Ayahuasca Part IV: Takeaways

What do you say about an experience that challenges your notions of what’s real and what isn’t? Well… This, I guess.

I had done plenty of psychoactive substances prior to my experience with Ayahuasca, and I did a fair amount of academic research on it leading up to the ceremony, but there just isn’t anything that prepares you for the kind of journey I was taken on. Every image that I saw with my eyes closed felt real – as if I wasn’t coming up with the images on my own, but I was being granted new eyes to see things that had always been there. Like in dreams where you’re convinced that you’re actually in that reality, but I never lost the sense that I left my reality – only added on new layers.

I interpreted the universes I saw as universes that exist simultaneously with this one. I knew that the spirits I encountered were very real, and many were there to help me. Not only that, but the other people in the room seemed to be able to tune into the visions I was having, and react to them in ways aimed at assisting me with them.

Prior to “releasing the dragon,” I had vivid images of the Spirit of Ayahuasca in a humanoid form, her hair made of long vines, her skin translucent, her heart and veins clearly visible, green, and glowing with life. Her and the Shadow Dragon stood side-by-side, arms outstretched, clearly holding space for my healing process as a blinding white light came from behind them. 

At the end of the ceremony on night two, Randy said, “I don’t want this to come off as egotistical, but I view myself as somewhat of a healer, and I was trying to help Sean release some spirits.”

“Let me set your mind at ease,” I said when the feathers were passed my way, “You hit the nail on the fucking head with that one.”

I view myself as an empiricist – I hold a very scientific worldview, but as any good scientist would, I leave open the potential that my view can be improved upon or disproven based on new evidence. This particular set of evidence caused me to challenge a lot of notions. It also ripped open a lot of old wounds, reexposing them to the open air, and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t ready for it.

I can see how, with the right guidance in the weeks following the ceremony, this would’ve been ultimately very good for me. I did not, however, have any plan whatsoever for the integration of this experience into my life. I should have set myself up with counseling to accompany this event, but I did not. I should have sought help to interpret these images and form constructive ways of dealing with them, but I did not. 

I do not see myself doing a ceremony again for some time – I still have a lot to go over spiritually, mentally, and emotionally after this go round. If/when I do embark on anything even remotely similar to this, I will have a very particular counseling plan set up so I don’t fall back into depression like I did this time. Without that plan, all those wounds just left me thinking, “Ow, this really fucking hurts,” as opposed to, “Here’s what I can do to help these wounds heal.” 

Ultimately, I’m glad I did the ceremony. I’m glad that I stepped outside my comfort zone to explore my reality in such an expansive way – I am, afterall, a dedicated explorer. Also, now that I’ve done this the wrong way, I feel certain that I’ll do it the right way going forward. If you choose to do anything like this, make sure you’re set up with a strong support system afterward, and be open about the fact that things aren’t okay. This particular form of medicine is powerful and can lead to amazing insights, but it’s also unrelentingly honest about where your weak points are, and without the proper guidance, that can really fuck your shit up for a while.

Take an honest inventory of whether this or any other psychedelic is the right choice for where you are in life before you do it, and make sure you’ve got a plan for afterward, otherwise you’re just doing drugs, and potentially causing more harm than good. Happy traveling.

Ayahuasca Part III: Dragons and Purging

I woke softly when the sun rose, and everyone else joined me in consciousness shortly after. We were all quiet and contemplative while we prepared a breakfast of of fruits and some plain organic oatmeal I brought (if you’re wondering how much like cardboard it tastes, the answer is “a lot”). We arranged everything in large bowls, then placed them on the alter, and returned to our mats.

Prayer circles of water and food happened. We gave gratitude for each bowl as we passed it from person to person, saying “hayllalla” as we went, which translates to “well-being.” Holy shit did food taste good. I had eaten very little in the preceding days to account for the vomiting and diarrhea portion of this experience, but I restrained myself from shoveling too much into my face because night two of ceremony loomed in the near future.

