An Ayahuasca retreat: part 2

A Brazilian Adventure – part 2

Two ayahuasca ceremonies down, one to go. For this one we moved from the Capão (pronounced ‘kapow’ – I kid you not) Valley to Riachinho in another part of the Chapada Diamantina (check out Wikipedia or TripAdvisor for this magical land) to meet our second shaman, Zezito or Blue Eagle, a genuine Cherokee.

He turns out to be an avuncular structural engineer who, rare among Brazilians, speaks tolerably good English. He was once married to a French woman but that ended and he says he’ll never speak French again despite the fact that he’s fluent in French. Just goes to show the power of the feminine, and they claim they don’t rule the world, pffft.

He got the name ‘Blue Eagle’ because one day he was brought an injured Blue Eagle on account of the sanctuary he ran for injured raptors (see’ you like him already) and he gently nursed it back to health. Thereafter it wouldn’t leave him for a second. If he was called out to give a structural engineering or other consultation the eagle would follow his car, perch there until he emerged from the consultation and then fly back behind the vehicle.

Upon arrival at Riachinho we were each shown to little two-bed stand-alone shacks in the woods to one side of his magnificent home, which naturally he had built himself. These shacks (I had #11) were constructed to contain two children as his estancia is dedicated, inter alia, to the education of the young (grows on you doesn’t he). He also gives employment to a number of locals on the farming element of the estate where coffee, bananas and mushrooms are the principle crops. And then there is that (larger) part given over to his shamanic practices.

The centre of this is the truly magnificent ‘temple’ he has constructed as part of and an adjunct to his home. It has a hyperbolic-paraboloid roof constructed from straight timbers grown on the estate and it can seat 100 people easily. The guest dining area is at a level three-steps higher from the temple proper and his little daughter Maja has a snug reading area off with couch and bookshelves. She is a fortunate girl.

We assemble around 4pm and after brushing us each in smoke and a condor’s feather he talks to us at length in English (thankfully both Vairea and Lauren speak passable English too) in a manner that will be familiar to readers of Carlos Castaneda and nothing he says in any way presents any challenge to the advaitic principles that were then prominent in my world view. He speaks of brother- and sisterhood, of nature, of harmony, of planets, constellations and galaxies and he ends up with an appeal for each of us to discover our inner child having prefaced this with an aside on his abhorrence on the harming of children.

He speaks in detail about the Inipi ‘sweat lodge’, its design and the ceremony that is planned for later that day. We conclude with an opportunity to say why we’re here and what our expectations are. He says that hope for a purer heart is ok whereas a wish for world peace is ‘bullshit’. He then hands out a ‘talking stick’ (complete with feathers) and whosoever holds the stick holds the right to speak without interruption. When it comes to my turn to speak I find I am flooded by tears so open is the heart to what has been and whatever is to follow.

After an hour or so Leo, who has accompanied us from Lothlorien takes the floor and Paul translates his brief Portuguese into English and then we begin preparations for the Inipi Purification Ceremony.

Diary:    “Afterwards we collect bunches of flowers from the beautiful grounds and wander down to the sweat lodge site near to the river and lay the flowers around the ‘tree of life’ located just outside the opening to the lodge. We then set about cleaning the site and prepare the fire, which turns out to be a large structure in the form of a truncated pyramid about a metre high and it contains within its heart some two dozen river washed stones each about the size of a large mango or pineapple.”

When Blue Eagle is satisfied with the cleanliness of the freshly swept site we return for a shower and supper. The sweat lodge experience is postponed to the following morning and we are sent off with instructions to gather at 4.45am. Which we do, but for me with some reluctance as I hadn’t slept well and the weather was cool and windy. When we arrived at the sacred site the fire was already well alight and we settled down to watch it consume the clever timber pyramid and thoroughly heat the stones within. As we watched the fire Zezito teaches us some Cherokee chants.

Diary:    “These chants were just like the singing of ‘Redskins’ found in Hollywood movies of the mid-twentieth century with the accent on some vowel sounds (he later explained to Lesley and I that these stressed sounds relate to different chakras: the pure ‘a’ sound relates to the heart chakra for example); it was those almost shouted sounds that made the chanting seem so authentic. At the level of mind I could see scepticism but at the level of heart there was a recognition that allowed me to join in with the chanting with gusto. It was rather freeing and we sang a number of chants or songs whilst the huge fire burnt down to a few red embers.”

