Last december I had the privilege of spending 13 days at the Temple of the Way of Light, an ayahuasca healing center in the amazon rainforest. I am beyond grateful for the experience, for the temple, and for the profound lessons that I learned during my time there.
For those who are unaware of what ayahuasca (or Uni in Shipibo, which means “knowledge”) is, it is an Amazonian brew made from the Ayahuasca vine, and the Chakruna leaf. Together these two plants create a powerful medicine that, when consumed, give one profound visions, and help one purge or release harmful energies on a physical, mental, emotional, and energetic level. It is often a very intense and challenging experience that lasts several hours. (you can read more information about ayahuasca here)
I was drawn to ayahuasca because of its ability to heal on a very deep level, and for its ability to help one grow spiritually. I had drank the medicine once before, and my experience was incredible, but I wanted to go deeper, so I visited the Temple to do 4 ceremonies this time.
The ceremonies were structured very well, and were a perfect blend of a traditional Shipibo ceremony, with the comfort and safety of a western facility. There were 2 Maestros that lead the ceremonies (Maestra Lila and Maestro Damien), and there was one facilitator (Scott), as well as two people to assist at the door for those who needed to use the restroom. Really it was very professional and I felt very safe, which is really important when drinking ayahuasca as one can be in a very vulnerable state at times.
The trip to the temple was an adventure in itself. We took a bus from Iquitos to a boat port on a river. We then went up the river about 20 minutes, and hiked into the jungle for over an hour, eventually reaching the remote healing center. The first day we just settled in and were given general info about the retreat.
On the morning of the second day, we began with a vomitivo, which is a very unpleasant way of initiating the healing process. The process involves drinking a bowl of lemongrass tea as fast as possible, waiting 30 seconds, and then drinking bowl after bowl of water as fast as you can until you throw up. We were told we needed to throw up 3 times. It was really uncomfortable to force so much water in the system. I had to drink about 7 bowls until I began throwing up. It was far from enjoyable, but my stomach did feel pretty cleaned out after. It was also a good group bonding exercise as we were all cheering each other on in with great energy and support.
Each day we were also given 5 plant remedies, as well as floral baths. There were also two or three optional classes each day that consisted of yoga, meditation, qigong, journaling, understanding trauma, and other practices and therapies to help integrate and heal.
The night of the second day group A had their first ceremony, and group B (my group) had ours the day after. Each group had 12 people in it, as well as the occasional guest staff member, and was an equal balance of males and females.
I have hesitated to write about the experiences because truly they are indescribable. So much happens in a single ceremony, so many things occur that are beyond the ability of language to explain, and the ceremonies go on for hours, so to give an accurate description of what happened in each ceremony is impossible. I could write an entire book on one ceremony and it still wouldn’t be an accurate representation of what happened. I also can’t remember everything that happened, as so there was just so much involved. But I know people are interested in ayahuasca, so I feel it is helpful to share my experience. Just keep in mind that these are my personal experiences, and that everyone has dramatically different experiences when it comes to drinking ayahuasca. No experience is ever the same, and if you want to know what it is like you have to experience it for yourself. Don't allow my experiences to give you an idea of what the medicine is like, because really it is completely unique for each person. I am going to do my best to describe my experiences, but know that the words will always fall short of the experience itself.
The first ceremony was absolutely amazing. There were 13 of us in the Miloka (the hut where ceremony takes place), 7 women and 6 men. The women were on one side of the Miloka, and the men were on the other, each with our own personal mattress and purge bucket. The maestros Lila and Damien sat in the middle, along with Scott, our facilitator, each with their own personal mattress as well.
One by one we got up to drink the medicine. Once it was my turn I received the shot glass from Lila and internally stated my intention, then I tilted my head back and swallowed it quickly. The taste was strong, a bit bitter, and tasted like I imagine fermented soy sauce would. I walked back to my mattress and sat down, patiently waiting for the effects of the medicine to kick in. Once everyone had their shot, the maestros drank their medicine and then turned out the lights. We all sat in silence, waiting for the medicine to kick in.
