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

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.

Crop Circles: a Beautiful Enigma

At the risk of being filed by some readers under F for flake, I feel compelled to address the issue of crop circles. It’s just too bizarre and mysterious to ignore. Most people have by now heard of these crop formations—”circles” doesn’t begin to describe most of them—and most are happy to put the story down to some eccentric folks having a good one on the rest of us. The information in this post may be familiar to those who’ve looked into this phenomenon. For that group this essay may offer a few interesting insights and perhaps a confirmation of what you already know or intuit to be true. Those less familiar with the crop circle phenomenon may find some thought-provoking information here. For those without the time to do a lot of reading on the topic, I’ve done the work for you and you’ll find a detailed yet concise summary below.

The connection may seem tenuous between crop circles and other topics addressed at the Returning to Sacred World website; such as shamanism, Buddhism, meditation, 2012 issues, and the sacred plants like ayahuasca, peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms. As I see it these topics are all inextricably bound together. There’s a consciousness transformation underway on this planet and most anything that points in that direction or aids in the manifestation of the vision is worth considering.

In any case, here’s what’s fascinating about the crop circle phenomenon. As much a brain-shock as it is to the modern conceptual framework, the fact is that if one makes even a relatively cursory examination of the available information, it’s very difficult for people with a corner of openness in their minds to fit the facts neatly into a box labeled “Made on the sly by human hands.” There may yet turn out to be some stunning rational explanation for these formations, but it hasn’t appeared yet—not by a long shot—and none of the so-called hoaxers have demonstrated that they can create anything remotely like the genuine article.

So why do I bring this up on a website devoted to the vision for enlightened society? For starters, the formations are often very beautiful when seen from the air, as with aerial photographs. Many are complex and sophisticated in concept and execution. Formations are populated with little-known symbols and obscure theorems based on Euclidian geometry. There have been large, accurate representations of complex mathematical configurations and fractal formulations like the Mandelbrot Set and the Julia Set. Five new mathematical theorems have been seen so far.

But beyond all that, there’s the distinct possibility that we’re being shown something remarkable here, something whose intent is to rattle our operating paradigms. Like the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas, the crop formations are created with no hope of permanency, celebrity, career advancement, or remuneration. They almost always arrive in the wee hours of the night when the crop is developed to just the right height and are erased by the farmer’s combine within days or weeks.

Perhaps they’re saying to us: “Look friends, here’s something lovely for you, something symbolic and maybe even information-laden, and you can’t explain it. We’re showing you in a playful fashion that what’s going on around here requires you to open up your reality framework. You need to wake up and see that the world is alive with information far more vast than you have allowed yourselves and each other to contemplate. The momentum of your misunderstanding has brought you to a precipice and now you need this information, you need to let down your guard and pay attention without prejudice. The future of the planet depends upon it.”

Without expanding this essay into a book on crop formations it would be impossible to do full justice to the complete picture. But perhaps I can tease you with a few facts that may lead you to question the quick dismissal of claims regarding the non-conventional genesis of these creations. There are numerous books, movies, websites and other sources of information created by people who have made a serious study of the phenomenon. What follows is a brief summary of some of the key facts involved.

The patterns are as large as 1,000 feet (about 300 meters) across.* They are made with great precision and often with incredible detail. Even the circles themselves are often slightly elliptical, a shape that is said to be much more difficult than an exact circle to measure and produce accurately. Just looking at some of the many crop formation photos available online would demonstrate their grandeur and precision far better than if I attempted to describe any of them here. One of the most telling pieces of evidence is that typically the plant stalks are not broken or crushed as would be the result of any kind of roller or vehicle moving over the field. According to one of the researchers, the stalks “appear to be subjected to a short and intense burst of heat which softens the stems to drop just above the ground at 90°, where they harden into their new and very permanent position without damage. Plant biologists are baffled by this feature…”1

Farmers have often seen steam rising from the laid-out stalks. Significant quantities of surface and subsurface water are found to have evaporated under the “floor.” Researchers have found distinct changes in temperature, composition, and crystalline structure in the soil and the crops within the formations. Close-up photos reveal elaborate swirling patterns in the laid-out stalks matching the fundamental vortex pattern found often in nature—for example with shells, sunflowers, and even galaxies. The swirled patterns have up to five interwoven layers of stalk within a radius of just a few feet.

A whole range of unusual events and phenomena have been associated with the formations. They alter the local electromagnetic field and result in the malfunction of a variety of equipment, including cellphones and cameras. Car batteries have been drained. Compasses are bewildered and can’t locate north. Odd lights have been seen by many night-watchers shortly before the patterns are discovered. There are frequent reports of headaches and other unusual pleasant and unpleasant physical and mental anomalies. The list goes on.

One of the features of crop formation creation most difficult for rational reductionists to explain away is the ways and means of their actual construction. Nothing is trampled. No one has ever been seen creating one that fits the profile of “genuine.” No equipment or other evidence has ever been inadvertently left behind. Many have camped around fields with a history of formations—video cameras and sound equipment trained on the field—but have found nothing and seen nobody, even when a new formation is discovered in the morning. The formations are usually created in the hours between 2 and 4 a.m. and a number of reports have shown that they are done very quickly. One well known example is that of a pilot who flew directly over the Stonehenge monument at dawn and spotted nothing whatsoever out of the ordinary. Fifteen minutes later another pilot flew the same route and clearly observed a massive pattern some 900 feet in diameter with a 149 individual circles.

A highly skilled and prepared team just might be able to replicate the general surface appearance of some of the formations—after many hours of exhaustive measurement and meticulous labor in broad daylight. But such activity has never been observed. And then they would be extremely hard-pressed to recreate the technique by which the stalks are bent without being broken or crushed, and would find it nearly as difficult—and immensely time-consuming—to interweave the stalks in such complex and precisely layered configurations. I challenge you to find the people who could and would design and create these elaborate and often very beautiful formations year after year in multiple locations without ever being caught or claiming authorship.

It’s an unsolved mystery at this point, and again, perhaps a jolt to our attachment to the rational, material conditioning so predominant in the modern world. As I’ve described in the book Returning to Sacred World and as reported by a great many of the Earth people and the new explorers of traditional spiritual paths and medicines, the world is alive and communicating with us in a great variety of forms. It’s time for humanity to come out of the caves of blinkered mechanistic perception and open up to the living intelligence reaching out to us and pulling us toward the truth of who we are and what we are capable of envisioning and accomplishing. I’ll give the last word here on this topic to Richard Tarnas:

“Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the self’s own will to power.“2

1. Freddy Silva,

2. Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 41

*The tram lines that mark the fields are said to be generally between 55 and 80 feet apart. The formation in the photo at the top of this post, as an example, would then be roughly between 170 and 250 feet in diameter. As I said, there are many photos available online and in some of them you can see people walking around. That gives you a sense of the scale.

Signs of Awakening

I’m going out on a limb with this topic and perhaps risking accusations—including from myself—of hubris. A long history of practice and study, however dubious at times in its effectiveness, has brought me to a place where I believe I know a little about whether one’s spiritual work is having the effects one would hope for; that is of course, waking up and all that implies. What follows is a series of observations based in large part on my own experience.

