In November 1990 I had the good fortune to accompany a small expedition organized by a group called Botanical Preservation Corps (BPC) to the Ecuadorian rainforest to study cultural and ethnobotanical aspects of certain visionary plants, particularly the concoction known as ayahuasca. This was one of the first such expeditions by BPC, a group of medicinal and visionary plant enthusiasts from Northern California. In later years this group organized a series of conferences on entheogenic plants and fungi in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, which attracted hundreds of participants.
The leaders of our small expedition were Rob Montgomery, a botanist specializing in medicinal and psychoactive plants, and Bret Blosser, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist who studied indigenous healing practices in Central and South America. I had had at that time perhaps two or three experiences with ayahuasca, in a North American setting, thanks to my friendship and connection with Terence McKenna. I was interested in pursuing a deeper understanding of this remarkable visionary plant concoction and its use by indigenous Amazonian shamans and healers.
On this particular expedition, our group of about a dozen people had gathered in Quito, the capital of Ecuador—an amazing city of two million inhabitants, situated almost exactly on the equator at 9,350 feet above sea level. We hired a driver with a minibus to take us, via Archidona and Tena, to the remote Jatun Sacha Biological Research Station near the Rio Napo. From the mountainous highlands of Quito, we descended on winding roads to the rainforest lowlands, eight hundred feet above sea level, making rest stops at tiny villages along the way. A couple of times when we stopped by the side of the road, Rob Montgomery, the avid botanist and plant collector, would rush into the forest to collect specimens of some rare medicinal plant he’d identified. The trip took almost ten hours, and we arrived after dark in a pouring rainstorm. We carried our bags and food boxes up a steep, narrow, and muddy footpath. At the Jatun Sacha station, there were wooden cabins, where we had bunk beds with mosquito nets. We were all exhausted and stressed, both by the altitude changes and the rough discomfort of the bus trip.
The next day we were instructed to walk into the forest and then to separate and each spend an hour alone, sitting quietly, letting our senses expand into the forest ecosystem. Plant, animal, fungal, and microbial life was seething and simmering above, below, and all around us. After I settled on my little piece of ground near a footpath, I was surrounded on all sides by a seemingly impenetrable wall of green over a hundred feet high, dripping with moisture, exuding waves of varied exotic plant perfumes, some putrid, some sweet and almost erotic. More birds started to sing as the sun rose higher, casting patches of light on the forest floor. I was meditating on the formal analogies between the serpentine form of the vine, the mother serpent said to be the spirit of the ayahuasca medicine, and the serpentine coilings of the intestines, the organ where the medicine exerts its purgative action.
I had been reading a book called Sicuanga Runa (1985) by Norman Whitten, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois who made a lifelong study of the indigenous religious and shamanic traditions of the Ecuadorian Amazon region. I learned that the spirit of the plants and the forest is described as un hombrecillo vestido de verde, “a little man dressed in green.” This nickname reminded me of the little green elves, male and female, that I had seen on my ayahuasca trips in Northern California.
My account of those visions was published, along with those of about twenty other people in a book I edited: The Ayahuasca Experience (2014). In that book I used the pseudonym Raoul Adamson for my own account, which was titled “Initiation into an Ancient Lineage of Visionary Healers.”
The ayahuasca jungle elves, the little green guys, are carrying away what look like armor plates and metallic pieces. I get the sense they are taking apart pieces of a structure, to wash and polish them and tune them up for better functioning. Suddenly I realize the structure they are dismantling is my self. I yell after them, inwardly, “hey, wait, that’s me you’re carrying away there”. Without missing a beat, they reply cheerfully, “not to worry, we’ll put you back together, you’ll be fine”. All the time they are singing in the rhythmic chants of the icaros sung by the guide. I had experienced, and heard of, shamanic dismemberment experiences before, where you are pounded and pulverized, or sliced and cut up, as a prelude to eventual healing reconstitution. But this was the first time I experienced this kind of civilized, courteous, efficient dismantling. The green elves were taking apart my character armor, and giving me back an improved, more flexible, more comfortable body-mind-system. (Metzner 2014, 121–2)
At the time of our expedition in Ecuador, I had had only two or three ayahuasca experiences, like the one cited above, mostly in the company of my friend Terence McKenna. They had been unreservedly positive, sometimes accompanied with intimate healing insights and transformations. I had not had any ayahuasca experiences with indigenous guides or shamans, as we were planning to have in our jungle encampment, but my attitude, though naïve, was confident and filled with positive anticipation. This turned out to be an important factor in helping me deal with the unexpected onslaught I was about to face.
