So You Want to Converse with the Serpent? A Journey to Mayantuyacu

snakes!Snakes have played an important role in my inner psycho-spiritual life, from the frequent snake-based nightmares that plagued my sleep as a child to far more interesting visions later on, especially during my explorations of the altered states induced by the ingestion of psychedelic plants and drugs.

I first took peyote, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, and LSD when I was fifteen and sixteen years old (far too young), and almost immediately serpent-related visions factored in to those experiences. In the early disorienting stages of those journeys, as I lay down and closed my eyes, one of the first effects was, as is very common, rapid-fire visual imagery of ever-shifting geometric patterns. Very often this kaleidoscopic onslaught would become an all-encompassing, sinuous wave pattern akin to a portion of a moving serpent’s undulating skin, and I suddenly felt as though I, and the whole world, were riding a giant snake. This usually terrified me and I would try to focus my mind elsewhere until this impression passed. It’s obviously not an uncommon experience, as exemplified by Jim Morrison’s song Ride the Serpent.

Serpent imagery would return again and again during at least some portions of my (fairly numerous: it was, after all, the 60s and early 70s…) trips, but I always experienced those visions as unsettling or frightening, and it never occurred to me to try to somehow work with or integrate that imagery during those years of excessive youthful experimentation with drugs of all types. I just viewed those episodes as bad portions of my journeys that I had to endure to get to the more ecstatic states. As is so often the case, I left that druggy phase of my life behind by my mid 20s and instead became obsessively focused on physical and psycho-spiritual development, seeking to live a highly disciplined life, which included forsaking all drug-taking, but psychoactive substances re-entered my life some 20 years later in a very different context.

As a side effect of my work at the time, I was introduced to a number of researchers, ethno-botanists, anthropologists, and cultural figures who had explored the serious use of visionary plants in indigenous and other contexts. These were for the most part serious, accomplished, centered people who did really interesting work and whose exploration of consciousness-altering substances was very far from the wild and careless excesses so widespread in my younger days. My curiosity was aroused, and I began a new phase of inner exploration with sacred plants, but using them far less frequently and in a far more measured and contained way than in my youth, and often in the context of organized groups with experienced guides leading the proceedings.

This second time around, my overall physical, mental and emotional health was far more robust than in my fairly unhinged youth, so I was able to begin working with the material that emerged in these altered states far more productively than I had in my teens and 20s. And serpent imagery returned even more dramatically than it had earlier. I became more and more determined to conquer my fears and desirous to arrive at some sort of deeper understanding of what significance this serpent motif might have in my psyche.

I began reading voraciously about serpent imagery globally, delving into the Naga spirits of India, Chinese dragons, etc., as well as scientific papers (everything from “The Chemical Ecology of Crotaline Snakes” to “The Ecological and Behavioral Context for Pit-Viper Evolution”). Quite often the main snake I encountered in my journeys was some sort of cobra, which was at some moments an actual highly realistic snake and at others a rapidly shifting, radiant being whose body was covered in gleaming precious stones, and which could shape-shift into a plethora of multi-headed, teeming serpents or serpent-like beings. I was surprised to find that this cobra motif was not unique to me. I discovered in a book (Hallucinogens: A Reader, edited by Charles Grob) that the famous if controversial “vitamin guru” of the 1950s and 60s, Adelle Davis had had an acid trip in which a cobra played a central role. Her journey involved Buddhist and Christian themes, but the description of the cobra is eerily similar to some of my own visions.

I came to realize through my reading that serpent visions are extremely common in psychedelic experiences, especially those induced by the Amazonian shamanic brew, ayahuasca, now gaining in global popularity in a rapidly growing underground subculture. A remarkable, seminal text by the Israeli cognitive psychologist Benny Shanon, The Antipodes of the Mind, rigorously catalogues the visionary content of ayahuasca experiences of hundreds of people from all sorts of backgrounds, and serpent visions are by far the most frequent animal motif and probably the most common motif, period.

During some of my ayahuasca trips the cobra imagery was accompanied by some very odd background narrative elements, recurring sub-plots having to do with snake venoms. I kept seeing images of ancient Egyptian figures concocting alchemical longevity or immortality potions that included cobra venom, and got the sense that these were tightly guarded secrets, and that they were somehow linked to sexual practices or at least internal transmutation of sexual energy into spiritual awakening.

Of course this could very well be a complete fantasy.

A couple of decades ago, during one of my very few uses of pure DMT, the most powerful but short-acting of the psychedelics, I saw a luminescent cobra-like being that then unraveled into what seemed like immense strands of the twisting ladders of DNA, that then also seemed to spin out into highly complex mathematical formulae. This was impressive but also somewhat pointless in that the experience was blindingly short so the symbols I was seeing flashed by so rapidly that I couldn’t possible remember them to verify if they might be scientifically cogent or merely just gibberish. Also the vision disappointed me, in that I find the idea that all life might be reducible to mathematical equations fairly depressing.

