This is written as a memorandum of the weird and wonderful events I was a part of in the west of Ireland between the 20th and 22nd July with a group called Céu de Amsterdam who are affiliated with the Santo Daime church in Brazil. I had an urge to put my thoughts and feelings onto paper while my memories were still fresh, so that I could us such a document for reference when doubtful of what I really experienced, as well as a refresher before I take part in such a ritual again. The ceremony took part over three days and I will divide my posts into three separate parts, one for each day.
The day leading up to the beginning of the course was an enjoyable one. We were advised that registration would take place around 18.00 on the Friday evening. With Paul the designated driver, we headed west from Dublin chatting excitedly about the coming weekend. We arrived early and first came across the friendly giant Michel, who reached warmly into the car to shake our hands and welcome us. We parked up and went to check out our home for the weekend, a unique building, dome-shaped with a gently sloping roof with green felt covering. It blended easily into the surrounding landscape.
After stepping inside we were greeted by the main organiser of the weekend retreat, Rini, and our resident musician for the weekend, Else. After a brief stint helping Else move some awkwardly unorthodox tables, we were told that they could continue their preparations while we had a look around. We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere, without a town or even a nearby house in sight. A stunning wild landscape typical to the west of Ireland. It didn’t take us long to complete our explorations of the site. An organic vegetable patch, greenhouse and eco-toilet were the highlights!
We need not have feared the possibility of oncoming boredom, however, as other weekend participants began to trickle in. Soon it became clear that there were people not only from all over the world, but of all ages and from all walks of life. A Canadian, Brazilian, a couple of Germans, quite a few Englishmen, a Lithuanian and of course the Dutch organisers demonstrates the variety of foreigners present, not to mention the Irish representing a good spread of the country. A fine summer afternoon, we sat outside in the sun and made our acquaintance with the newcomers as they arrived. What struck me was how easily conversation flowed from the outset. There were few awkward silences and only the bare essential small-talk that inevitably crops up. It was apparent how relatively deep and interesting topics were already up for discussion at this early stage. Everyone had a story of how they had come to be here, what it was that had drawn them along this path.
And so, as the afternoon progressed into evening, I already felt a sense of belonging in the group, and the comfort that whatever lay ahead of us, we were somehow in it together. Any fears that I had undoubtedly been suppressing in the lead-up to the weekend subsided and I was relieved that other “normal” people were there as a culmination of their own journey. One thing that surprised me was that there were no “New Agers”, hippy types or thrill seekers there just to experience their next high. One could sense that there was serious business to be dealt with, this wasn’t simply a fad or a recreational endeavour.
After registration I was instructed to choose a mattress inside, which would be my nest for the next forty hours or so. Inside, the mattresses were laid out side-by-side by the circular room walls. What struck me was how close the mattresses were to one another! There was hardly a foot either side to the nearest neighbour. Cosy. At the foot of every second bed lay a little blue bucket and a roll of kitchen paper. These simple items would play in important role in the ceremonies to come. In the centre of the room there was a fireplace sitting in a small circular area carved out from the floor, around half a metre deep. A single step led down from the main floor, with a variety of colorful cushions adorning the step. Wooden columns rose to the ceiling, where there was perched a little wooden attic. Another curious construct in this highly unorthodox building. The domed ceiling was an array of parallel wooden lats. From the fireplace there now wafted a homely smell of burning turf.
Next on the agenda, as a new initiate, was a personal chat with our guide and shaman for the weekend, Norberto. His gaze was steady and intense, continuously seeking eye contact. Though not by any means intimidating, I must admit to slight discomfort at this, as it is not the norm for me, socially speaking. I felt a warmth and kindness in his eyes though and tried therefore to stifle my discomfort. Up for discussion was my reason for being here and what I hoped to achieve during the weekend. I related my stumbling across the great Terence McKenna as my first exposure to the world of psychedelics and the beginning of my interest in altered states of consciousness. Another powerful influence were the books of Alberto Villoldo, especially Dance of the Four Winds, the second of a two-part series. This book I had come across by chance in a bookshop in Lima, Peru, shortly after I had completed the Inca Trail and fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting the majestic, mystical Machu Picchu. Villoldo’s book was a sensation for my imagination, telling tales of his path from being a psychologist in America, to journeying through the Andes with an Incan medicine man, to rituals with shamans in Mexico City as well as deep in the Amazon jungle. Incredible stories detailed his life-altering path to becoming an expert in altered states of awareness. Finally I spoke of Dr. Rick Strassman’s The Spirit Molecule, which describes medical research into the naturally occurring chemical DMT. Reading this book was my final realisation that I couldn’t read or watch much more of other people telling of their experiences without experimenting for myself – in order to fully grasp what people were attempting to describe, it was necessary to take the plunge and experience it for myself.
