by Niklas Göransson
Howard Lawler is an American biologist who for the past three decades has resided in the Peruvian Amazon, where he trained and now operates as a curandero – a traditional plant healer, or shaman.
This is the first part of an article series based on several February 2018 conversations held at SpiritQuest Sanctuary on the banks of Río Momón in the Amazon basin. The facility’s proprietor, Howard Lawler, has conducted shamanic retreats every single month since 1995. Lawler is originally from rural Kentucky where he first became interested in herblore after helping his naturalist healer grandmother collect medicinal plants. After pursuing an extensive and accomplished career in academia – working in fields such as biology, ecology, ethnobiology, and environmental education – his research brought him to the Amazon. At the time, he was struggling with treatment-resistant crippling depression and had begun nearing wit’s end, so when given the opportunity to participate in a cycle of ayahuasca ceremonies there was no hesitation. Re-emerging with spirit rejuvenated and worldview shaken, don Howard had come to realise his true calling. Thus, he proceeded to burn all bridges to home and embarked on the path of rainforest shamanism. The foundation for much of his accumulated knowledge stems from the twelve years he spent as an apprentice to doña Mari, a traditional medicine woman from a long lineage of curanderos. In the Amazon, the correct way to address a curandero is ‘don’ for males and ‘doña’ for females.
– We spent a lot of time in the forest together but didn’t actually live in the jungle. Hermana Mari was given to long medicine walks and as soon as I hooked up with her, that’s what I wanted to be doing – maximising my jungle time. So, we became trail buddies. She knew lots of people in the remote parts so we’d head out further into the country, places she’d been going for years. Of course, I also got to know the locals so these travels really expanded my rural network of connections, including other curanderos in the area.
Since much of this revolves around concepts pertaining to shamanic practice, we should perhaps clarify what’s meant by shamanism.
– That’s probably one of the most enigmatic words in the human language: it’s a concept that’s hard to describe. People usually associate shamanism with mystical processes in which plants are employed to heal and teach and form the foundation for a spiritual but not necessarily religious relationship with the life experience. Being religious certainly isn’t necessary to embrace shamanism, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. What’s important is that you have a genuine thirst for truth and a desire to attain a closer relationship with The Other, whatever your definition of that is. Some people define it through a spiritual context while others in more metaphysical terms, such as references to an energy as opposed to ethereal intelligences. Shamanism is rooted in a deeper philosophy that goes back to the very beginning of human consciousness – the principle known as animism.
In short, animism is a worldview which perceives everything that exists to be composed of energy and able to manifest consciousness – be it animals, mountains, weather elements, oceans, plants, and so on. It’s been a prevalent outlook among humankind since at least the Palaeolithic Age. In the field of anthropology, animism is often applied to the spirituality of various indigenous societies such as the rainforest tribes.
– There’s a tendency for human beings to make bold assumptions, the most common one being that we are superior to other lifeforms and that everything on earth falls to the dominion of humanity and is here just for us. I never bought into that, let me tell you. I heard plenty of it early in my life because I was subjected to a lot of religious dogma and so on. While a lot of that didn’t strike me as true, it did spark an existential curiosity which persists to this day and will follow me into the other realm where I expect to finally – after all this pondering and work – find all the answers.
Don Howard says that while this is something that’s likely to come to each and every one of us at some point in our journey, we must first and foremost deal with the present.
– Where are we in our lives now? What brought us here? And where do we want to go next? Those are probably the key questions and some of those revolve around material pursuits, others are philosophical goals and ideals. But whatever your focus is, if you’re like me – you’re looking for answers. What we offer here is a process oriented towards bringing a realisation of truth, at least on matters humans are able to wrap our heads around. People find a certain amount of comfort and assurance to at last have encountered something genuine.
Proponents of shamanism tend to point out that, unless specifically asked, the shaman generally doesn’t tell you the nature of things – they will instead demonstrate how to draw your own conclusions.
– That’s the whole strategy. Anybody can have their opinion, and maybe any opinion could be seen as a dogma, but the only dogma in shamanism is suggested guidelines. And this is where the plants come in. Now, the perception that everything is conscious and composed of energy is probably the oldest spiritual concept there is, predating religion by thousands of years. It seems that in the course of awakening of the human consciousness, certain plants have been instrumental to that process pretty much from the get-go. Obviously, different species exist in different parts of the world – none of them are found naturally occurring worldwide. But wherever we go and wherever we look at the transcendental identity of cultures and the way people practice their spirituality, we often find a plant implicated in that process. That’s certainly true here in the Amazon, as well as the rest of Peru.
