Shamanism Conference in Peru

Percy's ceremonial tambo

Across the Andes from Lima and now flying low into Iquitos, my view out the airplane window fell upon vast expanses of the Amazon jungle and the legendary Rio Amazona winding its serpentine pathway through the dense forest— la selva. Iquitos, a rambling, noisy ‘town’ of about 300,000, appeared suddenly out of the surrounding jungle.

I was there for the Fourth International Amazonian Shamanism Conference, held on the grounds of the El Parthenon Hotel, ten minutes by mototaxi from the central Plaza de Armas in downtown Iquitos. The conference is hosted and organized by Alan Shoemaker, an American expat who’s been living in Iquitos for about fifteen years, and his gracious wife Mariella Noriega, who, among her many tasks, saved a lot of people a lot of hassles with travel and lodging arrangements.

The nine-day conference was divided into three repeated sections—two days of presentations followed by a day for going to ceremonies, times three. I should make clear that although ayahuasca was by far the predominant medicine being employed and discussed, there were also opportunities to do ceremonies with other medicines, particularly the cactus San Pedro, described to me by those who did do ceremonies with it as a gentle and very clear plant medicine.

On Day One, about fifteen of the area’s shamans—or curanderos and curanderas as some prefer to be called—introduced themselves to us from the makeshift stage set up in the large open tent on the hotel grounds. The presentations were generally of high quality and great interest, with leading figures in various aspects of work related to entheogens and curanderismo. Among the two dozen or more presenters were Dr. Dennis McKenna (brother of Terence), Dr. Robert Forté, Dr. Frank Eschenhoffer, visionary artists Pablo Amaringo, Robert Venosa, Martina Hoffmann, and well-known journalist and adventurer Peter Gorman. Some of the curanderos were also given longer slots to speak to us. One of these was the legendary Don Agustin Rivas, now in his seventies, whose life story is told in the book Amazon Magic by Jaya Bear.

I’ve been around a fair number of spiritual teachers and practitioners over the long years and I can usually feel a sense of people—how natural they are, how humble they are, how open their hearts are. For me, the benefits of the plant medicine path were confirmed by the energy of many of the presenters like those just mentioned. Dennis McKenna raised the bar and maybe the hair on the backs of some necks with a powerful, unscripted opening address. He pointed out that many scientists now agree we’re dangerously close to a tipping point on the planet. If we don’t undertake some radical, far-reaching inner and outer changes, Earth may soon spiral through a set of unstoppable events. Another stunning assertion made by Dr. McKenna was that the plants are actually the true mediators of consciousness on this planet, the authentic voices of information and wisdom, and everything else is essentially living through the generosity of the plants. In stark terms, all life forms that don’t photosynthesize are parasites. Hmm. One statement in particular from that talk has bounced back at me repeatedly. Dr. McKenna told us that he works for the plants. Sounds like a worthy intention and aspiration.

On Day Two of each three-day section we were invited to sign up for ceremonies with one of the various curanderos who were stationed around the back of the room. There was a lot of “Who are you going to go with?” and “What do you know about_____?” going around among the one hundred and thirty or so conference participants. Alan, an experienced ayahuasca drinker and curandero himself, had personally recommended Percy Garcia to me, describing him as “without ego” and saying that when he drinks with someone else, he drinks with Percy. Now approaching his thirty-fifth birthday, Percy began his studies with his grandfather at age ten, drank ayahuasca for the first time at age fourteen (“It was confusing” he later told us with a grin), and has led many ceremonies since he was eighteen.

I had already felt a heart connection with another curandero, Luis, so I held off on Percy until the second session. Those of us who had signed up to do a ceremony with Luis met around midday in front of the conference hotel to be picked up and squeezed into a rickety old van. We were driven down to a muddy shore at the end of a block of rugged houses on stilts with friendly children buzzing around us. A short boat ride took us to a nearby island from where we began a hot, sweaty march for about half and hour into semi-jungle and Luis’ encampment.

