The following is excerpted from Ayahuasca Medicine: The Shamanic World of Amazonian Sacred Plant Healing published by Inner Traditions, Bear and Co.
After I had studied with Don Juan for a year and a half, he decided it was time to present me with my initiation as a curandero. At the time I really didn’t understand the significance of this. He explained that the ceremony and the medicines would be under my control. I would be entirely responsible for procuring the vine, chacruna, and datura, and for blessing the plants with the appropriate icaros, cooking the medicine, and determining the dosage for each person. To undergo this initiation I had to strictly follow the required diet: no salt, no sugar, no oils, and abstinence from sex. This wouldn’t be that difficult for me as I hadn’t added salt or sugar to my food for over twenty years. Oil was a rarity also, so I wouldn’t miss this. And sex? I usually found this to be the most difficult, but as this was part of the standard diet for learning ayahuasca anyway I had been somewhat maintaining this regimen since I began my studies, although not always in the strictest sense. I followed this diet for thirty days, and we prepared for the evening of my initiation.
I chopped the vine Don Juan himself had planted several years ago on the small plot of land behind his house, and I blessed the mapacho cigarettes used to soplar, blow on, the vine and the ayahuasca as it was cooking. I sang the icaros he used when he cut his vine, hoping that although they were songs taught to me by Don Juan there would be some power within them for me as well. As I pounded the vine in preparation for its cooking, I also sang the icaro Don Juan had suggested, giving it a blessing that the energies released would be of the Light. Don Juan had explained, “This cooking is a very important event in the life of a curandero. It is time to determine what sort of strength you will have as a healer. The stronger the medicine, the more powerful will be the curandero.”
As I put the ayahuasca vine, chacruna, and datura into the pot, I prayed for the possibility of activating a strong medicine and that the spirits of the plants would come through. The anticipation of the medicine’s effects for this night was constantly on my mind. If I cooked all day and we drank with little effect, I would feel my studies had been in vain. But I had added what I had thought to be the correct amount of chacruna to an amount of ayahuasca vine needed to make ten doses. I had sung the icaros with the correct intent, from my soul, I believed. And even as I continued to stir the pot and hum various icaros, I maintained a state of mind conducive to a beautiful and powerful experience upon drinking the brew. I invited two friends in Iquitos to join me, as this was a special night and I had a very positive feeling that the ayahuasca was going to be as I wanted. This was the first ritual in which I would be in charge. Everyone knew it, and all were hoping it would be a success.
Don Juan and I entered the ritual with small white cloths on top of our heads. We seldom use these, but this night there was only a sliver of moon. The white cloths help the spirits called to understand whom they would be working with. Initially, I sat on Don Juan’s right-hand side, the space reserved for me, the apprentice. Although the ritual was under my control, it was still Don Juan who held the position of ultimate authority. I handed a cup of ayahuasca to each person, determining what quantity to pour. This is mostly an intuitive process, watching closely as each person rises from his or her chair and walks up before me. I also use the body weight factor to determine the dose, as this plays an important role in the effects of the ayahuasca. In general, the more a person weighs, the larger the dose. There are those, however, that have a type of spirit that is much more affected by the medicine. All of these factors must be taken into account, but as I said, the intuitive process holds the most weight.
My friends Jim and Marilyn, who were visitors to the country, were the last two to drink. Don Juan and I had previously blessed the medicine, and I had sopla’ed the cup with mapacho smoke. I continued blowing smoke under my shirt and into my hands, waving the smoke up onto my face and over my head, another method for giving protection and blessings. I informed the guests the ayahuasca needed to remain in their system a minimum of twenty minutes, and the longer you could avoid throwing up the more the medicine would work its way into your system.
I explained, “When you need to go outside for purging, it would be best to take a mapacho cigarette; regardless of whether you smoke or not, the smoke will act as a veil of protection for you. Evil spirits do not like tobacco smoke. Besides, it’s dark, and they make good flashlights when you puff on them. If you have, at any time, questions about things you see, please ask me. If any spirits present themselves to you, don’t be afraid. Ask the spirits what their names are and why they are here.”
After we began to feel the effects of the ayahuasca, I blew out the candles and began whistling icaros used to enhance the medicine’s effects. As I began feeling more comfortable, I sang other icaros, but not those used to call in the doctors for specific healing. I sang the icaros of blessing and good fortune. The ayahuasca began moving from my feet upward through my legs and into my chest. I could feel it cruising through my body, working its way toward my head. As it neared my ears, the rushing sounds became so loud I could hear no other outside sound for perhaps five minutes. When this passed I began to “see.”
Don Juan called the invitees to present themselves, one at a time, in front of him for a blessing after returning from purging outside. I watched as each person had a difficult time walking to him. The ayahuasca was quite strong. As he began the blessings I moved across the room to sit near the door, preventing any unwanted spirits from entering our space.