We went around the room sharing some of our experiences from the night before and the Curandero offered his interpretations. Apparently the Spirit of Ayahuasca is often interpreted as a large snake, which I didn’t consciously recall knowing. Maybe I read it somewhere, maybe I unwittingly noticed the snake on the tapestry hung on the wall, or maybe (and here’s where I landed) I really fucking saw the Spirit of Ayahuasca as she wound her way around my innards. Maybe her twisting and turning in my stomach was her way of routing out all the spiritual knots I’ve accumulated in my thirty years of life. Who knows?

After we broke off from the morning circle, I spent probably an hour or so writing in my journal (I’ve since drunkenly misplaced that journal, so there’s probably shit I’m missing in this retelling, but oh well). Then I went to the middle of the large stretch of grass and did my thirty-minute stretch routine, taking in the morning sun and accumulating a good number of new mosquito bites. Was I secretly hoping the Curandera was watching me from the window while I did those stretches? Maybe – she was quite attractive in both appearance and aura. But her love for her partner (the Curandero) was clear and I had no interest in getting in the way of that. Fun to think about, though.

Anyway, Randy wanted to go back to LA Fitness for the sake of showering, then he wanted to get an air mattress to use that night, and go to lunch. I had no real interest in doing any of that, but I was his navigation (he had me turn on the audio for Google maps, but also regularly requested updates on how far we were before the next turn), and he had really grown on me, so I was down.

In keeping with “la dieta,” I had steamed rice and steamed broccoli at the Chinese restaurant we stopped at. I went crazy and added a little salt because I like to live on the wild side. Randy had shrimp lo mein because he clearly gave zero fucks about the purging potential. Somehow, he managed to avoid purging the previous night, which he attributed to his antacids. The man’s a spiritual beast in sheep’s clothes.

We got back, meditated, napped, and chatted a bit before reconvening for Night Two of ceremony. We all knew what we were getting into, but I wouldn’t call any of our feelings “excitement.” Night One was taxing physically, mentally, and emotionally, and from what I read, the intensity was supposed to compound on the second night.

My intentions had been whittled down considerably. That night my only intention was “to ride the coils of the serpent as the surfer rides a wave.” Poetic as fuck, right? After night one, I relearned something I already knew from previous psychedelic experiences – those drugs (or Spirits) are gonna take you wherever they want anyway, so just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The Rapé was considerably easier to deal with. It was really just about calming the fuck down and not trying to breathe through your nose at all. It involved a lot of spitting as saliva gathered in your drooped-open mouth, but it was manageable and I gagged much less. Others were not so lucky and heavy bouts of vomiting ensued around me. I was glad I figured it out, but I felt their pain when I heard the heaving and bucket splatters.

I did my best not to be inspired to throw up, closed my eyes and meditated until She was ready to take me on my next journey. My good friend The Shadow Dragon showed up to say, “Hey.” I was touched that he would visit me, then I realized that he had always been with me – he was there watching, protecting me just outside of my field of vision. I felt bad for not seeing him and thanking him sooner. He was pretty cool about it, though. He just gave me a knowing look that said, “I’m here for you,” then curled up by my side.

I was suddenly launched into a kaleidoscoping fun-house mirror universe. It was filled with creatures similar to the previous night – demons if you will – and one of those douchebags had the nerve to teabag me. I found that very funny, but still, dick move. Luckily, when any of those spirits got too costic, The Shadow Dragon would flap his wing and they’d skedaddle.

Back in the physical world, I was in a lot of pain and discomfort. My stomach was cramping and I almost continuously felt the urge to vomit. I’d sit up and dry heave for a bit, then lie back down to resume my tossing and turning on the mat. After one of those bouts, I was violently thrown into a number of memories from my childhood. One involved being so scared that I hid in a closet. I was afraid of the dark back then, but I was more afraid of what was going on outside of the closet, so I thought, “Fuck it, the dark’s not so bad.” (I was like six when this happened so I probably didn’t say it exactly like that, but you get the idea)

First I experienced the memory as if I was there, then I became an outside observer as the Me I am now. I met Young Me in the darkness where he sat huddled and alone, and I took him into my arms and held him. I gave Young Me the type of love and protection that I didn’t get in that moment. “It’s alright,” I told Him/Me, “you’re safe now.”

