Posts Tagged ‘jungle retreat’

Schizophrenia, Mysticism and Ayahuasca

Sink or swim.


Great wits are sure to madness near allied

And thin partitions do their bounds divide

–  John Dryden


Creativity and madness are two forms of the same expression.  The creative mind is supple, restless, and always in motion, seeking new territory beyond accepted boundaries. While many of us are content to putter about happily within the safe, defined spaces of our gardens, artists and thinkers and other creative types charge towards the horizon with the great joyous leaping strides of a sight hound when a wild hare pops up.  Creative expression, for me, is the delight of discovering something unfamiliar, of forging a new form from what was unknown before, and rendering something concrete where before there was only theory and abstraction. It’s the thrill of filling in a blank spot on the map, whether that map depicts the backyard garden or the entire world. Most of the fun lies in making the journey rather than arriving–the creative process, that is– but rev that engine too hard for too long, and madness might be the outcome. That is why someone who might already have a screw loose in the head should never tamper with mind-altering drugs, particularly hallucinogens.  The result can be disastrous.

Schizophrenia afflicts about one percent of the world’s population. One of my best friends in high school became schizophrenic during his first year of college. There was a history of mental instability in his family, but he was also experimenting with LSD as well as some truly ‘hard’ drugs, like crystal meth, during this time. He had been reading “The Celestine Prophecy” around the time that he became untethered, and I have no doubt that this book contributed to the religious tenor of the vision quest that followed. After experiencing his psychic break with reality, he dropped out of school and spent a week in some rural woods, by the side of a lake, waiting for God to appear. He believed he was Jesus Christ, or that we all were. He heard voices and had waking visions of angels and demons, and his reality became re-framed in terms of Christian iconography in a way that was uncomfortable for the rest of us to relate to—a roadside prophet in the spirit of William Blake—which may be glorifying the situation somewhat. His family and friends watched in horror as his old personality, the charmer and class clown whom we loved so much, sank beneath a cold veneer of blank expression. He acquired repetitive tics and a hollow eyed gaze. Sometimes he just spaced out and stared into the abyss during a conversation. This new personality was stabilized somewhat with medication, and meditation, but as the years passed, our old friend never came back.

“The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight,” Joseph Campbell once observed.   The cause and nature of schizophrenia is even today not well understood.  Neither, for that matter, are states of mystical enlightenment, though I suspect that people have been experiencing both for a very long time. And when you really look at it, they share an awful lot of similarities. Both see visions, experience altered perceptions of space and time, and with the loss of ego and self-boundaries, both experience a heightened state of awareness, a transpersonal ecstasy, that seems to accompany one’s communion with the divine.  This state of enlightenment, of being closer to God or infused with some higher Spirit, occurs in almost all cultures. The revelations retained from such states are the basis for quite a few religions, including some of the major ones.  Mystical states and psychotic states, then, are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Could it be that saints are crazy?

This is one of those questions that challenges one to define the boundary between physics and metaphysics. Science does not attempt to explain spiritual phenomena, and religion, despite its best efforts historically, generally fails when it tries to play doctor or scientist. And yet we have the mystic and the schizophrenic, both adrift in that vast ocean of universal consciousness. Both might be said to be in closer proximity to the Divine, the Higher Mind, or enlightenment by any other name—yet one struggles to stay afloat, and the other is effortlessly buoyant.

Recently, there was an incident at one of the well-known ayahuasca retreat centers located in the jungle outside of Iquitos. A young Scandinavian man in his mid-twenties signed up for a ten-day ayahuasca program, but after three sessions, he was asked to leave. His behavior during those days had grown increasingly more strange and unpredictable, and after he was found setting a pile of his clothes on fire, they thought he might become a danger to himself or others.

This is not the first time there has been a pharmacological casualty here in Iquitos. Once in a great while, someone will not quite return from a trip. Normally, the culprit is Brugmansia, (or Angel’s Trumpet, here known as toé) a very dangerous plant containing high levels of scopolamine and atropine, which can be fatal at high doses. Traditionally in the upper Amazon, shamans have used toé as an admixture in ayahuasca, but not very much, as just a few leaves can enhance the quality and duration of visions. I would not recommend ingesting toé to anyone, but I do have it growing in the garden, because it is a beautiful plant and I have great respect for it, as one would respect a king cobra, or a comet—best admired from a distance. Though there are no statistics for this, I would be willing to bet that on those rare occasions when someone loses their mind after drinking some kind of hallucinogenic jungle brew, toé is usually involved–and the person probably had a screw loose before they ever arrived in the jungle.

When this sort of thing does happen, it produces bad publicity for everyone. It especially gives a bad name to ayahuasca itself, and allows critics to tar it as a dangerous and damaging drug, rather than the powerful and profound natural medicine that it is.

