Ayahuasca in the Amazon: Healing Through Plant Medicine and Sacred Ceremony

I embarked on one of the most important excursions of my life, and it was perhaps the greatest experience of my life so far. Over the last couple of years I noticed I’d dream about being given a plastic cup of dark, earthy liquid to drink. Sometimes in the dream my vision would become distorted, I’d need to lay down, or I’d be dizzy from it. Prior to this, I thought ayahuasca was fascinating and that I’d like to try it, but once I learned more about shamanic practice and began having these dreams, the desire seemed to turn into destiny. Draw to this medicine tends to feel like an obligation, a vocation even. 

“Walking” trees

Choosing “Who” and Understanding the Brew

I cannot stress enough how important it is to find a sincere curandero or ayahuascero, the healer who makes and distributes the ayahuasca brew. Like everything else, the increasing interest in this medicine has caused it to become an industry. As an industry there is competition and a mixing of priorities. Now you can find “shamans” on the internet who advertise the experience or if you go to Iquitos, the city that is the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon, and ask around, someone on the street might claim they can help you. You must be cautious of untrustworthy “shamans.” There have been cases of exploitation, sexual assault, and sorcery. With the tourist industry particularly down, desperation is likely high. I found my shaman through a friend of a friend who has worked with him for over 8 years. His brew recipe is specific, basic, and has been passed down in his lineage. I won’t disclose the secret, but it’s completely pure. The medicine requires two plants: ayahuasca, which is a vine and chacruna, a plant that has DMT or the hallucinogenic quality to it. Many (like Mijares & Fotiou, 2015) believe the combination of these plants is like merging masculine and feminine energies. To take the medicine is to help restore the balance of the energies. For a society that may yearn to drift from its separate nature and restore lacking feminine qualities “love, understanding, compassion, nurturing, and helpfulness to others…gentleness, kindness” (Mijares & Fotiou, 2015), I do think ayahuasca is appealing for its medicinal restore of disharmony. Some untrustworthy “shamans” will add other things to their brews like a random psychedelic mushroom for funky visuals or another plant that will make you purge. Purging is a misconception tied to ayahuasca. It does not always happen, it didn’t happen to me, but because people expect it or even want to feel like they’re releasing, something might get added to the brew to ensure it. This might also let them feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. Genuine people and genuine medicine do absolute wonders.

Ayahuasca heals uniquely to an individual’s body and soul. No two experiences are alike, but everyone gets exactly what they need. I took it for three nights, but the first night was to welcome it into my body. It essentially cleanses you. In the days or weeks leading up to taking it, it’s important to abstain from cannabis, alcohol, red meat and pork, fermented foods, spicy foods, and sex. These all counter-act with it. Less sugar and salt allow more blocks to be removed so it can really do its thing for you. People with chronic pain, anxiety, depression, addiction, and PTSD have found particular relief. Shamanic perspectives and approaches offer to “modern” therapeutic models healing from the energetic realm and personal growth through deep connection to the natural, living world.  Any symptoms you might feel while ingesting it simply indicates what it is working on. Unlike other hallucinogenic drugs or psychedelics, ayahuasca requires a certain amount of surrendering. Set and setting are still very important of course, but there is little you can do to manipulate the content of your experience. You get what you need.

Me with my hand on the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna plant growing to the left

Icaros, Intentions, and Integration 

In my experience the shaman I worked with, Guido, explained everything thoroughly through our translator. It was strange that Guido, a shaman of the Shipibo people in the Amazon, spoke his second language, Spanish, to our translator Rey. Rey is from another nation in the Amazon and learned Spanish at age 14. He spoke to my group in English, so there were so many layers of language happening (coming soon!). Nothing seemed to be lost. Before beginning, Guido checked our pulses and energy field individually to determine the amount of medicine we received.  

Though ayahuasca plant medicine is pretty powerful itself, the icaros really activate it. Icaros are the songs the shaman sings throughout your experience. The healer uses songs, prayers, instruments, etc. to “produce emotional states that affect the way the body and immune system responds to illness” (Tedlock, 2005). It begins with the base of shaking his leaf rattle and whistling a tune he channels for the moment. Whistling turns into a song he sings. There are particular icaros Guido learned as part of his initiation training that are for specific purposes like good health, fortune and thriving business, friendship, etc. They are so beautiful. Near the end of the ceremony, he approached us individually to clear any lingering negative energy and to sing us a unique, individual icaro for our healing. Each of the three nights we each got a new one because we weren’t the same person as we were the preceding night. We were in the midst of a transformative process. Once we integrate “back” to our lives, exposure to the sensory experience continues to remind us of the possibility for greater wellness (Tedlock, 2005). After the closing group icaro, he and then Rey would say “the ayahuasca ceremony has finished”, and the lights would come on. The heaviest of effects seemed to lift at that. 

