Cracking open to the intensity of feeling every conceivable emotion throughout the unpredictable expansion of Ayahuasca, every time you take her in.
Letting one’s eyesight transform into portals of a kaleidoscopic landscape, where you decipher the flow and disturbances of each human frame that sits in circle around you.
Honoring the epic, insanely sacred responsibility of creating spiritual and physical safety for every being that surrenders themselves into your loving care. Holding court over a tribe of spiritual warriors, expressing the bravery of doing the deep, frightful inner work that allows each being to witness and integrate their shadows and their superheroes.
Being the guide, the protector, the tone-setter.
Working with the spirit world in sacred partnership. Developing immovable bonds with guides, totems, and guardians.
Holding space for humans experiencing the horror and glory of an ego death and inevitable rebirth. Bringing them out the other side with grace and love. Managing freak outs, egoic projections, and all manner of outbursts.
Knowing that everything is always unequivocally OK.
When you lead Ayahuasca ceremonies, this is all just another day at the office.
So what kind of person makes for the best partner with the medicine?
The one who is called, and who has the commitment and tenacity to make this process the center of their world. Anything less is dangerous, disrespectful, and half-ass.
Ayahuasca gives the whole light-blasted and bloody-real multiverse. She will help you treat cancer, PTSD, soul loss, terror, mental anguish, physical ailments – you name it. But if you want to be the vessel that she works through, you have to be all-in to serve her correctly. There is no part-time, occasional, sort-of shaman. You either give your all to Her, or you are not in relationship at all. She wants your edges, your hidden spots, your whole heart and soul. And in return, she'll help you make the darkness conscious.
The Difference Between a Shaman and a Facilitator
I know the word “shaman” sounds loaded and messy these days. Before it got bastardized by fakers who are enamored with the power but not the diligence to do the work, it used to be a simple definition: One who sees in the dark. Bridge-walker. Someone who lives in both worlds – the tangible, and the spirit realms.
Think of a shaman as you would a surgeon, only in a spiritual sense. This is psychic surgery. You wouldn’t give yourself over to a doctor who didn’t put in the time to train and hone her craft. Please don’t give yourself over in a spiritual sense to someone who woke up one day and decided to blindly lead the way into the unknown.
A shaman never takes that name themselves – it is gifted by the plants, mentors, and the community they serve. It is not something for the ego to flaunt, but for the soul to own. And you should see and feel the truth of who they are through the energy they emit.
A facilitator is someone who normally has no formal training, and does not know the ancient art of spiritual protection. They may have consumed a lot of medicine, but they likely do not have a true connection with the essence of the work. To be a good sitter does not mean you are a good leader. It’s one hell of a job. And a facilitator quite often does not live the lifestyle of a healer. They fit this work into the other elements of their lives.
If you sit with someone who pours and hopes for the best, you are at risk of facing energies that neither of you are equipped to handle. Even those lovely beings who facilitate with a big, open heart can’t guarantee safety if the truth of duality comes barging in.
Good intentions do not guide us through the darkness. Experience does. Trust, knowledge, and an internal GPS through hell is the only thing that is truly reliable when the darkness comes knocking.
The core difference between a shaman and a facilitator is this: The shaman has been to the depths of darkness. He/she has the map back to the light.
What a Shaman Sees in Ceremony
You’ve probably seen the beautiful Shipibo tapestries by now; check out the image to the right if you are new to these patterns. These are complicated in both intricacy and meaning, but in essence, these patterns represent two core elements of shamanic work:
1) The energy grid of all living things. Shamans see this grid illuminate when under the influence of the medicine. Sometimes participants see it too, with eyes wide open. This is Ayahuasca’s language; the core part of the training involves learning to interpret what the colors and patterns are telling you about the energies of the being you are working with. When a shaman sings an icaro to you, he/she is re-weaving the energy grid. They sing directly to the distorted parts, reworking the broken bits with love, intention, and healing. They take in the darkness, transmute it into connectedness and health, and sing it back into the person with unconditional love. The pattern morphs and changes with the songs.
2) These tapestries also represent the physical manifestation of the icaros. You can see that the lines are continuous; a maestro shaman’s songs often are as well. They sometimes learn to sing on the inhale and exhale. Songs in Shipibo are especially fast and powerful. Gifted shamans sing with intensity and clarity, manifesting a deep connection to every single word. When all the experience, love, and power is focused on you during a doctoring, it can be the most transformative, wildly erratic experience you’ve ever felt. And that’s precisely why we sit with a real-deal being – absolutely anything is possible in those moments. The combination of strong medicine, strong maestro, strong participant, and strong icaro = infinite healing potential.
