Saturday, August 01, 2009

Ayahuasca Healing

I recently spoke at the 5th Conference on Shamanism in Peru. The conference topic had something to do with healing and so I decided for once to actually tackle the topic rather than just ranting on whatever I wanted to rant on.
I thought it might be important, because while many many thousands of people have now had the opportunity to drink ayahuasca in Peru and elsewhere, few have had the chance to drink it in its traditional river setting, and so probably have not had the chance to see how locals utilize the medicine for healing, or the variety of ways that healing is accomplished.
These notes are being made subsequent to that talk.
Ayahuasca Healing
There are several types of healing done with ayahuasca, the medicinal and visionary vine of the Amazon. To understand them you need to understand that in much of Peru and particularly in the Amazon, illness is thought of as a disturbance on another level of reality that creates symptoms on this level. Fix that disturbance and the symptom will disappear. Accessing that other level of reality to identify that disturbance is the job of the ayahuasquero or curandero.
Now for most riverinos, river people, even those who currently live in Iquitos or other cities and towns, ayahuasca is not a medicine to take regularly. They may, like my mother-and-father-in-law, attend ayahuasca ceremonies most Tuesdays and Fridays--the traditional nights for ayahuasca--but they didn't necessarily drink. In fact, I don't think my folks-in-law drank the medicine more than a handful of times in their lives. That's something we Westerners have dreamed up. Traditionally you go to the ayahusaquero or curandero and tell him or her your problem. Several other people might as well, and then the curandero drinks and goes to seek the answers to the various problems.
At it's simplest, this story explains that type of curing. I was with my teacher and friend Julio some years ago. With us on the hut floor was a man who swore that someone had given him the evil eye because of envidio, envy. He felt cursed and wanted Julio to drink ayahuasca and go see who was doing it to him. Julio asked specifics and the man explained that every time he sold his chickens and made some money he fell and hurt his leg or ankle--sometimes breaking it--so that he couldn't work for weeks. Julio said he'd take a look. Shortly afterward he drank the ayahuasca he'd made and began singing his songs and shaking his shacapa, leaf rattle.
Two hours later he came out of his trance and told the man he had good news and bad news. The good news, he said, was that no one was giving the man the evil eye. The bad news, he said, was that he saw that every time the man sold his chickens and had money in his pocket he went to drink at a place that had two rickety steps, got drunk, and then fell when leaving. "Ahhh so," Julio said in his river Spanish. "You have two choices: Either stop getting drunk the minute you have money from selling your chickens or fix the steps so that you won't fall."
Perfect. That's genuine ayahuasca healing. As simple as that.
A second type of healing with ayahuasca involves both the client and the ayahuasquero drinking, with an eye toward seeing the same visions. A good example of that happened nearly 20 years ago, with my friend the curandero Juan Tangoa. Airport Juan as he's called, because his home is just outside the Iquitos airport, had a client who was distraught beyond words. He was a middle-aged man and he was certain his wife was cheating on him and that she was going to leave him. There were several other people at that ceremony, all locals beside myself, but when it came time to drink Juan offered the medicine only to me, the man and himself. "Let's go see your wife," he said, then blew out the kerosene lamps and began to chant.
To my surprise, there was a point in the experience where I found myself looking down on the Plaza 28, one of the primary plazas in Iquitos, a plaza that at that time was surrounded by more than a dozen Chinese restaurants, several pool halls and a couple of government buildings. When I looked at the Plaza I found myself zeroing in on a woman walking with a man. I couldn't see them clearly, and even if I could they had their backs to me as they strolled. There was some urgency about the woman but that's all I could note.
When the session ended, Juan asked the man if he'd seen anything. "Yes! Yes! I knew it! I saw my wife walking with a man on the Plaza Vente-Ocho! I knew she was cheating!"
Juan smiled. "Are you sure? Go back into your dream and look more closely."
The man closed his eyes. In a few minutes he opened them. "Oh my god! She's cheating with a priest! He's a priest! I can't believe it!"
Juan nearly laughed out loud. "You are not seeing things right. Go back into your dream and this time listen to what they are saying."
The man did as told. In a few moments his demeanor changed and he began to breathe heavily, then choke up, and finally tears began running down his face. He opened his eyes.
"That's right," said Juan. "Your wife is leaving you. But she's not cheating and she's not leaving you for another man."
