A Good Way to Teach

If you’ve read Returning to Sacred World you probably recall a number of references to and quotes from Kanucas, a spiritual elder in the Native American Church (NAC). Kanucas was my first contact with the NAC in 2003 and in the years since I’ve had a lot of interaction with him.

Returning to Sacred World makes frequent mention of teachings from the NAC and includes a full chapter on the ceremonies and the sacred peyote medicine. When I had the manuscript pretty much ready to go, I sent him a copy, telling myself that if he objected I would not seek publication. Fortunately there was nothing in the book Kanucas found objectionable or inaccurate. Instead, he spoke in very positive terms about the content and the writing.

When the book was published in November 2010 I organized a book launch event here in Vancouver BC and asked Kanucas if he would come and speak at it. He agreed without hesitation. A week before the event I called to make sure we were on track and reached him far from home in California, where he and his wife Anne had been called down to work for several weeks. He said he intended to take a break from the job and come up for the launch. That in itself got me, but it gets much more dramatic.

About four days before the launch I got a call from Anne informing me that Kanucas had had a car accident on the way up from California. He was driving at night in northern California with his daughter and grandchild in the pickup truck when they hit some black ice. The truck slid into a raised curb, rolled over one and a half times and came to a stop upside down in a ditch. Remarkably, all three emerged without significant injuries. Kanucas got the worst of it with a cracked and displaced collarbone and a collection of bumps, cuts, and bruises. The truck was a write-off.

Anne told me that the chances of Kanucas making it back to his home on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state were slim, let alone getting up to Vancouver for the book launch. To my surprise though she added that he still hoped to make it and that I should check back in a couple of days.

On Thursday, two days before the event, I called and reached Kanucas. Anne had picked him up in another car and driven him home, a journey of nearly a thousand miles. She then turned right around and headed back down to California to continue working. Kanucas told me he was sore and carless and though it didn’t look likely, he had not given up on the possibility of honoring his promise.

On Friday he called me and announced that his friend Gord had offered to drive him to the U.S./Canada border, a five or six hour trip. Like many of the Native Americans I know, Gord didn’t have a passport to get into Canada so we agreed that I would wait and watch for Kanucas just across the border on the Canadian side. Kanucas has difficulty walking any distance at the best of times, let alone after being bounced around the cab of his truck like that. After a lengthy grilling from a grumpy and bewildered Customs agent, Gord was allowed—under the doubting gaze of a couple of officers—to drive through the border for another fifty metres or so and drop him off where I was waiting.

I add this level of detail because of my suspicion—based on past experiences—that when a positive intention has been set into play unexpected support often manifests from unseen sources. Kanucas in particular seems to have spirit guides and guardians close at hand much of the time.

Sitting in my kitchen the next morning, Kanucas showed me where his collarbone had been pushed far enough out of alignment that I could see it jutting out behind the shoulder joint. He could barely move his left arm. His right forearm was wrapped in a large bandage and his discomfort was obvious.

About forty people showed up for the launch. Kanucas spoke about the ideas in my book for about twenty minutes and added his own understanding of some of the underpinning principles. Most if not all of those present were moved by his obvious authenticity and wisdom, even more so when I took the mic and explained what he had endured to get there. I suggested a hat-passing for the “help Kanucas get a new vehicle” fund and the folks there generously chipped in with about $200. Most of those present also bought a copy of the book, no doubt due at least in part to Kanucas’ testimonials on my behalf.

I was deeply moved and more than impressed by Kanucas’ generosity of spirit and the discipline of his commitment to honor a promise despite obstacles that would deter most of us. It felt like a great gift at the time, but it turned out to have unexpected reverberations.

Now, a year later, I can see that what Kanucas handed to me that weekend wasn’t just a generous gift. It was also a powerful teaching and a transmission of responsibility. I doubt he saw it that way though. He just does things like that for people. But it got under my skin and influenced my behavior.

We all know there’s much talk on this planet that doesn’t hold up. We have lots of old homilies and clichés on that theme: “Put your money where your mouth is,” Walk the talk,” “Actions speak louder than words,” “All hat, no cattle,” and so on. Kanucas’ selfless actions on my behalf put the golden seal of approval on the teachings he has accumulated and shared for so many years.

What I see now as I look back over these past months is that, without any conscious agenda, I’ve found myself more frequently saying an unhesitating yes to requests for support or assistance and jumping in wholeheartedly to situations that could benefit from my attention. It feels fine, you know, you just do it, no big deal, no litter left behind on the path.

My old Buddhist mentor Chögyam Trungpa—also referenced frequently in Returning to Sacred World—used to talk about choicelessness. That may sound restrictive, as though you’re not free to make your own choices. You are of course. But maybe there’s an energy coming from a certain direction, a “first thought best thought” intuition. You feel your way along, you don’t have to endlessly analyze things and hem and haw about the right course of action. Life can be a lot simpler lived that way.

I’m not trying to make this whole situation and the changes it wrought in me sound like some grand accomplishment on my part. Many people help each other in similar ways. Some live every day in service. This one was a somewhat extreme example of sacrificing personal comfort and convenience to help a friend, and as I’ve suggested, it set a high standard of behavior for me that without conscious planning I have since felt honor-bound to live up to.

Shamanic Adventures in Peru

Tucked into the extreme northeast corner of Peru, the city of Iquitos has a population of about four hundred thousand, making it the largest city in the world inaccessible by road. If you only saw the area around the central Plaza de Armas you’d never know it was that large though. The downtown business district, compact and lacking a single high-rise office tower, looks like it would belong to a city a quarter that size in North America, an observation that hints at the deep and extensive poverty of the area. The bulk of the population is spread throughout sprawling, ramshackle, dirt/mud road neighborhoods that fan out from downtown.

The appearance of these sub-urban barrios is evidence enough of the poverty. Nobody seems to have any money for home repair, let alone even the most basic of aesthetics. When you get away from the downtown area, even the nicer looking homes are typically slapped together with mismatched materials. Many residential areas are packed tightly with hastily constructed, conjoined houses made of unpainted wood and covered with the traditional thatching. The distinct impression one is left with on seeing street after humble, cluttered street like this is that for the great majority, every spare centimo goes toward survival necessities.

Belén barrio in Iquitos • N.B. Click on an image to enlarge

Meanwhile, parallel to and largely disconnected from the daily grind of the majority, is the ayahuasca tourist business. I’ll assume there are still a few innocent souls out there who aren’t yet aware of ayahuasca. It’s an ancient healing, visionary brew of the Amazon that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has moved beyond the indigenous jungle environment and is now spreading its gifts rapidly throughout the developed world.

Though there are numerous locations in several countries in the region to encounter the ritual use of ayahuasca, Iquitos has become a major hub. People from all over come looking for opportunities to drink the brew in ceremonies led by local shamans. I guess I’d be counted among that number, going back to Iquitos for the second time in four years to attend and speak at the Seventh Annual Amazonian Shamanism Conference.

My travel companion Ashley and I arrived two days before the start of the conference and stepped out of the plane from Lima into an attention-getting blast of hot, humid air and midday equatorial sun. This was in July, which in our terms would make it wintertime down there, if you can include such a word in a description of the climate in Iquitos. The city sits a mere four degrees south of the equator in the lowland jungle that borders the Amazon River. The average daily high temperature in each and every month of the year is over 30° Celsius, or 86° Fahrenheit, and the average annual humidity 85%.

You see very few cars on the streets of Iquitos. But there are swarms of small motorcycles and even more motos. Motos, also known as mototaxis, are the result of some resourceful person’s idea to replace the back half of these motorbikes with two-wheeled, three-seat carriages and attach vinyl or cloth tops to protect against rain and sun. Loud, raw-exhaust-spewing creatures, they dash and weave around each other four or five abreast on the mostly one-way streets of the city. The air is distinctly visible as a sooty brown haze, especially at night under the streetlights, and usually smells the same; some sort of unidentifiable stew of exhaust fumes and all the other odors of a humid, tropical, open-door city that wears its aromas on its sleeve. Despite all that, I almost always get a little thrill, especially in the evening, riding in the back of a moto, the warm tropical wind in my face and the color and buzz of the vehicles all around us as we thread our way through town.

Motos and Hotel La Casona

When Ashley and I arrived at our hotel, the basic but clean and well-cared-for Hotel La Casona, half a block off the Plaza de Armas, we quickly found out that Ashley’s reservation, made by a friend back home who spoke no Spanish, had evidently not translated. We were also informed that the hotel was fully booked for the duration of the conference but that there was enough extra space in my room for a single bed should we wish to share the room. Ashley is pretty, energetic, and at twenty-eight, about half my age. The wheels immediately began to turn as I imagined how I would explain this minor predicament in an email to my wife. “ . . . had to take on Ashley as roommate. Don’t worry, no illicit intentions from either direction. Only difference from having the room to myself is that I wear a towel on the way to the shower.”

We got ourselves settled in and refreshed, me with my clothes and paraphernalia unloaded into drawers and onto hangers and Ashley with all her stuff spilling out from two small suitcases on the floor beside her bed in preparation for its gradual but inexorable expansion in my direction over the next twelve days and nights.

Ready to head back out, I informed Ashley of the requisite next stop: a restaurant incongruously named The Yellow Rose of Texas, diagonally across the plaza from our hotel and the hangout of choice for many of us participating in and presenting at the conference. The Yellow Rose is co-owned by Gerald and his wife Pamela. Gerald, probably in his late fifties, is a Texan expat and former oilman with some of the suspect attitudes and political opinions you might imagine from someone with that background. I spent a lot of time at the restaurant and after some friendly teasing Gerald warmed up and showed himself to be a good-hearted guy whose blunt pronouncements and prejudices are presented more as a ploy to keep people off their guard.

The Yellow Rose of Texas

Pamela—lovely, charming, and about ten years his junior—used to run her own restaurant before she hooked up with Gerald a few years ago. Gerald described her to me as just as cheerful and good-natured as she presents herself at work. The Yellow Rose spills out onto the sidewalk and when we arrived each day Pamela was usually front and center, keeping a motherly eye on everything and greeting us with a warm smile and a “Jes, my friends, what would you like today?”

Gerald was a deep well of knowledge about Iquitos and how to negotiate it. For example, I always asked him first before commissioning a moto to someplace I hadn’t yet been. For a trip that other conference attendees told me cost them five soles (a little under two dollars) Gerald would say two, never more than three. That knowledge gave me the confidence to walk up to the drivers and say something like, “Sabe donde está el Hotel Sol Del Oriente?” Then I’d hold up three fingers—didn’t want to be too hardnosed about it—and announce, “Tres soles.” I rarely got a rebuttal, or even a frown.

The conference is the brainchild of another American expat, Alan Shoemaker. Tales of how Alan found his way to Iquitos would make a fascinating story in itself, with bold excursions into little-traveled regions complemented by a few hair-raising adventures. He’s been in Iquitos for about twenty years now and although at one time he went through the traditional training of an ayahuaca shaman, seems to have settled into the role of conference organizer and adventure-travel guide.

The Hotel Sol del Oriente, the site of the conference, is about ten minutes by moto from the Plaza de Armas. The format for the conference consisted of two days of presentations, one for ceremonies, two more of presentations, one more for ceremonies, a last day of presentations, followed by another day for ceremonies. On the first two days the eight or nine invited shamans from the surrounding area spoke to the attendees and answered questions so that at the end of day two we could choose which shamans we’d like to do ceremonies with. The shamans ranged in age from about thirty to over seventy and two of them were women.

Frank, a newfound and quickly trusted friend, told me he’d been out to Ricardo’s center and felt really good about it. He described it as clean and I knew he meant more than simply physically clean. During the time the shamans were introducing themselves there were a lot of murmured conversations around the question of who to work with. It came out in a few of those quiet chats that issues of professional ethics had been plaguing some of the better-known shamans of the area. The reputation of one of the most well known had recently been seriously tarnished by repeated allegations of sexual impropriety. Another popular shaman had apparently allowed his success and newly acquired wealth to go to his head. Stories were drifting around that he had gotten careless with his ceremonies and had maybe even fallen into the dark territory of the brujo, or sorcerer. Brujería is enough of a concern that it’s worth elaborating briefly before continuing.

Charlatanism and other versions of corruption are pretty much guaranteed to raise their unsavory heads when there’s good money to be made, in this situation almost certainly exacerbated by the economic poverty of the region. But there’s another, more ominous side to the Amazonian shamanic environment. It seems there has been a long history of sorcery in the Amazon. Steve Beyer, in his highly informative book on the mestizo shamanism of the Upper Amazon, Singing to the Plants, wrote that envidia, or envy, is common among the people there. Successful people as well as those perceived to have wronged or bested someone often become targets.

It would take a much more in-depth discussion than is relevant here to explore this phenomenon and describe the techniques and power of sorcery, not that I know much about it anyway. Suffice it to say that a wealth of reliable evidence confirms that brujos, twisting the power of the plant medicines to their destructive ends and using techniques we in the modern cultures would call magic, are able to wreak serious psychic and physical damage on their victims, in some cases even to the point of causing death.

Back to the conference. I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Iquitos and the conference in 2008 and had had some remarkable experiences drinking ayahuasca in the jungle with well-trained and experienced shamans. Since then I had written a book, Returning to Sacred World, that included discussion of ayahuasca and some other healing/awakening plants. I wrote Alan to ask if he’d be interested in having me as a presenter at the conference and he readily agreed. That, and the anticipation of more powerful ceremonies in the traditional homeland of the “vine of the soul” were enough to bring me back.

