Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ayahuasca and Marijuana, Part 1

Among some in the medicine world, I have noticed a certain taboo surrounding marijuana. I know that when I went to my first workshop, all participants were urged not to smoke for several weeks prior. I know that Graham Hancock has spoken repeatedly about being freed from a decades-long abusive relationship with it by his experiences with ayahuasca. I know that a good friend of mine, a man who is undergoing a true shamanic apprenticeship in the Shipibo tradition, casts a dim eye on its use.

All of this is easy enough for me to understand. Marijuana abuse was inextricably tied to my own bottoming out with alcohol almost 14 years ago. I smoked all day every day, and it was pretty debilitating. It also combined with alcohol in a way that was truly dangerous for me, and led to an alarming number of vomiting, blackout drunks.

So I get it. In contrast to most of my ayahuasca experiences, marijuana is physically pleasurable. Her spirit is also undeniably beautiful and feminine and seductive, and very good at pulling me in past my best interests. I have never, not even remotely, felt an addictive pull towards ayahuasca. But with marijuana, the potential is there.

So I get it.

And for the first year of my journey into the medicine world, I was content to leave her be. Anything else would have been inconceivable to me. After a dozen years sober in AA, just drinking ayahuasca was an enormous step for me. I had literally been programmed - conditioned to think in a way that was not my own. I had to work through this down in Peru. After the 2nd ceremony I broke down in terror and in tears, stricken over the fact that it felt like I had just given up 12 years of hard-won sobriety. I could almost taste the alcohol on my tongue again.

The facilitators explained to me that my body was letting go of the trauma I'd inflicted on myself with years of drug and alcohol abuse. They explained that ayahuasca was not an intoxicant, that she actually was cleaning my body of impurities, not adding them. One of them was a medical doctor. I believed them. I began to formulate a new conceptual category, distinct from booze and dope - medicine. Plant medicine.

As I continued to drink ayahuasca with my community here in the States, I became more and more comfortable with this new category. And, as categories will do, it seeks new members. Recently it found one.

I first began to reconsider my attitude towards marijuana when I learned that a number of people in my church use it as a sacrament as well, in addition to ayahuasca. As I've said, for a long time I closed it off as an option. It simply felt too dangerous, too much like a real relapse.

And then something funny happened - I began to get messages from ayahuasca herself to resume smoking. I didn't want to listen to them at first, but gradually they became clearer and more compelling. There were two main factors that created my need for this additional plant medicine:

1. The volume of trauma ayahuasca brought up in me was becoming overwhelming - seriously re-traumatizing itself and ultimately unsustainable.

2. I was experiencing a return of major depression and becoming unable to function. It got so bad that I actually tried to get back on the same SSRI I had used for years - and couldn't, because of the side effects.  Apparently ayahuasca has re-wired me so that those drugs will no longer work on my organism.

I italicize the word "need" deliberately. Any successfully programmed AA member will react to this word the same way I used to - with disdain; proof that it's just another addiction. There is no arguing with this mindset, and I won't try. All I can relate is that my experience with marijuana today is completely different than what it was like many years ago when it was tied to active alcoholism.

Because, obviously, that is where all of this is heading - my experience with marijuana today. But that can wait for the next post.

God bless you, whoever you are.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Powerlessness [Graduation]

At first I was loath to even say it out loud. I didn't want to face the full implications of it. A foundation of my self-image and my entire worldview had been shown to be false. I felt a deep fear at the change it would require in me.

It happened during my first ayahuasca workshop, probably after the 2nd or 3rd ceremony. I realized that for over a dozen years I had built my whole life around a lie - the lie of powerlessness.

Perhaps "lie" isn't even the right word. Perhaps "half-truth" would be better.

A lot of people who come to Alcoholics Anonymous desperately resist the notion of powerlessness. They are too proud, too arrogant, too ensconced in their egos to even entertain the notion that they might not be all-powerful. Some of these people die. Others finally are "beaten into a state of reasonableness" after numerous relapses.

Not me. When I showed up at my first AA meeting, I heard them read the steps and I looked at the wall and I felt tremendous relief at the idea that I could finally admit defeat and impotence. It let me off the hook for having tried, and failed, for so many years to control my drinking. It was a necessary 1st Step.

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable."

At that point in my life this was absolutely true. I was powerless in the face of alcohol. And, as 12-step communities told me countless times in meetings and in the literature I read, I was powerless over virtually every other aspect of my life as well - money, relationships, sex, career, you name it. The fabric of my existence assumed the form of an endless litany of things over which I could never hope to exert any influence.

For me at least, that became pretty disempowering.

Powerlessness is ultimately false, but it's often necessary as an intermediate step to demolish the addict self and its illusions of control. The problem is that what starts out as a useful, necessary 1st step in recovery from addiction and despair becomes a prison. It certainly did for me.

Do I really want to make powerlessness and brokenness the cornerstones of my spiritual life? What if I grow tired of describing myself as an alcoholic? Of identifying with the problem? What if I instead choose to describe myself as a perfect and holy child of God? What if I am not separate from God? If that's true then I am, in fact, infinitely powerful. That's kind of scary. That's a lot of responsibility to assume.

Powerlessness is a great way to stay small and not have to take responsibility for my own talents, abilities, decisions, life. Shitty as it is, that's the payoff that I got from clinging to powerlessness for so many years.

My first encounters with the shamanic world tore a gaping hole in my belief in my own limitation, in my own smallness. I got to experience a visceral sense of my own strength during ceremony. At times my body seemed to pulse with energy and vigor and resilience. I felt like an oak tree, planted in the ground, channeling all of the divine terrestrial power that is my birthright as a man and as a living creature on Planet Earth.

I got some perspective on the horrific experiences I'd had as a kid. I started to quit thinking "This terrible thing happened to me" and I started to begin understanding "I was strong enough to make it through this. Intact."

