Warning! This is not a fairytale. This is a true story of a psychedelic plant-medicine journey. It may be terrifying to some, but ultimately, it ends well.
During the morning of December 31, 2014, in the dead of winter, I began the 8-hour drive from Detroit, Michigan, where I was living at the time, to Boscobel, Wisconsin. I was on my way to attend two back-to-back all-night Ayahuasca ceremonies, one held on New Year’s eve and a second one the following evening on New Year’s Day.
After driving through a remote stretch of beautiful rugged wilderness, I arrive after dark to a massive rustic log cabin near to the Wisconsin River — smoke billowing from the chimney.
Through the chilly winter air, I schlep my gear from my car into the cabin. As I enter the main room, most of the twenty-five or so participants are already situated on their mats, chatting with each other, in nervous anticipation of the evening ahead.
The ceremony was being held in a very spacious great room. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high with massive wood beams. At the back center of the room was a giant metal cylindrical wood-burning furnace — a small door at the front to deliver wood. It extended at least six feet from the base, and about twelve feet from the back wall. This thing was a beast. It looked like something that belonged in the engine room of an old steam ship, not in a home.
The group organized itself in a wide half circle around the altar. The shaman-guide was seated in front of the alter, opposite the furnace. Our guide, Tadea, was a petite white women in her 30’s, Polish descent — relatively young but an old soul. She had done extensive studies in shamanism — both academic and hands-on — and had previously lead dozens of ceremonies.
This was to be only my third Ayahuasca (colloquially referred to as Aya) ceremony. My first experience was another double ceremony format, a year prior, in the Chicago area, also facilitated by Tadea.
Ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew, originating in the Amazon jungles, made by combining parts from two distinct plants. It is sometimes referred to as “vine of the soul”, “vine of the dead”, or “La medicina”.
Shortly after I got situated, we begin the all-night affair. Intension setting is an important part of any plant-medicine ceremony. Each of us had an opportunity to state our intentions out loud to the group. At that time, I was feeling a disconnection from life, so my main intention was to feel more connected.
At about 10:30PM, we commenced drinking the special brew. Once the potion kicked in, other dimensions of reality began to make themselves known to me.
With eyes open, I see some fluid sacred geometrical patterns overlaying on top of ordinary physical reality. They have a soft translucent quality. It’s kind of like augmented-reality technology.
With eyes closed, the area commonly referred to as the third eye becomes fully alive, and vastly spacious, as if I had just put on super high-res virtual reality glasses. Visuals have an animated quality, yet everything feels hyper real — more real than anything that I have ever experienced during ordinary waking consciousness.
I find myself fascinated with the intense visual imagery, the kind that I have no reference points within myself to create. As I witness all this content arising and falling within my awareness, I feel a great sense of reverence as well as trepidation. I have entered dimensions of reality beyond the physical. This is unfamiliar territory of the most magnificent kind.
I see bright jeweled cities slowly flowing and morphing. There are fountains of brightly colored yellowish-gold, cartoonish-looking Egyptian headdress trickling down around me. I enter rooms made of luminous mosaic tiles, where I encounter some alien spirits. One such spirit in the corner of one of the rooms is the large face of a playful and mischievous jester that I have seen multiple times before.
With eyes wide open again, I witness a small translucent fist-sized alien copter of sorts slowly making a landing on my stomach.
All of the visual entertainment is mind blowing, but it begins to take a back seat to the real work which is confronting and dealing with my own life shit that is beginning to take over the show.
If you’ve ever seen one of the old Scrooge movies, drinking Ayahuasca (or ingesting any other psychedelics) , can be akin to opening yourself up to visits from the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Future. There is nowhere to run or hide — no putting your head in the sand. The medicine tends to bring up suppressed and repressed content from the subconscious. It showed me aspects of my life that, if not changed, would lead to an unpleasant future.
I wrestle on my mat for the next couple hours, both physically and mentally, exhausting myself, battling a cacophony of thoughts and feelings overwhelming my awareness.
In the middle of the night, we were offered an optional second cup of tea which I reluctantly accepted.
A couple more hours of internal battle, and then BAM, the lightbulb came on! In an instant, I had the answers to my disconnection. This wasn’t just an intellectual understanding, it was felt all the way to my core.