After the first two days of talks by the invited shamans, the presentations turned out to be  a loose-around-the-edges mix of topics more or less related to Amazonian shamanism and ayahuasca. A couple of examples of the apparently more peripheral themes addressed: Brien Foerster gave a very interesting talk and slide show presentation mainly on the sacred architecture of the Incas, particularly as evidenced in and around the city of Cuzco. John Alexander, who has had connections very high up in the American military, spoke on the myths and realities of UFOs . The first impression some of us had about that topic was, “Other than being outside the mainstream, where’s the connection?”  Then a friend pointed out to me that there’s a sizeable body of reports by ayahuasca drinkers of visions of extra-terrestrial beings and sometimes of vehicles. In the ayahuasca inebriation some people have apparently even seen UFOs with their eyes open.

For me, and I suspect for many of the other attendees, it was the ceremonies themselves first, and the opportunity to meet and talk with interesting people second, that were the big draw. As the week passed, attendance at the presentations shrank. In fairness to the speakers and to Alan’s hard work pulling and holding the event together, the ceremonies had much to do with that. A lot of us had to go out of the city, sometimes an hour or two over rough dirt and mud roads, to get to the centers of our chosen shamans. Most people probably got somewhere between three and zero hours of sleep after the ayahuasca medicine let them go in the wee hours of the morning, and then had to come back, eat a midday meal, clean up, and perhaps rest before making it back to the conference site.

Taking Frank’s advice, I decided to go to Ricardo’s center for the first ceremony. Two mototaxis were arranged for the early afternoon to collect the five of us who had signed up with Ricardo’s two assistants at the conference site. For the first half hour of the trip to the center we traveled on the paved road that goes toward and ends in Nauta, a small town about a hundred kilometers away. People told me it’s the only road going anywhere else from Iquitos, although Google Maps indicates one going in the opposite direction about 20 miles/30 km to a village called Mazán on the Rio Napa. In any case, the next hour took us along a bumpy and battered dirt road. It rains a lot around there and it’s not uncommon to hear tales of motos tipping over or getting stuck in the muddy sections. This is seriously rural country, through semi-forested landscapes and past tiny, thatch-roofed villages with no electricity or running water.

Muddy Road to Ricardo's

Ricardo’s center is, just as Frank had described it, clean and well organized. The maloca, the structure in which the ceremonies are held, is the largest and most beautifully constructed I’ve yet seen. During the hours spent in the embrace of ayahuasca, the high, dome-like ceiling gave the maloca a spaciousness that seemed to mirror and enhance the mind-opening effect of the medicine.

Another building near the maloca has several washrooms and showers, all clean and with flush toilets and sinks with running water, soap, and hand towels. One nearby building is dedicated to cooking and eating and a couple are for short and long term retreatants and apprentices. The staff—mostly very friendly—also live onsite in housing off to the edge of the large clearing in the jungle. I was told that between staff and their families, about twenty-five people live there permanently.

Dining hall and residences

The maloca - very spacious inside

Ricardo is Shipibo, one of the indigenous groups of the region. He’d gone through a lengthy, rigorous training period under Guillermo Arévalo, a well-known master shaman, also Shipibo, before recently striking out on his own. The traditional training involves, among other challenges, drinking a lot of ayahuasca over a number of years and undergoing long periods of tightly restricted diets, sometimes in isolation, for the purpose of getting to know the helping spirits of a variety of plants.

As an aside, these other healing plants, generally not psychoactive in any conventional sense, are called master plants and play an important, even essential role in the work. For anyone interested in learning a little more about the master plants, I’ve placed a short interview on this website that I did with one of Ricardo’s apprentices: http://www.stephengrayvision.com/2011/08/29/ayahuasca-and-the-master-plants/

We were offered tea, coffee, and fruit in the dining hall and then invited to find places in the maloca. Around 6 p.m. Ricardo, his ceremony partner Julian, and three of his apprentices, one to act as translator from the Spanish, came into the maloca and gathered us together for an intention-setting session. This is a useful practice Ricardo received from his teacher. It’s also made its way into the ceremonies of several of Guillermo’s other apprentices working up here in the U.S. and Canada. It’s commonly held that ayahuasca, which is always considered a living intelligence, responds to the requests of the supplicant, so focusing on what one really needs can be very useful.

Ricardo and others see their job at this point as helping us clarify our intentions. Ricardo also said that he and Julian sometimes sing specific ícaros—songs taught him by various plant spirits—to address the stated concerns of the participants. A useful reminder I’ve heard more than once is to come to ayahuasca with intention but not expectation. Holding any kind of fixed idea about how the response comes will very likely cause you to miss it when it does come.

Ayahuasca, just like the Muse of creativity and so much else of value to us on the path of awakening, doesn’t play by the rules of the known, the rational, the linear. She comes to everyone differently and to each one in different ways at different times. She has her own language, her own symbols. She’s an artist. She’s a poet. After thirteen ayahuasca ceremonies over several years I’m just beginning to realize how much there is to learn about her ways of teaching. In that interview on the master plants the apprentice says that they teach you how to understand ayahuasca and how to become an active participant in the journey in a similar way that people speak of lucid dreaming.

Peter Gorman, one of the presenters at this year’s conference and a life long ayahuasca journeyer, described three levels or stages of learning to work with ayahuasca. I have no transcript of his talk so I’m going on memory here. Peter described the first stage as the visionary stage. Ayahuasca visions can be specific but also highly abstract. Most of my visions have been abstract and symbolic. Sometimes I get it and other times I have no idea what if anything of import she is showing me. I believe the second level is more about discovering ayahuasca’s healing potential. According to Peter, at the third stage, which he admitted he is just finding out about himself, ayahuasca can show you anything you ask it to—journeys through time and space, visits to alien civilizations, mysteries of the universe, what your lover is doing while you’re away, and who knows what else.

The ceremonies I’ve been at typically begin about eight o’clock in the evening and this one was no exception. The maloca is darkened except for candlelight and the participants are invited to come up one at a time to be handed a small cup of the harsh tasting brew. Ricardo suggested we briefly restate our intentions at that point and then again as we feel the effects coming on, most often somewhere between about twenty minutes and an hour in, though definitely not always limited to those borders.

In my own experience and that of a number of others I’ve heard from, ayahuasca can be very unpredictable in the way she comes to you. You could drink the same quantity of the same brew on two different nights and have two wildly different encounters of completely different potency. Compared to my previous experiences and confirmed by the next two, also at the same center, Ricardo’s brew was strong. He explained that a lot of shamans mix several plants together in their brew but that he keeps it to the two essential components: the ayahuasca vine, or Banisteriopsis caapi, and Chacruna, the DMT containing plant.

Once we were all back at our mattresses with the brew in our bellies and ready to do its work, the candles were blown out and the generator providing electricity to the center turned off to leave us in all but total blackness. Drinkers are welcome to lie down but shamans I’ve encountered suggest you sit up if possible. Just as in meditation practice, sitting up probably encourages wakefulness and mental sharpness. In this situation there may also be a sense of respectfulness in meeting ayahuasca that way.

As I said, ayahuasca often presents itself in abstract ways. I can’t honestly say much about what I learned from that first night, though I’ve been told several times by shamans and experienced drinkers that the medicine does its healing and rebalancing work with mind and body whether or not the drinker is consciously aware of the impact. I can say though that this one was definitely strong, with distinct and often stunningly beautiful visions. The potency of the medicine made it a challenge to stay present and keep breathing and letting go.

I’ve heard a number of accounts from people who say they have met the spirit of ayahuasca directly and I had said in the intention-setting session that one of my intentions was to have such a meeting. Paolo, Ricardo’s translator, told me that she is often green. I recalled that my previous visions had had very little if any green, leaning instead toward deep, rich blues and golden yellows. During this ceremony I may have met her because for the first time a lot of beautiful, rich, green moved through my field of vision in flowing, serpentine patterns.

A brief mention here in case anyone is wondering about my use of “her” to describe ayahuasca. Though some have said the spirit has appeared in male form, the more common experience has been to engage with apparently feminine energies. Ayahuasca is often considered the mother of all the medicine plants in the Amazon. Songs, prayers, and stories sometimes call her Madre Ayahuasca, Mother Ayahuasca. Though I can’t confirm that from personal experience, there are qualities of richness, fecundity, nurturing, and life-giving that hint of the feminine principle.

Another beneficial feature of Ricardo’s method of working is to have a sharing session in the morning, gathering again in the maloca after everyone has had a chance to eat some breakfast and wash up. Sharing the details of an ayahuasca journey can be like describing your dreams: not always recommended—listeners’ eyes may glaze over. Ricardo asked us to stick to the key elements and then he generously offered his take on our descriptions.

I was sufficiently impressed with Ricardo’s center that I chose to return there for the second ceremony instead of exploring any of the other invited shamans. Someone said something that made sense to me. Doing more than one ceremony with the same shaman and his medicine gives you and him the opportunity to continue and deepen the work.

This second engagement with the medicine proved to be by far the most powerful journey I’ve yet had with ayahuasca. By the way, I use the word journey deliberately. If you haven’t drank ayahuasca I can tell you that a strong experience definitely feels like a journey, and sometimes an epic journey. I share a little about this one because some elements of that particular journey illustrate one of the ways she works with us as well as demonstrating the importance of working with well-trained shamans.

In the sharing session after the first night Ricardo suggested I drink a little less on the second night. He also mentioned later that he had made a slightly milder brew for us for that second journey. He said that Paolo would come around to check on me after about an hour and if I didn’t feel any effect from the medicine I could drink some more.

Paolo finally passed by after about an hour and a half. At that point I felt very little. I told him that and he took me up for a small top-up. At the same time, Julian sang an ícaro to me, something they do for all the participants whether or not they ask for seconds. In less than five minutes after returning to my mattress the potency had gone from the equivalent of a gentle walk to being swept up in a torrential river. One of the assistants told me the next day that she has often seen both Ricardo and Julian awaken the power of ayahuasca on the spot with their ícaros.

The visions were stronger than ever and seemed of a different order than in past encounters. Though not easily decipherable in left-brain terms, they felt strongly symbolic, as if the images contained self-existing power and meaning. The symbolism also hinted at Native American imagery, which I took as support for the harmonious combination of this work with my long time engagement with the peyote medicine prayer ceremonies of the Native American Church.

After observing, or more accurately, engaging with those visions, I began to sense a presence. It felt more like a ‘they’ than one being. Even so, if it was a collective they spoke as one, not audibly in the conventional sense, but in the form of what you might call mind transmission. Though the communication seemed to continue for about an hour, the main theme could be boiled down to this simple message. “We are love, we offer love, it is unlimited. The only question that really matters for you is, ‘Do you accept it?’ All else takes care of itself.”

Though it may sound like a la-dee-da homily right out of the 1960s’ “All You Need is Love” playbook, a few insights in the weeks following reminded me that my affirmative answer that night barely scraped the surface of what the ayahuasca spirits were transmitting to me. I’m gradually realizing that the essence of that invitation points at nothing less than a radical and all-encompassing opening of the heart. I recognized that I was too casual by far in thinking that by answering yes to the offer I had taken care of the issue. I now see it as an ongoing challenge requiring great commitment and courage.

That night the medicine never really let me go enough to fall asleep. It was still visual at four or five in the morning. In the morning sharing session I said that I had a lot to process and probably wouldn’t do a third ceremony. Ricardo invited me to come along anyway and drink a very small amount. He said he would sing an ícaro specifically for the purpose of helping me open that heart connection further.

I mention this final ceremony for two reasons: first, as yet another reminder of the influence of the shaman in the work and the ability of the medicine to transcend or ignore conventional physics; second, because of a lesson about ayahuasca demonstrated by the behavior of one of the other drinkers.

As Ricardo had suggested, I drank a very small serving of the medicine that night. For about an hour and half I felt only a very light, relaxing invigoration and sharpness of mind. No visions or strong energies whatsoever. I thought, “This is just fine, I’ll pass out around midnight and get a full night’s sleep for a change.”

That was when I was called up for Julian to sing to me and again, to my complete surprise, the delicate breeze tickling my consciousness immediately—I mean within about two minutes—transformed into another powerful wind. Such a mysterious and remarkable plant. I wouldn’t want to claim this in a science journal but of all the visionary/healing medicine plants, ayahuasca may be the one least bound by any conventional physical restrictions. One drinker told me the story of a night when she drank the same quantity as the others in the ceremony and experienced absolutely no effects during the whole five hours or so that everyone else was going through it. Just as the ceremony was winding down and people were beginning to drift off to sleep, this woman finally remembered that she could ask the shaman for help. While no second cup was offered, the shaman sang an ícaro for her and prayed over her with the sacred tobacco. She then returned to her mattress and went through a full-on, full-length journey while all around her slept.

The second reason for discussing the third ceremony at Ricardo’s center is because of the lesson inadvertently offered by a young man I’ll call Ron who came to that one. I’d met Ron at the conference and gotten a sense that he had a very fixed mind. He was intelligent and articulate but was obsessed with conspiracy theories, totally convinced that the powers that be are holding us all down in nefarious and multiple ways. Of course there may be some truth to that but in Ron’s case it became clear, particularly during the ayahuasca session that night, that his views were functioning as a solid obstacle to any spiritual opening.

Spirit plant medicines like ayahuasca are sometimes described as ego dissolvers, spiritual practice amplified and condensed. Ron’s adversarial jousting with the medicine that night was a dramatic demonstration of how ego operates to ward off perceived threats. Ron was clearly terrified of what he might find if he let go of his solid fortress of ideas.