My friend and facilitator revealed to me that the medicine showed him the red-tailed hawk is my spirit animal - a pretty powerful creature for a guy who'd gotten so used to thinking he didn't have any. The funny thing is that I'd always known it - he just mirrored it back to me. He wasn't afraid of my power.

When I flew to Peru, I really had no sense of how 12-step programs would fit into my life when I returned. I certainly had no plan to completely remove them from my life - to "graduate". For so many years I had heard that word thrown about sarcastically, contemptuously even, to describe people who left the rooms for one reason or another - "Oh, I guess he graduated."

But that's exactly what happened. I graduated from 12-step programs. Similarly to the way I graduated from high school. Why would I not? I have found a healing technology that completely supersedes them. It renders them obsolete in my life.

The fact that so many people in AA are still so sick after so many years spent working the steps is sad, but it's not surprising. They refuse to acknowledge that, precisely as with grade school, 12 step programs must be graduated from in order to attain higher spiritual levels.

A beloved friend down in Peru, the co-facilitator of my workshop, remarked that "It's tough for a therapist to keep up with a divine trans-dimensional being." I would submit that it's also tough for a bunch of self-described alcoholics in a shabby, smoke-stained church basement.

I went to handful of meetings when I came back. I was repelled. Was it the tired words I heard spoken in them? Yes, in part. Was it the dingy surroundings? Yes, in part.

But more than anything, it was the energy I felt in them. It was a much, much lower vibration than I had experienced among my fellow explorers in the Amazon. It was a much lower vibration than I felt in myself. It depressed the living shit out of me.

I realized that, frightening as it was to me, I was moving beyond powerlessness. Somewhere deep down I knew that I could never again have anything in common with people who clung to it like a life vest.

I was finally stepping into my power. I continue to do so every day. Sometimes it's exhilarating and sometimes it's terrifying, but one thing is undeniable: there's no going back.

To quote countless AA shares I heard over the years, for that I am truly grateful.

God bless you, whoever you are.





Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ayahuasca and Intention, Part 2

I stated that my own intentions surrounding ayahuasca have been clean. I think that's a fair assessment. Unfortunately, until pretty recently they were also unrealistic and unsustainable.

I conceived of my present journey as being equivalent to draining a vast pool of trauma and the negative emotion surrounding it. In that process, my own experience of growing re-traumatization was to be ignored. It was the price demanded by this nebulous and ill-defined concept, "healing". I needed to be a dauntless spiritual warrior, limitless in my capacity to absorb pain.

This approach stopped working. A few months ago, as the intensity of my experience began to reach an unbearable level, I started considering the possibility that drinking ayahuasca was just too much for me. I considered stopping.

I talked with some very wise and trusted friends in my community about this. They were unanimous: they told me to take a break. They told me to rest and take care of myself and assimilate the vast amount of material I'd already been given to work with.

They also told me to ask the spirit of Ayahuasca for what I want. To set an intention.

This is the crucial point for me. In my life I have been an addict and alcoholic. I have gotten used to viewing substances as just that - substances; objects that I use to achieve a particular result. The notion of entering into a dialogue with the spirit contained within these plants has been a new one for me. At first it seemed strained, even false.

As it turns out, my friends were right on both counts. Taking a two-month break from drinking ayahuasca was absolutely crucial, allowing me to absorb, process, and integrate the information I had already received. Setting a clear intention for what I wanted to get out of my next ceremony was also vital to my continuing on this path.

"What I wanted" isn't even the correct phrase. I had asked for help with that before - "Give me guidance on this or that particular issue." What was different this last time was that I made requests regarding the "how" of it. Specifically, I asked that my next ceremony be as gentle as possible. That it not leave me broken afterwards. That it show me that this path I've chosen truly is manageable and sustainable in my life.

I was delighted to find that I got my request. I've now had 3 ceremonies in a row that have been gentle and nurturing in a way I didn't know the medicine could be. This experience has been hugely illuminating for me.

Growing up in an abusive home conditioned me to think of myself as powerless - an object at the mercy of the whims of crazy people. 12 years in 12-step programs, though helpful in many ways, reenforced this notion of powerlessness drastically. More and more, I am coming to see it as incompatible with medicine work.

This idea of real, meaningful agency in my own life is a new one for me. Assimilating it is both exhilarating and scary. It forces me to examine the payoff I've always gotten from my distress - if I'm a victim, I don't have to take responsibility for my own life. If I'm a victim, it doesn't matter what intention I set - the result will always be me getting hurt.

This fundamental lesson I learned as a child was a lie. Recovering from it is the central part of my healing at this point. The medicine will accept nothing less from me.

What then is my intention for working with ayahuasca? Today it sounds a little like the following prayer:

"Please gently clean and illuminate me so that I may live to my fullest potential and help show others how to do the same."

God bless you, whoever you are.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Ayahuasca and Intention, Part 1

I think it's natural to ascribe our own motives to other people. Unfortunately, it is also incorrect.

My motives in approaching ayahuasca have been straightforward and clean: to heal trauma, gain direction in my life, and manifest the full potential that God has given to me. To fulfill my Destiny rather than succumb to my Fate. To harm none, and to help as many as possible.

I like to think that they are the motives of the curandero, the healer.

The overwhelming majority of people I encounter on this path are very similarly motivated. In fact, in the medicine community I have consistently met some of the most decent human beings I've had the privilege to know.

With one or two exceptions.

On occasion I have encountered someone in ceremony who just doesn't feel right. It's always a jarring experience: What is he doing here?

I can't really know for sure. However, I have a guess.

There is another path opened up for us by these plant allies: that of the brujo, the witch. It's not a very nice one. It is an amoral path, one which seeks only one thing: power for its own sake, expressed primarily through domination over others.

