Here we are again, with an update from Peru. This week’s post is a little late, as I simply wasn’t inspired to write anything until today, and having been deep in the middle of my own process, didn’t have anything that was ready to share. I’ve been working with the sacred cactus San Pedro this week, which is a completely different experience from Ayahuasca. It’s taken me 5 ceremonies over 2 trips to finally figure out how to really get out of the way of this masterful teacher (you can’t work with it the way you do with Aya). Today, I’d like to tell you about one of the ceremonies I experienced on my 2014 trip to Peru; one of the hardest but most valuable experiences of my entire life.
What’s a San Pedro ceremony like?
But first, let me tell you a little bit about San Pedro, and how this plant teacher differs from Ayahuasca. While an Aya ceremony takes place at night, in the dark, San Pedro is traditionally done during the day. These ceremonies last ALL DAY, from 8 a.m. to well into the evening. People often don’t fully “come down” until the next morning. Now, of course, everyone’s experience is unique and different, and so I can only tell you what I’ve experienced, mixed with a bit of insight gleaned from other participants in the ceremonies I was in. Some people have a very psychedelic experience on San Pedro, with visions of geometric shapes (very common to Aya). This has not been the case for me.
For me, Ayahuasca is a very intellectual experience. I tend to understand what is being brought up and what is being asked of me. That’s not to say that these ceremonies are easy (they are not), but I tend to have an easier time surrendering when I know what’s going on. With San Pedro, the experience is much more, well, experiential. I often have no effing clue what is happening, so there’s a much higher level of trust required. The only thing that is really ever asked of me is to surrender and to breathe. There’s no “fixing” anything, there’s no guiding anything, there’s only trusting and letting go. For hours and hours. So, when discomfort arises, I have to just breathe into it, even when I have absolutely no idea what the discomfort is about (with Aya, I tend to know). If I try to figure it out, things get a lot more uncomfortable. If I just go with it completely, as I did during yesterday’s ceremony, the emotions simply shift and bliss follows, although not generally until there’s been some (or a lot) of purging (which is what we in the plant medicine world call the often violent act of puking and pooping your guts out. Because it sounds so much more eloquent to say “I purged a great deal last night and am still purging this morning” than “I projectile vomited all night while making sounds reminiscent of demons escaping my body, and now I can’t stop peeing out of my butt.”)
Personally, I’ve found it more difficult to work with San Pedro, but I’ve met quite a few people who much prefer it to Ayahuasca. As I said, it’s a very personal thing. Having said that, my very first San Pedro ceremony last year, was also one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done. As is often (but certainly not always) the case with plant medicine, that value came at a pretty high price.
I missed all the signs
It was only 2 days after I’d arrived in Pisac, Peru, a gorgeous little village in the middle of the mountains, one hour’s drive outside of Cuzco. I was still very much acclimating to the elevation, which makes you feel like your chest is being squeezed by a vise and gives you a raging headache. Chewing Coca leaves or drinking their tea makes a huge difference, but it can still take a good week to feel “normal” (as long as you move slowly, that is). I was given the opportunity to participate in a San Pedro ceremony, called “the Three Lakes”, which involved drinking the brew and then going for what was described to me as a gentle, 6 hour walk to three gorgeous lakes. I was supposed to be on that walk; that much was clear. In fact, even though there were plenty of signs that this walk was going to be anything but gentle, I missed them all (I did see them in hindsight). I showed up bright and early at 7 a.m., when the shaman, the rest of the participants (most of whom I didn’t know) and I piled into a taxi bus, and proceeded to be driven another hour straight up into the mountains. When we arrived, I already found it hard to breathe, but sort of disregarded that, too. I could already feel the energy flowing up through my legs and I felt that familiar tremble I get when I’m exposed to a higher than usual frequency. I was excited.
Miguel, the shaman, opened ceremony with an open fire, blessed the fire and the group, made an offering of tobacco, and then handed us each a pint sized cup full of what looked like green egg whites and smelled and tasted a bit like an algae smoothy. I don’t really have a huge issue with drinking San Pedro, but for many people, it’s akin to drinking vomit. It can be hard to get and keep it down. I chugged the brew and rinsed my mouth out with water. So far, so good.
We then proceeded to walk towards the mountain, a nice, gentle walk through the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen. And then… things went kind of tits up.
