Reality? Don't Depend On It
by Carl Mautz
I went to the jungle, because I had to. Simply put, I was called.
The man who arranged the trip was a kindly man in his mid-sixties by the name of Max. I had participated in his ayahuasca circle for almost two years. His invitation to nine of us to accompany him to a remote jungle retreat to partake of ayahuasca with native a shaman was a unique opportunity. The cost seemed reasonable at $2,500. I knew Max was a competent organizer, an experienced ayahuascero and a veteran of many trips to the Peruvian jungles. I did not hesitate.
Visiting the Upper Amazon basin of Peru seemed like an important step in the process of exploring the edges of consciousness through shamanic ritual, a process I had begun after divorcing myself from a group that practiced the ideas of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky, Russian mystics who taught in the early part of this century. Two others who committed to the Peru trip were also former participants in the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky group: my girlfriend, Cathie, a single mother working in the corporate world; and Lyle, a good friend who had grown up on the frigid steppes of Northern Alberta and now built roads and water systems as a general contractor.
Cathie and I met Max at a conference where we learned about the ritual use of ayahuasca by the Santo Daime church in Brazil and Indians and Mestizos throughout the Amazon Basin. It was clear from a talk Max gave at the conference that he had experience in the use of ayahuasca. After the conference, I asked Max if he would allow me to participate in an ayahuasca ritual. I received an invitation to a ritual several months after the conference. This began a series of visits, and it was there that I met others whose interests paralleled my own. After several sessions, my friends Cathie and Lyle became regular participants in the sessions as well.
We referred to Max's group as a "circle". The participants were for the most part middle aged, the oldest being Max and the youngest a 28 year old body builder from Malibu who was struggling with HIV infection. The average age of our group was about 50 years consisting mainly of seekers who had sought a shamanic path sometime in the 1960s. All of those who agreed to go to Peru with Max were regular attendees of his ayahuasca circle, and the average age of the Peru group was younger than that of the circle as a whole. There was Robert, an intense, handsome man from Texas who had recently retired after accumulating a small fortune by the time he had reached his mid-30s. Jane and Byron were a bright and sociable couple from the Northwest. Byron, 51, had once been a seminary student in Rome, and Jane, 49, a 4H farm girl. Now they share a psychology practice in which they specialize in counseling couples. Malcolm is a delightful Scotsman who photographs professionally in Los Angeles and is also an intrepid ayahuasca journeyer. The grandmother of our group, Carolee, 58, could relate to anyone. After many careers in her life including a long stint as a real estate agent in my town, she had chosen the shamanic path to fulfill her life's journey.
As the trip approached, I experienced various forms of resistance. The trip called for the severe ayahuasca "diet" that had tormented me in the past in much smaller increments. No salt, no sweets, no yeast, no citrus, no sex, no soap, toothpaste, deodorant or mouthwash, no iced drinks, no coffee, no alcohol, no oils or fats, no, no, no . . . . My body seemed to have a memory of the deprivations of the diet and manifested negative body symptoms, which I took as a kind of body- conscious opposition to the trip. Fears occupied in my mind - headhunters gleefully snapping my neck with machetes; monsoon rains trapping us for months in hot jungles crawling with myriad mosquitoes, chiggers and biting flies; invisible bacteria riding water molecules into the recesses of my bowels to feast on my innards. These were a few of the thoughts and feelings that tormented me for two to three months before departure. Cathie and Lyle expressed similar struggles with fear. Slowly, however, our resolve neutralized body/ego resistance. Our intent was to use the opportunity to push ourselves to a deeper understanding of self and the life/death dance became uppermost.
My sense of body-conscious resistance that had seemed to oppose the prospect of the trip months prior to departure may have been prescient. On the eve of our departure, a week after the start of the diet, my right foot swelled causing intense pain. By the day of departure, I could walk only with a cane and leaning on Lyle's shoulder. For the first time in fifty-five years of an athletic life, I found myself being wheeled through an airport in a wheelchair. I became the unwitting "old man" of the trip, a semi-invalid that each person in the group had to attend to in some way. Fortunately for me, Lyle is a strapping fellow conditioned over his forty years by roping cattle and operating heavy equipment .
The four flights from Sacramento to Los Angeles to Mexico City to Lima to Pucallpa was a combined eleven hour ordeal. My foot was stuck under the seat in front of me, and all the blood and lymph drained downward, swelling the foot even more. I staggered off the plane into the tropical heat of a primitive airport crowded with dark, Spanish-speaking natives. Sweat poured off the men who by hand hauled a large wagon filled with the bags from the airplane into the small terminal. One wheel of the wagon became stuck on the lip of the entrance to the baggage area of the terminal, so all available airport personnel had to alternatively push and pull the overladen wagon until it rocked its way over the lip onto the cement floor of the baggage area. The scene was almost comical had it not been for the effort required to move the wagon, but the episode clearly demonstrated to me that we had left our world of technological efficiency far behind.
An Italian in a ponytail met us at the airport and took command. His name was Gianni Polisso, and he suddenly leaped over the railing dividing the passenger area from the baggage area, attracting the ire of the husky baggage guard. Gianni persisted, however, and made certain that each of our bags was accounted for before the irate guard won his point and convinced Gianni to return back over the railing to the passenger area. Gianni recruited a crew of strong, young men who lifted our gear to the roof of a bus Gianni had chartered for our convenience. Once loaded, we rumbled over pitted dirt roads to Gianni's nearby home on the outskirts of Pucallpa, a property which consists of two acres of jungle garden featuring a wide array of healing plants, several buildings to house the help and guests, and a circular, open sided structure called a tambo, which serves as the venue for ayahuasca rituals. The buildings have thatched roofs, cement floors, and no plumbing. Water is drawn from a well near the main building in buckets and hauled to outdoor stalls for bathing. Two outhouses are located at the periphery of the property, although Gianni explained that it was better to urinate in the garden, if possible, to aid the longevity of the outhouses and fertilize the garden.
