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  • Calista Ocean

The river, the jungle, and the darkness

"O sisters, let's go down, Let's go down, come on down

O sisters, let's go down. Down in the river to pray"

~ Alison Krauss

It's my turn to drink. I stand up and softly walk across the wooden floor of the maloka (ceremonial hut) to kneel in front of the curandero (healer). He pours the Ayahuasca into a small chalice. It is thick, like honey, but deep brown.

I thought I'd be afraid. Of the jungle. Of this moment. I'm not exactly sure what I feel, but it's not fear. Perhaps nervous excitement or longing. It's quiet - inside my body. In the jungle. I can't even hear the sound of the river anymore.

He hands me the cup. I raise it to my lips. The Medicine has a bitter taste, like dark chocolate, but not sweet. It makes me think of soil that's been dampened by decomposing leaves and sour fruit. Although it's only a few ounces, I have to drink three times to empty the cup. Each sip fills my mouth and clings to my throat when I swallow.

I walk back to my mattress and lean against the wall of the maloka, staring at the yellow-gold candles and the massive crystal in the center of this sacred circle.  My chest is warm and I can feel my stomach tighten.  I breathe deeply and wait for the others to drink.  Someone blows out the candles and the dark of night washes over me.  I can hear the river again, and the sounds of insects chirping in the trees.  The curandero starts to sing.  The ceremony has begun...

It seemed like there was an order to all that happened during the ceremonies.   There was a story that was telling itself in my body - a story of myself that the jungle was singing to me and singing through me.  The story wasn't chronological though, and it's difficult to put into words.

Each time I've tried to describe the sensations, insights, sounds and images to someone - it feels like I'm trying to capture the river in a coffee cup. So, I'll pour the water from the coffee cup back into the river and ask you to step into it with me. Let's feel the cool water wash over our feet and I'll share pieces of the story with you. I'll drop them like leaves into the river, and we can watch them tumble and float around our ankles before the current carries them away.

The gift. Listening to the icaros (songs to the plant spirits) that the curandero sang to us, I waited for something to happen. He whistled birdsongs and the sound of wings beat the nighttime air. He called to the mother trunk, to the budding leaves, and the fragrant flowers. He called to 'Cielo Ayahuasca' and bade the "pura medicina" to shine.

I wasn't seeing any "psychedelic" visuals, but I was deeply relaxed.  I curled into a fetal position and floated in the womb of Ma (the name my heart associates with the Divine Feminine).  A conversation flowed through my body; the songs around me became far-off lullabies.

"You are safe here," Ma whispered.  

I pulled a soft, cotton wrap around my body, like a cocoon.  It was two-yards of material that my mother had given to me for my birthday.  It was a practical gift.  When she'd given it to me, I'd admired the pretty pattern of blue on white and the softness of it.  However, I'd also judged that it was rather heavy and bulky; it felt like one more thing to try to cram into a backpack that was already too full.  Now, in this moment, I was thankful for its warmth, its softness, and the perfect way it stretched around me and held me on my journey.  As I lay there in the dark, I felt it  become the love of my mother.  I was wrapped in her love, and it was a love that was beyond the spoken love that we share.  It was a deeper, unspoken love that had no stories about times that we'd hurt each other and no regard for the differences in how we see the world around us.  It reached across and through any emotional and geographic distance between us.  There was nothing but love.  Everything else fell away.

I was filled with a profound  gratitude for her carrying me into this world through her body, and doing her best to guide me through this world despite her own pain and fears.  I saw images of her (and my father) holding my hands when I pushed my own daughter into this world.  I could see and feel my mother's presence beside me as I woke from my breast cancer surgery earlier this year.  I wept with joy.  And I wept with sadness for the times I hadn't appreciated the gifts she had given me.

The seed (aka the other gift).  The conversation continued.  It carried me further and further downstream, and dropped me into a cold pool.  I recognized the chilliness - it was the fear that I'd brought with me to offer to Ma.  I called out to her.

"Ma, please don't let the breast cancer come back.  Please take away this fear.  I'm tired of carrying it around with me.  It's too heavy."

"But why would I take it back?" she asked me with a tenderness in her voice.  "It was a gift."

And then an image surfaced in my mind.  I was holding the fear in my hands.  It was a seed, the size of a mango pit, but shiny like a popcorn kernel.  I looked closer and turned it over.  It became a tiny mirror reflecting back to me the extraordinary beauty of my life and of the world I live in.  I realized that my fear wasn't about illness or dying, but rather a sadness about the things I'll leave behind me someday.  My fear was just a reminder to notice the beauty, and to keep noticing it.  I planted the seed in my heart, trusting it to flower into gratitude.  It didn't feel heavy anymore.