The encampment consisted of a number of sleeping and retreat huts, a larger, screened hut for group meals, a covered cooking area, and an even larger hut, called a tambo or maloca, for ceremonies. The ceremony began sharp at 7 o’clock that evening. Luis’ medicine, at least that night, turned out to be very mild. No one in the group of 8 or 9 reported any strong effects and a couple said they felt nothing. I felt disappointed and so did several of the others. Luis invited questions at the end of the ceremony and I asked him about this. His reply was that his whole focus was on healing and that the medicine didn’t need to be strong for that. He said that even if we experienced no noticeable effects, la medicina was still doing its work. Don Luis is an exceptionally kind and gentle man and I had the feeling that these personal qualities and his attitude to working with people were reflected in his approach to the medicine.

After the second round of ceremonies a couple of days later, I spoke with two young men who had been to Don Luis’ ceremony with me. It was their first experience with ayahuasca and they actually liked the “enter me in gently” approach, so much so, apparently, that they decided to go with Luis for the second ceremony. I was a little surprised to hear that the effects were noticeably stronger for them that time. I wondered if Luis had taken the group’s feedback to heart.

On the appointed day, we were told to gather in front of the hotel at 12:45. Nearly twenty of us were then shoehorned into a rattling Econoline type van for the sweaty, hour-long drive out toward Nauta. Dropped off by a school in mixed farm and forest lands, we then hiked for a hot half-hour in the early afternoon sun until we arrived at Percy’s jungle encampment. The compound was well laid-out with a few small cabins for the two or three staff who lived there and for those who want to come for “dietas” or to recuperate from illnesses or addictions. The beautiful maloca, where the ceremonies are held, is built on stilts above a quebrada—a jungle creek. The photo at the top of this article is Percy’s maloca.

After relaxing for a couple of hours we were invited to don our bathing suits and go over to the creek, where each of us would bathe briefly in the cool, murky water, then step back out to receive the “agua florida,” the floral bath. Each in turn stood before Percy, who blew tobacco smoke on us and on the water he scooped out of a tub of herb and flower scented water. He then poured four scoops of the water over each person while blowing more of the healing and purifying tobacco smoke.

After allowing the agua florida to dry naturally on our skin, we dressed again and were directed to our spots around the perimeter inside the maloca with a mattress and a bucket for the purging which inevitably happens to many drinkers. At about seven o’clock Percy came in and took his seat on a kind of throne chair. There was a small table in front of him with about a dozen bottles of various dark, murky liquids and his ceremonial materials—a leaf shaker called a shacapa, a Tibetan bowl and mallet, a small jaw harp, and a loose pile of cigarettes made from local tobaccos.

The shacapa is a particularly fascinating tool employed by curanderos in the Amazon. According to Alan Shoemaker, tribes widely scattered throughout the jungle have independently come upon this very same leaf used to form the bundle. Alan said that when the energy in the ceremony is strong and clear, people can sometimes see beams of light extend from the points of the leaves. And on some occasions one can see that after it’s been shaken around a person, usually accompanied by the singing of an ícaro (the healing songs that curanderos say are taught to them by the ayahuasca itself), there will be small, black balls attached to the light beams where the shacapa has cleaned out emotional and physical toxins in the recipient.

After speaking briefly about his way of working and answering any questions we had, Percy invited each of us to come up one at a time to receive a cup of the ayahuasca brew. As he describes in the interview, the spirits indicate to him how much is appropriate for each person. Once we’d all drank our portion of la medicina and returned to our mattresses, the small candle that had been burning in the middle of the floor was snuffed out and we found ourselves in total darkness. (It gets dark early four degrees south of the equator). With the jungle canopy hovering over the maloca and the moon not yet above the horizon, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.

We’d been instructed to relax, breathe, set our intentions, and prepare to speak directly to the spirit of ayahuasca— “Mother Ayahuasca”— as Percy and others refer to it. We were also asked to do our best to avoid disturbing others by remaining silent and being very considerate about the use of flashlights on the way to the bathroom. (Later in the ceremony Percy actually turned to his interpreter and had him ask us not to use the flashlights at all if we could help it, since the sudden flashing of light coming into the maloca could disrupt the concentrated connection he had with his spirit helpers.)

