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An Anecdotal Account of an Ayahuasca Initiation

Iona Miller, ©1994
Grants Pass, Oregon

ABSTRACT: Peruvian shaman and Jesuit priest, Don Augustin, has made annual visits from his homeland to Europe and the United States to conduct ayahuasca journeys for some years now. Most recently he has been appointed ambassador to Austria, and is by necessity limiting the week-long session he so generously guides. He offers an initiatory experience which many yearn to try, seeking healing and an expanded sense of self. What they find seems to transform their core selves, even while revealing the 'no-self.' The emergent sense of communal telepathic communication -- with nature, spirit, the shaman and othher participants -- supersedes any particular chemistry inherent within banisteriopsis caapi (DMT) or the other optional ingredients used to concoct each unique ayahuasca brew.

With sessions limited to around 30 people, each seeker is hand-picked by the shaman using criteria known only to him. The subject of this man-in-the-street report had no previous psychedelic experience, no history of drug use or abuse, and therefore came to the session free of contaminating expectations. He was invited through his long-term participation in Native American sundancing in North Dakota and sweat lodge ceremonies on the northern California coast with a Lakota elder and pipe carrier, Jaime.

The aspirants were instructed to prepare for their experience through fasting, prayer and vision quest. While this purification wasn't mandatory, the tone or quality of the journey seems to be facilitated by the commitment of the consciousness explorer. As in most inner journeys, you get out of the experience what you put into it. As in all psychedelic states, surrender of the ego and flowing with the experience is crucial.

A naturally shamanic personality has the possibility of "becoming the vine" as the draught flows through body and soul, liquefying consciousness. Its tendrils permeate and weave through the psyche, manifesting in its caressing or strangling grip the mystery of the wounded-healer. The ayahuasca shaman is said to acquire skin like the bark of the plant as well as embody its inner qualities.


"[Yage or ayahuasca] is actually a drink, a mixture of several different plants... Depending on what the shaman wants to facilitate in terms of the experience, he takes a bit of this leaf; with another experience he takes a little bit of a different leaf or flower. They have a highly developed understanding of the synergy of these plants that in various combinations can facilitate the kind of healing experience they want to produce for an individual."

--Thomas Pinkson, PM & E, Vol. VI

Songs of the Magical Vine

The latest fads in eco-tourism are now threatening the few remaining remote, sacred places and practices "green" tourists revere, even as the global community becomes more aware of the value of primal shamanic culture. The pressure of tourists flocking to these centers has created environmental pressures and opened these tourists to exploitation by unscrupulous charlatans who are neither therapeutic nor spiritual. Gullible people seeking a dramatic experience are at the mercy of these imposters who have even been reported to mix blinding brews of jungle plants.

Yet, none of this diminishes in any way the power of a true ayahuasca initiation by a skilled shaman. Consciousness journeys do not necessarily require us to move bodily to some far-off sacred place. Instead their initiatory energy prompts us to travel toward the sacred within ourselves, through direct participation in multiples states of consciousness. Just as the shamans experience their journeys in their native environment, so can we, because mentally we are in an expanded reality that perceives no experiential boundaries of time, locale, or personal identity. Self-image liquefies and consciousness is free to creatively explore a myriad of forms.

Whether induced by psychedelic substances or experiential therapy, these soul journeys express and manifest our essence through the dynamic panoply of symbolic imagery. For example, of the four elements--earth, air, fire, and water. As consciousness identifies with each, it is transmuted in the crucible of chaos, alternately enflamed and cooled, blown by a tempest or whirlwind and then grounded. Jung called the symbol-forming power of the psyche the transcendent function. Requiring no interpretation or analysis, multi-sensory images facilitate transition from one set of attitudes to the next.

From time immemorial shamans have guided their people through visions of chaos, healing them and promoting a sense of personal and communal integrity. Jeanne Achterberg called shamanism "the medicine of the imagination." This poison/panacea is a gift from the irrational forces of life. Imagination is our most powerful force for change, the primary way we experience soul through multiple states of consciousness. Meaning dwells in images like consciousness dwells in the body. Experience within this realm of imagination is a "virtual reality" with consequences in the "real" world.

If it is the task of the shaman to retrieve and restore the lost soul of the journeyer, he need only reconnect them with imaginative life to set the healing in motion. Human personality is in constant mystical motion, seeking meaning inwardly and outwardly. In the passage through the inner depths, the psychic crisis of an individual seeks its unique solution. Consciousness experiences itself as "one with all."

There is an infinity of realities and states of consciousness. Shamanism facilitates those which help us let go of the focus of attention and enter into chaos, then seize the new order that self-organizes and arises from it--spiritual rebirth, holistic re-creation. Rebirth establishes the dominion of Spirit over all the activities of personality, and manifests as willingness to be reborn every day.

Roughly translated, ayahuasca means "vine of the dead," or "vine of souls." Its active ingredients include beta-carbolines, including harmine. "The vine is the jungle," according to the teachings of the elders. Therefore this most Amazonian of plants works not only in South America, but wherever ordinary consciousness die and that spirit comes alive, sprouting from the grounding force of the shaman, him or herself, and permeating the group-mind of all participants. In fact, an experienced shaman symbolically becomes the essence of the vine, itself.

The skin and veins of the guide take on the appearance of the bark of the woody climbing liana, as the identification process (participation mystique) becomes more and more vividly manifest. One opens to the spirit of the plant over time. Even first-time aspirants often experience a glimpse of this emergent consciousness of the wild jungle of the primal psyche, and if their purifications have been successful it is a "clear" one. It produces an abiding reverence for nature.

