As the whole world grapples with coronavirus, I have the peculiar fate of being deep within the Peruvian Amazon. I’m an hour outside of Iquitos, a city of three hundred thousand people, reachable only by boat or plane. The city is hot, noisy, and bustling, the last outpost of “civilization” before a great expanse of jungle. Travelers come here as a hopping off point for sport fishing, jungle tours, or, like myself, ayahuasca and plant medicine.
The virus is not prevalent in Peru, but the response here is decisive in way unimaginable in the West. A few weeks ago, the government sealed the border, closed all airports, and rolled the police and military out to lock down the streets, all within 36 hours. Although many Peruvians will weather this no worse than Westerners, it’s very challenging for those at the bottom of the economic ladder who make their living day to day, have little savings, and are suddenly without income. Many foreigners were stranded; most were able to get on special charter flights arranged by their government. Some are frantically emailing their embassy every day, hoping for good news.
No matter who or where we are, we are witnessing something no one has ever seen. The first topic of conversation everywhere on the planet seems to be that no one knows what’s going to happen, which eclipses every other possible topic. Surety and predictability have vanished into thin air. Many of us are overwhelmed by difficult emotions and humbled by challenging realities. It’s a brand-new world, and it’s not easy to digest. As real as the challenges are, I would like to share a few things about this time I find remarkable; amazing, even.
This virus is reminding us how interconnected we all are; not just online, or through commerce, but here in the flesh, in our humanity.
We are being asked to make sacrifices: to isolate ourselves, to stop much of our work and play, to forgo connection with loved ones, and lose income. By and large, this is not for the benefit of most, but for the more vulnerable. Some of those we may know, but mainly, our sacrifices help people we will never meet, in our community and all over the world. This virus is reminding us how interconnected we all are; not just online, or through commerce, but here in the flesh, in our humanity. In this moment of awakening, a whole planet of individuals is being asked to sacrifice for the greater good of the whole. And we are doing it. This is no small miracle. To my knowledge, it is unprecedented in the history of the human race.
What does this sacrifice do? It requires us to slow down, to connect with ourselves and reevaluate many things. We face a reckoning of ourselves as individuals and as a species. Uncomfortable truths will come up. Fears will erupt. Inner strengths will emerge. We will understand ourselves in a new light and interact with the world in a different way for it. To some of you, these undertakings sound familiar, as if the dynamics of an ayahuasca ceremony have burst into the reality of everyone’s day-to-day life. We are all being forced into “our process.”
It’s as if Mother Earth is whispering gently to her unruly children who quarrel amongst themselves incessantly and have forgotten their place in the larger family of life.
The tragedy is real. There will be loss of life. Some will mourn these days for the rest of their lives, and with good reason. At the same time, this is not a World War or the cataclysmic events climate change could have in store for us. Most of us will be shaken up but safe throughout the process and, ultimately, fine in the end. The economy will certainly stumble, but there is no danger that the basic infrastructure that keeps civilization in place will collapse. It’s as if Mother Earth is whispering gently to her unruly children who quarrel amongst themselves incessantly and have forgotten their place in the larger family of life. She is asking us to slow down, to listen, to remember that the world is larger than us.
I probably am one of the only the foreigners not trying to leave Peru. I am at a retreat center in the jungle that is largely insulated from everything going on around us. It’s a handful of buildings set up in a clearing in the jungle, next to tiny hamlet of 200 people overlooking a tributary of the Amazon. The center usually accommodates about 20 foreigners who come to work with ayahuasca and other plant medicines under the guidance of a shaman from the Shipibo indigenous tribe.
I am engaged in a process the Shipibo call sama. It is an opportunity to isolate oneself, reduce sensory and social input, and connect to oneself and to the wisdom of a plant. It’s somewhat like an ayahuasca ceremony in slow motion. As it lasts for weeks, months, or occasionally years, it offers an opportunity to dig even more deeply and access a greater level of healing and awareness. There are also learning samas, which are the process by which one trains to become a shaman.