The shamans began their ícaros about half an hour after we drank. Remember we’re in complete darkness for these ceremonies. Drinkers are also asked to remain as silent as possible so as not to disturb the inner work of those around them. As soon as Ricardo and Julian started singing, Ron picked up the bucket he was given for purging, turned it over and began drumming on it with an on-again off-again relationship to the pulse of the music. He also turned on his flashlight and waved it around the room. While this was going on he was smoking cigarettes and talking aloud to himself. For reasons unknown to me the shamans and staff chose to leave Ron alone.

Thankfully, he got up and went outside after awhile, where he remained for most of the evening. I could hear him in the distance singing and talking to himself for much of that time. I’m convinced that he never allowed a moment’s gap in the discursive mind and that’s the reason I’ve shared this odd little tale. There’s a general application to Ron’s behavior that night, as I said, a condensed and heightened demonstration of how ego operates, especially when threatened. Ron admitted, almost boasted, that he wasn’t listening to the healing songs and, just like during his first two ceremonies that week, felt essentially no effect from the medicine.

For most of us, to varying degrees, it’s as if God, enlightenment, reality, or whatever you prefer to call it, is speaking to us, letting its presence be known, inviting us. But we’re closing our eyes, putting our hands over our ears, and chattering to ourselves to drown out that voice. That’s why the wisdom teachings often remind us that healing and awakening can only enter in the gap, when the speed of the obscuring mind has slowed down enough to allow something else to come through, something that was there all the time but unable to penetrate the layers of protection.

As a kind of summary, I want to step back now and take a larger view of ayahuasca’s quickly expanding footprint. Despite its challenges, and though it is definitely not for everyone—Ron stands as a case in point—I and many others as experienced as or more experienced than I have seen that ayahuasca can be a great help to humanity. And Lord knows we need all the help we can get as our planet teeters on the edge.

At the same time, there are concerns about how this expansion is occurring. The following are not hard facts or thoroughly studied analyses. They’re offered as food for thought that others working with ayahuasca might consider as events move forward.

I’ve heard conflicting anecdotal reports on this first issue. No one seems to be completely sure of the total situation. You either already knew or recall from above that ayahuasca is made from a brewed combination of at least two plants. I’ve heard from several sources that the vine is becoming scarcer as the demand increases. There may already be or may soon be significant sustainability problems. It seems harvesters now have to go ever deeper into the jungle to find it and also have to collect younger plants than previously. I’m told that using younger plants often means weaker brews.

A second concern was expressed to me recently by Mel, a man who has been working with economic development issues and projects with indigenous people in Peru. To my knowledge, the shaman functions in many places as the local doctor, using his or her knowledge and a variety of plant medicines to deal with health issues in the community. Mel told me that the influx of ayahuasca tourists has made it very difficult for locals to have access to the shamans. A great many are very poor and previously might have negotiated an affordable payment such offering a chicken or arranging a work trade. Now, so the story goes, many of the shamans are devoting their time to the much wealthier foreign visitors and are no longer serving their own communities sufficiently.

I asked Mel what he thought we foreigners should do about problems like these two and his answer was, “reciprocity,” giving back. “How,” I asked and he said that there could be a number of ways. One is to contribute labor, money, and/or ideas toward social and economic development projects. One example he mentioned is to work toward replanting the vine, perhaps in farmed areas.

One final issue that needs careful attention is that with the rapid spread of the ceremonial use of ayahuasca there is of course both a need and a burgeoning market for more ceremony leaders. There is real money to be made, and no doubt egos looking to be aggrandized as well. Out and out charlatans as well as poorly trained, self-declared shamans are appearing more frequently, at least according to reports coming my way.

These current and potential problems need to be looked at carefully with clear-eyed compassion for ayahuasca to be allowed to do its work in the most beneficial way for the greatest number of people. It’s a brilliant and beautiful medicine that has immense potential to help struggling humanity reconnect to our true nature as awakened spirit beings.

Ayahuasca and the Master Plants: Audio & Text Interview

new master plant garden at Ricardo's

Master Plant Garden

This past July (2011) I was in Iquitos—the ayahuasca hub on the Amazon River in the far reaches of northeastern Peru—as a conference speaker and eager medicine journeyer. I had heard and read a few pieces of information here and there about the master plants— plants other than ayahuasca that more serious students and shamans-in-training diet with. Perhaps I was ready for more this summer because I received a whole new, and fascinating, level of education about the important, even essential, role these master plants play in the work.

The conference organizers had set aside three days for people to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies with the shamans they had invited to work with us. I chose to go with Ricardo, who has a nascent community about an hour and a half out of the city. I liked it there so much the first time that I returned for the second ceremony as well. On that visit we had some spare time in the late afternoon before the ceremony so I asked if it was okay to walk around and explore the perimeter.

As I approached the edge of the cleared area I saw someone ahead of me walk into the bush on a well-trod path, so I followed him at some distance. After a short hike I came out into a clearing the size of a football field with about thirty raised beds, each with identifying signs at the end of the row of plants. As you can see from the photo above, the garden was recently planted at that point.

I fell into conversation with the man I had followed and quickly learned that he was living there for an extended period of time working with Ricardo as one of these shamans-in-training and doing a year-long program of dieting with some of the master plants. To understand the way the master plants work it’s important to note that during these “dietas” as they say in Spanish, the person is also drinking ayahuasca frequently, sometimes several times a week throughout the dieting period. The master plant diets clearly work in conjunction with ayahuasca in an essential way.

This young man, whom I’ll refer to as Luc since I don’t know how he would feel about being identified, was quite happy to answer my questions in detail. Luc and I talked for about 15 minutes before returning to the main encampment. On the way back I asked him if he would mind sharing this information again for me to record and he agreed.

We met up again a little later and went back out to the master plant garden, where I asked him most of the same questions with a small digital recorder in hand. Below I’ve inserted the audio version of our little interview, about thirteen minutes long. Luc is French, with a strong accent when speaking English, and he spoke softly, so I’ve written out the transcript of our question and answer session and included it below as well. For ease of reading I’ve done some minor editing of grammar, though I deliberately left in most of Luc’s idiosyncratic English phrasing to give readers the flavor of his way of communicating this information.

Luc interview [13 minute audio clip]

Stephen: So this is the master plant garden.

Luc: Yeah, this is the master plant garden of the center of Ricardo, with shamans. He learns the medicines with the master plants. He learns about many master plants. We have here a garden with a few samples, the most used master plants because they are generally used for the process for general disease, and for general learning because you have many other plants, like hundreds of master plants, and more than three thousand healing plants in the Amazon. You have some of these in Europe too. For example, in North America you have sage? It’s a master plant, really good. They use it in spiritual ceremonies for  cleaning the air, cleaning the body.

S: Yes, in the Native American Church they work with sage, cedar, tobacco, and other plants.

L: Yes, and in the normal church they use, what do you call it, incense. It’s not a plant but they use something to clean the air.

S: I wanted to ask you about some of things you were telling me earlier about how you develop a relationship with these master plants.

L: Yeah, you can learn from these plants. They have a personality. It’s something you learn when you diet with the plants. The diet is an energetic process to gain access to the energy of the plant. Every plant has energy, for example when you eat any plant, not for learning but to have the energy to live, you can access the energy and the knowledge. But for this you have to prepare your body and your mind, so you have to open the diet as they say. The diet is a process, so you don’t eat different kinds of food that have a lot of energy, like spices. You don’t eat meat because it’s brought inside. You don’t eat garlic, strong stuff, to not have strong energy, because all these smells are energies.

And then you start to diet with the plants. So we have here for example thirty plants. So, as everybody is different each plant is different. You have plants that are sensitive to your energy and will work with you. The shaman can see it when he drinks ayahuasca. He can see your energy.

S: Just to be clear, you told me earlier that the reason for not eating strong foods of the kind you just spoke about is because they overwhelm these sensitive plants? Can you just clarify that a little bit?

L: The energy of plants is sensitive. There are some strong plants to clean some strong stuff. For example garlic cleans the body really strong. If you diet, garlic cleans the energy of the master plants, so you don’t want to eat the garlic plant when you diet. Then when your body is clean you don’t have the energy of strong foods, strong smells. Then the sensitive energy of the plant can go inside you and not be blocked and can stay in you.

S: You told me some things about how they work with you. Can you elaborate on that?

L: Everything is energy, the energy of life. And the plants the same, they’re energy. When you open the diet her energy comes in you, like a fusion in your mind, and she teaches you. So, when you go into the forest, when you go to diet in a quiet place, you start to have dreams, and they become more and more strong, because the plants are cleaning your mind, every day cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. The process is one year to learn, but to clean we say sometimes fifteen days to three months. The dreams become more and more clear and then you see in the dreams that you’re not really strong. But with time you see better and you feel stronger in the dreams and then you can access the town. The plants have a town, like a city. It appears like this in your dreams. When you see the cities it’s your master plants. It’s a world. I can say that a master plant is like a God in his world. There are a lot of spirits living in his world.

I’m drinking Piñon Blanco now. It’s not really used much because it’s a plant that’s really pure and all of its world is pure energy. Plants are not only pure energy. You have some plants that are a bit dark in their energy. But this Piñon Blanco has the particularity to be pure, like only light when you go in vision.

S: You were speaking earlier about how that process works, how the plants communicate through dreams. Do you remember? One was how it shows you more about yourself, and also about the dark path and the light path and gives you that choice.

L: One of the things that’s really interesting when you start this process is that the plants teach you what is good and bad. This is the first thing they teach, and some plants teach you how to reach the good. That’s why some plants have a bit of a dark side, so you can say, no I don’t want that. And then you go to reach the light and learn. In your dreams we say that it’s a test. They test you to see what you will do. Then you remember, “Ah, in my dream I remember, I do this and I do this.”

S: If you are seduced by or choose these dark paths, it will still give you that, right? That’s what I hear anyway, that that’s what happens with these sorcerers and brujos, that they choose the dark path and they have some power with that.

L:  Yeah, that’s what happens in the world, some choose good, some choose bad. It’s the same with the plants.

S: It surprises me that the plants will actually help you become a bad person.

L: Yeah, this is really strange to understand for a human being but this is the way how it works. I think God does the world this way so the plants are subject to the same rules, the same universal set of rules. If you want to reach the good with the plants, you can do it. It’s a choice. Most of the people choose the good, no?

S: What else do the diet plants teach you?

L: The plants teach you first to control your mind, to get strength in your mind, strength in your heart. They teach you to love, to speak, to communicate with your mind with spirits. They teach you how to cure with those energies. They give you energies and then they teach you how to sing. When you go into your dreams, when you spend about six months in the forest, you can hear the spirits singing. It comes to you because you’re learning so you learn the songs of the plants. This is for learning medicine.

S: They also teach you how to understand what ayahuasca is showing you?

L: It’s not like teaching like we have. But since we are really well connected, you have in your dreams, you can be seated, really, it happens to me. You are seated, you have the master plants, like a human being, and they say, okay, listen to what I’m teaching you. But it’s not like you have something you write on paper and then you learn it. No, it’s teaching you in your mind to integrate things so you don’t have to repeat the same dream time after time in your mind. It’s because the plant is with you and the energy comes in you and it’s going to affect your way of thinking, your way of seeing the world. And then with ayahuasca you see the world of your master plants. And the master plants show you a lot of visions, a lot of things you have never seen in your life. And then she starts to interact with what you have in your mind, in your past. Sometimes you have conflict. You say, “I used to see the world like this, not like that.” You have some really strong feelings. Sometimes you cry because something is really strong or you feel pain because of the awful things that happen in the world. You become more sensitive. You learn to be more open to others, to understand the world more. You can learn everything.

So the plants finish cleaning you, because we have a lot of energy inside us, like good and bad. The plants come in you and clean your bad energy. For example I had a motorcycle accident. It injured the back of the neck and spine area. It’s compressed you know. This is an energy. I learned it’s not just something that hurts you. No, it’s an energy, it’s a bad energy in you, in your body. The plants can heal you of this, they’re cleaning you, cleaning this energy day after day.

S: Why is one year necessary?

L: This is the normal process to become a shaman.

S: If your intention is not to become a shaman can you learn enough from shorter diets?

L: Yeah, we say to learn in three months is a good time. But for cleaning, fifteen days you have a good cleaning. Because what is important is the way the shamans manage the energy of the plants. As I told you, the plants have both sides, so it’s good to work with shamans. You diet, sometimes you go a bit in the dark, the shaman says, “Take care, I sing and manage the good energy, I put the dark away and I put the good in you.”

S: So it’s essential to start the diet under the care of a really good shaman?

L: Yeah. Yes of course.

S: To open and close the diet right? But in the meantime you can go back to your own country and do what they call a social diet?

L: Yeah, but you have so much temptation [laughs], with food. During this time it’s better not to be with other people much. For example, if you pass three months here, I don’t know, maybe it’s like double in your country, because you’re more sensitive to the plants.

S: I think we’d better go back before I get eaten alive [by the mosquitos]. Thank you very much.

L: You’re welcome.

Iboga Interview—in three parts (audio version)

A few weeks ago (Mar. 2011,) I received an email informing me that two iboga ceremony leaders, Steve and Sean from Britain, would be coming to my area to lead a three-day healing ceremony with the iboga root, sometimes called “the wood.” I found this exciting news since Kanucas, my friend and spiritual elder from the Native American Church, had told me a couple of years ago that he and others had received a vision that ayahuasca, peyote, and iboga would play key roles in the global consciousness transformation. At the time I had no idea how this little-known plant would spread its footprint.