"I know. I saw. I heard," said the man.
"She talks with the priest because you get drunk and beat her and she has to leave you for her safety and the safety of your children. But she still loves you and that's what's making it difficult. If you don't want her to leave, you have to stop drinking and certainly stop beating her. If you don't, she will go."
Again, a simple but perfect ayahuasca healing. The illness--in this case the pain of losing his wife--caused by the disturbance on some level with the man that caused him to drink and be a bully and a beater. If he could fix that, the symptom--his wife leaving--would fix itself.
Which doesn't mean the man was capable. I don't know if he managed to change or not. I never saw him again. But the medicine, the ayahuasca, had shown the way if he wanted to fix things.
Another type of healing requires the ayahuasquero or curandero to find a physical medicine for a patient. Some years ago I was contacted by a woman who wanted to come on a jungle jaunt with me. She was dying, she said. She'd gone through a couple of bouts of cancer and done all the possible treatments to no avail. The cancer was ravaging her and only had a couple of weeks to live and wanted to die in the jungle. I told her not to come. She insisted. I insisted back. She eventually talked me into it. She showed up in Iquitos, a beautiful woman who was very weak, with her boyfriend, a very nice fellow. She asked me to have her cured. I told her Julio was a marvelous healer but that I wasn't going to promise anything like a cure. I did tell her that we should try to work toward giving her one more Christmas with her daughter--whom she spoke of constantly--that that would be something to realistically aim for.
I took them to see Julio and explained that the woman was dying of cancer and asked if he could help. He said no, because ayahuasca was hot and cancer was cold. "You don't cure cancer with ayahuasca," he said. (Note: Others disagree and many people say they've been cured or put into remission by ayahuasca use.) Nonetheless, he agreed to drink with her and try to find something that might help.
All of us drank that night. The woman, if I remember right, had a difficult physical time, with a lot of uncontrollable shitting on herself. Her boyfriend vomited violently for a long time. When the session was over, the woman--who'd been looked after and changed several times by one of Julio's daughters--hated me. She demanded to know how I could have given her something so vile. I tried to remind her that she was the one who insisted. She didn't calm down.
Julio simply said he'd think on things.
In the morning, Julio called to his son Jairo--now a curandero in his own right--and told him to collect some plants from the jungle. When he had, Julio spent several hours cooking them down from about 10 gallons to maybe two liters. "Tell your friend she has to drink this three times a day," he instructed. "Just a little." He indicated about an ounce or so with his fingers. "Drink it until it's finished. And then she'll be fine. But if she wants to keep the cancer away she has to stop holding on to things. To anger. She has to learn to let go or the cancer will come back."
"Is this really going to heal her?" I asked.
"I think it will help."
In fairness, the woman also saw a doctor in Iquitos who is notable for curing incurable conditions. But she took Julio seriously and drank the medicine as instructed.
A week later, still hating me, she left Peru.
I thought she'd probably die and was happy she had not died on my watch.
Six months or so later she wrote an email to tell me she still hated me and the trip, but that she was driving around Italy on a motorscooter. Six months after that she wrote from somewhere else. That went on for years. I have not heard from her in some time and hope she's still alive somewhere, having a ball. If she's passed on, well, I'm glad she got a few extra Christmases with her girl.
That type of healing, where a curandero accesses a spiritual world where medicine concoctions are available is fairly common. Curanderos will explain it as having helping spirits who guide them to the plants they'll need to effect a cure. I've no doubt that's true, but most curanderos already have a wealth of natural medicine knowledge at their fingertips.
While the woman didn't like pooping uncontrollably, and her boyfriend had a difficult time with the vomiting, both are integral to ayahuasca healing. So much so that ayahuasca is also called 'la purga.' Nearly everyone who drinks it vomits or excrete ferociously not long afterward. While it might not be ladylike or gentlemanly, it's a great healing tool of the medicine. For locals and Westerners alike, there is great healing in the elimination: On the one hand, for locals the purge has the physical benefit of eliminating bacteria and parasites from their stomachs, conditions that are common in a place where fish is often sun-dried (and then gets wet when it starts to rain, then gets dried again and so forth) or where game is often eaten nearly crude in an effort to save firewood.