It is the path my Father chose. It is the path often celebrated throughout our society, from boardrooms to battlefields to street corners to cell blocks.

It is the way of the sociopath. On it, our fellow human beings are not other manifestations of the Divine who deserve care, consideration, and love in their own right. Instead, they are objects to be used and discarded as necessary in the pursuit of personal aggrandizement.

I flew to Peru last year with stars in my eyes. I was confident that I was headed to some spiritual Shangri-La, a rainforest Eden filled with light and beauty and devotion to the highest ideals known to our species.

Then I landed in Iquitos. Those who have been there will know what I am talking about. For those who haven't, all I can say is that Iquitos is a cross between a Mexican border town and Telluride, Colorado, but with Rocky Mountain kind bud replaced by the most powerful psychedelics in the world. Untuned motorcycles roar down the streets at all hours of the day and night, unwashed street kids harangue you incessantly with cheap wares, hippies follow their ayahuasca diets at earth-toned cafes, and millennia-old indigenous sacraments are hawked right next to degenerate thrill-seeking.

A friend at the workshop related that he was approached by a dealer on the street with the sales pitch, repeated over and over like a mantra, "Ayahuasca, girls, cocaine......ayahuasca, girls, cocaine....."

Separately, or all at once?

A good friend of mine has worked extensively at one of the ayahuasca centers outside of Iquitos. He describes how, in the Shipibo culture that is the basis of so much of ayahuasca shamanism, becoming a shaman is really just another trade, like becoming a carpenter or plumber. If we carry that analogy through, then ayahuasca itself is not something mystical or unknowable - it is simply another tool, like a saw or wrench or hammer.

I think there's something to this view. I know that, as I have related in earlier posts, I first approached this path of plant medicine with a lot of misconceptions. Probably the biggest one was that ayahuasca would magically lift all of my spiritual sickness from me and suddenly fill me with light.

To again quote my friend, if that were true then all of these Amazonian shamans would be enlightened beings akin to Tibetan Lamas. A review of the literature surrounding ayahuasca tourism disproves that pretty quickly, what with the various allegations of shamanic rape, robbery, black magic, disposal of inconvenient tourist corpses, etc. My friend confirms this in more prosaic form, with his descriptions of the petty, ordinary back-biting and drama that many of the shamans apparently engage in as a matter of course.

It's easy to look at Westerners eager for spiritual awakening through the medicine and scoff at them as naive and foolish. Certainly there's an element of that in this whole pursuit. We must temper our enthusiasm with awareness of reality. But at the same time, I think there's something really beautiful in approaching ayahuasca with idealism and innocence and purity of heart. Let us be wise as serpents but gentle as doves.

I think she responds well to it. The problem is that she seems to respond to darker motives, as well.

I am coming to view ayahuasca as one of the most powerful tools on the planet for manifesting human intention. Which brings me back to the title of my post. What intention are we bringing to our work with this tool, this sacrament, this divine being?

God bless you, whoever you are.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

#24

Two weeks ago I had my twenty-fourth ayahuasca experience. It was almost exactly a year to the day since I drank for the first time. That makes pretty simple math: for the last year, on average, I have drunk ayahuasca twice a month.

For this man, that's a lot.

I have been challenged and confronted with trauma and age-old patterns of dysfunction and despair. I have been shown the myriad ways in which I have sold myself short, ignored my soul's higher purpose, believed lies about my own powerlessness and insignificance.

It's the hardest thing I've ever done.

Lately it has been getting harder. I appear to be getting taken to the deepest levels of my soul's wounding - the wounds that were so enormous and cruel that they left me with a simple, brutal choice - leave my body and bury the hurt all the way down, or be utterly destroyed by it.

I took the first choice. Thank God I did. As a grown man, apparently strong enough to finally feel it in its entirety, I have felt almost completely overwhelmed by it. Some days I can barely function. As a child it would have, without question, either killed me or driven me insane. My little boy's container was simply not strong enough to withstand its full force.

Lately I've been seeing homeless mentally ill people in a new way. These days when I pass by a bearded, unwashed man on the corner, gibbering to himself and begging for enough money to silence his demons for a few precious hours of oblivion, the first thought that comes to mind is, "Oh you poor man. You poor lost soul. What happened to your precious, innocent little boy that drove him so completely out of himself?"

The only thing that separates me from those guys is my constitution: my resilience and my ingenuity and my will to survive. I was clever enough to figure out means of tolerating an intolerable situation, and strong enough to implement them without fail.

Believe me, I say this not by way of self-congratulation. Merely precision. Whatever gifts I have were God's to give, and they appear to be part of his plan for me, part of my soul's purpose. I feel only compassion for those subjected to severe trauma who do not possess them. These people are grist for the mill of our global DeathMachine. I'm glad that God loves them, because virtually no one else cares in the least.

I'm not ashamed to say it: I pray with all of my broken heart for a world that cares for every single one of its precious children. I take it on faith that our species neither can nor should survive if we refuse this challenge.

That's the terrible gift I was given by trauma and abuse and neglect: a long-dormant, finally-emerging, desperately resisted Christ consciousness. The birthright of all humanity. If it's happening to you it's happening to me. We are all God's children.

There is no longer any wall I can build that will separate me from this spiritual reality.

And then there's the question of the here and now. The job to perform; the mortgage to pay; the lights to keep turned on; the daughter to raise. Yes, by God, I am fortunate enough to have these burdens and these blessings. And being constantly torn apart by ayahuasca can make it nearly impossible to fulfill them.

Failing in my responsibilities and giving up is a dubious luxury I do not possess: even if I were willing to condemn my own soul to that fate, there's no way I'd do it to my daughter.

And so, again, I must find ways to tolerate an intolerable situation: discharging my duties as a father, a partner, an employee, and an adult in American society who does not want to be homeless, with as much Grace as I can muster, all in the midst of a complete dismantling of my ego.

