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The Shadow

The shaman’s apprentice

Caro Luna with her maestra teacher, Inez Sanchez

These days everyone is a goddam shaman. But what if you wanted to really train as an Amazon maestro or maestra? What is that process like? Is it terrifying, magical, bonkers? Never mind Carlos Castaneda and his fictional ‘Don Juan’. Meet Caro Luna. She has dedicated the last six years to training and working with ayahuasca. For the last few years she has worked as a facilitator at a well-known ayahuasca centre near Iquitos, while training as an apprentice with one of the Shipibo shamans. She no longer works at the centre, and instead is focusing on designing her own retreats. A few months ago we chatted by Skype and she told me a bit about her life there.

How would you describe your job?

I would say I keep people company through what can be a very intense process which can range from subtle to very extreme emotional, physical and spiritual challenges and stages of growth.

We work day and night, my job is very rewarding but is also very hands on in its intensity. I recently got kicked in the jaw, the person who kicked me was in ecstasy, so much ecstasy she couldn’t contain it any more. And she happened to be really strong. We’re playing with the tensions of what’s socially accepted as healing, and what isn’t. The fact that a vomitivo can be seen as a healing thing. The fact that I smoke – I smoke a lot. Part of my job is to smoke in ceremonies,  I love that we challenge ideas of western healthcare and yet still help people to navigate this process with sustained results.

What’s with all the smoking?

We smoke mapachos – they’re hand-rolled cigarettes, of a different type – Nicotiana Rustica to be exact – containing tobacco with a very high quantity of nicotine, grown organically, with no additives or filters. Most people would not inhale mapachos. One of the purposes of smoking mapachos is to feed the connection to the plant spirits which are opened up by plant dietas.

What’s a dieta?

A plant dieta is the process through which, working with your teacher, you become introduced to a particular plant spirit, for the purpose of learning what the plant spirit has to teach you, and to develop a lifelong relationship or friendship. Different plants have different properties. They’re also considered to have a light aspect and a shadow aspect. The shadow aspect of the plant reflects on the shadow aspect of you. And once you work through whatever’s coming up for you, you get presented with certain gifts or understandings. Tobacco is considered a master-plant that opens that connection to other spirits. You smoke mapachos to feed the connection to the plants. We also blow the smoke to protect ourselves from taking on what other people are trying to get rid of among other things.

How did you get into this work?

About seven years ago, I was training to be a whirling dervish. A Colombian acquaintance messaged me and said ‘hey, I’ve been working with this plant, and I know this is your thing’. And I said ‘no I don’t like drugs’. But he planted a seed. The first time I drank medicine was at Stonehenge, at summer solstice. I think it was my second ceremony where I had the sensation that what I had flowing through my veins was not blood but yage, which is what we call ayahuasca in Colombia. And I entered this conversation where I was basically head-hunted, pretty aggressively, and I made this agreement to hand my life over.

Head-hunted by who or what?

By ayahuasca. So the agreement was I would do the best that I could every day, and she would take care of me. I had already been working with indigenous cultures, I studied it at SOAS. I spoke Spanish and English, I studyied anthropology, I was interested in alternative healing, and I knew a lot of people. So I was very well positioned to organize ceremonies for other people. Out of the blue, different healers would come to the UK from Latin America, call me, and say ‘can you organize a ceremony?’ I helped anyone who’d ask. I started translating, organizing and facilitating ayahuasca and peyote ceremonies. We’d do them wherever possible – in people’s houses or gardens..

I also went back and forth to Colombia [where she was born] to train as a maestra, drinking with whatever maestro I could find. It was a very difficult time because the Colombian tradition is very male-orientated, and I was only 23. As a young woman, I wasn’t seen as worthy of respect, despite any training. I had a Colombian partner, also training in medicine, and there was a lot of pressure on us to get married. And I didn’t want that. So I left Colombia with a broken heart.

Eventually I was praying for more stability in my life. And on my Facebook feed, I saw a job advert to work as a facilitator at a well-known ayahuasca centre in Peru. It had a very long list of requirements, and I fulfilled all of them, except the age – I was too young. So I didn’t tell them my age. My partner and I both applied. It took a while, there were several of interviews. They wanted me to come for three months just to observe and to see if it was a good fit, and I’ve been with them ever since. The beauty of the centre is you’re working a lot with maestras [female shamans].

Is that unusual? Is Peruvian shamanism also quite male-oriented?

It’s hard to say. There are different ways of working in different tribes. The Shipibo family I know best is a matriarchal family. In the Shipibo tradition, it’s very easy to gauge how experienced someone is, by the length of their diets and the plants they have dieted with. It’s easy to gauge whether someone is a good maestro, regardless of whether they’re male or female. My fascination with the centre is I can work directly with women. I apprentice exclusively with this female lineage which is a very strong lineage. My main maestra is Ynez Sanchez. She’s in her 70s. She’s the most powerful Shipibo maestra or maestro that I’ve come across. She’s fairly legendary. She’s married to a famous tabaquero, and they have two daughters and one son, who are all maestros. I work with her and her eldest daughters. They feel like friends, like family.

