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Black Smoke

Healing and Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon

Published by Inner Traditions
Distributed by Simon & Schuster



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About The Book

A diagnosis of cancer leads to healing and transformation in the Amazon jungle

• Explains in vivid detail De Wys’s experience of being healed from cancer through visionary ayahuasca rituals in Ecuador

• Describes her apprenticeship and relationship with the shaman who cured her

• Explores the ways this spiritual medicine can heal the emotional origins of disease now plaguing our modern technological culture

• Chosen as one of the “Top 10 Books of the New Edge” by Jonathan Talat Phillips on The Huffington Post

When composer and Bard College music professor Margaret De Wys learned she had breast cancer, the diagnosis shattered her comfortable life. Seized by fear, crushed by existential loneliness, she couldn’t respond when her loved ones reached out to her. To everyone’s concern, the illness propelled her away from her family and deep into the Amazon to work with Carlos, a charismatic Shuar shaman and master of medicina milenaria, an ancient mystical tradition with a highly sophisticated and precise technology of healing. In Black Smoke, De Wys writes of her amazing encounter with Carlos as he guided her into a world of potent visionary plants, harrowing initiations, ritual purification, and miraculous healings, including the complete disappearance of her cancer. It was, as Carlos called it, “the path of the warrior.”

Sharing a journey not only through cancer but also through self-transformation, De Wys provides an intimate inside look at the shamanic ceremonies of ayahuasca and the ways this spiritual medicine can heal the emotional origins of disease now plaguing our modern technological culture. Capturing her physical, emotional, and “holy voyage” through a world that differs vastly from our own in its perception of healing and wholeness, she offers a revealing chronicle of spiritual insight and a trenchant exploration of the limits of idealism. She not only provides a probing look at how our society can learn and benefit from indigenous wisdom but also weaves a cautionary tale about how potentially dangerous it is--on both sides--to try to cross those frontiers.


The Holy Terror

Carlos took his place behind the altar to rearrange his ritual paraphernalia: bottles of liquid medicines, aguardiente--150-proof cane alcohol for cleansing the spirit of a patient, which he had infused with agua de florida and herbs--quartz crystals, and a fan of leaves. He lifted a bottle filled with ayahuasca and began to sing in Shuar, invoking the spirits and asking that those in need be healed. Pouring la medicina from plastic Coke bottles, Carlos offered it to each person in a small, hard, seedpod cup. He moved among us, solemn and serene, handling the cup with precision and studied inflection.

“Drink it quickly,” said Carlos. Doubtful, tormented, I raised it to my lips. The liquid was as dark and viscous as molasses. Carlos’s stare was searing; he nodded, motioning for me to drink. I swallowed it all in one gulp. The taste was acrid and putrid at once, like the entire jungle rotting on my tongue. My mouth and throat revolted against it. But I sat quietly among the Shuar and the Quechua, conscious of the power and authority of the ritual, as Carlos drank his potion.

I waited for what seemed like an endless period for the medicine to take hold. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I expected!

Suddenly the stars zoomed down from the heavens, turning into electric particles in the air around me, inside me. I was in the spaces between them. I looked skyward and saw Carlos flying to the four corners above the group. I was in the sky, following him, and I understood that he was cordoning off the area for our protection.

Boom! Carlos was moving among us, spraying a liquid from his mouth. It was aguardiente. Its icy mist seared my face and shoulders. Some people screamed when he blasted them with it. I began to shake violently. Penetrating shadows paced. My sinuses vibrated and my skull shimmied. I felt I was on the razor’s edge where life meets death. It was thrilling and terribly real, the edge of the unknown.

Carlos, chanting, smacked me on the head with a fan of condor feathers and instructed me to sit in front of him. His chanting turned into a soft whistling sound that blew over me. He swept my body with the shiri-shiri, the sheath of leaves used by the shaman to cleanse and to call the helper spirits.

Carlos looked into me, through me, and began to pull something from my chest, right where my cancer was. I could feel the sickness being sucked out. He worked quickly and methodically, drawing a black smoke from my flesh, shooting it out into space where its particles vanished. When he shook a rattle over me a cold silver aura enveloped my body. He drove a forceful breath into the top of my skull. It rushed through me with a powerful surge. He hit me again with the aguardiente, and I shrieked.

As he passed the fan over me again he snapped his wrists as if to discharge the energy. I heard him whisper in my ear, “Look inside where you are hurt.”

Every cell in my body twinkled like starlight. The cells were alive and pulsing. They were beating the rhythm of the cosmos. Some were spontaneously regenerating, sending live signals to others beside them. Dark spots in my breast were black holes sucking energy into another sphere, one in which living things were doomed.

