Guest writer for Wake Up World
Symphonious sounds of the ceremony lull, retreating into the background as the jungle’s choir of frogs and insects dot the sonic landscape. Nature’s song is a welcome and harmonious complement to the driving pulse of icaros chanted by the shamans, the conductors of this ancient yet immanent ritual. Artists of spirit, shamans or curanderos paint the landscapes of consciousness using sound to bring to life and weave together the textures, shades and colors of experience. The icaros are the vehicle through which spirit is made manifest and given intent to complete a task: healing, a protective shield, opening vision, calming a turbulent mind, blessing sacred space.
When I first came to the jungle to drink ayahuasca, what really impacted my experience was how fundamental and essential the icaros were to the ceremony. The multi-dimensional symphony conducted inside the ayahuasca space was like nothing I had ever dreamed of experiencing. Just witnessing this unearthly yet penetratingly familiar spectacle for the first time changed my world tremendously – and challenged my understanding of possibility.
Widely regarded as the principal means through which Amazonian shamans perform their magical feats, the icaro is not the only wand in the wizard’s chest. Indeed it is a chest of great diversity and ingenuity. What can be loosely described as Amazonian shamanism is a variable and dynamic collection of healing arts that are bundled together; a living entity that produces and reproduces new forms and expressions with each new generation, even with each new practitioner. The wands in the wizard chest are not static or dogmatic. They morph as the ethereal plant-spirits from which they originate.
The popular and ethnographic literature on ayahuasca brims with tales and studies on the shaman’s icaros. It was this cosmic choral of undisputed richness and splendor that initially catapulted my inspiration and creativity (and still does).
But there is much more to ayahuasca. And much more to healing. On this night, staged for the last act of the week’s fifth and final ceremony, with starlight softening the darkness equal to the rate of fading visions, I was about to become intimate with a less well-known and much less glorified element of Amazonian shamanism. And unbeknownst to me, my world was about to be shaken.
The last day of our ayahuasca retreats are always a mixture of excitement with a hint of trepidation for the following day’s inevitable departure, as well as a sense of accomplishment – or near accomplishment, with the imminent final ceremony just hours away.
During lunch, I was chatting with one of the guests, Erik. He is a 40-something Hungarian man posing a calm, kind demeanor that gives way to a deep inner strength. He was relatively quiet but consistently cheerful throughout the week. He mentioned the day prior that he wanted to talk about something. As we chatted, he asked for my help to heal a persistent pain in his foot. He’d had it for over 7 years and didn’t know how he got it. I queried the symptoms, felt the energy of his request, and agreed to help him in ceremony that night. We shook hands, smiled at each other, and finished up the last meal for the day. As an exuberant and always eager apprentice, I jumped at the chance to explore another physical healing, a realm that I had only recently dipped into.
The maloka feels calm, almost motionless as the participants drift dreamily through their now expanded worlds, safely on the other side of the most intense part of the ayahuasca ceremony – at least for some. The atmosphere is still charged with the presence of the plant spirit but it is contained, held in a soft blanket of medicine.
I float around the maloka accompanied by one of our ceremony assistants, Adam, checking in with several of the guests, making sure all the pieces are falling into place. When I get to Erik, he’s sitting up on his mattress, back against the wall. He offers a casual smile. I respond with a knowing nod and ask him if he’s ready. He slips down the wall, props himself on a couple pillows and extends his leg outward. He tells me it’s his left foot and points to the spot in question. At my prompting he describes the painful sensation.
I ask Adam to grab a bottle of ajos, a potent cane alcohol-based mix of pungent plants used primarily to ward off and help move unwanted energies. It can also be used to help open and clear energy fields. I douse my hand and apply it to Erik’s foot. My hands are another set of eyes, directly linking my “vision” to images and physical sensations used as diagnostic tools. Another douse of ajos, this time sprayed directly onto the area as well as my chest, hands and arms. I feel the mareación, the visionary effects of ayahuasca, begin to concentrate. I’m ready.
I briefly tell Erik that we are going to proceed with a chupada, a noun derived from the Spanish verb chupar, meaning “to suck”. In Amazonian traditions a chupada is the process of sucking an illness or foreign object from another person’s physical and spiritual body. For many illnesses – often those that are challenging to diagnose and treat – the symptoms will manifest physically but the cause is located elsewhere. To make headway and achieve the intended healing, one has to move beyond the physical dimension and into the realm that governs its manifestation; the root of the illness is embedded in spirit. Hence, when Erik told me that he’d seen Western doctors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, bodyworkers, as well as other alternative healers, to try and alleviate this pain, all to no avail; I knew he’d yet to cross the threshold.