Typically, most of the ayahuasca hallucinations are "organic" or natural forms, opening one to the expanded sense of flowing and merging with nature. They are earthy and dark with scintillating impressions of color and life erupting from the darkness-surrealistic spiders, butterflies, and serpentine forms. One naturally "becomes" each of the hallucinatory elements, living each as an initiation--an emotional reality. This natural tendency is exploited in the "drug-free shamanism" of experiential therapy where we encourage the journeyer to "become" the essence of vital elements of the dynamic psychic imagery.

As with all psychedelics, psychic tensions can create blocks within the flow of ayahuasca visions. Hyperarousal can lead to anxiety, and block the way to ecstatic states. Spiritual preparation minimizes abreactions within the altered state. Thus, one unprepared (unpurified) participant experienced and described his visions as characteristically "plastic," (rather than organic). He also expressed more psychophysical distress. His visions were still filtered through the dross of personal baggage, failure to truly surrender or "let go" of old patterns.

Conversely, where traumas might be expected to remanifest in hallucinations, they are often transmuted and healed in the archetypal process of dissolution, holistic repatterning, and rebirth. The mind lets go of its rational order, enters into unstructured chaos and emerges with a new structure. Within the transformative chaos visions are begotten of the harmony of things, as well as inspiration and intuition.

Initiation is a process of starting over, a simulation and reiteration of the Creation Myth. Therefore, it means going into primal chaos beyond matter-energy-spacetime to begin the process of reformation from the most fundamental condition. Healing the total organism involves yielding the diseased form or image to the primal creative states (formless chaos) and subsequently emerging from it with a new, more harmonious and balanced form. Through creativity, new forms emerge from the void. Thus, healing is an act of creation, a holistic activity. So are intuition, equilibrium, intimacy, and compassion.

Since beta-carbolines are legal, according to McKenna (1992), ayahuasqueros may practice their healing rites with impunity, as do their chosen consciousness explorers. McKenna also reports DMT-containing plants in the hallucinogenic brew. They amplify and augment one another, exploiting a pharmacological mechanism called MAO inhibition. DMT crosses the blood-brain barrier and bonds to the same synaptic sites as serotonin, much like LSD, but when ingested rather than smoked, it lasts hours longer. Other typical additions to the visionary elixir include Indian tobacco and iris.

Ayahuasca is also known as telepathine. Empathic drugs, such as MDA and XTC ("ecstasy" or MMDA) open us to the feelings of others and naked, "game-free" compassionate emotional reality. Yage opens us to boundary-dissolving visionary hallucinations, the inner wilderness, the interpenetrating thoughts of others in the group, as well as to the observation by and guidance of the presiding shaman.

The state is one of conscious transparency. This telepathic power is not limited by locale. The shaman, far from home, claims to communicate with his family, living and dead, as well as his charges. Reports of astral projection and other psychic phenomena by the participants are typical rather than isolated. Psi events ae characteristic of the psychedelic state in general, but ayahuasca accentuates and facilitates telepathy, in particular.

The binding agent of the group and the essence of the experience lies within the lyrical melodies woven by the shaman through healing songs revealed to him over the course of his shamanic practice. The icaros, or curing songs, are truly magical to one in the psychedelic or ecstatic state, adding pattern and rhythm to the visions. Thus, the shaman focuses, enfolds, and keeps each journeyer secure.

The larger his healing musical repertoire, the greater the shaman is revered. The songs and verbal suggestions to "surrender and flow with the experience," drive, direct or guide the hallucinatory process. There are purposeful disruptions and interventions by the shaman which cause the hallucinating subject to go blank, freeing them of whatever attachments were in mind.

On the other hand, all rituals contain their ordeals. Ayahuasca, also called la purga, is a strong purgative which can induce not just heaving, but projectile vomiting. Therefore, the injunctions -- refrain from meat and other heavy foodss, refrain from smoking, fast and practice sexual abstinence to purify the psychobiological system -- are best heeded.

Purification is ignored at one's psychological and spiritual peril and demonstrates the validity of the axiom that we are what we eat, literally and figuratively. Heavens and hells originate within ourselves. One must undergo the initiatory ordeals to receive the boon of healing. How else can we know our own courage in the face of life and death?

Vision Quest and Medicine Wheel

The medicine wheel is the primary healing model of western shamanism. It symbolizes the synergy of chaos and order, spirit and matter. This sacred circle has four primary stations, corresponding to the four cardinal direction, and four elements (earth, air, fire and water). It is therefore a mythic model of the creation and a device for magical orientation, purification, and protection. Its mandala-shaped motif lays out the phase of a healing process:

1). INITIATION corresponds with the East and psychologically means recognition, insight, or seeing the problem and the need for healing, breaking through inertia, dormancy, latency, ignorance, or denial. The keyword is Arousal.

2). LETTING GO corresponds to the South, and means surrendering to the Higher Power, spirit, or the transformational process. This ego-death leads directly into a period of primal chaos before the new visions is found. The keyword is Conception.

3). NEW VISION arises within the place of dreams and creative imagination. Self esteem is expressed in creative solutions, connecting with spiritual powers without and within which are seen as One. Guiding visions "work" because we are not separate from the universe, nature, each other, our bodies, or hidden aspects of ourselves. It is the West; keyword Gestation.

4). ACTUALIZATION is a phase of fruition, integration, empowerment. In the North quadrant you make your dreams come true. Rebirth heralds a new emotional maturity. Newly-learned skills and intuition are put into fruitful practice, connecting one to self, community, and Universe, restoring balance and rectifying karma. The Rebirth experience symbolizes the renewal of perpetual potential.

The Session

In this particular journey, the subject is a recovering PTSD veteran of the Vietnam war who has engaged in numerous healing sweats, vision quests, firewalking, and sundancing. With a great deal of reverence for the Red Road, he comes to this new shamanic experience as a singular psychedelic event at midlife, with no history of recreational drug use or abuse. The week-long journey recreates the prototypical journey of the archetypal hero, as well as personal elements of the wounded healer.

