Margaret de Wys. Photo by Tom McDonough.
Margaret de Wys is a composer and sound installation artist who is on the faculty at Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts. Her musical works have premiered with dance groups and orchestras across the country and have been performed at venues including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, Pace Gallery, The Kitchen, and the Knitting Factory. However, one of her most recent works has been literary: the autobiographical account Black Smoke: A Woman’s Journey of Healing, Wild Love, and Transformation in the Amazon.
In 1999, Margaret’s life took an unexpected turn when a diagnosis of breast cancer led her to seek healing, alone, in the jungles of Ecuador. During that journey, she was healed, and the Shuar shaman who successfully healed her introduced her to ayahuasca, a psychoactive Amazonian plant medicine becoming increasingly well known among Americans. Ayahuasca played a major role in Margaret’s healing and opened her to previously unimagined realities. It also shattered what had been an established and comfortable lifestyle.
Margaret writes of her healing journey and life-changing experiences in Black Smoke, which first came to my attention last year at Shaman’s Drum, the journal on experiential shamanism where I am managing editor. While reading it, I was struck both by Margaret’s courage and by the vividness of her narrative. The book, along with some discussion of ayahuasca shamanism in general, provides the focus of our interview, which was conducted via email in November and December of 2009.
Roberta Louis The first part of Black Smoke narrates your journey into the Ecuadorian jungle to receive a transformative shamanic healing that many would call miraculous. But what led you to seek out—or even consider—indigenous healing methods when faced with critical illness? Did you have previous experience with shamanic healing or traditional medicine ways?
Margaret De Wys People have different responses to crisis and tragedy. At the time, 1999, I was at the height of my music career, creating sound installations in Los Angeles, New York City, and Europe. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer and thrown from my comfortable family life into a stratosphere that forced me to look at everything differently. Fear of cancer and of dying pushed me out of the nest. It was like a big fireball—an explosion inside me that yelled, “Move.” I knew I didn’t want to die, but I also realized that I wanted to feel alive again, really alive, in a way that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child.
While I was figuring out what to do—surgery, radiation, and hormones—I received an invitation to a Mayan ceremony in preparation for the planetary transition to take place in December, 2012. I decided immediately to go. Something seemed to be pulling me, attracting me. The Mayan prophecy stated that people from all races had to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime feathered serpent ceremony. I was one of the few fortunate whites invited to attend. Dozens of Native American healers gathered in Guatemala from as far away as the northern Canadian Rockies and from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina down to the southern parts of Chile to participate.
No one there knew I was sick, although I went not only to participate, but also to find someone to heal me. At the gathering, I met Carlos, a Shuar healer from the Amazon jungle. He looked at me and said, “I see inside you—your veins, your organs, your blood, your cells. Black smoke is trapped in your breast. Come to Ecuador and I will heal you.” Although I’d had some experience in shamanic traditions—working with a nagual from El Salvador, and achieving vivid trance states while enacting ritual body postures with the anthropologist Felicitas Goodman—I’d never seen shamanic healing. Nonetheless, I began to believe that the serendipitous invitation to Guatemala and the fact that Carlos could see inside me were signs I should follow. I went home, had a partial lumpectomy, and told my family that I was going to the jungles of South America for the rest of my treatment.
Amazon jungle. Photo by Margaret de Wys.
RL Then, when you arrived in Ecuador, Carlos took you into the jungle and put you through a series of dramatic healing rituals that would no doubt seem arduous and even terrifying to most Americans. What was it like for you, as an American woman, to find yourself suddenly plunged into this native environment and unfamiliar worldview—to in fact be seeking your healing there?
MDW The jungle was dense, hot, and steamy. The canopy of treetops towered high overhead, hung with vines that draped down to an understory of palm-like plants and huge fronds. There were vast flood plains. It rained in torrents, and the ground was frequently muddy up to my knees. Crocodiles lounged on the edges of brackish water. There were poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, bugs, butterflies, and rot on the jungle floor. It was a place like none I’d ever experienced. At times, I felt terrified, trapped, and endangered. There were no bathrooms, no refrigeration, no electricity, no news. I couldn’t leave by my own means, use a phone, or even take a break from the immensity of it all.
