When I returned to the USA in 2011, I had never heard of ayahuasca. I think I had seen the word "yagé" (pronounced something like "yah-hey") before, but without the accent, so I thought it rhymed with "sage." Some kind of psychoactive plant, I figured. I had no idea that drinking ayahuasca, or yagé, had become a kind of New Age spiritual practice in the West.
It is usually consumed at religious ceremonies, either based on South American shamanism or on a Brazilian religious system somewhat similar to Voodoo, based on a combination of the African tribal religions of black slaves, Roman Catholicism, and the aforementioned South American shamanism. Since 2011 I have attended four of these ceremonies, all of them of the more shamanistic variety.
Before attending the last three ceremonies I signed an agreement that I wouldn't publicly divulge details of the ceremony, or of the words or actions of others attending it; I didn't sign such an agreement before the first one, however, so I will describe it in some detail.
In November of 2011 a person I dearly love asked if I wanted to attend such a ceremony, and largely since psychedelic drugs played an early, major role in my own spiritual development, I agreed without much hesitation. I figured it would be another ecstatic, consciousness-expanding experience like a trip on LSD. I was mistaken—although I'm getting ahead of the story.
The ceremony was in a nearby foreign country, in what appeared to be an old, empty office building in a somewhat run-down area of a large city. We arrived in the evening and met several quiet, serious people also waiting to begin. The shaman who conducted the ceremony was a majestic, lovely blonde woman who had trained in Peru and considered herself to be a Buddhist. A total of eleven people participated, eight women and three men. The rule was that we were not allowed to go outside, and were required to sit with our backs to the walls of the room, facing the center, in the dark. We were not allowed to lie down; our leader assured us that it wouldn't cause us to feel any better anyway. We were allowed to get up only to go to the toilet or to request another cup of medicine. (It is emphatically referred to as medicine by its advocates rather than as a drug.) We were not to speak or interact with each other, and were encouraged to keep our eyes closed most of the time. We were each provided with a small bucket, in case we needed to vomit, or purge (or, as some call it, to "get well").
Before the medicine was taken we were given two useful pieces of advice: First, that the medicine technically is not an emetic. Although many people purge during ceremony, the cause is psychological, not physical; thus there is a choice. And second, that we should not forget that the journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This second advice may seem inconsequential, but it is invaluable to one lost in a state of turning emotionally inside out. Then we were each given a cup of brown liquid which tasted somewhat like putrified steak sauce. I found out on later occasions that the stuff can taste much worse, indescribably foul even, depending on it ingredients. The putrified steak sauce wasn't so bad.
Within about half an hour I was experiencing psychedelic effects, mainly green geometric patterns that were brighter when my eyes were closed, plus a sense of exaltation. The person sitting to my left was quietly sobbing. It seemed not so different from an LSD experience, and after less than two hours it seemed to be leveling off, so I went up to the shaman for another cup.
But before the second cup had time to really start taking effect my mind surged into the beginning of one of the most intense experiences of my life. Before long I was sitting there in the dark propped up on one hand and using the other continually, nervously to rub my face and head; I sometimes would whisper, like a mantra, "This is too much…This is unnecessary…" It seemed as though my mind were not so much expanded as intensified to at least three times beyond the normal level. I felt as though I were surfing a tsunami of mental intensity, struggling to maintain balance and avoid crashing and going under into I had no idea what.
A few times I had the urge to "get well," but reminded myself of the shaman's first advice and chose not to. But after a while the fellow sitting to my right began having an obviously very harrowing experience. He was writhing, crying, whimpering, and moaning as though he were in some kind of purgatory, and at one point he had the shaman and two helpers around him trying to calm him down. Having someone sitting right next to me essentially freaking out was too much, partly because one effect of the medicine is heightened compassion and a feeling of interconnectedness with everyone else. My own feeling of the fellow's agony overwhelmed me rather quickly, and I grabbed the bucket and purged and purged, very loudly. (Amazingly, after the guy finally came through whatever hell he was in and calmed down, he shakily got to his feet and requested another cup of medicine! I'm pretty sure the wise shaman didn't give it to him though.)