Just then I got yanked back into reality. “Wait! I’m not done hugging me!” I thought as I opened my eyes and let out a barrage of dark brown, mostly digested, very bland foods into my dog dish. I was able to recenter, close my eyes and do a little more hugging, then I felt much, much better. I felt warm and grateful that The Spirit of Ayahuasca had granted me that opportunity. I cried tears of joy and chuckled at the ridiculousness of it all. I also opted out of Round Two of the medicine because I felt pretty fulfilled in that moment, and fatigued from all the purging.

Grandmother Ayahuasca wasn’t done with me, yet, though. I settled back into Her world, and had visions of being a dragon. I saw my scaly red skin and felt my wings expanding behind me. I was sitting up, and I could feel myself stretching my limbs like a dragon just getting up after a long nap on a mound of gold in his cave. That transitioned into very vivid images of me murdering people. I was slicing throats and plunging long blades into stomachs, but somehow I was still doing it tenderly – almost lovingly.

In the same first-to-third-person perspective shift that I had with my memory, I reinhabited myself and saw a man in a black leather hood standing in a room lined with his victims. I knew immediately that he was a past self – someone I had been in another life. I also knew that he had never been loved, so I embraced him like I did with Younger Me. He collapsed in my arms and wept.

I opened my eyes and heard the Curandero chanting about dragons. Then I saw Randy flailing his arms about wildly. It looked as if he was gathering energy in front of him and then shooing something away, but he was definitely flailing in my direction. Finally he said, “Be free!”

Just then I realized that I wasn’t the dragon – I was holding onto this spirit. With that, I vomited one last time, and when I closed my eyes again the dragon (this past self that I just met) spread its wings and flew away from me. It was like having a huge weight taken off my shoulders. I felt lighter, and instantly sober.

I had every bit of mental acuity back, and I was content as fuck, so I just sat there for the remainder of the ceremony jamming out to the chanting and percussion of the Curanderos. When the circle closed, I had some more Rapé with the Curandero, then gathered my things and made my way to the tent I set up the day before, but didn’t have the energy or motivation to make it out to the previous night. I curled into the warmth of my experience and my only-slightly vomit-stained blanket, and was lulled to sleep by Mother Nature’s song.

Ayahuasca Part II: Randy, The Serpent, and The Underworld

The recounting of my Ayahuasca journey would be incomplete without full coverage of my main man Randy. I needed a ride to the ceremony, so I asked the Curandero and he connected me with Randy. Initially, we’d all be riding together, but the Curandero and his partner (also a Curandera) ended up riding separately, so that left me and Randy to figure things out on our own. In total, we communicated through 18 emails, 5 phone calls, and 6 text messages over the course of the three days leading up to the event. As a retired software engineer, he’s the first to admit that he isn’t “the best at people,” but he’s very thorough with his communications, specifying routes of travel, time of travel, and one or two alternatives. He even clarified if I’d be using Siri or Google Maps on my phone to navigate after he picked me up from the train station (he had a phobia of driving in the city, so I needed to make my way to the suburbs to meet him).

When he picked me up, he said, “I was lucky enough to grab a free parking spot right over there. It was free for 3 or 4 hours, so I went to the coffee shop to answer some emails. It’s a really nice coffee shop. They have free WiFi and the coffee is pretty good.” It went on like that for a while.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting him to look like after our extensive electronic communication, but it was different than what I got. He was a tall man in his seventies (best guess), slightly hunched from years of being too tall and sitting in front of a computer. He wore a plaid button down short-sleeve shirt tucked into khaki cargo shorts held up by a belt. Long, spindly legs reached from the shorts to the top of his white socks that filled his large white running sneakers. He wore glasses, and his phone and glasses case were clipped to his belt. He was a kind, gentle human, and based on his appearance, he would’ve been the last person I picked out of a lineup to go on a psychedelic ‘trip’ (he kept using that word and correcting it to ‘journey’).