We were instructed on the etiquette of the sweat lodge and Blue Eagle begins the ceremony with an appeal to the spirits of the compass points. As previously Zezito lights up a peace pipe, with its metaphor of the male stem and the female bowl, and he blows smoke over the heart chakra of each and again wipes us with his condor’s feather. We then stripped off to our swimming trunks and bikinis and duly filed through the low entrance on all fours into the sweat lodge, men first. I find myself seated cross-legged on the dark earth floor between a naked Laurent and the new arrival, Paul’s brother Gary, and once the ten retreatees are inside the ‘firemen’ Paul begins transferring the twenty or so red-hot stones from the embers of the fire to the shallow dip in the middle of the sweat lodge. This takes some time and as Paul labours Blue Eagle speaks non-stop in a fashion similar to his speech yesterday in the ‘temple’. Everything he says seems full of reason and light.

Eventually all the stones are transferred and Paul joins us inside the lodge. The heat is scalding as water is added to the stones and perspiration is endemic. A little gecko appears and seems to stare at me for ages before scurrying off. My body is not attuned to sitting cross-legged on the earth floor and the agony of posture and the scalding heat make me the first to seek the coolness of the outside air and I am permitted to leave once Blue Eagle has finished his soliloquy. I half expect to find myself alone outside as the others didn’t seem to have any difficulty with conditions in the sweat lodge so I find a space on the earth outside and as instructed I hug the planet and think harmonious thoughts.

You can imagine my surprise as I was soon followed by a steady trickle of people quietly stretching out on the earth around me, and after a long while I decide the time has come to go down to the nearby river (more a strong stream) to cleanse the body. My surprise is made all the more astonishing by the revelation that most of the others had discarded their swimwear altogether and were stretched out face-down and stark naked with arms and legs akimbo. It was time to meditate and I wandered off to find a quiet corner to practise and surrender my astonishment. People come and go past my seated form and after a half hour or so I get up and go to the river. I am joined by Zezito and we both strip off and plunge into the cold water. It is blissful, and as we bathe we chat. It turns out that he is only two years younger than I and we discover we have much in common. He is a charming companion and I hope he found my company just a bit enjoyable.

We returned to our rooms to shower and gather at the temple for a sumptuous breakfast and talk of Inipi purification. Afterwards I settle down to write up my diary – I have much to record – but young Maja joins me and despite the fact that neither of us speak a word of each other’s language we spend a very happy and delightfully enjoyable half-hour or so communicating by signs, play-acting and drawings; she is a real sweetie and is a credit to her exceptional parents. Maybe she touched the inner child in me that we had been asked to seek; who knows?

I am joined by the lovely Lesley, the English lady of uncertain years and resident of St Martin in the Caribbean, and I have to admit that I have very slightly fallen in love with her and her mane of light auburn hair. We talk for a while and then decide to amble off together to visit the Riachinho Falls, a half an hour or so away. On the bridge over the river we play a game of Pooh-sticks and I am amused to discover she doesn’t know about Pooh-sticks. She is a most amiable companion and the morning is thus brought to a sweet conclusion. After lunch Lesley and I fall into conversation with Blue Eagle and this is my diary record:

“Lesley and I spent a pleasant half hour or so talking with Zezito about his life and his world. He told us the story of how he came to be a Cherokee shaman which began with a plot of land he had acquired elsewhere and no sooner had he commenced digging foundations for a proposed dwelling than he found a beautiful crystal. It looked exactly like a picture he had seen in some publication or other and found that the picture was related to a full Cherokee woman now living in Sweden. On the second attempt – the Brazilian postal system prevented the first attempt – he got the crystal to her via one of his sons and the receipt of this crystal brought her to Brazil and he became this woman’s disciple for five years (a bit like Socrates and Diotima). The story sounded fantastical but I heard him tell the same story later and assume it to be true. He also told us something of his life as an engineer and how he came to develop the estate and associated buildings, especially the unusual temple building. He is not an ayahuasca Shaman and although we will be holding our third and final ceremony tonight here at Riachinho he will not be in attendance.”

