My pure and playful encounters with the sacred cactus

By Sarah Elizabeth McCunn


I came to hear about Sergey and his work only very recently. I had been passing time in the communal area of my hostel in Cusco when two fellow guests brought in their friend, Stefan. At some point in their conversation, I heard mention of San Pedro and my ears pricked up because I wanted very much to experience this plant. Stefan told me he’d drunk with Sergey very recently, and highly recommended the experience to me.
I have a long standing fascination and respect for plant hallucinogens having experienced a multitude of positive benefits from psilocybin and ayahuasca in my own life, and the lives of some of my friends and relatives. I credit these medicines with giving me the courage to leave my home and my job (at an age at which I’m already considered ‘late to settle’) in order to travel in a part of the world where, rather than being demonised, these medicines are revered for their unique and remarkable power to heal and nourish.
I’d had a very beneficial experience with Ayahuasca in Ecuador 2 years ago, drinking with a Quechuan family who’d been extremely humble and caring, and I’d made many positive changes to my life as a result of the days I spent with them. Upon returning South America 5 months ago, I knew I wanted to deepen my experience with plant medicine.
In the weeks prior to meeting Sergey, I partook in some further Ayahuasca ceremonies, but I found the showmanship and apparent ego radiating from those delivering the medicine to be a huge turn-off. Not only was it distracting and frankly cringe inducing, but I found the setting brought about an experience in me which was vastly more ego fueled than I’d previously encountered. I was busily probing round old, soggy, sorry narratives, drawing (in hindsight) ludicrous conclusions about the solutions to these ‘problems’. Entering into the vulnerable space of a strong psychedelic experience whilst surrounded by umpteen ‘second-comings of Christ’ (brandishing one too many guitars) can lead one somewhat astray it seems. I attempted in the days after the ceremonies to ‘decipher’ the content of some of my more bizarre musings, but opted eventually to abandon the endeavour as I watched my own bullshit radar leap completely off-scale. I was eventually left feeling a touch embarrassed at the whole affair.
My conclusion from here was that the person administering the medicine MUST embody the spirit of the medicine, or the experience of the participant will likely be tarnished, skewed and will lack purity. Their conduct is absolutely an influence. In my experience with plant medicines thus far, I have felt humility to be one of their greatest messages. For this reason I struggle with ‘shamans’ or facilitators who use their positions in order to live out personal fantasies of what it means to be spiritual rather than allowing the medicines interaction with the individual to take centre stage.
Upon meeting Sergey for the first of my three ceremonies, I could see immediately that he was a different kettle of fish. I was just finishing reading his book when we met, so I already felt somewhat acquainted with him due to the honesty and humour with which he writes. Even in the short drive from the Plaza de Armas to his house, much laughter was shared and I could feel that a wonderful day lay ahead.
The experiences which unfolded in the Calca valley over the following week – amid trees of every shade of green, rivers, mountains, clouds and ancient fertility sites – I will always remember for their immensely powerful yet peaceful quality. Huachuma is a playful giant with a full hearted sense of humour. It welcomes you into its folds and makes you smile endlessly at the beauty and simplicity that surrounds us.
As soon as my encounter started to unfold, I saw very clearly that I could simply ‘unhook’ myself from the unhelpful narratives I’d been attempting to examine so fruitlessly during my previous ayahuasca experiences. My mind was the most tranquil it’s ever been, and my being was immersed in the world around me, whose existence seemed to roar in all it’s glory. I recalled Terence McKenna’s description of plant entheogens having the ability to “open the floodgates of the reducing valve of consciousness and expose the individual to the full force of the howling Tao”, and this, it seemed to me, was a perfect description of what I was undergoing.
Huachuma is not a plant which tricks you or confuses you; it’s out in the daylight with nothing to hide, in all it’s beauty and honesty. Misleading hallucinations are minimal; you simply have the privilege of being immersed in pure existence and seeing it minus the goggles of familiarity.
I had many chuckles to myself about the lengths we all go to to convince ourselves our lives are important and meaningful, because we cannot bring ourselves to believe that all the meaning we need is in pure existence. We constantly overlook what’s under our noses in our search for “more” and create complicated narratives for ourselves; about who we are, the impact of our pasts on our presents, and what we should be striving to achieve before we pop our clogs. I spent hours over those days smiling from at the realisation we are so misguided in our conduct, how much we deny about ourselves, how much we turn our backs on our own nature and run around in a world of make believe trying desperately try to imbue with pseudo importance. I was smiling at the liberating quality of this realisation; because I now had a much stronger sense of the simplicity and attainability of happiness. So many of us set ourselves standards we can but fail meet, because they are standards set by generations of damaged people marching to the beat of a drum played by megalomaniacs.
If everyone had periodic access to simply drink Huachuma and lie under a tree for the day, society would be an unfathomably different place; the mechanisms which divide us, keep us in order, and distract us from the sheer the havoc we are collectively wreaking on ourselves and the world we are inextricably bound to would simply fall apart.
It has now been nearly 3 weeks since my last experience with Sergey and I feel profoundly peaceful, wearing a half smile on my face from day to day. I completely understand why Huachuma is considered a medicine of the heart, because my mind, which used to race to the point of exasperation at times, has slowed down to a contented plod, and my heart feels full and warm even in challenging situations or with difficult people. If like me you are looking for a spiritually nourishing experience but feel a certain wariness at navigating the tricky path of finding something wholly pure and down to earth, or at potentially having to deal with people who’ve developed messiah complexes, I cannot recommend enough that you go and drink Huachuma with Sergey in Calca. You will experience the pure, simple, joyous character of the medicine in the beauty of the valley, with minimal interference beyond what you either need or feel happy to engage in. You’ll not be left deciphering or wondering what the heck happened, just with a sense you experienced something truly pure, honest and meaningful.
Two days ago, I read ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver for the first time, and the way it resonated with the feelings that arose during my recent experiences moved me very much, so I will leave you with these beautiful words:


You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Thank you Sergey, I look forward to the day I return with my brother.