The ayahuasca healing begins when you say “yes” and the fasting/cleansing that happens in preparation is also part of it. When I arrived at the lodge, I noticed the quality of my thoughts and impulses as different yet familiar. Night two I realized I distinctly was feeling like myself as a child about 7 years old. Guido mentioned this, that we would be starting over. Each night was like a death and regeneration process. 

Intention and surrender is a fine balance, and it’s important in order to receive the most from the medicine experience. Intentions are sort of like guides and goals. Surrender was knowing your intention would be met but likely in a unexpected, but perfectly necessary way. In this case intentions can be hard to choose! There’s so much to learn and improve! To help us determine a deeper, focused, more subconscious intention, we did a 3-card story in the afternoon first.  

The entire process notably teaches that ayahuasca isn’t a fun, recreational trip, but a sacred transformative healing ceremony. Some studies (Tindall, 2013; Trichter, 2010) have wondered whether the effects last outside of the culture they’re given. That is, when I return to my own culture, do the healing properties diminish? My culture isn’t as widely accepting of ayahuasca, nor does it offer healing medicine in sacred ways. This makes post-ceremony integration tricky. The culture shock alone from lush forest to machine is difficult to navigate. I’d been away for 6 days and felt like my whole world was rocked, yet seldom changed in my house and among my circle of people. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! It simply makes processing more interesting, maybe a little slower. I think there is a lot of promise in the exploration of ceremony and integration of these ideas and practices in “modern” culture. Personally, I have hugely benefitted from the ceremonies I’ve been a part of and the ones I create for myself to spiritually connect. However, it’s tricky when considering how difficult it has been for indigenous people to maintain their customs and practice through oppression and colonization and then suddenly be expected to carry on the traditions for others’ benefit. Practice and use of these customs need respect, humility, and self-awareness. Of the shamans I’ve worked with, they have generously and lovingly shown how they truly want to help and heal. The beauty of this medicine is that even though it may seem like it for some, there are no “cures.” All of the hidden origins, everything we suppress, symptoms we subside—surface. It’s supposed to show you balance, maybe even the art of giving and receiving. The aya stays in your system for 1 year. It works through your dreams and continues to cleanse quietly. I’m so excited for the ways it will work through me this year. Friends who’ve had it before reported they move more gracefully in the world. It’s a glow and twinkle in the eye.

The growing attraction to this medicine seems to demonstrate how openness and individual experience can be applied and benefit a greater system/the collective. Like mindfulness and yoga popularity growth, I think there are patterns behind the desire for these experiences—a true desire for connection, meaning, healing/renewal, and balance. I hope in further research and exploration that these traditions aren’t simply regarded as “quick fixes” for damage that has been done, but as a beacon of hope for loving transformation. 

Giving gratitude and receiving wisdom from a sacred saba tree

A Living Pharmacy

The Amazon has so much life, death, and purpose expanding even beyond what we can sense and understand. The guide on our jungle walk, a local originating from one of the nations residing within the forest, seemed to have something useful to point out every two steps we took. This sprout is for ulcers, that bark is for pregnant women with complications, those leaves help with high cholesterol, these flowers are used in love potions, and so on to infinity. Like people with stories we pass everyday, it’s humbling to see plants growing and come to understand their incredible medicinal capabilities. We walked to this specific saba tree (pictured above) which among its branches at the top is a smaller scale forest itself. Its roots are so huge and stretch out as the sustaining breath and foundation for surrounding tree life. Of course, they’re good for lumber and ply wood, and a group proposed to the family that owns it a cheap price for it. This tree was visited by generations of shamans to learn their healing gifts and practices. The air trees dangling from it have fresh, filtered water potable for someone with a snap of its root! The forest generously sustains our life as long as we sustain its life. May we learn to have a truly symbiotic exchange and loving relationship with nature. 

Thin air plant roots dangling from the saba tree (upper left); hairy, pink flowers for love potions (upper right); and some griddy, indigo berries I ate (bottom center)

My Cups

When blessed and handed my first cup of aya, measured to my needs, it only took one swallow. I remained up-right and wide-eyed as I acquainted myself with this brew now bubbling in my bloodstream. I was the last to receive, and the arch of people to my right each glowed a color as they drank one by one. I was amazed by the auras, understanding my fellow travelers deeper through the greens, oranges, pinks, burgundy they emitted. The lights went out, and my own colors, deep blue, purple and indigo passed like clouds above me. I silently swayed to the icaros laying down only so I could tap my feet. If I could have, I would have gotten up to dance. Don Guido, our shaman reported seeing a rainbow cast from us, something he said he’s never seen before.

