Updated: Dec 31, 2021
On dieta, I re-membered myself.
Ayahuma flowers. Photo from a friend in Paoyhan, Peru.
When I say I “re-membered”, I see my dance teachers - Ya’acov and Susannah Darling Khan of Movement Medicine - giving us that lesson in my mind’s eye while patting their bodies with their hands all over, as if to re-affix pieces that had fallen out.
Soul Retrieval. That old standby of the neo-shamanic marketplace has always tripped an alarm for me. It’s so easy to wave some feathers around and call it a miracle healing, isn’t it? Now, I have a new understanding of what it really means, Soul Retrieval, called by any name. Integration is one. Re-memberance too, of what was lost and left behind, fingers and tails sacrificed so my core organism could live to see another day.
Oddly, I had glitches with my memory the whole time. I was continually forgetting things I needed. On one evening I had no recollection of being served a medicine probably not even an hour afterwards, while still in the same room. Simultaneously, old memories flooded in. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I recognize it on a theme – memory lost, memory gained. System reboot, system upgrade.
My plant was Ayahuma, a jungle giant clothed in a carnival of rubbery, flesh-eating flowers and cannonball fruits. Together, we put out a homing signal. Scattered pieces of me heard the call and flew in like birds from faraway lands to roost, nested back where they belong in the loving branches of the tree inside.
I re-membered myself, a dietera.
This was my fifth diet, and clearest yet. The previous one ended with an unexpected overnight in an uninhabited ravine in the Ecuadorian Andes, caught out by the force of the medicine and the setting sun. I re-membered myself a devotee of the shamanic master named Ordeal and the teachings passed to me on that night. I saw how they’ve taken root and grown.
I will write more about that separately, there are things to say.
I re-membered my many pilgrimages taken and relationships forged in South America. I re-membered dieting in Paoyhan, Peru, sitting ceremony every other night and singing under the influence. I spoke Spanish for the first time in over a year and chanted icaros in my very basic but more-or-less functional Shipibo, I had thought that might be lost but it wasn’t. Healing and re-connection flowed through the vibration of language and of song, direct from our curandero and from his massive library of music recorded with the Yawanawa, Huni Kuin and other tribes of the Amazon over decades. In ceremony it was like being in the jungle again in person, like being alongside the ones who live there.
I re-membered the deep medicine of silence. We were at a retreat center in a national park on a blustery, shrub-lined coast. I wrote to our organizer a few weeks before: “I have this neurological thing, misophonia. Please, if you can, reserve for me the quietest place available. It does not have to be at all comfortable. Just quiet.” I always ask, it’s rarely possible for people to deliver. I try to do my best in whatever conditions. It doesn’t always look like that to outside eyes, but I know.
Upon arrival they said, there’s a few options over here and then there’s this one in the back away from the center, out where it’s more wild. It’s a real tambo like in the jungle. Only thing is, it has no heat.” We went to see it, a pyramidal wooden hut with a crisp ocean wind whistling through open eaves, a central fire pit in concrete with a Shiva lingham cast into one side. Utterly silent, but for the spirits.
It’s perfect, I said. I’ll take it.
I re-membered my cold training. 10 years’ worth of contrast showers as an immune therapy, since before Wim Hof became a household name. I re-membered working on my cold tolerance last winter in Hungary. There wasn’t much else to do so it was ice baths in the tub, running outside on Margitsziget – Budapest’s answer to Central Park – and dancing there, too, through the dead of winter with the Ecstatic Dance community. Because of COVID just about all those Tinder dates I went on could only be a walk outside, dozens of them. Possibly the least sexy way to meet a potential love interest freezing and looking like a marshmallow, but otherwise useful as it turns out.
I re-membered tripping to outer regions of Hungary in subzero temperatures in my van with no heat, feeling myself a yogi overwintering in some Himalayan crevasse. It used to be that I couldn’t stand winter. There’d always be a moment in autumn where I’d collapse on the floor sobbing for no apparent reason, and then would think to myself “this isn’t normal” and then would answer myself “heads up, it’s getting cold and dark early and you need to put on more clothes and get enough sunlight for your seasonal depression” and that would kick off the season.
Now, I honor the period of rest, incubation, and communing with the Shadowlands that winter provides the space and time for. I prayed to the spirit of the North, cold ocean wind blowing ice like diamonds into each and every cell.
Ayahuma’s protection helped keep the fire I needed burning, I know. I grew a bio-suit of hot pink flowers with their tongues out like Kali Ma. Nice and toasty. We’re very selective about what we let in.
I re-membered my medicines: Kambo, Rapé, Sananga.
