An Ayahuasca retreat: part 1

A Brazilian Adventure – part 1/2

Two and a half years ago I took a trip to Brazil at the invitation of one of my ex-students of practical philosophy, who has subsequently become a firm friend, in order to attend an eleven day, shaman-led Ayahuasca retreat in the Chapada Diamantina, a Brazilian national Park in Bahia. Paul was married to a Brazilian lady and after they split up he decided to give up a good job in London, rent out his flat and take pot luck in Brazil. He landed in Salvador, the capital of Bahia and once the capital of the country and for six months or so lived a life of unremitting hedonism (he’s a good looking chap).

Like the Prodigal Son, he woke up one fateful day and looked objectively at his life; he claims our philosophy classes in London were instrumental in this naval gazing, and he didn’t particularly like what he saw. By this time he had met the wondrous Suzana and between them they set out to find what would make life truly worth living.

They met a shaman in the relatively new Santo Daime tradition. Santo Daime is a syncretic spiritual practice (relating to a historical tendency for a language to reduce its use of inflections; religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions) which was founded in the 1930s in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Acre by Raimundo Irineu Serra, known as Mestre Irineu. Paul’s shaman’s name was Leo and he introduced Paul and Suzana to ayahuasca and began initiating them into Brazilian shamanic practices.

Ayahuasca is a banned substance in Europe and the USA but is freely available in Brazil and Peru. Traditionally, this beverage contains a combination of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis (or alternatively the Diplopterys cabrerana). It has now been determined what the active components of these ingredients are, and some people have used plants from other parts of the world to make similar herbal potions.

The most important active component in ayahuasca as far as its visionary qualities are concerned is a substance called DMT (dimethyltryptamine). DMT has a powerful effect on consciousness that is difficult to describe in words. Many say it is ‘spiritual’, and is characterized by detailed, bright and colourful visions. Indigenous people say that during their trance, which lasts approximately four hours, they enter the world of the spirits and communicate with them, while psychologists consider DMT to be one of the hallucinogens, or psychedelics: “substances which make the soul visible.”

(Nb the bulk of the last three paragraphs have been taken direct from the website

One of the things Paul and Suzana did at this time was set up a web site at dedicated to the dissemination of information about ayahuasca, and named, he said, after an email conversation with yours truly (do take a look, there’s lots of goodies) and he commenced offering ayahuasca retreats to the world. From summer of 2008 he also began asking me to join him in a retreat so that he could start to repay some of the philosophic debt he said he felt towards me.

At the very end of 2010 (Christmas Eve to be exact) the global ‘credit crunch’ was instrumental in terminating my employment as an architect and Town Planning Consultant. I was stunned, but fortunately years of meditation and reflection had provided a bulwark against anguish and relatively quickly I got used to the idea of not working for a living. Fortunately, I was quite well provided for with private pension arrangements and had a tiny mortgage so I embraced the idea of retirement, despite not yet having reached the usual retirement age in the UK of 65 years.

After nearly three years of keeping Paul and his invitations to ‘retreats’ at arm’s length, suddenly I had no excuse not to go. I could afford it (just) and he enticed me with the idea of an ‘old man’s’ retreat. So I accepted and made arrangements to fly to Salvador in Bahia, via Lisbon on TAP Airlines on April fool’s day 2011. We flew out of Heathrow early in the morning and arrived in Brazil around midnight local time after a few hours lay-over in Lisbon. For a temperate dweller Salvador was like walking into a fully operational sauna and here began four days of perspiration.

Paul was there at the barrier, beaming. We got the money aspect out of the way – these retreats are not cheap – and we jumped into a taxi and headed off into the damp, humid and warm Salvadorian night heading north to a small gated seaside community called Barro do Jacuipe where the stunning Suzana was waiting with a beautiful vegetarian supper even though midnight had come and gone. We ate, dank and talked on the covered verandah at the rear of the house until 2am and then off to bed.

We spent four blissful and lazy days at their house; every day we would wander on to the wide sandy beaches and enjoy the savagery of the southern Atlantic surf and swim in the community’s club-house open air pool. Suzana gave me two muscle-stretching, bone-crunching massages. I kept a dairy each day and these reminiscences are adapted from the diary. (In this post I shall not go into detail but I am willing to publish the long version should there be sufficient interest.)

