I’m not going to tell you what I saw when I took Ayahuasca.
Alien spirits, impossible geometric realms or, most significant of all, a giant snake, slithering towards you. While in their proper context, such descriptions can be illuminating, for the most part, I think they risk being distractions. Psychedelic fodder to fuel the desire for a ‘crazy trip’ on my jaunt through South America.
But ayahuasca and other plant medicines have been used by the indigenous people of South America for thousands of years in vision ceremonies and rituals of healing. It is only in the last half-century that it has become known in the West, and is only recently experiencing growth as a commercial industry.
Months ago, when I had first came to Cusco, I had little interest in such things. With posters advertising ceremonies on every street corner and tourists examining their experiences in the same breath as their cocaine-fuelled nights out, it felt a little… off.
After the Rainbow Gathering in Bolivia, things had changed. I had taken the time to discuss the practice of the medicine more widely and research further both the plant itself and the shamans and retreats in the country.
Like most native cultures, ayahuasca can be accessed from two different perspectives. Traditional ceremonies are practised in local communities and perhaps represent the most culturally authentic practice of the medicine. While they are far cheaper – sometimes even free – they can also be more difficult to find, requiring local connections and less planning in advance.
The other way is the tourist’s way – far more expensive and orientated towards international visitors. Such offerings can range from high quality, approachable experiences to over-priced, money-making operations and outright scams. It is important to understand all this and be fully satisfied with the individuals in whom you are placing your trust for what can be an incredibly difficult, intimate, even ecstatic experience.
Such ceremonies are not simply thrill-rides. They are deep and delicate operations of the mind, not to be entered into on a whim. As such, they are starkly incompatible with the trends of fast tourism.
I had been considering all this for about two weeks. I was based in the Bolivian town of Samaipata, two hours west of Santa Cruz. At times, the search was confusing and frustrating. It was difficult not to become impatient. I had already started observing a strict diet in preparation. No salt, sugar, oil or spices. No processed food or animal products of any kind. No alcohol, drugs, or sex. No coffee. Even avocado was said to have too much fat – almost a deal-breaker in and of itself for an inner-city Melburnian. For ten days I was eating only broccoli, chickpeas, nuts and grains. This was combined with two water-fasts, one at the commencement of the diet and one the day before the ceremony.
Hilvert Timmer was a Dutchman who has lived in Bolivia for decades. A former economist, he had since written several books on traditional Andean culture and society. He had a quietly sarcastic view of the individualistic, mercantile nature of modern western society, and spoke warmly of the possibilities to return to nature and communal living in a place like the rural Bolivian high jungle.
I found him through a friend of Pisces, the Chilean I had met at the Rainbow Gathering. He and his wife Karina were to hold their final ceremony of the season two days after I made my inquiry. It was supposed to be a private affair, but at the last minute, after a brief consultation, I was permitted to come along as a second participant.
The river-side lodge was nested in a tranquil, forested valley. After settling in, we had a short meeting to discuss the night ahead. I peppered Hilvert with questions until he gently reprimanded me for being too analytical in my approach. ‘Learn by observation,’ he advised. ‘By watching and listening.’
We had the rest of the afternoon to prepare. This meant wandering along the paths through the valley and reflecting on our reasons for being there. For me, it also meant meditating on my empty stomach. I had not eaten anything in almost 24 hours.
As night fell, we began the ceremony. First, Hilvert applied rapé, a type of tobacco powder that is blown through a small pipe into the nostrils. It sears through the lungs like a flame and brings the mind and body into a sizzling, almost dizzying state of alertness.
Then, in our own time, we arrived in a small room with three cushioned places for sitting and a mattress if we needed to lie down. Idols of the Buddha and other spiritual figures lined a shelf, alongside the skull of a puma. Hilvert prepared the medicine by candlelight, before handing out buckets and rolls of toilet paper.
We stated our intentions and prayed to the spirits of the plant for guidance. Then, Hilvert invited us one by one drink one cup of the bitter medicine.