Part of my motivation for writing this has been the observation that spiritual practice in itself doesn’t necessarily transform people. In particular, I’ve been a little surprised to have encountered a very small minority of people with experience with sacred plants—or entheogens—such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, peyote, and others, who appear to be still in the grip of their self-importance. Similarly, in my experience with Tibetan Buddhism, some with many hours of meditation behind them don’t reliably comport themselves with humility and warm heart.

I intend this post to be a work in progress as my own awakening unfolds. I also invite readers to add their observations on the topic. My hope is that some of those observations would find their way into this discussion. So here’s my unfinished list of signs that one is making progress on the spiritual path.

1. Becoming less opinionated: When asked how he knew he’d experienced enlightenment, the Buddha is reputed to have said,  “This solid earth is my witness.” It wasn’t about belief and we can assume he said it with a smile and without any need to browbeat the questioner into agreeing with him. Opinions are so often associated with ego, with ego’s need to solidify it’s hold by seeing itself as right or as superior, and typically by impressing this rightness upon others. I doubt that you need reminders about this but if you do ever feel the need, try tuning into one of those right-wing talk shows or foaming-at-the-mouth ‘news’ outlets in the U.S. A small dose of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck will quickly refresh your memory of the hot, empty rhetoric blowing through the airwaves.

Of course there are plenty of issues to get hot over on this planet and I’m certainly not speaking against passionate and compassionate expression aimed at healing injustice and fighting against ill-considered ideas. The problem is that in the egoic state we have a need to believe that our view of the world is the correct one. This is how we think we’re protecting and maintaining ourselves. As we learn to relax into the ongoing stream of life, as we learn to trust in life, or you might say, trust  in Spirit, the need to be right tends to diminish in intensity.

It’s been said that the competitive person doesn’t know himself. Competitiveness is of course deeply ingrained in the majority of us and not easily weeded out. I watch that feeling as it arises on occasion. The checkup we could give ourselves is to observe our state of mind/body and see if we’re getting tight as we engage in debate, disagree with someone else’s opinion, or try to convince others of our point of view. Of course arrogance and smugness are also obvious signs of a soul caught in the grip of opinionatedness. The irony is that far too often there’s an inverse relationship between the intensity of the opinion and its relationship to reality. In simple terms, there’s opinion and then there’s reality and opinions are typically a grid thrown over and obscuring reality. As W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem The Second Coming, ” . . . the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

2. Sense of humor: We’re not particularly talking about jokes and puns of course. My old Buddhist teacher spoke of the spiritual journey as one of gradually gaining a panoramic perspective. The opposite state of mind to that is what in the Buddhist community we used to call “going solid.”  As we relax out of our struggle, maybe we start to see how funny our seriousness has been. Without callousness toward the struggles of others, we may also find their seriousness funny. Perhaps the great cosmic joke is that our oh-so-serious struggle wasn’t necessary at all.

As we loosen up we might begin to take greater delight in our world, in the moment to moment experience of moving through the material world. Humor and delight, or you might even say joy, are bosom buddies. Humor in this sense also means to be of good humor and if I’m not mistaken, the spiritual awakening that sees through obstacles and releases them inevitably brings an increase in good humor.

Relaxing into panoramic perspective allows you to see the humor in day to day encounters. Maybe you’re having a fight with your partner. You’re falling prey to the same old hooks and patterns. But then you catch yourself and relax on the spot. At that point you might say something that lets the air out of the beast for both of you, or just have a laugh at the absurdity of your games and sword fights.

3. Humility: See numbers 1 and 2 above. Less opinionated, more delight and humor, more humble—all close relatives. I notice it in association with a softness, the felt presence of my heart. When I feel that humbleness I notice I’m more present, more compassionate, not needing anything from situations. It’s as though you just become part of the stream, not self-absorbed in your own place in it. Buddhist teachings talk about forgetting the self and just being fully present in any situation.

In my experience, the increasingly frequent presence of humbleness is a good sign that you’re being “worked”—that your mind is being tamed, that you’re relaxing into Spirit. Humbleness is kind. I don’t know about you but I can usually read it in people. And I’m not talking about people putting themselves in small boxes of politeness and self-deprecation out of fear of offending, need for approval, or lack of self-esteem. I’m talking about people who no longer need to impress others, people who are coming from their hearts. When the heart awakens, that is automatically humbling. And almost ironically, humbleness is real power because it’s not conditional upon ego’s perceived success or dominance. A lot of energy gets wasted maintaining self-importance.

One of the observations that confirms for me the potential benefits of the plant medicines is that I’ve seen that quality in many who have worked with plants like ayahuasca and peyote for a long time. The plants ask you to surrender to something bigger than your ego. The softening of surrendering to that something opens the heart and helps put you into an authentic relationship with the world.

4. Spacious mind: See all of the above. The relaxing that comes with not struggling so fiercely against one’s demons, not needing to control oneself and attempt to control energies around one, and from allowing the heart to open, also allows the discursive mind to slow down. The Buddhist description of the discursive mind—confirmed in direct experience—is that it acts to avoid acknowledging anything that threatens ego’s illusion of a separate self and the survival package one has put together. The overlapping busyness of mind throws up an obscuring screen which keeps out the awareness of big mind and of the shadow material that needs to be released to allow relaxing into big mind. This discursive mind is ego’s primary tactic.

As you work through those obscurations and discover you don’t have to resist, you don’t have to keep patching the fissures in that wall, the need to fill the gaps with thought diminishes. A good sign that your practice is working, in the long term, is to find that you can drop the thinking mind more readily and just be empty in the now. If my experience is at all typical, I see that it comes and goes. Maybe you release some things and settle down. But then later some new layers of material start to bubble to the surface and at first you may fear being swamped by them. The mind becomes compulsively active. I see it as my job to observe the mind in action and when I notice it’s harder to allow the space I make the tentative assumption that there’s something I need to look at, or something that’s challenging me to open further. Times like that remind me to get my butt back on that meditation cushion more often and to work harder to allow more frequent gaps in the thinking mind in the “post-meditation” experience.

Landing on spacious mind also softens the boundaries between self and other. If you don’t need to defend yourself against perceived threats to the ego, you can relax and open your heart toward others, invite them in a little more. Chögyam Trungpa taught us to renounce, to let go of, anything that makes us less accessible to others.

5. Gratitude and appreciation.  Yes, that’s right, see all of the above again. Does this seem too obvious? Perhaps it’s worth mentioning since I’ve noticed a gradual change in this regard in my own life. As my healing and awakening journey has progressed, I find that I’m generally able to appreciate things more. Life in general and in the particulars feels more precious to me than it used to.

Appreciation and gratitude go hand in hand with the opening of the heart. We find ourselves more easily touched by the world, more intimately related to the world. It’s also probably safe to say that a deepening relationship with the world would generally lead to a stronger desire to care for and help the world in some way. Buddhist teachings talk about the commitment to benefit all sentient beings. Of course we all have to find our own ways to do that. It need not be reduced to any simplistic notion of saving the world or a fixed program that says you must contribute to charities or teach in an African village. No doubt there are a great many ways to benefit, from the largest to the smallest and from the most direct to the least direct. The foundation is intention.

