– Reflections of My Ayahuasca Retreat in the Amazon –
Three years have passed since I was introduced to Mother Ayahuasca in the Sacred Valley of Peru, where I met the astonishing Shipibo people. Today, I have returned home from my latest trip to the Amazon Rainforest, where once again I was humbled not just by the medicine but by the subtle yet profound art of being the Shipibo so gracefully radiate.
It’s hard to unpack and conceptualize the lessons learned and insights gained from this experience. But my hope in this article is to share those golden nuggets of wisdom, those insights and lessons that are universal, that are applicable to each of us who face suffering, who face fear, doubt, and uncertainty. I will focus on those takeaways that lead to more peace, happiness, and love in the world and in our lives.
I sat for four Ayahuasca ceremonies this trip, each of which was its own unique expression of life and love. I hope you enjoy that which I am able to convey from these experiences. May you find lasting peace.
We Are One | The Mother & Her Creatures
Two days before the first ceremony, I received a FaceTime from back home. It was my brother and mom. Immediately, I felt the reverence in their expressions and voices.
It was my grandma. She had been hospitalized. Her heart was nearing its end. Tears filled my eyes as I thought back to the many years of influence she had on my life. My mom was babysitting our kids while we were in Peru, and I thought of the many times my grandma babysat me and my siblings when my parents left town.
Gratitude pushed outward on my being as I witnessed this generational support, this interconnection, this inter-being. My heart grew vast, holding both the joy and the sorrow. And then my floodgates bursted open upon realizing that I may not be able to hold her head to mine and say goodbye for the final time.
Two days later, when I walked into the first ceremony, I reflected on the fact that my grandma would have to surrender completely. We all must surrender completely. One day, each of us must let go of everything. Why not, I thought to myself, let go now. All the wisdom traditions have, after all, been pointing me to this — to selflessness, to Love. Do I have the courage to let go entirely?
‘We’ll do it together,’ said a soft voice in my heart and mind. And then my grandma, on her death bed, came into view. I was there with her, my forehead pressed against hers. And suddenly, I too was on my death bed, old and wrinkled, lying next to her, with her hand in mine. Our arms began to expand, forming a circle, extending further and further outward until we embraced all of existence.
Then, the imagery quickly began to take shape of the Icaros, sacred healing songs sung by the Shamans during ceremony, which commonly take shape as patterns representative of the harmonious energy field that pervades all life, being, and existence.
These designs, which are actually felt, seen, and experienced, point to the all-encompassing reality of oneness, of wholeness. They represent the non-dualistic nature of all things, the union of perceived opposites. They can be thought of as an ongoing dialogue or communion with Nature, with God, with the spiritual world, and the power of the Rainforest. The song of Life.
As I feel the eternal frequencies of the whole of existence vibrate through me, I am overcome with a feeling of completion, satisfaction, and peace. And when I find myself no longer standing in opposition to the rest of the world, when I find myself contained in the world and the world in me, at one, entirely interwoven, the Icaros begin to take the shape of a woman — the humble Mother, Aya.
She places her forehead gently upon mine and then turns away, as if she is encouraging me to follow her. I allow her to carry me through the river of space and time, where she reveals to me glimpses of my life from Her all-encompassing perspective. She knows my ego has been hurt. It’s soft and vulnerable. My own worth has been in question. She heals those pieces of me, shows me my indispensable value and contribution to life, and then thanks me for all my hard work, kindness, and discipline.
* * *
Each and every one of the Mother’s creatures is an essential and vital piece to the Whole. Each creature, each branch, twig, and flower, with its own unique expression, contribute something vital and valuable to existence. The Mother sees, honors, and gives space for each of her creatures to unfold freely. The Mother holds each of them in love and compassion. The Mother allows me — She allows Life — to be.
Allow yourself and others to be. Watch over and protect life, watch over and protect each other. Do what you can to nourish the free expression of each living being, while keeping in mind the undivided whole of Existence.
Shamanic Surgery | Mending the Fractured Pieces
From my earliest memories, I have been a skeptic, and still remain one to this day. But after this and my previous experiences with Aya, coupled with many other travels and experiences, I am not so foolish to deny the eternal vastness of my ignorance, which swallows whatever little understanding I do have.
With that said, let me try to put into words the experience of my second Ayahuasca ceremony, which leaves me in complete & utter wonder. As the medicine began to take effect, I felt it scanning my entire body — physical, mental, and spiritual. Without having experienced this yourself, I’m not sure how to capture this process, but it was very intense and at times highly uncomfortable. And whatever is doing the scanning, feels very much alive and intelligent.
‘Trust,’ I hear the shamans’ words repeat in my head, ‘Trust in the medicine, trust in the process, trust in us, and trust in yourself.’ I settle back into the moment, into the ever-changing process and experience of life. ‘Let the medicine do its work,’ I think to myself, ‘This is why I came. I have felt its power to heel before. Trust.’
