(Note: If you want context for this article, please read the Intro Letter to Transgressions as Tools for Awakening)
We turn off the county highway into an unassuming gravel lane. A quarter mile up the hill, we go through a wooden gate, with a dozen post mounted mailboxes, hand painted with daisies and rainbows, and plastered in political stickers (“Love your mother” with a picture of earth, a marijuana leaf, a Jamaican flag, “It will be a great day when our schools have enough money , and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomb.”)
We pass some run-down stables and other outbuildings. Live Oaks drip Spanish Moss on the sunny hillside, and farther up, fairy rings of giant Redwoods stand sentry over the land. The place is shabby but joyful in its way, with stone benches and abalone shells, Kwan Yin and laughing Buddha all haphazardly planted in the garden. What was a single family, contemporary house circa 1969 is now the central building of this intentional community- they are our hosts for the night. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, exactly average height weight and shoe size for an American woman. I’m white, straight, employed. We own our home. I’ve never even smoked pot, much less gone in for something as intense as this experience is purported to be. But my husband is in the throes of a stage 4 cancer treatment, and my daily life is suffused with fear of losing him, with my own confrontation with mortality, the anxiety of many children to care for and a business to mind, and a deep sense of being pulled to the sacred and not being able to get there. I need a new insight, a moment of grace, a transcendence. Thus we are here: tonight we will sit with the grandmother plant, Ayahuasca, we will “sit with the medicine”, we will invite it teach us, to heal us. Ayahuasca, it is said, is a plant spirit, that it can allow god to reach us in a way our mind usually blocks. It is a conduit for the planet and the natural world to speak to humans, to convey new understandings through visions and visitations.
I’m nervous. I’m not great at letting go of control in general. I try to be helpful, while taking in the scene. The great room has high ceilings and full length windows on 3 sides, and is being prepared for the night’s ceremony. There is plastic painters tarp covering the floor, duct taped together at the seams. 40 or so cushions and back jacks form a loose, large circle. Each seat has its own plastic bucket lined with a little garbage bag, positioned in front of it, at the ready. Apparently extensive vomiting (“purging”) is the norm. There is an intricate altar space, with ceremonial cloth, sage bundles, drums, feathers, stones arrayed. The fireplace is already roaring.
There is a hushed and reverent attitude in the house, an expectancy, and a language, a vernacular I have never heard before. We take our seats. Each person in the circle introduces themselves. I am struck by how very young they are, their smooth faces and full lips, the women in long skirts, with feathers and clips in their hair, speaking in hushed and awed whispers about peace and healing. They seem to already be floating on air. To be children of light. But also to be suffering, to be seeking an elusive thing, to be seeking to be okay with themselves. Several people are lovesick, heartbroken. Fearful for the destiny of earth. Some are simply curious.
Helpers anchor the four corners of the room, 2 men and 2 women. They are introduced and their role is explained to us: they will be guides and protectors for the evening. They will pray, but not take the medicine. The Shamans, then, a man and a woman who are indigenous church leaders. They have the look of South American tribespeople: flattened features, hooded brows, tight wiry bodies with the carriage and musculature of those who can travel far by foot without tiring. They wear headpieces and woven cloth over floor length tunics. They wear no shoes.
We are asked to become as still as possible, to turn inside, and during the opening to invite a clear, true, urgent question that we will later ask the medicine. If no question arises, they suggest to simply ask the medicine to “please show me what I need to know.”
The ritual begins. Each of the helpers calls in one of the four directions, as we all turn together. The call to the Spirit of the East, the land of the rising sun, brother eagle. sunrise, brother eagle, the hawk, the owl, the air, the bringer of new beginnings. They call to the Spirit of the South: the midday, brother wolf, summer. To the Spirit of the West: the sunset, brown bear, the letting go, the end of day, surrender, the unknown, to the Spirit of the North: the midnight, white buffalo, silence, the night, the communion with divine. They call to the above, below and to the center. You can almost feel an invisible box being formed, a protective bubble around the group, where we are held together and sealed in the space until morning.
For the next hour, the drums beat. The shamans walk to each of us and gaze in our eyes for what seems like unending time, but is actually only a minute or two each. With some people, after gazing, the chief will chug and then swirl a medicinal concoction, of water and alcohol and herbs in his mouth, and then spray it out in a plume onto the torso, the heart and back of the heart, of a participant. We are washed or purified in smoke: the sage is wafted and directed over us with a giant feather. We are prayed over. We turn inward. It’s warm in the room, and getting warmer. Finally, the chief is seated.
He has several vessels, they remind me of Catholic communion, glass decanters and tiny cups. One by one we are escorted forward, and we kneel in front of him. He gauges us a again, and administers a dose that he feels is appropriate for our body size and level of spiritual development or capacity. He gives me a very small dose of a thick, purple-brown liquid. Others receive full cups. I return to my cushion and lay flat on my back, and put my hands on my belly and heart and wait.
A great opening begins in me, a vast space in the center of my body that had been closed. There are people wretching all around me. I’m not. The room wavers, the material world oscillates, patterns form, things distort and reconvene. I’m sitting up now, in a cross-legged meditation posture, when the visitations begin. This is a common experience reported by those who have journeyed.
From deep in my troubled unconscious, my grandmother comes. My grandmother was kind to me, but she was almost universally hated when she died in her 80s: deeply racist, often unkind, ungenerous and the mean kind of sad. In the visitation, though, she was as I remember her when I was a child, sparkling and witty, in her Jackie O dresses and little secrets, she was about 40. Before my grandfather’s accident. Before my mother’s murder. Before she was stuck with a self-perceived entrapment in her small life. She sat next to me, and said, “I was not always that way you, know. I was not always bitter. But I have to tell you this, Maus: If you don’t let go of your resentments, you will end up like I did. Now is the time.” She sat with me a long while, emitting a silent cheer each time a blame bubble came up from my depths and floated into the ether.