I also find soulfulness is more important to me than ever. With music for example, I have no time for music that lacks it, but I recognize and appreciate its presence when I hear it, even in the simplest of music. Similarly with people, like the humbleness mentioned earlier. When I see someone whose heart is open and soft, someone who exudes natural, authentic presence, I’m moved and inspired by that.

6. Becoming less judgemental:  Carl Jung and others have done a pretty good job of nailing that one. Buddhist psychology has also made that issue clear with the concept of projection. I believe it was Jung who coined the term “the shadow.” The shadow is everything in our minds that is unconscious, repressed, undeveloped, and denied. One of the wonders of the human mind, a law of its functioning, is that the shadow material is unconsciously projected onto the world, onto others.

When you experience negative thoughts toward someone, what you could call a judgemental feeling, you can pretty much count on the fact that the shadow is at work. It’s anything but easy to see this and take responsibility for your own mind. Attitudes of blame and victimhood are central to this issue as well. But as you uncover that material through spiritual practice and healing work, it gradually loses it hold over you. As you see this material and accept yourself as you are, the projections tend to diminish.

Most of us humans, I think it’s safe to say, are making judgements much of the time and much of that judging takes place at a subliminal level where we may not even be aware we’re judging. Just to clarify, when I speak of judgement I don’t mean what I would call discriminating awareness. There are a great many more or less neutral discriminating judgements we need to make throughout our days and weeks. The problem with the kind of judgement being discussed here is, probably among other things, that it tends to block and numb energy. People who know a lot about how mind and energy function talk about how “it’s all energy.” When we can allow energy to move unobstructed and be awake to and in harmony with the flow of it, life itself flows much better. This is also not about being passive. Like, you don’t just stand there like a victim when someone in your space is running aggressive, manipulative, harmful gestalts. But foggy numbness and passivity aren’t the opposite of judgementalness. They’re the opposite perhaps of sharp mindful awareness and clear seeing.

7. Complaining less: See the discussion above on the shadow. Moving from projection, blame, and victimhood should be reflected in a general diminishment of the tendency to complain. At the very least you might find yourself complaining with a sense of humor. Complaining also carries that sense of struggle. You’re fighting with your world. You’re projecting your own dissatisfaction onto the world. In general, complaining tends to be self-justifying and ego aggrandizing.

Not to say that there aren’t things to bitch about. We’re surrounded by ignorance and lack of awareness every day and the machinations of the movers and shakers in such worlds as the political and the economic can provoke an understandable outrage. I think we just have to be on the watch for our outrage and our critiques not to be in service of ego justification.

8. A sharper bullshit detector: Having an effective bullshit detector is not necessarily a symptom of an awakening soul. Some pretty hard-assed and cruel people also can see through others. For many of us though, our own neuroses—our fears, naivety, lack of confidence and so on—tend to obscure our clear view of others. My old Buddhist teacher used to talk about egolessness of self and egolessness of other. It seems that as you learn to relax out of the struggle to maintain ego and land on the solid earth, you also see situations around you more clearly. The awakened heart is a very astute observer. It registers the authenticity of people and events. It feels the soulfulness quotient.

9. Seeing past “this” and “that”: This is another way of talking about some of the issues already addressed in this essay. It’s about letting go of control. We tend to spend a lot of time judging experiences and attempting to get everything happening the way we want it. The counterpart to that attitude, it should be clarified, is not passivity. It’s more a statement that you can fall into the flow and pattern of energy, appreciating things as they are and working with those energies. This is also about allowing ourselves to experience and even revel in the unknown. We can step out of our safe, habitual patterns. Life becomes a lot more interesting and enjoyable with that attitude. Everything is sacred world and surprises can occur at any moment. It’s also a big relief not to have to put so much energy into choosing one experience over another.

10. A sharper sense of feeling and a deepening compassion. I’m not talking here simply about emotions. Everyone is coming from somewhere along a continuum from having a habitual style that’s very emotional at one end of the scale to being almost completely unemotional at the other end. In Buddhist understanding, styles anywhere on this scale can be problematic. We’re talking about learning to relax out of one’s own solidity and habitual style to feel the world more deeply, more sharply. My old Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa used to speak of mixing joy and sadness together, of being touched by the world. This is about being able to feel things beyond yourself. Does that make sense?

The great good news is that feeling the world more vigorously and at more refined levels is actually completely natural to human beings. It’s not about adding something to who we are. It’s about releasing the obscurations, the mindstuff that creates veils of self-protecting numbness. It’s a relief, and encouragement, a joy even, to find oneself opening up like that, being touched by the world. It tends to give our lives meaning.

(Imaginary) Interview With God


Don’t worry, I’m not turning into a megalomaniac or a fire-and-brimstone preacher claiming to have a direct line to a personal God. What follows is a somewhat playful but nonetheless sincere attempt to imagine what such a conversation might entail on issues of planetary and personal consciousness transformation. It contains direct and indirect references to Buddhism, Native American spirituality, 2012, meditation, sacred plants, crop circles, and prayer. It may help to put a few things into perspective.

Stephen: Good morning. Thank you for seeing me.

God: No problem, always willing to help out.

S: Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?

G: As I said . . .

S: We humans have so many ideas and opinions about what God is. Can you clarify any of this confusion for me?

G: Ah, going right to the heart of the matter. Not a simple question at all. I’m appearing to you today as a wise and kindly older friend for the purpose of making you feel comfortable. Perhaps you could say this is a temporarily configured pattern of the primordial intelligence. You could also say I’m speaking for the Source, but defining that is another matter altogether. I am a voice of the awakened and you are my brother, but you don’t fully understand that yet. I would advise you not to worry about conceptual understanding. In some ways you already know since you and I are of the same essence. In truth, God is nothing you can define or label. There are levels beyond levels beyond levels. Just keep paying attention, keep opening, relax and enjoy the ride, and all the information you need will be revealed as you’re ready to receive and make use of it.

S: Can you tell me anything about the qualities of this Source energy?

G: There are two completely different kinds of responses I could give you on that one. The first is to say again that you have to discover it for yourself. Otherwise it remains a concept in your head, and if there’s one place where a great many of you humans spend far too much time, it’s in your heads. Having an idea of God in your mind is not only not helpful to you, but as you’ve seen on this planet, can also be most harmful. To help out a little however, I could also say it has something to do with eternal creation fueled by something akin to what you call love. We create with unbounded love. We create with a smile. We’re never short of ideas, patience, or hospitable impulses.

S: Why has there been so much suffering on our planet? If we were created with great love and intelligence, how did we manage to make life so miserable for so many for so long?