Still, when I later came across a (then) new book by the anthropologist Jeremy Narby who had done extensive research on shamanism in the Peruvian Amazon, my curiosity was piqued. His book, The Cosmic Serpent, deeply explores snake imagery in the visions of Amazonian shamans as well as in global traditional cultures, and finds that the caduceus symbol of intertwined serpents, eerily reminiscent of DNA’s structure, is a near universal archetype that seems to emerge from the human unconscious. Given my experiences, this fascinated me. I began to correspond with Jeremy and we eventually became good friends, so when he asked me if I wanted to accompany him on one of his frequent working trips to the Peruvian Amazon (he works for a Swiss non-profit that collaborates closely with indigenous groups to assist them in developing their educational systems and sustainable economic opportunities) in which we could also participate in shamanic ceremonies involving the ingestion of the famous ayahuasca brew, I agreed. I had taken that potent plant mixture a handful of times, but never in its ancestral home, the jungle environment it has long been used in.

The shaman whose compound we stayed had become a sort of rock star among shamans, with European film directors and other glamorous disciples, and I had serious reservations about the scene down there: the shaman’s obvious excessive seduction of impressionable young women, the armed guards who patrolled the compound, the shaman’s occasional surreptitious use of datura admixtures to his ayahuasca brew (often a sign of “dark” sorcery), etc. But Jeremy did have some influence with the guy, and after a few sessions that were somewhat mild, I asked him to request that I be given a very hefty dose of the strongest brew composed of just the two fundamental ayahuasca components, without admixture plants, and my wish was granted.

I proceeded to have the most explosive serpent visions and sensations I had ever experienced: extraordinary multi-hued snakes slithering through my spine into my brain, exploding my “crown chakra” sending beams of light out the top of my head, etc. The serpent energy seemed to me to be some sort of embodiment of the biosphere, a goddess of Earthly life, but I didn’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling. This goddess felt fairly cold and impersonal; she was concerned with the vitality that undergirds all life, not too much about a mere individual animal, especially a mammal. That said, there was also a lot of intense sexual imagery and sensation thrown in the mix, which involved both a sort of celebration of the teeming fertility of all the species in the jungle environment I was in and in all of nature, as well as wild (and very funny) depictions of my own sexual fantasies. The goddess I was experiencing had an icy, distant vibe, but she also had an intensely erotic one, and a highly comedic side as well. I guess it’s not surprising that, since these experiences radically amplify the content of our psyches, they are as filled with paradox as we are.

Because the dose on that occasion was so substantial, I felt totally overwhelmed. Luminescent serpents raced through my entire body into the center of my skull inducing sorts of brain orgasms and cascades of extraordinarily breathtaking, classic psychedelic visions akin to those captured in the work of such artists as Pablo Amaringo, Alex Grey and Rick Griffin. The sense of possible death was quite strong throughout. It felt to me as though the goddess were saying: “You wanted to see the hidden splendors of nature’s mysteries. Well, here are some glimpses, but if your heart stops or you lose your mind in the process, that’s not my concern. You’re just one puny mammal.” I didn’t like the shaman whose compound we were staying in, but that experience was the most visually sublime and powerful of all my psychedelic forays, though, as it turned out, it wasn’t the most productive.

A few years later I returned to the Amazon on a “pilgrimage” led by Susana Bustos and Robert Tindall, both apprentices in the vegetalista tradition, and spent a couple of weeks at the retreat center of another shaman, this one of Ashaninka ancestry, in the region of Pucallpa, which is considered the premiere ayahuasca region in the Peruvian Amazon. Jeremy Narby describes it as the equivalent of what Bordeaux is to red wine.

This shaman, who Jeremy had also helped in his early days, was a much sweeter and more loveable guy, and it turned out that while I never had any experience as powerful as the one I had on that first visit that I described above, when my time was done after this second visit, I left equipped for the first time with at least a budding sense of how to integrate and use these serpent energies rather than just experience them. When the group I was traveling with first arrived at his compound, the shaman asked each of us to very briefly explain why we were there and how long we were going to stay. Most of the folks there had serious physical ailments. That is probably ayahuasca’s main function in its native context: people with serious, seemingly intractable or hard-to-diagnose conditions come to it as a last resort when all else fails. A handful were serious apprentices of shamanism who came often to do intensive retreats, including long solitary fasts in the jungle, and a few were spiritual seekers or just curious.