Night 2 we set our intentions, and mine was along the lines of understanding my heart-lead life path and service to the world, camino de corazón. I drank second, bowing with love and gratitude. Again I was energized, though most of the “useless” thoughts I had the previous night were swept out of the way. In the dark a moth blew by my left ear and another seconds later on my right. Once reclined my body became a sand sculpture then made of clay sinking deeper and deeper below the surface of the ground. The surface of my body touching flatly against the ground felt like it was over smoldering coals, the heat like the core of the Earth. Suddenly the ground directly below my cot and my body as one began to tremble like an earthquake. It lasted a few seconds then ceased. Unsure whether I’d opened my eyes, I saw I was at the foot of a massive volcano! A tiny one in the distance erupted a beautiful red orange glow and next to it a button mushroom emerges from a white light. My knees were bent and knocked together, feet flat, and I felt like I was birthing something. A subtle push birthed a seed. I began having a conversation with a voice. God(dess)-like she offered me insight and I asked questions. She had a keen idea of my sense of humor and joked along with me. This authoritative being felt like I was perhaps conversing with the medicine itself, Mother Aya. She was casual and told me my purpose here (adding an “obviously” as if I should’ve known). In past lives (coming soon!) I’ve apparently done ayahuasca, to this question the ground nodded, and I’ve done it to step into this very purpose for which I continue to return to Earth. She gave me vague “how’s” and I quaked. The first hour was up, and people around me were accepting extra cups. I felt a light pain sensation in the form of a thin band around my head. 

That night, Guido saw a celebration of Peru’s Rose festival. Us women were in white gowns with flower crowns. Night 3 impended, and I knew my desperation to feel peace would be overruled. The way to peace was through my personal hell, and it was terrifying. Earlier that day we’d each had an Ayahuasca “bath” which was essentially a baptism of sorts. Buckets of aya water were poured over us, and I felt subtle effects seep into my skin over the course of the day. So the man next to me gets poured a full cup, and every cell I’m made of starts racing. My cup was significantly smaller, though took two and half gulps. Immediately I scoot back and try to change the tone of my anticipation. The lights go out, and I know where I’m going. With my best efforts, there’s nothing I could do about it. I see a shadow of a large spider on the ceiling. It morphs into the shape of a body suspended by the arms and legs. I begin having flashing visuals and understanding that everything I’ve ever feared is with me at once. Every anxiety attack I’ve ever had over 27 years came to a head at the same time, and the panic in my body was overwhelming to say the least. A version of myself in my left peripheral vision embodied every insecurity I’ve ever had, every quality I distain, and she spewed comments accordingly, bullying me all night. I tossed and kept moving to resist all of it, trying in any way to escape. Around me people seemed to be in their version of a similar place. They purged agonized by their toxins. My stomach gurgled and I was so full. I saw myself in thick sewage, and swaying to the toilet was all too familiar. This was a recurring dream I recognized from the last 2 years, one I couldn’t understand. I guess it was preparation. The sewage wasn’t physically there, but the visions were the same as the dreams. I refused to purge. I sat concentrating on not letting the toilet glide away from me. When I returned to my cot space, I was so afraid I wasn’t handling all this fear this right, that if I didn’t it wouldn’t go away. So I came up with “micro-victories” which involved sitting completely still for as long as I could in the discomfort. I admitted to myself that my greatest fear well, was this fear. When it was time for my icaro, I dragged myself to the edge of the cot. Guido dispelled the negative energy and blew into the back of my head because I was folded, completely hunched over for him to reach my crown. I approached him withered, broken, and from the depths of my despair. The ceremony finally finished, but the effects did not lift. One of my fellow journeyers who had purged the contents of her darker side of life looked over and said “well, there are no more rainbows.” An actual tarantula dropped from the ceiling, and it was the shadow I saw on the ceiling! Back in my private lodge bed I imagined myself committed in a mental institution. The Shutter Island kind with my sad family looking over me wondering where I’d gone. “I’m here!” Just not the way you knew me before. I gathered my last speck of willfulness and went into my bathroom. I gagged once, came up empty, and racked points for a bigger victory. This turning point showed me I was facing the fears, that to feel it was to heal it. 

Guido was visibly exhausted that night. He felt everything and left to purge himself. The girl next to me must have endured her own horror as he blew into her head three times. We all laughed because our translator and assistant Rey was outnumbered at one point since so many people were up and running to the toilets. Rey literally and figuratively walked us through the darkness. My earthquakes lessened but seemed to symbolize more. Something in me was really shifting. Before departing we got flower baths sealing our medicine and protection. The water cascaded down like soothing glitter. Reborn, I’m lighter and free. 

Tree tops (life) and mushrooms on the forest floor (death and regeneration)

If you’re called to this medicine or transformation, I’m happy to share my references and connections. Surrender fearlessly! If you like this page, please share it!

References 

Mijares, S.G. & Fotiou, E. (2015). Earth, Gender and Ceremony: Gender Complementarity and Sacred Plants. Latin America Journal of Transpersonal Research, 7(1), 19-31.

Tedlock, B. (2005). The woman in the shaman’s body: Reclaiming the feminine in religion and medicine. Bantam Dell of Random House Inc.  

Tindall, R. (2013). Snake medicine: How animism heals. European Journal of Ecopsychology, 4, 47-63. 

Trichter, S. (2010). Ayahuasca beyond the amazon the benefits and risks of a spreading tradition Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 42(2), 131-148.

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