In a certain sense, we are all always engaged in sama with everything around us; we pick up the energies of our friends, our work, our food, our commute, our environment— everything. The reason isolation is such an important part of a traditional sama is that all of these other inputs can drown out the plant. Because of the quarantine, many of you have much of your regular input cut off. One might say, from a plant medicine perspective, that you are engaged in a sama of yourself. A deep study of and connection with you. Though the process may be challenging, I believe many of us will ultimately find this experience to be a blessing.
I generally feel quite removed from the outside world when I come to the jungle. This time, however, I feel more connected with the larger human experience than I have on past trips. The sama process can address and bring up many things. One of my main goals for this sama was a greater sense of connection, with people, plants, the planet, etc. The plants have delivered. I’ve been feeling much greater sense of connection and compassion towards those around me. As the crisis has mounted, I, as I’m sure many of you have, also felt an increasing sense of connection and care that naturally extends to people I know all over the world. Moreover, we’re all going through isolation and reflection together, which brings everyone, my even my sometimes-distant self, closer together.
I’ve realized the essence of my sense of disconnection comes from grief that, as far as I can tell, stems from being a very lonely child and sometimes a lonely adult; which is to say, a sense of disconnection in the first place. Chinese Medicine maintains that grief is stored primarily in the lungs. Given that the coronavirus affects the lungs, it seems fair to speculate that the human race at large is processing grief. As we are all going through this together, and therefore united in a grand cause, one might say we are opening to connection. Although everyone’s personal relationship to this process will be different, I do have some thoughts about what we might be dealing with on a collective level: the pain we’ve inflicted on ourselves and others; the inhuman and hierarchal nature of our establishments and government; the perversion of our spiritual institutions; the distance we’ve come from healthy expression of masculine, feminine, and sexuality; the damage we are doing to the planet… I could go on. Ultimately, I see these all as elements of the same tragedy, which is, at its essence, disconnection. Disconnection from ourselves, from community, from nature, from spirit.
I remain hopeful that we will connect with ourselves, that the pain of what the world is going through will teach us many things, and that humanity will be united in a new way when we emerge from this.
We, the human race, who have chosen disconnection, are now being forced into an extreme version of it. I remain hopeful that we will connect with ourselves, that the pain of what the world is going through will teach us many things, and that humanity will be united in a new way when we emerge from this. I’m not predicting an end to war and poverty, or everyone holding hands singing kumbaya as we march into the golden age. I do see a possibility for more of us to realize that we and everything around us are part of the same complex web of life, to be more present to our emotions, and therefore more compassionate with others and ourselves. We may realize that we as a human race could choose to live in a more humane manner. I foresee a renewal of genuine human connection, more respect for ourselves and nature, and more connection with spirit.
To the extent that these thoughts resonate, I would invite you to reflect on what you as an individual are discovering in the “sama of the self,” to consider what you and the world at large might be disconnected from, might be grieving, and also what strengths and magic may emerge. I present the possibility that we turn tragedy into teaching.
Moreover, as I hear every day of more friends with family and loved ones seriously impacted by the virus, I feel it is incumbent upon us to honor their lives by taking a moment to look at ours.
People say I’m an optimist, but part of my reason for sharing these thoughts is actually quite pragmatic: I wish to sew these seeds as widely as possible. It is my experience that the universe speaks softly at first, as it has now. When we do not listen, it speaks more loudly. I hope as many of us as possible are listening. If we don’t like this, I suspect we’ll like “version 2.0” even less. Moreover, as I hear every day of more friends with family and loved ones seriously impacted by the virus, I feel it is incumbent upon us to honor their lives by taking a moment to look at ours. We owe it to them to consider how we are treating ourselves, our fellow humans, every other inhabitant of the planet, and, of course, Mother Earth herself. May we all work together to hear and heed her whisper, before we force her to roar.
Art by Karina Alvarez.
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