Lately I've been getting creative. I've been exploring energetic healing work: there appear to be some truly gifted lightworkers on this planet who are capable of performing spiritual surgery on us when the need arises. I've also been very consciously making new friends and reaching out to old ones. It's a two-pronged weapon: it gives me help in the present moment and it contradicts my old pattern of isolation, that tool that used to serve me so well and now keeps me locked in darkness and despair. I've been exercising like crazy. I've been sitting in steam baths. I've been praying and meditating and reading spiritual texts.

In short, I've been doing every blessed thing possible to help me make it through this ordeal. Just like I did when I was little. The difference is that today the ordeal is taking me closer to the light, rather than pulling me away from it.

So that makes it especially ironic that today my coping strategies include drinking less ayahuasca. For most of the last year drinking large doses several times a month has seemed manageable and useful. In fact, it has seemed necessary. That appears to be changing.

A few days ago I did something I haven't done once in the last year - I passed on a chance to drink. I was just starting to feel some ground under my feet after the last ceremony 2 weeks before, and I got the message loud and clear - "Don't go this time. Take a rest." And so I did, and I know that it was the right choice.

I'm not totally sure when #25 will be. I'll know when it's time.

God bless you, whoever you are.



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

To Thine Own Self Be True

On every AA chip is inscribed this motto:

"To thine own self be true."

In 12 and a half years of attending meetings, I never once heard this as the topic. That always struck me as strange. Or perhaps the reverse is true: what's really peculiar is that the saying found its way into the program at all.

The rest of the program is decidedly hostile to the self. "Relieve me of the bondage of self," says the third step prayer. "Selfishness - self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles," says the Big Book on page 62. Again on page 62, "...the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot..."

What could reconcile this seeming contradiction is more precise language, language that I have never encountered in the literature and only seldom in meetings. We must distinguish between the lower self, the addict self that brought us into the program to begin with, and the Higher Self, the manifestation of God within us.

Those of us who have struggled with addiction become painfully familiar with our lower selves. They get us loaded, make us act out shamefully, alienate friends and family, hurt our kids, lose our jobs, wind us up in hospital or jail. They demand more booze, more dope, more food, more sex, more attention, more glory, more possessions, more sympathy, more satisfaction. There is not enough of these things to satisfy them, ever. They transform us from balanced human beings into tyrants and gluttons and pariahs. Eventually they kill us.

The Higher Self is something different entirely. Before I drank ayahuasca, my awareness of mine was limited. I could gain access to him through prayer and meditation, playing music, connecting with loved ones, working the steps. But the connection was shaky and tenuous; the instructions I received were often unclear.

That changed when I drank the medicine. In contrast to many people, I do not usually receive visual data from other dimensions. I don't "hallucinate" (I find that word inaccurate, but it's a useful shorthand). Instead, my ayahuasca experiences tend to take the form of conversations with my Higher Self, conversations in which he gives me instruction and I try to take it all in. In my first few experiences with the medicine, this sensation of a dialogue was palpable. I had the feeling of a beam of light running through my body, aligning all the different parts of myself and putting me in touch with the God within, emanating from my crown chakra.

Sometimes his instruction has taken the form of a gentle prodding - a suggestion, a nudge, an intuition - "Have you thought of it this way before?" Sometimes it has felt more like a board across my head - "Quit doing this shit. Now."

Whatever form the instruction has taken, it has never been wrong. Not once. Whether or not I choose to follow it is another matter.

"To mine own self be true."

Not my lower self, my addict self, my broken self. There's not enough booze or dope or porn in the world to glue that guy back together. He was on his last legs before I went down to Peru last May. Ayahuasca has finished the job. She's been like a wrecking ball, obliterating his last vestiges and clearing the way for the full emergence of my Higher Self.

This process is, by turns, agonizing and frightful and glorious. Sometimes it is even serene. It is definitely effective, and it is definitely real. I cannot urge it on anyone; I can only relate my own experience. I hope that is helpful to you.

God bless you, whoever you are.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Reintegration

I am coming up on my year anniversary of working with the vine and the leaf. It is a bittersweet memorial. To reflect on what compelled me to go to Peru last year and take the plunge into medicine space is to reflect on one of the darkest times in my life, a time I very nearly didn't survive. But I also remember the hope I felt in approaching this new discipline, a hope that was not in vain.

I had a tremendous misunderstanding of many aspects of the undertaking I faced. How could I not? Such a transformative and alien experience does not lend itself to communication through language. But there is one practical aspect that should have been emphasized far more clearly by those in a position to do so - reintegration. As I understand it, reintegration is the process of taking the insights and clarification that are granted by the medicine and putting them into practice in one's "real" life.

It is a crucial component of the process of learning from ayahuasca. In fact, I believe it is the central component. And as a rule it is given woefully short shrift.

It's easy to see why. It's not the exciting, flashy part. No serpent visions or rides on spaceships or trips to the rainforest. And, to be cynical, The Ayahuasca Adventure Fun Center™ is not going to make a buck from it.

Instead, it is the plodding, often grueling, ultimately beautiful effort to reconcile one's newfound clarity and knowledge with day-to-day realities. Or, sometimes, to change one's day-to-day reality so that it aligns more closely with received vision.

Reintegration literally means "making whole again." What does this suggest? It suggests that we have been broken by the experience.

I know that I have been. But the deeper truth is that I was broken long before I drank my first cup of ayahuasca. By a process of ego compensation and [mal]adaptation, I had tricked myself into believing my life was balanced. Ayahuasca continues to reveal to me just how wrong I was. It's not an easy thing to examine.

