Vine of the Soul: 4: The Gift of Being in Service
My first meeting with Ayahuasca is over, and I lay on my mat in the darkened community area, only a flickering candle for light. The shaman closed the ceremony half an hour ago, but I cannot seem to find the strength to get up. It is around 2 am. Most of my fellow Journeyers have gone to the kitchen area to get some food. There is a huge pot of bland but nourishing soup on the old gas stove, and plenty of bread and fruit for dinner. I should be hungry after fasting and emptying myself so thoroughly, but I am disinterested in food.
I drift in and out of awareness, but gently now. Finally, I decide to try standing again. My legs feel like a new born foal’s. This is one experience that I will have every time over the next few years- this feeling of being newly born into my body after a ceremony. Other than that, and the peace and serenity toward the completion of the ceremony, no two visits with the Medicine will ever be alike. Amazing.
I gather myself and weave through the room, detouring around the few remaining people still laying on their mats. I cautiously navigate the stairs and then step outside. The night is warm, velvety and sweet. The mountains squat together in silent silhouette, silver stars adorning their heads. I realize that I have been standing, frozen in wonder, with my mouth agape. I head toward the warm light of the kitchen.
When I arrive at the kitchen, the lights, noise and movement overwhelm me. I cringe back as the wave of sensations flow over me. When I can manage it, I smile and nod at a few people gathered around a bowl of fruit. They return my smile gently and with understanding. These people are my brothers and sisters. We have traveled the Universe together and returned. My previous feelings of exclusion are extinguished- that was just me and my stuff. Still, I am unable to carry on conversation. The questions people ask me, while exceedingly basic, seem unfathomable. I grab a hand full of grapes and head for my little bed by the window.
The Medicine comes for me off and on all night. I continue to have liquid bowel movements all night. I sleep and dream and she tells me little things. She shows me how afraid we feel of our bodies- how out of control. She shows me images of us being in horror as a disease or illness seems to take over our physical bodies. She tells me that we feel out of control of dis-ease because we have forgotten that physical illness is the end point. The issue, she shows me, begins days, months, years- even lifetimes- before it ever shows up in the physical.
I wake up in the morning feeling tired but clean. Remarkably clean- mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically. I spend time taking notes in the quiet of my shared room. My roommates and I smile at each other and exchange morning greetings in low voices. Finally, I get up and begin the day. This is my day of service, and my first task is to change the bedding of those who are leaving today and replace it with fresh bedding for new arrivals. Toward the afternoon I am asked to help neaten and arrange the community area in preparation for the evening’s ceremony. This work is shared by many and is not heavy. I am happy to be quietly helpful.
Evening has arrived and the mats are formed again into a large, neat circle. We smudge and the smoke of Palo Santo wood and White Sage herb fill the room. Flowers are arranged, floors swept. Tonight’s Journeyers begin to arrive. This time, I am seated in the back of the common area and not within the circle. Tonight, I will change purge buckets, fetch water, and offer a steadying arm for those who need to walk about while with the Medicine. Four others are here in the back of the room with me, also in service. I feel pleased and relaxed, ready to serve.
The shaman enters and opens the ceremony in the same way as the previous night. I am quite astonished when, after each member of the circle drinks from the little silver cup, the shaman comes to the back of the room and offers the cup. How did I miss this last night? I feel completely unnerved and unprepared to ingest more Ayahuasca. I smile and shake my head no, but the shaman insists by gently pushing the cup forward. A woman leans over to me and whispers that all people in the room must “be with the medicine” during ceremony. I look into the shaman’s eyes and he nods encouragingly, holding thumb and index fingers close together in the symbol for “just a little”. When I peek into the proffered cup, there is just a tiny bit less than last night. How will I do this???? I tip back the cup…
The shaman can connect with entities that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist, traveled to the Amazonian rain forest and spent several years studying with indigenous shamans. In his book “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” he noted that when a person was physically, spiritually or emotionally ill, the shaman went into the forest to get cures for the patient. When Plotkin asked the shamans how they knew what plants to use, the shaman’s reply typically was that the spirit of the plant gave him the cure. Plotkin believed for some time that this was a metaphor for a cultural reference that he did not understand. However, as the trust between he and the tribal people grew, he was drawn deeper into experiences that proved the shamans initial statement was no metaphor- the shaman literally gained direct guidance for his patients through direct communication with the plants.
Working in partnership with local plants has always been a cornerstone of shamanic practice. Plants are used by all peoples for food, shelter and medicine. Most indigenous spirituality has also included using plants as entheogens- tools of enlightenment and knowledge. Entheogens are natural plants that produce an altered state of consciousness.
Entheogens differ from hallucinogens in that they are not created in a lab by a chemist, but are instead a direct product of nature. The word entheogen comes from the Greek “entheos” and “genesthai” and translates to “generating the divine within”. It seems no surprise that our Western culture that has dismissed the importance of spirituality in everyday life has also dismissed the spiritual possibilities of entheogenic plants.
[Author's Note: My purpose in these writings is to share my personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after great consideration. All people considering this path of exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge and professional background to address after-effects that may arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s) and are not mine.]