I found myself in the Andean highlands with a small group of pilgrims, getting ready to do huachuma (known in Spanish as San Pedro), a visionary plant medicine that is one of Peru’s master healers.
(Haven’t read part 1 yet? Go here)
I saw the retreat as necessary in a few ways. As I’ve led more yoga retreats for others recently, I knew I needed to get a taste of my own medicine. After the experience of having breast cancer, I placed releasing old patterns, which huachuma is said to be excellent at doing, top on my “recurrence prevention plan.” And finally, while I had gotten smart (read: disciplined) during my cancer period, I had fallen back into old habits, packing in too much work and feeling as stressed as people who stumbled into my classes. I needed off the Ferris wheel; coming here seemed a smart jump-start. And, what better place to do huachuma than here, where it was used in ceremonial healing practice for 1,000 years on the temple grounds of Chavin de Huantar? There were no major wars here for at least 800 of those years. And that’s what I needed. Some peace of mind.
It took me a couple days after our switchback-laden ride from Huaraz, the trekkers’ delight capital of the Ancash region, to get over feeling hungover from the altitude. Coca helped – I did it both chewed and brewed into a strong tea, for the two weeks I was in the Andes. Once you get used to its bitter edge, it’s not bad tasting. It gives you a bit of an up without the wiredness of coffee, and keeps hunger, fatigue, pain and the effects of high-altitude, low-oxygen environments at bay. The leaves are nutritionally dense and chock full of alkaloids (yes, including cocaine, but you can’t chew enough leave to get high, trust me), so it’s good for you. And the gods love ‘em; coca leaves have been used for 8,000 years in ceremonial offerings, as we would during our upcoming huachuma ceremonies.
Since I was busy trying to not feel like shit, preparing for my first ceremony was pretty laid back. I got to know my fellow travelers, did some yoga each day (outside when I could), took long solo walks around town, and journaled each day. I moseyed past gardens halfway hidden behind stone walls, saw teenage boys unloading crates of live chickens and guinea pigs on their way to family farms (called “chakras” in Quechua, perfect and ironic, no?), chatted up a police officer who got off his three-speed bike to open the gate of the town graveyard at dawn, said good morning to women with bowler hats ferociously sweeping interminable dust from cobblestone, smiled at street dogs huddled together in a gentle snooze, and took a look around the inside of a dusty-rose colored sports stadium used just once a year for the annual bullfight festival.
Since my group were largely teetotalers, it was easy enough to give that up too while there, although after our tour of the Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History in Lima’s Pueblo Libre’s district, we did happen to find a craft brewery, Hops, where I enjoyed a cold one for the road. (Most in my group disparaged all drugs including cannabis; my testimony of the amazing benefits of CBDs didn’t move them. Most were at the same time totally cool with Terence McKenna-style “heroic doses” of psychedelics such as peyote and mushrooms.)
I journaled a fair bit, pondering questions such as “what else might be in the realm of not necessary?” I decided that my only intention for our first ceremony would simply to get to know how this particular plant speaks to me, and how I respond to it. I decided to be with it, without fear, and/or to notice where the fear comes up and let myself work with that energy as well.
So much about benefiting from plant medicine is building a psychological safe space for learning. For me, this “safe container” was drawn from several sources:
The person who organized my trip to Peru, Robert Tindall, exudes a spiritual vibrancy and is a bad-ass adventurer and writer; I knew I’d enjoy hanging out with him for a couple of weeks and that his knowledge of Peru would help contextualize our experiences here. (Robert has spent a lot of time in Peru, including an eight-year stint in Tarapoto with his daughter and Chilean psychotherapist wife, who worked in a well-respected natural medicine clinic). Our group was small, which works better for my learning style, and Robert helped us establish context for the medicine by sending us articles Chavin culture before we even arrived in Peru, so we would know, for instance, how it drew from both the coastal desert and the Amazon rainforest. In Lima, he organized a high-level museum tour so we could ground ourselves in the role of plant medicine in their cosmology, and hosted a fascinating conversation over ceviche about sacred spaces led by anthropologist and architect Adine Gavazzi. Adine taught us that every ceremonial center in Peru specialized in either a particular interpretation of a single plant or cocktail in order to provoke a distinct flavor of awakening. The priests-doctors were essentially high-level botanists who understood plants as teachers; their intimate relationship with plants essentially reflected a relationship with knowledge itself.
