The Way of Light: A Healing Journey with Ayahuasca
The last time I came to South America I was seeking the mystery of ayahuasca, but this time the "vine of spirits" was no mystery. After drinking with over two dozen curanderos throughout Peru, as recounted in my memoir Aya: A Shamanic Odyssey, and living through a grand quest to unite the separate streams of Amazonian and Andean shamanism, I had come to understand that ayahuasca was like a woman, la madre, the mother, and from the infinite abundance of her giving all things were made manifest.
Still, it had been three years since I'd first been to the ayahuasca capital of Iquitos, Peru, and the shamanism tourist circuit had boomed in that time. Prices were higher, competition was fierce, and the business of spirituality seemed to me to be spiralling out of control. So many tourists all signed in for package deals at the numerous ayahuasca lodges that I was left with a slight unease at the overt commercialization of this once-sacred jungle medicine.
Yet who was I to cast the first stone? Here I was in a wooden motorboat with my partner, Jewelli, travelling up the river Nanay alongside two dozen other ayahuasca tourists, all of us headed to the Temple of the Way of Light, one of the newest lodges, a short boat trip outside Iquitos. The Temple billed itself first and foremost as a healing retreat, not just another ayahuasca lodge, but I wondered just how different that would be to the other shaman centers I had visited in the past. How many of my fellow travelers were genuinely interested in healing themselves and the planet, versus chasing the visions and power the ayahuasca trance can bring?
Cielo, a good friend from Australia, sat at the prow of the boat dressed in white Shipibo pants with colored geometric patterns. Cielo's in her early fifties and is down-to-earth and on the path of madre ayahuasca. She's been managing the Temple for Matthew, the English owner, and training with the women curanderas that worked here.
In the often male-dominated world of curanderismo, it was refreshing to learn the center had six curanderas, maestras fresh from jungle towns around Pucallpa in the Shipibo heartland, women shamanas whose core focus was healing, not chasing the money that nowadays was part-and-parcel of the packaged shamanistic experience.
The river tightened as we passed a curve and the lush green vegetation alongside the shore reached out and vines clogged our path. I looked up from the boat to the sun shining overhead, father sun, and was reminded then of mother earth, what the Peruvians call Pachamama.
Matthew, the charismatic owner of the lodge had told me previously in his clipped British accent that: "the maestras are here to heal you, not just give visions or deal with the average ayahuasca tourist trail." They heal over multiple sessions, pulling psychic gunk out of you and revealing the light patterns or energy grid underneath the flesh, weaving that energy into a tapestry of health. Or as Cielo tells me one day:
"The maestras are amazing in ceremony. . . . Once I saw them with streams of colors coming out of their mouths, intricate designs snaking across the floor and going into people before coming back out. . . . For a second I thought oh my God, they're aliens! And then I thought I must be an alien because I had a complete memory of belonging to them. . . . And then I realized that they were channelling the plant spirits that they've dieted with like a hollow bone to cure people they were working on."
The women are also weavers in the Shipibo culture who make the manta fabrics with ayahuasca patterns on them that are so popular with the tourists. Funnily enough these women healers do the same thing, but the tapestries they weave are of light.
As we picked through a jungle trail leading from the river to the lodge, I got to know some of my fellow travelers. We were all decked out in thick black gumboots that were invaluable on the muddy path into the jungle, fresh from the rains the night before.
There was Jewelli, my lover, a flower-essence worker in touch with the plant devas and wanting to go deeper. Behind her was Kevin, a computer whizz from Silicon Valley in his late-twenties with a shaved head and quiet demeanour, and problems with depression and anxiety; and down from him was Mark, a businessman on a spiritual path: he'd drunk ayahuasca previously and it had opened up a new world of possibilities and healing for him.
As we shuffled along on the path I met Erin, a straight talking woman from the States who wanted help with emotional integration and assimilation, and Hala, a striking woman of Egyptian and British descent who had been working with ayahuasca for a time now, and had opened up a Pandora's box of karmic issues: horrendous memories of previous lives where she had raped and killed and plundered.
There was Nadya from New York, working on opening her heart, who was committed to love and leaving all else behind; Ava, a small European woman with emotional issues and abnormal cells in her uterus that she had come in search of curing; and Patrick, a quirky man with a beard and glasses from San Francisco. He was tall and lanky and was wearing a green felt frog hat of his own making. He told me he was looking for home, for a place to be.
