Ayahuasca, the Vine of Souls: Part 1

In the womb-like embrace of the ceremonial kiva, a large round chamber excavated in the earth, dozens of tealight candles flicker from small niches in the rough, unplastered walls. The rustic setting is ritualistic and timeless, and I could be nearly anywhere on Earth in any epoch of history.

Atop the sleeping bag on my camping mat, among fourteen other participants encircled in the great room, I give myself over to the elderly shaman’s cracked voice as he sings and beats a deerskin drum, a sound as ancient as humanity, carrying me to the threshold of another world and dimension. Indeed, having swallowed a small cupful of bitter, dark brew forty minutes ago, reality has already begun to shift, for looking up at the circular wooden ceiling above me, I see that it moves and pulses—becoming a giant anaconda curling upon itself amid the heavens that have opened beyond.

The air hangs thick with pungent smoke from burning white sage and fragrant palo santo. My body feels light as a feather, perhaps slightly numb, while my arms and legs have begun to involuntarily move as if gently pulled by marionette puppet strings. It’s pleasurable and I’m smiling. Simultaneously I have the distinct sense of being scanned as if under a microscope or examined by some outside force or entity; something external is rapidly scrutinizing the inner terrain of my genetic makeup, physical patterns, and emotional holdings.

The scanning intensifies, focusing on the tight, held areas of my body—right shoulder, jaw and neck, hips and pelvis—while the swirling, colourful visions also continue to escalate and vivify. There is a cosmic, reverberating sound I cannot describe, and I realize that I’m not sure whether my eyes are open or closed because everything seems the same either way. At some point, I rotate my head to the left and look over at the shaman wearing his ceremonial crown of blue macaw feathers, faintly illuminated in the candlelit darkness, observing that he has mostly turned to blue-grey smoke as if he were a ghost in a headdress. Yet even more startling is the sleek black jaguar with glowing green eyes at his side, now moving slowly around the earthen room.

Holy sh*t, I think, as a pair of giant feline ebony paws suddenly pin me back to my mat, launching me into the whirling cosmos of a different dimension.

The black jaguar as it appeared…

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I first heard of ayahuasca some twenty years ago while traveling in New Mexico with friends. One night we had dinner in Santa Fe with friends of our companions, a married couple, both of them spiritual teachers and authors, who had recently traveled to South America to undertake a river expedition with a true Amazonian curandero/shaman. What I remember most from their epic story is the part about being abducted.

Upon going ashore one day, unknown warriors of an indigenous tribe suddenly materialized from the dense, steaming greenery and surrounded them. A brief dialogue ensued with the curandero, after which the hunters, armed with spears and arrows, marched the small, unsuspecting party deeper into the jungle to their village. A highly venomous snake known as a ‘bushmaster’ had bitten the chieftain’s son and the men had come to retrieve the shaman for the boy’s aid. No one seemed to know how they determined the medicine man was ashore from the boat, or even in their vicinity.

The visitors were allowed to enter the hut with the shaman, where the boy lay feverish, very ill with labored breathing, and his leg swollen out larger than a gourd. After instructing some of the villagers to go find and bring him a certain plant, when it arrived, the healer ignited the leaves and began fanning pungent smoke over the snakebite while singing. He did this for a very long time, chanting a song and blowing the smoldering plant over the wound, until the swelling began to subside. At a certain point, the medicine man stood and exited the dwelling, proclaiming that the boy would live, giving a few other instructions for his care, and requesting to be taken back to the boat with his companions. 

Safely back onboard and once again traveling along the river, the Americans enquired what the hell had happened. How could the shaman possibly have healed the lad using just smoke from a plant, without sucking out the poison or administering anything else? The curandero explained that every plant has a spirit and sacred song; that song, when sung, summons the plant ally and invokes its true, spiritual healing ability. It is the most powerful type of healing, far more effective than making a tincture, herbal infusion, or poultice, which only employ the chemical constituents.

As part of his rigorous training, the shaman had spent years studying and learning the “medicine songs” of Amazon healing plants, and because he knew that particular herb/plant’s song, he was able to invoke its spirit as an ally and use the smoke to cure/transmute the poison. Some of the songs he had learned from his teacher, passed down in the curandero’s lineage, but many of the others had been imparted to him through the use of ayahuasca, a psychotropic brew that medicine men have used for ages to induce trance and undertake healing journeys. Traditionally, after an initiation, the Spirit of Ayahuasca, who is known as the Mother of All Medicines, bestows the various “icaros” (ceremonial medicine songs), so that then the shaman can be a more effective, powerful healer. 