G: Well first, from where I sit, it hasn’t been long at all. Pockets of humanity scattered across the historical—and what you would call pre-historical—landscape have lived with lines of communication open to the Source. But as a planetary community, you’re just getting started and you’ve hardly begun to realize what you can do with these minds and bodies of yours. More importantly, we’re creators, not control freaks. Our design for this place—and everything else we do—has always been to make it beautiful and interesting. You are completely responsible for your choices. We watch closely and we’re available to help at all times. We know what you’re capable of and as wise educators we grant you complete freedom to learn what you need to learn so that you can find out who you really are. If we interfered too directly, you’d remain as children and would never learn the lessons required to grow up, to wake up.

This is not to say there’s any limit to what we can do. Everything you experience in the material environment is a temporary manifestation of an idea. If we felt it was necessary to dissolve the canvas and start fresh, that could be arranged. I’ll confess I’ve had moments of temptation. But it’s not our style. We like to release our creations and see what they can do for themselves. Being surprised is one of our greatest joys. I’m not sure that answers your question about how humans managed to create so much suffering and I’m not sure it’s necessary to know all the ins and outs of that. I’ll just say that in many places, humans allowed themselves to forget who they were. In this state of ignorance and disempowerment, they also allowed others to manipulate and control them. Fortunately, this is changing rapidly now. There are encouraging signs that more and more of you have had enough of that misery and are starting to realize what you’re capable of accomplishing.

S: Thank you. That response brings up so many questions in my mind I hardly know where to start. For example, why do you say “we?”

G: Well, again, you can’t pin God down to anything specific that you can label. There are emanations of awakened mind in a multitude of forms. As I said, without direct experience, any concept you come up with doesn’t mean much. For many of you it would probably be best if you even gave the word “God” a rest for awhile. There are plenty of beings with different interests and areas of expertise. Many of them have nothing to do with your planet and many of them are intensely interested in your journey. I say “we” because a lot of us are available to you if you can find a way to dissolve the veil enough to make contact with us. We can and have appeared to people in a great variety of costumes, from subtle intuition to apparent coincidences to visible representations of anything from the play of light to animal and human forms.

An example of the kind of observable involvement we’re enjoying these days is what you’ve labeled crop circles. There’s nothing heavy-handed about them. Everyone is free to believe whatever they like. Most people assume that some clever rascals are responsible for them, since their programming doesn’t admit of any other possibility. But if your mind is not completely fixed and you look into the manner of their construction, you’ll see that these formations couldn’t have been made by people on the ground. They’re created with a few quick but precise brush strokes, almost always in the darkest hours, and sometimes instantaneously. If you tried to replicate this work, you might at best be able to create a very rough approximation with a group of skilled workers over several days.

In truth, these little gems of art and design are playful offerings devised by some of my friends in the spirit world. They appear in part to tease you awake. If you’re open to our intent you’ll see we’re showing you that there are things you can’t fit into your existing programs. They’re also gentle reminders of impermanence. Beautiful and symbolic images appear out of nowhere and are erased by the farmer’s combine within days. Nothing to cling to or capitalize on. Your Buddhist sand mandalas have a similar intent.

As a last point regarding your question about why I say “we,” I wish to remind you that we are also you and that the invitation to join us in this limitless creative adventure is always there.

S: How do we do make that contact?

G: Ah, another loaded question. You’ve been puzzling over that one since the dawn of self-reflective consciousness. For starters, there’s no shortage of assistance. A good number of you have indeed been able to cross through the barriers, and some have come back with useful information. Anything that dissolves the barriers you’ve erected in your minds is fine with us. Don’t waste your time listening to people who claim they have the only or even the best system, especially if they denigrate other methods of opening the doors. The most important point is that you have to allow a gap in the fear-based, continually overlapping mental busyness that keeps the barrier firmly in place. You just need to learn how to surrender your fearful resistance and open into that space. Most of you have deep-seated fears about losing control and being overwhelmed. This is understandable but unfortunate and most importantly, unnecessary. Yes, the ego must give way of course, but we’re not talking about a passive experience. You are being invited to enter the flowing patterns of creative energy and dance gracefully with those patterns. When you join the party you’ll see that what you’ve been afraid of losing has actually been a great burden to you and your brothers and sisters here.

Some of you have natural abilities in this way. But since the conditioning has been so intense and unremitting, most have to work at it. You can benefit from any activity or practice which slows the speed of your mind and brings you into the present or that shocks the monkey out of its unexamined, habitual patterns of thinking and behavior. When you ask about making contact, I would also say that we have excellent hearing for clear, sincere, confident, and compassionate prayer. Effective prayer is simple knowing how to ask, knowing how to speak from your heart with conviction.

S: I’ve been very interested in certain plants that seem to have the potential to dissolve the barrier. These plants are highly controversial, even among many who are sincere and committed to the awakening process. Are medicines such as the psilocybe mushrooms, the peyote cactus, the ayahuasca brew, the iboga root and others helpful?

G: I could refer you back to my answer to your question about how to make contact and leave it at that. You already know the answer to that question my friend. However, since I suspect you’re going to want to share this around when you get back, I’ll elaborate a little. We have left numerous clues and forms of assistance by the roadside, and as I said, anything that works is fine with us. Did you think it was a meaningless coincidence that there are plants all over the planet which are highly compatible with your brain chemistry, fit smoothly into waiting receptors, and are extremely fertile sources of transformative information and assistance? These plants you mention are powerful and direct methods of dissolving the barrier. I’m delighted to say that some of my closest associates have long been lovingly involved with them.

You know as well as we do though, that they’re not for everyone and that they’re far more likely to work for you if taken with the utmost respect and care, among others of similar intention, and under the guidance of those with experience. It is we who have placed these medicines there for you, and if conditions are right, there is no question that they can open the doors of perception. They’ve been cast along your paths because the blanket of conditioning is so thick that strong medicine is often required to cut through the layers. If you’re able to surrender to their power, these plants can temporarily dissolve those layers of obscuration and allow you to receive information from our side of the veil. Then you might be able to hear and benefit from the healing and teaching spirits who are happy to come through. When approached properly, the plant spirits can show you just about anything you need to know and can be of great assistance on your journey of awakening.

S: Thank you. You said that you don’t like to interfere too directly since we have to make the journey for ourselves and learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. But you also said that you’re willing to help at all times. What kind of help do you provide that doesn’t interfere with our own learning process?

G: Good question. Two thoughts come quickly to mind. First, as I suggested earlier in our conversation, nothing in form is solid. It’s all highly malleable. Your Buddhist teachings have understood this quite well. I don’t know if the word “illusion” is completely accurate. On some level what you see does exist, but again, only as the temporal manifestation of an idea with the appropriate engineering applied to it. For example, without ears do you have your music? Without eyes do you have your colors? Without noses can you smell your flowers? Without taste buds can you taste your food? These are all specific technologies designed for this particular local environment and completely interdependent with all other form on your planet. Indeed, I sometimes wonder why you aren’t all walking around in a state of awe at the brilliance of this beautiful work of evolving art.