The Realization: I just need to be more honest and authentic with myself and with all of my relationships. Just the recognition of that insight created a profound shift inside of me.
Had that simple insight come at the beginning of my journey, it probably wouldn’t have had the same impact as receiving it after several hours of internal battle. Aya will make you work for it, and the work is oftentimes what makes the realization worth it. We tend to not appreciate those things that come easy.
From that moment on, for the next couple hours, in the darkness of the early morning, I experienced feelings of peace, serenity, bliss, and ecstasy while listening to heart-opening music. I felt like I had all the answers that I had come for. I was now going to live from a place of total honesty and authenticity and this was the remedy to the feelings of disconnection and discontent that I had been seeking.
I begin to question whether or not it is even necessary for me to stay for the second ceremony. I feel like I have received what I had come for. Maybe the best thing to do is to take my luggage and deep realizations, and make my way back home to Detroit.
The philosopher, Alan Watts once said, relating to the use of psychedelics: “When you get the message, hang up the phone”. He went on to say “For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.”
But as the sunrise drew nearer, I wasn’t so certain of things anymore. As the medicine began to leave me, the euphoric confidence behind my convictions was starting to melt away. Self-doubt began to creep into the places where only deep knowing had recently abided.
The idealistic values of total authenticity and honesty were now merging with the rational mind and real world considerations of vulnerability, rejection and shame. How honest and authentic to be? Discernment was now entering the picture.
Fast forward to the next evening. I convinced myself to stay for round two. As Alan Watts may have said, my eyes were still glued to the microscope.
Between ceremonies, we all pretty much just lounged around and bided our time — sleeping a little, eating a little, journaling, and chatting with each other.
Around 8pm, I am lying on my mat in the great room, along with the other psychonauts (an explorer that traverses the inner cosmos). I spend some time journaling, and writing down new intentions. Before setting down my notebook, the last thing I write — an afterthought in the margins of my last written page — “explore the meaning behind the frequent encounter of the number 1111.” All my life that number has been showing up in some pretty amazing ways.
I scoot over to join in a nearby group discussion. Almost immediately, I connect with a few of the other participants. Making insta-friends at a plant-medicine ceremony is easy work, as we have all been through battle together, or are about to go into battle. One guy in particular that I connected with was Szymon — a young, married father, born in Poland. We had both seen the movie Avatar multiple times in the theater.
About an hour into the group conversation, shortly after 10:00pm, our guide dimmed the lights and signaled to us that it was time to begin.
I crawl back to my space and reach for my digital watch that I had left near my gear. I push the Timex indiglo button. It’s exactly 11:11. It is my signal to pay attention. I get the feeling that this will be an especially important ceremony. The actual time is 10:11 but I hadn’t adjusted my watch since crossing from the Eastern to Central time zone.
Eventually the lights go completely dark and the space is illuminated by only a few small candles. One by one, each of us make our way to the alter. The guide pours us a cup of Ayahuasca tea — using intuition to inform her of how much to fill the cup. I sit in front of the alter for a few moments, holding the cup with both hands, silently affirming my intentions and expressing gratitude into the cup. I make sure to not leave a single drop before handing back the empty vessel.
I make my way to my space and then sit with anticipation, like waiting for a train to arrive at the station.
Like previous experiences, once Aya reaches saturation, the visual sense becomes hyper activated. Some of the things that I see are more pleasant than others.
I find myself being subjected to an onslaught of religious imagery — a common theme during previous journeys. With eyes closed, Stars of David (aka: Jewish star or six pointed star) rain down all around me. This does not feel good. It feels very heavy. My ancestry is Jewish.
After two or three hours into the journey of the unknown, we are offered a second cup. I accept.
Around 45 minutes into the second cup, I am in need of a bathroom break, and am also feeling quite nauseated. Nausea and vomiting are a very common side effect of ingesting Ayahuasca, especially within the first hour. I carefully make my way to the candle-lit restroom where I carry on with my internal journey while simultaneously carrying out my business.
This was unlike any bathroom break I had ever taken. While under the influence, the restroom takes on a deeper meaning. It feels like purgatory. I’m in between worlds. Emptying myself, no matter from which end, feels like I am also releasing accumulated mental, emotional and spiritual gunk (many others report this same phenomenon). The nausea is coming on strong.
