“IF YOU GET INTO ANY TROUBLE, TRY FOCUSING ON YOUR BREATH. SOMETIMES THE BREATH IS ALL YOU HAVE.”
Brian looked concerned, though he also looked weirdly elongated, so it was hard to tell what was happening. I was on drugs, you see. Thirty minutes earlier I had gulped back a cupful of ayahuasca, a plant-based hallucinogen that William Burroughs—no slouch when it came to chemical experimentation—once described as the most powerful he had ever experienced. This was my third trip in six days, and I’d taken half again as much as anyone else in the group. Now nobody would look me in the eye.
I had thought I understood what ayahuasca was all about. But several years ago, while attending a 10-day workshop in South America, I had my perspective altered.
This is a story about perspective, about the ideas we project and the ones we receive. It’s a story about nature and consciousness, and what you might call a growing branch of adventure tourism. Because it turns out that when you’ve had your fill of physical trips, you can jump onto another kind of freight, and travel, finally, right out of your mind.
BY NOW, MOST ARMCHAIR ADVENTURERS will have heard of ayahuasca. The drug, which first escaped from the Amazon jungle in the 1930s, has leapt from underground curiosity to zeitgeist sensation. Following in the footsteps of celebrities like Sting and Oliver Stone, every year thousands of people fly to countries like Peru, Brazil and Ecuador, where ayahuasca can be sampled in the company of professional shamans—some respectable, some not.
Others quaff more locally. BC’s Pender Island, Toronto’s beaches and Montreal’s suburbs host gatherings of the curious (supervised by imported boutique-shamans) or congregations of the two fastest-growing syncretic churches that use ayahuasca as a sacrament: the Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal. Both churches—part animist, part Christian—have outposts across Latin America, Europe and North America; Jeffrey Bronfman, third-generation scion of the famous Montreal whiskey family, heads the Santa Fe chapter of the União do Vegetal. Ayahuasca’s precise legal status in the US and Canada is ambiguous and contradictory and would require an entire tedious article to document. Suffice to say, getting your hands on the stuff—for the determined—isn’t hard.
Ayahuasca owes its popularity to its alleged psycho-spiritual benefits. As one retreat centre’s website puts it, “the equivalent of ten years of therapy in one night, ayahuasca can promote healing and transformation in areas of relationships, self esteem and creative potential, to name a few.” Claims like this (circulated in online forums and, increasingly, in mainstream news outlets) are part of a larger renaissance in the world of psychedelic drug research; clinical trials in Europe and North America are now testing the potential of drugs like LSD and ecstasy to treat everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to addiction to cluster headaches. Yet, of all these drugs, it’s ayahuasca that has generated the most interest outside the world of test subjects and clinicians. Call it hippie Prozac: the must-have miracle cure for the new New Age.
This is startling enough. But ayahuasca may be at the nexus of an even deeper revolution, one that explores what indigenous forms of knowledge—long discounted in the West—could contribute to our understanding of consciousness and reality. That’s because, according to devotees, ayahuasca is a direct channel to nature’s interior aspect, to a whole pantheon of extrasensory intelligences: other human psyches, alien beings, the spirits of plants and animals. To update Aldous Huxley’s famous quip about mescaline, ayahusaca blows the doors of perception right off their hinges. It disables what Huxley called the “cerebral reducing valve” and plunges the stunned psychonaut into a seething ecology of other minds.
Of course, for every investigator who holds this rather unscientific point of view, there is another who points out that such testimonials are, after all, generated by people on drugs. Although sympathetic to some of the therapeutic claims made on behalf of ayahuasca, I wasn’t sure the plant mixture could support the West’s collective expectation of spiritual-satori-slash-psychological-analysis. I was even more skeptical about the metaphysical assertions. We don’t generally believe dreams are “real”—why should an ayahuasca vision be any different? Nevertheless, the rich history of ayahuasca usage has undeniable authority; in the end, the only way to really answer these questions was to launch into the psychedelic troposphere and find out for myself.
