The following recounts in detail what turned out to be an incredibly intense and emotional adventure that took place during a three day "spiritual retreat" near Cuzco, Peru. In deciphering my wildly scrawled notes from the retreat while recounting the experience, I’ve realized how bizarre the whole experience must sound to someone who hasn't been through it. All I ask is for readers to keep an open mind… at least until reaching the end, after which they’re free to call me all sorts of critical and creative names.
Just like in many other indigenous groups throughout the world, shamans (a.k.a. medicine men, druids, or witchdoctors) are men of power, highly revered in society and often relied upon for their spiritual knowledge and healing abilities. Throughout the Amazon Basin, a skilled shaman is one who, with the help of ayahuasca, can successfully interpret and control the spirit world, and in doing so identify and remove the negative spirits that are the root cause of one's ails (and hopefully prevent other evils from entering while the portal is open).
In modern day, ayahuasca remains widespread in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, not only as a rite of passage amongst indigenous cultures (our Shaman's first experience was at the tender age of seven), but also as a treatment for mental or emotional conditions, a means of better understanding one's self, and, of course, a hippy-dippy trip for curious backpackers. Some families gather every year for an ayahuasca ceremony as a means of maintaining a healthy, mind, body, and spirit. There's even a religion in Brazil in which members drink ayahuasca tea at weekly gatherings. Many people who have taken ayahuasca claim that it opens up a connection with the energy of the universe, allowing them to overcome difficult crises or discover their true purpose in life. I agree - it all sounds pretty nuts!
How it works
Typically begun soon after sunset, during a ceremony a shaman (who has also taken ayahuasca) uses tools including sounds (chanting, singing, flapping feathers, shaking maracas and/or playing the flute), smells (including natural tobacco smoke and fragrant oils), and basic physical contact (a hand on the forehead or stomach) to maintain control over the spirit world and interact with the participants. If someone is having a particularly rough time or is stuck in a bad place, the shaman uses these tools to help guide their trip, reminding them to stay strong and continue to work on getting negative energy out while allowing positive energy in.
After hearing and learning so much about ayahuasca we decided to give it a try, just as soon as the right opportunity presented itself. While exploring Cuzco in February, we stumbled on the storefront of a company called Etnika’s that offers a three day, two night ayahuasca retreat, consisting of a series of traditional ceremonies led by an experienced Amazonian shaman and Andean priest. After checking out their website, reading their reviews on TripAdvisor, meeting with some of the staff at their office, and learning that there will be personal assistants and a professional nurse on hand throughout, we decided to postpone our Machu Picchu trek for a few days and finally give it a go.
The "Spiritual Retreat" package from Etnika's consists of the following:
- Cleansing our bodies through the drinking of "spiritual waters", on the day before the retreat.
- Cleansing ceremony with Andean Priest, morning of first day.
- First ayahuasca ceremony with Amazonian Shaman, first evening.
- Second ayahuasca ceremony, evening of second day
- Offering and prayer to Pacha Mama, morning of third day.
It’s a bit strange to me that something like this can be so public and official (Etnika's even claims to be officially recognized by the Peruvian Ministry of Health), but it does make me feel a bit more comfortable going into it - I'd rather this than meeting some sketchy dude in a hostel and then getting high in his basement.
From my skeptical point of view, this is how I envision things playing out: We arrive at the property and have some time to get settle in. Sometime in the afternoon, the Andean priest will perform a cleansing ceremony, during which he'll burn a bunch of sticks and mumble a bunch of things we don’t understand. About half way through this, our stomachs will be growling incessantly from having had to fast from the morning. The ayahuasca ceremony itself will begin around 8pm, for which we’ll each be led to a corner of the room, given a pillow, blanket, bottle of water, and bucket, and handed a cup of vile witch's brew, hold the eye-of-newt. Soon after drinking, we'll ralf a few times and maybe have to stumble to the toilet for some action from the back section (this is probably where the assistants come in handy). After about 45 minutes of “purging our bodies of evil”, we’ll lay down, close our eyes, and then… ?
