Please welcome Sergey Baranov, February’s Author of the Month. In this piece Sergey recounts a pivotal but harrowing experience on his journey on the shamanic path when peyote saved his life in Mexico.
It was November 2008 when my sixth and last visit to Mexico surpassed all my expectations. In fact, if I had any idea what was waiting for me there, honestly speaking, I don’t know whether I would have gone.
I had two things in mind this time. First, I wanted to quit smoking, which after 10 years of abstinence, I had begun again following the tragic death of my dog. The second concern was a difficult relationship I had got involved in not long before my visit. We had a passionate affair with true feelings for each other and even with intent to marry (stronger from her side), but we also had a problem that had no solution that did not leave me feeling compromised. This grew into a heavy tension, which we seemed to be able to release only temporarily through having sex. The cause of this was my shamanic path and related work with sacred plants, a subject of no interest and actually viewed negatively by my new girlfriend. She was studying to become a doctor and it would seem that we shouldn’t have had so much controversy in between us, since we both were motivated by service to people. But it only appeared that way. In fact, alternative ways of healing have long been rejected by mainstream science, and her position wasn’t an exception. One day, while having dinner, I shared with her my experiences in Mexico and Peru. This time she was listening attentively while giving me some hope that finally, she had begun to understand. My hope collapsed, though, when after letting me speak, she paused for a moment and asked me what I knew about schizophrenia. That took away the last drop of my patience. I decided to ask Peyote for advice on how to live my life further and flew to Mexico again after the last conflict.
(Don Cascabel, doña Maria and me the morning after the Peyote night)
Since I arrived there, I began to feel tension in the air. Something was different this time.
Cascabel (rattlesnake from Spanish) and his wife doña Maria (a granddaughter of Don Jose Matsuwa) seemed a little dry toward me, making me feel somewhat uncomfortable. As usual, after sunset, I was told to bring firewood, but this time to another place. Then I was asked to build a horseshoe-like wall on the ground around the fire, facing the east. Doing that, I was told that my future would depend on how well it was made. I carefully lined up a semi-circle, worrying about my future. When I finished, I rammed it with my hands a few times over. I hadn’t seen don Catarino at the ranch this time, an 80-year-old Peyotero and son of legendary don José Matsuwa, known and respected Huichol marakame (elder shaman), in the Sierra Madre Occidental, who passed away a number of years before I was led to their ancient culture. Don Catarino was a constant and always welcomed guest in our circle, who had to walk two days to join us in our village. I asked Cascabel whether don Catarino would be joining us this time as well, to which he briefly responded: “No.” Don Catarino had always shared the medicine with us, giving me comfort. I felt threatened by his absence. Doña Maria refused to participate in the ceremony as well, so only Cascabel and I were up that night.
(Left to right: don Cascabel, don Catarino)
Usually we talked a lot before the ceremonies, but this time Cascabel was silent. He began around 8:00 pm by throwing herbs into the fire and opened it with a song. We had a lot of medicine in the bucket and I knew that the night will be long. We started to drink. Between songs, we were silent. The medicine was unfolding with notable force.
At a certain point, I felt it would be the right time to ask Peyote a question about the troubling relationship I had in the U.S., which I mentioned above. I mentally expressed the situation, asking for advice. A moment later, in the flickering fire, I saw myself in the future with her. But it no longer was me; it was my empty body. My spirit wasn’t in it anymore. I felt sorry for myself. Then this picture melted in the heat of our blazing fire, and I sat, enjoying the stars and the silence of the night, reflecting on my life in good company. I felt ecstatic and spiritually content. Peyote’s answer was obvious, so was my choice. With a heavy heart I mentally said goodbye to my girlfriend.
That was the night when I understood that in fact, we do not have a predetermined future; we only have probabilities of future trends, which we form in the present moment, defining and shaping them by the different choices we make.
