Back on the Medicine Horse
I am now back in Pucallpa in the Peruvian Amazon after five weeks away from this crazy, jungle city – the first week in Central Western Mexico and the last four spent in my native country of England, mostly in London. Since coming back to Pucallpa, last Thursday I opened a two month dieta with Noiyarao.
This is the second long-term dieta I have done with this special Amazonian tree. In the Shipibo tradition that I work within, dieting with Noiyarao is the principal path to be a healer. It is the “Camino a la verdad” – the road to truth.
In this blog, I want to offer some reflections about the process of being away in a very different cultural environment (England), coming back to Pucallpa and getting back on the medicinal horse again through drinking ayahuasca. The metaphor of remounting the horse seems particularly appropriate given the fall I wrote about when I did my last dieta in August.
As has happened to me before, whilst I was in England, I could feel contact with Madre Ayahuasca slipping away. I slowly and almost imperceptibly slipped into a state of pervasive low-grade anxiety. The world seemed to narrow and I became overly preoccupied with small matters – definitely ‘sweating the small stuff’. I noticed I was laughing less and generally lacking a basic faith that all would be well. I started to think twice at least before saying anything.
This level of anxiety was nothing like what I used to suffer from and was probably imperceptible to anyone else as it did not stop me functioning at all. Additionally, once I collected the excellent wine that I had stored in a friend’s cellar, I started to drink more. That plus eating too much helped further dull my consciousness.
I continued to meditate ten minutes a morning as I had been instructed to on my last dieta – the exact instructions came in answer to a question about what I could do to help focus more and I was told: “You have to meditate but only ten minutes a day for the moment as that is all you can manage and we don’t want to set you up to fail”.
Back in Pucallpa, I was talking with a friend who had experienced a longer time away from the medicine this summer. He told me that La Madre had said to him that he had been lazy in not making more effort whilst he was away from the medicine. She said: “I’m here digging this tunnel towards you from my side but you have to dig your side too”.
This all links back to points I have made on this blog before about the path with La Madre not being a short cut or some kind of magical substance that brings instant enlightenment. Actually, I think the longer we encounter her, the more she expects of us and the more work we are required to do.
Another reflection I had is that this low-grade anxiety is pervasive in the culture. Once again it struck me how cushioned most peoples’ lives are in England. Compared to the Peruvian Amazon, most social and technical systems work: the trains and buses run on time (more or less); the police are not corrupt (mostly); the pavements (generally) are not cracked with weeds growing through them; the level of street crime is low; etc. etc.
In a way, given all the news continually surfacing about the environmental crisis – whilst I was in England the World Wildlife Fund published a report saying that in the last forty years the global wildlife population had halved – how could there not be?
Coming back to Pucallpa, I felt reassured in some ways to experience life more in the raw – the oppressive heat, the mangy dogs in the streets, the dirt roads that become impassable when it rains heavily, the obvious signs of suffering and poverty. Somehow it was more real and possibly closer to the apocalypse that may be on its way. If its staring you in the face rather than being denied its easier to see and deal with.
A few hours before getting back on the horse and drinking ayahausca again, I experienced the familiar resistance and doubting thought patterns. “Why I am doing this? Hopefully the ceremony will be cancelled. Remember how challenging you find the taste and just drinking the medicine”. Fortunately, I knew enough not to really pay attention to this. Plus a little fear in relation to re-entering the medicinal world seems appropriate and respectful.
Once, though, I had survived the opening stages of the re-entry into the medicinal world – the crazy, bizarre thought patterns as the mareación kicks in, the inevitable huge purge as I sat on the toilet simultaneously shitting and vomiting – the main feeling was one of relief at entering this more spacious realm. I could see that all that had been bothering me was trivial.
As had slowly over time happened on my previous dieta, I found a channel opening in me through which words were pouring and which I could cast in poetic form. I had some powerful insights into a crisis situation in the NGO I work with. Letters to friends and family composed themselves. I had glimpses of the energy patterns that Shipibo healers see and which are expressed in the Shipibo womens’ craftwork.
This sense of greater spaciousness and confidence has continued to stay with me. “At least”, I thought, “I could not have got so far off track if I can get back on track relatively quickly”.
Given these experiences, I have been thinking about how to understand what this period of absence from and then renewed contact with La Madre signifies. I have four questions/perspectives about this:
i) Can it all just be reduced to brain biochemistry?
I remember reading somewhere about the 1996 long-term study done on people drinking ayahuasca within the Christian/syncretic Uniao De Vegetal (UDV) church in Brazil that the boost that ayahuasca gives the serotonin levels in the brain (which anti-depressants also do) lasts for two weeks and that typically members of this church drink ayahuasca at least once every two weeks. From this perspective, I am simply experiencing changes in the neuro-chemistry of my brain with all their psychological and behavioral consequences.
ii) Am I addicted to ayahuasca?
Do I need it to feel good? Whilst in England I had been looking forward to starting my dieta and drinking ayahuasca again but it did not feel like the craving of an addiction. All the studies on ayahuasca indicate that it is not addictive. A good answer to the question “Why do you keep drinking ayahuasca over and over again?” is provided by Adam Elenbaas in this article.
iii) A third perspective was suggested to me by a friend who wrote:
“You are now — and have been moving for some time — within a ‘hallowed cosmological’ zone, which very few Western mind venture into —This ‘zone’ happens to people when they have drank a lot over a protracted time. I have met a few. It is my belief they loose touch with the old world, and cannot abide for too long without being in the spirit world, from whence they came, and whence they will go.”
I think my friend is right to say that many people have a longing for contact with what he calls ‘the spirit world’, which could be seen more broadly as a longing for experiences that transcend our limited ego-based sense of ourselves. Much excessive drug and alcohol use is an attempt to find transcendence. The aim is good and necessary but the means are mistaken.
iv) The fourth perspective is that of relationship.
This is (to the Western mind) the radical idea that the ayahuasca brew is not just an unusual bunch of chemicals doing interesting things to our brains but is a living being with her own agency and intelligence. From this perspective, I have a relationship with La Madre Ayahuasca.
And, as I would with a very good friend or a lover, I miss her when I am out of contact with her and look forward to meeting her again.