Kira was not a student or a client of mine but a journalist for National Geographic magazine who visited Peru to look for a cure for her life-long depression. Her story (dramatically, but quite relevantly under the circumstances) is entitled Hell and Back and can be read in full at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0603/features/peru.html. It is an interesting one because it illustrates much of what we have been talking about so far: the process of healing with ayahuasca and the elements that go into it. Of these, ayahuasca per se may not even be the most important although it is of course the core of the experience: the thing that holds everything else together and reason why the healing will work at all.
Kira describes her problem, and the ayahuasca ceremony that finally cured it, as follows.
I will never forget what it was like. The overwhelming misery. The certainty of never-ending suffering. No one to help you, no way to escape. Everywhere I looked: darkness so thick that the idea of light seemed inconceivable. Suddenly, I swirled down a tunnel of fire, wailing figures calling out to me in agony, begging me to save them. Others tried to terrorize me. ‘You will never leave here’ they said. ‘Never. Never’… the darkness became even thicker; the emotional charge of suffering nearly unbearable. I felt as if I would burst from heartbreak – everywhere, I felt the agony of humankind, its tragedies, its hatreds, its sorrows. I reached the bottom of the tunnel and saw three thrones in a black chamber. Three shadowy figures sat in the chairs; in the middle was what I took to be the devil himself. ‘The darkness will never end,’ he said. ‘It will never end. You can never escape this place.’
‘I can,’ I replied. All at once, I willed myself to rise. I sailed up through the tunnel of fire, higher and higher until I broke through to a white light. All darkness immediately vanished. My body felt light, at peace. I floated among a beautiful spread of colours and patterns. Slowly my ayahuasca vision faded. I returned to my body, to where I lay in the hut… The next morning, I discovered the impossible: The severe depression that had ruled my life since childhood had miraculously vanished… With shamanism – and with the drinking of ayahuasca in particular – I’ve learned that, for me, the worse the experience, the better the payoff. There is only one requirement for this work: You must be brave. You’ll be learning how to save yourself.
That, however, is the end of her story. Typically this drama, excitement and eventual triumph is all we get from many other accounts of healings with ayahuasca – which is why we must be careful about taking them only at face value, because, as Kira goes on to explain, what actually produced her healing was far more than a single cupful of ayahuasca.
Kira grew up among ‘fundamentalist atheists’, she says, who taught her that ‘we’re all alone in the universe, the fleeting dramas of our lives culminating in a final, ignoble end: death. Nothing beyond that.’ As she concludes: ‘It was not a prescription for happiness.’
I’ll say. And yet this fascination for (or habit of) separation is so prevalent as to be the norm in the Western world. Human beings have become habituated (or, more cynically, indoctrinated) to see themselves as, among other things, separate from God (our religious ‘industry’ demands it so that our priests – God’s CEOs – can offer us salvation at a price), separate from nature (any number of businesses benefit from this illusion – or delusion: from oil companies, GM food producers and pharmaceutical firms who exploit the planet because of it, to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth at the other end of the scale who exist to protect us from the former, and somewhere in the middle are businesses like urban zoos and factory farms which present us with animals for our entertainment or consumption). As our communities have broken down we are now even separate from each other.
This, however, is rarely seen as a (wholly) bad thing. The very idea of separation is, after all, bound up in our myths of glory, in the form of the ‘lone hero’, the ‘masked man’, the ‘outsider’, the ‘rebel’ or the ‘saviour’. All of them stand alone and save the day. The real and non-heroic consequence of this, however, is the point that Tracie makes, above: for her it led to years of misery as a drunk and a drug addict; in my experience, it is one of the primary causes of all of our Western soul sicknesses.
