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Interview with Silvia Polivoy, at Sukhavati Retreat in Bahia, October 2006

In October 2006, Alistair Appleton interviewed SILVIA POLIVOY about her work with ayahuasca, some of the thinking behind the Ayahuasca Healing Seminars and how she became interested in the work.

How did you get into this world ?

I am a psychologist, and my main interest is psychotherapeutic. And I was always interested in modified states of consciousness because I am convinced that the trance state is the best state to produce healing and to have insights. And to receive information from our unconscious part.

Were you always convinced of that?

I learnt that with time and experience. Working with patients, working in my own healing, my own meditations. I was doing different kinds of healing, holotropic breath work. I was practising the 4th Way, a method created by Gurdieff. And, of course, I was interested in sacred plants… But I needed to be prepared before my first experience. When I felt ready I started working with a Peruvian shaman…

When was this?

This was about 1995. We were drinking San Pedro in Peru. It’s a cactus similar to peyote. And the first year I was drinking this tea with the shaman and a group of people and I was having only nausea and vomiting (laughs). So, I thought it was something I had to unblock because the rest of the group, all of them, were having visions and insights. So, I decided to persist and after one year I had my first experience which was very,very interesting.

I was in India in my visions, witnessing a ceremony because a young girl had died. It was a murder. I was in that place, with all the people in the town, but they were not watching me. It was very sad. And very interesting because it was a mythological history so after that session when the effects passed I started to have insights into the interpretation of that myth. It was like interpreting a dream.

So already you were seeing how the vision could be interpreted?

Yes, because at that moment I still didn’t know what it was.

Were you doing these things because you thought it would be interesting therapeutically or because of the spiritual side?

Both. When I was working as a therapist I was doing transactional analysis. Before this I did a post-graduate degree in psychoanalysis. After that I did transactional analysis both as a patient and a therapist. And one day I had an out-of-body experience spontaneously. And I didn’t know that that existed.

What happened?

I was lying in my bed resting and suddenly I was watching myself from the ceiling. When I realised what was happening I thought that I was dead. But it was only a few minutes. Very quickly I came back to my body, very surprised. And I didn’t know what had happened. So I started to look for information.

When was that? Just before you started San Pedro?

Yes. Several years before.

So how long were you practising as a normal psychotherapist?

A long time. I finished university in 1983 then I did a post graduate for 3 and a half years more, studying only psychoanalysis, and practising and having supervision and having my own patients.

Then I quit. I was disappointed with psychoanalysis. Very sad. Because I thought that psychoanalysis was the best! If I don’t like this, then what? And I was very depressed and my sister insisted that you have to do a therapy, something different. Not psychoanalysis.

Finally I found this therapist. A transactional therapist. I was very surprised because I started to make changes very quickly. It’s very practical. And then I started to study it. I worked many many years doing that until I finally – gradually – moved from transactional to transpersonal, doing different kind of therapies : holotropic breathwork, hypnosis, regressions, meditation and this school of the 4th Way.

And after this work I realised I was more interested in the transpersonal way.

Transpersonal mean interested in spiritual?

Yes, transpersonal psychology is the psychology that includes the spiritual realm.

And are you a very spiritual person? Have you always been interested in spiritual matters?

I was always spiritual – in the sense I was evolving. It’s not like that I’m completely evolved (laughs). Still, I am only human.

Really? Silvia, you disappoint me!

I know my weak parts. I know my shadow. I was working with that for a long time. Am still working with it.

My idea is to be in the centre. Not to be in the extremes. To be in the centre you have to be very aware of yourself. If not you will always be reacting to things,. So my idea of spirituality is to be in the centre where you can appreciate that every thing is a creation . When you are aware of that you stop reacting because you know that everything is a mirror. Everything that is happening in your life is your creation. So if I don’t like something outside I know that I have to change something inside.

Of course, sometimes I react. Sometimes I am angry with somebody or nervous or in a bad mood. But it’s only for a short time then I realise immediately and I know that it’s inside of me. That the enemies are not outside.

And do you think that’s because of therapy or because of ayahuasca?

Well, I knew this before. But ayahuasca gives you a big push in that direction.

Let’s talk about ayahuasca. When did you first drink?

I first drank ayahuasca in 1996 in the Amazon. And I was ready for the ayahuasca. Remember, I’d been drinking San Pedro for a year. And so I was ready for the ayahuasca. My first experience was beautiful. I had a lot of insights. It was like a veil being removed. And that was my first experience.

That night I decided that ayahuasca was the best kind of psychotherapy I’d ever met.

So the first time you drank ayahuasca you already saw it as a kind of psychotherapy?

I chose ayahuasca to do my psychotherapy. To do my healing. At the same time I was doing other things – but ayahuasca was a very important tool in my life.

A lot of people had written about ayahuasca – Terrence McKenna, Allan Ginsberg – but they were doing it as a psychedelic, expanding consciousness. Had anyone used it in that psychotherapeutic way before?

