Ceremonies of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca ceremonies are generally conducted at night, in the Ceremonial House, although they may also be celebrated out of doors – traditionally, they often take place in the patios, or courtyards of houses in the Shipibo villages – but only when there is no moon, as they must be carried out in darkness.
The songs, or ‘icaros’ of the shaman play an essential role in any ayahuasca ceremony since these melodies enable him to ‘lighten’ his body so that he can be transported to a non-physical dimension.
Apart from the known physical and psychological health benefits of drinking the ayahuasca brew, the ayahuasca ceremony is considered by the indigenous peoples of Amazonia and scientists alike to rebalance and harmonise the energies of the participant with those of his surroundings, natural and social alike. These practices and learnings preserve the techniques of the interpersonal and transcendental integration of the individual, achieving results that far exceed anything envisaged by current (western) medical concepts.
If the ayahuasca brew is prepared without the admixture of chacruna leaves, no visionary effects are induced – the brew simply functions as a curative purge. As such it is probably the fastest, and certainly the safest, weight-loss programme, and cure for obesity.
Consumption of the standard ayahuasca brew prepared, as is usual, with the chacruna leaves, produces different effects depending on the individual, generally, although not necessarily, including vomiting: vomiting serves to purge and cleanse the physical stomach, and helps obese people to lose weight rapidly and safely.
The effects of ayahuasca allow us to enter a cosmic, or non-physical dimension, and to journey in a world unknown to normal people.
It is not always necessary for patients who are being treated by a shaman for physical ailments to drink ayahuasca themselves, although they must observe a rigorous diet and frequent fasting as prescribed by the shaman. The shaman may, at times, require the patient to drink at least a small quantity of the brew: when the patient is in trance, the shaman is able to enter his subconscious and more easily identify the root cause of the illness and with a more accurate diagnosis, prescribe the most appropriate remedies.
Drinking the Ayahuasca Brew and its Effects
Before the ceremony, the shaman will invite each person to explain his or her objectives: it is important for everyone taking part to express their desires and hold them clearly in mind prior to drinking the ayahuasca. In any event, at Ashi Meraya, the shaman (normally Maestro Heberto) will hold a detailed consultation with you – privately, if you wish – at the outset of your retreat, and carry out an in-depth diagnosis, whether your primary goal is to progress on your spiritual journey, or if you are seeking help with a particular health problem. It is vital that the shaman knows your reason for being there, and what you are looking to achieve, so that he can help you in the best possible way. Whether you are seeking a physical cure or drinking ayahuasca as part of a long-term diet; wishing to see visions related to a particular issue in your life – that is, looking for the answer to a specific question – or just wishing to achieve greater spiritual knowledge and learn about the experience of other dimensions in general – the shaman will direct his intentions, and invoke the spirits, accordingly.
When he is satisfied that he has a proper understanding of the needs and wishes of those present, the shaman intones special ceremonial songs to bless the sacred liquid in accordance with individual requirements, inviting each person in turn to drink. The shaman will adjust the dosage to suit each patient, and may offer the choice of a stronger dose once you have had some experience of the ceremonies. After 15 minutes or so, he asks his assistants to put out the candles and the Ceremonial House remains in darkness. Silence is maintained, save for the occasional hoot of an owl and the cries of other night birds; the croaking of frogs and the sporadic chorus of other nocturnal animals.
It is very important during this initial period after ingesting the brew that nobody talks: this is the time for concentration and to hold in mind what you want to achieve from the experience, be it bodily healing or spiritual cleansing, specific answers or an abundance of visions. After another 15 minutes or so, most people start to yawn and to sigh heavily, which is a sign that the ayahuasca is starting to take effect. During this time the shaman smokes copious quantities of mapacho, the sacred jungle tobacco, in a pipe which, amongst other things, has the effect of deepening his trance. Participants are encouraged to smoke mapacho cigarettes (a milder form) and to ‘soplar’ (blow smoke over) their bodies and the surrounding space, which is believed both to attract benevolent spirits and repel bad ones. Smoking, and indeed drinking the ayahuasca, is at all times optional if, on a particular occasion, a guest prefers not to; the Ceremonial House, in common with all the buildings at Ashi Meraya, is very thoroughly ventilated, with mosquito netting comprising a large part of most of the walls and non-smokers are accommodated as far as possible by being seated at the front of the Ceremonial House, which is entirely open to the elements (but protected by the mosquito netting).