I felt my cords of connection with the Brazilian Amazon re-activated. It’s a tender relationship, in a healing process that can’t be rushed. In the masterful application of rapé by our curandero I re-membered my Katukina friends in Acre. I re-membered falling in love with the space for prayer and togetherness and joyful purging in the rapé ceremonies they shared in traditional style. I re-opened the book on an old story. It’s not an easy one.
Haux haux, I will write more about that separately. There are things to say.
I re-membered myself a designer, a space-holder, a creative, an activist.
One of my ex-architecture professors wrote to me about halfway through this dieta. Interesting, because the last time he got in touch I was mid-dieta in Paoyhan, the first time in over a decade. My read on that is “not a coincidence”. With his letter I reflected on myself at 22, doing projects about indigenous land rights and ancestral building skills while many of my peers obsessed over tech. Maybe it’s different now, but back then I felt like an alien a lot of the time. I still wouldn’t have done a thing differently.
My professor wrote to me this paragraph:
“My daughter is considering applying for a trip to Ecuador this march. They will canoe the Amazon, and help out on a small sustainable farm for 10 days. I could not help but think of you and I brought you up to her last night. She reminds me of how I remember you. In all the good ways. She has an incredible sense of, and more importantly belief in fairness and what is just. She became vegan at age 12 and now is trying to find opportunities to work with remote communities in central and South America. She speaks Spanish and has been trying to find immersive opportunities for several years now. Her future path in her mind is currently torn between environmental design or classic rock drummer. Who knows, but I admire her and her willingness to stand up for and act on a set of values and beliefs that are not easily compromised. Much the same as what I respected in you all those years ago.”
Thank you, thank you so much, for that re-memberance sent through the aether at this perfect moment for me to hear it. I’m so pleased to be a touchstone on your daughter’s way.
Architecture school is an Ordeal, too. I consider it to have been a kind of pre-shamanic training. Foundational studies, if you will. A 101 survey class.
Given the demands of it, I think you will laugh at that.
On my path now, I often think of you and other of our most beloved professors. We had a tight community there in that small, post-industrial Northeast city dominated by the university, very poor but alive with arts and innovation, with cultures of resistance. What strikes me most about it these days is this: you have been some the most intensely brilliant, hyper-accomplished people I’ve known – as befitting tenured professors at a top US school – and yet, so able to engage with us students as human beings.
I remember you investing time in us well beyond the requirements of the job, letting unstructured moments together unfold as a part of your pedagogy, not separate from it. I remember you circulating around our studios to give desk critiques at 3 am before a deadline. I remember you helping us process some soul-crushing presentation feedback from some intimidating panel of jurors over beers downtown. I remember so many journeys to visit sites of architectural interest, the conversations had during the casual moments at meals and bopping around city streets together some of the most impactful moments of teaching I can recall. I remember you joining us on occasion for nights out to “rage” as we used to say, reveling until sunrise after a big critique when no one had slept for days.
I saw you all willing to receive from us as well. I learned from you that master teachers never stop being students themselves. Master teachers know that everyone at every level has valuable wisdom inside. Setting up conditions to call it forth is a part of their skill set.
Sometimes I reflect on that intimacy in the context of today’s very hot topic of social power dynamics, authority and abuse. It is rightfully a hot topic, with an almost paralyzing amount of fear and trauma clouding the frequency of constructive communication for us all to work through. I reflect on architecture school as a time when I experienced relationship that was impeccably well-boundaried, yet so held and warm at the same time. By my best teachers, I rarely felt dismissed or kept at a distance but for the minimum amount of connection required to take my money, work, adoration or anything else. Never like I was asking too much in being too curious or needing more help either, or like I wasn’t elite enough to be deserving of being known. And somehow, those moments of casual being together never seemed to me to compromise my best teachers’ ability to command authority or respect. In fact, my sense of these became stronger through the trust built, through the genuine relationship built beyond prescribed roles, beyond hierarchy. Through being seen, supported, shared with and received as me by people I admired so much, I could more easily accept their authority when called upon to do so. And, I could rest into my own.
Those relationships were a majorly influential experience of true alongsideness that continue to inspire how I walk through this life. When I imagine the kind of teacher and the kind of leader I aspire to be, this is what I think of first.
I re-membered myself a Jew.
Or anyway, I took a few steps in that direction. The Rabbi was hanging around doing good works. We’re building our young relationship, I like him a lot so far. I saw him dancing in a vision with rapé on Yom Kippur, when I fasted for the holiday and closed my ceremony singing the Shema on the beach at sunset. I had no memory that’s actually traditional until I read about it later. I saw in another vision myself in religious dress with my head covered, when before the dieta I couldn’t even hold that thought for half a second.