I sat in meditation being as present as possible, keeping my focus on my intention. My intention was “help me rest in my true nature.” It was dark, but it was also the night of the full moon, so it was still somewhat visible.
About 45 minutes had passed and Maestra Lila began singing. Shortly after, Maestro Damien joined her. Their voices harmoniously combined to form one of the most beautiful melodies I had ever heard. The sound of crickets, birds, and other animals in the jungle complimented them greatly. The initial Icaros (sacred songs) were sung to call in the spirits. Spirits for protection, the spirits of the plants that they use for healing power, and I am sure many other spirits for various reasons.
I don’t recall much before, but suddenly I felt strongly connected to Spirit. I know that I am always connected to Spirit, and that I am Spirit, but the quality and the tangibility of this connection was so profound, and I have only felt the connection this strong a few times before. It was such a familiar feeling. It is both extremely profound, yet simple and ordinary at the same time. It is as if it is obvious that I am always this connected, yet for some reason it is not always felt on such a strong level.
I could feel the Presence of Spirit everywhere, the formless space beyond every form, the energy that every form is made of, and everything in between. I felt it as the true Self in me, and as everything surrounding me. Everything around me was just vibrations of energy, and the space was filled with various geometric forms, all dancing in harmony.
I felt so much unity and bliss. I laughed at the fact that I could ever forget the Spirit when it is always so universally present. I laid down and basked in the love and beauty as I listened to the sweet melody of the Icaros.
Eventually the maestros stopped singing and there was a moment of silence. Then, Maestra Lila approached me. I sat up to embrace whatever it was she was going to do. She began singing the Icaros, and Damien, sitting at a person’s mattress across the room, began singing his Icaros as well.
I could feel the sound of her songs moving energy inside of my body. I felt as though the energy was rushing to my arms, and my arms just wanted to move. I felt a bit self-conscious to do so, but realized that that was the energetic block that I needed to work through. I let my resistance go and my hands and arms just started flowing freely along with her songs. It felt so liberating. Then, I felt more energy moving up from my belly and with a great exhalation I let it out. Lila breathed out at the exact same time, as if she had guided the whole thing.
She then approached me and I tilted my crown toward her. She filled her mouth with flower water and sprayed it over my head. She then took my hands and did the same. Some might think that sounds a bit strange, but it feels incredibly cleansing. Afterwards, she moved to the next person and began singing to them.
I could still feel so much energy that was stagnant in me. I figured that since I was completely aware of the energetic body, that I should take advantage of this opportunity to do some self-healing. I began using my hands and my breath to guide the dense and stagnant energy out. I would breathe to the movement of my arms as I circled them up and out along the center line of my torso. As I did so, I felt energy coming up and out. Sometimes it would leave with the breath, other times it would leave with a burp. Either way I could feel that the physical release was just a vehicle to carry out the energy.
I felt like I was moving stuff that had been stagnant in me for a long time. I continued moving the energy out for some time. I realized purging, which can be any form of release (though it is commonly through vomiting), is really a great thing. It helps move energy and clean out the system, and it is not always by throwing up, though that is common. One can purge through spitting, burping, crying, laughing, moving, shaking, or just about any way that gets the energy out.
At one point in the ceremony, I realized that the chaotic things happening in the world today are the result of humanity going through a process of a massive purge, moving the stagnant energy up and out. This is manifesting itself in all sorts of ways, but everything that has been hidden is coming up to the surface to be dealt with.
I felt that chaotic energy of the world within me too, and I began using my hands and breath to move it out. It took a while, but with a great belch it finally left, and with it I felt like a great weight had been lifted.
Occasionally I would hear the maestros vomiting, and it felt like they were throwing up a lot for other people, as it would only happen once they finished working with someone. I could feel that Maestro Damien was coming to me next, so I sat at the front of my mattress and waited patiently. Shortly after, he came to me and sat down. He sat there for a moment smoking his mapacho and analyzing me, then he began singing his Icaros.
As he sang, I felt something very heavy in the pit of my stomach. I knew that he could feel it too, and so together we began working on getting it out. He sang directly to my gut and I tried to guide it up with my breath. It moved upward a bit but got stuck again in my solar plexus. He then sang directly to that area, and eventually it moved up and out with another great burp.
