|Amazon and river boat.|
What follows is my account of the events that took place during my visit to the Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre, near Iquitos, Peru, between December 31, 2013 and January 4, 2014 when I took part in three ayahuasca ceremonies conducted under the supervision of master curandero (shaman) Ricardo Amaringo and two other shamans.
|The Ayahuasca Test Pilots: John, Guy, Sid, Mike and Carl.|
|Pulse Tours’ Dan Cleland and girlfriend Tatyana.|
|The epic soccer match with the gringos versus guides.|
|Swimming in the Amazon.|
And yet… I am compelled to set out this account. I won’t posture that Mother Ayahuasca herself instructed me to do so, but I feel a sense of responsibility to share a written retelling of my experience, in as straightforward a manner as possible, for the benefit first of my family and friends (who have wondered what the hell I’ve been up to), with the extra benefit that it saves me endlessly retelling the essential facts of the story, and thus diluting the power of these experiences (to me).
|On the river.|
|View of a street in Iquitos from one of its ubiquitous three-wheeled
motorcycle taxis. Iquitos is the largest city in the world
that can only be reached via plane or boat.
Finally, I hope that what I’ve written here comes from the right intention and a place of humility and kindness. Mother Ayahuasca (as you will read) taught me some tough love lessons in humility, and not using what she showed me to gain bragging rights at the bar, or to be “the coolest guy at the New Age party.” This is a straightforward, factual account of what I experienced at Nihue Rao, and I don’t have any illusions about being the next Terence McKenna or any kind of expert. I’m also not writing this to encourage anyone to do this. If you feel called, great! Book your flight. If not, don’t worry about it. Ayahuasca is not for everyone.
Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre, Peru. December 31, 2013 (New Year’s Eve)
|Entrance sign to the retreat.|
Along with the other participants I took a “flower shower” before the ceremony at around 4:00 pm. This consisted of pouring flower-saturated water over myself from a bucket in an outdoor shower stall. We were instructed to let the water dry from our bodies without toweling and to allow any leaves and petals to remain on our skin. This ritual, performed behind a small building at the back of the property near the open pit where the ayahuasca is brewed, is meant to clean but also make one’s body smell sweet and appealing to the plant energy.
|In front of my tambo,
after the flower shower.
We were told that intentions could be as simple as, say, “cleansing” or more complex, such as, say, “I wish to overcome the fear that’s blocking further success in my career.” I told Rapha and Anna that I wouldn’t set a specific intention for this evening, my first ayahuasca ceremony, and would instead simply approach the experience with openness and learn whatever the plant wished to show me, whether that was healing, visions or specific information. If I had an intention, it was simply to meet ayahuasca. It was like a first date.
At about 7:30 pm I returned to the maloca and lay on my mat, my back and shoulders propped up on a pile of pillows against the building’s curved inner wall. As other participants trailed in and took up positions on their mats, I looked up at the enormous round inner vault of the maloca and the wagon wheel structures at the top that held it together. I was filled with apprehension and a feeling not unlike that of sitting in a roller coaster as it climbs the largest hill just before it plunges over the other side.
|Tree frog with moth. I was pleased with
this photo I took, unaware that the
moth was flying into the frame.
Just before 8:00 pm the shamans entered the building, with little fanfare. Ricardo sat directly across from us, with another shaman on each side. He was dressed in simple clothing — a T-shirt and shorts. Ricardo is a man of medium height and build, with tan skin and black hair. Trained in the Shipibo tradition, I was later told that Ricardo has been a practicing curandero for more than 20 years and regularly practices dietas with different plants. In fact, he had just finished a six-month dieta of one plant from which he was still drowsy on his arrival at the centre.
|Shipibo design on cloth.|
Our group was comprised of seven members: myself plus the four other male travellers, and trip organizer Dan Cleland (owner of Pulse Tours) and his girlfriend Tatyana. We were joined this evening by another guest — Geoffrey — a middle-aged seeker from Baltimore on a month-long retreat here.
There was nothing “uncertain” about the design. The geometry was crystal clear, exact, and the thin outlines of each component of the design was razor thin, and completely uniform. A computer could not do a better job rendering the outline of each shape with great precision. The outlined shapes initially looked flat, two-dimensional, and covered my entire visual field. I noticed that they remained exactly the same and vivid whether my eyes were open or closed. When my eyes were open, the geometry was superimposed on the dark shapes of the maloca in the background.
I was aware that this was hyperspace — the other dimension of reality referred to by psychedelic writers such as Terence McKenna. I was seeing it, and it was real. No matter where I looked, the pattern maintained its integrity in every detail.