The climb from hell
As we began the ascent to what would eventually be 4000 meters (keep in mind that I live at sea level), the medicine began to do its work and my own personal nightmare began. I felt as though I was wearing a lead suit, and could barely move, much less breathe. I began to have to take a break every ten steps, as well as sit down frequently. I felt like the world was crashing down on me, I felt alone, abandoned, stupid for having put myself in this situation, and very, very scared. The group, who were all going through their own experience, wandered on ahead of me, while I sat down like a miserable little lump on a rock and just cried. My self-pity turned to anger (as it should) and I began to scream (not shout, scream) at the mountains. I kept hearing them say “We are supporting you” (yeah, mountains will talk to you and they are powerful), which felt comforting at first, but got old very quickly. Fully displaying my business background, I began to yell “That’s great! You’re support me! But I don’t need this kind of macro support. I need micro support!!”, meaning, I wanted help getting through all the crap that was coming up. Creating and holding a supportive energy just didn’t feel like it was helping (I would come to understand later just how much they had actually assisted me).
At one point, Miguel came back for me and began to try and motivate me to move faster. After all, we were on a bit of a clock. You don’t want to be caught on the mountain once it’s dark. To give credit where credit is due, the man handled the full force of my rage, which was inevitably directed at him (he’d invited it by poking the bear) extremely well. This was not his first time at the rodeo. He attempted to encourage me with “come on Melody. Maybe we can cry and walk at the same time”, to which my response was to spin my head around three times, Exorcist style, and scream “Fuck you Miguel! I’m having a moment here!” But after that, I was able to walk again, and I proceed to work my way further up the mountains, ten steps at a time. When we reached the first lake, I couldn’t have cared less. It was beautiful, yes, but I was beyond appreciating beauty. I just wanted to lie down and die. Sheer survival instinct kept me going.
While I was severely nauseous the whole time, no relief would come through purging (sometimes you really want to throw up). I could barely get a few sips of water down. We stopped at the second lake. Again, my misery overshadowed everything. All I could think about was that we still had to go up. My anger spent, I dropped into a kind of meditative stupor, my only goal to put one foot in front of the other. Take ten steps, stand there and breathe for a little while, take ten more steps. That next step became my only focus; it was my mantra. I was not going to die on that fucking mountain. No way. I was not going to get beaten by this. It took more determination than I’d ever mustered to keep going. I was fighting for my life, for myself. There were so many sublayers to what was going on, and yet all I could focus on was taking that next step.
Along the way, different members of the group would walk with me, sit with me, give me encouragement and energy healing. Even though I’d never met these people before, and they were all going through their own journey, many of them were inspired to help me along the way. I was surrounded by angels. That was the first insight I had, one that expanded on something I’d learned a couple of years before in an Ayahuasca ceremony – we are all angels for each other, and as long as you are a match to being helped, that energy can come through any number of individuals in your reality in any moment. It’s a lesson that has only deepened over time since.
Relief at the summit
When we finally reached the third lake, a crystal clear body of water so clean you can drink from it, full of high vibrational water, I sank down to the ground, shaking and spent and more grateful than I’d ever remembered being. The shaman filled my water bottle from the lake, and while I still couldn’t eat anything except a few pieces of juicy mango, I let the magic water replenish me. After about an hour I had to pee, but to do so, I’d have to climb further up the mountain to an overhanging cliff and squat. This was something that seemed impossible, seeing as I didn’t have it in me to even stand up. But again, I summoned strength I didn’t even know I had, and made the epic journey (I was NOT going to piss on myself. I mean purge. I was not going to purge on myself, dammit). I realized that I’d been chanting “You will not beat me” under my breath for hours. And by God, it didn’t.
Then we began the long climb down, and as we did so, my strength returned. Suddenly the vise around my ribcage loosened, and I was able to breathe. My legs stopped shaking. The hardest part of my journey was over. It would take hours for us to make the entire trip down, but my suffering had come to an end. I was able to chat with my fellow travelers and was even able to joke around. I knew that the trip wasn’t over until I reached the bottom, where a hot meal was waiting for us at the house of a local family, and after which the taxi would take us back to Pisac. As we descended, the pressure in my head increased and I was plagued by a massive headache and more nausea – altitude sickness. But somehow, I didn’t care. I had made it; I had walked up that damn mountain – ten steps at a time.
As I said, even though this was, by far, the hardest thing I’d ever done – it pushed me to my limit in a way I’d never allowed before, it was also the most valuable. I had many, many insights as I made my way back down the mountain, and I’m happy to share the biggest ones with you.
Along with the realization that I’m never alone, but always surrounded by angels, I also learned that:
- I can do anything, as long as I just keep going. One step at a time, ten steps at a time, it all adds up. And eventually, I will reach my goal. This is not to say that every journey has to be full of suffering. My discomfort came from the resistance I was releasing, not from the walk itself. Being willing to step into that discomfort without giving up, however, is what helped me release that resistance.
