“Life lived in the absence of psychedelic experience is life trivialized, life denied, life enslaved to the ego” — Terence McKenna.

The shamans of Peru insist that plants are alive, sentient, aware, and their intention is to raise human consciousness. San Pedro (Huachuma in Quechua) is an entheogenic plant that has been used ritualistically for thousands of years by pre-Columbian civilizations that settled in northern Peru. This ancient tradition of using the San Pedro cactus for religious and medicinal purposes has remained part of the Andean culture up to the present day.

My desire to learn more about Peruvian shamanism and plant medicine took me to “Casa de La Gringa”, a mountain house retreat in the hills above Cusco owned by a South African woman – known in the area as La Gringa – who has been working with San Pedro since 1991 and has dedicated her life to guiding people as they journey with this master teacher plant. I don’t consider myself a “psychonaut” but I am very interested in mind exploration and alternative paths to improving wellbeing and mental health. My first experience with magic mushrooms in my 30s filled me with awe and gave me a glimpse of the profound connection between heart and mind made possible by psychedelics. It has been exciting to witness a second psychedelic renaissance and revived research interest in the therapeutic potential of these highly stigmatized substances. Significant strides have already been made by ongoing clinical trials on MDMA- and Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy with expected FDA approvals for treatment of various conditions.

In our day-to-day life, we only have access to information that is most relevant to our survival because our brain acts as a gate for memory and sensory experience. Psychedelics bypass these filters allowing us to remember and experience everything from a richer, fuller and more cosmic perspective. They disrupt information processing in cortico-striatal-thalamo-cortical feedback loops (via serotonin receptor agonism) thereby inhibiting the normal sensory gating function. By widening our perception and amplifying incoming sensory information, psychedelics can expand our notion of reality, remind us of our nonphysical existence, reveal the beauty around and within us, reengage us with the natural world, allow us to experience our interconnectedness, and make us realize that our gift of life is special.

The Set and Setting

The ceremony was facilitated by La Gringa, her son, two volunteers from the US and Italy, and a Q’ero paqo or native healer. We sat in the temple in a circle around a mesa (altar). The mesa consisted of healing tools such as stones, crystals, rocks, herbs, tobacco, flowers, Agua Florida (a plant-based perfume traditionally used in Indigenous cleansing rituals) and the San Pedro preparation.

La Gringa opened her mesa by offering gratitude and sharing stories of healing she’s witnessed with the “medicine of love”. She explained that illness arises from our mind, from our negative and self-limiting beliefs. When we hold on to them for too long as tensions in our bodies, they harden and manifest as physical or emotional problems. San Pedro heals by showing us the origins of our beliefs so we can replace those that don’t serve us with better and more wholesome ideas. The plant medicine may redirect us to the root of our problems rather than give us the answers we’re seeking. Once we experience the truth, we release the old feelings (anger, fear, loss) therefore changing the energy in our bodies and making room for divine love. She encouraged us to get out of our head and start living from the heart. Everyone was asked to share what they’re grateful for, set a specific intention, and use the ceremony as an opportunity to ask for something they need, e.g., to let go of resentment, find a sense of direction, develop a better relationship with their body.

Lorenzo, an Andean Quechua curandero or shaman dedicated to working with the earth energies of Pachamama (mother earth) was present throughout the ceremony. He prayed over the cactus to give it greater potency thanking Pachamama, the sacred entheogen, the sun, moon, four elements, Apu (sacred mountains), creator God, Great Spirit, all the awakened ones who have walked before us, and everyone who came to heal and make the world a better place. La Gringa poured each of us a glass from her green brew bottle (cactus that has been cooked/boiled for 12-20 hours). She instructed us to drink it quickly and not to conversate with each other so we don’t disturb anyone else’s process. It was 11am. The tea was thick, gelatinous, somewhat bitter and pungent.

We had a comfortable nurturing space while working with San Pedro. The temple was beautifully decorated with prayer flags and colorful art honoring the various esoteric traditions. The surrounding garden had flowering plants and cacti growing around the perimeter, wind chimes, sun umbrellas, comfy mats, cushions, and loads of blankets. La Gringa and her co-facilitators held a safe space for us to do our work with the medicine and were of service when we needed assistance. We had abstained from alcohol and meat the day before and fasted 12 hours before the ceremony. On-site staff served us water, herbal tea and a fresh fruit salad on the day of the ritual.

