HUNTING FOR HEALERS, COLOMBIA
Imagine sitting on a log inside the succulent Colombian Sierra Nevada rainforest, on the bank of a pristine river. This is where I meet John, our shaman of choice in the region. John doesn’t speak English, but he really doesn’t need to.
He takes a pipe out of his white tunic. John has that understated, humble presence of a man with estimable wisdom and strength of character. He doesn’t make many sounds; his body awareness is feline-like. With a welcoming yet wry grin and a hand gesture, John nominates me to participate with the pipe.
In South American indigenous shamanic practice, tobacco is often called the father of Ayahuasca. To know the son, you have to be vetted by king tobacco. It cleans and opens the pathway for the deeper, psychotropic effects of Ayahuasca.
John says a few prayers and whispers some things in Spanish to his pipe. He then turns to Tad, our cinematographer and director, and tells him to turn off the camera.
Interestingly, the jungle, which was teaming with life up until this point, gets very quiet. All I hear is the rolling river’s current and I see John lift his hands above my head. Was I about to be baptized?
He then sticks a long pipe into my right nostril and quickly blows the tobacco into my inner sanctum. Don’t get the idea that the powder hovered in my nose like some saline nasal wash. This was a direct and uncomfortable penetration into the hemispheres of my brain. I just found another chapter of Dante’s inferno, and it’s John blowing tobacco through my cranium.
Before I can run away, John blows into my left nostril. I feel like my head is full of sawdust and he just propelled a bit of brain into my nose. Everything seems reverted. He starts tapping on my forehead while feverishly reciting prayers. I get the sense that something has gone drastically wrong and that this tapping/praying exercise is a last ditch effort to restore cognition before it is too late….
Dazed and yellow, I wander out into the river. Time has slowed and I move into a hyper-focused state. I have many thoughts but they seem as far away as New York City, my home. It’s as if my thoughts are somebody else’s; they really don’t concern me.
My gut starts retching and, shortly after, the morning oatmeal comes flying out. After a full-minute vomiting spasm, I feel spacey. I am floating waist level, meditating on the dissolving shapes of oatmeal as we move downstream.
I look back at John the Baptist and he’s smiling sheepishly at me. He lifts up his pipe to see if I want another go. He’s joking, right? And this is just the prelude to Ayahuasca!
“He said you look 20 years younger,” Ana Maria exclaims from underneath a banana tree. That’s me, the adolescent American who can’t handle his tobacco. Luckily, I’m in the company of Tad, who is floating in sickness, and our partner Tommy, my brother-in-law from Ireland. He’s the sturdy type and a construction company owner. However, while Tad and I had an instinct to get away and dissolve ourselves into the river, Tommy anchored himself on the log and broke into a cold sweat. John grabbed his hand and they sat together in communion.
Despite our altered states (and queasy color), we had survived the gateway herb.
Call me a purist, but I am not easily attracted to the idea of handing my mind over to a drug or herb to induce psychedelic states. To me, getting “high” is caused, in part, by steady and measurable efforts of practiced mindfulness. That progress would be threatened by attaching my ascension to fleeting external triggers. To reach enlightening states of consciousness, it is safer to rely on tested internal methods like meditation.
When the opportunity to experience a hallucinatory Ayahuasca ceremony in the middle of a wild Colombian rainforest arose, I was a little tight in the chest at the thought. I would have to come off my Island. Would my 15 years of slow and gradual mind training be harmed? And what about the 37 years of human development? Would I damage my body? Tourists have recently died taking this.
But underneath my mortal concern, I was ready to experiment. I had always thought that if I ever got the chance to use a hallucinating agent in is proper context, I would do it. I had just never been in that context! Rather than seeing the experience as just a shortcut to feeling good, I could practice in a way that could illuminate me to things I have never been open enough to see about myself, and about life.
I wanted to practice Ayahuasca as a teacher, as a guide, and as a medicinal. I trusted, perhaps foolishly, that my intention would endear myself to the plant. That somehow my desire to become a better herbalist and better healer was my own little version of life insurance. We all want to escape pain and find happiness. But I was betting on context, purpose, a bit of knowledge, and the immense value of guidance as good starting points for learning.
