artwork by visionary artist Pablo Amaringo
This post comes in light of the recent tragedy in Iquitos, where a young man grabbed a knife and attacked his friend during ceremony. The man was 29, a year younger than me, and had gone with a friend to work with the plant medicine ayahuasca on a retreat in the Amazon jungle. As the story goes, he had visions of his friend cheating with his wife and –overcome with rage– tried to stab him. In self-defense, the friend ended up killing the attacker.
I was in actually in a medicine dieta when I heard this story, and the group of us that were together became silent and felt the sadness of what happened. I realized that things in the ayahuasca world were seriously getting out of hand. While gathering plants in my garden to make herbal medicines I felt the message strongly to share a little of my own journey, to share a perspective that comes from my own experience, my love for the medicine, my love for the great light, and my prayer for our future.
My Ayahuasca Journey
My medicine path opened up 10 years ago. I had been working with many different elders and medicine people after my family went into a major healing crisis, where it felt like every one of us was plagued with a heaviness we could not shake off. The worst of it was when my younger brother went into a psychosis and stopped talking for months, almost in a comatose state. In an attempt to save him, we flew him south, and began working with a shaman in Venezuela where my father was. Among telling me I had a gift for seeing the other world, to get my driver’s license, and to start seriously singing. He also told us to bring my brother back to Canada to get medical help and there was nothing he could do.
I became obsessed with finding a cure for Dan, as I knew in my heart there was more to it. I knew his spirit was sick and he needed healing. I began an investigation of alternative therapies, and traditional medicine and indigenous wisdom. But what happened in my search for my brother’s cure, was my own healing and coming into myself. Some years later I headed to Peru for my first aya retreat. I was one month pregnant and so motherhood and ayahuasca have always come hand in hand. Mothering while being mothered by this grandmother plant, I began a transformational journey that I just could not walk away from. As soon as I swallowed my first cup of medicine, I knew I was being called to continue.
Believe me, it has not been easy at times. But in the end, I could not imagine walking any other path. Over the years, I continued to work with the medicine, and through many prayers and intention I found a beautiful lineage of healers who I began to sit with regularly and devoted my life to this Path and this Medicine. We packed up our house time and time again to continue our travels and studies in Peru. Suitcases and children were stuffed into riverboats down the Amazon. I have been shot at by pirates, been struck with dysentery in a tribal village hours away from any medical help, had towering snakes in my tambo, cockroaches, mosquitoes, and tarantulas as roommates. I would roll my eyes as the people in my group would talk about how tired they were and how hard it was. They slept all day after ceremony while I was up into the night with visions, waking up at dawn to take care of children, breastfeed, make breakfast, potty train, clean diapers, and try my best at the same time to be present.
Why would I do this? I don’t know. Something kept me going through the insanity of it. A profound change was happening inside of me. A light began to grow so bright I finally remembered that it was always there. I learned to listen to its guidance.
What is “Dieta”
For those who are not aware, dieta is one of the traditional ways to work with the plants. It involves an opening up of your spirit body, drinking ayahuasca along with a companion plant while eating simple foods or fasting from food all together for periods of time. After one “diets” a plant, this plant is in your medicine pouch. Healers will call in specific plants and energies when working with someone. Dietas are also prescribed for certain ailments. For example, one man I sat with had severe rheumatism. He could not even move his hands. One of the Maestros prescribed a two-month diet of no salts, sugars and oils, and made a remedy of 20 different plants for him to take every day. At the end of the two months, he was completely cured of all pain he had suffered with for almost 20 years.
Last year during one of my longer dietas, I received a strong vision to create women-only spaces, and Tree-of-Light retreats was born. With a fellow mother, I began facilitating women’s retreats with Maestras in the Shipibo lineage. After much resistance, I decided to be a part of the growing industry. I wanted women like me to receive the medicine and have a positive space to do healing work without any malicious energies around, or molestation to take place, which had started to become far too common in the new “medicine tourism.” I also wanted the medicine to be treated with the love and respect that it deserves and so this labor of love came into fruition.
