I get into the van outside the Dawn on the Amazon Cafe and can't believe my eyes. Of the 8 people in our group I am the only man. Behind me sits a sixtyish hippie woman and the rest are all super cute chicas bonitas in their 20s and 30s. Blonde, brunette, Israeli, Asian. Hot, hot, hot, hot. I felt like the luckiest guy in Peru.
The mood during the one-hour ride to the Gaia Tree jungle retreat center is bright. Everyone is chatting and laughing and I'm enjoying talking with the cute Canadian who is sitting next to the aging hippie. There are no external signs of the internal torment that some of them are living with.
Iquitos, Peru is on the Amazon river near the borders of Colombia and Brazil and is the epicenter of the burgeoning ayahuasca movement. Ayahuasca is an ancient plant medicine which local shamans have been using for generations. It is used for personal healing as well as psychedelic visions. I am here mostly out of curiosity, partly as an opportunity for personal growth. If I have any demons in my past or pain buried deep inside me, which I do not think that I do, this will bring it to the surface and help me deal with it. For example, I tend to be shy around attractive women and lack the self-confidence that I see in many other guys -- is this the result of some scarring that occurred being the first kid in school to wear glasses and braces? Wearing a headgear (for the braces on my teeth) to school did not endear me with the cute girls or the cool kid club.
Gaia Tree Retreat Center
My home for the next 7 nights is this tambo, a little 10'x10' hut in the middle of the jungle about 100 yards and thousands of trees from my closest neighbor. There is a mosquito net over the bed and a few termites parading around inside.
Each night from dusk around 6 to ceremony at 9 I lay in my tambo just listening to the jungle sounds. Amazing. Whistles and croaks and chirps and querks and rustling and whooshing. All of the frogs, birds, insects, monkeys and whoknowswhatelses are invisible in the dark.
Five minutes walking from my hut brings me back to the central building where we will all spend most of our down time. Downstairs is where we will eat two vegetarian meals per day and upstairs has hammocks for lounging. We won't sleep much at night so these hammocks will get a lot of use.
Main building - exterior
Main building - interior
And here is the malorca where our ceremonies take place, 5 in 7 nights. They begin at 9pm and last until nearly dawn.
The morning after a ceremony
Four of the eight participants have some serious healing to do. They share stories of parental torment and personal struggles that blow my mind. Now I feel like the luckiest guy in Peru but for totally different reasons. I feel blessed because my father didn't beat me and I was never raped, never suicidal, I wasn't slaughtering chickens in a factory at age 12 and my parents never tried to sell me to a wealthy neighbor when I was 13.
It is some heavy, heavy shit. How can people be so cruel?
Our lovely cook in this kitchen.
Ayahuasca is a vine that grows plentifully in the jungle around here. Local (mostly indigenous) shamans chop it up with another plant and boil the concoction down for 12-20 hours. Out comes a liquid blacker than motor oil and nearly as thick. It is the worst tasting thing I've ever put in my mouth. We all struggle to keep it down as it is dispensed out of re-purposed 2-liter bottles of Coke.
Over the seven nights here we will partake in five ceremonies. The ceremonies begin at 9pm and we all sit around the inner perimeter of the malorca, a circular building about 50' in diameter. We have mattresses and pillows and a puke bucket close at hand. Everyone pukes. It is part of the process. Unless you're a shitter, that is. Not everyone purges only from their mouth. There is also a lot of crying, burping and blowing of noses.
The ceremony is run by two shamans -- a husband and wife team. They are barely over 5' tall and fairly thick, but not fat. Each of them displays several silver teeth. They are from a local tribe and have been a part of these ceremonies since they were children. They learned to be shamans from their fathers who learned from their fathers and hey prove to be people of deep love and compassion as they guide the healing process with the bedside manner of Mother Theresa.
I chose to sit in the first position to the right of the shamans, meaning I would imbibe first. I was served maybe 5 ounces, three gulps worth. I shudder now just thinking about the flavor.