But in my view it's the true substance of the whole process: negotiating the tension between the delusions we have embraced and the truth revealed to us by the Queen of the Forest; between the fate to which we have resigned ourselves and the destiny shown to us by the light of the Astral; between the trauma and heartbreak of our past and the love and connectedness available right here, right now.

A good friend and advanced practitioner expresses it like this: sitting in ceremony is putting the oar in the water; actually moving towards our destination is what happens between the strokes.

I have related that my fondest wish for ayahuasca was that she would magically transform my life, with only secondary effort from me. That has not been my experience of her at all.

Just how far that was from true was revealed to me only weeks after I returned home from Peru. I left the States unemployed and almost completely broke, with a daughter to support. My fantasy was to go to South America, do the work, receive the wisdom and divine power, then return home and promptly land my dream job.

Instead, two weeks after I was home I found myself working in June in Texas on a framing crew with some of the most degenerate drunks I'd ever had the misfortune to be around. One day one of them stole my lunch. And I was supposed to rely on these guys to safeguard my life 25 feet in the air above a concrete slab.

Fortunately, I guess, my time with that outfit was limited: I got a hernia 4 weeks into it. As I prepared to go in for surgery, hoping that somehow my Obamacare insurance wouldn't leave me utterly destitute, I raged at God: "How can you do this to me? I'm trying to know you, to do the right thing! Why are you punishing me?" I felt even more despondent than I had before I left.

The shock of having gone from my edenic, transformative experience at the workshop in the middle of the Amazon to this stark, brutal North American reality was almost more than I could bear or comprehend.

"This," I thought, "is not what the video testimonials promised."

And yet it seems to have been precisely what I needed. Through it, I reached a place of surrender and trust in God around work and money that has culminated in a complete transformation of that area of my life. I have never been as prosperous as I am today.

And yet.....

I find myself wondering if these things could not have been accomplished in a more gentle way. So many questions are raised by this. For instance:

1. What is the real efficacy of flying to a foreign country thousands of miles away, immersing oneself in a completely alien and bewilderingly powerful transformative experience, then returning home and trying to manage or adapt to or abruptly leave one's previous life, a life that has remained unchanged in one's absence? Is this even wise to attempt?

2. If indeed a radical break from one's day-to-day life is necessary, can there really be no more provision in it for reintegration at the ayahuasca center itself? What if these centers abandoned all profit motive? How much more fully could they facilitate their patients' healing?

3. When can we finally and completely abandon this "wicked and evil enterprise", as Graham Hancock puts it, this "War on Drugs"? It has crippled mainstream thought so utterly that most Americans cannot make a moral or practical distinction between ayahuasca and crack cocaine. The limitless possibilities that will present themselves! Ayahuasca centers in Northern New Mexico, or the Texas Hill Country, or the redwoods of California! Plant medicine communities flourishing in the light of day! Such a vastly increased scope of healing work!

4. Why must our society be so exploitive and cruel and barbaric and crass that returning to it after a spiritual awakening can feel like a death sentence?

This, to me, is the central question of all. Make no mistake: I do not see ayahuasca as some sort of lifestyle accoutrement for the affluent. She is a teacher, and she is the birthright of all humanity. I don't think it's any accident that she has appeared to teach so many at such a pivotal moment in the planet's history.

She is calling us to heal first ourselves and then the world. Nothing less can possibly do.

God bless you, whoever you are.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What the Medicine has Taken from Me

"Getting rid of a delusion makes us wiser than getting hold of the truth."

- Ludwig Borne

Understandably, we tend to focus on the things that a spiritual path gives us. Peace. Centeredness. Compassion. Transcendence. Acceptance. Love. 

We are less inclined to point out that which it takes away.

One of the hallmarks of humanity is our adaptability. We have settled almost everywhere on the planet: from Greenland to the Sahara; from the Andes to the rainforest; from neolithic villages to polluted cities with 20 million inhabitants. We have lived as hunter-gatherers, as subsistence farmers, as tradesmen, as artists, as factory workers, as computer programmers, as soldiers, as criminals. We have savored life lived in true spiritual community. We have resigned ourselves to guard duty at Auschwitz. Perhaps we have even enjoyed it.

Given enough time and repetition, anything can come to seem normal.

This presents a terrible dilemma to those who have experienced severe trauma. Our natural state as human beings is freedom, love, joy, curiosity, connectedness. Sustained negative experience that we are powerless to stop, such as childhood abuse, incarceration, rape, and war, turns this basic reality on its head.

Another defining feature of humanity is our need to make sense of our surroundings. If our world makes sense, then it is not accidental. If it is not accidental, then we can hope to exert some sort of control over it.

Thus, when we find ourselves trapped in an unbearable situation, the thought eventually takes root: somehow I must have caused this. I deserve this. And if I deserve this, I most certainly do not deserve freedom, love, joy, or connectedness.

Thought begets action.

I know that as a boy experiencing severe, full-spectrum abuse, I explained it by taking responsibility for it. I coped with it by finding ways of leaving my body: fantasy; refined sugar; violent imagery; pornography; rage; music; alcohol; street drugs. That these methods were usually shrouded in secrecy fit perfectly with my belief that I was a shameful creature who had no place in the light.

AA and the 12 Steps did a great job of removing the substances from my life. They were pretty easy, really: they were outside of me. I received a shock after a couple of years sober when I realized that my real addiction was to my own body chemistry: the hits of adrenaline and dopamine I received throughout the day from secret lust, or righteous judgment, or morbid preoccupation, or a fit of rage.

Just how deep the roots of that disease went were beyond my power to comprehend. Just how high a price they exacted from my soul was unknown to me.

They were also beyond the power of the Steps to heal. I worked the 12 Steps on my porn addiction for almost four years. I got a lot of value from it. Admitting my shame in a public forum reduced its power over me; hearing stories similar to my own let me know I was not alone; writing inventories and inviting God into my sexuality began the process of healing that part of my being.