We soon learned that Gianni was a shaman who conducts ayahuasca rituals twice each week at his tambo together with local native shaman. The rituals are for those who want to journey or who need healing. Gianni is a slim, wiry man in his early forties who came to Peru twenty years earlier. He told me that he had felt a calling as a youth to visit the jungle, so when the opportunity came to visit Peru, he took it and once experiencing native culture and the ayahuasca ritual, he decided to stay. He lived for a time in Cuzco in the mountains but ultimately settled in Pucallpa where he found it possible to find and cultivate healing plants and associate with natives knowledgeable of plant energies.
Upon arriving at Gianni's property, Cathie and I were given a convenient room next to the dining hall, because I could not walk. The time was late, so we settled down for our first topical night under mosquito netting.
Pucallpa is a dusty frontier town on the Ucayali River, a major tributary of the Amazon. Guidebooks estimate the population anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 inhabitants, mostly Amazonian Indians and Mestizos from river villages who migrate to the town seeking work. The main industries in the area are petroleum and lumber which mean exploitation of raw materials found in the jungles. Slash and burn forest clearing is rampant in the jungles around Pucallpa, and columns of smoke can be seen each day. An experienced traveler told me before the trip that there was little of interest in Pucallpa, although his attention was directed more toward cultural or historical grandeur rather than cultural transition and flux.
The local indigenous people are the Shipibo, a matriarchal culture known as "the Monkey People," because of their worship of the spirit of the monkey. Before the Shipibo adapted to European culture, they wore shells through a nasal partition made in their skulls at childhood. Their traditional fabrics are either embroidered or made with bark dyes with darker dye painted over a lighter ground in intricate geometric patterns. The long robes of the men are called "cushmas", and the dark, geometric lines are said to be the map of the journey of the man's soul through eternity. Shipibo shamans wear their cushmas during the ayahuasca rituals together with an embroidered headband from which jungle seeds dangle on cloth strings.
On our first day in Pucallpa we took a boat ride on a long lake which at one time had been a segment of the Ucayali River. It had been cut off by extreme curving of the river and the alluvial accretion which eventually amputated the curve from the channel. The shore by the lake was busy with crowds of people shopping in nearby markets and strolling along the lake front. The people were dressed in a wide array of what appeared to be second hand or cheaply made garments, with notable exceptions of well dressed and groomed younger people. There were a few small groups of Indian women in traditional clothing selling crafts. The swarms of children I had expected to find begging from us did not materialize, although an individual or two approached us from time to time and asked for money. Pucallpa is not a tourist town, so tall, European looking people like us are unexpected and appear to be seen more as a curiosity than as a potential resource. The few others like ourselves we saw appeared to be missionaries, a few Peace Corps types and two or three oil company employees.
The boat excursion Max and Gianni planned for us was to take us to an Indian village where the group could practice walking in the heat. The idea was to let everyone off at the Shipibo village of Santa Clara. The group would walk through the village and then several miles along a path by the lake to the next village, named San Francisco, all in all a modest distance but a gauge of whether the actual trek into the jungle might require special consideration. The group was instructed to beware of chiggers, which are the tiny critters that dig into the skin and lay eggs that hatch and cause severe itching and discoloration. After disembarking by the side of the lake and with chigger protection in mind, the group donned long pants, socks rolled over the bottoms of pant cuffs and high boots. All took these precautions except Lyle, the man from the far North. Lyle ignored the warnings and walked casually through the tall grass in sandals and shorts, and for some reason did not attract a single chigger parasite, while others with all of their protection, found any number of tiny pink mounds erupting along the edges of their protective clothing. The theory we were given to explain this difference was that chiggers avoid certain pheromones and are attracted to others. Lyle seemed to have a natural repellant equal to that of a native.
My problem was that I couldn't walk. I posed an interesting logistics problem for both my group and our guide Gianni, who was responsible for getting us safely into the jungle and back.
After letting the group off near Santa Clara, the boat traveled up-lake to San Francisco. I was accompanied by Amelia, a Shipibo herbalist who works closely with Gianni, and the boatman, a pleasant, stocky man who enjoyed our company as well as the business. I limped into the village, supported by my cane and the boatman. The village women surrounded me, offering large numbers of necklaces and bracelets made of a wide variety of colored seeds. Knowing that I wanted such jewelry to give to my friends at home and being crippled and tired in the heat, I surrendered and purchased around fifty pieces, making several women very happy.
After my shopping spree, I was led to a large, open sided hut with a sleeping platform where I sat, propping myself up against a wooden pillar. The boatman reclined nearby. Children splashed in a new well located within the hut. Amelia left for a few minutes and returned with various crushed jungle leaves and slices of lime which she applied to my swollen foot, wrapping the poultice and foot in a girl's bright blue Shipibo blouse. After she finished tending my swollen foot, we waited for the others to arrive from the other village. Within an hour, our bedraggled company arrived at the hut, sweating profusely and ready for a rest in the shade. The hike had given our party a taste of tropical hiking, and although it tired the group, it demonstrated that each could make it into the jungle camp where our ayahuasca retreat was located. The only question mark was me, but Gianni, Max and Amelia felt confident that within two days when we were to embark on our adventure into the jungle, I would be well enough to make it to the camp.
