By Maja Fabjan, journalist
Once, only indigenous peoples in remote areas of the world knew ayahuasca. Now it is available in our immediate vicinity. For what reasons people come to ayahuasca ceremonies?
People from our part of the world are seeking contact with ayahuasca mainly because of personal growth, resolution of existential questions, spirituality and healing. In Peru the brew is protected as a cultural heritage and it is also one of the few countries in the world where its use is explicitly permitted. In 2012, the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations noted in its report that it does not fall under international control, although it contains a controlled DMT alkaloid. However, the presence of DMT in the brew may be subject to various legislative interpretations by authorities in diferent countires.
How would you describe altered states of consciousness to someone who has no experience with substances that cause them?
Most of us dream and sometimes remember the dreams when we wake up. The altered states of consciousness using ayahuasca are similar. The difference is that ayahuasca experience is not necessarily purely visual, as it would be in a dream. Nevertheless, a person finds himslef or herself in a world, a reality that is different from everyday life, governed by different rules and laws. Sometimes during the ceremony it seems as we only live in this other reality. Just as sometimes in dreams we do not realize we are dreaming.
There is a significant difference with ceremonies. All visions are not always visual. If we are working on a mental plane, then they can be expressed as thoughts. Usually, they are so overwhelming that we finaly realize how our brains are constantly chatting and how we are usually not even aware of it. At emotional levels, ‘visions’ can be expressed in the form of feelings: anger, resentment, fear, love.
As in the nightmare, ceremonies may also be very difficult, but at the same time very meaningful. With such ceremonies and reliving the past trauma or fear we have the opportunity to come to new conclusions. For example we may look at such events through the eyes and understanding of other participants in the event, and thus release or at least understand it differently as we have remembered it. So the opportunity opens for a life free of trauma and fears that would otherwise block us. There are also extremely beautiful experiences of connection between people and nature or connection with universal love.
My teacher Percy Garcia always says that we understand difficult experiences only when we pass them. Then we understand that re-experiencing trauma is a part of the healing. Pain in this case is not intended to hurt, but to heal. Like doctors while adjusting a broken bone they will not cry sympathetically about how the patient suffers. They will adjust the bone and when it is in place the pain decreases.
In which cases ayahuasca is not recommended?
Ayahuasca is not recommended for those who take meciations containing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or MAO inhibitor, for example medications for depression or antipsychotics. It is also not recommended for those who have serious problems with high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, epilepsy or any acute psychological problem. Despite the anecdotal use of ayahuasca during pregnancy and before childbirth in indigenous communities, I do not recommend it in our culture because we differ considerably in view on pregnancy and birth, as well as in terms of our healthcare support during pregnancy. Combination of ayahuasca with most recreational drugs may be dangerous and it is important to check how much abstinence is necessary for safe participation in a ceremony. For some drugs the recommended abstinence may be 14 days, for others several months.
What effects may ayahuasca have?
Ceremonies can be very different for different people. They also differ for the same people, if they go to the ceremonies more than once. In fact, you never know in advance what you may expect. Some ceremonies are very calm with little visions, messages and at the physical level you may not feel much. Others may bring up strong physical feelings, a lot of vomiting and diarrhea, which, contrary to the myths about ayahuasca, are not a part of every ceremony. Teachings may come or not. It all depends on the point of the process the person is at. I often see that people have great expectations as they read stories on forums, books and articles. It is good to be aware that a person will write about what is most interesting and important for them. Ceremonies when nothing seems to be happening are obivously not an interesting reading. Sometimes people expect they will fly with eagle or talk to a jaguar. When I ask people who say nothing happened during the ceremony about what they thought or felt in those hours, they usually discover they actually did a great deal of work. Often they say how they have been entangled in same thoughts or that thoughts were rushing through their head for hours. Then they begin to understand how important it is to silence their mind. Then they are able to change those patterns, which ultimately leads to greater inner peace.
Ayahuasca works on several levels: physical, mental, emotional, etc. Those who work on the emotional level often react by crying, laughter or some other feeling. In the visual aspect, it is internal experience of either pleasant or unpleasant events, as well as learning. With physical healing, more intense pain can occur in parts of the body where the problem is located. This is normally followed by an improvement. How quickly and intensively the whole process develops mainly depends on the problem person is dealing with.
During the ceremony all senses become much more sensitive and intense light or noise can disturb the ceremony and prevent a person from going deep into his or her own internal process. One of the reasons that most of the ceremonies occur at night is because the surrounding environment is quiet and with as little disturbances as possible. At night, the jungle is actually the loudest. But compared to city noise it is not disturbing because we react differently to the voices of nature than to the sounds of artificially created environment.
How important are the set and the setting?