The shaman not only sees the grid of each individual, but the collective energy of the room itself. Some nights are dark and heavy, and that’s often obvious before we even drink the medicine. Some nights are a cavalry of goddess goodness, full of rainbow spirals and dancing spirits.
It doesn’t matter what energies come to play to a seasoned pro. What matters is holding safe space for the gathered tribe, remaining neutral to the drama, and doing the work of making the unconscious conscious.
Why Your Favorite Shaman is Probably Not Very Friendly
An experienced healer knows that the closer they are to the people they serve, the more taxing and draining the process becomes. That’s why most leaders do not get friendly with the participants. They are often accused of being aloof and standoffish. This isn’t because they don’t adore humanity (that’s a prerequisite for this job – if you don’t love people, you will absolutely burn out), but because distance and detachment is a core element of safety.
When you need help before or after the ceremony, turn to the organizer or assistants instead. That’s precisely why this takes a team to properly serve a community. The shaman cannot afford to give too much of their energy away outside of the circle. It takes every ounce of concentration and intention to do this job when the medicine kicks in; they mean no harm by keeping their distance.
The shamans always lived on the outside of the village for a reason. They can’t afford to get too close; there is such a thing of knowing and caring too much. Once they are engaged with the energy they are trying to clear in any intimate fashion, they can become Velcro. That which they help remove can just come to roost inside them, too. It’s a hazard of the job, and one a shaman cannot take lightly.
With Great Sacrifice. . .
Choosing the path of shamanism is just like any other dedication to service. It requires tremendous detachment to the material, and an almost obsessive dedication.
In my journey with the medicine, I have had to let go of many friends, a high paying job, regular connects with my family, my quiet comfy home life – even my husband and stepson. It’s not that everyone has to give it all up; just those aspects that don’t fit in with the essence of the calling. It turns out my calling is deep. The medicine uprooted my life and brought me to Costa Rica to serve dozens of people in ceremony every week. I gave up my entire past life to be in partnership with her. And there are absolutely no regrets.
In return, she gives me the magic of watching lives change every day of my life. She gives me the gift of expansion, of knowing the secrets of energy work, of exploring the recesses of my own consciousness and being the vessel for others to do the same.
I wake up most days in awe that this is my life. That a small town girl from Montana has been gifted such a profoundly magical journey. It kicks my ass on the regular, but if I'm being honest, I love that too.
In order to be in integrity, the transparency and realness I must walk in makes my shadow quiver and groan. I drink 100+ times a year to maintain a deep connection and to balance my own work with the ceremonies I lead and assist in. I must manage an honest balance between insane humility (I am not the one to create the magic - all credit goes to the Mother), and sincere empowerment (she is powerless if I channel her in smallness). I have to feel the depth of the suffering I share in as a human being, and witness with so many of the beautiful souls I get to work with.
Some nights my body becomes ravaged with the energies I help to clear, as I don't always own protection. This last week, I got flattened by the energies of a sexual deviant whose shadow was so manipulative and dark I almost burst into tears in ceremony as the little girl inside me looked for a safe place to hide. Instead, I sang to him and cleared him and ignited my compassion for all beings and my trust in the medicine. But my body took on the toxicity my mind ignited and I spent the next couple of days purging and sweating out the toxins.
That's how it goes. The wonderful highs of watching people heal their beings and rediscover their souls, and the epic lows of experiencing the depths of darkness, my own ego's desparate space of control, and all the static that comes with becoming more conscious of duality.
So in the end, it takes an almost inhuman amount of commitment and trust to be a shaman. The plants you serve will ask you to give up every last attachment, to push you into a near-constant space of discomfort and self-examination. They will take everything from you that doesn’t align with this work. But if you trust them, they will give you the entire multiverse: Including support, unconditional love, miracles, expansions, and mountains of indescribable magic.
Still interested in following the path? Reach out if you feel called; I am always honored to help fellow sha-peeps unravel the next step in their journeys. We are #OneTribe.
About the Author
Tina “Kat” Courtney, The AfterLife Coach, is a traditionally trained Ayahuasquera and a vocal advocate for all sacred psychedelic spaces. Kat is an experienced Ayahuasca guide, leading up to 95 people each week at Rythmia in Costa Rica. She has walked this path for almost 13 years.