Tuesday, August 21, 2007

25-Years of Shamanism—Part 4

Readers: This is the fourth part of an ongoing series related to some of the highlights of my experience working with Shamanism. This was originally planned as a talk I was to give at the 3rd Annual Shamanism Conference in Peru in July, 2007. I never gave it because on the day I was to speak I had need of emergency surgery. The other entries are also in this blog.--Peter Gorman

25-Years of Shamanism---Part 4

Two years later, in 1990, I had another extraordinary experience with ayahuasca at Julio’s. I was in Peru with my friend Larry. I’d been hired by an Italian scientist, Vittorio Erspamer, to bring back a live example of the frog the indigenous Matses utilized to make their sapo medicine. I’d already tried three times and failed at the task. This time out Larry and I were going to walk across the Peruvian jungle from Genero Herrera to the Rio Galvez. I hoped that my friend Pablo, seeing that I was willing to do such a difficult hike, would reward me/us with some of the frogs whose medicine I’d used a number of times, but which I’d actually never seen.
We left Iquitos via riverboat and 17-hours later reached Herrera. But instead of immediately heading off into the jungle we decided to go on to Julio’s house to drink ayahuasca before the trip. We all felt it would fortify us for the several days we’d be hiking under the canopy.
On the day we were to drink, Larry and I spent much of the time watching Julio prepare it. He was up before dawn cutting the wood for the day-long fire while a new woman he was living with, a beautiful old curandera named Sophia, filled the great iron pot with water from the Auchyacu. Despite their age they refused all offers for help and as they worked the years fell away from their faces. Julio especially: The sinewy muscles on his tiny frame seemed to grow younger and more taut with each stroke of his axe.
By noon the several gallons of liquid in the pot had been reduced to perhaps a quart. He strained it through an old pair of pantyhose into a large plastic container, cleaned the pot of the crushed vines, leaves and tree barks he’d cooked, then refilled it and began the process again. He worked quietly, intensely. Now and then he chanted softly or blew mapacho smoke into the pot. At one point he tossed in several whole mapacho cigarettes.
"Muy bueno por los espiritos," he said, smiling. Good for the spirits.
When the second pot full of liquid had also been reduced to a quart or so he strained it off again, cleaned the pot, then combined the reductions and cooked them down together. What had been maybe 20 gallons of water at the start was less than a quart when he was done.
I’d asked Sophia whether she would join us that evening. She had said no, ayahuasca was not for her. "It’s not a very friendly spirit to me," she said. "But it seems to like Julio quite a lot."
That evening, in the time when we generally sat silent before the ceremony, Larry asked Julio what his visions were like. Julio smiled. "I see many things. I see boats, planes, people, spirits. I talk with them and they tell me things. Some of them are dead family members or old friends. Some of them are the ancients, spirits I don’t know. There are a lot of different spirits that speak with me. Some of them are good and some of them are not. But they are only spirits. Some of them let me see what illness a person has and what plants I should use to cure them."
He chuckled, then stepped into the walled off bedroom of his otherwise wall-less platform hut to retrieve the medicine. Normally that was the moment when Moises stepped away from the little circle where we sat to take his position as a sort of guard to keep whomever was drinking from falling off the platform. This time he didn’t and I was surprised.
"I’m going to drink tonight."
I reminded him that I’d never seen him drink before.
"I’ve never done it before," he said.
"You’ve never done it?" I asked. "But you were the one who suggested we use it on that first trip!"
"Too dangerous," he answered. "But I have a feeling that I should use it tonight."
I resented him not telling us years ago that he’d never even tried it.
"If I start to wander into the river, stop me," he said quietly. I assured him he wouldn’t but that if he did, we would.
Julio returned and placed a sheet of blue plastic on the flooring in front of his chair. On it he put his mapachos, his perfume, a bottle of camphor, cumalunga and garlic teeth in cane liquor, a bottle of Agua Florida, his chacapa—a leaf rattle—his old stone axe-head and the bottle of ayahuasca. "Bueno," he smiled. "Ready?"
We all nodded. Julio reached for a mapacho, lit it, then pulled the shriveled piece of corn cob he’d used as a stopper from the bottle. He hunched over, held the bottle-neck close to his mouth and began to pray. With his free hand he smoked: Short, rapid puffs that he blew into the liquid. When he finished the first mapacho he lit a second, then put the bottle down, cleaned out a small plastic cup with smoke, filled it with ayahuasca and began to sing.
The words were clear, the song rich and beautiful. It seemed to echo off the trees around his house and fill the night air. When he finished he handed the cup to Larry, who closed his eyes and drank. The cup came to me next. The ayahuasca was as thick and dank and difficult to get down as always. Julio repeated the process for Moises and finally himself, chanting all the while. What power he possessed! With each song he seemed to grow stronger and more luminous in the light from the little kerosene lamp.
