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Neo-Shamanic Healing Practices in Contemporary Holland

A talk presented by Daniel Waterman at the Head Over Heels event at Green Angels, Borough, London, 5 June 2004

Hallo, my name is Daniel Waterman. I am going to tell you a little about myself, then I will speak briefly on two subjects that are very important for those working with Plant teachers:

I started drinking Ayahuasca about ten years ago. Before this, I had taken all kinds of psychedelic substances, but I had a frightening experience one day with LSD, and after this, I found I was too afraid to take psychedelics again. About ten years later, I became conscious of anxiety somewhere deep inside myself, and slowly it dawned on me, that this anxiety was related to the fear I had felt when I took LSD. Ten years had passed, and I decided that it was time to get rid of this anxiety. I saw how it was influencing my relationships, particularly my love life. I was anxious, and afraid of making commitments. By coincidence, I met an old friend who told me about the Santo Daime, and invited me to find out more about Ayahuasca. I started going to rituals regularly. The first time I drank Daime, instead of encountering the dreaded fear, that I had expected, I found that I was enchanted by the beautiful singing. I quite literally stepped over my fears, and began a process of self-examination.

A few years later, my old fear started to return during the Santo Daime rituals. At first it was not apparent to me what I was afraid of. I would get annoyed about people standing next to me, or distracted by the slightest disturbance. Then one day, I began to be seriously frightened. It dawned on me that the thing I was terrified of was dying. I thought that I would die during the ritual. The sensations that accompanied this realization were a feeling of strangulation, of not getting enough air. I found the air I was breathing to have become thick, as if I was breathing liquid. In hindsight, I believe that I was remembering a period that pre-dated my birth, a memory of the amniotic fluid, that once filled my lungs inside my mothers womb. Unfortunately, this reasoned explanation did nothing to assuage my fears. I struggled to come to terms with my fear of death. This battle lasted about two years, during this time I continued to drink Ayahuasca, but I lived in constant fear and I was seriously depressed. Towards the end of this period, I began to see light at the end of the tunnel. I recognised that fear, like every other emotion is produced by the mind itself, it was as if my fears were a staged drama.

I no longer believed in my fear. I started to see that the fear was a sort of curtain, that was hiding a much larger truth from me. This utter foolishness of my fears became apparent to me when I took a flight to Brazil. I actually went to my father and told him, that I had a premonition that I might die, possibly in an air crash. During the flight, I imagined the aeroplane was falling, and that I somehow managed to survive the impact with the sea, but then a shark came and ate me. I could no longer take these fears seriously. Gradually, I saw what my fear was, it was simply a veil, that had prevented me from seeing what I was really afraid of was life, with all it’s difficulties and disappointments.

Seeing the true nature of this fear, has been the most liberating experience I have had, and it is a great blessing to, that I am now able to pass on what I have learned.

My transformation, took place while I was a member of the Santo Daime, but I became convinced that the struggle I went through may be shortened, with the help of an accomplished guide. I wanted to see whether the Amazonian curandero’s had similar experiences, and what techniques they use, to help people through these difficult transformations. I spent about six months in the Amazon area, with various Curandero’s, and during this time I began to see, that the techniques and ideas from one culture, cannot simply be adapted to another culture. I started to search for my own method to work with Ayahuasca. I wanted to step away from the traditions, and religious beliefs, surrounding Ayahuasca, because I felt these views were distracting from the most important lessons that Ayahuasca has for us. I believe that Ayahuasca can help us liberate ourselves, by giving us experiences to learn about the nature of mind. I strongly feel that a proper examination of ourselves commences with an examination of our “beliefs” and does not start with taking things on faith.

I have often wondered whether the Shamanic journey using Ayahuasca, is a genuine “spiritual journey”, in any sense that a Christian, or Buddhists might acknowledge. This is an interesting question, because why should a Shamanic tradition need recognition in the eyes of the worlds established religious movements? The practice of Shamanism has been persecuted wherever it came into contact with imperialist invasions, and often the reasons given for this persecution were based in religious convictions. Today, we find that Shamanism is still considered to be a backward and superstitious practice dating back to the animistic period of history, which came prior to the “modern” monotheistic religions such as Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism. Now when it comes to a Shamanic tradition that uses a Hallucinogenic substance, moralists from these established religions protest. These moralists intuitively flee from the experiences which are the very foundation on which their faith is built. In other words their faith does not rest on experience. This is why it is so difficult to argue convincingly that entheogenic substances may lead to genuine spiritual awakening, rather than “temptation” and sin.