Global examples of these cultures are Mesoamerican civilisations such as the Aztecs who would partake in teonanácatl – flesh of the gods, the sacred mushroom – as an integral religious sacrament. Central and North American native tribes used the peyote cactus. Iboga, an immensely potent West African entheogen, is still the centre of sacred worship to this day. Same goes for the fly agaric mushroom among Sami and indigenous Siberians. Europe’s primary blessed botany since the Bronze Age has been alcohol but there’s also plenty of evidence for use of psilocybin mushrooms, cannabis, and various representatives of the nightshade family. Rg Veda, the world’s oldest book and holiest of Hindu scripture, speaks at length of soma, a now-forgotten plant sacrament of disputed identity. The three main technologies of the flora available at SpiritQuest are vilca, ayahuasca, and huachuma – the latter two set for further exploration in separate articles. In short, ayahuasca is a liquid preparation named after its master plant: Banisteriopsis caapi. The ayahuasca vine contains harmaline, which makes it a profound psychotropic in and of itself. However, in order to unleash the murky brew’s full potential, one must also employ a companion plant – tree-leaves rich in DMT, a psychoactive tryptamine closely related to serotonin and melatonin. Normally, drinking tea made from DMT-rich foliage would be futile since our stomachs contains an enzyme that deactivates the compound upon contact but, as it happens, harmaline is what’s called a monoamine oxidase inhibitor which means it temporarily neutralises the aforementioned enzyme. After being combined and then cauldron-brewed for a full day, drinking the resulting potion initiates a several hour-long, deeply immersive visionary journey during which direct communication with both the plant spirit and other beings are commonly reported. An ayahuasca cycle typically consists of four or five ceremonies in eight to ten days.
– The best analogy for optimal work with ayahuasca is considering it to be a very sophisticated, highly-potentiated form of meditation. The name itself is derived from the Quechua language. Two words: aya, which means spirit, soul, or dead person – take your pick – and the word huasca which is a widely used term simply meaning vine. So, with those two put together, ayahuasca means vine of the spirit, vine of the soul, or vine of the dead. One could say that ayahuasca engages the female energy of the rainforest; the nature of the Amazon is very feminine in essence. There’s an energetic continuum in Peru that flows from us here in the eastern lowlands to the highlands in the centre and then descending again on the western coast of South America. There are three geo-cultural provinces. First off, the rainforest is referred to as La Selva. My daughter, Selva, is named after it. The central highlands are referred to as La Sierra, the Andes, and the coastal area is called La Costa. So we have La Costa, La Sierra, and La Selva, each of which have been the origin of amazing cultural technologies associated with the mystical qualities of the land.
Due to prevalent media publicity in recent years, ayahuasca is probably better known to the readership than huachuma but the traditions surrounding both plants are just as old. Huachuma is a cactus that grows in the Andes, its primary active ingredient is mescaline – an alkaloid of the phenethylamine family, a compound classification to which MDMA also belongs.
– Huachuma could be described as the Andean and coastal equivalent to ayahuasca as a sacred teacher healer plant which has been crucial in the shaping and formation of many different cultures originating from these areas. It’s been used for a long time for a variety of purposes having to do with both mysticism and spiritual exploration, but also as medicine. The known history as per archaeological records dates from about 3,500 years or so ago but human knowledge of and relationship with it undoubtedly goes back much further.
The cactus is most widely known as San Pedro, a reference reflecting its discovery by the Spanish who arrived in the wake of Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mesoamerica in the early 16th century.
– They found huachuma being employed in a ritual manner very similar on the coast and in the Andes to the way ayahuasca is used here in the Amazon. There was an immediate attempt to eradicate the custom and replace it with Catholicism, so the persecution of practices that were not intrinsically Christian in nature soon became a priority among Inquisitors of the Catholic Church. It was during this time the cactus became known as San Pedro, as in Saint Peter — he who holds the keys to the gates of heaven, this being a quality many people find in association with the plant as an intermediary agent of divine consciousness.
