What we call today our “old” religions such as Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, and even Christianity are merely 5,000 years old or less. Shamanism is a religion of our indigenous people, the first tribes of our humanity. Shamanism practiced for tens of millennia believes in an unseen world that can only be tapped into with a mediator, a.k.a. shaman. However, “shamanism” is a very broadly used term. Each religion under Shamanism differs greatly from one region to the next however similar they might be. One of the most powerful tools that is used to tap into the unseen world is something as simple as the plants grown from our Earth. The study and practice of using psychoactive plants have brought human rituals closer to the gods as defined by each practice. The out-of-body and dream state experiences recalled by people have told of great healing, mentally, emotionally and even physical ailments. As much of our study of modern medicine stemmed greatly from the work of many generations before, I think we need to cherish and be grateful for the work we have done for many millennia as humans in plant medicine.
Together, humans have found ways to heal diseases and encapsulate medicines to distribute to millions of individuals. What is often forgotten is how special this first process was of growing the plant yourself, preparing the medicine and sharing it with the people around you. To heal the very people around you with your own hands and hard work. It is an insanely beautiful practice and culture that should not be forgotten because without, we would not be here today. And I’m here today to tell a little bit about my journey with one of thousands of plant medicines out there, ayahuasca (aɪjəˈwɑːskə) most prominently used by indigenous Amazonian tribes in Peru, but have spread to other parts of South America, including Ecuador.
My journey with ayahuasca was not a naïve one. After much research and accounts from close friends, I realized there was so much more than I can read and hear about. Truly, my journey began weeks before my trip to Tena, Ecuador. This journey was a spiritual one where years of introspection would not deem enough. However, I set my mind on what my intention should be for the day of the ceremony weeks before.
The bus ride from Quito, Ecuador was one of the most beautiful scenic bus rides I have ever experienced. What was supposed to be a 3-hour bus ride, turned out to be a 6-hour one. Due to heavy rain and mudslides, the road we were supposed to take was damaged. We took a detour through Ambato and I cannot deny it was still worth it with these views.
Finally getting into the Amazon region of Ecuador, you move from mountainous terrain to tropical rainforest with huge rivers rushing through the landscape.
Aside from the detour, Ecuador’s bus system is quite reliable and the people are very nice to help you get along your way. This bus ride from Quito to Tena was only $8 USD. The dollar is also used in Ecuador so it saves any confusion.
Reaching Tena, a small and beautiful town, the first thing I see is an open volleyball tournament and people walking through the streets ready to sell their goods in the little shops. I needed to get to a particular cafe to meet the assistant Shaman, Jan, but had no idea how to get there. I met some nice locals who happened to be going that way and hopped into their car squeezed in with 3 kids and 4 adults. After meeting Jan, the picture above is when we took a local car to the Amazon. Car service is like uber, but without the app and only $1 each way… and probably slightly more dangerous as I sat on the back of this trunk while we drove through pot hole covered streets. I was still forever charmed by how nice the locals were to us travelers.
Taking a nice muddy hike, wading through a low river coursing through the Amazon was absolutely beautiful. The temperature was warm, but with a nice continuous drizzle of rain to keep you cool. Reminded again of how loud it is in the rainforest, you can hear insects, birds and monkeys within a few miles radius, I wish I had taken a video.
A beautiful part of the ayahuasca ceremony is the part about cleansing, which is accomplished in a few ways, but what better way than to start with the natural river rushing by the campsite. The feeling of bathing in the clear, crisp fresh water is rejuvenating and should be used to open your mind and become more receptive to the ceremony to come. Also, if you bring some biodegradable soap its a perfect time to bathe like I did.
I don’t have any photos of the ceremony itself for the same reason you never take pictures while going to a therapy session. It is a very personal and isolating experience to its core. Also, it is preferred to be in ceremonies with less people, in this case there were only 5 of us. The other four girls had never experienced this before and had even less experience and research in preparing for this journey. Like this, I felt their energy the whole night, so I cannot imagine an experience with more people. Despite it being an experience that is very much your own, you become hyper sensitive to your surroundings and the people’s energy.