When we’d finished drinking and he’d passed the other things around for us to inhale—to help keep the ayahuasca down for at least a little while—he put the bottles to the side of the circle and flicked off the lamp with his chacapa. I closed my eyes and listened to the hissing of Julio’s fan as he shook it in time with the songs. In moments the visions began.
Green points of light appeared in front of me, like a dot matrix. They combined and made the skeleton of an archway and ceiling, a sort of luminous green skeleton of a cathedral ceiling. I opened my eyes: They lights didn’t disappear.
They didn’t last long either. In a few minutes I found myself in utter darkness, eyes opened or shut. I saw bright fruit handing from trees and realized I was in a forest full of trees bearing mangos, papayas and bananas. I reached for one of the bananas. To my surprise it began to peel itself. Instead of a banana it revealed a small beautiful reddish-brown monkey with shining eyes. It began to grin and I felt myself grinning back. But the monkey’s grin kept growing wider until it was a hideous, jabbering mouth screaming obscenities that broke off finally into a sort of insane laughter.
I recoiled and opened my eyes. I’d never had such a dream-like vision while using ayahuasca before. But when I closed my eyes the image returned. It laughed at me and when it did finally disappear it was followed by a series of visions I can only describe as a trip through a funhouse of desires and fears. I was in a place of roller coasters and huge slides. Faces appeared out of the darkness while I rode on the rides. There were demons and beautiful women. There were funhouse mirrors in which I saw a thousand versions of myself—some normal distortions, and some in which I watched myself—or was forced to relive—some of the worst things I’d ever done. It was a strange and haunting voyage, altogether different than what I’d expected or anticipated.
The women were cartoonish and sexy, with huge breasts and round hips and dark Peruvian eyes. They called to me. I wanted to be with them. All of them. And then I found myself as a tiny me facing a huge inverted ‘V’. It was a luscious vagina seen from below on a giantess of some sort. I began to hurtle towards her. As I grew close she turned and I realized to my horror that it wasn’t a woman at all, but a giant with a giant penis. I thought of the sexual connotations of the monkey in the banana peel and resigned myself to the homophobic implications of the naked giant. I was disgusted with what I thought was my mind playing a cruel joke on my sensibilities but as I moved closer I realized I was not titilating myself with a secret urge so much as I was being driven to confront myself. The closer I moved the more awful the thought of having sex with the giant became; simultaneously I felt I was supposed to embrace it, deal with the implications.
I resigned myself, but just as I got within inches the giant turned around and became the giantess again. She was beautiful, with brown hair and sparkling eyes and she was laughing. She danced above me, tantalizing, a fantastic bronze goddess. I shivered ecstatically and rushed toward her, burying myself in her inviting vagina.
But I didn’t stop. I found myself hurtling up the tunnel of her vagina. I grew younger and younger the deeper I went, younger till I was a child, a baby and then in the time before I was born, a kind of amorphous embryo buried in the deepest well-spring of life. I was surprised that I seemed to understand more about the nature of the universe than I’d ever known, as if in that state before birth all things were common knowledge. It was a brilliant state of awareness.
I looked around the space where I’d stopped. It was warm and soft on three sides; on the fourth there were prisonish bars. I was a prisoner of time and the moment of birth, afraid to regress further, afraid to come out of the cage. But something was prodding me to leave and I wasn’t strong enough to fight it: The bars gave way and I began to emerge. Down the tunnel I slid. There was a light at the end of it. With every moment closer to that light I could feel my knowledge and awareness slipping away. I wanted to stop. It was an awful and cruel joke played on humans by the universe.
The moment I emerged, the moment I was born I separated from the embryo and watched the baby emerge. All the knowledge I’d had just a moment ago was gone, all the awareness vanished except for the bitterness of knowing that I’d known and didn’t know any longer. I could feel immense loneliness coming from the baby’s tiny spirit.
The baby disappeared. The image gave way to a space filled with beautiful women draped in brilliantly colored materials. More than colors and material, they were draped in iridescent light the nature of which I can hardly describe. It was more vibrant and exciting than anything I’d ever seen was. I wanted to stay with them forever, but the patterns of light became a light glinting from the scales of a thousand snakes. One in particular seemed to notice me. Its head was triangular and glowing, but though I recognized it as a viper I knew it wouldn’t harm me. I tried to travel with it but it reared and wouldn’t allow that. I tried harder and lost the power of movement altogether. I couldn’t even open my eyes.
