The Sacred Vine’s Ancient Traditions in the Colombian Rain Forest

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Being a psychologist living in Bogotá, Colombia I have been lucky enough to be close to the Cofán People from the Putumayo region in southern Colombia (part of the Amazon rainforest) for more than 15 years. I´ve had the fortune to be part of their traditional and healing ceremonies where we drink the sacred vine of Yagé, or Ayahusca as it´s known in other countries, and I have no words to express my gratitude for having the chance to explore this world so deeply.  I have just read in the great online magazine, a fragment of the recent book The Psychotropic Mind, and liked it a lot, especially as it came from Jeremy Narby, from whom I recently read the great Intelligence in Nature.  This inspired me to write a few words on the topic.

As most people might know, there are infinite things to talk about regarding the Yagé experience, and there have been plenty of recent books exploring the topic which I find really exiting. Nevertheless as time goes by and as my experience with the brew grows, it becomes clearer to me that the mystery of this plant is wider and deeper than I could ever imagine. Not only because of my being a western-educated explorer and for this reason foreign to the indigenous tradition, but because it is so for the Taitas (elder shamans) themselves. They are certainly the wisest and most skillful when working with this medicine. But the more experienced the shaman, the more puzzled he is and therefore the more humble when facing the Existence enigma. That is what I have learnt the most from the hundreds of sessions that I´ve taken part in. How little we know in our pretentious and arrogant western culture about this mysterious life, and how little we know how to manage what has been actually given to us, in what we could call the dimension of the "known."  I´m talking about our relationship to nature, to animals, to our fellow humans and most importantly to our own bodies and minds.

As I said before, I could talk for hours about this, but I just wanted to mention a couple of things. Regarding Nearby's account, he mentions in his book the topic of feeling nauseous and drunk when the effects of the brew gets strong. This is one of the main things you have to learn in the Yagé path, which is to be able not to throw up when the strong nausea comes. As the Taitas always tell people when drinking: "sostenga el remedio" which means "hold the medicine inside." If you are able to do so, you will be able to pass to another level of consciousness, more magnificent than anything. The deepest teachings of the plant begin when you are able to hold it in.  But considering that the medicine these particular shamans are using is so strong, it is extremely difficult to contain it. It is not just a matter of good intention. In reality it takes much more than that.

It seems like the body is not able to hold so much awareness and openness of consciousness so it has to get violently rid of that strange substance.  The only way to hold it in is having a very strict discipline in daily life in relation to diet, sexual behavior, emotional and psychological states, not being too close to or eating food cooked by a woman in her menstrual period before the ceremony, and purging yourself several times with other medicines to clean your system, among many other things (some of these rules might sound superstitious but with time you learn that is not the case). And this last point is a very important one, because we sometimes think that vomiting the Yagé is a main part of the cleansing, but people don´t usually realize that this is something we should learn to avoid. The vomiting and physical cleansing should take place with the previous purges done with other medicines different than the Yagé, so that when we are in the ceremony we are able to hold the medicine and have the deepest healing and opening.

I really like when people from all over the world come and visit and experience the medicine for themselves. I have seen plenty of times how a single experience can have a deep impact and transformation in the life of a person. But in order to get at least a little glimpse of what this world is about, it takes a whole lot more than that. The shamans that I drink with, some of them around 90 years old, frequently recall they had to drink almost daily for about 50 years, very close to their personal teacher, in order to learn the skills they now manage, and to be able to call themselves "Taitas" (this is very important considering the fact that there are so many people calling themselves "shamans" and leading ceremonies without really knowing what they're doing). The Yagé world is so much more that just drinking it somewhere with "somebody" out there. It is a very serious thing and in my personal opinion, having done it with different kinds of people and settings, I can say with certainty, that it is very important to find the right people to do it with, and get the right guidance, in order to have a safe journey and to really make the best out of it. It´s not even enough to find an elder indigenous person who leads a ceremony; it has to be a real Taita.

Just thinking about the complexity of the preparation of the Yagé never seizes to amaze me. It takes entire days for them to find the particular components in the jungle, finding the right additional leaves and plants. Then cooking the brew for three or four sleepless days and nights. Chanting, dancing, and charging the potion with powerful energy — all of this done while constantly drinking Yagé and thus being entirely guided and instructed by the spiritual element of the plant. You can witness in a ceremony how the particular chant they give to the cup of Yagé varies a lot depending on the person who is going to drink it. The strength and the quality of the effect are totally affected by what the Taita does to this cup.  

I recently met people in Europe who were participating in ceremonies, and heard really incredible stories.  For example an "experienced European shaman" leading the ceremony passed out in the middle of the night and the "patients" had to help him through for several hours. Miraculously, nothing worse happened that day, but a lot of stories that I´ve known about didn´t have such a happy ending.  I do believe that it is risky to do it with people who don't have real knowledge and experience. These are immense and sometimes overwhelming forces of nature that we are dealing with. And I also believe that we are working with very mysterious and sacred forces in the Universe, and this cannot be taken lightly.

There has been a great deal of a conflict in the Cofán culture as to whether to open the ceremonies to foreign people or to keep them closed as they has been for thousands of years. The thing is that there is no time to choose anymore, because the Pandora's Box is already open, and due to the circumstances the traditional indigenous cultures are facing in their territories, they have no other option than to look for allies in the wrongly called "civilized world". The rain forest is being totally torn down by the oil, lumber and soy enterprises, drug business, etc. In any case, I really think that the world as it is right now is in need to remember it´s connection to nature and the Mystery, and this plant has that power as no other that I know of. But the way to approach it has to be with deep respect and seriousness.

This is not just a psychedelic gathering, a fun trip of magical visions. This is the basis of a deep transformation in the human psyche, a tool that has been mysteriously placed in nature for us to find our way back home. And as with every powerful tool in nature (like fire) we must acquire great responsibility to be able to use it for the good, otherwise it can be used against us.

The situation for the Cofán people is really dramatic right now. With a group of friends, we are trying to help the elder shamans with a little piece of land near Bogotá (the capital city) so that they can build a "Maloka" (the traditional temple for the Yagé ceremonies) and where they can plant their traditional medicines for healing, before their culture, wisdom, and they themselves disappear forever. For years they have received people from all over the world and they are very well known for their wisdom and expertise. I´ve had the chance to personally witness in countless opportunities the amazing healing taking place in people´s lives, from chronic depression and deep rooted addictions to cancer and HIV. Helping in the construction of this sacred temple will be the best contribution for having a really safe place to receive people from any place in the world interested in having the greatest experience of cleansing, healing and spiritual exploration they could ever find.  

For anyone willing to help in this cause please contact me and/or visit their web page (with some not so good English translations, but hopefully you´ll get the idea).  

Image by 88rabbit, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

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