I was very pleased to be able to get in touch with Steve, who readily agreed to come over to my home with Sean for an in-depth interview on this remarkable spirit-plant medicine. I found them both sincere, knowledgeable, articulate, and engaging.

The interview lasted close to an hour and a half. I divided it into three roughly equal segments of a little under a half hour so listeners don’t have to swallow it all in one gulp. I hope you find it useful. For a short synopsis of the history and current use of iboga and its primary psychoactive alklaloid ibogaine, please read my article at this site. I also warmly invite comments. Here is the three-part interview. Enjoy, Stephen.

Iboga Interview Part One

Iboga Interview Part Two

Iboga Interview Part Three

Iboga Interview: text version

This is a near-vertabim transcript [cleaned up a few ums, aws, and unnecessary repetitions] of the three part audio interview I conducted with the two iboga ceremony leaders from Britain. As well as the introduction to the audio interviews, you might want to read my article, also at this site, Iboga: The Holy Wood Which Cares for Us. That article provides a good summary of the overall context of the iboga medicine that may help provide some background before you dive into the interview itself. As with the audio version, I’ve noted where each of the three parts begins and ends. As always, your comments and questions are invited.

Iboga Interview—in three parts:

Part One

Hello. My name is Stephen Gray and I’m sitting in my home this afternoon with two iboga ceremony leaders who have been doing this kind of work for quite a long time. I’m going to ask them to introduce themselves. First I’m going to call on Steve. Steve, if you would please say a little about your background and how you got to what you’re doing now.

Steve: Sure, I’m in my late fifties. My initial initiation was into meditation practice in the late 70s. That was my introduction to experiences outside of the normal worldly experiences. Previous to that I had also had some experience with psychedelics, but the very profound experiences I had with meditation took me to places far beyond where the LSD had taken me.

So I had that practice, then more than twenty years ago I started to work with ceremony with a number of different teachers. I went to Mexico and did a variety of ceremonies, including with psilocybin mushrooms. After that I was working mainly in Europe. My partner that I live with is a teacher of ceremonial medicine, that is, ceremony as medicine.

Then sometime in the last ten years I came across ayahuasca. I’ve probably done a couple of hundred ayahuasca ceremonies by now. About five or six years ago I met a group of French people through my friend Sean here who were working with iboga and had very strong connections with a shaman in Gabon. I worked as a helper in those ceremonies for a while.

Meanwhile, I was already running ayahuasca ceremonies in Europe with Sean. When the French people stopped doing ceremonies we looked at working with the iboga and thought, well, we have a lot of respect for it so we’ll just wait and see on this one. Very quickly we were joined by a French man who, as with Sean, had been out to Gabon and done an initiation. The three of us then started an iboga practice together. Now it’s just Sean and myself. We also have two or three people who will assist us when we’re working in various countries in Europe. And now we’ve been invited to Canada I’m very pleased to say.

Stephen: Thank you. And Sean, a brief explanation of how you got to what you’re doing now?

Sean: I’m not sure if there’s any brief explanation about this experience. It seems to be a life of many lives so far. So yes, I’m Sean. I was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness as a child.

Stephen: I’m sorry to hear that. [laughter].

Sean: One of the teachings I was brought up with was that when I die the soul returns to dust with the body and that death is like an eternal sleep. So I figured, well, I enjoy sleeping so I’m going to go out there and do everything you’ve told me I shouldn’t do. I then spent about ten years trying to find myself through the extremes, through pushing myself to the extremes. Then at some point I smoked some DMT and had a realization that I had been basing my life on a belief system which was a lie, and that there was something far vaster than I had been led to believe. I had always had a strong calling before that, even whilst I was a Jehovah’s Witness, that I never really fit into that doctrine. I always sensed that my master was within me and that I was responding to that inner voice. So when I had the DMT experience it very much confirmed that sense.

My calling then started in earnest. I had already been working with substances, but more misguided. I’d been associating with a drug dealer and feeling a strong call from the plants but not quite understanding how to facilitate my practice. Around that time I felt a very strong calling to work with ayahausca and so I began to look for a practitioner working with ayahuasca that suited me. In the meantime I did a session with Salvia divinorum, the sage, and had a very intense experience with it. That was probably about twelve years ago. When I went to bed that night I had a dream that I was in the jungle. Some men took me to a clearing where a huge man was sitting. And he said to me, “Sean, when you do the ayahuasca, make sure you do it in a ceremonial setting.”

In the morning it was very clear to me. I began to look online to see who is working with ayahuasca in ceremony. I found the UDV and the Santo Daime, but the only group I could make contact with was the Santo Daime. A friend of mine tracked somebody down who was one of the organizers for a Santo Daime group in London, so I called him up and invited myself along.

I then went there and had an absolutely amazing session. When I went up to the altar afterward there was a photo of a huge black man, and it was the man I had seen in my dream. His name was Mestre Irineu, the founder of Santo Daime in Brazil.

All the pieces of the puzzle were now falling into place. I worked with the Santo Daime group for about five years. At the time we were a small group, fifteen to twenty-five. For the first three and half years I met with them regularly, every couple of weeks, drinking for two days at a time. But then the group began to expand and after I’d been with them for about five years I had an opportunity with Gaston, a teacher and friend who came back from France one day and told me he’d just had an amazing experience with this wood, with iboga. He told me he had bumped into someone he hadn’t seen in a long time. This guy had previously had some major issues he hadn’t been able to let go of. But now his face was completely transformed. Gaston asked this fellow what had happened to bring about such a transformation. He said he had done an iboga cure at the very place Gaston was about to lead a workshop. Struck by the synchronicity, Gaston went and did an iboga ceremony, now he was encouraging me to do the same.

So I jumped right in without really looking into it. The synchronicity of it was that I had just done a three month cleanse. On the last day of my cleanse I went to France and met all these French people, none of whom spoke English. Since I didn’t speak any French I couldn’t understand their attempts to explain things to me. So all I could do was relax into it and experience it through my heart, without my mind being able to come into it.

So I had this experience of meeting the wood and it was so happy to meet me. It was like, “Oh Shaun, it’s fantastic that you’ve come.” It was very happy that I’d been working with ayahuasca. It showed me something. It said, “Look, your head’s completely open to the astral, but you’ve got no connection to the earth. I’m making a tree with roots deep into the earth, your branches open to the heavens, and a clear channel for universal consciousness.” And this has been my experience.

So I had an absolutely awe-inspiring session with the wood that weekend. When I stepped away from it I realized it was such an amazing medicine, and so compatible with what I’d been receiving within the ayahuasca, that to be stepping into the wood now was grounding my practice into the physical and enabling me to realize that what I knew was within me was also all around me.

So I got speaking to the doctor who was running it and we arranged that I would start bringing people over from the ayahuasca community in the U.K. to do iboga sessions in France. For about a year and a half I took two groups of people over every month, sometimes up to ten people, taking them through all their preparation beforehand, then being there for the journey and the aftercare. Most of the people were very mature in their process, having been working with the ayahuasca, and then stepping into the wood.

After that I started bringing people over to the U.K. We had the French crew coming over too. We ran really big sessions with up to eleven people coming for the cure, up to twenty-five assisting, and sometimes up to twelve people sitting behind the altar.

It was about then that Steve and I began to work together within the wood. Steve was running the kitchen. I guess we were running the floor space. Whilst the French crew were doing the ceremonial bit we were dealing with the casualties [laughter].

Stephen: Maybe this is a good opportunity for me to ask you to describe how you do these ceremonies.

Steve: It’s a really clear design, if you like, for the ceremony. There’s a death and a rebirth. It’s three days and two nights. The first night is the death. During the middle day people are very much in the bardos. On the evening of that second day is when we need to start bringing people back, because if we don’t bring them back they can be gone for a long time. And sometimes it’s really difficult for people to find their way back. I’ve met people who have worked with this medicine on their own, not understanding how strong it was and how long the journey was. One guy told me, and this was a grounded guy, somebody who’d had a regular meditation practice for something like thirty years, but it took him two months to feel like he was back in his body. So it’s a serious business running an iboga ceremony.

So on that second night is when we bring people back, and we bring them back through dance.

Stephen: That’s similar to the way it’s done in West Africa isn’t it?

Steve: It is very similar, the components are very similar. It just makes sense. People leave their bodies basically, they’re working somewhere else. If you read the descriptions of the bardo, then this is the kind of place people are in for the whole of that second day.

Stephen: So just for clarification, they eat the medicine on the evening of the first day, and then throughout that first night and the next day they’re in the full grip of the medicine?

Steve: That’s right. They’re dead basically. Often the room is completely silent for hours.

Stephen: When you say they’re gone, if I were to interview people coming out of one of these ceremonies, would they say that they had an out of body experience? Would they say that they were truly gone into another realm and not in their bodies?

Steve: You’ll find, as with any other medicine, everybody has their own experience. But in general, yes, it’s the longest day of your life when you do that.

Sean: But still in a body, because the moment they open their eyes they’re conscious they’re in a body. And the thing with it is that they’re having their body restructured according to their intent, which is a really deep operation that takes place.

Stephen: Do they have to be conscious of their intention coming in and do you do intention sharing sessions?

Steve: Yeah. What we do is we make sure everybody has a full consultation, first of all to find out if it’s okay for these people to actually come into a ceremony. Some people won’t be even suitable to come and work with us. We may speak with someone on the phone ahead of time for an hour or so to really get through to, why, how have you been pulled in toward this experience. We really want to get to know them.

Stephen: How often would you actually have to turn someone away based on that initial consultation?

Sean: What tends to happen is that when we do the consultation it’s the recognition that what’s happening within that consultation is that the presence of the wood is stepping into them. The presence starts to speak to them through their reality. The consultation is a reading as well. We basically introduce them to the wood through the consultation. It often happens for psychic people. While we’re having the conversation they’ll say, “There’s this extremely large black man who’s just walked into my living room. He’s sitting here with me. Has he got anything to do with you?”

Stephen: So by the time they’re done with this phone consultation they’ve pretty much answered their own question as to whether or not they’re ready for this work?

Sean: Well, kind of. The thing is it’s about self-enquiry. So, who are you and why do you feel called to do this work.

Stephen: My experience with ayahuasca ceremonies is that it’s difficult for a lot of us to really identify what our true intention is. We come in with a bunch of different needs. Do you find that challenging to bring people to where they’re really clear about what their intention is?

Steve: That’s why it’s important to have the conversation some weeks before the ceremony ideally, though it’s not always the case that’s it’s needed. But sometimes it is because as soon as they begin the consultation that’s the step. It’s like they’ve said, “Yes, I want to do this.” And that’s when the iboga becomes present for them. They will begin to have things come to the surface and it will be quite challenging for some people. But usually between that time and the actual ceremony—and usually, in fact almost always now, they get another short consultation just before the ceremony where we’re just trying to clarify things for them. But my own experience was that I had all these different aspects of my life which I knew I wanted to change. But I also understood, they were like branches of a tree and there was one main root. So by the time they come to the ceremony people are pretty clear about what the root is. From that point on, once they have spoken their intent and they’re clear about it, it’s just, relax. Relax and allow the plant to come in and do the work that needs to be done. You don’t have to do anything. You can just lie back and allow the plant to do its work, and know that it’s under the direction of your higher self.

Stephen: Does it tend to come on slowly? For example, ayahuasca can sometimes come on like a freight train and just bowl you over. It can be very difficult for people to ride with that at the beginning and that’s where the shaman’s songs and intervention can come in to help people through that period.

Steve: Sure, but iboga is very different from the ayahuasca though, it’s a very different experience. There isn’t much wiggle room with the iboga. Once you’re in there, you’re on the fast train. And there’s no getting off [laughs].

Sean: I think just to mention as well that with the consultation, my experience of the bwiti, which is the energy that we’re working with . . .

Stephen: The bwiti, by the way, most people probably don’t know, is the name of the religion practiced by perhaps two to three million people in Gabon and surrounding areas. Is that correct?

Sean: Yes. My own personal experience of the bwiti is that I experience my essence as emptiness and my life practice and my ceremonial practice is one of nothingness. I’m letting go into nothingness and as I’m letting go into nothingness I’m letting go of everything. All the aspects that arise I’m letting go of. And when that happens there’s a pure intelligence which is emanating from nothingness. And then this pure intelligence is able to potentiate through me. My experience is that bwiti and this pure intelligence is the same expression.

So when I’m working with iboga, I experience that iboga is the channel that grounds me into bwiti. When people come and have a consultation it’s this relationship with the bwiti that they’re coming into. The bwiti starts to speak to them through their reality, and it brings to the surface all those aspects where they’re not grounded, all those parts of their lives that they don’t take responsibility for. It brings all that up to the surface so we get to see the leaves and we get to see the shoot of the weed.

This all happens once they’ve had their consultation and they’ve stepped back into their reality, but still during that time before they come to the ceremony. So again, all the aspects that keep them in their experience of separation come up to the surface. All the suffering comes up to the surface, all the fear comes up to the surface. Maybe they’re not so experienced with the spiritual journey. Then we’ll get them to record it, to write it down. Then once you’ve got it all down you begin to see that underneath all the suffering is a root. And it’s that root that we’re looking for.

So then by the time people come in for the session they already know the expression of the wood. They know how this presence is speaking to them. They know what it is that they’re letting go of, and they know what it is that they’re letting go into.

Stephen: Fascinating. This is the end of Part One. We’ll continue with the second part.

Part Two

Stephen: Hello again. We were talking about the ceremonies. I’m going to start this session by asking Steve about how the medicine is actually prepared and taken.