I’m not one for hokey theories. I truly don’t know how this works. But I have hitched a primary reliance upon experience as the best and final determinant for exploring the nature of reality, especially when you’re neck-deep in the mystical arts of the Amazon jungle…
I drop myself into a crouching position, chest bent flat over my knees. I take a few deep breaths in preparation, knowing that I’m diving in with a blank slate. Eyes shut, I voluntarily begin coughing from as far down in my guts as I can, hailing the spirits within my body to form a mariri, shamanic phlegm used to catch illness and dark energies. Like a metaphysical catcher’s mitt, this magical substance captures and encloses the ill-fated intruder so that it can’t escape or take up residence inside the healer.
Not without a hint of uncertainty, I position the phlegmy concoction just behind my lips, slowly lower my head towards Erik’s foot in rhythm to as deep an exhale as I can manage. At the precipice of the out breath, with my left hand forming a slight tube gently placed upon the intended area, I complete the seal with my lips, drop my eyelids, and begin sucking.
Blackness. Blockages. My vision, nothing but darkness. I can’t see anything, no path forward, no light or insight to be guided by. I disappear for moments, or minutes, I can’t tell. As soon as my awareness comes back, an impersonal energetic force thrusts me backwards in a fit of coughing and confusion. The chunks and excess liquid splatter into a nearby bucket.
Hunching, I dredge up another mariri and repeat the action, this time focusing my intent with greater precision. Perception becomes a tunnel. I lose awareness of my body as I propel through the tube-like vision and into a world of cascading images and feelings, glimpses of Erik’s life flashing in rapid succession connected by tentacles of emotion that wrap memories, faces of people I’ve never seen and strange cityscapes coupled with brief bursts of pain that are neither mine nor his alone. A multi-dimensional puzzle that, as I keep pulling and pulling and pulling, I know is leading to one specific point…
Again darkness. The heave of my airless chest cavity claiming a much-needed breath snaps me back to the room and my body, as I sputter blood-laden bits into the bucket. Looking around, I see and feel the energy of the entire maloka supporting the process. They, too, are enchanted by this strange yet compelling display of spiritual art.
This time I take two long slow breaths, and upon fully exhaling, I begin to pull with everything that I have. The sound is somehow bio-mechanical, both ancient and futuristic, the whole process cathartic, disturbing and alluring. Again I am drawn into the compression tube as my consciousness hurls forward, this time maintaining connection to my body. I feel my entire psyche and physicality lock in place. I am vibrating intensely but it is contained, my whole being morphing into an obscure instrument that seems a mishmash of human, spirit, technology and plant.
As I approach the blackout point, soaring through the psychic cascade, I take a sharp inhale and bear down. I reach a critical mass, a turning point. The force fueling the chupada mounts against the dark, formless obstruction, compressing everything into a single point of density. My body writhes. I know am running out of gas, animal-esque noises escaping me, the compression overwhelming as the momentum surges and slips…
Collapse. And in the same micro-instant, an opening. Like a window to another dimension, the collapse of space and time and awareness literally unfolds into spaciousness and expansion, resolution and brilliant clarity.
Astounded, and somehow still sucking, the spirit-tube morphs into a broad sweeping vacuum cleaner-like implement, engulfing the final remnants of the whole affair in one ultimate pass. The shimmering shades of white and blue lights that now paint the vision appear to smirk as they twinkle, as I acknowledge the sudden yet remarkable gleam and orderliness of this new psychic landscape.
With a final spit into the bucket, drenched in sweat and reeling with a cosmic buzz, I ask Erik how he is doing. He laughs at the question, noting that the pain is long gone and his foot feels numb. Otherwise, he is doing great. I apply another dousing of ajos, shoring up whatever energetic openings remain, a post-op bandage of sorts. As I do this, Erik flips the question back on me, his concern apparent. I take the opportunity to let out a gentle laugh, assuring him I am okay. We lock eyes for a moment. And for that instant, there is nothing else. We offer one another a casual, knowing smile.
I stagger back to my chair. I hear a faint voice in the back of my mind whisper, “welcome to the jungle.”
Later that week, I receive a gracious email from Erik. He’d been walking around extensively for the last few days, enjoying his time exploring the city of Lima, pain-free for the first time in 7 years.
Also by Matt Toussaint:
- Beyond the Ground: An Esoteric Lesson in Grounding (highly recommended reading!)
About the author:
Matt Toussaint is a shamanic explorer, writer, music artist, and ceremonial leader. He holds a Bachelor’s in Anthropology, where he focused his research on contemporary spirituality. He enjoys expressing himself through prose, music, and poetry as vehicles to achieve personal transformation. He has served as a Master Guide with Modern Shamanism, a wilderness guide, led a series of online shamanic workshops, and maintained a private practice in the Los Angeles, CA area. He is currently living in Peru and working at a plant medicine retreat center.
Matt’s personal practice website is shamanicevolution.org, some of his writing can be accessed here, and his work with plant medicine can be found through Blue Morpho. Feel free to connect with Matt via Facebook or email.