About twenty minutes after serving us, Percy began to gently and steadily shake the shacapa. For the next fifteen minutes or so that was the only sound in the room. And then the medicine began to take over. At age 59, I’ve been around a lot of ceremonies from different traditions and I’m a musician myself. In the space of the oncoming ayahuasca I can say that Percy’s music was some of the most beautiful and sensitive I have ever heard. In the interview he speaks a little about how his spirit allies guide the music and I distinctly felt that living, breathing quality. The sound of the shacapa in the peaceful near-silence of the jungle compound was like the soft brushing of birds’ wings. Then he began to sing softly with the shacapa and at various points play spare notes on the jaw harp and create both bell-like ringing and sustained harmonics on the Tibetan bowl.

The spirit-guided music created a sacred space of peace, stillness, and healing in the maloca. Each time Percy began to sing, my visions changed and became stronger. A request I had for myself from the ayahuasca spirits was for healing a tightness and heaviness I’d been carrying in my chest for some time. At one point, three indigenous women appeared before me and each in turn blew energetically in the direction of my heart. With visions and exchanges it went like that for the next three or four hours until Percy announced that the ceremony was over and he was leaving. He told us that the ícaros would continue reverberating in the nature surrounding us and said goodnight.

One of my intentions for the trip to Iquitos was to interview a curandero for a magazine article. During the ceremony with Percy I got the clear message that he was the person I was looking for—clear, gentle, humble, and as Alan had said, without apparent ego. Through his assistant I asked if I could come back for the final ceremony on Sunday and interview him. He cheerfully agreed and three days later, around four o’clock, I sat down in a small cabin with Percy and a young man named Martín acting as interpreter for a forty-five minute question and answer session.

Could you tell me a little about your family background and how you came to do this work?

My name is Percy Garcia Lozano. I became a shaman because of my grandparents. There were generations before them also. I started this study of curanderismo when I was ten years old. My grandfather Enrique Garcia Mozombite taught me everything in this way. First of all he taught me all the names of the plants. Then he told me the properties of each plant.

How did he teach you?

I am from Aucayo. It is two hours from Iquitos. Every time my grandfather came from town to do his work as a shaman, he was teaching me.

When you were young like that were you doing the “dietas” with individual plants?

First of all you watch the plants and then you get to know their names.

At what point do students like yourself begin doing diets to develop a relationship with the spirit of each plant?

I started to do the diets when I was twelve. My requirement at that time was to do light diets of three or four days. After a few years my diets became harder, stronger, where I had to abstain from many things, many foods.

Can you explain to those unfamiliar with these things what actually happens? Does the spirit of the plant you’re dieting with appear to you and do you communicate with it?

We have to be careful with what we eat. We have to say, no peppers, no condiments. I could still eat all the fruits, all the plants.

I understand, but what I’m asking is a little more than that I think. On Thursday [just before the ayahuasca ceremony] you mentioned that you use eight different plants in your ayahuasca brew and that you have a relationship with the spirit of each of those plants and that they work with you. So I’m asking, how did that relationship come about?

I’m not only working with ayahuasca [the banisteriopsis caapi vine] and chacruna. I’m mixing eight different plants. It’s not only to make you see some visions or to make you feel good spiritually. I concentrate on physical health. That’s why I mix eight plants.

And the spirits of those plants? You have a relationship with them?

Claro. Completamente. Yes, this is because I prepared myself long years ago when I dieted with these plants. I know them very well so I am very connected with them.

I want to make sure I understood this properly from Thursday night. So, at the beginning of the ceremony, you call upon the spirits of those plants and they come and work with you for the whole ceremony?

Claro que si [Yes of course.] because when I prepare the medicine, I’m keeping in touch with the spirits. I’m receiving information so that at the moment when I give you ayahuasca I receive information about the quantity you must drink. Then later, when I begin the ceremony, singing the ícaros, I start calling to God, to the cosmos, to the stars, to nature, to mother ayahuasca. I am invoking protection for myself and for all the participants. Then I call the curative part. Then I say thank you for all the healing that I’m able to do. At the end I also thank the spirits for the healing I’ve done. [Note: In the question and answer session with the ceremony participants Percy had also said, “I don’t do the healing, it is ayahuasca who does the healing.”]

During the ceremony, do the spirits help you see what’s going on with the individuals in the ceremony?

Claro, because the transmissions I’m giving you are due to the icaros. the words I’m expressing with the icaros are what they are telling me, what the spirits are saying to me and singing. With all this singing, the spirits are working in each person. There can be a lot of illnesses but I use only one ícaro to cure different illnesses.

