What have you heard about ayahuasca? Maybe that its a wild psychedelic that will make you vomit and see fantastical creatures. Perhaps you know someone who went to Mexico, took some and found the meaning of existence. Youve read its dangerous, heard its epic.
Its a big topic right now, Rev. Dr. Jessica Rochester said. Unfortunately, other media have sensationalized, fantasized and drawn negative attention to it.
Rochester is the founder of Cu do Montreal, a church that employs ayahuasca in its ceremonies. Though ayahuasca is illegal in Canada, Cu do Montral is one of five Canadian groups, including four from Quebec, granted an exemption on religious grounds.
Her church will host a conference on Oct. 19 to demystify the strain of plants and its uses, which has a history going back hundreds of years.
One of the first orders of business is explaining what exactly ayahuasca is.
Ayahuasca is a central term that has been used for a long time to describe any brew in historical shamanic use in South America, specifically the Amazon basin, by tribes in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Rochester said.
These sacred plants were used medicinally, for divining and rites of passage, always in the hands of a shaman or shamaness man or woman who have gone through an apprenticeship that lasts 14 years. Its like a very serious medical training.
There have been numerous reports in recent years about sometimes fatal incidents involving ayahuasca. The suicide of a Quebec man, Nelson Deschnes, under the influence of ayahuasca in Peru last spring is terrible, according to Rochester, but not a reflection on religious groups who use the hallucinogenic plant in controlled circumstances.
Without commenting directly on Deschness sad fate, she cautions people to beware the current fad of interest in ayahuasca.
What has been happening is something called ayahuasca tourism. Unfortunately, with the world of the internet and people posting things saying, I went here once and healed my whole life, (ayahuasca) has been sensationalized.
On the other side, there have been tragic accidents where people either met death or caused harm. Our condolences go out to the individuals, families and friends for their losses, which would have been preventable if people would have taken simple precautions.
Cu do Montral has about 40 members, with another 50 to 100 visitors who drop in on occasion. The churchs professed mission, available on its website, is to provide for transformation and evolution of all persons seeking enlightenment in accordance with the tenets of the Santo Daime, a Brazilian religion that uses ayahuasca in its rituals, which take place two Saturdays per month.
The daylong ceremony follows a precise schedule: Participants fast in the morning; there are opening prayers, and then the service of the sacrament an ayahuasca tea at room temperature followed by a 60-90 minutes of silent meditation. After that, collective hymns are sung; and a couple of hours later a smaller concentration of the sacrament is taken. The ceremony closes with more hymns, dance and closing prayers.
All church members take the sacrament at every ceremony. The focus is on each persons internal journey. Rituals are referred to as works to denote the effort required to correct ones flaws and transform the self during services. Each day ends with a potluck dinner.
As for the effects, which can linger for up to a few days, the Cu do Montral website says, The Sacrament allows an individual to experience an expanded state of consciousness to align with the divine, allowing access to and communion with spiritual energies, guides, healers and teachers.
Rochester doesnt use the term ayahuasca, but rather daime, from which the Santo Daime gets its name. She first came into contact with the religion during a trip to Brazil for the International Transpersonal Conference in the mid-1990s. While visiting a Santo Daime community in the Amazon, she participated in a work and had a vision that told her she needed to bring the tradition back to Montreal.
It was against all my common sense, she said. Seriously, starting a Santo Daime centre in Montreal in 1996 seemed crazy. Nobody had heard anything of it.
It was yet another intuitive decision for a woman who had always followed her intuition. Rochester, 69,hashad profound spiritual experiences ever since she was a child.
Born in the U.K. in 1949, she was raised in Montreal from the age of three in an ordinary, middle-class British-Canadian family who attended the Anglican Church.
Throughout her youth, she had visions and dreams. As a teenager, she began reading books on spirituality and realized I was having experiences that fell outside everyday reality.
There wasnt anything wrong with me, Rochester said. These were normal experiences that were not recognized in our culture. But in other cultures and eras, they were very embraced and recognized.
In the early 70s, she pursued all manner of mind-body enlightenment, attending Buddhist retreats, visiting ashrams and studying psychology. She went on to study transpersonal therapy, obtain a doctorate in divinity and become an interfaith minister.
A lot of my experiences contributed to my understanding of myself, and of reality, she said. I was simply following what my heart called me into. I cant say I was looking for anything in particular, but I like what Carl Jung wrote to Bill Wilson about a thirst for wholeness.
Its whats driving Western civilization, and is the cornerstone of a lot of my early academic work and my work as a health and wellness counsellor, which I have been for years.
That thirst may be feeding the current hype around ayahuasca, which has become a clich of something enlightened hipsters do to find themselves. Cu do Montreal has been inundated of late with requests for membership, but Rochester notes that her church does not offer exotic getaways for new-age thrill seekers.
She describes next weekends event as an educational conference, meant to share information, debunk myths and clear up misconceptions about so-called ayahuasca and the religions of the Santo Daime.
Mr. Dunlevy, you can help by de-sensationalizing this, she said, and advising people that this is a very deep, serious spiritual tradition and path, not to be taken lightly and not recreational.
AT A GLANCE: The Ayahuasca Religions: The Sacrament, the Traditions, the Science conference takes place Saturday, Oct. 19, at St. James United Church, 463 Ste-Catherine St. W. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. Tickets cost $79 in advance, $100 at the door, $45 for students. For more information, visit santodaime.ca
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