So what you label “matter” presents no obstacle to intention applied with skill. Don’t worry. I’m working up to the answer to your question. You just need to be clear on these principles first. The complementary part of my answer to this question of how we can help has something to do with readiness and appropriateness. If you have an accident and lose the ability to walk, it may be that there’s an important lesson involved. Perhaps the limitation of movement forces you to redirect your energies in ways that serve your education and benefit the whole. On the other hand, the accident may have been completely random, or you may have already learned what you needed to and have work to do which you can accomplish more successfully without the wheelchair.

Strange as it may seem to most of you, any infirmity is amenable to healing. Individual intention can be powerful medicine, group intention even more powerful. If you get a group of people together who can step out of themselves and place all their attention on a particular prayer—especially when the barriers have been softened through your spiritual practices and medicines—there are very few limitations to what can be accomplished. That’s where we come in. We support and amplify your intentions. When you know how to ask for help there are beings with the knowledge to effect the healing.

S: Can you say anything about what is going to happen here on Earth in the coming years and decades? Are you optimistic about our chances for creating a world that does your vision justice?

G: Ah, more questions far too large and complex to fit into a simple container. I’ll try to give you a little something you can take away though. I could say there are two distinct levels to how we see things—the absolute and the relative. First, as I told you a little while ago, we like to be surprised. Your future isn’t written in stone. Right now it’s a white-knuckle ride with an uncertain outcome. Second, even if we did know for certain, we wouldn’t want to give away the ending. At this exact moment I would say it could go either way. As you might say, the planet’s karma has ripened. You are being severely tested now—not by us but as an accumulated result of your behavior and degree of spiritual ignorance over the course of your history, in conjunction with a few other forces and factors far too complicated and overlapping to explain.

On the absolute level everything is perfect. We’re not going anywhere and time is irrelevant. It’s always and forever now and the possibilities are limitless. On the relative level, you break our hearts all the time. We weep for you. We cheer you on. We’re always waiting for even one of you to see through the veil and discover the truth of who you are. I will say that if you are going to avoid the most drastic possible outcomes in the near future, a good many of you are going to have to wake up fast and exert all your energies with great confidence toward healing the wounds. Fortunately, you are completely capable of doing just that.

S: Do you have any guidance to offer about how we can best help each other and the planet at this time?

G: You do like to ask complex questions with no simple answers don’t you? How does that saying go? Something like, “Physician, heal thyself.” That’s the foundation. An awakened soul walking around in a human body can’t help but be a blessing. Just helping people cheer up, just being kind and thinking of others—these are simple things with immense benefit. I would, however, offer a piece of cautionary advice for those working to heal themselves. Keep your eyes on the prize and don’t obsess about your personal problems. There are worlds beyond your mind. We see people get lost down the wormhole of their own case and forget that it’s about relaxing, stepping out from that self-absorbed self and joining the community of awakened hearts. If you focus as often as possible on being fully present, thinking of the welfare of others, and sending out kind and peaceful energy, most of your own healing will take care of itself.

So although it’s important to build that strong foundation and develop clear vision, please don’t wait for enlightenment to strike before helping each other out. I can’t tell you what to do. There is no shortage of need for assistance on this planet. Just look around and respond to situations as they arise. If you begin to act on a good idea with the right intention, we’ll be there to support it and help it grow into something beneficial. The fully formed idea may even surprise you. And you know, contrary to rumor, we’re not omniscient. We are often informed and delighted by what you little wizards come up with.

S: I assume you’ve heard of 2012 and all the speculation and prophecy surrounding it. Is there anything to it?

G: Well, like I say, I don’t want to spoil the story. Also, you folks get so easily seduced by an idea that it can get in the way. If you have a concept in your head about what you’re looking for, what you’re expecting to see, there’s a good chance you’ll miss what’s actually happening. You remember I told you earlier in our conversation that the planet’s karma has ripened. That is true and in that sense there is something to the idea of breakdown and transformation. There are a lot of factors in play right now that haven’t come to complete fruition. You may see a kind of quantum leap in the next few years where many of these energies and developments interact at much more intense levels. And even if the year 2012 brings no grand upheavals and transformations, it must be obvious to you by now that sooner or later, and probably sooner, the trajectory of your thinking and activity is going to have to undergo some major recalculation if the human community is to survive and thrive in the times to come.

Again, I would like to encourage you by saying that this transformation is entirely possible. As one of your fine thinkers put it, there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. So take heart, have confidence. What are your best ideas? I want to encourage you by stressing again that your capabilities are far greater than almost all of you have realized. When I spoke of healing through the power of shared intention, I meant also to imply that when enough of you put your minds together with the intention of healing your world, it will happen.

S: Thank you very much for that encouragement. I know how easy it is to lose heart.  No more questions are coming to mind right now except to ask if you have any final words of advice that I could take away with me today. And of course I hope I’ll be able to speak with you again.

G: You are always welcome. The door is always open. You, Stephen, have seen for yourself that it’s only you who keep it closed. And please remember, it doesn’t have to be a formal visit. Our whispered guidance is available whenever you can still the disturbed waters and allow something other than your own thoughts to come through.

Final words of advice for today?  Perhaps I could send you off with a couple of reminders. First, keep your mind completely open about how and where this guidance can appear. Judgements, beliefs, and expectations disable your receptors. Information can come from anywhere, at any time, in any form. Second, the Earth is your mother. You are completely dependent on her every moment of your lives. But many of you have taken her for granted and become seduced by illusions of independence and self-importance. You’ve discovered all these things you can do in the material realm and invented all these toys to play with. Some of the toys are very clever and some may yet evolve into tools that benefit the whole. But your world has gotten dangerously out of balance. You’re in this trouble now at least partly because you’ve forgotten to honor, thank, and take care of that which has always taken care of you: the air, the earth, the water. Now your mother’s health is failing and you need to devote yourselves to her healing. Indeed, caring for the Earth at this time is an essential component of your awakening.

S: Thank you very much.

G: No problem. My door is always open.

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.

Grandfather Peyote and the Native American Church

Monument Valley

We know whereof we speak. We have tasted of God and our eyes have opened.1   Albert Hensley, Winnebago

My first encounter with the peyote medicine spirit, ten years before I met it again in the Native American Church (NAC) ceremonies, demonstrated and presaged in a gentle and humbling manner what it’s capable of accomplishing. I was visiting an old friend, Alan, for a couple of days. Alan mentioned that he had one peyote button which he’d kept in a jar for about ten years. He doubted it would still be psychoactive but offered to share it with me and another friend of his anyway. One peyote button among three people is not much, to say the least. When ethnographer Weston La Barre traveled the western United States learning and writing about the NAC in the 1930s, he found that participants commonly ingested from four to thirty or more buttons in a ceremony.

Alan took this dusty old, long ignored peyote, cleaned out the hairs in the center that we’d heard were poisonous, and steeped it in boiled water for some time. The three of us shared the soaked button and drank the resulting tea in silence while sitting in big, overstuffed chairs in Alan’s now darkened living room. We remained like that for close to two hours before Alan broke the silence and asked us what we’d experienced. To our surprise, each of us had undergone something strikingly similar. There were no indications of being “stoned.”  We all felt sharp and sober. This little peyote guide had led all three of us on a clear, gentle, and nonjudgmental tour through the aspects of our own thinking and behavior that we needed to straighten out. None of us felt belittled or depressed by this exposé. Instead we each felt a similar quiet humility and gratitude from the experience.