Tell me about the apprenticeship process. What’s it like?

It’s very fluid. It isn’t like you submit an application form to a university. You begin to diet. And over a period of time of working with the same maestro, you both come to the awareness you’re moving in a particular direction. For me, I don’t know if I want to be a maestra, I just know I want to keep learning. There’s a lot of encouragement from the maestras I work with for me to become a maestra. They see this is what I dedicate my life to, and they think I’m very committed. They seem to think I need less training than I do. The diet process is very held. I would approach my teacher and said ‘hey I want to diet, is there a plant you’d suggest’, or I might say ‘I want to diet with this plant, what do you think?’ There’s a particular plant that I dieted with last year that’s very powerful. I was asked ‘why do you want to cultivate that level of power?’ So we had a conversation, and I went ahead. It was a very hard diet but it was beautiful. So…it can go both ways. You can ask, they can suggest. I recently got told it was time for me to pick what kind of healer I want to be.

What are the options?

As far as I understood, because of course their first language is not Spanish, the options are to focus on health, on connections – ie love, relationships – or being the type of healer that is a protector or warrior, who works with very difficult cases.

Is that like different types of magic – curandera magic, love magic, and battle magic?

Yeah, more or less.

What did you choose?

I don’t have to choose yet, but I think curandera magic. Although my nickname is Warmicaro which means ‘love magic Caro’

But love magic can be like, someone comes to you because their wife has left and you give them a love potion. That’s something Peruvian shamans do, right?

Yes, which is not something I’m in alignment with. They don’t necessarily have an ethical problem with giving someone what they want when it’s against someone else’s free will. It’s a very interesting terrain to navigate as a Latin, Western woman who is well versed in indigenous culture.

As for battle magic…that sounds the worst option by far. Because then you’re basically putting a target on yourself and saying ‘come on if you think you’re hard enough’.

Kind of, yes. I am very interested in healing and apparently I have some good love connection skills. All of my initial diets were warmi or love diets.

What are love diets?

They’re called warmi which actually means woman in Quechua, it’s a whole range or umbrella of plants. One of my teachers said love plants are protection plants – the ultimate way to protect is to love. if someone is happy in themselves and their relationships, it’s easier for them to fight, even in the face of physical difficulty. I really like love plants, I also like power plants. I like all of them.

So in other words, these aren’t totally different types of healing.

No, you have to be a well-rounded healer. Every Shipibo healer is like GP, a well-trained doctor overall. But they specialize in certain things. There are healers who don’t work in ceremony, there are healers who work with massage, or plant remedies, or perfumes. There are very many ways of practicing. The Peruvian way of working is very broad. Ayahuasca is not a panacea that fixes everything. It’s the key to a door that opens a whole world. The plant world is very much alive – they’re your friends and allies. It’s hard to understand.

Caro with her teacher, Ynez Sanchez, and her son Jose Lopez Sanchez, who is also a healer, explaining the medicinal properties of jungle plants in the Amazon

Tell me a bit about the centre where you worked.

I see it as a very unique cutting-edge place. It’s very experimental. The centre used to call itself a traditional Shipibo centre, but this is actually not true. Whether you’re a Western facilitator or a Shipibo maestro, you can call a meeting at any point to say ‘hey, I don’t like how we do this in ceremony, how about trying it this way?’ And we will try the new way out to see if it works. For example, the maestros said the floral baths should be moved later during the day. Often healers find a way to work at the centre, which they adopt and take back to their own centres. There can be a lot of criticism about cultural appropriation and changing things, but my experience is there is dialogue and conversation. It’s very time-consuming, and there are a lot of mapachos smoked, but it’s also very fruitful.

What’s the working language of the centre?

English.

But some of the shamans don’t speak English?

No, none of them do. Some of them don’t speak Spanish. The role of the facilitator is not just to translate language but to translate culture. You need to know not just how the medicine works but how the maestros work.

Why do Westerners come to ayahauasca centres? What are they looking for?

I think some people are curious. Ayahuasca seems to be in fashion, which is fairly disturbing to me. But more than anything people are looking for healing that doesn’t rob them of their agency. There’s a very important place for allopathic medicine. But there are many types of illnesses and discomfort and disease that falls through the cracks of western medicine. People are looking for ways to heal themselves with support, in a way that makes them feel respected in their agency.

When I was there, the reasons people came ranged from bereavement and grief, trauma, people who had lost meaning. And also some people who were just curious – they seemed to have the hardest time of it.

Absolutely. Because we all have stuff to work on. And if you go thinking you have nothing to work on, it would be shocked and surprised to discover you do.

How would you explain how the medicine and shamans heal people, to someone reading this who might suffer from depression, say.

That’s a simple question with a very complex answer. First and foremost, on some level, people always know what’s happening to them and what they need to get better. I really believe we’re all inherently wise. What medicine does is bring to the surface anything that’s suppressed, and puts a magnifying glass over it. People are able to look at themselves in a very clear way.

