A Healing Journey at Nihue Rao
Nihue Rao is a “centro espiritual”: a spiritual center. My wife and I were there for 11 days in January, 2018. We are both over 70. It has been 8 weeks since we returned. I waited this long to write our review because I wanted to be able to be sure I could separate the “magical” thrill of being on retreat in the Amazon from the ways the Healing Journey continues to be manifest in our lives.
I will begin by writing about the physical and psychological environment of Nihue Rao, because they are the same. In every way, Nihue Rao is a safe environment. This extends from the armed guards to the cleanliness of the grounds to the food to the villagers who share the space to the guiding escorts (interpreters) to the shamans themselves. There are no “head trips”, here. The power structure here is entirely natural and based on perceptual and communication skills and not on personal manipulation or charisma.
The armed guards who are always on patrol are the kindest I have ever met anywhere in the world. They are friendly and supportive. They truly are part of the healing environment, as gentle protectors: neither suspicious nor bored nor antagonistic.
The kitchen staff feeds everyone, and they, too, extend the feeling of caring to all: kittens, workers and guests. We are all treated with equal generosity.
The guides who interview us and translate for us and look after us both within the moloka (the ceremony hall) and in the whole village environment, are exceptional in knowing when to give people space, when to create individual focus, and when to intervene with extra, intensely personal support. They assume the roles of attentive, protective and nurturing psychological and spiritual escorts, or trusted nurses, in the very best sense of that word!
The pediatrician and psychoanalyst D W Winnicott developed the term “facilitating environment” to describe the combination of safety, nourishment and encouragement which a mother provides for her infant child. This trust was certainly our experience of the Healing Journey at Nihue Rao. To quote from Wikipedia: Winnicott came to consider that “Playing takes place in the potential space between the baby and the mother-figure….[T]he initiation of playing is associated with the life experience of the baby who has come to trust the mother figure”. “Potential space” was Winnicott’s term for a sense of an inviting and safe interpersonal field in which one can be spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to others.”
At Nihue Rao villagers, guards, cooks, grounds-keepers, interpreter-guides and shamans all combine their skills to create a mentally and physically safe environment in which to play. Nihue Rao does not emphasize any religious view or spiritual “path”. There is no “belonging” to a specific set of beliefs or any push to accept any defined “meaning”. Nihue Rao is only concerned with the safety, clarity and healthy energy of each individual seeker.
For an example of the trust engendered in this environment, during one of my ayahuasca experiences I relived having the “croup”, an early-childhood illness that had made me unable to breathe and caused me to be hospitalized in an oxygen tent. I have always remembered the glorious feeling of being physically “born-again” when the illness broke and I “returned to life” in the middle of the night in that old hospital ward, but my memory never went back further to the terror of being unable to breathe and being so helplessly close to death.
During this part of my relationship with ayahuasca, in which I had unfortunately tried to take a breath while vomiting, I truly could not breathe, and yet I was not afraid. I trusted that the guides who came to help me knew CPR, and I experienced 3 of the shamans “astral-project” to watch over me, in case greater intervention was necessary. Knowing I was so protected both physically and psycho-spiritually allowed me to eventually regain control of my breathing on my own. This short-circuit in my breathing repeated a second night, but a quickly administered Heimlich maneuver made this a very short and completely uneventful experience. What became emphasized for me was not the base fact of my own physical survival, but my feelings of gratitude and the actual physical experience of a nurturing, supportive community.
I want to emphasize it is my perspective that ayahuasca, in combination with the extremely bland diet, the Master Plants drink, the rituals, chanting and Amazon environment, all worked together. To focus greedily on the “mystical” hallucinogenic qualities of ayahuasca is to miss the point. It was the experience of all of these in community that made this a Healing Journey.
The Nihue Rao website emphasizes “The success of the healing process depends on the length of your stay and also on the effort that you put in to your healing process: focus, intention, trust and time. Ayahuasca, the master plants and the shamans will also do their best work for your wellbeing. It is a combination of shaman work, Ayahuasca and you.”
My wife and I certainly agree with this! Now, 8 weeks after returning to our “normal” lives, we find that many of the “magical” feelings from living in the Amazon have faded, but those issues we focused on with well-defined intention have remained transformed. When we come upon an energy-block or provocative situation, we are able to simply reconnect to our healing-intention and put aside the old negative thinking. I do not mean that we meditate in any special way or repeat a chant or mantra. I mean this as a simple, straightforward act of remembering, of returning to the greater sense of possibility which the experience at Nihue Rao provides.
