Interview with Jacques Mabit who founded the drug addiction treatment centre at Takiwasi. He is director of the centre, leads ayahuasca sessions and also sees his responsibility as guardian of the spirit of Takiwasi.
"I studied tropical medicine in France and, under the auspices of Medecin Sans Frontiers, spent some time in Africa before coming to Peru in 1980. I stayed for three years in the south, working on a health development project where I came into contact with traditional healers. When I returned to France I worked for an organisation evaluating health development projects, so again I was travelling and saw traditional healers and medicine men.
I noticed that they would work on both the physical and the psychological level - a holistic approach. I didn't understand exactly what they were doing but I could see that it was effective. At the same time I had some personal, existential questions about my life, the meaning of life and so on. I felt there was a lack of soul in western medicine. I never believed in politics and I couldn't see the door in institutionalised religion at that moment. But I felt that the traditional healers knew something and that I should seek them out.
Peru was interesting for me as there are three distinct parts: the coast, the mountains and the jungle, and each part has its own traditions and medicine. So I decided to go back to Peru and look for healers. That was when I came across ayahuasca.
In 1986 I had my first ayahuasca session. I was terrified by what I might experience, but nothing happened! So I took it a second time and within five minutes I was inside the experience. I experienced death - I was fighting giants and snakes and I was being pulled inside a very deep black hole... I was fighting for my life and it forced me to see what life really was. At one point I accepted that I would have to die and everything was finished and I had been very stupid to come to the jungle to die but it was time and, in the end, Jacques is not important. But at that moment everything changed and suddenly I understood many things, saw a lot of connections, and in that one moment 10 years of previous psychoanalysis became clear. Two days later I was taking ayahuasca again.
I had had about ten sessions when the spirit of the plant told me that I was to work with drug addicts. Before that I had never had any interest in that area at all.... It was a total surprise and at that moment I had no idea what to do. But this ayahuasca revelation was so strong, it felt more real than ordinary reality. From 1986 to 1989 I didn't do anything about drug addiction and just carried on doing ayahuasca and diets and fasting, following the way of learning to cure myself.
In 1989 I had another ayahuasca session when the ayahuasca spirit told me that it was time for me to begin. The day after that session I began to look into it all - associations, places, money. I went back to France and travelled a lot to look for support. We went to the US, Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Denmark, all over the place to make contact with people, looking for support and information to go ahead with the idea. There is no model to follow so we had to invent it in every way. We went to Thailand to visit a Buddhist temple where they cure drug addicts with plants and include a strong spiritual dimension. I went there and asked them to teach me. They asked how they could do that if I was living in Peru. I said "through the dreams" as this is their work, and they agreed. It was through dreams that I was directed to the Philippines to meet some healers, and also Colombia.
Fortunately, there is a guide for the project, a protection. I am still guided in the decisions I make through the ayahuasca and dreams. Sometimes in daily life there will be a sudden flash or insight - sometimes people tell you something and you know that it is not really these people speaking, but something else. There are some patients here that have never really studied, they can barely read, but sometimes they give you a sentence and it is so perfect you know that it is not from their personality but it is a deeper message for you.
Spirituality is an important element in the treatment of drug addiction at Takiwasi and Jacques describes it as the highest of the three levels used in their programme:
For the first month we concentrate on the physical level when we just cure the physical body in order to be able to make the next step. The next level is the psychological/affective/emotional level. Patients connect with family, emotions, memories, sadness, their location in the context of humanity.
The third step is the spiritual level. Their life has a meaning. Every patient has a very different connection with spirituality, but all of them ask for spiritual connection when they commit themselves to stay here. This is a Catholic country so they may want to make a cross or something like that. One guy made a grotto with the Virgin inside. He was very hard, his heart was like a stone. He took ayahuasca 40 times with no effect but he stayed on. The moment he told me he wanted to make a cave and put the Virgin in it I saw it as him wanting to open his stone heart and put femininity, love, purity inside again and it began to work. It took him three months, working every day, to carve out the grotto. When he put the Virgin inside we had a ceremony with people and religious music and candles. It was very important for him. He took off a ring he had always worn and said "this ring I made when I was in jail and I don't want to be in prison any more" and he offered the ring to the Virgin.
As well as addiction therapy, the centre has also held a seminar for therapists and other interested parties, using ayahuasca, and again there is a focus on spirituality:
The basic aim is to help people make a real connection with spirituality if they do not have that connection. If you have a real desire to participate in the seminar then you will find that connection. At the same time I hope that everyone leaves with a direction, a motivation and the energy to do it.
In the future Jacques intends for the centre to continue treating addicts and holding occasional seminars, but there are no plans for expansion:
It is a pilot centre, it is not necessary to have lots of people but it is essential to have some kind of grounding. It is important to be very concrete and aware of the limitations. Seminars are easy because the people are keen and prepare themselves, but a drug addict off the street has no interest in the new age, philosophy and things like that and suffers from strong physical and psychological destruction. So we have a base of a few people, never more than 12 or 14 patients at the same time inside the centre, (there are more outside the centre). The idea is to make deep work, to study and try to learn from our experience. We do not have a finished system here.
I would like to organise a system whereby you have a small model and then use the media, seminars, conferences, and receiving people here to study the work to spread the ideas. The aim is to maintain something small, but use all possible means to spread information about what we are doing. Not just about drug addicts but the correct use of altered states of consciousness. I think this is a door, I have had a chance in my life to discover a door and when it is so interesting and nice that you want to share it, you cannot be alone. I want to maintain the door open and say to people 'make the most of it'.
©Nicholas Saunders and Anja Dashwood. Interview took place in Terapoto
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