all artwork by Gerhard Hillman
In school I had been taught that there were only two possibilities in life; you could either join the crowd and make yourself fit the society or else withdraw and live in some hypothetical cave. While total isolation seemed a rather drastic, if humorous solution to inner doubt, I continued on my path in hopes of finding a more flexible means of being true to myself. At the time I was undergoing a crisis of belief in the veracity of my own Western cultural upbringing and the ensuing struggle led me on a quest for truth. I was uncomfortable with the modern view of reality, and so despite the immense pressure placed on me to conform I attempted to discover whether an alternative existed.
I soon found myself in Huautla de Jimenez, a little village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. This was the place in the 1950s where Gordon Wasson, a banker and amateur botanist, was able to gain the confidence of Maria Sabina, a local Mazatec healer, and bring forth the magical and healing properties of mushrooms as used traditionally by the local inhabitants. This broke open the field of ethnobotany as it pertained to psychoactive mushrooms and largely expanded our notion in the west of how entheogenic plants could be used for spiritual growth. Since time immemorial the Mazatecs had ingested this sacrament to commune directly with the spirit world and to gain a better understanding of their relationship with their environment.
When I arrived I was quickly whisked off by one of the local touts to the house of Senora Julietta, where I found basic yet economical accommodation. For a couple of days I wandered about the town and local environs, though I was admittedly shy about inquiring about mushroom use. In the 1960`s this tranquil indigenous village had been overrun by hippies and the sacred mushroom was apparently so abused that the locals eventually decided to throw out the growing horde of wild eyed foreigners. Apparently the straw which broke the camels back involved an incident witha naked and raving flower child who had run amok in the plaza and tried to eat someone’s dog. Knowing as I did that the mushroom was considered to be a sacred plant medicine of great antiquity, I was naturally cautious in the manner in which I pursued it.
Huautla de Jimenezet was set amidst luscious hills and valleys, and I spent my first days finding new paths and unexpected vistas amidst the rare tranquil beauty. One day, having ascended the peak, which rose high up above the town, I found myself in a peaceful little grove of green grass and sitting myself down I paused for a moment to rest. I could see the people down in the valley below now from a new vantage so that the little specks tending their fields now seemed little different from the ants which went unconcernedly about their lives. Life flowed all around me and yet I felt as though I was somehow separate from it.
While the world seemed a busy hive of concentrated activity, I was sitting on a hill wondering what it all meant. In this moment of introspection I questioned my life of incessant wandering. What was the point in traveling the four corners of this earth looking for truth if I couldn’t even merge with the beauty around me? I sent out an appeal to the universe, perhaps a prayer, announcing my willingness to learn and yet I felt discouraged in my quest. I knew something was missing from my life and yet despite all my best efforts the path always seemed to be obscured so that the solution was forever out of reach.
Tired of looking for the answers out there, I asked for the guidance to come to me. For the first time in my life I called on something, I knew not what, to intervene and show me the way. It was an act of faith that was all together new for me. The idea of some male god up on a cloud had always seemed absurd to me and the senseless killing of millions of people as a result of religious dogma had long ago pushed me away from religious faith. While it was something spiritual which I sought, in the past I had excluded the idea of divine assistance and relied only on myself and that which I could verify through experiential means. Sometimes though you just have to ask for help.
I felt good coming down through the green grass, giving happy greetings in response to the astonished stares of the locals I passed upon the trail. Back at the hostel I sat for awhile in contemplation upon my bed wondering what I should do. I was surprised then when I was startled out of my revelry by the head of a blond woman who walked past my window. She paused at my open door and we exchanged greetings. Her name was Francois and as we got to talking I discovered that both she and her husband were therapists who had come down to Mexico specifically to work with Julietta, who as it turned out was an excellent shaman who worked with the sacred mushroom. A room under the garden courtyard, I was told, was used as a kind of ceremonial temple. I couldn’t help but laugh at how events had enfolded. We search in vain for that which has been in front of us (or under our feet) the whole time. From that moment on Julietta and her family, even her pets, took on an entirely new significance and I knew that I had been led to the right place after all.
