breakfast: porridge I could hardly touch
lunch: mashed potatoes, carrots, broccoli, and lentil mush
Last night at about dusk we gathered in the maloca where 11 mats were laid out around three sides, like we were all going to do yoga facing the center. We sleep all together in the maloca every ceremony night, so everyone had their pillows and blankets from their tambos to make the mats more comfortable. When I walked in I saw that at least four mats covered in lightweight green blankets, like the one I co-opted from Latam Air, and the thought of each of us tucking these away in our luggage during our pilgrimage to this place is too funny.
Next to each mat was a small piece of paper with a name on it, and a plastic wastebasket/bucket, which I assumed was for the purging. I found my name between B and G, my two favorite people - and settled in. I noticed that everyone seemed very clean and was dressed in various types of loose fitting clothing — baggy cotton pajama bottoms and loose tops — while I was still in a white tank and jean shorts. Why didn’t I read more about this whole thing ahead of time? I clearly have no idea what I'm doing, but I wasn't nervous; I was excited to see what this would be. I had a headache, a face ache, actually, that was kind of annoying, but I figured it would be fine.
At the open end of our mat circle there's a little wooden altar sitting on the floor holding candles, bottles of liquids, cups of various sizes, and a bowl of hand rolled smokes, tobacco spilling out the ends. Mapacho, they say.
Our two curanderos, E and O, are sitting behind the altar on a mat, leaning against a piece of wood. Finally, my first real shaman. I’m nervous and giddy. How does healing work? How do they think about what they do? What is it they’re doing? They look friendly and small; when they stand up to go outside I see they are both about five feet tall, maybe a little over. O has long dark hair wrapped up in a braid; E's hair is tucked under a cap. It's hard to guess their ages - 45 maybe? Somewhere between 42 and 55, I would guess, though it's impossible to say.
When everyone had settled in N told us what to expect -- a plant bath for cleansing and purification, then the sharing of intentions, then we begin. Women first in the plant bath, and since M forgot her towel I went first. It went like this:
At the shower stall O, the female curandero) told me what to do in Spanish while pantomiming that I should take off my clothes and sit on the wood stump just inside the shower stall under the giant water tank. Everything off? I asked and she nodded so I stripped down to nothing (nothing nothing) and sat down. A big plastic basin full of water, leaves and flowers sat on the ground next to me — it smelled amazing, minty and fresh and the plants were green and bright orange calendula. O, who is about 42 pounds, stepped in, closed the door, and for a crazy moment there we were — her tiny taut brown-ness in a brightly embroidered cotton shift and my giant soft naked American whiteness looking at each other in one absurdly tiny makeshift shower stall, in the middle of the jungle.
She dipped a pitcher into the basin and asked if she could pour it over my head, which was of course fine with me because YES let’s do all the plants. I bowed my head slightly as she poured, and though I would have liked to have said a little prayer or something the water so was cold that I involuntarily gasped loudly in surprise, which made me grin at her sheepishly, mostly for being me. She didn’t seem to notice so I let it go; she asked me my name in Spanish — 49, I said, holding up my fingers to show her.
She smiled and said Mi nombre es Olinda. So I smiled and told her my name and she said a little prayer or incantation or something around my name while she poured, and it all went very quickly, two more pitchers over my head, the father daughter and Holy Ghost, and then she stepped back out and we were done. I blotted my self dry, leaves and tiny twigs stuck to my skin and in my hair, threw my clothes back on, and went back to my mat.
When everyone had been bathed and purified, we sat in the candlelight while N explained what was to come, which honestly sounded terrifying. The purging, the bathroom, don't shit your pants, he said. We're all together tonight to build community — but as he kept talking I realized that maybe we were also all together to make sure no one dies. This is a commitment, he said, and spoke about leaning into it, about being active, working with the medicine rather than being a victim to it. Sit up when the curanderos come to sing your songs, he said. Unless it's impossible for you, sit up.
Why would it be impossible?
The curanderos, he said, would come around the room mat by mat, to sing a song just for us. They would look into us and be able to see what needed healing at different levels: body, mind and spirit. The medicine would allow them to help with the healing in some way I didn't completely understand, but it wasn't the time to ask.
Now I was nervous.
We went around and shared our intentions, passing a bouquet of dried palm fronds or banana leaves or something. I should've just said IDK when it was my turn, but instead I spoke about my need for clarity and confidence around my calling. After all this time, I still don’t know what to do with time. Afterward I could see that what I said was actually symbolic of my overall challenge -- that I’m always censoring myself, not allowing myself to be vulnerable (my Jesus how I hate that word) around many people, and certainly not people I don't know.