After more than five years of frequent participation in the all-night prayer ceremonies of the Native American Church I now consider myself a member, and although in some respects still an outsider (at least in my own mind.) I’ve been accepted with kindness and generosity of spirit into that “family” and hold this church in my heart with great respect. This article is adapted from my forthcoming book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality, and as the title suggests, I’m passionately attuned to a dawning prayer and vision coming from “the four directions” that on multiple levels the karma of the current dominating worldview on planet Earth has played itself out and we’re now being drawn rapidly into a period that could be called a time of crisis and transformation. As an elder of the church told us in a meeting one night, when this transition period settles out things are going to look very different.

Part of the message contained in the pre-Columbian prophecies of indigenous peoples from around the planet—groups as scattered as the Hopi of southwestern United States, the practitioners of the bwiti religion in equatorial West Africa, and the aborigines of the Australian continent, (to name only a few)—holds that as the unsustainable illusions of the dominator societies continue to be exposed and to collapse, the prayer will gain clarity and strength. One version says that there may even be a kind of quantum moment, no doubt not to be taken overly literally in terms of clock time, when the prayer, the truth, supplants the dying paradigm, like the phoenix that rises from the ashes.

One of the central themes in my book is that as events unfold, those of us  attuned to this prayer—at whatever level, from whatever background, and by whatever name—need to pay very close attention to the signs as they develop and keep an open mind about how to proceed. Although this theme reverberates at several levels, here I’m addressing the issue of engaging the assistance of mind-manifesting, entheogenic plants. (By the way, it’s sometimes difficult to know what to call these plants. I often use the respected term “entheogen”, meaning “becoming divine within” or “generating the spirit within”.)

It’s an unanswerable question as to whether there ever was good reason to reject the use of these spirit-medicine plants in spiritual work, but I strongly believe that debate should be put to rest during this crucial transit. These are indeed extraordinary times and likely to become much more dramatic before anything does settle out. In these circumstances the real question is how we can wake up, become attuned to reality, and act upon that understanding as quickly as possible. As has been said, there may not be time for twenty years of therapy or twenty years of only a meditation practice. And in that regard a wise and compassionate case can be made that a number of these plants should and in fact will play a major part in the urgent call to awakening.

A huge body of evidence from the historical and contemporary record makes it unambiguously clear that entheogenic plants can be of great benefit when employed with reverence and knowledge in optimum conditions of “set and setting.” It’s not the purpose of this article to make a list of the plants and those who have used them. A good many Shaman’s Drum readers will likely be aware of much of that history, a history that covers the planet and extends back at least as far as our archaeological investigations have been able to uncover. Stories from some indigenous cultures say that these medicines were given to the people in the earliest days to help them remember and reconnect.

Kanucas, an elder of the NAC and a man sharply attuned to the unfolding of the prayer for planetary healing, told me one morning after a tipi meeting that he’s received a vision from Spirit, a message which he said had also been picked up by others. In this vision three plants are to play a central role in the transformation: ayahuasca, peyote, and iboga. Shaman’s Drum readers are likely familiar with reports of the use of ayahuasca in the Amazonian region of South America and its rapidly expanding use in syncretic churches like the Santo Daime, which is now spreading into North America and Europe.

Iboga, on the other hand, is relatively unknown to westerners at this point. However, there are between two and three million practitioners of the bwiti religion in equatorial West Africa employing this root in their ceremonies. The primary alkaloid ibogaine has also been synthesized and has demonstrated a stunning ability to break addiction to substances like heroin and cocaine. Good information about ibogaine and iboga can be found online and in the recent (2007) book Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism, by Vincent Ravalec et al. (And coincidentally—perhaps—Shaman’s Drum issue #76 arrived in my mailbox during this writing, bringing with it three articles on iboga.)

A component of these prophecies—the vision of the uniting of the four directions—counsels us to strengthen our awakening and our work by being very open and intuitive about learning from each other. Taking my own life path as an example, the journey back toward the meeting with Grandfather Peyote in the environment of the NAC looks to me now like a natural and even inevitable progression. I’ve often had the distinct impression I was being guided in that direction and over the years I simply had to follow the signs as they appeared, without knowing the eventual destination.

A key concept here is “syncretism,” defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “combining different religions, cultures, or ways of thinking. We are becoming rapidly more connected on this small planet, increasingly aware of layers of interdependence and interpenetration, and increasingly part of one larger story. The message is that many of us may need to go beyond exclusivity or dogmatism about our own path—and without of course watering down the power of any tradition—be open to the possibilities for cross-fertilization, for learning from other paths and possibly even incorporating other empowering techniques into existing practices.

This is clearly a complex and controversial topic that I don’t intend to explore too deeply in this context. Let me give you a general example though. For many years I was involved in Tibetan Buddhism as a student, teacher, and meditation instructor. There’s a view in that environment, shared by many, that entheogens, or what are often shrugged off as “drugs,” have no part to play in spiritual practice. Some have dismissed the plants as producing artificial realizations.

My attitude is; Why not? What are we afraid of?  As I suggested earlier, when employed with the utmost skill and right attitude, some of these plants can greatly deepen and clarify the often more subtle and gradual realizations gained through practices like a simple mindfulness/awareness meditation practice. And in return, meditation practice can have a highly beneficial grounding effect to help us remain open to and able to benefit from the powerful energies and insights often experienced with entheogens. Kanucas told me after the first meeting I attended that the encounter would likely give me about six months worth of material to process.

Terence McKenna, whom many know as a brave and brilliant explorer of deep entheogenic realms, has suggested that people working with spiritual practices, such as those of Vajrayana Buddhism involving mantra recitation, visualization of deities, and the like, entertain the possibility of finding ways to sometimes include the use of entheogens in conjunction with these practices.2 Might a practitioner discover a level of direct connection previously inaccessible? Radical ideas to some of course, but again, we’re currently in a “far from equilibrium” condition.

If indeed the way forward includes a wider dissemination of the ritual employment of entheogens, important questions arise about how such use can develop effectively and with great sensitivity. As I intimated earlier, syncretic churches like the Santo Daime are moving into a wider world and may have much to teach us about how to wisely conduct rituals. My own experience with the NAC has shown me how its principles and approaches might also provide a general model.

Before going further with that line of inquiry though, I feel compelled to take a slight detour here and stress the sensitivity issue. As a reader of Shaman’s Drum you may be aware of the history of cultural appropriation of indigenous practices by nonnatives. The Native American Church is a particularly delicate situation because of the extremely painful history of conquest and domination by the Europeans and the great commitment involved in having kept the continuity of that vision alive in the face of waves of opposition over the past one hundred and fifty years or so in the United States.

