Note: This blog is a part of a series on my journey to the Ecuadorean Amazon and it is a sequel to this blog – Part III Journey to Lagarto Cocha. I highly recommend reading that before you read this post below.
In this blog, I am going to share some details about the ceremonies I had the chance to participate in under the guidance of the elder shamans from the Secoya tribe in the Ecuadorean Amazon. Some of the content may sound unreal but I only request you to be open-minded while reading this. I gain nothing by lying to you and I report these experiences exactly as I experienced them.
Before I get into further details, here is a brief description of the sacred medicine. Ayahuasca is actually a forest vine whose name translates to ‘vine of the soul’. The sacred vine is concocted into a completely plant-based medicine used in different ways by various indigenous groups of the Amazon. The medicine is created from a combination of the ayahuasca vine (Banistereopsis Caapi) and chacruna or amiruka (Psychotria Viridis). The latter contains N-N DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) which naturally occurs in various plants and animals. Ayahuasca is used as a hallucinogenic medicine to undergo spiritual journeys as well as heal certain diseases!
Ayahuasca is NOT something to be taken for fun and it is absolutely NOT ‘just another drug’. It is a very serious medicine and has proper ceremonies and rituals done by experienced shamans who have undergone tremendous hardships. The vine medicine is taken for spiritual growth. If you ever consider participating in ceremonies, please read as much as you can about the practices and gain knowledge on ayahuasca. Please do this with experienced shamans in proper settings such as known retreat centers. Here is a great resource on Ayahuasca by the person who led this trip to the Amazon.
In all of the ceremonies, I consumed yage which is slightly different from Ayahuasca because it is a combination of the Ayahuasca vine and yage-oco instead of chacruna. Ayahuasca can induce more vomiting but yage is meant to be ingested after a vomiting ceremony so the experience is generally more primal. I have used Ayahuasca and yage interchangeably but they are not exactly the same substance.
So now that the disclaimer is over, let’s dive into what happened during these magical journeys. For each ceremony, we had to fast (no food and water) for 24 hours.
All three ceremonies had the same procedure without the sunrise renewal ceremony so I’ll explain what we did for the first and it’s the same for the other two. A small lodge was constructed just for the ceremony a little far from the tents. Sticks were arranged in a rectangle with even spaces to hold the tarp above the ground. The hammocks were tied to them in a neat horizontal arrangement. In the evening, all of us participants dressed up nicely to emulate the celestial beings seen by the elder shamans in their visions on ayahuasca. Some of us had face painting from a plant pigment too! Here is a picture of the ceremonial lodge with hammocks taken by my friend and mentor, Jonathan Miller Weisberger, in the morning after a ceremony! Every ceremony was conducted at night.
The First Ceremony
Before each ceremony, we had to lie in our hammocks and just meditate quietly until it was time for us to be called for drinking the brew. In this duration, we had to set an intention for what we wanted to see or learn in the journey. As I learned from experience later on, these intentions had a significant effect on whether the ‘trip’ was going to be challenging or not. You may have heard that set and setting are the keys to having pleasant experiences with psychedelics. In this case, the setting was flawless as we were in a protected part of the Amazon, Lagarto Cocha, which was several hours (by canoe) away from any signs of civilization. The set in this situation was the internal mindset which had to be positive for a pleasant journey before consuming ayahuasca. I set an intention to increase personal growth and become a better person for this ceremony.
The shaman sat in the hammock nearest to the fire. The forest sounds were absolutely enchanting. The extravagant chirping of the myriad of insects is still imprinted in my memory. Mosquitoes were buzzing around me so I had sprayed a lot of eucalyptus oil repellant on my clothes. After lying on my hammock for about an hour, the brew was fully prepared and we were being called by name one at a time to drink it. I felt nervous and excited at the same time as this was my first time with any psychedelic (I had not even tried cannabis). My name was called and I walked towards the fire where I bowed to the shaman to receive a small cup of the medicine. I drank it very quickly as the taste was very bitter. Here is a picture which is similar to the cup I drank from.
I slowly walked back to my hammock and waited for the effects to come. After about 40 minutes or so, I could literally feel a rush of blood to my head. Thoughts started coming to my mind faster than ever before. I was entering an altered state of consciousness. I could listen intensely to the forest sounds and they were multiplied in magnitude. The forest became a living being now. While I was not able to directly communicate with the non-human life that surrounded me, I felt at peace and thought of the great forest as a protector. I had no sense of time during this and any of the mind journeys. In the Secoya tradition, the chanting and singing to invite forest spirits begin at 3 am during the ceremonies. So when Don Cesareo began to hum beautiful tunes and chant in the Secoya language, Paicoca, I realized it was 3 am. These songs of healing are called icaros and you can find a beautiful example of one here: Ayahuasca Icaro. The effects had worn off by then but I was just amazed at the experience I had. Some of my fellow participants took more cups of ayahuasca but one was enough for me at that time. Then I just rested for the night in my hammock and listened to the life in the great forest until the sun’s rays shone on my face. I was absolutely starving and was so grateful to have a bowl of oatmeal and watermelon for breakfast. Starvation greatly increased the gratitude I expressed for food.
The Second Journey
My intention for the second ceremony was centered on finding out whether my loved ones were doing alright. Since I had no way of contacting them from the deep jungle, I was worried if everything in the life I had temporarily left was fine.