Anywho. O scooted up to the altar and began talking, saying a gentle prayer it seemed, over plastic bottles of dark brown liquid, which I assumed was the ayahuasca. I couldn't understand what she was saying but her words had a beautiful cadence, and combined with her tone I felt like it made perfect sense. Come and heal us. Show us what needs to be seen. She lit a mapacho and began puffing smoke over the bottles; E moved to the center of the room and also lit a smoke, calling to the six directions. When they were both finished with the opening ritual, we were all called to the altar, one by one, to drink.
I was fourth -- F, H, B, then me. I went to the altar and kneeled on the floor next to N. He glanced at me sideways and poured until the little ceramic ceremonial cup was about a third full. A beginner’s dose, he’d said earlier. I took the cup in both hands and flashed briefly to communion in the Christian church; I gave thanks with a little nod and smile to E and O, drank it quickly, and went back to my mat. The taste wasn’t bad, kind of like a spicy NyQuil with a fir tree in it, bark and all.
When everyone had drunk, N blew out the candles and everyone disappeared as the room settled into darkness. All was quiet except for the calling of the birds outside. I snuggled under my blanket and waited for the purging to begin, assuming that we would all be vomiting into our buckets any minute. But it was quiet for a very long time, before O started singing on the opposite side of the room.
I knew intellectually that there is a magic to the icaros, the medicine songs the curanderos sing, but I didn't feel it last night all that much. The sound of the songs was like nothing I’ve heard before; I didn’t recognize the language or any of the words. I wish I could remember the words or the mesmerizing cadence, but it is already gone.
Mostly last night I just felt yuck. I noticed I was scared, and then I noticed my hands and face go numb, and I waited for something to happen, the psychedelic art show or something, but it never really did. I had the experience of flying, I guess, I was flying above a river, and there was a bridge, and then there was a long tunnel — and somehow during this I learned the lesson for the night: that my life is stuck because I run away when things get hard. Communication is different in even these altered states; it’s not like someone said those words to me - that I run when things get hard - it’s just that all of a sudden I knew. That's why I'm stuck.
I thought for sure my bowels would open up that night — they did not.
I thought for sure I would puke based on the stories I’d heard about ayahuasca — I did not.
After what seemed like a couple of hours E came to my mat and sang to me the most beautiful songs -- high and soft and feminine. This man's energy is something else. It was nearly impossible to stay sitting while he breathed on me some mixture of sweet and tobacco and ayahuasca --I thought I might puke just from his breath, but no. He held my hands and we swayed, mostly, during one song in joy, and as he held my hands I could see in the dark for a moment that he was the black jaguar I had come to meet; he was the Spirit of the plant itself.
Looking back I can see that I was not leaning into the experience; I was resisting it and trying to avoid any kind suffering. I was scared. I thought if I just closed my eyes and went to sleep that I could escape feeling as shitty as I did in that moment.
When O came around maybe an hour later, with her hard masculine songs I genuinely wanted to die -- the smell of her breath and the songs — I just wanted to sleep. But I sat there politely and tried to do my part.
I don't know if I was still tired from the travel or just too scared to really be in the experience of it, but I did not enjoy the ambiance of the evening at all. It was quite miserable, in fact, and I just wanted it to be over. Two curanderos singing their chants (separately but complementary somehow) and someone else was singing a third line which was completely different and dissonant -- I think it was H and it made me so angry. I desperately wanted to shut it all out. It was pitch black but there was a general kind of motion always in the room; people headed out to the bathroom or just outside for some air; people puking into their small buckets; people moving around as they were moved around by the medicine.
I stayed on my mat and realized I was indeed cold; I'd not known what to wear and I was freezing. Next time bring socks. Noted.
At some point J picked up his guitar and began singing the most beautiful lullabies in Spanish; this was the best part of my evening for sure, I think. Haunting tunes about a woman, probably about the plant, but I don’t really know.
I must've slept at some point because I woke up and looked outside and was surprised and relieved to find Orion giant in the sky outside the maloca. O-ri-on is a-ris-ing... I'm still here, I thought, and went back to sleep.
When I woke again, the sun was coming up, and a couple of people were quietly packing up their things to go back to their tambos. We weren't supposed to talk to each other (this from the ground rules of night one) so we didn’t. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, so left quickly, nothing in my bucket.
I’m not sure about the philosophy of doing this — suffer and the plants will reward you? We don’t have to learn through suffering, do we? Do we? Jesus went to the desert and was tried and tested. Buddha sat under a tree and ate nothing but a bowl of rice for 42 days.
Maybe there’s something to this.
Is my resistance to this, to being here now that I'm here, about not wanting to let go of Julie?
Or my fear of physical death?
