Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero – text version

An ayahuasca ceremony tambo near Iquitos, Peru.

This post contains the text version of Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero. It’s almost identical to the audio version, as is the fairly brief introduction below.

Ronin, or Ronin Niwe, is one of what might be described as the new breed of ayahuasca curanderos. These are mainly people who are not native to the Amazonian region of South America and who have undertaken apprenticeships, often under the tutelage of ayahuasca shamans trained in the traditional way. This apprenticeship, when done properly, is a very demanding and rigorous commitment that requires many years of experiential learning.

I have now participated in three ayahuasca ceremonies with Ronin Niwe and have had several very interesting conversations with him. My strong sense is that he is one of those who are doing this right—nurturing the tradition with integrity, respect, and humility. This is an important point because, as you’ll hear in the audio version of Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero, it appears that not everyone involved in this work does have the proper training, and in some cases the intention of some self-appointed ceremony leaders may be questionable.

Ronin generously agreed to sit down with me to answer questions about a range of topics, including his personal relationship to ayahuasca, optimal internal and external conditions (set and setting) for beneficial encounters with the medicine, how ayahausca does its healing work with people, the issue mentioned above about the need for proper training and right intention for ayahuasqueros, and the potential role this plant medicine may play in the years to come.

I’d be very interested in hearing listeners’ comments and questions about this interview. Ronin himself suggested we get together again after I’ve had some feedback. I’d like to go back to him in a few months with a fresh batch of questions, so please post your questions in the comment section following this.

For those interested in learning more, I will be continuing to add content here at the Returning to Sacred World website. My book, also called Returning to Sacred World (due out from O Books this November 2010), has several in-depth chapters on the plant medicines and one chapter specifically on ayahuasca.

I’d also like to direct your attention to a very interesting DVD by Richard Meech called Vine of the Soul: encounters with ayahuasca. Richard gained permission from Ronin’s teacher in Peru, Guillermo Arévalo, to film several ceremonies using an infrared camera. With the addition of a number of highly informative interviews, this film is about as realistic a look as one could get into the ayahuasca experience, short of going to South America and doing some ceremonies oneself. I’ve watched an advance copy of the DVD. I believe the film is now available for order. Richard’s website for the film is www.vineofthesoul.com.

Stephen: I’d like to start by asking you how ayahuasca has benefitted you in your life, what your journey has been with it.

Ronin: I could say that ayahuasca has given me lots of teachings and insights, but I think everyone will know that that’s pretty common for most people. On a personal level ayahuasca has given me more than just personal growth or development and evolution. It’s also given me many dear friends, it’s given me a life path, a purpose, and a whole community of people who are working with this medicine who have changed my life forever. To be more specific, I would say that ayahuasca has helped me resolve many things inside myself that were blocked or resistant. Definitely it’s given me confidence, it’s given me belief, it’s given me a spiritual connection, and all those things have benefitted me one way or the other the last eight or nine years.

S: I’ve read in a few places, for example Benny Shanon in his book The Antipodes of the Mind talks about how ayahuasca presents a sequential or graduated course of instruction, that whatever you’ve been able to incorporate from lessons you’ve learned, she’ll take you from there and show you more that builds on that. Does that coincide with your experience and do you have any further comments about that issue?

R: Yeah, I like that metaphor that Benny Shanon uses. I remember that from his book. I would say that’s fairly true. I can remember certain parts of my apprenticeship where it seemed that a lesson was complete and it was on to a new part of the learning within myself. I’ve also seen it in working with people over the last number of years. There seems to be a progression in learning, although it depends on how much you’re integrating. Ayahuasca won’t teach you further until you’ve integrated the teaching into your life. She’ll keep teaching you the same thing and sometimes she teaches you with more assertiveness unless you really integrate that into your life. I remember an example for myself three or four years into my apprenticeship. I seemed to get a seventy or eighty ceremony experience of learning where it seemed that I was just getting taught about creation, the source, or God—whatever you want to call it. Then it seemed to just stop. I remember it going on for a number of months and then the final ceremony came where it felt like I had gotten all I could from that and was moving on to the next bit of learning. So I do like how he uses that metaphor.

