Ayahuasca Tourism a la Pisac y Community

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The Sunday market, jam-packed with handwoven scarves, alpaca figurines, crystals, and-if you know where to look-huachuma and willkayopo powders

Pisac is an interesting little town, nestled deep in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It’s about an hour collective ride from Cusco, and a major destination point for the alternative crowd seeking mind-expansion, healing therapies, and communing with like-minded people.

In fact, sacred plant tourism is so popular here that you can find advertisements for ceremonies posted in bathrooms, outside the tiny grocery store, even incorporated into the plastic covering of a few of the moto-taxis that navigate the narrow, cobblestone streets. Everywhere you turn you can see evidence of shamans from varying backgrounds, experience levels, and intentions vying for the tourist’s dollars.

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The view from the upper level of Ulrike’s, a westerner hotspot, with good wifi, papas fritas, and the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted.

I came to Pisac with a different angle than perhaps many of the people I’ve seen roaming about town. The community I stayed in approached the sacred plants in a very different way than how I gathered many of the advertising practitioners do. I saw fliers touting ayahuasca weekends, or wee long packages, where attendees would have three or four ceremonies, sometimes back-to-back, with very little time for processing or integration in between. I heard stories of people being given ayahuasca, then left in a little room while music plays on a stereo. Still others who give the medicine, then fumigate people with noxious smoke in order to induce as much vomiting and physical unease as possible. I think, there, the idea is that it isn’t real medicine if you don’t puke your guts out.

The community I lived at has, from all I’ve gathered, a pretty unique approach. One that I’m not going to pretend and say I agree with completely, or even understand completely, but unique nonetheless.

To begin with, there is a heavy emphasis on service. How can I be of service to the community, to Life, to the medicine? It’s a question that raises a whole host of other questions. Like, what does it mean to serve?

There has been a lot of research done on happiness and belonging, and one thing that nearly every study comes up with is this idea that service is an absolute necessity for true happiness. Feeling like you are giving back, being useful in some way or another, is an underpinning of human health and well-being. We want to feel needed. We want to feel wanted. We want to feel like we are a integrated part of the human web.

So, members of the community engage in service, from everything to cooking to keeping track of bedsheets to creating medicinal plant tinctures.

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Boiling stock for dinner

Another big feature is the emphasis in the collective, and circle consciousness. This is one point that really threw me, which I still don’t really understand or know how to practice. The idea, from what I do get, is this: we are all part of a broader collective, at its largest level being the Universe. On a smaller scale, our collectives expand around us, starting with the couple, then your immediate family, on outwards to encompass your neighborhoods, schools, social groups, cities, states, countries, etc. So, being part of a collective is unavoidable. It’s just built into to existence. (Feeling like you’re part of the collective is a different story altogether.)

Circle consciousness is accepting and embracing the idea of the collective, and then moving your consciousness from the ‘I’ focused out to the ‘us’ focused. An example of this, in practice, is the approach they take to issues like depression, or illness, in the community. An individual who presents with a bout of depression is not depressed in and of themselves, but is rather manifesting a sickness/issue that is present within and arising from the community as a whole (and, by extension, humanity as a whole). As such, there are a lot of heavy discussions within the community, exploring situations up, down, and sideways. This, I think, is not something you will find in many ayahuasca retreat centers, where the emphasis is on the ceremony as opposed to the intentions going into the ceremony, and integrating what came after the ceremony.

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A view of the square from the Blue Llama Cafe

Despite the difficulties I had living in and integrating with the community, this approach strikes me as a far saner method than the majority of the alternatives. Of course, I’m speaking from a pretty limited perspective on the matter, having not explored any of the many, many alternatives available. One thing I’ve learned from my time on this planet is that there are energies among us that deserve respect, and reverence. The sacred plants—ayahuasca, huachuma, marijuana, tobaccos, amanitas, the list goes on—are among those that should be approach with humility and openness. The latter of which I readily admit I lacked during my time at the community.

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The Shape Of Fear

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A pair of lovebirds in Pisac

What is the difference from the fear our mind creates to stop us from pursuing what is good (albeit challenging), and the intuition our hearts give us to avoid something that truly won’t serve us?

It’s a question I’ve been looking at a lot over the last few weeks. Living in this community has given me the opportunity to make myself vulnerable in a lot of ways, including entering into ceremony with ayahuasca and huachuma. I have persistently avoided many of these opportunities. Sitting out on meetings of the members of this community where they talk about whats going on in their lives, traveling to the hot springs for a ‘vacation’ instead of going into ceremony, isolating myself in a dozen different ways so I can keep myself protected.

In many of these cases I’ve made the choices I have out of a lack of trust, and faith. In the case of just talking, it’s a lack of trust that my thoughts and feelings will be valued, or even heard. Or, very closely associated with that, a lack of trust in myself that I will have the courage to say what I mean, and articulate it well. If I do go into these situations, manage to summon up my courage, then manage to say what I mean in the way I mean it, having those thoughts overlooked or scorned would be (it feels) more heartbreaking than keeping them inside.

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Lares, the hot springs I went to instead of entering ceremony

With the case of the ceremonies I sat out of, it was a lack of faith in the medicine, as well as the community. Going into the space of ceremony is a huge step towards vulnerability. It means opening myself up to powers beyond my control, way beyond my scope of understanding, in an effort to connect with them and learn from then. The thing with learning, though, is realizing that what I already know may be false. Sometimes very, life-changingly false.

Brene Brown is a social researcher who has focused her research on shame, guilt, and vulnerability. You’ve probably heard of her, and if you haven’t I highly recommend checking out her TedX talks on YouTube. She emphasizes the importance of vulnerability, and its ability to connect us with ourselves, our loved ones, and the world at large.

“Through my research I’ve found that vulnerability is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the magic sauce.”

I agree with her, in many, many ways. Yet, I find it increasingly difficult to live by this belief, to practice it consistently, when the act of being vulnerable opens me up to so much potential pain. It is difficult to feel invisible. It is far worse to try to be seen, try hard, and feel like I’ve failed.

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A bit desolate, the external mirroring the internal

So, in many cases, I stop trying. There are a few exceptions, a few relationships in which I consistently feel seen. I treasure those, and do what I can to nurture them. And the rest? Well…oftentimes I don’t even give them a chance.

I finally entered into ceremony a few days ago, with ayahuasca, and lived through one of these experiences of trying to put myself out there and getting knocked back. Through the whole ceremony I felt ignored by the medicine, ignored by the sacred fire, and apart from the group. It seems, to me, that it was a clear sign telling me what I’ve felt from the day I arrived: That I don’t belong here. I shouldn’t be here. I have other things I need to do, people I need to meet, places I need to see.

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A tarot reading Steven and I did, not long after we arrived. The question was: What is each of our resistance, and how do we move through it? The answer to moving through? Accepting Divine medicine. I have yet to take the reading much to heart, but…

Is it fear talking? Fear that if I try, again, to put myself in that place of vulnerability that I will once again be knocked down? Or is it my heart, my gut, my instinct, and the Universe telling me something? The two voices sound eerily similar sometimes.

For the time being, I know the choice I need to make: I listen to the voice telling me to leave. Perhaps it comes from a place of fear, perhaps a place of instinct. I low it is colored by the need to establish my own, deeply personal reasons for being or not being here, not just because Steven is here, or Pumpkin is here. I have to know I have made the choice for myself.

If I return, I want to do so coming from a place where I am willing to be vulnerable. What point would there be to come from anywhere else?

Called By the Kirtan

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Jar of sanahas

The rattle of sanahas fills the air with a cleansing sound, like rain on a tin roof, or beads rolling down a water stick. I feel each beat on the space above my skin, where my intimate aura hovers. Every flick of my wrist, or my neighbors, seems to shake loose a bit of the muck that builds up from the egoistic thoughts and imagined slights that pervade my days.

We crowd into benches, surrounding three big tables, creating a sort of temporal circle. In fact, the circle is intact, no matter what shape we take. Threads of Krishna, of God, running through each of us, linking us all like pearls on a necklace.

Around me, eyes are shut in concentration. Brows furrow or clear, in relation to what each person is experiencing. Across the table, one of the family holds a drum. The sanahas slake my aura, while the drum hits right in my heart center, thump-thump-thumping along with my blood.

Weaving through the percussion is the sometimes sweet, sometimes strong, sometimes wavering and reaching tune of the kirtan, the chants. We move through traditional sanskrit chants—those originating from the Vaishnava tradition—into Red Path chants that spring forth from the indigenous tribes of north America, and diving into Spanish, Quecha, and occasionally French chants as well. Voices range from gentle and high to deep and earnest, touching on everything in between. We cover the gamut of pitches, just like we cover the gamut of personalities. In this moment, we have one thing in common: our connection to the chants.

Sometimes that connection is fragmented. Some voices rise high above the others, or lag slightly behind. The sanahas are used with an almost violent thrust, accosting the ears around them with a strident rattle that can be physically painful. At times like these it’s nearly impossible for me to stay centered and focused on the chant. Instead, thoughts run rampant. Why can’t this person chill out? Why isn’t that person listening? Which leaves me wondering: how am I contributing to this chaos?

Then there are those times when everyone in the circle seems joined, pearls perfectly strung along a thread. When this happens, I lose myself in the chants. I am swept away.

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The author, feeling somewhat incredulous

These two sides exemplify so much of what I’ve experienced at this community. The moments when everything flows, I feel part of things, and life is sweet. And those other moments when there is discordance that I feel build up in my chest until I feel like screaming or running away. Or running away screaming.

In kirtan, the weaving is more coherent than not. The rest of the time the opposite is true. If I could just do kirtan all the time…

Alas, life is not like that, and I have to address my feelings that come up when I’m not chanting the holy names. For weeks I’ve been trying to force my way against the feeling of being out of place—as in, I’m not in the RIGHT place—with limited success. It can be argued I haven’t done my best integrating into the family, picking up service. It can be argued that I haven’t tried hard enough. I think, on the outside looking in, that arguments looks valid. But from the inside, from this place of heaviness and disappointment, of anger and discontent, I know I’ve tried. I’ve just been petting the shark in the wrong direction, and all I’ve ended up with is bloody hands.

Multiple times, since I arrived, I ‘made the choice’ to stay here for three ceremonies, or a month, or whatever. Each time it has felt more like a force of will than an acceptance of Life’s plan for me. A few days ago I made a different decision, and immediately felt a lightness and a certain sense of flow come over me.

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Kirtan, action shot

In a little less than a week I will leave the community to travel independently. I need to get out of the mountains. I need a sense of freedom and space I am not finding here. I may return, if at some point I feel in my core that I should. I may not. Either way, this is the right next step for me.

Tomorrow we go to ceremony. It will be the first I’ve entered since arriving nearly a month ago. We met last night to talk about possible intentions for the ceremony and the idea of trust came up a lot. Trust in the circle, in the medicine, in the practice. It resonated. Perhaps the abuela will give me some insight on how to move forward with more tryst in the flow of things, in my instinct, in my heart.

Either way, it will be a night filled with the shake of sanahas and the soaring of our voices, joined together in service to something greater. Will we unify? Will we create confusion? I’m betting a little of both. Life, as it must be, is the delicate interweaving of pleasure and pain, sweet and bitter, harmony and dissonance.

Over the Hills and Through the Woods: Tripping Out With God

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High school me, along with the friend whose screensaver I lost myself in, as well as our hippiest of friends.

I’ve done my share of hallucinogenics.

The first time I took acid I was in high school, and I dosed with my friend Jennifer. I only remember two things clearly from that afternoon: staring at the top of my Starbucks Frapuccino and getting scolded by Jennifer because my attention to that swirl of whipped cream and caramel was definitely outside the realm of normal, and falling into the same dazed space while staring at the Windows screensaver on my friend’s computer.

Jennifer and I made good tripping buddies, for the short time we had together. We made good buddies, full stop, and she inspired me to be creative. That’s a trait I treasure most highly—and find so rarely—in relationships.

Then, post high school, I didn’t dive into my psyche with hallucinogens for a good while.

Well…there was that one night at a Rainbow Gathering, but it was weird and awkward and I’m totally not counting it. Moving on.

It wasn’t until after my divorce, a little over two years ago, that I touched any kind of mind-expanding substance again.

I was talking with a woman at the community here yesterday about her spiritual path, and my own. She asked me if I’d worked with the medicine—specifically Ayahuasca—anywhere other than in the context of the community and it’s programs. I told her I hadn’t, but it had been my experimentation with mushrooms that reintroduced me to God. She laughed, and said that had been her experience, too, although the details differ, of course.

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At the festival where I felt God move through me

It’s a cliche, isn’ it? Take a hit of acid, chew a cap of amanitas, brew some peyote tea, and listen to God.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m a cliche in many ways. I got young—got divorced. I got divorced—went to India to ‘find myself’. I took mushrooms—I got reacquainted with God. Throw in a healthy dose of commitment phobia, crazy cat lady antics, and my yoga and we’ve got a full-blown middle class white girl on our hands.

But I digress.

The whole reason I’m writing about hallucinogenics is because of where I am. This community is focused on working with sacred plants, namely Ayahuasca and Huachuma, in order to develop an expansion of consciousness and a relationship with Great Spirit. There’s more to it than that, but that’s a big part.

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Inspired to creative acts

Unlike my backseat trip in high school, though, there is a very, very solid structure and approach used when taking these particular hallucinogenics. There is a respect for the plant that I was missing when I lost myself in my Frappuccinno. Then, it was fun. This…this is work. There are fun aspects, because life has fun aspects. At it’s core, though, it’s not about escaping from reality, but rather about tapping deeper into reality. The reality being, in this perspective, that we are all spiritual beings put on this material plane for a purpose, and it’s up to us to pull on our boots, and let Spirit guide us down that sometimes rocky, uphill trail of that purpose.

It’s a practice in faith. In surrender. And I’ll be the first to admit I’m not there yet. My hands are tucked in my pockets and I’m eyeing that mountain with a fair bit of mistrust. Because we don’t have to climb. We have a choice in the matter. I’m not sure what I’ll choose next.

What would you choose?