“White man’s medicine tastes good and makes you feel better at first… then you get sick again later. Indigenous medicine tastes like shit and makes you feel like shit at first… then you are healed.” - Paraphrase of an unknown indigenous healer
Please Remain Seated When the Pilot Has Illuminated the Fasten Seat Belt Sign...
Drinking Ayahuasca is pretty counterintuitive: It tastes terrible. You will most likely feel nauseous. You will probably throw up. You may have diarrhea. You can lose the sense of the boundaries of your body to varying degrees. Ayahuasca can be a truly overwhelming experience.
What is intuitive to many, is that when committing to this type of healing, you will need help along this sometimes trying journey. This is what the Maestro and their support staff are there to help with. It is so important that one trusts and listens to the Maestro and the support staff during an Ayahuasca retreat. By trusting and listening to the retreat team, one will most likely come to understand the quote above. In addition, while Ayahuasca can be a trying and overwhelming experience, ultimately it can be a rewarding, beautiful and life changing experience.
When we drink Ayahuasca for the first several times it is extremely important that we trust the Maestro, the apprentices and the facilitators. This is important for the healing process and it is also important for others who are on the retreat. It’s no secret that feelings of trust and safety are paramount prerequisites for healing and growth.
As westerners approaching Ayahuasca for the first time, we often apply western linear logic to the Ayahuasca process. We tend to focus on the chemical/scientific (“reductionist”) aspects of Ayahuasca while throwing out the spiritual and shamanic (“holistic”) aspects. This way of thinking often leads us to falsely conclude that we “know” how the medicine works based on the research we have done online or through other sources.
This type of thinking is understandable as we westerners have been conditioned to believe that when we take a drug or pharmaceutical we will have a fairly consistent outcome; i.e., take an aspirin and the headache will go away, or take an antidepressant and feel better. So it makes sense that westerners have a tough time understanding the non-linear, non-logical aspects of the Ayahuasca process.
Given this western conditioning, it’s easy to make errors in applying linear logical thinking to our experience in the midst of the healing process itself. One particular error we encounter often as facilitators is forgetfulness or disregard to the guidance given during the retreat orientation. This is particularly true in regards to negative emotions and thought patterns that can arise into our consciousness as part of the healing process: During the healing process, negative emotions and thought processes will arise such that they can be purged or let go. Those mental/emotional states, as they come to the surface of our consciousness, have the potential to cloud our perspective.
It is important to remember that when negative emotions or thought processes arise we often lose the ability to think clearly (we often refer to this kind of disorientation as being “in the washing machine”). This loss of reference points can manifest in ways such as not listening to or distrusting the very team that one has chosen to provide care during this process. Despite this state of what seems like “extreme illusion,” there is part of our awareness that remains in tact and can observe the entire process. The Maestros and their team are there to help you remain in contact with this part of your consciousness, thereby facilitating the smooth release of these energies that no longer serve.
The whole idea of any retreat, be it an Ayahuasca retreat or otherwise, is to enter a space in which it is safe to look at these negative emotions and thought patterns such that they can be released. Those who are running the retreat are there with the understanding that this will happen and they, the retreat facilitators, should have the tools to help participants through what, in some cases, can be a very difficult and at the same time worthwhile experience. If the experience were all rainbows, puppy dogs and unicorns, there would be little need for the Maestro and the support team.
We can use the analogy of traveling on an airplane when it comes to the role of the Maestros and facilitators during the retreat. The Maestro could be considered the pilot, the apprentice a co-pilot and the facilitators are like flight attendants. A Maestro has trained for years with Ayahuasca and other plant medicines. He knows how to fly the plane. He knows what to do when the plane hits some turbulence. In the context of this analogy, when guests with little or no experience with Ayahuasca question or go against the recommendations of the Maestro, it is akin to a passenger on a plane going into the cockpit and trying to help or take over the flight of the plane. This can be disruptive for the individual’s process, the group’s process, and in some cases it can be downright detrimental to all parties involved. Just like the pilot on a plane, the Maestro essentially has the last word on the “plane” when it comes to medicine work.
Often times the apprentice can be a good source of information and assistance as well. Because they have worked a fair bit of time with the lead Maestro, they know him, they know a significant amount about the medicine and they might be a bit more accessible than the lead Maestro. A good apprentice will only answer questions/take action in areas that the know about and then defer or double check with the lead Maestro if there are any questions remaining. If you experience an apprentice who defers to the Maestro on some issues, this is a good sign as it means that they are careful not to overstep their bounds within the medicine. This is a sign that the apprentice can be a trusted source of information/help as they will take care to only step in where they have the correct knowledge and or experience. An apprentice is a trusted co-pilot for the Maestro. In fact, often what may appear to be an apprentice is actually another younger Maestro.