My Encounter with San Pedro

The first physical sensations I felt were tingling in my lower limbs and nausea. Lorenzo offered me drops of Agua Florida on my palms to help ground me. I purged 40 min later then laid down. My body felt lethargic. My pupils were dilated. I entered a lucid dream-like state.

San Pedro contains various alkaloids including mescaline and other derivatives of phenethylamine with hallucinogenic properties. Mescaline is the most well-studied psychoactive alkaloid. It stimulates serotonin and dopamine receptors increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain, which could account for some of San Pedro’s effects (feelings of empathy, introspection, ego loss, and euphoria). Unlike Ayahuasca which contains DMT as its active ingredient, San Pedro produces minimal visual hallucinations and its teachings are often described as more direct and cogent. While Ayahuasca can be challenging, showing us our shadow as well as our light, San Pedro is always light, gentle and heart opening.

The journey back to myself began to unveil an hour later. My whole body started vibrating and a euphoric sensual feeling took over me. I looked up with my eyes closed and felt my chest open and a primal energy enter my body. Suddenly, memories long-forgotten returned to my consciousness. I was sucked into a tunnel vision of memories that were resurfacing so clearly and vividly. I was sweating and shaking. Not only did I remember key moments from my childhood and relive a few experiences from my teens, but I was also able to reconnect with that little girl inside and “feel” how lonely and sad she felt at times. It was incredibly healing to access those emotions and let them out. I reflected on how some old relationships impacted me and forgave myself for not knowing any better. I finally understood the meaning of self-compassion. I reviewed my whole life and had a deeper understanding of the interconnection between events and how I became the strong woman I am today. I thought about my relatives, their struggles, and had empathy for everything they went through. I felt immense love for each member of my family. I decided that I always have a choice to act more lovingly anyway. I was ready to make some tangible changes as soon as I got home.

I was deep in my experience four hours after consuming the tea when Lorenzo did a “limpieza” (energetic cleansing) on me. He asked me to stand up and extend my arms then he walked around me in circles enveloping me with a thick cloud of palo santo incense and dusted me off with a long feather. La Gringa offered me comfort as I was sobbing. She held my hands, listened to me with a gentle smile and big blue eyes full of understanding. After a while, my tears subsided and a feeling of deep peace and joy overcame me. I collected myself and went outside to watch the sunset. My senses were enlivened. I felt cleansed, light, and renewed.

Shamanism is the archaic predecessor to modern therapy. San Pedro can give us a greater understanding of our purpose in life, reconnect us to ourselves, and immerse us in the reliving of past traumas that haven’t been dealt with. It helps us move to a lighter and more expansive way of being by peeling off the layers of fear and anger surrounding our hearts. In Incan Mythology, the cosmos is divided into 3 realms: Kay pacha (this world-earth), Hanan pacha (upper world-heaven), and Ukhu pacha (underworld-hell). The San Pedro journey leads us from Kay pacha (the ego and its concerns) to Hanaq pacha (the superego or divine self that acts in a compassionate way towards ourselves and others) descending first into Ukhu pacha (the id or shadow self) to unveil the hidden forces of our unconscious so we can see the beliefs and life stories driving our behavior and leading to unhealthy outcomes. The process is similar to the conventional Western route that would necessitate years of therapy to arrive to the same place.

At 7pm, we regrouped to integrate experiences in the temple. We returned to our circle to discuss what we have learned and how we intend to use the insights brought by San Pedro. We were all tired from the intense mental work but grateful to connect and share such a potent moment in our lives. Lorenzo concluded the ceremony with a prayer to thank Pachamama and the spirits of the sacred medicine. Hot soup and bread were served to us after a long day of fasting. We gathered again around a cozy fireplace to continue with a beautiful exchange of stories about our lives and healing. Everyone was radiant with the spirit of love and transformation.

For San Pedro shamans, the wisdom of the plant stays with us but integration work is necessary to understand what the medicine has shown us and how to use the lessons in everyday situations. Healing is not a passive event. The insights gained from the plant are there to inform our behavior so we can make changes and do whatever is necessary to improve our lives. Huachuma points us in the right direction but we need to walk by ourselves to get where we want to be.

Reference: Cactus of Mystery – The Shamanic Powers of the Peruvian San Pedro Cactus by Ross Heaven.