We met with a local woman named Mercedes Mamayallacta, whose father was a Quechua yachaj (shaman healer). She told us how the initiation of a yachaj involves meeting Sacha Runa, the man (runa) of the forest (sacha), who invites you to his house in the forest, where you sit on a bench, which turns out to be an anaconda, while he teaches you about the plants and the animals. Actually, Sacha Runa is said to be a couple: men shamans are taught by the female, women by the male. (This practice reminded me of tantric initiatory traditions of India and Tibet I had heard about.) The yachaj work with ayahuasca, as well as with guantu—a Brugmansia species with properties similar to datura—and with tobacco, which is the most widely used psychoactive plant in indigenous South America. The curanderos, who work with other medicinal plants and herbs, are a separate profession.
Rob Montgomery showed us the nursery of native medicinal plants he had been helping to build at the research station. Bret Blosser and David Neill, the botanist in charge of the Jatun Sacha station, gave talks on tropical rainforest ecology, with its intricate symbiotic webs, involving both competition and cooperation among plants, insects, birds, and mammals in a region that has the highest diversity of species on Earth. A local herbal curandero came and showed us how they prepare guantu. We were told that the Quechua shamans use it sparingly, separately from ayahuasca, for divining future situations as well as engendering premonitory dreams and finding lost objects.
That evening I decided to try a small amount of the guantu, although daytime use is considered preferable. I entered into a kind of floating trance between sleep and waking, a state some call twilight sleep: although the body is totally relaxed and still, you remain aware of the room you’re in. For a brief time I had a sensation of flying around the camp, amid vague images of other sleepers, before I drifted off into deeper sleep.
In the morning I recalled two dreams: one was of a minor argument with my spouse, which turned out to be prophetic of a situation that would happen after my return. The other dream was of an unpleasant dispute with a colleague, which I took to be a warning not to engage in a possible collaborative project we had been discussing. The following evening, I again took a small amount of the guantu juice and dreamed of listening to a Hispanic woman giving a lecture on medicinal plants. This turned out to be a preview of Rocío Alarcón, an Ecuadorian woman plant healer who was scheduled to arrive the following day to talk to our group. Nothing in those dream visions, however, prepared me for what was to come.
That evening an ayahuasca session was arranged for our group with a local shaman whom I shall call Don Pablo (not his real name). We were driven in a truck for about twenty minutes until we arrived at his house, which stood on an elevated wooden platform in a cleared field. We climbed up a stepladder and were directed to sit on the floor in a circle, crowded together in almost total darkness. Don Pablo and his wife passed out little thimble-sized cups with the liquid. I was surprised, because this was a much smaller amount than I’d ever taken before—even though I knew potencies of ayahuasca could obviously vary. We were also told to keep smoking the strong mapucho tobacco, which is normally used in conjunction with ayahuasca almost everywhere in Amazonia.
Don Pablo started chanting in a raspy voice, with a repetitive descending phrase, that sounded totally unlike the soothing, lilting icaros that I had heard ayahuasqueros singing on recordings made by my friend the Colombian anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna. I experienced a mild and pleasant sense of buoyancy and well-being, but no visions or healing insights with the characteristic purging. After about two hours I felt bored and uncomfortable in the crowded space, and had just about decided I was going to leave and climb down the stairs, when Don Pablo’s wife announced that the session was over and we should all leave.
On the drive back to our camp, the discussion was one of bemused perplexity: Rob, Bret, and I had experienced ayahuasca before, and we assured the others, who were novices, that this was not the real thing. For some reason he had either not made the tea correctly or in enough quantity. Some of us felt we had been ripped off, since an amount of money had been paid to the shaman. I was puzzled and a bit disappointed, but not otherwise greatly disturbed. Rob and Bret determined that Don Pablo didn’t brew the required mixture properly, either because he didn’t know how or for some other reason. When corresponding later about this event, Rob mentioned that he recalled Don Pablo telling us before we started that one had to be watchful all the time for other evil ayahuasqueros and their bad spirits. A session with another ayahuasquero, Don Jaime, was arranged for the following day, through contacts made by Rocío Alarcón.
The night after we returned from our session with Don Pablo, I started shivering and shaking. By the next morning I was feverish, with a strong headache, constant shivering and shaking, weakness, and no appetite. I started to feel afraid for my safety and for my family. I drank water repeatedly, but just as often would retch it up. I had a homeopathic emergency kit with me, with a little printed guide to the remedies. I couldn’t visually focus on the small print of the guide, so I asked Bret to find the remedy that best matched the symptoms I related to him. He picked out Gelsemium (yellow jasmine), for which the indications were listed as “flu-like symptoms with lethargy, weakness, achiness, shivering, occipital headache. No thirst. Body feels heavy and tired. Worse from dampness.” I took some, at the 20c concentration I had, every couple of hours. The homeopathic physician I consulted later told me that was also the remedy he would have recommended.
