A Sequel Sacred Ceremony – Further Journeys with Ayahuasca – Part III

I awoke on the Sunday morning relatively refreshed. We had made sure to kill any loitering mosquitos before hitting the hay and so my sleep was a little more comfortable. There was as usual an array of weird dreams, none of which I recalled or could make sense of. I felt relatively relaxed about the approaching ceremony. It felt good to have broken through to a level where I could appreciate the beauty of the ayahuasca experience without being overwhelmed or terrified. Of course there were some residual anxieties that the worst was yet to come, the pessimist in the mist is always lurking. Overall though I felt like I still had some work to do, and was looking forward to getting it done.

Cups of tea were drunk as I chatted with some of the others. One was planning to go as far as possible that day, calling it “the big one”. He also advised me to push it as far as possible, to go all in. Luckily I wasn’t easily persuaded, I had my own plan and knew not to be affected by how other people were thinking or doing. The ayahuasca experience is a thoroughly individual process and I knew to only take advice from the likes of the shaman or the helpers like Rini. They were the ones who had the best experience and knew how to advise people on their journeys.

We began to gather in the by now familiar ceremony room. I sensed that the atmosphere was a lot more relaxed than the day before, without the same level of tension. The Sunday was the day for consolidating work done on the previous days, taking stock of the lessons learned and trying to piece it all together into a plausible framework that could be used going back to real life after the weekend. Having said that, we were still drinking ayahuasca, so you never really know whats in store. There could be a lot more work to be done, the unexpected is never far around the corner! After the formalities of sharing and our usual prayers and chanting, we drank our little glasses of yagé and were ready to embark on another wonderful journey. Our warm up this time would be a purely personal one: no staring, no group work, no dance partners. We were to do the Shaking Meditation which was new to me. Basically it consisted of three stages for us:

  • Stage 1: Shake! Rini and Norberto had chosen some music which was quite ambient, basic and repetitive. We were quite simply to shake on the spot, shaking or arms legs and body until it fell into a kind of rhythm, where the body was shaking itself and I wasn’t doing the shaking. I found the music to be really cool, trance inducing and was quite easy to shake to and try to disconnect from everything else. Of course we all probably looked ridiculous, but with eyes closed we were all in our own little worlds. This stage was to last 15 minutes which passed quite quickly.
  • Stage 2: Dance! Now we were to let our bodies dance for the next 15 minutes, moving to the music as it wishes, without trying to force anything or without think of pulling any good moves! This is a little more tricky for me, the self-consciousness is always a factor with my dancing, so I find it hard to just let it flow. At least the music was right up my street and so I found it easy enough to wriggle and writhe and just try to let go of things and let the rhythm flow through me.
  • Stage 3: Be still! Now we were to hit the mattresses and have some quiet time for another quarter of an hour. By now sinking into a meditative awareness.

I was already starting to feel the effects by the time I sat down on my mattress. This time I was relatively calm about the oncoming journey, there wasn’t the same level of anxiety or resistance as the previous days. I think the meditation exercise was a very effective way of distracting me from any worries or negative thoughts. I remember phasing in and out of awareness, drifting off into periods of thoughtlessness, observing without really processing or analysing. Then coming back to awareness, remembering where I was at and what I was doing. This was probably a sign of a growing experience with the ayahuasca experience – the ability to check my state of awareness, to pull myself back to be present every so often instead of wandering mindlessly.

The atmosphere in the room was very calm and quiet. The reflective silence was only occasionally interrupted by the sound of retching and vomiting, but I hardly even noticed these disturbances. Overall people were still. I felt waves of emotion begin to pass over me again, waves of sadness and regret. Lina was very much the focus of my attention and again it wasn’t such answering of questions or confirmation of thoughts, it was just raw emotion being released in all its force. It felt very much like saying goodbye, a grieving process. Not wanting to let a loved one go, while realising that there was no way back. I felt immense sadness at the hurt I had caused and the damage caused seemed admittedly irreparable.

Occasionally the musicians would ease their way into a song now and again. If I wasn’t crying before the songs began then I was most certainly crying once they got going! There was a softness and delicateness to the notes of the instrument and their voices, an indescribable beauty that tore at the heart-strings and allowed all the pain to come through without the slightest resistance. I lay on my back with tears streaming down my face, so much so that my face and ears were soaked as if I had just stepped out of the shower. It was uncontrollable crying, without a sound. I mourned everything that I had lost, a future I would never have. It felt like she was walking away with her back turned and I was stretching out my hand in vain to touch her one last time. It was all a bit dramatic, like a scene from Gladiator when he sees his dead wife and child walking off into the corn fields and towards the eternal light.

My visions were again quite limited during this session. The overwhelming experience was one of raw emotion accompanied by incredibly beautiful soundscapes weaves by the infinitely talented musicians. The times when I wasn’t crying about my own loss, I was crying about the beauty of the place I found myself in, the music that caressed me and the other beautiful people who surrounded me. I felt an incredible yearning that everybody could be happy. Amazingly I realized that I didn’t want this experience to end, that I didn’t want to leave this sacred space. This was the first time I had felt so safe, secure and happy in the middle of the ayahuasca experience, despite all the sadness and grief I was working through. I realised the ultimate beauty of the experience, the indescribable feelings of life and love pouring in and out of my being. I curled into the foetal position and felt the embrace of my mother. A child come home to the safety and security of its mother’s arms. I felt both permission to cry as well as the forgiveness of the all-encompassing universe, a wordless embrace.

