To Hell and Back: In Search of Treatment for Crippling Depression

To Hell And Back Ayahuasca Hamilton Souther and Julio Llerena Pindo

In 2005, Kira Salak journeyed to the Amazon in search of treatment for crippling depression. Filled with doubt and fear she went to Blue Morpho Tours for an authentic Ayahuasca Retreat in Peru. She was not looking for a touristic experience, but rather needed real intervention and a miraculous cure. She was guided by Hamilton Souther, founder of Blue Morpho Tours, who was one of the original pioneers who helped bring Amazonian medicinal plants onto the global stage.

Salak went on to complete her healing mission, curing her depression with the help of Julio Llerena Pinedo, a master Amazonian mystic, healer and shaman. Julio and Hamilton guided her through multiple Ayahuasca Ceremonies during their retreat in the jungles of Peru. Based on Salak’s miraculous results, she decided to write about the experience. Her article was published in National Geographic in 2006. This was one of the first global and respected media outlets to publish a real, positive and affirming encounter with Ayahuasca.

The article quickly became the #1 read and commented on article in National Geographic history. Salak gained little fame for the article, but her contribution lit a major fuse into what became the Neo Shamanic Revolution. Within one year from the publication of the article, international conferences and scientific research had begun on the therapeutic properties of Ayahuasca and other psychedelics plants to treat mental illness.

The following is Salak’s article To Hell and Back from National Geographic.

For centuries, Amazonian shamans have used ayahuasca as a window into the soul. The sacrament, they claim, can cure any illness. The author joins in this ancient ritual and finds the worlds within more terrifying—and enlightening—than ever imagined.

I will never forget what it was like. The overwhelming misery. The certainty of never-ending suffering. No one to help you, no way to escape. Everywhere I looked: darkness so thick that the idea of light seemed inconceivable.

Suddenly, I swirled down a tunnel of fire, wailing figures calling out to me in agony, begging me to save them. Others tried to terrorize me. “You will never leave here,” they said. “Never. Never.”

I found myself laughing at them. “I’m not scared of you,” I said. But the darkness became even thicker; the emotional charge of suffering nearly unbearable. I felt as if I would burst from heartbreak—everywhere, I felt the agony of humankind, its tragedies, its hatreds, its sorrows. I reached the bottom of the tunnel and saw three thrones in a black chamber. Three shadowy figures sat in the chairs; in the middle was what I took to be the devil himself.

“The darkness will never end,” he said. “It will never end. You can never escape this place.”

“I can,” I replied.

All at once, I willed myself to rise. I sailed up through the tunnel of fire, higher and higher until I broke through to a white light. All darkness immediately vanished. My body felt light, at peace. I floated among a beautiful spread of colors and patterns. Slowly my ayahuasca vision faded. I returned to my body, to where I lay in the hut, insects calling from the jungle.

“Welcome back,” the shaman said.

The next morning, I discovered the impossible: The severe depression that had ruled my life since childhood had miraculously vanished.

Giant blue butterflies flutter clumsily past our canoe. Parrots flee higher into treetops. The deeper we go into the Amazon jungle, the more I realize I can’t turn back. It has been a year since my last visit, and I’m here again in Peru traveling down the Río Aucayacu for more shamanistic healing. The truth is, I’m petrified to do it a second time around. But with shamanism—and with the drinking of ayahuasca in particular—I’ve learned that, for me, the worse the experience, the better the payoff. There is only one requirement for this work: You must be brave. You’ll be learning how to save yourself.

The jungle camp where our shamanistic treatment will take place is some 200 miles (322 kilometers) from the nearest town, Iquitos, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. Beside me are the other four members of my tour. There is Winston, the biggest person I’ve ever met. Nearly seven feet tall (two meters), surely over 400 pounds (181 kilograms), he has a powerful body that could easily rip someone apart. I expect him to be a bodyguard or a bouncer; turns out he’s a security guard. But there is something else about him. Something less tangible. It seems to rest in the black circles beneath his eyes, the face that never smiles, the glances that immediately dismiss all they survey. Winston does not seem like a happy man.