The Growth and Dangers of Ayahuasca Tourism
In five short years, the Ayahuasca scene –especially, but not only in Peru– has experienced a massive boom, from the fringes to mainstream news coverage, appearances in Hollywood movies, YouTube documentaries, books, blogs, magazine articles, you name it. Centers have popped up all over the place, claiming healing and miraculous transformation. In some ways, I benefit from this boom. I buy groceries and clothing for my children because of the medicine’s growing popularity. But I feel a deep sadness that it has come to this.
Below I have outlined some of the different types of people I have experienced and witnessed serving Ayahuasca over six years of commitment, the last two almost full-time in Peru both running retreats and sitting in many ceremonies. I share this hoping it can be informative for people who feel called to work with the plants.
I recently held a retreat with a 70-year-old maestra with over 40 years of experience. She was a good healer, and worked until 4:00 in the morning every ceremony singing through to the other side. Her grandson had studied with her for less than a year. He had done one dieta of a few months and no more than two years experience working with Ayahuasca. From the moment I met him I didn’t like him, though I tried to give it a shot as he provided company for the grandmother we were working with.
We had hired him to help with translation (many medicine people do not speak Spanish) and help with caring for our maestra during a retreat we were running. Two days after their plane landed, he left in the middle of the night with the excuse that his kids were sick. Later we learned he had been called by the last center we were working at to serve medicine as they were in need of a “shaman.”
He put on a traditional Kushma, (hand woven priest like dress) he spoke Shipibo and sang some Icaros. He was a complete fake. He served ayahuasca to people who were looking for an authentic experience and banked on his indigenous background.
Can I blame him? Not really. The Shipibos as well as many other medicine cultures are going through a cultural genocide. Their relationship with money has only been around for 50 years. They see this as an amazing opportunity to leverage their families out of poverty. Westerners looking for the ayahuasca experience are easy targets. People with fourth stage cancer come to the Amazon with nothing to lose but their wallets. The person serving medicine is not malicious, but they have little to offer. They have no skill or real experience to draw from if anything dark were to take place, such as a man being possessed and trying to stab someone in ceremony.
These folks, are a little more skilled than just people putting on a Kushma. They also fit into the fake category, but they step up the business a little with a guaranteed experience. When you ask any Maestro or Maestra what Ayahuasca is, they will tell you, it is a benevolent spirit that has offered itself to us to help us become well. And this is why ayahuasca is not used in the same way as recreational substances. There is no guarantee, especially if you do not have a relationship with this plant spirit.
In the course of the ayahuasca boom, some ceremonial entrepreneurs have decided that the participants should be guaranteed a psychedelic experience in exchange for their money. Since people drinking the exact same amount of ayahuasca at the same ceremony will experience a completely different journey depending on their level of experience many times those new to the medicine will not experience any visions after drinking ayahuasca.
I know some who have gone through 10-day dietas with little experience beyond irritation. In order to ensure “satisfied customers,” these businesses promote their product in one-time ceremonies and, unbeknownst to the participants, lace the medicine with other substances (LSD or more dangerously, datura — a powerful psychotropic that can be very dark). At least two deaths in Peru over the past couple of years that were attributed to ayahuasca have likely resulted from mixing ayahuasca with datura.
Many people from the Amazon practice brujeria: the art of black magic through curses, hexes, and the manipulation of energies. This was really hard to wrap my head around, but I have seen more than my fair share.
Brujos will deliberately make you sick and then “miraculously” heal you. They will steal your power, your life force, your energy, and your vision. There is dark and light in this world. It is part of this universal make up. These guys are on the dark side.
A friend I know shared her experience of being deep in the jungle and began vomitting blood after ceremonies. A brujo sang to her to heal her, then brought her to an ATM to withdraw all her money.
