The eagle has landed. I’m back in my familiar surroundings and already feel the weekend’s activities melting back into normal, everyday life. I need to get everything down again as soon as possible, before my logical mind takes control and begins to question what really did and didn’t happen. The boundaries between dream, imagination and reality can be very thin after an ayahuasca workshop like that I have just returned from. It was my second workshop, again with the Céu de Amsterdam and this time in the heart of the Netherlands. This series of blog posts will consist of three parts, with one for each day of the workshop.
I had hoped to write more blog posts in the lead-up to the weekend, but things seemed to get really hectic in the run-up and I didn’t feel like I really made the time to get fully prepared beforehand. My journey was to begin early on the Friday morning, flying to Amsterdam where I would meet with my fellow psychonaut Paul, before heading south towards the retreat venue. My excitement had grown on the Thursday evening, I felt relaxed and relatively optimistic about the coming activities. Waking at 04.00 on the Friday morning however was a different story – I felt wrecked and worried, a real sense of foreboding. On the flight, I read through my old blog posts, enjoying some parts whilst others sent a shiver down my spine. I was going back, back to a place I really didn’t want to be the last time I was there! The post describing the Sunday ritual reminded me of my reluctance to return to the weird “space”, where I felt confused and disorientated the day before. I read of my huge sense of relief to have returned to my body and to a reality I understood. I reminded myself of my reasons for going back, my burning issues I had to face head-on in order to move on. Was I really capable of another such voyage though? Not too long ago I was suffering from fairly extreme anxiety and panic attacks, so I questioned whether I could really handle the weight of another ayahuasca experience.
I met Paul in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and we laughed and joked at our nervosity and questioned our sanity for once again bringing ourselves to the brink. We caught up on our recent life events, the main catalysts for us being here. Both certainly had our demons to deal with, both felt the weight of the impending workshop heavily on our shoulders. As we journeyed to our destination our chatter was generally light-hearted in character. We had some time to kill in Utrecht, where the conversation also flowed freely. There was a sense, however, that our nervous jokes were an attempt to mask the growing unease that was tightening its grip on us both.
Time marched on and kill time we did. One stretch spent sitting at a bus-stop just a few hundred metres from the venue. Finally the time came for registration, so we could head over to the venue and get things started. Quite a few people were already there, rendering our idea to whittle away the time at the local bus-stop as just a little ridiculous! Rini greeted us in his typically warm manner, instructing us to find a bed for the weekend. This time, we realised to our relief, we would have the luxury of actual dorm rooms to sleep in, rather than spending the entire weekend on the very same mattress in the same room!
We began to meet our fellow participants slowly but surely. It felt at first as if everyone already knew each other and were experts in the experience, but this assumption was quickly shown to be false. There were some first-timers, some experienced heads and some in-betweeners. Some of the nationalities we were introduced to were German, Italian, South African and Dutch. I also heard to my astonishment that there were Swedes! Four of them to be precise! Not in my wildest dreams did I expect to meet Swedish people at such an event. There are few people I have met here in Sweden with whom I would even broach the subject of psychedelics, few I would admit to having taken part in such an event, but here were four people I would’ve dearly liked to have met earlier!
After the formalities of registration were over we were free to prepare for the night’s ritual. This time there would be no introductory interview with our resident shaman, Norberto – I am no longer a beginner, although most definitely still a rookie! A little over two hours wait remained before the real business of the weekend was to begin.
Friday Night Ritual
All day I had been reassuring myself that the Friday night ritual would be like last time: gentle, warm and reassuring. Regardless, the tightness in my chest and the dull pain in my sinuses were betraying how I really felt. I was very anxious, very unsure of how the weekend was going to go. I had been building up the workshop as something difficult that would have to be endured, where the spirit of Mama Ayahuasca would berate and scold me for all the wrong I had done, unsympathetically showing me all my flaws and my mistakes. These I had imagined would have to be faced in order for me to cleanse myself of my guilt and shame, hopefully allowing me to move on with a clearer conscience afterwards. So to say the least I was expecting a difficult ride. No wonder I was starting to feel the pressure. The lingering negativity from the previous workshop was also palpable now, just adding more fuel to the psychological flames.
I tried to get settled in the venue for the weekend ritual, a relatively ordinary space with a high wooden dome roof, tall windows and minimally decorated with some flags, including the Brazilian flag and a couple of psychedelically patterned ones. An altar to Mama Ayahuasca stood in the centre – a large bowl of water with a hummingbird figure, surrounded by fresh flowers and some power objects. I chuckled to myself when I noted the emergency exit signs were taped over with heavy black plastic bags. There was to be no escape!