As soon as it left he stopped singing, just as Lila did. He also blew the flower water on my head and hands, then continued on. I am amazed by the talent these maestros have. They are so in tune with the living energy, and so skilled at using the vibrations of sound and song to work with the energy. They truly are masters.
At one point in the ceremony I left the Maloka to go pee outside. The jungle was so alive! The spirit was so prevalent in everything, and there was an orchestra of animal and insect noises. It was remarkable. The moonlight illuminated the canopy and everything was vibrating.
For the rest of the ceremony I just laid back and enjoyed the Icaros. Eventually the singing stopped and the ceremony came to a close. All in all it was a beautiful night.
Attempting to put this experience into words is truly an impossible task. No way could words ever come anywhere close to what it was that I experienced in this ceremony. However, I will do my best to explain.
This ceremony was one of the most incredible and life-changing events of my life. I drank a much larger dose than the previous ceremony—about twice as much. I sat back on my mattress and sat in meditation. I kept repeating “Divine drink of the soul, please show me the way of the Spirit. Teach me how to stay connected to Source.”
The maestros began singing their Icaros after about 45 min, but still I was feeling no effects. About 20 minutes more had passed and still nothing. Then they finished their opening Icaros and began the individual singing. Maestro Damien started next to me and Maestra Lila started across the room.
Once Maestro Damien started singing, the effects of the medicine started to come on. This part of the night is a bit hazy, but I remember feeling so much love for myself, and really appreciating the ways I had always been there for myself.
Later, Lela began coming closer and her singing was powerful. The effects of the medicine were strong. I began feeling very uncomfortable. I could see and feel the spirit of Uni (ayahuasca) wrapping over my body, almost suffocating me. The visions were vivid. Patterns of energy moving everywhere, in dark colors of black, purple, green, and yellow. I could barely sit up and I started to feel a very intense sensation of fear and resistance.
I thought that I never wanted to do this again. But then I asked myself, “what is this fear and where is it coming from?” I was able to accept the fear, and allow myself to feel it, which enabled me to move through this discomfort. It is interesting to notice that while we may feel discomfort at times, it is usually our resistance to feeling the discomfort that makes the experience much more unpleasant. When we relax with it, it becomes much more tolerable.
When Lila sat in front of me, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle it. But thankfully she just sang very gently and peacefully, and it really calmed me down. How she knows exactly what I need in each moment I do not know. After she sang to me, she did the usual flower water cleanse and moved on.
I then began to feel a deep phlegm in my throat and began coughing it up. This must have gone on for about 20 minutes. It felt like the phlegm was everything I had been carrying in my system that was not in alignment with my true Self. I began coughing and spitting it all out and as it moved I felt my entire being realigning.
Eventually I was completely aligned and I felt that my crown chakra was wide open, plugged into the Spirit. I could feel all of my chakras vividly. My body was just a mass of energies being held together by the Spirit within. I was no longer experiencing myself from the personality/ego point of view. I was in full awareness that I am Spirit, experiencing myself as a human being. I actually felt my consciousness shift to a much higher vibration, as if it ascended far above that of my normal state of consciousness. With this shift of awareness, I felt my body changing as well. More and more energy began building and flowing in my system, and I was deeply aware of the importance of yoga and its ability to help the organism function with an increase of prana, or life-force energy.
This new state of consciousness required a new way of being in the body, a way that allowed the energy to flow without damaging the nervous system. It felt like my body was once a 100 watt lightbulb, and now it was being illuminated with the energy of 1,000 watts. The experience was really intense.
Once the energy adjusted, everything felt so new, as if I was meeting it for the first time. I am in this body; how do I navigate reality in this body? How do I care for this body? I began to ground and embody the Spirit into the physical realm. My whole brain felt like it was being rewired. It was really intense.
Damien was singing next to me so powerfully, I felt both the maestros voices going all over the room. They were just letting themselves flow any and everywhere the energy was flowing. I could see that by going with the flow of the energy and not resisting it, they were able to dance with it and guide it. Their voices and their energies seemed to literally be going from place to place. Even my consciousness began dancing all around the room, going from place to place.