Is it important for the participants to give a lot of attention to the icaros during the ceremony, rather than keeping them more or less in the background as they go through their personal experiences with the ayahuasca?

Yes, this allows the intention of each person to be made stronger. In that way the person can connect with the spirit of the plant easily.

On Thursday night you said that although people often come wanting to see visions, the most important aspect of the experience is about healing. I was then surprised when strong, clear visions appeared before my closed eyes almost right away. Is there a reason for that?There are always some visions, but not necessarily visual visions. There are different types of visions for different people. The important thing is that if we want to know, if we want to see, we must concentrate on it. [In the pre-ceremony discussion Percy had put somewhat more stress on this point, saying in effect that although people often come to his ceremonies seeking visions, it is not primarily about that at all, it is about the healing. That is the essence of his work and the work of the ayahuasca spirits.]

And we can actually ask ayahuasca direct questions to help ourselves and our intentions?

Claro que si. That’s why I say, connect with your intention. For example, the person doesn’t necessarily have to connect deeply with his intention. In all ways he will receive the healing. This is because, due to the ícaros, I am transmitting to you the healing power. When I’m preparing the medicine, I blow tobacco to make it ready to help you out.

Can the medicine help if someone in the ceremony asks for assistance for a person who is unable to be present? For example, I have a friend back home in Canada with a serious chronic, physical infirmity. She can’t travel at all. Can the medicine help with situations like that?

Claro que si. As I said, we must concentrate in our visions on what we want. If you concentrate on what you want, your wish will be able to be made real. As an example, I recently worked with a man who was unable to walk at all. After the healing work I did with him the man could walk again. Ayahuasca is completely capable of having these kinds of effects.

Changing focus now, how do you feel about so many foreigners coming here for ayahausca?

I wouldn’t say that I feel good about everyone who comes to me, but I feel very happy for all the help that I can give them, the healing part.

At the conference there’s been a lot of discussion about the potential role ayahuasca may have in the future as its spreads beyond South America to other parts of the world. Have you had any visions about the possible role of ayahuasca in this way?

From my personal experience I’m not thinking of what I want to see in the future or everywhere around. I’m just thinking what I can do to help those people. When I finish the ceremony with all the people, that’s the time when I begin to investigate personally every different kind of plant and different healings so I can work to make the healings more effective.

Another central topic at the conference is the concern that the planet is in grave danger at this time from environmental degradation. It is thought by many that we really need healing, visionary plants like ayahuasca at this time to help change the direction of the planet. Are you aware of that? Do you have a sense of where the planet is now in that regard?

My work is not only with the ayahuasca. As I said before, I work with eight different kinds of plants to help people who need to be healed. And it can help people far away. As for the planet altogether, what can I say? If we want to save the world, people must change their way of thinking completely. Otherwise, due to the processes of contamination, it is very possible that if we do nothing the world will be completely destroyed.

Has the ayahuasca shown you anything about the possible destruction of the planet?

Claro. We have to teach all the children of the planet to protect the environment and not contaminate the air, the land, the water.

Do you have any advice for those planning to come from afar to work with ayahuasca, what they should think about, how they should approach it, and what they should watch out for, such as people of wrong intention or little knowledge offering to run ceremonies?

For my part, I’m not only healing people, I’m taking care of them. It’s better not to work with shamans you don’t know anything about. We don’t know what will happen in those situations. It’s important to work with people you know, such as those who have been recommended by others who know that shaman’s work.

Are there very many of those kinds of shamans around this area who either don’t know the medicine well or who have dubious motives, like just to make money off the foreigners?

Yes, there are many of them. As there is day so there is night. There are good people and some bad people also.

Is there any final thing you would like to share with people who may read this interview that I didn’t think of asking you. Did we miss anything important?

Bueno. First, all people have to become conscious about the world, to take care of it and to protect it. Don’t create contamination or conflict. This will make us more human, more conscious. And to value all nature, and traditions. That is the best way to live.

One last question please. A little while after you left the ceremony on Thursday [around midnight], a bird came to sit just outside the maloca and for nearly an hour made a pattern of sounds that to my ear sounded similar to the shacapa [the bundled leaf shaker I described earlier that’s used to accompany the singing of the icaros]. I had the distinct impression that this bird was singing to us. Could that be so?