With my foot adorned with the bright blue blouse, we re-embarked on the lake boat which, after a pleasant lunch at a lakeside cafe, landed us in Pucallpa. The crowds had grown large in late afternoon, and there was a park-like atmosphere around the boat launching area. I seemed to be a bizarre spectacle among the lakefront throngs, a tall white haired man wearing a bright blue Shipibo blouse on his foot. Many smiles were directed my way.
The first ayahuasca ritual was held that night in the tambo at Gianni's property. Gianni prepares his own ayahuasca from the local Banisteriopsis caapi vine, "the vine of the soul," which contains the monoamine oxidase inhibitor harmine, which is combined with a dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing admixture plant, psychotria viridis, and other plants needed for specific purposes. Gianni was joined by an Ashaninka shaman named Juan Flores, who was accompanied by two friends, perhaps his apprentices. There were several other local people present, the ten in our group, a young man who was apprenticing with Gianni, and Amelia, the herbalist. Most of us sat in a circle around the periphery of the tambo, although some had hung hammocks between the posts of the tambo. The tambo was surrounded by the jungle garden, so purging was simply a matter of turning outward or taking a step or two. The tropical rains were guaranteed to wash the area soon enough.
Preceding the actual ritual, our group sat together as we had done each time we had participated in a ritual with Max. We each spoke of our intent for the session. After speaking our intent, we engaged in a traditional purification practice which entailed bathing in specially prepared water, the brewing of which was Amelia's domain.
Amelia was 51 years old. Although I am three years her senior, I didn't feel senior to her in any regard. She was a playful person, short, dark and often dressed in a hand embroidered skirt and bright yellow blouse. Her hair was long in the tradition of Shipibo women, but her one dalliance with modern culture was how she would twine it up around her head. She tried different styles while we were together, but otherwise her style was as old as when the Shipibo first adapted to European culture, perhaps 100 years ago. Amelia had been married to a shaman who had died a few years earlier. She did not drink ayahuasca herself but used tobacco as her ritual medicine. She would sit in the ayahuasca circles, attentive to the ritual but using only the smoke from large cigars as a vehicle for interacting with the plant energies circulating. It was explained to us that Amelia did not menstruate and that only a woman without menstruation was allowed to prepare food during the diet period, and therefore, she would cook for us in the jungle.
The instructions for the purification bathing were to douse oneself in the
prepared water which was afloat with myriad green plant particles, to allow
the water to dry without toweling, and to leave any plant particles on the
skin without brushing them away. The purpose of this preparation was to employ
plant energies that would facilitate the teaching of the plant spirits carried
by the ayahuasca.
The ritual began about a half an hour after we had gathered. Gianni and Juan were dressed in their cushmas and both wore headdresses and amulets. Gianni had a tobacco pouch around his neck, while Juan carried a bouquet of jungle herbs in his hand. After everything was in place, the ritual began with Gianni purifying the tambo by blowing camphor water in the four directions, and then smudging the ayahuasca with smoke from his pipe. Each person in the circle approached the shaman one at a time to drink from the wooden cup into which the ayahausca brew was poured from a glass bottle. Once each of those who were participating drank their portion of the brew, all sat in the dark awaiting the onset of the energy of the plant spirit.
After a wait of approximately an hour, the energy began to alter and the shamans began to sing their icaros, one of the key aspects of the ritual.
"The icaros (power songs) constitute the quintessence of shamanic power. The icaros . . . have material and immaterial qualities [and] represent a transference of the spirits of each plant, with all their knowledge and theriomorphic and anthropomorphic manifestations, into the body of the shaman." Luis Edwardo Luna, Ayahausca Visions
The icaros sung during this first ritual indicated to me that they may serve as a vehicle for the shaman to navigate the invisible energies that envelope us always but which may only become apparent in altered states of consciousness. A picture that formed in my mind likened the energies to infinite webs, a vast, chaotic complexity of ever fluxing code. My picture had the shaman navigating through these codes of energy by means of his icaros, ascending, descending, spiraling, crawling and so forth along the webs of energy.
Before our purification bath hours earlier, I asked Gianni if he would heal my pain. His response was ambiguous. He said he would try, but he was very firm about keeping the poultice on my foot and replacing it the next morning. I wasn't sure what to make of his response except that I would certainly feel converted if Gianni could magically eliminate the pain in my foot during the ayahuasca ritual. Such magic was not to be, however, but the foot pain did become the source of very useful insights.
Four months before we left for Peru, I had formulated three intentions for the journey. First, I wanted to commune somehow with my father's energy to salve his wounds that led to his difficult death within the trap of alcohol. Second, I wanted to know if there were spirit guides involved in my life. Lastly, I wanted to learn to navigate in the "Other" reality opened to the mind by ayahuasca.
A consistent theme during the first ayahuasca ritual was the relationship between my foot and my father, a connection to my intent formulated months earlier. The pain in my right foot was throbbing during the ritual. I felt powerful currents of energy running through my foot. A memory occurred to me about my father's right foot that startled me. I remembered that the beginning of the end for my father was an attack of gout in his right foot. The affliction struck him when he was 62 years old. Two years later, after the treatment for gout had gone awry, he was dead of an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills, a kind of accidental/on purpose exit from his suffering on the human plane. Now my foot was crippled by gout-like symptoms, and I had asked that I be allowed to help heal my father's pain.
