By Zoe Helene
Ayahuasca, the sacred Amazonian plant medicine brew with the power to heal mind, body and spirit, is calling to people from all over the world. I’ve explored ayahuasca in fully immersive ceremonies with hundreds of people from dozens of countries. I’m a seasoned journeyer, yet I know la medicina will continue to surprise me.
A powerful hallucinogenic blend of at least two higher plants native to the Amazon, ayahuasca is an intense psychedelic. Responsible use of psychedelics can help us access and communicate with our subconscious selves. With experience, we can learn to ride, surf, even “navigate” surreal visionary states most often described as lucid, waking dreams. In the medicine space, life-enhancing messages come in abstract, symbolic, archetypal and universal languages, usually referred to as “visions.”
In the medicine, many people discover and remove obstacles to wellness within their own psyches and find peace, inspiration, clarity, revelation and even full-on paradigm shifts. Behaviors and boundaries that separate us from nature dissolve and morph into visions of interconnectivity and universal oneness. We journey with skilled guides in a safe set and setting in the Peruvian Amazon. Ceremony is held in a round building called a maloca, which the shamans consider protected, sacred space. The people with whom we share ceremony are an invaluable part of our experience, and I also cherish the strong, beautiful presence of my husband, medicine hunter and ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, beside me.
I developed the Cosmic Sister grants because I wanted to share this profound mind-body-spirit wellness experience with other women. Their stories about how the experience deepened their reverence for and connection with the spirit of nature are powerful.
Rachael Carlevale (27) a yoga teacher, asked the ayahuasca how she could heal herself from a uterine tumor. During a frightening vision of an underworld teaming with spiders, snakes and creepy-crawlers, she focused on her breathing and formed a lotus mudra with her hands to signify openness. “The moment I surrendered,” Rachael explains, “all of the magic and realizations and revelations came.” A sparkling anaconda entered Rachael’s body through her mouth, slithered down her insides and began eating her tumor.
Rachael lives in Colorado, where cannabis is legal. Her fiancé grows organic cannabis, which has been crucial to her healing. “I used it to help with pain and nausea and to help me eat and sleep, which is appropriate,” she says. “However, in the medicine I realized that I wasn’t respecting cannabis as a sacred plant.”
Rachael is developing Ganjasana, a ceremonial practice that aligns cannabis plant medicine with yoga. “Ganjasana was born from a re-understanding of the human-plant relationship,” Rachael says, “It’s really about cultivating a respectful relationship with cannabis.”
Rachael’s message: “Master plants have a dark and a light side. Focus on the light.”
Amy Love (36), a Pioneer Valley-based homesteader and ecopreneur, was a single mom with two young children, working round the clock to get her eco-friendly cleaning business off the ground, when she was awarded a grant. Her breakup with her partner and a sexual attack by a man she dated briefly had Amy “frozen in survival mode,” she says. Ayahuasca allowed Amy to release the trauma, reconnect with herself and remember her dream of “being self-sustaining while working in a symbiotic relationship with nature.”
Upon her return home, she sent the father of her children to Peru to do his own work with the ayahuasca, where he experienced transformative healing that “allowed us to repair our relationship and become better co-parents.”
Amy’s entrepreneurial spirit soared. Just after her third child, Silas, was born, Amy launched Homebody, a line of earth-friendly aromatherapy cleaning solutions that are “purely safe and clean with a conscience.” She was accepted into to the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Program, an annual intensive boot camp program that “prepares high-potential startups for serious growth,” where she won a high-stakes pitch contest and walked away with a sizable cash prize.
Long fascinated by honeybees, Amy also became an apiarist. The bees’ cooperation and organization provide a great model for leading a company. “Something really clicked into place for me on a more instinctual level,” Amy says, “about what it means to lead with grace, living by example.”
Amy’s message: “It is time to move forward in what I know to be true and right.”
Susan Sheldon (65), a master gardener, was classically trained in landscape architecture yet felt something was missing. An experienced ayahuasca journeyer, Susan accepted a grant to explore a new perspective on her work. Participating in ceremonies transformed her ideas about beauty and landscape ecology. Rather than “manipulating landforms and using plants as aesthetic props in a design,” Susan says, she understands that “beauty can at times be messy, but nature is infinitely perfect.”