On day 5 two other retreat members arrived at the house, a Frenchman, Laurent, and his delightful (and gorgeous) Tahitian female air stewardess partner, Vairea, and in the evening we collected at Salvador’s central bus station where we were joined by two others, a beautiful 24 year old architecture graduate from UCLA, Elissa – whose Brazilian-born mother had recently died – and Dale, a thirty-something chunky Korean naturalised Australian film-maker. Suzana was not to accompany us, so six of us boarded the overnight bus to the Chapada Diamantina. Sleep was fitful and disturbed by difficult passengers (two of whom were ejected from the bus) and we arrived in Palmeira around 6am and disembarked into the fresh morning damp air of 1,000m above sea level. For the next eleven days perspiration was largely a ‘no show’ as the climate resembled a fine, cloudy English summer’s day. I was relieved.

We were met by a toothful, smiling driver of quite the largest Chevrolet shooting brake I’d ever seen which swallowed us six and our luggage with consummate ease. The roads in Palmeira were paved but immediately outside the town the roads became rutted dirt tracks and we weaved and bounced our way to our home for the next eight days in the Valle do Capão. An hour or so later we pulled up at a low, single-storey pitched-roof spread called ‘Lothlorien’ and upon disembarking were met by the cackle of small monkeys in an adjacent tree next to the banana grove. There was a nearly new four bedroom accommodation block and we were allocated a commodious room each with its own shower room and a verandah where hung an inviting hammock.

The first ayahuasca ceremony was scheduled for day three and in the meantime there was a settling-in and reception process that included lunch followed by a session with Leo, our shaman, who investigated our chakras (surprisingly accurately) and his wife, Claudia, who gave a hands-off massage with stones and crystals (I fell asleep on the massage table!). There was a full programme of early morning yoga and meditation and daily treks around the beautiful valley; everywhere the scene was coloured purple by the florescence of a local tree.

The first ayahuasca ceremony took place in the afternoon of day 3 commencing just after midday and was held at Leo’s property in another part of the valley, which required the Chevrolet for transport. Having been dropped-off at the termination of the track and a further five minute walk through scrubby woods, there in a swept clearing was Leo’s unfinished house, an adjacent finished toilet block with anaerobic digester, an impressive tepee some way off, a well-stocked garden and a commodious sacred ceremonial area or ‘sanctuary’. The earth sanctuary had been meticulously swept and rush matting had been placed around in a large circle centred upon a sunken fireplace with stones of various sizes identifying seating positions, where a young man was engaged in lighting the sacred fire. An altar of sorts stood by one side.

After preliminary devotions spoken in Portuguese (and translated by Paul) the shaman turned to face the gathering and one by one we advanced for the ayahuasca ‘tea’. I had read widely on the internet prior to this moment and expected a glutinous, revolting taste, but I was pleasantly surprised: it wasn’t actually tasty but neither was it noxious, with a sort of woody vegetable flavour and not at all viscous. We sat round in our appointed places and for maybe an hour nothing much happened but for members of the congregation disappearing off into the surrounding jungle to vomit – a much expected after-effect of imbibing ayahuasca. Oddly, I didn’t vomit nor even feel the need despite the fact that I’d always thought I had a weak stomach largely through an inability to hold much alcohol.

Diary: “For me the first uncontrolled experience was a desire to laugh, which I managed to control for a while but … there came a moment when I was unable to keep the desire under control and I remember heartily laughing out loud for a few moments – well maybe a little longer – and thereafter I was not subjected to any uncontrollable emotions or desires. Later I said that I wanted to laugh out of sheer joy and in reflection I can think of no other reason.

Then Leo began singing Santo Daime songs, which I later learnt he had largely penned himself; the songs were simple and oddly involving such that I found myself quietly joining in, as did Laurent on my left. Leo was joined in song by his wife, Claudia, and time passed very contentedly. I had expected all sorts of hallucinations, but if what I experienced was hallucinatory it was extremely gentle and heart-warming. Another hour or so passed when I was gripped by rampant flatulence and an urgent need to visit the bathroom and I made my way to the stand-alone bathroom block just making it in time to avoid a nasty case of diarrhoea – I guessed the ayahuasca must express itself at one end or the other.

