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Peru: Ayahuasca
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Peru: Hell and Back—Video Exclusive
Deep in the Amazon jungle, writer Kira Salak tests ayahuasca, a shamanistic medicinal ritual, and finds a terrifying—but enlightening—world within.

Continue:  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  Back >>

Adventure Guide: Peru

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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[To view this video, you need the latest version of Quicktime.]
There is probably no hangover that comes anywhere close to the hangover from an exorcism. It's the next morning and I can barely walk—not that I really want to. I have zero energy. My voice is almost gone, and I must communicate in a hoarse whisper if I communicate at all. This has proven not to be an issue as the others on the tour are so freaked out by what happened last night that they can barely mumble an obligatory "good morning" to me. Lisa has now made it clear that she doesn't want to sit next to Winston or me. I give her a wide berth as I take my seat at the breakfast table. I've never felt so vulnerable before complete strangers, and I feel embarrassed and dejected by their stares. I want to tell them that what happened last night was completely out of my control. That, somehow, it wasn't me.

But how to explain it when I don't quite understand it myself? All I can say for sure is that Hamilton's role as shaman was critical in helping me. He says he drinks the brew along with us, his "clients," so he and his army of spirit helpers can defeat our most formidable demons and guide us out of our darkness.

Shamans will tell you that during an ayahuasca cleansing they're not working with the contents of a person's hallucination but are actually visiting that person in whatever plane of reality his or her spirit happens to be. We are not, they insist, confined to the reality of our five senses, but can transcend it and enter a multidimensional universe.

Their perspective is not unlike that presented by quantum theorists, such as David Bohm, who describe a holographic universe with coexisting realms of reality. To Amazonian shamans, there are an infinite number of such realms, each as distinct from one another as London or Paris, each inhabited by beings with certain appearances, abilities, and customs. To become a master shaman, they contend, one must learn to negotiate these worlds, to enlist the assistance of their various denizens, to become comfortable working in places of light and darkness. For, they will tell you, there is no doubt that there is a heaven and hell—many levels and manifestations of each, in fact—which are as real as Tokyo or Palm Beach. Yes, one finds angels and demons in such places. Hollywood got that part right.

But to the mind trained in the West, such notions of spirit travel and multidimensional reality are a long stretch for the imagination. "I do not believe that there are beings and creatures just like us who reside elsewhere in other realms," wrote Benny Shanon, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He drank ayahuasca in more than 130 ceremonies, studying his and others' vision experiences and producing one of the most extensive books on the subject to date, The Antipodes of the Mind, in which he concludes that the visions are simply hallucinations of the highest order: "Under [ayahuasca's] intoxication, people's imagination and creative powers are greatly enhanced. Thus, their minds are prone to create the fantastic images they see with the brew."

In Shanon's view, as well as in those of other Western scientists, DMT-created visions are simply extraordinary reflections of the contents of the unconscious mind. Grob, the UCLA psychiatrist and ayahuasca researcher, agrees with this in part, though he adds: "Sometimes the visions are uncanny and don't seem to reflect personal experience. . . . People consistently have very profound spiritual experiences with this compound."

And this notion of a spiritual experience marks the very juncture where Western science and analytic thought depart on the subject of ayahuasca and where indigenous culture and mysticism come in. Most ayahuasca researchers agree that, curiously, the compound appears to affect people on three different levels—the physical, psychological, and spiritual—complicating efforts to definitively catalog its effects, let alone explain specific therapeutic benefits. Says Ralph Metzner, psychologist, ayahuasca researcher, and editor of the book Sacred Vine of Spirits, "[Healing with ayahuasca] presumes a completely different understanding of illness and medicine than what we are accustomed to in the West. But even from the point of view of Western medicine and psychotherapy it is clear that remarkable physical healings and resolutions of psychological difficulties can occur with this medicine."
We take a break for a day to recuperate. By the time the next ceremony comes along, I am enthusiastic and ready to go. We all take our seats in the main hut, Lisa sitting farthest from me. With resignation, I notice that I've been doled out a huge dose of ayahuasca, again. We all drink. Soon, the telltale green hue covers everything, and the visions begin. Dark visions. The bats, the snakes, the demon figures. Still, my body does not quake in pain and horror as before. I have learned how fear works: It only affects me, terrorizes me, if I believe the thoughts it puts in my head.