We were staying in a small community of Quechua and Shuar people in the jungle outside Puyo. One morning, Carlos took me outside the community environs to a clearing in the jungle, where I saw about six male Indians standing around a 55-gallon barrel. All at once, they began vomiting—spewing every which way. I looked on in awe.
The barrel was filled with guayusa, an Amazonian plant medicine that the Shuar use as an emetic and a tonic. Carlos picked up a cup and said to me, “Drink this. I want you to vomit. You must drink at least 11 cups.” I said, “What? Are you crazy? I’m not going to do that.” He told me I wasn’t going to leave the spot I occupied until I vomited. The men watched, clearly wondering, “What’s the gringa going to do?” Carlos and I fought. Finally, he said, “To heal, you have to be on the Camino Rojo, the Red Path. Be fearless. This is your path. Be a warrior of valor.” I felt so vulnerable, so overcome by extraordinary fear. I wanted to run away, but I made the decision to trust him. I drank the guayusa. Several days of fasting and horrifying initiations followed. Once, Carlos buried me in the ground and left me there alone for a good part of the day. I passed out, and when I came to, the sand covering me was so heavy that I couldn’t move my head, hands, legs, or fingers. I became hysterical. Eventually, I gave up fighting the fear and let my mind relax. When I was finally dug out of the sand, my muscles were so weak I couldn’t stand.
As the initiations progressed, I began to feel as if my life was divided into discrete moments marked by singular and intense experiences. These experiences were tactile, riveting, horrifying, sensual, and beautiful at the same time. Finally, it came to me that it was important to surrender—that this was the most important thing I could do. All my life, up to this point, had been about fighting, deciding, choosing, trying, hoping, and fearing. Now everything—my family; my doctors; my world of art, film, and music—was being swept away. I dimly grasped that my ego was dissolving. Before Ecuador, I would have considered the jungle treks, fasting, burial, and vomiting insane tests of endurance. Once I was there, they seemed both dangerous and liberating.
RL As part of your healing process, Carlos gave you the psychoactive plant medicine ayahuasca to drink. What was your first experience with ayahuasca like?
MDW Deep in the jungle, I sat quietly among the Shuar and the Quechua. The only light came from the fire burning in the center of the hut. The floor was pounded dirt, the roof palm thatch, the sides of the longhouse open to the elements. After receiving the ayahuasca, which the Shuar call natem, some of the locals began vomiting, others passing out. I hoped the medicine wouldn’t have an effect on me. When it hit, a cold tingling rose from my feet through my core. The floodgates in my brain opened wide, flushing out images and sounds. The cells in my ears could hear a twig crack hundreds of yards away. My nasal cavity vibrated, and I began to shake violently.
Carlos began healing me. He pressed hard, swirling his fingertips deep into fleshy parts of me where the black smoke lay. He began to pull something from my chest, right where my cancer was. I watched as Carlos’s hand magnetized the black smoke. It spread like army ants in file and followed his motion away from my body. His touch was intimate and at the same time not so. During that first ceremony, my emotions, feelings, and senses of touch, sight, and smell were heightened. Afterward, I named the medicine the Holy Terror.
RL Why did you call it that? Were its effects that frightening?
MDW The effects were both terrifying and intense. But I also felt that the natem, which Carlos called la medicina sagrada, was holy, precious, and sacred. I experienced terror and holiness throughout every ritual. In time, I learned that natem embodies the sacred, as well as natural living, respect, and love for Mother Earth. I think of it with reverence.
RL As you continued to drink ayahuasca, or natem, during your healing, you had some profound visionary experiences. Would you tell us about a couple of these?
MDW We continued doing healing ceremonies about three times a week. Every time, I was terrified. I would see monstrous visions and spirits. Once, I was forced inside the mouth—the size of a garage door—of a giant anaconda. I passed through diamond-shaped portals, going deeper and deeper, where I was introduced to mysteries.
