Facing Fear: A Conversation with an Ayahuasquero
For the past few years, I've had the opportunity to work with a wonderful lineage of Ayahuasca shamans at the Blue Morpho lodge, just outside of Iquitos, Peru. The lodge has become more popular in recent years, recieving journalistic coverage from the New York Times and National Geographic, making it a global hot-spot for shamanic workshops.
Blue Morpho's owner and founder, Hamilton Souther, is unique. He is a westerner, a "white guy," who apprenticed with a lineage of Mestizo shamans. After completing a workshop this past June, I had the chance to share a dialogue with Hamilton about the nature of fear, the evolution of consciousness, some of the political issues that Ayahuasca shamanism is facing from the Peruvian Government, and the developing role of Ayahuasca Shamanism in the West.
Hamilton was quick to dive into the subject with me, setting the tone and prefacing our dialogue with an introduction to the medicinal nature of Ayahuasca.
HS: Before we get into any of the questions, I want to talk a little about Ayahuasca and what brings us to it. Life is not easy for anyone, and as we live life, we accumulate maladies that present themselves in our body, mind and spirit. We all come to Ayahuasca with specific things we would like to change or learn. We hope that there is something in the world that can help us, something that is different than anything we have tried in the past. We search for spirit. We search for meaning. So many people feel lost and scared. So many people doubt spirit but in their hearts want it to be true. We look at our lives and get confused. We do not know what to make of the past, how to proceed into the future and struggle with an idea of the present. Our pasts are filled with problems, traumas, pain, suffering, loss, anger and fear. We get angry and watch as it creates problems for us in our relationships. We end up hurting those closest to us. We never get to what would fulfill us because of fear.
We want something to make things better. To give us back meaning in the world. To help us transcend the definitions that science has given to everything, stripping life of what was mystical. We are filled with explanations and definitions about all aspects of life that leave us feeling alone and unimportant. We do not know if there is a God, a source, or a supreme power. We look for anything that could make sense out of a world filled with savagery, pain, suffering, disease, strife, war, killing, and rape. We hope and wish for meaning.
Over time disillusion sets in, and we begin to get depressed. The West is obsessed with suffering, hurt, and death. The West is obsessed with the dark side of duality. We do what we were taught, constantly, thinking it will work this time. We try another relationship and find ourselves in the same pattern. We try the next spirituality and find ourselves being helped for a short time, and then falling back into suffering. We try to make more money and find that the things we buy are nice when they are new, but soon are old and common. Over and over we find ourselves spinning in space, feeling like we are going nowhere. We are thirsty for something new, something exciting, but we are scared.
We think about drinking Ayahuasca. We ask ourselves many questions: Could I die? What will I see? Are demons real? Can this help me? What is the dark? What is wrong with me? What will I get out of it? Am I crazy? What will others think if they knew I drank Ayahuasca? Can this help depression? Can this show me my path? Will this give me direction? Will this take my anger away? Will this help me accept the past? Can I find forgiveness? We think about drinking Ayahuasca and hope it can make right what seems so wrong.
I have worked with hundreds of people from every background from over twenty countries. They have had every kind of past you can imagine. They have been through every kind of trauma you can imagine. They have suffered. I have witnessed people release depression during the course of five ceremonies, and be done with it. I have witnessed rape victims return to their body and feel intact for the first time in decades. I have witnessed people so angry at themselves and the world find peace. I have witnessed deep sadness flow out of the body, and seen joy flow in. The most stoic have cried. The disease of physical pain has vanished. Familial relationships have been restored. People have found their path, and have found their purpose. They have found Spirit and the infinite. They have found light and love in deep, real ways.
These people were normal every day people living normal Western lives. They were not different or special. We came to Ayahuasca looking for something and we found it. We received help in ways that we could not even imagine before Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a gift that allows us to look into ourselves and the world with clarity. We have the opportunity to discover truth and to reevaluate our actions and relationships. We are given the chance to go through immense change in a short period of time.
I was not born a shaman. I came to Ayahuasca searching for all the same things, and for all the same reasons, as our guests. The answers I found brought change to my life that released anger, pain, suffering, trauma, hurt, judgment, sadness, and disillusion. I came to Ayahuasca, and I trained in it to fulfill a path of Spirit. We are not different. We are not special. We have followed our hearts and discovered a world filled with mystery and medicine. Through those discoveries we learned to help others find what was meaningful to them, and that brought meaning to their lives.
Ayahuasca is a divine gift to the world, and it is a gift to be able to share it with others. I am truly grateful for how this gift changed my life and how it continues to guide and change others.
AE: So how did the Blue Morpho lodge come into being? What are some of the challenges you have faced as a westerner who has trained with indigenous shamans?
