How Ayahuasca Changed My Life
By: Mark Van Proyen
It is important to point out that Ayahuasca is not for everybody. If you want to use it to act out a rainforest-themed sequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or think of it as providing a spot of the old slap-and-tickle for a spring break adventure, you might want to think twice. Ayahuasca brings its devotees into a very powerful moment of oft-times painful and frightening self-confrontation, and you have to be prepared to face those moments and learn from them. Not everybody that I shared the Maloka with was so prepared, meaning an early morning boat trip back to Iquitos for them. On the other hand, there several moments when many of my Maloka partners broke out into prolonged fits of scurrilous laughter, indicated the range of different experiences that the plant medicine can conjure.
For almost a full decade, I have been vexed with type-2 diabetes that has, during the past year grown worse, necessitating twice-a-day insulin injections added to my maxed-out dosage of Metformin. During most of this time, I have been about 50 pounds overweight, prone to debilitating pollen allergies and easily fatigued. Work-related stress factored into the mix, and afternoon bouts of depression and clouded brain function were common, as was my overconsumption of strong coffee to counteract them. In short, my health was on a downward spiral with a grim ending coming into plain sight. That’s where Ayahuasca comes in.
Chris Isner noticed the symptoms of my failing health over a Chinese dinner one night in March, and he put me on to the idea that Shamanic treatment with Peruvian plant medicine might be effective. I was already somewhat familiar with Ayahuasca from having heard a series of taped lectures by Terrance McKenna in the late 1980’s, and my memory of those lectures made me curious enough to pursue Chris’s suggestion. And so, after a little additional on-line research, I decided to follow up on Chris’s suggestion by booking a 20 day Ayahuasca retreat at the Pulse Ayahuasca Adventure Tours Center in the eastern Peruvian rainforest, located near the small village of Libertard on the Ucayli River—a major tributary to the Amazon. During that time, I participated in 12 Ayahuasca ceremonies with close to two-dozen other guests hailing from all parts of the globe, each there in search of some form of unique healing. Several were dealing with various addiction issues, and one was an Afgan war vet who struggled mightily with the traumatic residues of combat. Others were there to confront long-repressed memories of deep psychic injury, or simply to sort themselves out after the end of a difficult relationship. There were couples who had come to repair their marriages, while others were dealing with vexations ranging from an injured back to a vocal blockage. The majority of guests were in their mid to late 20s, with only two others besides myself in the over 60 demographic.
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“I participated in 12 Ayahuasca ceremonies with close to two-dozen other guests hailing from all parts of the globe, each there in search of some form of unique healing.”
I was glad that I chose the Pulse program. Prior to booking with them, I did some looking around the internet at other options, of which there are about 30 in Peru alone, with many others in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Brazil. One thing that stood out for me was that the minimum stay at Pulse was a full week consisting of four ceremonies. I rightfully assumed that this would minimize visits from those who were merely curious and less committed, as several other retreat centers offered three-day stays with one ceremony. I also seemed to me that the Pulse center put a lot of effort and forethought into balancing accessibility with a respect for the authenticity of the Shamanic traditions of administering plant medicine. The three Shaman that we worked with had been practicing Shamanic medicine from 10 to 22 years, and were all members of the Shipibo indigenous tribal group. For as long as anyone can remember, the Shipibo Shaman have been widely revered as masters of the Amazonian plant medicine, and they came highly recommended for good reason. Their knowledge about and dedication to their work was evident throughout. Obviously, it should be noted that not everyone who claims to be a Shaman can support the claim, and some of those who came up on my Google search seemed a bit sketchy. If fact, some are brujos (Spanish word for “witch,”) and administer the plant medicine in an irresponsible and even malicious manner.
Getting to the Pulse Center proved to be an adventure in its own right. It required getting to the Peruvian city of Iquitos, until very recently the largest city in the world that had no roads leading in or out of it. Iquitos is a surreal place, a kind of pirate-voodoo city of desperate souls barely getting by amidst dilapidated buildings and mass flurries of insane motorists. Someone should make a supernatural horror movie about the place, but that can wait for another telling. Our group met one morning at a hotel lobby to begin a journey that went far beyond Iquitos. First by bus, and then by three-wheel passenger cycles, and finally by way of a long boat ride, we arrived at the Pulse Ayahuasca Adventure Center, a cluster of mosquito-netted thatched-roof buildings perched on stilts 10 feet above high river level, all connected by raised walkways. Among these were sleeping quarters, toilet and shower facilities, a kitchen and dining room, a gymnasium and a large quiet room with hammocks.
The largest of these rooms is called The Maloka, and is used for group meetings and the four weekly Ayahuasca Ceremonies that commenced at 7:30 pm and concluded a little past midnight. It is a conical building about 60 feet high and about 50 feet in diameter at the floor, with mats, blankets and pillows arrayed in a semicircle around the floor’s perimeter. There were 18 stations for the guests (who one of the Shaman accurately referred to as “passengers”) and several more for the three facilitators and three Shaman, plus a few extras positioned so that individual guests could sit closer to the Shaman at various points during the ceremony. Plastic purge buckets were set about to receive the vomiting that often comes with ingesting Ayahuasca. Such vomiting is considered to be a desirable way to expel the psychic toxins associated with negative experiences.