I explained to the shaman, Juan Flores, that I had these recurring snake visions and wanted to come to some deeper understanding of what that could be all about. He asked: “Quieres conversar con el serpiente?” And I said: “Si, exactamente.” After that initial conversation, before we did any ayahuasca, we all did an initial purge with other Amazonian plants for a couple of days and were given a customized regimen of other herbs to take during our stay, depending on our specific conditions. We then proceeded to take ayahuasca every second night. For most of my stay my trips were a mix: some were just disorienting, a few felt psychologically productive, but none of them were really memorable. A lot of the shaman’s work involves the singing of magical songs, icaros, during these ceremonies, and while I enjoyed some of the music in my altered state, I never felt that the songs were affecting me in some psycho-spiritual way, and I never got the sense that the shaman was paying particular attention to me. Juan Flores was around a little bit on occasion but would then disappear completely for a couple of days and would just show up at ceremonies. I liked the guy and, despite the plethora of biting bugs and some disturbing aspects of the scene (the extreme poverty of the locals; nearby oil exploration and clear-cutting; the overhunting of game in the area; some annoying gringo new agers and conspiracy theorists down there at the same time, etc.), I was appreciating my time down there in this remarkable spot in the jungle alongside a boiling river (like a giant hot spring that extends for miles) with constantly rising steam. However, I just got the impression that Juan’s work in the ceremonies, while openhearted and authentic, was sort of generic. I didn’t really have many conversations with him, but there were people there with terminal cancers, HIV, etc., so I figured they needed attention far more than I did, and I hoped they were getting some. And I kept busy, doing a lot of meditating and reading and t’ai chi, and some jungle hiking (with guides).

A few days before I was slated to leave, Juan Flores showed up one morning at breakfast quite upset, which was unusual. He explained that there had been a misunderstanding or miscommunication with a small group of Americans (two of whom had cancer) who had decided to leave the night before, before what he had planned would be their last ceremony later that night, and that this was very unfortunate. He thought that the healing work he had been able to do with them might hold, but that missing the last ceremony was problematic. I kept my mouth shut, but I didn’t understand. Those folks had been there a month and had done some 14 or 15 sessions. What difference could one more make?

The morning of the last day I was going to be there, with one last ayahuasca session to go that night, Juan Flores came up to me and asked: “Are you ready for the last session?” And I, once again a bit baffled by his focus on this “last session” theme, just said that yes, sure, I was. That final session turned out to be totally unlike the first six. It was all about serpent energy. I became part snake, a hybrid being. I felt I wanted to eat a mouse, but I was also still human. The experience wasn’t overwhelming. It was sort of a workshop in inner alchemy. I was being shown how to balance my reptilian and mammalian components. I was being shown how to work with serpent-like, sinuous, spiraling energy, both inside my body and in external physical movements, in a very practical, tangible way.

This wound up having a profound effect on several aspects of my life, especially on my t’ai chi practice. I had been working with different forms of that discipline for well over thirty years, but this breakthrough ayahuasca session added a whole new dimension to my understanding of how fundamental “spiraling power” is to t’ai chi and how to begin to embody and express that sort of force. I got a visceral sense of the ancient shamanic origins of many human martial arts in imitating animal movements. This is part of the lore of t’ai chi and some other Chinese martial systems, but feeling it in one’s body is very different than understanding it intellectually.

This ayahuasca experience radically boosted the value I got from my practice, though, sadly, my aging body can’t always physically express my deepened understanding as well as it might have in my younger days. I couldn’t help but wish these embodied insights hadn’t come to me so late in life, but I was still deeply grateful for these teachings. I also, for the first time, got a lot of images of birds of prey, especially eagles and hawks, and got some inklings of how to tune into and embody some of the “elevated” perspective, ferocity, and single-mindedness of those raptors.

During the session Juan Flores came up to me and gave me a wide grin, which he had never done before, and I realized that, while I had been under the impression that he was just generically, somewhat haphazardly leading ceremonies, he had in fact always had an exact sense of everyone there, how long each one of us was going to be staying, and what we were each trying to accomplish. He had, in fact, somehow been working with my energy, lining it all up so that it could all coalesce by that last night, so I could achieve the best possible result by the end of my stay. I had asked to understand the recurring snake imagery that seemed to haunt my unconscious, and I had had almost no snake visions my whole time down there, but that last night I went from a lifetime of being subjected to those visions to being given tools to work with “serpent power” productively. He was truly a “maestro,” a conductor of psychospiritual energy whose personal style was to orchestrate, move and build energy, and then to deliver the goods in a grand finale.

Excerpted from the chapter “Snake Visions: The Cobra and other Archetypal Serpents” in Animal Encounters by J.P. Harpignies (Cool Grove Press, 2014)