To prepare for the ceremony, this differs with each shaman and practice. Fasting is most common for the day of the ritual and removal of mind-altering substances/experiences for a week including alcohol, marijuana, sex and even chocolate. Another common diet is removal of meat and most dairy products, which was easy enough being vegetarian. The diet has a greater purpose than just cleansing other energies from your body, but a humbling experience like any other fasting practice in other religions to focus on the core of who you are and to remind yourself of the greater journey you are taking.
Pictured above is Jan holding a dried Banisteriopsis caapi which is the vine that amongst other medicinal plants are brewed together to create the ayahuasca drink that you take for the ceremony. Jan has started his practice in plant medicine as an apprentice of the shaman Don Ramon who has led hundreds if not thousands of ceremonies. Feel free to to read Jan’s blog on his journey if you can read Czech!
The ceremony itself is not usually what you describe as pleasant. It is exactly what you make it. Imagine the brew taps into your mind and brings out the absolute intensity of your subconscious. You are put into a dream state, so depending on where your intentions are, how open and receptive you are, you can have a very different experience from mine.
To have no better words and imagery, I found some art that better clarifies my experience. The ceremony begins at night and starts with a tobacco cleansing, another plant that is incredibly sacred and often misused by tobacco companies with all the additives placed in it. You take the juice of tobacco and snort it up both nostrils. The liquid soaring up your sinuses feels like its filled with tiny, spikey balls of energy bursting with light through your brain. Immediately the sensation is blinding, a bit painful and it feels like your skull expands into a starry night as big as the universe. I look up into my skull and I have never felt so clear and open before.
After taking a drink of the ayahuasca, it takes about 20 minutes for it to take effect. For me I took less because I am often sensitive to medicine. My dream state was more of lucid dreaming and less of dynamic visuals, which mushrooms and peyote has given me. This is a very different experience. At first the theme of my dreams were just all the people I have ever met in my life playing into random scenarios, but at the end of any scenario I start to dive into tiny details that were excessive. Like zooming into the container my friend was holding where inside had a set of instructions and a pen, which I then began to read. At every scenario, I would snap back and wonder why this kept happening. Eventually, the medicine became very strong and I had visions of a black mass with an elastic texture floating in space slight tilted. A part of it began to pull and stretch upward like a solid liquid with a hue of red and covered with sparkly stars. It was pushing up and up with the very top beginning to resemble an eye with no white around the iris. Then with a deep breath it calmed. In a few seconds after another powerful sensation started. A mental image of a white faced woman with bright green eyes and red hair soaring up from the bottom of bowels to the top of my forehead. The physical sensation of a vine twisting in a figure 8 format came rushing up my intestines through my stomach, esophagus and out my mouth as I purged 3-4 times. Purging is a part of the experience as a powerful effect of the medicine. After purging, I felt incredibly clear and empty. I never felt like I could hear, feel and think so clearly in my life. After this, the effects calmed and I was beginning to go to sleep. Throughout the ceremony, the Shaman is singing to us with strange instruments. He comes around to me and begins a cleansing process where he sprays through his mouth perfume water and something like a palm frond is being shaken above me. I was in a complete dream state, but the Shaman would wake my senses with music and smells. Then he massaged my head and began to suck all the negative energy out of my head and body. This was a very powerful sensation. I felt like my brain was being sucked out from the top of my head and reformed whole again. After this, I never slept so good, which often is not the case for other people.
The next morning at sunrise, I wake to the sounds of the rainforest and the rain thumping on the ground next to me. We slept under a man made canopy that kept us dry. The river cleansing was even better this time in the morning, clearing of all unnecessary feelings and sensations. Jan was very nice and helped with the translation of Don Ramon. My only feedback would be I wish I was able to take a longer retreat of multi-day ceremonies, so you can have more discussion and therapy. Nonetheless, in my short time, it was a divine first experience and it won’t be my last. Next stop is Baños…