by Ben Cohen
Earth Mesada (continued from part 2)
After a day to integrate the first ceremony, I was eager to explore the wonders of Huachuma further. The first day had been quite relaxing and it wasn’t particularly challenging, as plant medicine journeys can often be. “The Earth Mesada will be quite different,” don Howard explained to us before ceremony started. “The training wheels are coming off!” he joked. Studying his face I could see that he really did mean it though -- the journey through the Middle world was not going to be plain sailing.
We met at midday in the Maloka and took our medicine one by one. I was called up to the Mesa and given (at least what seemed to me) to be an extraordinarily large cup of the thin, acrid liquid. It was immensely difficult to get down and I had to take a couple of breaks in order to ingest the full amount. I knew immediately that my stomach was not going to comply and had little hope that drinking enough limonata would settle it. The air seemed thicker during ceremony and I felt a sense of unease that I wasn’t expecting. Don Howard had told us the day would be heavier and more intense, but I wasn’t expecting to feel that way before the ceremony. My Western mind still ticking, I was analyzing everything in order to check for confirmation bias. Was don Howard influencing us with subtle mind tricks? Were we all in highly suggestible states being in a foreign environment and unknowingly open to suggestion? I couldn’t really tell, but given I was actively looking out for it I couldn’t detect anything untoward. Don Howard was extremely straightforward in his dealing with us and would answer any question I had very simply. I had really grilled him during mealtimes at night, and was deeply impressed with his knowledge and ability to translate quite difficult cultural differences into a comprehendible Western set of concepts. A trained biologist, don Howard was extremely familiar with ‘left brain’ thinking, and diligently took us through the supposed contradictions in Amazonian Shamanism. He explained that Westerners are in their heads too much and have a hard time ‘feeling’ their way through life. Shamans, he said, don’t need to prove the spiritual component of medicines like Ayahuasca and Huachuma -- they are self explanatory. All that is needed is the willingness to drink and experience the states of consciousness they bring you to. “Science and Shamanism are not opposed to one another,” he said. “It is possible to hold two different worldviews at the same time. One is not ‘better’ than the other, they are just different ways of looking at the same thing”.
Still, I felt pulled in many directions early on during my time at the Spirit Quest sanctuary -- part of me desperately wanted to reconnect with the feelings I had experienced during my Ayahuasca ceremonies, and the other part was distrustful and skeptical of what had happened to me. I sat with these feelings as we motored down the river to visit another tribe don Howard was friendly with and began doubting my intentions for being there. I felt extremely queasy as the boat bumped along the river and after doing my best to keep my stomach calm, I relented and vomited over the side of the boat. One of the other guests kindly patted me on the back having witnessed my mini-purge, but I was still feeling pretty grim. This wasn’t a journey through Middle Earth I decided, this was me feeling sick after ingesting a highly potent psychedelic drink I wasn’t so sure I should have taken. How was it possible to drink the same medicine from the same cup and feel so different? My mind continued to race, settled only by the practical task of trying to keep my stomach from erupting again. I tried deep breathing, which helped a little, but I could tell things were going to get worse.
We came to a dock by a small, ramshackle village on the side of the river named “Barrio Florida”, a grim looking sore on what was otherwise pristine forest.The town smelled incredibly bad -- a potent combination of sewage, fried food and burning gasoline that made me feel even grimmer as we disembarked. I wanted to crawl up in a ball at this point, deciding this wasn’t for me. But I had drunk the medicine and I had to accept what was coming -- one of the worst aspects of taking a psychedelic plant. Once you are in, there is no turning back.
We hung around the dock for a few minutes while don Howard chatted to some of the locals, taking in our surroundings. A rag tag bunch of disheveled looking men were drinking and gambling in a hut by the dock and looking at us distrustfully. I noticed a small badly abused dog approaching us, likely looking for some food. I had never seen a more bedraggled animal. It’s ears were both cut and the poor thing had open sores all around his body. It looked extremely nervous and very close to dying, but no one seemed to be paying it any attention whatsoever. The men gambling ignored it as it skittered around sniffing out food, and I attempted to get its attention by wielding a banana I was saving for later. Instead it walked off back into the village, likely frightened by my size (Amazonian Peruvians are quite small, particularly compared to 6ft tall Westerners like me). I decided to follow it in order to give it some food -- a small mercy I felt it deserved before its death in the coming days or weeks. I caught up to it and dropped some banana by its feet, kneeling down to try and comfort it. I spent several minutes sitting with the dog feeling completely dejected and helpless, knowing I couldn’t do anything to save it or alleviate its suffering. I felt the least I could do was show it some kindness, wanting to show it that despite all the shit it had no doubt been through, there was still compassion in the world. I’m not sure if the dog got the message, but I sensed it was vaguely appreciative of the fact that I was paying it some attention.
