*With apologies to John Ford and John Wayne who made the 1956 movie of the same name about a searcher who had trouble accepting what he eventually found.
You know it’s going to be a long trip when you’re traveling outside your comfort zone, and that’s exactly where I was headed. This particular detour was part of a search for something that I wasn’t completely sure was there. I was being driven to a secret location to hang out with people I had never met in order to participate in a spiritual ritual that includes the use of a very potent, some say brutal, South American psychotropic plant concoction. I had left my comfort zone way behind me.
It’s not like I hadn’t asked for it. I volunteered, raised my hand. I took a step forward. I spoke up. “Let’s do this!” Sitting in the passenger seat for this short trip was just another part of a long journey that started 25 years ago when I first read Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics.” Or maybe even 10 years before that when I found a beat up old copy of Joseph Chilton Pearce’s “Crack in the Cosmic Egg.” Both books are about new ways of understanding reality and our place in it and I think they both affected me more than I realized at the time.
My trip to commune with the spirit vine seemed like an important side trip on this journey, one I didn’t want to drive around. One does not travel to Egypt and then not take the road out to Giza? I had been hearing about the power of the spirit vine for some years. Some call it a “brutal teacher” because it doesn’t hold back. Others call it a jealous spirit that will have its way with you if you aren’t true. And yet there are those who describe it as benevolent, loving and an honest guide. Whatever it brings you, it will be beyond intense, the experienced ones told me.
Which part of the spirit vine would I get; the brutal teacher or the benevolent spirit guide? I was on my way to find out. I offer my experience in case it might inform your own search. I am searching for a deeply personal connection to spirit, and these days, it seems to be everywhere I look.
Only the dullest or the most over trained of us don’t sometimes wonder about who we are and why we’re here. Carl Jung, one of the 20th century’s preeminent thinkers and writers about things psychological and spiritual said, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” [Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 326] Questioning ourselves and our spiritual institutions is built into the very nature of who we are, and searching for answers is as fundamental as hunting for food, shelter or sex.
It’s no wonder that here, in Southern California, at this time – mid-2012 – the conditions are prime for pursuing and nurturing our native spiritual wanderlust. LA-based transpersonal therapist Catherine Auman says that many of her clients are looking for more than just psychological health, they want to achieve some spiritual health as well. And this is the perfect time and place for it: “As a culture, we have moved beyond the basics, we don’t have to spend a lot of time or energy looking for food and shelter or creating offspring. We have time to think about the bigger questions, about our spirituality, about who we are.”
Could we be any more fortunate? Our parents created a bountiful material world for us that has made our lives easier than any other generation has ever had it. But part of the legacy of this materialism is that we now have the time, energy and education to reconsider and challenge many of the spiritual beliefs that were handed down to us, and to our parents.
For us, the stars are realigning – quite literally if you follow the Mayan calendar, which show us coming to the end of a great age on December 21, 2012, or the Hindu yurga, which shows us about to ascend toward another Golden Age of progress and wisdom. Precession has been leading us around a great arc of time and history and now we are about to cross over into the Age of Aquarius. From our privileged cultural vantage point, over-stuffed as it is with cozy material and spiritual comforts, there does seem to be a growing interest in a more personal relationship with whatever lies beyond our world. People want to know if there is a God, or some semblance of one, and whether the cultural systems we have evolved over the last few millennia are really the best way of figuring that out. There seems to be a growing number of people who want to see with their own eyes who is behind the curtain, and what all those levers and knobs really do.
Look at the growth of disciplines like yoga, scientology, Buddhism, Gnosticism, alchemy, kabbalah, tarot, astrology, or dozens the of other options we have for investigating our spirituality and you know something is going on here. We are searching for answers.
The use of psychoactive substances like the spirit vine is another option for people who want to find their true selves. Sandra Ingerman and Hank Wesselman, in their book “Awakening to The Spirit World” suggest that native plants like peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and the spirit vines I am familiar with, might actually have been the genesis of humanity’s spiritual awakening. It’s not hard to imagine primitive humans foraging for food and eating such plants. Could the visions and altered states they would have experienced awakened them to knowledge of reality beyond that which we see every day?
Tools like natural hallucinogens have been part of the spiritual tool box since the origins of man and are commonly used by shamans. Shamanism is humanity’s oldest spiritual discipline, with roots that reach back to our earliest moments. Almost as far back as we can see, the shaman has been part of every tribe, village, and community. The shaman was the one who knew how to access to the spirit world, who could find the unknowable, who could speak with the Gods, and who could help us learn to do the same.