We stopped at Costco so he could fill up his gas tank, then we stopped at LA Fitness so he could check out the facility and brush his teeth, then we stopped at a few other shops for groceries and some other random shit. Finally, we were on our way to the property in Wauconda, IL where our trip – or journey – was to take place.

The property was motherfuckin’ gorgeous. It was tucked back away from the road and surrounded by tall, beautiful trees. There was a rolling meadow that lead down to a large pond, and everything was a vivid green even before the hallucinogens. You could hear occasional cars drive by on the road and there was construction on the adjacent property, but when the sun started to set, Mother Nature was the only one making noise. Daytime cicadas gave way to nighttime crickets and frogs. Coyotes and owls punctured the continuous hum of the amphibians and bugs every once in a while, and the leaves rustled in response. Mother. Fuckin’. Gorgeous.

The ceremony would be taking place on a covered patio, which was fine by me because I got like 7 mosquito bites in the first five minutes after I got out of the car. We removed most of the furniture from the room, then when the Curanderos got there, we removed the rest and set up the alter and our respective mats, pillows, and blankets. Also, we each got our own “purge bucket” in case we couldn’t make it to the one bathroom to vomit. Mine was a porcelain dog dish, and I was concerned that it wouldn’t be large enough.

We moved pretty quickly through setup, and all sat down to begin the ceremony after some of us meditated for a bit. First, the Curandero gave a summative, “Here’s what to expect out of tonight” talk. Then we had a brief water prayer circle where we presented each other with the life-nourishing water that we’d later all be expelling violently from our bodies.

Then we had a round of “Rapé,” a powdered tobacco similar to snuff, but mixed with tree ash. The Spirit of Tobacco was described as a grandfather spirit – social, calming, and providing focus. It was poured into two small piles on the Curandero’s hand, then scooped up in a small, wooden pipe. Then you helped guide the pipe to your nostril, and it was blown forcefully up your nose on both sides. It burned, made your mouth water, and if you let it hit the back of your throat (or heaven forbid swallowed any) it made you gag.

Then we all went up one by one to the alter to receive “the medicine.” The Ayahuasca root is mashed and boiled along with Chacruna, and the end result is a thick, dark brown tea of sorts. Based on my experience with mushrooms, I figured it would taste awful, but I was delightfully surprised by its sweetness and palatability. After we sat back down, a condor and eagle feather – symbolizing the spirits of the North and the South – were passed around, we summoned one or both of the spirits and shared our intentions for the evening.

I can’t recall each of my intentions, but I can say with certainty that I had the longest list. As the Rapé took hold, my nervousness turned to excitement. As evening darkness settled in around us, we fell silent. The Shaman eventually started chanting lightly, and I could feel the edges of a drug state creeping up on me. I went prone and closed my eyes just in time to catch a flood of images rushing past my eyelids. They came too fast for me to make heads or tails of them. I opened my eyes and was surprised that my vision wasn’t really affected with my eyes open. There were still little hints of hallucinogen here and there, but compared to the technicolor world inside my head, the outside world was muted.

I closed my eyes again and found myself in a rainforest. I saw a large serpent descending from a tree in front of me. She (I intuitively knew it was a female) lowered herself until we were staring at one another eye-to-eye. “Hey there, Snake.” I said. She said nothing, but she then phased through my face and slithered down into my torso. I had vivid images of her writhing around in there continuously, and they were accompanied by my stomach feeling unsettled. I was never scared, though. Somehow this all seemed very natural.