Over the next few hours, it is hard work to stay mindful, to stay calm, open, aware, and receptive to my experience. I manage, though, to stay with it, aside from a few brief stumbles and panics. What I experienced over the course of those few hours was best captured by my partner River, who described her experience the following day as a ‘Shamanic Surgery,’ which we later confirmed is a common experience.
As Aya moved through my body, she removed pieces of me — energetic pieces — that no longer served me. And when she was done with each piece, I literally purged them out of me, whether I actually vomited or purged in some other manner — crying, yawning, sweating, etc. And after each purge, an overwhelming sense of peace took over me. I was filled with a sense of spaciousness and freedom.
What I found particularly interesting during these ‘surgeries’ was that there were people who felt like sentinels or guardians standing and sitting to my sides and behind me watching over me as Aya performed her work. I did not recognize any of their faces, but there was a sense, a feeling, inside me that these were Shamans from the past. In any case, their presence brought me a deep sense of safety and comfort.
* * *
Each of us, as we move through the world and through life, confront many different energies, pleasant and unpleasant, which leave energetic imprints on our being. When we surround ourselves with the energy of anger or judgment, say, that energy is watered in ourselves when we’re not mindful. And when we surround ourselves with love, openness, and acceptance, as I did this week with the remarkable Shipibo people, that energy too begins to grow and spread its seeds within us and out into the world around us.
Reality, Life, and Being is composed of an energetic field. Be mindful of the songs of life you listen to and emerge yourself in. Pick your company wisely. Know what foods and nutrients you are putting into your body. Are they rooted in awareness and kindness to the earth and its creatures? Be intentional about the content you consume. How is your social media serving you? What movies are you watching? What music are you listening to?
Are your words and actions motivated by loving-kindness, generosity, compassion, and wisdom? Or are they motivated by greed, hatred, anger, and delusion? Do you see yourself as a part of the whole? Or are you operating as if you are cut off, separate, isolated from the rest of existence?
We all stumble and fall sometimes, so please remember to forgive yourself, to forgive others. Remember to be patient and understanding. The pleasant and the unpleasant exist together. There is no need to push the unpleasant away. We need only hold it with care and compassion, with an eagerness to understand it, to transform it back into Love.
If you are struggling to transform any of these harmful energies that keep you feeling separated from life and love, consider going to Peru and visiting the Shipibo people. I don’t claim to understand the medicine or the Shamans’ ancient wisdom. But I can say with confidence that they will be able to clear out some space for you, that they can clear away some of that harmful energy, that they can untie many of those painful knots that are keeping tight and contracted. I recommend Arkana Spiritual Center.
I Am of the Nature to Get Sick, Age, & Die
Damn. I thought I had got the hang of this. I guess, just as with meditation retreats, you never really know what your sit will be like. Well, for me, the third night was rough, to say the least.
But, as those of you who have experienced tremendous hardship likely know, pain is what creates the space for growth. It is what allows courage, patience, and discipline to come in and build character into that space.
Over the course of this long night, which lasted from eight at night to four in the morning, many of my teachers kept coming to mind, providing me with courage, strength, and endurance, perhaps foremost among them were the words of the poet Khalil Gibran:
And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.
And he said:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.
-Khalil Gibran, On Pain
The Buddha said something similar to Gibran’s words: “Much of your pain is self-chosen.” He (the Buddha) expressed it in many different ways. But the story that kept coming to my mind during ceremony was the parable of the ‘Second Arrow,’ which is a parable about how to deal with suffering more skillfully.
“If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” the Buddha asks a student. The student nods. And the Buddha continues with the follow-up, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?”
He then went on to explain that in life we can’t always control the first arrow. Pain is inevitable. It is of our human nature to experience pain, to get sick, age, and die. We can, however, avoid the second arrow, which is our reaction to the first arrow, and which is often even more painful than the first.
If you’ve been engaged in my free meditations or in some other vipassana practice, you’ll hopefully have a clear sense of what I’m pointing to here. Vipassana, remember, means ‘bare knowing.’ It is the practice of occupying the formless open space of awareness, which knows and accepts all things as they are, without judgment and reaction to them.
In any case, we each have had experiences in our lives where we have been quite composed and at ease with some source of pain, whether physical or emotional. And we have had other experiences where we are overreactive to and deeply distressed by some source of pain, sometimes even a minor agitation or annoyance.
Why is this so? As you grow more mindful through practice, you begin to discover that we build stories around pain, which creates a feedback loop of suffering by tying our ‘self’ to the pain. Rather than watch mindfully the ever-changing field of sensations, of heat, pressure, tightness, tension, sharpness, or whatever’s there, we reify and solidify this pain with stories that make it personal.
There are a few places this ‘second arrow’ frequently shows up in my own life. But let me share with you one of them. At fifteen, I was both diagnosed with diabetes and had my first seizure. (A few years later, after more seizures, I was diagnosed with epilepsy). And as it turns out, one of the most common triggers for my seizures is low blood sugars, which is a daily occurrence. (Diabetes is a constant and never-ending balancing game throughout my day and life between high and low blood sugar levels.)
