Vine of the Soul: 5: Shaman and Student

"Ayahuasca 2010" by Awkipuma - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Ayahuasca 2010” by AwkipumaOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I’m sitting quietly in the back of the room, nervous and uncertain. The circle of brave souls are silent as everyone waits for the Medicine to arrive. I had no idea that part of my being “in service” included taking more Ayahuasca. I reflect back on the previous night’s experiences, when I was within the circle. There is no way, I think to myself, that I will be able to function. Time passes, and the circle begins to rustle and shift. She is arriving.

The shaman begins shaking his “chakapa”, a rattle made from bundled leaves. His medicine songs, icaros, seem to intensify the Medicine. People begin to vomit into buckets- purging. I stand and walk softly into the circle to replace a used bucket with fresh. I remove the biodegradable liner and tie up the contents. All these bags go into a large trash can and will later be buried in the Earth. It is believed that the Earth can safely take this purging of negative/wounded material and renew it. I accomplish my tasks well, perhaps I will be OK.

There is a break in the purging within the circle and I sit in the back, watching the shaman as he sings, rattles and walks through the circle. He is dressed simply in a white smock covered in symbols. He is a short, broad-shouldered, brown-skinned man with intense, penetrating eyes. His voice is strong and deep, and the songs he sings are getting inside me. I begin to feel the vibrations and hear the ringing sound from the previous night. The ringing becomes a buzzing and suddenly the room is filled with neon colored geometric shapes. The shaman recedes until he is a small dot in the distance. The room has become a high-ceilinged temple with an amazingly long corridor. I feel sick and nauseated. I hear someone purging and I take a deep breath and stand. The colors recede for a moment and I do my job, changing out the bucket.

The trash can is down the steps, near the bathroom. I walk gingerly down the steps, pleased that I can accomplish this. I change out the bag, and turn to go back up the stairs. I stumble backwards in shock when I see that the floor has become liquid. Under the water of the once solid surface, enormous multi-colored snakes undulate gently through the hallway. They are beautiful. I stare for some time, then squeeze my eyes shut, remembering my duties. When I open them again, the ground is solid, the snakes are gone, and I go back into the ceremonial space.

The purging, crying and moaning in the room goes on for some time then diminishes. The shaman has taken a seat at the head of the circle but continues to sing, alternating between drum, rattle and chakapa. I have studied shamanism intently for almost 8 years at this point and I am fascinated as I observe him. I have read countless books and attended dozens of experiential workshops and retreats that explore the various multi-cultural practices of shamanism. Here I sit with a man who was raised within a shamanic culture and has dedicated his life to healing, and I wish to observe as much as possible in between my own bouts of nausea and neon colored visions.

I see that a petite blonde woman, whom I previously noticed, is moving from prone to sitting.  Earlier this afternoon, the herbalist in me had noted a harsh, rattling cough that seemed to come from deep in her lungs. The shaman considers her and continues his song, rattling directly toward her. She begins to rock faster, and faster still as the shaman sings more loudly. I lean forward, mesmerized, my own nausea momentarily forgotten. She suddenly bends deeply and reaches for her bucket- and at the same time, her head swivels in my direction. She looks directly into my face, and her eyes are completely black, round and shiny as marbles. Her mouth opens to a repulsive rictus, jammed with sharp, jagged teeth. Her back humps up and she slams her face into the bucket as a glistening chunk of slimy-looking, black goo shoots from her disgusting mouth. Her face is now hidden by the bucket and the cascade of her crinkly blonde hair. I am frozen in terror. I shoot a look at the shaman, who is also leaning forward in his chair, directing his song forcefully at the vomiting woman. She gags and gasps for a few moments and then sits up with a deep breath. Her face is once again her own. She sighs and slowly sinks onto her mat, hands folded under her face. The shaman sits back in his chair, satisfied. His singing softens, and he resumes his attentive scanning of the circle.