Who’s growing and making your medicine? And who are doing it with?
Just as Ayurvedic doctors say only eat food that was cooked by love (a la Laura Esquivel – anyone remember Like Water for Chocolate?), so too, you have to be careful about who is making your brew. Our hosts in Peru, Jack and Yngrid, were not what I would have expected, and were perfect. Jack is from Michigan, has lived in Peru for 15 years (except when he’s on his land in the Upper Peninsula), and ran a lucrative antiques business before he became a huachumero. In his early 60s, Jack speaks Spanish with a heavy American accent and he reminds me of the Marlboro man without the smoke – tough, reserved, serious, gentle. He’s also deeply in love with his cacti, which he grows and tends to himself, and prepares in a special way. While most huacumeros mix other plants in (such as willca, a hallucinogen which comes from a plant known as Angel’s Trumpet), Jack is such a purist, he won’t even mix cacti that grow from different mother plants, since he believes that each one has its own signature and therefore healing effect. He is the furthest thing from woo-woo you can imagine, and yet he speaks in terms of “high vibration vs. low vibration (with regards to plants, land, food, and people). Talk with him long enough, and he’ll tell you stories of spiritual adventures while on the medicine. He’s straightforward and knowledgeable and you get a sense that when he’s talking with you, his blue eyes are looking beyond your physical being.
Yngrid, Jack’s vivacious wife, is his perfect complement. She’s Peruvian, and the epitome of feminine energy – curvy, with gorgeous curly black hair, a children’s yoga teacher and clothes designer, into sound healing and dancing and deep laughter; she’s also an oracle with profound insight. Yngrid is someone you’d want to hang out with every day because she brings that much fun to any occasion. Yngrid is the Yin to Jack’s Yang.
They were welcoming and caring, and helped us feel completely safe on and off the medicine. Even on days when we weren’t doing ceremony, they often arranged for our group to hang out together – going to the town’s hot springs, on an outing to a national park, or even just to dinner around the corner.
Doing medicine in community also shifts its effects. Group work tends to be more intentionally designed than when we fly solo. And, just as we now know that trees talk to one another through their roots, doesn’t it make sense that if many bodies imbibe the same plant potion, they will interact differently?
The Land Itself
The effects of huachuma last for 12-14 hours, sometimes even longer. I would hate to be in a confined space (read: anywhere indoors) — or in too public a space with loud people meandering about. We had the best of two high-vibration ceremonial spaces where we met.
Jack and Yngrid have property right on the Mosna River which is patrimonial land, that is no permanent structures can be built on it. It’s been ceremonial space for centuries; on the upper part of the property several enormous boulders have been carefully positioned in a straight line pointing to Pogo, a sacred mountain which lies above the temple grounds, just across the river. He’s contributed a rugged, magical beauty to the land, creating gardens with cactus and flowers and vegetables, hauling in stunning rocks to create a walkable labyrinth and various altars, as well as simple open air and hut-like structures for communal eating and individual resting.
The second ceremonial space was the ground of the temple itself, which we explored intimately, and which seemed to hold the energy of many centuries of prayer and ritual. Located on the banks of the Mosna River, close to where it converges with the Huanchecsa river, Chavin de Huantar was a center not unlike the Oracle of Delphi, Mecca, or Jerusalem, with complex underground labyrinths and water channels. Each part of the temple grounds has its own feel, and we would spend 5 or 6 hours here, sometimes doing nothing more than gazing at a cloud formation as it moved across the sky.
The Ceremony Provides a Safe Container
If you create space, a container, and community around the use of a plant medicine, that context shapes the experience you’ll have. Order is a practice in every spiritual tradition – from Ethiopian coffee ceremonies to a Passover Seder (“seder” actually means “order”)
Having a specific order – a ceremonial or ritualistic way we take the medicine – evokes a larger archetypal view of the experience and invokes within us a visceral understanding of universal themes such as connection, continuity, and reverence. On a personal level, it helps you perceive your life and its peculiar issues from poetic or metaphorical standpoint, which you can then bring to the surface, explore, and then wait to see what insight comes to you. From this larger container, something will come. It might take a while or be immediate – or because you’re incredibly focused on it, you might find the answer mirrored for you in the speech or action of another person, or even an animal.
