There is a phrase very commonly uttered in the English language that goes: “Hindsight is 20/20”. This phrase acknowledges that an apparent wisdom arises once an experience is complete, however, in the moment (depending on the circumstances) can feel like a pointless drudge through a miserable and ambiguous never-ending landscape full of ankle-twisting potholes and lacerating barbed wire. This is exactly how I felt following a series of experiences between January and October 2013 that in the end would have me once again breathing in the high altitude air of the Sacred Valley about to surrender my healing protocol to a highly successful basoon-playing orchestra musician recently transitioned to founder of a healing centre in Pisac, Peru. It is clear today how all the pieces of this magical puzzle fit perfectly together. But, that certainly was not the perspective years earlier as I sat in the Amazon forest outside of Iquitos hunched over a bucket crawling with cockroaches, begging for the traumatizing experience I was undergoing to be over.
Since that day in January when I received the recurrence diagnosis of cancer, aside from immersing myself back into the routine of nutrient packed green smoothies, handfuls of supplements, double-dosing with Juice Plus, drinking all kinds of stomach curdling concoctions, getting regular colonics, and voluntarily offering myself up to the acupuncturist as a human pin cushion, I was fervently researching alternative therapies and healing centres. Some of the most notable for their proclaimed success rates included the Budwig Centre in Spain, the Gerson clinic in Mexico, and various places in Germany. All offered short-term programs but at an extremely lofty price tag. As I had yet to be convinced that any of these were the answer, I chose to do the best I could from home. I had discovered a book and protocol working with the plant - aloe arborescence - which seemed very promising for building my immunity. Another hopeful lead was cannabis oil, albeit a little more challenging to source given the legal status at the time. Of course, the physical component seemed to be the part that took energy, but much less courage to organize. With all that in place, I could no longer avoid what I knew had to come next.
The call to heal emotional wounding and work with ayahuasca was strong. Although that journey in Peru only months earlier had been terribly unpleasant, it was impossible to quiet the voice inside persistently urging me to return to her native homeland for a deeper dive into the subconscious. This time, I was convinced that an “authentic” experience was required that must include a Shipibo shaman amidst the dense and sticky jungle terrain. Given my mammoth aversion to creepy crawlies, it was no small order in June of that year, urging those rubber boots forward along a narrow foot path traversing the 45 minute walk to the rain forest camp known as The Temple of the Way of Light. It was a stark contrast to the ten days of intense dry heat that I had just experienced while detoxing at the Tree of Life Center in Arizona.
There were almost twenty of us who had come together to the Temple for an Ayahuasca Retreat. This was to include seven ceremonies over the course of twelve days. Certainly, not for the faint of heart or for the uber self-conscious. Two of the opening rituals included a cold floral bath, which was more akin to getting a good soaking by an unfamiliar grandmother, and the “Vomitivo” which entailed having to drink herb-infused water from a 4 gallon pail until it caused one to bring back up everything that had just been consumed and then some. Even at that, if the Shipibo elder felt it was not enough, more water had to be consumed followed by more purging. In my case, as I was one of the first to commence the process in my smaller group and one of the last to be complete, I couldn’t help but wonder what the elders felt needed to be cleared from MY system in preparation for the ceremonies that followed!
The first ceremony that night was one not to be forgotten. Although the space had been arranged so symmetrically with a mat and pillow set out for each one of us along the outer edge of the circular maloca and the glow from the candlelight was gently casting soft shadows across the wooden floor creating a sense of sacred ritualism, observing the occasional cockroach popping up from one of the many openings between the boards and scurrying about in an unpredictable fashion, left this insectophobe unable to completely relax and enjoy the ambiance that the nighttime activity of the jungle had to offer. Nor was I too anxious for the candle to go out while in an altered state of consciousness where experiencing one of those cockroaches the size of the maloca was a very likely possibility. Needless to say, it wasn’t the indestructible critters that I remember most from that night.