So many of us from all over the world, brought here together to experience the healing powers of ayahuasca. There was Tracey, an experienced medicine drinker from Australia, now staying in Cuzco, her arm covered in a snaking vine tattoo. Her brother Mark, an all-Aussie bloke in his forties with a heart of gold was out here cleaning his act up and finding his path. Then there was Caleb, a tall and lanky man of Finnish heritage with a pencil-thin moustache, whose academic profession involved scientifically recording entities and spirits, and whom had inadvertently been possessed during his work.
Spring was a vivacious twenty-something with light black skin and a wide smile, and like all good women in South America she'd been hit on by the men, some of them shamans. The night before coming to the temple she had gone to visit a male shaman, and during the ceremony, whilst on ayahuasca, he had told her not to go to the Temple -- if she did she would be bitten by a snake. She should stay and drink with him he told her, exercising his will over her whilst in the vulnerable ayahuasca state, overstepping the bounds of client and doctor.
After a half an hour walk we breach a clearing and the retreat center, dominated by the Temple maloca. Inside it's at least thirty feet across with a central pole that branches out like a flower about eight feet up, the vast spidery webwork of poles supporting and bracing the roof. Fresh young aya vines sprout outside the temple maloca, twisting and turning towards the light.
That day we meet the maestras with the hearts of children and the smiles of grandmothers. There's Celestina, the matriarch of the group and one of the youngest, with her proud Shipiba face and look of firm command, She's dieted with wiracaspi, a master plant, for many, many years to learn her healing arts and to bring the energy of that plant to her patients. She's dieted with over seven master plants in all, on average over six months with each, and her father who is also a shaman helps her with his energy.
Then there's Amalia, a quiet Shipiba elder who also has a father who is a curandero and helped prepare her for the journey into the healing arts, and she has also dieted with the healing plants to gain the power to do her work.
Manuela is a beautiful chubby grandmother who smokes a pipe frequently, her face pulled into a frown by the cataracts on her eyes as she squints. Her father was also a healer and the main plant she works with is ayahuma, with which she has had a long relationship, learning its healing qualities.
Rosa is the smallest maestra, barely five foot tall and as cute and round as a button. She's dieted with a power tree and with toé (datura), but unlike the other maestras she doesn't come from a lineage of curanderos. When her husband died many years ago she started dieting with the power plants to learn why, and that led her on the path of the plants and medicine. She was soon to take a special liking to Julius, a gawky young God-nerd looking for the "special essence of things" and would eventually fall in love with him and take him under her wing like a mother would a son.
Dona Maria is one of the youngest maestras, and the newest, arriving from Pucallpa for her first ceremony with a group tonight. She's been dieting with tobacco juice and other plants, and her speciality is sucking out darts or negative energy from patients that come in search of healing. Ross, one of the guests at the temple, has cancerous tumors, and along with the other maestras Maria has been sucking out the psychic poisons that engender the cancer.
Ross is a gentley-spoken Briton in his early twenties who was diagnosed two years ago with a rare form childhood cancer. This is the second time it's flared up and after a first round of chemotherapy he was given a six-month prognosis to live. Undaunted, he decided to try a more holistic healing approach looking at his nutrition and after six months he realized there was more to healing than the physical, and he came to South America.
Here he used ayahuasca to delve into his subconscious "in a way [he] had never experienced before . . . and rebalance any energies not in balance with nature." Working with the maestras has been a phenomenal experience, he says, because of the intimate and devoted healing they provide.
The maestras size up the group energetically and announce there is a lot of "mal," or bad energy hanging around us in the astral from all the other shamans they've been drinking with, all those mixed energies need cleansing and are like a wet blanket on the astral, weighing us down. So we get settled in the lush surroundings of the retreat and in our tambo huts, and that night before dark we all meet again in the Temple maloca where the ceremony is conducted.
The maestras sit on an inner ring of the maloca like Russian dolls all in a row, dressed up in their ceremonial Shipiba skirts and tops with geometric ayahuasca energy patterns blazoned across them. They giggle like schoolgirls as they prepare their spaces, setting out their mapacho cigarettes and the plastic two-liter ayahuasca bottle. Next to them Horaldo, the faciliatator, sets out ten small drinking glasses to be filled, and Horacio, the male curandero, sits behind the maestras like the baritone in the band.