Disease, as any shaman will tell you – even if it eventually manifests as a brain tumour, addiction, an ulcer, diabetes, or another physical problem – arises from a soul that is in some way imbalanced. By separating ourselves from the source of our power (whether we see that power as ‘God’ or ‘purpose’, ‘love’ or ‘passion’ or some other positive force) weakens us and makes our soul an easy target for another ‘spirit’ to attack. A Western doctor might call it ‘depression’, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ or some other label instead of a ‘spirit’, but the point is really the same. Unless we remove the negative force that grips us, and recharge ourselves from a source of power, our problems really begin.
Kira’s problem was that the world seemed:
…a dark, forbidding place beyond my control. And my mortality gaped at me mercilessly.
… there were [also] some stubborn enemies hiding out in my psyche: Fear and Shame… How do you describe what it’s like to want love from another but to be terrified of it at the same time? To want good things to happen to you, while some disjointed part of you believes that you don’t deserve them? To look in a mirror and see only imperfections? This was the meat and potatoes of my several years of therapy. Expensive therapy. Who did what, when, why. The constant excavations of memory. The sleuth-work. Patching together theory after theory. Rational-emotive behavioural therapy. Gestalt therapy. Humanistic therapy. Biofeedback. Positive affirmations: I am a beautiful person. I deserve the best in life. Then, there’s the impatience. Thirty-three years old already, for chrissakes’ – and nothing so far had cured her depression.
Kira describes one of her early ayahuasca ceremonies as follows:
Soon I start to see a pale green glow; colourful, primordial forms, resembling amoebas or bacteria, float by. Alarmed, I open my eyes. And this is uncanny: I can see the rafters of the hut, the thatch roof, the glow of the stars outside the screened windows – but the same amoeba-like things are passing over that view, as if superimposed. ‘You’re seeing with your third eye,’ one of the apprentices explains… Fantastical scenes glide by, composed of ever-shifting geometric forms and textures. Colours seem to be the nature of these views; a dazzling and dizzying display of every conceivable hue blending and parting in kaleidoscopic brilliance.
But then the colours vanish all at once as if a curtain has been pulled down. Blackness. Everywhere. Dark creatures sail by. Tangles of long, hissing serpents. Dragons spitting fire. Screaming humanlike forms. For a bunch of hallucinations, they seem terrifyingly real. An average ayahuasca ceremony lasts about four to five hours. But in ayahuasca space – where time, linear thought, and the rules of three-dimensional reality no longer apply – four to five hours of sheer darkness and terror can feel like a lifetime. My heartbeat soars; it’s hard to breathe… what I’m experiencing now is my fear taking symbolic form through the ayahuasca. Fear that I have lived with my entire life and that needs to be released… I work on controlling my breathing. But such thick darkness. Clouds of bats and demonlike faces. Black lightning. Black walls materializing before me no matter which way I turn. Closer and closer, the darkness surrounding me, trapping me. I can barely breathe.
At this point Kira called out for help from her shaman, Hamilton. His response is typical of the shamanic approach to healing in ceremony and illustrates once again that it is not just ayahuasca which produces a cure, but a number of interconnected actions and energies, including the visions themselves and what they reveal, the intent of the shaman to heal and the patient to be healed, the energies contained in the songs of the shaman, and the other plant allies which he may call into the ceremony.
Hamilton is standing over me now, rattling his chacapa, singing his spirit songs. Inexplicably, as he does this, the darkness backs off. But more of it comes in a seemingly endless stream. I see dark, raging faces. My body begins to contort; it feels as if little balls are ripping through my flesh, bursting from my skin. The pain is excruciating. I writhe on the mattress, screaming. Hamilton calls over one of his helpers – a local woman named Rosa – with directions to hold me down.
And now [the spirits] appear to be escaping en masse from my throat. I hear myself making otherworldly squealing and hissing sounds. Such high-pitched screeches that surely no human could ever make. All the while there is me, like a kind of witness, watching and listening in horror, feeling utterly helpless to stop it. I’ve read nothing about this sort of experience happening when taking ayahuasca.