When I try to explain this in conversation, I always fall back on Rilke’s short poem about The Unicorn, in which he writes:
“The people fed it, not on corn, but on the Possibility of being.”
The Nihue Rao perspective is grounded in this sense of Possibility: of psychological-spiritual Play. I took ayahuasca. My wife did not. We participated in everything else equally. And we discovered that ayahuasca itself was not necessary for the intentional transformations we desired. To quote again from the Nihue Rao website:
“During our life experiences we collect a lot of energies that can block us. By cleaning these energies we can feel more connected to ourselves and our truest path. We work with the wisdom and medicine of the master plants for the purpose of your healing, learning and wellbeing. The plants [and chants, and caring, supportive presence of the guides] are our allies and helpers in your healing process.”
In my personal analogy, I describe the “self” as a tall building that has become covered in the grime of pollution. The Master Plants, shaman’s chants and the caring attention of the guides wash the windows, repair the wiring, and haul out a lifetime of accumulated trash for recycling or to turn it into life-giving compost.
Ayahuasca, however, will definitely give you “a kick in the ass”, and many of us felt we were certainly “going to die” during our 5th ceremonies. For the person next to me he felt as if his “mind is melting”. For me, it was a physical fear of “my body going into shock” from “loss of electrolytes” after days in the jungle heat. This fear of loss of control can take many forms.
Ayahuasca is a “hard reboot”. It just throws you off the roof, and like an action-hero in your own movie, you miraculously survive unharmed and stronger than before. Ayahuasca can be a powerful experience, but it is not necessary as long as you spend enough time in the village with the Master Plants, diet and ceremonies.
As for my other personal experiences with ayahuasca, I will quote from the website again: “More important than the visions is that the Ayahuasca works in the body to clean the blocks and the energies. As well, there are many types of visions: they may be old memories that come to mind or thoughts that feel different from our regular everyday ones. Whether or not you have visions trust that ayahuasca is working on helping you with what you need!”
This is certainly true. I am a musician, dancer and storyteller. I do not process experiences visually. I also worked for 11 years as a “Play Therapist” and a “Music Therapist” in a mental health center. I don’t have “visions”. I sing songs. As they came to know me, the guides were able to help me find my own ways to process ayahuasca and they learned how to translate to the shamans my physical and story-image responses. The guides definitely responded to each participant as an individual!
The best description I can come up with for the Healing Journey at Nihue Rao is to quote, again, from the Wikipedia entry on Winnicott: “He thought that people were born without a clearly developed self and had to “search” for an authentic sense of self as they grew. “For Winnicott, the sense of feeling real, feeling in touch with others and with one’s own body and its processes was essential for living a life.” … This experience of aliveness is what allows people to be genuinely close to others, and to be creative.”
Looking at my life within the experience of the Healing Journey at Nihue Rao, I can accept that bad things happened to me in infancy and as I lived my life, but I can also see that I continued to carry those negative experiences with me to perpetuate and re-enact the wounding on myself. (For this insight, I am grateful for the poem “I Give You Back” by Joy Harjo)
I have discovered that forgiveness comes only after letting go of self-abusing guilt and accepting one’s own responsibility for holding onto the pain with life habits of intense, self-justifying aggression or drug /alcohol abuse or self-inflicted confusion or narcissistic feelings of helplessness or isolation.
Moving along the Healing Journey at Nihue Rao, I found my perspective shift from criticism to kindness and from visions of self-abuse to visions of self-respect. I was able to see myself through clean eyes, in the way Derrick Walcott wrote in his poem “Love After Love”:
“You will love again the stranger who was yourself.”
You are free to imagine the Healing Journey as “play therapy” or as a “spiritual awakening”. The framework you apply to the experience doesn’t matter: only your honesty, self-forgiveness and compassion. You are welcomed to enjoy the ayahuasca “light show”, but the focus of intention here at Nihue Rao is self-integration, not merely intense experiences.
I urge you to take this long, uncomfortable and exciting journey into the Amazon to support your “search for an authentic sense of self”. Yes, the “Master Plants”, the extremely bland diet and the shamans’ songs, stimulated by the ayahuasca, are powerful enough push you along the road; but if you take responsibility to prepare your intentions and come ready to work, then you have the potential to become real in ways you cannot imagine, even in your best dreams.
Recommended poetry to enhance understanding of this Healing Journey:
“I Give You Back” by Joy Harjo
“Love After Love” by Derrick Walcott
“Shedding Skin” by Harryette Mullen
“I thank you God for most this amazing” by e.e.cummings
“Crying Poem” by Jimmy Santiago Baca
“Call Me By My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hahn