S: So if you’re not integrating it into your life, have you seen with people that the ayahuasca spirit starts booting them harder?

R: People have this impression sometimes that ayahuasca is booting them harder. But what’s actually taking place, from my own experience, is that it’s actually yourself that’s doing the booting. Ayahuasca will open this learning, and—I’m guilty of this, I think anyone who’s drank ayahuasca will be guilty of this—we get these amazing teachings, sometimes we get hundreds of teachings in one night. And how do we put this into our lives? How do we integrate this? It’s not easy. Then we come back and some of the core issues, if we haven’t placed them into our lives, the ayahuasca will definitely open up the relearning of it. I think a lot of the time it’s ourselves putting the guilt onto ourselves, or whatever it may be, the shame.

So it’s not really the ayahuasca. I don’t think that ayahuasca has that personality as someone who punishes. But I definitely know the human mind, the human ego, does punish. My experience of ayahuasca is that it’s very nurturing, it’s there to teach, and it’s very much like a mother. There is a sternness from ayahuasca that comes, but it’s not a punishment. You’ll cleanse and you can call that punishment. But it’s not so much ayahuasca punishing you. When you’re cleansing it doesn’t always feel good and you may interpret that as a punishment.

S: Can you say anything about whether there is a certain type of person who can benefit from ayahuasca and a type of person who should probably not involve himself or herself with ayahuasca?

R: I think anyone who’s willing to learn about himself can benefit from ayahuasca. The tricky part with ayahuasca is that although we all want to become better people, not all of us want to put in the kind of time and energy and sacrifice required of us. We want it the easy way. But the learning with ayahausca is not necessarily easy. So if you’re willing to learn, and you’re willing to learn in the way that she wants to teach you, understanding that it’s not going to be easy, then ayahuasca can be very beneficial for you.

As to who should be drinking ayahuasca, number one, there needs to be a maturity, and it has nothing to do with age. It’s a maturity in terms of where you’re at spiritually and emotionally. You need to come to ayahuasca with some tools. If you come without the tools it’s going to be a very difficult experience. Those tools can range from meditation to some self-development workshops. It can be Tai Chi, it can be yoga, it can be art, anything that allows you to be inside yourself and to be present with that, because of what ayahuasca will demand.

If you want to talk about contraindications with ayahuasca, I would say that people with severe mental illness, it gets a little complicated because people need to have support as they discover themselves. It can leave a person very vulnerable, very open, and unless they have that support people could get into difficult places, not so much during the ayahuasca ceremony, which can happen, but in the days following the ceremony. So I would say, bi-polar if you want to put labels on that, but anyone who is in a very difficult place in their life that doesn’t have support, I would be very cautious with for sure. And of course, medically there are indications that with people who are taking certain antidepressants, people with high blood pressure and some other conditions, further research is necessary before I can give a definitive answer.

S: If you’re taking an antidepressant, I’m assuming you can get off it at some point before the ceremony and it’s okay. Is that correct?

R: Again, this is a bit of a grey area because the research they’ve done in the past is when you combine certain SSRIs [Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors] or when you combine certain MAOIs [monamine oxidase inhibitors.] Those are pharmaceuticals. When you combine those two it produces a negative effect. I don’t think there’s been any research that shows that taking ayahuasca along with antidepressants causes the same interaction as taking two antidepressants that are pharmaceuticals. But if you look at it from a pharmaceutical standpoint, then ayahuasca does contain some of the same constituents that other pharmaceuticals would have in terms of the MAOI or  the SSRI. They have similar action, so on paper that’s what the interaction would cause, but I don’t think it’s ever been shown. It would be interesting for someone to do that kind of testing. My feeling, and this is through some experience as well, is that it doesn’t have that same effect.

S: What do you recommend to people in that regard?