In my personal experience with the NAC community, most native people are open to the inclusion of nonnatives in the ceremonies. Kanucas has said several times that Spirit has made it clear to him that the church is open to those of sincere and respectful intention, no matter their background. Some, however, have told me they find it hurtful when they see nonnatives borrowing their ritual practices, especially when it appears that the borrowers have only skimmed the surface of those practices. One elder, a woman very sensitive to unseen and subtle energies, described to me how she sometimes can’t sit through meetings run and attended mainly by nonnatives. She said the energies in the tipi get tangled when people don’t have a deep understanding of what they’re doing with the medicine, with the prayer, with the fireplace, with the instruments.

Returning now to the question of how entheogens might be incorporated into spiritual practice, wise voices have counseled us to turn to indigenous experience, where it’s available, for guidance. There are still people and groups around who have never lost the living connection to an “ensouled cosmos,” who know the spirits of one or more plants intimately, who know how to speak with these spirits and how to petition them for assistance and support. As cultural anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis has pointed out, there’s a radical difference in worldview and understanding between someone who grew up seeing a mountain as a rock and someone who was raised in a cosmology that sees a mountain as a spirit.

Perhaps in ideal conditions many more people than are currently doing so would be able to connect with strong lineages of authentic ritual practice that include entheogenic plants. But since that’s likely going to be much easier said than done, it may be that new versions of what Ralph Metzner has dubbed “hybrid rituals” are going to be required in these unsettled years. As I said earlier—and keeping in mind the concern about ill-considered appropriation—some of the principles and practices of The Native American Church could provide a kind of general template for effective ritual forms.

This church could itself be considered syncretic. Without subjecting you to a detailed history lesson, I think it may be helpful to provide a little background as a demonstration of how traditions can evolve and absorb influences.  Although the underlying principles may be eternal or unconditioned, the particular forms of the practice have no doubt shifted over the centuries as times and circumstances changed.

The use of the peyote medicine is thought by scholars to be at least 10,000 years old. Peyote cactus buttons uncovered in Shumla Cave in southern Texas have been radiocarbon dated to 5,000 BCE. The annual peyote pilgrimage of the Huichol Indians of central Mexico is thought by scholars to be the oldest continuous sacramental use of peyote in North America, estimated to date back to about 200 CE. Several other Mexican tribes, including the Tarahumara, the Cora, and the Tepehuan (or Tepecano) also have a historical relationship with the peyote cactus. In modern times the reintroduction of the religious use of peyote into the United States is thought to have occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when it spread into the Great Plains region through the Mesacalero Apache and other nations.

As the ceremonial use of this medicine spread through mostly the western half of the U.S., it met with an unusual, maybe even uncanny historical “coincidence.” In the later decades of the nineteenth century the expressed policy of the American government was to “deculturize” the Indians. The enactment of that policy severely weakened the hold of the older tribal religions without actually undermining widely held Plains religious beliefs. According to Weston La Barre in his landmark 1938 ethnographic study The Peyote Cult, “Thus, ironically, the intended modes of deculturizing the Indians have contributed preeminently to the reinvigoration of a basically aboriginal religion.”3

As part of the deculturizing program, the government was gathering many  previously scattered and diverse tribes into close proximity on reservations, (Oklahoma being a particular focal point for that,) and forcing their children into state schools together. The resulting cross-fertilization gave birth to new ritual forms, many of which have maintained an unbroken lineage and remained relatively unchanged up to the present. By the 1990s there were chapters of the NAC in every state west of the Mississippi with members from over seventy different native American nations. Estimates of current membership range from 250,000 to nearly 400,000.

So what are the elements of the NAC prayer ceremonies that lead me to suggest their value as a general model? Put simply, the main constituent ritual elements could be listed as: various forms of prayer, chant-like singing accompanied by something akin to shamanic drumming, moments of silent ‘meditation’, the use of an alter, a fire, and various ritual objects, and of course the central sacrament itself—the sacred medicine Grandfather Peyote.

The meetings of my experience are usually organized in response to a request from someone, who is then referred to as the sponsor of that meeting. The sponsor determines the main prayer for the meeting. The reasons for the request can be relatively wide-ranging, such as a request for a healing, a birthday, a baptism, a wedding, an opportunity to express gratitude to someone, or even a celebration of life.

Much of the meeting then revolves around that prayer. The participants are expected to concentrate their attention for much of the night on the sponsor’s request. The praying is done in several ways, both individually and collectively; sometimes silently, with or without the assistance of a tobacco, sometimes spoken aloud while other things are going on, sometimes with the full attention of all present, and sometimes through the medium of the singing that fills the tipi for much of the night.

When I look back seven years, to before I became involved with the NAC, I know that at that time I understood almost nothing of what prayer can really accomplish, even though in my Buddhist practices we often recited various prayers and chants. The very first meeting I attended was alone nearly enough to shock me out of my worldview. My mother had died four days earlier. Her demise was extremely gradual and until that night I thought the moments of sadness I had experienced through those previous few years had released most of my grief. But over the course of the night I began to feel worse and worse until a  torrent of unrestrained sorrow began to pour out of me. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that I felt totally devastated for hours. At the same time I saw through the tears and the pain that this was right and good. I also saw that my experience wasn’t impeding the flow of events and that nobody paid me any unusual degree of attention, and so I felt completely safe in that container to be the way I was just then.

As the night gave way to dawn and the water woman entered to make her long and heartfelt prayer over the morning water, my grief moved outward from the release of my own sorrow to deep sadness for all my family and friends, the pains of their lives and their unfulfilled potential. From there my raw heart went out to the human community tragically disconnected from Spirit, the creatures of the Earth who suffer so much at the hands of humans and from the pervasive reach of the human enterprise, and to the Earth herself for the abuse we’ve heaped upon her.

As accumulating evidence continues to blow out the cobwebs of my Western mechanistic conditioning, I can now say with a new-found conviction that prayer can heal, prayer can turn seemingly intractable problems around, at least when it’s practiced as a form of concentrated, directed, heart-fuelled intention. In the environment of the NAC I’ve seen peoples’ lives change dramatically and heard firsthand a wealth of stories describing what conventional, mainstream worldview would call miracles of healing.

The interaction between prayer and the peyote medicine is key to the effectiveness of prayer in this context. When people eat the medicine in the sacred container of the tipi meetings and pay attention without getting in their own way, the medicine calls the participants out of themselves into a shared, empowered, openhearted space. Though I myself am just beginning to understand the movement of the Spirit in the tipi, elders like Kanucas have made it clear to us that when we’re able to get our minds focused, the Spirit has an opening and will enter to manifest the intentions of the group and impart crucial insights.

I’ve also come across much supporting testimony for that relationship from a variety of other indigenous/shamanic traditions. Kathleen Harrison, a highly regarded student and advocate of plant wisdom, has expressed it as succinctly as anyone in describing her work with the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca in Mexico. “They have impressed upon me that their prayers go much farther and are much clearer and stronger when they ingest one of these allies—strictly following the proper rituals—and ask to speak to it, and ask it to carry their prayers higher.”4

The singing in the tipi meetings has also made a deep impression on me. Although some of the songs have words from Native American languages, most of those I’ve heard and learned are comprised mainly of chant-like syllables that I’m told may once have been words with specific meanings but now are considered what are sometimes called “vocables.” Syllables such as hey, hee, ee, ah, hah, ho, yah, yo, nah, nay, and wen are commonly heard in various patterns and combinations. The songs combine with the intention of the singers and the power of the medicine to give wings to the prayers of the assembled.