It’s tricky to convey what these shapes looked like, but picture it this way. Imagine you’re looking into an enormous bowl of macaroni, with all the macaroni noodles intersecting and jibing with one another in different ways. Now imagine the noodles are black, each one outlined in brilliant laser-sharp lines. You can look at the whole bowl, or you can focus your attention on different areas or even individual noodles. That’s what it looked like.
|Gathering for a meal in the dining room at
Nihue Rao — a place of lively
conversation and unwinding.
This went on for some time, perhaps an hour. Once in a while I’d check myself. Could I return to ordinary reality? I was pleasantly surprised to find the answer was “yes.” I simply had to turn my attention to the physical objects around me and I was perfectly grounded in the regular world. In the darkness to my left I could feel my water bottle, my flashlight, a roll of toilet paper, and my shoulder bag. I could focus on the maloca and the dim outlines of the trees outside the building, dark against the night sky that occasionally flashed with lightning. Simply put, I could “toggle” between the psychedelic dimension and the realm of ordinary reality. With the knowledge that I was in no danger, I worked at staying in the psychedelic reality — the hyperspace — as much as possible, pushing further and further into it, wondering what secrets it might hold.
|Inside the maloka. My mat was the first to the
right of the doors at the back.
I played games with the designs, trying to find flaws in them. I’d look at one spot, then look away, then look back quickly to the same spot. It would be there, solid and real, just as a building in ordinary reality would be there if one looked away and then back suddenly. Again and again I asked myself if what I was seeing was “real” — again and again the answer was “yes” although admittedly it was real in another dimension, a dimension I realized is always present and always around us, everywhere (though we don’t see or feel it, because it exists on another energy vibration).
|Sign from the back of a mototaxi.|
I learned over the hours that followed that my thoughts have a huge impact on how I feel. If I focus on the feeling of needing to vomit, that feeling grows and grows. If I focus instead on the visions and patterns, I forget about feeling sick, at times completely, and for this I am thankful.
|Wearing Shipibo clothing in front of the main maloka at Nihue Rao.|
I also had a feeling — which grew in intensity in the next ceremony — that I was being given credit for my almost 25 years of work as an environmental journalist. Like a university that accepts credits from other post-secondary institutions, ayahuasca recognized I had worked to protect the environment for many years, editing magazines on pollution prevention and waste recycling. Although this wasn’t clear to me on the first night, I was about to be shown amazing things. I’m 53 years old, and Mother Ayahuasca had plans for me. Perhaps she realized I don’t have as much time as the twenty-somethings who were beside me, writhing and retching.
|Max Ernst’s painting The Eye of Silence, 1943.
This image is vaguely like the landscapes
that appeared sometimes in my visions.
The ceremony seemed to last about four hours before it wound down, around the same time as the noise picked up from the nearby town of New Year’s celebrations. Distant music pulsed and I heard fireworks. I realized it was now 2014. The shamans took a break from their icaros and talked casually amongst themselves, occasionally laughing. The evening became casual all of a sudden. I lay on my mat feeling gratitude at the privilege of being accepted in this sacred and deeply ancient space. I had partaken of the sacrament of an indigenous people, who shared it freely with me, allowing me inside the holy of holies of their culture.
My feeling for these people was as far away as possible from the National Geographic impression of primitive tribes in the jungle or any stereotype. I recognize now, from the inside, that they are the custodians of a many thousands of years old civilization whose cathedrals and spires exist in a landscape just outside the perceptual boundaries of ordinary experience. A feeling of sorrow rises up whenever I think about the wanton destruction and virtual genocide inflicted on these people — all the Amazon people — by invaders and colonists, turn of the century rubber barons and modern pastoralists with their chainsaws and grazing cattle.
|DMT, the so-called spirit molecule, which exists in
all living things. DMT is the psychotropic
chemical in the chacruna leaves. Mixing with
the ayahuasca vine inhibits the chemicals in
the stomach that would normally prevent
absorption by the body.
Except time did return. Ricardo spoke some words in Spanish, which Rapha translated loosely as “The ceremony is now closed.” We were invited to stay a while or return to our rooms. I lay on the mat for a long time, suspended like an embryo in the womb, my only distraction being flashes of light from people lighting up hand-rolled mapachos made from strong tobacco — considered a sacred plant. The smell is sweeter than that of North American commercial cigarettes as there are no additives, but nevertheless it caused my nausea to return. I toyed for a while with the idea that there should be No Smoking malokas. I thought about the violent downpour from the storm that passed most of the night, about which I was only faintly aware, lost in my revery. Much of the night became a blur. I recall receiving a song from Erjomenes at one point, and being guided to him by Anna with her subdued flashlight. I recall kicking over the plastic bucket at the end of my mat, but being unconcerned as it only contained an inch or so of water.
|Gonzo journalist and psychedelic user
Hunter S. Thompson.