Steve: We use the medicine in a form that’s ground up. It’s kind of like sawdust. It’s literally the bark of the root. It’s just a layer of the root of the plant. We usually receive bigger chunks of this root bark and put it through a kind of coffee grinder. It’s just easier to work with in that state.

We step people into the experience gradually. They’ll have a spoonful of the bark every hour during the first night until they’ve reached what is very obviously their personal dose. That might be two doses or it might be twelve doses. We usually get people to wet their mouths first.  Then they just take the spoonful into their mouths, swallow it, wash it down with some water. There’s no problem with water with iboga.

Stephen: Do people fast before ceremonies and if so, for how long?

Steve: Yeah, We give them a plan, like the week before. We ask them to watch what they’re eating, especially stimulants. We ask them not to take anything which is going to alter their state of mind. That includes alcohol of course, probably alcohol more than anything else. [laughs]

Sean: What tends to happen beforehand is that people’s resistance is coming up. So quite often before they come in and do the wood, the part of them that tries to escape into another experience will come up in intensity. So sometimes people with addictions, like smoking weed, the pull will be strong in the days leading up to the ceremony. We say to people, in the week leading into it, look, you’re sweeping out the temple. At the same time, when these aspects that they’re struggling with come up to the surface, we ask them to be conscious of them.

Stephen: Ayahuasca is said to react with particular foods. For example, you may be asked to avoid pork, sugar, alcohol, salt etc. for some days before a ceremony. That’s not so with iboga?

Steve: No, and you know, even with the ayahuasca, we’ve done hundreds of ceremonies. Some of these rules and laws are to do with a particular path or a particular person’s practice with the plant. So you should follow those guidelines if you’re working with that person or on that path. But some of these rules and laws you hear about aren’t hard and fast.

I know a very good story of someone who went off and had a beautiful lunch and a couple of glasses of wine. When he got back to the house his friend said, “Are you ready for the ayahuasca work, we’re going now?” And he responded, “What, today?” But then he had absolutely no ill effects whatsoever. It’s just one story but there are lots like it.

Stephen: So coming back to the iboga ceremony, you start on the evening of the first day and give people a spoonful of medicine every hour until they reach the appropriate place for them. What happens from there?

Sean: I usually give the wood out. We do it step by step. We do one dose, and then a half hour later another dose, and then one every hour. But what often happens for people beforehand is that when we do the pre-consultation, we have a chat with everybody individually just before the session to see what’s happened for them, what they’re asking for, and what are their sensitivities. Often people say, “When I drink ayahuasca I have to drink a lot. I’ve been drinking for ages and I look around and see others getting sick but I’m not getting sick. So give me a lot of wood and I’ll be able to hold it down.”  Then there are those with physical sensitivities. You kind of know you need a sensitive approach with them. Okay, small doses and we’ll see where you go. But when we step into the session the wood takes over. Quite often the people who think they need to eat a lot will start throwing up after two or three spoons, while the people who are supposed to be very sensitive and not able to eat a lot will end up eating more than everybody else. So we’re just taking them to their reset point.

Stephen: Is throwing up with iboga similar to the way ayahuasca functions as a purgative, expelling mental and physical toxins?

Sean: The approach is that they’re coming here to let go of their suffering. They’re expressing their intent and the plant is then using their intent to restructure their DNA accordingly. So what’s happening on the first night is that the plant is taking them to the root of their suffering, whenever the suffering happened, whenever it was that they lost their innocent fascination with what is and began to identify with what the mind is saying.

Stephen: In your experience, is that often one traumatic event, or is it an accumulation of a series of events that happened when they were quite young?

Steve: It can be any combination.

Sean: It’s getting right back down to the original event. On a core level you have a recognition of what your consciousness was at the time, the consciousness of the beings who are with you, and how this event permeates through all the layers of consciousness informing your reality now. And when you have a recognition of the core level—we’re not talking about a conscious level—the plant pulls the root out. When the root comes out, everything comes out, and then it’s possible to have quite an explosive purge.

Steve: And often more explosive than you get with ayahuasca.

Stephen: I’ve read descriptions from several people of experiencing it as if a movie screen has been pulled down in front of you and you actually see visual memories of where you turned away from, as you say, what is, or from the innocence of being open to life. Is that your experience? Do people actually visually connect or have specific, distinct memories?

Steve: You may have heard people talk about near death experiences, where your whole life flashes in front of you. For many people it’s like that, and it is like a movie going on of all those events. Deep memories are being brought up to the surface. It’s as real as real.

Sean: But that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. We’ll have, say, twelve people in a session and maybe two or three will go into deep visionary states. For most people this is happening on such a deep level that on a conscious level they are feeling very much as if they’re having a death process. All their resistance is coming to the surface. They’re physically uncomfortable.

In my experience what tends to happen is that people sometimes get a little bit fixated on the visions. And then they start thinking, “Oh, I’m not receiving the visions and everybody else probably is.” Then they start giving energy to thought forms that this process hasn’t actually worked for them. So the way we introduce it is that part of the thing with it being a death state is that everything that comes to the surface is approached as a thought form. If for example there’s physical discomfort, ah, there is sickness, there is nausea. So drop back into the breath and allow the experience to be as it is. Then through that allowing, the plant is able to go in and pull that root up from even deeper.

It’s a little bit different from ayahuasca in that when we’re working a process with ayahuasca and someone comes with a focused intent and their intention is to open a pathway to spirit, and the ayahuasca is then going down that pathway and bringing that intent up to the surface. Then the person can experience the thoughts that are attached to that intent. And then they may feel the emotions attached to it, and then they may feel it on the physical side as the plant pulls the root to the surface. Then after a while the root comes out, and, whoosh, it’s out.

But that’s not naturally the case with the wood. It doesn’t deal with the issues quite like that You can have a really deep purge on the first night, but quite often people will eat wood all night and the wood may be stepping into them and going, “uh-oh, you sure need grounding man.” So maybe they don’t have a purge and they don’t have that experience of the root coming out.

But that’s not to say that they’re not accessing a deep process. That’s not to say the wood isn’t working. It’s still working but sometimes they need to cook for longer.

Steve: And when you work with us it’s a thirty-three day ceremony. We have three days when we’re all day, but then for the following thirty days, again, it’s no drugs, no alcohol, just really being in recognition of the experience they’re having each day. It continues to work. It continues to unfold and things fall away. After the thirty days is when you really know, “This has really grounded me.”

Speaking from experience, I did my first ceremony with iboga in late spring, and it was the best summer of my life. I had never felt so grounded. So it’s far more than just the three days. When people come to work with us they’re coming with a serious intention to change things.

Stephen: During that first night, when people are having difficulty, when resistance comes up and that sort of thing, to what extent do you guys get involved and work with them?

Steve: We have to do very little. The iboga does most of the work.

Stephen: For example, again, in some ayahuasca ceremonies, I’ve been told by ayahuasqueros that when they’re tuning into the individuals in the room and they see that someone is struggling, then they have certain kinds of songs that they bring through that help the person through that difficulty. But you’re not so actively interventionist?

Steve: We don’t need to because the space we’re holding is a space in which they can do their own work. We’re not holding the belief that we have to help them. And so we don’t have to. It’s a light filled space. It’s a totally light filled space. People are adults and they’re able to do their own work.

If we were working with people with serious drug addictions, like the clinics, there often is a need for intervention. But we very rarely have to intervene. When we work with ayahuasca, much more often is there a need to step in and do something. But it’s a different medicine. When you take your dose of ayahuasca, four or five hours later it’s wearing off or it’s worn off. You take the iboga and you’re on a long, long journey. It’s a more focused and powerful experience is some ways.

Sean: The people who come to work with us are already taking responsibility for themselves. If they aren’t already taking responsibility for themselves we’ll work with them with ayahuasca first.

Steve: Or we’ll recommend some other kind of medicine or ceremonial work beforehand. We’re quite happy to say to somebody, “Well, you need to go and do this first.”

Stephen: I’m getting the sense that you see ayahuasca as a step toward iboga. Is that so?

Steve: Well, they’re two very different medicines. Ayahuasca is much more forgiving. It’s a much more flowing, feminine experience, whereas the iboga is very focused, very male energy. This means that if it’s necessary for somebody to do some work before they come and experience the iboga, then often the ayahuasca is a good thing to send them to. But sometimes we may suggest to someone that he go on a ten-day retreat, for example. It’s horses for courses if you know that expression, although in this situation I think we’re saying it’s the right course for the particular horse.

Stephen: So you two sit through the night and the day with them?

Steve: We do, yeah.

Stephen: And you take a small amount of the iboga?

Steve: Just a little bit to connect.

Sean: To jump back to the ayahuasca: the wood is such a big journey, and it’s about taking responsibility, and not everybody is ready to take responsibility. That’s why we work with stillness. When we’re working in quiet, with the nothingness, there’s no compromise, because we’re having to let go of everything. But not everybody is ready to let go into the stillness. In a way it’s easier to do that with ayahuasca. The ayahuasca is a dance, it’s facilitating spiritual awakening, and when we’re working in stillness with it, we find that people are coming looking for themselves. And through the ayahuasca they find that everything they’ve been searching for is already within them and has always been present.

So the journey with ayahuasca is very much the experience of transcending their suffering in their death states. They’re coming into trust and it’s a trust that comes from knowing that everything is perfect. There’s nothing to heal, there’s nothing to change. They can just let go and trust.

When they come from this experience, stepping into the wood is a natural next step because now they’re coming to the conscious practice of transcending their suffering whilst they’re in the death state. So while ayahuasca is teaching us how to die, iboga is teaching us how to live.

Steve: That’s an expression that’s been around for a long time, that ayahuasca teaches you how to die and iboga teaches you how to live. With iboga it’s absolutely necessary to be able to let go, so the ayahuasca is good training.

Stephen: That’s why I keep coming back to the question of how people can actually move through the resistance. And it sounds like part of the answer is that you try to steer people away from it if you get a sense they’re not ready for it.

Steve: Yeah, absolutely, And what you’re letting yourself in for then as people who are running a practice, running ceremonies, is that if we mixed up people who are very grounded, who have come with a very clear intent to do with their spiritual purpose in life, if we lay them next to somebody who’s trying to get off of cocaine, who’s going through all kinds of torment, it’s just not appropriate. So we let the people who are running clinics, who can spend several days detoxifying people, and then after the iboga, several days looking after them, integrating, we let them look after those people who are in real difficulty. So as you say, the people who come to work with us are well prepared.

Stephen: Before I move onto some other questions I have in mind, is there anything about the way that you work with iboga that we haven’t covered that you would like to have communicated? Just in general, like what’s important for people to know if they’re considering looking into this.

Sean: We call it an iboga awakening. What we usually do with people who come to do the sessions is we get them reading Eckhart Tolle’s work. We usually have them read A New Earth before they come. With iboga you really come to terms with what the pain body is and Tolle uses a very easy language for enlightenment. Then when people come to do the session we can use that kind of language with them.

They’re coming to do a practice of presence and we introduce the whole weekend as a practice. We’re doing this practice together and just letting go of everything. We just eat the wood and allow it to do its work.

Steve: And the other key thing to say is that people are working through the ceremony, and at some point during the ceremony or at some point afterward they reach this natural state, which is a state of stillness. Almost without fail that’s what happens, that’s where people land.

Stephen: Do you do any follow-up with people? Are you aware, for example, of how that state holds up for people in a year or two?

Steve: I would say it does. We’re in touch with a lot of people and usually we have people coming who came through those who’ve already done the ceremony.

Sean: The thing with introducing people to Eckhart behorehand is that most of them are quite familiar with the practices. On the first night I come around and check on everybody, and if anyone is having any difficulty, getting distracted by their story or whatever, we just provide a moment, almost like a satsang, a little chat or reflection in case they’ve forgotten their intention. And we just bring them back into the prayer again.

Stephen: So then is there a change as it gets into the next day? They’re just lying down still, right?

Sean: Yeah, there’s an intensity on the first night. It’s very noticeably the death. And we carry on eating til about dawn. Then in the morning there tends to be more of a density of experience. They’re much deeper in the death state, they’re in the bardo state, and it’s the land of the hungry ghosts. None of their thoughts are able to find satisfaction. They’re not comfortable.

It’s the valley of death, the first part of the morning.

Then as we start to transition through the day, we start to move into the stillness, and the iboga is grounding us into that space between thought and bringing that experience up to the surface. As we move through the day there’s a transition, from a death state with a lot of mind going on, to a really deep experience of stillness that comes in the afternoon. Sometimes people will still be deep in the death state but usually most of the group, as it comes into the afternoon, will have begun to transition into this deep place of stillness and then rebirth.

Stephen: We’ll take a pause here to allow listeners to digest all this in somewhat bite-sized chunks, then we’ll continue with the third and final segment.

Part Three

Stephen: Welcome back. We were speaking about how the ceremony unfolds and Sean was more or less in the middle of describing more about that.

Sean: We were talking about the middle day, but just to mention that first night when I’m working with the wood. It’s like having lots of different pots on the gas. The wood is very clear with each person on where they are with their journey, whether I need to be turning the gas up and giving them bigger doses, or turning it down and giving them smaller doses to enable them to have a longer cook before they come up to heat.

Stephen: Sean, early in our conversation you alluded to the fact that they spirit of the wood is working through you. You were speaking at that point about the consultation process. Am I correct in assuming that this is also occurring during the ceremony, that the wood is feeding you information about the participants?