Having never taken anything stronger than a good old-fashioned marijuana cigarette, I really have no idea what to expect here. I don’t think I'll run into mother nature or Jesus, and I'd be pleasantly surprised to encounter my spirit guide (in the form of a timber-wolf). I do, however, expect to have some awesome visions and maybe even learn something about the little Mandrew that lives inside me. Other people have described seeing their whole lives flash in front of them or Universe opening up to reveal to them the meaning of their lives - I'd love to revisit some memories long-forgotten, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I actually do come to some realizations about my life and come out with a better idea of what to do with myself.
We’ve been told the “trip” lasts about four or five hours, after which I expect we’ll go to bed and have some incredibly strange dreams. The next day we’ll wake up, ravenously eat breakfast, and spend the rest of the day recovering, meditating, reflecting, and then at 8pm we'll do it all over again. On the final day, we'll finish off by gathering outside for one last ceremony, an offering to Pacha Mama (mother earth) which will probably include a lot of bowing, kneeling, closing our eyes, burning stuff, and some more incomprehensible mumbling. Finally, we'll head back to Cuzco, feeling like brand new (though perhaps still a bit loopy) and our lives will somehow be fundamentally different. (?)
As a man of science, I'm quite skeptical of the spiritual and mystical ideas surrounding ayahuasca, but over the next few days I'll do my best to keep an open mind and enjoy the ride. Wish me luck!!
Day Zero (day before the retreat)
The "spiritual water", poured from big yellow jerry cans, is extremely cold, fizzy, and salty, and takes some serious effort to get (and keep) down. We "cheers" our first glass and laugh and the absurdity of the situation, but four of five glasses later we're all business. Chug a glass, stroll around the room, do some jumping jacks, and repeat, all the while waiting for the magic to start. After choking down twelve full glasses and passing only putrid sulphur gas, I'm advised to take a seat on the throne and try and urge things along. After a few minutes of grunting and groaning, things REALLY started flowing, and fifteen minutes later I emerge from the stall a new man. We’re told that we’ll know we’re sufficiently cleansed when our number three looks more like number one than number two. A couple more glasses and numerous return visits to the bathroom later, I’m clean as a whistle and truly feel a good deal lighter.
The rest of the day is ours to enjoy Cuzco and fill our guts back up with healthy, organic food – we opt for a hearty sushi dinner - and then head back to our hostel to try and get an early sleep.
Although I can’t say I believe in all these things, I enjoyed taking part in the process and hearing the explanations of what was being done and, more importantly, what's to come. Despite my skepticism, I feel like the Priestess has good intentions, and am now much more calm and ready for this evening's ayahuasca ceremony. The house and property at the retreat have a great vibe, tucked away in the mountains about an hour drive from Cuzco and surrounded by trees, flowers, birds, and sunshine. Each of us is passing time and preparing ourselves with our own forms of meditation and relaxation. The assistant (Daniel) visits each of us for a short interview on our life and current state of mind (happiness, relationships, jobs, etc.) so he can inform the shaman on to best guide us through our healing process.
I’m eager to begin the ayahuasca ceremony and feel confident that I will have a positive experience.
Day Two - Morning
As I expected, each of us was shown to a spot along the edge of the room, ready with a sleeping mat, sleeping bag, pillow, bucket, bottle of water and roll of toilet paper. Once our shaman (Maestro Juan Carlos) had cleansed each of us by rubbing our faces and heads down with "agua de florida" (fragrant flowery alcohol) and blowing tobacco smoke on the tops of our heads (in order to protect our chakras from negative energy) we were each given a cup of ayahuasca filled to suit to our individual needs (based on our current state of mind and, more likely, our body weight and state of health). After each saying a final silent prayer to Mother Ayahuasca, we did our best to gulp it down in one go. The taste wasn’t as repulsive as I’d expected, though the second it touched my lips I couldn’t stop thinking about vomit.
We were told that we’d all puke within fifteen minutes of drinking – I was the first to pop, after about eight minutes. After a couple more sessions with my bucket, I was able to lie back and feel myself begin to trip. At first, there were just a lot of colours – even with my eyes open, there was a rainbow kaleidoscope superimposed over my vision. With my eyes closed, however, it was much more intense, and at the height of the experience I was able to have some limited “visions”.