In 2001 I had a spontaneous awakening to Spirit, and through that awakening I was called to apprentice. I was still living in California. My spirit guides told me that I would move to Peru, and within the first 90 days I would find an apprenticeship and train to be a master shaman. Within the 90 days, I found my apprenticeship during my first Ayahuasca ceremony. In the days after that first ceremony, I inquired about how I could live in the jungle and learn the medicine. A local family granted me permission to live on their land. I built a simple jungle house deep in the forest, on the same land where the ceremony had been held. We were in a part of the forest homesteaded by only seven families sharing miles of river. Upriver, there were no permanent inhabitants. This was the raw jungle. There were no roads, facilities or modern conveniences. The only way in and out was the small river. I was in an area about 24 hours travel from Iquitos that just happened to be close to master shaman Maestro Julio Llerena Pinedo's house.
The Blue Morpho Center for Amazonian Shamanism came into being during my apprenticeship. After the first year of apprenticeship, I began studying under Maestro Alberto Torres Davila and Maestro Julio Llerena Pinedo. Alberto and I agreed to work together and offer the opportunity to others to participate in ceremonies and dietas. We held ceremonies and dietas there for three and a half years until we moved to our current location, on Kilometer 52.5 of the Iquitos Nauta Rd.
Training with indigenous shamans is very difficult. First there are the cultural differences and language. Then you face their worldview and knowledge, which is very different than the Westerner's. I was taught through direct transference of understanding and medicine, through ceremonies and dietas, meaning that the Maestros don't talk with you about your apprenticeship. You are expected to learn by realization and spiritual connection. It is an amazing way to learn but very different than anything expressed in the Western world. Alberto and Julio did not care that I was a "white man." Before they agreed to train me they studied me in ceremony to see my virtue and heart. When they agreed to teach me they told me that if I could survive I could learn the medicine. They meant survive in a very literal sense: physically, mentally, and spiritually. You go into ceremony and survive, meaning you live through it. The longer you survive, the longer you can learn. There are only two ways out of an apprenticeship: You either die, or quit. I had to look deep within myself to transcend those two possibilities.
There are many different kinds of shamans. There are those that heal and help others and then there are the ones that harm. The path of medicine is the path of the healer. The path of the dark arts is the path of harming or hurting. As an apprentice, you have to choose over and over to be a healer and not get sucked into the dark arts. This is the real battle between the light and dark forces. The guest sits in the field of energy provided by the healer. They are safe and are able to receive the medicine because of the presence of the healer. There are also enemy shamans, or "brujos." These are shamans who use dark and demonic spirits to harm or kill others. When you apprentice, they come after you and try to kill you. This goes on and on, and you are expected to win the battles and continue to learn. Over time you are trained to deal with the conflict, and you carve a space for your own mesa that is fortified and protected from the demonic attacks of the rival shamans. It is in the protected space that the healer practices the medicine and helps others. Apprenticing to become a healer and receiving the help from the medicine are two very different things. Apprenticing was the most difficult thing I ever did, and I am truly grateful to have survived.
A lot of people in spiritual communities who are familiar with Ayahuasca are initially skeptical of places like Blue Morpho because of the perception that these experiences are just "tourisms." The phrase "ayahuasca tourism" is a kind of epithet in these circles. What are some of the difficulties of running an Ayahuasca healing center that is both a business and a miraculous place of medicine and transformation?
First of all, Blue Morpho is a center of Amazonian Shamanism. We offer workshops to explore this shamanism, not tours. The only thing remotely similar to typical tourism about "ayahuasca tourism" or Blue Morpho is that people from other countries come to experience Ayahuasca shamanism. You are from another part of the world, and you go to another country to drink Ayahuasca, so now others label you a "tourist" on a "tour." If you simply travel to another country, you are a tourist. But if you drink Ayahuasca in America, you are breaking the law.
I was a tourist when I went into the forest and built a house in the middle of the jungle, covered in millions of mosquitoes and poisonous snakes. I bathed in the river everyday like the locals, swimming in the same waters as piranha, thirty foot anacondas, electric eels, and sting rays. I sat in ceremony and battled the strongest witchdoctors in the area. I worked with and saved locals who were dying from different illnesses, and during all of that the Peruvian government still considered me a "tourist."
I welcome anyone who wants to come to Blue Morpho to sit in traditional ceremonies headed by a local shaman who started apprenticing at the age of 8 and has participated or held more than 2,500 ceremonies. At the same time, we offer a safe and protected environment designed to recognize your individual needs, creating an experience that is positively transformational.