Like many other spiritual “systems” shamanism is seeing renewed interest and growth. For many, the word shaman evokes the idea of witch doctor or medicine man from some “primitive “culture. After thousands of years being persecuted by mainstream religions as heretics, shamans today seems to have a renewed relevance as a path toward spiritual understanding. Why now?
“People want to connect with the earth and with the natural spirit elements of this world” said Alana Heartsong, a Sedona, Arizona resident who currently leads workshops that use chanting and channeling spirit with sound in Russia, the Ukraine and other areas in central Europe. She also happens to be my sister. “People enjoy what I do because it is simple, it feels good and it leads them into a place that they understand.”
Shamanism is organic, its natural and it needs nothing but nature to feed it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Like dealing with the spirit vine, it can be arduous. But it will move you.
The spirit vine ritual is serious business. The people who run these rituals have a deep-seated respect for the power and the potential of this medicine. From the making of the liquid goop to the selection of the people who participate in the ritual, the process is treated with deep reverence. This is not some whacked out ecstasy rave in downtown LA. This is a deeply meaningful ritual of psychic and spiritual exploration. The sense of purpose that people bring to this ceremony is very powerful.
I have heard a many descriptions of what a spirit vine experience is like. Intense is a common adjective. Be ready to hurl, they say, it happens to everyone. One close friend who is an expert in the use of hallucinogenic substances for psychological and spiritual purposes advised me that “Ayahuasca can be a brutal teacher.” So it’s no wonder my stomach was more much equivocal about the upcoming journey than my psyche was.
Once I made the commitment to undergo the ritual, the first thing I got was a copy of “La Dieta,” the diet I was supposed to follow to cleanse my body in preparation for the ritual. At least several days before the actual ritual, and some recommend as much as a week, participants undergo a purification process to remove toxins from the body that can conflict with the work of the spirit vine. The ritual leaders recommend that you eliminate pork, beef, sugar, dairy and spicy foods from your diet. Sex is also a no-no. The spirit vine is a jealous mistress, we are told, and if you cheat on her she may take her revenge.
To get the most of from the spirit vine experience, or any potentially transcendent experience for that matter, it is best to start off by knowing what you want to get out of it. If you know what you want to achieve, you can stay focused, even if it’s in an unconscious way.
In this group, the leader asked of us to state our intention to the group and so we went around the circle, each one saying what it is we hoped to get out of it. Basically, most of us were there to heal something; a body, a psyche, a soul. One apparently very experienced traveler said he just wanted to fly through inner space and see what there was to see. My intention was to overcome my fear of letting go, of losing control.
Our leader also strongly advised that we keep to ourselves during the journey. “This is a private matter between you and the spirit and you should not involve others in your experience,” he said. “They could ruin it for you or you could take them out of their experience.” For those who needed something during the ceremony, he said, there were five sober “sitters” in the room who would get us what we needed.
Soon after the ritual began, I was called to the front of the room and knelt down between the group leader and the shaman in charge of the ceremony. I bowed in respect and waited for them to speak.
“How are you feeling,” the group leader asked as he looked deep inside my eyes. “I feel good,” I said. “I’m ready.”
The leader looked at the shaman and said, “Fuerza, mas fuerza.” This was roughly the medicinal equivalent of Captain Kirk saying to Scotty, “I need more power.” Scotty, of course, gave him everything he had.
The shaman slowly filled the small stainless steel cup to the brim and handed it to me. I raised it in another gesture of respect, opened my mouth wide and tipped the cup and my head back as far as they would go. Out of the cup poured a dark, viscous, slimy, bitter, lumpy concoction that was, without a doubt, the nastiest thing I have ever swallowed. Thankfully, I didn’t have to struggle to keep it down. I had followed directions, stayed on “La Dieta,” and had not eaten for about five hours.
With nearly three dozen people participating in this ritual, this process took the better part of an hour. By the time last people had swallowed their dose, the first were starting to feel it.
It struck me as euphoric at first, a great sense of well-being. I was almost giddy. Then it got stronger and stronger, and before long I surrendered and lay back on the bean bag pillow behind me. Though the room was dark, I could see clouds forming on the ceiling above me. And before long, I saw faces in the cloud; a baby, a cat, a spider. The face was darting snake-like back and forth, hiding itself amount the clouds. Only later did it come to me that the face on the ceiling was actually a dragon.
