Bruno Severi (real name) was trained in Clinical Electron Microscopy and has been the Coordinator of the Institute of Clinical Electron Microscopy, Medical Faculty, University of Bologna, Italy. The experience reported here occurred on the 28-29th of October, 1994 in Peru.
This description is an abbreviated English translation of a version published in the Italian journal Quaderni di Parapsicologia (Vol. 27, No. 1, 1996) of the Centro Studi Parapsicologici of Bologna, under the title, “Ayahuasca, medicina dell’anima,” and is posted here by permission of the journal. Ordinarily TASTE will not consider material already published, but in this case it seemed the original journal would be difficult enough to obtain that this interesting account would otherwise be inaccessible to most readers.
A Very Impressive Experience With A “Teacher Plant”
In this paper, the author presents his direct experience with Ayahuasca, an hallucinogenic plant brew employed by shamans of the tropical rain forests of South America. This drug is commonly thought to be able to bring people into contact with “another” reality from which both practical and spiritual teachings can be obtained. Discovering how this could happen was the main task of the author during a one month stay in the Peruvian forest. After many disappointing and discouraging results, the author decided to try Ayahuasca one more time before returning home. During this last sitting, which lasted the entire night, the author succeeded in receiving a great deal of teachings, but in an unexpected and very complex way. On the whole, this experience subjectively looked like a true initiation process which appeared to be (telepathically?) directed by the shaman himself, even if other explanations cannot be discarded.
In October 1994, I landed in Pucallpa, a little town in the Peruvian Amazon, together with three friends of mine with the aim of studying the use and the effects of Ayahuasca or Yagé. This is an hallucinogenic brew obtained by a forest vine of the genus Banisteriopsis mixed with other plants. It contains components, such as the alkaloids harmine and harmaline of the family of beta-carbolines identified as the main psychoactive substances. Some of them are very closely chemically related to neuromodulators found in the brain and in particular in the pineal gland. Furthermore, harmaline is supposed to be psi-conducive (Roney-Dougal,1989). Amazon shamans employ this drug to induce a particular trance through which, according to Roney-Dougal (1985), “All the tribes who use harmaline report out-of-the-body experiences. They also report the ability to obtain knowledge about distant people and places, the cause of illness, identification of personal enemies, location of lost or stolen articles, etc”. Also Indian and western people who are searching for a new and wider spiritual dimension use it. In fact, this substance is obtained from a “teacher plant”, i.e. a plant which can give some sort of spiritual education or the subjective experience of true insight (Bianchi, 1994; Cardenas, 1989). During the whole month I spent there, my main task was to discover how this could happen. All five shamans with whom we drank Ayahuasca, when asked about this subject, were always very closed and vague.
Our stay in Pucallpa and in other villages scattered along the river Ucayali was very troublesome and was characterized by many accidents and disappointment. Also my personal experience with Ayahuasca was not satisfactory at all until the end of my stay. The effects had been scarce and far from any expectations. When some results were obtained, they showed no particular significance for me. They consisted in visions with a lot of odd lights and geometric configurations, quickly passing in kaleidoscopic form. Less often, they appeared as puppets or as very enlarged particulars of both common objects and insects. On the contrary, my friends referred to have often obtained encouraging results. According to Furst (1974) and Tart (1975), with whom I agree, these contrasting reactions are undoubtedly due to innate differences in how people respond to these drugs, to the individual expectations, and to the different cultural background. My relationship with don Pedro, the Shipibo shaman who introduced me to such an experience and with whom we had most of our sittings, deteriorated. After almost a month, I believed I had to come back with nothing in my hands. When my discontent reached the maximum, I decided to interrupt my experiences with both that shaman and the drug. My friends had a hard time persuading me to try a last time (the tenth). And that time was a terrible, incredible, breathtaking, fantastic one!
It is difficult to explain in few words what happened to me during that last night. Here is a summary taken from the report I wrote the morning after.
