During my recent Peru trip I had the opportunity to do something that’s been on my bucket list — to explore the Amazon beyond the river towns into the real jungle — to hear it, feel it, see the wildlife, and to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony with an authentic shaman.
I arranged for a two-day trip up into the headwaters of the Amazon in a dugout canoe. I went with five friends, all fellow clowns, up the Yarapa River into Cocama Indian country. On the way, we saw egrets, herons, kingfisher, fish eagles, toucans, a million butterflies and huge flying insects. We watched the famed pink river dolphins and saw turtles and fishermen netting Piranhas.
We got to the lodge (an elevated wooden shack) where the ceremony would be held and met the ayahuascero, the shaman (whose name really is Don Juan), a 67-year-old Cocama Indian, descendant of generations of shamans. No more than 5’6” tall, vigorous, smiling and engaging, Don Juan invited us to his farm. He wanted to show us how the sacred ayahuasca vine grew and was prepared. We piled back into the dugout canoe to meet his family and walk the fields. He showed us many therapeutic plants, lots of bugs, and frogs; at the sacred vine he lit a cigarette to bless it and us. Don Juan asked if any of us had ever taken ayahuasca before (one of us had), and he summarized what the experience might be like. He said we might get sick to our stomachs, but to sit up and let it out, only then could we see something new.
Ayahuasca (which means devil vine in Quechua) cleanses the body by unleashing a parasympathetic cascade that induces vomiting and can cause diarrhea; you sweat profusely and can become immobilized. Don Juan said you first have to let go of the stuff that’s trapped inside in order to make room to see things more clearly.
It is the plant “chakruna” that is added to the ayahuasca mixture that induces the visions. I hoped I might see deeper into the mind’s mystery. It was completely dark when we began; a half-hour before I could hear the shaman vomiting outside. Don Juan took it before we did to prepare himself, and that was the first time I felt a queasiness that maybe it might be a little more than feeling sick to my stomach.
We gathered in a 10’ x 20’ shack which contained six mosquito- netted beds, one toilet and sink. We sat in a small circle on the floor, in its center a candle burned. Don Juan lit a cigarette and blew the smoke over a large jar that contained the ayahuasca/ chakruna mixture. He filled a juice glass (a little less for the women) and passed it to each of us in succession. When we were done drinking it he picked up a fan (shakapa) made of branches with tiny leaves and waved out the flame. Don Juan began to whistle a tune; mixed with the sounds of the jungle night, it was an entrancing lullaby and made me think about my mother around the Sabbath lights.
Within 30 minutes I was feeling a bit woozy and the sounds got a little blurry, and in another 10 minutes the first round of nausea seized me. I got real sick (no orifice remained inactive) and my legs trembled so that I could hardly stand. I was sweating profusely, quite thirsty, and asked for water. A helper brought me a glass but Don Juan told me not to drink it so I dutifully put it down next to me. But after another 20 minutes of continued fluid loss, I was even more lightheaded, so I asked for water again. Don Juan told me not to drink because it would only make me sicker.
I’m thinking . . . I’m a doctor, he’s a jungle shaman. I’m fluid depleted, my circulating volume is down, heart, lungs and brain stressing out, I need water. It’s pitch black, he can’t see me, I’ll just pick up the glass. So I reach over to where I put down the glass but it’s not there. The glass is gone, and it’s finally clear to me that I’m in the jungle and maybe he knows something I don’t.
As soon as I saw that, it wasn’t 15 minutes before the vomiting stopped, and then I lay down. Animals came walking by. I could speak to them all, but I can’t recall a single conversation. There were no celestial lights surrounding a heavenly throne welcoming me to the Promised Land; my great vision was how hard it was for me to let go and trust that somebody other than me could get me through the night.
I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to get this through my head, especially since I thought I’d already learned this over the last years with my recent encounters with disease and loss. But the truth is that whenever I face personal crises, I prefer to have the paddle to my canoe in my own hands. To tame my ego I have to be wrenchingly sick and prostrate before I let myself trust that something or someone other than myself will get me through the night.
It shouldn’t be this hard to understand that the only way we ever get control is when we give it up.