The preparation culminating in the ayahuasca ceremony involved a purification period of pilgrimage, celibacy, sweats, vegetarian diet, and fasting. A wilderness area was chosen where the medicine wheel was bounded by natural landmarks. To the north lay "sasquatch" country; in the East, granite mountain peaks with deep, clear lakes. In the south A Sonoran desert volcanic peak arose in the direction where dream visions indicated water would be found in a naked walkabout. The flight of falcons, far from their natural ecological niche led to the discovery of an ancient archaeological site, which contained not only a petrified log, but human-worked chert. To the west lay the setting sun.

This entire ayahuasca ceremony took place over a week of training and contact with the shaman Don Augustin. But in reality, it begins far before one's arrival or pilgrimage with "the call" to adventure. This call echoes the aeons old theme of the heroic quest -- a pancultural myth of departure and return.

Each hero or heroine crosses a threshold into another reality and meets the guardian of that threshold, undergoes symbolic dismemberment (psychic fragmentation, torment) of the personality, journeys through a threatening, unfamiliar world with magical helpers and many tests and trials.

Taking the risk and meeting the challenge, with the grace of spiritual intervention, leads to a sense of atonement, enlargement, freedom. We have to battle our own limitations, press against and transcend our fears, pain and boundaries. But we can return from the journey with the "treasure hard to attain," the elixir of life, a indescribable boon, an "inner marriage," or empowerment.

Our stories have the power to move others. Therefore, part of the larger value of these experiences is sharing the experience letting other know it's OK to take a risk, psychologically and spiritually. Yet the personal details of the visionary experience are for the self alone, and telling them may dissipate the transformative quality contained in their essence.

There is a parallel between the phases of the heroic quest and the process of personal transformation and healing encountered in therapy and shamanism. "Dream journeys," whether induced by suggestion or magical potions, provide permission to immerse oneself in the fluidic imagery of the dynamic stream of consciousness, to pay attention and deeply focus on the rich panoply spontaneously emerging all the time from the deepest ground of our nature. Through such journeys we learn to navigate in the wilderness of the primal psyche -- to actively engage mythic reality.

The process, like the Medicine Wheel, typically includes four stages: a prelude, altered state, healing phase and postlude.


First, there is a trigger. One sees or senses that there is a problem and this insight may involve physical problems or symptoms, alienation, unresolved issues, spiritual malaise. We sense an invitation to the journey, a "call" from the unknown, an invitation into the deeper mysteries of existence and Reality, into a multidimensional experience of the issue. We can only begin to heal when we realize that healing is needed and understand the nature of the crisis. This first stage is the only one in which the ordinary ego is involved and leads toward the next step of the healing process, entering into the transpersonal.

Answering the call, willingly or unwillingly leads toward withdrawal to undisturbed internal solitude (sanctuary). Resisted it can lead to depression, and this depression is often what drives people into seeking help through psychotherapy or unconventional means.

Identification of the problem (where you are dis-eased) is the psychological equivalent of confession. It is a natural part of the "letting go" process.

Then comes a period of "pilgrimage" and purification which can include celibacy, incubation of dreams and visions, and cultivation of shamanic ecstatic techniques (prayer, sweats, fasting, exercise, music, drumming, dancing, physical hardship, ordeals, dream quest). Purification expresses the sacrifice of self as an offering to spirit as a token of total commitment.

The vision quest and other ceremonies confuse and boggle the mind or intellect allowing the irrational in. Ego relinquishes "control." They remind us of something we already have within ourselves. This process culminates in concentration on or calling forth of transpersonal power or our muse with full expectation of results. When we knock on that door, the teacher appears.

Spiritual preparation/indoctrination by the shaman includes an orientation, worldview of transpersonal realities, anecdotes of other journeys and healing experiences, collection and preparation of fresh ingredients with the shaman. In this case some ingredients were brought by the shaman in his medicine bag and fresh ingredients were procured at the florist. Then the bark is carved into chips and the brew prepared. Not all participants engage in this preparatory phase with the shaman, but as in any healing process, you get out of it what you put into it. The more immersion in the atmosphere of the experience, the more profound the results are likely to be.

Altered State

Echoing the natural healing process as embodied in the Medicine Wheel, the ceremony itself initiates the process of letting go of ordinary consciousness and entering the realm of the uncanny and divine. It is a time of shedding the familiar old self and opening to the unknown.

The process leads through purges of pain and fear, entering the maelstrom and vulnerability of the transformation. This stage requires more than faith in the shaman and the divine. It requires faith in our organism's ability to heal, self regulate, and survive. The energy of the illness must be shattered and transformed into the renewed life and emergent energy.

This process is equivalent to a near-death experience of the psychophysical self. The body under the psychedelic influence may not be in immanent peril, but the psychophysical self is in upheaval and ego-death is certain, and essential for rebirth to occur. The ego crosses the threshold and must submit and willingly participate in its own destruction through transcendence, and the whole organism open to consciousness of the absolute--outside of space/time, infinite boundaries.

Most psychedelics produce similar reactions at this phase, though not all of them are purgatives like ayahuasca. In native cultures this served a purposeful healing function, ridding the system of parasites and worms, but even without them it is a profound emptying which is also psychic in nature. It prepares the vessel for the divine influx. For many, it is a journey through "the valley of the shadow of death."

In the visionary state the prototype of solution is sensed which grows into the multisensory image; ideas spontaneously flow. The same natural creative process can manifest in a variety of modes. In healing, the desired visualized condition is manifested by the guidance of the healer; in creativity the inspiration is realized as a specific form or expression; in illumination, the emotions are overwhelmed by forceful influxes, ecstasies and grace.