Now, having low blood sugars in and of itself is an unpleasant experience. When insulin levels rise and blood sugar levels drop, the body releases a surge of stress hormones, which cause an increased heart rate, shakiness, and sweating, which are accompanied by a strobe-light-like feeling in the mind.
Most of the time, when my blood sugars drop, I am able to stay with these sensations, composed and equanimous, without collapsing into some story about the bare felt experience. Sometimes, though, especially during the weeks following a seizure, the felt experience of my low blood sugars becomes extremely intense, not because the actual sensations of my lows have changed, but because ‘I’ collapse into a series of stories about the painful sensations:
“Oh no, not another seizure. I’m not sure I can bear another one. I’ll be in bed for a week with tremendous body aches and head pain. And what if this time, I don’t survive it? What if I hit my head and never wake up again?” The illusion of ‘I’ is being created by these stories and causing unnecessary suffering by identifying it with the raw ever-changing field of sensations. The second arrow.
Again, the second arrow is the story we tell ourselves about the first arrow. “I’m a loser. This always happens to me. Why me? This is a physical thing; I can’t help the suffering. I have ‘such and such’ syndrom or disability; I’m condemned to suffer.”
Illness, pain, and dis-ease, whatever its source, is no more than a series of impermanent, ever-changing, heightened sensations. The true suffering is caused by the view we attach ourselves to; a story that contains many stories, with our ‘self’ at the center of this drama.
Being sick or dis-eased means trafficking in stories — yours, the doctors’, and everyone else’s. I don’t say this to scold, criticize, or belittle us. “To see stories as the problem,” David Loy writes, “is to blame the victim. Instead of getting rid of stories one can liberate them: storying more flexibly, according to the situation. Shunyata, “emptiness,” is a heuristic device to free us from wherever we are stuck.”
With mindfulness, we can learn to relate to our pain with compassion and wisdom — with the direct understanding of the impermanent, selfless, and interconnected nature of all things. We can learn to tell stories through Love’s eyes.
Another tremendous teacher of mine, Joseph Goldstein, in his book The Experience of Insight, expresses this same important message in the form of a personal story. When he and his fellow meditators were in India, an elephant would often be walking down the road when they traveled into town. “When we saw the elephant coming down the road,” he said, “we did not just stand there saying ‘seeing, seeing.’ We moved out of the way. Use the thought process when appropriate.”
* * *
Approach your pain and sorrow through the lens of Aya, the vine of existence, who sees and cares for all of Her creatures, each of her twigs, leaves, and flowers.
Drop the stories that don’t serve you or the vine, the world around you. Use the creative gift you have been blessed with to create stories, songs, and paintings of truth, beauty, and goodness. Not stories that deny or run from the true nature of things, that run from pain, grief, and sorrow, but stories that embrace them with compassion, understanding, and wisdom.
I am of the nature to get sick. I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to die. Will you kick and scream and fight against nature? Or will you open your arms and heart to the fullness of this human experience, to the fullness of life and being?
One of my biggest examples in this regard, who came to mind during this beautifully painful Ayahuasca ceremony, was the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who contracted tuberculosis early in life, became ill with bronchitis, and soon after was bedridden until he died at 44.
When a friend asked about Thoreau’s illness, someone close to him throughout his dying process replied:
“Henry was never affected, never reached by it. I never before saw such a manifestation of the power of spirit over matter. Very often I have heard him tell his visitors that he enjoyed existence as well as ever. He remarked to me that there was as much comfort in perfect disease as in perfect health, the mind always conforming to the condition of the body. The thought of death, he said, could not begin to trouble him…During his long illness I never heard a murmur escape him, or the slightest wish expressed to remain with us. His perfect contentment was truly wonderful. None of his friends seemed to realize how very ill he was, so full of life and good cheer did he seem. One friend, as if by way of consolation, said to him, ‘Well, Mr. Thoreau, we must all go.’ Henry replied, ‘When I was a very little boy, I learned that I must die, and I set that down, so, of course, I am not disappointed now. Death is as near to you as it is to me.” — Henry David Thoreau, by F. B. Sanborn (1882)
How at peace are you with your self? How at peace are you with Nature? Can you let go entirely, and allow the Dharma to unfold freely?
Again, if you have not fully connected with your true nature, if you have not come to terms with your own mortality, if fear still imprisons you, I invite you to spend some time with the Shipibo. Come to terms with the true nature of things, come to term with the Dharma. Know your mortality, not just conceptually, but connect with it as a matter of direct experience. Let go of everything before you die, or else you will rot.
Trust | Everything is Going to Be Alright
You are as much a part of nature as the light is a part of the stars. As Alan Wats said, “We do not come into this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.” We can’t control how each moment, how each counter, how each experience will unfold. We are not in charge of Life, we are not in charge of Nature, we are not in charge of God. We are beautiful expressions of and witnesses to its Truth, its miracle, and its majesty.
Let go and trust that:
“Every little thing is gonna be alright” — Bob Marley
John Driggs | Meditation Teacher & Founder of The Space of Possibility Podcast, Blog, & Retreat Center | Explore & Expand the Space of Possibility that You are!
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