My intentions for this piece are to offset the abundant online rhetoric that Ayahuasca is a guaranteed trip to hell (or heaven) and back. That you will lose control of your faculties, not know who or what you are and purge for hours on end. That you will die before you are reborn hours later a new human with radically altered ways of being.
Here are two things that appear to be universal:
1. The Andean vine of death will introduce you to your maker of choice, most likely in a manner you’d never expect.
2. It will distort your physical reality.
Now let me rewind.
I’ve been courting the idea of sitting in Ayahuasca ceremony for six some odd years. The opportunity to sit has presented itself exactly three times and each time I’ve declined at the twelfth hour on account of my self-perceived lack of preparation. Life simply wouldn’t allow for me to strictly follow the dieta prescribed — a basic set of lifestyle guidelines that prescribes simple, vegetarian food and forbids alcohol, nicotine, drugs, media or sex, especially that which isn’t sacred (read: loving, non-kinky, preferably with a trusted partner). All of these preparations plus regular meditation, daily communion with nature and clear intentions for wanting to sit.
Many of the guidelines laid out have been distilled and augmented by neo-shamen with a New Age bent (read: distinctly non-native Amazonian men that have either taken their teachings from the like or had real jungle ceremonies in which their shaman wasnative Amazonian but practicing a modernized version that has grown up and out of original Ayahuasca use). That is not to say that these guidelines don’t bear weight, it’s just that they are a direct mirror to our modern condition and probably shouldn’t be considered ancient ayahuasca edict.
It should be noted that the ethnohistory of Amazonia is broad, poorly documented and supremely complicated. What we do know is that indigenous use of ayahuasca was somewhat varied and really in no way resembles what we in modernity consider ‘ceremony.’ Various documented usages include bodily cleansing in preparation for hunting animals, understanding/recalling patterns in the local ecological environment, and in communal dance ceremonies for strengthening community identity. These are the only instances documented of communal use and they are sparse. Most commonly, the consumption of ayahuasca was regarded as the sole and sacred task of a tribe’s shaman. This undertaking would have been on behalf of the collective, predominantly for healing on metaphysical or physical levels. Additionally, ayahuasca was thought to enable a shaman to divine the future or, in studying patterns in individual or collective behavior. In both instances, the objective would have been communal wellbeing.
The stretch of time that transpired from these earlier iterations of use to what we now call ceremony is unknown, but we can make some assumptions about its evolution. Ayahuasca becomes slightly better documented with the influx of European colonizers, whose arrival eventually gave birth to mestizos, a class of Spanish-speaking descendants of the jungle people of the Amazon and said colonizers. Some had adopted and further developed the shamanic customs of their local ancestors and still used them in similar ways, although with marked influences from Catholicism and with Christian imagery permeating indigenous ritualistic traditions. It was opportunistic mestizos, who, with the rise of global tourism, found Westerners seeking an ‘authentic experience’ eager candidates for an Ayahuasca experience. The whole thing was built up from the forest floor. Word spread and as the ‘ancient ceremony’ became more refined, it also became more marketable. In a phrase; business development[i].
Communion with the divine wasn’t historically for everyone, save those who were chosen to be representatives of the collective. It does appear that healing has always been and continues to be the prerogative, it’s just that now, everyone has the opportunity to pursue their own welfare. We in the modern age have the time, resources, awareness and frankly, the luxury to invest in psychological wellbeing and/or spiritual ascent. This bears real merit, is worth habitual consideration and also, requires a healthy dose of perspective.
We like to feel connected, to ourselves, to each other, to our lineage, to the world. And we love a good story! — evolutionary relic since time immemorial. Some things never change. The notion of participation in an ancient ceremony appeals to these inborn aspects of ourselves. Add to it our insistent crave for “what we’re experiencing” to go deeper (or higher) than what meets the naked eye, to connect with our humanity and explore its latent relation with the divine. Consider all these things and suddenly the modern ayahuasca ceremony is looking like, well, the answer.
I outline this in brief not to give any less credence to the potential of the entheogen, merely to point out that what we’re looking at is distillation followed by Christianization followed by Western fetishization, cumulating in what is now tailor-made for the conditions we find ourselves in. A sign of the times, if you will.