After another hour or so a second helping of ayahuasca was offered which was taken up by all except Suzana. The women seemed to have most difficulty of one sort or another, and ended up wrapped up in prone positions or in a hammock, except Vairea who just quietly rocked to and fro for hours. My thoughts on this first session are taken from my diary:

Upon reflection the truth that was being clearly presented to the mind was that I, the real and essential ‘Self’ (i.e. not the ego), is simply the witness to each and every event, including the movements of my own mind. The mind loves involvement but the witness or observer is one, detached and alone. I was entirely happy with either the play of involvement or the play of detachment.

And:       At the conclusion of the ceremony Paul read out a homily which stated quite clearly that the ‘sacred’ circle contained truth, beauty and justice at its centre and that entry thereto made these powers available to the supplicant … and personally speaking the feeling is that the heart was truly open to receive such words. Finally, we all hugged each other like brothers and sisters. I first hugged Leo for whom I felt love and trust in his care throughout the ceremony and finally I hugged Claudia which brought tears of joy and gratitude: all in all a very memorable and valuable experience. The ‘lady’ (Paul’s term for ayahuasca) was, I felt, very gentle with me: the question is what did she intend to show? Well she definitely seemed to have a humourous side but also absurdity, love, compassion, togetherness and harmony.

We finished the ‘ceremony’ with a dip in the nearby river and having reconnected with the Chevrolet we wended our way back to Lothlorien and a vegetarian supper garnered from the kitchen garden. Back at our rooms Dale and I lay in our respective hammocks and chewed the fat regarding our experiences of that first ceremony. He seems to have had a much more profound journey than me, but, as I later became to realise, one’s experiences have much to do with one’s expectations.

Three days later, the second ceremony again took place at Leo’s; it was scheduled to take place in the tepee in the evening. The group had been swelled by the arrival of Lesley, a rangy pencil slim English woman who lives in St Martin in the Caribbean; in her ‘middle’ years she faced the world with a wide smile. We spend most of the day at As Rodas, Leo’s place, tidying, preparing food and swimming; eventually, all clad in light coloured clothing, we gathered in the tepee – men on one side and women on the other – and the ceremony began with the imbibing of the ayahuasca around a central fire. The smoke from the fire forced the congregation to the circle outside the tepee and once the matting had been relocated we settled under the brilliant starlit southern sky exaggerated by the complete absence of light pollution.

The evening proceeded much as the first ceremony with comings and goings to accommodate the ayahuasca (and for me another case of the ‘squits’) but the most memorable part of the evening for me was the awe and oneness with the cloudless southern sky untrammelled by light pollution, the friendliness of the surrounding trees and the open heart for the world and everybody present. Leo brought along a fellow Santo Daime follower who played gentle guitar solos before backing Leo’s singing.

Diary entry:

I wanted to know first-hand the unity of ‘advaita’ or ‘not two-ness’. Each of the two ceremonies so far allowed me to experience an opening of the heart which may be characterised as a real ‘sense of belonging’ to the group and the event; this seems like a form of love in which nothing is excluded and everything and everybody is included with warmth and affection. There is a real appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things in which everything fits in a beautiful jigsaw puzzle that is in no way alien to the witnessing awareness; indeed the appreciation of being or existence itself is not different from the act of witnessing – they are one and the same. It is not as if something is being viewed from the outside but rather from the inside, that what is being viewed is the same as that which is viewing it. And at one level whilst there is the removal of difference from the ‘play’ of life  it remains of inestimable interest and attraction: the starry night sky that evening proved to be of particular fascination. To sum up, it seems to me that ayahuasca allows the perception of one’s real beliefs to be experienced; as Shakespeare put it in the mouth of Prospero: it ‘provides an habitation’ to the contents and intents of the heart.

In due course, around 2am, it was time to sleep and Paul prepared a place for me on the floor of the tepee and I slept like a baby in a borrowed sleeping bag. During the night there were two ‘old man’ visits to the bathroom block and I surfaced fully around eight, in time for meditation in the mist-filled cool air of the Capão Valley followed by a sumptuous vegetarian breakfast. Later that day we were to move to Riachinho in another part of the Capada Diamantino to meet Zezito, our second shaman but this time a full Cherokee. There we were to have our third and final ayahuasca ceremony but under Zezito’s guidance we were also to be introduced to the ‘Inipi’ purification ceremony and the discovery of our ‘power animals’. This forms the second part of this post, as this one is already quite long enough.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading.