The great shaman, Don Cesareo, led this ceremony too. After I drank the first cup, the same effects began again after about an hour. Initially, it felt great as I was happy and surrendering to the sacred vine. However, the trip took a turn and it was challenging. I felt like I was going to die soon after the effects began. My mind entered a state of anxiety and paranoia. I was afraid to die early and my energy levels were also low. Since we had to refrain from food and water for the whole day before the night ceremony, I was dehydrated so the feeling of impending death was all too real to me. This part of the trip was a struggle as I thought I was holding on to life. I was too afraid to surrender to and accept death so soon. Memories of my past were flashing in my mind. The people who are extremely important in life such as my parents and some close friends also came to me in those flashes. Finally, my friend, Jonathan, who was assisting the shaman came over to check if everyone was doing fine. I admitted that I was feeling dehydrated and he blew some copal incense smoke on my face and gave me a drop of Rescue Remedy. A few minutes after that, my anxiety was significantly reduced and I was calmer.
My name was called for another round of drinking the medicine and I went for my second cup. The forest felt more alive than ever. I experienced the grandest cognitive dissonance I had ever had. The main thought in my mind was the fact that ‘there is so much I do not know’ which is still true. It is incredibly difficult to describe such a beautiful experience in words but I will try my best. Don Cesareo started singing around 3 am. He was vocalizing sounds of many different animals such as cicadas, crickets, snakes, and jaguars. My respect for the amazing man was greatly increased and so many thoughts of appreciation were racing through my brain. The whole forest was filled with such amazing music and it really felt as if I was connecting with the animals of the great Amazon through their music. I was thinking of how mainstream culture has (for the most part) discarded the teachings and cultures of indigenous forest-dwelling people. They have such a vast body of ecological and spiritual knowledge which is only transmitted orally so once the elders such as Don Cesareo are gone, the loss would be akin to burning libraries. I will return to this topic in my final blog (Part V). Here is a picture of me with Don Cesareo after the second ceremony.
At the end of the second trip, I felt truly elated. Never before in my entire life had I been so grateful just to be alive in the moment. I felt as if I was absolutely in the present moment! I remember looking at my hands and just thanking the universe that I was alive. This was also a result of me holding on tightly to life during the first part of the ceremony. Gratefulness for everything that had happened in my life and the people that have supported me, especially my parents, was magnified like never before. The feeling of love and compassion for the existence of all life grew inside me and tears of joy were trickling down my cheek. I cannot express in words how this felt but all I can say is the feeling was the most beautiful sensation I had felt in my life. This quote summarizes my second trip better than my own words.
“I feel part of the environment, not separate from it, as though I’m at home rather than visiting—as though I’m tapped into some eternal omnipresence beyond the transient physical forms.”
The Final Ceremony
The last ceremony was conducted by an 80-year-old shaman named Don Basilio. I was extremely excited to participate in this one. I had mentally prepared myself to drink three cups beforehand. I made an attempt to realize my purpose in life on the last mind journey of my Amazon visit. Here is a picture of Don Basilio (on the right) in a conversation with Don Cesareo.
This time, I actually had a mosquito net over my hammock to prevent any insects from biting me. Once I drank my first cup and was settled in my hammock, I closed the zipper of the net and I found out a few minutes later that there were three mosquitoes inside the net! The universe has a strange sense of humor indeed. I was hesitant to open the net to let them out because more insects would enter. So I waited for the medicine to kick in while the ‘three mosquitoes’ were buzzing around my ears. While I was waiting, I thought of killing the mosquitoes but I resisted the temptation because the act of killing any life would possibly have an impact on the trip. I wanted my mind to be filled with love and kindness. As naive as that sounds, I tried to make peace with the mosquitoes. I told myself that I had nothing against them and hoped that they would not bite me.
Then the mind trip began and I started mildly hallucinating. My mind was still focused on not getting bit by my insect friends. My thoughts were racing again and the forest was a grandiose being once again. Mother Earth was speaking to me through the music of the birds and the insects.
My name was called again for a second round and I had mentally decided to drink at least 3 cups in this final ceremony. I got up, drank the medicine, and waited in my hammock. Don Basilio started chanting calmly so it was around 3 am. Very soon, I was in another world altogether. I received very strong visions which led me to question reality. This experience confirmed some of what I had read in Jonathan’s book, ‘Rainforest Medicine’. I cannot share the details of these visions but I will say that they opened my mind to so many possibilities. I still remember many of the details so they were very different from any dream I ever had. I still have not completely understood what exactly they meant so I hope to in the future as my life goes on. My perception of reality was drastically changed.
An amazing quote by Aldous Huxley, author of ‘A Brave New World’, describes what I learned from the third trip.
“It’s a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is. I think it’s healthy that people should have this experience.”
I finally went for my third cup after this exhilarating experience. No visions came but just like the second trip, my gratitude for existence and connection to the environment was enhanced. I thought of what I wanted to accomplish in my life and how I have the desire to help in making our world more sustainable and just leave the world much better than I found it. I was feeling excited about the life ahead of me and also thinking of how difficult it will be to achieve some of my goals. Morning came like a saviour as I was extremely hungry. I was still hearing the mosquitoes buzzing but surprisingly, I did not get a single mosquito bite! I had somehow successfully avoided being bitten by my friends.
To summarize, these experiences allowed me to take a deeper look at who I am, what I need (not want) in life, and peek at other ways of living a life. I will write more on the topic of indigenous knowledge, cultural beliefs, and interaction with our planet in the next and final blog of this series. Thank you so much for reading.