The huachuma cycle consists of three ceremonies, referred to in Andean culture as mesadas, which take place over the course of seven days. Mesadas are centred around what’s known as the mesa, which means altar, and typically goes on for eight to ten hours.
– Our first mesada will be the mesa of the water, the second mesada is the earth mesa and the third the air mesa, or mesada of the cosmos. Each of these are geared towards finding personal understanding of and engaging in the three worlds through which we pass from the time of our birth to the ultimate ascent as we fulfil our mortal journey. First comes the lower world, where our existential beginnings lay. The middle world is what we inhabit now, this amazing opportunity to expand and grow and evolve our consciousness. The third, the upper plane, is our spiritual destination; the world we enter when departing this one and finding ourselves right back where we started, completing the circle.
In order to gain access to the upper world, one must first die. At the climax of the third mesada, participants who so choose are given the chance to partake in the ancient ritual known as vilca – the visionary bridge between life and death. We will return to this later in the conversation.
– Both ayahuasca and huachuma are master plants, regarded as supreme teachers and healers because they provide an opportunity to open certain connections in an extremely focal way – experiences you simply can’t forget about or blow off when getting back into the ordinary state. The breakthrough they facilitate is a total immersion enacted in an alternate reality, a separate plane of existence, what we refer to and think of as the realm of spirit. It sticks to most people as true turning points in their lives, a transformative moment. This is the nature of such an event, the realisation of that dynamic connectiveness with everything.
While this will likely be read by people who have vastly different interpretations of the effects activated by certain vegetation, don Howard emphasises the importance of imbibing under the right circumstances — paying attention to the ancient traditions revolving around the sacrament of choice.
– If you feel a calling to sacred plants, then sanctify with them, Keep that special. The more special it is, the better it will serve you. It’s always a good idea to find out what other people have done with these things through the ages, establishing a foundation of knowledge for how to approach them yourself rather than just winging it. You progress a lot quicker if you’re able to do that. I remember when I was young and starting out with this, the first teacher plant I worked with, at eighteen or nineteen years old, was peyote. I took that seriously and did my background research. This is the same approach I’ve taken all my life and continue to take here and now; seeking to connect with the oldest principles and practices I can trace, finding a base of connectivity with that tradition rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. I regard both ayahuasca and huachuma as highly evolved intelligences and channels of connection with the spirit world and, at its highest level, a conduit to The Great Spirit – the collective consciousness composed of a myriad of lesser consciousnesses, like us. I almost never use the word God but the majority of people think of it in that context. I never thought that word did it justice myself so I tend to refer to it as The Great Spirit in the indigenous sense, the fountain from which all things come.
Don Howard notes that since shamanism grants direct access to the source, his relationship with all this is beyond religion.
– All we have to do is open up and give ourselves to it. When the time comes, usually sooner rather than later, you will find yourself able to do that without external aid. The whole intention of these plants is not to create dependency but enable you to form your own connections to spirit and facilitate your trajectory in life and remain inspired and open to the channel of wise guidance. What I would warn against is if you feel dependent on any kind of agent to facilitate that. You know, the agent in this case is a teacher, and the nature of the teacher is to show you how to do things so you can manage them by yourself. There are too many people advocating the lifestyle of, ‘Take this up and do it for the rest of your life and you’ll be on the right track.’ This is the wrong approach, that’s not the message of the plants at all. Their message is to be engaged as a teacher and a healer. I’ve worked with this for most of my life and I can come back into ceremonial ambience without taking anything, in the same way as if I did. And I’m not unique in that sense – not like ‘Wow, I’m special, I can do that.’ No. I’m just trained, that’s really all it is.
It’s interesting to note in this context that studies have shown how skilled meditators in deep trance display similar brain-scan patterns to people who’ve been administered psychedelics, which could be argued supports the claim of such states being naturally attainable.
