The following is excerpted from Psychedelic Marine: A Transformational Journey from Afghanistan to the Amazon by Alex Seymour, published by Inner Traditions. This book follows Royal Marine Commando Alex Seymour as he copes with the extremes he’s experienced in the war through ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon.
Force is temporary, consumes energy, moves from one location to another. Power is self-sustaining, permanent, stationery and invincible.
David R. Hawkins
We boarded the large motorized canoe that would take us all to where the riverbank met the jungle. The moon shone overhead, the water reflecting its brilliance like a mirror. The air temperature was a comfortable 75˚F. Ten minutes later the boatman killed the motor, and the canoe began to drift toward the riverbank. Waiting on shore to greet us was Alfredo, who prepared the ayahuasca, and his crew of four men, who had already cleared a space in the jungle for the ceremony and would act as a safety team.
We stepped ashore. Torches flicked on, and everyone trod off in single file into the jungle, each person walking quickly and staying close to the person in front. No one wanted to get left behind or stray off the freshly beaten path. We came to the clearing. A quick flick of the torch revealed it to be about twenty meters wide. Standing in the middle were eight tiny Shipibo women. None of these medicine or holy women was taller than five feet and most appeared to be quite old. None flinched as our torchlights passed over their faces, their eyes shining brightly in the swathes of light.
Torchlight was the only light. Insects buzzing, and occasional whispers from group members were the only sounds apart from the gentle footfall of people as they moved around, choosing a place to sit. Twenty thin mattresses had been laid out around the edge of the clearing. The Shipibo shamanas—all trained ayahuasqueros—sat in a row in the middle. César, an elderly man with a wide, beatific smile—the Shipibo master ayahuasquero—was seated on the ground at one end of the line of women. He nodded a welcome to each of us as we settled in.
The mood was somber. We all attended to our own needs, making ourselves comfortable as best we could, aware of the implications of where we were and what we were about to do. Most checked to ensure their torch, water, and other comfort items were close to hand.
Andreas called us all to rise from our mattresses and move toward the middle of the clearing and form a circle. He said “Argonauts . . . happiness is a choice! And know this: it’s also a skill, and with intention you can commit to making that choice and learning that skill.”
He instructed us to face north and hold our arms up toward the sky with hands outstretched. He began an incantation, his voice booming into the darkness: “To the eagle of the north, soar above us. Look out for us and guide us as we journey inside.”
He shuffled his bulk a quarter to the left, and we followed suit. “To the hummingbirds in the west, fly near and protect us, let your wings beat softly over us as we make this journey inside to peace.”
We turned south. “To the spirit of the Anaconda, encircle us with your protective strength as we seek love from the Divine Mother of the forest.”
Facing east. “To the spirit of the jaguar, give us your courage, your agility as we seek a connection to you and the spirit of the forest and of the Earth and the mighty river.”
Turning for the last time back to the center of the clearing, we lowered our arms, completing the calling in of the directions with a loud ho. This ritual would start the ceremony each night.
César began to sing very softly. Andreas called out names in groups of four, and we crept forward to receive a cup from one of the female ayahuasqueros. Each person stoically drank the foul-tasting brew, a few shuddered in disgust as the thick brown gloop made its way from mouth to throat to stomach. We crept back to our mattresses and prepared to journey. Andreas admonished us to remain sitting upright for the next twenty minutes to ensure the ayahuasca sank deep into our stomachs. César stopped singing, and we sat in silence, waiting for the brew to take effect.
Out of nowhere a long swathe of light snaked into my peripheral vision. OK, here we go . . . Within minutes phantasmagorical visions erupted volcanically in cataclysmic sensory overload. I watched multicolored geometrical shapes morph into organic sentient forms. As the visions came on in full force, I steadied myself. You’re grounded, you are sane. Despite the attempt to self-soothe, the sensations escalated to the completely otherworldly.
The eight tiny Shipibo women singing icaros were unbelievable! Their voices harmonized beautifully in layer upon layer of exquisite choral vibration. Each of them was singing an entirely different song, but it was woven into an aural tapestry, a giant sound-shawl gently laid over us. Alien, yet soothing. Pure South American genius.
The singing was the cue for us to lie down flat on our mats. A few people had already started purging into their buckets. I glanced up at the sky and the jungle canopy above. Wow! I could only see a chunk of sky filling one-third of my visual field. The rest was a mass of dark foliage. The jungle was dancing! This was my first session outdoors, and everywhere the branches, shrubs, and vines were bathed in neon light and were in motion in a primordial dance. Through the dancing canopy, stars were shining like I’d never seen light shine before. Luminescence from a thousand fireflies flickered on and off. Seeing them burst here and there, flashing one second, dark the next, it seemed Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell and her friends had come to visit. I extended my arms trying to grab them, like a child reaching for bubbles. Then I lay still, and they landed on my outstretched forearms, lights flickering on and off in concert. This couldn’t be happening! It was too magical!