Then the others: Lisa, who has a master’s degree from Stanford and is now pursuing her doctorate in political theory at Duke University; Christy, who just quit her job counseling at-risk teens to travel around South America; and Katherine, Christy’s British friend. By all appearances, our group seems to be composed of ordinary citizens. No New Age energy healers. No pan flute makers. No hippies or Rastafarians or nouveau Druids. Christy betrays only a passing interest in becoming a yoga instructor.

And then there is me, who a year ago came to Peru on a lark to take the “sacred spirit medicine,” ayahuasca, and get worked over by shamans. Little suspecting that I’d emerge from it feeling as if a waterlogged wool coat had been removed from my shoulders—literally feeling the burden of depression lifted—and thinking that there must be something to this crazy shamanism after all.

And so I am back again.

I’ve told no one this time—especially not my family. I grew up among fundamentalist atheists who taught me that we’re all alone in the universe, the fleeting dramas of our lives culminating in a final, ignoble end: death. Nothing beyond that. It was not a prescription for happiness, yet, for the first couple decades of my life, I became prideful and arrogant about my atheism, believing that I was one of the rare few who had the courage to face life without the “crutches” of religion or, worse, such outrageous notions as shamanism. But for all of my overweening rationality, my world remained a dark, forbidding place beyond my control. And my mortality gaped at me mercilessly. Lisa shakes me from my reveries, asking why I’ve come back to take another tour with the shamans.

“I’ve got some more work to do,” I say. Hers is a complicated question to answer. And especially personal. Lord knows I didn’t have to come back. I could have been content with the results of my last visit: no more morbid desires to die. Waking up one morning in a hut in the sultry jungles of Peru, desiring only to live.

Still, even after those victories I knew there were some stubborn enemies hiding out in my psyche: Fear and Shame. They were taking potshots at my newfound joy, ambushing my successes. How do you describe what it’s like to want love from another but to be terrified of it at the same time? To want good things to happen to you, while some disjointed part of you believes that you don’t deserve them? To look in a mirror and see only imperfections? This was the meat and potatoes of my several years of therapy. Expensive therapy. Who did what, when, why. The constant excavations of memory. The sleuth-work. Patching together theory after theory. Rational-emotive behavioral therapy. Gestalt therapy. Humanistic therapy. Biofeedback. Positive affirmations. I am a beautiful person. I deserve the best in life.

Then, there’s the impatience. Thirty-three years old already, for chrissakes. And in all that time, after all that therapy, only one thing worked on my depression—an ayahuasca “cleansing” with Amazonian shamans.

Our canoe docks on the banks of the Río Aucayacu near a large hut surrounded by jungle: the healing center. We unload our bags and supplies and a local man leads us to our respective bungalows. I share mine with Lisa.

Our accommodations are without frills: a mosquito net covering a mattress on the floor, a sink, a toilet. Basic meals. Kerosene lamps. We can either bathe in the river or use a communal shower. It is a kind of asceticism, a shedding of life’s little sophistications in preparation for the hard work ahead. Where we’re going, all worldly goods are worthless. Where we’re going, the only way out is through fear.

The head shaman for our group is Hamilton Souther, an American and the man behind the company that runs these journeys, Blue Morpho. He is 27, blond-haired, blue-eyed, exceptionally good-looking. But talk to him for even a minute, and his striking appearance quickly fades before his most obvious quality: his unconditional acceptance of everyone. You cannot make him angry. You cannot seduce him. You cannot offend him (though it is extremely tempting to try). He is like a mirror, always reflecting back your own ego, showing you your attachments, your fixations, your fears. If you end up liking him, that’s great, but if you don’t, it’s unimportant.

How Hamilton, a young California gringo, ended up in the middle of the Peruvian jungle as a shamanic healer is a story that stretches credulity. When he was “younger” (which is to say, a young adult), he explains, he led a very troubled life. Controlled by anger, he found the world to be a depressing, hopeless place in which he was just another inmate doing time. Then on the darkest night of his life, when he was filled with spiritual despair, he says he called to God and begged him—if he did really exist—to show himself. Hamilton claims he then heard voices and saw spirits. He thought he’d gone insane. So did his psychologist. But then a trusted acquaintance suggested that he wasn’t crazy at all; he’d merely opened channels to other dimensions.

