Can an Amazonian plant be the path to self-empowerment?
As many of us born in the 20th
century, I have heard several stories about the plant medicine, ayahuasca
. Respectfully it’s referred to as La Medicina
and has been gaining popularity among Westerners
seeking greater enlightenment, spiritual growth and deep healing. Ayahuasca is traditionally known as a plant spirit and vine that grows in the Amazon jungle containing MAOI inhibitors
that have been brewed for over several hours with Chacruna
-- another medicinal plant that contains the active DMT ingredient
. Combined together, these two plants create a tea responsible for an intense
visionary experience. There are now many retreat centers located in the Amazon jungle, and the Sacred Valley in Peru, that are geared towards tourists seeking the healing benefits of this vine. Recently, I visited one of those retreat centers -- in Peru -- through Tree of Light Retreats
. I went to the serene and beautiful retreat center, Sach’ a Munay, to partake in two back to back ceremonies with a group of 14 women. Each of us had our own reason to seek out the benefits of ayahuasca. Mine had been rooted from my father passing away a little more than two years ago. In the wake of this life altering grief, I had simultaneously experienced two failed romantic relationships that had both initially showed great promise, but ended in heartbreak. With all of this spinning around me, I heard a siren for spiritual healing and signed up for the retreat at Sach’ a Munay to see what ayahuasca could truly offer me. Before this epic journey began, I did what any intelligent, mildly neurotic New York woman would do -- I read as many books, watched as many documentaries and viewed as many YouTube videos as I could on the subject. I even followed an ayahuasca pre-ceremony diet (yes, there is a diet to follow two weeks before taking the medicine that eliminates pork, alcohol, sex and spicy foods). These off-limit items were described as having potential adverse reactions with ayahuasca during the ceremony. I felt it was better to be safe than sorry, so I stuck with it. All of the stories I'd heard about ayahuasca were intense -- very
intense. The visual experiences are unparalleled, the Icarus songs
conducted by the maestro (or maestra) leading the ceremony can aid or break a person, and there are inevitable purging episodes needed by each participant to round out this incredibly wild ride. I even spoke to some mothers who have said labor was easier than their experience with ayahuasca. In my research, I also found that ayahuasca is a fierce feminine plant spirit
. As I would soon experience, she has incredible power and is a dynamic teacher
. She can rip you to shreds -- if that’s what is needed. Due to the fierce nature of ayahuasca, it is essential to have a trustworthy maestro(a) who is experienced enough to diligently conduct the ceremony by creating sacred, safe space for all participants. Our maestra at the Sach’ a Munay was from the Shipibo tribe in the Amazon, who flew to the Sacred Valley specifically to conduct our ceremony. The Shipibo
are known as the keepers of knowledge for this sacred plant, as it’s an integral part of their cultural lineage passed down through the ages. During their own journeys with plant medicine, they are taught the ancient songs (aforementioned Icaros) to sing when leading ceremony. They keep you safe, and draw out spiritual darkness -- however terrifying that may be at the time. They call in light to illuminate the darkness hidden deep within one’s psyche to purge and replace
it with more protective and positive forces. This
is what I was seeking. However, the intense energy in the Sacred Valley coupled with the harsh effects of my altitude sickness began a preemptive purge as soon
as I arrived. All of the unwanted garbage that no longer served me began to leave my body as I began vomiting, sweating, becoming doused with cold chills, fever and (sorry) diarrhea, before the ceremony even started! As weak as I felt, I knew I needed to walk a bit and get my energy moving, so I went for an early morning hike in the Sacred Valley mountains. They are called Apus
and considered by Peruvians to be spirits or gods nestled in the seat of a divine feminine vortex. In it, the Apus felt loving and protective, and at the time, even they
were ready to give me a reboot. While I hiked, it was as if I could feel my old spiritual coding beginning to be replaced with new software. Was I ready for Me 3.0? Before the first (there would be two total!) ceremony, my group met with our facilitator,
Carolina Dowell. She is an American woman who has taken ayahuasca hundreds of times and continues to lead women’s ayahuasca retreats. Over the course of my stay, I observed and began to greatly admire Carolina, and found that she is a badass who is incredibly open and gentle. It was inspiring to see how deeply she connected to her own heart, and the hearts of all the women on this retreat. After her meeting with my group, I told her about my hesitations to participate in the ceremonies since I was so feverish and sick. To my surprise, she said to me, 'Many of the times when you’re very sick, you’re also very energetically sensitive, open and vulnerable. This sickness puts you into such a complete state of surrender that is wonderfully perfect for an experience with ayahuasca.'
