Having suffered primal wounds as a child, my life has been shaped by a quest directed towards revealing the nature of these early traumas and the morphology of the ways in which my psychology and behavioural patterns had been conditioned by them. This has led me on a path that began in my teens, with an interest in the so-called ‘paranormal’, and which subsequently led me to Jungian psychology, training in Buddhist meditation, and finally to a five-year-long apprenticeship with a very powerful female, Japanese shamanic healer in Tokyo, about whom I wrote a book.
During my years of meditation, and the practices I became involved in while training with her, not only did I gain insight and healing, and experience many spontaneous regressions and ‘past lives’ on the way, but I also became opened to spirit possession – a subject which is confused by a great deal of misunderstanding, chicanery, misinterpretation, and fakery. However, in spite of this, and the general denial of such phenomena in our own culture, it remains, even as a not-so-common-experience, a very real and important aspect of our human nature and existential condition. Here, I wish to differentiate what I describe below from the kinds of ‘possession’ by deeply repressed areas within the psyche which can become disassociated or ‘split off’, and appear to develop their own autonomy, often manifesting as ‘multiple personalities’, and easily becoming mistaken for genuine spirit possession, in whichever cultural context they may appear.
While training with my teacher, Ikuko Osumi, I became possessed by a spirit energy or entity associated with the shrine of a mountain god or kami, which had become displaced from its mountain, and I discovered in an antiques shop in Tokyo, and bought, with the intention of returning to its former home. However, after having been instructed by my teacher to immediately return the shrine to the dealer, the spirit remained with me, possessing me with such power, while speaking and chanting for long periods in classical Japanese, that I soon became sick and had to take to my bed. One night, I was awakened by my body spontaneously sitting up, and there, at the end of my futon was the spirit, facing me slightly towards my left shoulder. Soon afterwards, I experienced periods of violent convulsions, and endless chanting, which finally became so long in duration that I fell into a critical condition and near to death. While my teacher finally managed to subdue the spirit, it remained with me for many years, generally assuming a benign, but regular presence, until over the years it slowly began to become more disruptive once again, and I finally had to seek the assistance of a shaman who came from an ancient and powerful lineage of shamans in China. After addressing the spirit and subduing it once more, he supplied me, each month, with a paper talisman (or fuda in Japanese) inscribed with an ancient Chinese ideogram, and charged with energy, which I was instructed to wear over my tandem (an inch or so below the navel), burning it at the end of each month and mixing the ashes with water, which I was then instructed to drink. This had the effect of keeping the spirit in check for some ten years, while at the time I was warned that regular spirit possession could result in a right-brain aneurism, and that this particular spirit would try to ‘take’ (kill) me on one more occasion, which it subsequently did.
Ayahuasca in the Andes
In 2012, for reasons I cannot clearly explain, the South American psychotropic plant ayahuasca – also known as ‘the vine of the soul’ or ‘the vine of death’ – kept coming into my mind, but about which, I had little or no knowledge at the time. I am not even sure how it was I first became aware of it, but I now started to research as much as I could on the subject. I found, as usual with anything we Westerners alight upon, there was already a great deal of excitement, hyperbole and exploitation surrounding it, even to its being taken up in certain quarters as the next thing to ‘trip’ on, mistaking it for, treating as, and reducing to some kind of recreational drug.
Among the shamans and peoples of northern South America, ayahuasca is reverentially referred to as ‘Mother Ayahuasca’, and the medicine brewed from it in combination with certain other plants, considered a sacrament, and the drinking of it ritualised in a ceremony performed before a mesa or altar. It is claimed that through Mother Ayahuasca, – embodying the heart/mind of Nature and the planet’s wisdom – the most advanced of shamans are actually capable of communicating directly with the DNA of all existence. A claim I now have no reason to doubt.
Since there is already a plethora of easily accessible information concerning ayahuasca on the internet, I have no intention here of giving either a botanical description, or the actual chemical constituents contained in it or any of the other plants it is usually mixed with in the medicine. Suffice to say that it has an increasingly well-documented reputation for healing on physical, psychological and spiritual levels, and particularly interesting for me, in treating clinical depression. A danger lies, however, in the West’s inevitable interest in synthesising, commodifying and marketing something which is essentially sacred, and whose role in the lives of humankind and by extension all life on the planet, is I believe, sacrosanct.
The more I learned, the more I felt a compulsion to travel to Peru and to participate in several ayahuasca ceremonies, but since we exist on very small state pensions, this necessitated borrowing some money.
After researching several places and shamans, I decided upon a centre which had been organised by a wealthy ex-Wall Street trader, who after having experienced ayahuasca himself, had given up his job and privileged life in New York, in order to become apprenticed to a shaman. He had joined with a shamanic family in the Amazon, where he used his money to help them create a healing centre. However, at the time, they were also using a place high in the Andes, where the shaman visited with his apprentice and the ayahuasca from the rainforest. Since the cost of flying from Lima to the Andes was less expensive than visiting the Amazon rainforest, this was the option I finally decided upon.