Our ceremonies created a sacred environment – and provided consistency and support – tailored to the effects of the medicine.
From a yogic perspective, the ceremony itself (by which I mean everything that happened once we were in ceremonial space just before ingesting the medicine, and until its effects wore off 14 hours later) was designed to open the heart center. We were constantly reminded to remember the connection within the community we had created around the medicine, and to be grateful for all it would bring us. The cactus itself reminded me of the heart – think “cactus arms” in yoga when you lightly squeeze the shoulder blades toward each other. That heart focus in and of itself might be one of the most healing aspects of the journey.
I did four ceremonies (I was supposed to do a fifth but got sick the day before the last one and thought it was best to call it quits) and each time, the framework of the ceremony was the same:
We were asked to set an intention – or articulate a wish – of how we wanted to relate to the medicine or what we wanted to get out of the experience. We often did this in our group before we even got to Jack’s land, and then we would keep this in our minds as we got there, and walked the labyrinth to the altar which he set up with a special fabric and stones and shells and a ceremonial cup for the cactus. We could add to the altar with whatever we found meaningful and wanted to give heartfelt energy to. Coca leaves were passed around and we always took three which we would whisper or “blow” our intentions into.
One by one, we cleansed our energetic bodies – one person was in charge of doing this with palo santo (which is native to this part of the world and has a sweet smell); a second person drummed to cleanse our auras.
We then prayed in the four directions holding onto our 3 leaves of coca and with two conches in our group. These directions include their own archetypes and energies which are slightly different in every culture; I tended to gravitate toward the Jewish version since it’s the most familiar for me.
One by one, Jack would offer us medicine, giving us the amount he felt would be most beneficial to us. Everyone repeated their intentions and prayers, silently. When it was others’ turns, we’d all wish them the best, almost like a form of metta practice. Here I’ll say that Jack prepares his medicine like a smoothie, and it is one of the most vile things I’ve ever had to get down.
Then, we’d pass around a bottle of homemade agua de florida made with the cactus and a blend of aromatherapy essences and we’d put a little on top of our heads, on our bellies and kidneys for protection.
We’d wander around Jack’s land a bit – I’d often go and do some yoga or journal – and then we’d pile into a van and go across the river to the Temple for the next phase of the ceremony, which usually lasted about 5-6 hours.
We stuck together, but loosely so, with everyone within visual sight, but having their own experience. We would walk down toward the river there too and meditate and listen to the water for about an hour, while the medicine took effect. We’d meander to the large open air main plaza, where Yngrid would do an oracle reading for a different person each ceremony. Sometimes we had to stay out of the way of tourist groups who’d come through, sounding like Disney characters. We’d lie in the sun following cloud formations, or walk around the edges of the sunken plaza praying to the directions, or checking out llamas who were checking us out, or head to the center of the plaza and connect our hearts to it. Eventually, we’d walk up through each part of the temple complex – the falcon steps, the underground labyrinths, the jaguar heads.
We’d head back to Jack’s for the third part of the ceremony, fire. We’d lay around it, drinking mate de coca, creating music with rattles and drums, or just stare at the burning embers. Throughout the evening, people would pray into coca leaves that then got thrown into center; we’d watch them turn into flame. I spent hours staring at the wood transform into colors and disintegrate. Eventually, we’d eat a bowl of quinoa and veggie soup to help us ground. While there wasn’t a lot of sleeping (coming down from huachuma can feel a bit jumpy), a few would doze around the fire; others would head off around midnight to our huts and rest.
What did I experience?
While I did have some hallucinations during my third ceremony with a particularly potent vintage, the medicine mostly turned up the volume to ordinary scenes around me. I could sense energy more plainly, including how others felt, and there was a technicolor hue to the grass and sky. A musician accompanied our group and throughout the day, he would play pensive tunes on one of several instruments he brought with him. Especially at the temple grounds, these songs seemed to carry for miles and carried me elsewhere. Unhurried, I could stay for hours exploring shapes in cloud formations, the interplay of light and shadow in the layers of fields built upon steep heights, awestruck by the beauty of homes built into mountain crevices, or the faces I would see in the fire, melting away with the night.
The first ceremony is supposed to be a detox and I did experience some pain around the back body and my gallbladder. I was also under the weather for a day or so afterward – low fever, dizziness, exhaustion.