The visual fireworks began to settle down, and I focused on my intention: show me how to trust. Overwhelmingly the thoughts were of my friend JJ. Over the next hour there wasn’t a minute that went by when I didn’t think of him. Here was that sense of the divine once again. I was feeling interconnected to everything, sensing how life on Earth was about us, the collective, not the individual. It’s our separation that’s causing our dis-ease and war. We are connected! My sense of ego diminished to something infinitesimally insignificant—to practically nothing—and it felt so good. For the first time in my life, I actually felt sensations emanating from my heart—emotions literally becoming heartfelt. Much of this energy was directed toward JJ. I sensed the pain from the catastrophe he had suffered in a way that was far more than empathy. JJ, I feel you—all the way from the Amazon. My God, our God, dear God, I feel you in my soul, brother. I felt comparable to a disciple and sensed that JJ was a true holy man. These were the extraordinarily peculiar thoughts that looped over and over for an hour. I got a sense that JJ had been born before and had been revered. It sounds insane, of course, but if you met him, you would know this was not an entirely insane thought.
My hands moved involuntarily, forming into a prayer position. An energy was controlling the actual physical position of my hands, so much so that when my hands moved away from one another, within a minute they mysteriously drew back together again in the prayer position, fingertips extended, touching lightly. Why did this always happen? I’m not religious but had an overwhelming sense that ayahuasca was teaching me something. JJ is a schoolteacher. I thought that he should come to the Amazon and drink. It was such a natural fit: the plant teacher and the schoolteacher. Together a formidable force for good. JJ come to the Amazon and drink ayahuasca. I recommend it 100 percent. I recommend it 1,000 percent. How ridiculous does that sound? But the same thought spilled over and over and over. I recommend it 1,000 percent. The words refused to go away.
The reverie was disturbed by queer noises coming from the people lying nearby. Until now everyone had remained disciplined and quiet. Occasionally, someone called out for Andreas, and he strode into the middle of the circle, his huge bulk silhouetted against ambient light from the moon and asked, “Who called me?”
When the person identified him- or herself, he went over and solved the problem. During the briefing on the ship, Andreas had told us that if someone appeared to be troubled or in need of assistance, we were to ignore them. He and his team would be on hand immediately to lend any assistance. He asked us to be selfish, to focus only on ourselves, to pay attention only to our intention. Hard as it might be, if someone needed assistance, we should not concern ourselves or take action—no matter how anguished the person seemed to be. “Do not help anyone!” he had explicitly commanded. Taking that instruction to heart had amplified the anticipation of what was to come.
But now exceptionally unusual noises were coming from a woman lying a few mattresses away. She was making a weird ahhh sound, more than a sigh, lasting as it did for five to ten seconds at a time. It started at a low pitch and rose higher and higher, or sometimes the reverse. Initially, rather than a woman in ecstasy, it sounded eerie. But it developed into much more than that—as if she were encountering an entity that possessed majesty so astounding that she was awed to a state where mere words were useless to express its magnificence. It was unnerving, the feeling you’d get from a wolf howling in the wild. She uttered occasional gasps of wonder, although she sounded simultaneously fearful and humbled in her rapture. At times it seemed as if she were on the cusp of either a scream or an uncontrollable laugh. I’d never heard anything like it. The noise must have been involuntary, because Andreas had instructed us to remain silent throughout the ceremony unless we needed his assistance. But as the ceremonies unfolded over the coming nights, this woman continued to make the same sounds.
In between my own intermittent gasps of wonder, introspection reigned. Understanding the significance of being able to detach my self from the ego was as insightful as learning the magnitude of the golden rule as a child. If only I could have parked my ego before now. It was infuriating that the solution to much of life’s angst had always been hidden in plain sight if only the veil could have been lifted. The fights I could have sidestepped, the conflicts and squabbles, the overwhelming enormity of self-inflicted suffering that could have been avoided didn’t bear thinking about. And with new comprehension I realized that it is entirely possible to cruise through life, from birth to death, and never even get out of the third gear of consciousness: asleep, awake, occasionally drunk. Repeat for eighty years. Die. There are men I know who will do this, of that there is no doubt. The unholy triumvirate of laws, beliefs, and culture will tragically exclude them from the psychedelic experience. A psychedelic encounter for many men would be like food to an anorexic—what could nourish them is denied, and denied by their own volition.
