I encountered no small amount of cognitive dissonance while studying shamanic yoga in Cuzco, Peru, where I fled in one of my many attempts to outrun myself. Shortly after the course started, the teachers informed the ten students that we would be working with San Pedro. It wasn't lost on me that the entheogen in the form of healing cactus has been in use at least 2900 years longer than AA has been around. The Roman Catholic church attempted to suppress its use, but was obviously unsuccessful as the plant was named after St. Peter. As St. Peter ostensibly holds the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, San Pedro cactus lets one glimpse heaven while still on Earth, most notably through the alkaloid mescaline.
I wanted to avail myself of the teachings of San Pedro while in Peru, but the dogma of AA stuck in my heart like shards of glass.
I fasted in preparation for the plant medicine, as required, and met the small group I was training with in San Blas market. We hiked to a nature reserve near Saksaywaman, and prepared for ceremony in a wide clearing surrounded by forest. The Incas, I knew, had deemed this place the belly-button of the world. I took my kinto—an offering of three coco leaves—between my fingers, held it up to my mouth, and was abruptly overcome with waves of grief over the death of my stale knowledge of recovery.
My prayer was a blubbery whisper to figure out how to better serve the still-suffering addict—who was, in many ways, me.
There was nothing romantic about the look and feel of San Pedro—basically bright green slime in a greasy Mason jar. My busy thoughts immediately went to how I would design the packaging for San Pedro if someone happened to ask me for input. Perhaps a stone replica of an Incan statue for a bottle with a cork stopper. But nobody was asking me.
We all went through the ritual of burning our kintos in offering before drinking our share from the jar. My teacher handed me an amulet, a figure of Pachamama and pachapapa back-to-back. Pachamama, I knew, is the Earth Mother. Pachapapa, I researched later, literally means earth potato. But the intended meaning of this gift from my teacher wasn't lost on me: the unifying of opposites.
The non-dual reality our minds so often block in their stubborn refusal to shed binary thinking.
We have been subjected to so much programming from such a young age, we never even had a chance to learn to question it. Now we walk around with all sorts of layered beliefs, many of which don't even necessarily belong to us.
Everyone drank three times in turn and then we strapped on our packs and headed into the forest. We hiked for about an hour when I noticed the smell of pine and was immeasurably moved by it. I was momentarily transported back to my youth in Canada. When we came to a clearing high above a small waterfall, I understood San Pedro, a grandfatherly presence, was expansive and wise, and he took me by the shoulder and was shaking me awake. My senses sharpened. I closed my eyes and the phosphenes showed me an owl.
We scattered into the woods along a cliff, each of us following our own internal journey. I lay down in the grass amid wildflowers and closed my eyes. The ancient medicine seemed to tether me to the earth and make me heavy. I had an image of all the anxiety I'd accumulated over decades clumping in my stomach. This sensation was immediately followed by a vision of black crows descending from the trees to eat these clumps of anxiety out of my guts.
Some time later my teacher, a nurse from Kansas, came over. I sat up and she sat down, facing me. She put her hands palms-up in front of her. I rested my hands in hers. I was overcome by a confusing alloy of relief and melancholy. Suddenly she rapped at my sternum with her knuckles.
"God, John," she said, "How'd you fit so much pain in there?"
Almost immediately—as if she'd given previously inaccessible parts of me permission to feel—grief and blank sadness poured out of me, fat tears and awkward snot bubbles strung together as if representing an unbroken chain of suffering from a time long forgotten.
Other things happened after that, experiences that I would have to classify as inter-dimensional, incidents that I wouldn't be able to convey no matter how many words I wrapped around them.