On the evening of this last sitting, two of my friends and I reached the hut where don Pedro practiced his healing profession, some miles far from Pucallpa. At 8.30 p.m., when we arrived, there were many patients (more than twenty), both adults and children; for this reason don Pedro was assisted by three other shamans. All the shamans were sitting on one side of the hut, while the patients were crowded in front of them inside the hut. We could hardly find a place to sit down. Little by little people stopped talking and reached mental relaxation. Only a candle illuminated the scene. At 9.00 p.m., don Pedro started to sing an “icaro”, a sing-song addressed to the spirits of the plants from which he receives force and instructions. Then he called me and ordered to blow a glass half-filled with Ayahuasca some times. He said I had to drink some of the content but, if I wanted, I could drink it all (the usual quantity was about a third of a glass). I drank everything. It was the first time I saw him adopt this procedure. Then, my friends, the three assistants, three patients, and he himself drank. The candle was blown out and each of us was left alone in hopeful silence. After about twenty to thirty minutes, while I was laying down on the ground with my eyes closed, I felt pressure at my right temple accompanied by a cold wave starting from my feet which irradiated all over my body. In the previous sittings such signs always preceded the arrival of the visions. In the meantime, each shaman sang his “icaro” to search to get power and to solve or to alleviate the problems of the patient which was sitting in front of him.
The effect of Ayahuasca began by showing me a lot of visions which changed very quickly into one another in a state of continuous fluctuation. They were in the form of the usual odd lights and of very colored geometrical configurations which danced in front of my mind. My consciousness was dragged away under the effect of such visions in spite of my efforts to control and retain it, up to the point that I was afraid to completely lose my mind forever. I was so struck with terror and with an extreme sense of solitude (all people around me looked like motionless statues, not in a position to bring me any help), that I believed I was going mad. I also noticed altered perceptions of myself, objects, time, space, and others. Cold and warm sensations alternated continuously. The colored visions arrived in waves and each time they were more and more strong. They appeared like a whirl into which I was falling. I perceived that they were strengthened by the shamans’ “icaros”. I was prevented to do and to think anything of my own by an external power.
This condition lasted long. In the meantime , I perceived by intuition and with more and more intensity that such a situation in a sense was directed by don Pedro himself. Nevertheless, I was still afraid to let myself go. I felt that my consciousness was more and more an instrument of an external power (the shaman?, but I was not completely sure about it) and I could not absolutely oppose it. Only rarely I was entirely or partially present to myself. I found momentary relief when I casually touched a string of my knapsack which was lying near by. It represented the last contact with the reality I could have. But soon, I lost it and my mind was again brought away.
At an undetermined moment, I felt the need to vomit. I had a hard time leaving the hut (I could not see anything at all except the visions) while a strange force or attraction directed me somewhere. Finally, I reached a tree and I knew that it was the proper site. I leaned on it with my right hand and vomited. My troubles were not finished. The same force described before compelled me to lay down on the grass where the visions started again to attack my mind and I was driven once more to despair. I felt strengthless with no possibility to return to my place in the hut. At the height of the experience, I perceived the presence of death near me (it is difficult to explain how) and I felt myself lost. I thought of my relatives in Italy which I was about to leave forever. But, after some minutes, I was no longer terrified by such a presence and death appeared not to be so bad as before. On the contrary, it looked like something entirely normal, almost like a friend. I fearlessly accepted the possibility of dying in that precise moment. That situation found some relief when Sonia, don Pedro’s daughter-in-law, and herself an apprentice shaman, came to assist me. She asked me how I was and remained near me for a long time. She offered me a withered flower. Its strong scent gave me an unexpected and pleasant energy. “It is a sacred flower which I received by a shaman,” Sonia told me at the end of that session. Afterwards, I saw her twice to become transfigured into an old skindressed shaman with a long and ruffled hair. He looked like as though he was absorbed in meditation.