– If you wanna get down to understandable psychological factors, it’s very much like Pavlovian conditioning. Pavlov was a psychologist who demonstrated that when he fed his dog and rang a bell, the dog would salivate; after a while he’d take away the food and ring the bell and the dog would still salivate. So, I think that’s exactly what I’ve been conditioned to do by taking the medicine in ceremonial settings involving a particular combination of factory, auditory, and energetic stimuli. After a while you can take away the medicine and return to that same setting and just get calm and focus and you’ll find yourself tuning right back into it. Similarly, people who use entheogens as gateways to spiritual connectivity will, after a while, become conditioned to enter that emotional and psychological space of consciousness. What’s most important to understand about all of this is that it’s not induced, it’s realised. If it was induced, that would be suspect. If the only way you could experience this was by taking something, then I would question its authenticity. I don’t, because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s attainable through the conditioning process. Use the plant as teacher and it will show you how to bring yourself into that state of focus, concentration, and openness – and to clear your mind. That’s the great challenge for the Western seeker, clearing the mind.
When approaching such work – and engaged in this context it is indeed work and hardly something anyone would do for fun – don Howard says that setting an intention is an important step.
– I’ve thought a lot about this myself over my fifty years of studying sacred plants, and I’m starting to get the hang of it. I’ve learned a lot in the course of that process, and it’s important you understand this to be a process. The first thing most people talk about when I bring up the subject of intention is what they want out of it. That’s perfectly appropriate but nothing in life is free, everything has a price. Not necessarily in currency but we have to give something for everything we get, and that’s actually the cornerstone of Andean and Amazonian shamanic cosmology. This principle has a name and is pretty much the foundation of all our work and has been from the start – that word is ayni. It’s Quechuan for ‘reciprocity’ and refers to the principle of reciprocity; when asking for something, we first offer a gift. We bring something to give in exchange for what we’re asking, that’s the nature of ayni.
Don Howard considers intention to be the first half in the relationship of reciprocity and so recommends devising a mission statement for one’s life.
– Those are the sentiments I’ve found to be most appreciated and well-received by the spirit of the plants. In the sacred, spiritual sense the most valuable offering you can bring is something of yourself. A billionaire could give away a million dollars and it wouldn’t mean anything, because it doesn’t mean anything to him, as opposed to bringing a little piece of your heart and the willingness to open up to something greater than yourself and find that connection. Come to this work with sincerity and you will invite truth to your own perception of yourself and the surrounding world. But form that relationship first by giving something. It’s also important to understand that, by and large, the consciousness present in these very special plants is not terribly concerned with what you want, or what you think you want from this – it’s far more concerned with what you need. That’s the best attitude to bring to this work, being open and accepting with as little resistance as you can muster. It’s really important not to bring demands into this, carry as few expectations as possible.
Something else one will be called upon to exert is simple patience.
– A lot of people come here seeking instant gratification, expecting to have all their problems solved in a few weeks and then return home all fixed-up and brand new, with not a care left in the world. That won’t be the case. You’re gonna go back most likely much further along than you came in, but also with the realisation of how much work lies ahead. This is the setup, I’m the setup guy – I set you up and point you in the right direction, give you a little guidance and support. Take it or leave it, it’s there if you want but I encourage you to pursue this track as much as you can on your own, through your own strength, through your own determination, and through your own will. You can visit a shrink or undergo some psychoanalytical process and have someone else tell you what your problems are and how to solve them, yet at the end of the day we have to not just receive that information and take it to heart but also do something about it. We must take action.
This brings us to vilca – a quintessential rite of passage to the greatest aid of those who indeed seek to take action. Don Howard explains that being gifted the privilege and weapon of rebirth by experiencing human death tends to be instrumental in radical lifegoal reorientations.
– The oldest record confirmed by some kind of data that I’m aware of concerning the use of any plant of this nature is from an inhaler found in a cave in the Atacama Desert in Chile, dated to about 4,500 years ago. Said inhaler is undoubtedly very similar to what we will use – a hollowed, bone tube. Researchers were able to secure scrapings which tested positive for 5-MeO-DMT. There are extensive records of vilca use in many South American cultures but, as far as I’m aware, none besides the Chavín and possibly Moche used it in conjunction with another plant such as huachuma.
Ritually ingested during the peak of the third cactus ceremony, vilca confides in mortal men the secrets of mortality. Used in this context it’s widely asserted to emulate the humanoid passing with unnerving believability – the first stage entails distinct sensations of physical bereavement, then the tunnel of light straight out of classic near-death experiences, followed by an out-of-body sojourn into a parallel reality. Many interpret the latter as some manner of afterlife and commonly report encounters and communication with fully convincing manifestations of departed relatives or ancestors.
