My blog is long overdue because I have struggled to find the words to describe my recent experiences. I have been in my own world as of late, as well as in the world of Gaia Sagrada, what I call the ‘high energy center’ of the Andes.
The Gaia Sagrada Eco-Community Retreat Center in Ecuador is about an hour cab ride away from Cuenca, the nearest city and quite a charming city in itself. Gaia Sagrada rests on 55 acres of land that is pure tranquility and beauty. Rolling quinoa fields and eucalyptus tress are bountiful. The sounds are simple and pure – tree frogs, crickets, birds, wind, dogs. Life is simple.
Gaia Sagrada is a brand new spiritual center, hosting 12 day Ayahuasca retreats as well as simply being a tranquil place to getaway. It’s full of frills and a steal for the price. The grounds of Gaia Sagrada are sensational. Common space can be found everywhere from a meditation/yoga room, community center with a wood burning fire place and couches, outdoor covered fire pit/sitting area, large kitchen, hot tub & sauna, a couple gazebos and yes even a big screen TV with movies and WiFi. The accommodations are new, clean and modern. There were no corners cut in the creation of this magnificent center. It’s beautiful.
When I boarded that first jet plane, by myself, almost 11 years ago, unbeknownst to me I was embarking on a journey of spirituality, self-discovery, learning, and evolving. Be certain, there is no religious affiliation to the word spirituality. Spirituality is simply self-actualization of one’s journey, one’s path – consistently and constantly and having absolute faith in it… which comes with time! The evolution of my spirituality, my path, through my adventures has opened up endless growth, appreciation, and awareness which is constantly evolving. You learn how to take care of yourself when you are out there completely on your own; you learn in so many ways. I am forever grateful.
This particular trip was in large part to assist me in healing. Yes, it was also to work on my photography and blog, to fill my soul with travel, but at the anchor of it, this was time to heal – heal from a shocking breakup. I needed to mend my heart, my soul and my spirit. I needed to get over this massive heartache I couldn’t shake. An intense ache that was wearing me down; it was so unlike me.
So… healing. This is how I found myself at a 12 day Ayahuasca retreat at Gaia Sagrada, Ecuador. Not coincidentally, it wasn’t long before it was obvious that everyone participating in the retreat, all 13 of us, had our own healing to do.
My first step out of the cab at Gaia Sagrada was exuberating, full of warmth, kindness, and openness. Half the group had only just arrived but already looked at home cradled in hammocks outside their rooms. I was immediately embraced by the unofficial welcoming committee – pure joy. It was outstanding.
After our initial dinner and greetings the night before, our group reconvened (one of many to come) the next morning, all 13 of us, as well Christine, the co-owner, the co-creator and guide of the retreat. Christine herself is an extraordinary woman. She has many stories and has accomplished so much in what seems like many lives. She is the founder of the University of Metaphysical Sciences . Christine is a welcoming part of the rituals as the ceremonies honour the communion of the north (eagle) and south (condor). Bruce, Christine’s partner is also co-owner and co-creator of this dynasty. His charming attitude and exceptional energy is integral to Gaia’s vibe as well.
Christine encouraged us to be open and share what brought us here, our intent and expectations as we went around the circle. As Christine wisely put it, “you are all now a soul family”. We were definitely all brought here together with no coincidences attached, as with any moment or scenario in life. This was truly the beginning of our journey as a family and as individuals. Our circle began very open and raw as everyone shared in an honest, heart-centered way. It was beautiful. By the time it got to my turn, the intense energy and truth in the circle encouraged me to open up too. I wanted to get the most out of this experience and I already felt being open and vulnerable was vital. It’s so common for us humans to resist after all, resist so much. We must practice to embrace.