The internal journey takes me back to the birth canal, before I was born. I feel suffocated with cigarette butts, smoke and ash, like I am inside of a dirty ashtray, or like the ashtray is inside of me. My mother smoked all throughout her pregnancy. At the time, I held a lot of resentment toward her for that. My Ayahuasca-influenced mind was telling me that by puking I would release all that energetic heaviness, and that I would be reborn. I violently vomit into the toilet. The release gives me much relief. However, no matter how much I try, I feel as though I can’t get it all out. Try as I may, there is some residual stuff left inside, stuck just below my throat. After several unsuccessful attempts to fully release, I decide to rejoin the group.
Once I navigate the dim room and return back to my mat, things begin to turn darker. The mental irritation of not being able to fully purge becomes an obsession. I feel as though I won’t be able to fully make it through the birth canal — I will be stuck.
All manner of crazy thoughts begin to occupy me. The voice in my head: What if the blockage is only energetic, yet feels physically real, like a phantom limb? And what if no one can help me remove it? What if I will suffer with this blockage in my throat for my entire life, maybe for all of eternity?
Psychiatrists refer to this as psychosis.
My mind begins to close in on me with the singular focus on extricating this blockage. I reach for my water bottle and start chugging. The guide notices me and instructs me to not drink so much.
I kneel down and lower my head over the nearby puke bucket, attempting to force myself to vomit. Nothing comes up.
Everything begins to irritate me. The strong smell of burnt Sage permeating the room is overwhelming to my senses, and intensifying my unwell feelings. I can’t escape it. I practically rip off my shirt. I’m wearing a necklace with a pendent made from an Ayahuasca vine knot. My brother had picked it up on a recent trip to Peru. This is also irritating me. I quickly remove it and throw it aside. Shirt off, I squirm around on my mat, grunting and making other sounds that indicate extreme discomfort.
Against the wishes of the guide, I decide to drink some more water. Tadea notices and walks over to admonish me. She firmly tells me to stop drinking and to lie down. I interpret this to mean that there is nothing more that I can do and it is time to prepare for my death.
I have a deep sense of resignation. This is it. I am dying. Judgment day is upon me. It is here. Now.
I lie down, close my eyes and await with ultimate gripping fear. On one level, still aware that I am in a room during an Ayahuasca ceremony, I find myself in a very dark place, both visually and viscerally. Gone are all elaborate visions. What ensues is ever increasing levels of darkness.
The world ends for me.
I find myself entering hell.
Things get even stranger.
Hell is complete annihilation in the dungeon of the universe. I’m alone, by myself, with my thoughts, for all of eternity. Forever — an infinite moment.
Hell is also solitary confinement within Auschwitz, a Nazi occupied concentration camp in Poland. The only difference is that outside of the thick walls of my cell are my captures. I may as well be a rat in a cruel scientific experiment. My suffering is inconsequential to those beyond my cell walls.
I fluctuate back and forth between the two settings, and sometimes they merge as one and the same. My personal subjective experience of both hells is virtually indistinguishable.
Hell on Earth is in the concentration camp. Hell beyond Earth is located in the deepest basement of nowhere. But it makes no difference. Hell is hell. Whether it be hell on Earth or a hell beyond Earth.
In this solitary cell in the depths of hell, I can scream, I can cry, I can bang and bang on the cell walls, and not a single soul will show mercy on me. No one is coming to save me. Not even a one in a trillion chance. Not ever.
My mind fragments into an innumerable number of pieces. All of the thoughts that occur over a lifetime are now streaming all at once, all independently, and at very high speed. It is like being in a giant situation room with hundreds of screens on the walls, all tuned to different stations, and all the volume is turned up on each monitor. The broadcast from each screen is competing with the other screens.
When I died, I felt with absolute conviction and sadness that the entire world that we call the universe had died along with me. It felt as though what we call life was never truly real in the first place. It was just a giant simulation. I was both the one simulating it, and a subject within it.
As the subject in this simulated experiment, whoever was running it removed the plug from the wall, and walked away forever. It was as if a 10-year old boy outgrew his old video game console, and never returned to it again. I was left in the abandoned game. All the vastness and richness that we call existence and life was over, and it was like it never existed.