In the case of the Scandinavian, the unfortunate Mr. Finn, things did not go well. I would venture to say that this is largely his own fault. It turned out that Finn had a history of psychiatric evaluation going back almost a decade, and had been on medication for some time. When he went to the ayahuasca center, he told no one about his prior condition, and he also went off his meds. Bad call on both counts. Any reputable ayahuasca center here would refuse to take on a customer with a history of mental illness, for exactly this reason.

After leaving the ayahuasca center, he showed up back in Iquitos, and was soon detained, and released, by police for his unusual behavior in a public park. My friend Geert, who had been hosting Finn at his jungle lodge before his psychic break, offered to take him back out to the lodge, where he could have a few days to sort things out. But the situation deteriorated quickly.  Finn was found up on the water tower one night, looking for his luggage in the water tank, when his bags were packed neatly in his room. He set things on fire, destroyed property, became angry for no reason, and generally could not find any peace. Geert had no choice but to take him back to town, and check him into a hostel. The ayahuasca retreat center, meanwhile, had not made an effort to follow up on him, so he was a free agent. Soon he was detained again in the Plaza de Armas, for raving on about looking for his lost possessions, while walking around stark naked and setting his clothes on fire, and this time they arrested him.

Geert went to the police station to sort things out, as Finn spoke no Spanish and was by now in a state of great distress. There, Geert saw that the police had ‘allegedly’ found some drugs on him—a small packet of cocaine. It is also possible, indeed likely, that these drugs were planted on him. Allegedly. I have heard more than once that the police use this trick, to justify an arrest, but planting a small enough amount that the person can later be released without being processed by the court system (possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine for personal consumption is in fact legal in Peru.)  But the problem was that Finn had already made a statement to the police that the drugs were not his, and he was emphatic that he had no intention or desire to do cocaine. Which was most likely the truth, as I said, but it complicated matters, because since he’d said the drugs were not his, the police had to accuse him of intent to sell, in order to justify his possession of them.  This is a more serious charge, and led to having to phone a lawyer and magistrate to come to the police station late at night in order to work out the formal legal details of What Are We Going To Do With This Crazy Gringo.

Normally this kind of minor legal entanglement can be resolved by paying a small bribe to whoever holds the keys to your destiny. It could be the cops, a judge, a lawyer, etc. These bribes are so common here that they are sometimes referred to as ‘gaseosa’ or ‘ceviche’ money, as in, give me a little something on the side, a little extra to buy my soft drinks and snacks. Everybody’s gotta have their gaseosa money, now and then. But what’s really funny is that when they asked Geert for ‘gaseosas,’ he actually went out to the corner store and brought back a 3 liter bottle of Inca Cola! Hahahaha! Classic. I wish I could have seen the expression on the cops’ faces.

But with that little matter clarified, Finn was released back into Geert’s custody, and before too long had been admitted for observation at a local clinic.  Then the embassy got involved and ultimately they put him on a plane back home.  He had a bad trip, man. But then again, this man had no business going off his meds and attempting to self-medicate with ayahuasca, without informing the center of his medical history. The center, for their part, could be more thorough in the future by screening everyone a little more carefully before they ever do a ceremony.  The center also had a moral obligation to follow him back to Iquitos and check up on him, which to my knowledge they did not do.

This type of situation is of course hard to predict, or prevent. In fact worse things have happened in the past. Once or twice, foreigners have died during or after ayahuasca ceremonies.  In each instance, the embassies get involved and the situation is quickly and quietly resolved. I personally believe that ayahuasca is completely safe, and no one ever dies from it unless it is their time to go anyway. Perhaps this was the case—impossible to say.

Naturally, no one who works with ayahuasca or other plant medicines wants to advertise these kinds of things when they happen. I bring it up in order to reaffirm my belief that these plant medicines, made not in a laboratory but by the natural hand of the Great Designer, do have a grand purpose, and were intended to be used by people as medicine for body, mind and spirit. That’s a statement of faith, though I’m not especially religious. Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, it’s hard not to marvel at the many wonders they manifest–a sublimely refined product of millions of years of evolution.

However you explain their origins, their astounding abilities defy easy explanation. In a controlled setting with an experienced shaman, people can and do experience life-altering transformations, insights that lead to healing, and lasting perspectives into self and soul that have positive and far-reaching consequences. Total clarity, peaceful stillness, pure illumination–all are possible. They are incredible gifts, for those who learn how to receive them. I maintain that these plants are master teachers. They merely wait for the student to be ready.

Ayahuasca is not for everyone. But if it calls to you, check first to make sure every screw inside your head is firmly tightened! Having done that, anyone can learn to swim like a mystic.