When I finally relaxed, beautiful feelings of warmth washed over me, filling me with joy. I basked in them but in an instant the joy was transformed to something ugly and paranoid. I felt so meager and weak, so cruel and unworthy. I was useless and had always been useless. I was small. It was a waste of life that had been given to me.
I was sure that the others could see me for what I really was and I wanted to hide. I could hardly live with seeing this, the real me, and certainly couldn’t live knowing that Larry and Julio and Moises had seen it as well. It occurred to me that hiding would not protect me from their awareness of my meanness. The only thing to do was to kill them all with my machete. I pictured myself hacking them up and tossing them into the river. I could return to Iquitos and explain that we’d had an accident in the canoes. By the time we returned to look for their bodies river predators would have finished them off.
I fought to control the urge and as I did I felt a warm wind on my face. I opened my eyes. It was Julio, blowing mapacho smoke on me and fanning me with his leaves. He chanted softly.
"You don’t have to act on everything you see on ayahuasca, Pedro," he said softly. "Still, I think I’ll just put the machete away."
I felt a wave of relief shudder through me and knew that the moment of uncertainty had passed. But I was breathing heavily and soaked with sweat. I lit a cigarette and looked around. Larry was walking in the trees nearby; Moises was leaning over the platform, vomiting with great heaves and gusto.
I listened to Julio chanting. It was so simple, so soothing and centering. I realized that Julio’s voice was the anchor to which I was meant to tether myself.
I wanted to vomit and left the porch. But vomiting wouldn’t come, Instead I began to excrete. I don’t mean to be graphic but the effect was similar to the vomiting: From deep within me I could fee motion, deeper than a body function, cleansing me of things I didn’t even know I’d bottled up inside.
When I returned to the porch I closed my eyes again. I was exhausted. I wanted only simple things: To fly with the bird or travel with the snake. I was tired of the extremes the other visions had produced.
I thought of my friends back home. Chuck, Alberta—the woman I was seeing—my sisters. As each crossed my mind I found myself looking in on them. I didn’t feel like I was traveling, I was just there. Chuck’s apartment was dark but familiar and I guessed he’d gone to sleep early. Alberta was sleeping as well, but her lights and television were still on. The clock next to her bed read 11:45. I lingered with her for a few moments. She looked so lovely, so peaceful, hidden beneath her great quilt, one of her cats balled up behind the crook of her legs. I tried to wake her; she brushed a hand up by her face as if I were a fly that was disturbing her sleep.
Suddenly the image of Clare crossed my mind. I still thought of her sometimes but we hadn’t been in touch since she’d gotten married and moved to Florida nearly four-years earlier. I hadn’t meant to think of her just then and didn’t want to visit her, so I tried to get rid of the thought. It wouldn’t leave. Worse, in a moment she unexpectedly appeared. She looked at me long and hard.
"Hello, P," she finally said.
"Hello, Clare," I answered. It felt like I said the words aloud but I don’t think anyone else could hear them. "I didn’t mean to bring you."
"I know. But I have to tell you something. You have to let me go."
"I already let you go."
"No. I mean you really have to let me go. I’m not coming back to you."
"I know."
"Part of you is holding on, P. But you’re holding on to the me that doesn’t exist anymore."
An empty feeling welled up in me. "I don’t mean to be holding on to you, Clare. I want to let you have whatever life you want."
"Don’t you see? It’s not your choice to let me have anything. Just let me go."
I started to get angry. I hadn’t meant what she thought. I just meant I loved her enough to let her go. "I didn’t mean that," I said.
"Yes, you did. That’s the problem."
"Okay. Maybe I did. But I’m trying to let you go. It’s just hard. Why couldn’t you even write one Christmas card just to say hello?"
"I just couldn’t. You’re not in my life."
"Will I ever see you again, even in the street?"
She thought for a moment. "Not like you think. Not until it doesn’t matter whether you do or not."
And then she was gone and I was crying. I suddenly understood what she meant, realized how much I’d been holding on and how all of the visions I’d had that night were about letting go. About desires and fears and how they held me back. The sadness that came with those realizations was deeper than I’d ever known. I felt cut lose from everything that I thought mattered to me. I felt hollow and weak and torn apart.
And then a voice began to speak. "Hello," it said.
There was no one I could see, just a voice, but not one I recognized.
"Hello," it said again.
"Who are you?" I asked, hoping it was just a voice I was inventing.
"You know who I am," it said plainly.
I did. I sensed it was the spirit of ayahuasca. I know that seems crazy and it seemed crazy to me as well, but I also knew it was true and I began to get terrified. I believed in the spirit of things, and I knew the power of ayahuasca, but I’d never imagined anything like that disembodied voice. It wasn’t just a spirit or a vision or anything like talking with Clare or even my mother. This was like being in the presence of something unfathomable.