Over the course of the night, instruments are passed around the tipi, one or more times, for each person who knows some songs to choose and lead a set of four. The instruments include the staff of the person running the meeting (the roadman,) a small sage bundle, a gourd shaker, and the water drum. Since the very first meeting I attended I’ve been struck by the passionate conviction with which most people sing, a conviction that often overrides any natural limitations in musical ability.

When a singer is connecting well with the song and others present also know that particular song, the group singing can be impossibly beautiful and moving. One of the elders told me she sometimes likes to close her eyes to listen to the singing and when it’s really happening “the song sings the singers.” After good singing like that you can sometimes feel how the energy in the tipi becomes simultaneously more charged as well as more settled into the presence of Spirit.

It’s easy to see why singing like this could be considered a key element of effective ritual practice in ceremonies that include entheogens. The music brings beauty into the ceremony, strengthens and carries the prayers, and gathers the participants into a shared connection. Among many other examples, The Santo Daime church ceremonies are also well known for the central role of group music in creating an empowered container and bringing the assembled together.

The drumming that accompanies the songs in the tipi meetings deserves a particular mention as well. We’ve all experienced the hypnotic, even trance-inducing power of steady percussive sound, and shamanic traditions around the world use repetitive drumming for purposes like transporting the listeners into other realms and for invoking spirit assistance for healing work. In the NAC, the water drum that’s used has been described both as a spirit being and as the heartbeat that carries the prayers. One native elder with long experience as a drummer told me that when he drums for a singer he can often see the spirit of the drum travel out from the drum and move through the tipi.

I included the experience of times of something like silent meditation as a valuable constituent of effective ritual practice and also part of the tipi meetings. It’s not that there’s any formal structure built in for periods of meditation. It’s that there are unplanned moments here and there throughout the night where for a few minutes there’s nothing in particular happening as part of the ritual events

Some of those moments have been the most powerful and exquisite of all experiences in the tipi. Deep into the night, when most or all of those assembled have been able to calm the head traffic and get out of our own way, the tipi sometimes falls silent and “the peace that passes all understanding,” infused with love, settles into the shared space. In those moments you can feel the nourishment, the healing power of that stillness, and you remember that this peace truly is the one most essential need for human beings. As Kanucas reminded us one night, pointing to his heart, “Relatives, nothing out there will ever feel right until you feel right in here.”

Buddhist teachings often stress the importance of nowness. I’ve learned more about giving in to that nowness in the tipi meetings than I ever had before. Events in the meeting have their own organic time. Nothing is hurried. We’re in there for twelve to fifteen hours with perhaps only one brief break in the middle of the night to step out for a pee. If you keep coming back you learn sooner or later that anything other than paying attention with minimal head traffic and total patience creates suffering. This again is one aspect of how medicines like peyote aid the awakening process. You simply don’t have the option of hanging out in the flatlands of habitual pattern. All experience is intensified and clarified.

There’s one further aspect of the NAC that particularly appeals to me and offers by example a healthy model for spiritual congregations. Most of us are well aware of the problems that have often developed in the context of organized religions. The living core of the religion can easily be subsumed by the bureaucracy, the hierarchy, the politics and so on. Sometimes the outer shell of a religion is nearly all that remains and in more than one case the power structure has come to see those inner, esoteric sub-groups as threats.

The NAC of my experience is remarkably light on its feet. Rooted as it is in oral cultures, there’s no written canon to speak of. The knowledge lives in the understanding of the participants and especially the roadmen who, as it’s described, carry a fireplace. One morning Kanucas looked over at a young native man who had recently been showing admirable progress in pulling his life together and said something like, “I’m really proud of you and I want you to know that, although we don’t know how many Indians will be around in the future, if even one person understands the truth of this way and knows the ritual forms, the church can grow again from that single seed.”

A tipi is called a home and can travel almost anywhere. It’s generally raised for a particular meeting and dismantled the following day. The altar is also built and prepared for each meeting and again unmade the next day. The water drum too is tied up in the evening and taken apart in the morning near the end of the ceremony. All the instruments are put away and taken home. A roadman is said to carry a fireplace with him and so the fire that’s kept burning throughout the night is also the temporarily visible manifestation of that living knowledge.

Although there are some ministers, primarily for legal reasons as I understand it, compared to a typical Christian church organization, the bureaucracy is all but nonexistent. Again, the truth, the wisdom of the church, only exists to the extent that it’s held in the understanding and commitment of the members.

Ceremonies like this provide the opportunity for us to learn that when we can open up to it, that spirit will awaken in us. We discover that we’re a lot stronger than we thought we were. Shining the light of awareness on the obstacles we carry in our minds wears them away, sometimes even dissolves them on the spot. You begin to see how you can change your attitude in a heartbeat and how those simple, firm decisions and convictions can reverberate into your life. Kanucas has often reminded us not to get out in front of the spirit, to stay behind the medicine and allow that mixing of spirit with your own innate intelligence and wisdom to heal you and enter you in to that settled place of peaceful heart.

It seems that almost the whole world has walked away from that peace, lost the connection to the heart of the Great Spirit that waits silently in the still center. Buddhist teaching has been quite clear in describing the confused mind of ego as the illusion of a separate self. As the Buddha himself is reported to have said, “The hunger of desire pollutes the world.” We feel the lack of something essential and experience it as anxiety, but not knowing the source of our discomfort we cling to a “sticky web of attachments” and attempt to fill the hole with the things of the world that can never satisfy us for long.

According to the prophecies and the visions of the see-rs, the collective momentum and karma of this misplaced hunger has reached the end of the line and is in danger of destroying the planet. The global vision arising from the four directions is telling us, as much as a journeyman such as myself can understand it, that there’s an opening now and that with enough commitment, the prayer can manifest and the planet can awaken. May it be so. Aho.

Friends: This article is my version of one that appeared in Shaman’s Drum magazine (,) issue #77, summer 2008, before the editor got his hands on it. The magazine version is fleshed out a little, is somewhat more scholarly in style, and has some added detail on the argument for the use of these plants in spiritual/healing work. The article is also similar to a chapter in my book entitled “Heart of the Great Spirit.” That chapter is specifically about the Native American Church and the peyote medicine.


1.  Smith, Huston, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. New York: Tarcher/Penguin Putnam, 2000, 117.

2.  See the article “Buddhism and the Psychedelic Society: An Interview with Terence McKenna” in Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, Badiner, Allan Hunt, and Alex Grey, (ed.). San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002, 189-192.

3.  La Barre, Weston. The Peyote Cult. New Haven: The Shoe String Press, 1976: 113. (*first published in 1938).

4.  Harpignies, J.P. (ed.). Visionary Plant Consciousness. Rochester: Park Street Press, 2007, 123.