Let me be clear: Regular meditation and intention-setting are really powerful tools that can be used to the good but there are infinite ways to achieve the aforementioned state of grace. Will you live perpetually in this state? Probably not. We as humans are operating with a complex cognitive system that is far too indexed, reactive and self-protective to ever be sublime 100% of the time (and that’s a fact! Though you won’t hear me throw those out but sparingly). That said, the percentage rate can clearly be tinkered with so, the pursuit of happiness remains a noble one.
I digress — when the opportunity to sit this time around came knocking, the call was irresistible. A close friend and mentor of mine who I hold in high regard had coordinated a ceremony in Sedona, Arizona. I’ve had several in-depth conversations about Ayahuasca with her and she esteems the medicine as the consummate teacher. Trusting her as I do, with my curiosity fully percolated and piqued, I said yes without a second thought.
I did my best to adhere to the dieta in the weeks leading up to ceremony but I should mention that I went to Burning Man the week prior. You can use your imagination in gauging the relative strictness of my adherence. I did manage to keep things pretty clean for four days prior. Thusly, I departed for Arizona with no small amount of trepidation: was I taking this thing entirely too lightly? The old fear crept in: what if I’m not ready? Not adequately prepared? I opted for the speeding train metaphor in this particular circumstance: I’m already on it, destination unknown.
I touched down in Sedona two hours before the intended start time and was mildly dismayed by my fatigue. Decide to let this particular fact go after a moment’s consideration because let’s be real, fatigue and I are quite chummy given my propensity to pursue “all the things.”
I was hoping to not be holding fatigue by the hand on the day of the ceremony but in the words of my friend Kurt, “So it goes.”
After a two hour drive from Phoenix into the Sonoran High Desert, I arrived at our Airbnb. I walked through the door and was greeted by an enclave of lovely humans, all of whom are connected in some way to the friend I mentioned earlier. We sat together in circle prior to heading out to the ceremony and shared our intentions. A common one was to just be open to whatever Aya (heretofore known as) has on offer. Others — celebration, healing old wounds — all worthy causes by my estimation. I tossed mine in the pot: “I’ve been “working” a lot on boundaries + the interplay of personal power so curious if those themes show up. I also wouldn’t mind an awakening of wild creative expression. Oh, and I’m also open to whatever is on offer.” Okay. Heady expectations but hey, this might be a real shot at rewriting my programming. Let’s be real, we all have glitches in the system.
We made our way in caravans to the house of Aya, a sizeable adobe-style home set amidst rampant juniper trees, agave and yucca. Standard Sedona fare. We were greeted by the shaman, disappointingly named Andrew, an aging Caucasian man with a large curved belly and several missing teeth. Not exactly a vision of a human fully actualized but hey, life is long and life is strange, who am I to take the measure of a man by the absence of dental care and/or a potential love for sweets. He greeted us individually with kindness and genuine warmth before appointing each of us to our nest for the night: small floor mattress, one Mexican blanket, a box of tissues and a plastic paint bucket from Ace, for purging.
As we all settled in, Andrew began to speak about the ceremony. There was a reverence in his tone that was mingled with a little bit of…I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Distraction? Maybe this was one of several ceremonies he’d held that week or he’d had a spat with his partner earlier that day. Who’s to say. I personally was riveted by equal parts absorption in his instructions and fascination in his delivery method, punctuated by long pauses and random anecdotal evidence about ayahuasca pulling toxins from every cell in the body. I’m all for strong symbolism and enjoyed the visual of this insane multidimensional detox enough to entertain the possibility that everything we know about the human body doesn’t apply so far as Ayahuasca is concerned. Towards the end of his sermon, he prayed to Archangel Michael, Gabriel and…who’s that guy with the violet flame? (Direct quote, much to my amusement). St. Germain! I took a moment to send up some prayers to my deity of choice which is really just a collective amalgamation of any earth goddess that ever existed in any tradition, “she who must not be named.” I believe in science and have always been attracted to animism and, while science has tidily categorized much of universal + earth phenomena, I choose to find wonder in the infinite intricacy of it all. My spirituality resides firmly in awe of these complex systems, bolstered by those unknown slivers that science hasn’t been able to puzzle out.
