The following piece describes my first experiences ingesting ayahuasca, a potent visionary brew used for millennia in the spiritual practices of the people indigenous to the Amazon basin. In Peru, on the outskirts of the great jungle, I ingested this sacred medicine while participating in a series of shamanic healing ceremonies.
After emerging from the first ceremony with entirely positive albeit unremarkable results, I grew increasingly cocky with regard to my ability to tolerate powerful mind-altering substances. The following account chronicles my experiences of the two subsequent ayahuasca ceremonies I participated in.
Hamilton (the shaman) accommodated my arrogance by accepting my request for an extra large dose of the brew, which resulted in my receiving a full four-ounce cup instead of the standard one or two-ounce dose. In order to swallow that much liquid death, I had to fully prepare myself mentally before throwing it back. Part of this preparation involved silently expressing my intentions for the ensuing trip. In shamanic language, this involved asking the ayahuasca spirits for their assistance.
“Please provide me with deep insight and wisdom,” I asked the spirits which I did not believe in.
I then raised my cup, said “salud,” and somehow managed to swallow all four vile ounces of the green sludge without evoking my gag reflex. I then handed the cup back to Hamilton, quickly sprawled out on my yoga mat and closed my eyes.
“Bring it on plant spirits,” I thought to myself. “Do your worst.”
In challenging the so-called spirits to kick the shit out of me, I was really looking to do battle with the nether-regions of my unconscious.
“If there is any darkness in me that needs to be confronted I want to face it now.”
Provoking this challenge expressed my confidence about being able to weather any visionary storm the ayahuasca could send my way.
The initial phase of the intoxication was ordinary enough, mostly consisting of intense kaleidoscopic visions. Yet it quickly became apparent that the effects of the medicine were achieving an intensity I was wholly unprepared for. I was no longer simply a passive observer of interesting mental imagery. My visions were now assuming a palpable quality of movement and I was forced to take a ride.
I began traveling at a high rate of speed in my mind, as if soaring through some colorful tunnel to another dimension. I had no idea where I was going or if the tunnel even had an end. I felt lost and increasingly out of control.
The tunnel vision eventually faded, giving way to what can only be described as pure chaos. I became flooded with an infinite barrage of imagery coming from every conceivable direction. It was impossible to focus my attention on anything in particular. Now I was not only lost, but helplessly consumed by utter pandemonium.
The turbulence of this experience was now bothering me enough to start thinking about asking Hamilton for help, something he had advised all participants to do if ever feeling the need. As soon as I contemplated this course of action, however, my ego chirped up and starting dissuading me from asking for his assistance.
“You are not suffering that much.”
“You don’t want to be the one to interrupt the ceremony.”
“You can get through this alone.”
Of course these were my own thoughts, but I was experiencing them at least partially from outside myself. In a sense, I was observing my own ego. I remained in that chaotic place for light years in non-linear time, waging a war against my higher-self and stubborn ego. Towards the climax of this war, it seemed that one side had to officially declare total victory once and for all. If my ego had won the battle I felt there would have been no saving me from the absolute depths of chaos.
I had no choice but to utilize all of my fortitude to end the conflict. Then, as if attempting to purge my sense of profound inner turmoil, I instinctively shouted, “HELP!”
The shamans’ icaros (spirit songs) stopped briefly and the room grew quiet. Hamilton made his way over to me and crouched down beside my mat.
“What is the problem?” he asked.
“I just need a personal icaro,” I somehow managed to mutter in his ear.
It was instantly clear that this communication was more than sufficient for him to understand my predicament. He then commenced with shaking his chakapa (leaf rattle) and singing an icaro while hovering over me. I kept my eyes closed and tried only to focus on the melody of the song.
After listening to the shaman’s tune for no more than ten seconds, the state of chaos with all its twisted, jumbled visions instantly vanished. In its wake came visions of heavenly realms and an assortment of angels coming to assist me. Never before had I witnessed such beauty.
“How are you now?” Hamilton asked me after finishing his song.
“I am perfect.” “Muchas gracias.”
The ceremony continued as I remained in a state of utter bliss, in harmony with the universe. I had asked the spirits for insight and wisdom. Once again, they did not fail me.
The knowledge I gained from this trip had to be delivered in the form of a powerful experiential lesson. It was only through facing a realm of chaos hitherto unknown that my higher-self came to directly battle my silly ego, which allowed me to relinquish all self-control. The effect of the help I received from the shaman confirmed that I desperately needed his assistance. The ayahuasca had just taught me the value of surrendering.
Hamilton would often say that “the medicine will always provide just what you need.” Apparently I needed an ego check.
“Maybe an average dose will suffice next time,” I thought to myself.
The powerful experience of confronting my own powerlessness was supremely humbling and helped imbue me with a sense of security and peace as I prepared for my next ceremony. This time I made sure to ask Hamilton for an average sized dose, to which we both chuckled in mutual acknowledgment of the soundness of that decision.
I now presented the shaman with a different request. I asked him if I could graduate from my yoga mat on the floor to sitting in a chair next to the apprentices during the ceremony. He agreed to this proposition but offered one caveat:
“If you fall out of the chair you cannot get back in it,” he said with some seriousness.
Hamilton had previously told the group that we could volunteer for the chair challenge, although he warned us that it made for a much more difficult experience. In fact, the ability to remain seated in a chair for an entire ceremony is often the first test that a shaman’s apprentice must pass in training.
Tonight my request to take the chair challenge was not motivated by the same cocky ego that asked for a stronger dose the night before. My respect for the brew was growing, and that respect had helped open previously unlocked doors to my spirituality.
This time upon receiving the sacramental cup, I set my intentions for divine guidance and inspiration. I then respectfully ingested my modest dose and awaited further teachings. The first quarter of this ceremony was pleasant and highly manageable. Then the purging began.
The state of chaos I had previously become familiarized with had now returned with a vengeance. Only this time, instead of my ego, it was my physical being that was assuming its dominance over me. Demons and malevolent insects of all kinds quickly had me surrounded, progressively increasing their assaults with each wretched contribution I made to my blue vomit bucket.
This agonizing state of affairs of course seemed to last an eternity. The combination of such mental chaos mixed with gut wrenching purging was so insanely intense that I now could not even entertain the thought of asking for help. I was powerlessly trapped in hell and nothing could save me.
After almost filling my bucket, I looked down into what must have been at least a liter or two of chunky green bile. Inside I saw maggots and small dark creatures having a grotesque orgy of destruction in my vomit. I placed the bucket on the ground and tried desperately to collect my bearings by focusing solely on my breathing. Confident that I had successfully emptied the contents of my stomach, I began to feel some relief. Still, the demons and their motley crew of minions continued with their assault.
“Leave me the fuck alone already,” I shouted in my mind.
Then, almost instantly, a familiar lesson occurred to me.
“I just have to ask for help.”
Instead of actually yelling to summon the shaman for assistance, I now simply thought the word “help” in the comfort of my own mind. As soon as I manifested that word, the demons retreated and the same angels from the night before arrived to help send them on their way.
Seeing these angels again filled me with the purest sense of gratitude I had ever known. As I blissfully watched and interacted with them, I kept repeating the same word over and over again. Each time I thought the word, I was graced with more beauty. I was ascending to the heavenly plane that I had only glimpsed at before.
No description could ever capture the ecstatic state of love and appreciation that enveloped me. This was indeed a classical mystical experience. As I naturally wanted to remain in this state for as long as possible, if not forever, I did not dare break from repeating the ‘help’ mantra. The angels continued to carry me higher and higher.
“But how far can I possibly ascend?”