The following is excerpted from Visionary Ayahuasca: A Manual for Therapeutic and Spiritual Journeys, published by Park Street Press.
This evening I don’t feel like drinking. I’m dragging my feet as I enter the maloca. I arrived at Pucallpa a few ceremonies earlier, less than ten of them ago. It’s always the same thing. I look forward to each of my trips there. I look forward to this specific moment, the greatest adventure I’ve ever been able to experience, and yet, as soon as this adventure happens, fear enters into the dance. Fear mounts from night to night, in step with new invisible encounters. It turns into terror the last few days, and on the last night I end up making my way through it. This is my fourth trip in less than a year. I know the process—I’ve learned to work with it. I just have to follow it right to the end; so each evening I drink the dose that is offered me even if it’s big. I need to keep this objective in my line of sight and in doing so implant in myself confidence in Guillermo’s work. Drinking the whole glass means overcoming the shadow of fear that is trying to get hold of me every day.
This evening it’s hard. The ceremony is getting closer and my belly is as tense as a block of wood; I can’t manage to relax it and I’m shaking. I’m having a lot of trouble keeping the fear at a distance . . . I’m afraid.
I’m intoxicated as I walk into the maloca. I sit down. Guillermo is not there. His mother, Maria, and the other healer are waiting. Suddenly, I calm down; I let myself be grabbed by the vertigo. You need to understand that for me the ceremonies extend into the day. The process is going through an accelerating phase. Now the filling and emptying of my lungs is slowing down. Sometimes the quiet waves of the breathing create undulations in the body. The effect of the intoxication increases slowly. In spite of the well-being, a little anxiety springs up: “I haven’t drunk yet and I’m already mareado (dizzy) . . .”
I relax even more, letting that thought hit the road along with its anguished little sisters. Now, each time that I’m about to take the vine, my body readies itself a few hours before. I’m used to that, but this time it’s stronger.
The relaxation tapers off all of a sudden. Guillermo enters the maloca. He sits down to chat, laughing with the others. This evening he’s laid back. His eyes are lively. He yawns as he is pouring a glass of ayahuasca, then in silence he bows his head toward the glass and remains motionless.
My intoxication comes back immediately.
A thought emerges: “If I felt the intoxication that strongly, it’s because he’s been working on me at a distance. He’s showing me that now.” This isn’t a demonstration of power, but just a sign of our well-established connection. He was controlling the situation, and the trip began well ahead of the ceremony. He tells me that in the course of the ceremony we’re going to take another teaching plant, renaco (Ficus schultesii), which he’ll show me the next day.
I drink and then sit down, surprised and a little nervous about this new plan. He turns out the light—an old circular neon bulb that the insects constantly crash into. A metaphor comes to me: “I too want to go toward the light, but watch out—approach gently my little ayahuasquero mosquito. Otherwise, zap!”
I feel my intoxication mount without visions.
My body begins to vibrate more and more. I secretly hope that he will begin to sing. A half hour passes this way in silence, then he calls me. It’s the moment. I am very intoxicated, trembling. The visions come and it’s necessary to drink again?
The preparation is translucent, and there’s at least a half a pint of it. The curanderos each drink in their turn, as well as the others who are present.
Then everything happens very fast.
In a flash, reality is totally changed. Different spirits that I have never seen before surround me. Cries and moans of terror assail my psyche, but they are stillborn, assassinated by my mind, which has been vitrified by what is in the process of taking place.
The most eloquent image would be the “mystical science fiction” of a Tex Avery.* I am as if suspended in a space between two thoughts.
I am aware of the spirits in their own space. They are entirely covered with designs that are moving. They remind me of the patterns of powwow dancers or of certain costumes of shamans from the Urals. Unbelievably beautiful and dazzling, the designs move animatedly on their eyeless faces. They seem like sophisticated puppets, marionettes assembled by a genius of celestial mechanics.
They are seated in a room. One of them approaches me. He leans over my head in absolute silence. I open my eyes—he is there. Sounds gather together and a cone of designs descends from his mouth toward the top of my head. Slowly, it moves into me. On this luminous cone a new and strange vision is drawn and comes toward me. Crocodiles in lively colors. Volume has disappeared—these are living prints redrawn in two dimensions. Incredibly chiseled, they interlay over each other.
I think for a moment of Escher’s impossible drawings.
The word death tries to emerge in my inner space, but a series of little spasms push it away.
The crocodiles descend into me. I let them. I return to an awareness of my body.
Slowly, a melody comes in. The designs come bouncing back onto the background of my guts and from their slow movement a melody springs up, an ícaro.
I clench my teeth so as not to sing.