Blue Morpho offers our guests the very best of traditional Ayahuasca shamanism, and at the same time provides an environment that is safe. We present our work in English and have translators available to the guests to be able to speak with the locals. Nine days and five ceremonies with us will push you to the limit of your abilities, and it is nice to be in an environment where you are being looked after while going through something transformational and intense. We offer services that make your process easier, like having all of your meals prepared and your laundry done. When you have vomited all night and are still tired in the morning, it is nice to know there is someone to help you. The Maestros and apprentices are at the camp 24 hours a day on call to help in any crisis or emergency.
We offer daily hikes and excursions, meditations and an arts and crafts center. The days are filled with shamanic activities and fun, and the nights with ceremony and strong medicine. There are huge differences in the kinds of experiences people have with different shamans. In many cases the participant is expected to handle their ceremonies with minimal input from the shamans, and then deal with the after effects alone. At Blue Morpho, the experience is different. Nine days with us is a continual evolution of medicine in an environment that is nurturing and supportive. After every ceremony, there are meetings with the Maestros and apprentices to go over the ceremonies and to further explore spiritual theory and thought. There is constant input from others and a helping hand. We care about you and work with you to make sure the experience is the very best possible
Then there is safety. We have staff that are trained in Western medicine and are prepared to handle any emergency. We are in the jungle and understand the needs of people who are not from here. We have staff that help in the ceremonies and who do not drink. They help others to the bathroom, bring them a clean bucket if they've vomited, put water on their heads, and bring extra blankets. For each ceremony, we have at least nine staff including Maestros, apprentices and helpers. All of these things come together to provide an experience that is safe and truly life transforming.
There is no conflict in running a business and a spiritual center. We work from our hearts and from the principles of the medicine that Ayahuasca teaches us. The conflict in the Western world surrounding business has nothing to do with business at all. Business is the result of the individuals practicing it. If people worked from a place of love instead of greed and competition, business would look different worldwide. We need to take responsibility for creating the terms that we use to describe the world. Here, we have created a business out of our own inner values.
In the West, many people make a living claiming healing or shamanic powers. Do you think it's possible for Ayahuasca shamanism to be adopted in the Western marketplace and work as it does in the jungle?
Yes, I think that Ayahuasca healing could work very well in the West, but first the laws would have to change. Then practitioners would need to come to traditional mesas and complete traditional apprenticeships. I think the medicine and the spirits of the medicine want to help humanity. They want to travel to other cultures. But apprenticeship and training are the most important things to consider. An Ayahuasca shaman typically has to complete five to ten years of formal training to attain the level of Maestro. They are considered by the local population to be doctors. In the West, shamans would have to be trained and recognized in this same capacity. The traditional medicine would need to be acknowledged as a viable and concrete form of medicine, respected by government and other practitioners. A change of this magnitude would take many years in the West. It could happen, but I don't see it taking place in our lifetimes.
Recently, the Peruvian government has begun discussing the regulation of Ayahuasca shamanism and lodges like Blue Morpho. Could you explain what is happening?
The government is deciding to legislate the practice of "Medicina Tradicional" in Peru. But this is not about Ayahuasca shamanism or centers like Blue Morpho alone. There are many different practices of Traditional Medicine in Peru; some are shamanic and some are not, but all will be legislated The general idea seems to be to bring some sort of control and regulation to Traditional Medicine so it will be considered and recognized as a legal practice alongside allopathic medicine.
Lots of ideas about how this should happen are being tossed around, but for now, everyone is still in the idea phase and nothing concrete has happened. We believe that, within the next few years, great changes will come to affect the free and open practice of Traditional Medicine. The local populations are protecting their rights to their heritage and traditions. The government wants to have some kind of say and oversee quality control for the safety of the population. One of the problems with the popularity of this kind of medicine is charlatanism, and people can be harmed by "shamans" that are not fully trained – or trained at all. Once again, visionary shamanistic practices take years to learn traditionally under the best Maestros.
What would you like to see come out of this?
I would like to see the government legislate to protect the free and open practice of all Traditional Medicine in Peru, and to recognize it as a legally sanctioned medicine form. We need to protect the tradition of formal apprenticeship and immediately title the current Maestros without further or additional requirements. They have lived their whole lives as masters of traditional medicine, and deserve to be able to continue to practice backed by a title and the government.
Do you consider Blue Morpho to be a place that is vital to the evolution of the planet's consciousness?
First of all, we need to address: What is the planet's consciousness? The consciousness of the planet is our consciousness. There is no separation or difference. We make up the consciousness of the planet. What you know of Human Consciousness is your own. We need to address that reality and begin to explore and question our lives from that place. Most people are not ready for that kind of responsibility. It scares them to think that they are part and parcel of everything they don't like, things they blame or judge.
