Finding Balance: My Experience with Plant Medicine

Eight months have passed since my spiritual romp through the Costa Rican jungles. I had always intended to write this article about my experiences with the plant medicine Ayahuasca but I wanted to be sure that I fully understood the lessons I had been taught before sharing my story. The shamans say that mother Ayahuasca works in mysterious ways, you may have life changing moments during the ceremony or six months after, she always gives you exactly what you require.

Before I share my experiences with you I would like to add a little disclaimer: Ayahuasca is not for everyone. If you are looking for an easy solution to your problems then look elsewhere. If you are not willing to put in the work that is required for self-healing Ayahuasca will chew you up and spit you out. If you are unwilling to look at yourself in an objective manor or are unwilling to confront your own mortality and the mortality of everyone you love, this medicine is not for you. If this is something that sounds appealing to you like it did to me please proceed with caution and do your research first. I am sure we have all heard the stories of people being robbed, sexually abused and even getting killed because the shaman they chose was not trustworthy. As more and more people seek out the healing powers of Ayahuasca, more and more people will be there to take advantage of those people. The guide you choose to help you along your journey is extremely important, so please be careful.

I left the beach town of Uvita behind and made my way into the Costa Rican interior to the Florestral Forest Community, I pulled up not really knowing what to expect. I was greeted with warm smiles and big hugs before I was given a quick tour of the grounds ending with the place I would be sleeping for the next 4 nights. My guide left me to get settled in and informed me that they would be doing a “food circle” shortly and serving dinner. I was quite hungry so I unpacked my things and made my way up to the kitchen for my first food circle.

 This is the room that I shared with one other person

This is the room that I shared with one other person

Before every meal at Florestral there would be a food circle, this consisted of everyone joining hands and forming a circle around the food about to be eaten and giving thanks. Imagine what your family might do for Thanksgiving and you can kind of imagine what a food circle might be like. But unlike Thanksgiving (At least my family’s version of Thanksgiving) there is a lot more singing and dancing involved. Everything was very ritualized at Florestral; from bathing in the river with everyone in the morning to the food circles before every meal. After dinner we all sat in a circle (A recurring theme) and introduced ourselves to the group, about 30 people in total. We were told what would be expected of us during our stay and given a quick breakdown of the next three days before we were left to mingle amongst ourselves.

The next day was the day of the “Night Ceremony” as I like to call it. After a morning of river meditation and yoga we all met in the temple to go over what the ceremony was going to be like. After the brief description, each participant shared with the group what their intentions were and what they hoped to gain from the experience, I feel like it was a good way to bond the group. After that we sat around singing songs and learning some simple dances. Music was a really big part of the whole experience at Florestral. Anytime we would gather as a group we would inevitably sing a few songs from the hundreds and hundreds of songs that they had written over the years. They told us there would be music throughout the ceremony and encouraged us to sing along as they had three books filled with songs so that you could follow along. The whole thing seemed very church like to me. The rest of the day was spent in quiet contemplation down by the river in preparation for the night.

 The river

The river

That evening everyone gathered up blankets, pillows and whatever else they would need to be comfortable for a night in the temple. Everyone dressed in plain white clothing with the girls on one side of the space and the guys on the other, this is done to create balance between the masculine and feminine energy’s. They open up the ceremony with a song and everyone is encouraged to sing and dance along. They play music throughout the ceremony and I found it added a very interesting element to the whole thing. Sometimes the music would be very somber and soft and at other times it would be very upbeat and exciting inspiring people to get up and dance.

I don’t want to get into the things I experienced that night because that would be an article in itself. I will say that there was a lot of self-reflection that happened that night and sitting here almost 8 months after the ceremony I am just starting to see the fruits of my mental labors. I will also say that there were frequent trips to the bathroom and the night was filled with the sounds of other people retching. Everyone spends the night together in the temple and as the sun peaks up over the horizon the shamans begin to play very gentle and soothing melodies. The people who were able to sleep begin to awaken and when you look around the circle everyone is wearing a big genuine smile. Bowls of watermelon and papaya are passed around for everyone to snack on as the music continues until the closing of the ceremony.