– Vilca is by virtually any measure the most powerful of all the sacred plants. It is a teacher healer plant, but it’s more than that. It has the capability of showing us the true nature of our spiritual destiny, if you will. And that is perhaps the most compelling reason to partake – finding out what’s on the other side of the veil. The nature of this experience has always been focused on learning the secrets of life, death, and immortality. Life, death and rebirth. To many, these topics are a bit morbid and oft avoided as people don’t really know what to think. Everybody does though. At some point in our lifetime we all reflect on our human frailty and wonder what will happen to us when we cross over.
The term vilca is used for two different trees belonging to the anadenanthera genus. They grow in tropical savannah environments throughout the Americas and have each given rise to profound cultural traditions. In his preparation, don Howard uses a mixture of both.
– The first time I heard the word vilca was thirty years ago, before I came to Peru. I was reading some version of the Spanish codex written after the conquest of Latin America that described certain ritualistic practices among the Inca. I didn’t know what it was at the time, just the word for some kind of magical sacrament. I became aware of the trees’ botanical names from reading biochemical papers pertaining to their pharmacology and then from there I found some references to historic use. Once I got to Peru, I began to search diligently but found out very quickly that no one in the Amazon had ever heard of vilca. The closest thing is a snuff made from resin of the virola tree – a preparation is made by stripping off the bark and scraping its insides, mixing it with water and then boiling the resulting dough, which is then left to dry and finally ground to a powder. It’s ingested by blowing it through tubes, similar to how we do it here. I found a reference to the Bora Indians using it under the name epena.
The Bora are an indigenous tribe spread out across the Amazon basin. They are originally from Colombia but fled in the wake of atrocities associated with the Rubber Era, a period in the early 20th century that claimed the lives of an estimated 14,000 Boras. There’s a community of them some thirty minutes down the river from SpiritQuest – don Howard usually brings his guests there to barter for handicrafts. He’s also financed the construction of several of their buildings; parts of the proceedings from his operation are used for a range of programs for indigenous populations in the region, such as supporting self-sustaining health care, nutrition, community development, land rights, and cultural preservation projects. As part of a private eco-conservational initiative, he’s also bought up massive areas of rainforest surrounding the sanctuary.
– I went to my Bora friends and asked, only one of them knew anything about it. He remembered his grandfather preparing epena, he’d taken it as a boy but never in the years since they moved here. It’s kind of like an ancient custom fading out. Then I began researching Andean practices and got really interested upon discovering the secrets of the Chavín initiation. While it’s been conventional knowledge for many decades that huachuma was used in the Chavín temple, evidence for vilca was initially circumstantial but as they began excavating and performing more archaeological work, inhalers and vilca trays – vircanas, like the one we inhale from – began showing up.
The Chavín are a now-extinct culture founded over 3,500 years ago and named after its religious centre, Chavín de Huantar in the Peruvian Andes. The temple itself is somewhat of an architectural marvel; to protect from the flooding typically brought on by the rainy season, prehistoric engineers built a complex subterranean drainage system. What’s even more baffling is the advanced understanding of acoustics on display: the water rushing through the artificial canals creates a sound strongly reminiscent of a roaring jaguar – an animal which was sacred to the Chavín, as seen by the feline’s prevalence in their religious art. This fact alone is fascinating, since jaguars are Amazonian beasts and exist nowhere near the highlands. The building itself is constructed of black limestone and white granite, which must have been transported there from a great distance since there are no natural deposits anywhere in the vicinity. The Chavín themselves drew much of their cultural and spiritual influence from huachuma mesadas, which makes for interesting notions when considering they are generally recognised as the cradle of Andean civilisation. We will discuss the mysteries of the Chavín further in a separate conversation. As for vilca, it’s prepared by grinding the tree seeds into fine powder and then mixing them with a source of calcium, the most common being brown shell, seashells or snail shell – it doesn’t work otherwise, and how they figured that out five millennia ago is anyone’s guess.
– We use bone inhalers from Chavín that are over three thousand years old and, as I’m prone to say, they’re used. One is llama bone and the other is a 3,500-year-old human finger-bone. The inhalation technique requires a little bit of not necessarily practice but consideration. Vilca is extremely potent and you need only inhale a very small amount – a shot in each nostril should be sufficient to drag anyone to death’s door. Pull the inhaler over the tray, inhale fiercely and then immediately do the other side; you’ll feel like the back of your head just blew off. Once your nose is burning profusely, you’ve probably had enough. You can make your own call at that point but I’d recommend not to overdo it.