In walking this path, I also have been tempted in ceremonies with the temptation of power. I have been in full visions with entities promising me all kinds of things: the end of any money problems, being able to give my children anything they wanted, a beautiful house on the river, recognition, becoming a famous singer, a powerhouse with people under my finger… Ya, not so interested.
The way Jesus was on the mountain, the Buddha was tempted by Mara, and he watched without judgment and just invited Mara to drink green tea with him. As my Baha’i grandmother says: “If you were not tested before you were Baha’i, you can expect to be tested once you become Baha’i.” When you devote yourself to being an ambassador of light, there will be hardships and one must stay strong and stand with integrity.
Many brujos started out with goodness. They walked the line between worlds, helped people,and put in their time into their training. But at some point the desire for power won and the Darth Vader in the spirit world consumed them.
There are increasingly popular Ayahuasca centers that have brujos working for them. They sing well, they are powerful, and they make you feel powerful. But it’s not actually a power that feeds goodness and love. It is a power-over energy that exists everywhere, not only in the Amazon.
I recently heard that one of these well known brujos was molesting women in ceremony. I shared this information with a friend who also is in the medicine community. As we talked, he just argued with me that it could not be possible. He had such a hard time believing such a powerful, famous person who was known as a “healer” could do such a thing.He has politicians and celebrities and all kinds of people come to him. Just because someone is famous and powerful does not mean they are necessarily working in the light. How many spiritual traditions in history have stories of abuse and abuse of power? Way too many.
The Ceremonial Musicians
I have come to recommend the musicians more than any tribal people or anyone who calls themselves a shaman unless I know them personally and have seen them work. There is so much manipulation of energy that can take place if you end up in the wrong maloka. Many musicians move into the sound and sacred and offer a beautiful space resulting in joyful beautiful ceremonies.
Though many of them do not have the training when really powerful energies are being released, they can provide a good space for people to meet the medicine and develop a relationship with it.
That said, I have met many people who have come to work with the medicine who want to do deep work, to release deep trauma, and did not feel sufficient support and left disappointed.
I have also seen many people who serve medicine in this way become very sick themselves, their health deteriorating over time as they take on the energies they are working around, without the support of the plants, or proper dietas, or a lineage to help them when they feel weak.
Many of the ceremonial musicians I’ve met have beautiful good hearts and a deep love for the medicine, but on the shadow side, there seem to be large elements of ego involved and a real lack of humility in some of these concert ceremonies. With more focus on the musician performing songs than on those coming to receive healing. I have also met some great ceremonial musicians who are solid healers, but in my experience they are few and far between the now thousands of musicians who are now serving medicine around the world.
The Daime, The Group Healers
I read a study about Daime years ago that followed people within the community over a period of 20 years. They found that people working within the Daime church dramatically improved in their relationships, work and reported feeling of wellness, their relationship to life in general and even their lack of fear in death. What Daime offers is what religion and church offer, a spiritual community.
Daime ceremonies use the collective energy to heal. Everyone sings and dances and calls in the energy of spirit together. There is also a very old lineage, merging Portuguese and African ancestry. The elements, the ancestors, and God is acknowledged and called in. As the biblical verse “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. “Through collective prayer for healing, love, and remembrance Daime has recorded many miraculous healings, as do born again Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’is etc.
The Daime is a church, and in that church the community comes together with a belief in spirit, and with that faith and devotion, healing happens. It has served many people and has a deep respect for the medicine. That said, in recent years it also has leaders who have been accused of molestation and rape. As it goes in every tradition, the abuse of power and the need for us is to never give away our power to anyone.
The Curanderos/ Curanderas (Healers)
These exist far and wide, including in the Ayahuasca tradition. They are the healers on the planet, of all walks and all lineages. They are the people who are willing to put the time in, to sacrifice themselves and their own desires for the healing of the planet. They work with the light. They do not compromise.
They also make mistakes and will mess up as human beings. But their purpose and their devotion is to healing the sick, helping the hurt, blessing and protecting all who come to them. There is a deep understanding that it is not them. That no healing of spirit could come from a human being, that they are simply channels for God, for spirit to move through. But how do you find them?