THE NAME OF MY DESTINATION, as well as its location, is secret. All I can say is that it was a family-run compound at the edge of a dark forest. Though ayahuasca is legal in this tropical country, there are politics around its use, and the owner of the compound—we’ll call him Alejandro—prefers to keep a low profile. I found out about the workshop through word of mouth, though similar opportunities can be found online. Where once ayahuasca-seekers had to ford piranha-infested rivers and barter with locals, now, for a few thousand dollars, tour operators will pick you up in air-conditioned coaches, cook you delicious vegetarian meals and ensure your linen is changed daily.
My host was waiting in the parking lot when I stepped out of the taxi. Alejandro, brown-eyed and courteous, shook my hand and in the fading light ushered me inside. He began studying with traditional Amazonian shamans—ayahuasqueros—in the seventies. The men showed him how the plant mixture can be used for healing and revelation, and Alejandro began to think that ayahuasca might also facilitate a kind of secular enlightenment.
Two hours after I’d arrived, our group gathered in a large room with hardwood walls. We were invited to explain why we had come. There were about a dozen of us, and perhaps a third were there for therapeutic reasons: therapists looking to incorporate ayahuasca into their practices, or patients seeking treatment. One forty-year-old woman had been abused as a child and wanted to make peace with her history. Another, a Finnish professor, sought insight into his embittered relationship with his wife. There was even an RCMP officer in the group, on a private mission to bring law and order to his own mind.
The rest were an eclectic collection of anthropologists, research psychologists and students. This group – call them the deep cave spelunkers of consciousness – had more profound goals. They believed that ayahuasca didn’t simply plunge users to new levels of perception, but also brought them into direct contact with a spirit realm inhabited by nonhuman intelligences. They dubbed it “DMT-space,” after one of the drug’s compounds. Most ayahuasca brews are made from two ingredients. The first is a leafy plant called psychotria viridis, which contains the powerful psychoactive alkaloid dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. If eaten alone, the digestive system neutralizes DMT’s effect. But, when it’s combined with the banisteriopsis caapi vine—which inhibits the enzymes that suppress DMT—the real trip begins. While other psychedelics might hint at this spirit realm, some commentators have suggested that ayahausca is unique in its ability to transport you directly inside it, providing detailed multi-sensory initiations into landscapes of great beauty and complexity.
I felt conspicuously skeptical in my corner of the room. “Journalisto de consciousness,” I joked, pointing to my head, when it was my turn to explain my intent. I said that I had just finished writing a book on the waking and sleeping mind, and believed that what happened on ayahuasca could be explained by the neurological mechanics of REM sleep, recursive sensory feedback loops and our brain’s amazing ability to build immersive models of the world during dreams. Time passed. I wrapped up my disquisition: “And so it is with the careful application of reason I believe we can shed some much needed light on the phenomenology of this curious plant mixture.”
The room, I noticed, was mostly empty. Somehow I had not heard the dinner bell.
That night I had a dream. I stood in a dark room next to a flickering fire. Someone handed me a cup of muddy liquid. As I brought it to my lips I heard Alejandro repeat what he told us that day: “You will look different once you leave here. You will not recognize yourself in the mirror.” I woke with a start. I could hear sounds coming from the jungle outside, soft trills and staccatos. My belly was tight with expectation.
THE NEXT DAY we each signed a waiver, assuming all risks. Ayahuasca is in no way a recreational drug. Though I had never heard of it killing anyone, compounds in the plants react very badly with common anti-depressants. It can also cause severe headaches and even cardiac arrhythmia if combined with beer, cheese, wine, coffee and a number of other foods. Two weeks before arrival, we had begun a salt- and sugar-free diet, and for the duration of our stay we ate no meat or spicy foods.
It was winter in South America; the sun set early. At 8:30 PM we met in the main room under soft yellow lamps. Along each wall was a row of evenly spaced mattresses, which fanned out toward the centre of the room like the spokes of a square wheel. Next to each mattress sat a plastic bucket. On a shelf at the front was a clear bottle filled with dark fluid.