R: I recommend people taking antidepressants not drink ayahuasca.

S: Oh, really.

R: Yeah, if you can come off of it in two or three weeks, depending on which antidepressant you’re on, I would get in touch with a couple of friends of mine who are doctors who have experience with the ayahuasca medicine as well as the pharmaceuticals. There’s one you can be off for a week and it should be fine. There are others that stay in the system a little bit longer, three or four weeks. But if you really want to work with ayahuasca you need to prepare physically. Any time you go to an ayahuasca ceremony and you have pharmaceuticals or drugs in your system you’re not as entirely open as you could be. So I would always recommend to people to be clear of those kinds of substances. But again, I think further research needs to be done because a lot of the time people can’t come off of the antidepressants and those are the people who need the work and the healing.

S: On a similar topic, I’m wondering about the dieting. I know that for people like yourself who are training to be or are already working as ayahuasqueros, that you do a lot of very restrictive dieting and work with particular plants. If someone is not interested in pursuing that path of being a ceremony leader, would you recommend them anyway to do some of these kinds of diets and why?

R: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s important to distinguish here between the diets. A lot of people get mixed up about the diet in terms of preparing for an ayahuasca ceremony, the specific diet that we need to follow before drinking ayahuasca and also in the days after that will help optimize their experience. But in the traditional way of working with the medicine there is what’s called la dieta, the diet, which is where a person who’s wishing to learn—traditionally that would only be people who are wanting to become ayahuasqueros or vegetalistos or curanderos. But things have been changing. Also, traditionally, a hundred and fifty years ago, it was only the curandero who was drinking ayahuasca. It wasn’t the participants. I think that’s important to remember, that things are changing.

The diet is the kind of restriction where someone would go into the jungle for a week up to a year or two of isolation, only working with specific plants, what they call master plants, following all the restrictions. That’s very separate and very different from just preparing for an ayahuasca ceremony. But yeah, I think, absolutely, even if you’re not becoming an ayahuasquero or curandero, walking down that path, you’re still going to learn about yourself. Through the plants you can learn how to heal, not just with ayahuasca. You can learn how to heal in many different methods, whether it’s Chinese medicine, whether its Ayurveda, or other holistic medicine paths. All these plants teach us about ourselves.

So when we’re working and doing healing with other people, we need to know ourselves well, we need to be clear ourselves, we need to be clean, we need to be very aware and conscious and all these plants will teach us. So it’s going to help us not just in ayahuasca healing but in all healing. All these master plants we work with teach us how to live, so it’s not just always about becoming a healer or ceremony leader. It’s about learning how to live. This is how and why these plants are used in the Amazon.

S: Can you say anything about the important factors and conditions that help create a beneficial experience with ayahuasca for the participants in a ceremony?

R: I think you could look at it in two ways. The way to create the best internal environment is, number one, to have a very strong intention and be very clear about what it is you’re looking to learn from ayahuasca. Some people come to ayahuasca because their friend told them he had an amazing experience and that’s great, it’s great to have that kind of referral. But if you really want to work with ayahuasca, you’ve got to be clear on what is it you’re looking for because ayahuasca is very powerful and will demand a lot of respect.

It’s also very helpful to have good support around you anytime you do deep personal work, friends or family who are supportive. They don’t necessarily need to know you’re drinking ayahuasca, but to know that you’re going through some very deep work and that they’re there to support you when you come out of that experience. Again, you want to prepare physically with a clean diet. The better shape your physical body is in, the more open your body is, which will allow for more of the medicine to permeate into your whole being.

In terms of the actual ceremony space, number one, it’s good to know who you’re drinking with, that the person is well trained and understands the sacred space, the ceremony space. There are many different types of ceremony out there. The traditional ceremony is done in a particular way. This is the way I’m trained so maybe I’m biased in the sense that I think this really creates a safe space, the way the traditional ceremony is run with someone who is well trained and with someone there to assist in case it’s needed, or at least a sitter. Location is also important, doing it in a private setting where it’s not around a lot of people, which can bring in other energies. You want to keep the space quite contained, private, and secure.

