Huachuma: My First Shamanic Ceremony, Part 4

Huachuma: My First Shamanic Ceremony, Part 4

This is a post in a series about how I started to follow the Shamanic Path. You can read all of the prior posts here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Get settled in – this post goes long and deep.

After a few months working with my Shaman, I decided to take the plunge and try working with ‘the plant’: San Pedro.

I knew going into my first session that I wanted to work with ‘the plant’, I just had no idea what that the hell that actually meant. I had tucked the practical realities about plant medicine into the back of my mind. I focused on my sessions with the Shaman, which were happening every few weeks, and I never really thought about the plant stuff – let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak.

I was (and still am!) pretty naive when it comes to anything illicit. Maybe I drank a little bit from time to time when out with friends, but no more or less than an average person in their 20’s living in London, and never past the point of control (control will later become an important concept).

Here I was, someone that had never even smoked a cigarette, on the verge of working with an entheogenic plant that can supply what is arguably one of the most intense spiritual experiences available to us as humans.

Before we get too stuck in, here’s is a little background about this ‘plant’ business:

San Pedro is one of the master plants used by Shamans who count plant medicines as one of their healing 


Image from Sofia Berg


San Pedro is a cactus, alternatively known as ‘huachuma’ (also spelled ‘achuma’), the Wisdom plant, and the Dizzy plant. It has likely been involved in healing and spiritual ceremonies for around 3,000 years.

Plant medicine has gotten a lot more mainstream attention in the last decade (particularly Ayahuasca). Unfortunately, this has created a lot of confusion and misperception about the medicine, the experience, and how it can be used to achieve healing or grow in consciousness. I’m actually working on a post about this, which I’ll hope to get up soon (and when I do I’ll link it here). Essentially, the plants open up your level of consciousness to a point past what is normally accessible on a daily basis. This allows for healing and the release of energies you’ve been holding in the body, and access to visions and wisdom that can be deeply moving, inspirational, or therapeutic.

Done correctly, it bears absolutely no resemblance to ‘getting high’. None whatsoever. To use it for the purpose or intent to get high is to completely waste an incredible opportunity in exchange for base, shallow entertainment. 

In my own descriptions of plant work I’ll try to be balanced and complete as I can, but just keep in mind that:

a) every person’s experience is completely unique, so my experience is not representative of what yours may be like; and

b) every time you work with plant medicine is completely different, and this is a very important aspect – some ceremonies feel a bit deeper, other times its much more joyous. The plants are divine and respond to you, knowing how to work with you to get you closer to an authentic/clean state, and working towards your unique purpose.

So, back to the story: it’s late December 2012, one week before I will leave London and move to Dubai with my boyfriend; I have one more week left at work; one more week to say goodbye to friends old and new.

I’ve booked a spot in a retreat to work with San Pedro in the Spanish countryside. I grew up in the country, but highly resisted communing with it directly. Having never had need of a sleeping bag previous to this evening, I’ve ordered one online. When it arrives I realise the error of my ways. It’s a subzero sleeping bag normally used for grown-ass men with rifles that hunt doe-eyed docile animals on extended hunting trips out in freezing climates. Which means I’ve clearly ordered the perfect sleeping bag, seeing as I’ll be inside a quaint temperature-controlled countryside home, ingesting entheogens (say that 5 times fast) with a Shaman. Cognitive dissonance is already starting to make itself known by the presence of sweaty palms and this god damned sleeping bag that weighs 7 kg.

We touch down in Sevilla and travel from the airport in a group. My nerves are already starting to buzz around me, pulling me away from the light-hearted, nervous conversations we were attempting to engage each other in as a method of distraction. Two of the other girls were repeats – they had worked with the plant before. The three rest of us were first-timers. I felt particularly the least experienced, as the other first-timers were Ibiza partiers with a history of DMT use. Meanwhile, I didn’t even know how to inhale a Virginia Slims correctly.

The two ‘repeats’ are coy about what to expect (which is clearly the only thing on our minds). When pushed, they look at each other, crack into laughter and tell us it is impossible to explain the experience. And then they return back to uncontrolled, conspiratorial laughter. The rest of us focus on our soggy cheese sandwiches from M&S, and turn inward for the remainder of the trip.

Exiting the taxi with my gargantuan sleeping bag in hand, a friend laughs in my direction: “All the gear, and no idea.”

We arrive at the house and meet the other handful of people that will be also be working with the plant tonight. We move into the other room where the ceremony will be held, which until now has been closed off to control the energy of the space. Passing around nervous displays of overgenerous politeness like cheap canapés (No, you can go there, no, no, no, I’m more than fine here, no please you, you were there first anyway), we get our sleeping bags organised around the room in a loose circle. At the head of the room is the Shaman’s place: she has a multitude of crystals, her rattle, and other tools she will use throughout the evening. In a large plastic bottle sits the cooked liquid plant medicine. Huachuma. Through the windows we can see that night is emerging.

After laying down, we employ a meditation technique to get centred. Lightly-ritualized and led by the Shaman, the preparation for the ceremony gets each of us into a state of mind that is calm and balanced, ready to work on our ‘intentions’. We have all been working for several weeks on our intentions, an area we intend to focus our energy on clearing or healing as part of the ceremony.