The healer guides the sojourners through periods of darkness into the light. With enhanced senses they enter a dreamworld of amplified sensitivity to self, others, and nature -- the realm of the spirit. They journey not only through the darkened landscape, but through the the inner perils and secret places of the selfscape.

The altered state is a gestalt of multisensory imagery, telepathic dialogue, and transcendence. The reality of the self shines through transparently, and may provide glimpses of the future. There are profound feelings of oneness, bliss and wholeness. A new image of who we are begins to emerge from deep within. Both physiological and mental dynamics are being restructured. The old self is unbound, free of habitual patterns and chronic ailments.

The reality of the self shines through transparently. Soul is redeemed through the continuous creative process. The visions culminate in the sense of self-luminosity. One's very veins or subtle energy channels seem to glow.

Visions alternate between states of arousal and transcendence. In enflament the sympathetic nervous system is energized. This is expressed in hot flashes, and periods of anger or rage. This active state is mediated by noradreline, and creates a visionary plenum. In transcendence no thoughts arise when the mind is fixed on pure essence. This parasympathetic arousal is mediated by serotonin and manifests as hypoarousal such as relaxation and satiety. It is a serene passive state where one empties and hears the voice of the silence and feels tremendous love, and perhaps a sense of Presence. Journeyers report radiant forms, white glow, which are often interpreted as spiritual forms of the the White Lady or Blessed Virgin Mary, where this cultural form is revered.

The Healing State

Traditionally the healing state is associated with the healing snake, perhaps a symbolic allusion to the Central Nervous System. The most familiar animal spirit linked with ayahuasca visions is the serpent. It is the essence of the woody vine embodied in animal form. It healing wisdom may appear within an interactive dialogue ("it told me"), or intuitions, and spontaneous behavior.

The ultimate vision facilitated by the divine vine is that of a boa constrictor, which is considered to be the vine's "mother spirit." This entity is perceived as providing protection, healing of emotional and physical problems, and divining the future. Expressing great reverence for the experience, this divine serpent indicates that ayahuasca rituals are the Amazonian version of an archetypal healing "snake cult."

Snakes have always played a promininet role in mysticism. Worldwide the snake is associated through ancient practices with healing, dreams, and visions. In ancient Greece, the python -- another constrictor -- was the sacred healer in the healing cuult of Asklepios. It appears on the winged Caduceus of Hermes and we see it still used today as the symbol of our medical associations. This archetypal association is reflected in the eastern notion of Kundalini serpent power, or life force. Ayahuasca certainly awakens this slumbering serpent, giving it wings to take flight.

The divine snake embodies the serpentine flow of raw life energies, pure energy itself. The fundamental nature of snakes is that they must shed their old constricting skins many times in order to grow. They symbolize rejuvination or the process of death/rebirth. This and other metaphors of its existence and essence (sinuous movement, underground life, etc.) make it a pregnant symbol. According to the symbolist Cirlot, "Snakes are the guardians of the the springs of immortality, and also of those superior riches of the spirit that are symbolized by hidden treasure."

However, it is not knowing about the archetypal nature of this serpent power that is important, but direct experiential knowledge in the unitive sense of the word. In the Asklepian cult, just the appearance of a snake in the dream signals an epiphany with the god and heralds the healing process. It requires no interpretation nor analysis. It is much the same in the dreamworld of the ayahuasca ceremonies -- the communion is an epiphany. Healing is what is communicated.

In this paradigm, healing arises from within, and the person seeking healing takes an active role in the process. Flowing with the experience through the progression of multisensory images provides the serpentine pathway to healing. nature and wilderness invite flow and merging with the spirit. Visceral, instinctual, and intuitive responses involve the whole organism in a highly creative state of consciousness.


Reentry implies rebirth -- the self-organizing emergence of the new self. The seed of initiation is realized as the mature fruit of experience, which feeds and sustains us. The experience continues to be useful in our lives. Each healing journey is the death of something within us which has keep us stuck or stultified; healing facilitates our continuing evolution. The new self continues to emerge and the consequences of the journey become embodied in this new form for months and even years after the journey. They are manifested in new behaviors, feelings, attitudes, ideas, and wisdom. Thus the circle of life continues unbroken.

Don Augustin takes great care to debrief his sojourners after their experience, and in this case he chose to separately debrief molest victims giving them extra care and attention. He also emphasized that networking with others who shared the journey can be helpful. Some participants, including our subject, participated in building a massive fire with criss-crossed oak logs which led to a firewalk for some of those who were were drawn toward it.

Keywords expressed by participants included joy, reassurance, oneness, goodness, equanimity, inner security, sense of destiny and spiritual vocation, attachment to one's own creative center, the heavenly heart, and becoming the embodiment of the greater Self. For many this was a step on the journey to consolidation of discontinuous encounters with self into a steady state of mystical transparence.

The Embodied Heart

The psychological history of our subject included post-traumatic stress and psychophysical pain acquired as a medic in Vietnam. He had been wounded as well as exposed to Agent Orange, and disturbed tremendously by the brutality and carnage of the experience at a very young age. These traumas exacerbated trust issues and suppressed rage acquired as the child of an abusive alcoholic father.

Blocked by a confusion of pain and pleasure, this person sought fantasy relief through a death wish, acted out through risk-taking behavior in extreme sports. At midlife (42) now and open to change, he had also sought individual and relationship therapy for improving adjustment and communication around feelings, intimacy and trust. In previous sessions he had perceived his heart metaphorically as being outside of his chest, exposed and vulnerable, without a home within.

