Navigating Your Ayahuasca Ceremony

“Take the cup”

Navigating Your Ayahuasca Ceremony


Finally, the moment comes: You’ve been in your seat in the maloca for a while, doing your best to be patient; you watch as others arrive and sort out their stuff, set up their space. There’s the bucket; each person has one. The shaman enters… it seems so routine for him… what would that be like? He lights tobacco and blows it into the medicine, and speaks what seem to be prayers; it sounds like he has said them many many times. He’s pouring into the cup; the first person goes up and drinks; you watch as he returns to his seat. One-by-one, each drinks; this is the moment: it’s your turn.

On this inner journey, you are the driver. You don’t have control over the territory, but you do have the capacity to interact. You begin with a time of waiting. After pouring for all present, the shaman has started singing, calling in the spirits on whom he - and you - rely for the deep work of this evening.

You wait. Even in this there is surrender. It takes time for the medicine to be carried to all parts of your body, to begin its cleansing work and its opening to your depths. This is a time to wait actively, presenting your intention, staying focused. The icaros are sung for you; the shaman is calling in his familiar allies... for you. Your paying attention to them is a practice. You can give the music your attention; purposely pick up the rhythm and the beat, let your feet or your fingers carry it gently, aligning your body, your being, with the process that’s being initiated to help you.

Most likely, sometime in the evening you will purge. It could be quite early, or very late. There’s nothing you need to do -- except grab your bucket. Your body is in the game here. This is a place to practice trust; the body knows when to release; meanwhile the medicine is coursing through your cells, cleansing, bringing old stuff back to your gut to be released. This is definitely an area where you can practice surrender. Purging will not necessarily change your inward experience, though it certainly may. Sometimes the purge is a release that signals a shift in the process. It may be pretty unpleasant; then again you may actually delight in the experience of releasing all that old stuff!

At some point you may begin to experience visions, or begin to imagine... Images may come through vision or some other channel. Ayahuasca tea has in common with many other methodologies the capacity to usher us into another realm, another dimension of reality. The leaf in the mixture is usually chacruna. And in Quechua, chaka is “bridge”. “Chaka-runa” is the bridge-spirit, who gives you the means to cross over into the other domain. Having crossed the bridge, you find yourself driving… but under most unfamiliar circumstances! You are in unfamiliar territory, and you’re finding that some of the control you’re used to having is entirely missing. If there’s something you don’t like to see, you may be unable to turn away, or to “close your eyes”. The beings and objects you encounter may be familiar, or entirely undreamed-of, til now. Some are meaningful to you, and others are strange - strange in a most extreme manner. This encountering of images, if it occurs, may be brief or long-lasting, fearsome or delightful. If you are confused, it's not a bad idea to ask, Why am I being shown this?

Come back to the body, and come back to your intention. "Surrender" in this case is not "collapse"; the transformation we surrender to is one in which we are key players! Something like, "This is being presented to me... and I am here with it. ayahuasca is in action here; I am also in action here." Sometimes I'm reminded of the difference between an undergraduate lecture, and a graduate seminar. When you drink ayahuasca, you're not in the audience, you're one of the players.

Every ayahuasca ceremony has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The events of an hour ago come as fleeting memories… (yes, I took the cup; I felt the wood floor against my bare feet as I returned to my seat)… and those events are just as quickly swirled away. But you, the familiar self from that far away familiar universe, that You is still here, having this new experience.. And this is solid ground for you. You can still feel the wood floor against the bottom of your feet; you can still feel your seat on the mat, and still draw in a big deep breath. This is an important skill: for you-as-ego-and-embodied to remain in-relation with the contents of this unfamiliar realm. You are encountering the medicine, the experience just-as-it-is. This encounter requires you to be present, be yourself, this body, showing up. To work with, be in relation with ayahuasca, requires your active, conscious presence.