One of the many spirit voices advised him to go to South America to apprentice under a shaman. He took this advice, made his way to Peru, and found two master shamans to teach him everything they knew. One of them, Don Julio Gerena Pinedo, is with us now. He is 87, has been leading ayahuasca ceremonies for over 50 years, and is widely regarded as one of the most powerful healers in the Amazon. He sits hunched over in a chair in the main hut, holding a large cigar, or mapacho, made from jungle-grown tobacco that is used, he says, to purify his body from negative energy. Hamilton and his three gringo shaman apprentices affectionately call Don Julio “Yoda.”

On the way here, Hamilton stopped our canoe periodically to hike into the jungle to collect the fixings for our ayahuasca brew. “Ayahuasca,” a Quechua word meaning “vine of the soul,” is shorthand for a concoction of Amazonian plants that shamans have boiled down for centuries to use for healing purposes. Though some call the mixture a drug, indigenous peoples regard such a description as derogatory. To them it is a medicine that has been used by the tribes of the Amazon Basin for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, demanding respect and right intention. The main chemical in the brew, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), accounts for ayahuasca’s illegality in the United States; DMT, though chemically distant from LSD, has hallucinogenic properties. But it is ayahuasca’s many plant ingredients cooperating ingeniously to allow DMT to circulate freely in the body that produce the unique ayahuasca experience.

To prepare the brew, apprentices spend years under the tutelage of an elder shaman getting to know the different plant ingredients, passing weeks or months at a time learning their individual healing properties and governing spirits. These beings, they claim, teach them icaros, or spirit songs, which, when sung or whistled, call forth the plants’ unique assistance during ceremonies. The training isn’t easy; those like Hamilton who earn the title of “master shaman”—highly respected members of Amazonian communities—receive patients from far and wide. Based on the individual needs of their patients, shamans must know which plants are required for a ceremony (there are two primary ingredients, but any of an estimated 100 species have been used in ayahuasca brews), how much of them to harvest, and how to prepare them for ingestion. The plants’ spirits are then said to work together to produce the most successful possible healing for each person, regardless of what ails them.

The taking of ayahuasca has been associated with a long list of documented cures: the disappearance of everything from metastasized colorectal cancer to cocaine addiction, even after just a ceremony or two. It’s thought to be nonaddictive and safe to ingest. Yet Western scientists have all but ignored it for decades, reluctant to risk their careers by researching a substance containing the outlawed DMT. Only in the past decade, and then only by a handful of researchers, has ayahuasca begun to be studied.

At the vanguard of this research is Charles Grob, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA’s School of Medicine. In 1993 Dr. Grob launched the Hoasca Project, the first in-depth study of the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca on humans. His team went to Brazil, where the plant mixture can be taken legally, to study members of a native church, the União do Vegetal (UDV), who use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and compared them to a control group that had never ingested the substance. The studies found that all the ayahuasca-using UDV members had experienced remission without recurrence of their addictions, depression, or anxiety disorders. In addition, blood samples revealed a startling discovery: Ayahuasca seems to give users a greater sensitivity to serotonin—one of the mood-regulating chemicals produced by the body—by increasing the number of serotonin receptors on nerve cells.

Unlike most common antidepressants, which Grob says can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there.

“Ayahuasca is perhaps a far more sophisticated and effective way to treat depression than SSRIs [antidepressant drugs],” Grob concludes, adding that the use of SSRIs is “a rather crude way” of doing it. And ayahuasca, he insists, has great potential as a long-term solution.

While it’s tantalizing to wonder whether such positive physiological changes took place in me when I was last in Peru, I’m also intrigued by the visions I had, which seemed to have an equally powerful role in alleviating my depression: It was as if I’d been shown my own self-imposed hells and taught how to free myself from them. What was really going on?

According to Grob, ayahuasca provokes a profound state of altered consciousness that can lead to temporary “ego disintegration,” as he calls it, allowing people to move beyond their defense mechanisms into the depths of their unconscious minds—a unique opportunity, he says, that cannot be duplicated by any nondrug therapy methods.