Both are extremely important. As said before, there is a big difference between the sounds of nature and the city noise. For successful individual and group process it is extremely important to set up a safe environment. On the physical level as well as in terms of mutual respect among the participants. It is also important that the whole group is open to everything that is happening during the ceremony. Nobody’s problem should be more important than the other person’s problem. For everyone the problem they are dealing with is the most important one. We often do not understand how significantly the resolution of a seemingly small problem can influence the better quality of life of an individual. Very strong and intense processes can only take place in a safe environment. If participants do not feel safe, they simply can not go deep enough into the healing process. One of the most important tasks of the person leading the ceremony is to provide safe space before, during and after ceremony.
How does the singing of icaros support the experience?
I believe that icaros are an inseparable part of ayahuasca. These are very specific songs that ayahuasqueros learn during the dieta process. That’s how I learned them. Dieta does not mean merely food restrictions, but it means connecting and learning from the energies of the teacher plants. Usually these plants are not psychoactive. During dieta an apprentice stops the stimuli from the outside world to be able to go deeper into his or her inner world and cleanse the personal history. By drinking tea or other preparations he or she gets to know plant energies or spirits, and energies associated with them, such as water, air, certain animals, and the like. And the more the dieta rules laid by the plants are respected, the better connection is established. This connection is very important for later work as an ayahuasquera.
The teacher guides the dieta process and gives an apprentice the icaro that is important for him or her at certain point of apprenticeship. If the dieta plant is related to the spirit of the water, icaro may be connected to one or the other or both. Later, when student becomes more experienced, he or she can also receive the icaro directly. No matter how the apprentice gets it, it needs to be explored well before using it at the ceremony. The more the apprentice knows the icaro, the more he or she understands its healing potential. There are icaros intended for cleansing, as well as those intended for protection or growth. During the ceremony the right icaro should be chosen at the right moment and sung the right way. One learns how to sing an icaro the entire life.
In the book you wrote that it is essential where, how and by whom the ceremony will be held. Do you think that people in the West are approaching the ceremony with naivete? Are they unknowingly attending ceremonies led by people who are not sufficiently trained? How about the ceremonies in Peru?
Before our culture got interested in this knowledge, the local people who had mastered it were at the margins of society. For centuries they have been told that these are superstitions, something that is not acceptable in the modern world. When more and more people from our part of the world began to travel to the Amazon and get in touch with this knowledge, demand began to dictate the offer. In this, both parts of the world are similar. Even in Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador ceremonies are offered by people who are not sufficiently trained. On the other hand, luckily, there are those who know very well what they are doing. The question is how to tell the difference.
There are billions of people in the world and there must be a path for everyone. Even among those who are very well trained, some people connect with one healer and others don’t. I think it’s important to listen to your intuition. Before going to the ceremony try to meet with the person leading it and see if you feel you can trust him or her. If there is no trust, it is better to look for other option, other person or other place.
At the global level, two organizations do the research on shamanic plants as well as develop guidelines for safe participation in ceremonies. One is ICEERS (International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service), and the guidelines are published on their web page.
To become an ayahuasquera, a person needs to emerge deep in this knowledge and put in a lot of effort …
One of the traps of our culture is that we deal with things quickly and superficially. Without emerging yourself deep in the learning process with an experienced teacher or guide, it is very difficult to learn. There are various obstacles and traps where you can get lost. It is therefore good idea to have someone who has already gone through a similar process. One may not understand this knwoledge without an effort.
Ayahuasca itself is a bit deceptive since (compared to meditation for example) the shift to an altered state of consciounsness, where we may receive information, is very quick. The problem is that we understand information through our filters, created while growing up in this culture, through different personal experiences and different worldviews. It is therefore very likely that we don’t understand the information correctly. Therefore we first need to clean our perception filters.
Dieta and cleansing process are not easy – those devoted to learning to become ayahuasquero can be quite difficult. For one month, for example, an apprenice may eat only one type of food. Sometimes some plants require additional restrictions for example to avoid any contact with other people. For our culture, these are quite big challenges. If we look closer, we see that all indigenous traditions had physically and mentally demanding learning processes to become healers or medicne men. By passing such challenges you first clear your own problems, change your worldview and attitude towards everything. Only then you can work with other people.
We usually also forget that this knowledge has been developed by many generations. It’s wrong to think that two weeks in Peru will give you the understanding of their knowledge. I think that such attitude is extremely offensive to the indigenous cultures and the knowledge they have been developing for millennia. It is important to have respect, patience, to do the work and – last but not least – to use the knowledge responsibly.
In the book The Time is Now, you have written that ayahuasca has helped you find your path, your mission. Is this maestra ayahuasquera?