Sean: Yes, that’s right. And we’re kind of holding that space free of direction. We’re in the practice of presence and we’re in that space where we’re not giving any energy to any thought whatsoever. So then everything that needs to come through comes through in the moment. We’re holding the space and in holding that place of stillness we’re leaving the space for spirit to step through and take care of whatever needs to be taken care of.

Stephen: Do you experience it that way as well Steve.

Steve: Yeah, for sure. It’s good that you mentioned the connection to spirit beforehand because it seems to be quite common for people to strongly experience the presence of the iboga plant spirit before they come to the ceremony. It happened for me. It was about a week before the ceremony. I’m not someone who has a lot of visions or is a very visual person, but I suddenly found myself surrounded by Pygmies one afternoon. I just glanced and there were Pygmies all around me.

Stephen: You were not under the influence of any substance and this was daytime and your eyes were open?

Steve: Well it was after an ayahuasca ceremony, so I was more open to the other dimensions of activity than perhaps I would normally be. As with Sean’s story about the black man walking in while they’re chatting on the phone, these things are happening all the time.

Sean: And if for some reason this work isn’t appropriate for someone, then something will happen in the weeks leading up to the session to make it blatantly clear that this is not appropriate for them. Or there’ll be such a level of process come up for them that they’ll see that they’re just not ready. Then they’ll get in touch with us and we’ll have another conversation. We’ll keep them on the mailing list, and then at a later stage when they feel they’re ready, they’ll get in touch with us again and we’ll do another consultation.

Stephen: We were speaking earlier about how things move through that middle day. Could you talk more about that please?

Sean: We spoke a little about the death state in the morning. So we’ve had a density of being which has moved through the day. And even though we’re not eating wood on the second day, it’s unmistakably part of the journey. We’re doing the whole weekend as a practice, and though people do have an opportunity to go outside and get a little air, for the most part they’re just lying down and they’re moving through this territory. They’re moving from the density of the deep death state, moving through into the life state. And as they’re moving into their life state they’re experiencing what it is to be grounded. The gift of the wood is that it’s grounding us into the space between thought. And the space between thought is more of an experience than a concept.

As we move through into the afternoon this experience starts to be shared. It’s an amazing time to be sitting in stillness. Some people will still be quite deep in the death state and not sure what’s going on while others will already be starting to feel that stillness in the afternoon. Usually by the time we move into the evening of the second day a shift has taken place. Everybody feels it. Now we’re moving into the rebirth. Whereas on the first night that wood was channeling us into our death state, now that same wood is channeling us into dancing.

Stephen: Before the dancing there’s a meal right? I imagine that would help ground people.

Steve: It does. It also has a symbolic purpose. It marks the stage where we’re moving into the rebirth. This is a little bit of food, a little bit of energy for the journey back down the mountain.

Stephen: Do people have much of an appetite by then?

Steve: Not usually but sometimes they do. Sometimes people are still feeling very nauseous. But we get everybody to at least eat a little bit so that they’re all woven in together for the next step. Because it really is like bringing people back down from the mountain and everybody has to come with us.

That’s why we use the dance. After the meal there’s a bit of time to relax, then everybody’s up, I do some drumming, and we dance. That carries on for two to three hours minimum. We also use recordings of magonga [a kind of mouth bow] music from equatorial Africa.

Sean: We have some excellent music. We have one CD that starts off a bit slower—the thing in bwiti is that life is a journey—and so we start the journey off in small steps. And bwiti loves to dance. So we start in small steps. We’ve got this guy who’s like the Jimi Hendrix of the bwiti world. [laughter].

Steve: And all this time I’m working with a frame drum and I can dance with it, so I’m moving around with everybody and Shaun is too. We’re looking around and we only stop the dancing when we feel very comfortable that everybody is where they need to be. Once we’re in that place people are absolutely ready to then just lie down and be in a very peaceful, still space through the night. Some people will sleep, some people won’t sleep.

Then the next morning we ask everybody to take a shower, put fresh clothes on because they’ve lying there in those same clothes for two days.  We have some breakfast, we come back together as a circle, we sit in meditation for a little while, and then we dance a bit more. That last dance session is important because that’s when we get to look around the circle and just check where everybody is. Then we have a talking circle and people have the opportunity to speak about their experience. But usually not very much is said. Usually people have had such a profound experience that—occasionally there are people who want to reel off a lot of detail—but usually it’s quite brief and to the point. Before we do the talking circle we encourage people not to talk about their experiences, ideally, for the thirty days after the ceremony. The reason for this is, how easy is it to fix a story. As soon as you’ve told that story you’re not sitting in the experience, you’re just reeling the story off from the last time. It’s almost like you’ve closed the book. Whereas if you don’t talk about it to others, if you just stay open, stay with the experience, then, bearing in mind that you’ve passed through so many different states of consciousness during this journey, you are allowing the time for those memories to come back to the surface.

So then bits of the jigsaw puzzle will be coming up into your consciousness, your everyday experience, as you are working your way through those thirty days after the ceremony. You talk to somebody thirty days later and they’re going to give you such a different picture, a much fuller picture. We always say that the proof of the work is the everyday life after the ceremony. You don’t ground everything there in the ceremony. You ground it by allowing the experience to stay present with you over the days and the weeks afterward.

Sean: You don’t actually have much choice for the period afterward, for those thirty days, because you kind of have to be conscious. What happens is that you come out the other side and your DNA has been restructured according to your intent. So you come out, you have these thirty days, and this is where the work really starts, because now you’ve been grounded, you’ve been grounded into the earth and it’s as if somebody’s pulled the thought switch, and you’ve dropped into this place of stillness.

Stephen: Apart from not talking about the experience, what other advice do you send people away with for how to manage that period of time?

Sean: I tell them, “You’re stepping into an awakened state of being, you’ve been grounded, you’ve done a death, accessed the line of your ancestors, and a rebirth. This ceremony grounds itself into your life. The first part that gets grounded is the death. What happens with the death is that all those aspects that came to the surface before your session, all those aspects where you were ungrounded, all those aspects where you get immediately sucked into an experience, all those aspects that you judge, they start to come up again afterwards. They come up in different voices, different expressions over that month, but it’s that same experience that’s come up before.

But now what’s happened is that you’re grounded. So this experience comes in and you’re able to see it. There’s a recognition, “Ah, of course.”  And now, because you’re grounded, there isn’t the same tendency to get drawn straight into it. Now there’s a part of you that’s able to witness it.”

Stephen: That’s essentially exactly the way I’ve been taught that basic mindfulness/awareness meditation works, that you begin to identify with the space surrounding those events that arise in your mind rather than just being those things and being lost in them, or, as we used to say, going solid on them.

Sean: Hmm, yeah. And it’s quite interesting because there’s a space now where you’re not just witnessing the experience, you’re allowing the experience to be as well.

Steve: It’s like a big, open channel.

Sean: So now you’re having an opportunity to come into acknowledgement, allowing that experience to come up to the surface. You’re not trying to hit the remote control and change the channel. And by allowing the experience to come up and be seen as it is, then you start to see the roots. And of course the understanding comes from not wanting to understand. So now, instead of having an intellectual insight from the weekend, maybe on the first night, of what it was all about, you’re having the opportunity of experiencing it as your living truth.

This is where it can start to get a little bit tricky for people. It’s like having a Zen master living inside your head. If your story comes up into your head and your sitting there with your master and you get distracted by what’s going on out the window in the dream, and you forget that it is a dream, then the Zen master comes along and bops you on the head with a stick. In that moment you go, “Ah, of course!”  The iboga is doing that as well, but it’s not using a stick to hit you on the head with, it’s using your reality.

So, it brings the experience up to the surface and if you identify with it and project it out it’s going to come back. You know, you project it out, you get drawn into it for a way, then you realize, “Ah, I’ve just been caught in my pattern again.” Then you drop back into experience and a little while later, not a week down the line, but really soon, it’s going to come back.  But this time it’s going to be twice as big and it’s going to hit you in the face. And if you project it out again, three times as big.

Stephen: This is a common experience you’ve seen with people in that follow-up period after the ceremonies?

Sean: Yeah.

Steve: I wouldn’t necessarily describe it in the same way but I understand what Sean means. It’s like that. Once you’ve experienced a different state, then the old state comes back to try and reinstate itself, and then there’s a clash, unless you’re really awake and aware and you can just let it pass straight through.

Sean: What the wood’s doing is bringing us to that place where we haven’t been able to push through on our own. Now it’s pushing us through and saying, “No, you’re not looking. Pay attention. Look again.”  And if you’re really in denial of it, after a while it starts to get ridiculous. Then you have to laugh, and when you laugh you realize you’re laughing with this presence, this presence is laughing with you.

It’s not so much an experience of letting go of your suffering, not like pulling the plug and down your suffering goes. Instead, it’s more like letting go into your suffering.

Stephen: To broaden things out a little as we near the close, I’m wondering if either of you have anything to say about how iboga is part of the larger picture of global consciousness transformation, how it’s spreading and developing etcetera.

Steve: Well, I don’t think I have much to say about that to be honest. I mean, I could, but it’s all just speculation. All I can say for sure is that we are being invited to more and more places to do this work. As far as there being a limit to the medicine, all resources on this planet have some kind of limitation on them but I really don’t see it as an issue these days.

Stephen: Are you aware of very many people doing what you do?

Steve: Not that many, whereas if you’re looking at ayahuasca, even just in this geographical area [Pacific Northwest in U.S. and Canada] I’ve been told that there are many groups.  Not so many with iboga, but then you have to have had the opportunity to work with it in the first place. That hasn’t been so easy. Even going to Africa, it’s not straightforward. It can be a very difficult place to go. You don’t know what you’re going to find. This is based on direct feedback. I didn’t go to Gabon. Sean went to Gabon and quite a few other people I know have been there. Some people came back really with the plant spirit, and other people came back, in a way with the plant spirit, but actually with more problems than they went away with. There’s lots of sorcery, black magic, arrows flying about, just as there are in South America. Anyone will tell you that, that a lot of the shamans out in the wilder areas are really not holding their space at all. There’s so much ego present, and it’s the same in Africa. So you have to be really careful when you go and work with strong medicines in these environments.

Sean: I have to say that when we first started we used to have a lot more people who were into energizing their suffering. People who work with us now, for the most part, are into their awakened state. Last year the reflection came up that people were getting used to the fact that we’re now living in a polar shift and that all their future concepts had now gone out the window. And there was a degree of anxiety and fear about what was now going to happen. But the experience we’re having now that’s coming up to the surface is more one of excitement, of the expectation of the potential of being an awakened being in this current time and place.

Steve: And for sure, if you’ve been called in, the plant is happy to work with you wherever you are. There’s no issue between the different plants either. You can be in an ayahuasca ceremony and “Oh, here’s the iboga plant spirit standing next to me.” So we’re seeing it as a very open, anything is possible world at this point in time.

Sean: And the other energy that comes up quite a lot is the Mexican Prince of Flowers. I think they call him Xochipilli. He had a prophecy way back that at some point in the future all the plants would start to merge.  We really do experience that, a deep merging of all the medicine plants.

Steve: With all the religions and all the spiritual paths everybody is opening up to everybody else. We’re happy to admit that we’re not performing an African ceremony here, but we’re working with an African plant. We’re open about that. We’re not trying to imitate anything here. We’re working with what’s come to us. It’s like working with what works. If it works, work with it.

Stephen: My impression is that you’ve both come to this point where you are now in an organic way of following wise inner promptings and the guidance of the medicine. You seem to be doing it with integrity, care, and responsibility. It feels pretty good to me. I’d be happy to come to one of your ceremonies so I hope you come back.

Steve: We do instill a very deep feeling of trust amongst the people we work with.

Stephen: Thank you very much gentlemen and keep up the good work.

Iboga: The Holy Wood Which Cares for Us.

We were sitting on the porch one morning after a meeting when Kanucas, my friend and a spiritual elder in the Native American Church, began speaking about a recent journey he’d made connecting him to leaders from other indigenous spirit-medicine traditions. He told us that a shared vision is arising from these cross-cultural wisdom keepers, a vision that indicates a leading role in the healing and awakening process for three particular plants: peyote, ayahuasca, and—to my surprise—iboga.

Peyote is used in ceremonial and healing work in many indigenous communities from Mexico to Canada, and ayahuasca is now spreading, through the work of the syncretic churches as well as the shamanic lineages, from its traditional Amazonian base throughout the Americas, Europe, and parts of Australia (so far.) But iboga? As far as I knew its use was limited to the religious and healing ceremonies of an obscure indigenous sect living in the jungles of equatorial western Africa as well as a few lone researchers in the west who had had some interesting successes using synthesized ibogaine in the treatment of drug addiction.

I originally wrote this chapter to include in my book Returning to Sacred World but changed my mind because of my lack of personal experience with the medicine. Since then, three or four years ago, there have been signs of the activation of the above mentioned vision about the spread of iboga. As with ayahuasca, non-Natives are learning to work with the medicine and guide people in ceremonies. The information here is condensed from my research. With the possibility that iboga use may be about to grow rapidly, it felt like a good time to help disseminate some reliable information on the medicine.

At this juncture, setting oneself up with an opportunity to take iboga or ibogaine is no easy task, and not an undertaking to be treated lightly. You can seek out and apply to one of the therapy oriented organizations using it in several countries (not the U.S.) for addiction treatment, programs that may cost anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 plus travel expenses. You could also fly to Gabon or Cameroon and look for a bwiti community who will initiate you. Such an excursion will also set you back a few thousand dollars. The new non-Native ceremonies appear to be coming mainly from Europe and are just now breaching the shores of North America. This doorway in may be the most accessible and affordable for most people interested in meeting this medicine.

