Shedding the Layers by Mark Flaherty

Originally published in 2012 ‘Shedding the Layers: How Ayahuasca Saved More than My Skin’ by Mark Flaherty is an autobiographical account of the author’s efforts to cure himself of severe eczema by undergoing a series of ayahuasca sessions in Peru.

Mark Flaherty suffered a severe case of eczema, which affected large areas of his skin and Western science failed to bring the condition under control. This resulted in a great deal of pain, the erosion of his self-esteem and disenchantment with life. “While my body cracks and weeps, my mind swells with fear, anger and sadness. I hate my body, and I hate my life with a violence that frightens me” (Flaherty 2012, 50). In a narrative that jumps back and forth between Peru and England, and slides between different stages of Flaherty’s life, the book brings to life a slow journey of self-realisation with the hallucinogenic, South American brew, ayahuasca.

From the very beginning of the book, when Flaherty is listening to a shaman named Hamilton recount his own spiritual story, there is an emphasis on two poles; restriction and release. “The shaman told him that he had two options: forget anything ever happened and go back to his old life, or give himself over and find out what it all meant” (Flaherty 2012, 16). The arc of the book follows a movement from restriction, in his outlook and habits, to the release allowed by love and happiness. As Hamilton tells the initially sceptical Flaherty: “You have a very narrow view of reality” (Flaherty 2012, 20). This restricted reality is prized apart by the exoticism of Peru and the Other world of ayahuasca, in preparation for a release and a new way-of-being in England.

A number of elements, or layers, are drawn out that represent the restrictions that had come to define Flaherty as physically ailed and unconfident. For instance, one root of restriction is placed in an LSD trip he had taken in Zambia in which he had stepped on a bewitched trinket. Ever since, he had purportedly harboured a spirit of ill-will and ayahuasca not only demonstrated this occurrence but led to a way of freeing himself from its yoke. However, more often than not after realisations, Flaherty’s eczema would return with a vengeance. As the story progresses, the layers are textually released through their identification, realisation and integration. On a diet of sanango, the snake becomes an ideal metaphor for shedding:

Alberto tells me that the sanango will cause my skin to peel. In snake-like fashion, I shed my entire body, from scalp to toes. Whereas the snake emerges reborn with a bright new layer, my skin continues to peel, again and again, becoming more tender and raw. It’s as though my entire self is being stripped away, leaving nothing but an exposed, hateful core (Flaherty 2012, 77)

Today, there is a sense of growing movement in the spread of ayahuasca; long tendrils increasingly reaching out and touching Western society in a myriad of shamanic and syncretic forms. This is patterned within the narrative. For instance, an article written by a former guest with Hamilton at Blue Morpho, who was cured, in five sessions, of acute depression and suicidal ideation, is mentioned within the narrative. There are the globe-trotting Western ayahuasca participants. And, moreover, Flaherty’s repeated flights between South America and England makes the world feel all the more smaller and accessible. One has the sense, when reading Shedding the Layers, that a powerful plant is not so far away on our doorstep; restricted, yet awaiting full release.

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7 Responses

  1. A traditional difficulty with all psychedelic, in this case shamanistic, experience is integrating it into a ‘western’ rational quasi-scientific world view.
    What is too easily dismissed is personal experience, even a cure, regarded as ‘merely anecdotal ‘
    evidence.
    There is no ‘merely’ about it if you are the actual person, or even a close witness, it is real, factual, solid, true.

    • Couldn’t agree more with you, Oldfenboy. Most people in society have a very narrow view of reality and what is possible. I used to be extremely sceptical of alternative medicines and it was only desperation and the fact that doctors could do absolutely nothing for me that enabled me to investigate alternatives. Western medicine doesn’t ever cure anything, but is often very good at suppressing symptoms. I was “lucky” in that my symptoms were so severe that the doctors couldn’t suppress them. My time living with the shamans in Peru completely altered everything I thought myself and life to be. Without question they saved my life.Maybe some friends and family still doubt that ayahuasca helped me to heal, but those that saw me at my sickest cannot deny that my life and physical body has been completely transformed through working with ayahuasca.

      Cheers
      Mark

      • oldfenboy says:

        Cheers Mark,
        my dear old dad suffered terribly with psoriasis, I can only guess what you endured. Say any more and I will make time to read the book!
        I am writing myself about psychedelics and Rob Dickins was quite enthusiastic and put some of it up. I have another old fen buddy has gone off and become shamanic, visits S America and lives in Hawaii
        Lets keep in touch.

        oldfenboy

      • oldfenboy says:

        Cheers and thank you Mark,

        my ‘opus’ (ironic inverted commas) on integrating psychedelic experience with ‘normal’ life will benefit from incorporating some of yours, I trust that is OK with you.
        It sounds like you may have got up the noses of a few sceptics and might find the following quote useful in return:

        But here and now, concerning Flaherty’s ‘magical’ cure, if we turn to chemist and LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann, writing on ‘Science and the Mystico-Religous Experience of The World’, he quotes Max Planck the German theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.[2]
        “ The source of all knowledge and thus the origin of all science lies in personal experiences. These are the directly given, the most real that one can think and the foothold for commencing the trains of thought which constitute science”.

        oldfenboy

  2. I have sympathy for your dad, Oldfenboy. Eczema and psoriasis is so common in today’s society, yet doctors still insist there is no cause and no cure – “you just have to love with it” they told me. Fortunately it was so bad I couldn’t. I urge anybody with eczema or psoriasis to investigate alternatives. Thanks to ayahuasca I learned that everything really does happen for a reason (for me the eczema was a wake-up call from Spirit to change my entire way of being in the world) and once you have learned the lessons of any illness, it has served its purpose and will most likely go away. The illness was the greatest gift of my life because of the changes it forced me to make, but it was touch-and-go for a while and it took me to the very brink of suicide.

    Mark

  1. July 27, 2012

    […] out the latest review of Shedding the Layers from Psychedelic Press: http://psypressuk.com/2012/07/25/literary-review-shedding-the-layers-by-mark-flaherty/ This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink. ← Signed copies to US and […]

  2. July 29, 2012

    […] of his skin and Western science failed to bring the condition under control. This resulted in a great deal of pain, the erosion of his self-esteem and disenchantment with life. “While my body cracks and […]

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