“I certainly didn’t expect to be in such a place to write these words, when my Ecuadorian journey had just begun, almost two weeks ago. I am in the Amazon jungle, surrounded by vegetation. In front of me is a very large tree, tens of meters high, whose leaves fall slowly every time the wind blows. I can hear the rustle of a hummingbird’s wings foraging the bright red flowers of a plant that I have never seen anywhere else, as well as a hundred other little noises scattered around me, birds, insects, animals of all kinds. In the distance, I can see the tops of the many trees that give an omnipresent green tone to the place. Circumstances have brought me here so that I could heal myself with an ancient and sacred medicinal plant, with the help of the guidance of the shamans who live in this place. I still don’t know anything about the experience that awaits me, I don’t even know if it will start tonight or tomorrow. What I do know is that just being here, far away from the city, an hour’s walk from the nearest road and disconnected from the internet and social networks is already doing me a lot of good, in just a few hours. It’s been so long since I found myself in such an isolated place. Is this how we used to live? Just us and nature? Soon, I hope to receive her precious messages and teachings. It could be very powerful. I think I’m ready, though.“
As you can see, the journey I’m embarking you on today is going to be a little different than usual.
A few weeks ago, I found myself somewhere in the middle of the Amazon jungle, lying on a mattress under a large wooden dome in the center of which a small stove was burning. A shaman was summoning the spirits of nature, playing various traditional instruments and humming spellbinding tunes… I had just ingested a substance reputed to be one of the most powerful in the world.
In fact, I did what thousands of tourists go to South America to do every year in the hope of curing their ills of soul and body: an Ayahuasca retreat. It was one of the craziest experiences of my life, and today, I have chosen to share with you how I found myself in such a situation, how I experienced it, and some of the profound teachings I have taken out of it.
“ […] Maybe that’s what I needed, a reality check to bring me back to the present. To here and now. Is that what my body was trying to tell me when it got sick, when it stopped functioning properly? Or maybe it was in fact functioning just fine. There is something I have to do for myself, my body, my health, to get better. There must be something. Maybe I should go see some shamans…“
Those words were written at the end of a rather difficult period, when my health was really bad for a while; within a few days, I found myself with a tendonitis paralysing my whole upper body, causing me chest pains that were so bad that they kept me awake for entire nights. In the middle of all this, I also found myself having to go to the clinic, completely dehydrated after being sick for a whole day, emptying myself from the inside out. When I got there, I had a nice little panic attack.
Indeed, finding myself at the clinic for the umpteenth time awakened some trauma related to some recent and some less recent experiences in such places. Nurses who have to start over five or six times to give me a shot, burned fingers whose blisters have been torn off with tweezers while I cried in pain, confused looks in front of a drug that no one knows how to inject into my body and mockery from the staff at my dismay are only but a few examples. This isn’t the first country where I’ve been victim of ill-treatment in a hospital setting, either, since a few years ago, in Thailand, an on-call nurse almost killed me by refusing to help me while I was becoming violently dehydrated before her eyes, unable to drink even a sip of water. I don’t know why, but it is a recurring theme in my life that I am not taken seriously when I seek help for my health problems (I talk about it in my previous blog post, which I invite you to read if you want a little more context).
It is thus a little weak and tired that I left Las Tunas a few days later to go explore Ecuador with Shaun. Despite a rather restrictive diet (no gluten or dairy products, among others), which I had no choice but to adopt in response to violent daily cramps, my body was still suffering, especially since I allowed myself many exceptions, unable to resist the temptations in front of my limited choices.
Therefore, I had by then been thinking for some time now about other ways to help my body regulate itself. When a traveller told me about her very positive experience with Ayahuasca a few weeks earlier, I listened with curiosity, without really considering it for myself anytime soon. For those who are not familiar with Ayahuasca, it is a preparation based on a mixture of vines and plants containing DMT, a powerful psychotropic substance. This ancestral beverage is traditionally consumed in a curative way, by Amerindian tribes of Amazonia, always through highly ritualised ceremonies and supervised by shamans. Ayahuasca is considered a sacred medicine, capable of purifying the body and creating new connections in the mind. It is in no way intended for recreational use, since it is also famous for inducing experiences which are sometimes frankly painful, physically and/or mentally, with the goal of provoking a ‘purge’ which will allow the person to heal.