The News From Amaru Spirit

I should start by talking a little about my friend Chillum. He’s a great guy, my brother from another mother, both of us pure products of North Carolina. We’ve known each other since that other lifetime before either of us first came to Peru, and I remain impressed with what he’s done in the years since he moved here.  An accomplished artist in several mediums, Chillum also has a great interest in holistic healing. This interest has led to the purchase of land on the Itayariver, down by Cabo Lopez, and the development there of Amaru Spirit, a holistic retreat center and sacred plant workshop.  The name is a nod to Tupac Amaru, the last Incan king.

I remember Chillum’s first foray into jungle living. He was going to buy into a piece of land owned by a Spanish shaman. A couple of other people had already built their own small houses there, to do retreats, diets, drink ayahuasca, whatever. Chillum bought the wood to build his house and had it delivered, but then had to go back to the States. When he returned, a woman there had ‘borrowed’ a lot of the wood to build her own house, and the Spanish guy pretended not to know anything about it. It was a very Peruvian move—no one could remember anything! Except that you snooze, you lose. He tried to get both of them to pay back some of what he was owed, but I don’t think he recovered very much.

It’s really a shark tank here for a gringo trying to do business. Everyone gets ripped off sooner or later.  But that incident turned out to be a blessing, because the land was revelaed in time to be a poor choice anyway for a meditation retreat–the village just down the path had loudspeakers and a PA system which they used frequently to broadcast everything from church services to dance music, sometimes late into the night.

When Chillum decided to develop his own place, he got the land and a construction crew and went to work. His first foreman was helping him to put in a well, but then Chillum learned from one of his workers that the foreman was going around bragging about how much money he was going to make off of this gringo, having already doubled the estimate for the well and pocketed the difference in front of them, and threatened them and their families with physical harm if they said anything about it. Incredibly, one of the workers did rat him out, because they saw how much the situation had gotten sideways. Chillum then did the honorable but difficult thing—he went to the guy’s house and confronted him to his face. As aggressively as they put on shows of machismo, the truth is that most Peruvians do not deal well at all with direct confrontation, and the guy didn’t know what to say. He apologized and promised to return the money, although he never did. I don’t think he ever got much work from other gringos after that either.

For whatever reason, Peruvians just kill the golden goose at every opportunity. I know a guy who is building some houses in the jungle, and he was paying his workers good money—a hundred soles a week. But he was losing a lot of guys because a lot of them didn’t want steady work, they just wanted a hundred soles, so they would work one week and then disappear. The guy got smart and started hiring workers at half the wages, and always paying them a week late so they had to hang around to get paid. By paying them less money, and less often, he actually kept them around a lot longer.

Anyway, Amaru Spirit has just recently gotten up and running as a fully-equipped retreat center. He had to be out there every day supervising things, but the work has paid off. It really is amazing what he’s done with a patch of raw jungle land in just a year’s time. He’s got a huge two story structure that will serve as the dining hall and group meeting place, as well as four private cabins, a guardian house with a full kitchen, and just last week he got the solar-powered electricity installed. Plans are in the works to build a proper maloca for ceremonies. He’s seen his first paying customers in the last couple of months, and some of them are doing extended stays, with healing regimens that include plant diets, liver flushes, and other holistic practices. Ayahuasca sessions are also part of this treatment.And oh, that Spanish shaman who wouldn’t play it straight with the stolen lumber? He’s now bringing business to Chillum, and paying him to use his land and facilities when he’s got groups of customers that are too large for him to accomodate, or who don’t want to stay at his own place out there next to the church loudspeakers.  They say success is the best revenge, no?

So. Chillum ended up organizing ayahuasca ceremonies out at his place all last week. He needed a shaman on somewhat short notice, so he hired a well-regarded Shipibo shaman by the name of Henry, whom he had worked with in the past. Don Henry was enlisted to do a couple of ceremonies, which turned into a six-night engagement in which he conducted ceremonies every night that week from Monday until Saturday, with groups ranging from two to eight people.

I had first heard about Henry from my friend Charlie, an American who is deeply involved in the ayahuasca community here, and who had worked with Henry doing extended group workshops with ayahuasca for three years. I had also heard that they parted ways recently under some strange circumstances, though I never got all the details. But when the chance arose, I went out to Amaru Spirit to drink with Henry on his first night there.

I was looking forward to sampling Chillum’s inaugural home cooked brew. He’d purchased fresh local ayahuasca vines and huambisa leaves, then stayed up all night cooking it down. The use of huambisa leaves (Diplopterys cabrerana, also known as chagropanga or chaliponga) rather than the more commonly-used chacruna (Psychotria viridis) was an interesting twist. Huambisa contains not just DMT but also healthy amounts of 5-MeO-DMT, and so the quality of visions, and in fact the nature of the experience, is quite different from a brew made with chacruna. It’s my understanding that the alkaloids in huambisa can be several times stronger than those in chacruna, and judging from my own experience, I’d have to agree.  In this particular brew Chillum also added a few leaves and flowers of chiric sanango (Brunfelsia grandiflora), another medicinal plant, to enhance the visions.