We were all then invited to take our first cup.
“How deep would you like to go?”
“Somewhere between beginner and real deep, is that possible?”
I was given .75 oz and downed it in one. I was delighted to find it tasted like a slightly earthier version of blackstrap molasses, with a hint of anise. The most common description is something like “drinking rainwater from a muddy hole in the forest floor” so this was a real treat.
I returned to my nest and sat upright with my back against the wall. Closing my eyes, I began to take deep sips of air and settled into a Vipassana style meditation, scanning my body bit by bit and taking stock of minute changes as they arose, willing myself to remain equanimous, equanimous, equanimous. At the moment, I did not find this difficult to accomplish.
Within five minutes, my head began to tighten in pain, radiating outwards from the center. I wondered briefly if this was my partially dormant pineal gland (“third eye”) being pried open by the steel-like fingers of Aya and hoped it’d be open soon; I wilt like a flower in the face of migraines.
I remained relaxed and kept my attention fixed (equanimously!) on the vice-like grip in my brain. Within minutes it completely dissipated and, satisfied with the homeostasis achieved there, I began to take stock of other changes in my body: elevated heart rate, heightened blood pressure, heaviness in my limbs. Andrew had begun to play music; deep, throbbing, synth-ed out electronica with a heavy didge accompaniment. It feels primordial and transportive, very correct. I dig.
It took maybe twenty minutes for my sense of time to lose its cadence. After what felt like 30 minutes, all sensations of remark-ability in various points of my body (pain in the shoulder, heaviness in the legs, tightening of the throat, aforementioned head compression) had mellowed to a gentle humming that swept me from head to toe. So subtle almost as to be unrecognizable; a mirror of what is achieved when the mind is quiet in meditation. I was amazed at how lucid I was. Thought patterns were tidy and chosen at will. Not a hint of nausea detected. Was I doing this right? I was mildly disconcerted despite how positively pleasant I felt. Hadn’t I signed up to have my world rocked?
I moved from a seated position to lying on my back and remained in this space for what I later learned was two hours. At this point I chose to resign myself to experiencing in full whatever was happening, no matter how subtle. Andrews voice punctuated my present feeling: love, admiration, excitement. Thought: my baby sister currently WOOFFing in Scotland, with Berkeley on the horizon. Vision: her meteoric rise towards some unknown greatness.
“If you would like to have a second cup, now would be the time.”
I rose immediately without thought or consideration and was one of the first to receive cup number 2, another .75 oz. I returned to my nest briefly before looking out the window at the night sky. “I could do with some star gazing,” I thought and moved like silk (by my current approximation) to the door and out into the night.
I now realize none of my actions throughout the night were precipitated by any sort of thought or decision-making. My move towards a dark seated figure some ten feet away confirms this truth. More than likely I would’ve had a moment of rational uncertainty in placing myself in somebody else’s ceremony. As Andrew had said, “this is between you and God.”
The seated figure was Alexis, a woman who I had met once before this orchestrated evening who I had been drawn to immediately. An artist, exuberant, beautiful inside and out with a way of speaking that is half laughter half prose. I sat beside her and unsurprisingly, she laughed.
“Can I tell you a story?” She giggled.
I smiled. “Of course.”
She proceeded to tell me how she’d come out to lay under the stars and had opted instead to lay face first on the ground in what probably looked like a disconcerting position. It was full earth revelry, she assured me. She heard some of the attendants of the ceremony express some concern from inside over a missing girl. The thought didn’t occur to her that she was the missing girl and so she remained. That was it. Her expansive laughter was contagious and caught in the rising tide of her amusement, I laughed with her for some moments before she asked me how my experience was going. I told her I was remarkably lucid and felt good and hadn’t purged yet.
“Are you resisting Her?” (Her being Aya).
“I don’t think so. I’ve always been somewhat skilled at moderating pain or nausea with my breath but honestly haven’t even felt a whisper of nausea.”
“Highly recommend you lay your blanket out and look up at the stars.”