Initially, I stayed for a couple of days in a small climbers’ hostel in the small mountain town of Huaraz, in order to try and acclimatise myself to the altitude. As it was, I was already suffering some effects of altitude sickness with a headache, heavy cold-like symptoms and jet lag, and found that I could not walk too far from the hostel without my breathing becoming impaired. On the third day, I met up with a few other members of our small group, and we travelled together up to the retreat centre. Here, I discovered I had fortuitously mislaid my Chinese fuda or talisman, and realised I must have left it at the hostel.
Shortly before my departure, I had made the shaman’s apprentice aware of my history of spirit possession in an email, in case any such spirit should put in an appearance. On the first day after our arrival, we immediately embarked on a strict shamanic diet, and each day at five o’clock in the afternoon, we had to drink a tea made from tree bark in order to purify the body in preparation for it to receive the ayahuasca. At six o’clock, we congregated in the ceremony hall, where we practiced breathing exercises and meditation until seven, by when it was already dark. The shaman and his apprentice then arrived with a vessel containing the ayahuasca.
First the shaman sang and whistled icaros into the brew. Icaros are songs taught to the shamans by the elemental spirits of the plants, and it is believed in the indigenous culture that each thing that exists on the planet has its own song. After icaros had been sung into the main mixture,it was then poured into a small cup into which other icaros were sung, before it was passed to each individual member of the group in turn, and refilled, following a clockwise or sunwards direction. On receiving the cup, the person then silently communicated their personal prayer, request, question, or wish for specific guidance into the cup before shouting “Salud!” and downing the mixture.
The flavour of the brew is particularly unpleasant, and very often results in retching or vomiting with diarrhoea also as a common accompaniment, so that next to the mattresses on which each person sat, there was a bowl and a roll of lavatory paper.
Usually within half an hour of ingesting the medicine, the visions begin. In my own case, I had requested that any residual darkness be lifted from my life, so I will only concentrate on describing three of the many visions I experienced. The first took me into a place of great darkness in which so many terrifying things happened I could no longer remember most of them the following day. The final image though, was of everything concerning family/community somehow ‘contained’ in a very small space, and in black and white, and from which I was slowly withdrawing or separating. However, it was some weeks after the experience that I realised that the ‘container’ which had initially looked like a tablet or a screen, was in fact a book – a screen, of course, now having become a possible tool in the writing of a book.
I awoke at what I later learned was seven o’clock in the morning, with brilliant sunlight flooding the hall, to find the place empty, but the floor littered with blankets, rolls of lavatory paper and bowls of vomit. Each time I tried to stand up I fell over. I seemed to have no identity; had no idea who I was – just a kind of instinctual animal awareness. The centre was some meters away from the ceremony hall, and I had to negotiate a small hill to get there, and the only way I could describe my condition later was that it was like being a sick donkey. A sick animal would not conceptualise about being sick, nor indulge in diagnosis or prognosis, but would just simply place one foot before another, which is what I did. And by the time I reached the small cottage I had been allocated, I collapsed into the bed.
I was wakened by someone knocking on the door. It was the shaman’s apprentice, who came in smiling to see how I was. He suggested, as it was already lunchtime, that I should eat, and went to fetch me some food. By the time he returned, and I suspect due to my having lost my fuda, I was in a state of full possession. On seeing my condition, he immediately went and fetched the shaman, and they each entered the cottage carrying their own shaman’s rattle fashioned from certain jungle leaves. I sat on the bed while the shaman stood in front of me with his apprentice at my back.
Both sang icaros and shook their rattles, and at first the spirit possessing me began to fight the shaman. Then after a while, it adopted conciliatory tones, and I learned later, even tried to strike a deal with him. All the while the icaros and the shushing of the rattles continued. The spirit then began to beg; first, like a human, with hands in attitude of prayer, and then like a dog with its two paws held before it. As the icaros and the rattles persisted, my body began to ‘melt’ – the tensions leaving it so that it slowly collapsed onto the bed. The shaman then made me lie on my side while he sucked three times from my temple, going outside on each occasion to expel something from his mouth. He then sealed my temple with some kind of perfumed liquid, in which I later learned herbs had been infused, three times with a cross. He then repeated the same operation on my other side, after which I slept.
That night during the ceremony, and after the visions, the shaman called me out in front of the mesa, and he and his apprentice carried out a second exorcism. A Vietnamese-American medical doctor who had already experienced several ayahuasca retreats, and who had been watching the proceedings, told me afterwards that he saw “something leave” me. The following day, the shaman said that he felt that the spirit had been with me for a long time, and explained that I would continue to experience residual energies for a while. This made sense, since if someone has been occupying a house for a number of years, and then departs from it, they often leave an ‘atmosphere’ behind, and evidence of their occupation. So it is reasonable to expect something of a similar nature, in these circumstances.
For the next three nights, after the visions, and while I lay there, I became surrounded by hundreds of luminous silver-blue spheres about the size of snooker balls. Initially, they congregated around my head and shoulders and then extended to the entire contours of my body. They were chirping and tweeting like cosmic birds one minute, and then giggling and gurgling like cherubim the next. They made the purest of sounds I have ever heard, and the vibratory frequencies of their voices penetrated deep into my body. It was like being blissfully cradled by some angelic host.