The main way that Shipibo maestros help to heal people is through the icaros [songs the shamans sing, which were taught to them by plants on plant dietas]. A healer will sit in front of you and observe you, and will sing back to you everything that they can see, which you can remember. The first point of treatment is for you to recognize and accept your trajectory as a person – the pain, the joy. From that moment on, there are ways of realigning or changing the way a person lives their life. The maestro begins to align certain things. They may help you to be a bit more focused – our Western minds think a bit too much, and are all over the place. Maestros want you to concentrate, they call it shinan, straight thoughts, clear minds.

How do they do that?

Through their songs, through calling in the kind of plants that align.

Their songs can help people concentrate?

Yes. For example, tobacco is a very concentrating plant, anyone who does this work uses tobacco for that reason. Once someone is able to let the messy, convoluted mind-space settle into something solid, it’s easier for the maestros to look at it objectively and work with it. They’re able to clear energetic baggage, although often they let people do their own work. Maestros may do chupas [where they suck out bad energy] but often they let people digest their own stuff. If they see someone is really struggling they have ways to help them. Once the heavy stuff, the blockages, are integrated or got rid of, the maestros and you and the medicine begin to look forward. Whatever you want to embody in your life, you move in that direction. Hopefully people leave with a greater sense of clarity, and hope, and re-enchantment with life. The Western disease, or the human disease, is we have lost curiosity and reverence for life.

You don’t hear the maestros singing the same songs, then?

Yes and no. We talked about plant diets. When you diet long enough, you hear a particular melody that comes from a plant. It’s like a secret code that you call a plant with, like a secret knock on the door. For example, there are icaros I have, and the melody of the song is unique to me. The lyrics to the song are very technical, they’re like ‘align this, heal that, this person needs to re-evaluate’. So the melody can be repeated but the words can be unique to one person at one time. The maestro is a channel. They might start singing about tobacco, for example for clarity, and then blend in a song about love.

When a maestro is sitting in front of someone, would they all see the same thing in a person, and would you see the same thing?

It’s hard to say. We talk to maestros about what they see. We’re talking about a seeing that is so vast and multidimensional. It’s hard to gauge how each person notices what they notice. The perception that I have of a guest is based on how I see them during and outside of ceremonies, the story that I know about them. We’re always observing social dynamics. We’re observing how we can support them without being invasive. The ceremony doesn’t just happen in the maloka [a wooden circular lodge, the centre of village life in many Amazon indigenous communities], but in the whole of the retreat, and beyond. In some ways it’s more holistic than mystical.

This is true. I found that the moments when the maestros were singing were the moments of most powerful intensity. But the facilitators’ role is just as important. I barely had a conversation with the maestros. My Spanish is not very good, and I was in awe – how do you small-talk with a wizard? So the facilitators’ role is crucial in helping people make sense of what is happening. I guess people make sense of their experience differently – some might talk of the higher self, or spirits, or God. How do you work with that?

One of the things we do is try to make people refrain to make sense of anything until the whole experience settles. It’s a very Western thing to try and put something into a box that gives a sense of structure or safety that can be conceptualized. The less you conceptualize medicine work, the more helpful it can be. Mostly we listen to people and try not to give advice.

But people will sometimes deal with ontological shock – what or who the hell am I encountering? One person felt she was being invaded by aliens, and wasn’t sure if they were friendly. So there are those kinds of issues.

They’re not issues, they’re experiences. For me, they’re everyday experiences. A key role for the facilitator is to embody trust. However frightening an experience, I know from the depth of my body that they’re going to be OK. And that gives people something to lean on, to begin to put the pieces back together. Even if someone is freaking out, even if we have to restrain them, we do it with love, because it’s normal and safe. The human mind is very elastic, we’re just very confined and accustomed to very narrow boxes. But an important thing about the centre is we’re not trying to be anything other than human. For example, I have drunk ayahuasca several hundred times. I spend as much time ‘out there’ as here, which means I have to be very good at being grounded and present, because if I’m not I’m just a space cadet, and I’m no good to anybody.

The very interesting thing that happens with people who visit the centre is, a lot of people come with conceptual frameworks from other traditions. They want to talk about chakras and past lives, and the maestros don’t understand it or like it. They’re alien concepts. So part of the work is to bring people back to what’s going on here, inside, in the emotions. For me, personally, one of the main things that ayahuasca has done for me, is ground me in the experience of being human, flesh and bone. I’m human, the maestros are human. The magic doesn’t have to be other-worldly. Healing happens in a grounded, visceral way. Yes we can experience all kinds of magical things, but really a better  approach is an approach of healing – to give people the tools to release anything that’s holding them back, and to move forward in a way that’s aligned with their personal truth for the benefit of themselves and other beings.