Later on, don Pedro also came to bring help. When I recovered my strength sufficiently, with the help of Sonia I somehow reached my place in the hut. From that moment the visions appeared quieter and more friendly, and my previous terror and loneliness progressively attenuated. When I tried to look at don Pedro, every one in the hut looked like him. I perceived them all as friendly presences. During this stage, I felt the vortically fluctuating visions as they were roughing my mind or some part of it. In some rare circumstances, they almost stopped, entering a state of delicate vibration. I recognized that these moments were the topical ones of my experience during which the roughing of my mind was substituted by chisel work.
At this point, I put myself into the hands of some external force. Suddenly, my experience radically changed. I perceived (always by intuition) a lot of instruction carried on by the psychedelic visions which were still filling my mind. At first I was instructed to reject any wish; then I was instructed to free myself of my sense of being. For instance, if I was about to think or to do something ( i.e.:” I would like to drink some water” or “I would like to take an object”), someone unseen suddenly made me notice that in that thought there was a wish, or that my ego was somehow implicated. In this way, I was in the position to correct myself. Then, I was instructed (but my memories are not strong on this point) to concentrate and to meditate. Many times I repeated these exercises which each time resulted easier. These processes were visually perceived by me in form of ever-narrowing rings which ultimately disappeared into an invisible point. I understood that in order to be rid of our own self, it is necessary to cancel out any verb from our internal thoughts.
When I finally succeeded in ridding out of myself, I saw an imagine of myself, or a part of it, which was slowly disappearing in a pond where an alligator was observing the scene with indifference. Later, I received a different kind of teaching: some of my questions from the previous days found natural and appropriate answers. For an instant I perceived such an answer, I recognized that it was perfectly correct and fitted in the respective question forming a single object. But, after a while, it entered a little casket which quickly closed. In that moment, I completely forgot its content. The same thing happened for another type of teaching which regarded more conceptual subjects not previously requested by me, but coming from the same hidden source. At the end of this stage, I felt by intuition that in the future I will always be the same as before and that every teaching was kept somewhere in my mind as a little treasure to be used in case of need.
At 4 a.m., when the effect of the drug was already finished, I made a brief relation of my experience to the shaman who told me that from then on I will be strong and will be provided with a sort of magic screen with a protective function. My friends too claimed to have had a very strong experience, but not of that kind.
The day after this experience I took a note of everything I could remember. For most of the time during the sitting I was not conscious, so I think I remember only 20-30% of the whole experience.
This is only a short and partial account of a very long experience which lasted many hours. I would like to stress that I subjectively passed through some different, but significant, stages: that of loneliness, that of fear, that of despair, that of the encounter with the death, that of teachings, and that the whole process seems very similar, if not exactly alike, to a initiation process (Eliade, 1951). The meaning and the messages contained in these different stages were always perceived by me by intuition (I cannot find a more adequate term), even if sometimes they were characterized by a very impressive visual component. I also clearly perceived that everything was directed by the shaman who had chosen the proper time and way to instruct me according to a precise program. And this happened when I was going to give up everything and come back home because of my disappointment with the shaman and Ayahuasca.
This experience was very impressive and complex and, in my opinion, far beyond my imaginative faculties and my expectation. Even now, I am ambivalent towards the meaning of what was experienced. On the one hand, the firm belief that don Pedro was the guide and the cause of all is still very strong, even if such a belief was originated by an intuition during the Ayahuasca session. According to this view, he (telepathically or by some other mysterious means) submitted me to a number of preliminary and difficult tests before accepting me for the final proof (the initiation). The occurrence of paranormal phenomena in Ayahuasca sessions is frequently reported, as sustained by Andritzky (1989 ), Roney-Dougal (1985) and others . My first impression, gained during the final steps of the sitting, was that some of these tests corresponded to the numerous troubles and disappointments which characterized my stay in the Amazon area up to that time and on the whole reflected some secret shaman’s projects.