“You come back with images, messages, even communications,” he explains. “You’re learning about yourself, reconceptualizing prior experiences. Having had a profound psycho-spiritual epiphany, you’re not the same person you were before.”

But the curious should take heed: The unconscious mind holds many things you don’t want to look at. All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced—literally—to face his or her demons.

“Ayahuasca is not for everyone,” Grob warns. “It’s probably not for most people in our world today. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary. You have to be willing to withstand that.”

It’s 9 p.m.—time for the first ceremony. We all meet in the main hut. Outside, night has taken over the jungle, which resounds with piercing insect calls. We will have five such ceremonies before going back to civilization. Each takes place at 9 p.m. We’ve fasted since lunch. One of the apprentices spreads out foam mattresses in a circle for us to lie on. Hamilton and Don Julio sit in front of us, in chairs, lighting their mapachos, with their apprentices seated on either side. Hamilton asks Lisa, the would-be Duke political theorist, to sit next to Winston, but she immediately protests.

“I don’t want to sit next to any aggressive male energy,” she says. “Can I change places?”

Winston glances at her forlornly. Lisa is probably the most physically attractive of the women on our tour—thin, dainty, with delicate porcelain-doll features. Winston rolls his eyes as Lisa moves away from him, and Hamilton puts me next to him instead.

Before we start, Hamilton takes out a liter of the ayahuasca he’d prepared during the day. This he hands to Don Julio, who blesses it with his mapacho, blowing tobacco smoke inside the bottle and over his body. He clears his throat several times, sounding like a horse whinnying, and hands the bottle to Hamilton to do the same. Hamilton pays homage to the ayahuasca spirits, speaking to them in Spanish and entreating them to help us.

Everyone receives a plastic basin—known ominously as a “vomit bucket”—and a roll of toilet paper for wiping our mouths after puking; this can be expected during most ceremonies, unless, as the shamans say, people are used to suppressing their feelings. Many mistakenly think that holding back emotions is a sign of strength and control; actually, Hamilton says, it’s the opposite. Avoidance, a refusal to face painful feelings, is a weakness; unless this suppression stops, a person will never be healed of physical and psychological issues.

Perhaps the worst thing about taking ayahuasca is the taste. It is a thick brown sludge, gritty and triggering an immediate gag reflex. The closest taste comparison I can make is Baileys Irish Cream mixed with prune juice. The shamans say that the spirits tell them how much each of us needs to drink. The more healing a person needs, the more they get. I must need a lot of healing, then, as nearly a full cup is passed to me, versus the baby helpings poured for Lisa and Christy. The good news, I tell myself, is that no one to my knowledge has ever died from ayahuasca.

I drink it as if I were a contestant on Fear Factor, in two big, quick gulps. When everyone in our circle has drunk, including Hamilton, the kerosene lamp is put out and darkness fills the hut. Hamilton and Don Julio start shaking their chakapas, or leaf rattles, and singing their spirit songs. Nothing happens for about 20 minutes. I close my eyes and wait. Soon I start to see a pale green glow; colorful, primordial forms, resembling amoebas or bacteria, float by. Alarmed, I open my eyes. And this is uncanny: I can see the rafters of the hut, the thatch roof, the glow of the stars outside the screened windows—but the same amoeba-like things are passing over that view, as if superimposed.

“You’re seeing with your third eye,” one of the apprentices explains. Also known in Eastern spiritual traditions as the sixth chakra, the third eye supposedly allows for connection with other dimensions. And what if I am actually seeing two worlds at once? It seems too incredible, and I close my eyes to limit the confusion. Fantastical scenes glide by, composed of ever-shifting geometric forms and textures. Colors seem to be the nature of these views; a dazzling and dizzying display of every conceivable hue blending and parting in kaleidoscopic brilliance. But then the colors vanish all at once as if a curtain has been pulled down. Blackness. Everywhere.

Dark creatures sail by. Tangles of long, hissing serpents. Dragons spitting fire. Screaming humanlike forms. For a bunch of hallucinations, they seem terrifyingly real. An average ayahuasca ceremony lasts about four to five hours. But in ayahuasca space—where time, linear thought, and the rules of three-dimensional reality no longer apply—four to five hours of sheer darkness and terror can feel like a lifetime. My heartbeat soars; it’s hard to breathe. But I have done this before. I remind myself that what I’m experiencing now is my fear taking symbolic form through the ayahuasca. Fear that I have lived with my entire life and that needs to be released.