At times it was a struggle to sit up. I felt like waves were crashing against me. But each time I fell I just kept sitting back up. I wanted to be present. I wanted to learn. I knew I was strong enough not to give up. I could feel my own inner strength pulling me up. I kept sitting up in front of this great mystery as a humble student willing to be taught. I really connected to my inner strength. At times I felt weak, but I would focus my energy on the weak areas and they would be filled with life.
Whenever I got knocked over or lost, I just kept coming back. I’d fall into the ego and it’s mind games, then I’d shift back to dwelling as Spirit. I realized the invitation to entertain and get lost in the ego drama is always there, but so is the invitation to dwell in the truth of who I am as Spirit. I choose Spirit every time. Of course I slip and lose myself at times, but I always come back. Keep coming back to the present moment.
Finally Damien came to me and I sat up straight, ready to learn. I felt such a strong connection to this man as the powerful teacher he is. He was helping me stay present with his songs. If I’d get lost or sway to one side, he’d project his voice to where I was and bring me back to center. Eventually I just broke down in laughter and tears, feeling complete gratitude and absolute joy. I was so thankful for him, so thankful for Uni, so thankful for Spirit. I had to bow my head in absolute devotion and love.
I was the last one to be sang to, and after singing to me, Damien returned to the center to join Lila and Scott, and to allow the space to settle. I could feel he was still looking at me, helping me to stay grounded and present. Lila also began looking my way and they both just held the space for me to stay present.
There was a lot of group laughter and sighs of relief from the intense roller-coaster ride we had just been on together. I couldn’t help but laugh at times too, especially from hearing the giggles of others, but I just kept bringing my focus back, as this is what I was learning to do. I sat there with so much love for existence, ready to learn, grateful that I had arrived fully here and now.
The ceremony closed and for an hour or so I just sat there letting it all settle in and integrate. What an incredible night.
So much happens in a ceremony it is difficult to put into words. The words seem so insufficient. After drinking the medicine, I sat in meditation awaiting the effects to come on. I began to feel very soft, gentle, and tender. Then, a deep sadness came over me. I wasn’t sure exactly where it was from, but it felt like it was from a time in my childhood, a time when I felt left out, isolated, or alone.
At first I didn’t want to feel it, I wanted to just feel good, but then I just sat with it and let myself feel it deeply. I used to suppress feelings of sadness, anger, isolation, etc. but in this moment, they came up and I just sat with them. I didn’t try to get rid of them, instead I just tried feeling them fully.
Lila sang to me first. She sang very sweetly to help me feel this sadness even deeper. I am very grateful for her. After she sang I just kept sitting. People were vomiting and the energy was intense, but I just kept sitting, kept feeling everything. There is so much value in not running from what is present, but just sitting with it, and being with it. I felt so much care for myself and for all life. My heart felt soft for the suffering that comes with life.
As I sat there, I began to have a vision and a vivid sensation of plants growing out of me. My body was like soil, and I just compassionately allowed the plants to grow. Whatever came up I reminded myself to just sit there and let it be, let myself feel it. At times it got really uncomfortable and intense.
At one point I felt like my skin was crawling with ants (which it might have been as there were plenty that snuck into the Maloka), and my hair felt like it was rough like a thousand miniature spikes. It was so uncomfortable, but instead of losing my mind and screaming (which felt like a valid option), I just sat with the discomfort. I know all things are impermanent, so I sat with the pain and just let it be. This taught me so much about patience.
Eventually Damien came to sing to me. I sat up and felt ready to learn once again. In my mind I was saying “please teach me, I am ready to learn.” But the medicine was so strong it was hard to keep myself together. He sang to me and I felt like he was showing me the way—to what I am not exactly sure.
I began to feel the sadness again. I could feel it in my gut. He kept singing lower and lower, guiding me deeper into myself with his voice. I felt the sadness and for some reason I began to nearly cry and just remember repeating to myself, “I know nothing. I know nothing.” Once I got to that point he stopped, and I just sat in that feeling. Really, I don’t know anything. I can pretend that I do. I have learned a lot of concepts, I have experienced a lot of things, I have gained a lot of insights, but in the face of the Great Mystery that is life, I am but a humble student.
