The secrets of the shamanic world of Ayahuasca have been steadily seeping into western awareness since the early part of the twentieth century. Today, in the year of 2014, hundreds of Ayahuasca retreat centres exist with the purpose of providing the spiritual seeker with an authentic taste of the magic potion that has been transforming human consciousness for probably thousands of years.
The verdict is quite clear. Ayahuasca is first and foremost an incredibly effective healing agent. Having already inspired the creation of two federally sanctioned religions as well as a sprawling underground network of outlaw shamanic practice, the sacred medicine is not showing any signs of slowing down. It’s ultimate goal, I would presume, is a world wide reformation of human values; a lofty mission, to be sure. However, if the conditions of our salvation are not set at the level of the miraculous, the environmental and spiritual crisis we collectively face as a species will be impossible to overcome and the level of global destruction—already significant—will increase to a scale few of us dare to imagine.
One thing I truly admire about the Ayahuasca community is that many of them seem to have taken direct responsibility for our planetary condition. Instead of placing the blame on a system of politics or a particular group of people, they place the source of our troubles as stemming from a massive imbalance within our collective psyche. If we can regain a healthy balance within our own individual lives, we will inspire others to do the same. As we approach the critical mass for global transformation, our current paradigm of domination and fear will begin to crack. And there are many indications that this is already happening. Personally, I find this whole process to be almost perfectly in sync with my own quest for self-liberation, the solipsistic nature of which I find amusing, empowering, and occasionally unsettling.
In September of 2014, I made my way to the Temple of the Way of Light—one of the most well known Ayahuasca centres in Peru—to participate in their relatively new month long Deep Immersion Program. The idea is to integrate different spiritual disciplines with the traditional form of an Ayahuasca healing centre. As far as I can tell, it is the first of its kind. I expected no less than to leave the Temple having undergone a transformation of epic proportions, the likes of which would have been beyond my mind’s ability of consideration.
After arriving in the jungle, it wasn’t long before I abandoned my initial plan of making some kind of video blog or documentary about my experience. First of all, there were no electrical outlets available for the guests to use. And even if there was, the facilitators highly recommended that we disconnect and log off from our usual world of electronic gadgetry in order to maximize our potential to heal. I suspected they were probably on to something and so I settled for simple daily journal entries instead.
I arrived on the third of September. The very first activity was a floral bath where the Shipibo shamans poured cold and flowered water over our bodies, a ritual that was repeated daily for the rest of the month. The group was largely Caucasian and everyone spoke English. Whether out of a lack of interest, laziness, or shyness, I remained mostly silent while the group engaged in introductions. I figured there’d be loads of time to get to know one another.
The next morning, we all drank a bowl of lemongrass tea followed by as many bowlfuls of warm water as we could handle until we heaved it all up onto the grassy dirt. This procedure was called “vomitos” and it served as a cleansing ritual and also as a useful icebreaker for all of us to get to know each other. I could not help but compare the event to the last retreat centre I’d attended a year and a half previous. There, we did not drink lemongrass tea or water. Rather, we downed gourdful after gourdful of some sort of basic plant infusion that you could actually feel as it cleaned out your insides before being expulsed from our bodies. We woke up a couple hours before sunrise for three consecutive days to perform this ritual. In comparison, what I experienced at the Temple seemed rather tame. I could feel the skeptic in me rearing it’s head.
I usually tried to keep this skepticism to myself although I can remember times near the beginning of the month where after being bombarded with flowery language for over an hour in one of our group sessions I’d let slip a comment that I’d hoped to be subtle yet contrary to the general tone. I imagined the shift in energy to be palpable and quietly revelled in secret accomplishment. This spirit of antagonism was not able to endure the entire month however. It didn’t stand much of a chance against the genuine yearning for inner peace that had brought us all together, not to mention the eight times I would drink the medicine over the course of the month.
The most immediately impressive part of the program was the quality of the ceremonies. They are maxed out at about 12 participants, not including the facilitator and the two Shipibo shamans, a male and a female. The sublime beauty of having a talented Amazonian healer sing their ethereal songs (known traditionally as “icaros”) directly into your body as your expanded consciousness ebbs and flows is an experience beyond description. That is what really made these sessions stand out for me. Of the three other locations where I had previously taken part in ceremony, I’d never experienced one with that amount of one on one time with the shamans. On more than one occasion, I could literally feel dark and heavy psychic energy being sung out of the core of my being. The physical manifestation of this was evidenced by my violent purge in the provided plastic bucket.