The Flight Attendants are at Your Service...
Facilitators can range in experience from extremely green to someone who is an apprentice or even a young Maestro who is fulfilling multiple roles at the retreat. In general, the role of facilitator is to be the “first line of action” inside and outside ceremony. During ceremony they check on those who call out for help which may mean that they need help with navigating to the bathroom, providing new purge buckets, cleaning up any mess (spilled or poorly aimed vomit etc.). They can also act as a liaison between guests and the shamanic team during ceremony. Outside of ceremony they often help with coordinating guests, setting up meetings between the Maestro and guests, making sure that guests are comfortable.
Facilitators are often times much more approachable outside of ceremony than apprentices or Maestros as they are generally moving about the camp more, as the shamanic team may be resting or working with guests one on one. Facilitators can be a great source of information as they should have some experience with the medicine and at the same time their initial experiences with the medicine are still fresh in their minds.
Using the plane analogy, flight attendants, while not able to fly a plane, are able to provide a significant amount of information about safety and comfort during the flight. Again, a good facilitator should have discernment about what questions they are qualified to ask and who to go to first with questions they can not address due to lack of experience.
Often times the young Maestros, apprentices or facilitators are translators and cultural bridges between the guests and the Maestro. This is particularly true if a guest does not speak Spanish. Even if a participant does speak Spanish, it is worth noting that there are significant cultural and shamanic nuances that may require a good facilitator to help a guest navigate within the retreat experience and with the shaman. This is why facilitators are key to the process and why it is important to listen to them.
Please Review All Safety Information...
All of the above has been stated with the assumption that one is attending a retreat with a high quality retreat team. It is worth stating that while one needs to listen and trust the team on staff, it’s still important to practice common sense. When I say to trust and listen to the team I am referring to the healing process at hand. The Ayahuasca retreat process is unlike any other healing modality. Some of the seemingly odd things (rare, but not uncommon) that may happen during this process are as follows:
You may feel sick (feeling weak, flu like, headache, fever, upset stomach, etc...) and uncomfortable during ceremony and during the day.
The mind may race and negative emotions like fear, distrust, doubt, anger, frustration, sadness etc... come to the surface both inside and outside ceremony.
All of the above, while somewhat unusual, can be part of the “normal” healing process in Ayahuasca. These are all signs of what is called in the west a “healing crisis”. That is, things get worse before they get better. If one or all of the above happen, it sucks, it is hard, it can be scary and these can be signs of progress. Also, remember that while the process can be rough, it can and most often does transform into a beautiful, miraculous and even fun experience.
If a guest experiences any of the above, they should notify the staff. The staff should be able to explain and help participants through these tough times. The facilitators have seen these issues before and can help guests work through them. The advice is to listen to the retreat team.
In Case of Emergency, please note the location of the emergency exits…
Conversely, one does not need to give their power over to anyone. The only thing to surrender to is the medicine and the Divine (really one and the same). One still needs to follow common sense and keep their wits about them. The following are some “common sense red flags”:
A request by the Maestro that all the guests need to take off their clothes for ceremony. The exception being that in some instances a Maestro needs access to certain body parts to apply healing techniques, salves, or plant baths. This should be done in the presence of others and done in a professional manner much like a doctor would in the west.
A request for additional money without additional work/services. Sure, if a Maestro puts together a special plant remedy for a guest, they should be compensated for that work and materials. However, if there is a request or demand for additional money above the original agreed upon amount, this is questionable at best.
These red flags may seem fairly obvious to most readers. However, this list of examples comes from stories I have heard during my time living in Peru. In fact, these type of stories exist all around the world when it comes to healers and spiritual leaders. Ayahuasca shamans have not cornered the market on this sort of behavior.
Please Enjoy the Flight!
So, to sum it all up, once you have done your research and chosen a high calibre retreat center it is important to remember to listen to the Maestro and his support staff in regards to the Ayahuasca retreat process. Remember that there are some counterintuitive pieces to the healing process, but everything is going to be OK. Things may get a little bumpy, but the crew has everything under control. Just sit back, relax and enjoy your flight on Ayahuasca Air.