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The Ayahuasca Failure (Part I)

August 27, 2020

The sea of mud from the night-long deluge is wheel-scarred and slippery. It covers the entire space in front of the wooden shack where we will sleep after the ayahuascaceremony tonight. About 10 x 20, a meter off the ground, you have to step first on a knee-high rock to get inside.

The walls breathe through small gaps between the boards. The floor and roof are tighter, and dry. Above the fire and log sections placed around the fire for sitting, heavy black plastic protects us from the returning rain.

As I search for a place to step out of the car, my inner response is “Eeeewwww.” The forest around the clearing still drips, not unusual in the Ecuadorian rainforest near the small town of Limon.

Hours later I watch a Shuarfamily playing tag run through the mud without a thought. Not just the boys (probably 7, 9, 15). The pregnant mom (probably 30 something) plays tag, too, and the 2 and 3 year old sisters.

I see freedom, connection, unselfconscious abandon. Then I enter an entirely different mind space, where dirt isn’t something to be afraid of and treeslike to be climbed and strong, healthy young bodies laugh heartily while chasing each other through mud.

Barbara Snow
Road to Ayahuasca ceremony – LImón – Ecuadorian Amazon

I see flashes of my childhood – feel myself swinging upside down by my knees from metal monkey bars, run barefoot again along the cow paths on Grammaw’s farm – and time splits in me and in front of me.

I watch and feel those two events – past and present – spiral like a double helix and merge inside me. I feel the energetic shift and the reclaiming of a careless freedom in which joy of living supersedes appearances or what anyone else thinks.

My attention shifts back to the piece of log on which I sit and the brew cooking in front of me. A growing pile of glowing coals burns at the intersection of five large logs. Steam billows from the battered pot with its fire-blackened bottom as the crushed vines and leaves for visions release their essence into the water bubbling down inside.

We sit, dodging smoke, weak from fasting, thinking about what is to come.

Why am I doing this?

I have participated in – even served as an auxilioin – plant medicine ceremonies for many years of my shamanic training.

Shamanism provides powerful tools to work with human consciousness and the energies that make up our reality.

I have personally experienced extensive healing But I never felt comfortable taking ayahuascawhile living in the US, where it is available, though without government consent.

ecuadorian amazon
Barbara Snow
ecuadorian amazon

Now that I live in Ecuador, where ayahuasca grows in the jungles, the thought arises that maybe it is time. I find myself in unexpected turmoil about turning 70 and want some kind of initiation through which to face my fears head on.

I want to do it authentically, not with an over-priced, sanitized Gringo version of romanticized indigenous wisdom. I also want to do it safely, with trustworthy guides and companions.

Ayahuasca is known for the purging of the human digestive tract that indigenous people view as a welcome cleansing of the body, preparing for the Spirit of Ayahuasca to inhabit.

Kambo (Phyllomedusa bicolor)

They think of like they do mud: nothing of consequence. Vomiting and diahrrea have never been my idea of a good time, but if there is truly a vision on the other side, I am willing to endure the discomfort.

I think about what I would ask the ceremony to bring. Here is what I journal:

I’m still not clear about my intentions for the journey. Healing my body? Finding something to motivate and drive my art? I want to live ever more fearlessly and authentically. I love this planet fiercely with everything in my being. She is wild, beautiful beyond imagining, and dying. What can I do to help Her? How can I help shift human consciousness to save us all? What is within my meager ability to make a difference?

I have prepared this past week with the special diet, essentially bland, oil-free vegetarian. My body feels lighter and also weaker. I have been meditative, inward, and thoughtful. When I hiked through the jungle yesterday to see the waterfalls, I had to focus on directing my body to balance on the rocks of the rushing creek and I tramped carefully past entrapping vines. I navigated the hike but the combination of intense concentration and strenuous activity wore me out.

~. ~. ~

My companions mill about as listlessly as I, sometimes sitting on the log pieces around the fire, sometimes exploring the series of ponds flowing one into the other alongside the buildings.

We watch chickens peck ants scurrying from the fire. We watch Luis, the 54 year old shaman who has been working with the medicine for 27 years, scrape moss and bark from the footlong sections of ayahuasca with the point of a machete.

Shaman scraping bark
Shaman scraping bark
Barbara Snow

We watch Frederico, Luis’s compadre, take the clean vines away, hear the thumping of a rock, watch him return and place the splintered vines in the red-tinted water with the leaves that bring visions.

We watch the water begin to bubble and dense steam announce its reduction into thick, dark fluid. Luis sticks a cautious finger into the cauldron and rubs thumb and forefinger together. Satisfied, he lifts the pot from the flames and sets it off in to the side to cool.

Weakness overtakes me. I go into the bunkhouse and stretch out on the ground pad and sleeping bag for a nap.