During one ceremony, the spirits were comically bizarre. Microwave ovens, washing machines, and other appliances flew past jungle palms. The spirits in the trees said, “Oh, your quaint, cozy, oh-so-comfortable life. Hah! You stand at the abyss of nothingness and death.” They assaulted me, saying, “Become your own hero. Sink or swim. Sink or swim.”
Another night, we were on an island in the Pastaza River. Carlos was healing his aunt Tia, who had been suffering from hip and lower abdominal pains. He called, “Ven acá, Margarita.” Then he handed me a pair of rattles. A spirit jumped inside my body and began shaking my arm, sending healing energy into Tia. Then Carlos had me touch Tia’s uterus. A small child popped out from her groin and looked at Carlos and me. We looked at each other—Hey, you saw that, too? The girl flew into the bonfire and disintegrated. The next morning, Tia announced her pain was almost gone and said she had better range of motion.
RL Does everyone who drinks ayahuasca have this type of visionary experience? When Americans travel to South America to experience ayahuasca, is this something they should expect?
MDW It’s an individual thing. I’ve seen people so sick with physical or emotional illnesses that they would spend six or eight hours vomiting and have no visions. Others who vomited would have entities help them bring up the sickness from inside. One person explained that, during a ceremony, he was transported to an elevator outside the locale whose rise and fall coincided with the purging of his stomach matter. He was also shown different floors during the journey. There are cases where certain individuals never have visions. The famous ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes claimed he never had visions while drinking ayahuasca.
In my case, over a period of three consecutive nights, for example, I would drink the exact same medicine, in the same amount, and I would have very different experiences each evening. Some evenings would be visionary, sometimes I would journey to teaching schools, and sometimes it would be more like an internal feeling of physical healing.
RL Do you think the visionary process is purely an internal one, bringing forth material from the drinker’s subconscious, or is it actually a matter of perceiving spirits that have a transpersonal reality?
MDW The process certainly can be both. There can be a mixture of physical sensations, and both conscious and subconscious material can surface. However, one can go to another time and another place—to other realms that are just as real as what we perceive with our physical senses. Are spirits and these other realities real? Yes, they are.
RL Do you think the ayahuasca played a significant role in your healing?
MDW Absolutely. Both the ayahuasca and Carlos were curing me. On a physical level, ayahuasca pulls out viruses and bacteria, cleans the blood, and goes to the affected organ or sick place in the body to remove toxins. Natem is a maestro medicine, a medicine of power. Carlos explained the process as a battle between good and evil. Evil is hot. Ayahuasca is cold. It needs to be taken at night to reach its strongest potency.
Carlos uses three plants in brewing his natem: the vine also known as natem, the leaves of yagé (Carlos’s name for chacruna), and a bark he calls semirok. Each plant in the natem has its own energy and intensity. Each one is highly intelligent and has a powerful god-like spirit inside—these are called Etsa, Arutam, and Uwinsut, respectively. These cosmic energies, sometimes called spirit doctors when they take a human form, are formidable healers.
Natem helped Carlos see inside my body and avail himself of its healing power. He once told me that for every disease, God has given us a plant that can cure it. Natem, however, can be used for any disease.
Carlos is a powerful healer, as well. During healing ceremonies, he was literally sucking—chupando, in Spanish—the illness from my body. When he did this, something seemed to shift on a cellular level. Later, Carlos told me, “I have to ingest the sickness. Flechas(healing arrows) are drawn up from my chest into my mouth, and an element like a tongue (invisible to most people) captures the sickness (bad arrows) from within the patient. Then I have to grab the arrows in my hands and disperse them into space with my breath. If I can’t remove the sickness from inside me after the extraction, I could die.” After extracting my sickness, Carlos put healing energy, Shunta Sinsa (a living force that the elders give initiated master healers), into me. “All sicknesses are healed with much love. One has to honor Spirit. How can one honor Spirit? With love. The Spirit that is flooding me and goes into you is the energy that heals. It comes from God,” Carlos said.