I was actually doing this -- all roads led to the ceremonial hut called a malloca. This is where I would have my ayahuasca journey. I was beginning to see what surrender
truly meant. The day of the first ceremony began with fasting and writing clear intentions. In the evening we entered the malloca to begin. Mats were set up in a circle for us to sit on with the maestra. She was positioned in the middle of the circle with her nephew, an apprenticing maestro. There they sat smoking mapacho
, a strong Amazonian tobacco, in the dark to begin offering protection during the ceremony. It’s customary for the ceremony to be conducted in the evening in complete darkness, so I was glad I had a red LED headlamp for those adventurous trips to the bathroom. Before drinking the ayahuasca brew, the mapacho smoke was blown on us and we were offered hand rolled mapacho cigarettes to smoke during the ceremony. As we each took turns drinking the medicine in front of the maestra, I gave thanks
to her and to the feminine plant spirit I was ingesting. I bowed with a deep sense of gratitude for this cleansing and healing experience. Sitting on my mat, I took some deep breathes in an attempt to relax my body and steady myself over the next eight hours
(!). Absolute silence took over the room as we waited with eyes closed for the effects of the medicine to kick in. After approximately 40 minutes, the sound of a match lit from one corner of the room grabbed my attention. A light from the cigarette became slightly visible as I struggled to keep my eyes shut. (Disclaimer: this is where things get REAL). The horrifying sound of vomiting from various parts of the circle began. A sense of warmth flooded my body as I felt the urge to purge immediately. I grasped for my bucket in the pitch darkness and wrapped my body around it. The bucket became my buoy in this tumultuous storm. I dry-heaved and then, suddenly, exotic flowers burst into my mind’s eye. As the maestra sang, the flowers grew, shifted and changed; multidimensional vegetation exploded into infinity. After some time, the visions dissipated and the real work started. I sat on my mat, wrapped around my bucket as the ayahuasca spirit entered my body. She telepathically showed me all the drama
I had caused and attracted into my life. Though, this was not something I particularly wanted to hear. I realized that my relationships thus far had been FILLED with drama, and I was responsible for it because I have somehow always felt like I NEEDED it. Old beliefs and negative patterns regarding past relationships erupted inside of me and I violently purged them out.
"We often times feel selfish, guilty or scared about taking journeys away from our families, partners and work obligations. But in reality, when we give ourselves that level of loving-intention attention and self-care, when we take the time to heal ourselves, we in turn heal others."
The feminine plant medicine asked if I was ready to see more of my self-sabotaging patterns, if I was ready to listen and let go
. I was so ready, and at this point I really had no choice. Through a series of vignettes flashing through my mind, the ayahuasca spirit showed me all of the ways I had become addicted to drama. She showed me all of the subtle mind-games and manipulations that created my experiences in relationships. I started to question whether or not this feminine medicine spirit truly was my teacher. Did I want this spirit to take hold of me? I felt resistance and told myself I wouldn't participate in the next ceremony. This was not for me. No. Ayahuasca was not my teacher nor my guide. There was more purging and then suddenly I needed to run to the bathroom. I searched for my LED headlamp with only my feeble hands to guide me. I tried to get up, but couldn’t stand. So much for running. I crawled over to Carolina and asked if she could help me to the bathroom. Like a baby deer taking its first steps, I carefully stood up while she gently helped me walk. I noticed how grounded the facilitator was in comparison to my own state and I held onto her tightly. Once I was outside, the spirit plant began to speak to me again. 'Do you see how much drama it is even to go to the bathroom? You don’t need to; it’s all in your mind. Ask the Universe to help you purge a different way.'