Hamilton explains it this way: Everyone has an energetic body run by an inextinguishable life force. In Eastern traditions, this force, known as chi or prana, is manipulated through such things as acupuncture or yoga to run smoothly and prevent the buildup of the negative energies that cause bodily disease, mental illness, and even death. To Amazonian shamans, however, these negative energies are actual spirit entities that attach themselves to the body and cause mischief. In everyone, Hamilton asserts, there is a loving “higher self,” but whenever unpleasant thoughts enter a person’s mind—anger, fear, sorrow—it’s because a dark spirit is hooked to the body and is temporarily commandeering the person’s mind. In some cases, he adds, particularly evil spirits from the lowest hell of the “astral realms” take over a person
permanently—known as full-blown demonic possession—creating a psychopathic mind that seeks only to harm others.

I work on controlling my breathing. But such thick darkness. Clouds of bats and demonlike faces. Black lightning. Black walls materializing before me no matter which way I turn. Closer and closer, the darkness surrounding me, trapping me. I can barely breathe.

“Hamilton!” I belt out. “Help me!”

“On my way, Kira,” he says calmly. “Hang in there. Don’t give in to the fear.”

That’s the trick: Don’t give in to it. But it’s much easier said than done. I must tell it that I’m stronger. I must tell it that it has no effect upon me. But it does. I’m terrified. The darkness presses against me; it wants to annihilate me.

Hamilton is standing over me now, rattling his chakapa, singing his spirit songs. Inexplicably, as he does this, the darkness backs off. But more of it comes in a seemingly endless stream. I see dark, raging faces. My body begins to contort; it feels as if little balls are ripping through my flesh, bursting from my skin. The pain is excruciating. I writhe on the mattress, screaming. Hamilton calls over one of his helpers—a local woman named Rosa—with directions to hold me down.

“Tell the spirits to leave you with ease,” Hamilton says to me.

“They won’t!” I yell out. And now they appear to be escaping en masse from my throat. I hear myself making otherworldly squealing and hissing sounds. Such high-pitched screeches that surely no human could ever make. All the while there is me, like a kind of witness, watching and listening in horror, feeling utterly helpless to stop it. I’ve read nothing about this sort of experience happening when taking ayahuasca. And now I see an image of a mountain in Libya, a supposedly haunted mountain that I climbed a year and a half ago, despite strong warnings from locals. A voice tells me that whatever is now leaving my body attached itself to me in that place.

Haunted mountains. Demonic hitchhikers. Who would believe this? Yet on and on it goes. The screaming, the wailing. My body shakes wildly; I see a great serpent emerging from my body, with designs on Hamilton. He shakes his chakapa at it, singing loudly, and after what seems like an infinite battle of wills, the creature leaves me. I grab the vomit bucket and puke for several minutes. Though my stomach has been empty for over eight hours, a flood of solid particles comes out of me.

The visions fade. My body stops shaking. Hamilton takes his seat again and Rosa releases her grip on me. I examine the vomit bucket with a flashlight: Black specks the size of dimes litter orange-colored foam. The shamans believe that what we vomit out during a ceremony is the physical manifestation of dark energy and toxins being purged from the body. The more that comes out, the better.

“Good work, Kira,” Hamilton says to me from across the room.

My entire body hurts. My head throbs. I can hear the others in the room, whispering to each other. I had barely been conscious of their experiences, they had seemed so quiet by comparison.

“Is Kira OK?” Christy asks Hamilton.

“She just had a little exorcism,” Hamilton explains with relish. “She’s fine.”

“Bloody hell; was that what it was?” says Katherine.

“She just picked up some travelers,” Hamilton says. “We had to get rid of them.”

“Bloody hell!” Katherine says again. “Is this what you’d consider a normal ceremony, Hamilton?”

“About one out of a hundred ceremonies is as intense as this one. We kicked some real demon butt tonight.”

