Ayahuasca Part I: The Leadup

The organizer of 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.

On Drinking – Present Day

There’s a dial in my head that’s been turned all the way to “information absorption” to the detriment of information dissemination lately. I had a rather heavy night out (read: “I drank really heavily”) a while back, and it sent me into a small downward spiral, and my inner critic had a lot to say when I handed him the mic.

He asked what the drinking was worth to me. Is it worth making friends with people whose names I can’t remember? Is it worth the hundreds of dollars I could have saved that night and the weeks of catching up on bills in the aftermath? Is it worth the multiple-day hangover and depression that inevitably follow? Or the lasting effects it has on my dog when I’m not willing or able to take him outside as often as I should because I can’t fathom getting out of bed? I think not.

About a decade ago, then chief drug adviser to the UK David Nutt, MD and a team of colleagues ranked different drugs based on nine different types of harm caused to an individual and seven types of harm caused to society. Alcohol was found to be the most harmful of all drugs (including heroin, crack, etc.) to society, and the fourth most harmful to the user. Dr. Nutt was fired from that position for saying that the government-sanctioned drugs were worse than the ones the government was trying to vilify – LSD, MDMA, and THC among them.

Much of alcohol’s harm to society is likely due to its legality, and the multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns encouraging us to raise a glass to whatever day it happens to be, or for no reason at all. There are, unfortunately, no juice bars selling small hits of Molly along with a kale smoothie – at least not that I’m aware of – but maybe that’s a much better way to hang out with your friends than having a beer together.

Don’t get me wrong – I love alcohol. I love the taste of it, the feel of it, the look of it – pretty much everything about it, actually. There are also plenty of studies saying that small amounts of alcohol can be good for your cardiovascular health, prevent kidney stones, safeguard against Alzheimer’s, and boost your social and sex lives. My problem is usually with the “small amounts” bit of those studies. When I drink, I fucking drink.

My friend called herself a “freegan,” meaning she only ate meat at dinner parties or when it was purchased for her. Essentially, she only ate it when she was socially called upon to do so. I think that’s the stance I’m going to take with alcohol going forward. If someone wants to buy me a drink, I’m not going to say no, but I’m also not going to ask for one or purchase one for myself. We’ll see how it goes.

Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” I seem to have the thinking and the saying parts down, but there’s still some room for improvement on the doing. I’ll keep you updated.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 29

I know, I know – it was supposed to be a 28 day program, but I didn’t do anything yesterday so here we are. Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate it.

As the photo here shows, I occasionally let my dog play too rough. I have fun, he has fun, but often I get a little damaged. That photo was taken about a week ago, right before I found out I was getting the barbacking gig at the fancy place (my first day is today, by the way). Since then, I’ve been careful to only use his tug-of-war rope so that my hand had time to heal. For the most part, it worked very well and he was very cooperative.

Then I got home from work last night, and after walking him around the block, where he both peed and pooped, I returned to my room to find a large poop in the middle of the floor. Now, I move my bed out of my room and lock up all my things each time I leave the house so he has a decent space to play in, and also to account for his mishaps. So really, this is kind of par for the course. But yesterday I was really looking forward to coming home, putting my bed back in my room, and getting a good night sleep in preparation for today’s shift, which I’ve been a little nervous about.

The poop in the middle of my floor meant that I had to clean the floor, but the smell clearly meant I was sleeping on the couch, and that pissed me off. I punched the wall and opened up two of my knuckles in the process. So now, not only was I not going to get a good night’s sleep, but my hand also had two fresh wounds on it because I couldn’t control my anger in that moment. I did not go to sleep in the best of moods.

I also did not wake up in the best of moods. The couch just isn’t as comfortable as my bed, and it smells like dog, and of course, Maximus woke me up like fives times this morning asking to go outside.

So! I finished reading the last bits of Real Happiness, and sat myself down for some good ol’ breathing. Holy crap did I need that. In the last bits of the book, she discusses how the point of continual meditation practice is not to become better at meditation, but to become better at life. I don’t sit and breath so that I can master sitting and breathing, I do it so that it connects me on a deeper level with myself, my emotions, and the events, people, and dogs in my life.

