It almost sounds hokey, but there I was in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. It was very dark, except for the faint glow of the shamans smoking their mapachos. I had been vomiting and dry heaving for over two hours, and had several bouts of projectile diarrhea. Lying down so the nausea was not as incapacitating, I could hear the chanting of the shaman’s singing their icaros along with various jungle sounds interrupted only by the other peoples’ occasional coughs and gurgling sounds as they threw up. Three hours ago I had swallowed a small cupful of a hideously repugnant tasting drink called ayahuasca (“eye – a – waska”), and for the last three hours I felt disoriented, dehydrated, and near death. Yet I was strangely alert and focused on the shaman’s chanting, and the visions in my head.I wondered if I had been poisoned and would not survive the night. Fear mixed with anger and amazement as I tried to cope with the repeated bouts of nausea and fantastic visions. “Why did I do this?” I asked myself. Why did I pay over $3000.00 to go to the Peruvian Amazon and participate in this ayahuasca ceremony (and two more ceremonies after that one)? Why would anyone want to do this? And what type of person would do it? What do they get out of it?
What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca refers to a psychotropic brew made by indigenous Indians of the Amazon jungle from a woody vine (Banisteriopsis caapi, B. inebrians, or B. quitensis) and the leaves of the chakruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Although the name ayahuasca is often used to describe the B. caapi vine, it also refers to the mixture of these two very different plants (DeKorne, 1994). Local medicine men, or shamans, prepare the mixture, sometimes substituting plants for chakruna (also known as sami ruca and amirucapanga), and adding different plants to the mixture depending on the nature of the ceremony (Ott, 1993). Ayahuasca is used by shamans to induce an altered state during which the shaman can look into the future, travel in spirit form, induce healing, remove spells, and cast spells on others.
The word ayahuasca comes from the Quechuan Indian words aya (“spirit,” “ancestor,” or “dead person”) and huasca (“vine”). Together these words refer to the “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead,” a vine that reportedly can free the soul or spirit (McKenna, 1992). Different Amazonian Indian tribes call the plant by names such as yage’ (pronounced “yah – hey”), yaje’, caapi, natem, pinde, karampi, dapa, mihi, kahi, and many other local names (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992).
Traveler: Bianca Nichole
Historical use of ayahuasca
Evidence from pre-Columbian rock drawings suggests hundreds of years of ayahuasca use in the Amazon, although Western scientists and explorers have only been exposed to the brew over the last 150 years. In 1851 British plant explorer, Richard Spruce, discovered the Tukanoan Indians in the upper Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon using a liana (vine) known as caapi to induce a state of intoxication. Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio first mentioned ayahuasca in 1858 while he was exploring the jungles of Ecuador. He described how the source of the drink was a vine used to foresee the future battle plans of enemies, diagnose illness, determine which spells were used and which to use, welcome foreign travelers, and insure the love of their womenfolk (Shultes, 1961). Villavicencio took the drink himself and described the experience of “flying” to marvelous places.
Ayahuasca: The ceremony
When I first heard about ayahuasca from the leaders of a personal and spiritual growth center called “Seven Oaks Pathwork Center,” I asked why a person couldn’t just take the drink at home instead of incurring the expense and risk of going to the Amazon. The people who had been to several ayahuasca ceremonies explained that the ceremony was as important as the plants themselves. Some even suggested the experience of the ceremony and the “processing,” or discussion and evaluation of the experience the next day, is more important than the drink itself. Still others included preparation for the ceremony as integral and essential to the experience.
Traveler: Talia Witherspoon
Ican’t pinpoint with certainty why I felt compelled to experience Ayahuasca. It’s said, if it’s for you, it will call you. And Muva Aya (my name for her) definitely drew me in. For me, Aya seemed the natural next step in up-leveling my consciousness. To prepare, I watched many videos on Youtube—although, no amount of research can adequately reflect what it’s like. It’s reassuring to hear personal testimonies.
Once a friend talked me through my lingering fear by sharing his own experience, I finally felt at ease and ready. And when the timing was right the opportunity presented itself.
I paid about $130 USD for a 1-night ceremony, which I was invited to by my neighbor in Mexico. My experience was very gentle, healing and self-confirming because that was the intention I set. Basically, one has to be prepared to shed the ego and meet whatever you deeply need clarity on and help dealing with in this life. Because Muva will take you right to the core of it. Whether it’s a rough process (as some have described) or a gentle one like I had, it’ll be precisely what is needed. That’s the beauty of the medicine.
The purpose of the shaman
To understand the ayahuasca ceremony, one must understand the role of the shaman in Indian and other societies of indigenous peoples. The word shaman comes from the Siberian Tungusic word for the person in a tribe of indigenous people who uses a type of magic to heal, foresee future events, and communicate with spirits, plants, animals, and other worlds. Shamans are most often male, and are also called medicine men, witch doctors, curanderos, vegetalistas, and other names. Shamans either receive a “calling” to their role, or they can be chosen by others. They are chosen on the basis of their knowledge, spiritual gifts, sensibility, relationship to other shamans, or some uniqueness or strangeness about them. Sometimes the shaman is reluctant to accept the role because of the physically demanding nature of the duties, but the spirit world does not let him rest until he accepts (Maybury-Lewis, 1992).
The shamans’ job is to journey into the spirit world, or non-ordinary reality, getting advice and powers to maintain the balance between the natural and supernatural (Harner, 1982). Shamans most commonly accomplish this journey by altering their consciousness through ritual methods such as drumming, dancing, chanting, and/or the use of psychotropic plants. In the Amazon, Indian shamans use chanting and plants such as those that make ayahuasca to achieve this altered state.
Since journeys into non-ordinary reality such as those achieved through the use of ayahuasca can be frightening, confusing, and dangerous, shamans help others with their journey. They prepare the candidates through strict diets, purging, and other rituals. The actual ceremony requires just the right location and site preparation. In other words, the set (what you bring to the ceremony) and the setting (location and ambience) are critical to the quality of the experience (Leary, Metzner, and Alpert, 1992).
In Millenium, David Maybury-Lewis states:
“If drinking yage (ayahuasca) is so unpleasant and frightening, why do people persist in using it? Because they believe the terror is something a person must overcome in order to attain knowledge. Needless to say, the insights acquired through taking yage depend very much on the training of the taker. An experienced shaman can see many things while under its influence. A novice may only be suffused with panic or lost in an ecstatic vision he cannot interpret.”