Yes. I was trained to lead ayahuasca ceremonies and received permission from my teachers in this and other realities, and from Mother Ayahuasca. My specific role is in connecting these two worlds in terms of “translating” their knowledge into our cultural space and our way of understanding. It’s not just about ayahuasca. It’s also about things that were part of my life before: environmental and social responsibility, global equity in the distribution of natural resources. All those issues are closely related to indigenous cultures. In indigenous people I see the key, the knowledge of how to change the direction in which our culture of consumerism and corporatism is leading the humanity on a global scale. One way of changing our awareness or consciousness is to access the altered state of consciousness where you can see a different picture: a greater connection and dependency between human beings and greater mutual respect.
I support the right of the remaining indigenous peoples to develop their tradition without any interference from outside, if they decide so. They have every right to live in the environment where they traditionally lived, without our interference, and regardless of the natural wealth on their territories. We have no right to exploit them without their approval. Our lavish lifestyle stands on robbing their natural heritage. Its time that we stop this plundering, become aware of the consequences for humanity and planet, and adapt to our own abilities. It would be good for us to start listening to indigenous cultures as long as they still exsist and as long as they are still willing to share their knowledge. The fact is that our culture has gone in direction of an inevitable collapse. This is why it is important to listen carefully and humbly to what they are saying, and not just pick up what we can benefit from. It is time that our culture grows up and put an end to the looting of the planet. The pharmacy took indigenous recepies to develop medications. Fashion industry took traditional patterns and is using them commercially. Without any credit or financial compensation to the indigineous communities who developed them.
How did ayahuasca change you?
I am most grateful for inner peace and inner equilibrium. I changed my view of the world, which is now much more extensive and complex. I also gained a different attitude and respect for my fellow men. Sometimes at the ceremonies I see how people struggle inside, what problems they are facing and resolving, and how much courage they need to change. From this came deep respect for other people, the worlds that we carry inside each other. We live in a certain country and think that our inner worlds are similar, but they are not. Each of us has its own story and history of personal experiences, which makes us living in our own little world. It seems to me that we should be touching these individual worlds gently, with great respect and awareness that we don’t automatically know what other peoples worlds are like. We need to observe these worlds and explore them carefully, with respect, acceptance and without projecting our own expectations onto the others.
When did you realise that the ceremonies and dietas were a part of your apprenticeship to become an ayahuasquera?
I think when my teachers, guides and plants themselves started to encourage me to sing at the ceremonies. Although I learned some of the icaros and sang them for myself I didn’t see any point in singing them at the ceremony since only those who lead the ceremony do so. I have never had such ambitions. I never considered myself to be strong enough for such task. When they persistently persuaded me I became aware about their intentions with me.
How was it when you returned home after two years of living in the rainforest? How did the teacher plants change your view of the world?
I have to admit that the return was quite difficult. In two years the social network at home degrades. I came back in 2011 when the economic crisis continued, and it was very difficult to get a job. The hardest thing was to get used to our lifestyle again. It took me about two years – the same time as I spent in the rainforest – that I somehow got back to my feet again. It was hard to get used to a constant bombardment with what you have to have, what you have to do, how civilized you must be, how to adapt to senseless legislation and rules. Now I clearly see through the fog of complexity which is intentionally created by politicians, corporations and religions. I can clearly see what the consumerist lifestyle does to us, to humanity and nature at the global level. That was, and still is, the hardest thing.
Before I left to the jungle I was working for environmental NGOs. Now it seems to me that I understand the entire weight of the consequences of decisions based on the interests of irresponsible groups of people. On the other hand I gained optimism because I know that the knowledge how to change things for the better still exsist in this world. On the global level there is growing number of people who make serious changes on a personal level as well as in their immediate surroundings.
As you wrote in the book, ayahuasca wants us to live in accordance with universal love and to integrate her visions and information into our daily lives. How does this integration happen?
There are several parts of ayahuasca ceremony. The last, the most important and the longest is integration. If during the ceremony we receive information about changes that we need to make to live a happier and calmer life, then we need to make these changes. Just seeing or knowing is not enough. It is always good idea first to think about what we have learned, and then gradually start doing the changes in a managable timeframe.
Integration is very important. We are all different and during the ceremony we go through different processes. If someone comes to a ceremony with the intention to cleanse past traumatic experience, the person may have to relive the trauma. Usually this happens with much less personal involvement, as if observing it from a distance. Most people can deal with such process on their own. However, unpleasant feelings may surface and in some cases people need help. I am therefore very happy I met Mina Paš, an integrative relational psychotherapist and M.D. We exchange the view on the integration process, and explore possibilities of connecting and complementing modern and traditional knowledge. She and her colleagues from Rabbit Hole Institute carried out our first national research on the healing potential of ayahuasca on psychopathology and general well being.