I opened my eyes, hoping it would go away if I ignored it. It didn’t It was just waiting me out. "What do you want?" I asked finally.
"You’re the one who called me," it said. "You’re the one who keeps calling me."
"I don’t mean to. I just drank ayahuasca to get ready for the trip, and to travel and see things…"
The voice said that wasn’t true. It said I called because I needed things and I was getting what I needed: My immense sorrow, my confrontation with my desires and fears. The voice said that this was a time for cleansing, for emptying out, not for proving I could visit friends on ayahuasca.
What it said was true, and my initial fear of its presence began to subside. But then it asked me if I would let it enter. It was such a strange request that I was taken aback. The ayahuasca was already inside me, I said. The voice said no, that wasn’t what it meant.
Suddenly I had the vision of a snake wrapping itself around my head. I saw my head open and a side view of my brain, as if it had been cut in two and I was looking into it. It looked like the inside of a bee colony, all tunnels. Dozens of snakes appeared and began sliding into the tubes of my brain. At first it felt wonderful, like immense power and motion was sliding into me but then I wasn’t sure that I should let them. I thought that maybe I was being fooled. Julio had always warned that while some of the spirits we might meet were good, others were evil and I was afraid that this might be an evil one. What if it wasn’t ayahuasca, or if it was, what if it was some awful and dark part of it?
I asked the voice what the snakes meant, why they had to enter me, but I didn’t get an answer. Part of me thought it was a kind of test, but an other part of me thought it was a kind of trick, and that if the snakes were allowed to disappear in my brain I would never get them out. I don’t know what I thought that would mean but it was terrifying. Whatever it was, I knew it wasn’t the right thing, that I shouldn’t let those snakes into my brain. I began to pull them out by their tails. They were strong and hard to dislodge and the longer I fought the more I was sure that if it really had been the voice of ayahuasca speaking with me it wouldn’t have asked me to let it enter in such a terrifying way. I felt like I was fighting for my life, that if I lost I would be enslaved forever.
The moment I got the last of them out I was no longer sure I’d made the right choice. I felt I might have missed something extraordinary. I asked the voice why it hadn’t just talked with me, why everything seemed to be a test designed to make me fight it.
It answered that it had already given me so many gifts that I should have some faith and trust. It said I shouldn’t ask for so much without giving anything in return. The voice didn’t sound angry or disappointed, it just said those things then disappeared, and I knew my visions were done.
I opened my eyes and stood weakly. The ground was glistening and wet. It had rained at some point but now I stared at a sky full of falling stars and tried to absorb the lessons I’d been given. After a few minutes I stepped off the porch and joined Larry. I wanted to tell him everything I’d seen and heard but was afraid that if I did the voice might come back and I didn’t want that to happen. Instead we walked to the river quietly. He told me that he too had experienced the lesson of letting go, though neither of us talked about it in depth.
When we returned to the house Moises was asleep but Julio was waiting up for us. "Un noche fuerte," he said. "Bastante espiritos." A strong night, filled with spirits.
He asked us to sit, then sang a song for each of us. While he did he washed us down with mapacho smoke, then rubbed camphor on our hair and torsos. "To see the spirits don’t cling to you," he explained. He’d never done that before and it felt intimate and generous. I wondered whether he sensed or saw something of the nature of the experience that night which made him think it was necessary. He didn’t say. I remembered the incident with the machete and almost laughed. He’d seen everything. His cleansing was good: The moment he began to blow smoke on us my fears disappeared.
When Julio was finished he said goodnight and went to bed. I stayed on the porch for a long time, trying to figure what I’d seen and heard. It certainly felt real, and the lessons I’d been given were ones I needed to learn. I thought of what Moises had told me years earlier: Ayahuasca gives you what you need, not what you want.
I finally gave up thinking and just stared at the sky. I felt alive and unenslaved. I wanted to embrace the night and the trees and everything in the jungle, Probably an hour or two passed before I grew tired, got into my hammock and went to sleep.
Some months later I told Julio about the snakes and how I’d gotten them out of me. He chuckled. "Pedro, that was a gift. You missed a wonderful chance to know things."
"What do you mean?"
"Snakes know so much. It was probably the spirit of a snake talking with you, but to you it was a man’s voice. If you had let it in it would have lived in you. You would always know who your friends are and who are just pretending to be your friends. You would know many things."
I felt awful. "Will it come back? Will I get another chance?"
"I don’t know. It depends on the spirit."