Much is hard to put into words, since my experiences were more states of mystical knowing, making connections between parts of my life that I had never done before. But I’ll share one moment.
During my second ceremony, as I sat by the river on the side of the temple grounds, I imagined where its waters came from; the locals believed a venerated source atop a sacred mountain. I started to think about my own blood, and where it came from. Since I was a child, I have felt displaced from some imaginary home that was better than the one I got, and a deep sense of what a dear friend called a “strongly internalized sense of Otherness.” I lived with the result of what happens when people feel too much of a sense of belonging – call it groupthink or entitlement or orthodoxy or the herd instinct. It was obvious where my skepticism of belonging came from: my family’s history of having the culture in which they grew up essentially exterminated and being geographically and culturally displaced. (Jews are also famously into the “other” – treating the other [aka the stranger] as you would yourself, welcoming the stranger, and the like. Somehow, I had embodied it as a master archetype.)
In listening to the river rush over rocks, I started to hear a voice, or maybe it was just a thought, steady and sure in my own head – say that I too drew from a sacred source, and that all the ancestors I never knew, starting with my grandparents, and the ones before them were good and noble and I had that within me too. They had brought me here and were with me always, the voice said. And somehow, I believed them, in a way that no amount of previous meditations trying to connect myself with my dead people had done. I was with a group of relative strangers, but I no longer felt alone.
How Yoga Helped
Even though this was my first journey with a psychedelic at the ripe age of 48 (unless we count that time in Amsterdam where I was too impatient for the brownie to take effect and smoked an entire joint by myself, which resulted in my floating in and out of Lalaland for eight long hours), I felt wholly prepared from years of yoga and meditation.
Yoga teaches self-regulation. (You know how when you feel like shit, shit keeps happening to you? Part of the problem is you. Self-regulation helps you act in line with your own best interests and deepest values). It also gives you a sense of agency – an implicit sense that you are at home in your body and your life, and your actions matter.
I felt clearly that I was working with the medicine, as much as the medicine was working on me.
When the medicine suddenly rose, I could breathe through it and learn from these moments. When I got distracted by busloads of loud tourists, I practiced focusing. I could set and reset intentions, practice metta with strangers and new friends, know when my body needed to move and when pushing through was really just pushing away. I knew how to explore the nuances of different stages of consciousness I’d tap into. Using the power of observation, I played with techniques to change that consciousness too, from sound to visualization to more active and receptive states, not unlike my yin and yang yoga practice.
Because of a lifetime of exploring spiritual technologies, I preferred to stick to a minimally effective dose, which meant what could be enough for a good trip without overwhelming my capacity to cope. (I’m not talking about microdosing here, which is another interesting take on psychedelic use.) I enjoy my medically prescribed cannabis at a lower dose than my doctor thinks would be therapeutically beneficial, but knowing how sensitive I am, I followed sage advice from my dispensary: “go low and slow.”
(Most of the men in my group, as well as the Americans, seemed to prefer taking copious or “heroic” amounts. The gendered and cultural differences may be explained in part by how we tend to process experiences. Those of us who have a regular reflective practice, and those who need to get their minds blown off in order to be present with what they’re carrying in their hearts.)
Yet even with my idea of variety and dosage as being paramount, I still got thrown for many curves – being so altered that I spent at least 7 hours barely being able to talk (speech seemed too external) and holding onto a perfectly smooth stone for dear life for at least 10 hours. My honey had found it in a creek close to home, and I’ve carried it with me since then. Somehow, I felt like I was holding my sanity and sense of identity in my palm along with the stone, while the rest of my body was in a time and space travel zone.
Having a sense of agency meant that I was aware what was happening to me and, just like in lucid dreaming, with practice, I could stay in the journey, even take the journey to new heights, while using my years of yoga. Even while staying perfectly still.
Integration is as Important as the Experience
While the experience of the medicine – and the beautiful Andes – was itself interesting and even connective, what I found more important was how to being it back into my everyday life (much as how we’re always trying to bring yoga off the mat).
I didn’t immediately notice any shift in myself, which was disheartening. I spoke to everyone – Robert, Jack, Yngrid, other members of the group. I thought maybe I was doing the medicine wrong. I couldn’t figure out what, if anything, within me had been healed. I considered that it was an unusual high, but perhaps little else. I felt disappointed in myself, believing I was superficial enough to be concerned with the perceptual effects of the medicine and unable to sense anything moving within me at a more profound level.