Our heartfelt and emotional new family came from so many different walks of life. All present for their own path and desire. Some were at their wits ends with life, some depressed and full of anxiety, some completely stressed, some feeling lost, some trying to recover from serious trauma, some simply exploring deeper consciousness, and me trying to let go of intense emotional pain as well as to broaden my spirituality. It wasn’t surprising it was so easy to find commonalities with one another’s stories and issues. We all have fear, anxiety, insecurities and sadness. We also possess pure joy, peace, happiness, and beauty; it’s ALL within us. Fortunately, comforted by the magical environment of the retreat, this was only the launch of our sharing and openness as a family. The beginning of this peculiar journey of healing and awakening of the consciousness had begun.
The 12 day Ayahuasca retreat is run every month and consists of 5 ceremonies, 2 Ayahuasca, 2 San Pedros, a sweat lodge and an optional Wilka (or 2 if you’re lucky). All of these are sacred plant medicines native to the Amazon jungle of Ecuador and Peru. They have been used for thousands of years to conquer many human ailments physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. They are still used today (obviously). Gaia explains the healing properties of these medicines very well on their page http://gaiasagrada.com/shamanic-ayahuasca-san-pedro-ceremony-retreat/healing-with-plant-medicines-gaia-sagrada-spiritual-retreat/
The plant medicines allow one to let go and surrender from the physical being to delve into the conscious. In consciousness you are faced with truth, truth of self where, upon the realization, you are released into true bliss.
The experience I had was life changing. I am challenged greatly to find the words to explain my experience on these plant medicines. Some experiences simply cannot be transformed into the tangible – to describe them using mere words seems tantamont. Forgive me as I stumble to do so in these next paragraphs.
“For centuries, Amazonian shamans have used ayahuasca as a window into the soul. The sacrament, they claim, can cure any illness. The author joins in this ancient ritual and finds the worlds within more terrifying—and enlightening—than ever imagined.” ~National Geographic
The Ayahuasca ceremony took place around 7pm in the community center where everyone is setup with their necessities – a foam mat, couple blankets, pillows, tissue paper and a bucket (known as the purge bucket at Gaia). We quickly learned to appreciate the importance of these simple tools.
A quote from a National Geographic’s article: “Everyone receives a plastic basin—known ominously as a “vomit bucket”—and a roll of toilet paper for wiping our mouths after puking; this can be expected during most ceremonies, unless, as the shamans say, people are used to suppressing their feelings. Many mistakenly think that holding back emotions is a sign of strength and control; actually, Hamilton says, it’s the opposite. Avoidance, a refusal to face painful feelings, is a weakness; unless this suppression stops, a person will never be healed of physical and psychological issues.”
My story begins with the second (unofficial) ceremony, the optional Wilka (also known as Yopo). Wilka is a rare, ancient Shamanic medicine; known as the Mother of all plant medicines dating back 5000 BC. A recent discovery of an Incan mummy was unearthed near the town of Loja (200 kms from here), found grasping a roasted Wilka seed. This is clearly one of the most honored and cherished of the plant conscious medicines.
Mother Wilka, as it is referred, is not nearly as draining or long as Ayahuasca. Wilka’s effects last only 1-3 hours as compared to grandmother Ayahuasca’s persistence, lasting from 8-16 hours. Ayahuasca is consumed in small dosages, while Wilka is taken up the nose. A finely ground, dark seed powder is shot up the nose in one quick shot by the Shaman. I was intrigued by Wilka because it was so rare and the opportunity to experience such a plant felt like an honor I couldn’t pass up (Please note: the optional Wilka is no longer offered at Gaia Sagrada).