Horacio has dieted with many master plants and gained a lot of healing knowledge, always with the intent to help, not harm. His masculine presence balances out the female healers and makes the circuit of energy they create complete.
The number of maestras is kept proportional to the number of seekers they are treating in ceremony, so with six maestras the circle is limited to just over twenty patients, so each person can receive intense healing during the ceremony. They start off in the center where they serve up the medicine and where they drink themselves. In dead silence they wait until they feel the mareacion, the feeling of ayahuasca coursing through them, which might take anywhere from half an hour to forty-five minutes, and then they launch into song.
One maestra will start and then another will take up her song, or backbeat it, weaving together a sonic tapestry. After waves of songs the maestras come out of the center of the circle and work their way around the group, sitting in front of each patient one by one to read their energy bodies and effect a personal healing.
But now, sitting here on the wooden floorboards of the maloca, oil lamps lighting the ceremony space as the maestras prepare their medicine, it seems like a scene from long ago, a timeless and sacred moment of jungle life. All of the maestras light up mapacho cigarettes and some spit to clear their mouths as the lights go out, and the darkness settles into me, cigarette lights trailing through the dark. And as eager tourists reach out to hold the little glasses full of ayahusca, I realize I've come full circle from where my own journey started.
I'm home, finally, here in the Temple, in the warm embrace of the madre once more. After three long years this man has come home to the mother. All of us mothers, fathers, parents, children, open to receiving the universal love ayahuasca can help unlock, that lies within us all along...
The maestras sing a haunting melody of high-pitched sound like schoolgirls screeching in the dark, interweaving with each other in arcane Shipibo language that washes over us like waves from the deep sea of the unconscious. The first song, I am told, is for cleansing, and the individual songs the maestras sing throughout the night are then for personal healing.
The maestras weave a wall of sound and healing in the air before us. On the inside a streaming screensaver geometric vision unfolds before me, melting fractals of color like sheet lightning, triggered by their song. It fades as the song progresses and the deeper healing begins.
Dona Maria is a strong Shipiba curandera with a force of will that belittles her tiny frame. She's fresh off the plane from Pucallpa and eager to impress with the power of her icaros, magic songs that create a carrier wave for her healing energy. Nestled in the dark of the maloca, tucked far away from civilization amongst the viridian embrace of the jungle, Maria opens herself to me and shows me her power.
She sings to me, pours her love and healing into me like a cracked vessel, heat-sealing me whole with her song. Its all about the mother, I realize, as wave after wave of holographic awareness seeps through me, connecting me to all those I love.
And through my personal love streams I'm able to tap into something deeper -- that universal love force that binds and sustains, the Gaian frequency itself. It's love that breaks through like a ray of light through the clouds, that great love that connects us all -- the Great Mother who creates, nurtures and destroys.
So there I am sitting there in the dark, exposed to the naked raw emotion of true love as Maria sings to me, and when she is finished there's a pregnant pause like she's waiting for me to speak. For a second my tourist reflexes kick in and I think she wants something, dinero, money, that I've been drawn back to the level of the primal buy and sell. But she doesn't ask for money, no, that's not what the mother does. Like a babe, I'm learning that the mother gives unconditionally; it's not about money it's about giving and taking, and about being able to receive.
We are all of us children in the eyes of the mother, kids with our psychic bruises and cuts from the hurts of life, and the Shipiba healers are all mothers, universal mothers pouring the song of love back into us.
The flowers and the plants drink in the light, and we, the humans, are the planetary flowering, we are the bridge between heaven and earth. We are being called to drink in the light, to ground higher dimensional realities into this plane. "No separation from the truth of universal consciousness" says Antara, a kundalini dance instructor from my hometown of Byron Bay.
The light, you see, is love.
The maestras bathe us in unconditional love and invoke that within us. I spend all ceremony learning again and again about love, revisiting all those I share a heartspace with: my daughter, my step-son; my ex-partner; my wife; my mother, how threads of energy connect us all forever, an invisible glue that bind us, and the world together: love. How simple a word, how pure a heart.
The maestras heal through their song and touch, through the love which pours forth from madre ayahuasca, the love straight from the heart of the planet itself. It's love, I know, that brings a man and a woman together; there is no life, no creation, no world without it. Without love there is not even darkness because there is no one there to see the darkness.