So I did...I begged the Universe for no more trips to the bathroom. I pleaded that I needed to purge some other way. I saw a golden light envelope my stomach, healing my sickness. My body shivered and my face twitched. I felt better almost immediately. I went back inside the malloca and sat on my mat. The plant medicine then showed me a glorious experience: Love without agony. Love without longing. Love without yearning. Love without suffering.
I heard myself say YES over and over again. My heart flowered and I was flooded with feelings of compassion, trust and acceptance. 'Be mindful, have awareness of all things. Take such care of yourself and be more mindful of others.'
Yes, yes, and yes…It was all I could feel and I wanted to remember it forever. 'Let it all go, let go of the past…you have done such hard work; we can move forward now with GRACE!'
Tears of joy streamed down my face. I took deep, relaxing yawns. The Universe had truly listened to my plea. The next morning, I didn’t think I could go through another ceremony. It took so much out of me and doubts swarmed my mind. 'Should I really be doing this? Do I really need another ceremony tonight?'
I decided to speak with Carolina again for more advice. She told me: 'Yes, you can absolutely handle another ceremony. The healing you received wasn’t just about you, but for your ancestors and for your lineage.'
What I was cleansing out of my energetic field affected my family as well as my future partner and children. It was simple and succinct. All of my spiritual work had never really been about me
, but how I show up for others
in the world. I didn’t have to decide whether or not I was going to drink the brew again, I just found myself, hours later, sitting on a mat in the dark malloca. I was led there by something other than myself and my body simply followed.
In the second ceremony, we were given the choice to drink less of the brew. Since the night before felt so intense, I had no problem with this. After the ayahuasca worked its way through my system, I was shown a metallic green serpent mask with large, deep, inky eyes. The ayahuasca was revealing herself to me and told me these were her ancient eyes to see through -- eyes that had seen all of creation and humanity. She asked for permission to show me my fears. No, I did not want to deal with my fears, or of her trying to show me that I feared the feeling of fear. She asked if she could show me a tarantula. (I have serious arachnaphobia.) I asked her to show me fear in a different form. A tarantula came to me in a vision anyway and walked on my body. I lit a mapacho cigarette and blew the smoke into my shirt and in the air above me. Was this just a trickster evil spirit coming in to ruin my experience? The spider backed off and circled my periphery for the remainder of the ceremony. I slowly began to accept its presence, but couldn't fully embrace its existence... As I tried desperately to soothe myself, she showed me what self-love
looks and feels like, and filled me with it. She showed me how to love myself more and how to self-soothe in times of need. The inky-eyed metallic serpent mask showed me how to become self-empowered. I saw several mind expanding visuals growing and lighting up my life. I listened to the Icaros intensely as they became everything
– haunting, beautiful, enveloping multidimensional beings bringing me deeper into beauty. Everyone participating in the ceremony that evening received a personal Icaro sung by the maestra. I giggled when the maestra sang to me as I saw her round, little body morph into an alien disguised in a human suit. It felt as if her song downloaded ancient alien knowledge in me. This knowledge was simple: we have nothing to fear! We are protected and loved. Stop the self-pity.
Then, she slowly moved around the circle singing until each woman had received her personal attention and care. I sat-up with legs crossed in a meditative state as the ceremony ended. Carolina thanked everyone for all their hard work and a job well done. After all, it was REALLY hard work. The next morning, we left the retreat center and headed to Machu Picchu. With the Icaros still fresh in my mind and the ayahuasca integrating within my body, I reflected on how much courage
it took to come here and drink this medicine (because medicine it truly is). We often times feel selfish, guilty or scared about taking journeys away from our families, partners and work obligations. But in reality, when we give ourselves
that level of loving-intention attention and self-care, when we take the time to heal ourselves, we in turn heal others.
We become a model for a life lived fully, without fear and without bending to societal pressures and what is deemed “normal” or “acceptable”. We become autonomous -- our own sovereigns. We don't take from others or drain others because we become responsible for our own happiness and worthiness,
brining unwavering feelings of empowerment, and inspiring others on their own path to becoming empowered. For the first time in quite some time, I felt calm, grounded and healed