This is a good point. Many of the accounts of ‘miracle cures’ and ‘life-changing encounters’ with ayahuasca that I have also read tend to focus on the beauty of the imagery and ignore completely what it is to be really healed. Situations like the one that Kira experienced can and do happen though. Not always, but sometimes. (See my book Drinking the Four Winds for examples of the exorcisms and spirit battles I have been involved with in my ceremonies in Peru.)
On and on it goes. The screaming, the wailing. My body shakes wildly; I see a great serpent emerging from my body, with designs on Hamilton. He shakes his chacapa at it, singing loudly, and after what seems like an infinite battle of wills, the creature leaves me. I grab the vomit bucket and puke for several minutes. Though my stomach has been empty for over eight hours, a flood of solid particles comes out of me… The visions fade. My body stops shaking… The shamans believe that what we vomit out during a ceremony is the physical manifestation of dark energy and toxins being purged from the body. The more that comes out, the better.
The process of healing continued for Kira (once again, one drink of ayahuasca seldom does the trick) and even:
After three ceremonies, I still feel that I have something big to purge… We begin the ceremony, drink the ayahuasca. I’m hoping to find myself in some heavenly realms this time, but again, as usual, the darkness. With disappointment, I find myself entering a familiar tunnel of fire, heading down to one of the hell realms. I don’t know where I’m going, or why, when I suddenly glimpse the bottom of the tunnel and leap back in shock: Me, I’m there, but as a little girl. She’s huddled, captive, in a ball of fire before the three thrones of the devil and his sidekicks. As soon as I reach her, she begins wailing, ‘Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!’
I think this must be a part of me that I lost. Long ago. The shamans believe that whenever a traumatic event happens to us, we lose part of our spirit, that it flees the body to survive the experience. And that unless a person undergoes a shamanistic ‘soul retrieval’ these parts will be forever lost. Each one, they say, contains an element of who [we] truly are; people may lose their sense of humour, their trust of others, their innocence… ‘The darkness was so heavy during your childhood,’ a spirit voice says to me ‘that your soul splintered beneath the weight.’
With encouragement from her shaman, Kira is able to reach down and take the hand of her child-self. ‘When she feels my touch, she stops crying, and I pull her up, out of the tunnel of fire. The darkness departs. We reach realms of bright white light – the first such places my visions have allowed. The heavenly realms.’
In her final ceremony, despite her soul retrieval, ‘Darkness falls’ again.
A scathing pain rises in my chest – the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt… Legions of demons sail out of my body. I’m helpless before them; they contort me. I’m made to see that what is being purged now is a deeply rooted belief that I don’t deserve to be alive, that no one can love me and I will always need to justify my existence. Slowly I gain the upper hand over the darkness and order it to leave my body. I feel a pressure in my chest that could break all my ribs. I grab my bucket, vomit out what appears to be a stream of fire. Hamilton kneels down and blows tobacco smoke onto the top of my head. I cough violently and watch as demons burst out of me, roaring, only to disintegrate in white light.
And [then] before me [is] this enormous image of God. He takes me in his arms and coddles me like a child. I know, unequivocally, that I am loved and have always been loved. That I matter and have always mattered. That I’m safe and, no matter what happens, will always be safe. I will never allow myself to become separated from him again.
Of course, a single drink of ayahuasca might solve all your problems – Pablo Amaringo, the visionary artist and one-time ayahuascero writes, for example, that: ‘I became a shaman when I saw a curandera heal my younger sister by using ayahuasca. My sister had been in agony with hepatitis but with this single healing from the plants she was cured in just two hours… Later I began dieting and taking la purga and she taught me how to use plants for healing’ – but it didn’t happen for any of the people mentioned in this chapter – for Gail, Tracie or Kira – and in my experience it’s rare. Your dedication to healing – your intention to be well – and your willingness to do whatever it takes count for a lot; much more in fact than giving away your power (which also includes your healing power) to a shaman and a cup of jungle brew or a Western doctor and a ‘magical pill’ for that matter. But there are exceptions, as Pablo’s story shows.