The psychedelic part.  The Ayahuasca affected me more quickly the night of the second ceremony.  Shortly after the candles were extinguished, the beams of the hut above me became a flower, reaching down to wrap around me and pull me up into its center.  It seemed like I was looking at the flower through a filter, a transparent honeycomb pattern.  Colors of light traced the edges of some of the sections of honeycomb.  Then the hut dissolved and became darkness - black and infinite.  There was no end to it.  Lights moved through the the river of darkness - more honeycombs and swirls and spirals of pink, blue, red, and purple.  All around me, I could hear the river and the curandero singing and the night sounds of the jungle.  I felt my body dissolving.   At first, I was afraid.  My body tightened and my breath became more shallow.  The outline of the hut came back into focus until I breathed deeply and let my body soften.  The vast emptiness opened up again.  I let myself dissolve this time and was carried away into river of light and darkness.  I was no longer separate from it.  I was no longer separate from anything.

The cage.  In that darkness, the only image I saw was a cage.  I recognized it as the one I keep my heart in.  I leave it unlocked, so that I can fly from time to time, but I always return to its safety when I feel tired or frightened.  The bars are strong.  They're made from the patterns I keep repeating to reinforce them - ways of being to ensure that others will like me, that I belong, that I'm "normal".  But my freedom is outside of the cage, and that is where my song lives.  It sings itself through me each time I have the courage to fly.

In my journal, I'd written about this cage.  I'd asked Ma to show me how to get rid of it so that I would no longer be tempted to return.  I longed for an uncaged life, an uncaged heart.

Now I saw the cage above and around me in the lush, green jungle.  Leafy vines began to wrap themselves around the bars, winding themselves up toward the fractals of light.  The cage would be dissolved.  It wasn't my effort that would get rid of it.  There was nothing I needed to do except trust and allow. 

Purging.  I knew that purging was part of the process, and I knew that the spirit of the plant would help me let go of whatever needed to be released in order to heal.  I have to admit that the first night I started to get arrogant.  I heard others purging, but I felt great!  I told myself that my body and mind were strong enough to hold the medicine within me, but the Ayahuasca would not be contained.  Each night there came a time to purge - to let go.  After each purge, there was a lightness.  A sense of relief.  There was more space inside of me for beauty and connection and swirling lights and darkness and singing crickets and the current of the river.

The third and final ceremony happened mostly within the container of my body.  There was still a visual component.  The lights and geometric shapes swirled in the dark above me, but my body didn't dissolve into them this time.  Instead, I could feel the plant medicine moving through me.  It wasn't painful, but it was incredibly intense and unpleasant.  The only way I can think of to describe it was the sensation you get in a part of your body that has fallen asleep - tingling, heat and pin pricks.  Only it wasn't part of my body.  It was ALL of it.  

I reminded myself to relax into it, but a few times it became so intense that I grabbed my bucket and sat up, hoping to purge and feel the lightness again.  But the Medicine wasn't done with me yet.  There was no purge.  I laid back down and reminded myself to allow and trust.  To trust the Medicine.  To trust Ma. 

The intensity continued.  It felt like an electrical storm was moving through my body, physically jolting me.  Tremors ran through my legs, my arms, and up my spine to my shoulders.  It was almost time to purge.  I could feel it.

Just then, one of the assistants knelt beside me and invited me to the center of the maloka for the cleansing song.  We would receive it as a group tonight.  I felt shaky and panicked, but allowed myself to be guided toward the center of the hut to join the others.   

We sat in a circle and held hands.  The men on either side of me gripped my hands tightly.  It felt like they were helping to hold me up as the curandero sang for us.  I stared into my bucket which looked like a swirling black hole filled with twinkling pink and purple stars.  The music washed through me and I heard another man in the group begin to purge.  I let go of the hands that held mine.  It was time.  The men on either side of me each placed a hand on my shoulder while I vomited.  When I was done, I shuddered and welcomed the lightness in.  Then I reached for their hands and and re-joined the the sacred circle of strangers-become-friends.  I was connected again - to myself, to these beautiful traveling companions, to the jungle, and to life.


"You are safe here," she whispered.

"I know," I answered.  "I know I am."  In the darkness of the jungle, I heard the river and I heard my heart singing.


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