Claro. I can say goodbye and thank you to all my spiritual doctors and teachers and I can leave you, but the icaros go out to the surroundings and mother nature is still working in every participant even when the ceremony is over. That’s why you heard that bird. The healing continues.

Es muy hermoso. Muchas gracias.

When Prayer Meets Medicine

wooden path

Like many of us in the western world, I grew up in a family that went to church on Sunday mornings. In my particular family it was the Anglican Church in central Canada. Prayer was a core principle of the teachings that came down to me as a child and a significant part of the Sunday services. I recall sliding off those wooden benches onto my knees several times during every service. And at home there were a few years when my mother made sure I said my prayers before bedtime every night.

There may well be people around who grew up in a similar environment and made a deep and true connection with the power of prayer. I certainly did not get it and in general I think something crucial was missing. It’s no shocking insight to point out that despite its Christian face, the culture we were embedded in in mid-twentieth century, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant North America was deeply under the spell of the scientific-materialist worldview. In stark contrast to a great many traditional, indigenous cultures—and notwithstanding the great anthropomorphized eminence in the sky who was reputed to be watching our every move—we were not taught to believe in the reality of spirits in the world around us, much less that we could actually communicate with them and ask them for assistance. I doubt many of us believed with conviction that anything real at all could come from praying. As the Native Americans say: in the white, European religions people go to church to talk about God, whereas in their traditions people go to church to talk to God, to talk with God.

So I said my prayers at night but I had no assurance or confidence that anyone was listening. And, like many of my peers, as I moved through adolescence I came to think of religion as irrelevant to my life. But I’ve always had a spiritual yearning and when I heard about the religions of the Orient while in university I was immediately interested. That interest eventually led to a long engagement with Tibetan Buddhism, particularly as taught by the brilliant “crazy wisdom” guru, Chögyam Trungpa.

The word “prayer” wasn’t in general use in that Buddhist environment, but there were a lot of chants. The chants were verses, paragraphs, shorter and longer passages—most of which had been translated into English—which were employed to accompany a variety of events and practice sessions. We read them aloud together, recited them from memory, and included them in our private practices. These chants were reminders of the power of the truth (Dharma,) invocations of wisdom energies, pleas for the banishment of negative forces, and stories of the achievements and dedication of great masters. The chants were also expressions of devotion and gratitude to these masters and to the wisdom of the teachings, as well as appeals for the awakening and blessing of all sentient beings.

Again, though we recited the chants with sincerity and passion, I don’t believe many of us had confidence that we were doing more than strengthening our own commitment, compassion, and devotion. The great majority of us were, after all, still under that rational/reductionist spell. With the possible exception of a few unusually sensitive practitioners, we still had no means and support for gaining access to a living spirit world. Our Buddhist teachings even led us to be suspicious of granting credence to external phenomena of that nature. And many of us were recovering theists who tended to take literally the presentation of Buddhism as a non-theistic religion.

During the years of my most active involvement with Buddhism, I’d stayed away from psychedelics, even from cannabis. Although many would have admitted that their earlier use of substances like LSD sparked their interest in spirituality, the prevailing view in the community was that psychedelics offered only a false, artificial enlightenment and were of no value, or worse, on the path of awakening.

But I never did lose my curiosity about the enlightening potential of psychedelics, and a cover article/interview with Terence McKenna in the L.A. Weekly in 1988 or 1989 triggered a revival of that interest. This was exciting new information. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I drove up to Ojai to hear McKenna talk that weekend.

After a few dubious attempts to breach the far shores alone following McKenna’s “take a heroic dose of mushrooms, then sit down and shut up” approach, I began to think I might negotiate these deep waters more successfully with skilled guidance in a ritual context. As intention often seems to go, one connection led to another until about seven years ago I was given the phone number of a highly respected elder of the Native American Church. This man, Kanucas, invited me to join them for one of their all-night meetings.

My inspiration for going to that first meeting was the idea of combining these two passionate interests in my life: entheogens and spiritual practice. I thought I was going to get help from the peyote plant. I hoped it would deepen my meditation practice and help me work through whatever obstacles to awakening remained in my consciousness.