The apprentices agree that they’ve never experienced anything as intense as tonight’s ceremony. I hope it’s not true, though. It’s hardly a distinction worth celebrating.

“Once you get the upper hand over demons energetically,” Hamilton says to me, “they leave you without any trouble. That’ll come. One thing at a time.”

There is probably no hangover that comes anywhere close to the hangover from an exorcism. It’s the next morning and I can barely walk—not that I really want to. I have zero energy. My voice is almost gone, and I must communicate in a hoarse whisper if I communicate at all. This has proven not to be an issue as the others on the tour are so freaked out by what happened last night that they can barely mumble an obligatory “good morning” to me. Lisa has now made it clear that she doesn’t want to sit next to Winston or me. I give her a wide berth as I take my seat at the breakfast table. I’ve never felt so vulnerable before complete strangers, and I feel embarrassed and dejected by their stares. I want to tell them that what happened last night was completely out of my control. That, somehow, it wasn’t me.

But how to explain it when I don’t quite understand it myself? All I can say for sure is that Hamilton’s role as shaman was critical in helping me. He says he drinks the brew along with us, his “clients,” so he and his army of spirit helpers can defeat our most formidable demons and guide us out of our darkness.

Shamans will tell you that during an ayahuasca cleansing they’re not working with the contents of a person’s hallucination but are actually visiting that person in whatever plane of reality his or her spirit happens to be. We are not, they insist, confined to the reality of our five senses, but can transcend it and enter a multidimensional universe.

Their perspective is not unlike that presented by quantum theorists, such as David Bohm, who describe a holographic universe with coexisting realms of reality. To Amazonian shamans, there are an infinite number of such realms, each as distinct from one another as London or Paris, each inhabited by beings with certain appearances, abilities, and customs. To become a master shaman, they contend, one must learn to negotiate these worlds, to enlist the assistance of their various denizens, to become comfortable working in places of light and darkness. For, they will tell you, there is no doubt that there is a heaven and hell—many levels and manifestations of each, in fact—which are as real as Tokyo or Palm Beach. Yes, one finds angels and demons in such places. Hollywood got that part right.

But to the mind trained in the West, such notions of spirit travel and multidimensional reality are a long stretch for the imagination. “I do not believe that there are beings and creatures just like us who reside elsewhere in other realms,” wrote Benny Shanon, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He drank ayahuasca in more than 130 ceremonies, studying his and others’ vision experiences and producing one of the most extensive books on the subject to date, The Antipodes of the Mind, in which he concludes that the visions are simply hallucinations of the highest order: “Under [ayahuasca’s] intoxication, people’s imagination and creative powers are greatly enhanced. Thus, their minds are prone to create the fantastic images they see with the brew.”

In Shanon’s view, as well as in those of other Western scientists, DMT-created visions are simply extraordinary reflections of the contents of the unconscious mind. Grob, the UCLA psychiatrist and ayahuasca researcher, agrees with this in part, though he adds: “Sometimes the visions are uncanny and don’t seem to reflect personal experience. . . . People consistently have very profound spiritual experiences with this compound.”

And this notion of a spiritual experience marks the very juncture where Western science and analytic thought depart on the subject of ayahuasca and where indigenous culture and mysticism come in. Most ayahuasca researchers agree that, curiously, the compound appears to affect people on three different levels—the physical, psychological, and spiritual—complicating efforts to definitively catalog its effects, let alone explain specific therapeutic benefits. Says Ralph Metzner, psychologist, ayahuasca researcher, and editor of the book Sacred Vine of Spirits, “[Healing with ayahuasca] presumes a completely different understanding of illness and medicine than what we are accustomed to in the West. But even from the point of view of Western medicine and psychotherapy it is clear that remarkable physical healings and resolutions of psychological difficulties can occur with this medicine.”

We take a break for a day to recuperate. By the time the next ceremony comes along, I am enthusiastic and ready to go. We all take our seats in the main hut, Lisa sitting farthest from me. With resignation, I notice that I’ve been doled out a huge dose of ayahuasca, again. We all drink. Soon, the telltale green hue covers everything, and the visions begin. Dark visions. The bats, the snakes, the demon figures. Still, my body does not quake in pain and horror as before. I have learned how fear works: It only affects me, terrorizes me, if I believe the thoughts it puts in my head.

