Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Black Smoke: A Woman's Journey of Healing, Wild Love, and Transformation in the Amazon" by Margaret de Wys -- book review

I just finished, “Black Smoke: A Woman’s Journey of Healing, Wild Love, and Transformation in the Amazon,” by Margaret de Wys. It's a true story of a woman who went to the Ecuadoran rain forest in search of healing from cancer. In 2000, de Wys, a married woman living a comfortable life in upstate New York, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctors urged her to pursue conventional treatment protocol, which included radiation and chemotherapy. After soul searching, De Wys decided that those steps were not acceptable for her, and she opted to find another way.

At an event in Guatemala, she met Carlos, a Shuar medicine man from Ecuador. Carlos informed her that he could see black smoke coming out of her breast and that he could help her if she came to Ecuador. This was impressive for de Wys, since she had not told anyone she was sick.

Honestly, once I started this book, I could not put it down. De Wys does a wonderful job describing her trips into the remote parts of the jungle of Ecuador to work with Carlos. I was fascinated, enthralled and also rather horrified at some of the things she was asked to undergo, under Carlo’s direction. She writes about the terrifying experiences involved with her healing, which included purification rituals (such as being completely buried in sand on a deserted island) and taking ayahuasca, a jungle vine known for its psychotropic properties. She describes her dismay when she realized the concoction Carlos insisted she drink would cause horrible vomiting. This was necessary, Carlos insisted, as it was part purging and ridding the body of toxins.

It was a difficult, harrowing experience for De Wys, both physically and emotionally. This was part what Carlos told her was the “Red Path”, the way of the warrior. She describes how, after drinking the ayahuasca, she saw spirits, some of which terrified her. She writes that after her experience, she felt deeply changed at the cellular level. Although the purging of her stomach and intestinal contents was a miserable experience, she writes that it was also peculiar because it was as if she felt her deepest emotional fears and blocks being purged as well. She was able to see that the source of her illness was a deep fear she had always carried inside, and how she had avoided her own feelings.

I appreciated De Wys's recounting narrative because she puts enough context around her experience with ayahuasca and how it made her feel. So often, ayahuasca is described in a way that totally divorces it from the sacredness context in which the tribes of the Amazon view this plant. The indigenous people hold ayahuasca in deep respect and regard. It's part of a whole process, not something that is taken on its own, without the right preparation. It certainly is never treated as a recreational drug experience, or something to use on a whim. It is serious stuff, and often that issue gets skipped over in certain discussions from people who express interest in using it. She details how much effort and detail went in to selecting the right vines, and the ritual involved in preparing them the right way. And she describes how difficult it was for her, each time she took this concoction.

Upon returning home to upstate New York, her doctors confirmed what she already knew, that her breast cancer had disappeared. She writes that this was a relief, but that it was also very difficult to return to her former life. After having undergone through such an intense personal experience, she was profoundly changed on the inside, and she could not go back to living the way she did before. Her 20 year marriage, which had alrady been rather disconnected for a while, ended.

This book makes me appreciate how much ancient wisdom on healing we may have lost here in the West, with our emphasis on technology and advanced science. The Shuar have tremendous knowledge about plants and plant medicine. They also seem to have a deeper perspective on the nature of illness than is typically found in the West. Illnesses such as malaria, yellow fever, and cancer are all familiar to medicine people of the Amazon. Using their indigenous ways of healing, the Shuar have been able to heal themselves throughout the centuries, without the aid of western medical doctors. What really intrigued me about Carlos is his expressed desire to some day open a hospital in Ecuador, where modern medicine and indigenous methods of healing can be combined. How progressive and integrative is that! (Now if we could only get him to move to Atlanta...)

And as a healer and from an energy medicine standpoint, I was fascinated to read of the way Carlos worked with his patients. Some of the things De Wys described sounded a bit familiar, certainly not because my work resembles Carlos’, but more from a gestalt, “yes, I see” sort of way. It’s the total commitment, focus and connection that I recognize, rather than the specific details of ritual. I also noticed how often De Wys talked about how deeply Carlos loves people, his compassion, and how he sees himself as a channel of love from the Divine. This is core to his Shuar tribal tradition. Yet it is also the basic concept of many healing modalities around the world. So it was affirming to me to see it manifested in Carlos’s work.

I was particularly struck by a quote that Carlos says in the book, "I do not live in the jungle, the jungle lives in me." He was trying to express how he does not see himself separate from the jungle but that all the different spirits of the jungle speak to him. I thought that was interesting.

This was a fascinating book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in reading about shamanic work and healing. The book is wonderfully honest, and hair-raising in some of its descriptive details. The jungle is, after all, a very dangerous place to someone who does not know it, and Margaret certainly did not, when she first arrived there.

The only shortcoming for me in this book was that at times it felt like there was a bit too much unexplained white space. There were several issues that De Wys did not go into very much, almost on purpose, it seems. For one thing, the book title, which includes a reference to “wild love,” implies that the author had a love affair with Carlos. And although she and Carlos did become lovers, I couldn’t help but notice how little emphasis she put on this fact. She certainly doesn’t describe their relationship as if it was a wild, romantic kind of love, and in fact, she almost skips over the issue all together. I was curious as to why this was, given that this man was also her teacher and mentor. It's possible the title of the book was meant to focus some other aspect of wild love, unearthed within herself.

I would have also liked to have better understood the relationship between her and her daughter. All in all, Margaret made 11 trips to the rain forest, staying about 1 month each time. I couldn’t help wonder what impact this had on her teenage daughter. Fortunately, the negative impact of her absence was largely mitigated because her daughter was away at boarding school. Yet, I would still have wanted to hear how her daughter felt about her mother's experience. How did it change their relationship? Did it open her daughter to become curious in spiritual work herself?

Finally, I would have liked to know if De Wys has continued to work with people on her own, without Carlos. Ayahuasca is illegal in the United States. What has she done with the knowledge she has acquired? I hope that she can still help others even without using ayahuasca.

If you’ve read this book, I’d be curious to hear your impressions! If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it.

What do you think? I welcome your comments!

Adele Wang
Certified energy healer and mentor, helping smart, intuitive, perfectionist women create happiness and success in an imperfect world

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2 comments:

  1. Hello Adale,

    Nice post.

    I have experience with Ayahuasca in Ecuador and the Shuar. I spent three years in Ecuador and survived an attempted murder. The B. Caapi vine (main component of the Ayahuasca brew) physically saved my life when I was dragged over and thrown off about a hundred foot cliff. Vines whipped out, wrapped around me and guided me over to a more gently sloped area. This event is what really introduced me to spirituality and really opened my eyes.

    I suffered a lot that day, including the loss of my beloved puppy. But I also gained so much more. This day led me to eventually trying Aya and completely changing my life. Later this year I am supposed to start an apprenticeship with Miguel Chiriap of the Shuar. I am really excited about it. Can I post the link of my attack story?

    Thanks for such an awesome post!

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  2. Hi Jason, thanks for your note! Sorry I didn't see it sooner -- it got buried somewhere in my email. Yes, I am interested in your experience -- please feel free to post a link to this story and/or vice versa.

    I am glad you are ok -- just last week a story was published about someone who died from the experience, probably under an unscrupulous "shaman" who did not know what he was really doing. The public needs to know there are risks with some of this stuff, though it seems to work for some people.

    Sorry to hear about your puppy. How did your puppy get involved with the vine? Perhaps you are already doing your apprenticeship with the Shuar by now, and if so, I would love to hear how it is going!

    Kind Regards,
    Adele

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