We sat in a circle and discussed our intentions: who we were grateful to, what we hoped to accomplish. I felt reassured. One of the abiding lessons of sixties psychedelic experimentation—and something indigenous shamans have long appreciated—is that both your mindset and environment matter enormously when you ingest plant medicines. Positive outlook, controlled surroundings, supportive company: good trip. Terrified outlook, chaotic surroundings, hostile strangers: bad trip. The former is a recipe for profound insight retrieval. The latter is a recipe for ending up naked and raving in the back of a paddy wagon in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert.
Alejandro handed out plastic glasses and we gathered round to receive our portions. Everyone would start with around eighty milliliters, though we had the option of taking boosters later on in the night. I reached out my cup and watched as Alejandro filled it with purple liquid.
We raised our glasses—“Salud!”—and gulped the drug back, Alejandro included. Disgusting, but not as bad as I had expected, it tasted like rancid grapefruit juice. Each of us chose a mattress and settled down, sitting cross-legged to stave off the nausea. Vomiting and diarrhea—la purga, they called it—was part of the experience, and according to some a necessary catalyst. But first the drug had to snake its way down into our systems, a process that could take up to an hour. I looked around the room, the lights turned low. Hunched, people looked as though they were meditating. I closed my eyes and waited.
After about forty minutes, Alejandro picked up a rattle and sang a short, haunting icaro— a shamanic chant. In his excellent Singing to the Plants —the finest book I have read on the subject—scholar Stephen Beyer writes that icaro “is the language of the plant.” Different icaros are given to the shaman by various plant and animal spirits during the would-be shaman’s long initiation in the forest. They in turn become the voice of the shaman in ceremony. There are icaros for healing and divination, for protection and attack. Different vibratory frequencies recruit and engage different spirits, so that the shaman is simultaneously a suitor, a conductor, and a spokesperson.
Alejandro, defiantly modern, put down the rattle and selected an icaros playlist from his laptop. I felt something shift in the room. The jungle sounds were louder. I heard a faraway hiss. One tribal group calls ayahuasca “the airplane” because the trip arrives from high overhead with a low buzzing. When I opened my eyes the room had a fuzzy quality, like it was vibrating slightly. The halo of colour around each lamp deepened. I realized I was holding my breath. As I exhaled I felt something pour into me, an upwelling of alertness. It felt vaguely sexual, as if I were being seduced from the inside. I knew my mouth was hanging open but I couldn’t close it. My body was heavy all over, my lips thick. There were no ideas and no visions, only a powerful physicality, a high not unlike what I’d experienced from an ecstasy tablet.
With his white robe and screen-lit features, Alejandro looked positively iconic, the eternally-presiding cosmic DJ. From the speakers, a low drumming began to build, a woman’s voice crying eerily overtop. Suddenly everyone was standing up. I was unsure how much time had passed, only that the group had clustered around Alejandro to receive boosters. I staggered across the room with my glass extended, and shot back another forty milliliters of liquid. It was a mistake. The rush that followed flattened me to my mattress.
Someone was on the floor by my feet. I squinted and recognized Susan, a retired schoolteacher. A composed white-haired woman in her sixties, she was now moaning and squirming like a lizard, hands pressed to her pelvis and breasts. Another woman, Masha, leapt up and began a slithery Medusa dance, her voice raised to a high-pitched keening. Alejandro was furiously playing the bongo, the walls echoing with great percussive force.
As if on cue, the Estonian psychologist vomited into his bucket, sending off a domino effect of throaty purges around the room. Susan began humping the air. The Mountie groaned and raised his arm, as if to ward off an assailant. Someone else started barking. The Finnish professor—also in his sixties—came spinning in from the sidelines, hair shocked upwards in an Elvis-style pompadour, and pranced around Susan’s undulating body.
It was all too much. I struggled to my feet, teetered, and fell sideways over a chair. On my hands and knees I managed to crawl to the bathroom, where I was noisily ill. I spent the next two hours slumped next to the toilet, disappointed by my lack of visions, but also giggling at the whole bizarre circus. Behavioral reality, at least, was shifting in some interesting ways.