Norberto warned me of how books and films can often paint a sensational, fantastical picture of the experience and advised me not to expect some spectacular show to be put on for my pleasure. The possibility was there to have some frightening experiences, he added, and the medicine was to be carefully respected. This was not to be the next big high. Our shaman also described a little of the schedule we had ahead of us that weekend. We were to enter into the ayahuasca ritual three times – Friday night, Saturday morning and Sunday morning. Tonight’s ritual, to commence in just a couple of hours from now, was going to be the shortest and most relaxed. It was an initiation so to speak, and we were only to drink the ayahuasca, or daime tea, once. As a virgin participant, I was glad to get the opportunity of a little taste of what was to come. Saturday’s ceremony was the most daunting, where, as Norberto explained, we could go as deep as we wanted. The choice was a personal one, so one could choose how far into the mental abyss one was willing to plunge. There would be no pushing from the organisers’ side. Saturday was the day where the most difficult “work” was to be done, where the biggest revelations were to be encountered. Sunday then, was to be a day of consolidation – trying to work through any lingering problems and coming to terms with the lessons and experiences of the preceding days.
With the itinerary clear in my mind and Norberto’s words of wisdom ringing in my ears, I was free to prepare myself for the night’s activities, something I had been waiting for and building up to for six or seven years. This was to be my first experience of ayahuasca.
The Friday Night Ritual
The atmosphere was tense and restless when Norberto announced that we were ready to begin. Some were undoubtedly more apprehensive than others but I was anxious to get under way. We were to line-up in two rows, men and women separate. Hymn books earlier passed out were to be opened, and we began with a chant of Aya-, Aya-, Aya-huasca to a catchy tune. The interceding verses were in Portuguese, so the best I and the other first-timers could do was mouth along as best we could. No matter! Reminiscent of getting Communion at Mass , one by one we proceeded to the front to receive the sacred brew. My turn arrived and I stood face-to-face with the shaman. Again Norberto’s deep, penetrating gaze fixed upon me, seemingly weighing up my readiness for the experience ahead. The glass was filled, I awkwardly nodded my head in thanks. Some had opted to down it all-in-one, but I followed Paul’s lead and shuffled away to indulge alone. All the while, the ayahuasca tune was chanted aloud, the tune becoming easily familiar. I had expected a putrid tasting liquid to hit my taste buds, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first sip was far from gut-wrenching. In fact, I’d go as far to say the thick black liquid was rather nice, although with a bitter after taste! My fear of vomiting subsided, so I dived in for another swoop and sipped until the glass was emptied. The sacred brew is prepared by a very tedious and time-consuming process, we were told, so we had to be sure to swallow every drop. With (hopefully) nobody watching, I licked the glass clean. The more dignified method was, as I would later observe, to clean the glass with one’s finger and suck the finger.
After everyone had taken their medicine, we stopped our chanting and formed a circle around the fireplace area. There now stood a small table in front of the furnace, which was an altar dedicated to Mama Ayahuasca. A bowl of water stood on the table with some fresh flowers floating in it. Some small ikons or power figures also lay on the altar. We gathered around the altar, forming a ring around it. We were told to join hands and together we recited some simple prayers asking our Mother Earth to grant us Life, Love, Happiness and Open Paths.
Next we were to limber up physically in preparation for the effects of the medicine. We did some basic stretching and yoga-like exercises, which had a surprisingly calming effect, as the focus was put onto how the body felt, rather than what the mind was thinking. Standing with knees slightly bent to allow the energy flow unimpeded through the body, trying to release any tension from our body. While performing one exercise in particular, which began with knees bent and pushing the feet down hard while slowly straightening the legs, I could feel a tingling sensation beginning to manifest in my feet. In the beginning I just put it down to my feet feeling a little chilly in my socks on the cold, hard stone floor. However, Norberto urged us at the time to feel the power coming from the ground, pulling the energy up through our feet into our bodies. This was possibly the beginnings of the medicine’s effect!