I used to have a bit of a complex about working in a Western centre. Most of the people who come here have abundant material means. That’s difficult for me. But the way I make peace with that is that human pain is human pain. If I’m able to support you with healing whatever wounding you have, you’re able to support other people in your work. I like this idea of a cascading effect that working on oneself can have.

How do people get ungrounded?

When people get too attached to any one idea, that can be very harmful. Flexibility is important. I used to be a hardcore vegan, and now I eat meat. I realize I’m human, and to have a spiritual connection I don’t have to fulfil any prerequisite. And I don’t have to make up stories about my past or future lives, what matters is I’m here now. In fact, the main way to stay grounded is to build a community or group of friends that keep you accountable. I see a lot of dysfunction in the plant medicine communities in Europe, because they don’t have elders to keep them grounded. The path of medicine is a very difficult path, it’s very uncomfortable. We have to accept we need allies – both plants and humans.

What’s your working hypothesis of what we encounter on ayahuasca?

My view of the universe is that it’s benevolent. There are unbalances here and there. I don’t think I work for the centre, I don’t think I work for ayahuasca, I work for the medicine of life. That means doing the best I can with the tools I have in any given day. Ayahuasca and other plants are very valuable tools for helping people grow. But when I lived in the UK, I was also a breath-worker. I used to hold a lot of breath-working or re-birthing events for people who became obsessed with taking medicine. It’s important to remind people that healing happens from within. However beautiful it may be, ayahuasca is a tool.

I think the Earth is alive, and evolving. I think we’re evolving. I think we’re on the same team as the Earth. I think there are plants that evolved with the sole purpose to help humans evolve, all over the world, not just in the Amazon. We consume these plants as a tool, to become more in touch with the Earth, so we can evolve, so the Earth can evolve, so we’re all on the same team. So we’re allied to plants – whether you think of this in a shiny, mystical way or not. Plants are our food, our medicine.

What about death and the afterlife?

I think we’re consciousness. I’m pretty sure we continue on after death, but I don’t think of that very often. I try to be grounded in the now. I do like the thought of using plants to transition into death and to help women give birth. Part of the Western disease is that we have lost connection to the cycles of life and moments of transition. I see myself as a midwife when I’m in a ceremony. Facilitators, maestros and plants, we’re supporting people to enter this liminal space where everything is possible. and to transition to being a different person through the support of the plants. Death is an important transition, but I don’t know where. I don’t know where we come from or where we’re going but I do know we’re here. That’s what’s really juicy about being alive. We don’t know why we’re here, we’re all kind of confused. We have no choice as far as I’m concerned but to be on the same team, because we’re all equally confused. My guiding principle is the juiciness of being here and supporting each other.

One of the things facilitators do is act as a bridge between cultures. Reading anthropologists of Amazon shamanism, I was struck by how different their model of illness and healing is to the Western psychotherapeutic model. To what extent do Westerners and Shipibo Indians have different models of illness, healing, and ayahuasca? Do the two sides have to understand each other?

A model is just a model. It’s something created to conceptualize what is. I’m less interested in the model, and more in what is raw and true, which is embodied by emotion. A Western person who comes to the Amazon doesn’t need to know exactly what’s going on in a ceremony, only if you’re apprenticing. This is quite controversial, but Shipibo people tend to be really against abortions. The Shipibo healers I’ve spoken to also believe homosexuality is an illness which can be cured. These are things I fundamentally disagree with. But I’ve seen women who have a lot of guilt and sadness around terminations who receive healing as opposed to feeling shamed. For me, this exemplifies the fact that people don’t have to align their belief systems with indigenous healers to receive healing from them. I’ve also worked with a lot of homosexual men, who have come to a firmer acceptance and enjoyment of their sexual identity by being sung a particular icaro despite the fact Shipibo healers don’t believe homosexuality is a normal thing. Ultimately we’re working with the emotional body and the energetic body, which have to be in alignment. With medicine, people find a way to align with themselves, whatever that means to them.

But some anthropologists suggest the Amazon shamanic model of illness and cure is that illnesses are caused by curses and magic darts sent by hidden enemies. And the main role of ayahuasca of a shaman is to find the virote, pull it out, and maybe send it back and get revenge. Obviously this is very different to a Western approach where they might think emotional problems come from childhood trauma, and are healed through acceptance and forgiveness.

Some of the anthropological accounts of attacks are very simplistic. Yes I’ve seen different families of maestros say that they are engaged in energetic war with other maestros. This is true. As far as the maestros at the centre say, working with Westerners is relatively easy because people don’t tend to spiritually attack one another. We have facilitators also to reframe things. This is why it’s not necessarily practical or valuable to have extensive conversations with a maestro without a facilitator present. They might say ‘hey Jules you have this demon that is haunting you’, which might frighten you. The translation might be ‘you’re very sad and need to work with that’.

But can you translate a demon into sadness? Isn’t one or the other true?