Don Juan sang a specific icaro for each person, sweeping the shacapa over their body and head, “dusting off” their spirit, cleaning their aura, removing negative energies that may have attached themselves there as a result of living in an industrialized First World. He called for Marilyn, but she had difficulty walking over to him because of the strength of the ayahuasca. I rose and helped place her on the small stool in front of him, then returned to my guardian position near the door. While he was singing an icaro for her, a spirit walked through the wall beside him and continued across the room to stand directly in front of me. I looked it over but most of my concentration and my concern was focused on Marilyn. I looked again at the spirit. It was a man about six feet tall wearing a long, dark, charcoal-colored robe, with a curly black beard interlaced with streaks of silver.
The spirit said, “You wanted to talk to me?” in a heavily Jewish accent.
I had not called this spirit; I had not even been thinking about asking questions of a spirit. My focus was on the present and whether the guests were comfortable, as the ayahuasca was stronger than usual. I looked at Marilyn being enchanted by the blessings of Don Juan and then back to this spirit dressed in a long black robe. I then did what I had previously told my friends absolutely not to do: I did not ask for the name or why the spirit had come. I stupidly looked at this uninvited dark image and whispered, “Vaya,” go away.
The spirit nodded, then said, “Okay.” It turned around and disappeared, walking through the wall on the opposite side of the room. No other spirits appeared to me that evening, and I spent the rest of the night helping those needing assistance as they went outside of the ritual hut for air to purge, or finally, to retire to their tent to sleep. The ayahuasca had been very powerful and the ritual had been a success. I, too, retired to my mattress and mosquito net and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. In the morning those who had come to drink with us returned to their homes and to the city’s hostels and hotels.
I sat with Don Juan drinking our morning glass of water with lemon juice and garlic, our customary beverage following an ayahuasca ritual. It washes your liver and kidneys of any grainy residues left there by the medicine. Nothing else is to be consumed until noon. Not eating before noon was to allow the full medicinal effects of the ayahuasca to take hold in your body, getting the full amount of healing possible from the medicine. As I sat there with Don Juan he asked me how I thought it went last night.
“The ayahuasca was quite strong,” I told him, pleased that it was so.
“Did you experience anything unusual?” he asked me.
“No, Don Juan. I saw only one spirit the entire night.” I explained how the spirit looked and how it had presented itself to me.
“With a long black beard and streaks of silver?”
“Yes, Don Juan. And a long, dark, charcoal-colored robe.”
“Alan! That was the king, the ayahuasca king! He came to you on the night of your initiation and you sent him away?” He was incredulous. “Didn’t I tell you how to respond when a spirit presents itself?”
“Yes, Don Juan. Sorry. Do you think he’ll ever come back?” I felt like a complete idiot.
“Of course he will!” he assured me, but I didn’t feel very secure with that thought.
The following night I decided to drink again in the hope that this spirit hadn’t gone too far away. While I knew the concept of time and space was completely out of place in the spirit world, I still felt that the sooner I could drink, the more likely I would have the opportunity to speak with the king.
That night, in a quite clandestine fashion, I sneaked into the ritual hut and drank a large dose of the very same ayahuasca I had prepared for my initiation. I sat there in the center of the room all alone. When I felt the effects, I started singing not only the icaros I had learned from Don Juan, but also those from my San Pedro maestro. About an hour into the ceremony, Don Juan came out of his house and entered the hut.
“Alan! What are you doing in here?” He wasn’t happy.
“No problem, Don Juan. I’m drinking ayahuasca,” I told him, calmly.
“Then sing. Sing the entire time to bring only the spirits you want. If you don’t, other undesirables will come.”
He then began singing his icaros and demanded I sing along with him. I sang maybe five icaros with him. When he felt comfortable I would continue singing, he started to walk out of the room and got a few feet out when he stuck his head back in the door and said, “You remember the woman from Lima who has been staying here with us?”
Don Juan’s family had taken in a young woman from Lima. She was a distant cousin, maybe nineteen years old, who had split with her boyfriend and had come here to repair her heart. She was lazy and slept in every morning after spending every evening out on the town, somewhere in Iquitos. She didn’t help Leonore with the house chores, the laundry, or cooking but just seemed to sleep and eat. What she actually did during the late hours of the night when she was away from the house was anybody’s guess. Daily, Don Juan sang specific icaros that her hurt would be healed soon.
“Si, Don Juan.”
“Every night she goes out and returns the next day. I want to know where she is. You go and find her.”
“But, Don Juan,” I protested, “I’m in the middle of a ritual, drinking ayahuasca. I can’t leave here now.”
He gave me his best “you’re not as clever as you think you are” face, and said, “No, Alan. I don’t want you to physically go and look for her; I want your spirit to find her. Tomorrow you tell me where she was.”
“And how am I going to do this?” I asked.
He shot his look at me again. “So, your other maestro hasn’t taught you how to fly yet?” He enjoyed kidding me about things I had and had not learned from my “other maestro.” As much as possible, I, too, played with him by not mentioning any of the things I had learned. One of the rules of being an apprentice is that you must completely accept and abide by the philosophy of your teacher, regardless of what you believe. Those things gleaned from previous teachers must be shelved until you have finished the apprenticeship with the current maestro. When you are ready to begin your own practice, you may use those things learned from your various teachers as you will, thus developing your own style as you also integrate those concepts that you personally have discovered and that work for you.