Needless to say that it takes an open mind to choose to go into the jungle and receive the benefits and teachings of this sacred plant. However, if you are skeptical, I invite you to do your own research on the subject. Today, many Westerners travel to these regions searching for cures and answers, some successfully, while others find themselves in dubious businesses, because the lure of gain has led many people to become shamans in order to make money on the backs of rich tourists. This was the last kind of place I wanted to be if I ever decided to embark on such adventure, so I asked for the contact of the place my friend had been to, just in case. If I was going to ever do it, it was essential for me to choose somewhere reliable, where the plant would be respected and used for therapeutic purposes, and not abused for thrill-seeking tourists. Her testimony had inspired me confidence.
The idea of going there together with Shaun came up during a conversation about that topic, shortly after we started our tour of Ecuador. I knew that this was not the kind of experience I would want to do alone, and when my companion also expressed interest in the plant, we thought we would take the opportunity if it came up, without forcing the circumstances if it did not. I contacted the shaman that this girl had told me about, to ask him a few questions. And then, everything fell into place: the dates, the place, our intuition… After months of trial and error with my health, I told myself that it was perhaps not a coincidence that this occasion appeared on my path at that time.
We both knew the power of these kinds of substances, and had no intention of taking it lightly. Admittedly, many are viewed very negatively by society in general for their destructive potential, and rightly so. Nonetheless, when their use is monitored and controlled, several studies prove their spectacular positive effects, particularly in the treatment of depression. And as for Ayahuasca, it has the reputation of not only curing the ills of the soul, but also those of the body, which was what I needed most. Assuming that the two are intimately linked, it makes a lot of sense, and at this point I felt ready to welcome it and let it work its magic on me.
We’ve thus gone on a special diet for a few days to prepare our bodies before arriving in Tena. From there, members of the family we are going to stay with drop us off on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere. We follow a path going into the jungle, and after an hour’s walk, we arrive in a beautiful place called Napusamai.
The serenity of the site inspires me to take my little notebook out, which leads me to document my experience over the days. We’ll be here for a total of five nights, we are therefore in no hurry. We decide not to take the medicine on the first evening, to give us time to get used to life away from the pollution, the noise, the hustle and bustle of the city. This gives us a chance to go for a hike in the jungle around, guided by Juan, the shaman who is going to accompany us in this experience. We are also able to get to know Angela, an American of Ecuadorian origin who is also about to try the adventure for the first time. She exudes a very positive energy and will be a lovely presence by our side.
As time approaches, the next day, the apprehension is rising but we are feeling ready.
That’s it, the big moment has arrived. In a few hours, I’ll be participating in my first Ayahuasca ceremony. I think it was a good idea to wait another day. We needed to take some time away from the city, to reconnect a bit with ourselves. This morning, we went for a walk in the jungle. It was fabulous. I felt like I was completely immersed in nature, in a way I’ve never felt so strongly before. The vegetation was so dense, so soothing. It was humbling. Juan was there to show us the way and share his knowledge about the different plants we found along the way. He knows a lot. He also told us about his traditions, his powers, his visions. The spirits of the forest and the energies that flow through them. Since yesterday, this man has been teaching us so much about his culture and about the traditional medicine that we will have the honour of approaching tonight. On our return, we were able to assist in the preparation of Ayahuasca, by helping to remove the bark of the plant, which is heated in water with green ‘chali’ leaves containing the famous DMT. Irene, Juan’s wife, is in charge, she explains the whole process to us. According to her, as the plant has a feminine energy, only women are allowed to prepare the final mixture, a very bitter drink with a reddish colour. Sometimes, the plant’s energy mixes with her own, and even without consuming any of it, she gets visions because of the vapours that come out of it. Together with Janet, her sister, they tell us many anecdotes from all the people who have come to experience the therapeutic virtues of the plant. Some feel nothing at all, others experience wonderful, at times terrifying moments; it is impossible to predict in advance what will happen with each individual. I listen to them attentively as they tell me about miraculous healings. I can’t believe that I’m really here, that I’m about to drink this mixture. I have to admit I’m hopeful that it will cure me. It’s a wonderful place for it, there’s a lot of caring people around me. I’m glad I’ve chosen it. Or maybe it chose me?”