The only clear vision I can recall is a very tall and lanky man-like figure with a pointy face and long, snake-like tongue. I remember seeing this figure whenever I found myself distracted by all the “negative energy”, during which he’d pop up and do his best to convince me to barf. In this case, negative energy came in the form of being physically sick (stomach pain or urges to vomit) or from hearing the others around me heaving or sobbing. Physically, I felt exactly the same as when I’ve had waaaay too much to drink – the kind of night that leaves me curled up in a fetal position on the bathroom floor at five in the morning – “poisoned” describes it well. It’s strange, though, because there were these bouts of feeling absolutely horrid followed immediately by waves of feeling great – seeing beautiful colours, thinking happy thoughts, and feeling at awe with my surroundings (I had the world’s SOFTEST pillow!). I think maybe if I’d been able to concentrate more strongly on these positive feelings I would have bad a better overall experience. As it was, though, I couldn’t help but to frequently check in on my body and allow the pain to take over. Many times, I caught myself convulsing violently, almost like shivering from cold but much more spastic and intense, even to the point where I could hear the floor around me shaking.
At one point while I was hallucinating quite strongly, I checked in on my body and realized I needed to crap badly. I managed to call to Daniel (despite how clear my voice was in my head, it was incredibly difficult to physically form words – I think I managed to finally get out a coherent “I need to shit”) and he helped me across the sea of bodies and down the stairs to the washroom. As he led me there with my hand on his shoulder, I felt like I was floating across the room – pretty trippy. After spending a few minutes crapping in the bright, harshly lit bathroom, however, I was dragged back to my senses a bit. Although my “visions” had more or less stopped, after returning to my mat and closing my eyes, I still felt really good and spent about 45 minutes cycling between feeling all warm and fuzzy, casually observing my lower body and torso convulsing, trying to ignore the urge to shit myself, and listening to the woman across the room heaving, spitting, sobbing, and having what sounded like a terrible time (she must have had a LOT of negative energy to get rid of).
After what could have been two or three hours since the drink, (it’s a bit tough to tell what time was doing), all I remember thinking was that I wanted it to be over. At one point, Daniel asked if I wanted a second drink to get me back into my visions, but the very idea of this repulsed me to the core. I remember thinking, “why the fuck would I want to put more of that poison into my body?!”. Eventually, I found myself lying there quite sober and thoroughly baffled at to why people would choose to do this to themselves. Soon after, I made my way to bed and did my best to sleep, despite the occasional trip to the toilet for some more number three - better down than up, I suppose.
I’m a bit nervous to go through another ceremony tonight, but we’re told that the second time is usually much better – less being sick and more “visions”. I think if I’d taken a second dose when it was offered, I could have had some more intense visions and perhaps a more positive experience overall, but lying there listening to the one woman’s pain and suffering I just couldn’t allow myself to do it.
My first experience: neutral – I'd say the bad cancelled out the good. Would I do it again? (ignoring the fact that I'm about to do it again tonight): no.
Day Two - Afternoon
For whatever reason, some of the others had much more detailed and lucid visions, some featuring things like black cats, tigers of many colours, stone faces – one woman even claims to have had a vision where she was a man in ancient Egypt, taking part in or leading some kind of spiritual ceremony of her own. One of the other guys likened his experience to an acid trip but “with less control” – I can’t comment on this, though it does make acid sound pretty neat. I was really surprised to hear that the vomit queen, who I figured was having a truly terrible time, actually had a positive experience. She admitted that she had a lot of negative energy to work through, but she figures she made some good progress and had a worthwhile time.
After again being reassured that the first night is the tougher “cleaning” night and the second one will be much more relaxed, happy, and positive, and after hearing the others describe their visions, I’m again looking forward to tonight’s ceremony (though a part of me still wonders why I’d willingly poison myself again). I’m hoping that tonight I’ll be able to have a stronger trip, either by keeping in the initial dose for a little longer or perhaps by accepting a second drink if I come out of it too early. I’ll do my best to keep my attention inward during the ceremony and try not to let myself get distracted by the chaos around me – it’s meant to be an individual experience, after all.
Wish me luck!