I fasted the next day, only having a light breakfast, and did a ceremony with Françoise and Julietta that evening. While I had used "hallucinogens" in the past, these experiences had never been done in a proper and sacred manner. In my younger years I had tried LSD and mushrooms, though the circumstances had always been within a social context and this had usually distracted me from any real deep understanding. While these experiments had been profound excursions into the possibilities of expanded perception, even at the time I acknowledged the fallacy of using power plants in a less than impecable manner. Perhaps my most natural experience with entheogens had taken place in Sumatra. An Aussie acquaintance and myself had come across fields of "blue moonies" (an endearing name for a species of mushroom) and having decided to indulge ourselves had spent the rest of the day silently wandering through the jungle staring about at the magical world of plants with a sense of enhanced wonder.
The Mazatecs, however, traditionally use visionary plants in a more controlled manner. Here they are taken in a ceremonial context, within a secure and protected environment. These voyages into the sacred take place in the evening and are always guided by one with considerable experience in the effects of non-ordinary consciousness. The use of mushrooms as medicine goes back into the mist of pre-recorded antiquity, though it is generally assumed by academics that their religious application dates back thousands of years. "Mushroom stones" discovered at various highland Mayan sites in Guatemala, for instance, indicate a kind of cult and are reputed to be at least 2,500 years old. While the first conquistadors and missionaries invariably viewed these entheogens as diabolic, the Natuatl word "teonanacti" translates as flesh of the gods, and clearly indicates a more enlightened and sophisticated knowledge of the plant.
As a result of the genocide which took place in the Americas in the guise of the conquest and inquisition, it is not surprising that traditional mushroom use went underground. Ironically, in order to survive, the old religion was forced to blend its gods with the Catholic pantheon, and the outer trappings of conversion shielded the decidedly indigenous truth. The elder gods survived in various Christian guises while the population continued to practice divination, healing and age old shamanic ceremonies in the remoteness of the mountains. To this day the mushrooms are referred to as 'the little saints' and even the local priest in Huatla de Jimenez is said to ingest them so that he could talk directly with God.
About 700 pm we descended the stairs, which mysteriously sunk below the inner courtyard and entered the ceremonial chamber. The room itself was a large if rather plain concrete box with a sheet acting as a curtain, which separated off part of the space. The floor was covered in woven mats and rough blankets while one side was taken up by an altar of flowers and religious paraphernalia, which Julietta apparently used as part of her trade. We made ourselves comfortable while she made preparations and began the opening prayers. These seemed to be a mix of Spanish and Mazatec invocations to various saints or Gods, asking that the space be protected from negative influences and that our experiences be good. I remember hearing my name as well as that of Françoise’s amidst the melodic intonations of an indigenous age-old dialect.
As she chanted and the words flowed over me I couldn’t help but feel that the language itself was somehow primeval in the sense that it seemed to stem from the natural world and its phrasing were distinctly similar to those made by birds and animals. After this preliminary opening she used a brazier of copal incense to ritually clean the room, later coming up and dousing each of us in the same manner. As one became enveloped in the fragrant rising clouds I could feel the effectiveness of this method of smudging and the grey wafting plumes seemed to help alleviate my nervousness.
Soon I was handed a small wooden bowl of dried caps and stems (the rainy season was months off), and Françoise explained that I should chew them using only my front teeth as this was a sign of respect and distinguished the sacred act from that of normal eating. After the candles were extinguished, I lay back amongst some blankets and began to concentrate on the sounds of evening, hoping as I was that this would somehow distract me from the persistent thought that once you've imbibed an hallucinogen there is no turning back. Julietta's voice soon came to the rescue though and as she sang I began to relax and focus on the experience at hand.
At first I noticed the phosphene effect upon my closed eyes, and these mild swirling and colored dots reminded me of those visual impressions one often experiences just before falling asleep. As these perceptions slowly intensified though I found that I could connect with them in such a way that allowed for a gentle unfolding within myself so that my inner observing self could merge with these outer visions. In entering into the feeling of what I saw I could perceive everything more clearly. This gentle synthesis however soon became quite intense and I was distracted by a growing sense of pressure, which manifested as a feeling of restlessness and unease. Two possible avenues opened up before me and I was admittedly a little lost not knowing the protocol of the ceremony. My normal instinct was to go into myself and explore this inner Landscape, as I was used to doing in moments of personal introspection. However, another part of myself wanted to participate in the ceremony and felt I should focus my attention on what Julietta was doing, less I miss something.