IN THE MORNING, the group reported generally satisfactory experiences. As is customary with ayahuasca, many people saw snakes when they closed their eyes, and Masha matter-of-factly described transforming into a reptile.
The recurring snake motif is one element that puzzles consciousness theorists. How is it possible that almost everyone seems to see serpents, regardless of cultural background or personal expectations? There are other repeating motifs, too: jaguars, ancient cities, ornamentation. The first written description of an ayahuasca trip comes from an Ecuadorian geographer named Manuel Villavicencio, who, in 1858, perceived “the most gorgeous views, great cities, lofty towers, beautiful parks, and other extremely attractive objects.” Accounts like these are used by believers as proof of a coherent alternative reality.
Psychedelic trickster and author Terrence McKenna popularized what is perhaps the strangest meme associated with DMT: under its influence, people come into contact with alien beings he called “machine elves” or, more colourfully, “self-dribbling bejeweled basketballs.” By turns courteous, cruel or indifferent, these enigmatic characters beep and trill and execute various mind-boggling stunts in the drinker’s DMT space. They are not to be confused with the plant spirits, who have their own particular proclivities and personalities.
Are these various entities ambassadors from other levels of reality, as shamans believe? Or are they dramatizations of our own interior processes, as is the standard Western judgment? James Kent makes a strong case for the latter. The battle-hardened psychonaut, editor of DoseNation.com and author of Psychedelic Information Theory argues that hallucinogens interfere with receptors in the visual cortex, provoking a cascade of phosphenes we then anthropomorphize into grinning human features. Psychologists call this “gap-filling.”
This, of course, is the rationalist perspective. But some Westerners closest to tribal societies—the actual anthropologists who live and drink with them—have come to disagree with that view. Stephen Beyer lists in his book at least four anthropologists who, in their own ways, argue the spirit world is ontologically real. Even the respected Israeli cognitive psychologist Benny Shanon, who describes his own ayahuasca experiences in his book The Antipodes of the Mind, grudgingly admits his visions may “reflect patterns exhibited on another, extra-human realm.”
Beyer himself takes a slightly different tack. Yes, he says, after many encounters he has come to accept the spirit world as real. But reality itself cannot be confined to a single point or plane. We may actually live, he said recently, on a “spectrum of reality.”
AFTER A DAY OF REST, I took a second trip across the spectrum of reality. It unfolded in much the same manner, beginning with awe, a great sense of mystery, something stirring in the room. I felt as if I were strapped into the hollow interior of an enormous vibrating didgeridoo. Behind my closed lids purple blobs of colour receded into a distant geometric grid. When I opened my eyes, everything was bordered by concentric Aztec squares, recursive and symmetrical. They were not unlike the geometric distortions I had perceived on magic mushrooms and LSD. Occasionally I thought I saw figures and shapes coalesce on the periphery of my gaze, straining toward some kind of incarnation. But no machine elves came.
And yet, near the end of my trip, as the music tapered into more reflective hymns, something did happen: I had a wave of insights about my relationship, my family, my friends. I saw my actions as if from far above, and watched as they rippled out into other people’s lives. There was nothing recriminatory about the experience—rather, it had a gentle matter-of-fact character that slipped through my usual psychological defenses. It was easy to see how this could be therapeutic. The supercharged circumstances of the ceremony only reinforced my realizations; it was like having my thoughts underlined with a psychic highlighter.
The next day, as before, we described our experiences. Brian had catapulted to a place where “language and syntax don’t exist.” Later, coming down, he had a vision of a tree heavy with fruit. Each piece, he knew, represented a different relationship in his life—his mother, his girlfriend, his peers. As he pulled each fruit from its stem he looked past the flesh to the pit, and saw, systematically, how to manage each relationship with more love and compassion. He was grateful, he said, to the plant teacher.
We began to discuss the nature of our visions. I suggested the most prudent explanation lay with the brain’s chemistry and the intersection of the drug’s two active agents. One plant boosts the amount of serotonin in the body, creating a hyper-alert ecstatic feeling, while the other boosts the amount of DMT, a naturally-occurring brain chemical thought to play a role in REM sleep. “Thus,” I said, “the serotonin circle overlaps with the DMT circle, and we sit in the middle, submerged in a waking dream.”