About fifteen minutes later I felt a bit of a head buzz and five minutes more and I was puking. The shamans began singing and my vision started to turn into mosaics, but only just a little bit. My body started buzzing like I was on a marijuana high. Then Don Segundo, the husband shaman, moved over to sit in front of me and sing. He would be followed around the room by his wife Belmira, spending 10-30 minutes in front of each of us, depending on what we needed. Their singing right in front of me made everything more intense, but my first experience was fairly mellow.
The woman to my right was gently moaning and the one to my left was humming a little song, kind of annoying as it was out of tune with the singing of the shamans.
The first night ceremony must have ended around 2am. That's when the shamans left the building. At the crack of dawn I was still buzzing and enjoying the full-body tingle while listening to the sounds of the forest. I was able to sleep for just a couple hours and we all spent the night right where we started it -- on our mattresses in the ceremony building.
My Most Interesting Ceremony
The second night was the most eventful for me. I was given a little bit more to drink and it had a greater effect. After puking it was if someone pulled back the curtain on the universe and showed me a truth. The vision was white on white, a flowing world of energy and joy. There were energy globules morphing into energy tubes and connectors and beings. There were little energy beings from all over existence that had congregated, like the cantina in Star Wars. Each was flowing in and out and morphing at will. Then the vision would change into a face wearing headphones that reminded me of the old Napster logo if it's headphones were pumping out universal joy.
It felt like the only things that truly exist in the universe are (1) energy and (2) joy/love. Everything else is just human-made bullshit. I felt like the shamans were servants of love whose job was to help humans pull themselves out of their self-created misery into the true essence of being and love.
Then I started thinking about it. I started analyzing what was going on. Why was I feeling these things? What does it all mean?
But as soon as I started thinking, the vision changed. It changed to more of an outer space feel with nodes and connectors like the start of a Dr. Who episode or something. At the same moment my right leg began spasming. Whenever I stopped thinking the vision changed back to the energy and love, but I repeated this cycle several times. Each time I started analyzing the vision, as I am wont to do, I got the leg spasming and the vision change. I realized I could stop my leg from spasming, which felt good that I was still in control. In fact, I was always in control. We all were. We were never 100% out of it. Often we had to go outside to use the outhouse and sometimes people would need some help from one of the facilitators, but we were always aware that we were having a trip.
After a few of these cycles through thinking, spasming, and energy/love a voice said to me: Don't think. Just be.
Just be the energy. Just be the love. This message ties in closely with the meditation and mindfulness I've been working on the past few years. All of our grief and stress comes from fretting about something in our past or worrying about the future. We create so much anxiety for ourselves by worrying about things that are completely out of our control. Anything that already happened is over with. And we agonize so much about things that may or may not happen in the future. If we can just learn to live in the moment, to be, we can remove so much bullshit anxiety from our lives. Our minds are the cause of 100% of our strife. There is nobody else to blame because we control our response to any external stimuli.
Don't think. Just be.
Meanwhile, the Russian supermodel next to me seemed to be going through an exorcism. The shamans had been working with her for a long time and her body was writhing and lifting off the ground, bolting up, laying down. It was like demons were being pulled out of her in a '70s horror film. It was crazy. And it went on until 5am.
The most amazing part of the week was the healing that I witnessed, at least in the short term. Time will tell how well these people were healed, but the stories they shared about their experiences were compelling. And I could see it. One woman felt Mother Ayahuasca working on her physical body every night and healing her ailments. One woman came here because she was suicidal a week prior and after witnessing her own death one night in an out-of-body experience realized that she no longer wanted to die. One woman began the week with a negative, mean spirit that really turned me off, but after a couple days was transformed to happiness and positivity.
The love shared amongst the participants was also amazing. Each day after a ceremony we sat in a circle and shared our experience. There were tears and hugs and people shared things about their personal trauma that they had never shared with even their closest friends.
- I am so fortunate to not have such trauma in my life. I feel like Mother Ayahuasca gave me a clean bill of emotional health, which feels good to confirm.
- The essence of everything is energy and love. Unfortunately, humans are awfully good at piling a lot of bullshit on top of it.
- Don't think. Just be.
- Continue to learn to quiet my mind to all the anxieties it wants to bring up.
- We are each in 100% control of our reactions to any external stimuli. Hence, there is never anyone or anything to blame for how we feel.