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Mother Knows Best: Listening to Ayahuasca

American medicine man Eli Rechtschaffen discusses the queen of sacred medicines.

Key points

  • We're all looking for happiness, love, and freedom. These medicines are but one doorway.
  • Ayahuasca can turn around the blocks in the ego that are tightly wound.
  • My teachers flow like a river, with acceptance of whatever life brings them.
  • It's a path of patience that slowly unfolds itself through grace, creating an alignment with life and the universe.

The American ayahuascero Eli Rechtschaffen is a remarkable figure in the field of sacred medicine. First taken to the Amazon jungle at 17 by his physician father, Stephan Rechtschaffen (co-founder of New York's Omega Institute and Blue Spirit Costa Rica), he was initiated by local shamans into sacred ceremonies and later trained to become a medicine man in the Inga tradition of Colombia alongside his teacher, Taita Juanito.

Today, 31-year-old Rechtschaffen works as a healer and guide, using plant teachers—ayahuasca, in particular—in conjunction with meditation practice to help seekers eager for spiritual discovery to reach the Suma Pinta ("highest vision of the heavens") afforded by these time-honored medicines. A warm, intelligent soul, Rechtschaffen spoke to me via Zoom this past spring about the unusual healer's path he's chosen, and the extraordinary power of ayahuasca ceremonies (guided, he believes, by the Feminine aspect of God) at this tipping point in patriarchal culture. He was resting between ceremonies at home in Nosara, Costa Rica.

Mark Matousek: Tell me about your spiritual background and how you came to have your first plant journey?

Eli Rechtschaffen: Because of my father's work, I grew up surrounded by excellent teachers and visionaries. When I was 17, he took me to the Peruvian jungle on a plant journey with Alberto Villoldo (the medical anthropologist and shaman). I had already experimented with hallucinatory or visionary plants, but for the first time, I worked with ayahuasca, the medicine which is now a fundamental part of my spiritual path and practice.

The ceremony was very powerful. I felt like I was a computer, and there was all this information from the plant world that was being downloaded into me. Visions and messages came through me and even the star constellations gave me information. I remember telling my dad, "Okay, I think I learned some stuff. I feel lighter, but I don't think that's for me. It was too much."

MM: How did you go from 'this isn't for me' to choosing this as a vocation?

ER: After Peru, I felt like She was calling me to come and try again, to see if this connection was there.

MM: "She" is ayahuasca?

ER: Yes. My current teacher Taita Juanito is from Colombia. We call ayahuasca yajé and use the ayahuasca vine, which is the male part, and the chacruna leaves, which is the female part. This creates the union of the Divine Masculine and Feminine. The leaves have the DMT and give the visions, and the vine is what allows for it to be ingested into the body.

MM: What age were you when you did the second round?

ER: I would have been 20 or 21. The first night was quite hard, but in my struggle I watched one gentleman sit in a meditation position the whole night and thought to myself, “Aha!”

In the morning, I told him about my night and he said, "This is a beautiful opportunity to sit in the presence of consciousness, in the presence of love." I slept during that day but by that next evening, I’d decided to give it one more try. That night is when a lot of veils and confusion around what it means to be here started to come down and I saw this was the path for me. I began to have visions of working with my teacher and leading retreats with him.

MM: Can you say more about how the veils began to drop?

ER: My two fundamental pillars are the path of meditation and the path of the plant medicines. It's been essential to use both as doors to enter into the fundamental understanding of who we are. It's a path of patience that slowly unfolds itself through grace and the work we put in, to create an alignment of life and the universe. The veil dropping is made up of moments of readjustments.

Two of my teachers (or taitas) are brothers. They were brought up in the jungle and the influence of that natural frequency brought on a naturalness that I noticed. Their structure of thinking, dealing with traumas or things people carry with them is not as rigid as it is for the Western mind, where we have more things from our childhood or society to deal with.

The truth is that we're all one. We're all the consciousness of God, of love, whatever we feel. We're all looking for happiness, love, and freedom. This understanding is what all these different doors bring us back to. This medicine is but one doorway.