One problem was solved; now it was time to solve another. I pulled a pack of Marlboros out of my backpack and threw it into the fire, mentally asking Peyote to help me quit smoking. This was the last pack of cigarettes I held since then. On this night the moon was full. I was the fire keeper. Around midnight I was asked to bless the water and share it between us. But before this ritual, Cascabel asked me to look into the pot and remember my face. I took the pot and looked at my face in the dark water, which was blurred in the shimmering light coming from the fire. Looking at it, I suddenly sensed that something was looking at me through my own reflection. I felt that it knew me. It was clearly not me looking at myself. I felt uneasy, thanked the water, took a sip, offered some to Cascabel, and then poured the rest on the ground near the fire.
I put a pot of water nearby, added more wood to the fire, moved the burning wood with my wooden stick and while tapping on the firewood, I repeated several times: “Peyote is real, Peyote is real”.
These were my last words that night. Soon after saying that, I jumped up, feeling stings on both thighs an inch or two below my genitals. I took off my pants to look at the places where I got stung. Cascabel told me not to panic, saying it would only make it worse. But how do you not panic when you find yourself in a remote Indian village, far away from the city, without a car to get to a hospital and knowing nothing of what lies ahead? Feeling circling under my skin in the places where I had been stung was worrisome. Cascabel was sitting quietly. My instinct was to cauterize the stings, but I realized that it wouldn’t really help. And when subcutaneous whirling began climbing up my body, I became seriously concerned for my life. About 20 minutes later I was knocked out on the mat. I began to feel like I was losing my body. Maria woke up and was talking quietly to Cascabel, as my condition grew worse with each passing minute. My body was paralyzed. I could not move even a finger or open my mouth or eyes. I had lost saliva and was only able to breathe through my nose. My body was burning. Maria had left, and just the two of us stayed. Then was when Cascabel told me that I had been stung by scorpions, and there was nothing he could do to get the venom out of my body, adding that I had to go through it. I lay there motionless in agonizing pain. I had never felt like I was truly dying before. I began thinking about how sudden death truly is. Had I come back to Mexico for this? Despair began to overwhelm me. I wanted to leave, to get out of my body and spend the time somewhere else, and then come back when this was over. But I couldn’t. I was completely awake and chained to it. Nearby, I heard a crying donkey. Listening to him, I thought about how my body was like this donkey, which had dutifully carried my soul all my life. And now, in suffering, I wanted to leave it alone to die. I thought about my past, when I had been practicing some form of asceticism, depriving myself of food and rest for the sake of spiritual achievements, which I had heard about or read. I knew for certain in that moment, that I was following a blind path.
Confessing to myself, I felt like crying.
This line of thought distracted me a bit from my illness. But a progressing malaise and my inability to control it, brought on a wave of boundless despair. I was lying just three feet away from the fire but couldn’t feel the heat. I held on to the hope that if I just made it through the night, the sun would warm me up. A thought came through that nobody knew where I was: my parents in distant Israel, my friends in the USA. I pictured my cats in California, who would be lost without me. I thought about everything that I had wanted to do in my life but had not yet done. I could not believe that my life would end like this, abruptly, in the middle of nowhere. Cascabel sat in silence, keeping the fire going. It was somewhat comforting knowing I had drunk enough Peyote to last through the night. I was leaning on its strength while searching for my own.
I am unable to convey the feeling of Peyote’s ecstasy mixed with the agony of the scorpion venom – two opposite forces experienced at their peak and at the same time in my body.
I knew that as long as Peyote was active in me, I would be able to fight for my life. At one point, Cascabel came up and put his pipe in my mouth, saying that smoking it would help me pass the time. I inhaled as best as I could but it didn’t help much and soon I began to give up. The thought of my impending death was killing my will to live. It did occur to me that human death comes when a person is no longer willing to fight for life. My death was nearby, sitting, waiting. Somewhere in my forehead, behind my closed eyes, I could see a tunnel, which I thought we walk through when it’s all over. I wondered where was the “light at the end?” Instead I saw ahead a black hole of non-existence, and death was the last guide on my journey to oblivion. A flurry of thoughts and feelings rushed inside, but I saw no pictures of the afterlife; my consciousness was flooded with scenes from my life. My body grew cold, turning my soul into stone. Now, I knew how people felt when freezing to death. I spent all night in this condition, while waiting for the morning sun. But when it came out, I continued to lie motionless, still freezing, even under the Mexican sun.