I step behind the veil of the world and seep deep into the heartspace of spirit. What can I feel there? Not words, but the touch, the sigh, the spark of life itself that flows through from this world to the next . . . as soft as a mother's touch, mother's milk, mother's love.
This is the path of the way of light.
Over the next ten days at the Temple, in ceremony and out, all of us undergo a collective journey into our own healing, via the arts of the maestras. We're making a circuit of energy that is interdependent on each other, relying on each other to support and hold, and to forgive and release. It's as if one individual blockage has the potential to impede the group's journey and our collective configuration, for this is a collective healing we are all undergoing. And whether we realize it or not, all of us are sick, sick with our physical illnesses, but also with a malaise of the spirit that is common to all Westerners.
Steve is a heavyset guy in his early fifties who's getting treated with plant medicines to stop a debilitating ringing in his ears he's had for over twenty years. "One of the reasons I came here was because of the sacred feminine healers and energy," he explains, waving his hand across the maloca with a sweep to take in the maestras as they perform the 3 pm afternoon massages on the gringos. "The masculine has caused a lot of the problems of the world and I felt it was time I reconnected with the mother."
At noon every day, on the dot as the spirits prescribe, the maestras conduct flower baths down on the stairwell of the maloca leading to the lake below. It's a daily baptism with flowers that connects us to the vegetal world and it makes me feel clean and pure, whole again. I watch as they pour the agua floridia scented water replete with petals and green leaves over Jewelli, and she breaks into a warm and satisfied smile.
Later, over a light lunch, I talk to Jim, a cheerful, balding ex-Microsoft technician in his fifties who wants to be a healer, or who has been told he has the potential to be a healer, at least, by his spirit guides, but he's still waiting for evidence of it. Jim's very soothing to be around, like his aura exhibits an air of present-ness, like a monk or holy man from long ago. On a San Pedro journey he was told that he was doing just what he needs to be doing right now, but still, the Western mind wants to control things and know more, trust less.
"It's frustrating," he tells me at breakfast, "because I want the big revelation, the dramatic message that says 'do this!', but here and now is all I've got."
It's all any of us has got, as over many sessions drinking ayahuasca at the Temple we are all confronted with our own ego and desires, our need for visions and the gentleness of the medicine we receive. Some people experience visions, others have profound healing and insights, and like waves gently lapping against the shore and eroding the rocks, ayahuasca and the maestras do their healing work.
I don't know if I'm holding on to the ego and my conscious mind, but I still don't feel sick. Here I am at a specialist deep-healing lodge, and I can't figure out what's wrong with me. But maybe that's part of my Western malaise.
Have patience, a voice tells me. Be here now, and trust that the medicine is working.
Jewelli's spasming and convulsing on the mattress next to me, bucking like a cosmic dolphin swimming out beyond the moon and sun, lost in the stars. Waves of energy are coursing through her as she comes slowly back into her body, to download visions of crop circles being made by plant teachers behind the sun.
Two of the maestras come over and blow mapacho smoke on her and sing, singing her back into her body and into the here and now. The maestras are doctors, nurses and conduits for the universal love to flow through. Watching them at work in the dark, their cragged indigenous faces sporadically lit up by the red tips of their cigarettes I remember how patients often fall in love with their nurses because the healing isn't just about the medicine; it's about the healing love they transmit.
The maestras smooth out Jewelli's vibrational wavefront and energy and in doing so their energies merge, and love passes between them, giving and unconditional. And as they pass on to me with focused vibrational healing, they sing deep into the core, piercing me with their icaros like a scalpel and peeling back my layers, shaking loose all my pains and hurts and the weight of years.
Horacio's icaros ring out then, loud and strong, masculine and paternal, anchoring the father energy, the bass backbeat to the feminine healing. And it's then and there I realize that yes, we're being healed, but there are also larger forces at work.
We're all being healed so that the collective can be healed, so that as we go back out into the world those who are healed can continue the healing work themselves. This is how the global healing must work -- all of us nodes in the global village, drops that make up the ocean. This is the intent behind the global shamanic resurgence now sweeping the West, a primal need by the Gaian matrix to heal the human virus out of balance, starting with the first wave of ayahuasca seekers and moving through the hive mind to the rest.
