Learning and Lineage
Another period of two months has passed since I last posted. The reasons for this are manifold: partly I want to free myself from the self-imposed tyranny of feeling I have to write new entries; partly, I have continued to be very, very busy; and partly I have not felt I have had anything I want to say – though this latter point is conditioned by an almost exclusively external focus on helping lead the NGO I work with, which does not facilitate the internal, more reflective creative space I need to be able to write.
So having carved out a free morning from my schedule and turned off the phone, I start this blog not knowing what I plan to say.
In late July and early August, I visited my Shipibo Maestro in his native community to do another ten day dieta with Ayahuma. This was possibly the most powerful dieta I have done.
In the third of the five ceremonies that constitute a ten day dieta, I experienced a vertical sheet of pain in the right side of my brain. This increased in intensity, until I felt I had to use every ounce of my strength and energy to stop the pain. The idea occurred to me that I was experiencing a stroke and, that if I did not die at that moment, I was destined to die very shortly.
I know it is relatively common with Madre Ayahuasca to feel that one is dying. This was my first experience of believing that I would die, although I have had many experiences where death has been present in different forms in my ceremonies over recent years.
For example, over one year ago, the figure of death appeared to me in a ceremony and invited me to visit his world. I declined the offer – my friend PapaM. said to me later: “You should have asked him for a day pass!”
In the third ceremony on my recent dieta, the effect of believing that I would die very soon put me strongly in touch with my own mortality. I realized how much I, and others, live as if we think we are immortal. Many moons ago, in another ceremony, I remember part of my psyche telling my ego: “Listen. I have bad news for you. You are not going to live for ever.”
This is the same message we heard from the twentieth century existential philosophers, following Heidegger – that we should aim to live with a sense of the imminence of death, rather than its denial, as our consumerist culture encourages us to do. “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.” (Martin Heidegger)
“There was a dervish who lived alone in the mountains,
who made a vow never to pick fruit from the trees, or to shake them down,
or to ask anyone to pick fruit for him.
“Only what the wind makes fall.”
This was his way,
of giving in to God’s will.
There is a traditional saying from the Prophet
that a human being is like a feather in the desert
being blown about wherever the wind takes it.”
And we in the West think we are in control. Such hubris!
As I experienced this sense that I really was at the point of dying, I discovered that I could die relatively content. I would not be able to see my first grandson, who was due to be born at the end of August, but, karmically in the grander scheme of life, that seemed to be surprisingly OK.
On a human level, it would be immensely sad not to see my grandson, and witness him grow up, but I realized that it was very unlikely anyway that I would live to see his children, and that I could die with the sense that my family lineage, which has become increasingly important to me under the influence of Madre Ayahuasca, would continue.
Nor do I imply the patriarchal urge to see the male lineage carried on into perpetuity, but, instead, the continuation and evolution of the cultural, emotional and spiritual family lineage into which I had been born.
This idea of lineage was very apparent to me in the ceremonies on this latest dieta. I felt that when my Maestro was singing to me, the icaros were being relayed across generations. It was not just my Maestro singing to me, but his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, and most likely beyond – but this is as far as my Maestro can consciously remember.
I also recall once in ceremony with his niece, another renowned healer from the same family lineage, that, as she was singing to me, she became transparent and I could glimpse stretching behind her, a succession of ancestors and spirits that she was calling on and that were being channeled through her icaro.
Some of my Maestro’s ancestors were recognized by their people as having attained the highest level of shamanic ability, known to the Shipibo as ‘merayas’. Sadly, it is said that there are no examples of merayas currently alive, as the training and dedication needed to become one becomes increasingly difficult as the Shipibo world is impacted by the West.
The importance of lineage would be well to be remembered by the increasing numbers of Westerners who come to the Peruvian Amazon and do the three or six-month courses offered to them to become shamans. Of course, the notion that you can become a shaman and start running ceremonies in such a short time clearly appeals to the Western desire for short cuts, rapid results, status and fast money. It is patently ludicrous, as well as disrespectful and appropriating of the Amazonian indigenous cultures, which have given us this extraordinary medicine.
As my Shipibo Maestro said, when I interviewed him about how he learned to become a healer:
“It takes a long time to become a Maestro. It is an education. It is like any young person going to school. First preschool, then elementary, then high school, then university. It is the same for shamanism in order to become a Maestro. But now, there are people who drink ayahuasca for one or two years, then they think they are a ‘Maestro’. They teach: they run dietas. To be a proper Maestro you have to diet for a long time, years and years. That’s what it takes to learn shamanism, in order to be able to learn to heal.”
Alongside the parallel movements for ‘slow food’ and not fast food, ‘small is beautiful’ rather than large-scale development projects, genuine grass roots change and not change imposed from above, new forms of economic exchange based on abundance and sacredness rather than scarcity and materialism, the growing hunger for authentic rather than spinning politicians, we need ways of Western people learning to work with the medicine that respects the traditions from which it has come and the longevity of the learning needed.