My first visions were preceded by memories of my father's home and his mother, whom I knew as a boy. As memories became vision, I also saw my father's father, whom I had only heard about. I wandered in my Great Uncle's vegetable garden as a three year old and watched my father play around his house as a boy. I saw the way my father's mother loved him, perhaps too much, and how his father projected a veneer of success and confidence, masking a reality of not having quite enough. I saw my father with his father when the latter died when my father was 18. I saw his pain and the way he bonded with his mother, who was very sweet, and with his doting older brother, seven yeas his senior. I saw that my father was determined never let his mother and brother down. He would succeed. Alcohol was a tool and a cloak, and behind it, he would hide his fear and doubt and succeed, so his mother, wife, children - none would suffer as he had. This is what I saw. And my foot ached and carried strong currents of energy. It also felt as if it was healing.
Oddly, I did not purge. I had always vomited and had bowel movements at Max's ayahuasca sessions. I had expected to vomit and the sounds of others purging were heard throughout the ritual, but that night I did not purge.
I had other visions and insights during the ritual. One insight early in the session related to Christ's reputed statement that "the last shall be first." What became clear to me was that this statement was true in a way I had not understood before. Within the Gurdjieff tradition and other mystical traditions originating in the East, the spiritual journey directs the seeker to realize his or her God-Self through contemplation of the eternal moment through which one passes levels of being to the last level which is the beginning, the ultimate ground, i.e., God. Thus, the very last level of the spiritual journey, the end of the journey, is the ground or first level of being, i.e., God.
Gianni's property is located near the Pucallpa airport. Gianni warned us about this earlier in the day. He said it was unknown precisely when the daily jet flight would land or take off, but that it would happen during the session. He suggested that we incorporate the auditory vibrations into our ritual. That was a good suggestion. Have you ever been under a Boeing 747 when it takes off? The sound that occurred during the ritual began with a roar and built to a crescendo of rolling, roiling blasts that utterly engulfed the senses, creating the impression of being inside a giant ocean wave of sound that seemed to build and roll forever. Even this tidal wave of auditory immersion had intervals, however, and softly in the background during these intervals I could hear the resonant sounds of icaros being sung, an art form created for humans to navigate the unseen energies thousands of years before technology. As the jet plane left the area trailing its power field of sound, the icaros persisted and finally dominated with lyrical, ancient precision.
At one point during the journey my mind wandered. Suddenly, I felt a psychic slap which seemed to vibrate my head violently in opposite directions, like a chiropractic adjustment with touchless hands. Psychedelic lights flashed in my head in lavenders, yellows and greens, and a geometric mandala appeared in the center of my mind's eye. I was suddenly back in the room with the icaros pulsating rhythmically with ever-changing visions. The message: pay attention, stupid!
At another moment I grokked "outside;" that is, I felt a strong sense of being like the first creature who became aware of the division between inside oneself and outside oneself, an aspect of what is called "self-reflecting consciousness." At the point of awareness of "outside," the seamless relationship of animal mind and Gaian mind dissolved and a boundary appeared - us and them - a product of self-reflection. Ever after this first moment long ago when a creature became aware of itself as a separate entity, humans have never been the same.
The morning after the first ayahuasca ritual, our group sat together again for what we call "integration." We each discussed what we had experienced during the ritual and how, if at all, it related to our intent. Max lead the discussions but Gianni and Juan participated as well. We rested for the remainder of the day, and on the next day, we embarked on the journey within the journey that we had all come for, an eight hour trip into the Amazonian jungle for an eight day retreat to participate in an intensive series of ayahuasca sessions. The dirt roads through the jungle were more like dried stream beds. They were built by oil companies and were comparable to the raw logging roads in the forests around my home in Northern California. The bouncing was severe, and after four hours we reached a small river town where we transferred from our bus to long, narrow dugout canoes, powered with outboard engines and operated by an Indian named Julio Pablo and three Indian men who worked for him. Still in pain, I was given a place to lie down in the bottom of the boat facing backward. The rest of our party sat on rough boards lying low in the hull of the canoes. The trip upriver took another four hours. Along the way we picked up Flora, Julio Pablo's wife, his three young daughters, and their two pet baby birds which looked like chicks. Amelia, in particular, enjoyed the birds and often had one of the birds riding on her shoulder as she cooked our food or prepared our purification baths before each ayahuasca session.
Far upstream where the jungle foliage hung over the sides of the river, we encountered two groups of Indian mahogany loggers. There were no tractors or other heavy equipment. The loggers swam in the river guiding logs they had taken from the forest to be tied together in rafts to float downstream for sale. After witnessing extensive clear cutting with powerful heavy equipment in the northwestern American forests, the selective logging of these Indians seemed tame and not nearly the threat to the jungle as oil company roads and slash and burn farm clearing practices.
Another experience along the river gave me a taste of how life in the jungles had been irrevocably impacted by modern culture. At one point we passed a number of buildings with neatly manicured grounds situated on the banks of the river. I asked who owned the compound. Gianni said they were missionaries. He said their aim was to find the last hunter gatherers in the forest so they could be converted. The words sent a chill through me. I don't harbor a particularly romantic attitude toward aboriginal people, but I do recoil at the arrogance that leads one people to intrude on another by asserting the superiority of their beliefs. My opinion, however, is not shared by those in power over the jungles of the Amazon, so the material benefits the missionaries bring to these remote areas buy them the opportunity to target culturally independent people.
