Leading the ceremonies was Manuela, a 70 year old Shipibo woman who comes from a family of healers stretching back generators. From the NoyaNete website:
Maestra Manuela Mahua comes from a long-standing and well-respected family lineage of Shipibo healers from the lower Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon. Born in 1947, she has more than 50 years of experience working with medicine. She began apprenticing with her father at age 13.
Today she heals and teaches, to both Shipibo and foreigners, and she continues to strengthen her samá, observing multiple periods of dieta throughout the year to learn more and keep her healing power in balance. She has a vast knowledge and understanding of the natural pharmacy and is very open to sharing it with those who are willing to make the commitment to carry on the tradition.
She speaks mainly Shipibo, and a little Spanish. I found Manuela to have unsurpassed warmth and generosity, and a deep wisdom about her.
Maestra Manuela Mahua at night (photo cropped from this flyer)
Manuela during the day (photo from NoyaNete website)
The first ceremony was on the evening of the day we arrived. I was feeling pretty upset/worried by the prospect of spending a week in a cloud of mosquitos, and annoyed by the noise at the site. I decided to apply some 50% DEET mosquito repellent before the ceremony, going against the regulations of the dieta. I drank a chalice-full of Noya Rao, and half a shotglass of ayahuasca (following the suggestion of Brian).
By the time Manuela had finished singing to me, all I had experienced was some very mild geometric visions, nothing like as spectacular as the wild, colourful and beautiful visions I have experienced in DMT trips. “Is this it?” I thought, “What’s the fuss about?”. I ended the night feeling with a sense of anticlimax, and — it would turn out — overconfidence.
The morning after, we did a vomitivo. This involved drinking a bowl of deep red coloured liquid made from the leaves of a tree growing on the land, drinking water until our stomachs filled, and then sticking our fingers down our throats until we threw up. We would then drink more water and repeat, each throwing up 3–4 times before we were done. I found this pretty straightforward and did feel cleansed afterwards. The most difficult part was that I had again applied some DEET, which was still on the fingers I had to stick down my throat to make myself vomit (it tastes terrible). I pledged to not wear any more DEET from that point.
The tree from which made the vomitivo brew
Over the course of the day I became more at peace with the noise on the site. I understood the privilege of being able to diet in an living, working Shipibo community, and came to believe the depth this would add to this experience was greater than any mild distractions from the noise.
At the second ceremony, I again drank a chalice of Noya Rao and this time a full shotglass of ayahuasca. It was the bottom of a bottle, much thicker than before, and lumpy. Yet again by the time Manuela finished singing to me, I was hardly feeling any effect. Worse, my nose was bunging up and I felt like I was starting to get a cold. We’re advised to not drink water during the ceremony, but in frustration, I let out a loud sigh and quickly took several large gulps from my water bottle.
Almost immediately, I threw up — a noisy, gross retch — and was launched into a somewhat familiar, chaotic state of mind that I know from some of my less pleasant psychedelic experiences. Over the course of the next couple of hours, I continued to throw up, I stripped completed naked, and, believing I was trapped in some strange drama, attempted to sing over Manuela (who handled it with typical dignity and compassion). My mind was scattered and disoriented in the pitch dark. Fortunately, I was able to hold some key personal mantras in my mind (lines from the Tao, the Three Marks of Existence, the Brahmaviharas, some other personally meaningful quotes/poems), which along with still being able to remember some of the people that I love and love me most in my life, kept me from spinning further out.
During this period I had some sense of mind being able to control physical reality. Indeed, I tried saying out loud “It’s daytime, the sun rises” and similar a few times (it didn’t work!). In contemplating the experience the next day, I was able to better understand the experience as a sense of unity & interconnectedness, mixed up with a sense of thoughts as ‘seeds in the mind’. What we think matters, not because it directly affects reality, but because thoughts grow into actions, that grow into habits, that shape us.
I was able (made) to usefully reflect upon the way in which I had been involved in hurting someone in my life over the past months. This was more than simply considering it an intellectual level; I was able to start to truly feel the pain I had been involved in causing, and learn what I can do to avoid hurting someone in this way again.
I was properly brought back to my senses when someone finally flicked a headtorch on. I realised where I was (lying on the floor on the middle of the room) and sheepishly crawled back to my mattress.
The next day, I understood that some of my vomiting had been connected to my overconfidence, arrogance, disrepect and skepticism. Perhaps on some level I needed and even wanted to have a difficult time, to go through a ‘dark night of the soul’, as part of the process of coming to accept the power of the medicine. Other vomiting seemed to have been related to the damage humanity is causing to global ecosystems, and my part in that. A quote from my notebook:
What if I told you that we had taken the world’s most biodiverse place, responsible for a huge percentage of the planet’s capacity to process carbon dioxide into oxygen, with countless medicinal plants unknown or not yet understood by the West, and started cutting it down to produce feed for cows (that produce methane) to make hamburgers? A sick joke, right?
This is our problem, this is my problem.
From my readings on Chaos Magick, I understand something of the power of conscious belief-shifting. We learn to change/play with our beliefs, or become limited by them. I began to ask myself, “What would it be like to truly step into a belief of ayahuasca/Noya Rao as a plant spirit, a relationship, a friend, an ally, a teacher?”. To accept that I can’t ‘explain’ ayahuasca/Noya Rao, and thus at least to explore an alternative interpretation of the experience. To see ayahuasca/Noya Rao not as magic, but as medicine/technology that I don’t understand. To step into full trust, full surrender of Manuela as a skilled healer, working alongside ayahuasca/Noya Rao. To stop worrying about the ‘reality’ of plant spirits, and instead focus on whether my experience of them could make me “more kind to every creature and plant that I know”. To judge by results, having fully stepped in to the ancient Shipibo interpretation of the experience. To submit to Mystery.
I came to deeply appreciate the the teacher/teacher plant frame. At the very least, it seemed to me that the complexity/intensity of the ayahuasca experience makes approaching it with the care and dedication one would approach a lesson with a teacher extremely helpful (to the point of necessity). I considered some of the great teachers I have had the privilege of learning from in my life, and dwelt for some time on the brilliant, thoughtful and compassionate Dr. Sukumar, my tutor at Oxford. I pledged to behave in the next ceremony as if in a lesson with a great teacher: trusting, open, respectful, humble, attentive, focused.
Just before the third ceremony, I did my first breathwork practice of the dieta (alone in my room). It left me with an intense full body tingling sensation — is this what kundalini energy feels like? I remained in a deep meditative state for some time, and had a spontaneous vision of a Buddha figure sitting cross-legged, a vision that would come to me several times thoughout the remainder of the dieta.
Instead of the sweater I had worn to the previous ceremony (out of fear of mosquitos), I put on my finest ceremonial robe and a beautiful Tree of Life necklace I had recently bought in Costa Rica.