Ethereal Serpents Held Me in Thrall

Shyloh Ravenswood

In this account, a psychiatrist in his midforties relates a dramatic tale of how the ayahuasca snakes helped him purge toxic residues from unhealthy behavior patterns in his life, thereby gaining deeper self-understanding.

After a nine-month break from medicine circle work, I felt ready for another journey to the shaman's world of power animals and other inhabitants of the deep unconscious. I also hoped to reconnect with my physical body, from which I tend to become alienated by my writing, healing vocation, and other intellectual pursuits. Over years of personal experience with psychedelics, I have found that the structured ritual of a medicine circle provides a safe environment for such inner travel, and that the surest way to achieve this dramatic shift of consciousness was with ayahuasca.

I had ingested that Amazonian plant spirit helper on three previous occasions within the context of a medicine circle and had found the visions to be glorious. Mostly I saw entrancing swirls of multicolore lights intermixed with shimmering, kaleidoscopic patterns that overwhelmed my senses, creating a state of blissful absorption. Occasionally I caught a fleeting glimpse of a large cat or a raven—animals with which I feel a special connection—but they had seemed uninterested in me and did not linger in my awareness.

During the several days that preceded the circle, I had noticed tight, sore areas in my shoulders and neck, energy blockages that I attributed to my tension-filled days with acutely ill psychiatric patients. In my chronic state of having more-to-do-than-time-to-do-it, I had been neglecting the good dietary habits that I usually maintain. Arriving home late and tired, I often unwound with a bit more alcohol than was my custom, which diverted me from performing an essential inner review of that day's emotional residue that promotes healthy sleep.

During the afternoon vision quest in the San Gabriel mountains that preceded the evening's circle, I tried to concentrate on my intention for the weekend, but I allowed myself to be distracted by a series of mundane thoughts that blurred my focus. In the hour before the circle began, I again avoided turning inward by chatting idly with my fellow travelers as I waited my turn for the shower. I realized I was a bit constipated, but in the excitement that precedes medicine work, I neglected to relieve myself before the opening ritual.

It is for good reason that Amazonian natives refer to ayahuasca as la purga. My past experience with this mysterious medicine included gagging robustly as I swallowed the revolting brew, followed by an inevitable episode of vomiting that precedes the peak of the experience. Although I would rather forgo that aspect of the journey, it had seemed merely incidental, a minor toll for passage into a world of extraordinary compelling visions and deep psychological insight.

But this time was different. The thick, pungent medicine seemed especially foul, coating my tongue and palate, sticking to my throat as I tried to gulp it down. Once in my stomach, it felt as if I had swallowed a live boa who was inching through the acidic labyrinth of my guts, pausing to squeeze them tight in sequential spasms. Barf bowl at the ready, I repeatedly leaned over to expel the herpetic brew, but my retching yielded nothing. As the early visions mounted, I was preoccupied by the incessant rumblings in my abdomen and my mounting frustration as I repeatedly failed to rid myself of that relentless reptile.

Now I realized I was getting into a bit of trouble. Nearly overwhelmed by a swirling visionary wash, I could feel my pulse quicken and blood pressure drop as blood rushed to my heaving intestines and away from my brain. I knew I wouldn't lose consciousness as long as I remained supine, but I also knew that I should sit up and try again to vomit, which caused me to feel light-headed and weak. As time passed, my predicament deepened, finally brought to a head by a sudden, compelling urge to evacuate my bowels. After lurching to the bathroom, which was lit by a single candle, I sat and lowered my head between my knees.

Snakes! The small room was suddenly full of writhing serpents, crawling on the walls, ceiling, floor, over my body, into my nose and ears. Some of them morphed into other animals—spiders, wolves, fish, fabulous multicolored firebirds—then abruptly reaffirmed their true nature as snakes, hissing in my face with fangs bared and tongues flicking. I was sure they were laughing at me, mocking my discomfort.

In ordinary life, I do not fear snakes but admire and respect them as fascinating and mysterious inhabitants of the California chaparral where I jog daily. And now I was not repulsed by these reptiles either but felt enchanted by their momentous power and presence, curious as to what they wanted with me. Later, the shamanic guide who led the circle suggested that if I had reached out and captured one, it would have taught me what it knows. Perhaps next time. . . .

Finally after achieving explosive relief from both ends of my beleaguered alimentary tube, I was at last able to sit up without feeling woozy. The circle's sitter came to check on me and helped me back to the group, which was just starting the first round with the singing staff. When the staff came around to me, I weakly propped myself up on my elbows and hummed a barfy song to express my ordeal. The peak of the visions now past, I spent the rest of the evening reflecting upon the meaning of this exotic visitation, trying to gain a teaching that seemed as slippery and elusive as those ethereal serpents who momentarily held me in thrall.

Only in the weeks that followed did the word "obtunded" arise from that night's events. This word signifies a reduction, stubborn blockage, an impediment to the natural flow, a dulling of the senses, emotions, and intellect, a constipation of spirit. I had allowed myself to become obtunded in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The snakes were there to open my heart, beginning with my stupidly neglected guts.

Now, I won't say that I no longer get obtunded, that I steadfastly heed my body's subliminal signals, or that the shallow cravings of ego never impede the flow of Spirit through my heart—only that I am a bit more aware of my lapses. Maybe when I catch that snake. . . .

IWa-ö Explo Being with Gre

Pamela C.