I think both of them can be true. But what is more important is to focus on healing, and moving forward. This is why Shipibos tend not to provide a diagnosis, At the centre, we want people to be empowered, to work on what they have to work on, without blaming, because that externalizes power. We want people to be as equipped as possible, to deal with what’s going on now, but also to have tools to move forward in life. As you know, a ceremony can be very difficult. The skills that you learn to carry yourself through ceremony can be very useful for life outside ceremony. It’s a training ground to learn how to deal with your own thought processes and physiological processes. How to deal not just with overwhelming sadness but also with overwhelming joy.

Can one have ayahuasca healing without indigenous shamans? And what is lost if so?

I think yes. I’ve drunk many times without a maestro. It’s still a tool of introspection. It’s very important to give due credit to the tradition and the carriers of this medicine. If I was looking for a tool and didn’t want to engage with Amazon shamanism, I might pick a different tool, like psilocybin for example. I’m very interested in it. We can be best served working with plants that are local to us. Synthetics can also make more sense, environmentally and culturally – one can have tools of introspection which don’t require engagement with other cultures.

What’s the hardest bit of the work for you? The ceremonies?

I wouldn’t say so. They’re beautiful. The hardest thing is gauging how to support someone in the way that is best for them without being invasive or aloof. It can only be a very intuitive thing. To understand people’s processes you must have gone through them yourself. I can understand your pain and joy and fear because I have been there. I have been dragged by the hair along the maloka by the medicine enough times to know what it feels like.

We were apparently a well-behaved group but I guess people freak out?

Yes, but it feels so normal. I told you about the person who kicked me – the person was experiencing ecstasy, and that was very understandable and normal to me. Recently, I had someone who felt very trapped in the maloka, and wanted to run away, and we had to restrain this person because we couldn’t let them run off into the jungle. Again, this was a physically-challenging situation, but it doesn’t seem strange to me that if someone feels trapped and is being stopped from leaving, that would make them nervous. So really everything makes sense, it’s not hard for me to make peace with anything that happens. Particularly as I’ve been through some variation of it myself in my medicine life.

Do people ever have such a scary experience they say ‘I don’t want to drink anymore’?

Yes, and people go home. People leave workshops, not too frequently, but they do. For myself, I think one of the most important aspects of medicine work, or traits we can cultivate, is accountability. If I say I’m going to do something I do it. If I receive a group of 24 people, I expect all 24 to come to every ceremony and sharing circle. If you don’t want to drink you don’t have to. If you want just a millimetre of ayahuasca, you can. Be accountable to the extent that you can. For me it’s very important to support people through healing in a way that’s compassionate but fierce. I don’t coddle or mother people.

Do you find that projection can be an issue, ie people casting the people around them as leading roles in their psychodrama, as demons or saviours?

Yes, it happens all the time. I’m used to being adored and hated, sometimes it fluctuates several times in the same workshop. We try to call people out, sometimes they come round, other times not. Once we had someone who was really noisy in ceremony. And their neighbour was really angry, because they thought they were enlightened, and needed silence to be enlightened. They asked desperately to change places in the maloka, which we never do, but we did, for the next ceremony. But then the loud person stopped being loud, and the enlightened person’s new neighbour became loud.  So this person wanted to move back, which we did. But the next day, she became the person who was unhinged and loud. So this became a beautiful lesson for everyone. Medicine has a sense of humour, and is highly didactic.

Does it get tiring, the constant arrival and departure of boatloads of tourists having endless epiphanies?

No, the opposite is true. It’s a constant reminder of the magic of life. You may come up and say ‘and then this happened!’ And I will nod and say, OK, aliens abducted you and took you to the moon, it’s normal. That can be confronting. We have people decide they are the Messiah. I remind them that they have a lot of DMT coursing through their veins, and it’s normal. That doesn’t mean the experience is not valid, but it does mean the experience has to mature into something workable. The maestros often say if you want to go to the cinema, just go to the cinema, then you don’t have to purge. Not everyone has visionary experiences. Someone close to me has been drinking medicine for nine years and has very few visionary experiences, but they still find it a useful tool.

What are the psychological risks of ayahuasca therapy?

Used responsibility, it’s incredibly safe. We have a vetting policy – we turn down around 10%. That’s important. This modality of healing is not necessarily right for everybody. If someone is stable enough physically as well as emotionally and they receive the right support, then ayahuasca is very safe. The problems arise when people think they’re ready to support people through ceremonies when they’re not. I’ve never run a ceremony on my own, without maestras, because I know how deep the rabbit hole goes, so I know how heavy the responsibility is.

What are the risks of running a ceremony when you’re not ready?

Without the right support, ayahuasca can be very un-grounding and destructive. Suppose you decide you’re the Messiah or an alien, and you’re not being held accountable by someone who’s been through that process before. That could be something that takes over your life in a particular way. Or what I see in Europe is it can become a little bit culty.

The bit I found most challenging was the week after the ceremony. I went off travelling on my own  and got into a dissociative state and thought I was either dreaming or in the afterlife for several days.