What happens if you overdo it?
– You die. But the greatest likelihood is that you’ll be reborn. If successful, you will undergo an experience unlike any other you’ve ever had. It’s been characterised or likened to death, the process of dying. Now, many would say, ‘Why would anyone want to do that?’ And the answer is simply: so you’ll know what it’s like. And why would you want to know what it’s like? So you’ll know not to fear it – vilca will free you or at least lessen your fear of death and help you understand it as a passage, or transition.
Vilca is best experienced in a sensory deprivation environment. After the snuff has been inhaled in front of the mesa, participants are to stroll briskly back to their quarters, apply ear-plugs and an eye-mask, then crawl into bed and brace themselves.
– Some find it difficult to stay still when it begins, you may become a little agitated or frightened. You can expect to feel some fear during this process because it’s likely to engulf you entirely. It might require some effort to remain motionless but you want to be as still and quiet as you possibly can. If you hear someone screaming or making sounds in the background, just try to tune out and focus on your own space. Most vilca ceremonies are entirely silent – everybody remains quiet, everybody goes in, everybody goes through – but every now and then an individual just becomes completely overwhelmed and loses control. If that happens, rest assured you’ll be looked after. You’ll need to draw on your courage at this point. Also, being deep in the huachuma mesada adds another dimension to it; you’ll be on Alpha Centauri when taking the vilca!
Let’s say for the sake of argument that someone is a bit apprehensive about all this whilst still heavily in the throes of the cacti – how do you approach it?
– I would just say something intended to reassure and calm you which is simply, ‘Prepare to die.’ After I’ve administered the vilca and sent you back to the comfortable coffin in your room, cross the bridge leading from the ceremonial maloca as quietly and quickly as you can.
I have it on good authority that an overambitious inhalation might trigger the bereavement process before one reaches the living quarters.
– Yes, there have been a few instances when participants haven’t made it over the bridge and the people coming after had to step over the bodies. The solution is just to watch over them, making sure no harm comes to them and let it run its course. Any attempted intervention just interrupts it.
Does the death-simulation only occur in this context, together with huachuma?
– No, the ritual of life, death, and rebirth is fairly consistent throughout the cultural references of historical vilca use. But huachuma seems to profoundify it, if you will. If nothing else, it provides the perfect preparation in terms of bringing one into a spiritual state of consciousness, stilling the mind, and creating the right set in combination with the setting. That’s where you want to start with vilca – calm and low-key, not in a pumped-up mood. There’s a time for that in other scenarios.
Vilca, like most entheogens, is primarily taken outside of a ceremonial context when used in the West. I checked the experience vault of Erowid – an online knowledge database about everything mind-warping – and very few describe anything resembling a profound death rite. In fact, the majority appear to have suffered horrifying experiences.
– That comes down to context, set, and setting. This is something which requires masterful preparation and set-up for anything to achieve full potential. That’s actually equally true with huachuma and ayahuasca, as with all plants. That’s why these involved technologies have been refined over thousands of years — none of them are recent. As they’ve been re-discovered, there have been attempts by other post-origin cultures to do it differently but I have yet to come across a better way to do it than as part of the old traditional mesada.
Can everyone participating expect to perish?
– No – there are also partial deaths, partial breakthroughs, but in general I strive for a one hundred percent mortality rate. What you should really try to do is isolate yourselves in your own journey, in departure from your physical anchor to the realm of spirit and back. While you can expect to be pretty much aware of where you are and what you’re doing and everything but, yeah, you’re going into a completely alien world of perception. You’ll have the opportunity to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil. And if you do fear evil… well, get over it.
I think it’s fair to assume that many who read about the adenoidal death-catalyst will have some concerns as far as toxicity and adverse effects are concerned.
