Vine of the Soul: 8: Healing the Spiral Helix

DNA_double_helix_vertikalI am aware only of the struggle to survive. I have no thoughts. I am writhing in the mud of existence, a single-celled organism. Dim light flickers on and off all around. I move only very slowly, and with great effort, through the soup I swim in. Over time, thousands of years it seems, I become vaguely aware of myself. “I” am lying on my belly, moaning softly. I am no longer amoebic, I have evolved to have a rudimentary shape consisting of a head, organs, a spine.

Something hurts. I become aware of this sensation and as I focus on it the sensation grows. I locate the pain, it is in my core, in my rudimentary spine. I focus. I go deeper into the pain. I see an elongated spiral with a mesmerizing checkerboard pattern. It looks similar to a coiled snake without head or tail. I am aware now that something is there, within the spiral, causing the sensation of pain.

I watch this spiral ladder and observe what is happening. The Medicine is working there, altering the pattern. Slowly and meticulously the magnificent, complex pattern is being changed, and I realize this is what hurts. Then, from another universe far, far away, I hear a sound… “shhhhhhhhhhh”…

I am instantly snapped into another reality. I understand that the sound I just heard is a helper, encouraging me to be quiet. I understand that I had been moaning rather loudly with the pain I am experiencing. Slowly I regain my equilibrium. I am in an Ayahuasca ceremony, on my mat within the community circle. I am lying on my belly, drenched in sweat, lightly drooling onto my pillow. I notice the pain again deep inside my core and remember the spiral… the pattern…

Hours earlier, as I sat waiting for the Medicine to arrive, I had set an intention for this evening’s ceremony. Setting an intention is an important part of any self-work. The purpose of the work is personal growth, and personal growth requires awareness of our shadow-selves. I typically take 3 to 6 months in between Medicine ceremonies to integrate the gifts of self-awareness the work offers. It is now my second year with Grandmother, and I have traveled ever deeper into my journey of self-healing.

As a result of this work with Ayahuasca, I have come to understand that I have never fully healed from the devastating experience of the collapse of my marriage, between 2003 and 2004. My now ex-husband had slowly, over time, become addicted to pain killers after a back injury. When he could no longer obtain enough prescription drugs to satisfy his growing addiction, he turned to illegal drugs. Like most addicts, initially he tried desperately to hide his problem from me. I noticed some disturbing behavior, but running a large contracting business is tough, and I chalked it up to excessive stress.

By the beginning of 2004, his behavior was so erratic and damaging to the business and to our marriage that he finally confessed he was addicted to heroin. The next four months were, hands down, the hardest of my life. Anyone who has ever lived with a drug addict understands- nobody and nothing comes before the addict’s master- his drug of choice. The lies, betrayals, inhumane behavior and total annihilation of trust are devastating.

I survived the destruction, but sadly he did not find recovery. He left the area when his addiction caused him legal issues. Exhausted and beaten, I filed for divorce. Over time, I came to terms with the experience, and even found grace within it. I forgave him and myself, and became a more compassionate, spiritual woman. But deep within my heart, a scar remained that I did not even recognize until my healing work with Ayahuasca.

Now, lying there on my mat, I recall my intention. I had asked Grandmother to heal any lingering damage that the extreme trauma of that time caused my spirit. For the past two hours I have been in a completely regressed state as the Medicine worked within me. Even now, I slip in and out of awareness as I continue to experience a deep pain and shifting within my core, located near the small of my back. I remain lying on my stomach for some time. Eventually the pain lessens and my awareness remains more in the reality of the room, and the visions of the spiral helix fade away.

I can now focus on the magnificent singing and music going on around me. I roll slowly from my belly to my side, and relax. I gaze with compassion at the brave souls to my left and right. I am relieved to be back, and filled with wonder and humility at the gifts of the Medicine…


 

Deep trauma can literally change DNA. We tend to think of emotional trauma as a psychological issue that affects our emotional health and stability. However, studies are now indicating that trauma can literally change us on a molecular level.