You’re opening up energetic channels and sensitivities. Even if the DMT is not active in your system, there were things you saw or experienced that you can’t unsee – expansive ways of thinking that probably stretched your way of perceiving the world in a way that can’t be unstretched. That takes a while to settle. There’s a cognitive dissonance between what you believe is possible and what you have experienced is possible. For that reason, community is important. I drink on my own very seldom. I definitely need the maestros and my friends to keep me accountable, and I definitely become temporarily delirious now and then.

People come to Peruvian ayahuasca centres out of a feeling of loneliness and a desire for connection. But we’re going thousands of miles away to a place with strangers looking for connection and community, and then coming back to our lives, perhaps now even more alienated from our culture. This is the challenge – for Shipibos, the medicine is embedded in their everyday relationships. But for us, the medicine can’t cure that disconnection from society because the practice is itself disconnected from our society.

I don’t know if I agree. What you see is groups often become very close very quickly, they become very willing to share things with people that they never shared before. You begin to see that everyone is carrying heavy things. We think we have to appear competent at all times, and to be competent we have to be numb. I try to model that I can be very human and still be respected as competent. The willingness to be honest about my joy, pain and tiredness makes me more accessible not less. People realize although they’ve only known each other for 9 days, there are always places of connection. If two people want to connect, no matter who they are they can connect. They don’t have to go home and talk about ayahuasca. But I do encourage people to find community – it could be cooking, dog-walking. And I encourage them to embody values of authenticity and honesty. We’re not trying to replicate Shipibo culture, we can’t do that. They themselves are changing, that’s what globalization does. I don’t think coming to the jungle to connect will make you more alienated. My hope is it shows people it is possible to connect in a very short time if you’re willing to be vulnerable.

NB, to people considering taking ayahuasca, please research very carefully the place and the healers you are going to, as any psychedelic experience can be dangerous if it happens in an unsafe context with an unsafe guide. If you have any concerns, don’t do it. You can ask about particular centres or healers on Facebook sites devoted to ayahuasca and shamanism, like this one. Please be careful and don’t take unnecessary risks with your mental health. Please also think carefully about integration after the experience, and make sure you have friends to support you in the days and weeks afterwards. And in general, don’t do psychedelics if you’re under 25, or if you have a history of psychosis. If you’ve got into difficulties after a psychedelic experience, there are integration therapists who can help you. 

What to do in a spiritual emergency

Last month I organized an event on ‘what to do in a spiritual emergency’ –you can see videos of the talks here. Three of my friends spoke bravely and lucidly about their own experiences – psychotherapist and film-maker Anna Beckmann, poet and transformational coach Louisa Tomlinson, and Tai-Chi teacher Anthony Fidler – and Dr Tim Read, a wonderfully wise and compassionate psychiatrist, gave us his perspective.

I wrote about this topic in The Art of Losing Control, and it’s become particularly important to me after the mini-crisis I had last year, following my ayahuasca retreat. A friend referred to it as a ‘breakdown’ this week, which didn’t feel quite right, because it was also something beautiful and healing.

So what does ‘spiritual emergency’ mean exactly, and what can we do when they occur?

There is an overlap between spiritual / religious / ecstatic experiences, and psychosis. Psychiatry has historically viewed all religious experiences as pathological, labelling them ‘hysteria’, ‘ego-regression’ or ‘psychosis’ and ignoring any positive aspects. That’s partly because psychiatrists have tended to be anti-religious secular materialists, battling the church for authority over the care of souls.

However, some psychologists (and a few psychiatrists) have suggested an experience can be both spiritual and quasi-psychotic. This ‘transpersonal’ perspective was put forward by psychologists and thinkers like Frederic Myers, William James, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass and Stanislaf Grof – who coined the term ‘Spiritual Emergency’ and brought out an excellent anthology with that title in 1980.

A spiritual emergency involves the sudden collapse of one’s habitual ego and customary sense of reality, and an opening to a different reality (which one could call the subconscious, or the archetypal layer, or the dream-world, or alternatively the Self or God – it’s a movement both downwards and upwards). It can involve a powerful sense of connection to all things, perhaps a transcending of time, space and matter, and a deep sense of meaning and awe. And it can also be extremely messy, painful, terrifying and dangerous, and have psychosis-like features like mania, ego-inflation, insomnia, voices, visions, ontological uncertainty and emotional disturbance. But unlike a psychotic illness, it can be a transition to growth, if handled sensitively.

Anthony told us: ‘It’s easy to get an idea of the life journey as a tidy evolution. But there’s another way humans grow, through revolution. The personality structure that’s evolved through childhood builds up like a building. And at some point in life it can be healthy for that to collapse. It can be a moment of growth, a journey forwards. But it doesn’t look like that. It looks like a piece of shit.’

Anna told us of her experience in her twenties:  ‘It was the most horrifying experience I ever had, and also the most awesome.’ Louisa said: ‘A spiritual emergency is when there’s an opening between the two worlds – the spiritual and the material – but it happens without maps or guides. What could be a successful integration into a larger self and reality becomes instead intensely terrifying, a failed initiation, which instead of leading to transformation, leads to fragmentation and sometimes to annihilation.’