Generally within 30 to 45 minutes from the ceremony beginning, the shaman will start singing icaros, the ceremonial songs, the precise timing being determined by the spirits who have presented themselves, or been invoked, by the shaman. Many, many people have described these songs as the most beautiful music they have ever heard. The icaros accentuate the effect of the ayahuasca: very often a distinctive whistling or buzzing is heard, which seems to come either from a point just above the head, or from within the head itself: some studies have associated this sensation with the activation of the pineal gland, or third eye. Mood changes occur which may be dramatic: whilst great joy and elation is the norm for many people, deep sadness, fear, and even anger may be experienced. It may be said with certainty that no two ceremonies are alike, and no two participants will share identical experiences (although it certainly is possible to take part in communal, or shared visions). All powerful emotions that are felt at this stage, be they joyous or unpleasant, are a sign that the ayahuasca is beginning to work its magic. Typically, the body begins to feel weightless and there is a sensation of existing in slow motion. On raising your head, whether your eyes are open or closed, it is normal to see a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured points and lines, and the body continues to fall into a deep trance.
Some people feel an instinctive urge to resist these effects, and this must be avoided. A fearful state of mind is likely to provoke frightening experiences: you must allow yourself to be carried away by these new experiences, and at the same time ask mother ayahuasca to show you an abundance of visions. Of course, it is natural for first-time takers of ayahuasca to be nervous, but most people learn after one or two ceremonies that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of, and so they are able to enjoy more positive experiences. Generally, in ayahuasca visions you will see the spirits of people, animals and other beings, and scenes that may be indescribably intriguing or awesomely beautiful. It is, however, a very personal matter: at different times you may see scenes with startling clarity, or glimpse them as if through a veil; sometimes voices are heard, or teachings received through flashes of intuition.
At Ashi Meraya the shamans sing two types of icaro: general ones aimed at guiding the group as a whole, and specific ones directed to each of the participants in turn. The Institute places great emphasis on the importance of individual attention and personalised treatment: this is a major reason why the results achieved at many other centres are so inferior. Particularly when the maestro stands in front of you and sings to you specifically, you must open your mind and your heart to allow his icaros to fully enter your trance state and allow him to guide you through the different dimensions: thus, your spiritual body rises up with that of the shaman and together you will travel through planes of existence quite unknown to ordinary people.
It is frequently the case that you will vomit at some point during the ceremony (particularly the initial ones, when there is most cleansing to be done) and bowls are provided for everyone present. It quite often happens when the shaman is treating you individually, but there is no need to feel embarrassed! Quite the reverse: it is the maestro’s intention for you to expel negative energies as well as physical toxins, and vomiting is a sure sign that he is succeeding in his work. Vomiting may, naturally, be preceded by feelings of discomfort: these may be quite intense, in which case, the shamans have various techniques to alleviate the suffering. It is equally likely that the need to vomit is felt quite suddenly and unexpectedly, with no prior discomfort. The process of vomiting also seems to intensify the visions.
Vomiting is only a problem if it occurs immediately after ingesting the ayahuasca, which indicates that the patient is not properly prepared, normally as a result of eating or drinking something incompatible with the ayahuasca diet.
The effects of ayahuasca start to subside after about two hours and one’s vision returns to normal. Whilst the shaman’s astonishing healings are set in train whilst the patient is in trance, ayahuasca continues to work in the body in both the short and long term. At the end of the ceremony, perhaps having discovered the root cause of some distress, or really understood for the first time other powerful truths affecting their situation, people experience very special emotions. Very often, people feel full of love and positivity, an increased closeness to those around them and where before they saw problems and worries before, now they see solutions and opportunities. In other words, they feel in excellent humour – sometimes quite literally, becoming quite the comedian and provoking torrents of laughter. Others may feel sadness and the need to spend some time alone, perhaps feeling remorse for being a bad parent or spouse, or for having failed to help someone in need when they could have done. The spirits of ayahuasca continue to work within the psyche, helping the individual to identify and resolve internal conflicts who – providing he or she is able to expel negative thoughts from the mind – will then become a better, more caring person and lead a far less burdensome life, filled with joy and a wonderful inner peace.
We believe that it is advisable not to discuss one´s visions and experiences immediately after the ceremony, but rather to spend some time to absorb and process the teachings of mother ayahuasca. However, the following day a detailed commentary is held with the shaman which may be done as part of a group, or privately, as you wish. The shaman will almost certainly have seen far more, and in far more detail, than the patient, and is able to interpret the visions. He may also have identified episodes in your past, and even the actions of others that you are quite unaware of, which are profoundly affecting your current situation. Likewise he can identify possible future realities, dependent on the choices you make today. These sessions are incredibly valuable, facilitating the action of the ayahuasca psychologically, and also terrifically affirming for those (practically all) of us who, however open-minded, are culturally ill-equipped to accept the spiritual dimension of the ayahuasca experience, and shamanic work in general. To know that your visionary experiences coincide with those of your spiritual guide is to know that what you have seen has an objective reality outside of your mind – however far removed from ‘everyday’ reality.