S: Thank you. I wonder if you could say more about how the medicine actually works on behalf of people. For example, my impression from my relatively limited knowledge of it is that it seems to be able to help you even if you’re not fully consciously aware of how it’s helping you. Am I on the right track there?

R: Yes, ayahuasca works in many different ways, so for some people it works in one way and in other people it works in another way. As I’ve said to people many times before, everyone has their own unique connection to ayahausca. What ayahuasca is to you is going to be different from what it is to me and what it is to me is going to be different what it is to my teacher. What ayahuasca does is show you yourself. Because each one of us is unique, we can’t all have the same connection, even though we’re working with the same spirits. The spirit allows us to see ourselves as unique individuals.

For some people you hear these stories where ayahuasca opens up this incredible teaching where God comes down and gives all the answers to the universe. Then you hear of other experiences where people have no teaching, where in their mind they don’t feel anything. There is something happening but it’s not what they expected to happen. You know, you’re working with a spirit. You’re not working with a drug, you’re not working with a chemical. The spirit of ayahuasca can permeate all parts of ourselves spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Sometimes we don’t feel it in the physical body, the emotional body, but there is something happening spiritually.

For many people the most powerful time is the days following. Sometimes people don’t have the vision or the big fireworks or the purging. But in the days to follow they have incredible shifts and changes in their lives. If you want my honest opinion, I think that’s even more powerful than having the big powerful visions and all the fireworks, because the way our western minds work, we love to have all that excitement and those dazzling colours. But the real power of ayahuasca is its ability to teach us how to live. So if people are having shifts and changes in their lives, that’s what I look for. That’s what I’m interested in hearing from people.

My experience is just that. I believe that once we connect with the spirit of ayahuasca once and continue to connect with it if we do it multiple times, the spirit is always within us. All we have to do is notice it and be aware of it. Many people have this experience where they’re in meditation five days later and they connect with the spirit of ayahuasca. Obviously the physical part of ayahuasca is no longer in your system. However, the spirit is connected to you always.

S: My impression from that last ceremony was that it showed me what it could do and then it’s that I then have to remember that I can do that in my daily walk. I can tap into that space, I can slow my mind down, I can relax and open up into that space. So you’re being shown that little tool that then you take with you. Does that make sense?

R: Yeah, ayahuasca gives you the key. Then it’s up to you to unlock the door, and you have the choice. You don’t have to open that door. Sometimes people are just not ready to make that shift.

S: You yourself have drank a lot of ayahuasca over the years and seen people who’ve drank it very infrequently and more frequently. Is there anything you can say about the difference in the way it works with you if you’re drinking more frequently or less frequently? It’s probably self-evident in some ways. Maybe you could add to it a little.

R: It goes back to what I said before in that it really depends on how much you’re integrating. Some people drink once every two or three years and they get enough from one ceremony to integrate for those two or three years. Other people may integrate faster, or they don’t get as much in every ceremony. It’s really hard to say because, again, everyone is different. Some people drink a hundred and fifty times a year, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with drinking every ten years. It’s really, what are you learning and what are you putting into place? There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a spiritual practice.

Do I believe that ayahuasca’s a path? Yeah, sometimes people come with this idea they’re going to drink ayahuasca once or twice and they’re going to get all the answers they need for their life. It’s like meditation. You don’t meditate for five minutes and then you’re good for the rest of your life. Ayahuasca is a meditation, so there’s always practice to be done. It depends on what rate you learn at and how well you integrate and what kind of support you have in your life.

So it’s an open-ended question that every person will have to answer for him or herself. For myself, I knew that when I started drinking ayahuasca I wanted to work with it very frequently at the beginning. I took it to a certain level where I was drinking a lot and then I came to a point where I knew I had to integrate for six or eight months. So I stopped drinking for that period of time and that was a big challenge for me because I also love the ceremonial aspect of ayahausca. But that six or eight month break was also some of the biggest learning that I have ever received. I integrated the hundreds and thousands of ceremonies that I was able to do before that.