Occasionally throughout the night our guide would play a guitar and sing, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish, and sometimes she would recite poetry or guide us with other uplifting words. She had taken the medicine also, however, and on one occasion, in the middle of the night, she tried to recite something and suddenly had to stop, apparently too much under the influence of "The Grandmother" herself. I have found that, for me, a female guide is preferable to a male one, since the medicine, considered to be a goddess or female spirit, has such a feminine energy to it, and the soothing, gentle voice of a woman has a more steadying and helpful effect on my surging, distressed mind and feelings.
It is certainly not like LSD or psilocybin in that it is not primarily a head trip. It is much more visceral, much more chest-oriented. With LSD everything can be beautiful and perfect and God for several hours, and then one comes down and everything is fine—maybe one is a bit tired or run-down, but fine. But ayahuasca is not like this: It turns my thoughts and feelings into a rushing torrent, and usually not a blissful torrent. But more about that later.
The most memorable insight experience I had that night involved becoming hypersensitive to Samsara, so to speak. I was aware of the attachment even in firmly directing my attention to a mental state, so that everything I experienced seemed "sticky" in a way, almost requiring me to practice some rather advanced-level meditation, carefully steering clear of fixing my attention on any object.
Anyway, as the effects began to subside, in the early morning, everything became more like an LSD experience again, with the whole of experience being beautiful and perfect. I really like those parts, although the more painful intensity is invaluable in a very different way.
The next morning it seemed like everyone's heart was wide open. Mine certainly was. The shaman went around the room and conversed with each person in turn, discussing with us our experiences, and then we were free to leave. Afterwards I remember being very impressed by and respectful of those brave people who were willing to face their demons for the sake of greater understanding. I am always struck by the courage of people who go to these ceremonies. It really does take courage. That following day was one of the happiest and most sensitively wide-open days of my life, in some ways much preferable to being in the midst of the psychic maelstrom the night before. However, it was obviously the effect of the night before; the medicine had somehow purged me of negativity, temporarily.
Recently I attended my third and fourth ceremonies, two nights, back to back. Although I've promised not to describe the ceremonies, the experiences I had internally are still fresh in my mind, so I can describe the insights that resulted with better recall.
Both nights, under the effects of the medicine, I experienced the same phenomenon: Whenever I would think a negative or negatively limiting thought, even just remembering how awful the medicine tasted, I would start to "go under" into feelings of anguish and nausea. In order to avoid puking my guts out, and worse, I found myself practically required continuously to have positive thoughts and feelings—gratitude, blessings for all around me, love, "yes," "aum," and meditation on the breath kept me on top of things and in balance, and everything was very intense, but lovely. (I also found that the desperate prayer/mantra "Dear God please have mercy" was neutral, and neither helped nor hindered me.) I could see very plainly the dangerous effects of negative and limiting thoughts; and I realized that the same is true in ordinary life, except not so obviously so. The medicine really is not so different from ordinary consciousness, except much more intense, and it just doesn't let you be lazy and ignore it. Sloth and torpor are simply not an option. Your issues are shoved right into your face. It thrusts tapas, viriya, and samvega upon you, whether you want them or not. It's sink or swim; and maybe sometimes it's just sink. If it gets too overwhelming one gets sucked under; and there are some who say that sometimes it's best to be sucked under into desperation and uncontrollable puking.
I knew that my own mind was in control, whether it seemed so or not. Also, I realized that the same energy that produces negativity, pain, and nausea can just as easily produce gratitude, love and blessings. It's really our own energy, and our own choice; but gratitude and love tend not to be our favorite habits. We want to be lazy and not entirely awake, not entirely responsible for our thoughts, words, and actions, and so our negative habits run our lives for us. With ordinary life we can do this almost indefinitely, but the medicine makes us choose consciously, and if we choose unwisely, we pay. We pay in ordinary life too, but not so obviously and dramatically.
