Black ayahuasca, Job and the mountains
“Can black ayahuasca be healing? I would suggest it’s for the things most profoundly rooted, covered over by layers and layers of wild growth; where what is most dense, humid and cloying can outlast time, or at least a parent’s bones. Black ayahuasca is sightless sight and the groaning of pure night.”
In other words, it pays to be careful what you wish for in the mountains. But even that is poor insurance.
I had been back many times, drawn by the strange coalescing of magic, medicine and prophecy. I felt called, in other words, though that was far too vague for my liking and my purpose remained frustratingly elusive. Instead, I put myself at the mercy of forces I could not see. I would like to call this trust, but much of the time I felt like a fool. And that’s the greatest compliment I could give myself.
Perhaps I was foolish to root out some of my deeper terrors in an ayahuasca ceremony in the foothills of the mountains just outside Urubumba. Certainly, this decision was tempered by my ignorance. I didn’t know it would be black ayahuasca. All of my ceremonies in Peru had taken place at a well-known centre in the Amazon, so this was a departure. Of the varieties of the vine, black ayahuasca – appropriately with its evocation of obsidian darkness – seems to be the most mysterious and reputedly the most potent.
A Shipibo curandero from that same centre later told me that ayahuasca negra cannot be used for healing. I’m not so sure.
My body shook for hours before the ceremony in the way that we know what’s coming before it’s happened. The feedback loop of my consciousness, bound by no such concept as time, was returning distressing signals. As I warmed myself by a fire outside the ceremonial space, I deduced that I was about to face a dread that was in simpatico with night itself. Darkness was the ceremonial motif.
The host for the evening offered the first cup with a certain due reverence: both hands outstretched, a barely perceptible bow, a gaze that took my measure. It was an acknowledgement, I think, that in the metrics of ceremony, a lifetime can be walked in ‘one crowded hour’. He soon appeared in front of me again, after the candles had been blown out, this time offering a DMT snuff called wilka (Anadenanthera colubrine), administered via long pipe with a rapid thwoook through the hollow. I hadn’t bargained on that either. But I am ever diligent and took my medicine.
And through the stunning penetration of the powder in my head, I heard someone say: Buen viaje.
The mountain spirits
The effect of the medicines combined brought the dread out of its now flimsy refuge. This was no ordinary fear but something brooding and primordial, a slow-moving terror that I could see coming in advance and was powerless to stop. The presence of the mountains made for an ominous chaperone. Or were they the destination? I was being shuffled to the heart of despair with an appalling certainty. The flicker of a lighter in the dark offered the only relief, my only tether to the world of form.
The dread began to take shape, outlines against the blackness whether I had my eyes open or closed. This looming shadow was monolithic and ancient. Those mountains were not just edging me forward, but forming an entire massif in my peripheral vision. In Andean mysticism, the mountains have spirits, and these spirits – known as apus – not only have very distinct personalities but also have jurisdiction over significant tracts of territory and population. If someone is chosen by an apu to be apprenticed as a shaman (though a better translation is ‘priest’ or ‘mystic’), then it’s apparently better not to resist.
To be struck by lightning is a sure sign that an initiate has been chosen. The highest level of shaman-priest is struck three times by way of initiation. In this cosmology, apus are gods and intermediaries between the physical realm of the middle world and the upper world of spirit – and the mountains usually have their way. Now here they were advancing, growing, smothering, sucking out all the space out of the room, blocking the last tendrils of dark light. In these moments, one reaches for all the tools. But it’s like telling a panicking person not to panic. It doesn’t work.
An old nightmare
Juan Nunez del Prado, an anthropologist and teacher of Q’ero (Andean) mysticism, delineates the different levels at which the apus can be encountered: “At the third level, the apus are seen as punishing. But do not confuse the master with the path,” he tells Elizabeth B. Jenkins in Return of the Inka. “At the third level, the initiate encounters the invisible world and the forces there are experienced as frightening, indeed terrifying. You must learn to wrestle with them; you must learn to fight and conquer – your own fear. If not, you remain forever at the mercy of it.”