“Ayahuasca brought home for me how inter-dependent and inter-related all of life is,” Susan says. “Plant and animal species inter-communicate to survive and procreate. I became much more in line with the consciousness of everything, and I felt that the trees and the plants were aware of me and that I was a co-creator.”
Bringing together classical ideas about beauty with vibrant ecosystems, Susan now creates “ecologically balanced, regenerative landscapes with native plants that support native pollinators.”
Susan’s message: “Nothing in nature stands alone.”
Mary Averill (57) a social worker and travel photographer, spotted a beautiful passionflower peeking out of the jungle the morning after her first ceremony. “I was struck by how perfectly the delicate purple coronas protected the sweet, vulnerable center,” she says. “I had moments in ceremony when I was enveloped by a soft mesh-like net of protection, much like that, when things got scary.”
Mary now takes a passionflower tincture (a fine extract) before bed. “Passionflower is one of the medicines used for insomnia, for anxiety,” she says. “And those have been two really big things for me during the last couple years.” She’s sleeping better and feels a deeper appreciation for life.
“At some point during ceremony, my DNA felt connected to something so cosmic,” she says. “Because of that, it feels like the Earth, and everything the Earth gives us to live, is so much more precious. I appreciate everything that’s going on behind the scenes that we don’t pay attention to on a day-to-day basis. Nature gives us air to breathe and clean water and medicine.”
Mary’s message: “Everything the Earth gives us to live is so precious.”
Marina Goldman (55) is a women’s health nurse practitioner specializing in opiate addictions who advocates against female genital mutilation and for the care of children orphaned by Ebola in Sierra Leone. Marina asked the ayahuasca to provide inspiration and clarity. “I had lists of intentions,” she says, “mostly about how I continue to walk in this world as a humanitarian in a time of global crisis.”
During one of Marina’s visions, roots grew up through the maloka floor, tenderly wrapped around her legs and cradled her uterus with tendrils while wood fairies brought her cloaks of fur, feathers and stone. During another, Marina was seated in a circle of woman healers, a “sea change of feminine energy,” and felt healing DNA—passed on by ancestors—in her bones. As the ancestors sat around a fire sharing stories, Marina understood that “it’s an ego-trip to feel you can save the world. I just need to do my part.”
Marina’s message: “Be still, be quiet, always return to nature for the answers.”
Julia Moore (24), a senior studying sustainable food and farming, went to Peru to reclaim her roots as a “sister of the Earth.” During ceremony, she felt herself blasted into space until she became aware of her relationship with the universe, the greater cosmos and the Earth. She experienced Earth as a living, breathing organism.
“I heard the sounds of the jungle, the bugs, the beetles, the thousands of little lives surrounding us,” Julia says. “I could really hear the breathing of the trees.” She fell into a trance, lying on a lush, moss-like belly surrounded by flowers and birds that gently lifted and lowered her with each inhale and exhale. She experienced “all the cycles of growth and dying and then seedlings popping out” and understood implicitly that she was one with the Earth. “I can’t untangle myself from it,” she says.
Julia plans to earn a master’s degree in sustainability. Now, she’s growing organic flowers on her farm, Laughing Moon Farm, and selling fresh-cut flowers and handmade flower crafts.
Julia’s message: “I am one with the Earth.”
Zuzanna Buchwald (28), a Polish-born, New York-based model and natural cosmetic entrepreneur, wanted to know where to take her career. Zuzanna’s dream is to develop a nature retreat center where people can “find refuge and relief from urban life.” She has had her eye on a property, and she asked the ayahuasca if she should trust her intuition. “The moment I asked the ayahausca to visit the site, my head turned into this stunning, super-detailed, psychedelic energy map of the entire space, and I could work with it in the medicine, like an artist,” she says. “I got a plan of the entire project that night.”
Zuzanna came home with “a priceless shield of positivity,” a “sense of calmness” and “newfound courage” for speaking her truth. Ayahuasca also reconnected Zuzanna with her country of origin. She is the co-founder of Tisane Balm (@tisanebalm), a natural lip balm made in a village in western Poland where “the air and water is pure and clean.”