I happen to believe that Ayahuasca is a medium that does lead to spiritual awakening, in the following manner:

During the 1960’s Professor Stanislav Grof conducted psychotherapeutic sessions using LSD. He discovered that there was a remarkable similarity, between experiences under the influence of LSD, and the birth process. He divided these experiences into four stages, and called them the Basic Perinatal Matrixes. He used the latin word matrix, to indicate his belief, that the birth experience shapes the personality of an individual, prior to childhood. This is an important discovery, because it indicates that there is a period of life in which traumas can occur, that pre-dates the Freudian period. Another important conclusion that Grof came to, was that experiences from this period of life, relate specifically to the spiritual or transpersonal experiences, described by the major religions. Allow me to give you an example:

The consciousness of a child in the womb is growing during the nine months of pregnancy, because the brain is developing . Despite having no language to use, the foetus can remember sensations, both pleasurable and painful. All mothers can confirm that there are moments when they are actually communicating with their babies, so it seems quite credible that the child in the womb is increasingly conscious during pregnancy. Then one day, the child is forced out of this very comfortable five star hotel, through a tiny passageway. It has no idea where it’s heading, or that there is anywhere it could go. Could this be the “fall from grace” that Christianity refers to? Is the child prior to acquiring language not in a state of Buddha consciousness, can it think of itself as a separate being? The point I am trying to make is that the birth of a child, is an important and often traumatic event, it is for most of us, the only experience we can compare to death. Like the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, it is the moment of loss of innocence, that fills us with longing for a unity with Buddha consciousness… the craving for nurture that feeds an addicts need for Heroin.

There is a song by Mestre Raimundou Irineu founder of the Santo Daime church in Brazil, that goes:

A morte e muito simples
E assim eu vou dizer,
Eu comparo o morte
E igualmente ao nascer
[Death is very simple
This is how I would describe it
I compare death, to being born]

Now, Ayahuasca is referred to as the “Vine of the small death”, and in many myths, it is represented as an umbilical chord, along which the Shaman ascends and descends to the other worlds. Could it be that this is a representation of returning to the womb? A return to the primal state, of Buddha consciousness? If a person has been traumatised during birth, these trauma’s will strongly influence that persons attitudes in their life. When I drink Ayahuasca with people, I can see them going through changes, as they slowly come to terms with events from this period of their life. Often, what was lost through trauma, and is recovered, is the connection to the trans-personal domain. This experience of emerging memories from the Basic Perinatal Matrix more or less culminates with the symbolic death, and re-birth of the apprentice. This process of confronting death, by examining our memories of birth, is profoundly transformative. I would say that it transforms us, by taking away the fear and pain that one may have experienced during birth. When we no longer project our past experience of birth into our future expectations of death, we can start to live life in a more fulfilling way. One of the ways in which this experience transformed my life, was that I became much less materialistic. I am sure you have all heard such anecdotes about people who have had near death experiences. Ayahuasca provides us with a way to confront such experiences within the mind. A human being, once liberated from the fear of death, becomes fearless in his pursuit of truth. Realising that the ego is simply a mask, and that awareness exists even before we are born, we are less afraid to admit our faults, and try to improve ourselves.

To quote the Buddhist master Wei Wu Wei:

Why are you so unhappy?
Because 99.9% of what you think and do,
Is for your self
And there isn’t one.

In other words, the death re-birth experience, re-orientates us, towards a new and deeper regard for life. I consider this to be an important spiritual lesson.

To summarize, I have described the Shamanic journey as a transformative experience, that is none other than that presented in the allegories and myths of the established religions. I am referring to the descent from the womb which can be considered the moment of separation from God, Buddha consciousness or whatever you want to call it. By re-living this journey through Ayahuasca, our faith in the fundamental indestructibility of human consciousness is reinforced. I am sure you are all familliar with the saying, “change the world, begin with yourself”. I believe that the use of Ayahuasca is compatible with Christian traditions, like fasting and prayer, with Buddhist meditation, and the Muslim practice of Jihad (not Jihad as in holy war, Jihad as a struggle to reach unity with Allah).