All negative thoughts, shamans believe, are dark spirits speaking to us, trying to scare us into reacting; the spirits then feed on our reactivity, growing stronger and more formidable until they finally rule over us. This is how, Hamilton suggests, addictions and psychological disorders develop in people.

"Everyone hears the voices of spirits," he tells me. "They've just convinced themselves that they are hearing their own thoughts." We must, he maintains, practice choosing which thoughts we pay attention to.

Now I'm traveling to a realm where I meet my various incarnations from past lives. We are connected to a large wheel; whenever fear energy leaves the top of my head in puffs of dark smoke, it leaves their heads at the same time. Our lives, it seems, are interconnected and dependent. Outside of linear time, all our lifetimes, all our many incarnations, occur simultaneously. "Past life" is really a misnomer; "other life" seems a more accurate way of describing it.

With some of the individuals, I can guess their historical period from their clothing. With others, I can't place them at all. There is a balding, overweight, monk-looking guy. The big muscular warrior with the pointed helmet (who, he says, gives me my present interest in the martial arts). The black woman who is a slave in North Carolina. Interestingly, there are only about 15 or so individuals; a spirit tells me that many people average less than 30 total Earth incarnations and that their souls commonly skip centuries, reincarnating only in spirit realms. And what of the two women who aren't wearing historically identifiable clothing? "We are your future incarnations," one of them explains, lovingly.

After three ceremonies, I still feel that I have something big to purge. There is something stubborn in me, refusing to be released. I walk through the jungle and wade into a narrow river, dunking myself in the water. Schools of piranha-size fish, mojaritas, nip harmlessly at my skin, unnerving me. Earlier today I was still scared to look at myself in the mirror, still scared of the self-judgment, the all-too-familiar shame.

I report to the hut for the next ceremony. The others sit or lie in hammocks, waiting silently, fretfully. Their experiences, while nowhere near as intense as mine, have been bad enough in their view. Winston has found the darkness during his visions tedious and unrelenting. Christy actually found herself crying during the last ceremony, which is something she says she doesn't do. Lisa has found her ceremony experiences "too dark" for her tastes and blames me for creating this.

"It's her own fear she's scared of," Hamilton told me earlier. "It has nothing to do with you."

We begin the ceremony, drink the ayahuasca. I'm hoping to find myself in some heavenly realms this time, but again, as usual, the darkness. With disappointment, I find myself entering a familiar tunnel of fire, heading down to one of the hell realms. I don't know where I'm going, or why, when I suddenly glimpse the bottom of the tunnel and leap back in shock: Me, I'm there, but as a little girl. She's huddled, captive, in a ball of fire before the three thrones of the devil and his sidekicks. As soon as I reach her, she begins wailing, "Don't leave me! Don't leave me!" It's heartbreaking to her.

I think this must be a part of me that I lost. Long ago. The shamans believe that whenever a traumatic event happens to us, we lose part of our spirit, that it flees the body to survive the experience. And that unless a person undergoes a shamanistic "soul retrieval," these parts will be forever lost. Each one, they say, contains an element of who they truly are; people may lose their sense of humor, their trust of others, their innocence. According to psychotherapist and shamanic healer Sandra Ingerman, author of Soul Retrieval, such problems as addictions, personality disorders, and memory blackouts are all warning signs that a person may have lost key portions of themselves.

"No one will help me!" the little girl wails in my vision. And now she is me—I am wailing. Crying like I have never cried before. I know it as an expression of primordial terror from a time when, as a small child, I felt abandoned, set helpless before the universe. I have never felt such profound fear. How did this happen to me? the adult me wonders with fury. And why?

"The darkness was so heavy during your childhood," a spirit voice says to me, "that your soul splintered beneath the weight."

I have an awareness of having lost so much of myself. Who will I be when all the parts come home? I feel a hand on my back: Hamilton's. "I'm here to help you," he says. Suddenly, the flames trapping the little girl disappear. Everything is covered in a freezing white frost. I shiver from the intense cold.

"Julio and I have frozen the devil," Hamilton declares. "You can pull the little girl out now."