Ayahuasca brewing

Thus I learned of ayahuasca, a mysterious potion that formed part of a shaman’s education in the Amazon. During the two decades since then, “aya” has emerged from the sole domain of curanderos, vegetalistas, and ayahuasceros to become popular as a spiritual healing experience known for the psychedelic visions it imparts. Generally undertaken as a group ceremony, the tea is also somewhat notorious for causing people to “purge”—usually vomiting or diarrhea, quite possibly both—after drinking it. In most cases, a preparatory, cleansing diet is undertaken several days beforehand to minimize this effect, though those who work with the medicine say “la purga” is actually an important aspect of the vine’s healing ability.

Currently an entire ayahuasca tourism industry is booming in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, with locals—many of whom are utterly unqualified to be trafficking in such realms, or who are even charlatans—cashing in on the American and European craze of spiritual seekers.

Over the years, I’ve known a few people who went off to join an ayahuasca ceremony somewhere, but I never really enquired about their experiences. The ritualistic group setting sounded strange and somewhat cultish, and it wasn’t of interest to me. In my early twenties, my “spirit guides” very clearly said that plant medicines were not for the current stage of my life journey: There are no short cuts. Fine, I nodded. I’d had a mushroom “trip” in college that blew my mind in a not-so-fun way, causing me to think I was going crazy forever, and I didn’t care to experience that again. And I have simply never enjoyed being “high” on marijuana.

A further confession: when people spoke of “plant medicines,” I harbored a bit of condescending judgment toward them or their spiritual exploration—feeling that they were looking merely for a bypass, or maybe just a visionary trip deceptively clad in spiritual robes, while sidestepping the real work of personal transformation. (Of course, sometimes this IS exactly the case.) However, as with other times along my path, in a curious way I was invited to face my spiritual snobbery and then reconsider those earlier, harsh judgments. Ah, humility.

Ayahuasca vine

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So it was that I found myself in a mysterious healing crisis. My electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), which I’ve long wrestled with—acutely and uncomfortably reactive to microwaves, cell phones, fluorescent lights, ELF–EMF’s, etc.—was suddenly going off the charts; I could no longer tolerate WiFi or use a mobile phone, while simultaneously I was spiraling down into severe chronic fatigue. My body’s bioelectrical field seemed to be in general collapse and I was swiftly becoming disabled, unable to work or even leave my house. Pulled into an Underworld journey of sorts, plunged into shadows and despair as I steadily weakened, I documented my health struggle in several posts of the Soul Artist Journal (though I could work on a computer only for brief moments). Being barefoot on the earth each day helped restore me for short intervals, but it was not until I was serendipitously led to a somewhat wacky master of Medical QiGong that my situation began to turn around and improve.

Near the outset of this crisis, one of my dearest friends undertook an ayahuasca ceremony in a remote location of the Pacific Coast. Upon hearing the deep healing she had received in the ceremony and the sacredness of the circle experience—led by a shaman, not merely a facilitator—a door opened in my mind and heart. Setting earlier judgements aside, I sensed that perhaps something important awaited me with plant medicine when the time was right. And I knew my friend—a skilled psychotherapist and a fellow ‘vision quest’ guide—as someone who does her work deeply; she was obviously not looking for a shortcut, spiritual bypass, or a cheap psychedelic thrill ride. Moreover, as an empath, I could feel the rooted truth of her experience.

When a few months later she undertook another medicine ceremony, again speaking of her experience in length while we shared dinner at their house—homegrown Anasazi beans and sautéed greens from their amazing garden, as I recall—just as before, I was struck by the profound revelations received, very specific to her life path and soul work. And then, because in her visionary journey my friend had asked the spirit of Ayahuasca about me, knowing how I was struggling, she turned in my direction with a smile across the table and a glint in her eye, relaying the personal message Mother Ayahuasca had given her to deliver:

“Tell River that when he’s ready to pluck out that last bit of his self loathing, then the great tide of blessings waiting for him will finally surge in. And… I’m waiting for him.”

With an open jaw, I sat stunned and staring at my friend, feeling almost as if I’d been gently but firmly slapped. Exposed naked. My core wound revealed.

“Mother Ayahuasca is calling you,” she grinned impishly, twirling a ringlet of her long, curly hair.

I was still deadlocked in my health predicament—exhausted, ill, depressed, and unable to touch anything electronic, not even a phone—so when my friend informed me there would a ceremony in May and that she could probably get me on the small list of participants, I knew I had to go.

A cup of ayahuasca

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As the date drew near for the covert ceremony (ayahuasca is not legal in the States), in a meditation prior to going north to the retreat, seated in front of my prayer altar, I deliberately connected to the Deva of Ayahuasca as a way of introduction.

You are known to me, replied a calm, strong, measured voice, distinctly different than my own, even in my head.