MM: How has your own ego become less rigid working with these medicines?

ER: Sometimes there are blocks or confusions or structures in the ego that are tightly wound. Ayahuasca can turn you around to be able to see those things. I don't know how many times I've thought I had it all figured out when there's a little turn to look at something. Often, it's something I'd seen, but kept turning away from because I didn't have the capacity to put the full focus on it to see the healing there.

There's always this mysterious study happening, no matter how small. And those small adjustments can make big differences in how one lives. So, yes, I feel I’m becoming more like the taitas. They flow like a river, with acceptance of whatever life brings them.

MM: Tell me about practices to support this flow when one isn't engaged in a plant journey.

ER: The more you work with the plants, the more the conversation or dialogue starts to open, and the more they start to become allies.

One of my teachers said, "Eli, when you need some consultation or you're trying to figure out something in your life, what I would recommend is to ask nature. Ask the river, or a tree, or a mountain." There’s no judgment or interference so these conversations can be really clear. A lot of our practices are about this connection with nature.

MM: Can you give me an example of an answer you received from nature?

ER: There's a beautiful tree with red bark outside my house and it has a spirit I connect to. A very supportive friend of mine and I were separating and it was hard for me. So I sat with this tree and it said to me, "We have two options when something like this happens. I have many branches, and it might happen that one day a thunderbolt comes and it breaks one of my branches. One option is to say, ‘Oh, poor me. Now the birds aren't going to come and land on my branches. Now the other trees aren't going to think I'm as beautiful.' Or I can say, ‘I have one less branch but let's see what life is going to give from this.’” With that energy, natural grief still happened, but it wasn't held on to in the same way. You gain trust in moving forward and allowing the universe to plan.

MM: This is also a very demanding path, is it not?

ER: Yes, it is emotionally, physically, and spiritually demanding, but family and community supported me moving forward. There are the elements of celebration also, with music and dancing. It's been nine or ten years now of me working with this tribe, and a few years ago, I started to serve ceremonies on my own. In the end, it's seeing in what way I can be of service to other beings.

MM: I understand that ayahuasca can be helpful in overcoming pain and grief.

ER: Yes, it can. When I was 19, my brother passed away and I started to suffer from really bad lower back pain that would put me in bed for a week. One night, I had a very strong fear reaction on the medicine. I asked a friend for help and she said to pray to Jesus. Now, I didn’t have much of a connection with Jesus but I thought to myself that if he was there to support us, I was open to his guidance.

In that moment, I felt this unconditional love that came in through my head. It came through my body, and funneled into my lower back. I felt the toxicity, pain, and sadness that I had stored there. I was crying and my friend was holding me, and it moved through me. Since then, I've never had that back pain in that way again.

MM: Is there a learning curve as an ayahuascero? Are you aware of becoming more skilled?

ER: The ancestral way of teaching began by drinking the medicine and coming into a relationship with her. But then I learned ikaros—the sacred chants. We sing those in the indigenous languages, as well as in Spanish. When I was starting, I felt like a portal or window from the earth opened up and noises started to come out of me that I had never made before. Through time, I've been learning more about the fluidity of the singing, the energy, and the strength.

In ceremony, I watch the taitas communicate with the people, to learn how you can give better guidance and support. There's more of a sharpness now and a better capacity for me to get out of the way.

MM: How often can a person journey safely with plant medicines?

ER: There's no set amount per person. We have people who do a weekend with us every couple of years. We have other people that attend half of the approximately 50 ceremonies we lead throughout the year. It varies greatly. Sometimes you go deeper when you do more ceremonies close together. We generally recommend two in a week, or sometimes we do four in a twelve-day retreat.

For someone like me, who's really studying, I might journey at all of the ceremonies but I have established ways to integrate that amount of medicine.

MM: As a member of Generation Z, do you believe that ayahuasca can help us turn around this patriarchal ship of state, and move toward a more harmonious future?

ER: I do, indeed. With all my heart.

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