"To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by "Mind at Large" - this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual."
Medicine in English has two important and related meanings.The Webster online dictionary definition of medicine includes these: 'Something that treats or prevents or alleviates the symptoms of disease' and 'Punishment for one's actions' as in "you have to face the music"or "take your medicine". Long before the pharmacy had been dreamed of however shamans from Siberia to Chile have been using simple plants to profoundly affect our human psychosomatic conditions. Yes, psychosomatic which of course refers to both the mind and the body. Actually these plants usually inform us in no uncertain terms that the mind IS the body. At critically important times in any pilgrimage we do indeed face the music and to take the medicine does not simply mean to ingest it into the body but also to withstand its effects on the mindbody.
With such an understanding and intent then, did our film crew start the walk along the railway tracks in a quiet corner of the sacred valley of the Incas, not far from Ollantaytambo and about an hour from our base of operations in Pisac. We did not have any diseases however and we certainly were not sick, though we often joked that I with a recently severed achilles tendon, Amnon with a sprained back from carrying cameras across the planet and Paulo with festering jungle bites on his elbow were a group of spastic film makers. Jeff and Luke at this point were relatively well though Luke was later to undergo serious purification by fever and Jeff, especially today, was about to embark on what can only be correctly termed a catharctic journey. Our intent was to prepare ourselves psychosomatically for the ascent of the holy mountain upon which tens of thousands were soon to congregate. I was clearly limping still and was by no means fully ready to attempt such a strenous climb. Today would change that..
Our driver Lalo had dropped us off near the base of hill upon which sat the ruins of a ceremonial Inca temple called Yarawaka and more anciently Choco Pujillo in the Quechua tongue.There we found the only shade in this high desert-like wilderness of catctii, shrubs and bald hills. I had done ceremony with Paulo before at the great Inca temple of the water at Tipon and he himself had recently used this spectacular setting (and I really do mean spectacular) to assist other people who had a strong intention to 'use the medicine' but for the other three in our crew this was to be a first encounter with the powerful cactus called Washuma by the Quechua and later as San Pedro by the Catholicised natives of the area. Whatever you call this beautiful plant, after about an hour of drinking it, IT calls you. That is when you have to start the process of taking the medicine. How you do that will define the journey that you and this deceptively simple cactus, used all over Peru and sold in all the markets, will share. Our day at Yarawaka was to unfold as a classically beautiful ceremony of healing, connectivity with Earth and communion with sky. For this we must always thank Paulo, our navigator, our host, our brother and our medicine man par excellence. A great cook too! Here he is at centre:
The previous day had seen us all involved in the preparation of this sacred plant. A meter long cactus (they grow to over ten meters) had been selected by Paulo as the key vegetal sacrifice to be used in our ceremony. We had filmed him explaining with great lyrical clarity how the wax-like covering of this resilient desert inhabitant had to be carefully peeled away from the body in order to properly cook it. Using Swiss army knives we all got immediately engrossed in the delicate operation of revealing the tenderer skin below the surface. The chemistry of this remarkable plant includes mescaline, much like its Northern relative peyote, which is concentrated in a green ring around the outer edges of the massive girth that Washuma incorporates. We then sliced the now skinless San Pedro into more manageable sizes so that each of us could then separate the mescalin-rich areas, needed for preparation, from the rest of the cactus pulp which would not be put in the pot. Meanwhile the sun was gracefully sailing below the peaks of all our surrounding Apus (mountains) and the ponchos were thrown over our heads. All the while Paulo reminded us that the manner in which we prepared the plant would likely impact the manner in which we experienced its power. Like a great chef at work in a world class kitchen Paulo was teaching us the simplest of all lessons: your inner actions define your experiences..a great cook's secrets lie just as much in the attitude of his heart as in his hands and his mind. Treating this beguilingly basic life form with respect and care was later to involve singing, praying and envisioning as it came to a boil on the tiny butane stove behind Paulo's house. I had just caught it, at one point in the evening, in time to stir it away from sticking to the bottom of the pan. By the following morning a clear liquid traced with grey-white streaks was in a bottle and on Paulo's back as we navigated the terrain up at the site of our ceremony. The sun was growing in strength and altitude as we assembled for the gulp..
With great attention and ease did Paulo then bless the sacrament we had prepared and in a few gulps actually, the bitter tasting potion was inside me. Having long experience with sacred plants the world over I knew that within an hour my everyday consciousness would be subsumed into something far more alive, vital and intense. My three companions however although well informed by Paulo as to what to expect must have sensed a little apprehension through wondering how it would all unfold.
Much faster than expected I had to get up from my relaxed position under the tree (as in the photo above) and start to move. Like a snake uncoiling inside my body core the energy of plant/human dynamics was keenly felt. As I left our medicine altar I picked up Paulo's rattle and spontaneously began to address the surrounding mountains. That is certainly not something that a modern man or woman even faintly contemplates ever doing, and yet somehow the power of this simple cactus through its mescalin rich flesh, tuned my bodymind into a totally different channel. It was like a hidden switch on our regular TV's that when pushed actually sends you into the screen rather than just observing it from a safe distance. The mountains were so obviously and really present as sentient entities (meaning that rock can be aware of its rockness)that to ignore them and go about my day was like ignoring traffic at a crossroads i.e. impossible. The mountains quietly demanded recognition as the entities which had sculpted the landscape that I was about to enter as an aware being, a luminous being capable of feeling mother Earth at far deeper levels than in 'ordinary', thus relatively decrepit states of consciousness by comparison. No wonder all shamans in Peru venerate the great Earth goddess, or Pachamama. Without her we have nowhere to experience anything at all. We are in a void.
Jeff had wandered off towards the substantial ruins above our tree base spread out over a fairly large rolling hill. To the far right of that from where we sat was the telltale sign of an Inca cemetery-scores of holes in the cliff face. The Incas never put their dead in the ground but rather placed them in dug out caves. Perhaps their respect for the great mother Earth, respect that we were to viscerally encounter this day, extended to not polluting it with dead bodies. The Incas truly were unique.
My internal alarm system was going off. I knew full well that this plant was extremely powerful in its ability to subtly change our perception. Let me me clear here. A few martinis will change your perception very well (the old school thus had them for lunch to get through automaton afternoons at offices across the US for example) and so will recreational drugs like ecstacy or LSD, tantric sex, yoga, extended trance dancing and for that matter a couple of days without sleep. San Pedro does not transport you out of this dimension like ayahuasca, ibogaine or other DMT rich alkaloids well used by South American and African shamans. We have driven, eaten at restaurants, held conversations with people in markets and in towns under its influence. San Pedro comes on like when you wake up in a strange bed, in a new country and the sun is shining outside. For a few moments you have forgotten who you are supposed to be just after awakening, and the sense of wonder that you once had as a child is temporarily reinstated. Everything is alive and ripe with meaning. You are alive and deeply grateful for being so-even if it is just to open your eyes and look at the wonder. Washuma reconnects you with your innocence whilst profoundly altering that atrophied sense of magic. For some it can be too much too soon though, as if you had time travelled back to that most glorious moment of epiphany that happened when you were three for example, and had seen past the world and into its soul. My alarm went off because I knew he had no water and that he was on the move in a prickly environment that was going to get really hot in an hour or so. Though San Pedro is very easy on the digestive system people have been known to vomit and feel some discomfort as a result. My main concern I guess was snakes, scorpions and sunstroke. The others were still at the base of the tree relaxing into the Washuma feel. I decided to track Jeff even as the medicine spoke to me in all my cells that it was going to do powerful work on us all today. I needed to catch up with him..