Jewish medicine was in the air. Even our curandero found a Star of David talisman at the bottom of his bag he’d been given as a gift, after seeing a picture I had of the Rabbi. It had been lost for years. He re-membered something about his own Jewish ancestry, before his family was forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition.
I heard Palestine calling.
I know a trip to Israel and Palestine both is in my future. It’s a big deal for me, to be open to it after two decades of involving myself in practically every issue but that one. I’ve long considered it a duty to be at the very least well-informed about the situation, but have stood back from action.
The message was carried by an artist and medicine woman who has spent time painting street murals with a rebel circus group in Palestine. I know those circus people, there was a group of them with a gym space in my neighborhood back when I was working as an architect in Nepal. They were offering programming for the local kids, many street kids who would have no one and nothing else supporting them otherwise. I went to a badass performance there once. It’s impressive stuff.
This wonderful woman told me all about it.
“Can I go?”
“Yes absolutely, they will love it if you give a dance workshop. It’s so needed.”
Well, that’s a plan then.
One of our Movement Medicine faculty dance teachers is an ex-Israeli soldier who now works with Combatants for Peace and does movement-based conflict resolution workshops in private practice.
At one of his workshops a few years ago (on conflict and grief, with another senior teacher who is a grief counselor), he and I shared stories of our first real, human exchange with a Palestinian person. Mine was at 27, in a conversation with a colleague at grad school where I was studying Sustainable Development. He was in the Conflict Transformation program. My teacher’s first non-militarized meeting was in one of the occupied territories, as a guest in the family home of a man he was not sure would let him live through the night. As I understood, they are still friends.
My teacher asked me if I had ever done any work with it. No. “It’s never been my issue.” Why not, as a Jew? “I had to put Judaism down for a while”, I remember was my answer.
“Yeah.” He got it.
My journey into our family story will continue there, one way or another. Some Hungarian cousins moved to Israel after the Second World War. I hear there are “a hundred thousand relatives” (to quote my cousin Michael) over there now, religious ones I’ve never met. My close cousin from New Jersey who I grew up with now lives on an eco-kibbutz there with his Israeli/British wife, building earth structures and doing regenerative agriculture like I did in my younger years, when I still thought that would be my life’s work.
Quite some threads to tie together, to re-member into this emerging whole.
I was in good company. Many of the other dieteras – all women but one, and he didn’t stay for integration - were also working with their ancestral material. Sorting through family stories, language, culture and tradition, seeking understanding of themselves and our enmired world here in the present time. In service of all of our healing. We had many conversations during our spacious 10-day post-diet integration period about trauma and oppression, about cycles of violence, about identity and belonging. We cooked a lot, ate a lot, laughed and shared a lot, harvested plants, had ritual in the sauna and danced, too, our little coven. Ancestral healing is certainly the theme of the hour, and it’s not something any of us can do alone.
A dieta is a beginning. You establish a connection with your plant, bond as much as possible in whatever window has been set aside for it, and then there’s the rest of your life in relationship with your new friend. Our curandero opined that you can expect to wait at least three months for a dieta to start showing real effects. Based on my experience, I’d say that sounds right. Ayahuma is a seedling now. My tree will grow inside with time and with tending.
He said, he could see the coronas of my previous diets in ceremony, big and bright. Big diets with big impacts. I don’t have that same gift of sight, but I know it to be true. He said he could hear my plants singing.
I named them in our prayers, sang with them and re-membered all of them. Marosa, Chiric Sanango, Noya Rao, Huachuma/Toé, and now Ayahuma, standing among the cast of characters that live inside this skin.
A dieta always leaves open ends. There’s homework. Now I will land my dieta here back in Budapest, as a new phase of my life and journey begins. My Hungarian citizenship application has been submitted, I am mostly free to design my time again as I please while waiting for an answer. My Movement Medicine dance teacher training begins online tonight. I’m bringing with me all of the pieces of myself, all the medicines I called back home and re-membered. I’m hoping to sign a lease on an apartment for a year and commit for at least that long to this city. I’ve got a few workshops in planning stages for next year. I’ve got ideas for many more.
And Winter approaches, once again, as it is wont to do.
Ayahuma and Me. September 2021.
This piece is a one of a series of four writings I did as part of a dieta in the Amazonian Plant Medicine tradition. The first three served as preparation, examining the psychological material most relevant for me in the moment so I could bring it consciously into the dieta space. The fourth is a piece of integration work, to begin to understand what I received and how I see applying it in my life moving forward. Writing is a big medicine tool for me, and I’m happy to share this window into my personal process so it may inspire others in theirs.