I don’t know of people using it psychotherapeutically before me. There was a group of doctors in Tarapoto. They founded a therapeutic community to work with people who have abused drugs. They use ayahuasca to rehabilitate people. They are doctors, psychologists. They are the only people I know working with ayahuasca and psychotherapy. Though, probably, there are many more now.

What about what the shaman do? Would they see their work as a form of psychotherapy. Is the traditional use of ayahuasca psychotherapeutic?

They would not call it that. But in some sessions that I’ve been at in the Amazon, when the Shaman does a session in a village, neighbours come and they will talk about their problems like in a psychotherapy group. Some very practical things and the Shaman will give advice during the session.

Also in Mexico I was in Ouxaxa in Qualimenes to learn the mushroom ceremony. And it was the same only with mushrooms. People come and ask questions. For example, one night a woman came and asked the shaman – who was also woman – about her son who had run away from home. So the session was to eat mushroom and the shaman saw what had happened to this kid – if he was ok, if he was lost – and to give advice to this woman. So it’s a kind of psychotherapy.

But they also use it for healing. Shamans are like doctors. Because a neighbour comes and says : ‘my cousin cannot walk’ – things like that. And the shaman sees what the person needs.

And in that case does the person drink ayahuasca to get healed or is it just the shaman?

In many places only the shaman drinks and in other places the patient too.

Also many shamans became shamans because they were ill. Some of them isolate themselves in the jungle and drink they ayahuasca until they receive the healing they need.

But it’s very delicate to talk about healing because, from my point of view, what ayahusca provides is a spiritual healing. Why? Because if you can have insight, you can remove your mask to find your essence.

Many people don’t know what their essence is. They are disconnected. Ayahuasca helps the reconnection. You can have a visions of the causes of your problems: how you create your problems with your family or your work. You receive information about what are you doing wrong or what are you doing to create the life you have.

That’s why for me it’s a spiritual healing. You will have the information but then you will decide what you do with that information. If you will make the changes that you need to change or you will continue doing the same thing. It’s always your choice.

Does ayahuasca heal physical ailments or is it just a spiritual, a psychological healer?

I believe that an illness in the body starts in the spirit. Because the dense [body] is the last part where the illness goes. But it is not the cause. The cause is always in the spiritual being. And it takes time to materialize in the body and when the illness appears in the body it’s because you are very disconnected. And also I believe in karma. An illness is also a lesson for people. And you have to learn a lot of things to heal. If your karma will allow you to heal. Because some times you cannot do anything.

Talking of healing. How did the ‘Ayahuasca Healing’ project start? At what point did you decide that you weren’t going to just drink for yourself….?

Well, I started drinking ayahuasca for myself but a long time ago a group of psychotherapist called me because they wanted to explore ayahuasca but not with the shaman and not with the church. They wanted to drink with a psychotherapist. So I started giving sessions only for them.

After a while, other people started to ask: I want also to be part of the group. And I continued drinking. For two years I was working especially with my childhood. After those 2 years working with my childhood I started to have visions about my work and how to work with ayahuasca.

And I saw the seminars in a vision. People from all different countries coming to the Amazon, drinking ayahuasca. So I went to the Amazon, to Pucalpa, to look for a hotel and organise the first seminar. I spent 3 weeks going to different hotels. The jungle is not easy because there you have to go by boat, you travel for several hours and arrive in the middle of the night. And finally we found a very nice lodge in the middle of the jungle. With no electricity but with bedrooms and bathrooms. Basic And we organised the first seminar and it was full. Completely full.

We worked for several years in Pucalpa but the logistics were not easy there. So after a while I was worried about that. How to continue working there. Because it was not very easy there in Peru. And one night I had a dream I dreamt of a map of Brazil. I put my finger in the Amazon, from peru to Manaus. So I went to Manaus to look for hotels.And I found a very interesting hotel, big. And I offered the owner of the hotel ‘If you make private bathrooms, then I’ll bring a group.’ And she did that. And in July 2000 I took the first group to Manaus.

So let me get the time line right. The first time you drank was when?


And the first time you did a seminar in Pucalpa was…?


So three years later. And the first time in Manaus?


And the first time in Bahia?

The first time in Bahia was 2002.

And when you were drinking right at the beginning, when you were going into the Amazon, were you going on your own?

Yes, I was. I went to the Amazon. I have the benefit of speaking Spanish. That part was easy. The most difficult part was the jungle, the insects, the way you live while you are there. Because you are looking for shamans, sometimes you have to visit very poor villages and you have to live in places you’re not used to. it’s a challenge. I was always living in a city in an appartment. And I love the jungle but it’s very different when you have to live there. And it was very healing that part because I learnt that I can be happy in many ways and in many places. And I don’t always need to be comfortable. I can stay in difficult places. It’s my decision.

So if people were thinking about coming to Brazil – because you can do it in the Amazon and there are people who drink it in England – Santo Daime is everywhere. What makes ‘Ayahuasca-Healing’ different ?