Perhaps this may not be the case for every Shipibo ceremony, it certainly was so for the ones at the Temple. Unlike my first two experiences with ayahuasca where the hours passed accompanied by the pleasing voices dancing in unison and the gentle notes vibrating from the strings of a classical guitar, the often off-key, high-pitched unfamiliar sound of the Shipibo curandera sitting a foot in front of me, was intensely overwhelming to say the least. As the elders rotated around the circle moving from one participant to another, to each one offering an icaro (or healing song), the intensity could not but be amplified by the fact that all five elders were singing different icaros at the same time!! Head spinning and everything a blur, there came a point where it felt that this seemingly chaotic, nails-on-a-chalkboard extravaganza would take me down a rabbit hole from which I would never emerge. It was terrifying. Somehow, in that moment I also had the capacity to observe what was occurring from a different perspective - the entire scene suddenly became unrelentingly comical and I could’t keep from laughing at the absurdity playing out before me. Gradually, the varying icaros morphed into a shape that moved with a magical flow, weaving resonant medicine through the fabric of my soul. Not only was it possible to feel these medicine songs, I could see what appeared to be varying structures that were broken - much like the ones studied in chemistry class - being put back together. There was not an appreciation then that it was in fact the recalibration of my own internal structure that was the essence of these visions, but that would come.
The days at the Temple were spent basically in quiet personal reflection and solitude aside from the group meals, flower baths followed by drying off together in the sun, and when we came together for sharing circles. The inner journey is certainly one that no other can take with you given that all our experiences are unique to what arises from the depth of our subconscious, but there was a deep comfort in being part of this newly formed community. We were people from many different countries yet were united by one common thread - the unmistakable desire to be free of something. Something that holds us back…that gets in the way of our full expression…that sours our relationships with guilt, regret, projection, and indifference. We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen, and to be cracked open exposing some of our deepest crevices. Although I have not seen anyone from this group since, I feel often a savoury sense of awe and gratitude for each one and for what we endured together.
This past year I came across a cartoon on Facebook that depicted the experience of ayahuasca as being like the cleaning of an old mat by hanging it over a rod and pounding it with mallets. In doing so, you can observe all of the nasty, creepy critters of every variety falling to the ground. Clearly, the artist of that cartoon knew the process of ayahuasca all too well. The ceremonies following the first were saturated with mostly dark and ominous visions of snakes, bugs, and skeletons contrasted by confusing cartoon-like scenarios that made little logical or metaphorical sense. Ceremony five, had me begging after ten hours of unrelenting intensity for the experience to be over. Not only was I absolutely exhausted, I had to get to a bathroom with no capacity to walk or even crawl. Nothing more humbling than coming close to soiling oneself in public. Fortunately, the 45 minute window (or so it felt) offered enough space to pull myself together enough to move myself on hands and knees to the maloka door and down the stairs to the bathrooms outside. There was no mistaking that something was moving, shifting, and integrating, and releasing but in that moment what that was, I had absolutely no idea.
Depleted, confused, and clearly overwhelmed by the experiences, no amount of processing, contemplation, or guidance from the facilitators was offering any solace. Completing the remaining ceremony was out of the question and the thought of returning for the following 12-day retreat (which was already booked and paid for) was unfathomable. In fact, I swore to myself that never again in my life would I drink Ayahuasca. Fortunately, a partial refund was granted along with a sigh of relief at the idea of taking an earlier than scheduled trek back out of the dense jungle and the suffocating memories that had been created there. With two weeks on my hands before returning to Canada, the option that seemed most inviting was to head to Pisac. Of course, Peru is a diverse country with many things to see and do but I had no interest in going anywhere other than this charming Andean town. I had no idea what I would find there and at that time, really didn’t know anyone either. But, as Hindsight is 20/20, the purpose for the perilous path I’d just traversed is now clear. For, it was this trip to Pisac that I connected with the spirit of the Aloe Arborescence plant, and it was on this trip that I came for the first time to hear the name Sananda-Wasi.