My eyes shot open as a very clear and present need to expel my stomach’s contents from both ends took hold. I made my way to the bathroom and locked myself in, grateful for its presence and for the moments of quiet that punctuated my purging. Per the “what to expect” conversation, we were to have a second round of medicine, and while I sat on the toilet I thought, “Well there’s no way I’m doing that!”

When I got back to my mat, the Curandero said, “Alright, we will now open up the circle to the second round of medicine.” So of course I did it. This time, the Rapé was administered via a large, hollowed out bone that allowed for much more of it to be given much faster. I gulped down the second helping of tea and got back to my mat just in time to take advantage of my dog dish. After expelling a plethora of dark, brown matter from my person, I laid back down.

This time I had visions of my skin being charred from head to toe. Then I started to see demonic faces – some with horns, some without skin, some with red, glowing eyes, some made of lava. I saw one of them run his hand along the entirety of an animal (it was either a warthog or a possum, couldn’t tell) and with the passing of his hand, all of the living tissue was stripped from the bone. Again, none of this scared me – it just was. Finally, I was surrounded with these creatures in their world – a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with burnt, crumbling buildings and swirls of ash. Honestly, I felt very at home.

Then vomiting. Much more vomiting. As I started to come to, I realized that the two Curanderos had stopped their rhythmic chanting and drum beats, and the circle was coming to a close for the night. The two feathers were being passed around again so we could share the gift of our voices. I was still hunched over my bowl when I heard Randy say, “I’ll wait for Brother Sean to feel a little better before I pass him the feathers.”

“No… Skip me…” I muttered as saliva dripped from my lips.

But he didn’t. He waited. Then he said, “Hold the feathers – they have healing powers.”

“Ugh.” I said. But I took the feathers, and thought, “I’ll be damned. I feel better.” I explained my violent transition from one world to another and the serpent and probably a host of other things that I just can’t recall right now.

“You were in the underworld,” the Curandero said in a calm, “well duh” kind of way.

I remember thinking, “I wasn’t just in the underworld – I was a fucking king there.” and I had a vision of me with a gold crown on a delapidated throne, then I passed the fuck out. 

Ayahuasca Part I: The Leadup

The organizer a local Meetup Group I frequent sent out the usual reading material prior to the monthly meeting. Feel free to read the whole thing, but if you’re not inclined, it’s the manifesto of Mother Ayahuasca (the spirit of Ayahuasca), describing herself, her intentions, and her journey through the world. It offers information while still being some degree of readable, but I had a little trouble with it because I’m generally not one for indulging in that particular brand of whimsy.

I had known a little about Ayahuasca for years, but felt strongly that I had more to learn, so I was excited to see the headlining speaker at the Meetup, who was a Curandero (a healer who uses traditional remedies, also referred to as an Ayahuascero or Shaman). As with the reading, though, I was hesitant to throw my support in the ring for this guy and his practices just yet because my background is in the more modern psychological practices. For a long time, I held the “newer is better” belief, and it still lingered around in my brain coloring my view of older practices.

When I got to sit in front of him and hear him speak, I was impressed by his sense of humor, his down-to-earth attitude, his traditional college-level education in sociology, and the laid-back assuredness that can only come from 19 years of working with Ayahuasca. I asked him the requisite, “What kinds of questions do you ask people before you work with them?”

“The biggest questions we ask are, ‘Are you on any medications right now? Do you have a history of mental illness in your family? Have you ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?’ Things like that.”

He also qualified it by saying, “That said, have I still given the medicine [Ayahuasca] to people on medications like lithium? Yes. Have I still given it to people with schizophrenia? Yes. But it’s all on a case-by-case basis after sitting down with them and discussing potential problems.”

He also said, “Usually when it’s time for you to do the medicine, the spirit of Ayahusca will call you to her.” And I definitely heard the call.

This guy had exactly the kind of practical approach I was looking for, plus I just fuckin’ liked the dude. Before we hugged each other goodbye, I overheard him mention the potential that he’d be doing a healing ceremony sometime before he headed back to Peru, so I connected with him on Facebook. He wouldn’t know the details for certain until he had confirmed enough participants to make it worth his while and had returned from the Sun Dance he was headed to (a Native American ceremony involving hours and hours of dancing).