Well, if you want to be a shaman you have to go to the Amazon and look for a shaman to train you. But if you don’t want to be a shaman and you want to be in a place where you can share your experiences where you can receive counselling, where you can learn more about ayahuasca, other aspects not only drinking, learn meditation, do regressions and talk with a psychotherapist. So it’s the person’s choice.

And this is what ‘Ayahuasca Healing’ offers – not just drinking.

I’m not offering: come to Bahia to drink. It’s the whole process. A group of facilitators each of them teach something, give something. And the participants are doing all the activities. It’s a complement. It’s not only the ayahuasca. The ayahuasca is the teacher. It’s a whole method to achieve the result.

Because my idea is that people come here to reconnect with their own resources. I don’t want that people come he to be healed by me or by a plant. It’s not like that. People don’t come here to find a miracle, they have to work and they have to work hard to achieve a healing or an insight. And they have to continue working when they come back to do the necessary changes to heal something.

So ayhuasca is not a cure-all, it won’t change everything.

No, no. It’s not a cure, ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a tool that you can use to be more aware of yourself, to be more conscious. But then you have to put your will and your work in to achieve healing. If that is your karma, also. It’s a combination.

So what sort of people come to the seminars?

All kinds of people. Scientists, workers, students. People who have never drunk any kind of alcohol or drug. Regular people. Or people who are doing research. People who are looking for ways to feel better. It’s a form of psychotherapy. Ayahuasca is the psychotherapist. But you have to do your part.

But it’s quite extreme. What brings people here all the way to Brazil?

I suppose, people must be doing this for the same reasons as me. I wanted to learn more about myself. I wanted to go beyond my limitations. I wanted to experience other environments.

What can people expect? Can people expect enlightenment?

No (laughs) I don’t think people expect that.

What I started to look for was spending time in amongst nature, in contact with plants, far from my everyday life. Having time for myself, eating healthily. Having teachers to teach me different techniques that helped me and a group of peole to share and to work together with. And,of course, if I can be comfortable that’s better. To be in a nice place.

I chose Bahia because it has jungle and the ocean and we are far from the city here. But if we need something there is a city and there are hospitals, an airport, restaurants. We are not isolated but if you need to be alone you can find peace here.

What should people not expect – what should people not come here looking for?

A miracle.

They have to be aware that they have to do their part. And they have to be honest with themselves.

Here there are certain rules. For example, the diet. Here we don’t eat sugar and salt. Red meat, pork. We don’t drink alcohol. We don’t not take any other drugs. So people have to know that it’s not a party. It’s a job and not everything in a job is nice.

Sometimes the ayahuasca will show them a dark place, the traumatic part. And not everybody wants to see this kind of thing. But they have to be aware that it’s like any other psychotherapy. Sometimes you will see nice things and sometimes you will have to face your worst part. But it’s always for the best. If you’re prepared to do this, face your shadow, then we offer help and support to do this. And, of course, this unveilling helps people. People see for themselves what needs to be done. It’s not like I’m saying: ‘you have to do this’. People just know.

What sort of problems has ayahuasca has been successful in solving in your experience? Is there a kind of person who comes with a problem that ayahuasca often helps?

Well, especially depression

Ayahuasca is a natural antidepressant. Though it’s not like you have to drink ayahuasca everyday! (laughs). People come here for a week and drink three times and when they go back they feel different for months. Ayahuasca is inside of them.

And of course if they do the job and they apply what they learned they will heal that depression. Because depression is a bad habit. It’s a bad habit because usually people who are depressed are talking to themsleves in a very negative way. So if you’re not aware of the Other One inside of you saying horrible things to you, of course you will be depressed.

We have to be aware that we are not only one personality. We are several inside one body. If we can get to know each of our other personalities or sub-personalities and integrate them in one superior then there will be a boss. If not we have lot of sub-personalities in a chaotic way. It’s chaos. so what we need is to introduce ourselves to each of our personalities and sometimes we have to negotiate between them and integrate them into a superior boss – wisdom. There must be a boss there. If you can do that and be aware of your interior voice you will solve a lot of problems.

And what about drug addiction?

Well ayahuasca has been used to rehabilitate people who are abusing drugs or alcohol. But that is not what we’re doing here. Once in a while someone appears who expresses a desire to stop consuming drugs. if the person is really committed then ayahusca will help a lot . But if that person is not completely committed and is still lying to themselves then I would recommend doing something more strict. Like perhaps, living in a community that drinks ayahuasca more often with psychiatrists and doctors.

So that’s not what you see Ayhuasca Healing doing?

No, not these seminars. Though we’ve had several participants who said they’ve stopped after drinking ayahuasca. Not only drugs but alcohol or bad habits. You stop your bad habits. In my case I changed many habits. Now I can drink coffee but very light coffee. I can drink alcohol but very little alcohol. I’m more sensitive now in many ways.

That’s it. Thank you!

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