I awaken refreshed. A crowd has arrived, Luis’s family, and I am greeted by curious, friendly faces and chatter I cannot understand.

Most check me out courteously with sideways glances, except for one boy of about seven who gazes at me with wide, unflinching, wondering eyes. Maybe he’s never seen a tall, pale, white-haired old woman? After a while half of them leave and Luis’s wife brings leaf-wrapped packages of diced chicken and yucca to roast in the fire. When dinner is ready, the Shuar family retires behind the house to dine. Only Jungle Jim, our Mestizo guide, stays by the fire, torturing us with the sight and smell of the succulent food he shovels into his mouth. It’s all in good fun. We promise to retaliate in the same way when it’s Jungle Jim’s turn to take the medicine.

Ayahuasca Preparation
Ayahuasca Preparation
Barbara Snow

The light fades and as darkness settles in, we gather around the fire. Jungle Jim translates Luis’s words:

Remember that whatever you see – snakes, animals, frightening spirits – is not really there. It’s all an illusion. If you have troubling thoughts, tell me so I can help you. If you need to vomit or purge, tell me. Buen viaje. Good journey.

My two Gringo compadres and I sit side by side on a wooden bench. Luis gives us long white tapered candles. Rub them all over to clean yourselves. He instructs us to swish a bit of sugar alcohol (wretched stuff) around our mouths to numb them, drink the ayahuasca brew, then swish our mouths with sugar alcohol again to diminish the taste and help the ayahuasca stay in our stomachs long enough to activate the process.

The plant brew sits in my belly like a lump but nothing else happens. I breathe and begin to sing tomyself: Pachamama, Mamakilla, Wirococha, Inti. Mother Earth, Mother Moon, Great Mystery, Father Sun.

Over and over, I send the love in my heart into the chant to carry me through this. Eventually the song becomes mere sounds as the language of my soul bypasses my brain and carries the theme of my heart on its melody. La Tema – the Theme – is the Shuar name for ayahuasca. The sound of my own voice soothes me. And then it doesn’t. My stomach erupts its meager contents onto the dirt beside me. There hasn’t been much in there for some time. I’m shaking violently. I sit with my legs spread for balance, my elbows planted on my knees for support, my head hanging. My hands tingle. I feel “opening” in my crown and frontal lobe and sensations in all the bones of my face. I’m used to such things during spiritual work, so I feel reassured – until the lower part of my digestive tract contracts.

Help me, please!” I call for my guides and start to stand. The first guide calls for the second as my legs buckle and I stagger toward the dark perimeter where I squat, fists on the ground to stabilize me in this state of overwhelming weakness. I am shaking violently but accept the papel higiénico to clean myself. Eventually I marshall my will and ease to standing, stabilized enough by helping hands to navigate back to the bench. We are nearly there when I panic. “I’m not done yet!” and stumble toward the concealing darkness to repeat the process. I stagger back to the bench and resume my position. I am barely seated when my stomach erupts – and erupts – and erupts again. I can’t imagine how it can happen and no longer care. Finally I feel utterly empty.

Now I’m hot, then cold, then hotter. Sweat is running down my face. Luis approaches, speaking softly. My guide translates, “You are too hot.” Luis blows tobacco smoke in the crown of my head, pauses while the energy shifts, sprays sugar alcohol on my head, then walks around to do the same down my back. The heat inside me immediately subsides. These are familiar methods I use in my own practice. I am gratified to feel them work.

My digestive tract now feels calm and I wait eagerly for pictures to form in my mind. Nothing. I reach out energetically for Pachamama, hungering for a sense of connection and communication. Are you there, Mama? It’s longing with a question mark. Nothing.

“You can go lie down if you want to.”

I want to. My guides help me step from earth to stone to the floor of the bunkhouse and finally to the waiting sleeping bag, which I struggle into, the heat having left my body and a slight chill having set in. I lie back, wait for my stomach to settle again, am relieved when it does.

I focus again on connecting with Pachamama. Nothing. Nothing. I rest and wait, focus again. Nothing. Nothing. I doze, turn onto my side, follow my thoughts into the twilight of semi-sleep, awaken fully, turn to my other side, doze, repeat. Nothing. At some point in the early morning hours I slide into oblivion.

I awaken to birdsong and the sounds of movement outside the bunkhouse. Inside me pleasure competes with anger. I. Am. Pissed. Disappointed, frustrated, feeling used and abused, and really PISSED. What just happened? Never in all my years of ceremony have I been denied an experience of transformation. I did everything right. I feel CHEATED. How could I have experienced all the symptoms associated with a successful journey and nothave had a vision?

Through the haze of anger and the bruise of disappointment, I sense a presence and feel the thought, which I do not want either to acknowledge or accept:

“It’s not over yet.”

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)