Working with Ayahuasca
Seven days into an ayahuasca retreat in the Peruvian Amazon, I am not liking—no, let’s tell it straight—hating the guy who sits across from me in the circle. Mike’s smugness, his closedness, his know-it-all vibe are driving me crazy. And I know, reluctantly but well enough, that the qualities I am triggered by are actually inside of me. La Medicina has been busy unraveling my tidy self-perceptions this past week, and I am overdue for a round of shadow work.
Meeting your nemesis in the jungles of Peru is just one way ayahuasca might show up for you. A psychoactive plant brew used ritually for centuries by indigenous peoples of the Upper Amazon basin, ayahuasca is known for its ability to instigate profoundly transformational insights and release trauma, emotional blocks and toxins. It’s a complex and potent healing agent, not just a chemical potion but a powerful sacred medicine, a sentient plant spirit that works in sync with the Self—the Big ‘S’ Self—to catalyse healing and growth at all levels.
While I have come to Peru to experience the work of indigenous Shipibo healers famed for their mastery of ayahuasca, this is not my first experience. I’ve been working with ayahuasca for several years, finding great value in the insights and instructions I’ve received. Bottom line, I’ve found, you learn about yourself most of all. Especially the things you don’t want to see.
So that afternoon, swinging in a hammock beneath the soaring bamboo-latticed ceiling of the ceremonial maloka, I list four qualities I really don’t like in Mike, then begin to unpack this projection. What are the origins of this dislike? How did I learn these qualities were bad? What key figures from my past show up in the script? It’s an exercise from my grad-school training as a therapist that has served me well over the years.
The shadow work shows me where I need to go. What I’ve pasted onto Mike is really my own defensiveness and self-protection. Recognising this helps shape my intention for the evening’s ceremony: Where is my vulnerable heart, and what blocks me from connecting with it? I know my brave heart, the fierce courage that allows me to expose myself openly in relationship. But vulnerability—not so much. Seems like it’s all or nothing inside of me: genuine raw nakedness, or wariness veneered with a distancing charm.
That night we gather in the maloka for the sixth ceremony, 23 of us arrayed in a circle around the group of healers. Over the course of the night they will come to each of us in turn to sing icaros, the eerily beautiful songs of plant spirits the Shipibo invoke in their work with ayahuasca to clear blockages and transform energies in our bodies.
One by one, we drink the dark brew and return to our mats. The medicine begins to rise in my body. I feel a sensation of seductive warmth coiling around my brain as my awareness floats forward, onto a visionary journey to find my vulnerable heart. In an unknown house … behind a closed door … in an unused room … glowing faintly under the bed, I glimpse a faintly pulsing red light. My vulnerable heart is hiding, and I know it is afraid.
Laura, the eldest and to my mind most beautiful of the female healers, is in front of my mat now, singing to me. I sit up to receive her icaro, and immediately the tears come. Inside my chest is a ghostly image of my mother, as gentle and as wounded as the Virgin Mary she prayed to. Ayahuasca is telling me that my vulnerable heart is hers; that it is her. Of course—how could it be any different? My mother was the first love of my life, and I loved her with a baby’s undefended love, strong and pure and open. I bonded with a woman who was not strong enough to hold boundaries, to say No, to respect her own needs. I took in all her pain, raw and unfiltered.
She suffered so much in her life. And I judged her for that as I grew older; her suffering drained me, and eventually I resented it, built fortifications to separate our shared heart. But right now I am feeling the innocent love that got buried too soon, and crying, crying, crying. Laura embraces me at the end and whispers a reassurance in my ear: Si, si. Tienes que dejar atras todas tus penas. Esta bien llorar. “You need to let go of all your sorrows—it’s good to cry.”
The healers work their slow way around the circle, each coming to my mat in turn: Lila’s icaro is poignant and sweet, a different kind of medicine. When Jorge sings, I see a protective father bear, its heavy head nosing through the invisible patterns written in my body. Soi’s song is so beautiful I want him to never stop. He is singing close to me tonight, intimate, the scent of violets and civet wafting off him, for Soi is an ayahuasquero and a parfumero, a healer who works with natural scents.
I see my father coming into the bedroom where my four-year-old self lies curled up on her side, sleeping. I know what comes next, although I have never witnessed it from a third-person point of view. I watch him reach out and touch me between the legs. I hear the sounds again, incomprehensible to my four-year-old ears, the sounds of a grown man masturbating. I see the utter wrongness of this all, and my heart is breaking. How could you do this? How could you?
It is horrible to see the little girl being violated. She lies there terrified, feigning sleep; she doesn’t know what is happening, but her instinct is to freeze, to lie still and submit. The words come to me: I was a little girl whose father didn’t love her enough not to use her. No judgment here, just the raw truth, and it feels both heartbreaking and liberating. My little-girl love for my father was innocent and pure. But he couldn’t receive, couldn’t reciprocate—couldn’t truly see me. Caught in sexual compulsion, alcoholism, and his own prison of self-loathing, there was no room for him to recognise the reality of my existence.
Lying back under my blanket, I cry, feeling how my heart broke in that moment, feeling the disappointment, the wrongness of it all. I see the childhood photos of me standing slumped and ugly in front of the camera, shame marking me in every single photo. Something is so clearly wrong with this little girl. Soon I am calling to my mother across the years: Something is wrong. Help me.
My stomach twists in knots. Somehow I make my way to the bathroom. Slumped on the toilet, my head spinning, I feel a surge of anger in my gut, this time at my mother, for not protecting me. How could you not see this? And then a sudden flash of knowing: You let this happen. He had her unspoken assent. She let down her guard. Maybe just this once, but it was enough. She is downstairs making breakfast on a Saturday morning; he is upstairs violating me. The anger rises within me, blazing forth clear and clean.
