The Sacred Vine of Existence

– Meet the Shipibo & Their Sacred Brew –

It’s midday during the dry season here in the Sacred Valley of Peru, and the skies are wide open. At ten thousand feet, I can’t ignore the sun’s greeting. The air is thin up here. This is the cost, I guess, to approach the heavens. So, I welcome the sun’s kiss and give thanks to the sky with each taxing breath.

As I stand atop these 3000-year-old ruins, I feel viscerally the reverence this valley holds. Like a mother pregnant with the magic and mystery of life, I feel the valley’s support and security, as well the bruises and pains she bears from her past. She embraces me with her wisdom.

I drop to one knee, reach out my hand, and place it gently on a slab of stone that was carved from her many generations ago. I allow the entire civilization that once lived here — that entire collection of earth’s children who, like me, felt fear and joy, who sought love and understanding — to fill my heart and mind.

I take a moment to soak in the expanse, to connect directly and intimately to the interconnected whole of existence, to absorb through each of my pores a gratitude that knows no end—a gratitude for the life-giving force of the sun, a gratitude for the patient and unwavering earth, a gratitude for my father and mother, for my brothers and sisters, for life, for all the children and creatures of space and time.

This is the wisdom the natives — the Shipibo — share with me over the course of my ayahuasca retreat in Peru; the wisdom of Love.

My First Introduction to the Shipibo

After a long journey from Salt Lake City to the Sacred Valley of Peru, rest is not what I received upon arrival. Rather, I was welcomed by my hosts with a traditional rapé ceremony to honor my intentions to come there.

The ceremony was a sharp awakening: I wasn’t there to have a relaxing vacation; I was there to put in the work; I was there to develop, strengthen, and uplift my being.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with rapé, it’s a finely ground mix of various plants from the Amazon, primarily tobacco (N. tabacum or N. rustica), which is blown with a snuff pipe into your nostril(s) either by yourself (using a Kuripe) or by another person (using a Tepi).

This was not my first time being administered rapé but…damn. I don’t know if it was the altitude or the potency or both, but I had to crawl back to my little mat on the floor in the ceremony room, where I immediately puked into a bucket.

As I sat there on my mat, I tried not to resist the dizziness and the head pain. I knew it was important to work on holding still in the mind my intention for coming, practicing this kind of equanimity, composure, and concentration for the ayahuasca ceremony, which I knew wouldn’t be any easier.

I was right.

we can wonder

Meeting Her Majesty – Ayahuasca

On the way back from the ancient ruins, the hours and minutes had grown thin. Ayahuasca approached quickly. Though I could feel the anticipation in my gut, a rumbling tumbling mix of fear and excitement, my spirit felt vast and my heart connected. I was ready.

Ready, though I felt, I was not so naïve to forget the power of the ego to trap, capture, and collapse awareness in a moment’s notice and send it into the spiraling abyss of self-concern. So, I decided it best to go practice vipassana — or insight meditation — to cultivate some mindfulness before I lay myself in Aya’s arms.

Suddnely, I heard the blow of a large seashell — the sound of a horn. It was time. My heart skipped a beat as my stomach dropped to the floor.

I walked into the ceremony room and took my seat in the far corner. There I sat on my little mat and watched as people from all around the world gathered into this small room, into this small corner of the universe, where each of us were about to embark on a sacred spiritual journey together.

In the room there are two childhood friends from Singapore, one Hindu the other Catholic, who are now in their early forties and who have been on many spiritual adventures together. There’s a girl from Lithuania in search of life’s meaning — there has to be something more out there than the ordinary pains of life. Across from me there was a beautiful young couple who came from Mexico to celebrate their honeymoon, to honor their new commitment to one another. A tough middle-aged guy from Lebanon also wandered in and found his seat. An E.R. doctor from California, a married couple from Vietnam, some broken and lost souls, some experience- and truth-seekers, some psychonauts and rolling stones — all sharing that sacred space.

After everyone got settled in and silence blanketed the room, the shaman began the night with a prayer — a prayer to each individual as they knelt in front of him and partook of the sacred medicine.

After each person had consumed the brew, the shaman, his wife, and the facilitators each took a drink. Next was a waiting game, a time to fold into the silence and darkness and solitudes of our own beings.

About fifteen to twenty minutes went by and then I felt it. The rapid onset almost knocked me out; it felt as if I had fainted for a brief moment. My stomach felt like dirty laundry being tossed about in the washing machine. Flashes of color filled my visual field. And then…the purge.

I quickly grabbed my bucket and placed it between my legs in front of me. But the world was quickly fading. The colors in my visual field began to take the shape of geometrical patterns. Soon, imagination, pure Creation, was all that remained.

Quickly I felt as if I was on — or, rather, that I was — a circus ride from hell. The nausea was overwhelming. I didn’t really have a sense of space or time. Had the ride just begun or was it near its end? It didn’t matter: I wanted to get off!

The ride didn’t stop. I was turning, twisting, bending, and spinning in every direction. My body, my intestines, had morphed into a vine, a giant snake tying itself into knots.

I had never been so desperate for sobriety.