Another insight was with regard to how profoundly our beliefs condition and limit our reality. If you go outside or reach for the bucket just in case you may vomit, almost certainly you will (or I will anyway), because you have just opened the door for it; you have allowed it. Thinking "This is difficult" reinforces the difficulty of whatever it is; and thinking "I'm messed up" reinforces how messed up one is. If I would think "I'm fine," I would immediately feel better; and if I thought "Gawd this is awful" I'd immediately start spiraling downward. It occurred to me what a treasure hope can be, a feeling that I had never really appreciated before. Hope is an open door, the belief that something is still possible. Only when one gives up hope is a situation truly hopeless. Then the door is closed. At one point I associated this to the situation in America nowadays, with the economy teetering on the verge of national bankruptcy and all the other troubles that are prevalent: I felt like it was because most Americans are so conditioned by materialism that they have lost hope in miracles (except for the miracles of technology, which are not enough to save us). It is as though the door has been closed, and all that remains is mundane hopelessness.
Another insight: Once we love someone, it is our sacred duty always to love them no matter what; because that is true love. Besides, one of the greatest blessings there is, is for someone to know all about you, to know all your faults, and love you and consider you to be wonderful anyway. To deprive someone of that seems a tragic loss. It just doesn't feel right.
Still another: Largely because of the mandatory compassion, I felt that the only really enlightened thing worth living for is the reduction of overall suffering. For example, if this blog doesn't uplift people and help them somehow to wake up and be happier, then it is just that much more wallowing in samsara, and a waste of time and effort. It is much easier to be compassionate when one also has fresh experiences of deep pain to relate to. And there is so much hurting in this world.
It is also easier to be humble when one is a total mess, with snot and vomit dribbling down one's lips, like any number of other people around. That, plus having one's own shortcomings thrust into one's face. One realizes that, for example, if a majority is made more unhappy than happy by one's behavior (which seemed to be the case with me in America), then something should be radically changed. And it can be changed if we take responsibility for our own mental energy, and if we realize how easy it is, and how important.
Continuing with the story, the first of the two nights was probably the only really pleasant ceremony I've experienced; I went easy on myself, didn't drink too much, and didn't even puke—I mean, eh, "get well." But the second night I tried to push myself a bit: when I felt strong enough I went up for another cup of medicine…but the taste of it was so utterly, indescribably foul that it triggered the gag reflex, and I promptly "get welled" it right back up. It was such a shock to my system that I was pretty much derailed for the rest of the night. I felt too awful to maintain positive mental states, and went into an hours-long bout of crazy, seemingly uncontrollable negative thoughts that had me desperate and at the verge of nausea well into the next morning. Sometimes I reflected that many people in this world are in over their heads like this their whole lives, with no knowledge of a way out. At least I knew that the journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Several times people have told me that seeing me sit in meditation during a ceremony helped to strengthen and stabilize them in their own medicine-induced struggles, and often my own meditation has inspired others to meditate. When I was derailed and sick, I kept thinking that the best way I could serve the others was by sitting up and meditating; but often I would lie there thinking, "I'm too messed up. I can't do it." But then I considered that those who are really committed to helping others do it even when they are messed up. Besides, I'm only messed up because I believe I am. It's not too much unless I think it is. Being messed up seemed no valid excuse. I struggled with that idea a lot that night, sometimes forcing myself to meditate cross-legged even when I was so "out of it" that I could hardly manage to sit up or take a drink of water.
So ayahuasca ceremonies are usually painful, harrowing experiences for me, and while I'm in the midst of one I have absolutely zero intention of ever participating in another one, ever. Ever. But afterwards I have no choice but to recognize the obvious benefits, and that it is very good for a top-heavy person like me to have his heart blasted wide open, and effortlessly to feel deep compassion and blessings for everyone around me, just as they are feeling them for me. I'll probably do it again, if I ever get the chance. The last two nights especially seem to have done me a world of good.
These experiences reinforce my opinion, which I've expressed before, that head-oriented "masculine" wisdom certainly saves solitary individuals, but if the entire world is to be saved it will be through more heart-oriented "feminine" wisdom. That doesn't necessarily mean that women will save the world, though, since men can feel love and compassion also, even though it may come less "naturally" to us. So it is worth some hurting, even some desperate anguish, to cultivate it.
