Stumbling down the sweaty and tortuous jungle path deeply, you may happen upon Plumb Shack, an oasis for the curious, confused and quietly desperate wayfarer of consciousness.
The bearded strolling weasel over there is me. Don’t be alarmed; I used to be civilized and can still pretend well enough. I am about to begin another ‘plant diet’ at the Shack. My schedule for the rest of the afternoon looks something like this:
Confusion. Meditation. Morsel of beetroot. Meditation. Wash loins in the stream.
Ponder extinction of everything living, particularly humans. Examine toe fungus. Amble in forest. Meditation —
Break time — peer at bird…
Neurosis. Smoke pipe. Gasp at preciousness of life.
Ponder evolutionary purpose of those little black moths that keep biting my arse —
Break time — peer at bird…
Meditation. Confusion. Neurosis. Ponder emptiness. Try to ripen fruit with my mind. Meditation. Quake in bewilderment. Meditation. Take a dump behind fallen tree. Singing. Peer at bird…
As you can see, I’m pretty busy. But I will take some time now to explain in more civilized terms what I am up to, for your benefit, and for the benefit of my father, who still wants to believe, after all these years, that I am on some sort of extended vacation… and that my intermittent ecstatic derangements — perhaps the by-product of an exotic brain parasite — will be cured when the vacation ends and I cut my hair and take out comprehensive life insurance and embrace sensible god damn living god damn it.
“What’s a plant diet? Are you trying to lose weight or sumfing?”
The Shipibo people are indigenous to the Peruvian Amazon. They have a rich, well-developed and powerful tradition of shamanism (or plant spirit medicine, known in Peru as curanderismo), of which I am a student. One part of the tradition involves the ceremonial use of the Ayahuasca brew as a means of allowing the curandero (healer, shaman) to channel magical, extra-sensory or normally-imperceptible forms of information (energy, spirits/beings/entities). One of the primary sources of the curandero’s ability to channel is the ‘plant diet’. In its traditional form, the diet is a bit like a contract between the student curandero and a plant spirit: the student agrees to sacrifice his indulgences (stimulating foods and drinks [eg, salt, oil, spices] and activities [eg, sex and socializing] and undertake to create the circumstances for a connection between him and the spirit to flourish (eg, by isolating himself and concentrating / meditating on the plant for a period of time), and the plant spirit (hopefully) teaches the student what the student wants to learn (eg, plant medicine remedies, how to channel energy, how to diagnose people’s imbalances / illnesses in ceremonies). This should not be confused with what is colloquially called the ‘Ayahuasca Diet’ or a ‘Healing Diet’.
Dieting protocol tends to vary from shaman to shaman, and plant teacher to plant teacher. Although there are basic principles which are shared by some traditions (for example, the idea of sacrificing indulgences), there is no strictly-defined approach. In my time as a student, I have dieted plants under different conditions. Some diets have lasted months; others were shorter and more intense. During some diets I spoke and shared space freely with other people; I have also dieted in isolation, in silence. There have been diets during which I have meditated or otherwise tried to connect myself for about an hour each day, and others in which I have immersed myself in meditations for almost the entire day, every day.
The format that seems to be the most effective for me at the moment is to diet for between one and two weeks intensively, that is, in isolation in the jungle, without speaking to anybody, fasting, eating only very simple foods, meditating and connecting with nature for many hours each day. I have come to realize for myself that the duration of a diet is less important than the quality of your attention and commitment during (and after) the diet, that is, how intensely you diet. And at the end of the day, dieting for me is about results, some (not all) of which are measurable.
Dieting, like prayer, is a sacred activity, and for the most part it is a very private affair, so I won’t discuss all aspects of my process. Even so, I’d like to share something of the process as I have experienced it, including a few examples of the fruits it can yield, particularly:
1) ‘shadow self’ inquiry, shedding psychic tension, emotional ‘cooking’;
2) experiences of insight, connection and creativity;
3) deepening of existing spiritual practices; and
4) ‘flow states’, channelling energy / information, holding space for others.
In many ways, the dieting process, at least for me, has much in common with what happens during Ayahuasca retreats and on the spiritual path in general. This is because I regard the dieting process as a way for me to grow myself spiritually.