Carlos was pressing hard and swirling his fingertips deep into fleshy parts of me where the black smoke lay. I cried in pain. His touch was intimate and at the same time not so. The force he used was harsh and also practical. Many times his touch was physically painful as he tugged dark smoky ribbons from me, black ribbons of sickness. I watched as Carlos’s hand magnetized the black smoke. It spread like army ants in file and followed his motion away from my body.

Carlos was sucking on me again. Then he pulled away to spit a foul substance onto the ground. He growled as if he had something caught in his throat. He spat again, barked like a jaguar, and then whistled a long sound blast skyward.

I wanted to squeeze myself back into my former unknowingness, but that was impossible. A feeling of deep sadness came over me. I felt exposed in all my frailty and weakness.

Carlos sang over me and breathed into the crown of my head, sending a feeling of well-being through me, the sense that a curative energy was filling my body. I felt transparent but also concrete and powerful. Never before had I experienced anything so vivid and alive. My body befitted me, more so than I had known or appreciated. I was aware of the fullness of who I was, and it was an ecstatic feeling.

Ecstasy was a potent medicine, I thought. The power that passed through Carlos into me, what was it? Union with creation? I hummed with an immense, joyous vitality. As dawn was breaking I found myself at peace, but I knew my life had been profoundly changed.

Before coming to Ecuador it had seemed that even the potential for joy had been driven from me, never to return. I sat in the ceremonial longhouse reviewing the horrors I’d survived just to get to the point of feeling peace. Carlos believed his medicines could purify the body and release the subconscious contents that can cause illness. Was this what had happened to me?

Yes. I had released toxins from my body, and the emotional part of me had started flowing. Something seemed to have shifted on a cellular level. I believed Carlos had touched the roots of my disease, which I began to suspect were fear, repression, and the calcification of love and the life force within me. I didn’t know what was coming next, but at that moment I decided there was no turning back from it.

About The Author

Margaret De Wys is a composer and sound installation artist whose works have been performed at venues including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. She has traveled extensively and worked closely with traditional healers throughout the world. Currently working with John of God (João de Deus) in Brazil and at Omega Institute in New York, she also takes groups to the Ecuadorian Amazon to work with the shaman who healed her of breast cancer. The author of Black Smoke, she divides her time between Upstate New York and Southeast Nigeria.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (May 16, 2014)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781594774621

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Raves and Reviews

Black Smoke is a wonderful, beautifully written story . . . a true adventure told in a style that rivals the best of novels. This first-person account by an extraordinary woman of her inner and outer journey through darkness into light is a must read for anyone interested in healing.”

– John Perkins, New York Times bestselling author of Shapeshifting, Spirit of the Shuar, and Confessio

“This is unlike other books on ayahuasca in that it is not just a Westerner’s romanticized memory of a ‘wild time once had.’ The author offers us an honest appraisal of the impact on her, on her shaman/mentor, and on Western participants of the clash of cultures and ideologies that is usually also a part of the ‘ayahuasca experience’ for non-natives who drink the brew. Are the visions ‘real’? Can ayahuasca really heal a Westerner who is so ‘in his head’ that he wants to psychologize (and so disempower) every spiritual encounter he has? How does immersion in a rational, mind-and-money-orientated Western culture begin to affect the medicine man himself? And what happens when the American legal system becomes the judge of an age-old practice of rainforest healing? Margaret De Wys has written an interesting book that explores these questions, making it an adventure story that is more grown-up and real than other books on a similar subject.”

– Ross Heaven, therapist, workshop leader, and author of Cactus of Mystery and Shamanic Quest for the

“De Wys has written an extraordinarily informative book about Carlos, a Shuar Ecuadorian shaman, who uses not only ayahuasca and tobacco but many other plants and practices for healing. His ways of teaching her illuminate the real complexity and rigor as well as the amazing successes of his own tradition’s training. In addition, De Wys’s personal story of healing, learning, and transformation is unsentimental, engrossing, and explores the confusions that arise when one mixes indigenous cultural values with Western materialism and medicine.”

– James Fadiman, Ph.D., microdose researcher and author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Saf

“This book will thrill and support all readers traveling--or wishing to travel themselves--into the unknown and the mystery of the human spirit.”

– Josie Ravenwing, author of The Book of Miracles: The Healing Work of Joao de Deus

Black Smoke is a profound, vibrant personal story of healing and transformation, both medical and spiritual. A clear, objective account of how immersion in ayahuasca shamanism cured De Wys’s breast cancer and transformed her into a healer. As we follow her path, we come to understand her calling and grow with her as she comes into her truest self--the most valuable gift an author can offer. I highly recommend you receive this gift, in De Wys’s beautiful, healing memoir.”

– Neal M. Goldsmith, Ph.D., author of Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy

“In the end, Black Smoke’s greatest strength is the theme of liberation, which de Wys examines quite consistently through a number of devices.”

– Psychedelic Press UK, June 2014

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