Dr. Sandro Galea of Columbia University authored a study on trauma and DNA changes. In a 2010 NPR interview, Dr. Sandro has this to say about trauma and molecular changes:  “What we are thinking is that trauma that somebody experiences results in molecular changes around the DNA that result in changes in what genes are expressed and not expressed. ”

Speak with any person that has survived deep trauma- rape, war, domestic violence, life threatening illness or accident- and they will likely tell you that the experience changed them as people. They often say they will never be the same again. Many trauma survivors continue to work though issues and evolve into a “better” person. Better is good, but it is still different.

Other studies show an even more startling effect of trauma. “Epigenetic inheritance” is the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, poor diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren. That’s right, inter-generational changes in our genes caused by environmental or emotional stress.

Rachel Yehuda studied the genetic changes to Holocaust survivors caused by severe trauma, and found that the genetic changes can be passed on to the children of the survivors. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.

Can Ayahuasca and other catalysts for deep spiritual healing repair damage to our DNA? And could our efforts at self-healing be like ripples flowing forward through generations of our sons and daughters?

 

[Author’s Note: There are MANY paths to spiritual healing & awakening; sacred plants are only one path. My purpose in these writings is to share my personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after great introspection. All people considering this path of exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge and professional background to address after-effects that may arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s) and are not mine.]

Vine of the Soul: 4: The Gift of Being in Service

"Ayahuasca prep" by Terpsichore - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ayahuasca_prep.JPG#/media/File:Ayahuasca_prep.JPG
“Ayahuasca prep” by Terpsichore – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ayahuasca_prep.JPG#/media/File:Ayahuasca_prep.JPG

My first meeting with Ayahuasca is over, and I lay on my mat in the darkened community area, only a flickering candle for light. The shaman closed the ceremony half an hour ago, but I cannot seem to find the strength to get up. It is around 2 am. Most of my fellow Journeyers have gone to the kitchen area to get some food. There is a huge pot of bland but nourishing soup on the old gas stove, and plenty of bread and fruit for dinner.  I should be hungry after fasting and emptying myself so thoroughly, but I am disinterested in food.

I drift in and out of awareness, but gently now. Finally, I decide to try standing again. My legs feel like a new born foal’s. This is one experience that I will have every time over the next few years- this feeling of being newly born into my body after a ceremony. Other than that, and the peace and serenity toward the completion of the ceremony, no two visits with the Medicine will ever be alike. Amazing.

I gather myself and weave through the room, detouring around the few remaining people still laying on their mats. I cautiously navigate the stairs and then step outside. The night is warm, velvety and sweet. The mountains squat together in silent silhouette, silver stars adorning their heads. I realize that I have been standing, frozen in wonder, with my mouth agape. I head toward the warm light of the kitchen.

When I arrive at the kitchen, the lights, noise and movement overwhelm me. I cringe back as the wave of sensations flow over me. When I can manage it, I smile and nod at a few people gathered around a bowl of fruit. They return my smile gently and with understanding. These people are my brothers and sisters. We have traveled the Universe together and returned. My previous feelings of exclusion are extinguished- that was just me and my stuff. Still, I am unable to carry on conversation. The questions people ask me, while exceedingly basic, seem unfathomable. I grab a hand full of grapes and head for my little bed by the window.

The Medicine comes for me off and on all night. I continue to have liquid bowel movements all night. I sleep and dream and she tells me little things. She shows me how afraid we feel of our bodies- how out of control. She shows me images of us being in horror as a disease or illness seems to take over our physical bodies. She tells me that we feel out of control of dis-ease because we have forgotten that physical illness is the end point. The issue, she shows me, begins days, months, years- even lifetimes- before it ever shows up in the physical.

I wake up in the morning feeling tired but clean. Remarkably clean- mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically. I spend time taking notes in the quiet of my shared room. My roommates and I smile at each other and exchange morning greetings in low voices. Finally, I get up and begin the day. This is my day of service, and my first task is to change the bedding of those who are leaving today and replace it with fresh bedding for new arrivals. Toward the afternoon I am asked to help neaten and arrange the community area in preparation for the evening’s ceremony. This work is shared by many and is not heavy. I am happy to be quietly helpful.