That evening, our group assembled for the second ayahuasca session conducted by Don Jaime. I was far too sick by this time to ingest anything. As the ceremony started, Don Jaime had me sit in front of him, while he chanted, shook his dried-leaf rattle in a circle around my body, blew tobacco smoke at and around me, and did some sucking extraction from the top of my head. His icaros were very soothing—completely different from the raspy chants we had heard from Don Pablo. My feverish shivering stopped during his ministrations, only to resume when he stopped singing. That night and the following day, I laid in my bunk bed under mosquito netting, while someone checked in with me every hour or so, taking my temperature, which was rising. I was in a delirious fever state, with nonstop shaking. Every fifteen minutes or so I would drag myself outside to retch what was by now only fluid. Thoughts and images in glaring colors and jagged shapes were rushing chaotically through my head in a meaningless jumble. They felt so violent and intrusive that I was reluctant to close my eyes. I was afraid and slept fitfully, if at all.
The feverish delirium continued into the next day, with profound weakness, continuous shivering, and aching all over the body. I felt as if I had been invaded by some unknown malignant force. It was obvious to all that I was getting seriously dehydrated. When I drank water, it tasted dry in my throat, and shortly afterward I would vomit liquid. In the afternoon, Don Jaime did another rattling and tobacco-smoke treatment, which gave me some relief. I was told it was Thanksgiving Day in the United States, but that fact barely registered in my consciousness. I did not feel celebratory.
The following day, since my condition was not improving, it was decided I needed to be evacuated to a hospital to get rehydrated. It was the planned last day of our trip, and the rest of the group went on a canoe trip. We agreed to meet up later in Quito for the return flight to the United States. Rocío Alarcón and two friends of hers drove me to a small hospital in Tena, where I was given intravenous infusions of saline, as is done with dehydrated infants. I had been without sleep, food, or water for three days. With sleep medication I finally found some rest and relief from the constant shaking and retching. I do not remember much of the return car trip to Quito or the return flight to San Francisco, except that I had to be taken aboard the plane in a wheelchair.
In writing up this story about twenty years later, I consulted with Bret Blosser and Rob Montgomery, to refresh my memory. Rob wrote: “When I caught up with you in Quito, you were really out of body and it took a bit to round up your stuff for the imminent flight home. The whole time I’m thinking to myself how (your wife) Cathy would never forgive me for letting you die. Somehow I got the airline with airport transfer points set up so there would be a wheelchair provided at every stop. I was not able to find your boots, so you went off in stocking feet. I’m sorry about that. I got your boots delivered by another participant later on.”
After my return I went to see our allopathic family doctor, Milton Estes, M.D., who took blood samples and sent them to be tested. I also visited Jonathan Shore, M.D., the very experienced homeopathic physician I had been working with for some time, who prescribed a remedy based on my symptoms. Within a day or two I began to improve, and my energy level went up to 50 percent of normal, from less than 10 percent. I started to feel that I was on a path of healing and recovery.
Three days after my return, I was lying in my bed in Sonoma, drifting off to sleep. It was a moonlit night, and a profoundly peaceful feeling pervaded my awareness. I saw two small figurines, maybe a foot or so in height, a man and a woman, like Kachina dolls, except alive, on the window ledge. They were beaming at me, emanating benevolence and protection. Then it dawned on me: this was the Sacha Runa pair, the guardian spirits of the rainforest. They were reaching out to me from their faraway forest home, making sure that I was OK, and conveying regret that I had such a painful experience while in their realm. I was deeply touched.
Over the next several weeks, my healing process continued, supported by the homeopathic remedies. Test results having ruled out hepatitis and other common infections, six weeks after my return Dr. Estes told me that a laboratory specializing in tropical diseases had identified the illness as dengue fever. Dengue fever is a viral infection vectored by a mosquito bite. Also known as “bone-break,” because of the violent feverish shaking and aching it causes, it can progress to more severe levels involving internal bleeding and death. There is no known cure, I was informed, but by the time I received that pessimistic prognosis, I was already cured. While there were certainly plenty of mosquitos around during our stay, I did not remember any particular insect bite preceding my fever.
I began to wonder whether I had been subjected to some kind of spirit attack. In the literature on South American indigenous and mestizo curanderismo, particularly in relation to ayahuasca, I found that harmful attacks by malevolent practitioners using invisible “darts” are widely reported. Perhaps as many as 50 percent of illnesses are said to be caused by such sorcery. The biography of Peruvian artist Pablo Amaringo by Luis Eduardo Luna gives dramatic accounts of these practices and their sometimes fatal consequences.
I was not so ideologically committed to the Western materialist worldview that I would discount such reports as impossible. I was well aware that negatively charged thought-forms, directed at others with focused intent can have devastating consequences. Envy among competitive health professionals, said to be the prime motivation for such attacks in South America, is well known in North America too, where it may manifest in malicious rumors and lawsuits, the slandering of reputations, and ruinous financial manipulations. Nor do I mean to single out doctors: malevolent envy and backbiting occur in all professions, including academia.