And before I drown in good intention, I have to admit that I enjoy a bit of mischief. I was super excited to explore where my mind could take me. I had always firmly believed that I didn’t need drugs, and I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy making love with a psychotropic plant, even just for the hell of it. For the first time in a long time, I could take a risk and send myself into orbit. It may not be everyone’s idea of a wild night out, but, for me, it was my type of party. Yeah baby, Ayahuasca!
Ayahuasca, or Yage, is the indigenous ceremonial brew used in parts of the Amazonian rain forest (especially within the Peruvian shamanic practices) to induce healing. The plant (Banisteriopsis caapi) translates to ‘vine of the soul’ but is also often called the ‘little death’ because of its transformational effects on the patient. It is most often combined with the Psychotria specious, which contain the psychedelic chemical DMT. The secrets of how the plant is prepared and cultivated is said to come from the wisdom of the plant itself, which is considered as a sentient and conscious force.
As a practicing traditional Chinese herbalist, I’m quite accustomed to the healing power of Mother Nature. But I also know that the needs of each herbal patient vary greatly, and that the difference between a poison and medicinal agent is in the dose. Who would prescribe, cook, and dose our psychotropic expedition? That’s where John came in.
The next day, we take a magnificent inner tube ride down the river to meet John. We had spent a week living with the amazing Kogi people that inhabit the Sierra. This is another story in itself, but it’s worth noting that John and our two other guides, Ana Maria and Diego, are all students of the Kogi elders. This is an extremely rare position of engagement, as the Kogi are among the most exclusive traditional communities in the world. Yet Ayahuasca is not a practice of the Kogi, so when our visit with the Kogi elders had passed, we made plans with John for him to lead us in in a ceremony. His shamanic training was done in southern Colombia, where Ayahuasca is a common indigenous custom.
As a screening process, John had only agreed to practice with us only after getting to know us. Film crews naturally raise suspicion, but the nature of our questions and probing with the Kogi seemed to relax concerns. Or maybe the plant itself had given him a sign. Who knows.
Unfortunately, not all Ayahuasca shamans vet as carefully. The pure lineage of teachers remains the same, but overnight fake shamans have popped up everywhere in South America to take advantage of the new turismo. Americans and the like who come down to do ecotourism are adding Ayahuasca to the bucket list as-if they are vacationing in Amsterdam. With no previous mind training and no clue of what to expect in a shaman, it becomes a dangerous recipe. The one self-regulating mechanism is that Ayahuasca has some trying attributes. “Purging” is a big part of the experience, as frequent vomiting and/or diarrhea is required for cleansing and renunciation. This is probably the only thing that may keep the plant from making it big at Phish concerts.
We leave the tube at the bank of the river and begin to walk up to a lower mountain peak on the Sierra. This hike is narrow and steep, and reflects the sort of no return intensity of the ceremony. A ‘moloka’, broadly speaking, is a hut with a roof held by skinny pillars. There are no walls and the floor is just dirt. This is what we find at the peak. The panoramic view of the mountains and the Atlantic ocean momentarily stops my breath.
John starts taking out his materials for the ceremony. Tad and Tommy begin to get the camera equipment ready. We did not get permission to film the ceremony but plan on doing some interviews. There is a quiet, serious energy. John takes out his pipe again and I take another mandatory hit of tobacco. This time he softened the dose, buts it’s still enough to start my head spinning and I need to sit down.
A wall of heavy rain moves in on us quickly. Lightning circles around our moloka and the thunder cracks are deafening. The storm gets so intense that we huddle together and my heart is seriously pumping. It’s certainly the loudest and closest storm I’ve ever experienced. Later in the trip, the Kogis would tell us that this specific storm was a fierce welcoming message to us from the mountain. But for the time being, it seems ominous and I begin to focus on a little anole lizard, also getting drenched and waiting out the shower under a rock. The rain is deafening and all my sensory awareness takes refuge on the lizard. I wonder how many ceremonies he (or she) has taken part of up on this mountain.
By the time the storm heads to the Atlantic, I feel renewed and invigorated for the ceremony. We start a conversation about the role of the shaman (or more accurately called, “curandero”). I ask him about the side effects of Ayahuasca. Our translators help convey our questions and their answers.
“People don’t get addicted to Ayahuasca. In fact I came to the plant as an addict of alcohol. It cured me. It gutted the demons out of my body. And now this is my path to give back.”