On the other hand, I can rationalize the initiation process with a further logic explanation: that I achieved the subjective experience of a deeper level of human personality in some of its still-hidden aspects. In fact, according to many (Fischer, 1971; Buckley, 1981; James, 1982; Pahnke, 1972; Thalbourne, 1991), within the subconscious depth of the mind there lies a psychic awareness which is only rarely permitted to reach the conscious domain. Thanks to the effect of the drug and to the ritual context in which the process took place, it has been possible for me to achieve some selective access to the unconscious or to some other deeper and richer mind dimensions. In other words, I passed from the “I” of the physical world, to the “Self” of the mental dimension (Fischer, 1971)). To a high degree, it corresponds also to the Hindu vision of the mental structure which, in the words of K. R. Rao (1967), is depicted as follows: “According to Yoga, the psyche (chitta) is ordinarily in a state of continuous fluctuation, caused by external stimuli and internal forces…. But there is an independent power (Sakti) stored in the psyche which cannot function unless these fluctuations are controlled. Yoga formulates a psychophysiological method in eight stages to help restrict these fluctuations”. Many of my “initiatic” steps seem to correspond very well to the ones described along the spiritual path of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies for which I always showed a strong interest. And this same strong interest might have unconsciously addressed and modulated my experience.
Of course, there is another logic explanation: that the whole process was entirely due to my mind and imagination under the influence of the drug. A sort of hallucinatory dream with psychotic-like features. But, since I was the actor of this intensely emotion-laden situation, this explanation seems unlikely to me, even if possible on a rational ground. On the whole, these different interpretations about the reality and nature of such type of experience reflect the variegated positions present in the field.
I regret that it is impossible for me to explain verbally the whole content of what I remember of such an experience, but it is sure that it was a radical one. Now, after some years, I feel (or I believe) that some subtle but significant changes have occurred in my life and in my mind. I have never taken drugs of any sort before that journey to Pucallpa and I believe to have a critical and rational behavior. Now, I think I know something more of how Ayahuasca works, how it gives us its teachings and why so many people use it all over the Amazon basin.
Even if I sometimes believe to have lived inside a fantastic dream, my inner feeling is that a path has been indicated to me, and it is up to me to follow it or not.
Andritzky, W. (1989) Sociopsychotherapeutic functions of Ayahuasca healing in Amazonia. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 21 (1), 77-89.
Bianchi, A. (1994) I mistici del vegetale: Piante psicotrope e stati alterati di coscienza nella selva amazzonica. Quaderni di Parapsicologia, 25, 43-58.
Buckley, P. (1981) Mystical experiences and schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 7, 516- 521.
Cardenas Timoteo, C. (1989) Los Unaya y su mundo. Lima: Instituto Indigenista Peruano.
Eliade, M. (1951) Le chamanisme et les techniques archaiques de l’extase. Paris: Payot.
Fischer, R. (1971) A cartography of the ecstatic and meditative states. Science, 174, 897-904.
Furst, P. (1974) La chair des dieux. L’usage rituel des psychédéliques. Paris: Seuil.
James, W. (1982) The varieties of religious experiences. England: Harmondsworth. Penguin. (Original work published 1902).
Pahnke, W.N. (1972) Drugs and Mysticism. In J. White (Ed.), The Highest States of Consciousness. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday.
Rao, K. R. (1967) The bearing of Yoga practices on psi research. New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 132-135.
Roney-Dougal, S.M. (1985) Some speculations on a possible psychic effect of harmaline. Research in Parapsychology, 1985. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 120-123.
Roney-Dougal, S.M. (1989) Recent findings relating to the possible role of pineal gland in affecting psychic ability. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 55, 313-328.
Tart, C. (1975) States of consciousness. New York: E. P. Dutton.
Thalbourne, M. A. (1991) The psychology of mystical experience. Exceptional Human Experience, 9, 168-183.
Address: Dr. Bruno Severi
Via S. Donato, 139
40057 Granarolo E. (BO). Italy