I had a life I loved in Austin, Texas – a strong and like-minded community, a beautiful new apartment within walking distance of my favorite yoga studio and morning butter coffee shop, a loving partner who had very recently become my husband, and days filled with daily bike rides in the Texas sunshine.
But there was something that pulled at me. I couldn’t name it, I couldn’t identify it, but there was a nagging feeling of incompleteness.
There were no manipulative boyfriends of the past, I had healed my relationship with food after delving deeply into the world of holistic nutrition, and I had the finances necessary to go out to nice dinner with friends and take vacations. Did I have anything to complain about, anything that I was lacking? No, but there was a void, an emptiness, something I was still seeking. I struggled with feeling guilty for wanting more, for not signing on the dotted line for a mortgage and 2.5 kids, and moving forward in wedded bliss from this point forward.
But the pull was strong and the desire for more vibrated through my being every night when I lay my head down. It wasn’t more things I desired – not a bigger home, a fancier car, and fatter wallet – the things I was seeking could only be felt. I was seeking freedom from the daily judgments, of myself and others, I was seeking an ease of which to move through life – not for there to be no problems in my life, but a greater capacity of grace to rise up to meet them.
I had heard enough times, “life’s a bitch and then you die,” or “don’t expect life to be rainbows and butterflies.” But was it true? It is possible to not just show a vibrant, loving, inspired life on Instagram, but to truly experience it daily? Especially when the going DOES get tough? To stay centered and peaceful in family disputes, when I feel pain, when I hurt, when I want to hide. Is it possible to live with grace and sweetness…even then? This was my work.
So, after months of back and forth decision, Ross & I decided to head out into the unknown with a one-way flight….anywhere. We packed up our apartment, sold everything that didn’t fit in our backpack, dropped the car off at Ross’s moms house, our dog Maddie off at my parents in NY, and we headed out. In search of something that we weren’t quite sure what it was. Freedom, perhaps.
We spent 12 months adventuring across the world – Portugal, Italy, Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand, and wrapping back around to land of the west on the west coast of Canada.
Back in the western world, in a cozy AirBNB in the mountains of the Kootenays in British Columbia, we were sitting on the couch one night after watching an episode of “Friends” and we both had the same look in our eyes – “now what?” Do we go back to our lives in Austin? Do we keep traveling? What happens now, we both said, almost simultaneously.
The interesting thing was that my pressing curiosity of the lingering void was still there. Eating pizza on a cobblestone street in Rome didn’t fill it, praying on my knees, head down, heart open to a 20 foot golden Buddha in Thailand didn’t heal it, all the raw food I ate and learned to make in Australia didn’t make me forget it, and the nature of New Zealand only gave me the space to remember why this journey had begun in the first place.
Not coincidently so (I am sure) that night, while scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post by Shiva Rea, a yoga teacher whose work I follow and admire, about a new documentary called the Reality of Truth.
Plant medicine….meditation….ancient and indigenous modalities….universal consciousness….Ross and I watched it with an intense curiosity and after the film was over, both of us were a “yes.” Peru called.
They say that ayahuasca and plant medicine calls to you. I had heard of it a few years back but at the time still had too much fear around diving into myself, my mind, and my consciousness so deeply. But with the freedom and space the past year had opened for me, I still had fear, but a bit less. I felt ready, we felt ready.
For 3 days, hours upon hours, we researched where to do the ayahuasca ceremony. Could you simply just show up and find someone to guide you? Was there a certain part of Peru you had to go to? How long does it take? How do we ensure we have an authentic experience? And most importantly, “will it work?”
Here’s what our research revealed – the most authentic shamans in Peru hold the ayahuasca ceremonies in Iquitos, the Amazon jungle, that can only be reached by a 4 -5 day boat ride or plane ride from Lima. We read over several retreat websites and chose Gaia Tree for their focus on the healing component of the plant medicine, including 1-on-1 work with the shamans, meditation, and Kundalini tantra to prepare for the 5 ayahuasca ceremonies we would take part in over the 9 day 8 night retreat.
