Picture an aerial view of a dense, tropical rainforest, intensely green and pretentiously lush, reaching as far as the eye can see. The day's twilight is casting a rosy glow over the trees and as you zoom in closer, you can start to make out dark dots that slowly morph into rustic little jungle huts. At their center, a massive, circular, palm leaf-covered dome walled with mosquito nets covers a polished hardwood floor, on which 22 mattresses are arranged in perfect spherical symmetry. At the tip of each mattress are placed a plastic bucket, a bottle of flowery perfume and some odd-looking cigars. 22 people, wearing loose-fitting clothing, are sitting, similarly arranged and seemingly relaxed, waiting. The solemn silence that pervades the room makes the nocturnal jungle cacophony sound like a tightly orchestrated, symphonic masterpiece. When the shamans seated at the center are ready, people get up one by one to visit them. At last, it's my turn. As I raise the cup of dark, syrupy liquid that I'm given, a strange calm settles over me, drowning out the feelings of nervousness that have been steadily building up inside me all day. "Show me the fears that prevent me from living with my heart" - I whisper, and drink the medicine in one go. My first Ayahuasca ceremony has just begun.
Our decision to join a 12-day Ayahuasca healing retreat in the Peruvian Amazon was not taken lightly. The application process had started way back in January, and Maria and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing the merits of our potential participation. I knew that I wanted to really connect with myself on an emotional level on this trip, and attempt to find resolutions to long-existing inner insecurities and suppressed fears. We'd heard of people experiencing profound reawakening during journeys with Ayahuasca, claiming many life-changing realizations and holistic transformations on a level they had not imagined possible. At the same time, the medicine's specific inner workings and precise applications remained mysterious to me. Having long abandoned the widespread, yet ultimately narrow-minded and misguided beliefs about the categorically insidious nature of all mind-altering substances, I was mostly curious to explore which effects such a powerful "drug" might elicit in my mind and body. Especially since ayahuasca is recognized as a medicinal substance in Peru, and is perfectly legal to cultivate and consume. And so, adhering to Maria's adage "Try before you judge", we decided to give it a go.
The word ayahuasca means spirit vine in the indigenous Quecha language, and the liquid concoction that it describes is typically brewed from the banisteriopsis caapi vine, mixed with leaves from the chakruna plant (psychotria viridis), both native to the region. The resulting blend is highly psychoactive, mainly due to the presence of DMT and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). From a purely chemical perspective, the ayahuasca medicine can thus be considered a psychedelic drug, bearing substantial similarities to LSD and psilocybin. Yet there is much more to it than that. Contrary to Western society, indigenous peoples throughout the Amazon have been familiar with their medicine and its applications for centuries, and have contextualized it in a highly abstract yet very meaningful universe of plant spirits and floral essences, which informs a very serious, nature-based medicinal practice. To them, ayahuasca can be interpreted as a female plant spirit, a teacher and a guide, that has the wisdom and capability to educate whomever works with it, consciously and respectfully, on their truest essence, and to harness the untapped potential of the student's every bodily cell in unlocking stored trauma and trapped energies. Drinking ayahuasca is therefore entirely the opposite of a mindless, recreational subjugation free from responsibility. It is an intention-driven, interactive conversation that requires true mindfulness, focus and willful surrender. Like all wise teachers, ayahuasca does not necessarily reveal what you think you want, but rather what it knows you need. And for most of us, these revelations are not the ones we like to be faced with. We've spent lifetimes swiping the darkest facets of our souls under the proverbial rug, to protect and shield ourselves, so having them brought out into the blazing light of our inner awareness can be a daunting, scary, outright hellish experience. Ayahuasca, it is said, is for the brave.
An undertaking of such earnestness needs to be prepared properly. To purify the body from chemical and mental toxins and conflicting powerful energies, a strict dieta, or diet, is required of anyone who wishes to work with ayahuasca. No consumption of alcohol, (sp)icy food and red meat, nor sexual activity of any kind, is permitted within the month surrounding any ayahuasca ceremont. More stringent prohibitions on salt, pepper, refined sugar and basically anything fun are in effect within a two-week window. For us, this was a significant challenge in and of itself and one which I can highly discourage anyone to try at home. The mental preparations include mindfulness practice, meditation, yoga and generally becoming more in-tune with one's body. We were really quite lucky to have the time and possibility to spend our preparatory dieta in natural and peaceful Peruvian surroundings, without any professional responsibilities or daily commitments.