I found my mattress, which would be the vessel for some weird and hopefully wonderful voyages to come. Time to get to know the neighbours, I was flanked by two Germans – one young and one old. It’s always great to see such a spread of people – all ages, all backgrounds and all here to test their limits. There is a very strong sense of being in it together, that our fates are interlinked and co-dependent. The tension was building, although many had wide smiles and were chatting happily. I sat quietly trying to keep calm and let the nervous thoughts come and go like the clouds in the sky. My exterior most likely didn’t betray the turmoil of emotion going on just beneath the surface.
A bell chimed. A silence fell. Norberto was the first to speak. He welcomed us all in his humble, unassuming manner. It can be hard to imagine that this guy is the guide, the leader of the pack. His calm is utterly reassuring, however, and you get the sense you are in safe hands. A few practicalities out of the way and it was time for an introductory round of sharing. Four points to make: who are you, where are you from, why are you here and what do you bring to the group. Relatively straight forward except for the last point. What could I bring to the group? My mind raced as my time to speak drew near. The best I could muster was that I was a rookie and so brought some innocence and naievity to the group. Times like that often feel like I am bordering on stirring up a panic attack, as silly as that sounds. Speaking in front of groups just isn’t my forté! Each attempt is a step away from the worry however, as each time I manage without embarrassing myself adds a little to my armour.
After everyone had shared their reasons for being there (some a little more eccentrically than others it must be said) we were ready to emerge from the mattresses to gather in the middle of the room. The atmosphere was electric now. Norberto led some simple exercies to limber up and loosen out our muscles, attempting to dissipate some nervous energy. It felt a little bit like before a triathlon race – wondering what the hell I’m doing here, why I put myself through these things and really looking forward to when its all over. Not exactly brimming with positivity! We gathered in a wide circle, holding hands. Closing our eyes and feeling our presence and the presence of the others. Breathing deeply. Rini came in with two jugs of brown/black ayahuasca, which sent a surge of anxiety down my throat and into my belly. There would be no more waiting, the time was upon us.
Two lines were formed and we broke out into song, chanting along to the catchy tune of Aya, Aya, Ayahuasca (you can listen to a hyper-speed version here). The familiarity was a bit unsettling instead of comforting. I was feeling very nervous now. Slowly, slowly I crept forward in the queue, observing those who sipped and slurped their shot glasses full to the brim with ayahuasca. Many seemed very pleased to be downing the thick liquid, others approached it prayerfully, kneeling by the altar and touching the glass to their forehead before taking a sip. I reached the front of the queue and was faced by the wide eyes of the shaman who looked deep within my soul as if measuring the size of the glass by my readiness for the journey. I was so careful to appear focussed that I tried to hold his gaze as I reached for the glass. Clumsily I tapped the glass with my fingers, failing to grip it at the first attempt. A little ayahuasca toppled out over the side and splattered cruelly on the floor. What a start! I looked at Norberto apologetically as he motioned for Rini to clean up the little spillage. Norberto smiled and said its ok and I retreated in my embarrassment to the back of the room. My mind flung plenty of accusations at me as I timidly drank up my glass. Idiot. Rookie. Doofus. That particular insult was probably the only one that brought a smile to my face, realising how ridiculous a word it was. I would have to try and let this one go but I knew from experience I wasn’t often so easy on myself.
While we were waiting for the ayahuasca to begin working its magic we were to carry out some simple exercises. We were to walk around the room, circling erratically and making eye contact with the other group members. We were to really notice how we felt when we met the other’s gaze. Feeling intimidated, attracted, open or at ease. Whatever it may be, just take notice. This was an exercise to forge a kind of group rapport, a way of getting to know the people we would be sharing the experience with without having to utter a word. Darkness had almost fallen and the few candles flickering in the room had began to throw some interesting shadows. People’s faces morphed and melted as we passed, adding an eerie edge to the looks. There were some seriously intense eyes to be looked into, others were more warm and reassuring. I noticed that nobody looked afraid, although the chances are we all had our masks on, including myself.
After the random wandering it was time for another activity. This time we were to form groups of three and each person in the group would be able to ask from the other two whatever they wanted for a ten minute period, so for example one could ask for a ten minute massage from the other two. Göran in our group did just that and got a ten minute back massage, which myself and Olivier did our best to make at least somewhat enjoyable. Its most likely the first time I’ve ever given a ten minute massage, and it had to be for a man! My fingers were fairly aching by the end of it and my mind questioned all the while my ability to give such a massage without causing permanent injury. I noticed also how warm I was -I was sweating profusely in the humid air. My turn next, and to avoid suffering an injury myself as I once did getting a massage in Colombia, I avoided asking for a massage. I tried to be a little bit original and asked for the most positive story of their ayahuasca experiences, which I hoped would ease my anxiousness and give a little more of a positive edge to the evening. It didn’t turn out to be the most inspired choice though, as Olivier had never taken ayahuasca before and Göran said that, although clichéed, all his ayahuasca experiences were positive! Olivier was next and after wasting around five minutes trying to decide what he wanted, he ended up opting for a massage and I was there again, pretending I knew what I was doing and whittling away the time as best I could. I hardly achieved the purpose of the exercise which was to give as you take, and enjoy the giving as much as the taking.