Indeed, she was the shaman and perhaps I was supposed to follow her lead and in doing so discover something important about whatever she was trying to teach. How could I go off into my own dream if this meant missing some miraculous shamanic deed? This quandary, however, ended up dividing my attention and instead of going one way or another I remained split and stagnant. I tried following Julietta´s songs, which, though beautiful as they were, seemed to require my rational mind to monitor them, and so I felt restrained from going deeper and really letting go. Shifting around uncomfortable, I felt a little frustrated, as I had expected the experience to do its own magic without any rational choices having to be made on my part.
In addition to my feelings of indecision I soon became aware of a strong presence of feminine energy and this only added to my confusion. I could sense Julietta and Françoise in harmony and felt I was being asked to join but on their terms. As I didn’t understand what this meant, I kept going back into myself, and the methods I felt more comfortable with. Energy and feelings flowed between us, and this continual stimulus felt slightly uncomfortable, as on some level I knew that in order to move into their space I would have to sacrifice something within myself.
This first ceremony was an interesting introduction, for which I experienced little in the sense of profound visions. Instead it presented itself as an opportunity to become acclimatized to a process which ran upon a different set of principles from those I was accustomed to, and which had perhaps been a little disconcerting. While I had come up against my own issues concerning conformity during the night, and this had admittedly prevented a deeper penetration into the experience, I was still left with the overall impression that the mushroom experience could be used as a doorway to something much bigger. Indeed, I knew that something had been opened and yet I was hard pressed to put into words how this could have come about.
My only clear memorable vision had come towards the end of the ceremony and involved an incident where a younger version of myself had popped up in front of me in a jeering sort of manner. This slightly mischievous character was full of energy and joy and seemed to smile upon my more guarded adult self. At some point during the ceremony, Julietta had approached and performed a healing, which included lots of copal incense and some manipulation about the area of my navel. She thrust her hands into my belly and in digging around I could feel that she was working with something inside my physical body. The sensation of stuff being moved about and extracted from me was evidently clear in the darkness though I was curious as to how it could be possible.
The ceremony came to an end about midnight. Afterwards I talked with Françoise, and became a little miffed when she suggested that I had resisted the medicine. I felt she was implying that because I had not emotionally joined with them that I had missed the boat. It was admittedly frustrating to have come all the way to these remote mountains in Mexico only to have my first shamanic ceremony become another conflict with what I sensed was the ever present pressure to conform to the whims of others. I felt that my own quest and system of belief was something quite complex and so was somewhat baffled when the dreaded `join the crowd at any cost` mentality seemed to have followed me even into the realm of the unknown. I felt I had to be true to myself and follow my own instincts, even if this meant appearing a little closed or antisocial. My anger, of course, rose from the fact that I was unsure whether I had truly resisted the experience or if indeed I was just being faithful to my own intuitive self. Did the ceremony really involve my issues with trust and letting go? How could I explore the inside when everyone seemed to want me to open to their own way?
The evening ended up on the veranda, Françoise and I smoking cigarettes while looking down upon the valley, which stretched down into the night. It was truly beautiful, magical and all my personal quandaries seemed to fade in this misty clarity of simplicity. I remember a rooster crowing down below in one village, and the sound reverberating back up and around as roosters from all over the valley took up the call.
Françoise and her husband left in the following days and I was grateful for their help. They had passed on some useful information, which pointed the way down the road. When I had mentioned my intention to study with ayahuasca later on in my trip, they were able to give me the address of Jacques Mabit, a rather famous French physician down in Tarapoto, Peru who ran a drug rehabilitation clinic using traditional medicine. As I’d already heard some of the more nefarious tales about hoodwinked or worse foreigners at the hands of some of the more unscrupulous practitioners of the ayahuasca rite, I was happy to have the recommendation of someone both knowledgeable and of good reputation.
Another piece of advice which served me well had to do with the inherent difficulty of ingesting entheogens, and it proved to be a real gem. They pointed out that while I might feel fear or experience difficulties during a ceremony, the
positive results of dealing with an inner conflict over a period of a few hours greatly outweighed the burden of carrying this same problem throughout one’s entire life. The logic of this argument spoke of a simple truth which would act as a reminder in the more difficult days ahead. Their last parting message conveyed an idea for which I was initially uncertain. They mentioned having "opened the door" for me in the sense of ushering me into the world of the spirit. I remember feeling a little taken aback by this comment, as it seemed to imply that all my years spent in introspection and travel were now being discounted by this single and rather uneventful experience. Looking back I can now recognize that this was indeed a significant fork in my path, as for the first time I entered into the world of entheogens used in a sacred and serious manner. Today, I honor all those who shared this experience with me and helped me along my way.