Thoughts started spinning rapidly about, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m taking a second dose of this tonight,’ I think to myself. ‘And, shit! What about the next two ceremonies? Nope! Aya wins. I humbly bow out.’

I try to think of my meditation practice; I try to hold my experience with love, interest, care, and compassion:

“It’s okay. Remember that the greater You, the You which ‘you’ reside in — awareness — cannot be harmed. The greater You is not and cannot be whatever thoughts, feelings, and perceptions arise in it. For they are transitory, impermanent, always changing. You — the greater You — are unborn and unformed; You are boundless and timeless; the knower and holder of all things, space, and time.”

…I felt I was in for a long night.

The Come-Down

This reflection helped a bit. And soon enough I started to come down, I started to come back to that other dream world, that more familiar dream world we call reality.

And as I awoke to the room, I was shocked. Everyone seemed so peaceful. ‘Was I the only one tripping balls!?’

The girl directly to my left caught my attention. She was sitting upright in a meditative position, lighting a rolled tobacco cigarette, which was given to us upon our arrival along with some Palo Santo, a lighter, and a burn bowl.

‘What a badass! Before this she had only done mushrooms once. And here I am — an experienced psychonaut, a veteran — going through the most harrowing experience of my life. Sure, I took a larger dose. But still, why did it hit me so hard?’

My eyes finally adjusted to the dark which allowed me to see the silhouettes of the shaman and facilitators — they too were smoking tobacco. ‘There must be some wisdom here; they are telling us something with their example.’ So, I reached for a cigarette and lighter, but struggled…hard…to light it. Finally, a facilitator came to help me. I got it lit, took a puff, and sure enough it helped to ground me almost instantly.

After I regained most of my sobriety, the entire room was suddenly flooded with roars and growls and screams (one that sounded like a dying Pterodactyl). I heard the sounds of vomit fill empty buckets. There was a piercing scream from a woman across the room, as if she had just witnessed a murder. If this wasn’t unsettling enough, the sounds of terror, uncertainty, frustration, and hurt in the room suddenly penetrated me not as mere sounds but they became visual vibrations.

Everything I thought I knew — the world as I had known it — dissolved right in front of me. It was time to reconsider my view of myself, the world, and my place in it.

Self-Reflection | The Takeaway

Over the next two hours or so, I was flooded with thoughts. First, my thoughts consisted of confusion and curiosity about…whatever useless words I might use to describe the experience I had just had. But after the fear and confusion settled a bit, my thoughts turned into vivid reflections of my life, of my values, my aims and direction.

It was fascinating to watch as the evolution of these thoughts continued to unfold how much and how dramatically the attitude in my mind changed.

Was the experience I just had one of the most painful, terrifying, and harrowing experiences of my life? No doubt. But in the wake of this and the next two ceremonies, I found the utmost clarity. I found inner piece, much like I had found during my month-long vipassana retreat in Thailand. I found a clear direction and aim.

First, my understanding of myself and the world deepened tremendously. As my meditation has come to demonstrate over the years, Aya also showed me that I am so much more than my body, I am so much more than my feelings and emotions, so much more than my thoughts and perceptions. It showed me that I am entirely open, unbounded, and free.

It allowed all of the borders of my being to dissolve. It showed me just how interconnected I am to all people, to all creatures, to the earth, sun, and moon. “I” — John — don’t exist outside of the context of the environmental and social arena. The air I breath, the food I eat, the water I drink, each are necessary components of me. Without my family, community, and culture, I have no story, no understanding of myself.

The world — I — am entirely whole, without beginning or end. This is Love. I am Love.

Aya also taught me that my vipassana practice needs work, that I clearly still have a lot of control issues, that I need to learn to let go, to stop resisting what I can’t control, to join the everlasting dance. This doesn’t mean that I stop doing anything, that I just give up and surrender. It means that I follow the deep call from within, that I don’t resist that inner voice that does not speak but that tells of all that is.

And then there were the shadows Aya brought into the light. She showed me with tremendous weight which habits I need to get rid of and which I need to cultivate and strengthen. Weed’s gotta go. Movies and shows, gone. Gossip and pointless speech, toss it. Meditation, patience, understanding, love, compassion, and creativity: crank that shit up.

Finally, and perhaps the strongest demand I felt from her, something I just couldn’t escape was that I need to become a mama, a caretaker. She showed me that there is no hiding from my deepest heart-felt desire to raise a child. This was difficult because I had finally come to the point in my life where I had accepted that I will most likely be alone. I am and always have been an independent, which makes sharing a life difficult.

[Within a year from this retreat, I am extremely happy to say that I had found my human and became a parent to four of the purest children. I don’t believe this would have been possible without both my month-long meditation and this ayahuasca retreat. Without the depth and clarity I had gained from these two experiences, I’m not sure if I would have been able to fully see Deb or she me. Thank you to the Thai and Shipibo people for pointing me to my full and unbounded heart.]

Are You Interested In Ayahuasca?

If you are interested in participating in a traditional ayahuasca ceremony in Peru, I will be taking a group to the Amazon rainforest to meet the Shipibo October 30 through November 7, 2022. See the link below for more information (if you can’t afford it, please ask about our scholarships):

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