My practice itself hasn’t improved much over the course of the last month. I still get easily distracted, I still get washed away by torrents of emotion, I still get bored and restless just like I did on day one. But I will say that minus punching the wall yesterday, I have a much different way of interacting with my emotions. Meditation has, of course, made me no less of a human being – no less prone to the ups and downs of my own mind or less likely to experience positive and negative occurrences – but it has given me a powerful tool when it comes to my perception of those things.

So ends my series on Sitting and Breathing, but my journey on the road to better understanding the intricacies of my world feels like it’s just beginning, or at least beginning anew. Next up on the reading docket is Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Enlightenment by Joseph Goldstein. I will keep you abreast of what I learn there, and regale you with more tales of my nonsense going forward.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read about my journey thus far, and I look forward to continuing it with you.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 27

What a wonderfully chill morning! I mean, it’s fairly cold out, sure, but more in the “relaxed” sense of the word. I ate way too much for dinner last night and passed out on my couch watching SNL. I had very vivid dreams punctuated by my dog moving around or asking to be let out or fed. I went in and out of sleep until around 11am, then ate some leftovers, played with the pup, and did some personal grooming. I suppose I didn’t need to share any of that with you, but then, I don’t really have to share any of this with you, do I?

Today’s meditation was a combination of the walking meditation and the lovingkindness meditation. I skipped the bus and just walked to the train station. I repeated, May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be safe. Then as people came into my consciousness (seen by my actual eyes or my mind’s eye), I’d put my attention on them, May you be peaceful. May you be happy. May you be safe. The streets of Chicago are hectic at this time of day (wet, slushy roads and sidewalks be damned), and I happened to connect with a lot of good friends electronically today, so I had no shortage of other folks to rest my attention on.

Occasionally I’d catch myself caught up in the rhythm of the words, not putting any real intention behind them. I found it easier to hold the individual in my mind if I visualized myself holding their face and staring into their eyes as I imparted my words of lovingkindness. A little creepy? Sure, but it’s my head and I’ll love people how I want, dammit. Also, this method really allowed me the chance to connect to the words in a much deeper way.

By the time I got to the station, I had turned the words into a song resembling Tiny Bubbles. Singing it allowed me to focus on the pleasant tingling of the cold wind on my face. The light crunch of snow that had just fallen combined with the smush of the snow that had already melted became more satisfying under my heavy boots (like when you’re a kid hopping from puddle to puddle). I had a stupid smile on my lips that started somewhere in my toes and went through the entirety of me.

I came out of my meditation as I got to the station. There was a woman crying on the platform where I transfer to the Red Line. A guy who got onto the train next to me said into his phone, “Did you just tell me to suck a dick?!” I can see the gray of the outdoors on most the passengers’ faces around me, but I also see the curling of lips and the brightness of the smiles that persist in spite of the weather.

Dan Harris got me intrigued by saying meditation can make you about 10% happier, and as week 4 of my practice comes to a close, I’m starting to agree.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 26

Oof. Last night involved a lot of drinking. Well… The last two nights, I guess. Saturday was particularly hectic at the rooftop bar, so the whole staff drank together after we closed. Then I saw one of my coworkers at the bar on ground level, and he convinced me (it did not take a lot of convincing) to join him and the two ladies he just met at a late-night spot.

I spent much of my time hitting on the wait staff and ignoring the two women he brought with us. Interestingly, both of the ladies I was interested in had neon-colored hair – one was lavender and the other was lime green. Finally one of the two that my coworker was chatting up snapped and insisted that they go back to their hotel (they were staying at the hotel on top of which was our place of work).

In the Lyft on the way home, the one who snapped kept making drunk, biting commentary, and I found it very funny. She was, however, not trying to be funny, so her friend got mad at me for continuously chuckling at how ridiculous the situation was. I excused myself and made my way to the train station to go home.

I got home when the sun came up on Sunday, went right to sleep, and got to work only slightly late yesterday afternoon. I dutifully stood in the doorway of the pub until around 8pm (taking only brief pauses in professionalism to chat up the attractive campaign manager for the alderman who was having a fundraiser there), then my manager and I had a few drinks after clocking out.