The management of this place is indeed a family business, which gives it a very warm atmosphere. The people present vary from day to day, but we will be visited by several members of this large family, including children who brighten up the place with their laughter. Irene and Janet prepare delicious meals for us. These never include meat and are light, to spare our stomachs that are about to be pretty upset… We are not allowed coffee either, it’s replaced by Guayusa tea, which has many virtues and is traditional of the region. Moreover, on the three days we have planned to do a ceremony, we will not have an evening meal. It is true that there will be times when we will feel hungry, but all these precautions prove our dedication to the healing process, and our respect for Mother Ayahuasca.
Yes, I know, I sound a bit like a New Age cliché, talking like this. By the way, I can assure you that when I’m lying in front of a shaman who’s wearing a crown of feathers, performing a strange ritual while communicating with the spirits of nature, I’ll smile repeatedly at the absurdity of the situation. However, on my way to Napusamai, I made a commitment to leave all my doubts and prejudices aside in order to live the experience to the fullest. Moreover, from the very first ceremony, I realise the enormous potential of this medicinal plant and the few reticences I have left have no choice but to bow to the strange phenomena I’m witnessing.
“Yesterday, I thus had my first meeting with Madre Ayahuasca. It was generally a very positive experience, tinged with love and visions of all shapes and colours. Many beautiful memories came to the surface, as if to remind me that I have had a beautiful life for which I can be grateful. I was afraid of being confronted with my worst demons, but it was quite the opposite. Images of nature and the support of the elders seemed to guide me. I didn’t really receive clear messages supposed to orient me in a specific direction for my life, but I think I understood why. Something whispered to me that I was already on the right track, that I needed to trust myself and to keep going. I believe that the plant has chosen to occupy my mind with a lot of peace and positive images so that it could do its work properly on what needs its help the most at the moment: my body. I had the impression that its effects had already dissipated a little when Juan called me to perform a ceremony on me. I felt the power of his energy during the ritual, it was so strong that I lost consciousness for a few seconds (minutes?), several times. I was unable to talk to him afterwards, but during our debriefing earlier, he told me that he was able to heal almost everything, except for one adhesion (which I imagine was caused by my surgery) for which I will take a specific mixture of 21 different plants. I then went to sit by the fire outside, not knowing that Shaun would already be there. Next to him and facing the flames, I felt at peace. We were very connected, even though he wasn’t having as peaceful a time as I was. Back inside, I didn’t sleep for a long time, but I still felt the same warmth around me. I slept very little (3-4 hours maximum), but I still don’t feel very tired. This morning, I enjoyed my breakfast like I haven’t done in a long time, with a lot of gratitude. Then I meditated and made a few sun salutations, after having taken some time to put on paper a few words and pictures about last night’s experience. We’re doing it again tonight, and I think I’m ready to take a slightly larger dose. I feel good, my ideas are clear. I realise, however, that I still have no idea what to expect next time. Let’s see what Madre Ayahuasca has in store for me. I can’t wait“
The first ceremony was thus pretty quiet. I was given a rather mild dose to gauge my body’s reaction. Despite some nausea, I didn’t throw up, which was one of my biggest fears. After about 45 minutes, I started seeing a lot of colourful pictures of animals, birds and insects of the jungle. I remained quite lucid and in control, except during my individualised ritual, where my body reacted phenomenally to Juan’s every move. He looked so different than he did in broad daylight. It would be impossible to know that he is a shaman based simply on the image he presents to the world. At night, however, he seemed to embody the energy of all his ancestors, as if he were a thousand years old. The power he exudes is unbelievable, and I will feel it even more on the second night…
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin to describe my last experience with Madre Ayahuasca. She welcomed me fully and offered me the deepest and most intense spiritual experience I have ever had. It left me feeling exhausted, and I feel that I am still recovering even after a day’s break. I’ve been drinking a herbal treatment, supposed to help me dissolve the last lesion that is still causing me severe pain and prevents me from sleeping properly. During the ceremony, however, my mind was far from thinking about that. I think it was busy cleaning up all the mental impurities that were cluttering it. It was easy, I was feeling so much peace and love as the images were slowly coming up. I’ve never felt so comfortable, it was so soft, so beautiful. It was so strong that I had no control over what was happening most of the time. But even when I threw up a little, after Juan’s personal ceremony, I knew it was good for me, and it didn’t cause me any particular problems. I felt very connected to Juan and Irene, and I reacted to their movements before they even made them, without seeing what was happening. I was in another space-time, governed by energies, a dimension where everything is linked. I saw a lot of things and I don’t remember a hundredth of everything, but I felt the presence of the people I love, some of them deceased. Numan laid next to me for a while, for example, whispering to me that it is no accident that I came here. Several elements in my life had to be moved so that I could be here, which may explain the hard times I’ve had since my departure, all the series of events that brought me here. It comforts me in the fact that everything happens for a reason. I also saw that my pencil was a weapon, like an arrow sent by Amerindian soldiers. My last journey (for this time) awaits me tonight. I hope to continue seeing such messages.”