What are the triggers?

Both Anna and Louisa spoke of how unresolved trauma was a trigger for their spiritual emergencies. For me too, the turbulence I felt after my ayahuasca retreat was partly a resurfacing of trauma from my late teens and early 20s. Trauma seems to create an ego structure that is more prone to what Tim Read calls ‘high archetypal penetrance’ (HAP) states – the subconscious and the transpersonal or spiritual dimension gets through the cracks easier.

There may also be a genetic predisposition to altered states – you might have some genes in your family that predispose you to schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, which make you schizotypal without necessarily developing into a psychotic disorder. One notes that in some cultures, shamanism is considered an inherited ability, as are psychic powers – a tendency to absorption or dissociation gets passed through the genes, and this can lead to creativity and insight as well as disturbance, eccentricity and illness.

More immediate triggers include being physically isolated from one’s friends and family. My crisis occurred when I was in South America, Lou’s when she was alone in Dartmoor, Anna’s when she was in New York, Anthony’s when he was in China. Tim has written about a near-crisis he had while travelling in India. Such crises can occur at moments of difficult transition – going to university, say, or breaking up from a long-term relationship.

And then there are triggers like not eating or sleeping properly, or going on a spiritual retreat, or taking drugs. Tim says he has often encountered people who’ve had spiritual crises after attending spiritual retreats – he writes about this in his excellent book Walking Shadows: Archtypes and Psyche in Crisis and Growth, and notes that retreats often shift people’s egos but fail to help them integrate their experience in the days and weeks afterwards.

What does a spiritual emergency feel like?

Both Lou, Anthony and Anna spoke of a feeling of ego dissolution accompanied by physical dissolution – they felt they went out of their bodies, and the material world seems to dissolve. I had a similar experience on ayahuasca, as many do. It is terrifying, because you don’t know if you’ll come back, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to experience that for several days or weeks. But I wonder, too, if this dissolution of the ego and material reality is an insight into the actual nature of things – Buddhists say we perceive the world as made up of separate solid things (me, the table) where actually there is a continuum of energy. Buddhist monks try to get to a state where you go beyond the perception of solid things. But it is terrifying if that happens when you’re not ready for it.

The Rebel Powers That Do Thee Assay by Charles Sims

There’s also a collapse of boundaries – between the self and other people (can you read my thoughts, can I pick up your feelings and thoughts?); between you and the world (‘I can control traffic lights or even world events with my mind, it’s all connected to me’); between dream and reality. Anthony suggests we have at least two types of consciousness – a movie camera that projects waking reality, and a movie camera that projects our dreams. And in psychotic episodes, these two movies overlap, so the mythical movie of the dream-world gets superimposed on reality. Both Anna, Lou and Anthony had strong archetypal aspects to their experiences – religious imagery, messages, a sense of cosmic significance to their thoughts and acts. There can be intense surges of energy, powerful gusts of emotion, lights, visions, voices.

And there’s a deep ontological uncertainty. Anthony says he didn’t know if he was dead, or in some sort of altered bardo state. That was the same for me – for a week, I couldn’t work out if I was dreaming or in the afterlife. In Tim’s book, some of his case studies also don’t know if they’re dead or in heaven. It’s common on powerful psychedelic experiences to think you’re either dead or about to die. The ego interprets its dissolution as actual death. You find yourself still conscious and in some reality, but you can’t take anything for granted about how it works. In psychological terms, it’s a profound de-automatization. Your habitual automatic expectations of reality are dissolved. I would get on a plane and wonder if it would really take off or not, as if I somehow had to will it to take off (it was my dream – I was making it all happen).

What helps?

In his book, Tim Read emphasizes the importance of ‘set, setting and integration’ for navigating this sort of spiritual turbulence. This is also one of the main conclusions of my book, The Art of Losing Control.

Set refers to the mind-set one brings to the moment. In ecstatic states of consciousness – like psychedelic consciousness – our mind becomes extremely sensitive. It can swing from euphoria to terror in a moment. So you need to foster certain attitudes, above all mindfulness. Don’t worry about the past or future, focus on what is happening now. We need to try to remember ‘I’m in a spiritual crisis’ or ‘I’m tripping’ rather than get swept away by the powerful thoughts and sensations. Feel whatever you’re feeling, and observe it without attachment or aversion.

The breath is very important for this. It grounds us in the present moment, it relaxes our emotions, and it connects us to our body. Lou speaks of the ‘silvery chord of my breath’ being the only thing that connected her to her body and to physical reality. Someone once said we’re spiritual beings having an in-the-body experience – we need to connect to the body, enjoy this sensual material reality (nature is good for this too, so are hugs). It was also hugely important for me, in moments of panic, to breathe slowly, and remind myself ‘this will pass’.