“If the plant likes you, he will help you. If he sees you are using for the right reasons. And if you are open, he will show you everything you need to see. You will be born again.”
“I never advertise, never look for patients. The right people will come. Don’t try and fight this.”
He gets out all his paraphernalia — chalices, red liquid containers with cross bones on it, strange musical instruments, and what looks like an urn.
Since I have about 4,500 very itchy mosquito bites on my body, I begin to apply a DTT jungle lotion to fight off further bites (I can just picture my mother thinking I got malaria or something or my youngest son counting the boo-boo’s).
“You don’t need that,” John says. “When you stop wasting resources and sucking the oil from the earth then the earth will stop sucking your blood. Otherwise it won’t help.”
Karma is a bitch. This was a major theme from the Kogi teachings and John hits it home. And while I can call myself an environmentalist, the fact is that I still drive 20,000 oil-sucking miles a year. At least it’s not a snakebite. I put the lotion away and stop fidgeting. It’s time to go inward.
The sun was setting on the heavy clouds over the dark sea.
John stepped in front of me and lifted up his chalice. He appeared as a shadow figure and made no attempt to disguise the gravity of the moment. We were stepping into the twilight. I drank the brew pretty quickly and returned to my sleeping bag on the floor. I sat and waited for the nausea to kick in. I wondered if sickness would be more likely caused from the Ayahuasca or the plumes of smoke from the camp fire we had made. It only seemed to blow in my direction.
I must say that to try now and recount the whole experience step by step would be impossible. There is a timeless aspect to working with the plant that eradicates sequential thinking. It’s also deeply contextual in that much of the value of the experience is related to very intimate narratives.
So why write about it all? I think it’s important to try and expound upon some of our realizations and perhaps inspire others to search for their own personal revelations. In the end, true art, whether it be a painting, a song, or a docu-series on healers, is about the search and rescue of truth itself. It can be said that truth cannot always be expressed in language, but it can be pointed at. At the very least we can circle around it by investigating what it’s not.
Truth is not the rambling thoughts in my head. This was my first learning. I was resistant to the experience at first. I could see colors and swirls of light around me, but so what? I thought about all that I had to lose, my years of meditation practice, but mostly my family. My children need me. They are my biggest mission in my life. I didn’t want to fuck it up with some exotic experiment. All my fears came to the surface.
I made an offer to the plant. “If you promise me you want hurt my mind or my family, then I will completely surrender to you.” I sat and waited for an answer. Nothing.
In the meantime the rest of the crew was going apeshit. One of our guides was running around like a Jaguar, growling at the wind. Another was completely frightened, and kept asking those around him if he was dying. Tad was off in some orbit, murmuring about spaceships and monkeys. Tommy was anchored into the ground, wrapped tightly in his sheet. When one of the frightened guides wandered too close to him, he shared with them his typical brogue (and sense of humor), “Hey don’t come over with those demons! I’m doing just fine, you can go back where you came from!”
I felt distant from everyone, like they were all too self-involved or something. I walked out of the maloka and took a look at the stars. I missed my wife, my children. I had left them to come here, and now I wondered why.
Then I heard Tad spewing his guts down a cliff off the side of the maloka. I had almost forgotten about the purging, and now I wondered if I was next. Before the thought finished, my stomach began churning in knots.
We had not eaten all day so what came out of seemed like primal gunk. Ayahuasca is often given as a remedy for parasites, probably because of its purging nature. It almost felt pleasant to vomit everything out, like an attachment to something that didn’t serve me was finally able to let go of me. Or I of it. I wasn’t sure. Anyway, I was getting used to vomiting next to Tad, and I could sense an odd bond was forming, which was better than bonding with Tommy, since he was starting to get busy with the other passage way of clearance, severe diarrhea. (Regular bowel movements were awkward enough in the jungle, never mind having the runs in the dark, on a steep mountain, while under the influence).
I lay on the ground looking at the stars. John came over to me to see if I was ok.
“How is your family, John?” This was all that was on my mind. He responded in English.
“THIS is my family….” gesturing at the same galaxy.
Then it all hit me. I was a prisoner within my own mind. I could see myself creating all these elaborate systems to define who I was and what I had to protect. I was the protagonist, the antagonist, and at the same time the witness to both of those archetypes, all at the same time. I was constructing massive defenses against threats that were spun as empty narratives. I could see the insanity of it, most especially exemplified by the fact that I was waiting for the plant to prove to me that it was safe!