Pamela C.

A psychotherapist in her forties overcomes her fear and repulsion toward Earth and nature, grieves for the Earth, delights in letting ayahuasca elves heal her body, and rejoices in brotherly relationships in a circle of men.

My purpose for the ayahuasca session was to explore and heal my relationship with the Earth. I have been repulsed and fearful of working in the dirt, or taking walks, or being in nature for many years, ever since I was a child.

The liquid substance tasted awful and compelling at the same time. I laid down and waited, with my bowl close by, for the vomiting I had been told to expect. When it came I wasn't expecting it. No horrible cramps or inner need or awareness that I needed to vomit, as with an illness. I simply opened my mouth and my insides came out into a silver bowl. It was all very gentle, almost delicate. I felt feminine and dainty, not wretched.

I was lost in inner exploration when I noticed I was crying and full grief. Grief for the world, and it came to me that it would be helpful and healing if women wept for the Earth. I thought I must be authentic, I must weep with my clients. Especially my women clients who are HIV-positive.

Later, just going with the experience, I was exploring being with greenness and deep, lush vegetation. Then I noticed little cartoon people in pastel shades of pink and blue. Not at all the earthy green folks I had expected, if I were to create them. They were working on my body with little tools. They looked up and were happy to see me. It was as if a princess or queen of the land had come to visit. They were pleasantly surprised and proud of themselves and their work. They told me not to be so concerned with fixing my body myself. They would handle all repairs. If I wanted to do something, then before I went to bed I could focus in on what part of my body I wanted healed, but not to do it myself. I felt much relief, and I trusted them and their workmanship. An image of a sloth came to mind—one of my favorite animals—with the saying "Just hang in there."

Again, back into the jungle, just letting myself wander and wonder.

Noticed that I was on my knees arching my back then letting it fall, like in hatha yoga positions. I was not intellectually directing this process. My body was moving in a way of restoring balance and harmony to my back. I remember the guide asking if I was all right, if I needed anything. "No," I answered him. I was simply moving my body in a way that would heal my back. I remember later feeling extremely comfortable in my body. I was elongated and felt sensual, not sexual.

More awareness of moving through the jungle. The jungle moving aside as I quickly and stealthily, with focus, passed. I was the jaguar. I saw the jaguar's face and the beautiful wondrous anaconda as my journey came to an end.

Coming back to this reality, I felt surrounded by my brothers. I was the only woman in the group with about eight men. I felt such joy in being amongst them. No sexual energy from them, but a sense of brother- and sisterhood. I felt grateful for the brothers of my family and these new brothers. I was seeing men in healthy relationships with other men. I felt safe, that all was right with the world. I felt protected by them and safe.

In the months since the session, my relationship with earth changed dramatically. I started a garden and still work in it. Every time I work with the earth or with plants, I learn a deep truth about life: weeding, planting, fertilizing, preparing the soil, treating plants individually, each type having specific requirements, just reflecting about relationships and that some are annuals and others perennials. I walk, generally by myself—four or five days a week. A miracle for me. I feel the insides of my body more deeply. I have reverence for insects that is new also, a deeper love for all animals and birds.

Finally, and this was a big surprise, my fear of heights has begun to fade. I can go over the San Rafael bridge without trembling or breaking out into a sweat.

I have had the deepest and longest lasting results from this medicine and give thanks to it and its teachers.

Reviewing this experience from the perspective of several years later, most of the lessons I learned in the session are still with me. Sadly, I must report that the fear of heights is ongoing. However, my feeling of safety in nature continues to grow. I have even taken people out into the wilderness for retreats, something I'm sure I would not have been able to do without the help of this medicine's teachings. My dog has become my constant companion, whereas in the past pets have always been an added chore for me. Now I find solace and friendship in the animal kingdom. My treatment of insects continues to be respectful. I avoid all use of pesticides in my house or on my food.

Recently, in a book on nutrition, I found references to eicosanoids —super hormones that "control every vital physiological function" and are "the most powerful biological agents known to man." They are found in all living things and have been unchanged for millions of years. Rereading my ayahuasca account, I connected the little pink and blue healing workers I saw with the eicosanoids in my body. I was glad to be reminded that they are taking care of my body and that I need do very little to help, though attention is always appreciated.

After the ayahuasca session I began to rethink my relationship with my brothers. I had spent most of my time in psychotherapy focusing on my parents. I now began to see the lack of relationship I had with my brothers and have made changes in my life to have more connections with them. This has been a difficult but enriching experience. The ayahuasca session gave me a touchstone for what a healthy sibling relationship could be.

An educator in his fifties relates deep purging and healing experiences with ayahuasca, confirmations of Buddhist teachings, and important understandings of the tricks of the ego.

My intention was to reconnect with the medicine way of healing. Fifteen years had passed since my last psychedelic venture. I had soured on the whole New Age trip, having been badly burned by a meditation school to whom I had given my all, only to wake up one day to find that the school wasn't what it was cracked up to be. There had been hints all along of corruption, hints that I had consciously chosen to ignore in the interest of giving myself over to a teaching and in the interest of retaining my membership in a spiritual community for which I had made many personal sacrifices.

I both left and was kicked out of the school. My departure had something to do with my not respecting their authority. I was also disenchanted. I mean this literally. One day, during a meditative training session, I became disenchanted. The spell I was under simply fell away. Eventually, I returned to my original path of medicine work.

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