I continued on with Julietta, ingesting the sacrament on four or five additional occasions. During the day of the second ceremony I visited one of the many local caves in the area. It was situated near a little stream, where a cliff wall adorned in vines opened and gave access into the earth. I ventured past the entrance, my thin torch playing about the mossy walls, all the while fighting off a growing sense of fear which the incessant sound of fluttering bats had instilled in me. The thought came to me that this was a test. While it would have been easy enough to turn around and engage myself in some other activity, I knew I should continue on.
Climbing up a slippery slope, the beam of my torch illuminated the growing darkness as the light from the entrance faded away in an eerie green glow. The terrain soon became more difficult and I was forced to hunch down to avoid the sloping ceiling. At one point the tunnel ended on the edge of a rather daunting looking hole which dropped down into darkness and a screeching of bats, and I was dismayed to see that the only way to circumvent this precipitous drop was by a narrow and uncertain ledge. The cacophony of screams now rose to a new and admittedly terrifying level of pitch and acted to further test my resolve. Throwing off any ideas of an early retreat, I stepped boldly, if gingerly across, hoping to hell I wouldn’t slip down into whatever lay below. The sense of relief I felt upon making it across seemed to calm me a little and soon my worries were replaced by a sense of fun as I dodged around stalactites in triumph and weaved my way through these strange subterranean passages.
Eventually I descended down a kind of ramp into a large circular cavern from which one could not continue further. Finding myself a comfortable place to sit I got the idea to switch off my torch and see if I could merge with the darkness without letting my fear get the best of me. Taking up a meditative posture, I surrendered to my surroundings and waited to see what would happen. All was darkness, a damp clammy world of pitch blackness where the definitions of inside and outside began to lose their relevancy. Swishings of wings, echoes trickling about one, old irrational fears of strange things which dwell in the dark forgotten places of the earth. I sat for perhaps 15 minutes in complete silence till my fear gradually subsided and I felt completely comfortable with my surroundings. Relieved, I switched on my flashlight and got up ready to head back. I was radiant and happy, now secure in the certainty that I had passed
As soon as I had this thought however, I found myself suddenly back in darkness. My torch had gone out. I fumbled around in the black empty space, desperately trying to check the batteries and bulb. The thought occurred to me that one should never enter a cave alone with just one flashlight. As I stumbled along with my hands out in front of me, I recalled that I had a cheap disposable lighter and so was able to shed quick periodic bursts of light which barely
helped me to find my bearings. This though could only be used infrequently as it tended to heat up and I was worried it might explode in my hands upon extended use. Trying to stay calm I saved my feeble source of light for the treacherous part ahead which my growing sense of dread told me I’d never make it across just feeling my way. The bats seemed to divine my situation and screeched all the louder as they swooped about me.
Practically clawing my way through, I became distinctly aware of my fear and natural aversion to these furry, velvety, fanged creatures and I tried to control my growing panic as I struggled out towards the light. Only after having emerged from the cave, standing in the bright sunlight, was I able to fully realize what had just taken place. A test, I now understood,, was only valid when one surrendered all pretense of control and struggled to do one’s best in the face of adversity.
That night before going down into the ceremonial chamber, I realized that I had to once again surrender to the experience at hand, to suspend my rational mind, and even be willing to "die" if necessary to open myself to the effects of the mushrooms. This ceremony, with just Julietta and myself, turned out to be a beautiful experience which moved beyond anything I could have expected. I started out with some patterns, geometric designs and specks of color upon a black background, though this soon changed into perceptions of a deeper nature. Energetic forms passed upon the screen of my closed eyes. At some point I became aware of my body and knew that I wasn’t breathing. I tried to consciously take a breath and yet the effort this took was so great that it just ended up distracting me.
I lay upon my back and some part of me wondered if I even needed to breath. The energy patterns I had been following now appeared from above as my perspective changed, and I watched as one of these amorphous clouds gently descended down into my body. No barriers seemed to exist between us and we merged smoothly and effortlessly. I distinctly felt the presence of intelligence and purpose, and as I could detect no corollary feelings of malevolence I voiced my acceptance of whatever it chose to do with me.