We decided to participate in a retreat organized by the Temple of the Way of Light, one of the most reputable and established centers in existence for this type of activity. Having worked closely with shamans, or maestros, from the indigenous Shipibo tribe, the Temple has over 15 years of experience organizing authentic ayahuasca healing regimens. Their approach goes far beyond simply administering the medicine, and includes daily plant saunas, floral baths and many more activities that are of vital importance in the plant-based medicinal approach of the Shipibo healers. We, along with 20 other participants, or pasajeros, were to participate in 6 ceremonies over the course of 12 days, each starting just after sunset and lasting well into the early hours. An ayahuasca ceremony entails many guidelines, and I was surprised by just how much organization and discipline went into every aspect of the evening. From the requirement for complete silence, the pledge against any interpersonal interference, the dedication to remain seated upright and focused for the duration, to the highly structured nature of the healing performed by the four maestros in attendance. This healing happens by way of singing, through mantric chants, so-called Ikaros, that the maestros recollect from their years of plant dietas and channel into powerful rhythmic vocalizations, guided themselves by ayahuasca. Over the course of several hours, they'd visit each of the participants in turn and sing to them at close distance, reading the energetic properties of their patient and adjusting the song's wording (in Shipibo tongue) to accomplish the desired effects. During the first few ceremonies, the healers focused on cleansing, ridding the body and mind of barriers put in place over decades, guarded by demons of fear. Later, they'd move on to aligning the body and mind into shared purpose and protecting the energetic-surgical alterations that they'd made along the way. The maestros smoked mapacho, a type of natural jungle tobacco, to protect themselves from the abundance of energies they encountered. Participants were encouraged to do this as well, and to rub the contents of an individually prepared bottle of floral perfume on their body if they sensed becoming overwhelmed. At the end of each Ikaro, the maestro would spray their own perfume over the recipient as a means of additional protection from the vulnerability the singing had unleashed in them.
If all of this is sounding exceedingly strange and difficult to understand, that's because it really is. Like many alternative approaches to medicine, the healing recipes of the ayahuasca shamans are not meant to be understood at a mere cognitive level, but to be experienced with the whole consciousness, and particularly to be felt at a bodily and emotional level. And I can say with complete conviction and utmost sincerity that my personal journey with ayahuasca has constituted the most profound emotional and spiritual awakening of my life. The medicine compelled me to dig deep into the dungeons of my darkest secrets and locked-away hardships and find ways to face their occupants, to recognize them and transform them through forgiveness and love into rehabilitated parts of my personality. This process of cleansing was visceral, wildly synesthetic, heavy on hallucinations and required every ounce of courage and warrior-like surrender that I had in me. It is very common to purge during the cleansing stage, by way of vomiting (hence the plastic buckets) or diarrhea, or more subtly through crying, shaking or sweating. There's really nothing quite like being in a dark room surrounded by highly individualized and unique retching and belching sounds (and smells).
Unsurprisingly, and not uncommonly, the lessons I seemed to require were themed around my lack of self-understanding and self-worth, quite relevantly related to deep-rooted habits of disconnection from relational difficulties with anyone I'd ever been close to. I understood that every fiber in my body was a living and feeling element of my person, and that, above all, it was my responsibility to love and listen to them all. I was shown that the road from hatred and neglect to forgiveness and reconnection is paved with unconditional love and trust. My eagerness to learn and my humility to simultaneously recognize that I did not know anything allowed me to travel ever deeper into realms of realizations that all of a sudden seemed so obvious and simple and true. It really felt like a hero's journey, as I was told it might, and the catharsis that enveloped me at the end of each ceremony was complete and utterly mesmerizing. Now more than ever, I understand that the most profound life lessons have to be lived in the body rather than taught to the mind. Ayahuasca, then, is a medicine that supercharges the innate ability that we all have for pure and uncompromising awareness. An ability that, in my life and that of most in modern society, is assigned little to no importance, even if it may be the most important human asset of all.
I want to emphasize that despite all the difficult moments, our time at the Temple was also tremendously light and fun. The aligning happiness and elation that the later ceremonies provided, combined with the priceless humor of the healers as well as everybody in the group, created an environment where people would just riff off eachother seamlessly, all the time. The mountain of profound and meaningful life lessons aside, I believe that the extraordinarily priviliged life that most people in the western world, myself included, have been given, invites a responsibility to also actually enjoy it. There are opportunities for passion and compassion everywhere, and rewards for those who seek to connect with humility and honesty. And don't even get me started about music...
In short, I emerge from this time a different person. A differently feeling person. As such, I recognize that the importance of properly integrating the past weeks' events into the life after is arguably at least as important as the ayahuasca journeys themselves. At the Temple, everyone had the opportunity to share and discuss their experiences during so-called ceremonies of the Word. The learning that happened there, expertly guided by skilled facilitators, was necessary to make sense of the sometimes overwhelming impact of the shamanic work. An insight that I hope to take with me into my future is the critical importance of a sustained mind-body connection, where the one listens and responds to the other. I've spent nearly 20 years of my life empowering my mind through cerebral education, perhaps it's time now for my body to receive some long-overdue attention in that area. To finally and truly face my music, as it were.
The decision to write about my ayahuasca experience in such a public way is one that I've pondered for a long time. It is certainly not a topic free of controversy, but I've come to see that the misunderstandings surrounding this immensely valuable medicine are borne mostly from a lack of information and subsequent understanding. This was certainly true of myself. That is precisely why the importance of sharing the tremendous healing powers of ayahuasca and the medicinal practice that centers around it cannot be overstated. I feel like I live in a world where people are becoming more connected through technology every day, yet have never been more disconnected from themselves. It's been a humbling lesson for me, as an engineer and a scientist, to once and for all know that this most vital need of humankind cannot, now or ever, be met with superficial, external patches. The answers lie within, and I would argue that an essential purpose in life may be to have the courage to journey inward instead, to know and understand ourselves fully, so that we can once again connect to our friends, our loved ones and our environment with unguarded generosity and kindness.
I don't know what the future holds, despite my plans for it. But I feel grateful, optimistic and incredibly excited about the road ahead, and I commit to trying to live every moment on it in a more heartfelt, honest and intentful way.
April 9th, 2022