This is a slightly re-worked article that originally appeared on EntheoNation's "So You Want to Be an Ayahuasca Shaman?"
It's a big joke inside the world of Ayahuasca that everyone that follows the path for more than one ceremony will at one point declare they want to be a shaman. This is an exaggeration, of course, but it doesn't feel like one most days.
A dozen years ago, when I first drank this incredible medicine, it was hardly all the rage. I felt like a fringe-dancer to have even discovered this process, and certainly an odd duck for my crazy-mad-love of the jungle and her medicines. Cultish peeps in underground culture like Carlos Castaneda had made their shamanic mark, and of course William S. Burroughs gets the gold star for brining in the awareness of Aya through is book The Yage Letters.
But it wasn't exactly commonplace to emerge from a successful corporate career and announce that one wanted to study an ancient South American healing practice and drink a boatload of psychotropic plants for a living.
That didn’t stop me.
In ceremony numero uno, I remember watching my Peruvian maestro with endless reverence and respect. The songs he sang were like portals into another world. I could feel their power without knowing a thing about what each word meant. The entire ritualistic nature of the ceremony felt so sacred and amazing. And when he did the doctoring, I was mesmerized.
I didn’t know what the hell he was doing, but I knew I wanted to do it too.
My mind had a lot to say in return. It seems to me that everyone either has a depressive or a grandiose ego. It’s the same energy (a lack of self-worth), but it expresses itself differently. Mine is depressive and self-deprecating. So she emphatically questioned why a white girl from Montana who was a bona-fide emotional mess and was making a video game about sexual conquests thought she could heal the darkest parts of humanity. And heal them, no less.
The truth was, I knew nothing about the process. But I was willing to learn.
And most importantly, I felt a calling. I felt it to my core.
The Plants Choose the Shamans, We Don't Choose Them
I spent the next decade doing everything - and I mean everything - to manifest this vision. I spent months in the jungle. I worked with one teacher for 2 years, and then let him go knowing that wasn’t the lineage I was supposed to learn. He had taught me HIS way, not Ayahuasca’s way, and I kept refining in my vision of what a shaman was.
I sat with many other facilitators and honestly got increasingly discouraged around how no one felt right as a teacher. I knew choosing someone to lead my on this path would be an intimate bond, and it had to feel right. The search was leaving me frustrated and lost.
I connected to yet another healer by a dear Vegas pal. We had a phone conversation. I didn’t like him, but my friend had sat with him and insisted I give it a go. By now I organized a large US-based community, and I wanted them to have access to the medicine. So I agreed to do a cycle.
Within the first 30 seconds of our first ceremony, the moment I heard him sing, I knew this was my Teacher.
After the ceremony, I told him of my wishes to apprentice. I wanted to learn his lineage, which was grounded in the Shipibo and Quechua-Lamista traditions. He laughed and called me a bimbo.
Well then, another obstacle.
I didn’t question my calling though. It wasn’t the first time a man labeled me as an airhead. I stood my ground. I organized for him; we had multiple very successful cycles in the desert. He started to see that maybe I wasn't so daft.
Six months later, he called me to chat. The question was simple and direct: “Do you still want to apprentice on this path?”
Apparently the medicine had been saying my name to him. This man had dozens if not hundreds of people by then who wanted to work with him. But he was asking if I would like to join a very small collection of apprentices because She insisted.
This was a big, huge, divine reminder that it is always the plants that call us. If they don’t agree with our calling to lead or organize or assist in any way, the process is going to suck. It kind of sucks anyway, so I really don't advise adding fuel to the fire.
This is their show. So to have Ayahuasca's blessing literally meant everything.
It also scared the holy hell out of me. And rightfully so.
Are You Ready to Sacrifice Everything? Because It's Happening
I studied with this amazing teacher for many years. But before we shook hands and agreed to the most intense and spiritually intimate partnership, he shared some sage advice:
This process, he told me, will ask everything of me. I had to be willing to sacrifice every attachment, and move through every conceivable fear. Ayahuasca had to be more important than my husband, my stepson – my life. Because if she wasn’t, it would show, and all those things would be taken anyway.
Being a shaman is not a job, it's your entire world. It's what you eat/breathe/sleep/shit/scream/cry/live for. And if it isn't, it will eat you alive.
But then, you can never know how true this is until you commit.
A Calling vs. Ego - How to Tell the Difference
Everywhere I look, more souls are stepping up to a calling or an ego-centric desire to be a shaman.
How does one know the difference? Ask the plants. If it’s meant to be, a teacher will appear. It’s that simple.
But here’s where things get dicey; remember that Ayahuasca (and all the sacred plants) are rooted in the Now, not a future vision we might have for ourselves. In all actuality, most people called to lead ceremonies will not actually make it. And those that do will likely not carry the power of a vessel worthy of the label “shaman.” Not because we’re all a bunch of yahoos, but because this path requires a level of dedication, discipline, and full-on mental strength that most of us just don't have to give.