Ayahuasca is a catalyst for therapeutic insight, I continued, because “normal” thinking—all our dependable assumptions about the world and the self—cannot proceed. We’re forced to make new connections. What’s more, this happens within a larger climate of what psychiatrist Daniel X. Freedman called, in a classic 1968 paper on LSD, “portentousness”: “the capacity of the mind to see more than it can tell, to experience more than it can explicate, to believe in and be impressed with more than it can rationally justify.”
“Psychotropics like ayahuasca,” I concluded, “allow us both to see the world anew, and overlay that world with an abiding sense of its irreducible complexity and mystery. Isn’t that enough?”
The anthropologist in the group shared another theory currently circulating in the literature. Psychedelics, he explained, acted as “psycho-integrators,” linking up three evolutionary layers of the brain: the ancient reptilian brain stem, the middle-aged mammalian limbic system and the relatively modern frontal cortex. Ayahuasca, he told the group, re-routed habitual ways of thinking down through the primitive brain stem. “That’s why you can’t put so many of these experiences into words,” he said. “The reptile brainstem can’t make words. It’s pre-verbal.”
Matt from San Francisco was shaking his head. “You guys have no idea. You can talk about the brain all you want, but it says nothing about the experience and the reality of these encounters.”
Brian joined him. “Ayahuasca shows that what we think of as boundaries are really borders. This reality here,” he said, gesturing around the room, “is just a container for one kind of order. There are others. The truth of this isn’t something you can ‘figure out.’ It works on you from the inside, until you arrive at a different way of seeing. It only seems strange because we don’t understand it.”
I wanted to believe them, of course. Who wouldn’t? The alternative was imprisonment in my own head—the crisis of the lab technician, cut off from a nourishing world of spirit and connection. I envied people like Brian and Matt. They were smart and informed, and yet they also believed. Perhaps they had the best of science and spirituality. Could I arrive at this place too, without becoming some disorderly mystic? I didn’t know, but after our discussion I was hell-bent on finding out.
AT THE BEGINNING of the third trip, I asked for 160 milliliters—double what I’d started with the first time. Alejandro, hesitating, said I would need a straightjacket if I wasn’t careful. I laughed and told him to pour my rations. He obliged, shaking his head.
Within half an hour I knew I was in trouble. Shadows cast by a flickering candle crowded in on me. When I closed my eyes, the shadows were still there, moving closer, bent into impossible angles. My last coherent emotion was shame. “I am a fool,” I said, out loud.
Brian told me to concentrate on my breath but it was too late: I had no breath, or hands for that matter—both arms had dissolved into green and yellow pixels. A moving front of particulate matter surged up my neck and into my throat, my whole yapping head apparatus suddenly flipped inside out. Every category immediately became meaningless. There was no “up” or “down,” no “real” or “hallucinated.” My thoughts were no different from physical objects. Everything—mind and matter—was composed of the same omnipresent material, pressing and twisting against me.
Was I breathing? I couldn’t tell—that idea was inconsequential, too. So was the concept of my death, which felt imminent. I tried to summon an image of my mother but her disappointment had too many dimensions. I began to laugh, hunched on my mattress, hands gripping my head as I peeled over sideways like a Picasso abstract. I recognized, even in my terror, the situation’s dark comedy, the spectacle of my rational mind scurrying through the maelstrom with its pathetic building materials. It was like trying to assemble a nylon tent in a hurricane. I wanted to ask for help but couldn’t formulate the words.
Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, it passed. My forehead was clammy with sweat. Alejandro squatted by my side and asked if I was all right. I was. But also not. I lay on my mattress, feeling very alone, as if I had been to the dark sub-basement of the mind, where all the big clunky turbines operated. There was no intelligence there, just the hardware, the machinery, constructing a seamless hidden world, overtop of which glided our everyday minds, confident and oblivious. Once again I had not seen the nurturing plant spirits. I felt forsaken.
