Reaching Into the Universe

Good medicine: huachuma

Huachuam flowerI recently had the privilege of participating in some huachuma ceremonies. Huachuma is a cactus native to the Peruvian Andes that has been used for healing and spiritual purposes for thousands of years. After working with it, I can understand why. Among other things, huachuma is a master heart opener and emotional healer. I think I'd like to work with it for a couple thousand years myself.

The medicine is masculine, which we can compare to ayahuasca's feminine. Ayahuasca is often called Mother or Grandmother; huachuma is called Grandfather. I found huachuma to be very straightfoward; with ayahuasca the phrase "feminine wiles" is an understatement. Ayahuasca is a vine that grows with twisting, sensuous curves; huachuma is a columnar cactus that grows straight up toward the sun like an erect penis. As a gay man, I felt very at home with it.

Unlike ayahuasca, which is almost always used at night, huachuma can be used during the day. The ceremonies can start in the morning and stretch into the night. When done during the day, the ceremonies are about celebration, connection, and community. They have less structure than nighttime ceremonies and we were able to explore the natural environment, talk with each other, and partake in different types of Andean healing.

The ceremonies started with a tobacco medicine called singa. This is a tobacco juice mixture that is taken nasally. A small amount of the liquid is poured into a conch shell, the tip of which is inserted into the nose then tilted back to send the medicine down the nasal passages into the back of the throat where it is swallowed. Each nostril has a purpose in the ritual, with the left side used for releasing negative energy and the right for receiving goodness. The entire procedure looked more terrifying than it actually was. If you have any experience with neti pot practice singado is not much different. The medicine has a bit of a burn in the throat, but not bad. Singa clears the sinuses, gets you present, and opens up the way for the huachuma medicine.

After singa came the huachuma, which was served as liquid. It was basically cactus juice, although I don't know all the details that go into the shamanic preparation of it. The taste was mild with some bitterness, and much easier to get down than ayahuasca. The effects can take a long time to come on, although I found myself in slightly non-ordinary reality within an hour. My experiences were mild, with some difficulty walking at times, increased sensitivity, and a gentle opening of my emotional process.

I discovered that my grieving process has been stuck as the huachuma released it; I had been stuck in the powerlessness I felt during my grandmother's dying. The second night I confronted the self-hatred I've been carrying around, traced its origins back to childhood, and left with some simple practices to begin shifting the patterns of fear and distrust that have kept me living as a smaller person than I know myself to be.

During the day we experienced flower baths, "the original aromatherapy", in which massive amounts of colorful petals are infused in a large tub of water with great joy and love and pints of this mixture are poured over participants' heads. I was skeptical of the ability of this simple rite to have any real effect, but the shift in my interior experience was immediate, unmistakable, and difficult to describe other than to call it delicious. It brought me up above the challenging aspects of the medicine so that I could enjoy the experience even as I faced some hard self-work.

I practiced some craniosacral therapy while in the medicine. It was amazing, much less subtle an experience than usual. And working with people when they are so open and more able to let go facilitates the work. I can't wait to do more.

At night we gathered around a campfire. Such joy, people singing songs, offering poetry, telling jokes. It was like ILALI's Metaphor*phosis event, an event I didn't realize could have been even better, but all you have to do is add a campfire and huachuma and you have a recipe for an experience that I would gladly welcome as the default for a good weekend the way some people go out on the town every week.

DespachoThe day after came the despacho, a closing ceremony and gift back to the earth. Led by the facilitator, the group created a mandala of flowers, candy, and symbols to express gratitude for what we had received. The despacho gets bundled up in gift wrap and then used in a final cleansing of each participant before being offered to the earth along with offerings of alcohol and food. The despacho is said to help restore the balance between humans and the planet by giving back some of all that we receive.

Receive we did. It's hard to quantify "how much" one receives from a particular plant medicine experience and so difficult to compare experiences. What I can say is that not only did I receive so much from working with this plant, I was also able to consciously understand what I was receiving which is not always the case in medicine work. Sometimes I don't know what I've received from ayahuasca until months later, so a lot depends on trusting the medicine. In this case though I left with immediate gratitude and gifts aplenty.

I'm left thinking that huachuma would be an excellent introduction to plant medicine work for the inexperienced. While some participants did have a more challenging time, overall it seems that its gentleness and straightforwardness makes it less overwhelming and confusing than other plants, and the freedom of the looser ceremony might be easier for a beginner to deal with than more structured traditions.

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