Then, suddenly, in the visceral way ayahuasca has, I am inside my mother’s reality, experiencing everything she felt inside my own body. Terror. Confusion. Feeling trapped, with nowhere to go. It’s 1962. I’m 33 years old, with two small children. I’m a good girl through and through, a woman chronically unable to say ‘No’ to anyone in any way. And I am a devout Catholic. I feel the weight of this marriage, the impossibility of exit. Divorce is unfathomable. My husband may be an alcoholic; he may be a molester; but I am with him for life, because this is the way my world is made. The only possible thing I can do is to dissociate—to simply not see his volatility, his abuse of me, and of our daughter. A lightning bolt of realization illuminates my body. She had no choice.
Seeing this all in the bathroom, a lifetime of unconscious pain uncoiling in five minutes, I cry and cry, the tears soaking my shirt. Finally I stumble back into the maloka, back to the refuge of my mat, where I lie again beneath my blanket, and cry more, cry hard, for all of us. For my mother, trapped and alone, not knowing what to do, unable to protect her, or me. For my father, driven by forces within that he himself hated and could not see. For the brokenhearted little four-year-old girl, who loved her daddy with her whole heart, and longed for nothing more then to have him love her back.
Ayahuasca has the power to illuminate and heal generations of darkness and shame. I have come to understand that both my parents were sexually molested—my father as an infant, my mother as a young girl. Neither of them knew it consciously, but it shaped them all the same. My mother became a chronic victim, my father a perpetrator, at least in his alcoholic 30s. And I received the imprint of them both, part of a twisted lineage that somehow, with the help of this plant medicine, I am finally seeing. And untangling.
An image arises of my family: talking heads perched atop emotional turmoil, resolutely avoiding the truth. I see how we all stuffed down our feelings, how we had to. If any one of us had spoken the truth, the whole thing would have blown up. This is what I do still in social situations—talk, while sitting uneasily atop my feelings, ignoring them. I am afraid to be vulnerable. And now I see the root causes of this patterning, the original imprint.
My vulnerable heart was broken at the age of four. I put away the pieces, hiding them so well I lost track of them myself. By the time I was five, I’d decided that it wasn’t a good thing to be a girl. So I did my best to be a boy, playing football at recess; priding myself on my toughness, my independence, my ability to climb trees and throw a baseball. My aversion to dolls and frilly dresses became a family joke. And I escaped into reading, devouring the Encyclopedia Britannica in the basement, the stacks of Reader’s Digests on my grandmother’s sun porch, the AA literature my father started bringing home. Intellect was my fortress and my protection. In the Kingdom of the Mind, I felt competent and secure.
The whole next day I feel blue, sensing the ache of vulnerability long packed away. In the afternoon I lie down to read, and unexpectedly fall asleep. When I wake it is pitch-dark in my tambo, and the clock says 6:40. I lie there, trying to orient myself. It must be morning—but what happened in ceremony last night? I scour my mind for memories, but it is alarmingly empty. Finally I realize it’s 6:40 pm, and the night’s ceremony starts in twenty minutes. For the past three hours I have been in a state of sleep so deep I did not move, so profound I did not dream. I feel as though my system has been shut down and rebooted, like a reset button has been pressed deep within my brain.
I make my way to the maloka for our final ceremony, the seventh in nine days. My intention for this evening is simple: ‘My Vulnerable Heart, Part II.’ Where is my vulnerability now, and how can I access it in my life? I down a shot glass of the vile-tasting liquid, anticipating another night of tears and pain. Whatever it takes to clear this, I’m in.
The journey starts, and this time, very early on, I see my heart — right here inside of me, a luminous white disc installed behind my sternum. I don’t know how to use this kind of heart, I think. I will need instruction. And the words come clearly: You’ll figure it out. Something, or someone, seems confident in my capacity. It is clear that my heart is now within reach. No more blockage, I am promised. No more fear. Just vulnerability. And the delicious dance of opening and closing on the path to fear, or to love. My choice.
I watch the quivering of my vulnerable heart, trembling gently inside my chest. The quivering is its responsiveness, and this responsiveness is its beauty, I see, just like the exquisite dance of aspen leaves trembling in the breeze. Like the slender trees outside the maloka receiving the torrential downpours of jungle rain. No need for me to judge that trembling as cowardly. If I had felt all my feelings back then, I would not have survived. But things are different now.
Not many more realizations come this final night, but there are plenty of blessings. The maestros and maestras are working earnestly to seed and seal us as they sing their way around the circle, completing the gifts of the plant spirits. Laura’s icaro to me seems to sing of the blessings of a happy coupled relationship. Interwoven with the song, I hear the message: Your parents loved each other once. Remember that, and leave the rest behind.
Tears come again as images cascade into my vision, photos of them in their early years, where their love is a visible glow surrounding them. This was well before my time—I was born to a couple who seemed to became ever more unhappy over the course of their 63 years together. And yet, still, this love—this is I was born from. Remember this, the voice whispers inside me. Take the best from your parents, and move on.
In the days that follow, I feel as though a massive stone has been lifted from my heart. I realize how so much of my energy, my very self, was caught up in the unhappy enmeshment of my parents’ unconscious relationship. And I remember the clear, strong feeling that rose up within me during one of those ceremonies, that it’s finally safe to be in my body. That it’s okay to feel all my feelings in my body. No more compartmentalization. Just the sense that things could be different, profoundly different, from now on.