Wilka was an intimate ceremony with the Shaman Miguel, myself and three lovely blokes – one Canadian and two Aussies. First up, me! After the ‘blow’, it only takes a mere 5 mins to reach your bloodstream and you feel the effects straight away. Lying down is always a good option. The guys with me all took half shots due to their exhaustion from Ayahuasca the previous night. I, however, had quite a mellow experience the night before, hadn’t slept much but I was up for more. I took the normal, full dose welcoming an experience. It was intense at first with strong visuals, animation-like, almost dizzying. Time is irrelevant in moments like these but in what didn’t seem like too long, the visuals subsided and I was overcome with intense emotion. I began to putter a few tears resisting at first to let go and to be that vulnerable but I felt I must practice to embrace. Embrace the emotion. Embrace the energy. A wise woman told me “Vulnerability is how you touch someone’s soul”. You must be vulnerable in order to touch your own soul I realized. You must let go. So I cried intensely. I let it flow. My three amigos, who were mere strangers only 2 days ago, were lying beside me, witness to my journey from their own realities. I felt free and safe to let it out. My heart was bleeding in utter pain – gushing hurt, resentment, sadness all from my recent breakup. I purged my emotions, which was obvious from all my tears. And I had already, honestly cried a lot of tears. This was more cleansing though, and I was guided. It wasn’t scary. It hurt like hell to feel that pain so deep inside but to release it was pure elation. The purging of my emotion continued intensely. I thought it would never end and I wouldn’t be able to release it all but I just kept going and eventually the release of emotion felt complete and undoable.
My journey ended in pure joy and a huge smile on my face, with such love and gratitude for the experience. The letting go is within us. Wilka only allows us to go deeper and bring clarity. I enjoyed my ride even with the intensity. It was beautiful. My mates in that room became my brothers. Apparently my endless sobbing didn’t deter them whatsoever; on the contrary, they were obviously happy for me as my personal journey was apparent.
The Grandfather medicine San Pedro was served to us in the 2nd of the official ceremonies. The ceremony started around 11pm and lasted all night, ending with the sunrise. San Pedro, the medicine, is a powerful one consumed, like Ayahuasca in tea form. Santiago’s recipe is concentrated so the dose is one shot glass full at a time. We quickly became known by Christine as the ‘hot group’ because we always wanted more medicine! The taste is not kind. This particular night I took too much medicine (comparable to someone who drinks too much whiskey, yet different) so I struggle to conceptualize my experience let alone put it into words. It is all good though; every bit of the experience is part of the journey. I felt remarkable energy and love from the group, my soul family. They were an outstanding group full of love. They helped me tremendously in this journey when I needed it. I will expand more on the ritual of San Pedro but not until our very last ceremony.
Next, the third sacrament was the sweat lodge. I was a sweat lodge virgin along with all my counterparts it turns out. The sweat lodge was conducted by two shamans, Rocky and Sofia, one female and one male along with two fire keepers, their adult kids. This reminded me of a traditional First Nations sweat lodge ceremony. Sweat lodges are conventionally “a purification and balance of mind, body, spirit and emotions, a prayer circle, a healing circle, and a transformation of Old Self in New Self”. About 15 of us were huddled in this “round, domed structure about 10 feet in diameter and made with flexible branches” ~http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/Sweat_Lodge_Orientation.pdf
It was covered with several heavy blankets. In the center of the modest sweat lodge was a shallow pit for stones. These were heated in a massive fire outside where the ceremony began and then brought into the lodge slowly by one of the fire keepers throughout the 4-stage process. Each stage represents a time in life beginning with childhood, to teen years, adulthood then to the elder years. Each round is 20-30 minutes and the steam and heat continues to heighten, it only surmounts at the very end of the last round when there is no more water. The entire ceremony the shamans poured water on the heated stones making steam as prayers as sacred songs are sung. When the flap door is closed it is completely dark inside. The only relief was to get right down to the ground, down to mother earth. It was an exhilarating experience. The shamans were superb. At the beginning of the ceremony we had drank San Pedro. We exited the sweat lodge absolutely drenched head to toe, fully cleansed. The ceremony ends outside at the fire with a passing of the sacred tobacco pipe and a small feast. The San Pedro seems to take effect once you’re away from the intensity of the sweat lodge and outside. Most of us continued to sit around the fire for hours exchanging stories, watching the clouds as they teased us with glimpses of the stars, and the fire. I was feeling pure love and joy and so much gratitude for these moments. It was a sensationally simple and beautiful evening- fire, stars, and good company.
The rest of my adventure at Gaia continues on my next blog. We are half way there. What a ride.