I can’t explain this power he has, but I have seen it work both with and without ayahuasca. I’ve felt it inside me. Together, Carlos and natem are extremely powerful in their ability to cure.
RL Within the past few years, increasing numbers of Americans have been drinking ayahuasca, both in South America and in this country. While many of these people report positive, life-changing results, their experiences are often psychospiritual in nature. But am I correct in assuming that the healing ceremonies you participated in dealt mainly with physical illnesses? If so, to what would you attribute this difference in focus between traditional indigenous ceremonies and contemporary, multicultural ones?
MDW The ceremonies in which I participated were used to cure disease. The Shuar have no interest in recreational use of natem. They use it for helping the community—for looking into the future to solve problems, for healing a community member, or for gaining wisdom and power, if one is training to be an uwishin, or shaman.
I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist, and I won’t presume to know the answer as to the difference between traditional and modern cultural uses of ayahuasca. But I wonder if the following is relevant: many people in the southern hemisphere suffer physically—from hunger, for instance. We in the northern parts suffer a great deal from mental problems and anxieties. Perhaps this is why many of us in the north have successful psychospiritual healings? Believe me, this is a very big thing. Are there many of us who even think to go to the jungle for physical healing? And are all uwishins/medicine men as good as Carlos at healing disease?
Edgar Ramirez as Carlos The Jackal in CARLOS (2010), directed by Olivier Assayas. A Sundance Channel Presentation/IFC Release. © Film in Stock
RL When you returned home to the US after that first trip to Ecuador, did your experiences in the jungle have unexpected consequences on your life?
MDW Yes. I had a lot of integration to do. In order to heal, I had to make changes in my personal life, and this was quite painful. I dropped my composing career, and my marriage fell apart. I lost my home. Everything flipped.
I realized that what had happened to me in Ecuador was considered utterly improbable in my culture. I’d seen into a dimension beyond what I’d ever thought possible, seen inside my body, interacted with spirits and magical beings. I’d witnessed amazing healings on myself and others, some of which might be called miraculous. I’d been through initiations that altered my perceptions and caused me to question what was real and what was not. Integration for me was very, very difficult.
RL Did you return to your physicians for validation of your healing?
MDW Back in New York, I went to the hospital for a checkup. The doctors said the cancer was gone. The breast was clear. But they wanted me to have six weeks of radiation and take tamoxifen for five years. I said no to both. Radiation seemed to me too dangerous. The hormones I’d read about had long-term, possibly permanent, side effects. The doctors also said I’d have to have examinations every six months.
Choosing a course of treatment for a serious disease is a very complex, personal choice. There are many factors in healing. What I’ve done should not be assumed a blanket prescription or cure for anyone.
RL Would you tell us more about Carlos—particularly, his background in the medicine ways and his practice as a healer?
MDW The Shuar are one of six tribes of the Jívaro (meaning “wild and rude”; a name given to the Shuar by the Spaniards and which the Shuar loathed). Only a generation ago, they were shrinking heads and hunting with curare-tipped darts.
Carlos is a Shuar uwishin from the high upper Amazon, near the Peruvian border. An uwishin fills the role of medical doctor and acts as an intercessor between man and the spirit world. As a child, Carlos had been taken in by Silesian priests and trained for the clergy. His father had prophesized the change that white men would bring to the Amazon, and had told Carlos that he had to learn the ways and language of these people. By doing so, he would be able to help the Shuar adapt. Carlos eventually ran away from the church to study with his elders.
Carlos’s family maintained their language and lived according to their ancestral culture, ceremonies, and values. The Shuar believe that in each family constellation is an anciano, an elder of great power. This person interprets dreams and counsels the group. Carlos is one of these. He is also a kakaram, a warrior of valor, who, through initiations, confronted terrible spirits and wrenched their power away from them. His dreams are “seeing” dreams, full of prophecy and portent.