Before he even left, he sent me a message confirming that it was happening, and providing some reading material on “la dieta,” which gives some fairly strict guidelines on the types of food you can eat leading up the ceremony. You were supposed to start it as much as two weeks in advance, but being me, I waited until like three days before. Scientifically, the point is to have very little in your stomach that might increase acidity, as Ayahuasca can be pretty hard on your digestive tract. Spiritually, the point was to eat a diet as close to that of our Peruvian predecessors as possible to maximize our ability to commune with the Spirit of Ayahuasca. So it was a lot of fruits and vegetables, and very little seasoning (if any).

I spent many of the days leading up to the ceremony reading about the science and tradition of this particular plant medicine and listening to personal accounts. Honestly, most of it was an attempt to assuage my growing nervousness about being ripped out of this world and shown the more sordid parts of my history. Every account I heard went something like, “There’s nothing particularly fun or enjoyable about the experience. Usually it’s actually pretty rough and it was one of the most trying things I’ve ever done. But it was absolutely, 100% worth it.” It was also described as, “ten years of traditional talk therapy crammed into two nights, with extensive vomiting and diarrhea thrown in.”

Really selling it, right? Anyway, a few days before the ceremony, right after I had really committed myself to the diet, I sat down to meditate. Once I was able to clear my mind, I saw a figure making its way toward me. I intuited that this was the Spirit of Ayahuasca. When she reached me, she placed her hand on my forehead, and I felt warmth and comfort and calmness. She saw me stirring about in my own mind, and took time out of her busy schedule to put me at ease. Nervousness lingered a little, but I was as ready as I’d ever be to take this journey.

No, You’re Flighty!

I occasionally have difficulty focusing on things. Right now, for example, I am at work – the place where I imagine most people spend their time doing work. But what am I up to? Well, I’ve been checking out what credit cards I might qualify for in spite of my shitty credit score, I’m editing a short story that I wrote recently, and I’m writing this blog post. I’m pretty sure none of my coworkers read this (except the one that checks my screen every now and again to see if I’m working, who is clearly just being paranoid, and whose suspicions are baseless), so I feel pretty safe discussing my delinquency.

I know it’s not just an aversion to work because I have this issue in my free time, too. At parties I’ll bounce from group to group interjecting what I deem to be meaningful contributions to each conversation, then I’m off to the next cluster of people to brighten their lives. When I’m watching movies or TV at home, I’ll also be scrolling through shit on my phone. I’m listening to audiobooks or NPR when I’m driving, walking somewhere, playing videogames, or hanging out with my dog.

Do I have an aversion to silence? Is it my mind that’s unquiet? I feel  like I really enjoy silence at intervals, like when I’m hiking or… Actually it’s pretty much only when I’m hiking. Even then I’ll listen to audiobooks for large portions of my hikes, but for the really strenuous portions where every part of me hurts, I need silence. I need to be completely physically exhausted in order to entertain the notion of meditation. Though I’m not sure I’d call that meditation because in that state, I fall back on simple, looping thoughts to keep my limbs moving.

Immediately after the uphill, when the ground evens out and the push is over, that’s when my mind seems to be able to shut itself up for a minute. That’s when I’m able to come to an epiphany if there’s one to come to. After chewing on whatever my repetitive thought choice was at length, when my breath is quick and labored and my body aches, that’s the sweet spot.

As I’m typing this I’m realizing how long it’s been since I’ve been in that mental state. My thoughts leading up to now have largely been around a need for healthcare coverage so I can medicate myself to attain it, but I’ve completely ignored the potential that I’ve been landlocked by concrete for far too long. I need to get out, get away, get moving – that’s the medicine I need most right now (and probably always).

Thanks for going on this little mental journey with me, Reader, you’ve been a real help. Maybe we’re both flighty.