It is important to come to any Ayahuasca Ceremony with an intention, which is presented to the Shaman prior to the first ceremony. Mine was to cure diabetes, which I thought to be a tall order. But to my surprise, it was received by the lead Shaman as if I had walked into the Mayo Clinic complaining about the sniffles. The main problem was simply to confront and overcome the lifelong sugar addiction that had become my normal state of being. After that, other work could be done to set the diabetes into remission, and Ayahuasca could and would provide a powerful catalyst for both projects.
“It is best to call Ayahuasca a plant medicine rather than a drug. It is powerfully psychoactive, making an average dose of LSD seem like ginger beer in comparison”
It is best to call Ayahuasca a plant medicine rather than a drug. It is powerfully psychoactive, making an average dose of LSD seem like ginger beer in comparison. Its two main ingredients, Ayahuasca and Chacruna, bond to create a very active form of DMT (dimethyltryptamine). No doubt, there are other ingredients mixed into the potion, and in my case, I was also instructed to drink three glasses of two different teas during the day. One of these is called Abuta, and is made from the dried bark of the tree of the same name. The other one is called Cortadera, which I only drank during the first week of my stay at the Pulse Center. As I would later find out, these infusions would function like a kind of cellular gasoline to which the Ayahuasca would be the igniting match, allowing me to lower the insulin sensitivity of my normally slow cell metabolism. Despite its off-putting flavor, I am still drinking the Abuta tea, and eating small amounts of food without salt, sugar or any caffeine. I have not had any alcohol for a month, and my weight is still plummeting. In twenty days at the Pulse Center, I lost 22 pounds. During that time, I gave up insulin and Metformin. A full month later, my fasting blood sugar is now 148, which is still high, but within the range where it can be controlled with diet and exercise. Additional weight loss and avoidance of sugars, bad fats and soft carbs will be one of the keys to keeping my diabetes in remission, which will be no easy trick in a western culture that seems like one vast machine designed to either sneak or stuff sugar down my throat. The other key will be to tonify my aging pancreas with exercise and a protein-rich diet.
“It is worth noting that the word Ayahuasca derives from the phrase “path to god,” indicating that the plant medicine has a religious purpose in the Shipibo world”
It is worth noting that the word Ayahuasca derives from the phrase “path to god,” indicating that the plant medicine has a religious purpose in the Shipibo world. True enough. But the Shaman are not really priests who mediate the threshold between the sacred and the mundane. Instead, they administer the plant medicine and let its users form their own direct relationship to the forms and voices of divinity, providing guidance and interpretation along the way. At several junctures, I heard such voices, especially during my second week of ceremonies that took place after I had finished kicking my sugar addiction. I was shown how to consciously re-regulate my own cell metabolism by a shadowy female figure with a deep confident voice. By start of the third week, I was starting to get the hang of it.
My first ceremony: It was beyond intense. I took half the normal dose so that I could gauge my susceptibility to the medicine, which as it turned out, was quite high. At the Shaman’s suggestion, I had not taken any diabetes medication that day, and I was nervous about how the sudden absence of insulin might impact my experience. It was a rough ride. When I shut my eyes, I saw a parade of illuminated translucent forms come down from the ceiling of the Maloka. Some of them looked giant pulsating hummingbirds, and I remembered an undergraduate paper that I wrote about the 2000 year-old Nazca geoglyphs situated in the Peruvian desert 200 south of Lima, one of which is a 300-foot long hummingbird. Was there a connection? Did others in the Maloka see the same things? (some did). These entities they led me into a vast dimly lit labyrinth of interconnected buildings that receded backward and downward into a vast three-dimensional vista. On the Escher-esque ramps and terraces that connected the building were thousands of bouncing vipers wearing fluorescent clown make-up, all moving about in Buzby Berkeley fashion, all mocking and taunting me. It was horrifying, a vision of my own slow demise, and of a world that insisted on amusing itself to death. My body rebelled, and I was vexed with muscle cramps and intense heart palpitations. I was nauseous and pouring perspiration, but I was unable to purge. I freaked out and pleaded with the facilitators take me to my room so that I could get a half dose of insulin. After the insulin kicked in, it was smooth sailing to the end of the ceremony.
At a group meeting the next morning, the lead Shaman interpreted the vision of the sugar monsters as representing my sugar addiction and the vast, seemingly insurmountable power that it had over my life. He was not happy that I resorted to taking insulin, saying that it showed that I did not have faith in the plant medicine. I took some more insulin for my second ceremony and had a series of delightful visions of benevolent river spirits floating about, but I reminded myself that I was there to address my health issues, not to have a marvelous time with marvelous visions.
“I reminded myself that I was there to address my health issues, not to have a marvelous time with marvelous visions.”
