Before I had left for Peru, my husband and I saw The Simpsons Movie at a drive-in theater. Once again Homer Simpson gets himself in trouble and has to try to cross the Alaskan wilderness to catch up with his family. Passed out from exhaustion, an Inuit woman saves him, and nurses him back to health. This healer woman tells him he must have an epiphany, or he will spend the rest of his life alone. She and Homer make the guttural sounds of an Inuit throat song to send him into a vision. Through a vision filled with totem poles and trees that smack him, Homer receives his epiphany. He must save the town of Springfield. With this cartoonish image in my head, I prepared for my first experience with Ayahuasca cactus, also called the vine of death.
After a light dinner, I was told to bundle up because the room was cold, and this plant medicine makes one colder. The ceremony starts late in the evening. Being on Ayahuasca makes one sensitive to light, so it is best taken at night. The ceremony was to focus on cleansing. I thought of everything I wanted to release: taking care of others before myself, being both critical and feeling like a victim, and of course, my poor health. I wanted to release all of the thoughts, beliefs, and unconscious actions I know are harmful to me and to others, but which I just couldn’t seem to shake through all those years of therapy. I wanted to let go of the ghosts of all the hurtful, harmful, embarrassing things I have said and done in my life. I wanted a clean, clear slate from which to live.
Armed with a jacket, hat, and gloves, I joined the others in a room where all the windows were blocked by heavy blankets, and one single candle dimly lit the room. Taking Ayahuasca is similar to San Pedro, but the taste is even more bitter and you get no chaser, although I did laugh when they offered a TicTac breath mint to help take away the nasty aftertaste. As I felt the herb enter my body, I became queasy, feeling like at any moment the entire room was going to start spinning. Even though only one candle burned, I could now easily see the faces of the other travelers twenty feet away from me on the other side of the room. Hallucinations started once the medicinal cactus kicked in. Trying to stop the images seemed to make the queasiness increase, so I tried to go with the flow, which was a new concept to me. It appeared the whole room was filled with water. It wasn’t a scary “I’m drowning” thing, but more like both watching and being inside a gigantic fish tank. I watched the dolphins and stingray float by, and I tried to rock with the water so I wouldn’t get sick.
In each Ayahuasca ceremony, Don Theo would call a few people up one at a time and work with them individually. I was called the first night. Standing in front of the shaman, I was told to say my full name two times. He asked me to walk backwards. I kept walking and walking until I thought I would walk out of the room. I heard Don Theo and Pepe gasp and tell me to stop. I couldn’t make out what they were saying in Spanish, but it sounded like they found the cause of my pain, and it was severe or shocking or difficult to fix. Later, after seeing the individual work of others, I gathered walking backward somehow allowed Don Theo to see our lives and histories. The farther one walked back, the farther back in time the causal trauma was in one’s life.
Don Theo approached me and, whispering semi-broken English in my ear, asked if I was married, and how was my marriage. Yes, and good, I responded. He told me I was holding myself back. He asked if I had experienced a trauma or accident when I was younger. I could not recall any childhood trauma, so I said, “I don’t know.” Pepe assisted Don Theo during the individual work and began waving a condor feather all around my body, trying to remove all of the self-protection and self-restraint. It appeared he was working very hard, and whatever he was trying to remove didn’t want to budge.
My individual experience ended with a woman moving her hands from the back of my head down my body to the floor, and having two other people spit citrus cologne, known as Florida Water after the famed Fountain of Youth, at me. After Don Theo and Pepe worked with a few other individuals, music was played. The first song sounded like a funeral march for my old self. The other songs made my head spin, literally, on its own. I felt myself crying, but it was more of a silent scream. This was not your normal Tuesday evening.
The next day I continued to try to remember the childhood incident at the root of my pain, but could not come up with anything. I now felt I had a hairball around my heart, causing my teeth and shoulders to hurt, so I went to Don Theo. The pain I was experiencing was from my inability to release. He and I discussed how I was trying to confine myself into the framework of life I assumed society and family tradition had dictated. I needed to release the life I assumed I had to live. This made sense to me as it aligned with all the work I had completed through counseling. The trouble, however, was not understanding the problem in my head, but in releasing my heart. Don Theo started work on my heart by blowing tobacco smoke and Florida Water at my chest, and he prescribed a special rose-petal tea for me every morning I was in Peru.
The plant, tea, and insight all began to have their effect as I slowly began to chip away at the apparent failures in my life, and redefine what success looked like to me. Interestingly, I did not start imagining a new career, an amount of money, a new home, or some other tangible description. Success began to take the form of being true to myself, having a pure heart, being grateful, finding time to be in nature, being positive, calm, and peaceful, and taking care of my body. I wanted to be a joyful Peruvian, not a stressed-out American.
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