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?


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.