I wasn’t alone. “This is my fiftieth ayahuasca session,” said Susan the next day, her voice cracking. “I can’t remember the last time I had a visit from the Mother. I keep drinking but nothing helps.” She looked around the room for help but no one knew what to say. This wasn’t in the retreat brochure.
I was afraid to take ayahuasca again, but later that night I forced myself to drink. The brew tasted much worse now, foul beyond belief. Two hours in, something unexpected happened. Watching the others on their mattresses—Brian staring calmly into the room, Susan mumbling softly to herself, the professor on his back, turning his hands in front of his face—I felt a very present and immediate tenderness. I closed my eyes. I could sense them all, moving in their private worlds, but also brushing up against my own. It was an odd feeling. My skin tingled as if each person were right up against me, but when I opened my eyes everyone was still on their mattresses. Was this the feeling of unity they were talking about? Brian told me that in a session he had done the previous year, he “crashed” into the mind of a woman sitting next to him. Both of them could sense the other’s freaked-out thoughts, an event the two later discussed, though, he said, “we didn’t need to.”
My heightened sensitivity persisted through the night. Toward dawn, after everyone else had gone to sleep, I went outside and stood at the edge of the forest next to the compound. Everything was very still, yet the trees had an uncommon expressiveness. They reached upward, to the brightening sky, but remained protective of their many shadows. I strained my ears. Was I picking up the solemn vibes of some fibrous tree spirit? I wrapped my arms around a sympathetic-looking araucaria. It had happened: tree-hugger. I whispered endearments into the smooth bark.
The following day we said our goodbyes and I returned home feeling unusually calm and lucid. It was a sensation similar to what I had experienced post-meditation retreat, a state of composure I have heard described by other long-term consumers of psychedelics, the ones who hadn’t become unhinged. Many forms of intense introspection, it seems, lead to clearings. So what had become clear to me? What kind of knowledge do psychedelics like ayahuasca impart?
THE POET DALE PENDELL has a term for the practice of sacred plant use: “the poison path.” The poison’s first victim is certainty; it weakens pre-existing worldviews and self-conceits. This can be terrifying, and liberating, and desolating, sometimes in that order. Especially if—as in my and Susan’s case—the plant continues to confound our hopes and expectations. In the end the psychedelic seeker must depend on her own capacity to discriminate and attend, to artfully integrate the lessons and visions—and, sometimes, lack of visions—into her life. If you have a good shaman you don’t have to do this alone. Part of the shaman’s craft is to work creatively with various plant energies as they interface with human energies. Though the shaman keeps the energy moving, so much depends on individual context. It is not a case of taking your medicine and being handed the truth. This may be what Westerners seek, but it is not what the shaman—or the medicine—offers.
Ayahusaca, however, does leave one certainty intact: our kinship with nature. Like other psychedelic thinkers, Alejandro believes that ayahuasca and other organic psychotropics act as nature’s corrective. They bring us back into alignment with ecological reality, with the tangled web of biological dependencies—human and extra-human—through which we move so carelessly. This is why, Alejandro told me, so many of those who try ayahuasca end up changing careers, becoming environmental lawyers or field biologists or organic farmers. They see with new clarity how abusing the planet—dumping pollution into the air and sea, eliminating entire species, hacking down jungles—is a kind of self-abuse.
The reverberations of this truth depend on how far along the spectrum of reality you are willing to go. For those of a more cautious ontological disposition, the fact of ecological connectivity is enough. Others go further.
Ayahuasca has been called “one of the most sophisticated and complex drug-delivery systems in existence.” One oft-mentioned mystery is how indigenous people knew to combine the elements of the drug, since they grow in separate ecological niches, and are just two of over eighty thousand plant species that exist in the Amazon basin. Shamans say the plants told them. When you delve into the anthropological literature on indigenous views of nature, from the Cherokee to the Iroquois to the Shipibo, shamans say the same thing: via visions and dreams and waking intuitions, the plants tell them things, things they have no way of knowing otherwise. They are not speaking metaphorically. Rather, they are literally saying that all things are alive and talking to one another. It may not even be necessary to ingest a plant to partake in this dialogue. Simply the act of walking through the woods, if done with the correct attitude and sensitivity, can be a profound learning experience. It is a matter of bringing to the forest the same empathy and openness we should bring to human society. In this sense, all of nature is very subtly psychoactive.