Two of the visions I wish to mention here, both occurred on the same night. The first seemed like an endless pageant. It manifested as mountains in the form of a massive opening and closing flower or mandala. Each opening would reveal one of the earth’s civilisations as it was formed, was maintained, and then collapsed. The mountains would then close-up, before opening again to reveal the morphology of yet another civilisation, and so on for what seemed like days, ever folding and unfolding, until it reached to the damaging rhythms of our own.
After this, my disembodied consciousness became imbedded within a family. One that was as real as in any house I might enter today. Again, for what seemed like days, but was only a matter of hours, I followed each member of the family, from the children through to the parents and the grand-parents, and silently observed how each individual expressed love and caring for the others, and in turn received it from them, in various situations and under differing circumstances and conditions. Mother Ayahuasca, had shown me the exact antithesis to my own family, whose lack of love and caring had formed the very root of my problems, while showing me that love and compassion are the essential roots for living life responsibly on this planet.
What I encountered in Mother Ayahuasca was a profound and compassionate intelligence – the deepest communion with Nature and what I can only call ‘the cosmos’ – a heart/mind that not only spoke universally and cosmically, but seemed to have the most intimate knowledge of my own individual psyche.
I can only express my gratitude, but regret at having met Mother Ayahuasca so late in my life, because I believe that if there is to be any hope for humankind and all else on this planet, and of course for the planet herself, it is through meditative practices, and just such conduits to the Great Mother as ayahuasca. We are under the illusion that after wounding the planet, we can, with the same confused and ignorant mind-set with which we created the damage in the first place, heal her, when it is we who need healing. Only once we have been healed and altered our cultural mind-set, returning us to a balanced way of living, will the planet be allowed the time and space to heal herself. This is the desperate message of the compassionate intelligence and power of the planet we call, but have forgotten the essential truth of, ‘Mother Earth’.
It would be easy and understandable, but under the circumstances too simplistic, to merely cite my disenchantment with our culture, as originating in the fractures, violence and alienation within my own family and my suffering at boarding school – my first communities. And my retreat into, and spiritual reliance on ‘Mother Nature’, as simply being just a substitute for my lack of human mothering. There is, of course, no doubt that these primal experiences set my existential compass, so to speak, but what is more important to me is that it created me as an ‘outsider’, ‘an unbelonging’, which, in turn, created the situation for me to have to look at and learn of my own damage and conditioning, and also by extension, allowed me to be sensitive to the fractures and anomalies in the culture I was born into, and smell the festering of its own wound. If you carry deep primal wounds yourself, then they will naturally resonate with the wounds of the other.
My flight out of the Andes was postponed twice on the day of my departure, due to the changing weather conditions. In the event, a local taxi driver offered to drive me around the area visiting various places he thought might be of interest to me. During our journey, and our many stops in the mountains and local pueblos, he pointed out to me where the whole sides of the mountains were literally being blasted away by open cast mining for the precious metals and other materials valuable to Western economies, contained within the rock. For example, the Yanacocha gold mine in Peru is the largest in the world. The rock is blasted out of the mountain face with dynamite, while both mercury and highly toxic cyanide are used in the process, which critically contaminates the supply of drinking water to the pueblos below. In each of the pueblos in the area there are regular demonstrations against the mining companies and multinational conglomerates, which often become violent, and are brutally subjugated by the local police, commonly resulting in deaths.
Watching the farmers and women herders with their small flocks, moving about in the surrounding terrain each day in their gloriously woven bright clothing and flashing smiles, and the comings and goings and quiet administrations of the local staff, I felt my heart drawn to them in the time that I was there. And my deep respect and admiration grew for a people who, for centuries, have remained resolute in retaining their own profound culture and way of life in the face of unbelievable hardships; the weight of a cruel colonial yoke in the past, and its latest incarnation in the form of the heartless exploitation by the ‘developed world’ of their country’s mineral and pharmaceutical wealth – while the majority of the indigenous population remain living lives of extreme poverty.
Ernesto Guevara – later to be more famously known as ‘Che Guevara’ – while travelling through Peru with his compatriot, Alberto Grenado, on observing the indigenous peoples, their lives, cultural predicament and privations, and the remains of their previous cultural incarnation, wrote in his diary, “How is it I feel nostalgia for a world I never knew.”
I know how.
After three months at home, suddenly, one evening during my meditation, I became possessed again by the same spirit. In the preceding days and weeks, the possessions became more frequent and energetic, until I was forced to stop my meditation practice and close the small Buddhist group here on the island, altogether – while my day-to-day life became completely disrupted. The exorcism had obviously failed, and I was finally forced to return to Peru. This time, to the Amazonian rainforest, the home of the shaman and his shamanic family, who through their generosity of heart, offered to work with me one-to-one, gratis. But that is another story…
Pic: Claire Palmer
A version of this article was originally published in 2013 by Longhouse Publishing, Vermont.