The group began to gather in order to walk through the town. I wasn’t sure where we were going, but I was certainly glad to be moving away from the stench. As we meandered through the village, I began to feel even worse. The sounds of the chickens running around seemed contorted and strangled, like they were part of some grotesque experiment that had gone horribly wrong. In fact, everything sounded discordant -- from the dogs barking to the men shouting at each other, it felt like I was walking through some sort of hellish vortex that I would never escape from. The concept of time seemed irrelevant at that point, and I began to think I had made a terrible, terrible mistake and would never leave this hellish state I had stupidly put myself in. I tried to breathe deeply through my nose, but the air was thick and heavy and I felt like I was being ever so slowly choked. I began breathing quickly through my mouth, which did little to ease the anxiety I was feeling.
As we came to the edge of the barren village, thick, lush rainforest awaited us across a bridge. As we moved towards it, my sense of unease began to fade ever so slightly -- a welcome relief given I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The further we went into the forest, the calmer I began to feel -- a sensation I was completely unprepared for given I had resigned myself to spend an eternity in whatever hell I had entered into. Once deep into the shelter of the trees, plants and flowers, I began looking around in wonder at the sheer beauty of it all. As I gazed into a small opening in the forest filled with buzzing insects, brightly colored birds and as many shades of green as you could imagine, I began to see the earth breathing. While this may sound completely ridiculous, it was an incredibly vivid experience and one I won’t ever forget. The land quite literally appeared to be heaving ever so slightly, the grass, trees and plants gently bobbing up and down reminding me of a mother laying with a baby on her belly. It then began to dawn on me that while walking through Barrio Florida, it wasn’t me that could not breathe -- it was the earth.
At that moment, I’m unashamed to say that I broke down and began to cry, falling to the ground and sitting despondently in the dense grass protruding through the jungle floor. What the fuck were we doing to the planet? It felt as if someone had been hurting my own mother, a feeling so sickening and angering that I become completely overwhelmed. One of the other members of the group found me on the floor and began to console me, sensing I was processing some very heavy emotions. Don Howard emerged with his wife and looked down kindly at me. “Are you ok, Ben?” he asked. I gathered my senses and picked myself off the floor.
“I’m ok,” I answered through tears, sensing an enormous amount of relief as a rose. “I think I’m ok.”
Don Howard said no more, although I sensed he understood exactly what I just gone through. This was what he did, day in, day out, every month, every year. It was his calling to take anxious Westerners driven to despair by their culture through the belly of the earth -- not telling them, but showing them the harm humans are doing to themselves and the earth. Don Howard was a true ‘Chakaruna’ -- a bridge from our world to the other, and guide sent by some other force to help humanity heal itself from its ongoing war against the earth. As this profound lesson swirled around my primitive mind, I began to feel my body again and I was flooded with a deep, warm sensation that filled my veins and coursed energetically through my heart. It was as if someone had removed an anvil from my shoulders, and I was left feeling light and alive. This is why I get anxious, I thought. I am not sick, it is the earth that is sick, and we are her symptoms -- children lost in a state of perpetual anxiousness, suffering an extreme existential crisis with no knowledge of what is causing it. Our materialist philosophy refuses to acknowledge the sentience of nature, making our destruction and domination of it a logical progression in the name of “progress”, whatever that means. But through the medicine I was starting to feel the earth, and I could no longer be a party to its demise.
Feeling significantly better, we continued walking through the forest until we came to an opening where a local tribe lived. They warmly welcomed us with fresh coconuts and bananas that tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten before that point. Don Howard knew them well, and chatted amiably with the tribe’s leader, a petite, youthful looking woman with an intelligent, wizened face. We mingled with the children and danced with them as they put on a full show -- a delightful experience that will remain one of the happiest of my life. After watching the heartwarming performance, we went down to the river to do some swimming -- a truly magical, healing experience that made me feel like I had quite literally returned to Pachamama’s womb.
We returned to the boat after several hours with the tribe, and as we walked through Barrio Florida, I felt an energetic shift in the town. The children were out playing soccer, scampering around joyously and waving to us. This was the next generation, I thought. Maybe they’ll figure it out and stop destroying their natural habitat. And anyway, who the hell was I to cast judgment on their town? I had lived in monstrous, polluting cities my entire life and had done far, far more damage to the earth than anyone living here.
The journey home was a lesson in hope for me. As we motored down the river, I saw ceremonial huts dotted along the coastline. Shamanism was still being practised in the Amazon, healing those ready to humble themselves before the Mother Earth and ask for help. There were more don Howards and more Westerners like us doing their bit to change the destructive ways of our culture. It wasn’t happening fast enough, but it was happening -- and that was incredibly reassuring. As the medicine continued working through my body, gentle visions began the boat navigated the twists and turns of the river. I saw myself as part of this great creation, a unique manifestation of the Mother Earth birthed to be the very best version of myself and enjoy life to the fullest. We spend so much time fearful of what others may think of our weirdness, our political views, or crazy ideas, I thought. But that’s what makes life worth living -- to express ourselves as authentically as we can, to laugh, sing and dance knowing there will never, ever be a combination of DNA, cells, bones and veins quite like us.
Next: The Snuff From Hell, and a Journey to the Afterlife