Neither words nor this image can do justice to the intensity of this second experience with Mother Ayahuasca. I am in a state of total bliss all evening, emerging from my trance only at times to realise how good I’m feeling, before leaving again for a world without pain, filled with the purest and most infinite love I have ever known. I have never experienced this much serenity in all my life, and I know that this memory can always be a refuge, no matter what happens in the future.
I again fall asleep very late at night and wake up at dawn, on the same matress under the tent where the ceremony took place, even after Juan and the others have left. It is indeed very difficult to sleep under the influence of this plant, and we are very tired after two evenings where our bodies and minds have been asked a lot. The next day’s break is really appreciated.
After a well-deserved rest, where we exchange at length about our respective experiences, we are joined by three new people. This worries me a bit, because even if they seem very nice, I really liked the intimate atmosphere that Angela, Shaun and I had created. I also feel right away that one of these three people carries a heavy and difficult energy that could influence the third ceremony. Nevertheless, we share some pleasant moments, especially when, on our return from a walk in the jungle, Juan shows us the twenty or so plants he has just picked. Each one has a specific function for the body and/or the mind, and we get to taste some of them. I am surprised to learn that these plants will be part of another mix that will be prepared to help me heal my stomach aches.
As I had foreseen and feared, the last ceremony will take a very different turn from the first two. I take the same dose as the last time, but this one hits me in a much more intense way; later, Juan will explain this by the fact that my body had already been deeply purified. Very soon, I find myself in an extremely uncomfortable state, terrified of having to spend a whole night like this, whereas under the influence of the plant, time doesn’t pass in the same way and every hour feels like an eternity. I nonetheless do my best to hold on, and when I emerge the next day, I feel like I’ve gone to hell and back. I am however grateful for it, because I know that it has allowed me to confront and heal deep wounds. Still, it will take me some time to digest, and I won’t pick up my pen again until I arrive in Baños several days later.
“It took me a few days to bring myself to write this, probably my last entry about the journey that Mother Ayahuasca has taken me on. What can I say… my third and final ceremony certainly didn’t go as smoothly as the first two. On the contrary, I would even say that it was probably one of the most difficult moments I’ve had to go through in my life. I suppose the extremes that usually define me have continued to do so through this experience. Yet, I now look back on it with affection. I was so well surrounded, so supported, that it was extremely therapeutic.
Although I took the same dose as the second time, it hit me much harder. It was too much, too hard. After losing consciousness for I don’t know how long, and waking up in a panic at the thought of falling asleep and missing out, I quickly realised that sleep was unlikely to win me over. Indeed, I began to slip into a waking nightmare, with no control over my mind and the ideas that were taking hold of it. Nor over my body, for that matter, since I could barely turn over in my mattress. Time started to lengthen, turning minutes into hours, the evening into a year. I recognised the same sensations as when I had a bad acid trip in Cambodia three years earlier, and I got scared. I felt extremely nauseous, and I didn’t even know how I could make it to the bucket next to my bed. I was too cold, too hot, and thoughts were racing in my brain as if there wasn’t enough room for all of them. I wanted to call for help but felt completely unable to do so. I ended up throwing up, several times, hoping it would get someone’s attention. I was breathing loudly and moaning uncontrollably. Gone were the feelings of infinite peace and well-being. I now felt absolutely terrible. Juan was singing and playing his instruments in the background, and each new sound provoked me. Just before I emptied my insides, I felt like I was just a vessel, that Juan was using my sensitivity to help him cleanse the bad energies in the room. I was convinced that the arrival of three new people, including a man who had been to war in the Middle East, was having a huge impact on my condition. It was as if some of the pain that consumed me did not belong to me. And as always, I was reacting to Juan’s movements before he even executed them, completely connected to him in whatever dimension I found myself in. Silent tears were running down my cheeks.
