Yann Rivière / Metsa Oka
Meeting Yann Rivière, a young Frenchman introduced several years ago to the Amazonian shamanism. From the Parisian suburb to the forest, this is the story of his path between shadow and light.
Text and photos by Stéphane Allix
The rainy season is approaching, with heavy clouds already appearing in the sky a few kilometers North from the city of Tarapoto, in the Peruvian Amazonia. The landscape is mountainous, made of hills, fields and of a rich, warm and noisy forest. I got used to walking in the river several times during the day. Stepping on pebbles while being careful not to put my foot on a snake, (I have already surprised two of them, warming on round stones), I taste the pleasure of a priceless isolation. The water is clear, pleasant, and I plunge with delight into it. Eagles are flying above this corner of the valley, carried by the warm air drafts. One of them passes in front of the sun, I wink and let myself flow along the current, drifting as a ghost under the surface, in slow motion. After a few moments, I go back and raise myself dripping on an ardent rock that dries me. Sitting cross-legged beneath the sun, I slow down my breath and close my eyes. Hardly distracted by a lukewarm breeze and the noise of the water, I allow myself to be immersed into the majesty of the moment.
And something unexpected happens: motionless on my rock, I feel I am not alone anymore. An Indian is there. Not next to me, but in me. The sensation is strong, it is not my imagination. I open my eyes and see nothing, yet I am aware that my eyes can only observe just a small fragment of the reality, thus I am not surprised and continue focusing on this sensation. I still feel his presence, so I do not move, trying to savor what is it that is taking place. I am sure of only one thing: I am not alone at this moment. There is an Indian, in a timeless time, in the place where I am, I, the foreigner, who since a few days ago has begun to half-open a door towards the invisible worlds. For a few seconds, our realities overlap.
For a week, I am in isolation in the center of Yann, a young Frenchman of 25 years old with the face just brought out of childhood and nevertheless a fathomless maturity, and already my perceptions open. He is Yann Rivière, Metsa Oka in shipibo language.
How did this boy of Vitry-sur-Seine, whose father is a psychiatrist and his mother a doctor, arrive here? What did he activate in me? And why am I so quiet and confident in his presence? Nevertheless, his story had not begun really well.
A desperate quest
For a decade, Yann perceives very clearly that the magical world of childhood collapses. «The education that we were given claimed that everything had been understood, that there was no mystery. Only death seemed to be an unknown territory. Nevertheless, the world of childhood is magic and filled with mysteries: we can speak with our toy, our fluff, hear voices of « imaginary friends », and while for an adult these things do not exist, the child knows how to find himself there without any problems and distinguish within the stream of perceptions that which emanates from the « imaginary » world from what comes from the « conventional » world.»
The progressive loss of this capacity of being spontaneously connected to something that he already feels as essential, is a terrible suffering for Yann. Deep inside him, something still lives and refuses to disappear in the shadow. Then, he is trying by all means to keep this link, this connection which becomes blurred. At first with weed, at the age of 11 years. However, he admits noticing very quickly that this type of drug led him to nowhere: on the contrary, it anesthetized him. As a result, he starts searching in books about « what makes one travel ». He is 13 years old when he discovers the plant of datura. The ingestion of this plant causes hallucinatory deliriums and can have extremely grave consequences. But the urge of his quest makes him totally unconscious of the dangers. One evening, settled in a tent, he has a first experience: «I felt my heart slowing down, it seemed to stop completely, and I said to myself that I had poisoned myself and that I was going to die. Then I saw a train coming straight to my face, and I entered inside it.
The windows of the train pictured all the memories of my life. It was like watching a movie, or the life of another one… I felt my identity literally melting in every window that passed before me and I got plunged little by little into a big confusion. As if all my identity was only made of ordinary memories and often inappropriate feelings. The sensation that everything was collapsing was not really pleasant. I felt I was losing ground, I lacked time to get my breath back and the experience doubled in violence, I felt suffocating. Suddenly, I heard voices calling me outside. I crawled and went out. Then I saw a group of animals, half-human. They were eating something, and approaching them, I saw that it was me whom they were devouring. I immediately felt the pain of their claws tearing apart my skin, my muscles and my bones, one by one. But how could I be devoured while watching the scene at the same time? I had died without any doubts! What was it then going to happen? Suddenly the ground had opened as a jaw and I fell in a bottomless hole… I felt all the universal suffering there…» When he regains consciousness, the tent in which he lays is in tatters and Yann notices that his arms and ankles are scratched, as if he had run all night long in brambles.