Don Juan continued, “Listen to me. Place the name of the woman on your forehead. Think of nothing else, and go!” He told me, then repeated, “Think of nothing else, and go.”
“Gracias, Don Juan.” And he left again.
My mind raced. Was this possible? Was this the way to fly? Why hadn’t he explained this sooner? As often as I have discovered myself zooming out through space seemingly out of control, I realized I had never simply asked him if there was a rhyme or reason to it. Now he had given me something concrete, as strange as it sounds using concrete in this context. I was excited. I sat down in the chair and did as he said. I knew her complete name and placed it into my thoughts, on the very center of my forehead. I found I could maintain this only a minute or so and my mind began wandering. It would come back after wandering off to many other things and I had to begin again. Each time I began anew, I held it longer. Finally, after doing this for what seemed a hundred times, I found myself quite suddenly in the air and moving over the ground at a tremendous speed.
I saw from above the treetops down to the Plaza 28th of July, which was three miles away from Don Juan’s ritual hut. I could see the crowds of people and the tiles that made up the walkways. I was hovering above all of this. I didn’t get excited; I just looked around, somehow knowing that this, of all the many places this woman could be in Iquitos, was the location I was seeking. I can’t tell you with complete certainty exactly what sort of bird or insect it was that I was traveling with, but on looking back I think it must have been a hummingbird or a dragonfly because of the manner in which I was moving, the ability I had to simply hang in midair, and the way I seemed to be wafting back and forth with the breeze. I was looking down into this crowd when a man and a woman turned and walked directly toward me, seemingly presenting themselves. I realized I couldn’t actually be seen.
They walked over to be just underneath me. Controlling my excitement that this must be who I had asked to see, I first looked down at the shoes of the woman and man, then the tear in the knee of the blue jeans on the man, to the skirt on the woman. I knew that as soon as I saw her face I wouldn’t be able to maintain my calm, so I continued slowly up her body until I reached her face. When I saw her face and realized it was she, my exhilaration was so high it jolted me back into my body in less than an instant. I couldn’t believe it! It was real! You not only could leave your body, but it seemed you could even control when and where it happened and possibly even for how long you could stay out.
I was too excited by this discovery to get anything else accomplished for the next hour, so I crawled into my bed to sleep. I couldn’t wait to tell Don Juan. I slept through the morning and rose around 11:00 a.m., drank my lemon juice and garlic water, and sat down with Don Juan and his family at noon for lunch.
“Don Juan, I saw her last night!”
He looked up from his bowl of soup. “And?”
“She was at the Plaza 28th of July. She was with a man who had a tear in the knee of his jeans. They weren’t touching. It seemed more that they were just friends.”
He just shrugged his shoulders and continued eating. About half an hour later, the young woman arrived and sat down to eat. I remember so clearly Don Juan asking her, “Where did you go last night?”
“Plaza 28th of July. I met a friend there.”
I didn’t even look up from my soup.
There’s such magic here, in the jungle. So many things to understand, so many rules to break. And this is only the beginning. The way is full of traps, and it only takes one to fall off your path. The “light at the end of the tunnel” comes from maintaining balance in the midst of adversity. I understand that my mission is not in playing with these tools as a child does a new toy, but in using these gifts of the Sacred Power Plants and the ageless tradition of shamanism for healing. It is here that the real magic resides.
I hope to write more of my experiences in the hope that people might understand this phenomenon called curanderismo, that the troubled missionaries I have so often bumped into might finally understand that this type of work has nothing to do with evil, and to help the travelers who so often come down to the Amazon realize that they too have a healer within. It may not be that they are on the path of becoming a curandero, which is fine. It may just be that they need to understand that they can come to the center of things without trying to become “the shaman.”
Don Juan once explained to me the essence of this understanding in the beginning of my apprenticeship. He drew a spiral in the dusty clay at our feet with a twig, and with this twig he began by pointing to the perimeter of the spiral, saying, “Alan, this is the beginning of your studies in curanderismo. As we journey together I will guide you around this outside path and into its inner chambers.”
As he said this he moved the pointer to the inner swirls of the vortex. He then stuck the pointer into the center of the vortex and said, “This is the heart of curanderismo and the center that you will have to discover on your own. I cannot and will not show you what lies here. It is for you to discover. When you reach this point you will have learned how to heal yourself, and if the spirits desire, you then will begin to heal others. You will become a curandero with your own methods of curing and a particular group of spirits that you will have begun to work with. While the path of self-healing is for everyone, the ability to heal others is not granted to all. Perhaps, when you reach the heart, you will find that you have learned to heal yourself. Perhaps you will see that this is enough. However, if the spirits of the plants are willing, you will then be allowed to heal others. This we will watch and see.”
Teaser image by fussell 810, courtesy of Creative Commons license.