S: These ícaros, these songs that the ceremony leaders sing, I love these things. They seem to have quite an effect and I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about, first of all, how you see the ícaros functioning in the ceremonies. Another question I have is that I’ve read that traditional ayahuasca curanderos often learn their songs directly from the plant spirit. Has that been the case with you and is that an important issue?

R: Good question. The ícaros are an enormous part of the ceremony. A lot of people will say that the ayahuasca is what the whole ceremony revolves around. But in fact for me it’s the chanting, the prayer, the songs that are such a beautiful part of the ceremony. They’re prayers. Each song is a prayer. Each song is a way for the ayahuasquero to commune with these plants, to commune with nature. So it’s a very intimate relationship as well.

S: How many songs do you know, quite a few?

R: I have no idea. I work with two traditions. In the Shipibo tradition, which is my teacher’s tradition, every song we do is spontaneous. So I would say that I know an infinite number of songs because whatever’s happening in terms of the patients or in terms of the ceremony, I’m using the vocabulary of what I’ve learned with different melodies in the context of what I’m seeing in the ceremony. So no two songs can ever be the same.

S: So it’s how you feel it in that moment.

R: It’s how I see it, yeah, whatever visions are coming up, whatever I’m clearing away. Sometimes we use very similar melodies or the same melodies but the words may be different. And a lot of times the melody just comes to you in the moment. In terms of the Quechua songs, the Quechua-Lamista style of working is a little different. They have set songs. These are very repetitive. They’re specific chants like you would have in Native American songs. They’re sung in a certain way. There are about twenty or thirty of those I’m familiar with.

S: So in this way of working spontaneously in the moment with the ícaros, are you sometimes responding to a message that you’re getting from spirit or some sense that you need to direct your song to a particular person in the ceremony who you feel needs it at that moment?

R: Abolutely, yeah. And what’s so amazing about the ayahuasca experience is that every ceremony is entirely different because you can never have the same energy in any two cermonies. The moon is going to be in a different place, the stars are aligned differently, the people in the ceremony are different, my energy is different. So all this is going to bring up different energies. When you put the ayahuasca into the participants, when the ayahuasca starts to manifest for people, you open the space for the ayahuasca to come with the chanting. When the medicine goes in it brings up people’s stuff, people’s energy. At a certain moment you have a vision of certain people in the ceremony where you can see into their inner world and you work with that energy. You can also call the person up and do very close personal, individual work called the Soplada to focus your intention on that one person. But you can also do it long distance, that is, when the person is across the room. You don’t have to have them in front of you.

S: How do you know, in your own experience, that the spirit of ayahuasca is there? How do you know that that’s real. Also perhaps an addendum to that question is that I’ve heard it described as a female spirit.

R: I’ve seen the spirit of ayahuasca.

S: In a visual representation? What did it look like?

R: In many different forms. Typically a snake, an anaconda, but also I’ve seen it as a woman.

S: And how could you say for yourself that that was the spirit of ayahuasca as opposed to a representation of the spirit of any number of animals or other entities?

R: Well, she told me [laughter.] That might sound a little funny on tape. I might get locked up in a straightjacket for saying that. But here is an important distinction. A lot of people use the word psychedelic or hallucination in referring to ayahuasca. But for me it’s neither one of those. It’s a vision and it’s the same as having a vision in a sweat lodge or in Sun Dance or any type of ceremony. The vision is gifted  to you from spirit and in the ayahuasca ceremony the spirit can come in a number of different forms. I’ve personally had that interaction where the ayahuasca has told me, “I am the spirit of ayahuasca.” But it can also be very different. Sometimes I see other spirits. Sometimes I see spirits of animals, or sometimes I see dark spirits or negative spirits, if people want to label it like that.