So the plants, they call a lot of us. Not because we’re all meant to be shamans, but because we’re meant to dive in and try; to let this process alchemically evolve us while we are in turn of service to the planet.
This is a friendly reminder that our lives are about the journeys, never the destinations.
You want to know if someone who is studying the process is headed for a huge downfall? Watch for attachments and identification. Watch for an obsession with being an image, but an inability to do all the work. Watch for the inclination to take credit for the healings.
The idea of being a shaman is oh-so romantic. I’ve been in ceremonies where people cured cancer and diabetes and PTSD, where others worked through an entire lineage of pain and drama and came out the other side glowing. Who wouldn’t want to be the one leading that journey through hell to heaven? It’s miraculous and glorious and amazing and everything I – and many others – want our lives to represent.
It’s a noble cause and I honor everyone who has ever heeded the calling. But I do want to keep it real. I do want to speak the things that no one ever voiced to me.
Know These Things Before You Commit to The Path
Do you love darkness? Like reallllllly freaking love it?
If not, run away. Run far, far away.
Becoming a shaman involves going into your darkness, and it never looks like you expect it to.
Devoting yourself to this path will take everything you’ve ever learned about yourself and the world and turn it inside out. At times, this will be exhilarating. But no matter how strong and wise and grounded and happy you are, you will find the space deep inside that holds the container of doubt, terror, and resistance. Or rather, Ayahuasca will find it. That’s part of her commitment to you; this darkness has to be dealt with or you will be unknowingly passing it on to others.
And that is a near-continual process. The moment you think you've got the darkside under wraps, it will come and annihilate you again.
If you don’t deal with your shadow, you will either be an ineffective facilitator, a delusional ego, or a mess of repressed emotions. Probably all of the above.
You cannot work with these energies and not have a home inside the darkness. If you can befriend that space, and work with it, then anything is possible. This has to be a truth in every cell of your being, not just something you intellectually espouse. We can all give lip service to how beautiful the darkness is. But visit your legitimate version of hell and then tell me how awesome it was.
Seriously, I cannot emphasize this enough. Be prepared to intimately merge with your shadow.
As much as we all say we can handle that, that we WANT to handle that, we can’t know what we’re asking for until we’re there. It manifests differently for all of us; that’s part of the glorious mystery.
Still Committed to Leading a Ceremony? Do This Next
Put in the time before you call yourself an Ayahuasca healer. Please don't be someone that sits 10 times and then makes the declaration that you understand this medicine. I promise you, you never will. It takes years and years of working with her for almost everyone to adequately hold space for others in a safe way.
Don't rush this. It's life or death.
Traditionally, an apprenticeship to becoming an Ayahuasca healer takes at least 8-12 years; much like the path to being a Western doctor.
To all these well-meaning souls who have worked with the medicine for a hundred ceremonies or so over the course of a few years, and have now declared you are leading ceremonies – you are not a shaman. You may be someone who loves the medicine, you may be full of wisdom and compassion, but you do not learn to be a vessel for the most powerful energies by declaring it so.
It's also hard (almost impossible) to do this work by teaching yourself. As tempting as that may be, I have yet to meet anyone with a clear enough relationship with their ego that they can go it alone into the great unknown and be grounded enough to guide others. We all need someone to reflect and validate our integrity; to look into our shadow and see what we are not able to. I’m sure it’s possible in that anything is possible, but it’s so rare my advice is – give up that fantasy.
I'm not being dramatic - this is life or death here; if you’ve been working with this medicine, you know the power she has. You know that a righteous ego can lead people to a very destructive, traumatic, and potentially deadly place. Just ask James Arthur Ray.
If you don’t know that, please never ever pour a dose of this medicine for another trusting soul.
Good intentions don’t save us. Your pure and loving heart is a foundational must-have to be a powerful vessel, but it doesn’t take the place of actual in-the-field training. And it doesn’t take the place of watching and learning from a Maestro.
So if you have the calling, find a teacher to guide you. That’s one of the best ways we receive validation from the plants that this is our authentic path. You know the expression: When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
The level of humility required to do this work is also something I could never describe. That’s another reason why it’s crucial to be humble enough to learn from someone else. This is an ancient lineage you are stepping into; please have the reverence to trust someone who has been there, and who feels called to show you the way.
If the teacher doesn’t appear, it’s just not your time. It’s nothing personal, and it doesn’t mean you’re not capable. It just means it’s not yet for the highest good that you take this on. And if you do so anyway, there will be repercussions. This is not a place where your mind can force an agenda. Any attempt to do so will end in some really heavy shit. So keep sitting, keep doing your work, keep checking in on your calling, and trust that the process will take you to the highest good for all.
