First published by the Ecologist here
The adventure began as our long, narrow river-boat pushed out into the great expanse of the Nanay river – a vast headwater of the Amazon. The fog of days of travel cleared as we began to appreciate where we had got to – an entry to the heart of the mighty Amazon jungle in Iquitos, Peru.
Reeling from a recent break-up and suffering from long-term insomnia and anxiety, I had followed friends’ suggestion that I travel to an Amazon plant healing centre to partake of the legendary jungle medicine brew Ayahuasca to help heal myself.
Ayahuasca, often referred to simply as ‘La Medicina’ is now coming to prominence as Western doctors, psychologists and academics get wind of its powers, and an increasing number of people share stories of its critical role in treating their debilitating and often life threatening conditions. It has been credited with curing depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, post traumatic stress and other neuroses as well as addictions and chronic health issues as diverse as backache, gout, Parkinson’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, endometriosis, migraines and even early stage cancer.
These types of issue can arise when our lifestyles are sub-optimal or when we are frustrated or unhappy. A challenge to the Western approach of treating symptoms, Ayahuasca appears to somehow interact with the deep-rooted causes of our maladies. My odyssey would challenge many of my assumptions about how our bodies and minds work, and lead ultimately to relief from a seemingly intractable condition through a fresh perspective on the nature of life itself. Also referred to as “The Vine of the Soul” or “The Vine of the Dead”, Ayahuasca is acclaimed for its ability to take those who drink it beyond their earthly body to a place where even Death – the ultimate fear of most people – can be more easily understood.
My companions were a motley crew from all walks of life and from a number of nationalities, ranging in age from a boy of 18 (here with his Dad) through to 62-year old Mark, who was researching a place for his son to treat his addiction to prescribed anxiety drugs. In total our workshop group of twenty people comprised five Brits with others from Canada, the U.S., Egypt, Spain and Switzerland.
Sitting opposite me was Craig, obviously US military. He wore a baseball cap, wrap-around shades, cropped hair and a large warrior tattoo on his shoulder. He sat solid and still, looking straight out, as if he was on a sortie in Afghanistan. I was keen to hear the story of how he arrived here – what was to follow during his healing would astonish all of us – not least this rock-like soldier himself.
Our destination was The Temple of the Way of Light, one of a number of a large and well-established healing centres throughout the Amazon in Peru, Brazil and Colombia. The Temple was founded by another Englishman, Matthew Waterstone, in 2007 after he himself had gone in search of healing. An estate agent from Hampshire, at the time he was 32, depressed, overweight and addicted to cannabis. Hard to believe now, he is slim, happy and extraordinarily full of energy, personally facilitating at many of the workshops himself and tirelessly building up the Temple’s resources.
In his third Ayahuasca ceremony Matthew had a powerful and detailed vision of his new life’s work. He saw an eco-city, harmoniously nestled within the jungle, in which a world-leading healing centre would connect shaman of the local Amazonian tribe, the Shipibo, in treating large numbers of people needing help with traditional plant medicines. The centre would be a beacon of hope, demonstrating harmonious and sustainable ways of living in the forest without chopping it down. Since then, he has attracted international experts, skilled staff and squadrons of volunteers who work with him to manifest this vision – to date The Temple has treated over 3,000 people.
Back to the present day, having arrived and settled into the Temple, we met early the next morning at the house of the maestros and maestras (the shaman of the local Shibipo tribe) for Day One of our 12 day workshop retreat. The day begins with a ‘vomitivo’ – a vomiting session designed to start the process of purification the workshop entails, and get us used to vomiting as part of this process. We drank a nausea-inducing potion followed by as much lemongrass-infused water as possible until swiftly erupting in copious watery bellyfulls. This served as an early introduction to what was to follow and as an ice-breaker – you get to know someone pretty quickly after vomiting side by side!
My neighbor in our sleeping huts or ‘tambos’ and ceremonies was Liv, a 49 year-old tall and striking ex-model. She was open and smiley but her story was harrowing. Five years ago her husband beat her badly. The following year he killed himself. Her depression wouldn’t pass so her two sons (19 and 21) booked her place.
The following day was the first of seven evening Ayahuasca healing ceremonies so we would not eat dinner. The afternoon was never-ending and the heat stifling. I lay in my hut in nervous anticipation. From 5pm we stopped drinking water. At 7pm we congregated in the maloca, a giant, wooden thatched hut. Soft mats had been laid in a circle around the edge like hours of the clock. We lay down and waited for the end of time.
When called we sat in the middle to receive our dose. The thick, dark, noxious potion was poured into small glasses. We took the one measured for us and looked warily into the faces of our fellow “pasajeros” or travellers. Some of us grinned nervously, some stared at the floor, others looked terrified. Finally, we drank.
The taste is unimaginably foul – something like rotten fruit mixed with battery acid. It tasted like poison. Shaking and gagging we shuffled back to our mats and prepared for take-off.
After about 45 minutes the Maestros sitting in the middle began singing and the sound of vomiting began to emerge out of the darkness from different parts of the circle. Soon after, the visions started for some, but for others, there was simply several hours of nausea and confusion.
The experience is highly personal and varies greatly between people and between sessions. For myself, the first ceremony was more subtle and pleasant than I expected. Towards the end I found myself on my knees hugging my torso tightly accompanied with the deep-rooted understanding that I was worth hugging. I had hoped for epic 3D visions but we all discovered that the Medicine never gives you what you want, just what you need. That night I remembered how to love myself, the first step in a powerful and unexpected series of what I can only describe as lessons.
The Maestros administer a key part of their healing system by sitting in front of participants and singing a healing song called an icaro that is specific to a plant that they work with intimately. Arriving at the Temple, I had viewed the Maestros skeptically. They seemed shy, unassuming, comical and slightly frail. I wondered if they were a token gesture to add local flavor. My prejudices were dramatically blown away as I sat up to receive my first icaro.