On the other hand, the purge goes beyond physical, way beyond. It's also a purge of the bile of our lives, the useless weight we carry around from pain we've suffered, from wrongs committed against us or which we've committed against others. It's a chance to eliminate garbage we don't really need, an often don't know we're carring like rocks on our spirit. The plainest example I can use is the memory most of us have, though have long buried, of when our mothers stopped breast feeding us. How traumatic that must have been for most of us. One moment there is that tenderness; the next we're not permitted it. Or the time you cheated on your girlfriend/boyfriend or wife. Or stole the fish out of your neighbors net. These are things we carry around with us like weights on our soul, but not things we necessarily need. And the medicine allows us to eliminate them. She might make us see what we've done a thousand times in slow motion before it's eliminated--which means it's sometimes an emotional wreaking ball--but still, it's an opportunity to cleanse parts of ourselves that we probably otherwise wouldn't.
Another type of healing done with ayahuasca is psychic surgery. A good curandero, like any doctor, has a number of tools at his disposal. And sometimes he or she simply have to operate. They might see--with ayahuasca vision--that a client has holes in their spirit where their energy is seeping out that need closing; they might see that a person has a physical ailment that has reached the stage where physical intervention--or psychic intervention through doctoring on a mirror self of the client--simply has to be done. The first time I heard of this I didn't believe you could effect physical change by operating on some spiritual level. I was at Julio's, maybe in 1985 or '86. There were several men there. One of them told me that Julio had recently operated on his stomach. I asked to see the scar. The man lifted his shirt and pointed to the spot where he said Julio operated but there was no scar. "Julio's a very good doctor," the man said. "The scars heal very quickly."
The story I later found out was that the man had some sort of tumor. Julio saw it after drinking ayahuasca and realized the man was in danger of death. So he accessed the spirit of the man and cut the tumor out of that body image, which left the physical tumor lifeless, and so it simply disappeared. In other words, he accessed the life force of the tumor, eliminated that, leaving no life force in the actual tumor.
I still didn't believe in that sort of healing until I saw my friend Victor, the great San Pedro healer, perform such a surgery on a client years later. It was a small ceremony performed for a husband and wife. The intent was that the wife be healed of a major problem--she was actually just trying to stay ahead of a crippling disease that was already in remission--but that night Victor chose to work primarily on the husband. And he chose to allow me to see the work.
What I saw was Victor approach the man and tell him to lie down. Then he pulled a rock from one of his pockets and knelt next to the man. In moments the rock had turned into a scalpel and he began cutting the man open. Blood flowed onto the cement of the driveway where they were. Victor began removing and cleaning out the man's organs one by one, then replacing them. He opened the man's face as well, did some work I couldn't really see, then sealed him back up. He looked at his patient. Satisfied, the scalpel was turned back into a stone that he pocketed.
In this reality, the stone was a stone, of course, and no one was cut anywhere. But on some other level, the man's energy had been worked on in the form of his body being cut and cleaned. I was amazed to have witnessed it.
The next day the man said he'd had a condition for his whole life which was now gone. I didn't ask what it was. But months and years later, he confirmed that the condition had never returned.
It wouldn't be fair to discuss the types of healing done by curanderos and the medicines without discussing a healing of my own. This type of healing is a sort of direct-action healing, where the medicine takes it into her own hands to heal someone.
Some years ago, when I first began taking people out to the jungle to visit Julio, my clients all seemed to be getting fantastic healing. Some physical, some emotional, some spiritual. At the time my marriage was breaking up and I was a wreck. One day after a great trip, I was in my bar in Iquitos, bartending, when a customer asked how the trip had gone. I told him great, then sort of blurted out that all my clients were getting healed but that I was the one who really needed the healing.
The medicine listened and the next time I drank, perhaps a few weeks later, as I began to fall into the ayahuasca dream, there was a great rushing, like wind through tall grass, all around me and suddenly I was surrounded by what seemed to be hundreds of little creatures. I couldn't see them, but knew they were there. "We heard you," one of them said. "It's your turn."
"My turn? For what?"
"To get healed. We heard you. It's your turn."
I was immediately terrified and asked what they were going to do. "We'll have to cut you open and take out your heart. Then we're going to have to cut some of the bad part out. You'll die but then we'll put you back together."