This kind of knowledge relies heavily on your internal state, which drives hardcore skeptics batty; accessing it depends in part on one’s openness to the situation. But that’s the mind for you. You can’t escape it, or even properly assess its influence. It’s like the eye trying to see itself. Amateur psychonauts, too, would do well to consider this: no matter how many perspective-expanding substances you take, no matter how many insights you generate and genuine multi-dimensional perceptions you entertain, you will never expand past the incontrovertible fact of your own subjective filter. This may be the central insight of psychedelic philosophy.
So where does all this leave the shaman’s anomalous spirits? I didn’t encounter any elves or vegetal entities. But ayahuasca did leave me with the powerful sense that the world is humming with organizing patterns that affect our minds in ways we’ve hardly begun to appreciate. Our psychology and neurobiology, of course, shape how we receive and interpret these patterns. But my feeling is that we do not create them, any more than we create the songbird’s fluted call or the movement of wind in the trees. What seems like nature mysticism now could be the next generation’s environmental science; both an intimation of the biosphere’s complex information exchange, and a glimpse into nature’s vast interiority, intelligence—maybe even agency.
These are grand claims, especially given the case I’ve just made for the mind’s fundamental indeterminacy. I recognize my own existential neediness—I’m not unbiased. No one is. When it comes to how to live in the world, though, the mind’s shaping power is actually good news. It suggests that when it comes to the biggest-picture questions about consciousness and reality – about which, after all, there is no scientific or mystic or philosophic consensus – you get to choose the kind of world you want to live in. I know what it’s like to follow a rigorously mechanistic outlook through to its logical conclusion: it’s lonely and scary and it made me want to roll up in a fetal position next to a bucket of my own barf. But in my tiny moment of connectivity with all things—my immersion in a shared world of living presence—I felt a consolation and a wonder I will not forget.
UPDATE: Ayahuasca and Meditation
“It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story”
– Native American proverb
These days it seems everyone is into ayahuasca, an indigenous ceremonial plant medicine fashionable with Hollywood celebrities and now the focus of a fledgling tourism industry in greater Amazonia. I first tried ayahuasca in 2007. At the time I was fanatic about neuroscience and thought the brain was the place to go to understand ayahuasca. So I bored everyone at the South American retreat centre with my stupid theories and then, on my third sit, the plant handed me my ass. Since that time I’ve done many more ceremonies, including two this past weekend.
Occasionally someone asks me how my ideas about ayahuasca have changed, and how I see the relationship between the shamanic and meditative paths. Fresh from my latest round, I thought I’d share a few thoughts. If this subject doesn’t interest you, just scroll down to the meditation and party and retreat listings below.
The first thing to say is having a meditation practice has completely changed the way I relate to the medicine. Ten years ago I wasn’t much of a meditator. As a consequence, in ceremony, I resisted the flood of sensations and tried to control my experience. That didn’t work out so well. Resistance creates a wave of amplified feedback that quickly overloads the mind and body. Thus: fear, loathing, and synesthetic sensory skullduggery screaming through your nervous system. Another way of saying this is you shit your pants.
When I returned to the plant a few years later I had a lot more meditation under my belt and a strong foundation in equanimity. If you’ve heard me teach you know my thoughts on equanimity – it is THE contemplative super-juice, the skeleton key to all transformations. I follow Shinzen Young’s proprietary definition of equanimity here: not pushing or pulling on sensory experience. Allowing experience to be what it is – getting out of your own way – so the world can bloom more fully. This doesn’t just make all experience richer; it is precisely what’s behind the so-called purification slash catharsis process, which ayahausca – indeed all Shamanic ordeals – are all about. Among other things, ayahuasca reveals your own patterns and delusions to you. It dramatizes and magnifies them. If you can fully welcome the experience, all kinds of dysfunctional habits and neurotic suffering and stuck views can be worked through and metabolized. The ghosts come peeling off your hunched form and drift into the smoky air. This makes it sound like a gentle process – sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s a lot tougher.