A couple of weeks after I arrived home, I remembered: this has played out in my life before. I found a pattern, which helped me relax into the “nothing major happened” feeling – and write my way out of it.
At 30, I took a very different pilgrimage to visit the birthplace of my father and his family, the city where he grew up, and Auschwitz, one of the camps my mother was interned and where her family was killed upon arrival. It was an incredible experience, but not an easy month. When I met Poles who asked me what I was doing in their country, I’d tell them, and most often, their next question was “and what else are you doing here?” There was a sense that my purpose for being there – to understand where my parents came from, and what they carried with them to the United States – was not enough. And it made me feel like no matter how far I journeyed to figure out who I was and what I was connected to, I was not enough.
The month I spent in Poland, a friend of mine – a performance artist and arts organizer – stayed in my apartment. Three days I got home, over coffee, Elia looked at me and said point-blank: “You need to write about what happened in Poland.”
“Nothing happened there. I didn’t learn as much as I thought I would. Didn’t feel so much either. It was nice, but not what I thought it would be. Kind of a bummer.”
She kindly but firmly told me that she didn’t buy it, and would do anything in her power – wake me up early with a mug of java in her hand, tie me to my desk, make excuses to my boss about why I couldn’t go to work, whatever it took – to get me to write.
Her threat worked. I spent the next few months writing different versions of essays about the experiences. It was the writing itself that helped me figure out what I had learned and helped shape that month into a pivotal chapter in my life. The experience jump-started years of writing essays and poetry that ultimately helped me revise even my earliest and most fundamental understandings of my legacy and how I might transform it.
In Chavin, I realized later, I had played out this same pattern again – convinced that I had not been affected by something powerfully effective. And I never would have realized this, had I not taken the time to integrate the experience.
For many of us who invest regularly into doing our inner work, the lessons of any one experience, psychedelic or not, might not be earth-shattering. Subtlety is often the name of the game. For me, integration is as important as the experience.
Just like you can just go to yoga class and check it off your to-do list, you can have a cool trip and dive back into your patterns without examining them. Or, you can take the time to digest these liminal experiences at a deeper level and refine how you’ve been composing your life.
For me, the best way to integrate is to limit screen time and do more yoga, more writing, and more walking in the woods. I needed a lot more alone time – and rich conversations with people who are like-minded or simply love me — and clean and healthy food. Two friends from my Chavin retreat said they needed to go home to their small city backyard and plant seeds – literally, and by being engaged in positive ways in their neighborhood. I taught my regular schedule – in fact, led two workshops within 48 hours of landing – but I also signed up for a yoga retreat a week after returning home, trimmed out unnecessary social or work meetings, and spent a lot of time in my garden and the woods.
However you do it, make time to reflect and digest your experience. It’s just like with good food – if you eat the best, but don’t assimilate and absorb it, you might as well be hitting Mickey D’s every day.
Would I do it again?
Yes, but not in a yoga studio where someone might purge on my mat. (By the way, since so many of you asked, no, you don’t generally puke on huachuma.) I loved doing the medicine in the place where it was traditionally used and with nurturing guidance and a terrific small group. Since returning home, I have felt calmer and more hopeful than ever before. I feel like I’m on a roll, as though something inside me has shifted. The stresses are just that, mild annoyances, but they don’t seem to stick. Others have taken notice and I’ve been surprised by the opportunities that have come my way since.
Journeys don’t come to an end when you walk over your threshold.
There is no “back to reality.”
Whatever journey you want to embark upon in your own life, psychedelic or otherwise, remember that you have agency and have enormous and transferable skills you can use in any new situation.
Or, as one dear friend and student shared when she read an earlier draft of this blog, perhaps there have been meaningful experiences you’ve had in the past that you weren’t quite ready to delve into. How might you revisit these now in order to integrate all the pieces of your rich and messy life? You are the sum of your experiences PLUS how you reflect and integrate those. Transformation doesn’t always take the form of a series of mind-blowing, exotic adventures; often it’s the little ways we come back into our ordinary lives, just a little bit more elevated in our everyday states of consciousness, that can make all the difference.