Oh, great. Speaking aloud, I explained that I would be finally coming to a ceremony, talked about a few of my intentions—these were not strictly related to my own physical well being, which now seemed to be improving thanks to working with the irreverent QiGong master—and respectfully asked for her healing.

The one with wings on his arms must learn how to fly, and I am the doorway. (This I took as a reference to the wings tattooed upon both my forearms.)

When I drew a Tarot card from the deck, enquiring what the medicine or gift of the upcoming journey would be for me, the card that turned over in my hand was Death. I swallowed a little gulp of cold fear, trusting that the Major Arcana card signified a profound rebirth and transformation; that it represented death to any old patterns and limitations holding me back from my soul’s largest work in the world.

So be it. Onward. I felt excited and ready, a stream of golden effervescence bubbling in my core, welcoming even of the strictly bland, preparatory diet during the week prior to the ceremony.

Yet absolutely NOTHING in the world could have prepared me for that first medicine journey among the great coastal trees shrouded in silver fog beneath a crescent moon.

Misty Pacific coast

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Atop my mat on the floor of the kiva, as my hitherto solid reality crumbles and dissipates, I am undergoing a shocking initiation. Annihilation may be a better word. Indeed, my experience is nothing short of a total shamanic dismemberment by the paws, claws, and jaws of Mother Ayahuasca embodied as an all-powerful black jaguar.

Oh your holding INFURIATES me, she growls, tugging at an ancient bit of muscular restriction in my right shoulder that some part of me is intent on keeping close. Aren’t you tired of holding this?!? GIVE IT TO ME!!

Yes, I surrender, willingly, over and over, as the timeless hours of visions and pummeling continue—obliterated in the Void—the shaman’s distant drumbeat and haunting voice the only glimmering thread or lifeline back to the smoky chamber. Physically I am tossed about with limbs flailing, knocking over my water bottle and hitting the poor fellow sitting quietly beside me, while riding kundalini waves so strong that my body is repeatedly lifted off the floor and slammed back down in near-orgasmic ecstasy.

“There is no heart more undefended than mine,” I whisper again and again like a mantra, giving myself completely to the encounter and her demands, falling deeper into oblivion and torn asunder while simultaneously being stretched into multiple dimensions of the Cosmos.

A preferred animal form for Mother Ayahuasca

She shows me that ALL my work to date—healing sessions with clients, The Bones and Breath, the Soul Artist Journal, my new book manuscript, along with any notions of success and failure—has been merely stepping stones. And each of those things, roles, projects, and steps, no matter how important I fancied them to be, are far too small for my life. On this metaphysical night I am exploding past them like a comet or supernova, and what is coming will be SO much larger. Mercilessly yet tenderly, Mother Ayahuasca strips away the remaining ribbons of ego attachment to those earlier efforts—as if they are being pulled from my very tissues and cellular matrix—and speaks of my role with the healing archetype of Sacred Masculine.

You are a healer, she reminds me. Remember that. Your work is the body and ’embodiment’. And understand that we are healing lifetimes of the masculine tonight.

Near the very end of the journey, as I lay in a crumpled, weary heap after interminable hours of visions, thrashing about, internal dialogue, and core healing, as she prepares to withdraw the great cat purrs approvingly. Lovingly, even.

You have no idea how long I’ve waited to dance with you like this… and you did NOT disappoint me.

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Cosmic circuitry as seen with ayahuasca

I cannot even begin to describe all that happened in the first encounter with ayahuasca, the things that were revealed to me and healed. Suffice it to say I underwent a thorough examination of old patterns (physical, emotional, mental) in this life, as well as glimpsing material from previous incarnations that I chose to carry and transform in my current existence. Surrendering these wounds and restrictions one by one, choosing to relinquish them, they were ripped from my body. I didn’t vomit, instead my purging was strictly muscular and energetic, psychological and spiritual.

In the shadows of the circular chamber, only the single white candle on the central altar still burned as the shaman’s gravelly voice gently called us all back from our respective journeys. A blanket wrapped around me, in a state of shock and awe I silently weighed this otherworldly gift of immeasurable grace, realizing that in a single night I had accomplished more personal transformation than in two decades of determinedly focused self-healing and therapy. I had catapulted light years forward on my evolutionary journey.

For eleven hours the next night, amid the nourishing silence of the watchful redwoods, I slept a deep and nearly dreamless sleep in which I was aware only of my DNA being totally reconfigured—some type of cellular integration and change profoundly underway, as if my very matrix was evolving.

In just one sitting, ayahuasca had changed my life.

As for my earlier, long-held judgements on sacred plant medicines, I felt only foolish and ignorant. And already I knew that a few months hence, I would make the long drive north and return for a second ceremony, to continue this radical healing that had now begun in earnest.

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[This is the first post in a two-part installment. “Ayahuasca, the Vine of Souls: Part 2” follows in April.]