During the last leg of our river journey, we encountered low water, which forced the men to get out of the canoes in order to raise them in the water. All able hands were required to push the canoes over shallow areas to deeper channels. This process evoked the boyishness in the men of our group. There was much laughing, running and splashing, a euphoric, giddy counterpoint to the sober days of the ayahuasca diet to follow. It was an hour or so before nightfall when we arrived at the mouth of our destination, a small stream in the dry season, the time of year in which we found ourselves. Gianni asked Cathie and I to accompany him on the hike upstream in advance of the remainder of our party, lest I fall behind. The poultice had worked well enough to allow me to walk gingerly with the assistance of my cane over the slippery river rocks.
After an hour trudge upstream, we came to a beautiful thirty-foot waterfall stretching 100 feet horizontally across the stream. This was our shower. On the riverbank our camp spread out in a circular arrangement of six thatched roof huts with plank tables for beds, a thatched roof dining area and a 600 square foot platform nearby that served as the tambo for ayahuasca rituals. We were met by an Indian camp guard who watched the camp during the dry season lest mahogany loggers occupy it. I was dehydrated by the journey and drank all the water we had carried and waited impatiently another half hour for our first bottle of iodine purified water to be ready to relieve my dehydration. The rest of our party straggled into camp, and everyone refreshed themselves happily in the lagoon and waterfall.
The camp had been established by Gianni less than two years earlier. Gianni decided that he wanted to build a camp deep in the jungle where traditional ayahuasca retreats could take place. He began to ask various people if they knew of anyplace which might serve the purpose. After a time, Julio Pablo, a professional hunter living along one of the rivers approached Gianni with the information that he knew of a place that might be suitable, a waterfall far from any settlement where a camp might be established on the river bank nearby. When Gianni saw the spot, he agreed that it was a fortuitous location. Clearing began and simple dwelling huts were built, and the new camp had hosted several retreats before ours.
A remote camp was necessary because of the requirements of the ayahuasca diet, which is the key to learning from the plant spirits. As it was explained to us, the diet is not a diet as we understood the term from weight conscious American consumer culture. It was much more than a diet. It was akin to a process, a literal retreat from energies that compete with or inhibit plant spirit teachers. There were many restrictions, because the indigenous people had classified different foods (and activities) according to their energetic vibration and ritual purity. Some fish could be eaten and other not. No condiments of any kind were allowed. There could be no manufactured scents such as deodorants, mouthwash, soaps, etc. Sex was prohibited. Small talk was discouraged. All cooking must done by a person knowledgeable in the correct preparation of foods during the diet. The participants are expected to rest and contemplate their intent to learn from the plant spirits. We were told that the power and knowledge of the shaman is in the diet. It is not about consuming large quantities of hallucinogenic plants, because without the diet, taking hallucinogenic plants is a waste of time according to the indigenous tradition.
Cathie and I occupied one hut and began arranging our combined hammock and mosquito nets on top of the plank tables. These contraptions formed a coffin-shaped canvas box upon the tables and served as our beds for the next seven nights. It was dark by the time we had arranged our quarters. The air was warm and humid. We ate our first tasteless, full diet meal of saltless rice and dry plantains and then we collapsed in our canvas coffins to sleep off the long journey.
Our first jungle session with ayahuasca was scheduled for the second night. The format was the same as that which we had experienced at Gianni's tambo in Pucallpa. Present were the ten members of our group, Gianni, Juan Flores and Amelia. Despite our expectations, however, the first jungle session turned out to be what I would call neutral for myself and for most of our group. I felt I was in an altered state of consciousness in that I felt physical symptoms of intoxication, but there was no meaning or data from insight or vision accompanying the experience. I felt that the newness of the context, indeed the overwhelming complexity of our jungle surroundings, triggered defenses which blocked the insight and visions usually accompanying the ayahuasca experience.
Our schedule called for ayahuasca rituals every other night, but because the first session had left us unsatisfied, some of our group asked during the morning integration for another session that night. Malcolm, our Scottish photographer, was particularly eager for a back-to-back session, because he was turning 40 years old that night. After consultation with the forest spirits, Max and Gianni agreed that another session was propitious.
After my fourth poultice, the swelling in my foot was greatly reduced, and I felt that I would be able to hike in the jungle the next day. I began noticing the butterflies around the camp enriching the green jungle with their rich, multi-colored forms. One had pure iridescent blue wings as big as two open hands. Another was the size of a large Monarch with pure black wings overlaid with iridescent green patterns and accented with white and blue tail wings. Adding to the delight of the butterflies were iridescent beetles and various colorful lizards darting around our camp.
Another interesting sight were the Indians in our support party building additional dwellings on a small hill above our camp. I watched fascinated as they put together two substantial huts in a few days from poles they cut and palm fronds gathered by Julio Pablo's daughters from the jungle floor to provide thatch to cover the roofs of the huts. These three young girls were a delight to all of us in the camp. They were well behaved, affectionate and playful children who did their chores eagerly. One instance that created an indelible imprint on me was when I spied the three walking to the river with the middle one balancing an orange plastic tub on her head with a dead monkey's limbs protruding skyward from the tub. The monkey had been shot by their father for their dinner, and they were taking it to the stream to be cleaned. Monkey meat was not included in our diet, so we did not share in the meal.
Lunch consisted of plantains, white rice, and bony fish requiring intricate digging and separating. Because of the scheduled ayahuasca ritual, we skipped dinner for the second consecutive night.