It was like considering to play a basketball game by asking the ball to tell me it wouldn’t hurt me. Yes, the plant is considered sentient and conscious, but it didn’t have a seat in the roundtable of these thoughts. The plant had no capability to help me or hurt me on its own, separate from me. If I was going to actually make use of this journey, it was time to man up and leave my mind outside the maloka. I went back in.
“Un poco mas, por favor,” I asked. John was happy, I was all in now.
No sooner did I feel a massive shift. Instead of seeing everyone from a distance, I felt them as part me. I had a stake in their discoveries and in their struggles. They were a part of me, and I loved them. I could see John working so hard to help everyone merge with the plant, he was fanning feathers and whistling and pulling from deep reserves to help everyone through.
As an acupuncturist and Reiki healer, I’m intimately familiar with the sense of struggle that I feel when trying to help people during their most vulnerable presentations of themselves. There is a duel awareness of the perfection of each and every person, of every moment, as well as the alternative reality of how much people are suffering and how out of balance the world is. I felt John standing with a foot in each world.
Then he took out a flute-looking instrument and played this rhythmic mantra-like repeating tune. I began to sing with it while I gazed at dancing light colors and flashing images of Viking sailors and what looked like native North American faces.
The jungle around me turned alive and fresh. It also seemed to me to be personal and conscious. The trees, the air, the rocks, it all together seemed as familiar to me as Tommy and Tad. And even though it was dark, it was incredibly green. The night glowed in a natural fluorescence. Out of the green I kept seeing shapes shift to form the green anole from the rainstorm.
I felt free, I felt whimsical, but most of all I felt compassionate. The more I could feel connected to my own natural ease of being, which seemed like a manifestation of creativity and love, the more I was able to care for others. Rather than escaping from myself, I had located a self that seemed to vibrate at a higher frequency.
The “little death” that Ayahuasca represents was the death of my resistance. I had been so religious about doing things the right way, and for good reason. I had presumed much of my success in meditation and in practicing acupuncture, to technique. Quite often my quest for technical mastery created a sense of anxiety and fear. What the plant was showing me was that I needed to surrender to something even greater then technique, to my own natural expression of being. A being-ness that changes, that flows as formless and timeless, but that seemed to me to appear as an expression of fearless presence. From that expression of being I could then use technique, but would not be bound by it.
Simply put, I needed to trust in myself.
I know, I sound like I’m about to drift off into New Age stoner guy, if I haven’t arrived already. I’m the son of a New York City cop and the brother of a fireman. I watch football every Sunday and go for runs listening to classic rock and tend to spend time with my wife watching Netflix movies while our children sleep. But I guess if it looks like a duck, whatever that saying is. It’s OK. I can live as New Age stoner guy. As long as I can keep meeting healers like John.
A few hours later, we drifted asleep. I was wakened by the sound of heavy walking and circumnavigating around the maloka. After a while it stopped and I guess John had been listening with me. He peered over and saw I was awake and whispered, “Jaguar!” Jaguars are one of the animals that are often depicted as symbolizing the Ayahuasca experience.
Upon awaking I looked at the now charred campfire. I saw some movement in the ashes, and then the little anole from the night before came scuttling out and ran between my legs, before hopping out and exiting the maloka. I thanked him for guiding me through this journey.
When everyone awoke, we went down to the river again and washed the smoke from our skin and the vomit from our mouths. John the Baptist looked at me, and eventually Diego translated.
“You are born again now. You were a joy to work with. You have a big heart.”
I told him that I would be calling on him when healing patients back in New York. He took his carnelian beaded necklace off and put it around my neck. I sensed that this was his way to connect each other outside of this singular experience.
He picked up his tobacco pipe and had a sheepish grin. He gestured to offer me another hit.
There is a famous line in the Godfather after they shoot Paulie off the causeway. Fat Clemenza walks to the car and says, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”. Well I can take Ayahuasca, but I’ll leave the tobacco. No disrespect to the plant father, of course.
As for John and for Colombia, I’ll be back for sure. If the plant will have me.
All photographs by Tad Fettig, thanks to Sarah Berner for editing