What I didn’t know then but began to see even in that very first ceremony I attended was that these were prayer meetings and that I’d stumbled upon a stunningly different approach to prayer than anything I’d previously encountered. I’ve gone to a lot of meetings since then and I’m still learning what’s really going on and what’s possible.

Maybe it would be helpful to give you a brief description of the environment and form of the meetings. Most meetings are held at someone’s request. That person is then called the sponsor of the meeting and determines its purpose. The possible reasons for a meeting are many. It could be anything from a birthday to a baptism, an expression of gratitude for somebody, or a request for healing.

The meetings are usually held in a tipi. They typically start around 9 or 10 in the evening and continue to anywhere from about 9 until noon the next day. A crescent moon altar made of sand is built and a fire started before the participants enter the tipi. After a few introductory words from the person running the meeting, known as the roadman, the sponsor is called upon to explain the reason for the meeting. That reason then becomes the “main prayer” for the night and the participants are expected to direct their prayerful intention toward that purpose for much of the night. In the hours before dawn we’re also invited to pray for those close to us in need of help and for ourselves.

As it is in numerous indigenous cultures, tobacco is considered a powerful sacred medicine and is used to pray with in various ways during the ceremony. At the beginning of the meeting a pouch of tobacco and a packet of corn husks cut a little larger than rolling papers are passed around the circle. Everyone rolls one of these and begins to pray on behalf of the sponsor. Shortly after that the peyote medicine is also passed around the circle.

Not surprisingly, music is a central element of the ceremonies. There’s a large body of Native American Church prayer songs. If you’ve heard the peyote song recordings of Primeaux and Mike you’ll have a rough idea of what they’re like. The songs are considered to be the wings that carry the prayers and are sung through much of the night. A set of instruments consisting of the roadman’s staff, a gourd shaker, a sage stick, and a water drum move around the circle. Everyone who knows some songs sings a set of four with or without the accompaniment of others. When the medicine takes effect and the energy really gets rolling, especially when there are a lot of experienced singers, I’ve often found the songs to be impossibly rich and moving. As one elder described it to me, when it’s really clicking the songs begin to sing the singers.

The water drum is a key player in the power of the prayer songs. As part of the planning for a meeting the roadman generally asks someone to “carry the drum” for the night. I’ve been told by elders that the drum is a living spirit. One drummer told me that he sometimes sees the energy moving out from the drum, carrying the intention of the singer.

The fire is also referred to and treated as a living spirit. The fire person for the night tends it with great care. The long, split logs are always kept in the same arrow shaped configuration and as the night progresses the coals are gradually formed into particular shapes, often a large bird like a phoenix or eagle. The roadman and other experienced members have occasionally reminded us to pay close attention to the fire. They say it has things to show us.

I said earlier that this environment introduced me to a radically different way to pray. As well as the potent mixing of music, medicine, and prayer, the other key ingredient of those meetings which struck me so forcefully was the way people pray. There are no books, no liturgy, no memorized prayers. From the start I was deeply moved and impressed by the eloquent, straight-from-the-heart talk I’ve heard again and again. People just express themselves. For example, around about dawn, the wife or close female associate of the roadman goes out to get a bucket of water and a ladle, then returns, places the bucket close to the fire, and kneels in front of it. She is given a tobacco to roll and begins to speak. These monologues or prayers often go on for close to an hour and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been moved to tears by the waterwoman’s words. One elder, Susan, who carries the female lineage for her people, told me that when she’s doing that morning water prayer she often has no idea what she’s saying. The words are just coming through her, sometimes even in the old languages that she somehow has to intuitively translate on the spot. One morning after a meeting she said that during one of those prayers she felt the distinct presence of perhaps hundreds of her female ancestors leaning over her and supporting her. When Susan told me that, another woman sitting nearby said she’d been at that meeting and seen those women lined up behind Susan.

One of the essential teachings of the Native American Church is that a prayer is greatly potentiated when all those present can settle their minds and bodies fully, get out of their heads, and enter into a concentrated shared focus—one mind. Kanucas has been sitting up in these meetings for over forty years now. One night he told us that when he was young it was all experienced participants who could stay still in mind and body for the whole night, often not even getting up to take a pee. He said that, with the assistance of Grandfather Peyote, that undistracted focus and intention could accomplish just about anything. As the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick wrote, “Matter is plastic in the face of mind.”