We might first stop worrying about the planet and start looking at the problems in our relationship to each other. When we do that, we will start to change the world. The planet is doing just fine. When we push it too far, it will push back and rebalance. That rebalancing could mean the loss of a major part of the human population. This is something we do not want to see, and it is what we fear. We fear being part of the restructuring and dying in it. We fear being meaningless, so we imagine concepts like the evolution of the plant's consciousness.
Let's get real and look at ourselves. Let's look at how we are the planet's consciousness, and it is our own darkness that permeates our thoughts. Let's transcend that darkness and see how the planet and others respond. We need to start loving, start thinking positively, start treating others with respect, and start holding compassion for others. Traditional shamanism teaches those things. Blue Morpho was built out of, and stands upon, those principles.
What is your vision for the future of Blue Morpho?
My vision for Blue Morpho is to continue the work which we've started. We will continue to help those that come to us for as long as we can. We practice how we live, and Blue Morpho is an extension of our lives. It is a dream and a reality at the same time. We are grateful to everyone that comes to us to experience this powerful medicine and give to them our very best. We love Ayahuasca shamanism and love to share it with others. We received its gift, and offer that gift to those that feel it is their time.
Ayahuasca is about dealing with fear. From your many exeperiences, how have you come to understand fear?
Fear? What isn't fear? Look around you – everything you see is a reaction to fear. Dividing the world into what you like and what you don't is a reaction to fear. Your job, all your feelings are a reaction to fear. Every thought you have ever had is a reaction to fear. It is all fear. The world is fear; society is fear; community is fear; family is fear; and all organization is fear. Who are you? Investigate it totally and take a walk of fear.
Ayahuasca will take you through everything you fear, every reaction of being scared you can imagine. A demon comes to eat you, eat your mind, eat your heart. It is the same thing that gnaws at you during the day, the same thing you don't like. People aren't ready to deal with fear. They can hardly deal with their basic urges. Fear will take someone into himself, not his or her idea of self. When you look in the mirror, you see a reflection. When you look out at the world, you see it reflected against a mirror made out of fear. It is the same thing.
Dealing with fear is something that takes place once a person gets real. When a person begins to understand impeccability and for the first time decides to throw all logic to the wind, to see if there really is a supreme being. Is there something out there that is more than just a thought? Most people have no idea they are only in their minds – a basic thought with no understanding.
People awake to fear, sleepwalk through their day in fear, are savage to each other, and then go to bed all because of fear. Ayahuasca gives you the opportunity to face fear looking right at it. It is full fear. You feel scared. You see the dark, the demonic. You interact with it, see it and talk with it. And then you realize it is all in you. It is nothing more than you made up of fear. You puke and poop, can't walk, laugh, cry, scream, sweat, and hope you will survive. You will survive it and wish you never have to do it again. The ceremony will approach, and against what you consider your better judgment, you sit again and drink again. You deal with fear. You are the fear. You face yourself. The scariest thing you have ever done, and the most valuable, in one.
How can you use fear to take you to Spirit?
You can't use fear to take you to Spirit. Spirit and fear are the same thing. Fear is what makes everything look solid and real. Just because something looks a certain way does not mean it is that way. Fear plays alongside life and hypnotizes everyone into thinking it is real. That's the funny thing. People are so caught up in what is real or not, that they don't see that the dilemma of real and not-real is them – already duped.
They are asleep, wanting to wake up – thinking they will wake up to a nightmare, when they are already in the nightmare. That is how fear works. The fear itself is Spirit. You have to, for one brief moment, stop fearing and see that you have been asleep in fear your whole life. You have to say yes to fear. What you say yes to, cannot be fear. You will be free of it for a brief moment – until you remind yourself of something you don't like. Then fear streams in again.
Oh, the fear. We forget to laugh at how silly we really are. Spirit is what everything has always been. People are looking in the old for something they think is new. How can you ever find anything new in something old? You can't, so stop trying. The new is Spirit. You see that fear and spirit are not in relationship, but rather fear is a manifestation and representation of spirit.
You are in the game – you can't get out. Stop trying to figure out how to get out of the game with a mind that is in it. You have to find something new, something else. Try thinking with your heart. Actually use it to think. You know how the mind thinks. It keeps trying the same thing over and over, thinking that if it can have a prettier box, then the inside will be different. Well I can tell you that you are making new designs in the old poop.
Try something new, like a heart that feels from a stream instead of a memory. Forget fear by doing something new, like loving. That sickly sweet thing is not love. That clingy thing is not love. That need is not love. That is all fear. Open your heart. Face the fear of opening your heart just once, because you can do it. You can do it.
Just once, and you will see that there is something more than the fear. And when the world melts away, there is only one thing left. You will still be there, but you will experience yourself for the first time.
Ayahuasca Workshops at Blue Morpho can be booked at: www.bluemorphotours.comTweet