As the simulator of this experiment, it felt like I had created all of the phenomena of existence. Video images of pop culture streamed through my mind — a commercial for a Samsung Galaxy phone, a snippet of an old Seinfeld episode, a stock ticker running at the bottom of a CNBC segment. It was all just contrived nonsense, never truly existing in any real sense. On one level, I had imagined it all in what was now just a silly faraway dream.
In that moment, my mind, connected to the collective mind, was completely and singularly alone. It had always been that way, yet in the previous 40-year “dream” of existence, I temporarily escaped from that ultimate reality. I existed amongst a sea of other that my mind had created, like a curious child hanging out with imaginary friends.
Now, In the depths of hell, there is no one else but a singular I — imaginary friends are no more — isolation and aloneness are all that exists — buried alive in the darkness, trapped with and tortured by my own thoughts for all of eternity. I am convinced that the morning will never come — the blackness of the night will remain forever.
While in both versions of hell — concentration camp and beyond Earth — through the thick cell walls of my prison, I can faintly hear the voices of other souls also in confinement. We are too far from each other to actually have a conversation. Even if we could speak to one another, nothing would come of it. We are all lost souls, tormented and tortured, each of us schizophrenic, our minds completely fragmented.
I still maintain some level of awareness of the physical cabin room that I am in, yet I am locked to my mat. I’m not physically paralyzed, but I may as well be because my mind has me convinced that I am gone. I am completely divorced from consensus reality.
The elements in the room begin to merge with my inner journey. It’s all just one big happening.
The massive wood burning furnace in the center of the actual cabin room where we are all gathered represents the crematoria. I can sense the faint red fiery glow throw the small furnace door. I am deftly afraid of being fed into it.
Almost all of the ceremony participants are actually of Polish decent, including Tadea, our guide. Most of them are first generation, and Polish is their primary language.
Even the water bottle that I picked up at a gas station one hundred miles away says Poland Spring (the water is actually from Poland, Maine, but the prop fit well in this cosmic play).
Some of the participants around me, on my side of the room, represent the Nazi officers and they are responsible for guarding my cell.
The various ceremony music that had been playing throughout the evening has now been weaponized. It is being piped into my cell nonstop, to torture me by keeping me awake. It’s blearing. I can’t escape it. I hear religious music that seems to go on forever. For very brief moments the music ceases, and then it comes back on again. This cycle continues over and over.
At some point during the night (time is irrelevant but it’s probably around 4am), Tadea gives permission to everyone to get up and dance within their own space, but my mind has locked me to my mat. The other participants represent both the guards and the prisoners, simultaneously. Their role is as guards, but on another level they are also the prisoners of this Earthly hell — as much of a prisoner as I am.
High-spirited devotional music is being played. I peak through my eye lids. Like a Native American rain dance, I get a sense that everyone dancing is silently crying out to their God, pleading for the savior to come to Earth and rescue mankind. These dancers are representatives of everyone on Earth, right now and for all time, wishing, hoping and praying for the One to arrive and bring them salvation.
I know better. I consider these poor souls to be silly misguided fools. From my vantage point in eternal hell, I know the truth. Just as I can pound on the walls of my own prison cell with no result, I understand that the prayer for some outside heavenly force to intervene is futile — wishful thinking. My conviction is absolute that no one is ever coming to save us/me. If it’s to be, it is going to be up to we, us, me.
I open my eyes a bit more and see one of the guards/prisoners (participants) next to me. His dance is like miming the act of climbing. I see him attempting to scale the high barbed wire fence of the concentration camp, overseen by imposing watchtowers on both ends of the fence. This guard is a lost soul. I feel deep sadness for him.
Four spaces to my left, in the half circle, is Szymon. He represents the archetypal Nazi German guard. He is the one that has the main responsibility for guarding my cell. While dancing, he is facing in the direction of my mat. His dance looks like shadow boxing — throwing punches into thin air. It feels very confrontational. I perceive him as a terrifying threat.
Lost in my own never ending cycle of despair, still trapped in eternal hell, I need to find some way out. Trying to reconcile the situation with my mind is not working out.
At some point I gain a sliver of awareness of my participation in the ceremony. I want to walk up to the alter and ask Tadea for help, but I am fearful that if I try to leave my mat I will be punished by the guards.
I decide that I’m going to face my fears head on, and walk past the guards to the alter. I work up enough courage to approach. I ask Tadea for help, without going into much detail of what I am going through. She is cold and terse with me. She tells me to go back to my mat, breathe and find my center.