While an improvement on my earlier resistance model, the above is still quite passive: just lay back and receive the visions and eurekas. I realized I was being a crappy lover – I wasn’t putting my back into it, I was letting ayahuasca do most of the work. A couple years ago I resolved to become a more active participant, and the character of my experiences changed yet again. This is where it gets metaphysical.
You see, when I first approached ayahausca I was skeptical of the whole spirit thing. ‘It’s just a drug,’ I thought, all just hallucination and projection. I waited like a judge for the spirit of the plant to appear, expecting her to tap dance onto the stage of my mind like Planters Mr Peanut – ‘Ta-da!’ Not surprising, she never came. And then one ceremony, I shifted my perspective one millimetre to the right, and there she was. I had been looking in the wrong place; she wasn’t going to appear in the foreground of my mind, she was the whole of it. My reality was paved with her; winking at me, mischievous, showing me moment-by-moment how I created new stories and lived inside them. This is similar to how insight meditation works – “to see things as they really are” is how many Buddhists describe their prime reason for practicing. Frame after frame, ghost after ghost, the skins between you and a more sane way of being are seen and, hopefully, peeled away. Exorcised. And yeah, it’s probably skins all the way down.
What she showed me – and for me she is a she – is I am not alone in this process. My reality is co-created – with her when she is with me, with the other participants in the room, with the shamans and their icaros, with people I know and don’t know, and an entire ecology of natural presences teeming in the space around me. Reality, it seems, is a team sport. This consciousness isn’t some dry factoid I entertain with my discursive mind – it is a lived experience. I have felt my mind-body streeeeeeetched across Indra’s Net – my kinship in the multitudes, and half the time I’m blubbering like a baby when it happens, my barnacle-encrusted heart cracked open like an oyster shell. As for the precise ontological status of the various spirits with whom I interact: I have no idea. They are real as experiences, and I respect them as such. They lead me to wisdom and joy and connectivity.
Things are different now. I drink the nasty brew, and when I feel her in the room I say I say “come on down!” I say “I missed you baby” and then I visualize a shag rug-lined corkscrew and she comes pouring through it like a cat, rubbing and purring, and a chorus line of sexy feline dancers come kicking their legs in five dimensions, and I laugh and build a jungle gym for them to play on, and she swats it down and pours a jaguar into my heart. And my whiskers twitch every time someone in the room breathes, because they’re in me too. And I don’t know who I am when I’m with her, or who she is, but I love her just the same. I continue to do ceremonies for the insights they give me. But mostly I do them because I enjoy her company.
There’s one last piece, the integration. This is where some of those doing ayahuasca could use a bit of meditation insight. It’s commonplace in ayahuasca circles to say the real work begins at home. You’re given an insight, maybe you’ve worked through a tough pattern. What now? Unless you’re deliberately engaging with ayahuasca as a weekly or monthly practice, you’re back in the mundane world of job and mortgage, and it’s six months before you can shell out the dinero for another round of cosmic chicanery. It’s easy to overlook a simple truth: you don’t actually need ayahausca. What you need is to be reminded of what is meaningful in life, and a practice to help you work through what prevents you from experiencing that meaning. Meditation – a simple sitting practice – can do this without any of the bells and whistles. Over time, it shows you the ordinary is actually extraordinary – that you don’t need sexy dancing cats or an inter-dimensional colonic, however excellent those things may be. The danger of ayahuasca and other “entheogens” is you come to depend on them for meaning instead of creating (co-creating!) it yourself. As the saying goes, you never learn to make your own way up the mountain. You never build the necessary concentration and clarity and equanimity and friendliness to make the in-between parts of your life the main event.
Those are a few thoughts. For me, right now, I find the two practices work beautifully together – the seen and the unseen, twining through my life like two stands of a single DNA.