I remembered that Don Pablo, the first shaman we visited, had said that he spent two hours, before we started, “checking out the perimeter” of the field in which his house stood. I certainly had sympathy for his possible reluctance to give us a higher dose—a dozen inexperienced gringos, whacked out on ayahuasca on an elevated platform, could have spelled big trouble for him.
Later in December of that year, when I was at an ayahuasca retreat in the Southern California desert near Joshua Tree National Park, a couple of other possibilities occurred to me. One was that the attack came from Don Pablo himself; another was that it came from enemies of his, so that I would have been the victim of a kind of drive-by shooting. I realized that we knew nothing about his possible rivalries with other shamanic practitioners. He had lost a source of income when our group went to another healer after him. What did we know about the relationship between them? In my delirious state at the time, I didn’t have the energy to inquire with Don Jaime, the second practitioner, about such factors. But I remembered my disappointment with Don Pablo’s medicine, my dislike of his raspy chanting, and his cold, dismissive energy.
During that same desert vision retreat I also thought that probably my previous work with the healing spiritual energies of ayahuasca, and the bond I had made with the Serpent Mother Spirit (Sachamama) of the vine and the forest enabled me to survive the attack. Don Jaime’s healing chants may have reinforced the connection to the Sacha Runa couple, who came to visit me after I had returned home to California.
In connection with the serpent spirit, it was interesting that from the three-day delirium of jumbled racing thoughts and images, the one and only word that I recalled was Nagarjuna. This was the name of a legendary second-century Indian Buddhist yogic adept and philosopher, and it means “White Serpent.” (Nagarjuna was said to have been esoterically instructed by nagas—serpents.) He is regarded as the founder and prime exponent of the Madhyamika school—teaching the Middle Way of nonattachment to any concepts of reality. The ayahuasca serpent spirits may have been reminding me of nonattachment in that experience in the forest.
Some time after my return, my friends and fellow shamanic explorers Michael Harner and Sandra Ingerman came to visit. I told them about my experience and the questions I had been considering about the possible role of sorcery in my illness. Michael commented that it was always a good idea, when going into an environment with other shamanic practitioners, to fortify oneself with protective shields. I realized in retrospect that my attitude in going into the Ecuadorian rainforest to take ayahuasca with persons unknown to me had been quite naïve. My mind-set toward taking hallucinogens had been formed first in the easygoing 1960s and later by California New Age practices of taking psychoactive substances with trusted therapists and friends. There was an element of nondiscernment and overidealizing of indigenous people and their practices in my attitude.
In relation to my question about whether I was a bystander victim of a rivalry between healers or a target myself, Michael Harner also commented that perhaps I had been singled out because, with my gray hair, I was seen as the eldest and most experienced person in the group. It was the old gang-fighting principle of attacking the leader first. A delightful synchronicity occurred while the three of us were sitting in my living room discussing these thorny issues of malice and evil. My two-year-old daughter Sophia came running down the hallway, stark naked, shrieking with laughter while waving a black plastic devil’s stick left over from the last Halloween.
So the question of whether my bout with dengue fever was the consequence of an unfortunate but random encounter with a virus-vectoring mosquito, or whether the mosquito sting was the materialized dart of a malicious, ill-mannered yachaj, was left unresolved in my mind and remains so to this day. However, an unexpected postscript occurred eleven years later, which lent additional weight to the second possibility and the sorcery factor.
In May 2001 I attended and spoke at a conference on entheobotany, organized by the successor organization to the Botanical Preservation Corps, in Whistler, near Vancouver, British Columbia. Rocío Alarcón, an ethnobotanist associated with Ecoscientia, a conservation institute in Ecuador, also spoke at this conference, presenting her research on the medicinal uses of the ayahuasca vine and other herbal preparations. For the first time since the experience eleven years before, I had the opportunity to speak with her about it. She told me that she knew Don Jaime, the second shaman we worked with—in fact she had made the contact with him to work with our group. She said that when Don Jaime heard that we were going to do an ayahuasca session with Don Pablo, he had warned her that the latter had an unsavory reputation, and they were both concerned that someone in our group might get sick. So her testimony reinforced the idea that I was a deliberate target in the attack, not just an accidental victim.
The conversation with Rocío represented closure for me—to a fascinating cycle of shamanic sickness, dismemberment, sorcery, initiation, and healing. I don’t regret any of it. I am grateful to Rocío for her witnessing and support, to Don Jaime for his healing, to Michael Harner for his counsel and his insights, to Bret and Rob for their companionship and friendship, to the great Serpent Mother of the visionary vine for her lessons in nonattachment, and to Sacha Runa, the Forest Elder Spirits, for their benevolence and compassion.
Main Image: Martina Hoffmann