For what seemed like the first few hours, we sat and waited, occasionally speaking or smoking a cigarette. Hilvert would sing icaros – shamanic healing songs – and played musical instruments. He applied incense and oil, brushed us with leaves, blew smoke and clicked in circles around our heads.
Over time, my thoughts became more abstract. Strange emotions bubbled to the surface, like the dense patchwork of my mind was loosening. Like the normal routes between thoughts were dissolving, allowing concepts to float across my mental landscape in unexpected ways.
Tilvert administered another cup of the medicine to each of us. Soon, we began to feel the effects far more strongly. My fellow participant keeled over and vomited into his bucket. I became aware of a dark sphere floating above my head, always at the uppermost periphery of my vision. It began to descend before me with all the massive negativity of a black hole, drawing me down with it until I was completely hunched over my rapidly deteriorating stomach. I felt a profound sadness come over me. Flames of anger licked at my guts and pity washed through my heart.
All of this I merely observed. I shirked from nothing, rejected nothing, physical or emotional. Finally, the black sphere came to rest in my belly. I was doubled over it completely, like a child cuddling a pet in his lap. I could examine it intimately. I don’t know if it spoke, but somehow, a message of words echoed through my mind. I listened as faithfully as I could while the nausea flooded my body.
When the purge came, it came as a relief. The heaviness of the void was ejected from my body in the form of black bile. For a while, all I could do was lean over the bucket and contemplate the vomit. Always an insightful moment, no matter the context. Satisfied with the work, I lay back and closed my eyes. Suddenly, I was in another world.
The dark of my eyelids became the gateway to a realm of phantom geometry. I was soaring through fractal spires and kaleidoscope skies. Occasionally, I would open my eyes, to find Hilvert’s trembling shadow somewhere in the room and hear his chanting and his instruments. His wailing voice seemed to tune my visions. The room transformed, appearing centuries old, like some Native American longhouse. Bison skulls wearing feathered head-dresses floated before me. When I closed my eyes I was back in the parallel geometric world of my mind. But now I felt the presence of the same spirits that animated the skulls. They sat in council and observed me from a place just above my sight. Though they spoke no words, I felt distinctly the sensation of being communicated with. It occurred to me that I might ask them questions, but I was content simply to observe, to experience whatever might come. My head tilted back and my mouth gaped open. It as though they were pouring something down my throat, like a golden, milky nectar.
I must have sat like that for hours, head lolling, jaw hanging. Receiving this jungle ambrosia and giggling like an idiot. The sadness, the heaviness, all had evaporated, leaving only gratitude, love and bounty
Eventually, the visions began to fade. By then, my body was exhausted, though my mind remained active. I lay down on the bed and drifted into contemplation. My life floated into a wide, clear perspective. A nexus of hopes and memories, desires and pain. Clear light pierced into many of the issues I had been contemplating in the weeks before the ceremony. Yet still, there were some that rebuffed penetration – some parts of my life that remained stubborn against the medicine’s attempts to dissolve them.
By then, we had been going for almost eight hours. It was something like four in the morning. I had been trying to lie still for the last few hours. But Hilvert never remained dormant for long. He would jerk from little naps and sternly rouse us into seated positions to perform more rites. Only after he was satisfied we had completed all the work we were capable of did he declare the ceremony over. It was said, however, that the medicine would continue to work for several days more, as all that we had experienced solidified into place.
Okay, so I ended up telling you about the crazy spirit aliens I met and the hexagonal labyrinths I flew through on my jungle trip. But I think you can understand them now in their proper context. I came away from my ayahuasca ceremony light on a fountain of energy and filled with ideas and resolutions. But I also came away from it with a greater appreciation for the significance of the ritual setting in which it is practised, as well as the sensitivity, skill and wisdom of the one who administers it. Disciplined preparation, appropriate execution and committed integration are all just as important as the application of the medicine itself. If you really want to experience just how profound an ayahuasca ceremony can be, you owe it to yourself to undertake it seriously.
Do me a favour, and don’t be like the Aussie tourist I met in Sacred Valley, just outside of Cusco. I asked him how his stay had been and he told me that, “the only things there seem to be to do around here are to see ruins and take ayahuasca.”