And so I did. WHOOOMPH. I was instantly dazzled, struck down by celestial wonder. The onomatopoeia is the best approximation I could give of how it felt and sounded to go from seated to lying down. I thought of my partner, James. The first time we’d lain together under the stars he’d shared how looking up and acknowledging the sheer immensity of the universe always made him feel small, inconsequential…comforted. This had made me scratch my head at the time, the concepts at odds for me, then. In this moment, I fully understood his perspective.
I turned my awareness back to my body and noticed a subtle tugging at the base of my throat. I decided to focus intently there and realized the tugging, which was growing more insistent, was my opportunity to purge. I am fairly confident I could have chosen to quell this feeling or let it build. I sat up slowly and bore down upon my bucket. One, two, three, four heaves. Clean. Mildly acrid. Over in an instant. I lay back down, the stars seemed to swell with each inhale, shrink with each exhale, each one winking at me in what felt like a collective cosmic joke. I winked back, an absurdly large grin spread on my face.
At some point I grew chill, so removed myself to my nest, where I curled up in a fetal position. With the second cup, I began to key into the feelings of safety, comfort and utter easefulness which had been more subtly presented before, now pervasive to my experience. It was really all there was. For the next few hours I would drift in and out of that pre-nap theta state — you know when you’re not quite sure if you fell asleep? It was exactly like that, except I kept coming back to full consciousness in widely varied bodily postures. Legs splayed, arms overhead, supine twist. I’d love to tell you this was where kaleidoscope visions set in and I rode a dragon as it laid waste to memorials that represent my trauma. Played at riddles that held deep meaning with the giant Sphinx. This just wasn’t my experience.
From the onset of the second cup, I began to do as Andrew advised and asked Aya questions. She never responded, save once, this being when asked “Who’s driving this thing?”
So simple. So profound. I sank even deeper into total trust of the experience. Deep love, compassion, empathy, devotion. During moments of consciousness, I indexed as many relationships in my life as I could, big or small. Ran through events that brought me joy and sadness too, pain and sorrow. All there was, was love. And forgiveness. When I drifted out of consciousness I can genuinely say I have no idea what happened, but I can almost guarantee it was equally as pleasant. And I can’t stress enough that what I’m describing is nothing like MDMA, which often focuses on these feelings of love in superzoom, sensory overdrive. What I was experiencing was grounded. It was lucid. It was full spectrum, taking in every single element that constituted the whole.
I did go on to drink a third cup, .5oz around 3 am. There were no perceptible changes in my state. I would later drift off to sleep around 4:30 in the morning and awake an hour and a half later to the gentle rising of the sun. I rose from my nest and strode out into the yard, coconut water and journal in hand, sat myself down in the red dust and began to write immediately. I didn’t want any stretch of time to skew my experience, allow my hand and mind to render the encounter(?) in any way other than exactly how it was.
My expectation was to come out of ceremony equipped with vivid tales of strange encounters (with the self or “other”) but I emerged with something much more succinct. Laying on my little mattress cocooned in a Mexican blanket, I felt safe and completely at ease, in the way I’d imagine I did when I was very small and wrapped in my mother’s arms. From there, everything I already mentioned poured out with ease.
The last few days have been heady, with comprehensions coming fast and thick. It would seem the ceremony isn’t quite over and perhaps that’s the lesson of it. The evolution of self isn’t complete when you greet some great truth. Ayahuasca is not a smart drug that radically alters your consciousness and transforms you from derelict to divine. It would seem the entheogenic brew can reveal truths, or remind you of them, in ways direct or indirect, subtle or stark, objective or subjective.
I could while away on some sliver of philosophical pie (What is truth? What is belief? So many ways to slice.) but I’d rather just leave you this link to a new friend’s art installation at Burning Man.
Title: Still Alive.Straightforward, simple and so very sweet.
If you need me, I’ll be reflecting on thistruth as often as I can, with its due credence of thoughtful contemplation and light-hearted jubilation. It is, in essence, interwoven with everything put to page here.
[i]Francuski, X. (2019, July 26). The ‘Traditional’ Ayahuasca Ceremony Is Probably a Recent Invention. Retrieved from https://kahpi.net/ayahuasca-ceremony-recent-invention/