by Ben Cohen
Returning to the Amazon for another plant medicine journey a year after my first Ayahuasca experience was nerve wracking to say the least. Having had possibly the most extreme and challenging experience I could have ever imagined in the jungle town of Pullcalpa, heading back into the unknown was not something I was particularly confident about.
After may months of trying to integrate what I had learned from four grueling and life altering Ayahuasca sessions back into Western life, I felt I needed to go back to get some questions answered. Ayahuasca had torn me to pieces and I wasn’t sure what to make of my experience, and who I was becoming afterwards. The four ceremonies had pushed me to the absolute limit of my physical and mental capacity, and I had faced down demons and parts of my psyche I did not know existed. I also had to come to terms with a completely new reality -- one so far removed from Western culture and everything it values that I still can’t quite fully believe it. I was confronted with the direct experience of nature being, as indigenous cultures around the world have always maintained, sentient and aware of us. Perhaps more importantly, I had felt a part of it too, leading to a profound sense of connectedness to all life that I have found impossible to forget.
It wasn’t academic evidence published in a scientific journal, but more than 20 hours of contact time with what the natives call “Mother Ayahuasca” -- the “spirit” of the thick vine that grows in the Amazon. Expecting it to be a metaphor for being in an altered state of consciousness, I was shown very quickly that the plant world is not only intelligent, but so much more intelligent than we are that it would be impossible for our primate brains to fully comprehend. Those reading this and thinking I’ve lost my mind are welcome to stop right here, but I can assure you that you’ll find exactly the same thing as everyone else does should you find the courage to drink the “Master Medicine” yourself.
Having satisfied myself that that my experience hadn’t made me insane (there is a growing and compelling body of hard scientific evidence showing plants and fungi to be intelligent, sentient and in a constant state of communication), I felt I needed to go back to the jungle to make sure that I hadn’t totally lost the plot. I didn’t feel quite ready to do Ayahuasca again, but another plant medicine the facilitators at the retreat last year had mentioned ‘San Pedro’ or ‘Huachuma’ as the natives called it -- a psychoactive cactus plant with mescaline that grew in the Andes region of Peru. Huachuma was by their account, a completely different and far more gentle experience that Ayahuasca, and I made a mental note to do some research on it in the future.
As the months went by post Ayahuasca, I noticed some interesting changes in the way I perceived and experienced nature. Whenever out in the forest near to where I live, I felt completely different. I could hear and smell the forest extremely vividly, and became seriously averse to being in densely populated urban areas. There seemed to be quite extreme energetic differences between cities and the countryside, and I began to suspect that human interference with the natural world was not a good thing.
As I read more about Huachuma and the effect it was supposed to have when ingesting it, the more intrigued I became. It was supposed to sensitize you to nature and open up your senses in a very profound way. You didn’t need to lie down to take it, and part of the healing process was to be in nature after having consumed it. Huachuma is commonly referred to as a “heart opener” -- a medicine that helped you move out of the mental world we live in and into that of the emotional and felt experience. While Ayahuasca is referred to as the “Mother” and a feminine type entity, Huachuma is regarded by the natives as a more masculine spirit, with a “Grandfather” like personality. Make of it what you will, but it intrigued me and I determined that this would be my next plant medicine journey.
After months of research as to where to do it, I stumbled upon a lovely little documentary about a place near Iquitos run by an American shaman by the name of Howard Lawler (or ‘don Howard'). After viewing the documentary and reading up on Howard, it felt like the right place to go for a number of reasons. Firstly, Howard seemed to be completely legitimate -- a highly respected Ayahuasca shaman and “Huachumero” (a shaman who works with Huachuma), he had worked with plant medicines for many decades in Peru. Secondly, the application for the retreat was highly selective, and don Howard made clear that it wasn’t an experience for travellers looking for a high, but an intense healing retreat designed to help participants reconnect with nature and heal on a psychological and emotional level. Watching the documentary gave me a lot of confidence in Howard because of his kindly demeanor and evident knowledge of what he was doing.
My intention for going was basically two-fold. The first was to reconnect with nature. Being back in the West had made me feel isolated and removed from the natural world, and I knew much of the toxic, consumer culture was making me anxious. Secondly, I wanted to learn from Don Howard - - an english speaking Shaman with a scientific background who well understood the Western mindset and preconceptions we have about animism and spirituality. The trip to Peru was fraught with lots of problems from the onset -- getting the money wired to the retreat, not getting the right flight, missing the taxi all the other participants got when arriving in Iquitos, and generally feeling a little self conscious about what I was getting into. I couldn’t help feeling confused about my intentions -- was I doing this for the rush, or did I genuinely want to heal? Perhaps it was both, but I listened to my instincts and pushed ahead, determined to reconnect with what the natives call ‘Pachamama' (the Mother Earth).
The retreat, several miles outside of Iquitos and deep in the Amazon rainforest, was beautiful and welcoming. After hours on a plane, a crazy motorbike ride through Iquitos and an hour long boat trip, the serenity of the Amazonian lodge instantly calmed my nerves, and don Howard welcomed me warmly. A number of people who had just finished an Ayahuasca retreat and were staying on to do Huachuma were in the dining area overlooking the river, and I sat down with the group to eat. I could tell immediately that I was a little out of sync with everyone as they had gone through a series of intensive and life changing Ayahuasca ceremonies, but they were very friendly and I chatted with them and don Howard over a fresh meal of chicken, salad and rice. In total, there were seven men and one woman on the Huachuama retreat of varying ages.
Over the next week, we would be journeying into deep, deep waters, and I felt glad to be amongst such a friendly bunch. I felt a little disconnect with the only woman on the retreat -- a middle aged German lady named Tina who was into yoga and alternative healing methods -- but I remember telling myself that this was probably because I was still in my “Western” mindset of being overly analytical and skeptical of anyone into what I regarded as New Agey type stuff. Although small and warm hearted, Tina was also a very fierce lady and quickly let me know she was not to be messed with. “You have a lot of preconceptions and prejudices,” she told me bluntly when I questioned her about the efficacy of Reiki and other alternative healing methods. “You should not judge them without trying them”. I got the message and went to my room to get some rest.
We would be taking part in three Huachuma ceremonies over the week, each with a different theme. The first would be the “Water Mesada” -- an initiation into the world of spirit. The second would be the “Earth Mesada” -- a journey into the belly of Mother Earth, and the third would be the “Air Mesada” -- a journey into the upper world, and our “soul birthing”. This all sounded a little strange to me, but I reminded myself that Ayahuasca had shown me that I didn’t know very much at all.
Part II: The Water Mesada