In Zen, they say that the true master is a beginner in every moment. Every moment is new. How do we meet this new moment? How do we show up each day? How do we face life day by day? Again, I was reminded of the importance of caring for my body so that it can care for me. I am so thankful for all that the body does. Truly health is the greatest wealth.
People were throwing up, laughing, crying, etc. and I just stayed centered in myself and focused on my own experience. When I do this I feel very grounded and aligned. I am amazed by Lila’s singing, she can so gracefully move energies, tones, tempos, etc. Both the maestros know so well how to work with the energy. It is an incredible thing to witness.
The night felt like it went on forever. At times it was very unpleasant, but I just patiently sat with it. I remember seeing many visions. I saw mandalas. I saw eyes everywhere. I saw spirits. It was incredible. After the ceremony I went outside and stood barefoot, looking up at the stars. Connected to the sky above, and the Earth below. I learn so much from this sacred medicine.
The 4th ceremony was incredible. It really helped me ground and integrate the Truths that I had been learning. I kept repeating “help me stabilize in my Buddha-Nature.” Buddha-Nature is just another name for that spacious, ever present awareness that is at the source of our mind. I wanted to gain more stability in this spacious and present awareness, free from all of the thoughts that pass through it.
Whatever happened, I just kept coming back to this present awareness. At times the experience was very uncomfortable, as there are just so many sensations that flood into the experience, many of which are sensations of the medicine moving through the digestive system.
I got through every discomfort and I realized something very empowering. I realized that while things may be challenging at times, there is not a single thing that I cannot handle, and there is no need to worry about anything that happens in life, as whatever comes, I will gladly meet it in that moment and move through it.
There was one point in the ceremony where my toes felt like growing tree roots, and my feet began rooting into the earth. It was intense but felt amazing as I felt so connected to the earth. So many bizarre visions and experiences—really anything can happen in these ceremonies.
There was a moment when I went outside to look at the jungle, and I was just in awe. I could see the stars through the canopy, and I was so amazed by what a beautiful environment I was in. Earth is so sacred, and I am so thankful for her and all she does for her ungrateful children.
I had another vision that I was a monk, and I had renounced everything just to devote myself to the Dharma (Truth). This was an interesting but powerful vision. I felt so unbelievably connected to the Dharma, to the Truth, to the Spirit that is here and now. I just rested in this connection, felt it, embraced it, and dissolved into it like a grain of salt dissolving into the ocean. I sat in meditation and this feeling of pure being, pure connection, thoughtless awareness, for who knows how long. I felt complete. There was no need for anything else but to just rest in the contentment of being. The Spirit is always present, always here and now, and I am always that. Only thoughts can distract me from this truth. I just resided in this feeling for the majority of the ceremony. Thankful for everything.
It’s funny; after writing out my experiences, I really don’t feel like the words have done any justice in explaining what happened. To some I might even sound a bit crazy. But it was all very real to me, and every ceremony was so unbelievably transforming. Truly the experiences were something very personal, and I guess they are meant to stay that way.
For those who are interested in ayahuasca, I must say that it is not for everyone. It can be extremely uncomfortable at times. While it is among the most beautiful things I have ever done, it is by far the most challenging. It is really hard work. You have to face parts of yourself that you haven’t been willing to face. You are put in incredibly difficult situations that test your mind and test your spirit.
It can also be dangerous if it is done with the wrong people, or if it is mixed with foods or substances that conflict with the medicine. There are a lot of people doing a lot of good with ayahuasca, but there are also people abusing it and using it in ways that can be harmful, even fatal. If you do it, use discernment. Do it with someone you can trust. I can recommend the Temple of the Way of Light from my personal experience. They were very professional, and I felt very well cared for.
Ayahuasca is a beautiful medicine, and for those brave enough to sit with it, the benefits are beyond the ability of words to describe. I have so much respect for ayahuasca, for the shipibo people, for the people facilitating this work, and for the people willing to partake in it. I am forever grateful for my experiences, and I will carry the spirit of Uni with me everywhere that I go.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.