Ultimately, although it is important to undertake intensive plant diets (or retreats of any kind for that matter) from time to time, I have found that it is just as important to maintain the connection and practices of the diet every day, in the chaos of my ordinary life. It is like maintaining a relationship; you cannot just rely on the vacations and ‘honeymoon’ episodes to keep the jazz going; you need to turn your heart towards your partner each day in a fresh way.
One more thing. This is just my experience. Drinking Ayahuasca and living down here have shown me clearly that … I don’t really know what’s going on, and I can’t claim to have my shit any more figured out than anyone else. In fact, I spend a fair amount of my time in bewilderment, half expecting to be hit by a car and killed… and the deeper I seem to be getting with this path, the less I feel I know. Sometimes I get nervous when I know I shouldn’t, or judge other people, or judge myself, or stare dully at the wall and ask what’s the use of it all, or sob into a hamburger when things don’t go my way. All I can do is… try to be honest with myself, and to listen more often to the heart, that sweet and delicate wound that makes all of this nonsense meaningful when it’s touched…
1. Awareness of ‘shadow self’, shedding psychic tension, ‘cooking’
During the diet one is deprived of one’s usual emotional crutches, such as conversation, food, stimulation and busy-ness. This naturally brings up “shit” — much is reflected about the strange machinery of being human, the patterned psychological conditioning that constitutes the “little mind” or “egoic self” and which drives almost all our behaviour. Mostly this is uncomfortable news, and I do my best to welcome it. Occasionally there are also glimpses of a deeper awareness, what some have called our “true nature” or “big mind”, usually experienced once the fog of the egoic self lifts for a moment or two.
My own experience on the path of… what do you call it… evolution or spiritual development? Not even, as these terms imply some linear progression towards a goal… Ok, on the journey home, the merry-go-vortex of learning to live with less fear and more openness, my experience is in line with Carl Jung’s view that “one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”.
This makes sense if you think of the true nature of the self as a radiant, perfect diamond. Over time, through conditioning, traumas, fear, repression, the diamond gets covered over by mud. Yet it remains a diamond. To return home we need only remove the mud (or look so closely at the mud that the diamond becomes visible). This metaphor is echoed by many religious traditions, including Buddhism — there really is not a single thing to grow, nothing to be enhanced in our true nature; there is only the shedding of illusions, veils and blockages which obscure what is already whole and connected within us. I love the explanation I heard recently of the “ego self” as a “misunderstanding of reality” — and a large part of the spiritual path for me involves becoming so intimate with the games of my egoic self that eventually I (hopefully) identify less with them (ie they possess me less often) and am able to see through them into a deeper awareness, the diamond.
I have felt shadow work to be critical in helping me to be a channel for the energies and spirits of the diet in my daily life, which I feel is just as important as being a channel during ceremony.
To me the case for this kind of self-inquiry is also compelling for another reason: whatever we are not conscious of controls us from behind the scenes, inevitably colouring our motivations, goals, relationships, choices across all areas of life; I have personally spent inordinate amounts of time pursuing projects and relationships that seemed sensible to me, but that I now realize were motivated by, for instance, inadequacy or guilt… How much time, energy and drama could have been spared had I been more in tune with my shadow!
So for me this involves learning to shed light on, accept and rehabilitate / re-parent various aspects of my shadow… that is, the aspects of my self that threaten or undermine the image of my self that I have constructed in order to make me feel secure, confident, adequate (or at least less insecure, unconfident, inadequate).
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” (Samuel Johnson)
In a dream during a recent diet, a coalition of certain shadow self aspects appeared to me in symbolic form…. that of ‘The Penguin’ from the Batman Returns movie (also known as Oswald Cobblepot). Greed, anger, shame, lust, impulsiveness – all the crooked classics are here, everything you need to maintain a modern civilization.