– Not once have I seen any persisting negative effects from this, but I’ve seen people substantially stirred and shaken. I can’t give you a definitive answer to that because the total physiological impact is profound and the factors replicating the death experience are highly convincing. Some are likely to perceive it as traumatic, especially the early phases, but to my knowledge no one has ever suffered any genuine harm. I’ve taken vilca well over a hundred times and died about eighty of those and I’m still kickin’. I actually went through an experience last night that was equal to any of those though, because it was so physiological in nature. I had a blood pressure crisis, nearly died of suffocation; I was fighting all night to breathe. Unable to get air, I had to be taken by boat to the hospital in Iquitos this morning. But I was thinking about that too — it kept coming to mind — realising that I had some practice runs so if this is the big moment, I’m ready for it. And that’s the kind of fortification one receives from this process.
At the time of this conversation, don Howard had recently been diagnosed with stage three chronic kidney disease. He has since taken various measures to keep his kidney operational. Returning to the sacrament, the three relevant compounds found in vilca are N,N-Dimethyltryptamine – commonly known as DMT – then 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenine; three potent compounds with radically different qualities which, instead of simultaneously, occur in sequential synergy.
– Its sequencing is just about perfectly aligned with the consecutive phases of the death experience, starting with feelings of the physical body shutting down. This can be pretty alarming because it’s very convincing; heart rate slows down, breathing becomes shallow… my recommendation when that happens is to go with it, do not oppose it. There’ll be a tendency to fight this because we all have a survival instinct kicking in when we feel as if we’re about to die, and you’ll want to resist that. This process calls for you to override that as a gesture of trust and courage to the extent that you’re able to. Some can do it, others can’t. If you struggle or move around too much, that’s going to interfere and you won’t get through. The only way to really cross over is to be completely submissive to the procedure.
Taken on its own, N,N-DMT is far more visionary than the other two; one could say it kindles the imagination but has little bearing over the intellect, as one never loses awareness of the self. Contact and interactions with beings who offer guidance are common effects for both science volunteers and recreational users. Among connoisseurs of oracular botany, DMT is referred to as the spirit molecule whereas 5-MeO-DMT is known as the God molecule; the latter being a more emotional than visual experience which enables ego dissolution and nonduality, a universal connectiveness.
– One might describe the nature of 5-MeO-DMT as an astral flight propellant. It’s an agent that facilitates separation of body and spirit, and an opportunity to fully experience the true nature of our spiritual identity liberated from physical encumbrance. DMT has more of a journey-like aspect to it, and I say that with some reservation because it’s not entirely true but certainly much more visionary, diverse, and complex.
If it’s DMT providing the visionary tunnel of light and 5-MeO-DMT the subsequent afterlife experience, one could speculate that bufotenine is responsible for the corporeal shut-down. Bufotenine is present in many plants but probably best known as the defensive secretion from the skin of certain toads. While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence floating around online, its psychoactivity has never been scientifically established.
– Well, I’m not going to pose as an expert on this, it comes down to how one defines psychoactive as opposed to physioactive. Psychoactive refers to effects on the mind and perception, and the fact that it’s so molecularly similar to DMT in the tryptamine complex would point to some degree of psychoactivity, but whether it need be dramatically visionary is another question. I don’t have an answer to that though. Bufotenine hasn’t really been studied or specifically known shamanically other than its occurrence in various plant cocktails and combinations. I imagine it would be easy enough to empirically evaluate by simply taking bufotenine and seeing what happens. Caution is advised though, ingest the actual Bufo alvarius venom orally and you really will die – without a return ticket this time – since it contains a digitoxin that causes your heart to stop. I couldn’t really affirm or assert how bufotenine is active in vilca but that kind of goes back to the same scepticism of the visionary qualities of tobacco and claims by those who use it in shamanic context that it is, despite there being no chemical evidence to support anything of the kind.
Tobacco has an extensive practical history in South America. It is, in fact, the most ubiquitous shamanic plant of all with regards to scope and frequency of use and variety of applications.
– Tobacco, I know, we all know, has a chequered reputation in the modern day. A lot of people in the Western context still use it as a social habit. We’re all aware of the downsides of long-term habitual usage, but most people don’t really understand or know much about the actual history of tobacco and how it was used in pre-Columbian times. Some indigenous cultures still retain it as a sacred tool of the modern day. And, as surprising as it might sound, as a healing medicinal plant as well. Where the Western invaders went wrong is that they began inhaling it, which is where most of the harmful effects such as pulmonary problems come from. All over the world there are many, many plants with medicinal properties. In virtually all cases those same plants are also poisonous if mishandled or used to excess or in improper ways and tobacco is no exception. By extension, the same could be said for ayahuasca as well: it’s safe when taken responsibly and under proper preparation, guidance, and so forth – but if used outside of those protocols, ayahuasca can be dangerous too. All plants should be respected and understood for their potential. Medicine or poison depends to a great degree on how they’re used and for what purpose.