I’ve seen a lot of instances of the effects of prayer now, and over the years have heard many first hand stories of remarkable healings. I’d like to share two of those stories with you. One night a young Native man, known to some of us as Wild Willy, told me he’d had a bullet lodged near the base of his skull for a couple of years. Surgeons were unwilling to attempt removal because of the bullet’s delicate placement and the fear it would cause serious damage if moved. The bullet wasn’t deep enough to be life-threatening in the near term, just embedded enough to cause bad headaches and other unwanted symptoms. A special healing ceremony was held for Willy, accompanied only by a few of the most experienced elders. All ate generous quantities of the peyote medicine, smoked prayer tobacco, prayed and sang hard, and performed other healing rituals. Willy was wearing a small medicine-bundle pouch hanging from a cord around his neck.

The ceremony lasted all night and in the morning he noticed the pouch felt a bit different. He then reached in and was astonished to find the bullet. If it helps the skeptics at all, I want to make it clear that this was in no way a commercial or public transaction. The elders who confirmed the story had nothing to gain from any fabrication or exaggeration. In fact, the general rule of thumb in that environment is that it’s unacceptable to charge money for this kind of healing work.

The other story comes from another Native man named Norman, who has told this story several times in ceremonies I’ve attended. His daughter, about twelve years old at the time of the event, was in a serious car accident and was taken immediately to hospital. When Norman arrived she was on life support. The doctors told him that her spinal cord had been damaged and that she would be permanently and severely brain-damaged and paralysed, if she recovered at all. They asked his permission to remove her from life support. Norman hastily arranged a prayer ceremony for that night and invited only a handful of experienced elders and friends.

The group prayed all night for the healing of the girl and in the morning sent Norman off with a number of prayed-over objects and a small amount of the medicine. Arriving at the hospital, Norman asked to be left alone with his daughter. He placed the objects around her, put some of the medicine on her lips, and prayed hard. After some time the machinery she was hooked up to began to act up and a staff member came running into the room saying, “What have you done?” As Norman told us, within an hour his daughter was off life support and breathing on her own. She was eventually able to resume her education and has now completed high school.

I’ve learned from my experience in the Native American Church and from the comments of experienced elders like Kanucas that there are several key factors in the ‘success’ of a particular prayer. First, it takes great confidence and conviction. Second, you need to be specific about what you’re asking for when you call on the Spirit to help out. As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for, you might get it. Third, there are often complex forces at play. The mysterious ways in which the Spirit moves may bring changes that aren’t obvious or don’t appear on an expected timeline. It may take years for the prayer to take effect and Spirit may have other ideas for what the recipient of the prayer needs at any particular point.

A brief anecdote about my cousin Ross may help illustrate this. Ross called me out of the blue after we hadn’t seen each other for nearly thirty years. During the course of a brief stopover in my city, he told me he had Hepatitis C. I arranged to sponsor a healing meeting for him. What Ross didn’t tell me (or those at the meeting) was that he had also been deeply in the grip of alcoholism for many years.

That meeting took place three years prior to this writing and until recently I had assumed that Spirit’s intention with Ross was to get him away from the booze, since he never again took a drink after that night. Meanwhile, the hepatitis, while showing signs of improvement, did not seem to be going into complete remission. But just recently, after I’d had no contact with him for another year and a half, Ross again appeared in my life, announcing that new tests showed absolutely no evidence of the hepatitis and that he’d never felt better in his life.

The fourth key factor to consider regarding the effectiveness of our prayers is that we can’t interfere with anyone’s karma, agenda, or desires. We can only ask the Spirit to help the recipients of our prayers with what they want and need for themselves. They have to ask the Spirit for help with the same degree of confidence and conviction felt by those who are praying for them.

I want to return briefly to this meeting of prayer and medicine. A wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests that prayer can have remarkable, even miraculous effects. Clearly, it doesn’t require the admixture of plant medicines for prayer to work. With enough shared intention and confidence it may even be that we can help heal the planet and put it on a sane and sustainable path. The medicines, or entheogens, are sometimes called non-specific amplifiers. Healers in traditions that work with these plants often say that they greatly strengthen the effects of their prayers and healing efforts on behalf of the patient.