The singing was outlandish and beautiful, ranging from deep probing groans up to high-pitched gurgles. I felt I was being sonically measured, tested and teased. The shaman lent in towards me and I was shocked to see he had no face, there was just a smooth surface. He leant in further, I blinked and suddenly he was a giant beetle. The song held me rapt but fear coursed up from my stomach. I knew I had to control it or be consumed. I lent forward and peered into his shiny carapace.
Sometime later I was lying on my back and a Maestra sat at my head. Her song was even more beautiful. It started unimaginably high, peeling out of heaven itself before swooping down to a bass that was incongruent with her tiny frame. Her song stroked me, reassured me and seemed to reach inside and pluck things out.
Whatever I thought of while she sang achieved some kind of resolution in my mind – even quandaries that had bothered me for decades. I found myself grinning wildly. She finished her work by pouring strongly scented floral water onto my head and sealed it in with sharp sucking and clicking noises. It felt like a thick exoskeleton of psychic baggage had been peeled off. I felt like me again. I felt reborn.
She sat back, yawned, spat loudly into her spittoon and shuffled across the floor to Liv’s mat. She eyed her next patient carefully and swayed from side to side clucking and softly whistling. Then she leant back, filled her lungs and started, extremely high-pitched, the softest, saddest song that I have ever heard. Almost immediately the song conjured the deep, heart-wrenching accompaniment of weeping as Liv broke down. As she did, an immense other noise surged over us out of the darkness. It started soft but was getting steadily louder. My mind scrambled and then I got it. It was pouring with rain.
I turned towards my neighbor and felt her torrent of grief. I imagined her trauma, the guilt, shame and horror that must have followed her husband’s suicide and the devastation this must have wreaked on their sons’ lives. My thoughts turned to my own mother. In my darkest moments I had contemplated suicide. I clearly saw her now crippled in torment on a mat. Something inside me clicked.
It felt to me like us humans had offered ourselves up to a benign, overarching intelligence like monkeys laid out in a laboratory. As mysterious beings explored our minds and bodies past memories were dislodged and surfaced: a long-forgotten conversion with our father; a humiliating bullying incident at school; the girl we loved and hurt. Many of us received an almost overwhelming onslaught of insights and information about our identities and lives, details from jobs, relationships and plans for the future.
Once a critical mass of these energies are loosened they seemed to bind to the Medicine resting in our stomachs before being propelled violently out in both agony and ecstasy. Agony because the Medicine’s taste and toxicity has now been multiplied many times by our demons, and ecstasy because now they are out. We collapsed back onto the mat teary-eyed, relieved of old, intractable burdens.
We came together to share experiences and discovered the range of reactions. Meg, an English girl who had quit her job to come had had a terrifying first ceremony. Sensitive to the Medicine she was put onto a much lower dose. Ted, 52 from Bury, works in a factory making airbags. He was underwhelmed. His brother, John, 34 works at Marks & Spencers and was very happy with the insights he had been receiving. Marlon, a 30 year old nurse from Connecticut was ecstatic describing the Medicine as “truth serum for the soul.”
Craig, our U.S military friend, had the most life-changing experience. Transported to a parallel dimension he was taunted and cajoled by a vile demon that forced him to relive a long repressed sexual assault he had suffered aged 8 by a family friend. “Mother Ayahuasca” intervened instructing Craig to get to the bathroom and purge but every time he tried he was pushed face down onto the mat by his tormentor who now had on the face of his childhood abuser. Eventually he got up and staggered out of the maloca. In the bathroom a battle ensued. He was thrown against the walls and crashed to the floor. Eventually, he convulsed into violent purging. The demon was out.
He was clearly devastated by the revelation and was thinking about how to tell his wife, son and family but he was also happy. He told us “I don’t want no rainbows and unicorns… I want five more ceremonies like that!”
Jackie a Canadian lady of 56 left after three ceremonies. She could no longer bear the vomiting and did not feel like she was receiving beneficial healing. She said to me “if this is what enlightenment takes, you can stick it!” A cloud hung over the group that morning and I knew that at least three other people were tempted to join her. There were several points over the 12 days that it took considerable grit to head once more into the breach and see it through.
As for me, I feel much improved. I am much less anxious and sleeping better is bliss. I realize that for several years I had been choked up by a big fur ball of sadness. It was lodged somewhere between the top of my guts and the bottom of my throat. My life had become imbued with a quiet melancholy that I couldn’t shake off. Fluff accumulates more fluff. New sadnesses cling to the old, glued together with resentment and anger. Soon, I was hobbled.
There are many available therapies to dislodge these furballs from psychoanalysis, to pharmaceutical drugs, to electric-shock therapy. To work, all of these will require the death of some aspect of the former self. This is where the fear and resistance comes in. We fear losing a part of ourselves and that makes change scary – what of us will remain?
Matthew told us in our introductory talk that we are not “compelled to live our suffering.” It doesn’t have to be what defines us. We can let it go or puke it out – depending on the course of treatment we pursue. When we do, we are reintroduced to our underlying essence. We may be surprised to find it not as fragile as we presumed.
So I return to the UK after an extraordinary adventure I embarked on because I was desperate to change. I was worried that the process might be so extreme I’d return a different person. Despite all that happened I am still me. The surprise, is now I’m happy with that.
The Temple of the Way of Light offers a 12-day Ayahuasca Retreat; the price of £1,330 includes full-board accommodation, seven ayahuasca ceremonies, individual healing consultations and wellness treatments, jungle activities and transportation to and from the Temple. International flights not included. More information: www.templeofthewayoflight.org