Starting from this experience, he is not going to stop. He initiates a desperate, violent, almost crazy search and without marks, in the world of the artificial paradises. During the months, then the years that follow, the boundaries explode. His life dives into the unreal: he touches ceaselessly the verge of madness and sometimes of death. «I do not know where this thirst of finding meaning came from, everybody told me that it was going to pass, that it was an adolescent crisis …»
The decisive encounter
His parents, especially his psychiatrist father, had begun to worry. «He thought that I became schizophrenic because I told him about hearing voices. What saved me, was the fact that my madness was meaningful: the voices explained to me sensible things regarding myself or the others.» It is this coherence which finally reassures and convinces the father that Yann is not crazy. But what to do? The parents remain distraught and disarmed in front of the violence of the excesses of their so young son.
Up to the age of 18 years – during the course of 5 years – the life of Yann is developing into a real whirlwind. Police questionings, threats with psychiatric internment, family concerns, amnesias, visions, uncontrollable yet extraordinary experiences. He perceives for example everything of the people whom he meets: in the subway, he « knows » everything of the life of each and every person at whom he looks. At school, he sees and hears « at the same time » the thoughts of all the pupils of his class. «I had these perceptions also while living my own sufferings and personal joys. Though confused, I had the feeling that I was on the right way, even if nobody could explain me what I lived. I suffered, I felt guilty, and had many experiences with psychedelics, trying to understand, but because it did not work, I made up for my pain with alcohol and weed. I simply did not know what to do.»
Then he is going to have an encounter with a shipibo shaman of Amazonia, Guillermo Arevalo, whom he discovered earlier in Jan Kounen´s documentary film. «When a friend showed me Jan Kounen’s movies, Other Worlds and Blueberry, I was reassured by Guillermo Arevalo’s face. It’s as if I recognized myself. I had almost the certainty I had already seen him in dream. It is my family who said that he might be able to help me.» The parents of Yann discover that the shaman was about to do a seminary in Europe. «I arrived late, just 20 minutes before the ceremony. I got lost along the way. I talked about my experiences with datura to one of Guillermo’s apprentices. At this moment, I felt I reached a dead end: either I became crazy, or I found a sense in my experiences, because I suffered too much in this misunderstanding and facing all that made me very lonely.»
Yann’s first experiences with the ayahuasca made him become aware that until now he had never really questioned himself, attributing systematically the origin of his sufferings to others, to the society, to his parents. «I understood how much I tended to put the blame on others; besides, I lived as an amputee of half of myself.» In the third ceremony, the dose of ayahuasca is stronger, and Guillermo is very present besides Yann. The experience which he lives then is a revelation. «It’s as if all the veils of appearances and false pretences fell down one by one, and a dialogue started again between my long time worn-out heart and spirit. As if everything had been put back in place inside me …» This encounter, both with the plant and with the shaman, is decisive. The next day, Guillermo advises Yann to discipline himself. «He told me to find work. Then everything went very fast. I found a job as a desk clerk in a supermarket.» For his parents, the metamorphosis is hardly credible. They discover their motivated, changed son, shaved, dressed in suit every morning. The second seminary strengthens in Yann that he is on the right way. These few days with Guillermo eventually convince Yann’s mom to finance him a first journey in Peru.
A few months later, he is in Amazonia.
On the path of apprenticeship
«When leaving to Amazonia, I had really no objective. I knew that it was going to do good to me, though I ignored whether I was going to make something out of this experience.» But in the center of the apprentices of Guillermo, life is hard. A very strict diet, an extremely basic environment, a shaman often absent. The experience is fulfilling, but after 6 months Yann feels that he reaches his limits. He shortens his stay and returns to Europe. There, his devils are waiting for him. «By returning, I siply did not know what to do, and I fell again very fast into my old patterns. I had changed many things, but my world in Paris had not changed. Doubtless, I needed to fall and to get up eventually to understand that my place was not here.» More than a year is going to pass during which, as he admits, he does not make much that is constructive. It is during another stay besides Guillermo that Yann opens a second diet of apprenticeship with him, that he is going to pursue at his home. «Dieting in France offered me a lot. Establishing a framework, a discipline at my home, with my family, my friends, helped me to get out of it. I do not know if I was predestined but I sensed that the more I refused to go towards shamanism, the more uncomfortable I was feeling, the more depressed I became, and the worse things turned around me. With this second diet, things became clear, everything became easy.»
With hindsight, Yann adopts a more lucid look to his painful progress. «Certain people who have an addictive temperament are looking for an initiation that had become inaccessible in our culture. My previous behavior looked like a sort of failed initiation. I wanted to experiment with anything that would open for me the world of consciousness, to reconnect through something, though it was either not working or the benefits were short-lived. However, as soon as we find a good path, no matter what it is, we feel at once at the right place, and things are linked together with ease.»
Yet the most surprising is doubtless that during the opening ceremony of his diet by Guillermo, Yann begins singing in shipibo, as if he had always been doing that.