I participated in some ayahuasca ceremonies outside of Iquitos, Peru last summer with an ayahuasquero named Percy Garcia. Before the ceremony got under way one night, Percy told us that he has a relationship with eight spirit doctors whom he calls upon to guide him through the ceremony. Someone asked him if he could contact them without drinking ayahuasca and he replied that, yes, he could, but that with the medicine in him the connection was much stronger and clearer. Kanucas has told us a few times that when he eats the peyote medicine he calls upon the Spirit and the Spirit talks to him. He’s said more than once that he means that literally. The Spirit tells him how to work with particular situations and individuals throughout the night.

So it seems that we in the modern societies have a great deal to learn at this time. The message coming from indigenous spiritual traditions, from the Earth peoples, from the plant medicine peoples, is that we’ve cut ourselves off from a potentially life saving knowledge: that the world is alive in ways far beyond our current conditioned understanding, that we need to reestablish that connection with the Spirits, with the living Gaian mind in its many forms. If we can find skillful ways to combine the visionary, teaching, healing medicines with our intentions, with our prayers, a whole new landscape of possibility opens up.

I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite little passages, from a Native American elder and healer named Wallace Black Elk: “So I pray for you that you obtain the same power I have. You and I are no different. It’s just that understanding. You just drifted away from it, just walked away from it for thousands and thousands of years. That’s how come you have lost contact. So now you’re trying to find your roots. They are still here.”1

1. Wallace Black Elk and William S. Lyon, The Sacred Ways of a Lakota. New York: Harper Collins, 1990, 14.

Friends: This article is adapted from ideas in my book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality. This version was written for, a great website that’s loaded with articles, resources, and links on the general theme of consciousness transformation. My book is expected to be published in November of 2010 by O Books and if not found in your local bookstore will be available at Amazon and other online retailers. I believe passionately in these ideas and of course would like to see them find their audience. There are so many books in the catalogues these days that any help you can provide by asking your local bookseller to order the book would be most appreciated. Thanks, Stephen.

Deep Versus High

In my forthcoming book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality (publication fall 2010 by O Books) an important aspect of the thesis—and the total focus of the last several chapters—is an attempt to enter the spiritual benefits of a few key spirit/teacher/medicine plants more openly into the discussion about valid, effective spiritual practices and techniques. I’ve worked with a number of these plants in spiritual, healing, ritual contexts. For the past seven years I’ve been a member of the Native American Church, which uses the peyote medicine plant in its ceremonies. I’ve also worked with ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, and cannabis.

As you probably know, the way we conceptualize things goes a long way to determining how we see them. So the language we hang on concepts and experiences is important. I was recently pondering the term “high” in reference to experiences with plants such as cannabis, as in, “I got high.” I’m not sure what the provenance of that term is as a way to describe the effects of a plant or drug. However, it occurred to me that if you’re referring to the effects with the word “deep” instead, it would cast a different, and quite possibly more uplifted light on the experience. High can suggest rising up off the ground, out of your body, perhaps even out of the whole body and into just the head. Old farts like me will recall that in the days of the counter culture of the late 60s and early 70s, users of cannabis and other psychedelics were sometimes called “heads.” Not to digress too far but would we have experienced ourselves differently if we had used the term “hearts” instead of heads?

Recasting the focus of an experience in terms of how deep it is seems to suggest a more powerful way to view the intention. I think I could get away with the gross generalization that for the most part our culture doesn’t have a good understanding of this kind of depth. Most of us have no idea how deep we can go, how thoroughly we can enter experiences. Of course this relates to egolessness, getting the self out of the way to step fully into experience, to become, as they say, one with the experience. Another “of course” is the relationship of depth to nowness, freeing oneself from the obscuring veil of the thinking/discursive mind and being fully present.

I see it as one of the central tasks for the years ahead in our societies: to understand and share knowledge of our potential for entering more deeply into the now moment. There’s an incredible richness of experience available to us frail humans that for most people is left largely untapped. Artists often understand this. A lot of writers, musicians, painters and others have the ability to step through a portal into the world that stands before them as they’re receiving, creating, or transmitting it. We all have this ability but for many of us it remains more or less dormant. It’s a central principle in the vision and prayer for global healing and awakening. We envision a world where people have developed much greater skill at plumbing the depths.