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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. 

Joe’s story

This is an article by Joe, a young artist who I met at a London Buddhist Centre retreat last month, and whose story I drew on for my latest blog-post, Re-finding Your Joy. He told me his story on the retreat and I asked if I could interview him. He preferred to write his own account. Big thanks to Joe for being so open, generous and cool. I hope you also find his story moving and useful. The picture on the left is by him.

I moved to London when I was 18 to study art. To pursue a passion. It was an incredible time and as most youngsters leaving the nest I was becoming aware of the waves of change. After five years the big wave had finally come. The laser focus marathon of three different courses and an internship came to a close. Four and a half years spent in love with a beautiful kind-hearted woman were pushed into turmoil by the legal pressures of borders and visas. Then my bounce back, the plan of travelling the world on my bike also ended when I unexpectedly started ejaculating blood. They were all obstacles that could  have been overcome sensibly but I lacked the wisdom to step back from it all. I was caught up in the maelstrom. The illusion of structure I had built up around me came tumbling down as I realised I was but a panicked young man walking along a tight rope. I did what little boys do and ran home to my Mommy with my tail between my legs. It was impeccable timing. She was due to have a hip replacement so I looked after her while working a minimum wage job. The love me and my Mom shared was wonderful, but everything else unfulfilling. I felt wasted.

I was pulled back to London after a few months. My creativity was rather accidentally channeled into working for a fledgling start-up. It started off as a small group of hard working youngsters in a shed and grew to 80 people in three offices across the world. I went from being a designer to being the creative push behind an exciting new project. I had a lot to be grateful for in life but seeing things crumble so easily had given me a devil may care attitude. I didn’t know what gods to worship anymore so I filled that emptiness with whatever came my way. Work and play. When I say “play” I mean messing about. I had always had a naughty streak but I was being irresponsible and completely unaware. Getting fucked up in public spaces. Not sleeping. Thinking a lot of myself but not actually caring for myself. The thing is I could always taste the bitter aftertaste of everything I did. I knew that even if I saw no bad consequences  yet, following this path would eventually lead me to them. My knowledge of this and my willingness  to continue down this path made it all the  worse. I am just glad that I was aware, which I think most people are, otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have  been able to step out. The repercussions hadn’t shown their face yet. But they soon would.

One night, I went to a house party and took acid. I gathered friends around me thinking I was a little God. I took them all into a circle and told them that this night would change our lives forever. The grandest quest ever known was about to begin. Not long after this a woman entered into the room. She shone with the brightest light and it was if a thunderbolt of energy cracked through time  and space. At the time I knew that she was an angel and was the new most important thing in my life.

In hindsight I think this flash may have just signified a moment of great importance. One that would teach me the most important lesson of my life thus far. I’d got what I wished for. One with a heady mix of positive and negative consequences for myself and others, but a turning point nonetheless.

Uninhibited we dived into an intense relationship. It had beautiful moments but there was so much clinging too. Life became a roller coaster of ups and downs so intense that I perpetually felt sick. Sleeping and eating evaded me. I would cry over a  smudge on a bus window. There were things that happened in that time which I shall not address here and that I deeply regret. This is when I finally became aware that my actions were having dire consequences.

I do not want to dwell on the intensity of this time but I will give you a glimpse into it. After a few weeks of being in the relationship I was due to fly to the other side of the world for a holiday with two of my best friends. My girlfriend drove me to the airport, crashing the car on the way there. I left her crying on the hard shoulder as I called an Uber to get my  flight. When I got there I embarked on a convoluted blur of a few days. I drank more than I thought possible. I spent the last hour of 2016 and the first hour of 2017 throwing up with my head wedged between a toilet bowl and seat, in a yacht in a storm as fireworks went off. I hoped this would be my rebirth through fire. That this was as bad as it would get and I’d rise like a phoenix from the flames. How naive.

It was my first holiday in a year since working at the start up. I had a very intense but creatively rewarding job, a relationship with such a pull that it put all art I had experienced to shame. The most supportive and loving family. A group of loyal, exciting, communicative friends. On paper my life was ideal. Yet I wanted more and I wanted less. I craved both at the same time, more extremity, and an end to the intensity. It made no logical sense. Only the experience of it made sense.

When I could convince my friends to momentarily end the madness i did step out of it all and forgot who I was. A coach journey along coastal hills, a walk in the mountains, a glimpse of a golden statue of the Buddha. These were the moments that had weight to them. Sublime. A flavour that I could taste and feel nourishment from.

I got back, and everything was horrible. Work was insane – I was working 8am to 10pm every day. The relationship with my girlfriend wasn’t working out. I had acted quite simply, despicably and we were arguing a lot. And I was completely exhausted – I’d got food poisoning in Hong Kong, then I was passing out because of low blood sugar. I went to have an operation on my nose, because I wasn’t breathing properly, and was told to rest completely for two weeks. But the day after the operation my work rang up and said ‘when are you coming back?’

The relationship was in tatters. I wanted to quit my job. I’d physical destroyed myself, repeatedly ending up in Hospital. I got to a point where I thought ‘fuck all this’. I thought how do I stop it all. Not just conceptually, but practically. I was at home by myself and I thought the best thing would be to find some form of rope, hanging myself. Then my sister’s boyfriend walked in to the house, which pulled me out of my thought pattern and I had this moment of insight. Another voice stepped in from somewhere else. A domino effect of sensations tumbled from me in that moment to a long distant past.