The format for each session was the same as it had been for the earlier sessions. I took an extra dose of ayahuasca to insure a strong reaction. I was not disappointed. After each person drank from the wooden cup, we waited in the dark for about an hour when the medicine began causing vibrations in the body and the visual field.
In my vision a large space seemed to open and a multitude of colored patterns and forms evolved flowing through the space. A large, dark feminine entity curled into my vision and slid in and out of view. I called her "Miss Ayahuasca" and assumed she represented the plant spirit. She was sensuous and serpentine, ephemeral, a black form with multiple colors radiating in the shadows and around her edges. At several times during her presence in my vision, she seemed to command bright spotlights, like a miner deep in a dark shaft, and with these lights, she seemed to enter me from the bottom, through my first chakra. I had no solid body and neither did she, so the entry included no sense of touch but rather a sense of light and illumination. The integration with this sylph occurred three times, and at some point I felt that she was telling me that I held fear around my anus. It occurred to me that I could now understand the tales of people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens and undergone a rectal exam. An inconclusive but more germane thought was that my father had suffered from digestive problems, had required surgery for hemorrhoids and that I too had suffered in the same way.
After two hours or so, the clear visions diminished, but my journey continued in a generalized altered state. When called to sit before the shamans for their personal ministrations, I experienced the session without ego, which in prior sessions had constantly questioned the purpose and validity of the shamans and their ministrations. I opened to the energy expressed around me through the icaros, the bouquet of jungle herbs, the cleansing tobacco and the camphor water. I was astonished by how much energy was expressed by these shamans singing a foot in front of me. An insight that came during this session was a deep feeling that I would know clearly when death was near. This feeling was accompanied by an equally deep sense that I must choose the instant before that moment to let go of my identity including all that I had received from my mother, all that I had received from my father and even all that is my very essence. When I returned to my place in the circle, I felt fulfilled.
Ayahuasca is a purgative, so its effect is to cause expulsions from the body, sometimes in the form of vomit, sometimes defecation, sometimes sounds, sometimes - well, who knows? A year earlier in California I had spent six hours feeling sick and waiting for the ayahausca to empty my stomach. When it finally happened, the roars that tore from my insides seemed much more than a chorus accompanying a stomach purge but rather like screams of psychic demons being unknotted from my being. Fact or fantasy? I don't know. Much to my surprise, I had not vomited during either of the first two ayahuasca rituals in Peru. I was certain this would change, and Gianni had teasingly reminded me of this earlier in the day.
About four hours into the ritual, I felt an urge to urinate. My stomach felt queasy, and I was reminded that my time to purge was coming. Around midnight I quietly slipped off the platform, a drop of about four feet, and crossed the path to relieve my bladder. On the way back I felt shaky and stopped in the middle of the path. The moon was almost full, so there was abundant grey light. I stood for several minutes. I felt the unpleasant pressure in my stomach, a tightening of muscles signaling an oncoming convulsion. I stepped over next to a snag protruding from the ground a few feet from the corner of the platform where I had been sitting and reached out to hold it. The nausea suddenly became eruption, and I bent over to vomit. But all went black. I was not there. Spinning red and black particles appeared. An acute awareness of impending annihilation intruded. I was not there, but awareness communicated that "I" was unraveling and rushing into blackness rapidly. It felt like my soul was disintegrating and leaving my body. "Identity" came into focus and resisted ferociously. My body reacted with a violent, twisting motion. My sense of self screamed, "NO!"
A hand rubbed my back and someone whispered behind me, "It's okay, Carl, it's okay." I became aware that I had been writhing in the dirt. My body was contorted, my psyche disconnected and incoherent. My utter terror abated slowly. I tried to intentionally relax into coherence. Gianni appeared in front of me as I felt tobacco smoke blowing over the back of my neck. Amelia was behind me drawing deep drafts from her pipe and blowing them over my head and back. Gianni patted my shoulder and began singing an icaro. Juan Flores appeared next to Gianni, touching a bouquet of jungle herbs to my head and shoulders. I noticed Byron perched nearby watching to see if anything could be done to help. Slowly, slowly my identity cohered and my body straightened, although a deep pain persisted in my left side beneath my arm. Byron disappeared, but the two shaman, Amelia and I remained sitting in the dirt for perhaps a half hour. The rest of our group remained on the platform of the tambo while the shamans assisted me. I learned later that most assumed I had fallen off the platform and that I was simply shaken by the fall.
After twenty minutes or so, Gianni asked if I was all right. I replied that I was, although the pain in my side persisted. I crawled back onto the platform and lay in my corner while the session resumed for another hour. When it ended, I realized that either my rib was broken or the muscles were severely strained in the rib area near my heart. I struggled to take my sleeping bag and pad to the hut and stuff them back into my hammock. Cathie thought I had fallen and was unaware of the depth of my pain. I told her I was severely hurt and would need her help in the morning, as I knew I could do naught but lie on my back until daybreak. The moonlight was gone. All was black. I stared into nothing, enduring the pain. Suddenly, I heard a sound, a hum, and then a blue black sky resolved before my eyes in the darkness, stars appeared and then deeper stars and then galaxies appeared beyond, and finally, four colored lights shot upward from the corners into the deep stars. I thought, "Saucers!" Then the sound and vision dissolved. Again I was enveloped in blackness, the pain pervading my body. I was astonished. I was emotionally inspired and physically hurting simultaneously, grounded in body pain but awed by the vision. I did not sleep.