Inspired by Kanucas’ story, I began to research iboga and became quickly impressed, in fact much more than impressed, by its unique and powerful action. It’s not for nothing that the word iboga comes from a verb in the Tsogo language, “boghaga,” meaning “to care for.” To provide some context for the discussion to follow allow me first to take you briefly to Africa for a little background.

Iboga, the sacred root, the “Holy Wood” as it’s sometimes described in its traditional locale, is taken from the root, particularly the root bark, of the eboga bush, an apocynaceous shrub that grows to about four feet tall in forests of western equatorial Africa. Those groups who use it in their ceremonial and healing work also cultivate the shrub in open village courtyards.

It’s generally agreed by the people of the region that the Pygmies of the area were the first to discover iboga’s capabilities and that it was used by them for perhaps thousands of years before other groups learned of its powers. The European explorers and interlopers had noticed iboga as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. As a kind of aside, in a classic irony, the interference of colonial authorities and entrepreneurs served to spread the knowledge of the sacred root throughout the region. Repression of religious practices and forced movement of labor threw people from many tribes into contact with each other and united them in determination to preserve and disseminate their practices. That sequence of events closely mirrors the process by which many tribes in the western United States discovered the ceremonial use of peyote.

The most common use of iboga now takes place in the context of the rituals of the bwiti religion. Along with its ancient historical ‘roots’ and long-standing traditions, bwiti, like other indigenous religions, has in some areas become blended with the Christian iconography brought by the Europeans. Currently there are estimated to be two to three million people, mainly in Gabon, Cameroon, and Congo, engaged with communities using iboga as its central sacrament. Though not totally without controversy, it’s fully legal to use iboga in these countries. It’s even been praised as a national treasure by Omar Bongo, the recently deceased President of Gabon (try that in the U.S!).

Like practices from around the world involving the use of entheogenic plants, the rituals in which iboga is employed are highly developed and detailed. Unlike with most other plant medicine practices, a strong dose of iboga is generally given only once in the life of an initiate, or banzi. This event is usually described as an initiation, and depending on the particular community and variation of bwiti, may typically be for boys and girls between ages eight and thirteen, or, in other places, available to people of any age. Bwiti communities hold ceremonies for a number of other purposes—healing work and important community celebrations and rituals—but except in rare circumstances a banzi will never again ingest anywhere near the large quantities of iboga he or she has taken in the initiation ceremony. From then on the banzi will only eat small amounts of iboga to stay alert and relaxed during all-night ceremonies.

The initiation ceremony in itself is an elaborate and life-changing event like nothing else. Again, there are numerous variations, with one group for example, Dissumba, conducting an initiation procedure that usually lasts anywhere from a week to a month. A three-day initiation similar in general to the one described below, however, is the most commonly practiced form of the ritual. There’s an excellent, detailed description of this version by Agnès Paicheler in the informative book Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism (2007) by Ravalec, Paicheler, and Mallendi.

Careful preparation is necessary prior to the actual initiation. The would-be initiate is required to obtain a number of articles to be employed in the ceremony, such items as loincloths for all those participating, powders for face paint, a mat to rest on (and ‘travel’ from), and several symbolic ritual objects. Similar to other ceremonies, such as with ayahuasca, there may be dietary and lifestyle restrictions in the day or weeks preceding the ceremony.

The first day of the initiation is considered a day of purification and further preparation for the soul journeying to take place. The initiate may be taken into the forest to collect the fresh iboga root and other plants used in the ritual, and then led through several other preparatory practices before being administered a small serving of iboga. This quantity acts to sharpen insight, improve stamina, and open the initiate to a frank discussion or confession with the guide, the nganga. A frequent aspect of this first ingestion involves vomiting, which functions to purify and detoxify in a manner similar to that in ayahuasca ceremonies.

On the second day the initiate ingests a massive quantity of iboga. A number of those experienced with iboga and ibogaine have said that a difference between iboga and other entheogens is that iboga focuses the journeyer very definitely and powerfully toward a direct encounter with his or her own unconscious, toward the specific, charged, and unresolved contents of his own library of memories. Western scientific studies have shown that the EEG readings taken from people experiencing iboga-induced visions are greatly similar to those experienced during REM sleep. The key differences are that while the dreams occurring in REM sleep are very brief and the information, as everyone knows, notoriously slippery to the grasp of recall and interpretation, the iboga visions last for hours and occur while the participant is fully lucid and said to be able to view the uncovered material in an impartial manner. As an aside, there is a distinct similarity in that regard to the effects of MDMA in therapeutic settings.

Numerous people have described the onset of these visions as very much akin to having a movie screen erected in front of them from which emanate deeply buried memories, typically from childhood, but, as bwitists and scholars have suggested, also often from the cellular memories of the “collective unconscious.” It is also apparently very common, and with African initiates nearly universal, to encounter one’s own ancestors in these visions.

Though the content and meaning of the visions may not always be understood right away it’s said that everything that occurs does indeed have meaning for the journeyer, that it’s all part of the focused work that iboga is doing, and that the released material will resonate and trigger the initiate in further learning and insight for months if not years after the experience. Bwitists say that the breakthrough resulting from the massive dose ingested in the initiation and the powerful support in that ritual container allows initiates to access some of the same mindstates in later ceremonies where only a very small, non-hallucinogenic quantity of iboga is consumed.

One of the reasons that no one familiar with it is concerned about abuse of iboga as a recreational trip is that this journey is generally described as a major ordeal, a rough ride, both physically and mentally. The direct psychoactive effects with both iboga and ibogaine can apparently last up to thirty hours. One has to be ready for this wrenching, powerful exposé, ready and willing to change. Basically, the iboga, which enters as a living entity, the spirit “who cares for us,” wants to clean you out and remake you as a reborn human being ready to live this life as a ‘real’ person, or as the Maya of Santiago de Atitlán in Guatemala would say, an initiated person.

Bwitists, through their carefully designed ritual environment, treat this responsibility and opportunity with total commitment to the rebirthing process. In this container, iboga will be ruthlessly compassionate in showing you what you need to see. The following not at all uncommon testimonial seems to sum up the experience succinctly. “Your memory is like a movie. And it shows where you’ve gone wrong in life, and it shows you what you’ve got to do to correct it. It literally does that. I mean, you see everything.”

For much of this phase of the experience, initiates will likely be unable to do anything more than remain stretched out on the mat. But throughout the night, precisely designed activities and practices that maintain and support the situation are occurring all around them. The nganga will keep close tabs on the banzie throughout the night, sometimes expecting them to describe their visions. Playing of instruments, singing, and dancing are essential elements in the success of the work and function, among other purposes, as prayers to petition the spirits of the plant and the ancestors and bring them into contact with the banzie. As with other ritual environments such as the ayahuasqueros singing their icaros, the hymns of the Santo Daime, and the prayer songs in Native American Church meetings, the music is often incredibly beautiful as the community comes together in one heart-empowered mind.

The third day is the day of rebirth and after the initiate has been given an opportunity to rest a little, another series of ritual activities is undertaken to complete the process. The final all-night session includes ceremonial feasting and much verbal interaction as the community of bwitists welcomes the reborn person into her new condition and shares important information to carry her successfully into her life as a reconfigured and empowered initiate.

Perhaps because of bwiti’s firmly established and respected foundation and its large membership in the region, there is said to be in general an attitude of openness to foreigners, ‘westerners’ interested in coming to countries like Gabon to participate in such initiations. All who have experience with iboga say that there’s nothing about it that would invite pleasure seekers. The primary concern is that interested seekers be aware of the great power of this plant and of their own readiness to undertake such a demanding ordeal. Of course all concerned would want visitors to demonstrate the utmost respect for the environment they’re encountering.

According to those who’ve been there, visitors who undergo the initiation are not expected to do anything so radical as to leave behind the circumstances of their former situation and remain to live in Africa with a local bwiti community. No doubt the fervent hope and prayer of those who have given of themselves to these foreign initiates would be that they’d been successfully cleaned out and remade as people living in alignment with Spirit, individuals who would return to their own environment with an unshakeable commitment to contribute to the awakening of others and the healing of the planet.

“The suffering that could be eliminated by ibogaine availability would be staggering, both to the individual and society.”    Howard Lotsof  [from the youtube video “Howard Lotsof speaks about ibogain”]

The West’s involvement with iboga goes back nearly two centuries. The first mention of it in an English language book was in 1819. Beginning in the 1860s, samples were finding their way back to France and in 1889 a botanist by the name of Henri Baillon gave the plant the name Tabernanthe iboga H. Bn. In 1901 ibogaine, the primary (though not the only) psychoactive alkaloid discovered in the plant, was isolated and crystallized by Dybowski and Landrin. Noticeable scientific interest in ibogaine developed in the 1930s and 1940s, including from a certain Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who had opened a clinic at Lambarene in Gabon, and in whose honor the drug Lambarene was marketed in France to combat fatigue, depression and several other conditions.

It was mainly after World War Two that ibogaine, along with LSD and other substances, came to the United States. (Unsurprisingly, the C.I.A. got their mucky hands in there in the 1950s conducting experiments of dubious motive and method.) Probably the most significant single historical development worthy of note in the U.S. concerns Howard Lotsof, who in 1962, at the age of nineteen and several months into a burgeoning heroin habit, was given some ibogaine by a chemist friend who described it as “a thirty-six hour trip.” After twenty-three hours of exhausting psychoactivity followed by three hours of sleep, Lotsof awoke refreshed and was shocked to find he was experiencing neither withdrawal symptoms from heroin nor any craving to take it again.

The story that developed from there is far too complex and twisting to recount in this context, though readily accessible on various internet websites, including the online version of the book The Ibogaine Story by de Rienzo and Beal, as well as in the aforementioned book by Ravalec et al. In brief, Lotsof became, and still is, a champion of the ibogaine cause and since that time in the early Sixties there have been numerous attempts across the decades to gain funding for proper clinical trials on humans with a drug that showed promise far beyond any other known treatment for drug  addiction.

Those who have some knowledge of these matters will not be surprised to hear that the path of acceptance for ibogaine has been strewn with obstacles. Both iboga and ibogaine, though little known by the general public and rarely used, got caught up in the big sweep of the Sixties drug backlash, were banned in the U.S. 1968, and continue to languish in Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act.

In regard to the use of ibogaine in the treatment of addiction, ideologically motivated government and religious groups and individuals in the U.S. have repeatedly sought to prevent this acceptance. Further complicating matters is that as with other naturally occurring medicines, the iboga plant itself and its alkaloids cannot be patented and the patent for ibogaine has been held worldwide since 1986 by none other than the same Mr. Lotsof. As a result, pharmaceutical companies have shown little interest in it and have sometimes colluded in the creation of barriers erected against proper study. NIDA, (National Institute on Drug Abuse) funds about 85% of all addiction research worldwide and in essence has the final say on whether a new drug will proceed toward the marketplace. The various forces opposed to ibogaine, (without of course valid medical reasons), ensured that it never gained the required support from NIDA. At this point NIDA has given ‘final’ refusal to fund clinical trials.

Ibogaine has been called the “anti-drug drug” because of its repeatedly demonstrated ability to completely knock out the craving for addictive substances like heroin, methadone, cocaine, crack, methedrine (crystal meth), alcohol, and in some studies, even nicotine. Hundreds of studies have been conducted in the past few years alone and although the mechanics of this action in the brain are not as yet fully understood, the research so far has led to some tentative probable conclusions. Scientists have found that when ibogaine is consumed the body produces noribogaine, which—this is the complex part—blocks the brain’s receptors that control cravings. For the technically minded here’s a short quote from ibogaine.co.uk, “Animal studies have revealed ibogaine to be active at many receptor sites associated with drug dependence and its treatment. These include the kappa and mu opiate receptors, serotonin receptors, dopamine receptors, sigma receptors and the NMDA ion channel.”

Ibogaine is reported to have a similar structure to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which, along with dopamine, is well known for its influence on feelings associated with pleasure, well-being, and craving. Antidepressants like Prozac, for example, are called SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Interestingly, primary psychoactive alkaloids in psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD are also known to resemble serotonin.

The plain fact of the matter is that in almost all cases ibogaine eliminates the drug craving for a period of weeks. This is said to be the window of opportunity for addicts to engage in a process of reclaiming the will to live, of relearning the art of living. For that reason it’s more or less universally agreed that careful follow-up support and counseling are necessary, especially in those first few weeks. Some addicts have permanently given up their habit after one major ibogaine session while others have been assisted by a few further treatments, perhaps several months apart.

The healing thrust of ibogaine in regard to addiction has been described as twofold. Accompanying and following the chemical intervention in the brain is a psychological strategy. Just as with the iboga plant in the bwiti rituals, ibogaine leads the patient through a very powerful self-examination process. The images thrown up during the long hours of the encounter offer patients unarguable evidence of the sources and history of the struggles they’ve undergone and the choices they’ve made. They’re shown the destructiveness of their drug use and granted an unprecedented opportunity to make radical changes in their lives. In the experience described earlier of Howard Lotsof’s encounter with ibogaine, he said that the next realization he had was that the heroin he had considered a comfort in his life was in fact leading him directly away from life and toward death. He realized in that exact moment that he wanted to choose life over death.

An internet search turned up dozens of clinics in Europe and the Americas, (again, excluding the U.S.) legally sanctioned and prepared to treat addicts with ibogaine. My insider sources tell me clinics are gradually shifting over to the use of the iboga plant itself, apparently because it’s safer. Some of these clinics also accept people who want to employ the ibogaine for spiritual purposes.