Rain threatened that evening’s ayahuasca ceremony so Paul thought we might have the ceremony inside the temple, but when it came clear there would be no fire the group decided to brave the elements and hold the ceremony at the outside sanctuary. We all pitched in and soon had the sanctuary cleared and swept and sufficient wood for the fire. Once night fell we gathered as previously in our off-white outfits and the third ceremony began once the fire was well alight. The weather was threatening but in the event it proved to be only slightly inclement and apart from a short time bundled against wind and rain the evening proved to be beautiful and largely star-studded.

Paul’s brother Gary had joined us only that morning and had not had the bedding-in of the first two ceremonies and he clearly found the experience a trial, so much so that Paul had to take him away from the circle and tend to him personally. Just because ayahuasca seemed to me to be the gentlest of companions it is not so for the unprepared or unguarded. The mind can be a febrile place. I can do no better to sum up these ayahuasca ceremonies than by a longish quotation from my diary:

Strangely enough I have not vomited once through the three sessions although the ayahuasca has played havoc with my digestive system in an accurate simulacrum of diarrhoea. But this time despite ominous rumblings, gurglings and windiness I was spared the bathroom call. I did however experience some exquisite visual images, some not unlike air-borne seeds with delicate fronds in colours primarily green, blue violet and purple, exactly like those in James Cameron’s movie ‘Avatar’. I felt strangely expansive and was really taken by the star-filled night sky, my beloved companions and the form and shape of the surrounding trees flickering in the light of the fire.

“At one point I thought a visit to the bathroom was going to be necessary; I left the circle and as I did the moon slid out from behind a cloud and the path was brightly lit as if by magic. Suzana had seen me leave and followed me with a torch in order to safely light my way through the trees but her care and attention was made entirely redundant by the moonlight, and when I reached the paved area outside the temple building I turned to await her arrival. Without a word we fervently embraced each other for what seemed to me to be a long and beautiful time: the embrace was one of love but without a trace of sexuality – it was a straightforward recognition of the ‘same’ in each other which might be humanity but it might also be one’s real identity seen in each other. Oddly, my breath came in short gasps as if there had been physical exertion but once it settled down we spoke words of mutual affection and appreciation and I excused myself for a futile visit to the bathroom. Who knows why anything happens or for what purpose?

“Suzana is probably the sweetest woman I have ever met in my life; she is selflessly generous and apparently unaware of her beauty and charm. Meeting her has been undoubtedly a highlight of this trip if not of this lifetime.

“On the subject of ayahuasca and vomiting or the ‘squits’ as a metaphor of the removal of impediments what I did uniquely experience this time was almost uncontrolled yawning and sighing and according to Dale this is another way this medicine works. Ayahuasca is definitely not a psychedelic substance but it clearly does have an effect. For me it is a certain feeling of wakefulness, a deep stillness without criticism or judgement of any kind and – above all – an opening of the heart which is the undoubting feeling of freedom. Subsequently I feel as if the heart might be now be ajar as being fully open, especially for me, is a tall order.

“Leo looks after these sessions with great care and precision using Paul and Suzana as extensions to that compassion. His songs go straight to the heart and are fully engaging throughout the ceremony; at other times they would probably seem trite. He tops and tails the ceremony appropriately and the unity of the group at the end of the sessions is a delightful tribute to both the ayahuasca and his devoted attention. It is difficult to describe quite how important the individual hugs are at the end of the ceremonies in establishing the mutuality of love and trust in the group. Lesley made the point at breakfast, when I had difficulty in responding to the question ‘how was it for you?’, that ayahuasca keeps on working and it could be six months or more before the lessons it has to teach are fully learnt.”

All that was left for the last day of the ten day retreat was the revealing of our ‘power animals’. Zezito, carrying a drum, gathered us together on a rainy afternoon, not the sort of rain seen in American movies, but on/off light rain and off we hike in good companionship to a cave some way distant. When we arrive we realise little eight year-old Maja has been there earlier and she has sweetly left a few of her stuffed animals around the entrance to the cave to welcome us. Zezito gives instructions and explains the procedure and with far too few flashlights we slowly clamber down the steep rocky terrain into inky blackness. We can hear the rush of an underground river and upon reaching a mini plateau we dispose of our bodies around in the darkness as near prone as we can manage and once silence descends from the group there is just the nearby rushing of a full underground river. There is no fear.