Evening has arrived and the mats are formed again into a large, neat circle. We smudge and the smoke of Palo Santo wood and White Sage herb fill the room. Flowers are arranged, floors swept. Tonight’s Journeyers begin to arrive. This time, I am seated in the back of the common area and not within the circle. Tonight, I will change purge buckets, fetch water, and offer a steadying arm for those who need to walk about while with the Medicine. Four others are here in the back of the room with me, also in service. I feel pleased and relaxed, ready to serve.

The shaman enters and opens the ceremony in the same way as the previous night. I am quite astonished when, after each member of the circle drinks from the little silver cup, the shaman comes to the back of the room and offers the cup. How did I miss this last night? I feel completely unnerved and unprepared to ingest more Ayahuasca. I smile and shake my head no, but the shaman insists by gently pushing the cup forward. A woman leans over to me and whispers that all people in the room must “be with the medicine” during ceremony. I look into the shaman’s eyes and he nods encouragingly, holding thumb and index fingers close together in the symbol for “just a little”. When I peek into the proffered cup, there is just a tiny bit less than last night. How will I do this???? I tip back the cup…


The shaman can connect with entities that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist, traveled to the Amazonian rain forest and spent several years studying with indigenous shamans. In his book “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” he noted that when a person was physically, spiritually or emotionally ill, the shaman went into the forest to get cures for the patient. When Plotkin asked the shamans how they knew what plants to use, the shaman’s reply typically was that the spirit of the plant gave him the cure. Plotkin believed for some time that this was a metaphor for a cultural reference that he did not understand. However, as the trust between he and the tribal people grew, he was drawn deeper into experiences that proved the shamans initial statement was no metaphor- the shaman literally gained direct guidance for his patients through direct communication with the plants.

Working in partnership with local plants has always been a cornerstone of shamanic practice. Plants are used by all peoples for food, shelter and medicine. Most indigenous spirituality has also included using plants as entheogens- tools of enlightenment and knowledge. Entheogens are natural plants that produce an altered state of consciousness.

Entheogens differ from hallucinogens in that they are not created in a lab by a chemist, but are instead a direct product of nature. The word entheogen comes from the Greek “entheos” and “genesthai” and translates to “generating the divine within”. It seems no surprise that our Western culture that has dismissed the importance of spirituality in everyday life has also dismissed the spiritual possibilities of entheogenic plants.

 

[Author's Note: My purpose in these writings is to share my 
personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant 
entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after 
great consideration. All people considering this path of 
exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to 
work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been 
diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional 
issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge 
and professional background to address after-effects that may 
arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s) and are not mine.]

Vine of the Soul: 3: The Cleanse

"Ayahuasca preparation" by Terpsichore - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ayahuasca_preparation.JPG#/media/File:Ayahuasca_preparation.JPG
“Ayahuasca preparation” by Terpsichore – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ayahuasca_preparation.JPG#/media/File:Ayahuasca_preparation.JPG

The vibrations are getting stronger, along with the ringing in my seemingly enlarged ears. I panic a little, remembering some of the tales of powerful and uncontrollable visions told by others. I remind myself that I am safe, take a breath, and try to relax. The room begins to look strange- elongated and fuzzy. Dust specs float above me in the afternoon sun, appearing so close and significant. A wave of deep nausea hits me and I hear myself moan softly. I expect to vomit at any time and I reach, shakily, for my bucket. Again I wonder why I or anyone would choose to do this. The voice in my head gets louder… louder. I hear myself complaining in a non-stop stream of negativity. At times I AM the voice, other times I am observing the voice from some place not within myself. The nausea overwhelms me and I begin to wish I could vomit.

The shaman told us that “la purga” is part of the gift of healing from La Medicina. All around me people are vomiting and moaning. Some accomplish this purging quietly and efficiently, while others vomit with screams and growls that make me shudder. Suddenly all noises are part of my experience, I am sympathetic to the purging. My stomach feels as though there is a living thing trapped there. I feel a visceral rolling and churning that makes its way through my small intestine. I come back to awareness long enough to decide I am cold. I wrap myself in a blanket and lay on my side. The shaman announces that two hours have passed and does anyone need more Medicine? I groan in disbelief. This is a 4 to 6 hour Journey I have signed up for.