The dragon didn’t speak to me directly, but it was clear it was looking for an opening, like a fighter in the ring who is jabbing, bobbing and weaving. I think I yelled at the creature and dared him to enter me. I’m here, I said, come on in. “Take me, I’m yours.”
During the five or six hours that the ceremony went on in earnest, people kept largely to themselves. You could hear the sound of people purging into their buckets from time to time. One woman in the group lay curled up in a fetal position and seemed to coo for much of the night. Throughout the night, the shaman carefully monitored the spiritual energy in the room. When it got too intense, he would move around the room and chant, almost like he was absorbing the energy being created by the vine. When the energy got too low, he would chant a different song, giving the energy back. On several occasions the intensity was lifted by one of the several musicians who sang or played for the group.
Honestly, I think the dragon held back, and allowed me to simply enjoy the rest of the evening. For me, it was just a slide show of fractals and amazing sacred geometry; one beautiful scene after another. I never felt threatened.
I did eventually purge (puke) but not until well into the experience. In fact, I was the last person of the group to purge that evening. Early in the morning, 5 or 6 hours after we had started the ceremony, with the energy level subsiding, the leader called the ceremony to an end. The moment I heard that, I started to purge. I didn’t stop until the ceremony was officially over. I believe my stomach was reacting to the end of the process, like saying goodbye to a dear friend.
I wish I could say that my experience led to some deep revelation, but I can’t. I think my purpose was just to summon up the courage to do it. I will be trying it again, and perhaps on the next journey, I will learn more.
One thing I’m sure about is that my journey is not over. It is said that once you take the spirit vine it becomes part of you. That feels true to me. I do feel more open after the experience and more willing to try new things. Just a few days ago, as part of my research for this article, I visited a shaman in Woodland Hills. A shaman in Woodland Hills? Yes, and that’s the point. They are everywhere.
Elaine Alghani has been evolving toward her current life as a shaman for nearly 20 years, starting in expressive art therapy and later as a rebirthing practitioner. “I kept adding different healing modalities as I journeyed through my own spiritual and healing process,” she wrote in an e-mail to me. She realized early on that she was very intuitive and could “see” and “hear” things very differently than most others. Through years of practice, she has honed her skills. About five years ago she recognized shamanism as the path she was on and she went to Chile to be initiated by a Mapuche medicine woman there and to receive her medicine name, Firefly.
“I later realized [Firefly] is perfect for me, though at first I was puzzled,” she writes. “A lot of my work is about being a light in the darkness and inspiring others to find their magic and beauty. I do this through my art too. And the word shaman itself means to see in the dark.”
I asked her why people seem to be returning to shamanism or similar practices for their spiritual search. “Shamanism is like the fast track to consciousness,” she said. “It cracks you open in ways that other things don’t.”
She suggested I do a healing session to learn what it’s really all about and I have to admit that it cracked me open in ways I didn’t expect. Working with some cards, a table full of stones and some hands on healing, she found a part of me that I thought had long since been put to bed; my relationship with my mother. From somewhere deep in my spirit my mother emerged, looking tired and beaten down just as she had in life. She said she was still tethered to me by a spiritual umbilical cord and that I had been dragging her around inside of me since the day she died. She asked me to cut the cord, to release her and let her find her own way. With nothing but a sharp intention, we severed the cord and as we did, I could see her floating away, but now, more radiant and energetic. Then I noticed that she left her booze and her cigarettes behind, she was free of the very things that had killed her 34 years ago. I cried like a little baby, sobbing uncontrollably.
In about an hour and a half, Alghani helped me discover things about myself that a year in therapy hadn’t unearthed. I was exhausted and a little disoriented afterward. I felt a little weak in the knees but surprisingly ecstatic, much as I had after my spirit vine experience. Everything seemed brighter and sharper, and I was very alert. My experience with the shaman of Woodland Hills was an unconventional confirmation that there is a single, unifying reality behind the wizard’s curtain. I feel strongly that there is a single source, a single God, a unified nature.
I also know there are many other ways to get there, and I plan to explore as many of them as I can.
Written by Rick Ruiz
Rick Ruiz is a writer, former journalist and owner of Zenvironment, a Conscious Communications consulting firm. A native Southern Californian and graduate of Cal State Fullerton, he now lives in Santa Monica. He has studied and written about martial arts, spirituality, personal growth and the southern California lifestyle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.