After 7 months of diet in France, Yann leaves for the Peruvian Amazonia, to Pucallpa to a shipibo community, together with older apprentices who take him under their wing, then to Iquitos again to Guillermo’s main center, where he works by his side for several months. Yann learns in the course of the ceremonies, living often indescribable experiences, under the puzzling guidance of a not too talkative master. «During my apprenticeship, he had never really spoken to me. We Westerners have this expectation to always ask for explanations, the meaning of visions, but Guillermo answered systematically all our questions by two or three words, saying that we would see it all in the following ceremony. Then the next night, we drink the ayahuasca, and the next day we ask him again for further explanations, and he tells us again the same thing… After a while, we search by ourselves.»
In order to understand the essence of the Amazonian shamanism: it is the plants that teach. The shaman is there only to propose the framework of this meeting between the teaching plants and the apprentice. Yann explains that when he drank the ayahuasca, he had the impression of reaching knowledge, intelligence…
Spirits and emotions
Some of the questions had found their answers, while others sprang up. «With the ayahuasca, we see things. Are they outside or internal? It is difficult to say. By the misuse of language, we eventually say that they are outside because when we fight against things all night long – for example, against what we call evil spirits, or bad energies – we see them in front of us, they seem very autonomous, but it is a little more complicated than that… For a long time this question bothered me, but after a while, the only thing which is significant is that we observe, that when we remove them [these things], people get better. In the same register, when we call the good energies or the good spirits, people also get better, we feel even radical changes, changes which settle down, generally, on the long term. »
Yann remains at a distance from interpretations. He is wary of too literal explanations on the reality of such or such thing, entity, energy, observed in ceremony. Particularly because he made the report in the long run that what he sees takes different forms every time. Sometimes Yann has visions of beings, entities, forms. During these long nights, he shows a surprising concentration, in spite of the drunkenness provoked by the ingestion of the ayahuasca. His perception of the people whom he welcomes does not obey the same plans. It happens that rather than a vision, Yann feels, in mirror of its own experience of life, the blockages within the person. His own feelings then inform him. Sometimes, faces appear to him, or he distinguishes simply a darkness in a particular place of the body of his patient. Then the singing allows him to get to the bottom of this darkness. He sits with legs folded up, his head slightly tilted on the side, in the darkness only infused sometimes by the clarity of the moon, and he is carried away by songs in shipibo that he seems to have known for a long time… These songs, called icaros constitute the main tool of the shaman, allowing him to travel, to see, to explore bodies as spirits.
By singing, Yann looks at the energies, tries to remove what owes the being, to free what is blocked, calls up a more bright energy, observes the reactions of the invisible secret relations, the way its visions are transformed. He is being guided. «When I sing, I act on the person. I accumulated the energy of my diets and the masterplants, and I use it through the songs to look. The visions then indicate to me if it works or not. Sitting in front of the person, I can see the plant that is going to help appear, or it such or such song occurs to me, and it also happens that I hear a voice singing to my ear… Then I do not have more than to follow it. If the depressed person on whom I worked is smiling the next day, and blooms in the course of the following days, I feel that I am on the right way. But honestly, I do not know how we lead these things. I know that I am just in a state where I know that it works. Is it the faith in my actions that provides me this much strength? The belief that we can heal people? I would not know how to express it. Is it a mixture of intention, energy, active imagination? The vibration of the song? All the theories can be proposed… The shamans are just men soaked with a plant which makes them drunk, and do not ask themselves this kind of question. What matters is the result.»
Yann has entered the realm of practice a little more than 4 years ago. He has difficulty in qualifying himself a shaman. It is especially the others, the people whom he meets who stick him this label of the shaman, the healer. He always considers hiself as an apprentice, and more and more he seeks within the lights of the Western psychology of what he experiences during these nights. The discovery of Jung for example was a revelation for him, and the approach of the Swiss psychoanalyst seems to him more and more essential in his experience with plants. «The way Jung sees archetypes looks like the way Shipibos see the spirits, these autonomous entities that affect us for the better or for the worse, according to the way we interact with them. Through the visionary experiences, I have the sensation of connecting with what Jung calls the collective unconscious… I do not know too much about what that is called, this source in which we can find some knowledge. As Shipibos, other people in different places of the world, either by rites or by ingesting plants, can reach through states of trance spaces where they can acquire knowledge.»
The night fell. Out of the thick forest which surrounds us, we hear the ceaseless noise of insects, frogs, and one thousand other animals populating the darkness. Sitting in the hammock, tightened at the beams of my hut, Yann finishes the narration of his years of apprenticeship. I have the very clear sensation, while listening to him and by observing him for some time, that it is the living demonstration that each of us is capable of reconnecting to this part of divine present that lies within us. Did I begin doing the same for myself, guided by this young white shaman?