Upon registering, $990 each including 5 ceremonies, housing, food, and optional Kambo (frog medicine) ceremony, we were asked to send in our intentions for the retreat:
My intention in coming to the retreat and working with ayahuasca is to learn about how to move through life in a state of bliss and awareness. Not that problems will not arise, but that I will have a greater capacity of grace to meet them. I hope to look back at my life to receive insights as to how and why I am who I am today and clear any blockages that prevent me from living to my greatest potential. I hope to connect with the divine in a powerful and meaningful way to gain insight on what I am meant to do with this life and where to focus my energy.
My intention is to expand my mind and re-connect with spirit. I feel that I’ve lost touch with the multi dimensionality of the universe and I want to be able to access that and live within it on a daily basis.
Here, an intimate insight into my (and our) ayahuasca retreat experience.
At 7pm we arrived in the pavilion to prepare before the shamans entered. Marco and Cecilia, our two facilitators, provided some tips – try to sit up for as long as you can, come back to your breath, knock on the wood or call our name if you need help, don’t wander into the jungle, use the bucket beside you for purging. We start with the person to the right of the two shamans, and I was third in line. One by one we knelt before the shamans and with a quick gulp drank up the ayahuasca. Repeating in my head was the mantra, “help me heal what needs healed and see what needs seen.” It tasted like a thick tobacco smoothie – nothing enjoyable about it. After it was down, I thought to myself, “I will never drink that again.” That proves to be untrue.
Cecilia and Marco recommended we keep in down for at least 15 – 20 minutes to allow the medicine to work. Just about 15 minutes in, Maryrose, who drank first purges, then Nick beside me, then me. It hurts. The putrid taste that I disliked so much just 15 minutes earlier is now in my mouth again. But thankfully, I feel better. My stomach is settled and I lay down to begin the journey. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t have an experience this first night, because not having an experience in and of itself is an experience, but it was a lot of nothing-ness. I dazed in and out of sleep, aware of the sounds of the jungle around me, and the sounds of the 11 other people in my group.
I remember feeling love. An overwhelming feeling of love for my husband, my partner, my confidant and best friend Ross, who was giggling outloud across from me. I felt sold in this experience – that this is what tonight is meant to be. Not too intense. One participant explained it perfectly, she said that the medicine was getting to know her; flowing through all of the nooks and cranies of her body learning who she was and what she needed. Day 1 was a day to meet and greet grandmother ayahuasca. To say, “hello,” welcome her in, and begin to form a friendship.
Coming into this evening I felt ready, prepared, and open for movement. Something deeper than the first night. My intention, “show me where I’m meant to be moving forward.” Do we move to Costa Rica, start a family, and if so, where, do we resume life in Austin, teach English abroad. Can you show me where I’m meant to be?”
The session begins, I’m 6th in line to drink this time and I’m able to keep it down for longer. I’m sitting up straight in meditation gazing at the candle in front of me. To keep my mind off of purging to allow the medicine to work more effectively in my body I can only repeat, “I am now meditating.” Over and over.
About 30 minutes in I release into the bucket, cover myself with a blanket, and lay back on the mattress. I see a very faint outline of kaleidoscope colors. I strain to see more, to make the image more visual but it seems so far away. I let it go. An hour in and nothing. The same as last night. And then I slip into a state of simplicity. I feel that this, whatever is it, is exactly the experience I’m meant to be having. That perhaps, the entire purpose of me coming here was to see that I already have all of the answers, that I am already complete.
I switch from being frustrated to grateful. I think of this life, that I have created, something that was my pipe dream life only a few years ago. And I feel that starting a family, continuing to grow and create this life with Ross by my side is truly what it’s all about. That is doesn’t matter where we are, or even what we are doing there, but we’re together and living a life of love.
I feel settled in the jungle, wrapped in nature. I can live anywhere but it must be connected to the essence of nature; vibrant, vital, alive. A home with land, sun shining, veggies from the garden, the sounds of paws and tiny feet across the wood floor. That’s the feeling Day 2 gave me.
