Sobering Shamanism from Peru's Visionary Tea
by Bruce Northam

His new-age-dweeb guard was up when he hit Cusco. Way up. But with a little help from a sacred vine and a chanting married couple who sang in a dying Amazonian language, Bruce Northam seems to have reprogrammed his way of life.

Gocta Falls in Peru – © Bruce Northam

I'm a recovering naughty man. YIKES, a conscience?

Imagine doing everything you can to avoid clichés, and then merrily becoming one. An assignment to report on the 'newly discovered' third highest waterfall in the world sent me to stunning Northern Peru. From there, I drifted south to Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, where out–of–body experience shopping led me to question my consumption. It generally takes the boys a bit longer to grow up than the girls––some lads require a frying–pan whack on the head to tilt it toward the light. But first I had to navigate a jungle of new age frauds.

Remarkable but touristy Cusco is the axis of trendy South American spirituality where homegrown con artists posturing as healers routinely swindle flocks of (often newly divorced) gullible faith–seekers on vacation. After mingling with these bogus gurus, a number of American tourists tote a few tattered drums, rattles and overripe mantras home and materialize into self–proclaimed shamans. This enlightenment is often sanctified by a corny personal name change…How ya doin, Santosh? Partly aware and still skeptical, I tiptoed through that poser minefield and bumped into a life–changing, bad habit–busting all night ceremony with a master shaman and his curative jungle juice, Ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca is an ancient medicinal recipe that blends the extracted liquids from two or more Amazonian vines. Mixed and proffered by shamans, the concoction first quiets the users' ego and then inspires psychological breakthroughs via visions that pave the way for progressive thinking. A vision quest described by some as "five years of therapy in one night," vice–ending testimonials included people who'd quit cigarettes, cocaine or heroin on the spot, and others who declared war on sexual abuse wounds and chronic depression immediately following their rituals.

Modern chemists are amazed that this complex, DMT–based synapse stimulator was discovered centuries ago by tropical forest dwellers with no written language. Ayahuasca's benefits are gradually enlightening some American mental health specialists (hola Marin County) who recognize this potentially more sustainable––and possibly permanent––way to upload serotonin than via unpredictable antidepressants. Celebrity advocates include Sting, Paul Simon and Tori Amos. Back in the beat 60's, William Burroughs' Yage Letters to Allen Ginsburg documented his trials with Ayahuasca (a.k.a. Yage) in Peru. In 2004, the Supreme Court––keeping the government's thumb off the church––ruled unanimously that a New Mexico congregation may use Ayahuasca tea as part of their rituals intended to connect with their God.

Considered remedial, not recreational, a reputable agent/facilitator of sorts is typically required to locate a shaman–led "vine of souls" ceremony. Authentic Amazonian shamans rarely speak English and may not even speak Spanish, and there lies the first challenge. In addition, 'agent' sincerity, knowledge and prices vary. Upon meeting ascended masters Don Antonio and his wife Rosita, a curing team in their 60's from Pucalpa, I knew I'd found my channel. Decades ago, Rosita's father, also a master, was reluctant to let his daughter pair off with then 21–year old Don because of his alcoholic path. This led Don into sobriety and shamanic ways.

Ayahuasca Visions
After meeting the healing duo again two days later in Cusco at the same bohemian guest house, we hiked up a dark mountain road that wound uphill and outside the city to a secluded home encircled by an eight–foot stone wall. Inside, our group sat in a circle upon futons on the floor of a candlelit room. Don individually blessed each one of us, two Americans and six Peruvians, by spit–misting an aromatic substance over our heads. We each drank a three–ounce shot of the auburn, woody–tasting fluid. Twenty minutes later, a dizzy euphoria encouraged us to all lie down on our backs in the shadowy room. The dizziness soon subsided and my first vision leisurely wandered in.

The dreamy series of visualizations launched with a self–propelled flight––me clutching a flight–worthy two–by–four wing and flying through an infinite, illuminated cave teeming with indented half–dome shelves. Each domed ledge in the hallowed emporium comfortably roosted groups of the important people in my life. I visited dozens of ledges, exchanged greetings or memories with comrades, received reassurance from my parents and nods of approval from my two older brothers. When the breezy voyage landed on the shelf propping up the ex–girlfriend, I said, "Sorry." She tried to reply but couldn't find words. We both cried until I flew away. The tears were real, both in and out of the dream.

My flight pattern circled back for a few extra visits to mom and dad, just to validate the spectacle. Somewhere in the cave the beautiful singing began. A vital element in this ancient ritual are icaros, the shaman's power songs, chants and whispers that cultivate communication with the spirits of the natural world. The icaros help to flush out mental and physical illnesses and nurture pertinent visual displays in the minds of the Ayahuasca–medicated. Trained by both a maestro shaman and the spirits themselves, Don and Rosita's harmonizing icaros sustained and steered the entire five–hour meditative odyssey toward healing. Their archetypal world music kaleidoscoped harmonies from India, Africa, Southeast Asia and somewhere indescribable.

One predictable outcome of an Ayahuasca ceremony is the literal purging of bad energies, a.k.a. your personal demons. An exorcism, in the form of literally dry–heaving out unhealthy spirits, occurs at intervals after you process unfortunate, unpleasant and repugnant things stuck in your past. In this shamanic forum, my first confrontation with my unsettled history concluded with the vomit–style purging of that broken relationship. Something stronger than us insisted we finally move on. Other baggage best not remembered was later evacuated in stages––I was free of it, at least for a rapturous moment, maybe longer.