When the ceremony ended I lay there for a couple of minutes and watched the scene unfold as people rose up, shook themselves out of their introspection, and began talking. Robert, the heart surgeon, was near the foot of my mattress with Andreas, and I watched them embrace, two giants hugging. They held each other for a long while, an intimate moment. Andreas whispered in Robert’s ear. He listened intently for what seemed like an eternity, then slowly nodded and embraced Andreas again, only this time they placed their hands on each other’s upper arms and stared at each other in deep affection. Then they parted. I smiled, noticing a queue had formed behind Robert of other people who also wanted to thank Andreas. He asked us to thank César and the shamanas. We all clapped appreciatively, and they smiled rather shyly and nodded their heads in acknowledgment.
Back on board the ship, there was a celebratory atmosphere. Everyone seemed relieved that they’d gotten through the ceremony and were safe, sanity intact. Everyone I talked to was still very much feeling the aftereffects of the brew. People laughed, hugged, and kissed, inquiring, “So, how was it for you?”
I sat up on the top deck and shared a cigarette with Josh and Julian, the two young Americans. We were still feeling spaced out and woozy. I was thirsty and went to the dining room to grab a fruit juice. Glancing through the dining-room window, I saw Andreas sitting at the head of the long dining table on a high-backed chair reminiscent of a throne. He held a huge staff in his hand—a silent monarch. Two Australians—Phil and Trey—flanked him, sitting on each side, eyes closed, perhaps meditating. It was comically theatrical. I crashed into the room, breaking their trance. Andreas looked over, unfazed.
“Alex, how are you?” he asked, smiling warmly.
“Feeling supergood!” I gushed.
I got the juice, we said good night, and I trotted off to my cabin. Panos was still not back, and so I went over to the full-length mirror and stared at my reflection. My pupils were dilated. The beard—my first—longer than ever. Stripped to the waist, I could see ribs poking through. A pendulous crystal wrapped in a cross-section of ayahuasca vine hung on a leather cord around my neck. A castaway stared back at me—a grown-up Lord of the Flies survivor.
Panos returned, and we greeted each other like old friends. He looked deeply vulnerable as he described how he had developed what he referred to as a dark energy, a shadow, in his stomach area. He even had a specific name for this darkness—an Erebus, a kind of entity living in him. One of the reasons he had come on this trip was to try to manage his relationship with this Erebus. I surmised that Erebus were common to his part of Europe, a kind of ghoul that took up residence in certain unlucky people. He asked earnestly, “Do you have the same kind of thing where you come from?”
“I really don’t think so.”
Every night when he went to bed, he would liberally sprinkle Agua de Florida around him and tap his stomach with an eagle feather. While waiting to join the group back in Iquitos, he’d purchased the enormous feather, which was two feet long and six inches at its widest. He loved it, so much so that, before going to sleep each night, he gently waved it up and down, tapping the tip of the feather on his midriff, where the Erebus resided, furnishing himself the comfort he needed. The Agua de Florida is a sweet perfume often used by shamans and ayahuasqueros in ceremony to cleanse a person or environment of dark energy. It made our room stink.
Now, with this story of the Erebus, I understood that ritual—and that Panos was very superstitious. Sweet and gentle but plagued with doubts and conflicts exacerbated not only by his inability to see without glasses—to see things as they really are—but also by archaic beliefs about energies that could only be managed with rituals and potions. Then again, the shamans believed in and did the same thing. At the quantum level who really knows exactly what is happening?
In all the time we shared a room, Panos never once inquired about my life outside the Mythic Voyage: where I came from, who I was, if I had a family. I think he just enjoyed using his imagination.
I lay down and began to think about the war and the unorthodox possibility of how ayahuasca could help military men prepare for war and heal from war. If we could give modern combatants a sense of the possibility of an afterlife, as I had had with my very first experience with DMT, based on their own direct mystical experience and not something that was merely taught or dependent on faith, then this had to be worth exploring and a potential source of comfort. I lay there thinking that so much pain is endured by emotionally wounded troops. On returning to the US, more troops were committing suicide each year than were actually killed in Afghanistan. There are many men I know who have returned from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who have suffered greatly, who are, at the very least, disillusioned. A friend of mine has serious post-traumatic stress disorder, is addicted to nicotine, and has been prescribed strong antidepressant medication for the last three years. Veterans like these are denied legal access to natural substances that can induce mystical states. Many feel misunderstood. Some go rogue and postal. Suicides are rife. Everyone loses. Surely, if a natural psychedelic could inspire me with such renewed optimism and faith in the value of life, then it could conceivably be of benefit to other veterans, too.
A totally unexpected gateway had opened in me to compassion, empathy, and a sense of everlasting life after death. The time for being culturally nudged into the seemingly blunt binary choice of being a religious believer or an atheist was over. This was a new alternative: spiritual. A new third way.
I drifted off to sleep feeling a genuine sense of forgiveness for my father and stepfathers. Once and for all, I had to just let that shit go.