Having no particular intention in mind, and possibly too nervous to put one together, I follow the Shaman’s advice and intend just to release that which what no longer serves me. 

Now we are ready to drink. San Pedro as a taste is mostly just bitter, not a horrible flavour per se, but certainly not the stuff of culinary dreams either. After drinking the San Pedro that has been allotted to us, we pop a candy in our mouths to blot out the bitter memory of its taste.

The waiting begins. Or rather, it seems to begin, and stretches into infinity. Which is not to say the medicine works quickly and you’re in la-la land at the drop of a hat, but that for a first-timer like me the time between drinking the plant and feeling the effects seemed to last a century.

This is around the time I started to panic.

What the fuck am I doing? I just drank some fucking cactus juice, and I have NO IDEA WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN. WHY DID I THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?!? What the FUCK have I just done?! 

My internal dialogue resembles Hugh Grant in the opening scenes of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Basically, variations on a theme: the word fuck in all its glory, on repeat. But I wasn’t about to tell anyone or ask for help. Although I was crying consistent, solid (silent) tears, it was very important to me that no one would see me as being out of control.

Ah, control. That word I said would become important later: Control, with a capital ‘C’. We have so much of it in our daily lives that when we don’t have it, even for a few minutes, we can become blubbering babies. It’s so pervasive that it’s like the air to us. We don’t notice it’s there until someone takes it away.

Much can known about a person by understanding the level of control they feel they need to have. This was a huge lesson to learn so early on in the ceremony.

And then…we were off. The energy in the room changed, and you could suddenly know without asking that we had all switched gears and were transitioning into the ‘releasing’ stage of the ceremony.

My first vision was quite strong, pretty traumatic, and something I only managed to clear through this last Summer (three years later). I’m not even ready to write about it properly, but to leave it out entirely would be remiss; suffice it to say I learned a big lesson about the strength of the mind to create fear.

The mind, if you let it, can manufacture enough false fear to keep you in a very tight place. It has its reasons: survival, protection, desire for control. But none of those things are good enough reasons to live in a permanent state of fear.

When I’m ready, I’ll write about this vision and link it here.

Throughout the night, I felt hot all over. Just boiling. I thought the issue was my insane arctic explorer sleeping bag, so I climbed out. Still, I felt a persistent, radiating heat. I felt for a patch of floor beside me and put my palms down: still the same heat. A strange heat, as it produced a dulling of the senses and a heaviness of the limbs, but not a single drop of perspiration. I was convinced we were just enjoying a posh in-floor heating system, until the Shaman came over to check on me with an explanation in hand: “No, the heat is anger and irritation leaving your body, heavy energy you’ve been carrying in your liver from the stress of your work. You’re releasing through your root chakra, that’s where the heat is coming from. Keep working, this is good.”

I saw moments from my childhood and life that I had never remembered before, understood the pain from those moments and then -whoosh- I felt them leave and release from my body. This could have happened 100 times or 1,000 – things were moving very quickly. At times I felt very conscious, and other times, half-asleep. I saw my future child, a little girl. I was shown images of food not to eat: corn, soy, baked goods. The Shaman rattled or sang icaros that intensified the shifting of energy. My intestines started to cramp uncomfortably and make gurgling noises.

Again, the Shaman arrived like a nimble shadow moving through the darkness of the room, negotiating around the stillness of our bodies: “Here is a stone. I want you to put it on your abdomen, and work with the stone to release some of the energy that is around your intestines.” Placing the stone on my body, I started to feel a light pumping sensation, signalling that the energy was starting to release into the stone. 

Over time, the cramping lessened in intensity, but carried on for several more hours.

There were moments of complete hilarity and solemnity. One of us burped for half an hour, keeping us all in stitches. One of us needed a cigarette too much to stay indoors for long. One of us was so quiet and still the entire evening, that I had to remind myself in the morning she was there and had not merged into the floor itself. One of us cried in body-racking sobs, which at first irritated us, and then later made us feel extreme love and compassion for them – a big lesson in itself. Many of us turned into different animals, mostly cats. I was a tiger, the wisdom of which was revealed to me the morning after: tigers are sensual creatures, they only hunt when it is required. We felt perfect stillness, a complete quieting of the senses, which the Shaman said was also wisdom: we were learning to prefer the quiet of our mind in its natural state instead of a noisy, fear-based mind. Eventually we slept.

The next morning we woke with fresh eyes and a razor-sharp vision we lacked only yesterday. How did we not realise we were viewing the world through such haze?

Armed with this insightful power, we saw ourselves, each other, the cold morning air and the dewy countryside with a sense of love that is only possible when you see something as it truly is. Like school kids returning home after camp, we packed our bags with lots of glee and little organisation, waved goodbye to the Shaman and headed back towards the airport.

Within a week, I was living in Dubai, the land of sand. And the real journey hadn’t even yet begun.

*coming soon*

Part 5: Dubai – how synchronicity worked to lead me deeper into healing.

Have you worked with other teacher plants like San Pedro before, or do you have any questions about it? Comment below and I’ll get back to you. 

Image from Enter Galactic You And Me