Just because someone is old does not mean he or she is also either wise or a true healer. Nor can you recognize a genuine curandero by a withered tan face, a traditional ceremonial outfit, and the singing of icaros.
Look for the real signs. Are people around them receiving both physically and emotionally? What is their track record? How do you feel in their presence? How do you feel after the waters have settled?
Where do they get their medicine? Do they treat the medicine with respect at all times?
Ceremony can be uncomfortable, especially if you are working with a true curandero/a. Who will sing to clean you of energies that are not serving you, and the process of letting go can at times be intense.
Coming back to the sad story of the recent stabbing in ceremony, I know in my heart of hearts that the only reason this happened was because the people involved did not have the skills to manage the situation. I am also quite sure that any screening process, if there was one at all, was insufficient. (For example, in our retreats we ask for a complete medical history, interview potential participants via Skype, and do not accept anyone who has a history of SSRI use, for their own safety.) But regardless of that, how could a so-called “medicine” cause something like this?
My Personal Visions
I recently had a vision during a short diet. After what felt like such a long road, I was beginning to feel cautious and almost fearful of ayahuasca and was seriously considering walking away. I was trying to make sense of a difficult experience, stuck in the midst of confusion, and wondering how something benevolent could be used for such harm. I sat in my seat on the earth, listened to the icaros, and had a nice long talk with the medicine.
I then heard a voice:
“It is like everything Naomi. Anything with power can be used for light or for darkness. This is one of the aspects of what power is. If it was not so, free will could not exist, and you would not actually have a choice. And without a choice, you would have no freedom, and without freedom, you would never learn. And you are all here learning; you are all here for a reason; and you also agreed to come.”
I watched the earth spin through space. I watched the cosmos birth in infinity. My view opened into a vision of a beautiful medicine woman, cutting plants from the garden with a knife. She then started to make a nourishing soup full of herbs, slicing up vegetables and plants, singing, loving. She served the soup to her children who were nourished and to someone nearby who was sick. Her children were smiling. The sick person began to feel better. I then saw someone run into the room, grab the knife from the Maestra and stab everyone and kill them. (Yes it was a pretty graphic vision.)
Then the medicine spoke again:
“Naomi, I cannot be something I am not. I was birthed from the earth as a tool to be used, but I cannot make the choice for humanity. I can only offer what I can offer. Do not be afraid. Do not give into fear, because this is how you lose your power.
“Real power lives inside of you, you were born with it, only to be taught to give it away. Do not give into the hate, and the jealousy and the comparison. Do not compromise when it comes to the important stuff. Do not give up, even when it is hard and you feel hopeless. Keep believing in people. And keep believing in yourself.
“Because as you know dear one, there is much more than things seem, and Love will always win this battle if you choose it.”
And so, there it is friends, my guide to drinking Ayahuasca with the good people. Be safe. Be strong. Follow your hearts always. Be mindful of whom you choose to sit with. Watch for the signs. Follow word-of-mouth, but beware too of the experience levels of those who make recommendations. What kind of lives are the people living who recommend a certain person and what is their relationship to them? How do these people walk in the world?
Pray and come to ceremony with humility and respect to learn from this ancient tool used for thousands of years. And as always, when you find yourself sitting in ceremony, after you go up to drink that awful tasting brew, whatever is happening, remember that love is the greatest force in the universe and that love actually lives inside of you.
Naomi Co Created tree of light retreats with a fellow visionary Mother.
Holding the heartfelt vision of women coming together in the sisterhood, to heal, let go, and be empowered to share their deepest gifts with a world that is in deep need of transformation.
Tree of light retreats offers women Ayahuasca retreats as well as a few coed retreats through the year. Working with highly skilled Ayahuasquero Healers and experienced and well trained facilitators to offer additional guidance and support along the journey.
They work in the sacred valley of Peru and the Amazon Jungle.