Stretching done, the body nicely relaxed and gently tingling, we were directed to take up position on our mattresses for some quiet time. Now we wait for Mama Ayahuasca to come to us. My mind was racing a little, full of anticipation and thoughts of the oncoming effects. We sat on our mattresses, forming a wide circle around the room, some glancing nervously at each other. Others were perfectly still in various meditative positions. From a little fatigue and hunger, by now it being over eight hours since we had eaten, I somehow managed to doze off. One of those day-dreaming power naps with vivid, intense dreams. It couldn’t have lasted very long and when I did open my eyes again, it was clear the ayahuasca had begun to exert its force. By now fully dark outside, the room had undergone quite a transformation. The candles threw their flickering light onto the wooden ceiling, but the flickering had an unusual, extraordinary appearance to it. The whole ceiling seemed to ripple, waves passing back and forth across its expanse. Each lat rose and fell as the waves of energy flowed across it. It was a captivating sight and I had to remind myself that I was awake and this was real. I lay on my back enthralled by the light show, which I could now hear as well as see. A faint, soft rippling sound, barely audible. Everything was alive – the air itself hummed and vibrated, and the boundaries between “things” were quite blurred. Everything was a flow of pulsating energy rather than distinct, separate items.
I had also begun to notice my bodily sensations increasing in intensity, the energy pulsating gently through my entire body. A warm, glowing feeling enveloped me from head to toe, coursing through my veins. An especially strong sensation had grown in my chest, around my heart, as if pulling me up towards the ceiling. It was as if I was levitating above my mattress. I felt an incredible sense of belonging, of being welcomed with open arms. I wondered if this the feeling of oneness you often hear from people tripping on the likes of LSD or mushrooms. The energy pulsated through me, rising and falling along with the ceiling and frankly everything around me. I felt as if I was dissolving into everything else. The feel of my cotton trousers, the mattress below me and the pillow beneath my head – this was comfort like I had never felt before. To feel was literally sensational!
By now my concept of time had been thoroughly discarded. The state I found myself in required no time! I began to look around me to see how the others were doing around me. However it was quite dark and I could mostly only make out vague figures sprawled and curled on mattresses with duvets pulled tightly around. I noticed our resident shaman dutifully doing his rounds, walking carefully around the circle, ensuring everyone was alright. I realised that he too had undergone somewhat of a transformation. He didn’t just walk, but rather stalked, moving stealthily with very light steps. His face had rather sharpened shadowy features. I could sense a very tangible power emanating from him. It became very clear to me that he was the shepherd minding his flock, but rather than the biblical image of a shepherd in a white, flowing gown, he struck me as more cat-like or more specifically like the jaguar of the Amazon jungle.
I felt utterly in safe hands and could continue to drift slowly and mindfully, just enjoying the physical sensation of being and of course the audio-visual displays that accompanied it. I can’t recall exactly what kind of images I was seeing when I closed my eyes, but it was a continuously churning creation, all sorts of geometric patterns, shapes and figures. I could feel a very powerful sensation emerging from the middle of my brain, putting pressure on my sinuses and behind my forehead. It seemed to me the images were being projected from here, that I wasn’t really seeing with my eyes at all. It was much more powerful that imagining something or visions from a dream, it was much more vivid, intense and rich in texture. Later I would conclude that this may well have been an experience of the phenomena of the “Third Eye” that has such an important place in Eastern mysticism. Incidentally, Rick Strassman considers the pineal gland in the centre of the brain to be the producer of natural DMT in the brain, which he postulates could be the cause of visions, hallucinations and near-death experiences. DMT is the active ingredient in the ayahuasca brew.
After what seemed like a blissful eternity, we began our descent back to normality, guided gently by the shaman and Else’s softly sung hymns. We arose from our magic carpets, which had now settled back down to ground as plain old mattresses. Forming a circle, we again joined hands and recited the same simple mantras wishing for Life, Love, Happiness and Open Paths. Closing our first ritual, I suddenly realised how hungry I was! It was around midnight, almost twelve hours since I had last eaten.
The feast on offer was a fantastic range of organic and vegetarian products. couscous salads, breads, fresh fruit and nuts and a variety of homemade cakes and buns. All washed down with cups of herbal tea, and admittedly one good old-fashioned black tea, despite the advice to avoid caffeine. If the food was impressive enough, the conversation was sensational! An excited, even hyper-active vibe was palpable in the little kitchen out the back. Everyone was eager to share stories of their experience of the last few hours, animatedly swapping anecdotes. It was apparent to many, especially the new initiates, how difficult it was to accurately express in words. Language appeared vague and clumsy in relation to the vivid visions and sensations of the preceding experience. How does one begin to describe something one has truly never seen or felt before? Still, we gave it a shot, and it was a memorable night there together, laughing and chatting as if we had known each other for years. An overwhelmingly positive atmosphere surrounded us. It wasn’t to be a late night – everyone was tired from a long days travelling to get here, not to mention the internal travels with the ayahuasca. Tomorrow was supposedly the day when the group got down to business and got the serious work done.