But beyond the revolting leer and pockets oozing sticky-date fudge and fish head chunks, Cobblepot is lonely, outcast and hurt, feels rejected and shamed by society, by god, and really only wants love and acceptance. In my unconscious attempt to cultivate an image of myself as the ‘sensitive, aware spiritual seeker’ (as an antidote to an even more unconscious sense of inadequacy), I have driven my inner children (consciousness modules) into the sewers to become The Penguin, and in so doing have created an enemy, an obstacle to truth and connection with others. My mission has become to rehabilitate the Cobblepot with love, acceptance and understanding, something which I know will take time (and many secret sticky-date fudge puddings) to complete. The essence of this mission is to continuously, on a daily basis, check in with my emotions (by locating them in my body), and provide a loving, understanding ‘container’ or space for those emotions to be as they are, a kind of spiritual re-parenting. I am working at the moment with a combination of Inner Child (or Council) work, The Journey, and the Buddhist practices of maitri (loving kindness), tonglen and Chod (feeding your demons).
In this process of becoming more aware of the shadow, there is also usually a psychic ‘shedding’ that takes place: every negative emotional pattern has, like every emotion or thought, a kind of weight — it burdens the psycho-physical system in some way. When I have had to continually repress anger, for instance, in order not to fabulously murder some fool in an office space in the revealing light of day… when I finish work I am more tired than usual and may have trouble achieving an erection. Lately I have been dealing with my self-judgment complex, and repeated self-judgment certainly has left its burden on my mind and body, and during the diet I felt as though this burden was ‘purged’ to some extent, leaving me clearer and more energetic.
Although awareness and shedding can lead to a resolution or re-processing of shadowy emotional patterns — changing the basic wiring of the program so that one is no longer triggered to behave in the same way — this usually requires daily practice and takes time, years perhaps. And that has to be OK.
However, if in desperation the pilgrim wants to resolve emotional programs more rapidly, he must investigate the technologies of deep-self repatterning, get down and dirty in the trenches – those gurgling, stinkin’ trenches – of limbic brain system revisioning; waltz against the fraying, electrified veil between hopeful consistency and unmitigated chaos; unhinge yourself, grandpa, unhinge yourself good and take the red pill. Some examples of such technologies are psychedelics (eg, Ayahuasca), hypnosis, breathwork, dreamwork and certain forms of meditation and emotional or shamanic journeying. Deep repatterning can also happen spontaneously if conditions are ripe, although this has been very rare for me.
Yet even with these kinds of tools, I have found that a daily practice is critical in order to integrate and grow the wisdom of my experiences, and to be able to support myself as more darkness is dredged to the surface. This has especially held true as regards the Ayahuasca healing process.
“ENOUGH GIBBERING, YOU MOPEY FUCK!
PEOPLE WANNA HEAR ABOUT THE SEXY SHIT !!”)
There, there, Cobblepot, onward we go. So for me, this identification, acceptance and, occasionally, resolution / re-processing of the ‘shadow’ aspects of the self and their attendant psychic burdens is a central aspect of the journey home, and in this regard dieting has been a wonderful kind of washing machine in which I, Cobblepot, spin round and round at disquieting velocities, holding my knees and praying.
And sometimes there is little or no awareness of shadow aspects. At these times I have felt that the Cobblepot has been on ‘simmer’ mode: the space and time of the diet has the effect of ‘cooking’ / incubating / deepening subconscious emotional processes, which can then become ripe for processing at a later stage.
Now excuse me while I stuff my face with this sticky-date pudding and judge myself for doing so…
2. Experiences of insight, connection and creativity
Occasionally it happens. The egoic self, the small mind and its gnome-hive of neurotic machinations, slows, stops, disappears, becomes transparent, is interrupted, or made irrelevant. Some grace descends, some openness implodes, and caresses awake the mystery which, having slumbered as a butterfly in trance, now begins to softly beat its wings in the aching deeps of this homosapian heart.
Like, you are having a stupendous shit behind a fallen tree … and above the sky is generous with rainbow lights leaning; a vulture circles silently; insects undulate on the forest floor; everything decomposing and hunting and fucking, and inside you are stranded, agape and reeling, and there are no words, only trees all around you chattering in tongues about the promise of rain coming,
and there is no separation anymore.
Later you are meditating and out in front of you one bird chases another like “fucking fuck off!” and spontaneously you feel the truth-sense that —
no apology has ever been required for this funky, glistening, meat-stack jiggling creature that you are… every single way that you are is completely alright, completely perfectly alright.
