The teachings of ayahuasca…

This is a guest post written by the beautiful Kate Liston-Mills. She’s an author, journalist, and passionate advocate of the Panboola wetlands. You can read more of her work on her site Kate Liston-Mills.

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There is an ancient brew called ayahuasca (pronounced eye-o-wosca), which you may have heard of, consisting of two plants that come from the Amazon rainforest. And there is an Australian man called Bobby Wade who comes from a smallish town on the Far South Coast of NSW called Merimbula. And that is where this story begins.

Bobby Wade, after leaving high school joined the army. He found himself posted to volatile and war-savaged destinations like Afghanistan. It was somewhere amidst the gunshots, daily gruel and bombs, Bobby found himself somehow drawn to a country far away, dreaming of an ancient medicinal plant he’d never heard of before.

Bobby now lives just outside Medellín, which is the second largest city in Colombia, located in the Aburrá Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains in South America. Bobby and I had our interview via Skype and during the one and half hour meeting I couldn’t get over how healthy he looked, so cleansed I could almost see his pristine, perfect liver through his shirt. He was a fitting advertisement of vigour and contentment. The main thread of our conversation was ayahuasca. I’d heard of this plant but definitely not in the reverent or educated way in which Bobby discussed it.

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“This is the view from one of our retreat houses” Photo courtesy of Bobby Wade.

It was like listening to a fairy or elf speak about his magical abode in Neverland: “I have a four bedroom house with an organic garden and natural spring water. The elevation is about 2,300 metres, something like that.”

Bobby said his friend and business partner also had a mountain home, which was about 10 minutes away… So, it sounded like quite the enchanted commune.

Dreamy. Serene, I thought… I kept getting images of the wise Bobby cupping cold water in his hands from a babbling spring and drinking it, then wandering over to his garden to pick a green bean from it’s stem, snapping it apart as if he was cracking a cold beer.

Bobby said the whole idea of the centre was the ten-day retreats, combining not only ayahuasca but also a thing called San Pedro cactus, which is a cactus that grows in the Andes, of Bolivia and Peru and Ecuador.

“And we also have a Native American sweat lodge,” he said pricking my intrigue.

So what exactly is the appeal of ayahuasca and how does it work?

According to Bobby, before you take ayahuasca you have to thoroughly prepare yourself.

“You have to go on a special diet, you can’t have cheese or dairy or red meat, or pork. You can’t have sex… there are a lot of limitations leading up to the ceremony. The preparation is a minimum of three days,” he said.

My initial thoughts were, why? Why do all this, give up sex, give up cheese (!) just to take some plant?

Bobby was about 23 when he first experienced ayahuasca. Perhaps spurred on by his time spent in the army, he recalls his first experience as something like a calling; he felt “he needed to experience it”.

“ It was like a combination of, I mean it’s hard to put into words, but it was like a confusion, a sickness, oneness and euphoria. I felt at that point in my life I was wanting to explore different realms of consciousness…”

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Photo courtesy of Bobby Wade.

Ayahuasca has been used as a medicine for thousands of years by the indigenous people of the Amazon, to heal, learn and create overwhelming feelings of love, clarity, purity and self-understanding in the user. The medicine is supposed to be used under the guidance of a shaman and often results in the user purging, ejecting all unwanted, un-needed and unclean entities from the body.

“There’s a lot of purging physically, there’ll be throwing up, people can do all kinds of things. Everyone’s different,” Bobby said of his time running retreats in the Aburra Valley.

The term ayahuasca is Quechuan for “vine of the soul” or “vine of the spirits” and is the combination of two plants native to the Amazon rainforest: Banisteriopsis caapi (vine) and the leaves of the Diplopterys cabrerana (bush). Before the medicine is consumed the shaman prays and sings over the plants for many days while they cook in water over fire. It is said to be these prayers that dictate the healing qualities of the medicine.

The way in which Bobby spoke of the plants oozed reverence and holiness, like their lineage and power could change the world. And maybe it can.

So, now when I take it, because I’m studying with the plant, it’s more like a meditation. The more you take, the cleaner you become and the more (you get) used to the plant being inside you… and there’s a lot more visions. Every ceremony is like you’re going to class, like it’s study time. You’re learning. It’s not like hey, let’s go trip out, let’s take these plants. It’s more like, let’s go in there and sit in silence by the fire. Let’s study what we have to study inside us or what the plant wants to teach us, about this world or other dimensions.”

So it’s not the party fix that you may imagine. In fact, with the purging accounts it may well be the last thing you want at a party! It is believed by the indigenous communities and indeed shamans throughout the Amazon that ayahuasca contains the spirits of all other flora, fauna and water sources of the jungle. As a medicine it is believed to have the potential to open new realms of creativity and to break cognitive and behavioural patterns and Bobby indeed is evidence of this belief.

“The plant has taught me a lot. It’s taught me how to identify certain habits or problems that I have in my life now. I’ve been able to find the root cause, which may have occurred in childhood. It’s completely curbed my alcohol abuse.”

Bobby raved of the medicine’s positive effects on his life, including extra love and happiness and perspective. But he also warned ayahuasca is not a magic pill that instantly makes everything right.