There are also a few truly underground groups operating below the legal horizon in the U.S. who offer the treatment very cheaply, but knowledgeable sources caution strongly against going that route. At bargain basement prices it’s highly questionable such organizations would be able to afford all the necessary support systems such as medical testing, trained professional personnel, follow-up care, and consistent quality of product (I’ve come across the figure of $600 as the cost to clinics for one dose of the medicine).

Those with expertise working with iboga or ibogaine also caution in the strongest terms about taking either of these substances outside the guidance of highly experienced and ethical professionals or communities like bwiti. There are distinct life-threatening dangers that can and have happened. Several kinds of heart conditions are strongly counter-indicated for iboga or ibogaine use. These medicines also have the unusual property of significantly potentiating the effects of other drugs and medicines. More than one death has been attributed to addicts overdosing on what would normally be moderate doses of drugs like heroin during or shortly after extended sessions with ibogaine. It’s claimed that with proper medical testing and close monitoring by professionals throughout the session these dangers are nearly completely eliminated in comparison with almost any other medicine. It’s worth noting here that there are over 100,000 deaths ascribed to the use of prescription medicines each year in the U.S. alone.

On the assumption that iboga and its main psychoactive alkaloid ibogaine have an important role to play in the healing and awakening process, there’s a key issue of concern. Despite the highly unfortunate obstacles placed in front of the acceptance of ibogaine as a treatment for addiction, research is increasing each year and there’s a strong likelihood that synthetic versions of ibogaine or ibogaine analogues—patentable of course—will at some point in the next few years successfully navigate their way through the labyrinth toward the marketplace. Most likely the chemists will be able to remove the elements which trigger the so-called hallucinogenic aspect of ibogaine and in general smooth the whole drug experience out so that only the physical effect of chemical dependence interruption remains. Of course the irrational fears of many who would otherwise rise up in arms will be mollified in this way.

But there are two serious and related problems with that direction. The as yet incompletely understood psychological aspect of ibogaine’s work—particularly through the movie-like visions that flood the patient’s consciousness with the release of specific, detailed, highly-charged repressed memories—would be eliminated. According to those experienced with the bwiti initiation process and the therapeutic work with ibogaine, this is an essential part of the healing process. The patient gains tremendous insight into the genesis of his problems through this psychological intervention. The physical intervention alone may give addicts the window of opportunity needed to make a change but not the clear understanding that may make the crucial difference in the choices they make when they return to the world they briefly left behind. It may also not be too cynical to suppose that the pharmaceutical companies would like to patent a drug that patients would need to take on an ongoing basis.

The related concern is that bwitists and others would also assert that this psychological process is guided by the spirit or spirits of the plant. Some call it the deva of the plant, the one who cares for us. Initiated, experienced people from indigenous traditions wouldn’t even bat an eye at that assertion. Vincent Ravalec, who has himself undergone a traditional bwiti initiation in Gabon, suggests, for example, that would-be initiates gather as much information as possible about their ancestors—grandparents and the like—because they very well may meet one or more of them in the iboga realm and these ancestors may act as guides, allies, and protectors.

It’s also been pointed out before that the modern mechanistic/rational mindset conceptually separates the physical from the spiritual but that in reality there is no separation between matter and spirit. The physical intervention of a plant like iboga in interrupting the chemical dependency pathways in the brain has the active intelligence of the plant deity behind it.

One aspect of the vision for the central role to be played by the three sacred plants is that their growing influence will come out of the sharing of the knowledge of their traditional practitioners, and that in this way of bringing many more people into shared knowledge of the vision to heal the world the toxic sludge of medical/scientific officialdom could be largely ignored and bypassed. We already have the examples of the Native American Church and the shamanic ayahuasca traditions as models for this direction.

The vision being transmitted by Spirit, by the ancestors, aims to disseminate and strengthen the prayer for the healing of the planet, in part by encouraging people from different traditions to share their understanding and create linkages with others of similar mind from around the world. Part of the vision, or prophecy, suggests that in this way a far more powerful intention may coalesce which will gain increasing influence on several levels and may in fact become strong enough to create the kind of world inscribed on the hearts of the awakened and the awakening.

Stephen Gray interviewed by Robert Phoenix

Returning To Sacred World With Stephen Gray – Sep 27,2010

On the evening of Sunday, September 27, I answered the telephone to begin a long and winding conversation with Robert Phoenix on the cultural paradigm shift and in particular the role of sacred plants in this journey of awakening and healing. Listeners may find some very engaging and useful information about how individually and collectively we can work with these plants and nurture them successfully as they take a greater role in the consciousness transformation process underway. Clicking on the link above or here: “Returning to Sacred World With Stephen Gray – Sep 27,2010“, will take you directly to the audio interview.

Robert proved to be a skilled interviewer, keeping the questions focused and allowing me all the time I needed to fully explain the issues as I understand them. I recommend Robert’s internet radio station Free Association Radio for some very interesting interviews on similar topics as well as astrological forecasts and other juicy tidbits of information.

I should tell you that it was a two hour conversation. You could save a little time at the beginning by going to about the 9 minute mark where the actual discussion starts. As always, I welcome and encourage comments and questions and will do my best to respond to all of them. Please also help support this vision by sharing the link for the interview with your own contacts. Thank you, Stephen.

P.S. On the subject of fascinating and informative interviews, don’t forget to check out the interview I conducted with Ronin Niwe, one of the new breed of non-native ayahuasca ceremony leaders who are learning from the traditional masters and bringing this remarkable medicine out in the larger world with respect and humility. I have it here on my website in both audio and text versions.

Ayahuasca: a Remarkable Healer

Peruvian Shaman with Ayahuasca Vine

Although my main practice is the peyote prayer meetings of the Native American Church, the researcher in me is drawn to periodically explore the teachings of other medicines as well. I have a particular fondness and respect for the ayahuasca medicine. For those unfamiliar with ayahuasca, there is no shortage of information online and in books on the pharmacology, history, and current use of this Amazonian brew. There’s also a chapter on ayahuasca in my book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality (O Books, Nov. 2010.) In that chapter I give a more detailed description of the brew, its effects, and its ritual use. Suffice it to say here that the brew is made from a combination of at least two plants which work in tandem to produce the psychoactive effects.

Ayahuasca is very close to my heart. I’ve imbibed it ten times as of this writing. Though I suspect I’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential, I have already had a number of very powerful and beautiful experiences with the brew. I’m feeling especially inspired at the moment since I recently participated in a weekend event that included two consecutive nights of drinking ayahuasca. I believe I’m beginning to understand its genius.

The ceremony leader, also referred to as the shaman, the curandero, or the ayahuasquero, plays a very important role in the success of the work. The man guiding this particular weekend event, Ronin Niwe, encouraged the participants to understand that ayahuasca will always relate appropriately to each drinker. It will show you where you are at that moment. In that sense it’s like an enlightened Buddhist teacher, who, traditional teachings say, functions as a clear mirror to the student.

Again, for those unfamiliar with ayahuasca and its cultural context, this suggests a living presence of some sort. Those experienced with the plant, and especially the indigenous people of the Amazon who’ve been using it since who knows when, will readily say that indeed, this is the case. Ayahuasca is described as a spirit, a being. It’s often, but not always, experienced as a feminine spirit, and also a serpentine entity.

Ronin was a good communicator and a good listener. He encouraged us to express our intentions. What did we want from the experience? What did we need help with in our lives? In the intention-setting discussion that immediately preceded the drinking of the brew, Ronin worked with each participant to hone his¹ intentions until they were clear and uncluttered.

According to Ronin, the ayahuasca spirit will respond to that intention during the several hours of one’s time in her embrace. This appeared to be true in my own situation and was also confirmed by the others in the sharing sessions that were held in the morning after each encounter with the medicine. Though it wasn’t always clear to each of us at first, with some probing and nudging by Ronin, for most of us it gradually became clear that the plant spirit had indeed responded to our intentional requests.

I’m fascinated by the deep intelligence and creativity of ayahuasca in this respect. Ronin cautioned us to enter the experience with intention but not expectation. As the weekend progressed it became increasingly clear to me how we tend to clutter our minds with analysis and speculation. Ayahuasca appears to cut to the chase, to hone directly in on the heart of the matter. If you have a fixed idea about how she will respond, you may well miss the actual teaching or healing. In fact, it looks like she often doesn’t even require us to consciously realize what has happened. Ayahuasqueros will often tell you she is a healer and that she does her work regardless of how much we recognize and understand what is occurring.

Ronin reminded us that it’s all energy. When we can tune in directly to the energies we’re working with, or that are working us over, we can better align ourselves with ayahuasca’s work. Near the end of one of the ceremonies, as I lay reflecting while the medicine gradually let me go, I sometimes thought of the plant spirit as a poet. It doesn’t necessarily ‘think’ in the rational, left-brain style that so many humans do. It can teach in a great variety of ways: feelings, memories, visions, physical healing through purging, ferocious blasts of energy, gentle invitations to inner stillness, contact with entities . . . if you’re reading this and you’ve had some experience with ayahuasca, I’m sure you could add your own shortlist of ways that she teaches and heals.

I want to point out that, as I understand it, the ayahuasca spirit doesn’t do the work for you. That may be self-evident to many. I bring it up because—and I know this from personal experience too—there’s a tendency for many of us to bring along what Buddhist teachings call a theistic mindset when working with ayahuasca. Theism is described as the illusion that anything outside of ourselves can save us, as it were. The thinking, generally not conscious, is that if we acquire the ‘object’ of our desires, we will feel better. The object of our desires can run from longing for an ice-cream cone all the way to what my old Buddhist teacher labeled “spiritual materialism,”² where we harbor the illusion that the teachings, the practices, and in this case the medicine itself, can save us.

The way I understand ayahuasca’s work at this stage of my education is that it can shine a light on previously hidden knowledge at almost endless levels, from the intensely personal to the universal. As I said earlier, the medicine spirit appears to respond directly to our sincere requests and intentions. If we can surrender to it, the medicine can help us release old wounds, open our hearts, and show us new possibilities. The important qualifier here—and again, I say this based on years of experience with this and other healing/teaching medicines—is that the intensified, clarified condition brought on by the medicine tends to fade back to one’s normal equilibrium state. She gives us the information, she shows us the possibilities, then she leaves us with the ongoing responsibility, and the choice of course, of bringing the learning onto our daily walk.

An example of this for me in these recent ceremonies relates to my request for help in calming my mind. I had had a lot going on in the months prior and for whatever reasons, my normally active mind had been racier than at other times. I spoke to the medicine spirit and asked her to help me tame this wild mind. She appeared to respond to that intention. During both of the ceremonies, and especially the second one, I experienced moments of deep stillness and peace, sometimes accompanied by visions representing and emanating that peaceful energy.

But then I didn’t get to walk away dusting off my hands and saying, okay, we’ve got that one taken care of. In the weeks following, I noticed the busy mind trying to take over the workshop again. What has shifted perhaps is the realization and recollection that that bedrock, unconditioned peaceful place is always there and can be accessed, or surrendered to. It’s as though the medicine spirit is saying, “Okay, here’s what’s possible, it’s real, and you yourself have the tools to open to that understanding and manifest it in your life.”

In the chapter on ayahuasca in my book I mentioned earlier, I’ve gone into some detail on the crucial issue of how to nurture this and other medicine spirit paths as they become better known and spread their influence. I’d also refer you to the interview I did with Ronin Niwe that’s posted on this site both as an audio clip and in text form. I want to say here that if the spread of ayahuasca is done right, with great respect and knowledge, I believe it can help a great many people and can be instrumental in ushering in the consciousness transformation so urgently needed on this planet. It does require courage and there are definitely people who are not ready for this kind of healing and awakening work. However, I’ve certainly seen a lot of—how to describe them?—regular, fairly ordinary people who have drank and benefitted from ayahuasca.

Until the use of ayahuasca—along with other similar medicines—is much better understood and accepted in the mainstream cultures, this growth will be primarily like that of a mushroom that extends itself through a mycelial network just below the surface. At this point in that growth process it’s up to each interested person to find his or her own way to make contact with this loose network. If I could offer any helpful advice at all to people not yet connected, perhaps it would be to clearly state your intentions to the universe. Doing some study and research on the internet and via books would also bolster the likelihood of realizing the intention.

As always, I offer these thoughts in the spirit of the prayer for the healing of the planet and all that implies. And also as always, I warmly invite comments and questions.


1. Given the painful history of male domination on the planet, it’s unfortunate that our personal pronouns default to the male gender. In this case, it really was all men. Five of the ten participants were involved with each other in a men’s group. Since they had presumably already ploughed some ground together, the result was that the level of sharing very quickly dove beneath the surface to reveal deeply personal concerns. I believe this in turn influenced the ayahuasca experience, to some degree at least, since by the time we drank the medicine, our intentions had all been laid out nakedly.

2. I’m referring to Chögyam Trungpa, a brilliant and influential Tibetan Buddhist teacher. One of his books is titled Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero

Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero

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 clip 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 its official release date is slated for fall 2010. Richard’s website for the film is www.vineofthesoul.com.

I’ve also transcribed a text version of the interview on this website if you’d prefer to engage it that way.

Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero – text version

An ayahuasca ceremony tambo near Iquitos, Peru.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R: I recommend people taking antidepressants not drink ayahuasca.

S: Oh, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R: I’ve seen the spirit of ayahuasca.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S: Great, thanks a lot.

R: You’re welcome Steve. Thank you.