One thing Peru—more specifically ayahuasca—had taught me was that I still seem to be running the same self-defeating patterns in my life.
Ayahuasca is the ancient psychotropic plant medicine—most accurately referred to as an entheogen—that dissolves the rational mind while uncovering spiritual dimensions. It’s not a trick of chemistry or faith, but a merging with plant consciousness where shared visions are commonplace. In the face of such a new, and often disturbing, reality, ego is deconstructed and the root of one’s trauma becomes apparent, often through heavily-weighted symbolism. It is a visionary formula which unlocks emotional memory, causing paradigm-shifting catharsis in those who drink it with appropriate intention. Many people don’t drink it with appropriate intention, and yet that doesn’t matter either because Ayahuasca has a way of teaching us exactly what we need to learn.
I was in Cusco September of 2012, so I was roughly 11 years sober the first time I tried ayahuasca. I spent weeks leading up to the ceremony agonizing about how the use of psychotropic medicines, ancient or not, would impact my sobriety—both in my eyes and in the eyes of people I knew in recovery. Part of sobriety that takes getting used to is how deeply and how often I question my own judgement. I wanted input from someone I knew or could trust, but I was in Peru with people who were virtually strangers.
I’d been reading Dr. Gabor Maté’s brilliant In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and I knew he had done some work with ayahuasca and addicts in Vancouver, so I wrote Dr. Maté an email asking if, in his opinion, I could reconcile the limiting beliefs of the AA tradition with the knowledge contained in ancient shamanic practices. To my astonishment, Dr. Maté wrote back almost immediately:
I understand [your tradition’s] suspicion of ‘drugs’, but ayahuasca is not a drug anyone uses for recreational purposes. Unlike addicted drug use, the purpose of which is to lower one’s level of consciousness and awareness, ayahuasca—used in the proper context with the right leadership—gives access to higher awareness. It does not encourage ongoing use.
It was enough to solidify my resolve, and I am immensely grateful to Dr. Maté for taking the time to answer a jittery Canadian seeker.
Of my six fellow students in Shamanic Yoga training, I was the only male, deepening the impression that Peru was an experience of strong female energy. Ayahuasca herself has a powerful gender presence.
We journeyed by bus from Cusco to Calca. By car we were jostled over broken strips of land that passed for roads until we arrived at a natural sanctuary in the Sacred Valley, where a maloka (indigenous word for cabin) was surrounded by trees, cactus, mountains, and a waterfall. Almost immediately after our arrival we entered the maloka and hung out on our yoga mats and mattresses for several hours until it got dark. Every now and then I glanced at the white plastic bucket next to my mat. Everyone had one.
“For vomit,” one woman said. She was a doctor from Canada and had done this before.
Sometime after dark, Elisa, the Shipipo shaman who’d travelled all the way from the jungle village of Pucallpa, entered the maloka. She laid out various ceremonial materials in front of her: a bowl for burning; Palo Santo, which is a fragrant and sacred wood used as incense for purification; a bottle of Agua de Florida; her own plastic purging pail; and two large plastic water bottles filled with a dark, viscous liquid.
Ayahuasca. The sacred vine of souls.
After an hour or so of relative stillness, the lights in the maloka were dimmed and Elisa called for a ceremony full of force and love. She set two crystal glasses in front of her. We students were called in pairs to come and drink. I was one of the last students to raise a glass to my lips before the shaman and the teachers swallowed their portions.
There was a small moment before I drank where time stretched out to reveal a swirling sea of doubt. I was acutely aware of how little confidence I had in myself. I could not make sense of why on earth I was drinking ayahuasca. I couldn’t even remember why I’d come to Peru to study shamanic yoga in the first place.
As I kneeled on the floor in front of Elisa, the intriguing ayahuascero, I took the crystal glass in both hands and breathed the only intention that came to mind into the thick black liquid: give me the teaching that is most useful to me right now.
The shaman smiled gently, and I sensed she had a kind a trustworthy heart. Feeling slightly safer, I drank all that she had poured out for me. Tradition holds that the medicine itself informs the ayahuascero how much to portion out for each person. My portion seemed too much, and it went down much more slowly than I would have liked. It tasted vile, like a coffee syrup that had turned sour after being spiked with moldy lemon rinds that had been seasoned in a heavily used 1970’s ashtray.
I returned to my cushion and watched time pass unendurably. I closed my eyes and brought my attention to my breath, trying to remember how to meditate. I knew nothing. I opened my eyes and saw small pale ghosts dancing outside the maloka. It took me a few moments to recognize that it was the movement of Tibetan prayer flags responding to the trickery of the moon and the wind. I closed my eyes again and white-capped anxiety lapped over me like waves crashing into the surf.
I knew intuitively that I would have a much easier time of things if I could just surrender completely to the experience, but I also knew that with the type of mind I was carrying, it wasn’t going to be possible for me to just surrender. I was going to have to be psychically broken down, there was no way around it—the medicine was already teaching me the obviousness of this reality—and it fucking terrified me.
Despite these uncomfortable understandings I continued to fight whatever was already washing through my gut, my heart, coursing past the blood/brain barrier.
I had to feel everything with the dreadful knowledge that it was certainly going to get much more horrifying before I would get back to any sense of peace. I steeled myself against what was coming. In a sort of perceptual paralysis, I understood I was capable of creating my own reality but knew that the only reality available to me for the next few hours was one whose origin was my own denied horror.
Then I felt Her move. Like a serpent, Ayahuasca slid into the seat of consciousness, coiling herself around the base of my brain and squeezing. From the top of my head came a cold fountain of terror.