Then, all of a sudden, I am brought back to the perception of the upper part of my body by the liquid that is rising at top speed from my stomach toward my mouth.
A thunderstruck return.
I have just time to open my mouth, and I vomit.
Later, Michel, one of my “companions of the bucket” told me I had vomited just a few minutes after having drunk, whereas I had the feeling that my encounter had lasted a lifetime.
Thought inscribes us in time.
With thought gone, time expands infinitely.
Then, freed from the liquid, I no longer control anything. Still in silence, as if freed, I fly off into the spirit world.
An anaconda slithers through a series of gelatinous cavities—the setting is my brain, and the feeling is ecstatic. He starts rattling while a strong feeling of power grows in me.
I seize it with the two hemispheres of my encephalon, and I emit a dull growl. The anaconda takes off, but he has the voice of a predator wolf.
At this precise moment two of the curanderos vomit.
My body flash freezes in profound terror.
It’s my fault. My lack of concentration, forgetting myself—we are all in the same vehicle, and I made a bad move. My thoughts began looping.
I grab this blinking thought as soon as it rises up in me.
I go straight into my hell.
The strange conviction grows in me of having torn away all the security barriers.
I open my eyes and center myself so as to stay in the maloca. I’m crouched down like a wild cat with eyes wide open, looking at all my human brothers, trying to keep my thoughts in this world. The uneasiness mounts—I jump on the high-speed train of my guilt. Concentration gone, fear invades me.
Tears rise up. I feel sadness for having acted badly through inattention.
This terrifying loop inexorably unrolls its mastery over my mind. The visions become chaotic.
“My God, what have I done?”
My body trembles; tears flow.
“Drop all this mental bullshit!
“Get out of this apocalypse!
(That’s a summary, of course.)
Guillermo gets up. He positions himself in front of me like the spirit I’d seen earlier. He bends his knees a bit. He seems enormous—an indigenous sumo wrestler. He sings, an inch or so away from my forehead.
Meanwhile in the maloca, the others begin shouting for help. “Jan? Jan?” Er . . . I have to say that before the ceremony I was reassuring them. “Look guys, if there’s a problem, call me, I’ll help you go and see Guillermo.” I confess that I didn’t expect to be in this state. In response to their calls, my little finger moved a fraction of an inch toward them. That’s all I’m doing this evening to help my friends. One after the other, they call out, “Guillermo? Help!”
He is on me and is singing loudly. A song that is muted, quick, warrior-like. It’s a voice that I had never known to come from him. I’m trembling like a chick that has fallen from the nest into icy snow. The song penetrates me deeply. It gives rise to brief, terrifying visions, but mostly it creates shocks in my organs. It unfolds from the meaning. The energy of the song activates new thoughts. My head moves in time with the rhythm of the song. With each movement an inner sweep of control takes place, like a mental armoring. Following the rhythm of his songs, my thoughts go something like this:
“Don’t let these negative thoughts take control of your mind!
“The feeling of guilt—look at it with your serpent eyes.
“Don’t let yourself be taken.
“Look at it for what it is: negativity.
“It’s part of the past.
“You can’t change anything.
“You’ll only make yourself sick.
“See the mental mechanics of it.
“True or false.
“The only thing you can do is, with your inner eye, watch this feeling, recognize it when it emerges once again. True or false doesn’t matter. Recognize it quickly, don’t let it start moving.
“Recognize it quickly before it gets too big.
“Kill it in embryo.
“May this journey leave you with this teaching.
“A teaching of vigilance.”
My head begins to jerk. It’s too strong. I groan.
The song ends. I am even more intoxicated.
Everyone begins moving around in the maloca. The boat is sinking. The other healers begin singing, and Guillermo takes care of each person.
It lasts the whole night through, right until sunrise.
An eight-hour-long storm. Eight hours of madness.
I remained crouched like a cat, driving out thoughts. The visions were unbearable, impulses, fear. Every time, it’s the same thing: the higher the trip goes, the more difficult the landing, as if one couldn’t take place without the other.
The two sides of man’s nature—light and shadow. Knowledge needs to happen in both directions. The medicina. The whole night through I was confronted again and again with the fear of myself. In this sensitive state where we were all connected, it was difficult to find relaxation in the vigilance, especially given the strength of this new preparation.
In the end we all got home safely. Back to the state we all share, to the world we know. Guillermo comes up to me and asks me how it went. The crestfallen survivor’s face that I show him makes him burst out laughing, a disarming laugh.
