Life was idyllic on our little paradise island. My neighbors and I lived simply, swimming in the warm sea, drinking coconuts from the trees, climbing into the jungle on hot afternoons for a plunge in the waterfall. Our work brought us together, sharing a simple example of natural wellness for clients from the modern world. Each week they arrived from all over the world, carrying so much stuff, all the wrong clothes, startled by the simple accommodations, unsure of what they’d gotten themselves into. Many had lost their connection in the stress of city life. They arrived looking hollow, batteries drained, tied in visible knots, with a glimmer of hope beneath dull complexion and fatigue. In one week unplugged, living on juice and shedding the burdens they brought, life slowly returned. Between lectures on philosophy and nutrition, massages, meditation, yoga classes, and prescribed hammock time, days flew by in a lovely blur of remembering. Each week, we saw them remember – how to love themselves, how to shine from deep natural integrity instead of polished exterior, how to relax rigid beliefs and give better hugs. I have never found a more dependable tune-up process in all my explorations. Immersed in this life connected us with deeper sense of wellness in ourselves, and attracted all sorts of visitors from near and far.
Amado stood in the garden when I first saw him. He called my boss’s name, but she always recharged at the river this time of day. So we were left to get acquainted. After talking a while, hearing stories from his adventures all over Earth, I had to ask his secret. He had lived everywhere, been a member of ‘spiritual’ communities and movements all over the place, was well versed in all kinds of esoteric language. At almost 60 years of age, he shined a spark of enthusiasm that my 30 year old eyes rarely found in elders. His answer was immediate, a clear sign that reached a deep place in me. He’d been drinking ayahuasca since the 1980s with groups all over the world, and invited me to come meet his tribe, the most authentic he had found, in Brasil. It took me two years to get there, but fortune smiled on my timing.
The first time I drank Ayahuasca in this lifetime was at a wedding. The founder of Amado’s tribe, a man I’ll call Lucas, was getting married to his lifelong partner. Somehow, I (a total unknown outsider) was welcomed to join. Lucas’s father was an ayahuascero, and he had grown up with weekly gatherings around the ceremonial tea. As he grew, Lucas learned all the traditions of his father, the amazonian practices to prepare the medicine, the shaman’s role to clarify visions, the eclectic mix of religious tradition worldwide that comes through in the hymns, dances, and music. When he grew up, Lucas formed his own group to add his own unique character to the mix of old and new. He was open to visitors and influence from any direction as he held the wheel directing each session. The center Lucas created was dedicated to developing inner harmony with divine essence for all who came. Knowing Amado, I expected something remarkable, but nothing could have prepared me for the evening that lay ahead.
Amado and I arrived to the group’s center an hour outside of town a day before the wedding, leaving us plenty of time to acclimate, meet the players. Prem lived on site. A humble being, beaming light, eyes full of wonder, he is simply the most gifted guitarist I’ve known. Growing up in Brazil, Prem mastered the vast library of Brazilian music, later studied classical composition in Europe, and then lived a long time in India, building a repertoire of musical breadth I’ve rarely encountered. We hit it off right away, and he spoke English, so I had found a new ally to lean on when Amado wan’t around. The property was a small collection of buildings. Some were homes for on-site living, but the main space held ceremonies, with side structures for kitchen, plant cultivation, and support activities. About 100 people arrived for the main event, all dressed in white. This was not some hippie drum circle or drug den. This was church, sacred but fun. I had not expected such diversity in the congregation. There was a french anthropologist, musicians, professors, visitors from other centers around the country, and the wedding itself was performed by one of the most prominent lawyers in the country. Everyone partook of the tea, sat in meditation awaiting its effect as Lucas chose the background sounds, weaving a tapestry of ambient, earthy hypnotic sound to guide the journey. At one point, out of the still silence came notes from a flute, shortly accompanied by Prem’s guitar. Hearing him play is like receiving a massage from the muse; unexpected notes, subtle progressions, his genius alive and flowing into the ears of every listener. I was simply entranced, hairs standing on end, tears in my eyes as I took in the whole scene. As the pace and energy of the music grew, it came time to stand up. A group in harmony, moving as one, we danced the typical bailado, sang the hymns typical of Brazilian ayahuasca traditions. There was a distinct purity, a mix of cultures unlike anything I’d seen. And the tea itself, whoa. I’m no stranger to altered states, but this was other level. As a first timer, I was interviewed by Lucas (through Amado translating) to gain some knowledge of my capacity for such a journey. When the time came, I was given a slightly different mix than what the others received. I noticed when we all drank together that theirs poured out quick like water. Mine was thick like molasses, and I had to hold the cup upside down to allow it all to flow out. 3 hours later when I encountered Lucas in the garden, Amado translated as I told him how powerful the ride was going. I had noticed he gave me a different cup, and he winked at me, impressed that I picked up his sleight of hand. He explained that with visiting foreigners who had background in different substances, he decided to hit hit me with a major dose to be certain I got a taste for the experience. He called it honey, a concentrated reduction 10x the power of the drink offered other guest. At one point, I found myself watching the stars in the garden, gripping the plants so I wouldn’t fly off into space.