I desperately kept bringing my focus back to my breath, breathing long and deep until I acquired some confidence that I might make it through the experience, which had, in 3-dimensional time, barely started. As soon as I felt that confidence and trusted in it, it was ripped out of me with a spasmodic sensation of icy treachery. Everything was so utterly unpredictable I felt irretrievably lost. It was as if every panic attack I had ever had during the seven worst years of anxiety had been woven together to create a thick cloak of dread which lay across my shoulders. It was so heavy—so cold and so shocking—that for several moments I couldn’t draw a breath.
When I did eventually inhale again I did so greedily. I opened my eyes and couldn’t see anything. I closed them and then opened them again. My vision had utterly disappeared. I was trying to understand if this was part of the medicine or if I had coincidentally happened to go blind at this very instant. Then I lost my hearing.
Blind and deaf, my world was completely internalized. Something told me that I didn’t even have a voice to cry out for help. But I wasn’t sure - I could have been screaming and there was no way to know it. I was stricken with a new variety of alarm, a distress so penetrating that every cell of my being vibrated in panic. I was going to die. And still, even with such palpable fear, fear I could literally taste, my ego was intact enough to not want to be the only dude in ceremony who was crying out for help.
I was going to die.
I was suddenly freezing and was about to die. It almost made sense that it would end like this, once I came to the understanding that the only way out of my fear was through death. It seemed a little extreme, of course—not to mention disappointing—but in many ways it made perfect sense.
Death is so much easier than we imagine.
The moment I accepted my death, a small aperture opened up in my mind’s eye and I knew I had to pass through it. I took what I literally thought was my last breath and let go, surrendering completely.
I was sucked through the aperture and the sounds of the world returned with a tremolo hiss, then a peaceful blankness, and then as my sight and hearing returned, I remembered to breathe. I found myself back in the maloka gasping for air, as I have done many a night since the early 90’s.
Eventually I relaxed somewhat into my seated positioned, and noticed how the fluctuations of my mind had started dancing with the medicine. Or, more accurately, the medicine danced in perfect step with my mind, meeting each thought in perfect cadence, outpacing each notion as it arose.
The sensation of cold left me and my body became a series of interdependent pinpricks of fire. With the sensation that I was choking, I ripped off my alpaca hoodie and the medicine bag that had been gifted to me by a Q’ero shaman. I threw these items beside me, and knocked over my gear into the inky darkness. All the care and concern I’d taken, the circumspect attention I’d paid to the placement and order of blankets and pillows and water and headlamp, etc. was completely fucked.
I sat in worried darkness for a long time, slowly understanding my habitual way of thinking until I was ultimately overcome with a profound feeling of compassion for myself. This sensation centred in my heart with a sunrise of consciousness spreading over the landscape of my usually fearful mind.
Eventually my fever subsided and I lay down, wrapping myself in my sleeping bag, with a clinical awareness of my internal organs. I studied my bowels, the pressure of gravity on my skin, the movement of my cells.
I abruptly took flight right then, and in one breath travelled back decades to find myself where I used to hide behind the couch with my dog. I took myself by the hand, and could feel the smallness of my own fingers as a boy, and walked myself to the park near where we’d lived in a suburban area called Barrhaven. I pushed myself on the swings until the boy version of me was smiling, and until I sensed that he trusted me.
I knew instinctively what had to be done, and I told that boy he was beautiful. He was me and yet he wasn’t me. In that moment I loved him so much that my body in the maloka shed tears of happiness. I would later learn from the shaman, through rocky translation, that this type of episode is known as spontaneous soul retrieval.
There was more sitting up, lying down, adjusting clothes, adjusting pillows. I could hear others shifting in the darkness. Someone started vomiting, and it struck me that I, too, needed to purge. After some fumbling in the darkness I found my bucket just in time before I started heaving. Nothing came out, however, and after a few minutes of dry-retching I was seeing stars and returned to a supine position.
Every single thought, of which I had perhaps thousands each minute, became a question exploring why I thought that way—why I thought in that particular manner. The lessons, as endless as my thoughts, were so instructive and illuminating into the prison of my own conditioned thinking, exposing all the habit patterns of my mind, my bias, my denials, my myopic judgments.
It was clear to me that I had been granted access to a virtually endless stream of information from a source contained within the dimension I had obviously passed into through the aperture of my little death as the medicine had first taken hold of me. I felt on the cusp of great illumination; I was on the verge of reaching up to pluck a fragrant kantuta out of the night air in the maloka and decoding the fibonacci series.
And then Elysa, the shaman, started to sing her icaros, the lilting high-pitched melodic songstaught to a shaman by her spirit guides. These songs were simultaneously unsettling and soothing, and Elysa filled the space both within and without her own voice, and a new dawn broke in my mind. With my eyes shut tight, my inner vision filled with warm light and foreign birds spiralled softly around the maloka, carried upon the currents of the ancient strain of icaros. The melody surgically extracted fear from me until I was filled with a genuine compassion for all beings.
I saw the ancestry of so many men, so bereft of will they used their fists in mock show of power. I saw them in the gloomy hours of a waxing moon, numbing their minds with drink until they were so full they crested, spilling their own fear over the banks of their lives, rivers of fear breaking the levies of denial.
I could see my own resentments against my ex-wife playing out through the generations to come after my own children. I subsequently went through every single relationship and discovered my own character defects at work in each. What the medicine appeared to be doing was giving me an unbiased capacity for empathy.
That night, my first night journeying with plant medicine, I emerged at dawn with the awareness that I was transformed and I knew things. I would forget them in time, but for a while, I knew these beautiful things and understood them all deeply.