(I should note that my dry–heaving, instead of vomiting, resulted from my following the suggested protocol of no sex, meat or alcohol the week prior to a ceremony—and fasting for the prior 24 hours. The participants who had any food at all in their systems vomited soon after ingesting the Ayahuasca, before it had taken effect. When the other group members puked, I sympathetically dry–heaved because I'm an easy target for nausea: sometimes a mere midday sighting of a Park Avenue poodle maneuvering to unload a crap on the street makes me heave. Just as a dog walker carrying their clear baggie of fresh dogshit also triggers my gag reflex. Pardon this neurotic detour from the story.)

The easy–breathing resumption of another glide through my acquaintance–lined cavern was, in due course, interrupted by a series of visions associated with alcohol, the drug I'd been sipping—and occasionally misusing—in recent months while my fourth book remained unsold. Partying without a reason to celebrate had been on my mind. The 3–D documentary–style shorts debuted with the image of a van–sized stone block monument declaring POWER. I stood at its base, with a buzz and a beer parked in a holster clipped to my belt, and used a chisel and hammer to splinter the monument. The ensuing revelation portrayed me, with beer can in hand, standing above a collage of written statements declaring my life goals. These affirmations of my dreams were arranged on the ground below an elevated arc of sidewalk that arched over skyscrapers, traffic and noisy pedestrian chaos. As I strolled over the sidewalk–bridge, I urinated upon my dreams. Curtain.

Next: The big–screen flashes to my favorite East Broadway bar consumed in roaring flames while a steady stream of patrons, also on fire, casually stumbled out the front door and toddled down the street, remaining aflame. Whoa. The climax apparition depicted me seated in a chair in the midst of a sallow, cell–like room illuminated by a bright bulb hanging on the end of a wire. I sat there with my head tilted back to smooth the progress of swilling from a quart–sized beer bottle. Suddenly my exact clone materialized, armed with a butcher knife, and began stabbing me repeatedly in the torso––while I kept drinking, failing to notice.

Not exactly subtle metaphors, especially when the visions appear on an IMAX movie screen of the mind.

The smell of alcohol then materialized and abruptly made me sit up and gag. I threw up (blanks) again until a mood shift in Don's chanting and Rosita's singing coaxed me back into the flying buddy cave. A few of my unconscious psychological gargoyles, human and non–human enemies seated upon a few shelves in the cave, were waving for attention but I snubbed them. There's nothing predictable about Ayahuasca except the lifeguard role of a good shaman. Their ancient insights exist on borrowed time in the modern world. When a bona fide shaman dies, a library burns.

Back to the Material World
As the sun rose, the group simultaneously landed back on earth and discussed their visions with Don and Rosita via the facilitator––the guy who profited the most from the money changing hands before the ceremony. The two rounds of rib–cracking dry heaves made me feel as if I'd pulled muscles in my torso, but otherwise I felt fine. The freestyle group discussion, where everyone shared their personal journey, reminded me of a corporate weekend feel n' heal workshop. After sharing my visions, Don and Rosita had a brief exchange using soft voices. Then Don looked at me and said via translation, "Your best teacher is your last mistake." A minute later, I readily vowed to the group that I'd be giving up alcohol for a year. After the ceremony I hiked back into Cusco, lost in thought, curious about a new frontier.

I arrived back in the States a seemingly changed man and I'm in near the end of that clearheaded year without any chest–beating regalia, pining, or month counting. With little drama, the rebalancing has been akin to taking on a new hobby by dropping an old one. I've had to get clever about entertaining myself: the strolling into any bar and playing Bad Company on the jukebox option evaporated. Energized and far more patient, I now sleep seven hours a night, instead of wanting ten––and wake up focused, putting pen to paper. My newfound patience inserts a few reflective time zones into my conditioned impulse to flee dilemmas.

A relationship will now be a breeze because apparently, if you discipline yourself, nobody else has to. I now settle dating arguments that might have skyrocketed into war with a monk's calm. When a more recent girlfriend and I drank together, I tended toward less sensitivity while she became more sensitive, and that was a recipe for disaster. If wine swung her into a warrior stance, I delayed that conversation until the next morning, when it's oft forgotten.

No nag, shrink, friend or dilemma could have led me to this happily altered state. Did this native folk medicine spawn a random psychotropic movie reel in my brain? Was the imbedded hush–hush in my subconscious unlocked? I may have had a subconscious agenda, but as far as I know none of those images had been previously installed. Perhaps I just tripped upon a reason to change. Regardless, the mystical result wedged the first sturdy interleave of discipline into my life since my phase as a collegiate wrestling caveman.

Another lasting impression of this flush of the warring foes ratcheted into my psyche is a restored intent to "ruin" my life, so to say, interpreting ruin as leaving a meaningful legacy––not a statue, but at least a few cool books. Celestine Prophecy cuteness aside, Peru inspired me. My heart signed a contract with my head and I'm reclaiming my power.

And I'll never forget this: While hugging Shaman Don and Rosita a goodbye, Don whispered… "You've got to have try."

Bruce Northam is an award–winning travel writer and speaker. He is the author of Globetrotter Dogma and editor of In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology.

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