By 6:45am I can hear the stirring of everyone outside my hut window. This morning was the optional Kambo (affiliate link) ceremony and a buzz of excitement, nerves, and curiosity permeated the area. Victor, the owner of Gaia Tree, native to Brazil, and true man of the jungle began to set the area. Two yoga mats side by side to sit on, a bucket of water if the body heat rises too quickly and someone needs to be cooled down, and a large canister of water.
Kambo (affiliate link) is frog medicine that comes from the poisonous secretions of frogs in the Amazon jungle. It only lasts 20 – 30 minutes but it is used as a physical cleansing. To begin, I must drink 2 liters of water. Victor then makes three smalls burns on my upper left arm and applies the poison to my arm. It works immediately, within 15 seconds. Ross and I were in the second group to go and after application I felt my face flush with heat, I purged, water and bile, and then passed out flat. Victor came with the bucket of water to wake me up, pouring it on the crown of my head until I take a deep breath coming back to this physical world. I feel like I am dying (apparently this means it’s working correctly). Within 10 minutes the sensations already begin to dissipate and I hop in the shower to refresh. Upon emerging, my vision is clearer, the sun seems to be shining a bit brighter, and everything around me is crisp, clear, and clean. The sky is a radiant and deep blue and the clouds look painted on a backdrop. The medicine has worked it magic.
Day 3 ayahuasca ceremony. I’m seated on the other side of the room tonight, across from where I have been the past two nights; a new area to explore. After doing the Kambo this morning Victor explained that our ayahuasca ceremony could be affected in a few ways: deeper visions, less purging, or a session more focused on cleansing. Before drinking the medicine, we begin with a meditation. Slow and steady breath moving from our head down to our toes becoming keenly aware of our physical body. After 20 minutes, the shamans enter and the ceremony begins. I am 9th to go and like Victor said, I can keep it down for longer. I lay down on my back and focus on my breath; breathe in, breathe out, I repeat over and over. In between, I repeat my mantra, “Grandmother ayahuasca, help me to have clarity.”
30 – 40 minutes in, I purge. It feels like it comes from deep within, a continued cleansing from the session this morning. I say outloud, “oh my God,” as I purge 3 and 4 times over. The next thing I know, Segundo, the male shaman is singing over me, I sit up, eyes closed. I feel myself become very small and light; like I was paper thin and weighed as much as air. I rock side to side with my hands in prayer at my chest as he chants over me. I feel completely empty, like there is no part of me to cling onto, but full at the same time. It feels like the death of ego; letting go of everything I knew myself to be and starting fresh – a rebirth. He takes my head into his hands and uses his breath to continue to clear my space; to take away anything that does not serve me and create space for something new. I am new. Here, in the Amazon jungle, spirits of the animals and plants surrounding me, shamans singing their prayers over me, I am completely empty but have never been more full in my life.
Bellmira follows with her hauntingly beautiful melody. Tears stream down my face. I noticed I am hunched over and my breathing is shallow. I take a big gulp of breath and just like a dried out flower receiving a drink of water, I flourish. My spine unfurls and seems to grow tall to the ceiling. I notice the connection of breath to personality. Shallow breathing for shallow living and surface level experiences. Deep breathing for a depth of life. The most important part of my personality is how deeply I breathe.
Tonight, I am reborn. As a clear vessel for creation with my breath to take me anywhere I need and want to go.
The days go by slow here. Moments of conversation interspersed with naps and reading in the hammock. The heat makes you move slowly, unsalted potatoes, quinoa, and vegetables make you move slowly, and the medicine makes you move slowly. Without the overwhelming presence of technology, beeping phones and the ding of a new email, we have more time than we know what to do with. We relish in it. Soaking in the never-ending mornings and lazy afternoons, never quite sure what time it is anyway.
Throughout the day I pick up a book that Sarah shared with me, Braiding Sweetgrass (affiliate link); a story about the harmonious union of nature and people. It makes me remember how life is so beautiful in it’s simplicity and perfection. That nature holds the answers and our work is to listen, respect, and co-create alongside with it.