When you do find your teacher, it will be one of the most intimate and bonded relationships you will ever know, even if you barely speak to each other. A good teacher will never tell you how to do a thing in the circle; he or she will only let you first follow their lead, and later on, deepen your relationship with the medicine so you can discover your special gifts.
It starts as a mimicry so that you can get grounded in an energetic pathway, and eventually, you’ll get to find your own voice. But first, you must be ready to do the work. And yee gawds is there a LOT of work.
Endless ceremonies. All-in Master Plant Dietas that will also test every bit of your physical, mental, and emotional strength. Repeated experiences to fall deeper into humility. And all that sacrifice I mentioned before.
And that’s just year one.
What It’s Like to Be an Ayahuasca Shaman
I can’t tell you how this will manifest for you, because what we need to go through in our hero’s journey is always very personal. I can promise you that you must spend years dieting on other master plants to hone your connection to spirit. I can promise you that you will go through dark nights of the soul so deep, death will feel like a sweet-scented gift.
I can also promise that if you stay committed to truth and not your own agenda, and that you do the work with an open heart, the immaculate connection to the love of the universe is just as impossible to describe. With great sacrifice comes great reward. But make no mistake, you have no idea how much you’ll have to sacrifice. We all do in order to Get There.
Once you do spend the 12 or so years as an apprentice and you find out who you are as a shaman, then the real work begins. Then you have to grapple with the temptations of power and greed, with the pedestals people give you after they’ve been healed, and with the incredible pull to trust your mind and not the medicine.
This is why a true shaman is a reluctant one. It’s one of the hardest jobs in the world, because if you’re doing it with your whole-heart, you’re almost invisible. A shaman is a vessel for divine energy and plant consciousness; the more he/she takes credit for the magic that transpires, the more that magic turns to darkness.
This is also why in traditional indigenous cultures, the medicine men and women live on the outskirts of the village. It’s dangerous to entangle with the personal stories of the people you serve. It makes it so much harder to maintain personal and participant safety when your identity is wrapped up in the story of the person you’re working with. So the authentic healers stay compassionate yet disconnected from the intimate details of the people they share space with.
It’s a lonely job because it’s never appropriate to talk about what you see inside those profound spaces. You help transmute the energy when appropriate, and love them through the darkness when it’s not. The strong ones do this in silence. The strong ones know it’s not their business to interfere, but to let the energies do the highest good for all.
Sometimes that means letting your people suffer. Just like Mother Nature does. And that is heartbreaking and yet beautiful. We all have to go there sometime.
Above all, you must keep your eye on yourself. Your relationship to your ego is the very dynamic that will protect or endanger you and everyone you sit with. Personal integrity is literally life or death.
Ask any seasoned curandero, and they will all tell you it’s impossible to know how hard the job will be. How devastatingly intense the energies work with you sometimes. How isolating and lonely it can be. How exhausting the responsibility of protection and integrity is.
Yet if you want to be a vessel for divinity, that’s the balance. And it’s a fair one. When you see the people in ceremony work through their suffering and reach breakthroughs into joy and light and better health, every ounce of sacrifice and exhaustion is forgotten.
The Best Job is the Most Challenging One
If you don't love serving this medicine, and you don’t love it all with every cell of your being, you will burn out. Or succumb to the marvelous magnetism of the darkness, which equates to destruction on some level. Sexual advances, money obsession, power lust – the list is long.
So long, in fact, that even those that earn the title often earn the loss of it too. We are human, after all.
You know what? It’s OK regardless. It’s the experience that matters, not how the story ends. Everything you learn in these spaces is integral to playing big in your life, regardless what role you are called to play. The goal for each of us is not to be attached to an idea of who we are, but to simply be it. To be so soul-connected that even a monstrous, grandiose ego can let go of a vision when it doesn’t feel aligned with truth.
If the plants are calling, answer. Stay dedicated to your truth no matter what. Find and root out attachments within your identity like it’s a garden you have to frequently weed. Always carry the intent to do good; to help yourself and humanity.
These are the final words of advice, but they are the biggest ones to carry with you:
Never forget that it’s the medicine that gives you power. Ceremonies are never the shaman’s show, they are the plant’s show. Forget that for a moment, and all hell can break loose. Stay in that alignment, and you can transmute the most heinous of illnesses and blockages and bring them to the light.
Being a shaman is a partnership with divinity. As such, it is subject to change in every moment. Stay connected to truth, and don’t forget to enjoy the ride.
Do you have the calling to lead ceremony? If you want support or advice in your journey, reach out anytime!
About the Author
Tina “Kat” Courtney, AKA The Afterlife Coach, studied the Mother of All Medicines as an apprentice for a decade, clocking in around 1k ceremonies. She left the safety of the circle to be a vocal advocate for the medicine, and for the proper integration of all peak experiences that life and death have to offer. I addition to being an Ayahuasca Coach, Kat works with people working issues around death and shadow. She loves all the polarities duality has to dish out, and she adores helping others love their darkness too.