In the morning the pain in my ribs was intense, spasms shaking me frequently, making mobility almost impossible. My foot was functional, but I still could not go anywhere. I was less mobile after the rib injury. Cathie became my nurse, helping me sit up and lie down, putting on my clothes and taking them off, making my bed and bringing me food. I managed to make my way the fifty feet to where the group met after breakfast for the integration. I reported my experience haltingly between spasms. I learned then that it was Robert, the former naval officer, who had leaped to my aid after I had fallen to the ground. It was he who had patted my back and assured me that I was all right. I was not aware that it was Robert. I was so disoriented that I had assumed it was Gianni. I was also told that everyone knew I was hurt, because I had bellowed like a wounded bear. Michael, the youngest of our party, told me that he had been tape recording his personal turn with Gianni and Juan during the ritual when I was stricken. He said he had felt the onset of a powerful energy around the tambo and was having a powerful vision that his HIV virus was leaving his body when Gianni vomited, then two others heaved, and then my roar thundered above them all. All of the sounds were recorded, and Michael played them for me, a chilling reminder of my confrontation with apparent annihilation. In addition to Michael's impressions and the roars he recorded, Malcolm, whose 40th birthday we were celebrating in a sense, experienced the vision of a jaguar leaping into his chest. He told us that this is what he had asked for and received.
I felt I could not engage in another ayahuasca session and assumed there was nothing left for me but to bear the ordeal of waiting in pain until the retreat was over. There was no way out of the jungle except by boat with the Indians. I felt trapped.
Gianni asked Amelia to apply a poultice of jungle leaves and tobacco around my rib cage. I spent the day lying in my canvas box, sleeping off and on, unable to turn on my side. That night I slept fitfully, pondering the strange but clear visions of the ayahuasca ritual together with the shock that resulted in my wounded side. My black out was an enigma to me. What puzzled my logical mind was that no fluid emerged in my vomit, although I had noted while I sat on the ground while being attended by the shaman that my stomach was clear and the muscles free of tension, the feeling I would have had if I had vomited stomach contents. Where was the vomit if I vomited? What came up as I blacked out? What came out? What came in? I sensed annihilation and panicked, writhing on the ground like a man possessed. Juan Flores thought I had been caught in the boundary between energies, but while that may have been true on some level, it did not explain to me what had happened. The experience made no logical sense. Also, there was the vision after my injury of the stars and flying lights. What was the connection? I had much to ponder as I lay waiting for relief.
By the next morning, I was able to sit for as long as my bottom could stand it, and then I would endure intense pain to stand, which I would do for a few minutes to give my buttocks a respite, and then I would endure intense pain to sit again. This was my routine all day, except for the waterfall. With great patience, Lyle assisted me down to the waterfall to splash me with water so my body odor wouldn't become too ripe. That night was the next ayahuasca ritual.
Gianni told me that when shaman went on an ayahuasca retreat, their diet required doing absolutely nothing between rituals, so he theorized that perhaps this is what I was being forced to do. He thought I should consider doing the ritual. I thought about it. I had been in pain the entire trip. I had honored my intent to go into the jungle despite my painful foot, and the ayahuasca had brought me clear visions rich with content about my father as well as other topics of concern to me. The enigma of my blackout and injury underscored the mystery. The entire process felt like some sort of rite of passage. I decided I must ignore the pain and participate in the ritual.
Malcolm and Robert sat on either side of me during the ritual. Malcolm specifically volunteered to assist and helped me on and off the platform as needed. For some time Robert had been in the process of acquiring healing skills through various disciplines, so he was attentive to my situation, wanting to learn and help at the same time. He placed his hand on my wound for awhile. I wasn't healed but I felt reassured by the gesture.
The ritual that night was rewarding, although my primary effort was to cope with the pain which nullified most visions. Without many visions, I was acutely aware of energy in my feet, which felt like lightening rods collecting energy and vibrating like tuning forks. One insight and vision which did enter during the ritual was a sense that both the thinking function of the brain and the inner voice which chatters incessantly in my head are permeated by my ego. The picture which formed was one of a gleeful sci-fi insect riding the inner voice and the thought function like beasts of burden.
Toward the end of the ritual, a remarkable thing happened. I began to see patterns of energy in the space of the tambo. This experience was unlike any hallucination or vision I had ever experienced before, and it occurred long after the visionary phase of the ritual. I saw a variety of loose patterns, appearing in space throughout the tambo as ever-changing lines, circles, octagons, and the like, in many different and changing colors. The patterns appeared to be vibrations in visual form which resonated with my body. What struck me was not only that I seemed to be observing and feeling patterns of energy but that I observed the icaros affecting the energy. This phenomenon lasted only for about half an hour at the end of the session.
Two nights later, after two days of sitting and standing, coping with pain, unable to go anywhere or do anything, we had our last ayahuasca ritual. My pain was even more intense during this session. Yawns came about every five minutes, and with each yawn, a painful spasm shook my torso. I felt as if I was being probed in the ribs with a cattle prod. During the session, however, I watched to see if I could observe the energy patterns I had seen before the end of the previous session. I was not disappointed. Robert had been sitting to my immediate right and was called to sit before the shamans to receive personal ministrations. The moon was almost full that night, so I could see Robert clearly ten feet away. As I watched the triad of three men, I observed a pinwheel of red spinning by Robert's head. Then Gianni moved his hands over Robert's head, and the spinning cycles moved with the shaman's hands. I watched closely between pain spasms as each person received their personal attention from the shaman. I observed each surrounded by various configurations of energy patterns. The patterns were specifically affected not only by the movements of the shaman, but more particularly by their icaros, the blown tobacco smoke and the movements of the plant bouquet. The energy patterns weren't always colored but often black and neutral grey speckles . The configurations changed in shape and intensity in response to the ministrations of the shaman who worked very hard during the six hour ritual. It seemed no easy task to work with the energies, a fact that Gianni confirmed.