A second important attitude is humility – not giving way to ego-inflation and Messianic grandiosity. Anthony says: ‘If you think you’re Jesus or the Buddha, that’s OK. But you’re also this person. And if I’m the Buddha, so are you.’ You have a glimpse of the infinite Self within you. But it’s within everyone, not just you. Relax. Don’t take yourself or the experience too seriously. You’re not controlling the universe. Have a sense of playfulness. Anthony talks about having an open and curious attitude to one’s experience – what does it feel like? How does this reality behave?

Third, we need to take care of ourselves. Yes, you’re the infinite cosmos, but you’re also this particular being in this particular body. Have patience and compassion for your ego and body. Look out for yourself – make sure you eat and sleep, don’t put your body in danger. Be polite, pay for things, even if you think it’s all a dream. Self-compassion is the key – even when I felt very alone and frightened, I rooted for myself. I was on my side, no matter how much the volatility swept away my tidy life-plans.

Painting by the sectioned artist Louis Wain

Secondly, setting is crucial. It helps if you have loving, understanding friends to support you while you are ‘transitioning’. When I came back from South America, I couldn’t tell what was real, I could barely understand conversations, and luckily my friends were there for me, and weren’t freaked out, because they’d had similar experiences (Lou is one of my best friends).  I loved getting hugs from my friends, I loved stroking my brother’s dog and cat, I loved sitting by his fire – I grounded myself in love and touch. Getting out into nature was also really healing for me. I avoided seeing people who wouldn’t get what I was going through.

Third, integration is very important. I came back to this reality within a week or so, but worked on the integration for several months, and am still working on it. I started seeing a therapist who is open to the transpersonal perspective. I found a community where I could practice meditation with others. There are also communities like the Spiritual Crisis Network and the Hearing Voices Network which offer support.

Sadly, western psychiatry is often the worst setting or integration process for this sort of experience. As Tim told us, most psychiatry is meaningless – it doesn’t accept that these sorts of experiences could have meaning, could be a stage in a person’s growth. Tim writes: ‘the medical intervention often serves to entrench stasis and impede growth’. Anna really wanted support during her crisis, but was terrified of being locked up and treated as totally mad. She was lucky, probably, not to be sectioned – most secure psychiatric wards are horrible, harsh, loveless and soulless places. Tim, who led the Emergency Psychiatry Service at Royal London Hospital, writes: ‘It is one of the great tragedies of psychiatry that our most vulnerable people are placed in the most unsuitable settings.’

And western culture is also rather an inhospitable and even hostile setting for such experiences – we don’t talk about them, and we see messy breakdowns as awful, shameful and frightening, something to hide away, rather than potentially something painful but wonderful, like giving birth!

However, just as there is a risk of materialist fundamentalism, there is also a risk of religious or spiritual fundamentalism – Anna talks about how she would feel these ecstatic experiences and hunger for them, but she came to see this was a way of bypassing her pain. We can use our spiritual experiences as ways of not dealing with this reality, this body, this life with all its messiness. Tim Read writes about one case study of spiritual narcissism, a young man who focused so exclusively on his spiritual experiences that he lost the capacity to negotiate this world. We need to balance our life in this world with our yearning for the transcendent, so we don’t become a ‘total space-cadet’ as one ayahuasca facilitator put it to me. We also need to be open to ambiguity and uncertainty, to sometimes not knowing precisely where we are on the path.

None of this is meant to deny that there are psychiatric illnesses which are mainly physical in origin, and which are not transitions to higher selves. I also know that, for some people, psychiatric medication is helpful and even life-saving. And sometimes being sectioned is necessary to protect people and society.

Tim and I are now going to put together a book of people’s first-person accounts of spiritual experiences, to answer the questions – what are they like from the inside, and what did people find helpful? The focus is on the practical things that help people, the set and setting. If you’d like to contribute, more details can be found here.

Finally, I wonder what these experiences say about the nature of reality and God. I think evangelical Christians can have a naïve view of God and the tidiness of religious experiences. You meet Jesus, who is totally loving and good for you, and instantly both this life and the afterlife are better. In fact, spiritual awakenings often feel like death, and can totally mess up your life. They’re closer to the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Burning Bush and the Book of Job, the God who turned Nebuchadnezzar into a beast and made Ezekiel lie on his side for 430 days.

What does it say about God, or the Self, that sometimes spiritual awakenings can destroy a life, can actually lead people to starve themselves or jump off a building in their search for transcendence (two instances mentioned in Tim’s book).

To me it suggests that sometimes the dissolution of the ego and the opening to the Self is incredibly rough, sometimes fatal. It can be a confrontation with a Shiva-like god – the cosmic creator and destroyer. It makes me hope that reincarnation is real, so we can hope that, while the archetypal call of the Self is sometimes harmful and even fatal to the individual, eventually, over many lives, we move towards the light. Or maybe God / the Self / the Tao doesn’t care about individuals, only the awakening of the species. Or maybe there is no God. Even if there isn’t, we can still help people navigate these rough moments of ego-dissolution, so that they can move towards positive and fulfilling lives, as Lou, Anthony, Anna and I have done.

Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake