A New Jersey couple’s experience with ayahuasca, the mind-expanding, sacred medicine of the Peruvian rainforest
by Robert Scheer
For Jason Martin and Jyoti Chrystal, the path of self-discovery is an Amazon jungle trail in Peru. This New Jersey couple has made several excursions with Miguel Kavlin. and Sacha Runa Productions to the rainforest camp of Don Agustin Rivas Vazques, a shaman who leads them in ceremonies using the sacred Amazon – death vine,” ayahuasca.
Agustin is the ayahuascaro described by Alberto Villoldo, in the book Island of the Sun, as an old friend whose “kindness and charity have become bywords in Pucallpa, where he practices his shamanic art with a skill and precision that has made him the most important and respected healer of the town.” Agustin now shares his knowledge from a jungle camp near the village of Tamshiyacu, up-river from Iquitos, Peru, during two-week and three-week sessions organized by Miguel.
Jason and Jyoti met Miguel and the rest of their group of eight in Miami, before boarding a direct flight to Iquitos. They arrived in the evening and stayed overnight at a hotel Miguel had booked. The next morning, they met Agustin at the river for a three-hour ride in his open boat up the Amazon to his village. Natives from the village helped carry luggage and supplies on a two-hour trek into the jungle to Agustin’s camp, where they arrived in mid-afternoon. The camp, called Yushin Taita, Father Spirit-Owner of the Jungle, is rustic but comfortable, with accommodation in thatched-roof houses on stilts. The group stayed here for two nights, participating in preparatory rituals, before moving to Agustin’s second camp, which is located even deeper into the jungle.
The first ritual used ojé, a white, latex-based cleansing medicine. Over several hours, they slowly sipped ojé, chased down with about five litres of water to keep the caustic purgative from burning their digestive tract. Jason says, “Dr. Ojé cleared and opened our internal organs in order to prepare to receive the ayahuasca in the ceremonies to follow.”
Later that afternoon the participants spread themselves with juice from a plant called huito. The liquid is transparent when they put it on their bodies, but the next morning, when they woke up, their skin had turned a deep indigo blue. “The effect it has on your consciousness is quite profound,” Jyoti said. “It puts us right in the primitive mind, which is a state of preparation to receive the medicine.”
Everyone’s diet was closely restricted to only very simple foods. “We eat only rice or barley, and fish if it’s available,” Jason said. “We were lucky and it was available when we were there. And plantain and hominy. That’s it, for three meals a day, except we only have breakfast and then we fast all the rest of the day on the days when we’re going to be doing the medicine.” Jason added that the diet “has an extraordinary effect on the consciousness to fine-tune the body-mind connection. It’s a totally bland diet, with no salt or spices.
On the morning of the third day, with their skin dyed blue and their digestive systems cleansed by ojé, the group made another hike, to Agustin’s inner camp, two hours deeper into the jungle, where their work with the medicine would begin.
This was not the first ayahuasca experience for Jyoti and Jason. They have been working with Agustin for ten years. Jyoti was glad there were only eight people in this session. She feels a larger group is less cohesive, less intimate. She and Jason, at 53 and 60, were the oldest people in their group, which also included a young warehouse worker from Detroit, a woman in her mid 30s who was formerly a Navy officer, a musician from California was about 40 and a businessman from Canada who was undergoing his mid-life crisis. Everyone who goes in these groups with Miguel is not a serious seeker of native wisdom. Some are simply curious about the Amazon jungle and, for them, taking ayahuasca is not the most important part of the experience. Besides Jyoti and Jason, only one other member of their group had previously taken the medicine.
“Ayahuasca tastes awful,” Jason said. “It’s probably worse than anything you’ve ever tasted before in your life.” At the first ceremony, Agustin gave them a strong amount. It was about 30 to 40 minutes before it began to take effect. “Usually the first part is very visual and hallucinogenic,” Jason said, “but each experience with ayahuasca is different.”
Not only is it different from person to person, but also each experience an individual has is different. “That is the paradoxical mystery that calls people back,” Jyoti said. “You will never, in taking it hundreds of times, have an experience that’s even similar to a previous experience with it. For some people it can be an extremely physical experience that’s harsh on the body. It symbolizes life in this way, because life can be harsh. If we learn to work with the harshness of the medicine, it can help us deal with the harshness of life.”
Before their first ayahuasca session, the group is told very little about what to expect, because the more people are prepared, the more their experience becomes pre-programmed and un-natural. Instead of trying to influence the experience, Agustin and Miguel believe in leaving the spirit of the medicine free to do whatever work may be needed. Nevertheless, Agustin performs an elaborate ceremony whenever the medicine is used. Jyoti says, “Don Agustin, in his role of ayahuascaro, is a master of shamanic ceremony, and he uses traditional icaros, songs that are given to him directly from the spirit of the medicine. He sings the songs during the ceremony to open the participants’ consciousness. They’re extraordinary, there’s nothing else like them in the world. He also uses different musical instruments which help the participants go deeper into the experience. His musical talent comes from riding the wave of the medicine in the ceremony, it’s quite amazing, with drumming and soul singing as well.”
Ayahuasca ceremonies are done every other day for ten days. They start after darkness has set in, somewhere around 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. Each “journey” lasts from four to six hours. The next morning there is no ayahuasca hangover. “It’s such a healing and cleansing thing on a physical level,” Jason said, “that the next day you feel wonderfully renewed and energetic, although you may be tired because you didn’t get much sleep.”
Following each ceremony, after everyone has had a chance to get some rest, Miguel provides an opportunity for the group to share their experiences with the medicine. It’s done formally, in a circle, using a talking stick. Agustin recommends that they refrain from talking about their experiences until this time. “Don Agustin offers insights and guidance on the experience, which is very helpful,” Jyoti says.
One event common to many ayahuasca sessions is a sensation Jyoti described as The “Voice. “Often what is classically called The Voice will come through in the experience. It’s the Divine Voice, the Higher Voice. Different people have different names for it, but it’s a very clear, true, authentic voice that gives you either insight or information or knowledge about yourself, your life’s challenges or your life history in a very personal way. It’s very direct and very personal. You know that The Voice is meant for you, as opposed to the delusionary voice or the seductive voice.”
Jyoti says an important benefit she has gained from ayahuasca is “the release of a pattern of criticism and a really deeply ingrained defensive pattern coming out of what I had assumed was my critical nature. The medicine has taught me it was really a defensive posture in my psyche that allowed me to stay separate from other people, coming from my fear of intimacy. The medicine very clearly, over the years, has discharged that and help me see that. something happened in a ceremony in which my mind started to criticize, and then instantly the medicine showed me that that was not me, that that was the pattern that I had learned and had taken on but was not me. It showed me how close to my nature that pattern had become, and that I got an opportunity that drove me deep in my heart I started crying when I realized how sabotaging that pattern was.”
Jason offered, “Going down and doing a series of sessions really put me into a place where I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d just done one, and then done another a few months later, etc. There’s something about doing them in the space of eleven days that really makes a huge difference. For me it was coming to an understanding that I have a lot of choice in the direction that the journey goes. In previous sessions the medicine would just take me over and leave me really exhausted and depleted. In the course of the five sessions we did down there, I learned how to maintain the integrity of my own energy field with the medicine, and to be able to choose what my experience might be, rather than having the medicine decide everything. The medicine can choose to be very gentle and even blissful, or it can take you into a hellish experience. Before I had never been able to have any kind of say in that at all. This time I could have a pretty conclusive choice that I could make myself. That is a lesson I could transfer directly into my life, so that I can live that way now.”
Experiences with ayahuasca can sometimes be so severe that users may feel they are witnessing their own death. Jason and Joti said “Every time one ingests it, one is faced with the actual death of certain aspects of the persona and beliefs about oneself. Both of us feel strongly that the conditioned ego, the ego forged on fear, guilt and shame, must go!”
The word ayahuasca is Quechua for vine of the dead or vine of the soul. “You can have some difficult, harsh, horrendous experiences in an ayahuasca ceremony,” Jyoti said, “but you always come out of them. One of her recent experiences included an encounter with a jaguar spirit. “At one point during one of the ceremonies I was confronted with a jaguar. In the Amazonian mythology, the jaguar is a traditional carrier of power. As this jaguar stood right in front of me, I had the experience of being very calm and receptive, knowing what it was presenting to me, knowing that I had a choice in how I wanted to relate to this jaguar. I just sat still and opened my heart and this jaguar came and licked my body all over. In that moment it was a very – my heart was happy and strong and yet I did have tears of gratitude. It was quite a beautiful moment. This jaguar was just licking my body all over from head to toe. Many years ago when I first started the medicine, that would have been very scary for me. Traditionally, in shamanic terms, when a power animal comes to you and you open to it, even if it devours you, that’s a really healthy thing in terms of absorbing that energy.”
Jyoti revealed that her first ayahuasca experience, ten years ago, helped her recover from a serious health problem. “At that time I was bulimic and had been for many years,” she said. “After a couple of hours into my very first ceremony, when I was throwing up, I realized that I was throwing up the pattern of bulimia, and that healed me. That was extraordinary, vomiting my guts out in the middle of the Amazon jungle, when my head had literally been down a toilet bowl for the past fifteen years! I suddenly had an incredible flood of realization that I was vomiting out the pattern itself. Within approximately eleven months, I was healed of bulimia, after years and years of struggle.”
Both Jason and Jyoti wanted to emphasize that the benefits of an ayahuasca ceremony are ongoing. “It’s not over the next day, but it keeps working through your body on cellular level as long as it needs to,” Jyoti said. “And you don’t know when that may be. That’s between you and the universe.”
Jason believes that Agustin and the medicine have given him insights into his life and his relation with himself that would not have been obtainable through any other means. He said, “I could have been in therapy for a thousand years and I wouldn’t have gone one-tenth of the distance I’ve gotten with this work. It’s a way of really knowing yourself and testing yourself. It’s not finished. I plan to continue working with the medicine. When you do this work you’re really putting all the cards on the table. You can’t hide from the medicine. You can’t even run from the medicine. If you come there with a lot of ego or phoniness or self-aggrandizement, the medicine will search it out, and you’re asking for a very rough time.”
Jyoti describes Don Agustin as a very wise and giving person. “He says himself, he says ‘I don’t have very much education in the formal sense and ayahuasca has been my university.’ It’s a real teacher, with absolutely invaluable knowledge.” His knowledge is not reserved for western tourists, either. Local people participated in the ceremonies, taking ayahuasca along with Miguel’s group. “For them it’s a sacrament,” Jyoti said. “They come to learn. They take it to learn as we do, to become more fully our authentic selves. To grow, to progress, to let go of stuff. I’m not aware of any better way to do that. If you want really rapid growth then I don’t know how you could do better than to do this.” Jyoti added that ayahuasca is even given, in minute quantities, to newborn infants within the local community. “It’s my understanding that when a child is born in that tradition, a little bit of ayahuasca is dabbed on a finger and put in the baby’s mouth at the age of maybe one or two months. It’s very healing, not just in a psychological or spiritual sense but it’s also physically very healing. In the Amazon it’s not regarded as something dangerous, but a divine gift from the universe, which it is.”
After the last session with the medicine, one final ceremony is used to break their fast. This is done at sunrise on the last day, and it involves eating salt, lime juice and an extraordinarily hot chili pepper, after which they immediately jump into the water. Shortly after that they have a full breakfast with lots of fresh fruit. After having eaten only bland food for more than a week, the flavors seem magnified to nearly orgasmic proportions.
Having participated in other Amazon ayahuasca groups besides Miguel’s has given Jason a deep appreciation for the tour run by Sacha Runa Productions. “I have complete trust in Miguel.” Jason said. “He’s a very sincere and genuine person who’s really trying to accomplish important, beneficial effects for people and for the planet. He lets people have their own experience. He never infringes his opinions or his advice, which is important in this kind of work. He’s very respectful and unintrusive. It’s worthwhile, as much as you can, to do your homework, and find out in advance who you’re going to be sharing this important aspect of your life with. It’s like making sure you’ll trust the person who’s leading you up Mount Everest. You want to know they know what they’re doing, and you want that person to be genuine, caring and capable. Miguel is all of those things and more.”
Miguel has produced a 60-minute video about Don Agustin Rivas Vazques and the ayahuasca experience, Spirits of the Rainforest (reviewed in the October/November, 1997 Power Trips.) In it Agustin says “ayahuasca has taught me to have respect for life and for others. I’ve always thought that world leaders should try this ayahuasca medicine because it will help change their thoughts and feelings, and will help them create peace in the world. I recommend it so that their summit meetings then, will result in positive agreements. Not to conduct wars or build atomic weapons to destroy the Earth. There are other ways of solving humanity’s problems. Only shamanism can save us.”
Jyoti Chrystal and Jason Martin, Ph.D. operate Starseed, an education center for yoga, shamanism and meditation. You may write to them at Starseed, 211 Glenridge Ave., Montclair, NJ, 07042 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Their website is www.Starseedyoga.com. Miguel A. Kavlin’s website is http://www.sacharuna.com.
About the author:
Robert Scheer is a freelance travel writer, webmaster and editor of NewAgeTravel.com.