This brings up a popular misconception about awakening. “Losing the ego” is something of a misnomer. If the ego, the limited self of our everyday life, has got some troubling limitations, we don’t transcend them by banishing that ego; rather, we help ego to grow, expand, incorporate more of our hidden, undeveloped parts. Hence the term: “consciousness-expanding”. Your conscious self - “ego” - can learn to take in more of who you are! And in practice that means that you, the familiar you, stays on the scene, integrating the new experiences. We can support this by reminding: “I’m in my body.” Feet on the floor, seat on the mat, breath flows - in…and out. From that platform, we engage. Compare two notions, "state" and "process". Yes indeed, there's a sense in which the "state" you are in is non-ordinary, or altered. But it is also in motion! There is an ongoing "something happening", a process. You participate in, contribute to, this active process,

One shaman we know is very fond of reminding us that this work is a partnership. “Ayahuasca,” he says, “will put in 50%; you must put in the other 50%.” Having taken the cup, we begin to discover what that will entail. This is a relationship, an interaction. What you bring to the encounter is every bit as important as what ayahuasca or the shaman will bring. This seems evident enough when we phrase it this way, but check inside and notice if there is a part of you just expecting something, a revelation or healing, to come to you, land in you, by virtue of your showing up. And yes, thank you!, you found the money, found the time, overcame all objections and your inner hesitation and you got here! It took all that, and some remarkable karma, to show up. Good, now the next step in what will be a long journey. You step through the veil, and enter the noumenal realm, the realm of the medicine; there is very, very much of the journey still ahead.

If the utterly strange or frightening phenomena you encounter seem unrelated to your life and your intention, then it’s entirely appropriate to ask. “Why am I being shown this?” “How does this serve me?” “Help me to learn from this.” This is where trust comes in. We aren’t passive; we’re in relation to a “spirit”, or an archetypal energy. We have set our intention, and there may be many steps to take before reaching that goal. Layers and layers, perhaps lifetimes, of interweaving events; old traumas, old beliefs, limits, karma. How much will we need to witness and integrate, in order to satisfy the need that brought us to the medicine? That we cannot know. But by engaging, by interacting, by bringing our attention and will into the work, we make the fuller, deeper contact that is “my 50%”.

“Difficult” or even “bad” experiences.
When your ceremony is difficult or uncomfortable, remind yourself: every Ayahausca Ceremony has a beginning, a middle and an end. Things often feel most unfamiliar when we are in the middle of a ceremony; we can be assured that at some point the middle will move towards the end. What we experience in each moment is a small element of a flowing process of change. The amount of cleansing we can receive in just a few hours will more than reward us for the minutes or hours of discomfort we experience.

For example, visions of serpents are quite common during ayahuasca sessions. Many people find them frightening. That is to say, for many of us in this culture, there’s a fear reaction to them. They have also been associated with healing, here shown aiding Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.

In the Amazon of course, they’re also considered healers, as in the painting above by Shipibo ayahuascero and painter, Pablo Amaringo.

Gradually we learn: In this expanded field, there’s a lot of unfamiliar material. I may react to it; that can show my how I’m reactive. It may be scaring me; that can give me clues to my fears.

And that is the fairly simple instruction we come to remember.Ah yes...I’ve drunk Ayahuasca. I’m on a journey AND I’m sitting in this circle, a safe place, and the ceremony has a beginning, a middle and an end. My job is to pay attention, to engage, to feel, to learn. It’s not just happening-to-me. I’m part of this event. Somehow this is a response to my stepping forward.

There's a way in which we've been taught, perhaps because our culture is no longer centered in tribe, in cooperation, that if you want to find peace you have a long lonely journey. Paradoxically the plants invite you to come forth with your deepest longing, your clearest intention... and surrender; surrender and trust unconditionally. Trust actively, not passively, trust out of deep strength, trust in your heart's connection, not only to the plants, or the shaman, or yourself, but to the coherent Source with which you are One, in which you remain even as you emerge and live forward.

“Have a great journey”