I spend the majority of the following hours listening to my own inner voice. It whines, it judges, it bitches. I begin to cry, listening to this voice of mine. I hear myself, loudly and clearly. All my judgement, criticisms and complaints lay themselves out for my scrutiny. I see no major visions, no colors, am visited by no entities. Just me and my inner garbage, stewing in nausea, tears and cramps. When I believe I can walk again, I wobble weakly to the bathroom and violently empty my liquid bowels. I repeat this process every half hour or so- stumbling to and from my mat. How could I have so much inside of me, I wonder, after eating so lightly for a week and fasting for an entire day? The answer, I finally decide, is that I am simply full of shit.

As the release of garbage inside my mind and body finally begins to subside, a deep sense of peace and relaxation comes over me. The songs of the shaman no longer seemed driving and aggressive. The purging has slowed down considerably within the room. Others play music and sing. The voices and the music touch me deeply, and now my former hot tears of pain become quiet, gentle weeping. A young man sings in a soft, crystalline voice, “Gracias, gracias por la vida” and I repeat his words to myself in a heartfelt whisper…


Many Westerners are exploring a return to the simple but profound spiritual practices of shamanism and shamanic plant medicines to heal our wounded culture. Terence McKenna, ethnobotanist and self-proclaimed psychonaut, states in a recorded interview “Shamanism is not some obscure concern of cultural anthropologists: shamanism is how religion was practiced for its first million years. Up until about 12,000 years ago, there was no other form of religion on this planet; that was how people attained some kind of access to the sacred. ”

Shamanism is the belief that everything is connected, and that all things, seen and unseen, are alive and have some sort of consciousness. The practice of shamanism encourages a recognition of the sacred in all forms of life. The shaman, or medicine person, is the equivalent of today’s priest or minister. The shaman has dedicated his or her life to the practice of shamanism and is considered to be able to connect deeply with the spirits of the Earth’s flora and fauna.

 

[Author's Note: My purpose in these writings is to share my 
personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant 
entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after 
great consideration. All people considering this path of 
exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to 
work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been 
diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional 
issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge 
and professional background to address after-effects that may 
arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s) and are not mine.]

Vine of the Soul: 2: Initial Contact

"Chacruna and ayahuasca" by Awkipuma - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chacruna_and_ayahuasca.jpg#/media/File:Chacruna_and_ayahuasca.jpg
“Chacruna and ayahuasca” by Awkipuma – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chacruna_and_ayahuasca.jpg#/media/File:Chacruna_and_ayahuasca.jpg

My room is full- four women, four twin beds and one bathroom- and yet it is eerily silent as we bathe and dress for the first of three ceremonies of the weekend. I have decided to only attend the first ceremony, and to be “in service” for the following ceremony tomorrow afternoon. “In service”, I was told, basically means gathering vomit bags and walking people to bathrooms during the ceremony, and cleaning and making meals in between. I was also told this was an honor to be allowed to be in service during ceremony, one that was offered to me based on my work as an herbalist and energy worker…

Earlier, as I nervously waited for time to pass, I had a brief conversation with one of my roommates. I asked her the questions you might expect. How long had she been working with The Medicine? What brought her to this path? Was she afraid? She told me that she initially sought out Ayahuasca as a way to heal from Lyme disease. She confided that she had previously tried every allopathic and alternative treatment, and believed that Lyme would ultimately kill her. Ayahuasca, she told me, had brought the disease under control, and she was now managing it well. She continues to come, she said, because she wants to know the things that Grandmother continues to teach her. “As far as fear goes”, she said with a finality in her tone that said our discussion was near its end, “fear is about living on the edge and the gifts that edge has to offer”.