It did however take a couple relatively uneventful ceremonies for me to reach that apparent level of healing. I have always been somewhat hard-headed when it comes to psychedelics. I’ve never achieved the infamous visions described in many of the classics of psychedelia. Whether I’d taken Mckenna’s recommended 5 grams of psilocybin mushrooms in silent darkness, smoked several lungfuls of home extracted nn-DMT, or drank several ounces of dank slimy Ayahuasca, I’ve never quite seemed to have “broken through”, as they say. To my knowledge, I’ve never actually hung out with aliens, elves, serpents, or what have you. Rather, my experiences have been more of the kinaesthetic variety. Once I’d gotten into sort of a groove with regard to my ceremonies, I began to consistently feel the ultimate creative force of the universe flowing through my entire body for hours on end. Any revelatory information that may have been revealed to me was purely tactile and as such is not exactly communicable with words. I also felt a distinct sensation in my jaw during many of the ceremonies, almost as if it were being restructured. As if to reinforce this, several of the other participants approached me at one point during the retreat to tell me that they could see me coming into my self, and offered advice on how to refine my powers of expression. It’s seems they somehow might have been more aware of my transformation than I was.
Of course, many participants had totally different experiences. Some truly astonishing stories were conveyed during the group sessions that would probably seem completely delusional to many people. Some of them involved typical insect-eyed alien beings doing various sorts of medical analysis on the Ayahuasca drinker (reminiscent of countless alien abduction stories). Others entailed more straight up conversations with the spirit of Ayahuasca herself in which she offered practical, if not whimsical, life advice. One older gentleman was shown the inevitable and hellish consequence of what he would have to endure if he didn’t change his ways and subsequently quit a two-pack-a-day forty-year smoking habit the very next day, cold turkey. Probably the most memorable event that occurred during a ceremony was a loud and violent exorcism-style rebirth that lasted several hours. The bloodcurdling screams, desperate weeping, inhuman gurgling sounds, manic laughter, and even the painful silence in between made for a roller coaster ride of a ceremony. At one point, I had an intense purge in the midst of the chaos and, as I did not seem to be emotionally connected to my heaving body, I am convinced that I was somehow aiding my fellow seeker with her own battle against whatever dark force had been consuming her. Needless to say, heavy healing was taking place.
The ceremonies were supplemented with recommended Self Inquiry sessions and group shares. Much of the time I was at a loss for words and remained relatively quiet during these sessions. At times, being silent did not seem to be an option as the facilitators would have us form smaller groups of two or three people to perform various exercises designed to penetrate to the core of our being and enable us to discover the hidden motivations behind our decision to come to the Temple. These attempts at self-discovery were hit or miss for me. Naturally, I’d already spent countless hours pondering why I’d chosen to go to the jungle and so I couldn’t help but sense a certain redundancy while I struggled for an honest expression. And to be fair, I can remember one session where I was almost moved to tears the day after a particularly revelatory ceremony. Also, it was common for at least one or two of the other participants to recount their thoughts and feelings in a state of obvious emotional catharsis.
We generally had two days to recover from our ceremony before plunging in the next. There was also a bit of a longer break in the middle of the month. Our time off was usually filled with optional classes for various integrative practices. Of these, I found the meditation classes to be the most useful. I hadn’t made a significant effort to meditate since attending a 10-day Vipassana course about two and a half years previous. In the relaxed atmosphere of the Temple, I was just about able to bring myself to the same deep trance state that’d I’d experienced at the mediation centre. As far as I can tell, there seems to be a considerable overlap between the worlds of meditation and shamanic experience. The discipline of mind that can be achieved from the former is most definitely an important asset during the Ayahuasca trance. I believe the medicine will show one what they need to see regardless, however a stillness of mind should make the experience more manageable. In turn, the revelations that may arise could lend themselves to a much smoother integration.