As the energy in the maloka faded I began to feel it was safe to return to my room. I gathered up my belongings and strode out into the night air making my way into the room and organizing my bed, being careful to tuck in my mosquito netting on all sides of the mattress. It felt wonderful to lie down and drift into sleep, though this did not come quickly. The laser light show continued inside my head (and perhaps outside of it) for some time. I noticed the geometric patterns increasing when I focused on certain thoughts and questions, and faded when my mind was less active.
Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre, Peru. January 2, 2014
We had a day off after Ceremony One in which we relaxed around the Nihue Rao property and reflected on our amazing fist introduction to the plant teacher. Our next ayahuasca experience was scheduled for the night of January 2, 2014. Once again we skipped dinner, had a floral bath or “flower shower” as I prefer to call it, had yoga with Rapha at 6:00 and then gathered again in the maloka where the ceremony started at 8:00 pm.
|Ayahuasca preparation. The medicine is boiled
for many hours and reduced into a potent brew.
The next experience was one that also started with me sitting up straight with legs crossed, using pillows to support my back. I felt a strong energy in the centre of my body (the heart chakra) and was invited to look down, which I did slowly, and to place my hand on my heart. I felt this message was being conveyed by the shaman telepathically, though in that space it could have been directly from the ayahuasca itself.
I was told to pay attention in the manner of “he’s doing this for you; the least you can do is watch!” It was clear to me that the bile and phlegm was gunk that had been removed from around my heart. While it could have included sickness from others in the room, I had a strong sense that most of it was mine, and I silently thanked Ricardo for doing this for me. I wondered at the strength of shamans, and their willingness to do this difficult work for their patients.
With my golden spirit heart cleared of this blockage I became very open, which may have set the stage for what happened, which was not a pleasant experience at all, though one that was necessary. The best way to describe it was that “I had my ass handed to me” by Mother Ayahuasca, by way of a very tough lesson in humility.
|Colonial rubber barons, from an exhibition in Iquitos.
Was I really so different from these men,
exploiting indigenous people? At one point
I certainly felt like it.
Eventually I couldn’t take it any more and, gathering my flashlight and water bottle, I stood up on shaky legs and made my way through the darkness across the wide maloka floor and out the double doors into the evening air. A night assistant’s flashlight guided me from afar as I made my way back to my room where I took off the ceremonial clothing and changed into my regular shorts and T-shirt.
|Shipibo design. I came to regard these less
as patterns, and more as maps.
And then I had the breakthrough. The realization fell on me hard, with the same emotion as watching the birth of a child. What I had thought before — that the geometric patterns were just a “preview” of the spirit world, or some kind of entry-level navigational tool for this realm’s strange internet, was nothing of the kind. It was — or it had now become — the very centre of the organism. I was standing, or lying, in the Central Operating Unit of the mainframe computer of the universe, the brain or mind of creation.
Nihue Rao Spiritual Centre, Peru. January 3, 2014
|Painting photographed in the art maloka at
|All creatures great and small.|
|Michelangelo’s First Pieta: An image of the Story of
the Mother, and her eternal love and loss.
|Morpheus offering the red and blue pill to Neo in The Matrix.
Ayahuasca is definitely the red pill: you fall down the
rabbit hole and find how deep it goes.
|William S. Burroughs, who journeyed to Latin America
to try ayahuasca.
|Pink-footed tarantula from our jungle lodge. Everyone
took turns handling her, except for me.
|Detail of a lithograph from a painting photographed
by me at the Karma Kafe in Iquitos by popular
artist Anderson Debernardi.
POSTSCRIPT: Scroll below the photo for a short postscript I added about my interpretation of how ayahuasca works and what is happening to the brain during the experience.
|The Ayahuasca Test pilots with guides in the Amazon rain forest.|
I spent time after I returned to Canada thinking, naturally, about how ayahuasca works and what’s actually going on during the experience. If this is more than a mere “hallucination” (the brain being thrown into a psychotic state and deluding itself that its dreams are somehow real), then what’s actually happening?
My conclusions are a working hypothesis and not than anything rigid at this point, and include some concepts from quantum physics and the latest science of the mind I won’t go into detail about here, but for anyone interested in digging deeper, I recommend the documentary film and related book The Quantum Activist (about the work of physicist Amit Gotswami, http://www.quantumactivist.com) and also the writings and lectures of Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake, especially his latest book The Science Delusion — titled Science Set Free in North America. If you want to get up to speed quickly, I recommend Sheldrake’s famous banned TEDx talk, which you can watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKHUaNAxsTg
My experience at Nihue Rao was consistent with the idea promoted by both Gotswami and Sheldrake (with considerable evidence) that the “mind” does not exist strictly inside the brain — the brain being instead a kind of transceiver that focuses a non-local universal consciousness into the particular experience of the individual through his or her five senses. We are all, in this interpretation, manifestations of the universe via which it views and experiences its own creations in novel ways.