Or maybe you stretch your tired back in the afternoon sun like a stray cat who found half of a tourist’s chicken sandwich in the garbage… taken care of by life, finally at rest… out in front nature sways in vibrant greens and there is no necessary meaning to anything here but what comes through the swaying so clear that you almost feel ashamed for not having realized it before is the imperative to
regard all and everything with tenderness, for now it’s passing.
Another type of experience — not uncommon in the world of the Shipibo plant diet — might be that of a gift from the spirits for use in ceremony, some energetic download, upgrade… a magical map, armour, or roller blades, for instance. Ok I lied about the roller blades; I am yet to receive a pair no matter how many times I ask.
I think of these experiences of insight or grace as a kind of “transmission” from the spirits, or the heart of the world. Ayahuasca herself is particularly good at giving people transmissions during ceremony, for example, experiences of oneness with everything, remembrance of divine love, recognition of perfection of existence, absolute self-love, freaky sex with aliens in a sexy alien jacuzzi… glory to the pineal orgasm in all its variety! I feel that these transmissions will always sink into a space in the heart’s memory, coalesce as blessings, swell, layer themselves in some hidden undertow… which, at some perfect moment in the future, takes you down into another chapter of unfoldment… deeper understandings, knowings, remembrances, ecstasies, agonies, come to life.. and this process keeps happening as you continue down the crooked-ass spiritual path. This is one sense in which transmissions are important.
But transmissions can be so much more valuable if one discovers a way of working with them on a daily basis, of taking the truth-seed experience and nourishing it every day. This might seem obvious, but appears to be largely overlooked by so many people drinking Ayahuasca that I’ve met. The truth is that, by themselves, transmissions are no guarantee that your behaviour or filters to reality will change in the long-term. Sometimes it happens, depending on the nature of the deep-self undertow, but it is relatively uncommon in my experience. Worse still, transmissions (especially the pineal orgasms) are addictive. So people become reliant on them, going from one experience to the next, without really shifting their relationship to life, and build in their minds a story of how they are growing and how special they are for having had these experiences. This is a huge trap in the Ayahuasca scene, and I have time and again fallen teeth-first into it before slowly, reluctantly coming to the view I now have.
So I try (and try again) to regard transmissions as ‘positive side effects / signs’ on the path, rather than something to cling to or seek to repeat.
But god knows they are sweet, so very sweet, and I wish I could just wrap myself up in them and sink into a never-ending stupor of sweetness.
Another aspect of the diet for me is … episodes of spontaneous creativity… it doesn’t always happen, but when it does I feel this curious and distinct kind of quiet joy pepper my brain, this joy of being, of relating with jubilance to the mystery, of expressing all of this to faceless nature alone….
but looking now over my journal it clearly is not all fun and games, and sometimes late nights at the Shack can just as easily turn on you —
“Impermanence blues. I feel somehow more exposed before the spooky ocean of slithering nothingness churned by mother earth joyfully in song, the merciless lullaby of ‘you are really only very small and insignificant; just as you kill those biting moths, so shall you be wiped from the face of this beloved scenario you call life’.”
Indeed. In addition to the loveliness of the flow state… I will at least once or twice during a diet… have a show-down with its un-lovely opposite… which is the not-flow state, also known as constipation, my old companion. This most treacherous of bastards really requires its own entry… on the last diet I had the occasion to sing… for a longer time than I care to admit… sing a song I wrote called “Constipation Ranch”… just sitting there in the jungle singing this song as there was nothing else to do.
3. Deepening existing practices
Even if one were not to diet, just being out in nature somewhere and having the space and time to deepen existing spiritual practices is such a precious gift. Before beginning the dieting process, my only experience of such a space for dedicated spiritual practice was the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat.
Apart from the time spent with a practice, a meditation for example, the dieting space seems also conducive to growth of existing practices, that is, how a practice might be changed, where it is stuck, where it needs to go next. For me this is also confirmation of something that I’ve been learning recently which is… when a thing is given the space to be as it is, it will naturally flourish.
I should add that a few of my central practices are plant connection meditations anyway, so whether I am dieting or not, these practices are continually growing and deepening.