I learned from María Juana, Carlos’s mother—from the Aguarana tribe, another of the “Jívaro” peoples—that Carlos’s Shuar name, given to him by his father, means God of the Black Jaguars. María Juana said that when Carlos was born, the shamans knew he was going to be a healer, and his father took him to a sacred island where his first taste, even before breast milk, was ayahuasca. Carlos was initiated by his father, his uncles, and the best-known ancianos, priests, and medicine men of the Shuar. He was taught plant medicines and initiated with natem, tobacco, and other sacred plants. He learned the Shuar cosmology and interacted with divine spirits of the forest, land, mountains, waters, plants, and animals.
Carlos once explained to me that the conquistadores had said the Shuar were uncivilized savages living in the jungle. He said, “I am one with her. I am not in the jungle. The jungle is within me. The wisdom I hold cannot be learned from a book, but from the earth, which sends its voice through my body. We are one and the same.”
RL I understand that you experienced Carlos actually shape-shifting into a jaguar in a ceremony. Would you talk a little about that?
MDW During my first healing with natem, a black jaguar stalked through the night. It paced, circled the healing area, and entered Carlos. The animal in him was seething with power. A growl rose from my throat as an aggressive female jaguar came into my body. My hands turned into paws, claws extended. Carlos and I were fighting. He tried to dominate me. I fought for territorial rights—for the right to survive. People were looking and scooting away. Cat sounds split the air.
A part of me witnessed these extraordinary feats. It’s indescribable to have a wild, untamable animal inside you. I was moving faster—and fighting better—than humanly possible. I had a fierce, unstoppable power. The jaguar in Carlos was wild and brutal. Eventually, Carlos smacked me on the head with a condor fan, and the jaguar left me. The next day, everyone talked about seeing the two jaguars.
RL You and Carlos also developed a romantic relationship that sounds both intimate and profound. Yet many American women have reported that certain male ayahuasqueros are using the medicine unethically, in attempts at seduction. Would you discuss this, or offer women any advice or guidelines?
MDW We are all drawn to power, be it spiritual or material. As a woman, one could be confused by the passion for knowledge a medicine man may possess, the power he might bestow on her as a student, the care he might display for her spiritual progress, or the physical intimacy of sex. The spiritual teacher/student relationship is very much like other relationships in which one person has a role of authority and the other is looking for help. Even if the female student has equal power, it frequently doesn’t match her perception of the man’s power. Powerful shamans aren’t necessarily good people. Seduction or unethical behavior coming from an authority figure, whether here in the States or elsewhere, is unacceptable behavior. The need for spiritual companionship that might catalyze a woman’s sexual involvement with a male teacher may make her believe she is getting closer to power, but this is rarely the case.
RL After traveling with Carlos in South America for some time, you accompanied him to New York to conduct a series of healings there, and it sounds as if that may have been as large a cultural shock to him as your first visit to the jungle was to you. Were there specific aspects of Western culture with which he had particular difficulty?
MDW Carlos wasn’t interested in sightseeing in New York. He’d never heard of the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, Elvis, or the Beatles. He just wanted to get to work healing people. He didn’t speak English. He couldn’t drive a car. He didn’t know how to get things accomplished without my help. He had to deal with guru worship by a growing number of adoring fans. He also had to deal with money—with buying and wanting things.
Carlos complained about the poor quality of our food. Compared to the fresh and unadulterated food in Ecuador, American food was the equivalent of eating plastic. In the jungles of Ecuador, people have fewer food choices, but everything they eat is organic. When we went into restaurants, Carlos was outraged at food left on plates. He’d walk from table to table in disgust at what people had left untouched. He looked into garbage bins behind restaurants and raged at the waste. I understood, because there are many starving children in Ecuador.
Carlos said the city energy was chaotic. He had a hard time replenishing his powers. I took him to the countryside, and he began feeling better, as he could use nature to restore himself. Also, Carlos could never understand that American law considered natem illegal. Therefore, he never understood my concern about telling everyone about his ceremonies.