The group that night included Chillum, accompanied by his very pregnant girlfriend (who was not drinking of course), an Australian doing an extended stay there, a 21 year old French guy who had come to Iquitos after living six months among a large Santo Daime community in the Brazilian Amazon, and Chillum’s midwife, an American living in Cusco who was in town to assist with the birth. There were also a few familiar friends–an Englishman who owns a café downtown, and a Brazilian attorney in her late twenties–and then Henry and his wife, who joined her husband in singing soulful icaros throughout the evening.

The brew was the thickest I have ever had, viscous and sour. It came on quickly and soon people were purging and settling into visions. Henry began chanting and singing his icaros, and he didn’t stop for an hour and a half. When he did, we all took a breather to talk a little and laugh about how strong the brew was. I could hear Chillum over there laughing, in fact, even after Henry started up again. The visions that night were of a different order than anything I have experienced. They shifted character, form, and feeling… over and over. There wasn’t a unifying theme or look or feel, but a set of wholly separate experiences that changed as quickly as switching over the reels in the a movie theater.

It went from geometric neon fractal webs to elongated shapes that hovered and morphed into enormous three-dimensional structures like impossible buildings and edifices floating in space, motionless and majestic. You could gaze on these objects with otherworldly clarity, seeing them in high definition in the mind’s eye. These forms were at once both mechanical and organic, and their crazy alien designs astounded the imagination.

Later things would shift again, and again, before the trip wound down–only to come roaring back an hour later for a second act. It happened to several of us at the same time, in fact, without warning, and within minutes we were all back into it again, and even stronger. The first and second acts were so different from themselves that they may as well have happened on different nights. But the entire evening with suffused with a sense of reverence for the plants, and feelings of compassion for my fellow man, with periods of intense and occasionally difficult visions that subsided finally into an illuminated state of complete physical ecstasy and crystalline mental sharpness that lingered on for days.

The shaman was having a strong experience as well, and his singing reached pitches of full bore passion and intensity as he sang through the visions late into the night. Later his wife sang some on her own, lovely keening icaros of subtle depth and tranquility, and then they sang a few together, singing in twin lilting falsettos that wove braids of harmony through the darkness. As people started to come out of it and talk quietly, Chillum lit a candle and we all got a chance to compare notes.

We’d all had a great night, and there was a unanimous consensus that the brew was a real ass-kicker. One friend of ours, with more than a hundred sessions under his belt, shat his pants for the first time. And I found out the reason Chillum had been laughing during the ceremony was that he had to get up to take a crap but couldn’t get up off the floor, and was laughing at his hapless state and preparing for contingencies. When he did make it outside, once wasn’t enough. He had to keep taking his pants off to crap and putting them back on, purging out the back end so violently and unpredictably that he managed to crap all over the outside of his pants, which has got to be some kind of a first. After that, Chillum actually lost his pants, and continued the ceremony for some time in his boxers until he got it together enough to go back outside and find them.

I nearly lost it myself, especially when aya came roaring back for an encore. Honestly, I have never experienced anything like this brew. I don’t drink that often, and I nearly always have a strong experience, but this brew something else–like a fighter getting up off the mat from an eight count to deliver a knockout blow. I don’t think any of us have ever had a trip where the second act came on again after such a delay . . . it was bien raro. The visions, the performance of the shamans, the setting, and the company all came together in a wonderful way for everyone. Chillum told me afterwards that he hadn’t connected with the medicine like that for years. I felt the same. I warmly thanked Henry and his wife for their performances, and we all tottered off to bed around midnight.

Henry went on to conduct other ceremonies throughout the week, and they proved to be different every night. I was impressed with Henry´s singing, and his relationship to the medicine seemed really genuine and sincere. Chillum told me that in the subsequent ceremonies, the shaman wasn’t on the ball as much, or as attentive to the needs of those around him, and that the ceremony I had participated in had been the highlight of the week. Other questions about the shaman began to crop up—he was charging per person, and had done very, very well with the larger groups, such that he’d started asking Chillum for even more money, and at inappropriate times too—I don’t know why, but I got the distinct feeling that the shaman was about to kill his latest golden goose. Then later on in the week, Chillum and I got a chance to hear first-hand the reasons that Charlie and Henry had stopped working together and parted ways after three years . . . more on this later.

For now, I just want to congratulate Chillum and his girlfriend Florita, as they are expecting their first child at any moment. She started having contractions yesterday, and it won’t be long now! So welcome, new members of the Gringo-Peruvian Baby Club, Iquitos Chapter, one of the fastest-growing organizations in the Amazon…


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