The following is excerpted from Ayahuasca Medicine: The Shamanic World of Amazonian Sacred Plant Healing published by Inner Traditions and posted here with permission.
After I had studied with Don Juan for a year and a half, he decided it was time to present me with my initiation as a curandero. At the time I really didn’t understand the significance of this. He explained that the ceremony and the medicines would be under my control. I would be entirely responsible for procuring the vine, chacruna, and datura, and for blessing the plants with the appropriate icaros, cooking the medicine, and determining the dosage for each person. To undergo this initiation I had to strictly follow the required diet: no salt, no sugar, no oils, and abstinence from sex. This wouldn’t be that difficult for me as I hadn’t added salt or sugar to my food for over twenty years. Oil was a rarity also, so I wouldn’t miss this. And sex? I usually found this to be the most difficult, but as this was part of the standard diet for learning ayahuasca anyway I had been somewhat maintaining this regimen since I began my studies, although not always in the strictest sense. I followed this diet for thirty days, and we prepared for the evening of my initiation.
I chopped the vine Don Juan himself had planted several years ago on the small plot of land behind his house, and I blessed the mapacho cigarettes used to soplar, blow on, the vine and the ayahuasca as it was cooking. I sang the icaros he used when he cut his vine, hoping that although they were songs taught to me by Don Juan there would be some power within them for me as well. As I pounded the vine in preparation for its cooking, I also sang the icaro Don Juan had suggested, giving it a blessing that the energies released would be of the Light. Don Juan had explained, “This cooking is a very important event in the life of a curandero. It is time to determine what sort of strength you will have as a healer. The stronger the medicine, the more powerful will be the curandero.”
As I put the ayahuasca vine, chacruna, and datura into the pot, I prayed for the possibility of activating a strong medicine and that the spirits of the plants would come through. The anticipation of the medicine’s effects for this night was constantly on my mind. If I cooked all day and we drank with little effect, I would feel my studies had been in vain. But I had added what I had thought to be the correct amount of chacruna to an amount of ayahuasca vine needed to make ten doses. I had sung the icaros with the correct intent, from my soul, I believed. And even as I continued to stir the pot and hum various icaros, I maintained a state of mind conducive to a beautiful and powerful experience upon drinking the brew. I invited two friends in Iquitos to join me, as this was a special night and I had a very positive feeling that the ayahuasca was going to be as I wanted. This was the first ritual in which I would be in charge. Everyone knew it, and all were hoping it would be a success.
Don Juan and I entered the ritual with small white cloths on top of our heads. We seldom use these, but this night there was only a sliver of moon. The white cloths help the spirits called to understand whom they would be working with. Initially, I sat on Don Juan’s right-hand side, the space reserved for me, the apprentice. Although the ritual was under my control, it was still Don Juan who held the position of ultimate authority. I handed a cup of ayahuasca to each person, determining what quantity to pour. This is mostly an intuitive process, watching closely as each person rises from his or her chair and walks up before me. I also use the body weight factor to determine the dose, as this plays an important role in the effects of the ayahuasca. In general, the more a person weighs, the larger the dose. There are those, however, that have a type of spirit that is much more affected by the medicine. All of these factors must be taken into account, but as I said, the intuitive process holds the most weight.
My friends Jim and Marilyn, who were visitors to the country, were the last two to drink. Don Juan and I had previously blessed the medicine, and I had sopla’ed the cup with mapacho smoke. I continued blowing smoke under my shirt and into my hands, waving the smoke up onto my face and over my head, another method for giving protection and blessings. I informed the guests the ayahuasca needed to remain in their system a minimum of twenty minutes, and the longer you could avoid throwing up the more the medicine would work its way into your system.
I explained, “When you need to go outside for purging, it would be best to take a mapacho cigarette; regardless of whether you smoke or not, the smoke will act as a veil of protection for you. Evil spirits do not like tobacco smoke. Besides, it’s dark, and they make good flashlights when you puff on them. If you have, at any time, questions about things you see, please ask me. If any spirits present themselves to you, don’t be afraid. Ask the spirits what their names are and why they are here.”
After we began to feel the effects of the ayahuasca, I blew out the candles and began whistling icaros used to enhance the medicine’s effects. As I began feeling more comfortable, I sang other icaros, but not those used to call in the doctors for specific healing. I sang the icaros of blessing and good fortune. The ayahuasca began moving from my feet upward through my legs and into my chest. I could feel it cruising through my body, working its way toward my head. As it neared my ears, the rushing sounds became so loud I could hear no other outside sound for perhaps five minutes. When this passed I began to “see.”
Don Juan called the invitees to present themselves, one at a time, in front of him for a blessing after returning from purging outside. I watched as each person had a difficult time walking to him. The ayahuasca was quite strong. As he began the blessings I moved across the room to sit near the door, preventing any unwanted spirits from entering our space.
Don Juan sang a specific icaro for each person, sweeping the shacapa over their body and head, “dusting off” their spirit, cleaning their aura, removing negative energies that may have attached themselves there as a result of living in an industrialized First World. He called for Marilyn, but she had difficulty walking over to him because of the strength of the ayahuasca. I rose and helped place her on the small stool in front of him, then returned to my guardian position near the door. While he was singing an icaro for her, a spirit walked through the wall beside him and continued across the room to stand directly in front of me. I looked it over but most of my concentration and my concern was focused on Marilyn. I looked again at the spirit. It was a man about six feet tall wearing a long, dark, charcoal-colored robe, with a curly black beard interlaced with streaks of silver.
The spirit said, “You wanted to talk to me?” in a heavily Jewish accent.
I had not called this spirit; I had not even been thinking about asking questions of a spirit. My focus was on the present and whether the guests were comfortable, as the ayahuasca was stronger than usual. I looked at Marilyn being enchanted by the blessings of Don Juan and then back to this spirit dressed in a long black robe. I then did what I had previously told my friends absolutely not to do: I did not ask for the name or why the spirit had come. I stupidly looked at this uninvited dark image and whispered, “Vaya,” go away.
The spirit nodded, then said, “Okay.” It turned around and disappeared, walking through the wall on the opposite side of the room. No other spirits appeared to me that evening, and I spent the rest of the night helping those needing assistance as they went outside of the ritual hut for air to purge, or finally, to retire to their tent to sleep. The ayahuasca had been very powerful and the ritual had been a success. I, too, retired to my mattress and mosquito net and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. In the morning those who had come to drink with us returned to their homes and to the city’s hostels and hotels.
I sat with Don Juan drinking our morning glass of water with lemon juice and garlic, our customary beverage following an ayahuasca ritual. It washes your liver and kidneys of any grainy residues left there by the medicine. Nothing else is to be consumed until noon. Not eating before noon was to allow the full medicinal effects of the ayahuasca to take hold in your body, getting the full amount of healing possible from the medicine. As I sat there with Don Juan he asked me how I thought it went last night.
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