How an ancient shamanic ritual gave me insight into disease
Ismael Romero Ochanavo Sanchez seems like an unlikely shaman from the Amazon. As he steps into the house, I see him remove cool looking sports shoes - the ones with an additional flap over laces. He’s dressed in casual-tight pants with a t-shirt and jacket.
"Hola! ¿Cómo estás?" He says looking in my direction. I smile and nod in response.
I’m sitting nervously in this isolated house (image) in the valley of Saksaywaman in Southern Peru. Sitting next to me are Limis, a Latvian singer and Sophie, a French teacher. Limis and I are here for the Ayahuasca ceremony. Sophie is here to assist Shaman Ismael, the son and brother of other well-known shamans.
Ayahuasca is a medicinal plant with purgative and hallucinogenic properties. It refers to two plants - Ayahuasca and Chacruna. The Shaman uses stones to grind them and boil them for hours, after which it becomes a thick brown liquid.
Read The New Yorker article quoting Tim Ferris (“Ninety per cent of the anger I had held on to for decades, since I was a kid, was just gone. Absent.”): How ayahuasca, an ancient Amazonian hallucinogenic brew, became the latest trend in Brooklyn and Silicon Valley.
This ancient Andean concoction triggers emotions and memories where disturbing experiences are stored. Blocks are removed. Certain neural pathways get rewired. It makes you confront fears that have been pushed under the rug. Small and big. Purging, makes you view everything differently. That's how Ayahuasca cleanses you.
I signed up for the ceremony partially out of a perverse curiosity. I didn't, in the least bit, expect to get an intuitive understanding of disease. Leave alone getting cleansed myself.
The process is difficult. Requires a 24 hour fast and abstaining from alcohol to coffee - for 1-2 weeks before and after. Moreover, you will need to be willing to deal with your inner demons for many hours.
Sophie warns me that I’ll either vomit or keep going to the bathroom with diarrhea. There’s a vomit-bucket right next to me. We bought tissue rolls and water bottles earlier.
Nothing happens for a long time except for a certain discomfort in my stomach. Then I slowly begin to feel nauseous. But still nothing happens.
I wait. We wait.
Then it begins. In loads. Every time I puke, I can feel some inner emotion receding, going out. Some block releasing. When a disturbing thought or memory surfaces, I vomit. What I purge seems to physically take something out.
Through that disturbing process, I experience that psychological, chemical, and physical phenomena are indeed one inside the body. (Why do we ever think they are different?)
After initial vomiting and toilet visits, I go into a mind-altering state. It’s almost like a connection gets wired between my mind and a higher state of consciousness.
That state somehow gives access to all knowledge. You receive clear answers to questions - experientially. From the smallest to the largest. It's like opening a window into a vast field - you could choose to see a certain flower or the whole area.
In that state, I receive surprising insight into the nature of disease and health.
In my mind, I see a yellowish semi-solid mass (or feel it) moving through a dark tunnel, coinciding with me purging out. Letting go.
The thing is we don't let things come out. Our memories, experiences, feelings of guilt, fear, hurt, anger…we are unable to let them go. Society teaches us to suck it up. As long as we are outwardly OK, it’s all good.
But it’s not good. The problem is our suppressed negativities add up.
Toxins get created not just by something we consume like say alcohol, but also through the air we breathe or negative thoughts or actions we indulge in.
The body doesn’t differentiate between physical or psychological good or bad. In fact, the states are interchangeable.
We don't realize that what we do affects the whole. What happens in the whole affects us. Everything is intricately connected.
Whatever we give it, the body does one of three things: use it, excrete it or store it. When we don’t let go of our deep rooted negative emotions, the body simply stores it. These manifest into chronic conditions, body pains, tumors. Various kinds of physical discomfort.
As the body ages or weakens in strength, these physical manifestations establish themselves more dominantly as disease. In medical science, we classify these conditions and search for ways to curb them from the outside.
That’s pretty much it.
This insight came to me so clearly and experientially that I found myself saying out aloud, “Of course, of course! Isn’t it obvious?”
The after-the-fact nature of modern medicine
Our medical science and research focuses largely on outward symptoms. An act of after-the-fact. We don't go back far enough to the source (if you are thinking what about genetic research, take a step further and ponder on what affects your genes).
Guidelines require doctors to clip out polyps (small growths) inside our gut - to reduce risk of colorectal cancer. But we are not required to probe deeply into why polyps surface in the first place.
Why do we get the diseases that we do?
What thoughts or actions or experiences contribute to disease?
Modern medicine treats psychological symptoms and physiological symptoms separately. However, new research shows that many diseases are psychosomatic - mind and body are greatly interrelated.
Read: NPR interview with neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan, author of the book "Is It All In Your Head?"
For example, we are learning that our gut-brain (a second brain called the enteric nervous system) can cause diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (mental affecting the physical), which in turn can cause depression (physical affecting the mental).
In our industry, we are largely trying to fix problems after they occur. We like performing heart surgeries. We are less interested in discovering what ails that heart. (We aren't poets, you see.)
The Shaman, in contrast, dives deep into the source of conditions. Using songs (that produce tremendous vibrations), medicinal plants and the power of the mind, he helps people purge their toxins out. May be, out goes the triggers of disease too.
Let's reverse our lens...even if it's for a moment
Here's how a friend from Europe reacted when I described my experience.
Seriously! Don't tell me you did something as insane as that. Please check your bank balance and change your cards. And finally, thank your stars that you are alive! And sorry to say, those people are frauds.
Of course, it made me grin. I suspect many readers would also think I've lost my bearings. But the point isn't about me or my experience.
It's about disease and health.
It's about reversing our lens in medicine.
- From outward-in (e.g. angioplasty) to inside-out (e.g. why are we doing angioplasty?).
- From running behind fixing symptoms to inquiring into the source of conditions more deeply.
- Moving from discrete medical specialties and sub-specialties to a more singular view of the human body. Where one problematic node can branch into multiple medical conditions.
- From altering the body's chemical balance through innumerable prescriptions to focusing on bringing an overall internal harmony.
- From desperately keeping people alive through Band-Aid medicine to keeping people healthy more meaningfully.
You don't have to go through a Shamanic ceremony (the clean-up is extremely challenging and mind-bending).
All you have to do is think a little differently. About the nature of disease and therefore of health itself.
- NCBI Study: The Therapeutic Potentials of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects against Various Diseases of Civilization
- Scientific American: Ayahuasca Psychedelic Tested for Depression
- Quartz: The ayahuasca ceremony is going under the scientific-method microscope
- Peru Shamans (where I went)