Unfortunately, those things did not actually grant me sobriety from the behavior. Last May I flew down to Peru with about 3 weeks clean from pornography. After my last slip I felt a wild, superstitious terror engulf me: Mother Ayahuasca would see through me as a fraud and a charlatan and punish me horribly for demeaning the feminine principle in such a coarse, vulgar way. Sheer fright kept me clean those last weeks.

In Peru I drank ayahuasca 7 times. It had some really obvious results: all of the emotional catharsis and insight; the profound sense of healing in ways I'd never felt it; a self-love that I had been unable to imagine; a powerful new awareness of my own strength and resilience.

The things that left me took longer to notice. Pornography topped the list. A lifelong habit, or one that spanned back to at least puberty, was simply lifted from me. I still can't fully explain it. The closest I can come to articulating it is to say that its true cost was revealed to me, and I could finally see that that cost far outweighed the fleeting rush I had sought for so many years. My compulsion to use it has been removed.

Others were just as significant:

1. My (lifelong) preoccupation with warfare (books, movies, documentaries, museums, anything available) has left me. Within 2 weeks of my return, I got rid of a stack of books on World War II and the Holocaust. On the advice of my shaman, I picked one of the darkest ones and burned it. Again, I can't explain it. I just lost my taste for it.

2. I completely lost interest in firearms. For some dark, subterranean reason I had begun amassing a collection of them over the last few years. I'm no longer interested in expanding it. Sold one, haven't touched the rest in months, don't know if I will again.

3. I am far less likely to indulge anger and judgment in my daily life. From chance encounters with rude motorists to dealings with my ex-wife, I seldom feel inclined to give into rage. This one isn't completely gone yet, but it's a lot better than it was.

I could expand the list quite a bit, but you get the idea. The coping mechanisms that I cobbled together as a boy to survive my nightmarish circumstances no longer serve me as a grown man. I had known this for years, but before my encounters with the medicine I had had pretty poor luck in ridding myself of them.

Ayahuasca changed all that for me. Drastically. I can almost imagine her as a gardener, pulling out all of the weeds that have choked my blossoms for as long as I can remember. The process is painful and beautiful and magical and almost more than I can bear. The trouble is that these patterns became so ingrained in me that I thought they were me. Having them ripped out of me feels like losing parts of myself. In fact, it is: the lower self that I constructed in order to survive is being completely demolished, making room for a Higher Self that I can only dimly conceive.

I can't wait to meet him.

God bless you, whoever you are.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Ayahuasca and its Container

I am a traditionalist. Not blindly; not slavishly. But I am inclined to respect the customs and forms of those who have followed a particular path long before I came across it. In my Tae Kwon Do practice I always address my instructors as "Sir" and "Ma'am", and I wouldn't dream of stepping onto the mat without bowing to the flags first. When I was a kid in the Episcopal church I took a lot of pride in being an acolyte and carrying the banners in the procession to the front of the church. When I learned carpentry I deliberately sought out skilled, old-fashioned journeymen who taught me the right way to do things. The way their grandfathers did it.

I feel the same instinct in my ayahuasca journey. To begin with, I don't think it's an accident that I was called by these two plants - they knew me before I ever met them. I was not called by ketamine, or MDMA, or LSD-25, or pure DMT. I believe it was Graham Hancock who gave a marvelous description of smoking DMT. Forgive my paraphrasing, but he likened it to being in a bright shiny new building with no one else in it. Its spiritual and metaphysical space is very recent in human history - it is not well-explored or well-known. The same is true of all of these synthetic compounds.

They hold no interest for me whatsoever.

I mean no disrespect towards those who are called by these substances. I firmly believe that one of the pillars of the entheogenic revolution must be respect for all demonstrably productive and healing paths towards God. If your path was first synthesized in a laboratory 100 years ago, so be it.

Mine has grown in the rainforest for millions of years, and has been brewed and drunk by human beings for millennia.

I like that.

When I enter the ayahuasca space I feel the warmth and love and wisdom of all of those shamans and curanderos and sufferers just like me who have sought its instruction and healing for thousands of years. It feels safe and well-defined and reassuring.

Nothing less could possibly work for me. One of the defining features of my abusive childhood was its endemic chaos: the palpable sense that any godawful, crazy thing could happen at any moment. When I was an adolescent it left me with a need to leave my body as frequently and thoroughly as possible. Now it leaves me with a need for gentleness and structure in my spiritual path.

I had a real revelation after one of my first ceremonies down in Peru. It was given to me by a friend, a lovely Australian man who had already done several dozen ceremonies before our workshop. It had to be: one of the peculiarities of my own experience with ayahuasca is that I never experience visions, in the sense of seeing things from other dimensions with my eyes. Strange but true.

My friend does not experience ayahuasca in that way. One morning after a ceremony the night before, he revealed to me how he saw Jorge, the lead shaman and an absolute mountain of a man, casting a spell over our space at the beginning of the ceremony. He saw him spinning a web of protection over the entire maloka. He said it looked like a translucent seal, comprised of patterned blocks, spiraling out from the center of the room.

In that moment I gained a much greater understanding of the gravity of our undertaking. I came to understand that the shamans who guided us on our journey were the guarantors of our safety.

In drinking ayahuasca we are using an incredibly powerful tool. Like a table saw, or a firearm, or a bulldozer. Use a table saw improperly - chop a few fingers off. Use a firearm improperly - kill yourself or someone else. Use a bulldozer improperly - knock your house down.

The potential results of using ayahuasca improperly are easily as grave as these. A glance at the Iquitos Times last May informed me that about a dozen suicides in the region had been linked to ayahuasca over the preceding year. I have no trouble imagining why. I have seen enough instances of [controlled] mediumship at this point to know that spiritual entities certainly can enter us under its influence. With proper guidance, they leave before the ceremony is over. Without it is anyone's guess. For a description of my own experience with psychedelics and possession by a two-dimensional intelligence, see here.