The variety native to this part of the Amazon is called mapacho, sometimes referred to as Amazonian black tobacco. It has a darker colour, richer flavour, and much higher nicotine content than the tobacco that – along with thousands of added chemicals – ends up in commercial cigarettes. Traditional use never encouraged drawing the smoke into one’s lungs, it’s rather smoked like a cigar or pipe: held in the mouth. The nicotine is absorbed through the gums and has an immediate cognitive effect.
– Mapacho also contains another compound with mild psychotropic properties called isoprene which – when used properly, in the right context, and especially together with the master plants – can bring you into trance states and act as a visionary agent. Over time, using tobacco during ayahuasca or huachuma ceremonies allows one to form an energetic connection; you can then withdraw the master plant and just use mapacho and it brings you back into that same connection. As you blow the smoke out of your mouth, do so with a little bit of force behind it and you’ll infuse a bit of your essence in the process. When using tobacco in conjunction with that, your breath carries energy to wherever you’re projecting.
The Latin word inspiritus means ‘breathe’, it also contains the word for spirit. Together: breathing in and being filled with spirit, which is what could be said to be alive. It is also the root for the word inspiration, and in the creative sense to be filled with the Muses is to be filled with the gods. Curiously, the word animism stems from the same root – anima, meaning life, spirit, or breath.
– Use of mapacho is reserved for special purposes and occasions associated with ritual and ceremony. This might also be something you do privately as means of connecting with spirits and coming into that profound and visionary state of consciousness. This was reported by shamans to anthropologists studying the use of tobacco in South America, specifically here in Peru, thirty or forty years ago. Researchers were sceptical because they were not aware of any components of tobacco known to be visionary in nature. There continued to be some incredulity about it, even though its respondents insisted that tobacco was a visionary plant.
What’s the difference between a vision and a hallucination?
– Hallucinations are constructs of the mind; the vision is a revelation to the consciousness of the heart. That’s the difference, simply stated. A person who hasn’t had a lot of experience with either or is unaware of those distinctions might mistake one for the other but, in my opinion, having once had a true vision you’ll know what it is from that point on. You’ll be able to make a little more intelligent distinctions between constructs of the mind, which are things that may be coming from your imagination as opposed to something from a more profound source. Make sure it’s your heart and not your mind speaking and remember that the voice telling you what you want to hear is likely to be the least reliable.
Given the wealth of knowledge don Howard possesses, not to mention practical experience, it’s almost upsetting that so little of it has hitherto been documented.
– What do you think I’ve been doing here for the past twenty-five years? This is how it’s supposed to be shared, by word of mouth. Not through books, that’s the contemporary Western approach – I’m a traditionalist. I could’ve done that already of course; lots of people have tried to con me into allowing them to write a book about me or letting someone ghost-write my book, but I haven’t really felt called to do that. I did a lot of writing in my previous life as a biologist, publishing more than fifty papers, and it kind of got to a point where I resented the constant imperative to document everything. When I left, I was burnt out on all of that. The closest I came to taking it up again was creating my original website. I wrote all of that as a creative writing endeavour all driven by passion, not mandated in any way. There was a dearth of that kind of knowledge and information online at the time.
Don Howard says a lot of people with more motivation and initiative to write and publish have since come along, while he stuck to the oral tradition.
– All the people I know with the greatest knowledge about all this are barely literate. Here’s the thing — and I realise there are different ways of looking at this and I’m not totally hardwired — but I established a philosophy in my whole relationship with all of this from the very beginning, and that was as a… maybe this is pretentious, referring to myself as an agent of shamanism, but I’ve felt from the get-go that my mission was to shamanise Westernism rather than Westernise shamanism. And that is to bring the Western mind into the heart of shamanism through opportunity and orchestrated experience and then letting the chips fall where they may. Based on how it transformed me, and I’ve seen it transform other people, there’s a technology here which, over time, could work to that end on a grander scale. And I think that’s how Chavín worked in its day as well.