That day at lunch, a very tasty lunch because the diet to prepare for ceremony is very bland, everyone was eager to discuss their experiences from the night before. A lot of the people are completely wiped out from lack of sleep and emotional turmoil. Even though I had not slept I was feeling pretty good and I was excited for the sweat lodge that was taking place that afternoon. Many people opt out of the sweat lodge, where there were around 30 people at the Ayahuasca ceremony there was maybe only half that participated in the sweat lodge. I was really happy to be one of those people as the sweat lodge was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had.

The sweat lodge is a Native American tradition, a rite of passage that their warriors would take part in. We began the ceremony by singing around the fire and praying to the four directions, then to the creator and mother earth, and finally to the fire and the fire that is in your heart. The leader of the ceremony then gives everyone a small mouthful of peyote, the grandfather, and then you enter the sweat lodge. Ladies enter the sweat lodge first and you fill it up clockwise, before entering you bow down and touch your forehead to the earth as you are being smudged.

Once everyone is in the lodge they start bringing in the volcanic rocks that have been heated in the fire until they glow red. Each rock is welcomed into the lodge with a little cheer and is smudged with sage. After all the rocks are in the lodge the entrance is sealed and the drumming begins. The drumming is consistent throughout the ceremony and is often accompanied by singing and chanting. To start everyone sets a one word intention that is spoken aloud and breathed in by the rest of the participants, mine was determination. There are four “rounds” in the sweat lodge, one dedicated to each of the four elements. At the end of each “round” the flaps are lifted and the air is cleared out before moving on to the next element.

The heat is unbearable, you really have to focus on your breathing and the songs being sung to take your mind off of the extreme heat. There were a couple of times that I thought I would not be able to complete the ceremony but I powered through; I was determined not to give up. It was one of the most difficult things that I have done in my life and because of that it is one of the things I am most proud of. Magic happens in the sweat lodge, it changed me. When I exited the sweat lodge I was a different person, a stronger person, more confident in my abilities; proud. I left the sweat lodge a warrior.

We had started the ceremony sometime mid-afternoon and by the time we were finished it was dark and well passed dinner time. We all went down to the river to wash ourselves off. You get pretty grimy from all the sweating and rolling around in the dirt. The river was very peaceful at night. As I was floating there I looked up and saw the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen, I have never seen stars like that in my life. The frogs croaked out a happy tune welcoming us into their homes as one of the others pointed towards the sky and said, “Look we are directly under the constellation Orion, if that’s not a sign I don’t know what is.”

We all slowly made our way back and gathered around the fire to close out the ceremony. We were each given a small amount of tobacco and told to set our intentions for the world before casting the tobacco into the fire. Bowls of watermelon and papaya were passed around and devoured eagerly by all who partook in the ceremony. The ceremony was closed in the same way in which it was opened, we prayed to the four directions, to the creator and mother earth, and to the fire and the fire within ourselves.         

The final day at Florestral was dedicated to relaxation and reflection. We all gathered in the temple in the afternoon to share what we had learned over the course of the weekend. What I took away from the whole experience is that life is all about balance. I described it to the group as a very Yin and Yang weekend for me. From the Ayahuasca ceremony I learned the importance of letting go and doing what feels right for you in the moment. If you would like to hug someone, then hug them. If you are upset and feel the need to cry, then cry. If you like the way someone looks or something they may be wearing, then tell them. Don’t hold back. I have always been very in control of my emotions but I learned I need to let them be in control of me sometimes. From the sweat lodge I learned that when things seem tough or you think that you may not be able to do something, sometimes you just have to push through the discomfort so that you can come out stronger on the other side. Sometimes you just got to buckle down and get shit done.

Florestra taught me that I am a warrior, both physically and mentally, and to this day when things get tough or I am stressed out I just repeat that over and over again in my head until I defeat whatever problem may stand in my way… 

If you would like to learn more about my experiences in Costa Rica check out the podcast I did on the subject