After my grandmother, Guy came. Guy was my first love after I divorced, a lithe, light scientist, a molecular biologist who was one with his 12 string guitar, knew pinot noir, could dance all night, and played a mean game of ice hockey. He owned 6 of the same shirt, all the same socks (because he had found the softest and the best, and why complicate life?). We spent many nights singing and songwriting in his glass nest of an apartment at the top of a high rise in the shadow of the Sears Tower, in lightning strikes and snowstorms. But he complicated my life. We were months into this thing, when it came to light that he was still married to a woman in California, that he had a son in California. He was just gigging in Chicago. So I quit him, overnight. Because passion is nothing without trust. As the wounding faded, I moved on and met someone else, and we kept a loose correspondence. The last time I saw him, we were having coffee and I told him of my imminent remarriage. He died a week later, in a head on collision with a tree that wasn’t moving, on his way to work on a perfectly clear day, in a rental car. So Guy came. I felt him move into my body, it was sexual, it was comforting, it was merged. And he said he was happy. That he had no other way out. The money, the impossibility of divorce, his deep shame. There would be no cottage on the surf’s edge, no simple life of music and ocean with a woman he loved and a dog. That he was sorry. That I should be more forgiving of people who can’t tell the truth of themselves.
I went into the woods and lay my face in the soil and talked to the earth, breathed with the earth. The stars in the night sky became granite pebbles in black soil. I was molecular, too. This went on until morning, the fire, the drums, the moans and laughing and crying of my fellows, until all were asleep in nests of their own making. We woke to fruits and teas and the sound of singing in the kitchen.
I did one other journey, when I was in deep heartbreak. It was a very different setting, a small group, with a very intense pagan female leader, a dancer with wild hair and crystal jewelry. This time, 12 of us prepared together, with a two day juice fast, silence and extensive prayer. I asked the medicine what had happened to my husband, to help me understand. I resisted so much, she gave me a second and a third dose. Then the shamaness came to me and said,”Christine, you will get nothing unless you surrender and ask for help, let the medicine get behind your own competence. I suggest you do a prostration practice and let your body speak to your desire.” I wen to the altar, and bowed down. After a dozen prostrations, BOOM. I was dropped into my husband’s body in the middle of his radiation treatments, into his 6 foot frame, which had dropped from 180 to 138 pounds. I felt my skin burn, my throat burn, what is was like to not be able to speak. Mostly I felt the fear. The fear of death, of dying and not being there for his daughters, of living, of living and not being man enough, of living and never amounting to anything. I felt his life force in my body, his deep will to live, to seduce to be free, to speak all of his truth, and not pretend.
When I had thoroughly experienced his suffering, when my question had been answered, a veil lifted and then, one after the other, pain bodies from all the world came into me: a woman who’d lost a child; a man who’d had to flee with his whole town in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster; a starving boy. Again and again they entered and left, in a hailstorm of pain. When I couldn’t take it anymore I screamed out: ENOUGH! And it was over. Silence. Only birdsong from outside and the murmurs of the few people still awake in the room. I curled into a ball, and rocked back and forth, consoling myself, crying gently: the message was clear: All of human existence has a pervasive ground of suffering. The only thing worth doing in this lifetime or any lifetime, is to relieve it in some way.
The medicine showed, told, invited, directed. To relieve suffering and bring light has been the only work I’ve done since that day.
I became interested in this plant. There are people who journey 100 times, a 1000 times. People who go to Peru to work through huge foundational traumas and journey every single day for a full moon cycle. I’ve talked with dozens of people who have gone for deep investigations, about their own internal experience of how it changed them, and with those that know them on how they feel it changed them. What is happening in the brain and body? What is happening in the spirit world? How do the shamans explain it? How does science explain it? What is the long term physiological and psychological impact?
I began to read. I read the work of Terrence and Dennis McKenna, two brothers who pioneered an understanding of plant entheogens (things which give the experience of divinity): Ayahuasca (vine) and Psilocybin (mushrooms). I went to a conference at Synergia Ranch in Santa Fe, which was exploring the use of many kinds of psychedelics in therapy, especially in severe PTSD patients and end of life or critically ill patients who were suffering extreme anxiety over their own death. There are FDA phase 1 human clinical trials showing ridiculous results with MDMA, such as 75% complete cure for PTSD in a single experience of psychedelic assisted therapy, and 98% in 2 sessions. A well-funded, scholarly institute, MAPS, conducts extensive studies to help open the field up to those concerned about being law abiding- who want to have the medicine, but also to comply with de jure guidelines and norms in the United States. What is the right role of these medicines in a toolkit of healers?
This of course brought me to another set of questions: what is behind the politicization of what responsible adults choose to ingest into their own bodies?
What are the reasons given for the regulation of plant medicines? Why does alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical manipulation of the mind-body state, often to unconscious ends, get social sanction, while the use of transcendental, consciousness-extending plants get the legal kabosh and social taboo?
Whether it’s Ayahuasca (or the condensed active element in in, DMT), Psilocybin… or man made compounds such as MDMA or LSD, why are entheogenics so regulated? The core attitude is one where one group of humans don’t trust other people to make choices for themselves. For this inquiry, I read through some of the legal arguments that were made to classify these drugs as Schedule- felony use or possession. Why does a government try to control the experiences of the people?
(END PART 1)