Our current society, which unsustainably exploits nature and its resources, will not be able to survive for a long time. Is the knowledge of indigenous healers and medicine man the one that can enable humanity to survive and even build a society that will live in harmony with nature and all living beings?
Absolutely. If you look where the world’s largest biodiversity is, it is always in the territories of indigenous peoples or the areas where they have lived until recently. I think the future of humanity could be better if we allow the diverstiy to thrive and build on knowledge from different cultures with keeping in mind the best intentions for us and the planet. To allow diverse views of the world and various lifestyles, and at the same time stop egoistically saying “my valley”, “my county”, “my continent”, etc. For the first time in our known history, we are closelly connected at the global level and that is why our responsibility must become global.
It is completely unacceptable to me that our culture still sometimes considers the indigenous cultures as primitive. The only difference is that they developped different types of knowledge. They did not develop cell phones or the internet. But with the knowledge to access the altered states of consciousness and other realities they developed a much stronger internet than ours. With ours we can communicate with each other. With theirs we can communicate with different forms of life. Whatever one human being does, it affects us all. I think the indigenous people are much more advanced in this regard. Their communities are connected, more solid and much safer. And above all, they live in greater welfare with less work. Our culture is increasingly emphasizing egoism and individualism which increases stress, depression, psychological problems and the like.
We are not separated from one another and hurting someone means to hurt ourselves …
With Ayahuasca I learned that there is an unconscious and conscious part of individual, family, street, state, continent, and the world. Anger, hatred, envy are added to the pool of unconscious on all levels, or we can choose to add compassion, truth, mutual understanding, cooperation, love, etc. It is therefore good to be constantly aware that whatever we do to another, we do to ourselves, and vice versa.
In conversations about currently popular issues, such as refugees or immigrants, we demand and expect them to integrate into our culture. This is not possible without significant psychological and possibly physical consequences for them and their next generations. It is essential to be open and tolerant for differentness. We can always choose between hurting and healing. Why should a turban, hat, scarf or feathers define a relationship with fellow men? The worlds and stories we carry in ourselves make us human, not what we wear on ourselves. This is how the difference ceases to be a threat and becomes enriching experience.
Is softening and possibly even the disintegration of ones personal ego the essence of personal growth? How essential it is to move from giving to yourself to serving others?
The word ego is often used as something negative. My experience is that the ego makes me me, you you, etc. Personal growth means diving into the pool of unconscious. The only difference is to what extent a person knows this unconscious. We are able to control only the conscious part of us. Personal growth is to become aware of the unconscious as much as possible, trying to get to know it and then cleanse it. In doing so, we eventually discover the connection between us and everyone else, how we influence – consciously or unconsciously – each other. Then we realize we are all just different worlds trying to communicate as best as we can. Then we automatically step out of individualism.
In the book you explain how our lifestyle already exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet. What can an individual do to save the planet and its living beings from ultimate collapse?
A lot can be done with small changes in everyday life. For example, by using only reusable bags or saying no to the newest versions of mobile phone. Little things like that. But it is also crucial that we start creating different democracy and political activity. Democracy and political activity is not only voting every few years. It means being socially active whether in our street, interest group or at the national/international level. We can connect with people who, for example, know and practice permaculture, organic farming, composting, etc. and we start networking with other groups who are already doing the same. We may grow our own food if we have an option to do so. However, we need to avoid the system we are forced into and start making changes even if they seem small.
It is also important to be active when decisions are made about our lives. We need to be interested in development programs, changes in legislation, and we should not leave these decisions to anonymous politicians or bureaucrats. We need to give up the individualism and start talking to each other, discuss our future, and above all to start taking action.
How do you, despite this awareness, maintain the optimism that the harmony between humanity and nature, as well as people will once again be established?
I really believe in this. I am very grateful that I worked for environmental NGOs on local and international level where I met numerous groups and people who are making very serious changes. I was able to see how many they are and how they are changing things. It may not be highly visible yet, but it will definitely be in near future. I believe that, and I remain optimistic. Many people in the world are doing a lot of good things – and they will continue to do so no matter what the system does.
And for the end … The title of your book is The Time Is Now. Why?
The book got the title years ago, when I didn’t know exactly what it will be about. It was written in other realities for few years. During the ceremonies I received quite detailed instructions what I should write about.
I think it’s really time for some things to be understood very clearly. We can no longer say that we didn’t know. We know exactly where this train of humanity is heading if we do not change. We clearly know who drives it and with what interests. We really do not have any more time to keep our heads in the sand. The time of discussion and good thoughts has passed. We wasted our time when we still had chance to change slowly. We no longer have the excuse to behave like this toward other humans, other cultures and planet. Now is the time to take action.