Some of the things I can recall:
- A feeling of pure love, comfort, and beauty
- Wanting to reach out and embrace everyone in the room – at one point when the nurse (Maribel) was checking in on me, I reached out and held her hand lovingly
- Constantly weeping at the beauty and happiness of the experience – I remember hearing other people struggling at times, to which I’d shed a tear, wipe it away with my hand, kiss it, and blow it across the room to them
- The image of many white birds flying across my field of view (eyes closed), as well as colourful flowers (especially white and red)
- I remember seeing a cow and thinking it was such a beautiful creature, and then seeing it being brutally slaughtered (perhaps Chelsea’s vegetarianism is rubbing off on my subconscious)
- A vision of making boom-boom with Chelsea, having a true connection of pure love and understanding
- Various memories from years past, including some childhood friends who I haven’t seen in over twenty years
- Many visions of my family and friends back at home, with the idea of being able to truly understand and appreciate each of them: what shaped them into who they are, how their minds work, and how I could better connect with them
- The idea that Kim and Nathan had created life (Harrison) and the fact that this was such a pure and beautiful thing
- I remember listening to the song of the shaman, seeing the rhythm dancing in my head, and letting my body move along with it
- Brushing my hand across my face and through my hair, realizing how amazing it all felt – beards feel awesome, everyone should have one
- Running my hand along the pillow, realizing how incredibly soft it was; holding the water bottle, feeling its coldness electrify my nerves
Yes, I know what you’re thinking by now and I’m thinking the same: “flower power, maaaaan”. As embarrassing as it is to describe, it truly was a magical and beautiful experience, completely worth all the discomfort and nastiness that went along with it. I'm glad I stuck it out and gave it a second try.
- I don’t always need to correct things (I acknowledge that sometimes I’m a bit OCD), and that sometimes the beauty of things is in their very imperfection
- That I truly enjoy teaching and sharing with others, and should make this a part of my life
- That I don’t need to constantly analyze things, and should just accept and appreciate them for what they are. This had particular relevance to the experience at hand – stop trying to make sense of the situation and just go with it
I don’t know why it was so much better this time around. Perhaps I still had some "medicine" in my system from the night before which allowed me to have a more intense experience. We were served the ayahuasca from a different bottle, so maybe it was the different recipe that caused more hallucinations and less stomach issues. Perhaps it was the fact that we had already been through the experience and had a better idea of what to expect, and so were calmer going into it. Whatever the reason, this time around I was indeed much more relaxed, and after drinking wasn’t fixated on the idea of throwing up. In fact, by the time I blew this time around I was already laid back and pretty deep into it, and so didn’t really mind it at all.
The morning after, thinking back on it, the whole thing seems quite absurd. I’m physically exhausted, though my mind is still reeling a bit from the intensity of the experience. I feel like my thoughts are extra clear and sharp, and everything around me makes me feel a bit warm and fuzzy inside. After breakfast and another sharing session, we gathered outside to perform a final offering to Pacha Mama, this time making a bundle of happy objects (colourful candy, flower petals, etc.) and then burning it.
My second experience: awesome! Would I do it again? Absolutely! (after a bit of a break, of course).
Now, a few weeks later, I find myself completely back to normal, though perhaps with a couple minor adjustments to my subconscious. I’ve eaten beef without feeling I’ve betrayed my beautiful cow friend, but am still very much aware of the realizations I had. Once I’m done traveling and have “settled down”, I’d like to somehow include an element of teaching in my life, perhaps as a part-time gig educating youth about the wonders of science and energy. I’d like to be more willing to accept that there can be truth behind ideas that I cannot explain, no matter how wacky they seem. Having had some more time to process the whole experience, I’ve decided that it was indeed worthwhile, and although it didn’t radically transform my life (not that I wanted it to) I’ll likely give it another try if the right opportunity presents itself.
Yes, it sounds totally insane, and in a way it really is. Poison, puke, and pain, all for some pretty visions and fantastic thoughts. I never thought I’d do something like this, and I never imagined I’d come out of it with an inkling I might do it again, but that’s how it’s played out. All I can say is that it was a truly unique and intense experience, and that you can’t really understand it until you’ve taken the plunge for yourself.
Well, I’m off to frolic through a flowery meadow and hug some trees.
Peace and love,