“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
You can call me Mayu. My shamanic path started in 2007, when I met my master, Francesco “Tsunki” de Giorgio, a Shaman of the Shuar tradition (western Amazon). Since then I have participated in many shamanic ceremonies, most of which were led by him. In some of them Ayahuasca – the sacred brew prepared by combining two or more plants from the Amazon jungle – was used. Not in all ceremonies, though – shamanism goes far beyond Ayahuasca. However, for those who follow a shamanic path from the Amazon, the beverage is inextricably linked to the practice.
During all these years I have observed that many Westerners are attracted to it, but their approach is often naive, and most of them easily fall into traps – some of which are definitely dangerous.
On the other hand there are also those who demonize it. Like the Christian missionaries, who forced the natives (especially children, who were also “interned” in Catholic missions, removing them from their families) not to take it and called it “la sangre del diablo” – the devil’s blood. And nowadays there are those who abhor every form of psychotropic substance; the truth is that the system in which we live does not want us to see anything different from what is imposed on us. But reality, the true one, goes far beyond what has been ingrained in our minds since childhood.
An authentic shamanic path, however, aims to develop courage and see beyond the illusion that keeps us imprisoned. Under the guidance of who – the shaman – knows what the dangers are and teaches how to deal with them.
Many ideas about Ayahuasca are wrong. Here I will discuss the most common misconceptions, based on my own experience and that of others.
Many westerners believe that shamanism equals to Ayahuasca. It’s far from the truth. The sacred brew is only used in the Amazon, while shamanic traditions on other continents – such as the Siberian, Mongolian, Nepalese or North American – do not use it. Its plant does not grow there.
Shamanism is practiced even without it. For several years many of my fellow practitioners and I have done important rituals of the Shuar tradition without it. I didn’t use it even during my first “Arútam quest” (in 2009), a very powerful ritual that changed my life.
It is not even true that taking Ayahuasca alone is practicing shamanism. Many in the new-age world do it, giving it all sorts of pseudo-spiritual and psychological meanings, but the result is extremely superficial and the experiences can be either bland or (in contrast) out of control. And it is not shamanism. Real shamanism follows a well-rooted tradition.
Ayahuasca, however, is an extremely important helper for the Shamans of the Amazon. The very bitter and vomit-inducing brew brings the Shamans to altered states of consciousness. It temporarily breaks the illusion of this reality and lets them enter the “other reality”, a dream-like world where everything originates from. In the other reality, Shamans can operate healings, protect their people, seek knowledge and teachings, and bring more balance to the universe. And much more.
Ayahuasca is a Spirit. Shamans say it comes from other worlds (or “dimensions” if you like). In this reality it manifests itself as a brew made of two (or more) plants from the Amazon:
The choice depends upon availability or the shamanic work that has to be done. Shuar Shamans say that the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine is male and the other is female, and the resulting brew is both male and female. In fact Shuar people call it “el Natém” – which is a masculine term – as opposed to the Quechua “Ayahuasca”, feminine.
Both plants are necessary; alone they don’t do much. Actually scientists find quite astonishing that, given the great multitude of plant species in the Amazon and the enormous number of possible combinations, natives could find the ones that together make the Ayahuasca brew and its effects. No other combination could do the same. Shamans know that it has been “inspired” by Spirits. Shuar people say that Natém is a gift from Tsunki, the Lord of the Underwater World.
As said before, the brew is both male and female: the masculine and feminine powers of the two plants are intertwined like two passionate lovers, as the snake-shaped vine in the picture above suggests. During the visions Ayahuasca sometimes appears as a serpent that speaks and provides profound teachings. This is the reason why Shamans say that it is a “master”. In my personal experience it has often manifested itself as a very wise mother from the jungle: tough and strict with her children, as she wants them to grow strong and able to survive the inevitable trials of life.
Ayahuasca is not a drug: it doesn’t create addiction of any kind. Everyone who has ever drunk it recognises its nauseating smell at a distance; its ingestion never comes without effort. It’s not pleasurable at all, it makes you vomit and sometimes also induces bowel movements. That’s because of its cleansing effects: the purge has the purpose of purifying the body from what somebody calls “bad energies” and letting the Power flow better. A Shuar Shaman used the following metaphor: “To shoot better, you must first clean well the barrel of your rifle, otherwise it will explode in your face”.
