When: August, 1999
Who: My twin sister Cat and me
What: Ayahuasca Journey with a Shaman
Why: Transformative Healing
Cat and I hooked up with a U.S. grassroots organization offering an opportunity to engage with about a dozen shamans, or spiritual healers, in the Amazon and the Andes. The indigenous hosts advocated “reverse missionary” work, encouraging Westerners to come to their territory not to proselytize our way of life, which they regard as bankrupt, but rather to learn new dreams, as they put it. The shamans challenge Western visitors to change our vision to one where humans are no more superior than a rock, a leaf, a bird, a star. To change our vision to understand that a non-material reality shares validity with the material world. To change our vision to protect and help indigenous communities to preserve their land, the rain forest, their way of life.
Our small group flew on a six-seater Cessna airplane into Shuar territory in the Amazon basin. Four rivers in Ecuador flow into the Amazon, and the Shuar live along the most southern one, the Pastazos River. The Shuar were once deadly feared as “headhunters.” Although they had forsaken that practice some fifty years ago, a certain macabre reputation lingered. The Shuar settlement we visited, Marisal, lives outside the monetary system, without phones, television, and infrequent electricity from broken-down generators. They travel in pirogues (dug-out canoes) rowed with six-foot long poles. Six months prior to our visit Peru and Ecuador settled a land dispute, resulting in a reunification of Shuar peoples and families who had been separated for half a century by artificial borders. The Shuar continue to be vulnerable to the avaricious encroachment of Western oil companies.
Shuar territory is thick jungle. Tarantulas as big as a fist. Blinding blue butterflies that whizz by like a dream image. Four-inch long beetles with glistening metallic green backs. Toucans, parrots, monkeys, tapirs and trees so wide six people hold hands to encircle them. Usually the temperature is excruciatingly hot and humid; you sweat just sitting still. Plus constant rain. Yet, during our visit the climate befriended us with Palm Springs weather and not a drop of rain.
I came to the Amazon for an ayahuasca healing with a medicine man. I was introduced to Mariano, a shaman who had never done healings on Westerners. He spoke some Spanish but mostly his nephew translated from Shuar to Spanish which I speak and understand. In a private session with him he asked me what healing I needed. I told him: I am basically a happy person but I have these nubles oscures around me that I want to be free from. These “dark clouds” I referred to were the bane of my existence, my addiction to cigarettes, a pack a day for 27 years. I tried the patch. I tried bets. I tried cold turkey (once for a year). Each effort was an exercise in sheer will power, with one path of self-dialogue (“I can have just one”) eventually trumping all internal dissent.
Ayahuasca is a very integral part of the Shuar people’s culture and spirituality. It is one of the most potent natural hallucinogens in existence. It comes from the vine of a tree and the shaman prepares it in a liquid form. The Shuar take ayahuasca to journey for information/wisdom from the other world, and to heal. We visited a Catholic mission run by a Belgium priest with a long white beard who’s lived with the Shuar for almost 40 years. Respecting the Shuar, he incorporates their beliefs into the Catholic church, but the Catholic part is hardly recognizable. For example, in the round straw hut which is the church in the spot where the crucifix would normally hang, instead there is a drawing of a Shuar indian getting divine inspiration while on ayahuasca.
After listening to my case for why I had come to him, Mariano inquired, “Have you ever done ayahuasca with any other shaman to cure this problem?” “Uh, nope, uh I can’t say I ever have.” I chuckled to myself — Not many practitioners of this sort in my neck of the woods.
Mariano instructed our little group to fast the entire day and to hike four hours in the jungle while he prepared the ayahuasca for that evening. The hike was a marvelous adventure that culminated at the sacred waterfalls. They are the only hot springs in the Ecuador Amazon. There’s one spot where you stand under thermal water falls and an arms-length away are regular waterfalls. You move from hot to cold, hot to cold, hot to cold, a wondrous sensation. At one point Cat bumped into an oblong nest hanging from a tree and within seconds she was covered with thousands of ants swarming her body. Fortunately we had just crossed a creek; our Shuar guides grabbed her before she had a chance to panic and flung her into the water. The ants were not poisonous but could bite. For hours thereafter Cat picked drowned ants out of her hair and off her clothes.
That evening the ayahuasca ceremony took place in a round straw hut with a fire in the middle and an opening in the roof for the smoke to escape. Jungle birds made exotic sounds — oooAH, oooAH. Some of the shaman’s assistants were snorting liquid tobacco to be able to stay up all night for the journeying and they contributed to the aural strangeness by shouting out cryptic words that I was told meant, “The anaconda is here,” or “The spirit of the jaguar has entered the room.” Their shouts were the equivalent of a congregation’s enthusiastic Amen for a rousing preacher.
The ayahuasca that Mariano prepared was a neon orange liquid as bright as a traffic cone. It tasted utterly vile! Cat once described ayahuasca as tasting like lizard vomit. I was given a shot, followed by a slug of firewater, a crude alcohol. Violent vomiting is the standard response to a dose of ayahuasca, but I didn’t vomit. I didn’t hallucinate deeply either. I was disappointed that nothing was going to happen to me. Little did I know . . .
Mariano wore a pair of skimpy loincloth-like shorts. Entranced from the ayahuasca, he softly wailed an eerie sing-song. I can still hear his voice in my head, sort of high pitched the way you would imagine a fairy chanting. His singing put me in a different mood, different space, even though I wasn’t hallucinating. I was lying on a bench in front of Mariano, naked from the waist up, as he had instructed. Mariano did an energy scan on my body and then without warning he began to suck my stomach. He sucked as if he were a hyena eating fresh kill – he made these primitive guttural noises and then spit on the ground. Eventually he made his way up to my eyes. He was standing on a little stool hunched over my face and was ravenously sucking my eyeball. I “saw” him as a robust raven with both claws perched on my left cheek. I swear if he had wanted to he could have taken my eye out of its socket and spit it on the ground.
After about a half hour of sucking and singing, Mariano told me to go to bed, adding these promising words, “When you awake in the morning you will be cured.” The ayahuasca kept me up all night, but not like some restless tossing and turning state of insomnia. I laid on the cot in my hut serene with my eyes open. Although I didn’t sleep the entire night, the next morning I felt rested as if I had slept eight hours. It was as if sleep were suspended.
The next morning I met with Mariano and he gave me three orders. I was not to have sex or eat meat for a month and something to do with wearing a hat outside. I faithfully followed his instructions. At our guides’ suggestion, I gave him twelve American dollars.
2009 marks the tenth anniversary of my ayahuasca healing and I have not once been tempted to smoke. Whereas I used to have to rally my will power and galvanize an inner discipline to stop smoking, now after that miraculous exorcism the mere smell of tobacco nauseates me. Shape shifting is how the shamans call it. My shaman sucked negative cigarette energy from me, spitting it out of my life, and cured me of whatever turbulence had manifested itself through a loathsome addiction. Blessed be to those healing spirits.