All negative thoughts, shamans believe, are dark spirits speaking to us, trying to scare us into reacting; the spirits then feed on our reactivity, growing stronger and more formidable until they finally rule over us. This is how, Hamilton suggests, addictions and psychological disorders develop in people.

“Everyone hears the voices of spirits,” he tells me. “They’ve just convinced themselves that they are hearing their own thoughts.” We must, he maintains, practice choosing which thoughts we pay attention to.

Now I’m traveling to a realm where I meet my various incarnations from past lives. We are connected to a large wheel; whenever fear energy leaves the top of my head in puffs of dark smoke, it leaves their heads at the same time. Our lives, it seems, are interconnected and dependent. Outside of linear time, all our lifetimes, all our many incarnations, occur simultaneously. “Past life” is really a misnomer; “other life” seems a more accurate way of describing it.

With some of the individuals, I can guess their historical period from their clothing. With others, I can’t place them at all. There is a balding, overweight, monk-looking guy. The big muscular warrior with the pointed helmet (who, he says, gives me my present interest in the martial arts). The black woman who is a slave in North Carolina. Interestingly, there are only about 15 or so individuals; a spirit tells me that many people average less than 30 total Earth incarnations and that their souls commonly skip centuries, reincarnating only in spirit realms. And what of the two women who aren’t wearing historically identifiable clothing? “We are your future incarnations,” one of them explains, lovingly.

After three ceremonies, I still feel that I have something big to purge. There is something stubborn in me, refusing to be released. I walk through the jungle and wade into a narrow river, dunking myself in the water. Schools of piranha-size fish, mojaritas, nip harmlessly at my skin, unnerving me. Earlier today I was still scared to look at myself in the mirror, still scared of the self-judgment, the all-too-familiar shame.

I report to the hut for the next ceremony. The others sit or lie in hammocks, waiting silently, fretfully. Their experiences, while nowhere near as intense as mine, have been bad enough in their view. Winston has found the darkness during his visions tedious and unrelenting. Christy actually found herself crying during the last ceremony, which is something she says she doesn’t do. Lisa has found her ceremony experiences “too dark” for her tastes and blames me for creating this.

“It’s her own fear she’s scared of,” Hamilton told me earlier. “It has nothing to do with you.”

We begin the ceremony, drink the ayahuasca. I’m hoping to find myself in some heavenly realms this time, but again, as usual, the darkness. With disappointment, I find myself entering a familiar tunnel of fire, heading down to one of the hell realms. I don’t know where I’m going, or why, when I suddenly glimpse the bottom of the tunnel and leap back in shock: Me, I’m there, but as a little girl. She’s huddled, captive, in a ball of fire before the three thrones of the devil and his sidekicks. As soon as I reach her, she begins wailing, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!” It’s heartbreaking to her.

I think this must be a part of me that I lost. Long ago. The shamans believe that whenever a traumatic event happens to us, we lose part of our spirit, that it flees the body to survive the experience. And that unless a person undergoes a shamanistic “soul retrieval,” these parts will be forever lost. Each one, they say, contains an element of who they truly are; people may lose their sense of humor, their trust of others, their innocence. According to psychotherapist and shamanic healer Sandra Ingerman, author of Soul Retrieval, such problems as addictions, personality disorders, and memory blackouts are all warning signs that a person may have lost key portions of themselves.

“No one will help me!” the little girl wails in my vision. And now she is me—I am wailing. Crying like I have never cried before. I know it as an expression of primordial terror from a time when, as a small child, I felt abandoned, set helpless before the universe. I have never felt such profound fear. How did this happen to me? the adult me wonders with fury. And why?

“The darkness was so heavy during your childhood,” a spirit voice says to me, “that your soul splintered beneath the weight.”

I have an awareness of having lost so much of myself. Who will I be when all the parts come home? I feel a hand on my back: Hamilton’s. “I’m here to help you,” he says. Suddenly, the flames trapping the little girl disappear. Everything is covered in a freezing white frost. I shiver from the intense cold.

“Julio and I have frozen the devil,” Hamilton declares. “You can pull the little girl out now.”

