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Adventure Guide: Peru
Our canoe docks on the banks of the Río Aucayacu near a large hut surrounded by jungle: the healing center. We unload our bags and supplies and a local man leads us to our respective bungalows. I share mine with Lisa.
The National Geographic Channel sent a film crew to Peru to shadow a pair of Americans on their quest to try ayahuasca. See for yourself how the ritual ceremony begins.
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Our accommodations are without frills: a mosquito net covering a mattress on the floor, a sink, a toilet. Basic meals. Kerosene lamps. We can either bathe in the river or use a communal shower. It is a kind of asceticism, a shedding of life's little sophistications in preparation for the hard work ahead. Where we're going, all worldly goods are worthless. Where we're going, the only way out is through fear.
The head shaman for our group is Hamilton Souther, an American and the man behind the company that runs these journeys, Blue Morpho. He is 27, blond-haired, blue-eyed, exceptionally good-looking. But talk to him for even a minute, and his striking appearance quickly fades before his most obvious quality: his unconditional acceptance of everyone. You cannot make him angry. You cannot seduce him. You cannot offend him (though it is extremely tempting to try). He is like a mirror, always reflecting back your own ego, showing you your attachments, your fixations, your fears. If you end up liking him, that's great, but if you don't, it's unimportant.
How Hamilton, a young California gringo, ended up in the middle of the Peruvian jungle as a shamanic healer is a story that stretches credulity. When he was "younger" (which is to say, a young adult), he explains, he led a very troubled life. Controlled by anger, he found the world to be a depressing, hopeless place in which he was just another inmate doing time. Then on the darkest night of his life, when he was filled with spiritual despair, he says he called to God and begged him—if he did really exist—to show himself. Hamilton claims he then heard voices and saw spirits. He thought he'd gone insane. So did his psychologist. But then a trusted acquaintance suggested that he wasn't crazy at all; he'd merely opened channels to other dimensions.
One of the many spirit voices advised him to go to South America to apprentice under a shaman. He took this advice, made his way to Peru, and found two master shamans to teach him everything they knew. One of them, Don Julio Gerena Pinedo, is with us now. He is 87, has been leading ayahuasca ceremonies for over 50 years, and is widely regarded as one of the most powerful healers in the Amazon. He sits hunched over in a chair in the main hut, holding a large cigar, or mapacho, made from jungle-grown tobacco that is used, he says, to purify his body from negative energy. Hamilton and his three gringo shaman apprentices affectionately call Don Julio "Yoda."
On the way here, Hamilton stopped our canoe periodically to hike into the jungle to collect the fixings for our ayahuasca brew. "Ayahuasca," a Quechua word meaning "vine of the soul," is shorthand for a concoction of Amazonian plants that shamans have boiled down for centuries to use for healing purposes. Though some call the mixture a drug, indigenous peoples regard such a description as derogatory. To them it is a medicine that has been used by the tribes of the Amazon Basin for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, demanding respect and right intention. The main chemical in the brew, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), accounts for ayahuasca's illegality in the United States; DMT, though chemically distant from LSD, has hallucinogenic properties. But it is ayahuasca's many plant ingredients cooperating ingeniously to allow DMT to circulate freely in the body that produce the unique ayahuasca experience.
To prepare the brew, apprentices spend years under the tutelage of an elder shaman getting to know the different plant ingredients, passing weeks or months at a time learning their individual healing properties and governing spirits. These beings, they claim, teach them icaros, or spirit songs, which, when sung or whistled, call forth the plants' unique assistance during ceremonies. The training isn't easy; those like Hamilton who earn the title of "master shaman"—highly respected members of Amazonian communities—receive patients from far and wide. Based on the individual needs of their patients, shamans must know which plants are required for a ceremony (there are two primary ingredients, but any of an estimated 100 species have been used in ayahuasca brews), how much of them to harvest, and how to prepare them for ingestion. The plants' spirits are then said to work together to produce the most successful possible healing for each person, regardless of what ails them.
The taking of ayahuasca has been associated with a long list of documented cures: the disappearance of everything from metastasized colorectal cancer to cocaine addiction, even after just a ceremony or two. It's thought to be nonaddictive and safe to ingest. Yet Western scientists have all but ignored it for decades, reluctant to risk their careers by researching a substance containing the outlawed DMT. Only in the past decade, and then only by a handful of researchers, has ayahuasca begun to be studied.
At the vanguard of this research is Charles Grob, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA's School of Medicine. In 1993 Dr. Grob launched the Hoasca Project, the first in-depth study of the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca on humans. His team went to Brazil, where the plant mixture can be taken legally, to study members of a native church, the União do Vegetal (UDV), who use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and compared them to a control group that had never ingested the substance. The studies found that all the ayahuasca-using UDV members had experienced remission without recurrence of their addictions, depression, or anxiety disorders. In addition, blood samples revealed a startling discovery: Ayahuasca seems to give users a greater sensitivity to serotonin—one of the mood-regulating chemicals produced by the body—by increasing the number of serotonin receptors on nerve cells.
Unlike most common antidepressants, which Grob says can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body's ability to absorb the serotonin that's naturally there.
"Ayahuasca is perhaps a far more sophisticated and effective way to treat depression than SSRIs [antidepressant drugs]," Grob concludes, adding that the use of SSRIs is "a rather crude way" of doing it. And ayahuasca, he insists, has great potential as a long-term solution.
While it's tantalizing to wonder whether such positive physiological changes took place in me when I was last in Peru, I'm also intrigued by the visions I had, which seemed to have an equally powerful role in alleviating my depression: It was as if I'd been shown my own self-imposed hells and taught how to free myself from them. What was really going on?
According to Grob, ayahuasca provokes a profound state of altered consciousness that can lead to temporary "ego disintegration," as he calls it, allowing people to move beyond their defense mechanisms into the depths of their unconscious minds—a unique opportunity, he says, that cannot be duplicated by any nondrug therapy methods.
"You come back with images, messages, even communications," he explains. "You're learning about yourself, reconceptualizing prior experiences. Having had a profound psycho-spiritual epiphany, you're not the same person you were before."
But the curious should take heed: The unconscious mind holds many things you don't want to look at. All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced—literally—to face his or her demons.
"Ayahuasca is not for everyone," Grob warns. "It's probably not for most people in our world today. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary. You have to be willing to withstand that."
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Adventure Guide: Peru