It also requires some preparation: “la dieta”, the diet. It’s necessary to abstain from certain foods before and after taking it, for some time. This is to avoid undesired reactions with the MAOI inhibitor contained in Banisteriopsis Caapi and to ease the visions. It also teaches something important: that the body is not separated from the soul, they influence each other a great deal.
In the Amazon Ayahuasca is often called “la medicina”, the medicine, because of its healing powers. It purifies the body and the soul. Shuar people and many other natives have used it for hundreds of years. Oftentimes they give it also to small children (in little quantities) because of its beneficial effects. As a matter of fact, natives have always been very strong and healthy – until the time when they started to be “westernized”.
Last but not least, Ayahuasca is used to treat drug addictions. It is well documented and there are even centers for that in Peru.
How should we then considered Ayahuasca a drug?
Scientifically-minded people explain that Ayahuasca produces the known effects because of DMT, hence it’s all about chemistry. Among these, the more “spiritually inclined” ones add that DMT is already contained in our brains and that you can reach the “divine” without Ayahuasca, by activating DMT through meditation or other practices.
All the above-mentioned arguments are “formally” correct. On a superficial level, DMT is responsible for inducing the visions. And on the other side, it is true that you don’t need Ayahuasca to enter the Spirit world, to have profound experiences. You can do without using it. Most of the spiritual traditions worldwide don’t make use of any psychoactive plant.
For a Shaman, though, scientific explanations greatly reduce what the sacred brew is. They completely disregard what’s beyond the surface. It’s like trying to explain what love is, why you feel a deep longing for someone by enlisting the neurochemical reactions in your brains. When we analyse it, though, love disappears. It is destroyed. Love is handled by the heart, not by the mind – which seeks “clarity”, and love is everything but clear… Love is a mystery no-one will ever be able to unveil.
Ayahuasca is “more than DMT”, it goes well beyond brain chemistry. As already said, it is a Spirit. It is a being with a much greater Power than ours, that came here to guide and teach profound secrets of the universe.
It also has a strong personality. I still remember once, when I was under its effect and I had to go to the bathroom and vomit, walking on all fours because I couldn’t walk. It told me (in Spanish): “Debes ser humilde. Inclinate ante los dióses!” (You must be humble. Bow before the gods!)
The most important thing of all, though, is the setting. Especially for newbies, Ayahuasca should be taken with a real Shaman of an amazonic lineage. His or her Spirit helpers protect the ceremony, and make sure that hostile spirits don’t get in the way and cause what somebody calls “bad trips” – and much more. The Shaman is there to assist, to aid the grounding in this reality, to help processing the experience afterwards, and in case to perform a healing.
In many years of practice with my master, I have almost never experienced situations in which anyone had a really bad trip. Only on some very rare occasions somebody was “at the edge”: it was for the purpose of a specific shamanic work and he/she was under proper guidance. Eventually he/she was further helped and safely “brought back”. However, I have heard many people saying they had frightening experiences in do-it-yourself ceremonies (or led by non-Shamans).
Some people explain that the “bad trips” are products of the “unconscious” – which has been invented by psychology, but has no shamanic value. Shamans know that the “unconscious movements” are spirits – there are many of them around us, that follow us. So the ceremonies must be properly conducted to protect the participants from external, undesired influences.
As already mentioned, Ayahuasca disrupts the illusion of this reality where we are imprisoned, giving temporary access to the “other reality”. Somebody says that it “opens doors” – taking inspiration from the title of the book “The Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxley. This is also because they experience that something “external” – a Spirit, a Power (or “energy”, as many like to say) – enters their being. The same applies for any other psychoactive plant (Peyote, San Pedro, etc.).
For some people this is a major concern. They are afraid that the experience will be overwhelming, that they will not be able to control it and come back to “normal”. Personally, I have never seen that happening to anyone taking part in the ceremonies we organize – we never “lost” anyone. It is also true that my fellow practitioners follow a Shamanic path, they acquired “spiritual instruments” over time and they are pretty much prepared for the “unknown”.