So that’s why everything got so cold, I think. But wait a minute—what are Hamilton and Don Julio doing in my vision? How can Hamilton see what I’m seeing?

“Pull her out,” Hamilton says to me.

I reach down and take the girl’s hand. When she feels my touch, she stops crying, and I pull her up, out of the tunnel of fire. The darkness departs. We reach realms of bright white light—the first such places my visions have allowed. The heavenly realms.

“Your little girl has to enter your body,” Hamilton says. “Call to her.”

I do. I see her split into several little girls, each looking like me at a different age. One at a time, they appear to enter me, my body jolting backwards for each “soul part,” as Hamilton calls them, that was retrieved.

As soon as they’re done, I see a vision of them. Dazed by the brilliant light of their new world, the girls walk through green grass, under pure white clouds. Scores of butterflies land on them, smothering them. It is an unbelievably perfect place in which there is a sense that nothing could ever hurt me.

Only one ceremony left and I haven’t yet experienced God. The shamans say they see him all the time; Hamilton suggests I visit him. Strange: Though I can’t say conclusively whether he exists, I’m angry with him. If God is out there, I have a few bones to pick with him.

The ceremony begins with the usual tedious blackness. I keep sending it away, but it reappears in its myriad forms: bats, demons, dragons.

“God!” I yell out in my vision. “Where are you?”

But only darkness. The seemingly endless darkness. I’m getting more and more aggravated. Why do religious people always say that God is there for you when you need him? Well, he’s nowhere. Just serpents and those little demon guys.

All of a sudden, I realize that my fears about his not existing, about my not being able to find him, may be thoughts created by dark spirits. I release those fears and immediately I rise higher, into white realms. Through a hazy gray cloud, I can see a vision of a white-bearded man—God? Appearing like a giant Santa Claus. And while I’m sure the way he looks is a stereotyped invention of my mind, a kind of visual distillation of something wholly beyond conception, it’s bizarre to be talking to him about my problems.

“Why did you hate me so much?” I demand.

“I never hated you,” he says. “You hated yourself. I have always loved you as my own child. Know that suffering is the greatest teacher on Earth. It leads us out of our belief in separation.”

I don’t know what he means by “separation.”

Darkness falls. I can’t see God in my vision anymore. A scathing pain rises in my chest—the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt. I squeak out a cry to Hamilton and he comes over, singing spirit songs. Legions of demons sail out of my body. I’m helpless before them; they contort me.

I’m made to see that what is being purged now is a deeply rooted belief that I don’t deserve to be alive, that no one can love me and I will always need to justify my existence. Slowly I gain the upper hand over the darkness and order it to leave my body. I feel a pressure in my chest that could break all my ribs. I grab my bucket, vomit out what appears to be a stream of fire. Hamilton kneels down and blows tobacco smoke onto the top of my head. I cough violently and watch as demons burst out of me, roaring, only to disintegrate in white light.

And before me this enormous image of God. He takes me in his arms and coddles me like a child. I know, unequivocally, that I am loved and have always been loved. That I matter and have always mattered. That I’m safe and, no matter what happens, will always be safe. I will never allow myself to become separated from him again.

As the visions fade and the ceremony closes, I find myself back in the dark hut. But in my mind’s eye I’m still sitting in God’s enormous lap. Don Julio nods and silently smokes his mapacho. The others whisper about their experiences. Winston still didn’t find a way out of his darkness and will extend his time in Peru to do more ceremonies. Katherine sighs luxuriously: She’s been bathing in the heavenly astral realms, having broken through her own issues. Lisa’s darkness hasn’t let up and it’s still my fault; she, too, will be staying in Peru for more shamanistic work.

Me, I’m ready to go home. I sit up with difficulty, as if waking from decades of sleep. It would be easier for me to call it all a dream, a grand hallucination. Then I could have my old world back, in which I thought I knew what was real and unreal, true and untrue. Now the problem is, I don’t know anything.

It takes almost all the energy I have left, but I feel around for my flashlight and shine it into my vomit bucket. No. I lean down closer. Steady the beam of light. I catch my breath as I examine the object: A small black snake seems to have materialized from my body. THE END

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