“You take it and you’re taught things and if you don’t apply them in your day-to-day life, then the next time you take it you won’t receive any more information or knowledge.”

“There’s a lot of purging physically, there’ll be throwing up, people can do all kinds of things. Everyone’s different. The more you take, the cleaner you become and the more used to the plant being inside you… and there’s a lot more visions.” –Bobby Wade

Bobby is clearly committed and dedicated to the two shamans who work with him; he is clearly committed to the ancient ideologies and is putting in the hard yards participating in vision quests and learning more about the deep healing qualities of the ancient medicines.

“One of the requirements (to running our own sweat lodge ceremonies) is we have to complete four vision quests, which we started last year. And the vision quests mean that we go into the forest by ourselves for four days and we have a support team but we don’t see anyone and we’re there for four days and four nights, no food, no water. So we have a small area where we sit. Last year there were 18 of us, with no food and no water and we were there connecting. It was powerful. It gave me a really new appreciation for water. Going four days without water is incredible. So (now) every morning I wake up and I have a glass of water and I pray on it. I’m like, thank you for this water. It made me understand that this society that we live in takes things for granted. We’re all so worried about houses and getting the newest car and iPhone, but if we don’t have water for a week we’re gone.”

It was here I reflected on an experience in my life where I had to go almost a full day without water at a particular workplace, which I won’t mention here. I went home with a migraine and the agony lasted well into the following day even after I had downed several waters. I remember the veracity with which I swallowed those first few gulps of water at the end of that day. I don’t remember thanking anyone for that water. All I remember doing was cursing that workplace and vowing never to return there. This dichotomy is the problematic ideology with which we live that Bobby refers to. This attitude was a result of my own consumerist society and the plain fact that I believe in my own entitlements and rights. I believe I have a right and am entitled to water, which may be so, but a right denied to so many. I suppose I am

This dichotomy is the problematic ideology with which we live that Bobby refers to. This attitude was a result of my own consumerist society and the plain fact that I believe in my own entitlements and rights. I believe I have a right and am entitled to water, which may be so, but a right denied to so many. I suppose I am a lucky and (somewhat) pretentious product of my country where clean and free water flows ubiquitously from every tap. I have visited India and helped buy a large water tank for a remote community there. Before the tank the children at the school had to walk 14 kilometres there and back every morning just to collect clean drinking water for the school. Giving thanks for such an invaluable product is something I’ve encountered before but it still hadn’t worked its way into my schema…

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“This is a photo of our group and some of the participants on our last retreat.” Photo courtesy of Bobby Wade.

“Every ceremony is like you’re going to class, like it’s study time. You’re learning. It’s not like hey, let’s go trip out, let’s take these plants. It’s like let’s go in there, sit in silence by the fire, and let’s study what we have to study inside us or what the plant wants to teach us, about this world or other dimensions.” –Bobby Wade, retreat owner.

The lineage and wisdom of the ancient healers was discussed numerous times, especially the intense and extreme preparation involved with becoming a shaman. But despite his evident commitment to the medicines and lifestyle Bobby laughed at the idea of becoming one himself.

His business is centred around the knowledge, expertise and leadership of two shamans, and their vision is sacred and cleverly constructed.

“The idea is that we work with two medicine men, or shaman. They’re from South America and my two friends are from North America and I’m from Australia. The name of the organisation is the Eagle Condor Alliance. What that represents is that the eagle in Native American stories represents the head: the logic thinking, the rational brain and it also represents the north. The Condor represents the south, which is the heart, the intuition, the femininity. So the north is like the masculine and the south is the feminine. And there’s a prophecy that’s well known through all the indigenous communities of the Americas…”

The way he talked during this response made me feel like I was at one of the sacred ceremonies and had fallen under a deep, enchanted spell. The magic of his tone and words sparkled through the computer screen. I was hanging on each word…

“The prophecy states that one day, which is soon, the eagle and the condor will fly together, meaning that people will not only be in their heads, and not only be in their hearts but they will combine the two and come together to step into a new way of living, which we’re seeing. That’s why we’ve called our foundation, our project, the Eagle Condor Alliance because in a way we are living that prophecy because we are the north and they are the south and we are coming together.”

Bobby pointed out that people have started to wake up and become more aware of their food, and their destruction of the planet. Cue every green smoothie, organic, raw food, no sugar, permablitzing fad that has cruised through our consumer driven landscape in the past five years.

At the time of the Skype interview Bobby was visiting the city and you could hear the sirens and din of city life carrying on in the background. It was a stark contrast to the discussions we’d being having; discussions of such gravitas and deep thinking that I felt like I needed a quick swig of straight vodka. But that I guess was counterproductive to our chatter.

“People are starting to wake up more and be more aware of their food, and their destruction of the planet and everything like that. That’s why we’ve called our foundation, our project, the Eagle Condor Alliance because in a way we are living that prophecy because we are the north and they are the south and we are coming together.” –Bobby Wade.