I would like to tell you something about leadership of Shamanic rituals with Ayahuasca, because this is how I believe we can learn to transform experiences into action. I spent many years just silently listening to what Ayahuasca was teaching me, but I still found that I was missing certain skills that I needed, to take what I was hearing, and put it into practice. I decided that if I was going to lead rituals, my leadership should not be a question of preaching, but one of creating “possibilities” for others. Over the years I found that the primary obstacle to good leadership is an inability to communicate, especially to listen. I decided that I wanted to improve my leadership skills, and that I would have to work on personal issues. I wanted to emphasise the need for communication and cooperation, in the work with Ayahuasca, to make it an integral part of the therapeutic process.

Poor communication, sooner or later leads to disturbances, dissatisfaction and authority problems. Good, clear dialogue eliminates the need for authoritarian leadership, it puts people on an equal footing, which is extremely important in working with spiritual awakening. When traumatic memories surface, what we do not need, is authority problems, to distract us from the search for who we are. This message is of great importance to those working with Ayahuasca, we really need to clear up our psychological problems, before we can successfully approach the trans-personal, spiritual realm.

The way I incorporate psychological themes in Ayahuasca rituals, is by creating a time and place for good, healthy exchanges of opinion to take place. All the people I work with are friends, and from the beginning I make an effort to get them to open up, to trust each other, and try to leave behind any prejudices, and talk through any disagreements thoroughly. This concern for others extends to knowing a lot about each others private lives, and I do let others know what is going on in mine.

For example: at one point in my relationship, I had a bad row with my girlfriend. My relationship was in real trouble. I would have felt like a complete hypocrite leading a ritual session with Ayahuasca, and pretending that everything in my life was alright. I preferred to confide in my friends before the ritual, and let them know that this would be the theme I was seeking guidance for during the session. This trust in others, has become the foundation for my leadership during Ayahuasca sessions. What I find is that this honesty allows me to take a stand for something I believe in, or would like to change in my life, I allow my friends to be present and participate in the lessons I am receiving, to witness the healing processes, and learn from what they see.

This sharing and trust between participants produces a relaxed atmosphere, in which I don’t have to control the ritual or tell others what to do. We care for each other, and take care of each other, and this caring is evident not only in the beautiful, harmonious and powerful experiences we have had together, but especially in the transformations I have witnessed in our lives. I have seen people come to drink Ayahuasca who were angry individuals, abused children, drug users, and lost souls searching for the meaning of their lives. I have seen people lose their anger, forgive those who wronged them and move on with their life. I have seen my own mind bent and stretched beyond imagination, and then bounce back in better shape than ever before. And throughout the years I have taken Ayahuasca, I have learned to trust it completely.

Some of you may now be wondering why I have not mentioned the “healing” powers that Shamans reputedly wield, when they administer Ayahuasca. During my travels in the Amazon, I witnessed such healing sessions. I regard them to be an integral part of Shamanism, but the lessons that I received from Ayahuasca while I was in the Amazon, were not about curing stomach complaints, which I had frequently. What Ayahuasca taught me, is that we need desperately to heal ourselves, particularly our relationship with death, because this relationship lies at the root of mankind’s problems. It is a universal, existential problem, and running away from this question is the wrong way to deal with it. Why try desperately to stretch life, instead of learning how to make it fulfilling? Happy people are healthy people, and this is where healing needs to begin.

I believe that the Plant teachers have a contribution to make towards global society. To quote a Huichol saying:

If an individual can’t share his visions with society, either the person, or the society is sick.

I strongly urge all those who work with Ayahuasca, to sharpen their “listening” skills. We need to work on creating an atmosphere where each and every voice can be heard. By learning to be silent and humble, we can learn to hear the voice of Plant teachers, like Ayahuasca, and allow them to teach us. I believe that this improved “listening”, is both a “spiritual” and a “political” lesson. There can be no love without respect, no co-operation without listening, no better world without better people. All of us are born with an instinct for survival, but not many of us have an instinct for happiness. By searching for the meaning of our lives, by asking ourselves who we really are, we are re-arranging the priorities of life, this is what I mean by integration of spirituality. Spirituality is not about what we believe, it is about how we live.

I am truly grateful to the native peoples of the Amazon, for passing us such an important, beautiful and powerful spiritual guide.

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