It takes an incredibly powerful and experienced shaman to maintain medicine space. I have had the good fortune to work with a number of them at this point. I know just enough about their craft to know that I have tremendous respect for it. I also know that, at this point in my journey, I wouldn't dare attempt to use the medicine by myself.

In drinking ayahuasca we journey to another world. It is a beautiful, strange, mysterious place. It is filled with the possibility of healing and transformation. It is filled with instruction. It is also filled with danger.

Here be monsters.

To enter this world without sufficient preparation and guidance is incredibly foolish. I wouldn't journey to another planet without a guide. For a Westerner like me, entering medicine space is just as foreign. For me, having a trusted and experienced practitioner showing me the way is mandatory.

As with a number of other issues, I must disagree with Terence McKenna on this point. He strongly recommended ingesting entheogens alone, so as to be free of the constricting effects of culture. Perhaps it sounds like a good idea: with the proper set and setting, simply dose sufficiently to open up the direct connection to source, making sure that no outside influences can interfere with the communication.

I have my questions about its usefulness in practice. Well, in my practice, at least. Forgive me if I overstep my bounds. Perhaps his advice is perfect for you.

The trouble is, you may not know until it's too late.

God bless you, whoever you are.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Is Ayahuasca Magic?

mag·ic
ˈmajik

The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces [sic].

I did not come to ayahuasca on a winning streak. I was desperate: desperate enough to spend several thousand dollars I didn't have on a trip to Peru; desperate enough to drink a powerful psychoactive in the middle of the Amazon, despite the fact that my last psychedelic experience had been so traumatic that I swore off those substances for the rest of my life; desperate enough to "break" a dozen years' sobriety in the process and try a strange and stigmatized new spiritual path.

I made my decision based almost entirely on a gut feeling that it could help. But once I had booked my trip, I began to seek out confirmation that my choice was the right one. Naturally, I turned to the internet.

I found what I was looking for. Testimonials, documentaries, adventure stories, neurological analyses, sales pitches, rants, and a great deal more besides. Everyone, it seemed, had something glowing to say about this miracle brew from the Amazon: how one ayahuasca workshop lifted her depression for good; how it can cure cancer; how veterans can completely transcend PTSD with its aid.

In a particularly bizarre twist, lovely young ladies rack up hundreds of thousands of page views as they detail their ayahuasca voyages, basking in the afterglow of their first experiences with the medicine.

I was pleasantly reassured, at the very least. Mother Ayahuasca seems to have inspired a decentralized, de facto Ministry of Propaganda, devoted to extolling her apparently limitless powers. Surely with that much smoke there must be some fire underneath.

And with the exception of the odd charlatan here and there, I have no doubt that the vast majority of this testimony is completely sincere. But is it true?

My own experience with the brew is still quite limited - the next time I drink will mark my 20th ceremony. However, my intention to know her is unshakeable, my motives are transparent, and I have been paying close attention the entire time.

And so, to the question "Is ayahuasca magic?" I must answer "Yes and no."

The question itself betrays how spiritually debased our thought has become, throttled as we are by our materialist chains. See the definition above - magic is "the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces". Could it drip with any more disdain? Events are not influenced, they are merely "apparently" influenced. The forces involved are not taken to have any reality - they are "mysterious or supernatural".

Only our tepid political correctness keeps the dictionary authors from making overt reference to the dark-skinned savages that still cling to such ignorant, superstitious beliefs. 100 years ago our ancestors were at least more honest in their chauvinism.

And so even the language we use to describe the experience is almost hopelessly compromised. Still, it helps to know where we stand, and that is here: in Western culture, basic spiritual realities, such as clairvoyance, intuitive communication, mediumship, and visions have been so forgotten and misunderstood that they assume magical proportions when they are made manifest. And, make no mistake, ayahuasca makes them manifest. Abundantly.

Thus we see a train of "magical" phenomena released close on the heels of ingesting ayahuasca. Where do our minds reflexively go? To our idea of "magic", in all of its Disney-esque splendor. Mother Ayahuasca as Fairy Godmother, biding her time in the astral plane until her supplicants appear and begin asking for things. "Poof!" goes her magic wand, and the rain of goodies begins.

"Poof!" - My lifelong depression has lifted!

"Poof!" - My PTSD went away!

"Poof!" - My relationship healed!

"Poof!" - I got my dream job!

Presumptuously, I use the first person plural. In truth, I can only speak for myself. I wanted all of these things. I needed them, desperately. And do you know what's really shocking? I got them, or am getting them. All of them. And a great deal more, besides.

Why my hesitation, then? Why am I not content to join the lovely young ladies in their unrestrained cheering?

A couple of reasons come to mind:

1. The price has been almost more than I could afford. Yes, ayahuasca has brought me clarity, improved life circumstances, and a measure of peace. But only after taking me to hell. Sometimes quite literally. And not just during ceremony: for me, the aftershocks can and do linger for weeks, particularly as decades-old dysfunctional patterns are subtly, lovingly, and yet ruthlessly revealed to me by the Queen of the Forest. Letting go of them is like torture.

2. I have no idea where she is taking me. It's not so difficult to talk about surrender: doing it is another thing entirely. I am a man. I am flesh and blood. I am a biological entity on Planet Earth. Every facet of my wiring tells me to control, to understand, to dominate, to predict. All of that goes out the window under the force of the ayahuasca experience. Will I be broken by the experience? Will I be forced to abandon my ego's most deeply cherished ambitions? Will I lose my bare toehold in consensus reality? Yes and yes and yes. And doubtlessly a host of other trials and purifications I have not even conceived of yet.

