuasca bottle, did a soplo, sang an ícaro to the ayahuasca, resealed the bottle, and went away. It did strike me as odd, and I had an uneasy feeling, but I was so languid in the jungle heat lying in the hammock that I did not follow up on my misgivings and inform Enrique, who was holding the ceremony. By ignoring my intuition I made a big mistake.

Around an hour later we started the ceremony. That evening we were drinking a very potent form of the brew known as yagé, made with chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana), not chacruna.*12 Enrique sang his ícaro with the ayahuasca, and we all drank. However, within twenty minutes or so things went awry. I watched as Enrique vomited the ayahuasca, and I knew without a doubt that something was not right. An experienced Shipibo shaman does not vomit, and certainly never after such a short time. Enrique left the maloka, went to the riverbank, and started to howl like a wounded animal. As I listened to the howling I realized that he had lost his mind and that we were in for an extremely rough ride that night.

Suddenly a storm erupted, without warning. Usually you know that a storm is coming: the wind picks up and the rain draws close, sounding like an approaching train. These warning signs allow you to stow away your gear, unhook the hammock, and all that. However, this massive thunderstorm just appeared out of the blue. No rain fell at all, and lightning flashed everywhere. Lightning bolts hit just one hundred yards away. By this time the yagé had set in, and it was so strong that I could not move. Even if I could have moved there was nowhere to go and nowhere to hide.

The moment before each lightning flash, I got a strong electric shock that lasted a few seconds, and then I was thrown out of my body. I had to use maximum determination and strength to return to my body, and then I would violently purge. I was unable to move, so I just leaned over my chair and threw up on the floor. The storm continued to rage, and as it grew more intense the mareación also grew in intensity.

The lightning came closer and closer from over the river, the electric shocks got stronger, and then I realized that I would die there. I knew that I faced imminent death. It would be an ignominious death; I would be a burnt and blistered lump of flesh and bone.

This would be worse than death; it would be complete annihilation. In that moment I prepared to die. This was not a conscious act; it was an act of my soul. Images of my life did not flash by, but I relived and reexperienced an all-consuming emotional pain and sadness that stemmed from the beginning of my life. I had forgotten how awful and wretched I had felt when I was young, I shuddered and went into contortions as I reenacted the excruciating pain. I felt tortured. Then the agonizing pain rose through my body, and I purged over the side of my chair.

I knew each thought could be my final one. My sense of time altered, from a continual flow of movement and events into a procession of distinct, infinitesimal moments. It was like watching a movie frame by single frame. I faced my ultimate fear—not of death, but of total oblivion. I watched as the sky tore into shreds, and I saw what I had assumed to be reality going through a cosmic shredding machine.

This extraordinary situation continued while I was still getting electric shocks and the lightning struck all around me. I reached out through my mind and felt that I could telepathically communicate with my loved ones. I said farewell and felt unbearable guilt about abandoning my two daughters in this awful way. I reexperienced nightmares from when I was a child; that nightmare world was in my “here and now” reality. The nightmares were purged too.

The storm went on for hours, unmoving in its location overhead, unvarying in its savage intensity. Then in the distance I heard Enrique chanting ícaros; he had broken through his torment and had come back. As he chanted, the storm became less severe and started to depart. He came over to me, and all I could see of him was a ball of shimmering, luminescent threads. He chanted ícaros to me for a long time, and I felt the vibrations of the ícaros resonate in my deepest being, through every fiber of my body. Then I was transformed. When I stood up, I had become transparent, and I could see within my body. I saw the obnoxious and nauseating mass of the brujeria that had been sent to me. This fetid energy released from me in a burst of rainbow light. It was by now dawn; the most fearful night of my life had metamorphosed into the most transcendentally beautiful experience of my life.

After Enrique had chanted to the four other people in the ceremony, a tangible sense of peace descended. As the sun rose in the sky, we sat and shared our experiences; those present that evening had faced our personal nemesis or greatest fear. For Enrique it was losing contact with God. I had experienced an existential fear that went beyond the aspiration to avoid death or pain; it was a deep-rooted dread that what I recognized as “I” would cease to exist. I also realized that at last I understood ayahuasca. I had drunk the brew at least two hundred or more times, but only now did I get it. Ayahuasca was not only an other consciousness, but in an ineffable way an intrinsic part of the fabric of reality itself.

Later in the day I checked in with Marcio, who was assisting at the ceremony and did not drink ayahuasca. I asked him if there really was a storm. He laughed as if I was crazy and replied, “Yes, for sure!” Two days later, my colleague Peter Cloudsley came with the boat carrying supplies from Iquitos. When he joined us, he picked up on the atmosphere and asked, “What’s happened?” All I could say was “I could tell you what happened, but then I can’t tell you what happened.” Peter quickly got the drift. Even after all those years, I am still working on what took place that night. To tie up a loose end, José, the Huitoto shaman, had left Mishana the night before. I also poked around and found out that there had been some acrimony between him and Enrique. Of course, in the Amazon there would be no way to get to the bottom of this kind of situation, so I just left it.

Later I discussed this experience with Pablo Amaringo, and he said that the storm was an appearance of the Huairamama, the legendary Mother of the Air. This kind of storm in the Amazon—with powerful winds, thunder and lightning, but no rain—is known as a supay-cato or supay-qat’a. This is a Quechua phrase meaning either “supernatural bath” or “supernatural cloud.”