I think everyone will see ayahuasca in their own unique way, although there are also definitely similarities in people’s visions of seeing it as a woman. Then there are also traditions that believe ayahuasca is masculine. In Colombia there are a number of traditions that believe ayahuasca is masculine. Although my own experience has been more feminine, I believe that any spirit has a masculine and a feminine aspect, as we do. Plants are personalities, plants are beings. So although you and I are of course masculine, there is also a feminine part to us. Because of the yin and the yang we can never be entirely one or the other.

S: You mentioned in a previous conversation that people should be very cautious about mixing medicines, especially in the early stages of their work with plants. I think you said something about how doing this could dilute the learning. Can you add to or clarify that point?

R: Maybe this is a generalization but I think a lot of people in western society get their feet wet in all these learnings and traditions. It’s great that we have access to all these amazing teachings out there. Of course if you were in the Amazon a hundred and fifty years ago the only access you had to knowledge and the spiritual path was the access that people had to the natural world around them. There’s nothing wrong with learning different paths or different medicines. But there needs to be a lot of awareness around doing that, following and respecting each tradition.

For myself, ayahuasca for the first number of years gave me more than I could handle. I couldn’t even imagine walking another path at that time. Eventually I did start to learn a different path, the Sun Dance path. But I did so with a lot of awareness and also a lot of guidance from teachers on both paths. It’s something we just need to be very cautious of. Some people want to work with ayahuasca. There are other people working with ayahuasca and LSD and peyote and mushrooms. Each one of those is a lifelong learning. We have to be careful not to go too fast on these paths.

I know in western society we tend to want things pretty fast. The traditional people have spent hundreds of years studying these plants, these medicines, these ways. For us to come in and think we can grasp it in three or four years, it’s just not possible. But I do think it can be beneficial to walk certain paths together. I also had a yoga practice at one time that has helped me in my ayahuasca path and my ayahuasca path has helped me with my Sun Dance path. So it’s not that it’s wrong, it just needs to be done in the correct way with awareness.

S: When I asked you earlier about a good environment for beneficial work, you said that the ceremony leader needs to be properly trained. I wonder if you could add a bit more to that in terms of the fact that apparently there are a lot of people leading ceremonies who aren’t that well trained.

R: Yeah, this follows what I was just talking about, how in western society we want things so quickly. As I mentioned, most of these paths require much time, dedication, and sacrifice. I recently read somewhere that there’s a Become a Shaman workshop in a weekend. It’s hilarious. A shaman is someone who has a lot of wisdom, someone who’s an elder, who’s a priest, who’s a medicine man, who’s a politician of the tribe. He’s someone who people go to for answers. To become that person in a weekend, or even in five years, it’s not possible. Wisdom is something that comes with practice and knowledge. It takes many years.

People throw that word shaman at people like myself. I’m 33 years old. I’m not a shaman. I’m a baby. I’ve been practicing for eight or nine years. Maybe by the time I’m eighty I may have that wisdom if I keep living in a good way and learning in a good way. People think that someone who’s becoming an ayahuasquero is someone who has drank ayahuasca a lot. In fact, becoming an ayahuasquero or curandero has very little to do with how many times you’ve drank ayahuasca. It has more to do with the training, and the dieta, and the discipline, the restriction in terms of the master plants. So from my perspective there are not a lot of well trained people out there in this work. I would caution people to really know who they’re drinking with and how much training a person has, how much time they’ve put in, how much dedication. It’s a huge path.

I’d like to speak more about this. I think people really need to hear that. In a way it’s not me saying that people aren’t trained or good enough. There are some great people out there who are well trained. But I’m also hearing from people going to these very large ceremonies with seventy or eighty people. My teacher has been doing this for thirty-five or forty years and very rarely would he do a ceremony with over thirty or thirty-five people. That’s someone with more experience than most people on this planet and that’s a caution he has about ayahuasca ceremonies. And then I  hear about people coming through different cities who are working with eighty people. I don’t think you can create the proper healing environment that is safe with that kind of ceremony.