What I'm saying, I think, is that ayahuasca demands the utmost respect and devotion from us. She is not a prostitute on a corner; she is a queen on a throne. She is not a product in a supermarket; she is a sacrament from the astral plane. She is not an experience to be had; she is a path to be followed. She is not a cheerleader; she is a teacher.

I admit that I came to her hoping that she would simply erase all of the heartbreak and hurt that has defined my life in so many dark and destructive ways. I was looking for a panacea. I was looking for magic, in the most childish understanding of the word. I have not found that, not really.

I have found instruction. I have found guidance and connection to the highest spiritual forces in the Universe. I have found purpose. I have found discipline. I have found comfort, at least occasionally. I have found illumination of the darkest corners of my soul. I have found magic, at least in the sense of a new understanding of reality that completely transcends the materialist spiritual poverty my upbringing burdened me with.

I have found a call to action.

That's really the crux of the matter. Ayahuasca does not do anything for me - she simply shows me what I must do. That can be a difficult reality to embrace. A part of my consciousness is stuck in my abusive, neglected childhood - desperately wanting and needing to be taken care of, and not receiving it. Grieving that loss is an integral part of my journey. So is moving beyond it.

In ayahuasca and the beautiful community I find surrounding it, I find the most powerful means I know of to do just that. I can't adequately express my gratitude for that.

God bless you, whoever you are.



Saturday, January 10, 2015

Sacrament, Part 2

sac·ra·ment
ˈsakrəmənt/

Religious action or symbol in which spiritual power is believed to be transmitted through material elements or the performance of ritual.

I sobered up in Richmond, California. Anyone who has ever spent any time at all in Richmond knows that it is not a place you go because you are on a winning streak. It is poor and neglected. It is filled with refineries, projects, bars, barbecue, and drug dealers. Lots of drug dealers.

The meeting I went to there was multi-cultural in the truest sense of the word. Struggling crackheads from the projects mixed with affluent professionals from neighboring El Cerrito. All had a common purpose: to cast out the dark spirit of addiction and let in the light and love of God. To recover.

As soon as I came to my first meeting, I sensed the importance of ritual and sacrament to the program: the reading of "How it works" and the "Promises" at the beginning; the passing of the basket; the confessional introduction ("I'm X, and I'm an alcoholic"); the closing prayer. It was close enough to my Anglican roots to be familiar and comforting. It resonated deeply with me.

I took my two-week chip at a Southern Baptist church there on a Saturday night. The ceremony was held outside under a tent. It felt archaic and weird, like an old-fashioned revival meeting. I can remember thinking "My God, is this what my life has come to? Praise meetings on Saturday night?"

I had always imagined myself as one of the cool kids. This was definitely not cool. And yet there was no denying the power of this strange new sacrament. It bonded me with the group, and with the program. And I needed it. If Saturday night praise meetings were necessary to lift me up from addiction and despair, then so be it.

The sacraments of AA worked for me for a long time. Then, eventually, they didn't any more. I won't tell that story, since I have already written it here.

Today I am blessed to have access to the highest form of sacrament I have yet experienced: ayahuasca. I cannot discuss the details of the ritual and ceremony surrounding how we drink the brew and process its revelations, since that could compromise the anonymity of the group I belong to. I will simply write about the holy beverage itself.

I am paraphrasing, but I recall that Terence McKenna theorized that at the root of all religions lies a true sacrament: a plant medicine that puts us in direct contact with the divine essence. An entheogen: that which generates the divine within. 

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this theory, but I can certainly attest to the divine power of this sacred brew. When I first drank in Peru, I can recall the visceral sense I had of plunging into the archaic depths of human consciousness. I was entering an actual space: well-defined and well-used, explored and celebrated by the countless shamans and practitioners who had gone before me over untold thousands of years.

There was one moment when I felt as though I were inside of a huge, ancient rainforest tree, as if a dwelling had been lovingly hollowed out from its depths. It was green and brown and woody and warm. It felt like family.

At another moment, ayahuasca felt like an enormously powerful energetic river running through my whole being, cleansing me of shame and rage and grief and despair. Where did it take all of this? Through its tributaries, to the Amazon itself and the sea beyond? Down to the depths of our earth? To other galaxies and dimensions? 

I have no idea. I'm not supposed to. That's the point of true sacrament: it confronts us with the overwhelming experience of divine mystery.

Confrontation is the correct word. At times it can be gentle and loving and subtle, as tender as a mother's caress. At others it can be horrific and savage: one of my fellow pasajeros in the workshop experienced Mother Ayahuasca as a cruel sorceress who told him "I am here to make you suffer. This will never end." It turned out to be one of the most profound healing experiences of his life, rooting out horrific abuse he had experienced at the hands of his own mother. 

As with all deep, real truth, it is a paradox: it is both conduit and mirror, simultaneously channeling divine essence from without and illuminating truth within.


Today, when I walk up to drink my cup of ayahuasca I feel nervous and expectant, and more than a little scared. My guts churn in anticipation. I do my best to focus my mind and breathe. I know something big is coming, but I don't know what it is. I also know that, whatever it is, I won't be in charge of it. As soon as I drain the cup I make the sign of the cross and walk back to my seat, opening myself as fully as possible to the experience.

In drinking ayahuasca I surrender myself to the Divine. It is scary and humbling and magnificent and precious. Incrementally, it is changing me in ways I never imagined possible.

The other day a man roared past me in traffic, enraged that I had delayed his progress to the next red light by 3 seconds. As he passed, I could see his face distorted in anger through his closed window, screaming curses at me and making an obscene gesture with his hand.

What astonished me was my reaction: I didn't even begin to join him in his fury and resentment, as I would have even a year ago. I immediately thought "You poor man. You must be so unhappy. Please, God, help him heal."

I don't know who did that, but it wasn't me. And that is precisely the point.

God bless you, whoever you are.