So that's why everything got so cold,
I think. But wait a minute—what are Hamilton and Don Julio doing in my vision? How can Hamilton see what I'm seeing?

"Pull her out," Hamilton says to me.

I reach down and take the girl's hand. When she feels my touch, she stops crying, and I pull her up, out of the tunnel of fire. The darkness departs. We reach realms of bright white light—the first such places my visions have allowed. The heavenly realms.

"Your little girl has to enter your body," Hamilton says. "Call to her."

I do. I see her split into several little girls, each looking like me at a different age. One at a time, they appear to enter me, my body jolting backwards for each "soul part," as Hamilton calls them, that was retrieved.

As soon as they're done, I see a vision of them. Dazed by the brilliant light of their new world, the girls walk through green grass, under pure white clouds. Scores of butterflies land on them, smothering them. It is an unbelievably perfect place in which there is a sense that nothing could ever hurt me.

Only one ceremony left and I haven't yet experienced God. The shamans say they see him all the time; Hamilton suggests I visit him. Strange: Though I can't say conclusively whether he exists, I'm angry with him. If God is out there, I have a few bones to pick with him.

The ceremony begins with the usual tedious blackness. I keep sending it away, but it reappears in its myriad forms: bats, demons, dragons.

"God!" I yell out in my vision. "Where are you?"

But only darkness. The seemingly endless darkness. I'm getting more and more aggravated. Why do religious people always say that God is there for you when you need him? Well, he's nowhere. Just serpents and those little demon guys.

All of a sudden, I realize that my fears about his not existing, about my not being able to find him, may be thoughts created by dark spirits. I release those fears and immediately I rise higher, into white realms. Through a hazy gray cloud, I can see a vision of a white-bearded man—God? Appearing like a giant Santa Claus. And while I'm sure the way he looks is a stereotyped invention of my mind, a kind of visual distillation of something wholly beyond conception, it's bizarre to be talking to him about my problems.

"Why did you hate me so much?" I demand.

"I never hated you," he says. "You hated yourself. I have always loved you as my own child. Know that suffering is the greatest teacher on Earth. It leads us out of our belief in separation."

I don't know what he means by "separation."

Darkness falls. I can't see God in my vision anymore. A scathing pain rises in my chest—the most excruciating pain I've ever felt. I squeak out a cry to Hamilton and he comes over, singing spirit songs. Legions of demons sail out of my body. I'm helpless before them; they contort me.

I'm made to see that what is being purged now is a deeply rooted belief that I don't deserve to be alive, that no one can love me and I will always need to justify my existence. Slowly I gain the upper hand over the darkness and order it to leave my body. I feel a pressure in my chest that could break all my ribs. I grab my bucket, vomit out what appears to be a stream of fire. Hamilton kneels down and blows tobacco smoke onto the top of my head. I cough violently and watch as demons burst out of me, roaring, only to disintegrate in white light.

And before me this enormous image of God. He takes me in his arms and coddles me like a child. I know, unequivocally, that I am loved and have always been loved. That I matter and have always mattered. That I'm safe and, no matter what happens, will always be safe. I will never allow myself to become separated from him again.

As the visions fade and the ceremony closes, I find myself back in the dark hut. But in my mind's eye I'm still sitting in God's enormous lap. Don Julio nods and silently smokes his mapacho. The others whisper about their experiences. Winston still didn't find a way out of his darkness and will extend his time in Peru to do more ceremonies. Katherine sighs luxuriously: She's been bathing in the heavenly astral realms, having broken through her own issues. Lisa's darkness hasn't let up and it's still my fault; she, too, will be staying in Peru for more shamanistic work.

Me, I'm ready to go home. I sit up with difficulty, as if waking from decades of sleep. It would be easier for me to call it all a dream, a grand hallucination. Then I could have my old world back, in which I thought I knew what was real and unreal, true and untrue. Now the problem is, I don't know anything.

It takes almost all the energy I have left, but I feel around for my flashlight and shine it into my vomit bucket. No. I lean down closer. Steady the beam of light. I catch my breath as I examine the object: A small black snake seems to have materialized from my body.

Continue:  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  Back >>

Adventure Guide: Peru

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