S: One group that I think we’re both slightly familiar with, I went to one of their pre-ceremony gatherings and they spoke about trying to up those numbers into the 150 to 200 range.

R: Well, people will do what they wish with this work. I would caution those people to just look inside. What’s their intention? Why do they need to have so many people at their ceremonies? There’s enough energy, from my perspective as a ceremony leader, with fifteen or twenty people. That energy can be overwhelming when you’re working and with the depths that ayahuasca can take you to. So I’m wondering about the intention. They may be coming with a different intention in working with ayahuasca. It’s not for me to judge. I would hope that they’re being clear on why they would want as many people as they’re looking for.

S: Somewhat following on that, I have a few questions about ayahuasca’s expanding footprint on the planet. It seems to be spreading quite rapidly, both through the ayahuasca churches and through this traditional shamanic approach. How do you see this happening? Are you happy with where it’s at now? Have you had any kind of personal vision about where we might be going or where we might be with ayahuasca in ten or twenty years?

R: Yeah, good question. I think somewhere Dennis McKenna has written about this vision he’s had of ayahuasca spreading as a vine over the world. I’ve had very similar visions myself. I don’t think it’s by chance that ayahuasca is coming out into the world this way. I think all of us would admit at this time that humanity is in need of some help. Ayahuasca can play this role. It has it’s own agenda. I believe that the spirit of ayahuasca  is guiding us right now and that it has nothing but good intentions for helping us human beings.

But yes, I do have some concerns. I’ve seen white man, I’ve seen western society take many traditional things. I haven’t seen it personally but obviously it’s been a part of history. We’ve taken things out of context and sometimes what I’m hearing is that people are losing the tradition of ayahuasca. I wouldn’t say it’s common. I think most of the people who are using ayahuasca around the world are doing so with a very strong intention and a very strong prayer behind that. But once in a while I hear about people using ayahuasca in a different context. So it is a concern of mine that we may lose the essence of this work which is a very sacred space that ayahuasca creates with well trained practitioners who are able to hold that space.

Working with ayahuasca is similar to going for heart surgery. It’s something very deep and very personal and we want to make sure that if we’re going for surgery we’re going to get a well trained heart surgeon. This is important to remember. We want to make sure that people who are using this medicine and practicing it and holding these ceremonies are well trained, and also that people who are coming to them are coming with the right intention, which is healing, which is to look within and find their own healing power. I really believe in the power of ayahuasca, in the spirit of ayahuasca, that it will guide us and not lead us astray. I believe that we’re going to be kept in a good way. Ayahuasca will always demand out of us, so it would be very difficult for people to continue working very deeply with this medicine and not stay on track with the tradition of this work.

S: We covered this general theme earlier but I wanted to ask you more about the visionary element of  ayahuasca. In the experiences I’ve had the visions have sometimes been stunningly beautiful, but I’ve also wondered what they have to do with the learning. There’s been a continuing thread through this conversation from your side about ayahuasca being here to help. How do the visions play into that?

R: Certainly an aspect of the ayahuasca experience is the visions. But also what comes with the vision is the interpretation of that vision. That only comes with practice.

S: So when you see some kind of absolutely beautiful patterning, gorgeous art work, if you can’t interpret it it’s not of any particular use other than just having that experience in the moment?

R: There can be teaching behind that vision, but it can also just be that what  you’re seeing is energy. Each one of those patterns you’re seeing are energetic imprints of plants. I wish I had an example of the shipibo weavings here right now to show you. I’ve always seen these visions as the energetic world, the spiritual world, when you walk into that other reality. The practice for myself is to be able to actually work with those visions, to manipulate those visions. It’s like when you’re dreaming, being able to actively participate.

S: Can you say more about how you actually do that?

R: Through the power of the chanting, the ícaros, through the power of the mind.

S: What kinds of things might you be asking for, or what might you be wanting out of that?