One of his main fears, as an alcohol and drug-free individual with no previous psychedlic experience, was that the Vietnam trauma might be relived during the session, and exacerbate his PTSD. This might have easily been the case without skillful guidance and loving care. However, he had been participating for many years in weekly sweat lodge rebirth ceremonies. We may speculate that these gentler introductions to the rebirth process served as excellent preparation for the compelling psychedelic journey.

The psychedelic vision led to an experience of having the top of his head screwed off by certain "elf-like" entities. His head emitted a white rainbow which the creatures determined meant "this one is basically all right." But then, they screwed his head back on just a little crooked. The subject became aware that the shaman and other participants realized this oddly funny fact telepathically, finding it quite humorous. Having one's "head screwed on crooked" is certainly a good metaphor of shamanic consciousness, and he has since gone on to become an "intercessor" following the Red Road.

In any event, no replay of the old trauma occurred. Since yage is hallucinogenic at high doses, its purgation is a near-death experience, or very close to it. The process itself is traumatic and visceral in the extreme. This journeyer reports "seeing" death personified, as indeed he had when blown up in war. But there is now no fear, rather reassurance that the time is not now . . . death awaits patiently. (Note: the description of this personification of death by the subject is remarkably similar to the god Bwiti, described by African shamans of the Fang! tribe under the influence of psychoactive iboga).

Having successfully navigated this personality transforming leap into the raging torrent of psychophysical imagery, he now feels more confident, more self-assured, more connected, perhaps even safer than in a long time. Meeting the challenge, facing his fear, he found a new sense of clarity, of being healthier than he might have thought.

His heart once again dwells within and the motivating pain which drove the impulse for self-destruction evaporated as the death-wish disappeared in greater self-acceptance and conscious willingness to be reborn every day. Empowerment means actively chooseing and embracing life lived to its fullest through the spiritual dimension.

The essence of psychic healing is merely a speeding up in time what would normally take longer, possibly through the acceleration of chemical reactions. Ultimate reality, the ground state of our embodied reality, exists outside of spacetime.


What's New with My Subject?


Cirlot, J.E.; A Dictionary of Symbols; New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1971.

de Rios, Marlene Dobkin, "Drug tourism in the Amazon; why westerners are desperate to find the vanishing primitive"; OMNI, Jan. 1994, p. 6.

Luna, Luis Eduardo and Amaringo, Pablo; Ayahuasca Visions: the Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman; Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1991.

McKenna, Terence; Food of the Gods; New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

Miller, Iona; "Chaos as the Universal Solvent: Re-creational ego death in psychedelic consciousness"; Psychedelics ReImagined, New York: Autonomedia, 1999.

Miller, Iona; "Development of the psychedelic individual: a 20 year retrospective and commentary on the work of John Curtis Gowan"; OAK, March 1994.

Pinkson, Thomas; "Amazonian shamanism: the ayahuasca experience"; Pyschedelic Monographs & Essays, Vol. Six, Boynton Beach, Flordia: PM & E Publishing Group, 1993.

Swinney, Graywolf and Miller, Iona; Dreamhealing: Chaos and the Creative Consciousness Process; Grants Pass: Asklepia Publications, 1992.

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There are many paths or ways to reach this profoundly healing creative state of consciousness.  The shaman/therapist model is one and represents a gestalt, combining the powerful consciousness-altering rituals, worldviews, and visionary experiences of the shamans with the techniques, theories, and practices of depth psychologies.

Shamans have existed throughout human history as experts in magic, mysticism, healing and consciousness journeys into altered states.  Psychology, based in science, knows how to manipulate and work within the ego.  This combination, this gestalt of mysticism and science creates a new dimension in worldview and practice.  It transcends the duality of  mystical vs. scientific and provides a perspective unavailable to either one alone, one much more than the simple sum of the two.

We offer the analogy of binocular, as opposed to monocular, vision.  If you close either eye, you get a relatively complete picture of what you are looking at, though it lacks depth.  It may be slightly displaced depending on which eye you use, and will shift back and forth as you shift eyes.  But no matter how fast you shift, if you are only using one eye, it is a two dimensional view of reality.  However, when both eyes are open, the perspective centers, and a new dimension of depth is perceived.

Thus, the shaman/therapist model is not just a simple mixing, or borrowing of techniques from one to the other, but instead calls for a quantum shift in worldview, one that moves beyond either alone.  Armed with this, we can undertake the creation of a profound healing, through and beyond the ego to this profound and creative state of consciousness that provides our form and the core of our being.  Here, we create our healing from within.  We experience first-hand that personal power (empowerment) arises from within.

The psychotherapeutic approach to healing essentially represents order. The shamanic approach represents chaos. These worldviews seem divided. Yet the true nature of reality represents the merging of chaos into order, and chaos and order, back into chaos. Both lie within each other, and there is a consequent flow between the two. The essence of the shaman/therapist model is that it takes in both sides.

Most shamanic techniques are essentially chaos-producing, including sweats, drum journeys, and other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. For example, someone in the sweat lodge gets so hot that their normal methods of processing and input simply fail to work. They are so busy dealing with the stress on their body caused by the heat that their mind essentially turns off. And that is where the chaos comes in and changes things. The same is true for becoming lost in the throbbing drum, letting consciousness soar. A beat with disruptions is very hypnotic and promotes the temporary disequilibrium which is known to deepen trance.

Dreamhealing is the practice of the shaman/therapist, combining the process and dreamwork of psychotherapy with the traditional form of shamanic flight. The shaman is a traveller between the worlds of ordinary and nonordinary reality. The dreamtime is a sacred space which the shaman/therapist can share with others through co-consciousness.

Perception, how we perceive ourselves and the world about us is at the base of our experiences of reality. The essence of psychotherapy is the changing of perception. In fostering this change the modern psychotherapist and ancient shaman share a common mission. No matter whether the transformation is attempted through drugs, behavior modification, or emotive talk therapies, the purpose is to change perception of reality.