Now we are dressed for the first ceremony. The entire group, around 30 or 40 I think, wander quietly from sleeping quarters toward the community room. Some wear loose cotton pants or dresses, others yoga clothes, some are clad in jeans and tee-shirts. Inside the airy, windowed community room, mats have been placed in a large circle. I find a mat and unroll my blanket. Many people lay down, I have been told, and it can get chilly. I watch out of the corner of my eye as others smile and nod at each other while setting up their own small space. They hug and whisper to each other, clearly having been here before. Many of them line sacred objects up at the base of their mats. I note that there are about an equal number of men and women. I note that there is a good deal of cultural diversity among attendees. All are quiet. The lightly smoky air smells of incense and flowers. This space feels sacred.

When the shaman enters, everyone takes a seat on their mat. It is completely silent. I can feel the tension and expectation in the air. Some sit with eyes closed, serene, others fidget nervously. The shaman opens the ceremony in Spanish, interpreted through an assistant. He speaks, explaining the ceremony. He says a prayer to the Four Directions and sprays Agua de Florida out of his mouth for each Direction. I sit quietly, my heart beating too fast. “What the HELL am I doing here?” I wonder. My stomach is full of butterflies. The ceremony is to last 4 to 6 hours, and I have been warned about the purgative effects of Ayahuasca, (puking, I say to myself) as well as the deep and sometimes frightening visions she brings. To calm myself, I call upon my Spirit Helpers. They gather around me, promising to stay with me until the end. One by one, each member of the circle approaches the shaman, who fills a tiny silver cup with dark, viscous fluid. One by one, each member of the circle tilts back the offered cup and takes his or her place back within the circle.

Suddenly it is my turn. As if in a dream, I walk toward the seated shaman and slide in closely to kneel at his feet. He asks his assistant, in Spanish, about me. She whispers back, presumably telling him this is my first time. He smiles at me and asks in heavily accented English, “how much?” I shrug and say I do not know. He smiles and pours me a shot. It literally GLUGS into the small silver cup. I take it. I breathe. I touch the cup to my forehead. I pour the thick goo into the back of my mouth…

It tastes bad. It tastes like molasses and teriyaki sauce, mixed and cooked down into a chunky sludge. It is disgusting, but not as bad as I expected based on others’ descriptions. I wipe my mouth and walk back to my mat. After a while the circle is complete. We sit in silence. Some time passes and the shaman begins to sing his “icaros”- his medicine songs- with power and grace. He rattles. He will sing for us for hours. All around me people start to vomit into the provided buckets. Some vomit violently and continuously. Others begin to whisper and moan softly. I start to wonder if I had enough “medicine”. Finally, I feel a vibration begin in my body, accompanied by a high pitched ringing. My ears feel like they have grown very large. I say a last prayer requesting gentleness as she arrives for me…


 

Spiritual is defined as  “of or relating to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature”.  Spirituality is not necessarily religion, although the religious can certainly be (or not be) spiritual. Religion requires us to adhere to a specific doctrine, and often has its own materialistic goals. Spirituality involves finding meaning and purpose in life and life experiences, feeling connected to a Source or higher consciousness, experiencing the sacredness of the life journey.

Modern life for many in the U.S. has become a pursuit of material wealth, and there is nothing wrong with living a materially comfortable lifestyle. Study after study has proven that having enough financial resources to cover our basic needs does indeed make us happier. However, the pursuit of materialism to the exclusion of all else may leave us spiritually ill, and mentally and emotionally unbalanced. Large segments of the population of developed countries such as the U.S. have largely turned away from spirituality as a routine aspect of daily life, often preferring to compartmentalize spirituality to a few hours of practice per week, if at all. Can this deficit of spirituality be the basis of the erosion of American morals? And, since the current 300+ religions and denominations in America don’t appear to be the answer, are there other avenues to finding meaning in Western life that can replace the often violent struggle for material success?

[Author's Note: My purpose in these writings is to share my 
personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant 
entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after 
great consideration. All people considering this path of 
exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to 
work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been 
diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional 
issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge 
and professional background to address after-effects that may 
arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s)and are not mine.]