Well, it was karaoke night at the pub, and my thought was, “I’ll just sing one song, then I’ll get out of here.” I sang California Love by 2Pac, but the words were wrong on the screen, which distracted me, and fucked up my performance. I couldn’t leave on a bad note, right?! So I signed up for another one. A few more drinks later, I was flitting around from table to table buying shots for small groups of customers with my employee discount.

At one point my coworker thought, “Man, Sean knows everybody in here!” Then he listened in on one of my conversations and realized that I didn’t really know anybody and I was just starting conversations with people at random. Before I knew it, the bar was closing and it was time for me to go home.

Fastforward to today: after tending to my rather severe hangover with some greasy Colombian food and strong coffee, I decided I had better do that whole meditating thing I’ve been doing lately. Luckily, today’s meditation was on quieting the inner critic, which was serendipitous because he’s particularly loud on days after some drinking goes on. The goal was to focus on a recent negative emotion (I chose regret), and sit with it and work through what it feels like and what comprises the list of associated concerns.

So I played out the worst-case scenario: I get fired from this job. I don’t think it’ll happen (my other coworkers drink rather heavily, so I’m in good company there), but what if it did? Well, I’d be down to just two jobs. I’d up my availability at both of them, and I’d be just fine. The takeaway from any real deep diving on failure is, “Life keeps going.”

Again, I ended up crying during the meditation. I’m finding that I spend most of my days when I’m upset just being marginally upset. I hold the emotions on the fringes of my mind while I focus on getting things done, and they just sort of sit there gnawing at my awareness the whole day. Meditation gives me the opportunity to stare them directly in the face, take them in fully, and profile them so I better understand them.

So much of my time is spent trying to be or look happy that I don’t get the opportunity to sit with my feelings, and it turns out there are a lot of them eating away at me. It’s relieving to confront them. It’s so very necessary to feel. Ultimately, I’m more happy because I let myself be sad or angry or whatever more fully. Meditation doesn’t make me emotionless, it helps me be at peace with the fact that I’m going to have unpleasant emotions sometimes, and that’s okay.

I could definitely stand to drink a little less, though. I’ll give you that one.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 24

I got home from work around 6am this morning, walked and fed my dog, had some concentrated petting time so he knows I love him, then passed out. I woke up at 2:30 this afternoon (also 10:30am to feed him and take him out again), and in order to make it to work by 6pm, I need to leave the house around 4:45pm (a bus and two trains, and a little bit of time buffer to account for how temperamental public transit can be). After showering and getting dressed for work, I took him on a 30 minute walk, and handled some finance nonsense.

Given that this is my schedule much of the time, I feel like I am usually in a sort of waking dream state. I also feel like I don’t have a whole lot of me time, no less time to read instructions and meditate. So today I decided to break away from the guided meditation laid out in my book, and do a little mindfulness session of my own making.

There’s a little hipster coffee shop right next to the station where I catch the train, and I’m a big fan of it. The coffee is artisanal, the food is clearly made with a passion, and the staff is always friendly, but my favorite part about it is the atmosphere created by whatever interior designer that these folks had the good sense to employ.

All of the light fixtures are the kind I chose for my bedroom – modern LED lights made to look antique that give off a soft, yellow light that’s even pleasing to look at directly. Tens of them hang from the ceilings on long wires, and some are arranged in two fan-like sculptures with long bulbs that have helical innards.

The wall opposite the coffee bar is lined with a fake ivy, giving it a natural and calming feel. The tables are all dark wood, and they’re fit tightly (but not too tightly) in the small space so even when you sit by yourself, you feel like you’re in a small community.

The bar itself is tiled along the bottom in a way reminiscent of the mosques-turned-cathedrals-or-palaces that dot southern Spain (and other places, but I’ve seen those ones, so that’s what they remind me of). The ornate patterns are supposed to replicate the are starry skies, and were used as meditative inspirations by their designers and whoever hired those designers. Along the top is a two-foot wall of glass, and a lineup of small indoor plants blocking the pipes and wires of all the coffee-making machines.

I ordered a little loaf of bread with feta cheese, tomato, and egg, and a cold brew coffee. I sat at a table at the back of the dining area that looked out at the other guests and the street beyond (interestingly, this is the same spot I sat in last time I was there, and it was the only spot open that time, too). I shed my many layers of winter clothing, set down my backpack, read a little of Real Happiness, then just focused on being there.

