My Last Dieta
It is over three months since I wrote my last blog entry. During that time: my younger son got married in Mexico; I did a ten day Noyarao dieta on the slopes of the most active volcano in Mexico; I returned to Peru to find the NGO that I work with facing a major financial crisis, which required temporary staffing cutbacks; and I started a two month Noyarao dieta and then closed it after a month as it became increasingly impossible to manage the demands of the dieta and the work issues arising from the financial crisis. In this time, too, I co-wrote the draft research report based on interviews carried out last January with thirteen Shipibo healers.
I don’t think I have ever been so busy in my life. Previously, I had found it possible to do a long term dieta in Yarina, where I live, and simultaneously work. Though, it has to be said, that when I go to the native community five hours downriver from Pucallpa where my Shipibo Maestro lives, disconnect from the internet and my computer completely and have very limited phone contact, I feel the power of the dieta more.
Traditionally, plant dietas, which are the path to becoming a healer, last anytime from ten days to one year or longer and were done in isolation in the jungle, with occasional visits from the dietero’s teacher. The idea was to be alone and deeply in contact with the life of the jungle to achieve a suitably receptive state in which the spirit of the plant being dieted could approach and teach the dietero.
Now, of course, with the increasing erosion of the traditional Shipibo lifestyle, much has changed, and few Shipibo themselves are doing this type of dieta in isolation. Furthermore, I hear of very few Westerners being prepared to do this dieta. Now, leading on from ayahuasca tourism, there is a profusion of ways of doing dietas being offered, many of them adaptations for Western lifestyles. I heard of someone doing a dieta where he was dieting fifteen plants in fifteen days, which is ludicrous. Other centers are offering a training to become a healer in three months – one of the key points that came out from the interviews we conducted with experienced healers was that it typically takes ten years to become a healer.
When I did my dieta, we were drinking ayahuasca once every three night. On the face of it, that looked very compatible with being able to continue to work. I thought that I would take the day after ceremony off, or at least just work on the computer part of that day, and take further time away from work to prepare for ceremony during the day of ceremony. Unfortunately, given the workload that I had, this was not possible.
I found myself spending longer and longer on the computer. Towards the end of the month in which I did dieta, I had a ceremony in which I realized that I was navigating through the early phases of the mareación, in which I typically have rather cartoon-like and nonsensical visions, by minimizing them. I was doing this for a while before I became conscious of what I was doing. It’s alarming to consider how computers and other forms of technology may be conditioning our minds and effecting our neural pathways. A friend told me that when he dieted Noyarao recently, the spirit of the tree came to him and said it would only further communicate with him if he turned off his cell-phone for the time of the dieta. He was not able to do that.
As I became busier and spent more time on the computer, I went to ceremonies with a psyche full of work issues. In some ways this was useful, as I gained many insights about issues related to work that I was immediately able to put into practice. But I also felt the other worlds, in which I have had my most meaningful experiences, retreating from me. I started to envy my fellow dieteros who only had to manage the demands of the dieta, which are exacting enough in their own right. As our Maestro said, you don’t do dieta to feel good or to have pretty visions. You do dieta to cleanse, for the cura, and to learn. And much of the learning is about recognizing and facing the blocks at ever deeper levels that prevent learning and which form our habitual ways of bringing our worlds into being.
Plus, as often happens to me, Madre Ayahuasca started playing havoc with my normal sleep patterns. As the Maestro running the dieta said to me – “She likes to keep you up.” We were doing ceremonies outside Pucallpa about 20 or so kms. on the road to Lima. This meant we would stay overnight in the ceremonial maloka and begin the return journey to Yarina – the indigenous part of Pucallpa – at 6am.
If I was lucky, I would get two to three hours sleep the night of ceremonies. The journey back to Yarina through the margins of the city of Pucallpa, passing sawmills, brick factories, the city jail, the city brewery, shanty towns on the outskirts of the city, half-completed and now abandoned road bridges, had an apocalyptic feel to it in the dawn light and confirmed my view of Pucallpa as the ugliest city in the world.
Como si fuera poco, (which is one of my favorite Spanish phases that means as if that was not enough), I would then find that the night after ceremony when I crawled into bed early or crashed out on the bed still dressed and with the light on, say at 9pm, I would typically wake up between midnight and 1am and feel wide awake. My response to this was to get up, work on the computer until about 5am or 6am, and then grab another couple of hours of sleep. Over time, this became less and less sustainable.
I was arriving at ceremonies exhausted and having to expend a lot of energy on not falling asleep. I began to feel that I was not doing the dieta justice and took the opportunity to close the dieta after one month with three other people who had always intended to only do a one month dieta. As it happened, the day we closed our dieta, it rained heavily, which made the road to the maloka unpassable. So the four of us closing our dietas had a special ceremony just for us in a house near where I live. This ceremony was especially beautiful – I also enjoyed being able to walk back to where I live after the ceremony and sleep in my own bed.
The thing, however, that I found most surprising in all this was how I felt after the dieta had been closed. There was the usual pleasure in being able to eat food and do things that had been restricted in the dieta. I had, though, assumed that the dieta had been of relatively little value for me as I had not been able to devote the due time and attention to it, especially compared with my fellow dieteros.
However, what amazed me was that almost from the moment of closing the dieta, which is done through special protective songs called arkanas, I started to feel the effects of the dieta. And, perhaps not unsurprisingly, these were most evident in my work, where I felt great renewed energy, focus, insight and stamina…..and where I became increasingly demanding………but that is another story.