Zuzanna’s message: “I can speak my truth and live my dream.”
Tracey Eller (51), a photographer, had recently broken off a long-term love relationship when she drank ayahuasca for the first time. She was thrilled to be out taking photographs on the road again.
During ceremony, Tracey experienced a “burning freeze” despite being wrapped in three thick blankets in the hot jungle. On her way home, she woke up at sunrise on Easter morning following a dream related to her breakup and found a butterfly trying to get free through her hotel room window in Iquitos. “It was a whole metamorphosis and rebirth package-deal sort of thing,” she says. “It all felt like a magical omen, just that confirmation of spirit, saying, You’re in the right place at the right time. You’re doing the right thing.”
Tracey returned to Peru six months later to go deeper. In the medicine, she realized that she missed her mother, who passed away years ago. She grieved, and then she received a message of “self-nurture,” which she worked with during ceremony. She asked the medicine, “What is self-nurture?” The answer: part of self-nurture is being in nature.
Though she considers herself a “city girl,” Tracey is now exploring healing through nature and plant medicines in a way she never would have before she worked with ayahuasca. “Ayahuasca is plant spirit medicine,” she says, “and that’s Earth medicine, nature medicine.”
Tracey’s message: “Part of self-nurture is being in nature.”
Kathleen Barnes (66) a newly retired wellness writer who leads spirit quests, traveled to Peru to experience ayahuasca, her first-ever psychedelic journey. There she had a heart-to-heart vision with a larger-than-life female brown bear.
“My grizzly bear was very much the Mother,” Kathleen says. “So many of the visions I experienced were about the Mother. There was a very strong message about connection with the Mother and Mother Earth, but also the motherer, the nurturing soul of all.”
The mama bear laid on Kathleen’s chest, and Kathleen could feel her heart and the bear’s beating as one. Somewhere in all of this, she could “feel and hear” herself saying, “Yes, I can,” which, she says, “was about both control and surrender.”
Kathleen, who considers herself a “control freak” struggled with the hallucinogenic visions brought on by ayahuasca. After trying everything she could to regain control, she realized that her visions were “instruments of healing.” Finally, she surrendered. “I knew that my intention for balance and healing—to go through another portal in my spiritual practices—would not come to fruition unless I let them do their work. “
Kathleen’s message: “I am in tune with the Earth Mother and with the mother of all things.”
Humans are natural beings, and nature has our best interests at heart. She wants us to thrive, in exquisite harmony with other beings of the natural world. Ayahuasca, too, comes from nature. She’s a wild, sentient plant spirit ally that helps us listen to our own natural inner wisdom so we can help ourselves in ways no one else can and empower others—not just humans—to thrive. When our spirits are well, we do no harm to ourselves, others or our home.
Zoe Helene founded the merit-based Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit Grants financially help women from all walks of life travel to Peru and experience ayahuasca in a safe set and setting. Cosmic Sister’s Women of the Psychedelic Renaissance and Cosmic Sisters of Cannabis grants support Plant Spirit Grant recipients and others as they share their experiences with the world, educating the public about the benefits and risks of psychedelic plant spirit medicines. This grant is supported by a fiscal sponsorship with MAPS (maps.org), a 501c3 nonprofit, making donations to Cosmic Sister fully tax-deductible.
Photo of Rachael Carlevale by Misia Landau.
Photo of Susan Sheldon by Zoe Helene.
Photo of Passion Flower by Mary Averill
All other photos by Women of the Psychedelic Renaissance recipient Tracey Eller
Zoe Helene (@zoehelene) is a multidisciplinary artist and cultural activist activist who is passionate about promoting and connecting kindred-spirit trailblazers in mutually supportive ways. Through Cosmic Sister (@cosmicsister) advocacy projects, she helps communicate messages of love, liberty, and informed pro-activism. Zoe is a devoted wildlife advocate and Psychedelic Feminist. For more from Zoe Helene, read Sex + Setting: Friends Don't Let Friends Sleep With Shamans.Originally published in Boston Yoga.