When, after what seemed like an eternity, Irene arrived to check on me, I knew things would change, that I would finally be taken care of. That’s when I understood that, in spite of the horrible sensations I was feeling, my experience was not going to be like Cambodia, because this time I was accompanied by the right people, in a safe and loving environment. I communicated my distress to Irene, and she hurried to get some sugar water to calm the effects of Ayahuasca. When I saw her come back, I broke down. I saw myself as a child, in a memory where I was alone, where I felt abandoned. This time, someone was there for me, Irene was holding me tight. I cried and cried like a child, with all the sadness in the world. It was as if I had found a deep wound, the original wound of all my fears of abandonment. Irene seemed to represent a mother figure, there to console me, and even though I’m usually unable to show so much vulnerability in front of others, I continued to cry, moan, scream for a long time. I understood and forgave many things. Then my thoughts brought me back to more recent wounds, to moments of unbearable loneliness. But this time, I was supported, and I invoked all the support, all the love that I ever had the chance to experience to get through this. I knew that I was surrounded, and that I had the right to let go and ask for help. I told myself that I had gone through some awful moments, and that I didn’t need to be so alone for them, that it was extremely hard. I felt immense compassion for myself and the trials that life had presented on my path, even recently. The illness, the betrayal of loved ones, the malevolence, the indifference. Here, everything was different. I understood that from now on, I could choose to always be surrounded, no matter what. Strangely, the memory of Numan didn’t make me sad at all. On the contrary, I understood that he was still there, in another form, that he would always be there.
Irene and Janet helped me to walk towards the fire. They held me and put my shoes on for me, I was totally dependent on them, but I didn’t feel ashamed. Juan arrived shortly afterwards, and his presence was what finally helped to calm me down a bit. As I was winding down, I burst out with several infectious giggles as I realised how absurd the whole situation was. Later, Angela arrived and blessed me with her gentle and soothing presence, as she held my hand. It took me a long time to regain some semblance of control over myself, helped by Shaun’s arrival. The evening was still long, after slowly warming my heart by the fire. I had another personal ceremony with Juan, at the end of which he repeated to me that he felt like my mind was that of a little angel, my ideas pure and transparent. Later, he performed a more advanced ritual to extract the evil that was eating away at my body, using the image of insects and scorpions that had invaded it. Shamanic things… I fell asleep peacefully, happy to know I’d been taken care of so well. Several days later, I feel like my body is still digesting the experience.
I will never forget the transformative experiences I had in Napusamai. And to think I wasn’t even planning on coming to Ecuador in the first place…”
You now know a little more about my very personal experience with Mother Ayahuasca. Obviously, I have not been able to describe everything; I myself feel that her teachings will continue to reveal themselves over time. Only by writing this text, I am rediscovering the enormity of those few days spent in the middle of the jungle, far from everything, where I was able to be as close to myself as possible.
I am fortunate to have been able to go through this experience alongside Angela, Shaun and all the members of Juan’s family, to whom I am extremely grateful for this magical opportunity. What they do is not insignificant, they change the lives of many people who encounter themselves in the haven of peace they have created in Napusamai. It must be difficult, getting into such a state several times a week, as Juan has been doing for decades. It can’t be improvised, you need to have strong shoulders, as well as the right people around to support the initiates in some of their deepest wounds.
Before leaving, we take time for a small photo session all together, to immortalise the warm atmosphere we all shared during those few days. As we walk the path that separates us from “civilisation”, we have the intuition that profound changes have taken place within us in the space of just a few days, and that we are not leaving quite the same as when we arrived.
My pain continued for several weeks after this experience, causing me great distress; however, today they have almost completely disappeared, which makes me so happy. I’m not sure if they are more the result of my change of diet, Napusamai ceremonies or the herbal mixture that I kept taking for several days after I left (the most bitter thing I’ve ever been given to drink), but something tells me that it’s a bit of everything at the same time. I think my body is grateful that I am finally starting to take care of it the way it deserves. It’s still struggling with a chronic infection, unfortunately, which probably comes from being prescribed antibiotics at every turn for months, but I’m confident that I’m on the right track to take care of it all.
With time, patience, self-love and a litte help from others.