RL I understand that Carlos conducted many successful healings while he was here. Were there any significant differences in these ceremonies because of the change in culture/environment? Were there any difficulties that arose in translating the traditional Shuar healing paradigm into a Western context?
MDW The first ceremony in the States took place in a downtown loft in New York City. There were 17 people in all: the group included psychiatrists, writers, artists, lawyers, and academics, ranging in age from the early twenties to the mid-seventies. Carlos was dressed in his Shuar costume and the fanciest feathers. His demeanor, sincerity, and charisma enthralled all the New Yorkers. He explained the process each person would undergo and what each one could expect, and spoke of unlocking the portal gate to the world of spirit. He described the increases in potency and health one could expect from communing with natem. I watched the listeners’ faces, trying to imagine what they were making of it all.
As the evening progressed, I looked through the picture window onto the night sky. New York felt oppressive. The jungle was calling to me as people lolled on the polished floor. Some were throwing up in buckets, the bathroom toilet had overflowed, and some people were singing, others crying. And there was Carlos at the head of the room. He could have been on the Pastaza or Bomboiza River. He could have been at the sacred island or on the peaks of the Andes. He could have been in a cave or behind a waterfall as he sang heartily to give life to the ritual.
RL Did you and Carlos travel anywhere else in North America?
MDW Later, we went to help the Anishnaabek on a reserve in Canada. The first night there, 45 Native Americans attended the ceremony. Carlos and I grouped people according to their illnesses: those who’d told us they were heroin and morphine users close to Carlos on the floor, acute and chronic diabetics together in another area. We had people with wheelchairs and walkers, heart patients, rape victims, two men with broken backs, a husband and wife who’d lost two sons, a man going blind, and an Anishnaabek elder dressed in full native regalia who was also a deacon in the church. He had diabetes, cancer, and gangrene in both lower legs. I had never seen so many defeated and gravely ill people in one place.
Though Carlos’s practice was not part of their tradition, they accepted him immediately because he embodied, as they saw it, the sacred ways of their elders. He, in turn, saw the Indians as brothers. No one questioned Carlos’s authority. Even though they hadn’t heard of ayahuasca before that night, they knew they were drinking sacred medicine. I knew most of them were Catholic; it was like watching them take the holy Eucharist. Over the course of a month, Carlos performed astonishing healings. Diabetics successfully went off insulin. The man with gangrene had been told by doctors they would have to amputate both legs. Carlos worked on him with various medicines, and in two weeks, the man’s legs were pink and healthy. The MDs were flabbergasted. They wanted to know how Carlos did it. People got off morphine. People left their wheelchairs and walked with canes. There were many, many success stories.
RL To bring things into the present, how have your experiences with natem and the Amazonian healing practices affected your current work?
MDW Since writing Black Smoke, I’ve traveled to Brazil, Bali, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Guatemala, South Africa, and Nigeria in search of the world’s greatest traditional healers. I’d say Carlos and natem had a big effect on me. My studies and wonder about aboriginal healing started with him. I believe Carlos is one of the two greatest, most dedicated and effective healers I have known. The other is the Brazilian miraculous healer John of God.
In January of 2010 and the summer of 2010, I’ll be taking people to Ecuador to participate in healing ceremonies with Carlos. Readers who are interested in the trip (from January 30 to February 12, 2010) or the late July trip should contact me immediately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RL Do you have any advice for people who are planning to travel to the Amazon for the first time to drink ayahuasca?
MDW Make sure you are with a reputable healer, one of great integrity, and preferably one who is known for his or her healing abilities. Take two flashlights, bug spray, plastic garbage bags to keep things dry, and sunblock.
RL What new projects or adventures are coming up for you?
MDW I’m writing a nonfiction book about spirit possession and healing that takes place in Brazil and South Africa. I’m also developing a trance workshop. The first workshop will be held in April, 2010 in Hawaii.
To contact Margaret de Wys for more information about Black Smoke or healing journeys to Ecuador, write email@example.com or visit her website.