Each one of us creates our own reality by our perceptions. The reality is created through a filtering process, and is continually subject to modification by fantasy and imagination. Each of our individual realities undergoes constant modification. THERE IS AN INFINITY OF REALITIES AND STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS. These are created out of only a small portion of what we perceive, and what we perceive is but a small fraction of the input available to us through the senses.

We exist among a chaos of realities, yet we also exist within and among a consensus of "reality." Another way of saying it is that this chaos of realities contains within it hidden, consensual structure. Our perceptions are attracted to certain types of order. Yet there are myths underlying our perceptions of 1) permanence, 2) objective individualism, 3) collectivism, and 4) symbolic reality.


It is the role of healers to help others find the doorways to the opportunities that crises can offer, as traditional guiding models break down. The guiding myth of the shaman is that "personal power arises within." The blending of the traditional and the innovative, the mystical and scientific, the masculine and feminine elements in healing, can guide our culture towards a balanced approach to healing.

One driving force is bumping up against boundaries and then going past them. There are limitations in science and shamanism, but we need not remain perplexed if we incorporate the best each system has to offer. By recognizing our boundaries, we can move beyond them. This is equally true for the dreamhealing practitioner and for those seeking healing.

Shamanism and humanistic psychology share common aspects in their worldviews. The first is the view that "WE ARE ALL ONE". The primitive belief is one of the web of life, while the other calls it holism and deep ecology. FOR SHAMANS THE SECRET OF THE UNIVERSE IS THAT IT IS ALIVE. Science is validating this perspective more each day that nothing is truly separate from the whole. Wholism affirms the unity of life.

The GUIDING VISION is another premise shared in common by both camps. Jung certainly wrote extensively of his visionary experience and how it affected his life and gave him a mandate for his work. The vision quest is the native model for facilitating and honoring this experience. These visions "work" because we are not separate from the universe, nature, each other, our bodies, or hidden aspects of ourselves.

This brings us to the third commonality of REVERENCE FOR NATURE. We are not separate from the creation, and perhaps this is one reason for the profound healing power of wilderness. Maslow spoke of this awe of the nature-mystic as one of the emergent qualities of the self-actualized person.

Perhaps the main distinction between shamanism and conventional psychology is the consciousness state. Shamanism promotes co-consciousness where you are no longer separate from the person you are dealing with. The shaman goes into the underworld (subconscious) to help the person bring their lost soul or spirit back, which is the healing. That is really different than a psychologist who, in the old scientific model, maintains an objective distance.


WHEN THE MIND LETS GO OF ITS RATIONAL ORDER AND ENTERS INTO UNSTRUCTURED CHAOS IT EMERGES LATER WITH A NEW STRUCTURE. It is a quantum leap from what went before. Each journey into the unstructured chaotic consciousness leads to the seat of our muse and creativity. Therapy at its very best is a matter of changing consciousness, and so is shamanism. Though the perspective may be different, both seek to change consciousness about the states of dis-ease we experience.

Graywolf came upon the work of Paul Rapp, a researcher at the medical college of the University of Pennsylvania who experiments with chaos, at a crucial point in the development of his models. He discovered the technique in his therapy practice and refined it, but its description required a model of how and why it works. He was searching for a language to describe what he had been observing in the consciousness journeys he was conducting, trying to discover the nature of the healing process. Rapp's research showed that problem solving led to an increase of chaotic patterns in the brain, which led to a creative chaotic renewal.

Graywolf had observed this state in his clients empirically over and over again, in the underlying order to the apparently random or chaotic flow of multi-sensory imagery that formed the core of the method. He developed his ego model to describe the states in general. (See EGO AND THE PROCESS OF HEALING). They reflected not only a static order of imagery, but a deeper dynamic component.

Before finding the language of chaos theory, he tried relating these states to the medicine wheel, the chakra system, and other healing models. But no matter what language he used, ancient, shamanic, eastern mystical, new age, or scientific, each only seemed to capture a portion of it, as a pre-biased limited view.

But upon reading about Rapp's finding, he recalled a discussion many years earlier with a client who was a mathematics professor. On a working hike down the lower Rogue River in Southern Oregon, he described a new form of mathematics that was integrating a fractured science. In a moment of personal integration, Graywolf's memories and experience from the dream journeys came together. He saw that chaos is the underlying concept that brings it all together.

In each dream journey we encounter a state of consciousness that is a personal experience of primal chaos. These states might be different on the surface, but the underlying essence is the same. The empty drifting in the fog, that empty mindless place where there are no thoughts, emotions, or images were common reports. This is not news in depth psychology, but the reliable manner of accessing the state is new. We have known for a long time that the secret lay within dreams, as Max Zeller points out in THE DREAM - THE VISION OF THE NIGHT.

Depth psychology speaks of the unconscious. The term refers to the unknown hidden realm of the psyche about which we cannot make any direct statement. If not manifest, it looks like nothing at all, a void; the invisible, or not yet visible. But when vision and dream appear and reveal what was hidden, then void and emptiness give way to meaningfulness and to a feeling of being in touch and being those lost springs for which we all search and from which all life comes.

The unconscious lends itself to the language of chaos. The whirling, twisting motion of a molecule of water in the chaotic world of non-laminar flow through a pipe is analogous to chaos consciousness. The disorienting, dizzying surrender to the vortex, tornado, or whirlpool is a surrender to chaos, an experience of no form and total confusion and disorientation.

It is like the experience of committing oneself to the fire and becoming it, and as the random flickering of the flames and torrid heat, disintegrating into pure energy. It means becoming the boiling, flowing, every-changing molten magma at the core of the earth, or the root of a volcano. These are all descriptions of the personal, subjective experience of total chaos.