In retrospect, my experiences with entheogens have enriched and transformed my life. They have been a conduit to a realm of consciousness that I term the Great Domain. In this realm we are an intrinsic aspect of an infinite spirit or mind. In this domain we see that our experience of separateness is an illusion generated by being in a bodily vehicle that houses our senses. Our consciousness simultaneously permeates both the physical and spirit realms. In the Great Domain there is only the one emotion of ecstatic bliss, and here in the physical world we undergo a process of spiritual and emotional development that informs and illuminates this great mind. If this is God, then we are a part of it, and we also participate in its evolution.

Many of my visionary experiences with ayahuasca have led to a deeper understanding of my life and the role that various people had played in it. Sometimes in visions I became those people, lived their lives, and came to understand why they did what they did, and the decisions they had to make in their lives. These revelatory experiences invariably led to some form of closure with that person, like completing a chapter or healing my relationship with that person.

As ayahuasca enters the mainstream its perception in the Western mind is changing from a traditional body of indigenous practices into a new form. In this new form, it is viewed as a remedy for psychological ailments such as PTSD, clinical depression, and drug addiction. The organization founded by Rick Doblin, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is currently developing protocols for therapy in conjunction with the FDA. Research papers on this topic are available online at the MAPS website. These protocols apply not only to ayahuasca but to other hallucinogens as well, such as psilocybin (the psychoactive alkaloid in certain mushrooms).

The entry of ayahuasca into the Western mind has also led to a clash of perspectives. Some perceive ayahuasca and other psychotropic plants from a reductionist perspective; crudely put, ayahuasca is regarded as orally taken DMT liquid. I believe that this view is misguided for two main reasons. First, the ayahuasca brew contains many other alkaloids, and all work together in a chemical harmony. Figuratively speaking, isolating DMT in the mix is like separating the string section out of a symphony orchestra; you still hear the tune but the harmonious interaction between the various groups of instruments is lost. Second, the “liquid DMT” view also excludes the spiritual dimension, the sense that you are interacting or in communion with another field of transcendent spiritual consciousness.

I can add a small observation: ayahuasca is also becoming personified as the “mother,” or “madre.” It seems to be our nature to make the phrase “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” into something tangible rather than perceive it as a metaphor for something unknowable. My experience is that ayahuasca is beyond the male/female dichotomy; it is something “other” that in some way is part of the fabric of reality, and I personally wouldn’t regard reality as being either male or female.


Image Developing and Exploring Your Connection to the Plant Spirits

Traditional cultures regard plants as alive and conscious. Although this world-view is ridiculed in Western culture, many Westerners are aware of a spiritual connection to the world of plants and search for ways to create a profound connection with the plant kingdom.

The first and possibly the most important key in developing your relation-ship with a plant spirit (and what really helps to “open the door” or make the connection work) is cultivating a benign attitude and good intentions toward the plant. Our rational mind is not an ally in this endeavor, so avoid trying to understand what is happening. Go with your feelings; don’t dismiss them.

The idea is to perceive the world around us in a new and different way. When we were children, the world was novel and untarnished, and as we grew up, the world lost its freshness and novelty. When you enter into communion with a plant, try to evoke that childlike manner of perceiving the world, fostering a new and pristine vision, which many of us have lost in life’s maelstrom of banality.

The plant consciousness, or spirit, communicates with us when we are in a relaxed, gentle, trancelike state. Moving into this altered state of conscious-ness can be achieved gently, for example, by walking at a slow and steady pace through a forest, woodland, or park. Gradually the rhythm of this slow and steady movement will bring you into a heightened state of awareness. When you sense this subtle shift, lift up your eyes and look around. Allow yourself to be drawn to whatever tree, bush, or plant attracts your attention; you may experience this attraction as akin to a little “tug.”

Now go and sit with the plant. Use all your sensory and tactile faculties to engage with the plant. The following exercises will help you along.

Visual. Study the shape and form of the plant. Does it grow alone or in a cluster? Look at the form of the leaves, and look at the spaces between the leaves and branches (the forms within the forms). This practice is called gazing, which offers a way to perceive patterns outside the consensually agreed shapes and forms.

Smell. Our olfactory nerves go directly into the region of the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system is also called our primitive brain because its structure is below the linguistic and higher functions of the cerebral cortex. The limbic system is the location of our primal (unconscious) emotions and needs. The sense of smell is our only sense that has this access to our primal mind. Breathe in the fragrance of the plant and allow any feelings, memories, images, and associations to arise and be experienced.

Tactile. Tactile awareness involves our sense of touch. Gently move your hand toward the plant. Can you discern any movement or sense a connection between your energy field and that of the plant? Touch the leaves or bark with your fingers. You may sense the flow of energy from within the plant down into the earth and up into the sky.

Taste. Place a very small piece of the plant against your tongue and gently taste it. The taste may be acrid, bitter, hot, sweet, sour, or sharp. The taste may attract you or repel you, or your reaction may be completely neutral. This tasting will give you an indication of its character or “personality.” Exercise caution with this practice because some plants are toxic. Do not eat or swallow the plant.

When you have completed these practices (which form part of the Amazonian plant apprenticeship, the diet), take time to meditate or embark on a shamanic journey to encounter the spirit of the plant you have been working with.

Although I lean toward the traditional view and use of ayahuasca, as it transforms and meets the Western mind, I too have to embrace this change. In other words, tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (times change, and we change with them). However I do feel that there is so much we can learn and discover from the indigenous peoples, not only about the medicinal properties of plants, but also about communication between humans and plant consciousness.