Stephen ‘Kool*son’ Coulson

@philositect on Twitter

  1. Wow, what an adventure. I agree that expectation often determines the direction our experienced take us, in fact, what you sought/seek might well have been had simply in placing yourself there to have it? Thank you for sharing.

    • kool*son said:

      Thank you so much for the comment (not to mention the speed!). It is interesting that Leo the shaman said we were a very strong group and I felt all on the retreat found something of what they sought or expected. I know I did, as I had a very specific desire to be more visceral and less intellectual in my appreciation of matters philosophical. I think we might all seek wisdom. 🙂

    • kool*son said:

      I don’t usually have expectations, but in this instance it seemed worthwhile, especially as it was such a step into the unknown. But I trusted Paul, and in any event the intellect can be too cool whereas the opening of the heart is very definitely warm, and who doesn’t like that essential warmth. Like friendship. xoxox 🙂

    • kool*son said:

      Thank YOU Athy, a great blogger and writer, for commenting, and so wisely. I was quite clear in my own mind what the retreat needed to teach me and yet at the same time I had no expectations that is necessarily would – a ‘nice’ distinction. That it did was only a bonus, but the firm realisation that expectation is a destroyer of happiness was an earlier apercu that received undoubting confirmation. This absence of expectation was and remains very helpful in undergoing a recently completed lengthy radiotherapy treatment for prostate cancer, if only because I won’t know if the treatment was successful for another 30 months as the associated hormone replacement therapy remains on-going for that period. 🙂 So no expectations!

  2. ecblade said:

    I am amazed by this. I’ve read it five times today, in hopes of being able to catch much of the nuance that I know I’m missing. what an amazing and incredible adventure. There are times when I find I must tamp down my innate jealousy at your command of language–to be able to give a philosophical concept an almost neighborly tone.

    In my mind, there are several in the twitterverse that live in my imaginary neighborhood, and in that neighborhood we often brunch together, or have dinners, and in nice weather we always end up having cocktails on my front yard. Of course, in this neighborhood, I also co-habit with @GeordiAtheist. I will be linking this to him, because he does not blog but he has a sharp mind and will appreciate all that you’ve written here.

    When my brother was in the Park Service I was able to attend a sweat lodge. I did not have the sense of love and camaraderie that you describe and one thing I admire most about this post and all your writing is the open, interested view that you keep to the world. That is truly what it means to be open minded, I think.

    And, yes, I want the long version. In reading this, I had my own epiphany of sorts, and now I must go speak to a young man about the concept of one-ness.

    Thank you, Stephen. I really appreciate this post and today it was wonderful to read. You enrich my life, and that matters to me!

    • kool*son said:

      No one was more surprised at the opening of the heart and mind. In part 2 of this post (in preparation) I observe that I won’t be taking ayahuasca again as I don’t see the need. Whatever it had to show me it showed me – enough for this lifetime anyway. Neither do I wish to undervalue the experience and should anyone reading this post feel the need to try ayahuasca I say ‘go for it’. But, preparation is necessary, in stillness, in stoicism, etc., Also I had hoped that in telling this story the need to try such a retreat would be redundant because the revelation is available to each of us every day. There is a oneness we all share and – as you well know – I believe it is access to the indefatigable human spirit. xoxox > Date: Thu, 17 Oct 2013 23:36:23 +0000 > To: >

    • kool*son said:

      We enrich each other’s life Jess, and for that I am truly grateful. You do ‘get it’ and I’d love to hear more about that epiphany; sounds intriguing. I hope my coverage of the sweat lodge in part 2 doesn’t disappoint. ::hugs::

  3. A fabulous adventure, beautifully written and nary a typo to be seen! Thank you, Stephen.

    • kool*son said:

      Thank you for your comment David, and now that I know a fellow spelling/grammar-Nazi is reading this blog I’ll be extra diligent in proofing any subsequent posts. 🙂

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