Natemamu, Part III: Knocking on Heaven’s Door
It’s now June 2nd and I’m sitting in the international terminal of Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport. I’m on my way to Lima, Peru for 9 days. I’ve got air-miles from American Airlines and they’ve been burning a hole in my virtual pocket for some time. So since I had some personal business to attend to in Lima, it was time to cash in some of those air-miles. It’s free, right? Yeah, right. And this ticket only cost me some (pretty high) taxes; so much for “free flights.” I’m here ultimately as a result of a message that I received during my second encounter with natem. But this presents a chronological disconnect, so let’s back up a bit.
Before we had arrived at the finca Paul’s assistants had already “ringed” an outer perimeter, 10 to 20 feet away, and completely around the Shaman’s Lodge with a border of wood ashes. It seems to be common knowledge in el campo of Ecuador (and perhaps elsewhere too, I’m a city-boy and don’t know these things), that wood ashes keep vipers away. They simply will not cross such a barrier which can penetrate their scales most painfully.
I’ve never corroborated that notion of ashes, but I will say that none of us reported any snake sightings for the 8 days we were there. We did hear from several of the support staff that the week before there were several sightings, and snakes in Ecuador I’m told are almost always poisonous, and neurotoxic at that! So each night, religiously wearing my knee-high rubber boots, I always remained hyper-aware of a possible encounter while puking my guts out, or removing negative energies, as it were.
Though I never repeated during successive ceremonies the intensity of the Opening Ceremony’s hallucinations, each night’s journey to the edge brought me visions of heightened energies from the plants growing everywhere. No, it was more than visual manifestations , I could sense, I could feel and even hear these energies. And I’m supposed to watch out for vipers too? Were those leaves on the low bushes by my feet moving because of the wind? On more than one occasion it took me some time to return back to my mat after voiding my innards.
I do have to explain that there is a difference, a very big difference, between hallucinations and visions. The hallucinations are visual “fantasies?” I guess you might say, while visions are more than just visual messages. These visions involve multiple sensual inputs which present one with a very different type of communication.
Paul and both of the Shuar shamans took great pains to remind us over and over that a shaman does not provide us with answers. A shaman is a facilitator who helps us prepare to receive our personal messages from La Medicina, the vine. Shaman’s break down the barriers, through the use of various techniques, between ourselves, or better yet our outer selves: those visible characteristics (our ego, in Freudian terms?) we present to the world, and our inner selves. And the medicine then bridges that gap and delivers the messages from our inner selves. All this is taking place in the spirit world that the Medicine Hunter frequently describes.
In my own case, I received my first message and I was totally unprepared for it. So when it arrived, I was only too happy to be lying down. I know that I would have been knocked from my feet had I been up and about during a purging. I say this because not only was the message so true and so fundamental, but the delivery was also as powerful.
As I write this, hoping the Lima plane will be on time, I’m feeling a rising level of anxiety since the very act of articulating this experience will fall far short of doing justice to what transpired. What makes this recounting of the ceremony so weak, so insufficient, is that I still don’t know how I received the message.
Was it spoken to me? No. Was there writing, perhaps delivered holographically? Not really. And yet the message was very real, very personal, and answered a nagging, serious, and chronic problem that had been physically eating away at me for years. Somehow, some way, the message arrived from elsewhere and imprinted so firmly in my psyche that I had no choice but to accept it as real. And even after nearly a month of returning and immersing into my Quito routine, I know that this separate reality will be with me as long as I live.
To those of you waiting for some juicy gossip, here’s a spoiler alert: I ain’t sayin’ nuthin. My message was for me and if you decide to take part in a natem or ayahuasca ceremony, your message will be for you. The shamans are all very clear about this. The conversation one has with the inner self, mediated by the vine, is as personal an experience as one will ever have. So while I will reveal a later message I had in a later ceremony, this first message is off limits to the casual reader.
A technique common to all shamans is the use of icaros. These are songs, some of which are passed down through generations during the rigorous and life-threatening training a shaman receives in order to finally become a shaman. Other icaros are presented to the individual shaman during their own journeys to the spirit world and then the shaman brings them forward to those he is helping to cure. And still other icaros are of another sort.
Paul, who by his own reckoning, has undergone more than 700 natem ceremonies along with other deep training, is also a shaman. Of this there can be no doubt. He is of the first generation of cross-over shamans who originated in the “developed world” and answered a call to enter this more primary Amazonian Basin world of the vine.
Like the Zen Buddhists of the 60’s that I met in Rochester NY some decades ago, or the yogis of the 50’s that I met even earlier in Honolulu during the Flower-Power years, Paul is here, working as a translator to help those of us from the northern countries knock on the doors of perception down south in the jungle. One of his translations is music.
Often using a shaman’s fiddle, a primitive 3-stringed instrument vaguely resembling a western fiddle or violin, or another, single-stringed Shuar instrument that looks like a bow that could shoot arrows, he will play some traditional Shuar icaros, often singing in Shuar. These icaros are tools that a shaman uses to both call the spirits and to help us as participants prepare ourselves to receive messages. He uses these icaros to great effect, and they do get results.
Or he will call on Nial. With his name pronounced like “dial” Nial is from Dublin and not only plays a beautiful guitar (he’s a professional recording artist) but he throat sings, and can make his voice sound like a harmonica, a whistle, and an amazing number of other sounds. During our retreat Nial, as a senior assistant to Paul, brought us his highly evolved ability to read people. And in my case, he knew exactly what I needed to hear.
During this second ceremony each of us individually received a personal cleansing by Paul while sitting on a stump in front of the fire. When my turn came, I sat there waiting for Paul and Nial began to sing. He mixes his own compositions with popular rock and folk songs, knowing somehow, ahead of time, which song is needed for what part of the ceremony, for which person.
A recurring song he played, The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” always got a huge laugh, and also always turned into a huge, highly animated sing-along. Another sing-along was “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. These songs and others were played a few hours into each of the ceremonies, after the initial hallucinations and purgings were over and we were ready to make connections with our inner selves.
Since I was easily the oldest person at the retreat, and my age was more than once the topic of interest during several group discussions, Nial realized that a unique opportunity presented itself and would be to my advantage. So as I was sitting on the stump, waiting for Paul to prepare himself mentally for this cleansing, Nial started singing Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” and I instantly understood just why I was there.
For far too long, for too many years, for too many decades, I had been postponing decisions in my life. Crucial, critical, and truly life-affirming decisions had been deferred, and for far too much time. Now, in my later 60’s, it was quite clear that the time for deferral, if there ever was a time for it, was most assuredly over; I either act or I go to the grave denying certain personal truths.
Thanks again, Nial. You knew exactly what I needed to know. Dylan’s song, like all good icaros, bridged the gap between my outer self, and the self that lives in the spirit world. It prepared me for receiving that first core message later in the night. After all those years, I was finally ready to listen.