Of course I had been here before: subject and object in the dynamic of traumatic stress. As a child lying in bed, passing through the threshold to dissociation, it would feel like my head was taking off. A shrill pitch would ring in my ears and – amid the swelling uprush of energy – my vision would telescope. The lens through which I saw the world was a carnival mirror: the room tapered into a long passageway and my body felt like it was seven-feet tall. A chorus of screams would gather about me in a cascade of horror. I wouldn’t be able to move. Beneath the wailing was a baseline of warping; like metal bending under heat and duress.
Looking down from an unnatural height, shadows would come alive, merging into an amorphous field, advancing and encircling. What I didn’t know in the middle of the ceremony was that I had found a boy who I had forgotten, or had assumed was forever lost. But here he was, in my body, madly seeking exile once again.
The ceremony had become the re-enactment of a waking nightmare. Three of the other men in the group began to sing medicine songs in Spanish, but I cannot recall the themes or the words, just the feeling that I was being admonished, dared to cross over into what was surely madness. The voices were angry, pushy, drenched in the masculine occult. I was wavering on a thin edge and my life-force concentrated itself at the crown of my head, ready to explode out of my body.
Can black ayahuasca be healing? I would suggest it’s for the things most profoundly rooted, covered over by layers and layers of wild growth; where what is most dense, humid and cloying can outlast time, or at least a parent’s bones. Black ayahuasca is sightless sight and the groaning of pure night.
Then, a hand on my shoulder. The wife of the host had sat down next to me but I didn’t notice until that moment. Her human touch brought me back from the brink and I burst out crying, racking sobs that disgorged all the dull dread that inhabited my body; all the tremulous fears a hair’s breath from escalating into panic. This is what my body lived with. These were the psychic ghosts still shifting about inside my skin after all these years. My poor nervous system.
Sometimes the idea of surrender is premature. For one exquisite moment, the songs retreated and the blackness wrapped herself around me completely, and I felt safe and held. The terror was gone. I needed to be touched by a human – the intimation of warmth and skin, and blood meeting blood – before I could be touched by anything transpersonal.
When I look at the symbolism of the mountains and the apus, I can see why they could be regarded as gods or lords. Bridging heaven and earth, they encompass the full spectrum of consciousness. Magnificent or terrible, how they are experienced is determined by an individual’s consciousness, the tipping point of their personal evolution.
I met the apus in ceremony in an exact reflection of my relationship to power. That boy had experienced power as inherently abusive; an unstable force that distorted personality, alienated love and sought more and more of itself. I certainly knew as a man that I had a difficult time with power, always seeking to pair it with responsibility and integrity, rather than let it sit nakedly on its own terms. In ceremony, the mountains marched on me and the mechanisms of dissociation failed.
‘Do not confuse the master with the path’
To be faced with such a regal monstrosity is an exercise in effacement; indeed, it evokes an ancient hierarchy. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” asks God in the Book of Job. “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?”
Job’s story raises the age-old question at the heart of theodicy: why does God allow bad things to happen to good people. Why did that boy have to dissociate from his own body. Job certainly did not deserve the torments heaped upon him by the thundering deity of the Old Testament. In my very first ayahuasca ceremony 16 months previously, I saw myself as a child far off from space, lashed to a lightning rod rooted into the Earth while seismic changes shook the planet. Here I was crucified by the electric pulses of the globe, a conduit for vast energies channelled through my body.
Yet isn’t that the fate of all children, hanging on the cross of duality – subject to forces beyond our volition – and our task to become agents for the reconciliation of these opposites. Our bodies and lives are the sacred ground of this awesome undertaking. If Juan Nunez del Prado is right in principle, perhaps we don’t get the God we deserve, so much as the gods that reflect our own stage of consciousness. “The fourth level is a completely different state of mind; you become free, the apus become your friends, and you learn to work in harmony with the invisible world,” he says in Return of the Inka. “My apus are sweet, charming.”
The very transition del Prado refers to, between the third and fourth levels in the Q’ero cosmology, may be a movement from sacrifice to where power finds its ultimate expression in loving service. Making that transition may be the hardest thing I ever do, though it’s hardly linear, and I’m not alone. The mountains, gods of the middle world, my sweet apus, are with me. They blocked my path so I could exorcise the demons of false power and cross the divide safely.
Cards: Ayahuasca, Huachuma, Apus