And this is where I realize the sicknesses of the West aren't always in the flesh; they're in the spiritual disconnect from nature, from the others around us, and from those parts of ourselves that were once in unity consciousness. True healing means integrating a perspective long lost to the West to unify with the web of life around it, and to know our place in the natural order.
Mark, the quiet all-round Aussie bloke reveals in the sharing circle the next day that in his ayahuasca journey he melted into the song of the frogs, of nature itself and the delicate web of life it revealed to him. The spirit of ayahuasca was in the frogs and in the web, calling to him, calling him on the path of shamanism.
"Ayahuasca was calling you to be a shaman. Are you interested?" Horaldo asks Mark.
"Yes of course," Mark answers, "we must give our love, our healing, not just to ourselves, but back to the planet, to mother earth, to heal her sickness."
That's what we're being called to do.
The next night in ceremony I finally accept that I'm sick.
An ayahuasca vision comes on strong, flickering green light filling me and connecting me to the web of life all around. The ayahuasca's coming through my body, bubbling up within me like water in a spring. It feels like walking on air.
I'm vibrating with molecular rainfall all around, rising up within me as my energetic body shines and tries to break free from the flesh. It makes me feel sick until I'm heavy with the weight of my body, the food in my stomach blocking me, holding me back from letting go into the ALL. I feel like I can't do this, I can't do anymore ayahuasca, that I long for the safe confines of the flesh, the primal currents of my body, not the higher vibrational realms of the upper frequencies.
I can finally feel that I'm sick, and being healed, and this knowledge fills me with joy. Outside the maloca the frogs croak like ducks, the sounds of the night envelop and fill me, and I'm at home in this jungle hospital.
Which is when the vision comes upon me: I start getting a really heavy mareacion... and a lot of ambient green UV light shines through... in my trance state I realize after a while that I'm seeing snakes, not traditional snakes but snaking entities like BUS cords that connected old computers, weaving around me. All of a sudden the heaviness starts to get heavier and heavier, till the weight fills me from the inside out and pushes me into the deep DMT zone that the chacruna in the brew potentiates...
All of a sudden I'm in this blood red, muted room with frenetic activity around me, all these silhouetted human spirits rushing around me, as if it was some type of astral triage or emergency room...
As I tune into this new reality the weight I've been feeling is revealed as three spirits sitting on me, holding me down. I feel an immense wave of ease and peace as I realize the spirits have been weighing me down to press me back together, to open me up and perform astral surgery on me.
As I look up I see my love, Jewelli, standing fully realized at the edge of the room, shining like a beacon and watching them operate. She is like a heart chakra activation that floods my being with unconditional love, my love and her love and space-time love, everything is love love love everywhere and when forever and ever without end...
And then the spirits move and hook me up to this star-shaped device raised up from the floor like an altar. It felt like being in a float tank, wearing a second skin and being inside a pod with another person, like an orgasm machine or a wombdeck. Being hooked up to this machine feels like making love, but not sexual love, full heart chakra-opening love, and that was what they were showing me, and healing within me, some deep-seated need to experience primal love again, as in the womb.
Minutes go by in this primal womb-love of deep energetic healing at my core, and when it fades I cry out "Mas...more..."
Suddenly a maestra is before me in the dark, calling me up for my personal healing and singing her Shipibo icaros to me and through me. But I'm holding on again, energetic-sick and it feels like I could vomit on the maestra. It takes all my energy to hold on and breathe through it as the maestra blows smoke on me and smooths my energy body down.
"Mista," she says, holding me out a burning mapacho in the dark, the orange tip flaring to life before me, and as I take the smoke into me it rights all wrongs, and I fall back, cured.
Later I remember that I had thought I had no need of healing, that on most levels my health was fine. But I had been born two months premature, and I've always wondered if that experience had affected my life, that time alone and newborn in the humidicrib without my mothers touch, denied that critical first love contact.
And now I had been given this experience of pure unconditional love, switched on and humming and primal and harkening back to this newborn love I had missed, all hypercondensed into this experience on the wombmachine, getting those two months of love compressed down into a few minutes in eternity. It was perfect.