I set my fork down between bites. I chewed with awareness of the texture of the bread and sesame seeds along its top. I sipped my coffee, then set it down and closed my eyes, swishing it around I’m my mouth. If I breathed out while chewing on the bread, I got delightful coffee aromas to mix with the savory flavors of the bread.

Occasionally my mind drifted to the other things going on in my life. Occasionally I thought about how cute the young women were in there, some studying, some chatting amongst themselves, the younger ones snapping pictures and giggling loudly. Occasionally I thought about how weird I must look with my hands on my knees, chewing with my eyes closed. But mainly, I was calm, I was relaxed, and I was present, and it was beautiful.

Snap! I finished writing this RIGHT as I arrived at my stop for work. How cool is that shit?

Sitting and Breathing: Day 23

I skipped over Lovingkindness Meditation for Caregivers because, well, I’m not one. So today’s practice was a Meditation On Seeing The Good, which I honestly feel like I do much of the time already, but I felt like it couldn’t hurt to have some dedicated time for it in my day. As evidence of my regular use of this tactic, I was able to come up with multiple examples for each of the types of person I was to focus on (I’m not sure if that’s what I was supposed to do, but it’s what I did).

First up was me, and some of the good things I did for others yesterday. I didn’t really go anywhere or do anything outside of my home yesterday, so I mainly focused on things like taking the trash out, cleaning my apartment, taking my dog on a longer walk than usual, and doing this whole meditation and writing thing.

Next up was a benefactor. The obvious candidate was my mother, who regularly helps me both as a financial safety net and confidant when I’m angry or sad or happy about something. My focus flitted around to some of my other family members – suffice it to say, I get a lot of help from my family, so it was easy for me to come up with some names on the quickness.

Next on my Lovingkindness To-Do List was a good friend. Three names came to mind almost simultaneously (well five, but I focused on three): Greg, Bryan, and Monica. All of them took time out of their busy schedules to help me edit, revise, and rewrite a recent short story I submitted for a contest, and provide meaningful and insightful feedback. I think that’s why they all came to mind at once, but there are a litany of other ways they’ve been wonderful people to me, and I was happy to spend time today sending some positive energy in their direction. Between this bit and the benefactor bit, I was feeling a lot of gratitude today.

“Someone you know who’s having a difficult time” and “someone you have a bit of difficulty with” were the same person for me today: my aunt. She’s had a lifelong struggle with addiction (the alcohol and heroin kinds, mainly), and as a result, I’d say she isn’t the easiest person to deal with. It’s hard to know when she’ll be where and if what she’s saying is true or not. But! My grandmother recently passed away, and while I haven’t checked in with her personally, I can’t imagine she’s having the easiest time in dealing with that.

I’m not going to pat myself on the back for sending her lovingkindness today because I think I’ll need a few more sessions with her as the direct object of my meditation before I’m ready to cross that bridge and reach out to her. I can, however, now see that that is a bridge I must cross sooner than later because who knows how much longer it’s going to be there?

Aaaaand then my focus was back on me and a difficulty I had in my day. Specifically, I got mad at my dog on our walk yesterday which resulted in some leash jerking. I’m not proud of it, but I also don’t know how to deal with his unmitigated energy expulsion when he sees a squirrel or another dog or a human in winter clothes or some shit blowing in the wind. I spend some time focusing on how that was only a moment in time, and it has passed, and I love my dog and I always will (the adorable bastard).

Finally, I sent some lovingkindess to everybody like this, All beings want to be happy, may all beings be happy. I inhaled deeply on the first part, taking in the weight of the desire of all beings to be happy, then exhaled on the second part, pushing my positive energy out with the breath.

I finished early and my mind did some wandering. I got mad with myself for not being able to stay with the breath right when my alarm went off. I couldn’t help but laugh, because there I was, sitting in a meditative pose, huffing and puffing, pissed about not being able to focus on the good for just 20 minutes, RIGHT when the soft bird chirping and water noises that I have for my alarm started in. That’s just funny.

Week 4 involves practicing 6 out of 7 days, so we’ll be back for more tomorrow. Stay tuned.