American Shamanism Takes Root (Part I)

Into the Jungle

Nightfall signaled the beginning of the ceremony. Somewhere in the middle of the Amazon, Trinity de Guzman sat with his legs crossed on the forest floor. He listened in silence to a heavy rain that trickled through the canopies and gradually soaked in the strangers gathered around him.

A leader of the tribe stepped to the center of the circle and addressed the group.

“Who here tonight is having their first ceremony with ayahuasca?”

The meek and sodden assembly of travelers averted one another’s gazes. Guzman raised his hand, and eventually, his eyes too. Quite a few in the circle also looked on with their hands in the air.

“Good. Follow me.”

Feelings of excitement and foreboding anxiety flooded Guzman while he trailed the group deeper into the darkness of the forest. When they finally arrived at the temple, the water was already boiling. Ceremony members distributed cups of tea one by one to the strangers as they stepped through the door.

An acrid liquid sloshed around inside of the cups that sent more than a few gags burbling through the crowd. Guzman sipped the piping hot brew quickly and laid himself down. He closed his eyes.

An Olkhon shaman prepares her brew.

The sounds of falling rain and cries of distant animals disappeared altogether once the temple doors sealed shut. The moon’s pale fire was replaced by candlelight that licked the ancient walls and sent shadows dancing across the room.

Within half an hour the effects of the mixture began to take hold. Creeping doubts and stomach pangs morphed into full-blown nostalgia that enveloped Guzman and sent him lurching forward. The temple was suddenly filled with the cacophony of violent retching. Spasmodic cramps and vomiting continued to rack the group of quivering bodies for a full hour, with little remorse.

Far from the throes of sickness or poisoning, the convulsions he experienced seemed to wrest open flood gates of an entirely different sort. He felt energetic baggage move through him and out again. It expunged a weight he didn’t even know he was carrying, and sudden buoyancy took its place.

At this point, all words tumble away. The memory whisks through a series of nightmares, visionary states and hallucinatory demons that linger between the worlds of waking and dreaming.

“All of these different scenes in my life were shown to me, like a slideshow, or a movie,” Guzman reflects. Even over the phone, hundreds of miles away, his naturally cheery voice carries a solemn undertone.

“The experience brought healing aspects to each of those scenes that I watched unfold. My marriage, my divorce, and especially past relationships; my relationship with my parents, or feeling the effects of their divorce when I was only a kid…,” admits Guzman.

While startling in clarity and beautifully vivid, these windows to the past eventually opened to reveal fears beyond anything the young man could have ever imagined. They danced a hateful mirage around him, taunting and prodding his fragile mind with endless doubts and pains.

But then something happened. Somewhere along the way, in that indeterminable vacuum of time and space, the hellish phantoms receded. Guzman’s sobs turned to miraculous laughter. Each breath of air felt like a boulder rolling free from his back. Before long, a relief of weightlessness surged through him.

“Intense as it was, the final moments felt like the utmost liberation,” recalls Guzman. “I knew that I was here to share this medicine with the world. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know in what way. But I knew that our world needed this.”

A Brief History

The “medicine” which propelled Guzman along his spiritual odyssey that fateful night in the rainforest is an ancient concoction known as ayahuasca, or yage. Most scholars agree that it was developed centuries ago by the indigenous peoples of Peru, but exactly where and when this powerful tonic first emerged remains up for debate.

Anthropologist Jeremy Narby believes the primordial tradition belongs to the people of Western Amazonia–who have ingested the mixture “without interruption” for at least 5,000 years. While archeological discoveries in Ecuador reinforce these findings, years of fieldwork among the Napo Runa Indians suggest otherwise.

An Alaskan shaman heals a sick woman.

Ayahuasca-enthusiast Gayle Highpine and her team of researchers contend that the brew’s admixtures (or the combination of ingredients responsible for its potent psychoactive effects) were not introduced together on the Napo River, but rather years later in the present-day region of Iquitos.

It’s no wonder why tradition has earned the elusive potion the nickname “mother of all plants;” blending the lines between history and mythology, it becomes old as mother nature herself.

So then what exactly is ayahuasca?

At it’s very essence, the blend consists of two ingredients. The first is a South American vine known as Banisteriopsis caapi, and the second is a leaf called Psychotria viridis. The latter contains one of the most powerful psychedelic compounds on the planet: dimethltryptamine (DMT). It’s a chemical naturally produced and secreted by our brains during sleep to create dreams, and it’s also released during the processes of birth and death.

The Banisteriopsis caapi vine.

The human body’s production of DMT still remains an enigma to scientists around the world, many of which have dedicated their lifetimes to studying it. The role that it plays in ayahuasca’s effects, however, is well-documented.

Normally the tryptamine can’t be ingested orally; stomach acids will break down the compound before it can absorb into the blood stream. On the other hand, boiling the DMT-containing leaf with P. viridis produces an entirely different reaction. The vine acts as an MAOI inhibitor–which isolates and nullifies the enzyme responsible for the stomach’s digestion of DMT.

A molecule of DMT.

The layman’s practice of smoking the molecule (following a complicated and synthesized crystal-based extraction) will undoubtedly produce extraordinary states, but the experience lasts for a fleeting matter of minutes. Orally ingested, the duration can stretch to upwards of 12 hours, and sometimes more. Such an intense and prolonged period of altered consciousness forces the participant into a delirium where visions of the past, present, and perceived future all coalesce into a timeless state.

Before this can occur, overwhelming nausea floods the body and spurs fits of vomiting that are oftentimes described as violent. This hour-long period is commonly referred to as “the purge,” a term coined by ancient spiritual practitioners of the medicine called shamans. They believe this initiation chapter of the trip allows all subconscious baggage to be cast off before entering the gates of true reality.

Despite little-to-no health side effects, DMT remains a Schedule I substance in the United States. Widely feared and misunderstood, most countries throughout the world share the same consensus. The shamans of South America (and similarly, the peyote-cultivating Native Americans of our own country), meanwhile, have employed this powerful experience for thousands of years to help cure a variety of diseases, mental illness, and to usher a new-found sense of direction for both the lost and helpless.

Our decades-long stigma of the drug–perpetuated in part as another casualty in an admittedly-failed War on Drugs–might soon dissipate. Recently, scientists and psychologists of the western world are discovering the potential benefits ayahuasca can supply for those suffering from depression and addiction; condensing the positive effects gained from years of therapy into a single experience.

To hear the rest of Trinity de Guzman’s journey with ayahuasca, and how it led him to open the very first public church in the country to openly use it, check out part two tomorrow.