It must be noted, too, that often the experiences are not that strong. Many people have blockages (physical and not only) that prevent Ayahuasca from properly working. Their body is somewhat “clogged” and they need to take it several times in order to start seeing some real effect. That’s why some are disappointed after the first experience, they didn’t “see” anything. This just indicates that the vine needs to work more in order for the Power to flow. It doesn’t work the same for everyone, and every session is different.
Not only ayahuasca or psychoactive plants “open doors”, though. The shamanic experience shows that many other things do it, more than what we commonly think.
Alcohol, for example. Shamans know that alcohol is a powerful Spirit (it is not a coincidence that whiskey, vodka, gin, etc. are called “spirits”). Also Shamans in Siberia and in other northern traditions use it during their ceremonies, and some of them drink even liters of vodka in a session – without getting drunk, though! This is not because they are particularly resilient to alcohol, but because they have a very strong relationship with its Spirit, which is their ally. If not properly handled – and few people can do it – alcohol takes you over at various levels. We all know the damages it can cause. The problem with the Spirit of alcohol is that it can open doors so wide that anything can enter, totally unfiltered. Siberian Shamans have spirit helpers to protect them against that. Alcoholics, on the other hand, don’t and sometimes become violent – because aggressive spirits possess them.
Same applies for other drugs (cocaine, heroine, etc.). I once remotely diagnosed a person with a history of drug abuse. She had various health issues. When I checked her photograph – I was in altered states of consciousness – I saw her face change and become a horrid demon who tried to attack me. I had to protect myself. What was that? It was a Spirit possessing her that “entered” because the drugs destroyed the natural protections of her spiritual body.
Does this happen to everyone who consumes drugs? No, but this experience showed me the long-term effect on the spiritual side. Let’s make it clear: drugs are not bad per-se. Good or bad is a moral consideration, which changes over time and among cultures. The key is moderation and wise use – health should always be the primary concern. I would like to add, though, that in every serious spiritual path the initiate should overcome his or her addictions, as they are a limitation. Shamans don’t have any addiction.
Funny enough, also romantic love acts as a drug. Scientists found that the same brain chemicals and many of the same brain pathways and structures are active when we are falling in love and enjoying a cocaine-high. The heartbroken knows it well: he or she feels the same withdrawal symptoms of going cold turkey from crack cocaine. The cravings for the lost love can drive crazy sometimes. Nevertheless love is much more than that.
Also love opens doors, allowing for incredible things to happen, for important personal changes to be made. (And stupid mistakes, when driven by passion out of control!) Many people also experience the transcending bliss of pure love during some kind of deep meditative practice, when the “gates of the divine” are open. Love has infinite forms.
Sex opens doors, too, as it is actually an exchange of Power between two people. Sometimes it can be felt as a strong current flowing through the bodies, that generates the shaking of the orgasm. Not to mention that it is the origin of life! Since it opens doors, it can also transmit diseases, though. And, as for drugs and romantic love, it can be very addictive and sometimes difficult to handle. In various spiritual traditions sex is a medium to higher levels of consciousness.
We could go on… The list is open-ended.
Ayahuasca – or Natém – is the most important Spirit helper in all shamanic traditions of the Amazon. It deserves the utmost respect as it is sacred, it is a master coming from other worlds.
As for me, I have taken it many times. Especially in the Amazon among the Shuar, where I also participated in a “Natém mamu”, a ceremony in which you literally drink liters of it for several days in a row. It’s a very intense and (for Westerners) frightening experience, in which you go through a sort of death, only to be reborn. I received teachings, I had premonitions, I experienced an awareness beyond my personality, beyond the “I am”. Much of this cannot be expressed in words, however, and must be experienced first-hand.
I am not inviting anyone to take Ayahuasca. The sacred brew is meant to be used by whom is in a Shamanic path from the Amazon. In any case, if you want to experience it, do find someone you trust. Make sure, too, that he or she is an authentic Shaman.
What for me has always been paramount is the shamanic community of fellow practitioners, led by my master shaman. Sharing experiences among peers in a common path is fundamental in processing them, especially when they are very distant from everyday life. “The Power must circulate”, my master would say, suggesting that the experience of the individual should be shared with the collective, because it will benefit everybody. And in doing so, help will go back to the individual. We are not alone.
(“Become a person of Power”, in the Shuar language)