So, my massage course over and apparently no serious injuries or complaints, it was time to hit the mattresses for some quiet reflection. This was the hard part. All the activities were a welcome distraction from the onset of the ayahuasca. Besides the occasional funny tasting burp it was sometimes easy to forget that I had drank at all. Sitting down though I was left to listen to the eternal chatterbox, opening the door for fleeting feelings of anxiousness or even panic. The fact is I was very afraid of having no control. Once you have drank the ayahuasca there is essentially no return. You have made your committment and now you have to face up to whatever it has to throw at you. That can be very disconcerting, especially as I have had problems with anxiety and was expecting to have some very dark demons to face. So began the battle with the mind, attempting to relax, let go of the uneasiness and relax into the experience. I kept reminding myself of the first time I drank and the positive experience that it was. Regardless I found it very hard to relax.
An unwelcome distraction also reared its head. As I was lying with my eyes closed, focussing on the shifting bodily sensations, I felt a sting on my forehead. I reached up to wipe some sweat off my brow and heard a mosquito make its escape in their typically clumsy way. Thats all I needed, a mosquito bite on my face! The problem now was I couldn’t forget about the unwelcome intruder. In all honesty it should’ve added a bit of an authentic Amazonian feel to the ritual, but there I was paranoid about getting more bites on my face!
I started to get some quite powerful visuals with my eyes closed – a swirling, churning, rotating of patterns. The effects were setting in. I’d open my eyes and see that the room had a relatively normal appearance still, besides the candles having a kind of extra dimension to their glow. Closing my eyes returned me to the other-worldly textured visions. I tried to take stock of where I was and started asking myself what I wanted from the evenings ritual. Was I supposed to start digging for answers already? Should I ask the questions that I had planned out? I decided not to ask, as I thought the real work was to be done tomorrow. Tonight, I thought, I should just try to accept the experience and allow it to take me where it wanted. I couldn’t let go of the feeling that I was doing it wrong though, that I shouldn’t be enjoying the visuals on show as I was here for different reasons. I felt a real knot tying in my stomach, twisting all the negative tension into a ball. The tightness in my chest and sinuses was also still very apparent. Whatever I was doing, I was failing. I was just making things worse.
My logical mind was still very much in control, despite the obvious effects of the ayahuasca. There was no chance of letting go of my analytical processes, which were continuously assessing whether I felt ok about what was happening to me. Were these visuals nice? Was I on the verge of losing control? How much time had passed and how long was there left? This was going to be a long weekend if this was how I was going to welcome each day’s ritual and I surely wouldn’t get much benefit from this kind of an experience. I desperately tried to use my limited experience of mindfulness to just observe the thinking mind while allowing the connection to the ayahuasca to be formed. Just to accept the spirit of the drink would be enough for tonight, enough of a preparation for tomorrow.
I was glad in a way that I had such strong visions as there was no doubt I was feeling the effects of the brew. So I couldn’t deny that Mama Ayahuasca had come and to be fair I hadn’t seen anything unsettling. I felt like this was the real postive to focus on from the evenings ritual and I would try to take that with me into tomorrow. Gradually I felt the grip of the ayahuasca loosen on my body and the visuals began to fade to more bland patches of colour. I felt tired from the battle between mind and body, not to mention hungry! It was now around ten hours since I last ate. Norberto called an end to the evening’s ceremony and we gathered once again in a circle holding hands. We chanted an indigineous prayer which, Norberto explained, is what every child of the Earth has a right to have:Life, Health, Happiness, Open Path. Health in the body, Peace in the spirit, Love in the heart. It is this that we wish for ourselves, for our loved ones and for all our brothers and sisters. So be it
The chant rang a little hollow for me as I felt I really didn’t have health in the body, peace in the spirit or love in the heart. I approached Paul for a quick recap on the night’s events and he had a similarly difficult experience letting go of the negative thought processes. It was a bit of a relief to hear that he had the same emotions in a way, it feels at least like I wasn’t the only one who “did it wrong”. We concluded that it was the long build-up that day and the growing anxiousness and nervosity that was just too much to overcome. We resolved to get a good nights sleep and try to be ready for the big one tomorrow. First though there was the small matter of a feast to be had in the dining room! A great spread of vegetarian food – soups, salads, breads and fresh juice and herbal teas. It felt so clean and fresh going down, my body really seemed to appreciate the goodness that I was shovelling in. I was a little withdrawn in the conversations at the dinner table, however. I half-listened to others’ tales of the night’s events, again feeling like I had done something wrong if anyone had a positive story to tell. I didn’t hang around long, myself and Paul retreated to our dorm room to close out the night and hope for a good night sleep. Tomorrow was to be a new day with a fresh challenge.