I sit stiffly with my hands over my mouth, eyes wide, not breathing. I realize the bucket must be changed. I cannot. I WILL not. I look pleadingly to my left, and another helper nods and attends to the bucket. Remarkably, she does not seem to have seen anything unusual. I am trembling and my own nausea has returned. No weekend workshop could prepare me for this. No paraphrased bullet list of shamanic practices can explain this. No expensive bear claw medallion, no beautifully painted drum, no hand-made beaded medicine bag can conjure this. In this moment, I am deeply aware that I have just experienced my first unambiguous demonstration of a shamanic healing. I am also cognizant that the honor of witnessing this healing was a gift and a teaching from the Medicine.

As I calm myself, I become aware of and grateful for the benefit of the purging. I look around the circle and see the beauty in these courageous explorers, and no longer is the vomiting disgusting. I hear myself saying “let it go, sister”, and “good job, brother” as they purge. I take buckets up and down the stairs. At one point I go into the bathroom, the nausea forcing me to my knees in front of the toilet. As I get up to wash my hands and splash my face, I look into the mirror. My eyes are swirling and as I lean closer to stare into them, I shape-shift rapidly. An old sorcerer woman, a spotted jaguar, a glass eyed alien-looking being, then just me again. I wonder how long I have been staring and resume my duties.

The ceremony is nearing its close- an hour or two to go. The shaman walks amongst all of us, singing.  He lightly, repetitively thumps each of us for a moment with his chakapa. He brushes my chest and heart area with his leaf bundle and I immediately begin to cry. I cry for some time afterward, years of sadness pouring out through my opened heart. I hear the Medicine whisper to me about my habit of isolating from others. I see the faces of dear ones and recognize the beauty within each of them…

A majority of the most powerful entheogens are illegal in the United States.  Shamanic cultures have been using plants for enlightenment and knowledge since the origins of spirituality. Some of the entheogens on the Schedule 1 drug list (Felony to use or possess even for research) are Ayahuasca, Cannabis, Cocoa Leaves, Iboga, Peyote, Chacruna, “Magic” Mushrooms and Peyote. How ironic, then, that these illegal entheogenic plants have been used in shamanic cultures to successfully treat persons with addictions, mental illness and overall spiritual deficit. In Peru, Ayahuasca is recognized by the government as a national treasure.

Ayahuasca is considered by shamans, ethnobotanists and spiritual seekers to perhaps be the most overall potent and effective plant entheogen.  Ayahuasca, which translates to “vine of the soul”, is a thick tea made by shamans in Central and South America. Ayahuasca  is being used, along with traditional methods, outside of the U.S. to treat people with drug and alcohol addictions.  A 2013 Canadian study concluded “Ayahuasca-assisted therapy appears to be associated with statistically significant improvements in several factors related to problematic substance use among a rural aboriginal population. These findings suggest participants may have experienced positive psychological and behavioral changes in response to this therapeutic approach, and that more rigorous research of ayahuasca-assisted therapy for problematic substance use is warranted.”

How interesting that Ayahuasca and other entheogens seem to assist addicts in recovery by offering a new spiritual perspective. This same methodology can be found in the highly successful 12-step recovery programs. 12-step programs are “spiritual, not religious” and claim to address the underlying spiritual deficits that are the root cause of addiction. Even more curious- although separation of church and state is one of America’s founding principles, 12-step programs, which are based on Christian doctrine, are often mandated by the judicial system in this country, while treatment through natural plant sources remains illegal.

Ayahuasca works powerfully, if sometimes painfully, to reveal personal truths to the user. However, as opposed to addictive drugs & alcohol, and other drug-therapies like methadone, Ayahuasca appears to have no permanent negative side effects, including addiction, even in long-term users. An impressive 2012 scientific study concluded “The assessment of the impact of long-term Ayahuasca use on mental health from various perspectives (personality, psychopathology, neuropsychology, life attitudes and psychosocial well-being) did not find evidence of pathological alterations in any of the spheres studied. Furthermore, Ayahuasca users showed a lower presence of psychopathological symptoms compared to controls. They performed better in neuropsychological tests, scored higher in spirituality and showed better psychosocial adaptation as reflected by some attitudinal traits such as Purpose in Life and Subjective Well-Being.”

[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.]

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