Arbol said...

Reading about Julio brought tears to my eyes Peter, I really wanted to have met him in person.
When he said, "You don’t have to act on everything you see on ayahuasca, Pedro," That hit me hard because I've been there before.
The lessons about letting go...yes I will always remember what Madre Aya showed me.
As you said..."Ayahuasca gives you what you need, not what you want."
Thanks again for everything.

bamboo said...

Wow, the "spirit" (for lack of a better word" of the snake becomming part of you was an incredible story. Had I been approached with it not knowing or understanding the intention I'd have done everything I could to remove it as well. May I ask if the snake ever came back?

I have too many questions for you, you need a "dear mr. Gorman" site. (-:

The Grudge said...

That whole "gives you what you need not what you want" can be humbling. Especting so much more and getting not what you expected can sometimes take a while to sit and settle in a part of you which can understand. I definitely think I need tons of more work with Ayahuasca.

Cloud-spirit said...

I only tonight found your blog. I am amazed at how strong the ayahausca must have been. I recall, I believe, reading in "Shamans Drum," perhaps, about a Sapo experience where you saw in advance some pigs which were later found by some hunters you were with. At least I think it was you, Peter, who reported this. I'll read on.

Unknown said...

Great story, and the detail makes it so compelling... just brilliant.

esoter1c said...

I really hope theres a part 5.

More people are reading than you know.

They're just to damn lazy to register.

Keep writing, I for one of many will def. keep reading.


Jorge Villacorta Santamato said...


Interesting, interesting.

I assume that it was the collective subconscious (spirit) of the snakes...

I wonder where the spirits are stored. If all the snakes disappear... would their spirit disappear?

It would be fascinanting if a telephone that allows to talk to the spirits were invented...
(I just read about it: "Phone calls from the dead" by Scott Rogo & Raymond Bayless.)