After a night of rest, I skipped the insulin during my third ceremony. I took a full shot of Ayahuasca and the sugar monsters had returned. Only this time, they were poised for massive attack. I looked to my right and saw an anaconda lurking in a pool of water. Even before I asked for help, the Anaconda shook its head in denial. Then the Ayahuasca voice said, “you don’t need animal spirits, check this out.” At that moment, I was flanked by two groups of Spartan warriors, who set their shields together to form an iron wall of determination, resembling a scene from the movie 300. The sugar monsters attacked, and there was a frenzied battle—I noticed that among the warriors, there were several of the other passengers in the Maloka. Someone shouted “isn’t it time to get some insulin down here?” and I said, “Fuck that, we can beat these guys, right here, right now.”
At that moment, the sugar monsters seemed suddenly confused and out of energy. Behind them I saw the smiling Shaman. Earlier that day, I drank the Cortadera tea and in the vision it was doing its work on the sugar monsters, all beating a disorganized retreat as the Spartan battle line advanced toward them. When the sun came up, my clothing was soaked with flop sweat and my purge bucket was full. But that was not the last of the sugar monsters. They returned the next night in the form of strobe-lit parrot-faced balloons, beckoning me to reconsider and trying hard to remind me about all of the fun that we used to have back in the glory days of my addiction. By the time of the fifth ceremony three nights later, they were all set in stacked cages, looking like pathetic little victims of some cosmic misunderstanding. By that time, the worst of my sugar withdrawal symptoms had passed, and I was ready to move on to a different use of the plant medicine. Adios, sugar monsters.
During my second and third week, I learned how to control and if necessary banish the vivid, almost cinematic visions that came from the Ayahuasca medicine. I was much more interested in learning how to use the medicine to take conscious control of my cell metabolism and pancreatic functions, consciously overriding involuntary biological functions. During the third ceremony of the second week, I staggered out of the Maloka toward the toilet facilities (with the much needed help of facilitator Ian) when I suddenly felt to urge to purge. I leaned over the railing and wretched with an unholy vigor. No fluid came out, but I expelled a gaseous cloud of something truly foul, something resembling the putrid stench of death. Afterwards, I passed out in the toilet and had to be carried back inside the Maloka. Apparently, the sound that I had made just outside the Maloka had raised some alarm, and the other facilitators expressed concern about my situation. During the ceremony, the two female facilitators wear long flowing white clothing, which made them look like benevolent angels of mercy when they came toward you from out of the darkness, always bringing words of kindness with them.
“During the ceremony, the two female facilitators wear long flowing white clothing, which made them look like benevolent angels of mercy when they came toward you from out of the darkness”
Aside from the imbibing of the plant medicine, the most important part of the Ayahuasca ceremony was the singing of the Ikaros by the three Shaman. The first Ikaros starts about 20 minutes after the last passenger receives his or her shot of Ayahuasca, starting off with some subtle whistling that is followed by one of the Shaman singing in the Shapibo language. Sometimes it was more of a chant than a song, and sometimes it sounded like a hymn of cosmic reconciliation. At other times, the songs were anthems of encouragement, but all of their attributes wove together into a kind of fugue structure. Gradually, the other Shaman chime in, singing in unison or counterpoint, with Angelita’s high voice soaring sweetly above the others. It is worth noting here that the very distinctive stitched fabric designs made by Shipibo women are in fact musical scores for the Ikaros songs, and they grow more complicated the longer that you examine them. One thing that I noticed was the effect that certain sound frequencies and vibrations had on my state of mind. I felt like I was being re-animated by invisible forces. And as it turned out, I was right.
During the second ceremony of my third week, I witnessed an exorcism. That ceremony started as they all do, with the serving of the plant medicine and the singing of the Ikaros. One member of the newest group to come in was a quiet and rather shy guy from New Zealand, whose mat was on the other side of the Maloka from my own. About an hour into the ceremony, he started pounding the floor rather loudly, drawing the attention of the facilitators. Then he started screaming as if he were undergoing extreme physical pain. This caused the Shaman and the facilitators to move about in a precise and highly organized manner, looking like a well-trained team. What followed was so disturbing that several of the passengers got up and exited the Maloka, congregating and in one case fainting on the bridge. Everything happened in moonlit darkness, but I could see that the screaming man was being held down by the facilitators, while all three Shaman were singing and performing rituals. After some time had passed, he became quiet and fell into a deep comatose sleep. The Shaman looked exhausted, but the exorcism was complete. Facilitator Ian walked out toward the restroom and the shower area, covered in viscous body fluids. I asked, “What the fuck was that?” and in a matter of fact manner he replied, “That was an exorcism.” I later found out that there had been five of six similar events during the 15 months that the Pulse Center has been hosting Ayahuasca retreats, and that the one that I witnessed was not nearly as dramatic as some of the others that had previously taken place. But it was certainly dramatic enough for those of us who witnessed the event.
At the next morning’s breakfast table, we asked the man from New Zealand what he remembered about the previous evening. He said, “All I remember was that I fell in a very dark and frightening place, and then I woke up when the sun came out.” He had several visible cuts on his face, but seemed to be in a peaceful state of mind. The following day, those cuts had vanished.