04/18/2016 11:12 EDT | Updated 04/19/2017 05:12 EDT

Seekers, Shamans And The Call Of The Vine

A trip to Costa Rica reveals the modern realities of an ancient medicine

I am flying low over the Costa Rican coastline in a tiny single-engine plane, fingers gripping the seat-edge and palms clammy as it lurches sideways and dips suddenly, sending my stomach into a tailspin of its own. I stare out the window at the dense jungle below, trying to focus my vision, a whispered prayer leaves my lips. To what or to whom I pray I have no name -- my nauseated mind simply calls out for reassurance that all will be OK, that I will land and find the ground underfoot once more.

Like the shaky plane ride that prompted my earnest prayer, so the perilous journey of life and the treacherous experiences of complete groundlessness is what brings us to pray, to seek out truth and answers. From a broader perspective, as a species facing the reality of our own self-annihilation, we as a community at large are seeking out even larger answers, for grounding, meaning and the means to preservation and planetary healing.

Nine years ago, the ground had been pulled from own my feet when my mother passed away very suddenly.

With these personal and global questions in tow, Europeans and North Americans have been flocking to Central and South America by the plane-fulls for decades now in search of answers to their deepest personal and cultural traumas, fears, existential sufferings, seeking a cure for pain and addictions.

In this post-colonial era, we now look to the ancient wisdom cultures we once ignored, scorned and at worst, destroyed, for answers. The Western world is growing a seemingly unquenchable thirst for Buddhism and Yoga from the East and from the Americas, Shamanism and plant medicine.

My own motivation for getting on that place was for a story -- for a better understanding not only of myself (which is an inevitable souvenir of any trip), but for a deeper understanding of what these seekers were actually finding in the jungle.

Nine years ago, the ground had been pulled from own my feet when my mother passed away very suddenly. Within a year I was travelling around the globe searching for medicine men and women who could help me heal in a way I could not find at home. Now, with a heart-stitched back together and a career as a writer because of it, I am still obsessed with the search for spiritual growth, only now, with a lens on the whole culture of seekers and the global effects of this modern-day movement that's taking people around the world to go within.

Back home, people had asked me if I was going to Costa Rica to do Ayahuasca, (now a firmly rooted assumption when one says they are studying Shamanism). This micro-tourist industry is so established that you can book your spiritual awakening online and transfer the funds from your 20th floor corner office, sit back and wait for your flight to enlightenment.

That however, was not my fate. Instead, I decided to travel without a real plan other than to simply, (but also with great difficulty) trust that I would be led where I needed to go. I refrained my rational mind from poking holes in my"'wild-goose-chase-of -unplanned -trip" and instead opened my heart and my eyes, listening and looking for the signs to follow.


It worked. I quickly meet three new friends who were all preparing for a four-day ceremony with a highly reputed Peruvian Shaman, Don Jose Campos. Shamanism has risen to the surface of our pop-spirituality culture, yet is shrouded in misconception and romanticism. To clarify a complicated question, the term comes from the Siberian word "saman" of the Tungus people and means "one who is excited, moved, raised."

While academic debates still rage over its usage, and misappropriation while referring to medicine men/ women and healers in other parts of the world like Latin America who would more correctly be called "curanderos," a useful catch-all definition is put forth by Roger Walsh as "a family of practitioners whose practices focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) interacting with other entities, often by travelling to other realms, in order to serve their community."

While shamanism is sensationalized and mystified for its foray into these altered states of consciousness, the key aspect is one of community service, which comes in the form of healing individuals. "Some people are drawn to the medicine for the wrong reason," one of my newly befriended seekers told me, "they hear that it's the most hallucinatory substance and they want to just trip out.

This desire to misuse and abuse the medicine has led to "facilitators" adding other ingredients to ensure visuals, and this had made people sick, led to greed and given Ayahuasca a bad name. The truth is, you may or may not even hallucinate on it -- you have to give up all control, and you will get exactly what you need, and that's not up to you to decide."

So what is the right reason to participate in a ceremony? "Before our ceremony last night" he told me, "Don Jose asked everyone, "Why are you here?" at first, we all thought he was asking, "why are you here for this ceremony," but then we realized that he was asking us why are we here on this planet -- what is our higher purpose or goal in life. This is the right reason to be in ceremony, a true desire to wake-up, not to escape reality but to become even more present to it.

That night, I had a beautiful dream. I was singing a song I didn't understand the words to but it was waking up the vines of the jungle and and I sang I swung through the canopy, each branch and vine placing itself under my outstretched hand for me to hold on to. In the morning, the song remained with me for hours.

At breakfast, I told my new friend about my dream and his eyes widened in time with his smile, "Do you know what that could be?" He asked. "An Icaro! It's a song sung by shamans of South America during healing ceremonies. They are taught to the shamans by plants and there are hundreds of them, used for many different purposes."

Had the spirit of the vines really come to me in my dreams? If I heard the song again would I recognize it? Was this a real transmission I had received? Even after all these years of diving into the divine, I still questioned magic. "She is calling to you!" He said with a twinkle in his blue eye. I decided I wanted to go even deeper into the jungle, to learn as much as I could about this sacred plant medicine that had not only called to me in my dream, but was calling to seekers all around the world, to come and find answers -- to heal.

This piece originally appeared on

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