N mentioned on our first night that the problem with westerners is that they have everything they want, and they’re still not happy. I’d understood this for myself but had not thought about society as a whole — and I think there are many who would argue with this idea, but it does explain the river of wealthy white people to retreats like his in South America. Nothing we’ve done — not our ingenuity in eliminating all the basic challenges of life, our access to education, our access to easy food and cheap home goods — has truly made us any happier. We’re still sick, depressed, and obese, still chasing after the problems we created, like solving them is going to help.
What I don’t get about N is that he exhibits no warmth., happiness or joy. He is quite serious about everything and never smiles. He mentioned at one point while giving instructions for the night that to be without ego is to be shitting your pants and drooling at the mouth — so maybe he does not know the joy behind this yet? IDK. Maybe he just knows how hard the work can be in this way.
I’m surprised I can’t remember much of the experience last night — not the visions (other than the tree), or the lessons, other than noticing that I will do anything not to suffer, and thus I never get through the tunnel to something new. (That seems like an important lesson!) I guess maybe I thought having enough money meant that I didn’t have to or need to suffer.
Suffering is to be identified with the experience instead of as the observe of it. (What?) and that was last night for sure with my head pounding and my face number. I was not the observer.
Out my “window” is the jungle all around: yesterday and this morning a couple of blue morphos keep dive bombing each other - one landed on my leg while I was sunning for moment outside. (Just a moment until the mosquitos find me) Today there is also a hummingbird and a black butterfly with an orange stripe. I love this place.
We just met at the maloca for our first night of plant dieta — a thin drink that looked like blackberry smoothie. 8 of us had that while 3, (James Zan and Ali) had three different things. We sat in a loose circle on the mats while O blew smoke on each glass and handed them around - the smoke streams like a dragon out of her mouth. Lots of puffing on the smoke before they even light it. O was very serious tonight; E smiled at me from the hammock when I came in and made the dancing motions with his hands. He recognized me. Not sure why I’m surprised, but I am. Guess I figured that the stream of faces through here must all be a blur to them — and yet.
N, still in black and white but now wearing glasses (which, with his light mustache makes him look very much like Napoleon Dynamite’s brother) gave another lecture on taking this seriously. Maybe don’t explore, he said, probably talking to me. But all I keep thinking is that these folks are in search of what I’ve already experienced, that the self they are trying to heal is illusory.
[NOTE DURING TRANSCRIPTION: THIS IS INTERESTING - I’M STILL USING THE EXPEREINCES TO PRETEND THAT I AM HEALED AND WHOLE OR SOMETHING. I’M FINE, I WILL INSIST UNTIL I FALL OVER DEAD. SO CURIOUS.}
And honestly that has kept me at a nice safe distance from all of this, with a smug smile of superiority on my face, but tonight I’ve started to suspect that this is just spiritual bypassing on my part — another way to not have to look at my problems and/or ask for help. As tempting as it is, to ask for the help I need on the level of form — purpose, calling, service, money, et al — what is the point of that? I do not want to continue choosing illusion — I want to wake up. I want right perception, and perception is healed through forgiveness. So I’m right back to not knowing a damn thing — I am having this experience because I chose it but I am terrified of these next ceremonies, terrified of the possibility of pain and discomfort. Clearly I do not want to get through the tunnel.
[WHY DO I THINK THEY WILL BE PAIN AND DISCOMFORT? WHY DO I NOT EXPECT THEM TO BE BEAUTIFUL? ]
Why would I choose such suffering?
What is "such suffering"? Everything I'm afraid of is in my mind.
For whatever time I have left I want to serve. I ask you, Jesus, Mary, and all the Friends — please help me through this. To have courage. To let go of the old. To face what I feel and actually be honest about it. To SPEAK at long last.
I want to run from here so very much.
That’s the temptation I suppose.
Fuck, N was talking to me. Dammit.
FORGIVE ALL OF IT.
RECOGNIZE THAT WHAT YOU’RE SEEING IS NOT TRUE.
AND THAT YOU DON’T WANT IT ANYMORE.
BUT WOULD CHOOSE PEACE INSTEAD.
You have a purpose on the level of form which is symbolic of creation — the extension of Love into the illusion. It’s symbolic because everything here is.
The retreat is symbolic of your desire to transcends to allow Julie — the scared self — to die once and for all. You are here because it will shorten your experience in time if you do it now. Otherwise you will do the same thing in a more gradual manner, gently.
You chose this so you could see how scared you are to let go of who you think you are, even all that has happened. We are here. We see you. Everything will be okay. You can let go.
What about Tommy? Tommy is here for you. He’s fine. You are the one keeping him in a box.
Is that true? That doesn’t feel true. Everything you perceive is your projection of story. That’s true. Remember what it’s like to see without story — everything is perfect just as it is. And that includes this.
Oh I remember now — it’s nothing. Like San Diego, it’s nothing.
How do I know I need help? Because I am still not able to be fully honest with myself and others. I want to be honest.