He says to me, “Bastante fuerte para mí. (Strong enough for me.) I traveled across the universe.” He points at the ceiling of the maloca, then says to me, “In my belly, things were moving around. My guts were wriggling.” I smile as I think to myself, “Hell, for me it wasn’t just my guts that were wriggling around, it was my whole body and my brain along with it.” He looked at me, then mimed a little wriggling, a gently mocking parody of my movements during the night. “I heard you all night long in my head. You were saying (imitating a small child’s voice), ‘Daddy, Daddy, help me, ayúdame.’”
He bursts into a warrior’s laugh, which has an immediate therapeutic effect on me. I laugh; relaxation comes in all at once. I laugh at myself. It’s so true and at the same time so good. I needed to relativize what I had just gone through.
Then he goes to lie down.
At dawn, calmed down, I fall asleep. As I wake up, I imagine the curanderos as surfers; the effect stimulated by the teaching plant is their wave, it opens the door to other worlds, it is their support. Last evening was a tsunami, but I was with the Silver Surfer.
I crawl out of my sleeping bag. I drink some tea and nibble a cookie, carefully.
Later I meet up with Guillermo. We’re sitting in the garden of his little house in the Yarinacocha quarter, a haphazardly cleared jungle in front of the maloca. He is nonchalantly caressing a shrub with twisted roots. “This is who you met last night.” His fingers slide over the plant while his gaze remains on me. Without me having asked him anything, he intones this sentence: “My grandfather always told me, ‘Don’t grab the energy.’” Then he withdraws and moves away leaving me with my thoughts. I’m surprised. In general our verbal communications—I don’t dare say conversations, my Spanish is too rough—are limited to purely material questions. Now his words take on a whole other meaning related to the night I have just experienced.
I remain thoughtful. Bits of the night come back to me; the memories of certain moments mix with what he has just said—with a look, a smile, the tone of voice. The intention in his words, a memory, and the fact that he gives me a message indirectly by using someone else’s words to illustrate an attitude of mine make things move into place in my mind. The whole thing amounts to a richer message, between sensation and words, between attitude and memory, which makes it into something like this:
“Let your thoughts go.
“They are like a stream; if you stop its flow, it’s like you’re creating a dam. You flood your consciousness.
“Let your thoughts flow with a good feeling.
“The stream expands and becomes a peaceful river.”
I set aside my notebook for a moment because while writing I’m getting flashes! I’m not watching my thoughts—I’m possessed by them.
I spend the day trying to meditate, then I reflect, and in the end I elaborate a bit.
In the world of visions, you will observe the birth of a thought. You will identify the feeling it comes out of, the emotion of which it is an echo, so you can choose—not through thinking, but by listening to your feelings. You will choose to allow or not allow this space to form in you and around you.
Your thoughts must be kept under surveillance, for they are your active link with the invisible world.
If you are peaceful in a quiet joy—it is an expression of simple but deep well-being.
The mind in the heart.
I admit that this is largely on the level of personal interpretation. But don’t think that, under the guise of psychomagic, I’m being tricky and that I’m distilling what I think by crediting Guillermo. This is not what he said to me, and it isn’t something that emerges from my own reflection alone either.
It’s very difficult to explain and to share.
This text is being written with my eyes wide open as to my own subjectivity, and yet it seems to be whispered in my ear by the man and the spirits that are around me.
Over the course of the years, the concordance between Guillermo’s attitude and my felt sense leads me to see his work as an education of the sleeping consciousness. He has the keys, coming out of his knowledge. He seems to be aware of my state in a very subtle way. I believe he can recognize not what I’m thinking but the forms, the faces of the thoughts that run through me, the energies and the spirits that swirl around me.
In a less esoteric way, he knows the psychological movements of the human being; he observes them in another light, in an archetypal world, and through an energetic perception of the other person.
Shipibo healers don’t talk a lot.
The songs transmit the healing and the teaching.
Rarely have I extracted oral information from Guillermo. If I shared my problems and my reflections with him, he would often reply, “Gracias para tu información, las respuestas a la noche.” (Thanks for your info; replies during the nighttime.) The responses come in the form of visions.
Every time he conveys a message to me, it’s in an indirect form. “Such and such a thing happened to me. Certain curanderos say that . . .” He recounted an experience from when he was young, during his first shamanic journeys, telling me what that experience meant, just when he had me undergo a similar experience the night before without ever making a direct reference to that experience. And this was done simply to reassure me or to enlighten me on the nature of what I had experienced, because I was going down a wrong path in my analysis of it.
He would also use the presence of a group to get a message to me.
I think the crocodiles are making me think today about a ceremony that took place six months ago.
*Frederick “Tex” Avery was an American cartoonist famous for producing animated cartoons beginning in the 1930s and creating such well-known characters as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.