Always, after passing through this state, the new order which emerged of self-image, thought, emotion, and sensory perception reflected the new and less dis-eased state of being. The deeper self-image undercut or superceded the old belief system, and began to create a new order of being, a new way of perceiving self and world. The new image provides a magnetic nucleus around which to order the personality, and often the physiology.

Each of these observations had a counterpart in the new science based on chaos. Order seems to be present in the chaos of mind just as chaos really seems to underlie even the most rigid and orderly intellect. The new primal image has its counterpart in the strange attractor described in this radical new model.

DREAMS THEMSELVES EMBODY THE VERY NATURE OF CHAOS. Very few will argue with the chaotic nature of dreams. As we journeyed deep into the heart of dreams, the free-association of multi-sensory images led us to the energies and consciousness states that birthed and shaped its surface symbols and plots. The journeys were chaotic, impressionistic.

The imagery jerked and changed in chaotic ways, and we encountered states of consciousness which embodied total chaos within their experience. Always a state of consciousness emerged that soothed the tortured ego or body, healed the organism in some way, providing a balanced flow from deep within the chaos. Graywolf felt sure he was touching the very essence or source of the creative energy within us.


The relationship between healing and creativity is implicit. It means different phenomena on different levels. This state has been linked in research with the reverie state and alpha brainwave state. Rapp's findings showed large amounts of alpha discharge as the brain went into a chaotic pattern for problem solving.

Elmer and Alyce Green, who have done original research in biofeedback, have defined creativity at various levels:

Creativity in terms of physiological processes means then PHYSICAL HEALING, physical regeneration. Creativity in emotional terms consists then of establishing, or creating ATTITUDE CHANGES through the practice of healthful emotions, that is, emotions whose neural correlates are those that establish harmony in the visceral brain, or to put it another way, emotions that establish in the visceral brain those neurological patterns whose reflection in the viscera is one that physicians approve of as stress-resistent. Creativity in the mental domain involves the emergence of a new and valid synthesis of ideas, not by deduction, but springing by "INTUITION" from unconscious sources.

The entrance, or key, to all these inner processes we are beginning to believe, is a particular state of consciousness to which we have given the undifferentiated name of "reverie."

The creative process runs parallel to the healing process. In fact, healing is a special case of creativity, or creative problem-solving. Consciousness is the author of both processes. Creativity, healing, and illumination are equivalent processes operating at different levels -- mental, physical, psychic, and spiritual. The process includes a prelude ritual, an altered state, and a postlude, or emotional affect.

We can draw a direct analogy between the dreamhealing process and the creative process. We have adapted the description from Silvano Arieti's CREATIVITY: THE MAGIC SYNTHESIS, Basic, 1976.

Dreamhealing begins with THE PILGRIMAGE, which expresses one's intent or commitment The creative process begins with RECEPTIVITY, which includes interest, preparation, and immersion in the subject matter.

Next in dreamhealing comes THE CONFESSION, or the identification of the problem, where you have missed the mark. Creativity also requires the ability to identify the problem, see the right questions, to use errors, to have detached devotion.

The PURIFICATION or cleansing of dreamhealing parallels the generalized SENSITIVITY TO PROBLEMS that comes during creativity, an attunement to the realization of what needs to be done.

THE OFFERING is a sign of letting go, sacrifice of the old ego form, the commitment to healing. Creativity requires the SURRENDER OF TIME AND SELF TO THE PROCESS OF FLOW; fluency of thinking; flexibility; abandoning old ways of thought.

The heart of the quest is DREAM INCUBATION, a reverie which seeks connection with higher power. Creativity also requires INCUBATION, reverie, serendipity, spontaneity, adaptation, tolerance for ambiguity, and originality This permits uncommon responses and unconventional associations.

Healing occurs in a moment of oneness, CHAOTIC CONSCIOUSNESS. In creativity it is paralleled by the moment of ILLUMINATION, redefinition, invention, vision.

Dreamhealing requires AMPLIFICATION, or work on dreams and validation. ELABORATION is its counterpart, the use of two or more abilities for the construction of a more complex object or theory, plus verification.

RE-ENTRY implies actualization, renewal, grounding, maturing. Creatively it means REAL-TIME APPLICATION, follow through, product, exploitation of the result.

In all cases, guided or not, the creative or healing process follows approximately this model. The resources are contacted deep within and they well-up in sometimes unexpected ways from the deep Source.


The conventional outer focus on healing tends to get caught up in methods, techniques and the purely material side of healing. It causes division both in the approach to and view of the patient. Inner focus tends to lead to a collective or unifying state of consciousness. THE SPIRIT OR EMERGENCE OF HEALING ARISES FROM WITHIN. It not only integrates the patient but also the divided methods of outer healing approaches. It unifies patient and professional. In this sense it is synergistic.

Thus, if the real healing energy or power or force comes from within, the patient can choose from tools such as surgery, imagery, and lifestyle changes to repair a damaged heart. They are not forced to choose between tools, but can use all of them harmoniously.

Inside each of us, and common to us all is a force we have called PLACEBO, homeostasis, or will-to-live which is a state of consciousness. The placebo effect lies in a crack between the known and the unknown. We know it works, but we have no clue how. In reverse, used against people, it is the basis for sympathetic magic and curses. Without it, even physicians agree healing simply cannot occur. This force comes from deep within, but can be focused and facilitated through awareness.

One of the powers of dreams and dreamhealing is that they arise from non-ordinary states of consciousness, and out of the powers of the chaotic collective matrix. The dream guide takes consciousness into this altered state and facilitates access to it for the whole being, rather than putting a bandaid on a symptom. Once we find it, we see we can reach it in many ways. These include imagination, imagery, meditation, faith in the doctor as healer, prayer, etc. Once we reach it, it affects our perception of reality from that point forward.