The energy was moving through my body as if it was in a tunnel, making what appeared to be corrections as it went. I found I could to some minor degree direct its movements by focusing my thoughts. I had recently suffered a mild pain in the area of my liver, which I put down to damage done by parasites picked up along my travels or a fondness for cervezas (beer). I now saw this problem with perfect clarity, a vision of this throbbing disturbance in my right side. Later the energy moved up to the area of my throat and head. I felt a rearranging, as if someone was doing a chiropractic adjustment on my neck. At one moment something broke, the unblockage resulting in a rush of air, which filled my lungs. I could breath great big beautiful breaths of air!
Some days previous, I had visited the house of one of the local healers for a corn divination, and one of the various messages he had passed on involved my inability to breath properly. I now saw that for years I had been inhaling in small shallow breaths, the air only passing imperceptibly as some stress held me back from a healthy respiration. Once I became aware of the situation, I received a kind of message which instructed me to work on this issue.
The following ceremonies with Julietta only got better. At no time did I experience anything really frightening, rather I underwent a gradual process of becoming aware of certain things which on some fundamental level I already knew but which during the course of my life had become obscured and lost to my conscious mind. Generally speaking, I saw in energetic terms and with each ceremony moved deeper into the mystery. With a little more experience with the
mushrooms, I began to notice certain commonalities and speculated that there might be some kind of format to the experience.
Normally I would start out in a reddish, slightly oppressive state while I underwent an integration with the medicine; this initial stage, I believed, was a lower rung which usually included a little struggle before I could climb up and burst forth into other levels of perception. At some point I would break through to the sky, which was the ceiling of the room and appeared infinite. This was black and yet there was light. Often various energetic presences would descend into me and I would feel expanded beyond my physical self, so that the body seemed to take on enormous proportions. This sensation reminded me of certain infrequent dreams where ones limbs appeared abnormally robust in an almost fluffy kind of way. I found I could also push and extend outside myself yet was never certain at these times which was the mushroom spirit and which was me.
I felt very close to leaving my body and knew that what is called astral projection was a natural capacity of humans. At other times the energy would well up in my head and then open something in my forehead. Whenever this happened I experienced an ability to see out of this same area and yet the sensation had an odd quality about it which differed from using my eyes. Often this kind of seeing appeared through the context of a diamond shaped structure. I would later come across this same design time and again in my travels in Central and South America.
After becoming aware of this new visual quality, I once asked Julietta about it and she seemed to confirm for me that I was indeed making use of my third eye. Her only other comments were that I was unusually quite during the ceremonies and that I had the ability to become a shaman. While this later information was of course quite pleasing to hear, I was rather skeptical of her assessment as her ceremonies were not cheap and my more pessimistic self assumed that she was just encouraging me. I eventually decided to move on and give myself some time to think over all that I had experienced. Something in me had changed though, and a subtle sense of renewal flowed through my body and expressed itself in an overall feeling of wellbeing.
Indeed, I felt more light and alive than before, and this awoke in me a certain sensitivity towards my surroundings whereby I perceived everything more vividly. The down side of this newfound radiance was the corresponding vulnerability which threatened to open me up to any and all stimuli without the discriminating filters of my usual protective shields.
Somehow in my mushroom initiation into shamanism I had also come to a broader understanding of religion, taking up those truths I felt gave off a life and illumination of their own outside the trappings of dogma. The inevitable conclusion of any logical line of thought, if taken far enough, is something inexplicable, something ultimately unknown. It was this thirsting for ecstatic wisdom which revealed the essence of the various religious paths, I realized. Both molds were aspects of the same hidden grail, it was only a question of who really wanted to drink.
And now, having drunk of the knowledge myself, I had a glimpse of the shining diamond truth amidst the shifting petalled illusions of what we perceived to be real.
And I knew that my journey was just beginning…
All artwork by Undergrowth contributor Gerhard Hillman, from his 2003 exhibition 'Symbiosis', as featured on his website Nature's Face
* This has been an extract from the unpublished biography of Kevin Furnas, who went on to train with ayahuasca and other plant medicines for over a decade. He dieted extensively with plants at the Sachamama Ethnobotanical Gardens retreat outside Iquitos for nearly two years, receiving knowledge and wisdom from the plant doctors directly. He was an ayahuasquero and vegetalista in the Amazonian tradition, performing healing ceremonies with ayahuasca and other plants.
Kevin died in Cusco, Peru, in late April, 2007. His ashes were distributed among the Sequoias and Redwoods of Big Sur, California.
Click here For an interview with Kevin conducted shortly before his death.