Also I should remind the good reader that the above are my own experiences. Different people respond differently to the medicine. In fact it's fascinating how radically different different people's experiences can be. The ones I don't get are the people who, when asked how their journey was, say "Oh, it was fine. It was lovely." Did they drink the same stuff that turned me inside out? I really don't get that. And one friend of mine has taken it three times without any significant effect.
Here I would like to make an observation. It seems to me that the radical positive effects of these ceremonies, painful as they may be, are about an order of magnitude beyond what I have observed going on at western Dharma centers and vipassana meditation retreats, except perhaps for beginners trying meditation for the first time. Ayahuasca simply slams the truth at you, and doesn't allow you to ignore it, no matter how uncomfortable or even agonizing it may be. It requires some courage and strength. But it gives us what, deep down, we need to receive.
Some may argue that ayahuasca is just a drug which distorts "reality," so the effects are thus demeaned, possibly even invalidated. But the brain itself distorts reality. I am reminded of a passage in Dostoevsky's great novel The Idiot, in which the epileptic, Christlike Prince Myshkin reflects upon a mystical state that he often experiences just before the onset of a seizure:
"He pondered, among other things, the fact that there was a stage in his epileptic condition just before the fit itself (if it occurred during waking hours) when all of a sudden, amid the sadness, spiritual darkness, and oppression, there were moments when his brain seemed to flare up momentarily and all his vital forces tense themselves at once in an extraordinary surge. The sensation of being alive and self-aware increased almost tenfold in those lightning-quick moments. His mind and heart were bathed in an extraordinary illumination. All his agitation, all his doubts and anxieties, seemed to be instantly reconciled and resolved into a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things. But these moments, these flashes, were merely the prelude to that final second (never more than a second) which marked the onset of the actual fit. That second was, of course, unendurable. Reflecting on that moment afterwards when he had recovered, he often used to tell himself that all these gleams and lightning-flashes of heightened self-awareness, and hence also of 'higher existence', were nothing more than the illness itself, violating the normal state of things as it did, and thus it was not a higher mode of existence at all—on the contrary, it should be regarded as the lowest. And yet he arrived at length at a paradoxical conclusion: 'What if it is the illness then?' he decided finally. 'What does it matter if it is some abnormal tension, if the end-result, the instant of apprehension, recalled and analysed during recovery, turns out to be the highest pitch of harmony and beauty, conferring a sense of some hitherto-unknown and unguessed completeness, proportion, reconciliation, an ecstatic, prayerful fusion with the supreme synthesis of life?' These nebulous expressions seemed perfectly comprehensible to him, though still inadequate. But that it really was 'beauty and prayer', that it really was 'the supreme synthesis of life', this he could not doubt, or even admit the possibility of doubt. These were no weird figments brought on by hashish, opium, or wine, degrading the intellect and distorting the soul. He could judge that soberly once the fit was over. These moments were purely and simply an intense heightening of self-awareness, if he had to express his state in a word, self-awareness and, at the same time, the most direct sense of one's own existence taken to the highest degree. If in that second, in the final conscious moment before the attack, he could have managed to tell himself clearly and deliberately: 'Yes, for this moment one could give one's whole life!' then of course, that moment on its own would be worth one's whole life. He did not insist on the dialectical part of his argument, however: stupor, spiritual darkness, and idiocy stood before him as the plain consequence of those 'supreme moments'. He would not have argued the point seriously. There was doubtless some flaw in his conclusion, that is, in his assessment of the moment, but the reality of the sensation troubled him, all the same. What could one do with this reality then? After all, the thing had happened before, he had managed to tell himself in that second that for the profound experience of infinite happiness, it might be worth his whole life." (translated by Alan Myers, published by Oxford University Press, 1992)
So what if it is drug induced, so long as it helps us to feel profound compassion, and deepens our self-knowledge besides? That is a priceless gift, and no mere dollar amount could do it justice.