Tonight’s session shook me in a way that seemed unfathomable until it played out before my eyes. I felt sick, more sick that I can ever imagine. 2nd in line to drink tonight, I am closer to the powerful energy of Segundo and Bellmira and 10 minutes in, my experience comes on quickly and intense. I feel like I am spinning on a carousel, bright lights and a myriad of scenes flash before my eyes. My brain can’t keep up with the images and I am overwhelmed, and overcome. The next 4 hours continues this way. Writhing in pain, stomach in knots, spinning, spinning with no active participation on my part. Grandmother ayahuasca is in the drivers seat.
Everything I’m seeing makes no sense but when the session comes to an end I feel completely empty, drained, and utterly exhausted. I try to stand up but the floor is moving beneath my feet. I place my hands on the wood to try and hold myself steady. After a few moments I am able to stand up but my legs are wobbly. I know that I cannot make it back to our hut in the dark alone. I try and find Ross. I walk to the other side of the room where I know we was laying but still feeling the effects of ayahuasca strongly, I cannot make each person out and I don’t know which one he is. I walk back to my seat and quickly whisper to Frank next to me, “I can’t tell which person Ross is.” He points me in his direction and I collapse on the mat with him. He is fully supporting me and my weight as we walk towards our hut. I stop to purge over the railing. I have a massive headache and all I can say is, “what the fuck just happened.” He puts me in bed, gives me a sip of water, places his head against mine to try and remove some of the pulsating pain of my head, and kisses me goodbye. “We’ll figure it out in the morning,” he says.
I describe my experience to the shamans in the morning asking for some insight as to what happened. It was by far the most intense experience I’ve had since being here and I can’t seem to extract any meaning from it. They share that over the past few days I’ve been here that my energy has been heavy with worry. Last night, the flashing colors and scenes were them extracting the worry. They noted that I would feel empty and lethargic today but my space was now clear to move into the last and final ceremony.
Day 5 Final Ceremony
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. – Oscar Wilde
After the intensity of last night’s ceremony, I was unsure as to whether I would drink again tonight. Just thinking about drinking a cup of the tobacco smoothie was making me gag so I could hardly imagine being able to keep it down for more than a few minutes.
However, I didn’t want to leave here with a negative view of ayahuasca given that it had already provided so much value to me in the first few sessions. I decide to drink ¼ cup.
My intention, “Show me how to create Heaven on Earth.” Like the 4th night, I enter the experience quickly and the answer to my question is revealed: relationships. The quality of our relationships is in direct proportion to the quality of one’s life.
I feel an overwhelming gratitude for the service the shamans provide and for the friendships and bonds that have been created over these 8 days. Fully lucid, I sit up in my seat and begin to send each person love: Sarah, Jenny, Liz, Nick, and around the circle I go. I wish that each of them are getting exactly what they need out of the ceremony tonight and say a few words of gratitude for the gifts they have brought to my life.
I think of my family, of Ross’s family, and one by one they flash before my eyes, I send them love. I think of the family Ross and I will create, grateful that I have done and am doing the work to be the best parent I can be.
I think of the soul that will choose us. How they do not belong to us, but to Pachamama, Mother Earth, and I am the conduit through which he or she will be fed and nourished and loved until they are old enough to live out their own destiny and fate. So many of the stories shared are of broken relationships with parents, parents who didn’t have the time, space, or knowledge to get themselves straight before bringing children into the world. That is a gift I can give my child, thanks in part, to this experience in the jungle.
It wasn’t easy. These 8 days were hard work, exhausting, confusing, and so very, very hot, but it was worth it. All of it. My life is changed and I will forever be grateful for the time I spent in the Amazon jungle with Grandmother ayahuasca and 12 friends who became family.
- If you aren’t feeling the effects, drink less not more. I had my most intense experience on ½ cup as opposed to a full cup.
- Come with specific intentions. Know why you are here and what insights you want to leave with.
- Do not have any expectations. I can promise you that your experience will be different that what you think.
- It will all make sense at the end of your last session. Give it until then to make any sweeping conclusions about your experience.
- Lead with an open-heart and know that you will be given exactly what you need, not perhaps, what you want.
- Follow the dieta. You may feel lethargic but it will make sense.
- The more cleansing you can do before and during the ceremonies the better.
- If it gets too intense, you can communicate with the plant. Ask, “please be gentle with me.”