The Eagle Condor Alliance is also running its own sweat lodges, hence the vision quests. Bobby has to complete four vision quests to be ‘qualified to run sweat lodge ceremonies. According to Bobby, a sweat lodge is like a wooden dome, which they used to put animal fur over, so inside the dome is completely dark.

“You go in there and sit there and they bring in hot rocks from a fire and they pour water over the hot rocks so it’s like a very intense sweating experience. It’s dark and really hot. There’re a lot of emotions that can come out. It brings out a lot of fear in people.”

Sweat lodges and medicines do sound like an extreme way to learn. But if you’re travelling why not find time for these ancient methods to heal you, find love and rediscover yourself. Travel itself can teach people all sorts of fantastical wonders and lessons, arming people with wisdom and fresh perspective.

“A lot of the shamans here believe that the world is on the verge of a huge purge, a natural purge and only the people who are connected to the planet will survive. That’s what they say. For me if I was to move back to Australia now, I would definitely be more connected to the earth, I would definitely be growing my own food, trying to collect rainwater, give a lot of gratitude for food. You know I eat chicken and fish and I would try to get organic or just go fishing myself. I think everyone needs to become more sustainable and depend less on supermarkets. We need to be more independent and more grateful for these sacred elements that we have.”

It made me understand that this society that we live in takes things for granted. We’re all so worried about houses and getting the newest car and iPhone, but if we don’t have water for a week we’re gone.”

So what are the main lessons Bobby has discovered that we can implement in our lives now:

  • Become more sustainable – “We need to depend less on supermarkets.”
  • Grow your own garden and connect with nature – “Everyone can grow some sort of garden, even if it’s a small herb garden or a large backyard garden, there’s always room to improve your life and connect to nature”.
  • Pray and give thanks – “A lot of prayer. Prayer is very important in indigenous communities. Not prayer in what we’re used to in mainstream media but more as if it’s a manifestation of things we want. It involves smoking tobacco. Not inhaling tobacco but just puffing tobacco and thinking beautifully and positively. I’ve met shamans who say the reason the world is so sick is because so many people are smoking tobacco, which is a very powerful plant, and when they’re smoking they’re thinking bad thoughts and they’re projecting that negativity onto this reality. So if you don’t want to smoke tobacco that’s fine but I think a lot of prayer is good. Just wake up and say thank you for my life. Thank you for this breath that I have. Thank you for this glass of water. Thank you for the sun rising today. Gratitude has helped me a lot to appreciate the people I have around me and to not take people for granted. To understand that life is short and it can be cut at any moment, any day, and that there is more to life than a big bank account. It’s more about a feeling, it’s more in my heart. For me personally I feel at home here (in Colombia­) 100 per cent, I feel so content with what I’m doing. At the same time I don’t take it for granted. I know that I’m blessed to walk this path in my own respect, but at the same time I’m not telling everyone to move to South America and start drinking ayahuasca … we can all live this lifestyle; there are so many forms of spirituality available to us. We need to be more independent and more grateful for these sacred elements that we have.”
  • Contribute to your community: “Start community projects, like shared gardens”.
  • Learn more about indigenous cultures – “The indigenous culture of Australia is very misunderstood. I think people’s perceptions of Aboriginals are based on a minority that they see in the streets, major cities or towns… they don’t see the real communities that are still living the ancestral way, who have so much ancient wisdom and knowledge that we’re still unaware of.”

To understand that life is short and it can be cut at any moment, any day, and that there is more to life than a big bank account. It’s more about a feeling, it’s more in my heart.”

You can read more or learn how you can become involved in the Eagle Condor Alliance at http://eaglecondoralliance.com/

Further reading…

Shamans: According to Bobby, to become a shaman you’ve got to be very disciplined and you’ve got to isolate yourself in the jungles and spend 4-5 years down there learning. The lineage that Eagle Condor Alliance follows is very strict, very disciplined and very true to the origins. They have two shamans who run the ceremonies and share visions: Greison Leonidas Lezama, who discovers, prepares and cures with ayahuasca, and Gonzalo Aguila Garcia, who is the vision quest leader, sun dancer and healer with ayahuasca, san pedro cactus, peyote and temazcal.

According to Bobby, Gonzalo is Colombian and is a very wise man. “He’s almost like a grandfather to us. He’s very funny but at the same time very disciplined and very wise.” Gonzalo has a wife and child and lives in the mountains, completely dedicated to healing. He’s been learning about the medicines for twenty years.

Bobby says the other shaman, Gremo, is very young – 26 in fact. Gramo decided when he was 7 years old that he wanted to be a shaman… an old Cofan Indian in the jungle in Putomayo, which is the Amazon part of Colombia, adopted Gremo at seven years old, raised him as his own and taught him to be a shaman. According to Bobby, Gremo has been drinking ayahuasca from the age of seven. And Bobby says that’s not uncommon, he’s seen babies drink it. Bobby believes it would be a very euphoric experience for children because they’re very young and often haven’t lived through traumatic events. Often they don’t have any fears he said. “They’re kids, they’re just full of love… Compared to an adult who’s like 50 years old and has been through a divorce and loved ones dying, they let go of all that baggage, so it’s completely different.”

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