4. Flow states, channelling energy / information; holding space for others
One of my intentions in dieting has been to become more of a channel for information / truth / energy during Ayahuasca ceremonies and as a space-holder for people on our retreats. This is to be more often in a ‘flow state’.
This flow state can be thought of as a kind of dreaming, a trance, in which sensory gates open wider, and deeper meanings can be distilled from the amorphous ocean of information in which we are (unwittingly) immersed. It has also been referred to as heart perception, as it involves reclaiming the feeling sense as a primary mode of experiencing the world… Another term used for this state is coherence, meaning that the various information-processing modules of the body-mind-wobbly-thing are grooving harmoniously together; it is basically a more elegant and effective way of perceiving and processing information, one that is holistic and non-linear, a mode of cognition used by all intelligent, self-organized systems in nature.
It is to be contrasted with the linear, sensorily gated, intellectual / neo-cortical mode of perception worshipped by most schooling, economic and scientific institutions as the pinnacle of human intelligence, and which has, arguably, led the human species to the brink of ruin (!)
… ruuuuuiiiiiiin ….
I have definitely noticed that when I sing in ceremony after a diet I more readily ‘get out of my own way’ and allow spirits and energy to come through me, as opposed to struggle to summon my own energy into the gaping night, to ‘force it’. To anyone who has held ceremony before, that difference is like being ‘on’ instead of ‘off’; when the energy doesn’t flow, singing is more of a struggle and, I feel, less effective; when energy flows, singing is a pleasure, and the frequencies generated are more likely to encourage healing in ceremony participants. Indeed, in the Shipibo tradition, the curandero is not the one doing the healing – it is the spirits and energy forms coming through the curandero that make healing possible.
To me it is important to (attempt to) channel energy as often as I can during ceremony not only because it is a central part of the tradition I am studying (a tradition which has been working with Ayahuasca for many hundreds of years), but also because I have experienced first-hand when a curandero is ‘on’ and when they are not, that is, these days I can perceive the energy coming from the maestro when he is channelling, and I believe that this energy plays a role in the transformation of consciousness. And still for me it is a very slow process; some nights I am on, some not.
Of course the question may fairly be asked: To what extent are the curandero and these energy forms responsible for the transformations people undergo during ceremonies? What is responsible for the healing of the patient in an Ayahuasca ceremony? In my experience with Shipibo curanderos, primacy is given to the role of the maestro: without the maestro, nothing of substance is expected to happen, few (if any) visions should appear, the patient may suffer unnecessarily and is unlikely to heal. With a good maestro, the patient can heal and have magnificent visions and spiritual connections. Minimal importance is given to the will and ability of the patient to heal themselves during ceremony; the patient can make the maestro’s work easier by concentrating on their intention and praying, for example, but ultimate responsibility for the healing lies with the maestro. Indeed, traditionally patients who attended ceremonies did always drink Ayahuasca – the maestro did, for the purpose of diagnosing the patient and channelling energy and spirits, but whether the patient would drink depended on their condition. Ceremony participants drinking Ayahuasca regardless of their condition is a recent phenomenon, encouraged by Western ‘seekers’ and the Ayahuasca tourism industry.
Based on my experiences working with different curanderos and hundreds of retreat participants, I surely do not know the answer to the question. However, it seems to me that there are many factors that play a role in a participant’s experience, and I personally place a lot of weight on the role of the individual (particularly the fire and depth of their intention / prayer for transformation) [more on this in another entry].
Apart from the ceremony space, I’ve also noticed that when I am more connected to this ‘flow state’ or ‘heart perception’ that I am more present for people during our retreats and hold space more effectively; for me it is a state of enhanced information processing and flow, which naturally lends itself to deeper interpersonal communication and perception in general.
Of course learning how to drop into the flow state takes a long time, and there are many people who have more of a natural aptitude for it than I do. I am a gangly hatchling only recently emerged from the sticky trance of linear intellectualism, and my steps are fumbling, nervous, inconsistent. There, there, Cobblepot. But onward I march, because if ever I have felt myself to be a positive influence in this world, it is through the heart, and in the coherence of its (non-linear, chaotic) rhythm I feel closer to fulfilling my evolutionary purposes, whatever they may be.
That’s how it is. The butterflies gather to feast on my urine.