R: It depends on what the experience is. If I perceive it as being something negative when I’m working with someone, if it’s an energy that’s maybe not patterned, or that sometimes comes in and it’s not sequential, doesn’t have a rhythm to it when I’m seeing that person’s energy, then I need to remove that energy and reinforce good visions and good color. It may also depend on what color the vision is. All these different parts of the vision, I can’t say that one is necessarily negative or positive. Sometimes it just is, I’m witnessing the person’s pure energy. In that case it’s not for me to change or manipulate. It’s for me to get to know that person’s energy.

S: That brings up another question for me from the participants point of view. People seem to have a lot of experiences where they’re about to go into something that looks like it could be pretty scary. How do you know whether, if you don’t go in there, you’re missing some important teaching? Is there any way for people to know how to determine where to go with that kind of material? Are there places you could go that really could be harmful, that you shouldn’t go?

R: There’s no definitive way to know how to deal with those moments. I can give you little hints and suggestions and recommendations. One is the color of the vision. It’s not definitive in the sense that say, if it’s white it’s good, if it’s black it’s bad. Sometimes there’s some trickery going on by the spirit as well. But sometimes there’s an intuitive feeling that each person gets. Sometimes in my visions I’ve declined to go into a place to learn something because it intuitively didn’t feel right to go there. I remember one specific example where I had an opportunity to go into this doorway, this opening, and I chose not to. Then later on in the experience I came back to the same door and saw it from a different perspective, and I knew I had made the right choice. If fear comes up for you because it’s the unknown, that fear may just be the block of going into a part of yourself that you need to go into.

S: It’s hard to be intuitive if there’s fear in the picture.

R: The feeling of fear can be an intuition, but the rationalization of the fear can be a block for you. If you’re walking in the forest at night and you hear a noise somewhere and fear comes up, intuitively that might be a very good thing because it might make you run, and if there’s a bear there it’s going to eat you. But if it’s just a twig cracking and you create a whole story, that’s very different.

S: Okay, so, hypothetically, let’s say you’re a reasonably mentally healthy person and you’re not dealing with really dark energies and huge trauma in your life, and you’re in a good situation with a good leader, are there places you could go that could be truly harmful with ayahuasca?

R: Uh…no. If, as you say, that’s all set up with a well trained practitioner who knows energy and how to work with it and how to protect the people. Energy is energy. I can’t say you’ll never get into difficult challenges in the spiritual world because the spiritual world is the spiritual world. But if you go with the right intention and keep yourself in a place of love, not much can come and touch you. You start opening up your fears and making yourself vulnerable and not protected, then you’re going to be in the energetic world.

Energy is around you all the time. For example, big cities often have sections where there’s a lot of suffering, a lot of trauma, areas which many people would say are very dark. Whether or not you’re with ayahuasca, you could walk through a place like that and energetically be impacted by the experience. In an ayahuasca ceremony you’re exposing yourself to energy. In life, every time you walk out the door you’re exposing yourself to energy. If you’re in a good place and you’re well protected and clear and healthy, there’s very little that can touch the place of love, the place of heart based living. Every time I lead a ceremony I’m exposing myself energetically. Have I been harmed? I’ve carried energy and it hasn’t felt very good, but I’m always well supported spiritually in this work. I haven’t felt that anything has impacted me long term.

S: That’s great. Maybe we should bring it to a close here. Has anything occurred to you that my questions haven’t covered that people listening to this might benefit from knowing about how to work with this plant?

R: No, I think you’ve covered everything. I really like the questions you’ve asked. I think we’ve touched on some important issues. I would just remind people to go into this work with a lot of respect, reverence, and with clear intention, and not to go into it because other people are telling you to do it or creating false expectations for you, but to go in with the intention that you want to learn about yourself. No matter what happens in your experience with ayahuasca, or in any spiritual path, if you’re willing to learn about yourself you’re always going to come out a better person.

S: Great, thanks a lot.

R: You’re welcome Steve. Thank you.

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