Yoga was offered on a daily basis, usually first thing in the morning. This served as a welcome opportunity to get a bit of exercise. The humidity and oppressive heat of the jungle encouraged one to spend many hours laying in a hammock and it wasn’t hard to develop a routine of sedentariness. The Qi Gong classes also provided a more subtle yet effective form of physical activity that would leave one sweaty and somewhat exhilarated. After a couple classes, I was able to notice a palpable warmth being generated in my hands as I slowly performed the fluid movements. During ceremony, I would find myself experimenting with similar energy movement while laying on my mattress. I am quite uninformed with the world of Reiki and energy healing but I can only assume I was engaging in exactly that as I gathered energy from the ether and methodically ran my supercharged hands up and down my body.
Other classes that were offered included singing, creative writing, dancing, and the incredibly awkward practice of laughter yoga. I generally found myself either too exhausted or uninterested to really take part in these classes in a meaningful way. Toward the end of he month I attended them less and less, preferring to spend time reading, writing, or socializing with the other retreat-goers.
It’s beyond question that the Temple of the Way of Light provides a legitimate opportunity to work with the medicine in a safe environment. In my mind, the ingredients for a successful Ayahuasca experience are mainly a good strong brew, experienced healers, and an appropriately supportive atmosphere. The Temple delivers all three.
The staff at the Temple are well aware of their positive reputation as a premier Ayahuasca retreat centre and the sense of confidence is apparent in some of the long term staff. I would even venture to say that a slight arrogance is at risk of becoming manifest in the overall presentation of the centre. On several occasions I noticed a dismissing comment regarding the other centres in the area, many of which I would assume share similar goals to those of the Temple. Of course, my experience is very limited in this area and they could be totally justified in their criticism, though the aura of hubris was sometimes hard to abate.
As I suspect is quite common for many different types of healing centres, the idea of money was the elephant in the room. To attend the Deep Immersion Program I paid $2800 (USD). With more than twenty retreat-goers, the total amount paid exceeds $56 000. In addition, the Temple offers a shorter twelve day retreat for about twenty participants that takes place twice a month at a cost of $2100. The would bring the total monthly inflow of cash to at least $140 000, a hefty sum especially by Peruvian standards. I am not by any means insinuating that this cash is being used irresponsibly or selfishly. Although, in the case of an institution that deals exclusively in healing, I feel that complete transparency is appropriate. To be fair, the Temple is involved in two seemingly large-scale community projects, namely Alianza Arkana and Chaikuni Insitute of Permaculture. Information concerning these programs can be found on the Temple’s website.
One thing that concerned me about attending a month long Ayahuasca retreat was that I did not want to become a light and love being of pure bliss emanating nothing but positivity for the rest of my days. I am very rarely inspired by that sort of person. Generally, I prefer the artist who is riddled with addictions, neurosis, and probably violent outbursts of rage. Of course that is not what I am striving for but I have a feeling that considering our current state of social decay, these qualities may be inevitable in a creative person if their goal is to show people what they need to see. This aversion to an uncritical level of positivity was surely part of the cause for the initial skepticism I might have felt about the retreat. I have always been wary of a certain personality that ignores the darkness that exists in all of us. An honestly motivated confrontation is not necessarily a bad thing, although I find that it is all too often frowned upon in some new age circles. I suspect that to be a main reason for my quiet nature in such company.
So rather than becoming a “bliss ninny”, my aim was to simply come to terms with my faults and talents and potentially achieve a better balance between them. To what extent I have achieved that goal remains to be seen and I suspect it may take a couple years of retrospect to really be able to notice any significant changes in my behaviour. My faith in the medicine is as strong as ever though and I am far from worried that my time spent in ceremony was for nothing.
In any case, I am entirely grateful for my time spent at the Temple. The importance of the work being done with Ayahuasca at centres throughout the Amazon and beyond is impossible to overestimate. As life in the jungle is anything but easy, I have to commend the actions of those running the Temple (as well as other centres) as being no less than heroic. In our day and age, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t benefit enormously from the healing power of Ayahuasca.
photo found via google images @ http://www.icyte.com/system/snapshots/fs1/6/a/5/4/6a545330d15200addb67812c6a0efde586677333/fdc0d126d9981bf057044e13bc34d0fa9db717ca.jpg