It was at this point that Zezito commences his drumming, slowly and rhythmically and as he does so he very gradually increases the tempo to a thumping rhythm and the mind and body sync with the beat and all other thoughts subside. Suddenly, after 15-20 minutes he stops and guides us inwards. Our ‘power animal’ will appear, he promises, but if more than one animal presents itself he says we just have to question each in turn and none of the animals can lie so by a process of questions it is possible to find the true power animal who will just not go away. For me an American Bald Eagle presents itself immediately and under the most strenuous questioning it just remains quietly unperturbed looking around with eagle-like distain. No other animal presents itself and I feel filled with the power of the gimlet-eyed eagle. We are very happy in each other’s company.

In due course Zezito says we must give voice to our power animals ‘altogether as one’ and the air is suddenly filled with squawks, grunts, growls and all manner of animalistic sounds and it is the most hilarious experience and we all end up laughing like drains in the pitch blackness with the rushing river harmonising the collective mirth. And then it was all over and we slowly regained the light and the cave entrance in the best of humour. That evening I depart with Suzana and Dale on the local bus for Palmeira where we reconnect with the overnight bus to Salvador and I fall into a dreamless sleep.

Suzana has offered bed and board at her aunt’s apartment in central Salvador for the four days before flying back to Europe. This time turn out to be quite magical for me, but that is another story, it is difficult to explain the thrill and complete satisfaction the mere company of a beautiful woman can afford and I leave Brazil a quite different and more relaxed person than the one who had arrived twenty days earlier. The whole adventure had fulfilled my intention for the trip and you can’t say more than that.

And if you have been, thanks for listening.

Stephen Coulson

@philositect on Twitter.


  1. ecblade said:

    As I lay here, curled around my tender abdomen, attempting to birth a kidney stone, I am tempted and transported by this post.

    As always, it is more what you don’t say that nips at my imagination while what you do share transports me from my pain to a place where my mind remains open to the greater possibilities that do surround us, daily.

    Sometimes I think that we in our cold, industrial climes, trade our ability to connect, to discover wonder, to simply love without expectations. Our desires and hard wants always intrude and I think it is so easy to forget that these are gifts, and truly balms to the injured emotional aspects we spend so much time denying, for fear someone might mistake our language for faith.

    Selfishly, today, I have been fretful and clingy. I don’t feel at all well. I hurt. I want my Martin, and he is far away and cannot be here. You have reminded me that to have an abiding, live-filled connection with another human is special, carrying a comforting, healing power of its own which is not diminished by distance.

    Thank you, Stephen, for reminding me that the world is connected, as we are.

    • kool*son said:

      Dear Jessica, what a beautifully thoughtful response, especially as you’re not well. Whilst in Salvador I met a film-maker and we spent the best part of a rainy night talking about the novel he was writing, a fantastical journey of a damaged soul, and we both came to realise that behind the appearance of that hard world to which you allude is a stronger less obvious world of the heart held together by those genuine seekers after and practitioners of the esoteric.

      As atheists it is all too easy to dismiss this subtle human landscape, which may be called true spirituality, or the search for the altruistic that is entirely natural to the open human heart. Maybe it is not possible to live without expectation but to the extent that we can so the more wondrous aspects of existence reveal themselves to us. The opportunity offered by the ayahuasca retreat to discover love and trust in others without condition or the sly intrusion of sexuality was reward enough, despite the possible appearance to others of gullibility or ingenuousness. For this I am happy to be thought both gullible and ingenuous.

      And it does leave the heart at least ajar, which is more than it is reasonable to expect. Moreover, I know by your response that you ‘get it’ too and this brings the warmth of an inner smile which helps dissolve those areas of hardness we would rather be without anyway.

      Get well soon. ::hugs::

      > Date: Sat, 19 Oct 2013 13:18:50 +0000
      > To:

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