I heed her instruction. I lie back down and try to find my center. Finding my center isn’t working. After some time passes, I get more bold. It’s time to pull back the curtain on this nightmare and turn on the lights.
In Ayahuasca ceremonies, at least in this one, we had been instructed to have no contact with one and other during the journey. We are not to touch each other, console each other, speak to each other, or even direct thoughts to each other while under the influence.
I walk back up to Tadea. I have a seat right next to her. I grab her hand. I need physical contact. I need her to tell me that its going to be okay. I need some motherly love. She pulls her hand away from me and implores me to go lie back down. This motherly love that I crave is nowhere to be found. I grab her hand again. I wouldn’t easily let go. I’ve had enough. I start to get a bit hysterical. I tell her that I am going to turn on the lights. I start to get a bit loud.
She stands up with me and tries to walk me back to my mat hand-in-hand, sternly warning me not to turn on the lights. While standing, I take her hand and place it on my heart. She allows me to keep her hand on my heart for a while. In hindsight, I think she realized that this was better than the alternative of me turning on the lights and continuing to make a ruckus. I remember referring to her as mom. She embodied the spirit of Ayahuasca. In that moment she was mother Ayahuasca to me.
Szymon, the guard, isn’t having any of it. He tries to remove my hand from Tadea. I gently put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a gentle smile. He backs off. I also gently put my hand on the shoulder of another guard and gave him a reassuring nod.
All I needed was some physical touch from Tadea, and some reassurance that everything was going to be okay.
Still in a state of heightened vigilance, over the next hour or so, I begin to find peace and relaxation as the medicine slowly wanes. The previously torturous music began to shift. It was now comforting me as the night sky met the rising sun.
In the morning, after Tadea brought the ceremony to completion, we each shared our experience while still in the circle. With full authenticity and a lot of vulnerability, I had given an abbreviated account of my journey to the whole group.
Once we we were done sharing our experiences, everyone was free to connect with each other. I walk up to Szymon. With left arm stretched by his side, he slowly clenches his fist below his waste. I call him out on it and ask him why he made a fist.
He says, “I don’t know. I guess there was a lot of energy left back there. Do you know where I was born?”
I said, “Yeah, Poland”
He said, “I was born in the town of Auschwitz.
I’ve come back to serve.
Sometimes, plant medicines dole out tough love. That was certainly the case this time. That seemingly never ending night of terror was one of the most significant events of my existence. Fortunately, I was able to receive many gifts and lessons from the experience.
Some insights from that night came right away. Others took more than a year to realize. And more than three years later, I’m still processing and integrating the journey.
Heaven and hell exist right here on Earth, right now. We each make a heaven or hell out of ourselves, each other, and this planet through our thoughts, words and actions.
From this dark experience, I got a small yet hyper-intense glimpse of the hell that humans have created for each other on this planet since time immemorial. I have developed a deep compassion for all who suffer, especially the forgotten ones.
I felt my own courage to escape from that nightmare by breaking the rules and confronting the source of my fears. I faced my fears in an unconventional way — grabbing the bull by the proverbial horns. I had tamed the prison guards.
I truly did not think I would make it out. I feel like I have been given a second chance — a second dream. I have come back from the depths of hell, and want to help alleviate suffering on this planet. I hope to inspire others to become the savior that they are seeking.
In November of 2016, I started a project called Spread the Hug. The purpose is to break down barriers between people, reduce fear and hostility, crack open hearts, and encourage a culture of kindness. On the project website, spreadthehug.love/my-story/ I share the story of how I got started — “The More Beautiful Dream that My Heart Knew Was Possible”.
Currently, I’m also in the process of starting an after school program on the Lakota Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It’s called Second Dream.
Many Native Americans are living in some level of hell. The mission of Rising Dream is to help Native American Children dream of a brighter tomorrow and break the chains of systemic poverty through integral and heart-centered afterschool programs.
Combined with meditation and other sober practices, the occasional and intentional use of plant medicines like Ayahuasca, Mushrooms, San Pedro, Peyote and Cannabis have been instrumental in my journey of self-discovery and personal evolution, continuously informing and refining my path.
This trip was the story behind the story which I have only told a few times, and never publicly, until now.
This was the initial spark that ignited the flame.