More terrified, I tried to explain that I didn't need that but they insisted and began to work. They just started cutting me open like I'd seen Victor cut the man open. I resisted as much as possible and they let me know I was making things harder than they needed to be. I didn't care. I wasn't ready to let little creatures from another reality kill me and then bring be back, different but better.
All evening I struggled, and when the ceremony was over I was joyeus that I wasn't dead. Unfortunately, they made it clear they'd have to come back and finish the work.
I've told this story in full form in other work, so I'll keep it short here. The gist of it was that over the course of the next three years or so, every time I drank ayahuasca the doctors would appear with the rush of wind through grass and work on me. I would resist. They'd be disappointed in me. But there were some breakthroughs: at some point early on I asked what I could do to make my estranged wife love me again. I was told there was nothing I could do. She simply would or wouldn't. During another session I asked what I could do to make her and our baby happy. They told me that was a better question than the first, but only if I didn't think that making her happy would lead to loving me again. I did, of course.
That question came up a hundred times during those years, and almost always during a break from the doctors tearing me to pieces and trying to get rid of the bad spots in my heart. During one session it was made clear to me that the reason I couldn't make Chepa and Madeleina, my estranged wife and daughter, happy was because I kept doing things I thought would make them happy, rather than things that would actually make them happy. I asked how I could do that? I was told the only way to do it was to be them and see what they needed to make them happy. I had no idea how to do that. "How on earth can I be them? I'm me."
"Then you'll never have an answer to your question."
And then one very extraordinary night, not long after the doctors had finished their work--which they said could have been much better if I'd have simply let them work rather than constantly being in fear and resisting them--a different spirit asked if I'd finally like to know the answer to the question I'd asked so often. I said I would. He had me follow him and what happened next--also written elsewhere--was one of the most terrifying nights of my life, a night when I was attacked from the regular reality in my ayahuasca reality. Crazy at it sounds, I knew that if I didn't fend off the attack my physical body would suffer. It was an hours-long battle, with Julio urging me to stay strong, to sing, to win.
I eventually did, sending the negative energy I'd been attacked with back to those I thought delivered it. And when the battle was over, one by one my sisters, my brother, parents, my wife and kids all appeared and congratulated me. More than that, they gave me a kind of love I'd never felt before. Maybe it was just because I was too tired to refuse it--as I sometimes do--but this love was overwhelming and without a hint of self-serving in it. It was unconditional.
And in that moment, I was everyone, I was pure spirit, or as close to it as I've ever been. I forgot being me and my spirit simply soared. And in that same moment I became Chepa and Madeleina and knew, instantly knew, what they needed to make them happy. Their spirits needed the same absolutely unconditional love. I was overwhelmed.
Now translating a moment of unconditional love into action on this level of reality is not easy. It took years of work to get over being angry with Chepa, and then years more to forgive her. But ayahuasca is an amazing healer. And the doctors really did some good work with me. Now, though I occasionally lapse, I can hand out that unconditional love without expecting anything in return. My job is simply to love them whether they notice it or not.
And that work has brought me to a place where I can freely love Chepa's two new babies from another man as well. I love them joyfully, and still know that one day when they move away I'll never see them again. That will be sad but it doesn't matter. What matters is that when they are with me they feel love and more love with no strings.
That is ayahuasca healing.
And those are a few of the different types of healing that can occur with that medicine.


Hummingbird said...

Very informative. Thank you, Peter!

The Grudge said...

I am grateful that you write to us. Your experiences are awe inspiring.

Gritter said...

Amen! Peter. Amen!

Kuchinta said...

Great read, Peter! :)

Serhio said...

thank you, Peter.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this reminder!

Etnikas Centre of Traditional Medicine & Ayahuasca retreats. said...

Thank you for your best information

Cedar said...

Beautiful. Thank you so much. That is the most important healing - opening our natural ability to love unconditionally.

Cedar said...

Beautiful. Thank you so much. That is the most important healing - opening our natural ability to love unconditionally.

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