At the event, I met members of their satellite location, further up the coast – made plans to visit. A week later, I arrived alone to a welcoming party at the bus station. I still spoke none of the language, but had no doubt I’d find my way. My first point of landing was a pousada run by a member of the group. Just south of the city, near a beach with amazing waves, it was a perfect spot to sit and make my first clumsy attempts at the language. I fell in love with life here. I met a couple brothers at the first session who invited me to come live at their place on the beach, an idyllic spot about a mile from where we held ceremony. It was a Bohemian dream for a the next 4 months, each week spent meeting new faces, playing guitars and drums, studying and stumbling my way to fluency, and sharing my background in yoga, meditation, nutrition, massage, and energy healing. Then each weekend, we gathered for a session to harmonize the tribe. Thankfully, following Amado’s spark of light had landed me in another paradise. After 5 months, I was hesitant to leave, but the next mission pulled me back to the USA…
I wish I could say I’d found that pure experience again in Ayahuasca world. Sadly, I’ve encountered ‘plant medicine’ culture in every corner of the Earth, and it often feels false to me. A ‘shaman’ selling an image, a ‘spiritual’ seeker with the right tattoos, indigenous feathers, singing some sacred song, purchasing an image. It all feels like this act, a copy of a copy of a copy, humans in search of lost wonder. Everyone trying to out-holy each other, impress you with their chops. I’m sure I’m guilty of this, and I struggle to stay purely fixed in beginner’s mind. I’ve found sincere expressions on 4 continents, but mostly I find propaganda repeated to the point it’s no longer authentic. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of lots of subcultures, including this one, as both a participant and facilitator. Ayahuasca is the darling of the alternative world the last few years, and many dislike when I offer balanced account of my time in it. The driving idea of plant medicines is that they’re going to heal you, save the planet, introduce you to God, or in some way show you what you seek. There is definite potential for all that. I know a man that drank the tea just once, sat in a fetal position crying the whole night until a vision became clear. He returned to his native country to learn their ancient arts, then came back to Brazil to teach them. He has no interest in another visit with Madre Ayahuasca. Sadly, I’ve known others who drank it once a week their whole life, invested every aspect of their life in the culture surrounding it, and still have major ethical issues, broken relationships, embezzled money, backstabbing competition with other groups. Some parts of central and South America have become markets selling the experience. I’m sure there are precious gems to be found in the marketplace, but corrupted motive is inevitable when the potential for profit is so high. So many depressed rich people ache for a connection to nature that simple people in the jungle still remember… and they are happy to share it for a price. Like any religion or man-made institution, this world of practices that promises inner and outer harmony is imperfect. You should expect to find the same broad spectrum of human expression you’d encounter in other groups: the true mystic genius who aims to serve, the scheming charlatan peddling lies, and everything in between. Caveat emptor!
It may be a universal truth that you cannot step into the same stream twice. The simple fact of experience adds a jaded quality to perception, and staying open to beginner’s mind is almost impossible. The wonder of first contact is replaced by comparison with how things were, or how they are in other places. The mind is divided and starts to criticize. At least this has been my challenge as I’ve grown experienced with all the fields I’ve explored. The been-there-done-that is death to appreciation of things, and life is filtered through previous models. This is why I’m learning to try new things periodically to stoke the fires of wonder, to grow in new ways, fighting the ever-present danger of thinking I know it all. As an explorer, I’ve often found myself envious of those who fit into a group, accept its doctrine without question. Travel shows me a relativity of truth that prevents me from fully embracing any human institution. Many people drink the tea from the vine of the soul to gain visions, remember lost connection. Before jumping into the world of yage, I was living on light, serving others, in touch with my dreams already. I felt the cycles of the moon, the presence of plants, spent my days supporting others in their journey to wellness, lived simply in a harmony my western materialist culture doesn’t know. In short, I lived the ideal so many seek in the jungle with Ayahuasca. I trusted the unfolding mystery of life when chance encounters opened doors. I can’t say drinking the tea ever taught me anything I hadn’t learned elsewhere. Whenever I asked for answers under the effects in ceremony, the answer was always the same: a loud belly laugh from my inner world and the words “You silly humans, so many questions when the answers are so clear all around you”. The only true constant I’ve found on this journey through life is the whisper of the wind, the voice of the heart guiding me further into mystery. Perhaps this has been ayahuasca’s roundabout gift to me. She came in as another tool to remove the clutter from my conditioned mind, clarify my inner life, and remind me that I don’t need her. She is the voice of my true nature, reminding me I belong among the trees and stars, sensitive and playful, generous and kind, living in paradise. I am not meant to struggle in the sickness of modern western culture. All criticisms aside, this alone is gold. For now, 8 years after I began this journey, I have spent too much time back in western culture. I feel the sense of disconnection I used to witness in our clients 10 years ago at the healing center. I now have a sense of compassion as I feel the anxiety of media driven exile from nature. I struggle to hear the voice of the heart through the clamor of external noise, but really all I miss is the courage to act on the guidance when it comes, to unplug. The choice to return to paradise is always available to us. It may require tools at times like ayahuasca, or fasting at a retreat center, but these are simply doorways to remember that we always had the answers we need, we simply have to find courage to act on them.