It was during one of our integration sessions, while we each sat on logs or camp chairs sharing our experiences, that Gianni quietly shared with us that sometimes he felt regret at having followed the shaman's path because of its demands and total commitment. But he smiled and said he had no choice now but to continue.
It is well worth noting the effect of the "diet" as the jungle retreat neared its end. By severely reducing the variety of our food intake, we affected one of our most common activities as organic bodies, one that we simply take for granted. Also eliminated were so many products that affect our energy daily such as medications, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, sweeteners of many kinds, etc. One result of this radical change was to see that we are merely a few steps from raw nature. Watching the Indians live in primitive simplicity in harmony with the forest reminded me that we are not as far as we think from our own cultural roots, which in my case are Celtic and German. The combination of diet and living side by side with the Indians illustrated that our "reality" at home is a complex set of assumptions, a structure of concepts given force and made "real" by products and routines which are extensions of concepts. One becomes aware that all of our assumptions could vanish in a spasm of the planet and will vanish with the death of the body and ego identity.
The trip back to Pucallpa was truly torture. We were all exhausted. The bus ride was a hot, each- bump-can-kill-you experience. Arriving at Gianni's property, I realized that something had shifted for me when an outhouse appeared to be a luxury. Robert and Lyle flew off to Cuzco not long after our return, so the group energy altered, not in a negative way, but it was muffled a bit. Cathie and I skipped the last ayahuasca session. We needed rest. The session was by all accounts a whopper and a fitting finalè to the series of rituals, but for me, I had much to ponder as my side continued to ache intensely and little about the injury made logical sense.
The remainder of the trip was concerned mainly with resting enough to be ready to return to California. One important experience bears telling, however. On the day after our return from the jungle, Max took us to the studio of Pablo Amaringo, a former ayahauscero and now a visionary artist and the founder of a school of painting for Amazon children. Pablo's studio/school was rudimentary, but the paintings of both master and students were impressive, even spectacular. It was in looking at the complex imagery of the ayahuasca visions as expressed by Pablo's brilliant art that I understood how much deeper one could go into the Other realms with ayahuasca than we had in our brief beginning sessions on our retreat. Cathie and I bought one of Pablo's paintings together, and I purchased one myself. To what extent I will continue to explore the unseen realms of mind through ayahuasca is unknown, but I will have art to remind me of the richness and mystery of those realms.
Finally, after a much needed rest at Gianni's property, we flew to Lima for a one night stay. We spent the rest of our money buying souvenirs. The flight back to California was as uncomfortable as the flight bringing us to Peru. I was happy to return home to the dry California air and the enormous conveniences of our culture. The power of the "rib whacking," as I call it now, remained prominent in my thinking for many days after my return to California. When I got home, I took pain killers and slept long hours. I felt better almost immediately, but I was in recovery and re-entry adjustment for weeks. A hint of pain remains in my rib area six months after the wounding.
I have told my story to a number of people. My masseuse, Sariah, felt that my rib injury was an extraction of my father's energy from my body. My friend Dayna said the colored lights shooting out to the deep stars in my vision were my spirit guides. I don't know. My logical mind does not have enough proof. I do know that a miracle happened on my return. I no longer desired alcohol to the extent I did prior to the trip. I do not drink as much or as often, and with my deep imprinting of alcohol use, I consider it a miracle. I now drink in the manner I always desired; an occasional beer or glass of wine, but that's it. Nice! I consider this a healing.
Another thing that has occurred to me since returning is while I still watch football, another deeply imprinted pastime from my father, I feel much less attached to it. I can see now that the entire spectacle is a ritual, unconscious offering to the god Mars, i.e., the archetype of the warrior which sucks in the energy and blows it rushing back to produce altered states of "adrenalness" among the worshipers. The exchange suggests a seamless continuum of energies between humans and archetype, between man-mind and over-mind.
Both alcohol and football were legacies from my father. He was a famous football player in his day, and he lived off this fame in many ways for many years. Both alcohol and football were means for him to interface with others, but in the end, neither assisted him in coping with the diminution of his power as age withered his body and affected his identity. It was this diminution which was evidenced by gout. It led to his depression, leaving him entrapped in alcohol binging, and finally, it led to his death.
I don't know what the message is for me yet. I don't know if somehow my intent and my experiences affected my father's soul on its journey yet. But I'm open to know more, and to help him, my family and myself in any way I can. What about my other intents? Were the colored lights shooting to the deep stars traces of spirit guides? Could be! Did I learn to navigate in the Other world? Well, no, but I learned to "see" what appeared to me to be usually unseen energies. And there was the rib wounding, which is still a profound mystery to me.
"Ayahuasca, for us, is not fugitive pleasure, venture, or seedless adventure, as it is for the virakocha [white people]. Ayahuasca is a gateway not for escape but for eternity. It allows us to enter those worlds, to live at the same time in this and in other realities, to traverse the endless, unmeasurable provinces of the night.
"That is why the light of ayahuasca is black. It doesn't explain. It doesn't reveal. Instead of uncovering mysteries, it respects them. It makes them more and more mysterious, more fertile and prodigal. Ayahuasca irrigates the unknown territory: that is its way of shedding light."
Cesar Calvo, The Three Halves of Ino Moxo, Wizard of the Upper Amazon