The voice of a young Joe. Perhaps 4 or 5 appeared within me. He was hurt and crying, big eyes glistening as tears spilled down his cheeks, arms wrapped around his torso and snot dribbling from his nose. Despite this his voice was clear and confident like only children seem to be. “What has happened Joe? What is this? Depression? Suicide? Do you not remember? You would never comprehend such thoughts. Why would people ever do this. It makes no sense. I don’t understand. Do you not remember. You used to have so much joy.”

And then I believed him. At that moment I knew two things. Despite having these suicidal blinkers on, Little Joe had given me the faintest memory of a dream like sense of innocent joy. Free from the pain soaked indulgences I had been swimming in as of late. Firstly, I should make a valiant effort at trying to explore that more. Secondly, even if exploring that wasn’t fruitful, I still had value. I could help people with the skills I had and the knowledge of feeling this way.

My new purpose was to always be there for others if I could. I saw this as part of my work. I believed the project I was working on should help others. It went further than this though. The experience made me see everyone in a new light. Every one was surrounded by this aura of pain. The emotions I had experienced they had, were or probably would feel. This sounds morbid but it was the total opposite. My heart went out to everyone. For a while everyone felt like my newborn sibling.

There was a work friend who was younger than me and he had just gone through a divorce. I saw etched into  his face, the exact feelings I had  been through. I went over to him and said: ‘I see how you are right now, and I think I can understand, at least somewhat. If you ever need to talk to someone, or just hang out. Please just call me up and I will be there’. I could empathize with his pain. He called two weeks later on a weekend and we met up. He was upset but we sunbathed, played frisby and went to the cinema. A month later he moved into my flat and we spend time together almost every day. He is one of my best friends now and we love each other.

My quest for finding Little Joe had also begun. I made a list of all the things in my past that made me happy and I experimented with them. I stopped using all public transport and only ever cycled. I did something every night after work. Without fail. Dance lessons. Life Drawing. Handstand lessons. Singing. Avoiding romantic relationships and paying real attention to friendships. Snippets of that child like sense of wonder were flashing in. I could not control them, but they were coming. Even in my hedonistic times I achieved these same joys occasionally. But by following my two new purposes there was a sense of them growing.

There were also two specific things I had open in two tabs on my internet browser. One was meditation. The other a love and sex addict group. Both on at the same time the next night. I was honest with myself and asked why did I really want to go to that love and sex addict group? Needless to say I went to the London Buddhist Centre.

Meditation felt like such a stark contrast to what I had been experiencing. It brought a bliss that was so very different to everything before. The Metta Bhavana, a meditation on loving kindness, helped me develop the feelings of compassion for people that I was already feeling. The mindfulness of breathing helped me regulate the roller-coaster of ups and downs and allowed me to step back from the impulses and the instant reactions. I became more aware and in touch with my experience. I have been going every week since, have attended and helped out on retreats and made some really lovely friends.

I went on a ten day spring retreat in April. Over a year had passed since little Joe had talked to me. I hadn’t seen him since. I really embraced my little walks. I was able to truly appreciate nature emerging when I really slowed down. The trees were blossoming, the pond was full of newts. I used to love newts when I was a kid. I realized I’d lost that child-like curiosity, because I’d been in sprint mode this whole time.

One day I sat on the ground, back propped up by a sappy wooden lampost as it whirred away. Bugs nonchalantly wondered over my bright yellow trousers as clouds glided by overhead. Out of nowhere that innocent joy washed over me. I was fully submerged. Little Joe said “Look. I’m here. I’ve always been here. You just needed to slow down and take a look around.”

When I went back into the shrine room that evening I sat for a whole hour meditating and crying. A sense of gratitude not just for that joy, but for everything that was, came over me. Everything. Everyone.

This year and a half has seen a lot of outward changes growing from the inner. I went vegan. Stopped drink, drugs, social media, romantic relationships. There was no effort involved with any of these. When my mind had changed it was easy.

I knew for a while that my job was one of the biggest obstacle but that’s not something you can drop with the click of your fingers. They preached Collaboration, dignity, empathy, creativity, but in actuality they were becoming the antithesis of this. Decimating the passion and intent that used to be felt by a core group of us. Some of the people there pursued goals did not align with my own. Despite their great successes in certain fields, they were not what I  would call role models. There were two very distinct paths before me. I knew I wanted to truly help people, face the repercussion of my actions, and continue working on my list full-time. My job was detrimental to that journey. I decided to leave.

I’ve left London, am working on a writing and illustrating a children’s book, and I’d like to use my artistic skills to help tell Buddhist stories. I may work in a start-up again, but this time I’d like to work with people whose values I share.

I don’t know where this will lead me. But I know the past year and a half I’ve been making a kind of progress that has been far more challenging and rewarding than anything I’ve known before.

Someone once showed me a thing called a happy-graph. You fill in your day with the different moments and how it makes you feel. When I filled it out it was clear I used to be strapped into a rollercoaster that would plunge up and down between the depths and the heights. Screaming and gasping for breath. I think I probably still have the depths and the heights but it isn’t feeling so much that way any more. Maybe it’s because I can see myself on the rollercoaster for now. But it feels like I’m on a nice stable ride through the tree canopy with friends and I’m able to get a good look around.