The Sacred Tools and Rituals of Ceremony

Life is the ceremony. When I first worked with ayahuasca in Costa Rica, I met two highly experienced Shipibo curanderos dressed in beautifully patterned clothing with intricate designs. Before ceremony, they gave us plant baths and we waited to air dry ourselves under the sun.

The Ayahuasca Journey

To begin the ceremony, they blessed and protected the space with prayers and smoke from mapacho (jungle tobacco). They covered themselves with rao inti (aqua florida water). Mapacho and rao inti are sacred tools used in every ceremony. Once we ingested the medicine, the curanderos smoked their pipes filled with mapacho and waited patiently in the darkened maloca, waiting for her-ayahuasca-to arrive. I was mesmerized by the design and aesthetics of the clothing, the rituals of ceremony (I didn’t know what was going on most of the time initially) and watched the smoke danced in the dark air with fascination.

As I learned more about the symbolism and significance of the textiles and rituals, the more I grew to appreciate the reasons each ritual, like taking plant baths and smoking mapacho, of the ceremony. Everything played an important part in the ceremony. 

The knowledge and wisdom of the Shipibo tradition have been passed down generation to generation in familial lineages through intense apprenticeship and continuous ceremony with the plants. So it was an honor to participate in a ceremony with these master healers and learn, observe and engage in a spiritual practice they’ve shared with foreigners. And I am grateful to the Shipibo community for that.

Shipibo Textiles

The Shipibo-Konibo is an indigenous Amazonian community with a complex and rich cosmology and ayahuasca is sacredly connected to their cosmology and culture. These tapestries and cloths are custom, handmade artworks depicting their views and understandings of the world, recording their stories and visions in tapestry form. The designs typically include maze-like geometric shapes, the vine of banisteriopsis caapi and the chacruna shrub that are brewed together to make ayahuasca, symbols of animals (like the anaconda for ayahausca), stars and cosmos.

The tapestries shown above are those of a friend, who graciously allowed me to share them. While I admire the tapestries’ intricate designs, until earlier this year, I did not want one. But, when I saw one at Body of Prana, I felt instantly drawn to the dark olive green fabric. Now I even own a couple pairs of cotton pants with similar maze-like embroideries. They’re great for ceremonies for multiple reasons-connectedness with the spirit of ayahuasca and their comfort beyond any of my jeans, pants or tights. 

Rao Inti and Mapacho

These are rao inti bottles and mapacho, rolled up and loosened in the jar. These sacred tools help us during our ayahuasca journeys. When the curanderos sing their beautiful icaros (healing songs), they sing them into the rao inti bottles that we can carry with us. To add to my tool set, I’ve recently acquired a pipe to work with mapacho. As the pipe is also sacred, it needs to be treated gently and respectfully. I’m surprised that after being a non-smoker for over 30 years, I now own a pipe for tobacco. Life is full of surprises and I am excited to learn from my pipe.  

Plant Baths

Who knew plant baths could be so energetically refreshing? Plant or flower bath rituals are important in the Shipibo lineage. Prior to an ayahuasca ceremony, a plant or flower bath is given to cleanse our energies.

Many different types of plants and flowers can be used. Of course, you have to know about which plant to use and why. For example, ruda can easily cause sunburns when air drying under the sun. Rub the plants to extract the oils into the water, fill up the bucket with warm water, take a bucket bath and air dry. Simple enough. My plant baths usually consisted of lavender and rosemary (and maybe a rose). Before making a plant path, I also say a prayer of thanks to each plant I use.

San Pedro

Here is a San Pedro cacti, or huachuma in Quechua, from the garden of a huachumero in the Sacred Valley. I’ve also heard people it be called the Grandfather, but it goes by many other names. Their fragrant, white flowers are as beautiful as they are ephemeral, appearing for about two days. I’ve been told that huachuma is known for opening hearts. A ceremony with huachuma lasts about a full day, gently passing through the day.

It has been theorized that huachuma may have influenced the complex civilization to develop in the Andes region, starting with Chavín. Among other regions of Peru, huachuma played a central role in the Chavín culture, which lasted roughly from 1500 to 200 B.C. Chavín is one of the areas I would like to visit and learn more about its history, traditions and influences by huachuma. 

Huachuma cacti come in many different species and grow wild mostly in the northern regions of Peru. The ones growing in the wild are being harvested unsustainably due to the increased demand. So while these can grow quickly, it is important to engage in conservation efforts.

In the US, we can only grow them as ornamental plants, not to be used in any way. They’re available for sale in garden centers like Home Depot or Armstrong Garden Centers. For me, their presence is enough to bring a calmness around me, and they’re beautiful to add to the green scenery of my backyard. They like to be grown with other huachuma cacti. So I have a few baby cuttings that I am learning to nurture and care for. I don’t have a green thumb, even with cacti, so I am trying my best to keep them healthy, alive and maybe grow flowers. Growing them, has taught me to practice patience, attention and curiosity.

Fire for Offering

A wise friend said to me, “Give offerings from the bottom of your heart and genuinely mean it. It’s not a true offering if you expect something in return.” In other words, an offering is something given with no expectations. Offerings are given, among other reasons, to give thanks and gifts to the spirits. Many cultures around the world engage in various types of offering rituals and practices.

As I started this practice for my ancestors, my friend’s words reminded me to keep my intentions true and heart pure when giving an offering. As simple as it sounded, I had to pay attention to the wanderings of my mind and ground myself to clear any expectations in the thoughts forming my intentions before the ritual. This framework has helped me express true gratitude – for the Shipibo lineage, the Shipibo community, the souls I’ve connected and learned from, for the lessons of life, ayahuasca, huachuma, my teachers and PLANTS. 

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