Over breakfast the next day Steve tells me, "I'm feeling really healthy, really clear." The maestras have been putting plant medicines in his ears twice a day now, and sucking out illness on the astral level and cleansing his ears with their mapacho smoke. "When the plant medicine goes in my ears its dark green, but when it comes out its dark brown," he says with a satisfied grin. He's had this ringing in his ears for decades, since his time as a gunner's mate in the navy, but now after a week of the maestras treatments he says the ringing has decreased for the first time ever.
And he's not alone. Jewelli tells me that last night in ceremony she could see the maestras working on Caleb, blue balls of energy bubbling up from his chest. The maestra's held this energy as they moved away from Caleb and out of the maloca, where they grounded it in the trees. As Caleb explained:
"I knew I had an entity in me and as the healing went on I started to go into a convulsive state. My breathing changed and I could feel the maestra's hands moving within me. I'd known since my first possession that there was some 'residue' left in me, and in fact at times this entity would take control of my body. This all happened years ago, and after this original possession I developed an auto-immune illness, like my body was sensing there was something foreign within me but it couldn't pinpoint where, so it was attacking its own tissues.
"But with the maestras working on me, even with the one session, something very powerful happened to me. They were working on the spiritual roots of the illness, sucking out the entity lodged in me."
Cielo could see this, too. As she watched the maestras at work on Caleb she moved Rosa to one side to better see the healing they were doing on him. And what she saw was this: a blue light like smoke, psychic ectoplasm moving around his chest like glowing balls. Cielo reached in to touch it but Rosa held her back and said no, that's not safe to touch. This is the mal energy, the bad energy that they suck out of him, and when it's safely removed they give it to the plants to hold so it doesn't infect anyone else.
"They give it to the plants in the spirit realm and the plants guard that energy," Cielo explains. "Its like a big processing plant where the energy is taken on board and recycled -- energy can't be created or destroyed, just transmuted, and that's what must be done with negative energy too."
Late the next afternoon I find Nadya lazing in a hammock, and ask her what her experiences were the night before.
"In my first ceremony I had a massive healing," she tells me. After about forty-five minutes my body felt heavy on one side and almost frozen . . . everything was moving around me and the darkness crawled up my feet, past my throat and to my head. I couldn't move and everything was darkness all around. The only thing I had to hold onto was my heart, and the light or spark within that which I tried to expand so it could burn brighter.
"Love, love, love, I kept repeating to myself, trying to put energy into my heart. And suddenly the darkness broke off me like crusted mud, and there was this voice from Aya herself that told me that my heart was my gateway to remembering who I really was.
"'You have to choose between life or death,' Aya told me, 'It's up to you to choose.
"And it was then that I felt this incredible love, this unconditional love for my family that I've had trouble expressing, it was as if my heart had burst and I could see the energy coming from me to them and vice versa, how we all connected to one another. And their love formed a stream of energy that went to the pain in my side and healed it, and then I could see myself as a little girl and I embraced myself and all the me's I'd judged harshly over the years, and with each embrace more energy returned to me and healed the pain I had held in my side.
"Aya showed me this world that we live in and how much self-hate there is, how many of us that are subjected to that. And the healing that Aya does for us and that the maestras here at the Temple do for us, is all about making us whole.
"There's these parts of us that we have subconsciously rejected and that we have withheld life from, and that mirrors the part of the collective psyche that goes out and tries to take life away because it's been denied life. That's what it knows so that's what it tries to keep doing. So the work that needs to happen and that ayahuasca is facilitating is making us whole once again."
Nadya's realization matched my own. Three years after my initial odyssey into Amazonian shamanism I could see where the ayahuasca resurgence was headed.
A global healing is occurring, spreading like a vast mycelium network under the surface of the ayahuasca tourist boom. And once healed, the seekers go back into the world to do the work and spread the aya energy, like burrs in a cosmic ecosystem.
My intuition now was that a tipping point has, or is about to be reached on the heart frequency of the planet, and that as the plants work through us the planetary healing also blooms...
Everything is happening in Divine unfolding, because this then, is the way.
The way of the light.
To listen to maestra Rosa singing an icaro, click here.
Rak Razam is the author of Aya: A Shamanic Odyssey from Icaro Publishing.
He stayed as a guest at the Temple of The Way of Light ayahuasca retreat outside Iquitos, Peru.
Images by Jewelli Dollman and Rak Razam, licensed under Creative Commons