The shaman and therapist facilitate subtle changes in perception to bring about healing from the deep resources within. Shamans have always used great scope in their healing efforts, even using such tools as rivers, meadows, or the tops of mountains. That is where they take people to initiate healing or visionary experience.

We tend to think small in psychology in terms of tools. The whole earth, the rivers, all of nature is a tool to be used by the shaman/therapist if she is open to that. On a wilderness excursion, a day of silence can be profoundly transformative. Many times people won't begin talking for hours after the silence is lifted. Preparation at a retreat, like sweats and offerings can also enhance the wilderness experience. Dream incubation at the retreat opens the mythic dimension to enhance the effects of a client's experience.

Taking people on therapeutic excursions also allows the guide to span a broad spectrum of the client's awareness by demonstrating a guiding ability that is both literal and metaphorical. Once again this opens the client to a less-rational mythic dimension. The archetypal image of the GUIDE TO THE UNDERWORLD, (deep subconscious), is a very powerful symbol when activated in the psyche of an individual. Finally there is someone to show the way in the netherworld of inner life.

The shaman/therapist takes the client far below the personality levels, down to the psychic origins of life. There they may experience the primordial, chemical, genetic, or sub-atomic realities which usually escape our notice. Through the process of co-consciousness the guide brings the client's soul back out into the light of day (rational consciousness) after many challenges are met and overcome.

The lost soul is found and retrieved through a healing process. The formerly "dead" personality is now enlivened in the process of psychological rebirth and resurrection. Wilderness excursions feed into the trust-building process in a way that can never be achieved in an office or clinic.

Reflecting on his experience with people on the whitewater rivers, Graywolf has noticed that he doesn't have to do nearly as much to be actively therapeutic with people on the river. Just taking them there, and being there with them as Graywolf, it becomes very powerful. The intent is a transformational voyage. A lot of the personal results depend on their own expectations and the power they tend to project on the shaman.

In Graywolf's case he feels a lot of it has to do with going down the river and his consecrated relationship to it. If a person has an issue, for example, with their feminine side, they seem to dream of women while they are on the river trip. Becoming that in the dream journey, they begin changing their striving nature to a sense of flow, harmonizing more and more with the river. The river takes them to an edge of personal challenge and transmutes them automatically.

IN DREAM GUIDING, ALL THE ACTION LIES IN GOING JUST BEYOND THE BOUNDARY FROM THE KNOWN AND COMFORTABLE TOWARD THE FEAR AND CHALLENGE. Being at the edge is where we can confront our issues. The emotions which carry us to that edge become more and more intensified as the personal limits are challenged. Attitudes, values, and thoughts may be transformed in a moment of existential challenge. Many people report they never felt more alive than at a moment of personal physical and mental challenge.

The concept of THE BOUNDARY is also relevant to physics, chemistry, and engineering. The boundary is where opposites meet; it is always paradoxical in nature. The boundary layer is where all the interesting things happen in fluid flow and chemical reactions. The transition points, both ways, between chaos and order seem to be the places where important shifts and developments take place. So in the physical or mental journey, the times of entering the chaos and re-emerging into order are when you can observe the shift.

In ancient times, Seneca said, "The secrets [of nature] open not promiscuously nor to every corner. They are remote of access, enshrined in the inner sanctuary." Opening to nature is healing. Swept-up in the rapture of nature's beauty, we experience oneness with Her. This response has been described as oceanic or a peak experience, referring metaphorically to depths and heights.

Natural mystic-ecstasies can happen spontaneously to anyone. They often have an uncanny or supernormal quality. They involve euphoria or bliss to an extent unknown in most usual activities. They seem important in some strange way. There is also some element of transcendence. They remain in memory longer and more vividly than ordinary events. But not all experiences are of equal depth. Some lead directly to the loss of sense of self and time, and a reduction in mental activity. It is a form of cosmic-consciousness.

In most cultures the basic elements -- fire, air, water, and earth -- are revered in some manner, or at least considered fundamental to existence; some systems contain even finer distinctions. This has resounded through history in a variety of mystic arts ranging from alchemy to astrology, to Native American shamanism. In yoga they are known as the tatvas. Always this doctrine of the four elements symbolized a sense of wholeness with nature and self. The mystic fifth element appears as the essence, or quintessence, spirit or ether. It represents the synergetic effect of the primary four components of natural existence.

In opening to nature the self is purified, fear and shame vanish, replaced by the sense of brotherhood with all life. It is an experience of oneness with the creation. Because nature always reflects the archetype of death/rebirth, the psychological response to a profound experience in nature may be one of rebirth. This can be particularly true if there is a close brush with death. The transport may also occur witnessing a birth which can evoke a strong sense of awe and wonder at the miracle of life.

In the nature-mystic experience there is always a mixture of instinctive awe and delight, a thrill usually felt most deeply in utter solitude, which fills the heart with a Presence. It is a form of enlightenment or illumination, where the divine element is veiled by nature. The experience is characterized by a deep feeling, rather than knowing. It is a life-changing event, with many further repercussions and adjustments. One gains a new perspective as when standing on a majestic mountain, surveying the panorama.

The mind calms, becoming tranquil and still, in regard for the beloved. All things seem pristine, perfect, and eternal. Conflicts are transcended or resolved in self-forgetfulness. The world "looks different." Maslow likened it to a "visit to a personal heaven." One feels more alive, loving, accepting, blessed, and happy.

A peak experience can be "grounded" by working with it in a journal and meditation, reclaiming those states for future nourishment. They are sources of sanctuary and inner fortitude, providing a foundation for further excursions into mystical dimensions. You can use them for stress management by recalling a special place and time in nature where you felt open and secure. Deep relaxation provides many benefits for health and well being.