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. 

Rebranding

I’ve spent the vast majority of my formative years meandering through what seemed like a meaningless string of careers and experiences that had nothing to do with one another. I wanted to join the Navy, then I wanted to become a psychologist, then I wanted to work in politics, communications, sales, physical fitness, animal wellbeing, firefighting, comedy, the service industry… The list probably isn’t over.

I know I want to write going forward – that’s going to be a given from now on. In all the research I did on becoming a comedian or an author, so many of those who had already made it asked their audience, “What is it that you want to tell the world? Who are you? What is your brand?” I’ve been struggling with that ever since. Like… Why should anyone listen to me talk about my meditative practice? Why should anyone be willing to lend their precious time to me for the sake of reading what I’m writing? Entertainment? Yes, obviously I’d like to be entertaining, but shouldn’t what I’m saying have some substance?

I think it should. That’s why I’m choosing to pursue this degree in counseling psychology in Vienna. I mean, sure I just really want to move to Europe, and Vienna is calling to me, but that’s why I want to reignite my passion for the field of psychology – because I think I can actually fucking help people. I think all of my failings and falling down and getting back up can actually mean something if I put some time and energy into figuring out their links.

When I was in college, I tried acid for the first time. I was just doing it for the sake of trying it, and it was a small blip in what became years of recreational drug use, but even then I knew it was something special. I read Electric Koolaid Acid Test and I became enthralled with the history and emerging science of psychedelics. I realized that there was something sitting on the edges of our consciousness that these drugs allowed us access to, but I got caught up in the powerful current of doing drugs for fun, and it took me WAY farther downstream than I thought it even could. But now, MDMA is being proven to treat PTSD and more and more research is showing there to be some therapeutic value in these substances I was captivated by (not cocaine, though).

Since high school I’ve been a strong advocate for physical fitness and eating well (mostly). I set up training sessions for my friends and me, organized trips to the park to climb on jungle gyms or throw around medicine balls, researched ad nauseum how different muscle groups worked together, and how to maximize each of their potentials. I’ve continued reading articles through to this day about the advances we’re making in kinesthesiology and nutritional science – how we can fine-tune what we’re putting into our bodies to reach new potentials.

I’ve always been an avid hiker. It’s been one of the most frustrating things about living in Chicago – I haven’t hiked once in the last six months, and I’m pretty sure it’s driving me mad. I’m a proponent of hiking because of the physical aspect, yes, but also because I believe strongly that immersion in nature can have such an unspeakably positive effect on our emotional and mental stability. There is no substitute for being five miles into the wilderness, and basking in the sunlight while you look out on rolling hills and vast mountain ranges, and absorb the energy of the life around you.

Still, there is no substitute for being surrounded by people you love, or people you don’t even know for that matter, and laughing together – unencumbered by social mores and time and space. Going to church and singing with 300 other people, voices harmonizing (or just being kind of shitty, but at least together) is an experience we should all have regularly. Having a drink with friends or making new ones at a bar in a new city can be just what I – what anybody – needs after long hours grinding away at work. We are social creatures, and socializing nourishes us in ways that nothing else can.

I want to study what it means to be a whole human being. I want to become one, sure, but I want to help others find whatever wholeness they can. I think that all of these things are a part of it, each as important as the last. We must all look inward and outward for pieces of the pie (mmmm, pie…), and each of those pieces will help us to paint a more full, rich picture of the people we ought to and can be.

That is the future I’m signing up for. That is the future I’ve been signing up for all along. And dammit, I’m really looking forward to that pie.

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.

Which Hole Was Deeper?

After typing out my tale of debauchery surrounded by the wholesome folks in the North Rim Lodge there for a breakfast buffet, I headed to the rim itself and began what ended up being a much longer hike than I anticipated.

I set off a little before 9am with my water bottles filled and my spirits high. I distinctly remember feeling chipper, but noticing the sharply contrasting looks on the faces of people who had started much earlier, and were on their way back up. But I was listening to Anthony Bourdain’s audio book, and couldn’t be bothered with their negativity.

I kept up a decent pace, and felt like I was making good time. I asked multiple small groups along the way how much farther it was to ever-shifting goal locations, as my confidence in my ability grew with the discovery that I could refill my water bottles at the midpoint – Manzanita. I got there barely winded at all, slightly warm, and only marginally concerned about the trip back up. Good news: I had reached the bottom by 11am! Not so good news: the sign at the rangers station strongly advised against hiking between the hours of 10am and 4pm.

“How long did it take you to get to the top?” I asked the European backpacker who had arrived shortly after me. “About three hours,” he said, which is about what I was expecting. I sat around in the shade drinking water for 30 minutes or so, wet my face, my hat, and my shirt in the creek, then started my climb back to the top.

Right away I could tell that the heat and the elevation were not going to make this easy on me. I debated hanging out at Manzanita and waiting out the sun, but I decided I wanted to get on the road sooner than that, so I powered on, taking breaks in whatever shade I could find. At some point I realized that pants had been the wrong choice, so I lost those to my backpack. Then I couldn’t handle Tony’s voice in my ears anymore, as all of my attention needed to be on my misery for me to keep going.

A father and son duo from Amsterdam that I had seen on the way down caught up with me, and again gave me wonderful news of a nearby water station. Also, I was happy to find an outhouse, as the Valhalla Steak and Eggs from breakfast were waging war on my innards.

Brief aside: horse piss on the trail after hours in the sun is more difficult to deal with while you’re gasping for air during an ascent at elevation.

The water and shade and continuous rest breaks got me to the top around 3:30pm. “How far is Manzanita from here?” I asked the ranger at the top between breaths.

“5.4 miles and about 3600ft down, but I’d advise against it in this heat,” she said.

“Good to know,” I said. Normally, those numbers wouldn’t phase me, but with no training to speak of, 96° weather, and on the heels of an impressive hangover, the ranger may have had a point.

I made it to a campground in Utah last night, stopped at Four Corners this morning for the novelty of it, and decided I couldn’t spend another minute in the desert, so I headed north to the much greener portions of Colorado, where I sit happily with a cold local beer. Tonight sleep. Tomorrow Denver.