- I am much, MUCH stronger than I’d realized. My biggest fear at that time had always been to need to rely on my body, and to have it fail me. This is much of what I experienced on that mountain that day. I needed my body, and I felt it wasn’t up to the task. I realized that I’d never been willing to put myself in that situation before, I’d never subjected myself to such a challenge. I’d worked out a great deal in my life, but always in a safe and comfortable way – mostly in the gym. I could step off the treadmill at any time – not so on the mountain. There, I HAD to keep going, and I was able to. Had I actually been aware of all the signs telling me how hard this was going to be, I would’ve opted out, which is precisely why I couldn’t see them until afterwards.
- I’m allowed to go at my own pace. This lesson didn’t become clear until I found myself on another hike about a week later; this time without San Pedro. We were climbing some ruins in Ollantaytambo, a gorgeous and energy rich place full of ancient history and unrivaled beauty. The friends I was with were all in phenomenal shape and decided to mountain goat it up this mountain. After my experience at the three lakes, I decided that I was up for the task. I was much more acclimated to the altitude at this point and the only thing standing between me and the summit was my level of fitness. As my compadres took off at lightning speed, I took a deep breath and started climbing – one step at a time. I’d always hated hiking; I’d been forced to climb up the mountains of the Alps during the summers as a child in Germany (our summer camp wasn’t all that much fun). I thought it was hiking I’d hated, but it was simply being forced to keep up with someone else’s pace. I was never allowed to stop and appreciate the beauty around me – it was all about the goal of getting to the top and straggling or daydreaming was not allowed. But as I climbed up this mountain, at my own pace, one step at a time, taking breaks whenever I wanted during which I took the time to take in the phenomenal vista surrounding me, feeling so good and strong in my body, it dawned on me that I no longer needed to respect anyone else’s pace. I had been beyond caring if I held up the groups as I made the trek up to the three lakes, and yet no one had complained. I didn’t mess up our schedule. I just arrived a little after everyone else. So what? I thoroughly enjoyed a hike for the first time in my life at Ollantaytambo. Of course, this insight about going at one’s own pace making everything much more enjoyable didn’t just apply to hiking – it was a huge life lesson. I began to slow down significantly after that trip, no longer willing to run for the sake of running, or set close deadlines for the sake of never inconveniencing anyone. I began to stop and smell the flowers whenever I wanted to. And life has been much more fun ever since.
As I sit here, a year later, looking back on that experience, I’m really only grateful for what it taught me. Yes, I remember how hard it was, and I don’t plan on doing that hike again any time soon, but it made me so aware of my own inner strength, and of the support I felt both from my angels and the mountains. Speaking of the mountains, they are phenomenal here in Peru, and have supported me through every ceremony here. They were supporting me that day, as well. While I was certainly having a really hard time, I never felt as though I was going to fall. We were, at times, walking on narrow paths, just inches from a drop off that would’ve almost certainly killed anyone who’d fallen, and under the influence of San Pedro to boot, and yet that aspect never made me feel unsafe. Considering that I’ve always been a total klutz with the balance of a drunken sailor, this was HUGE for me. I felt almost cradled by the mountains – they kept me safe. They also kept encouraging me, talking to me, telling me I was going to be alright. I just couldn’t hear them during the toughest parts, but that wasn’t their fault. Their belief in my success never waned. They held the energy for me as I went through my journey; they accepted my rage and tears and weak moments without judgment. I truly couldn’t have done it without their help and I’ll be forever grateful to them.
Sometimes, we are led into profoundly uncomfortable and even painful experiences as we move towards the realization of Who We Really Are. Sometimes, we’re pushed to our limit, simply to show us that we’re much stronger than we think we are. It will be scary. It will suck, big time. It may even make us think that we’re going to die. And while I don’t really seek out these experiences (ok, that’s debatable, I keep coming back here, after all), I know that we can’t shy away from them when we find ourselves suddenly faced with our greatest fears.
And while I haven’t gone back to the three lakes, I continue to work with San Pedro, and he continues to help me shed fears and develop a deeper and deeper trust in the only thing that truly matters – trust in myself. In the two San Pedro ceremonies I did this week, I had the chance to take that trust to a much deeper level, and unlike last year, these ceremonies weren’t difficult. The resistance fell like dominoes. My willingness to completely face anything that came up made it dissolve nearly instantly. Fears seem ridiculous and vanish the moment I recognize them. When you truly understand that everything is simply a reflection of your own energy, being afraid just doesn’t make any sense. As my love for and my trust in myself and Who I Really Am grows, so does my love for and trust in other people. We are all one; we are all in this together; we are all angels for each other; we are all safer than we can ever know; we are all stronger than we’ll ever fully realize; and we are all so damn beautiful and perfect, it just takes my breath away. And I don’t even need to be at a high altitude to feel that.
Sending you so much love and light and of course, smooshy hugs from Peru,