Later, I would learn that the scorpion venom is a paralytic and a neurotoxin which targets the central nervous system and paralyzes the prey while the scorpion feeds. Since I was too big of a meal for my new friends, to me it would simply mean choking to death within the first hour, while being unable to breathe due to the shutdown of my respiratory system, the muscles of which would be paralyzed. In some miraculous way, Peyote blocked the venom from killing my liver and kept my respiratory muscles moving while providing just enough air to survive.
It was already morning, and I was not getting any better. Eldon covered me with a blanket and left. I stayed alone, lying there until evening. As the sun was going down, I realized that if I did not start regaining my strength, I wouldn’t make it through another night. Thinking how dearly I loved life, I started to gather the will to push death back. I knew this battle was the most important battle I would ever face, since I was now fighting for life itself. Having made the choice to live, with an incredible effort, I began to try and sense my body, to get a grip on it, and after a while, I could roll over from my back to my stomach. A little later, I forced myself to bend my knees but to sit more than a few seconds was very hard. My head was spinning terribly, making me feel even sicker. Eighteen hours had passed since the stings. I tried to get up by holding on to the columns of the wooden structure.
I could now rise to my feet, but only for a few seconds. Then I could get up again and take a few steps. Slowly, trembling, I walked around the building and fell again on the mat. In that moment, I knew that the battle for my life was over, but the scary thought remained that perhaps I would have to live in this crippled condition. I tried to open my eyes, but saw nothing except a blur of colors. Loss of sight suddenly became a frightening possibility. Doña Maria brought me some water. I parted my lips, and she splashed water into my mouth. The water had an acidic taste. I couldn’t drink it.
It took me few more hours to gain enough strength to walk slowly to the house where Maria and Cascabel sat quietly. On the way up the hill, I thought about old age and how the life force withdraws from the body, leaving it to die. I was experiencing my old age after I had lived my own death.
Seeing me, Cascabel said: “You got what you wanted. You were looking to meet your ally.” He was right, I really was looking to meet him, but I had imagined that to be a bit different. In my mind, it would be someone I could talk to. Thinking about it later, I realized that Death, which had scared me when I was a kid, had become my friend, a great reminder of the miracle of Life and the importance of living in the present, aware and engaged with what is, wholeheartedly cherishing the moment.
It was now 22 hours since the stings, and my condition was still bad. I made an effort to drink some coffee and force a corn tortilla into my mouth. Cascabel shared with me that his shamanic initiation was accompanied by the bite of a rattlesnake and that Peyote had saved his life as well. He said that he had spent five days near death, alone in the hills. He also told me that even though I had received more than enough venom to kill me, I was lucky that my guide to the spirit world had not been a rattlesnake. Cascabel and I shared something real and very deep that did not need to be spoken about. Our friendship was now eternal. Later he and Maria told me that when I jumped that night from getting stung, they had seen six stings on my thighs. The second night was still quite difficult. I could not sleep, tossing and turning. The following day was also not easy, but I was able to walk and even eat. I wanted to take a bath, but I didn’t feel like I could make it to the river—a five minute walk away. I asked if there was another way. Cascabel showed me some big barrels of water. I undressed and started to pour water on myself, which felt strange and quite unpleasant. I managed to get some sleep on the third night and even went to the river during the following day. My senses had finally returned. I could see and talk and was getting control over my body. But I could still feel electric charges surging through my arms. Even on the fourth day, this sensation was still present.
Flying back to California, I knew that this nightmare was over. However, it would take me years to ponder that event.
In the short film below, kindly made by a dear friend of mine, Ben Stewart, а talented and honorable man, producer of Kymatica and Esoteric Agenda, viral documentaries reaching millions of minds, I briefly speak about my book, which also traveled through darkness before coming to light.
I hope it will serve you as a mirror in which perhaps you could see yourself and find confirmation for your own understandings while exploring new horizons of thought.
Sergey Baranov is the author of the book PATH. He currently lives with his family in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru, where he regularly conducts San Pedro ( Huachuma) ceremonies and retreats.