The offer of more ayahuasca came long a couple of times during all this. Again like the day before I didn’t feel like I had the energy to try go any deeper with my issues. I felt like the mourning and grieving was all I could manage, whilst still being able to appreciate the beauty of the journey. I felt like an extra glass could send me too far to a place I wasn’t ready to go, possibly undoing all the work I had managed to do thus far. I felt I wouldn’t be afraid of coming back to the ayahuasca sometime in the near future to take the next step towards resolving my deeper issues. I stayed for a long time in the ceremony room listening to the music and drifting in my thoughts, the powerful part if the experience over, but the fluttering, quivering patterns still clearly visible. I felt relaxed and calm.

However there was a slight lingering sense of regret that I hadn’t pushed myself further, that I should’ve been more brave and dived for the answers to the deeper questions. I hadn’t really got any definitive answers. I still didn’t know what had gone wrong, I had mostly just mourned that it had gone wrong. I reassured myself though that I couldn’t expect too much, that I should be proud of my progress that weekend and be glad with what I could take away with me. I finally left the room to go outside and sit on the grass and soak in the suns rays again. There was still a fairly big bunch of people fully engaged in the yagé ritual, but I left them behind as I wasn’t much of a contributor! Outside on the lawn I chatted with the others about the accomplishments of the weekend, and exchanged tips about music, book, movies and documentaries, another real benefit of meeting so many interesting people – a chance to broaden the horizons!

Eventually it was time for final sharing, the music having reached a crescendo and a peak of positive emotion. There were many smiling faces, a sense of relief at having survived another ceremony and privilege of having experienced it. We all sat in a big circle outside on the grass, passing the talking stick around the circle which allowed only the speaker the privilege of talking. Each speaker said their part finished off by uttering “Aho“, which is a native American way of saying “Amen”. There was a lot of emotion about, the overwhelming majority having had positive journeys or for those who had reached the dark depths of hell, positive benefits to take forward into the “real life”.

Its incredible the bonds you can make with people you have known for such a short time. Its hard saying good-bye! Others I only talked to for the first time on the Sunday afternoon and yet there is that common bond between us, a sense of achieving something together. It was so worth all the anxiety in the build-up, a huge release of emotion and an opportunity to feel the raw emotion of my circumstances without holding back, without resisting and protecting myself from the pain. A sense of relief to have worked through even a fraction of that pain, to have begun the healing process and an opening of the path to the future. I would have a lot of work to do myself, the hard part is often changing behaviour in everyday life without the aid of such powerful medicine. A lot will need to be figured out over the course of the next few months, but I am convinced that Mother Ayahuasca has given me the energy required to start alongthe road to recovery. My door is hopefully open to the next opportunity that may cross my path and I am certain I will be back in the future for another taste of the sacred brew.

A Sequel Sacred Ceremony – Further Journeys with Ayahuasca – Part II

The mosquitos were unfortunately not done with me that night. The door to our dorm room had been open and the light was on, so there were a few specimens that had taken their place, more than willing to feast on me all night. I woke occasionally, annoyed by the high-pitched drone zeroing in on my head, which was the only exposed skin as I lay wrapped in my sleeping bag. I tried to pull a pillow over my head to cover my vulnerability, not only making it harder to sleep, but really not achieving much better protection from the mosquitos! So I had a fair few bites to show for my nights sleep by the time the cock quite literally crowed and the morning came.

The ritual was to begin around 09.00 so we got up around 08.00 to get a cup of tea and try to relax before the day’s activities. A few people pottered about and others had gathered outside the dining room, sipping on cups of tea and some indulging in a little fruit. The conversation flowed easily again, discussing the events from the night before and the hopes and expectations for the coming ceremony. I was feeling nervous again, naturally, hoping that I could get over the lingering negativity from the night before and break through to some deeper insights. At least there wasn’t much time to dwell on things that morning and it was quickly time to get things started again.

The usual sequential sharing was the first order of the day, everybody telling a little of their experience of the night before and their hopes and expectations for the day. Some hadn’t felt anything at all from the ayahuasca, including one of the Swedish girls, who hadn’t ever drank the brew before. Another quite experienced guy had felt the full-blown effects immediately and was retching and vomiting within minutes of ingesting it. Funny how the experience is so variable from person to person! I told a little of my anxious time the night before, saying that it was a major reason for my being there and that I hoped to learn a little bit about it during the day’s ceremony.

We gathered then in a circle and, holding hands and breathing deeply, we uttered the usual prayer of Life, Heath, Happiness, Open Path to open the second day ceremony. Time to queue for our communion then, we gathered again in two lines and began the Ayahuasca chant. I realised I was a little more relaxed than the night before, not as anxious about drinking the yagé this time. I was more determined not to spill this time! I focussed my attention on the chant and tried to hold myself in a positive, relaxed state, repeating to myself that I had purpose and intent and that this would be good for me. There was much I needed to learn about myself and this was just the opportunity I needed. I got my glass of thick, dark ayahuasca (without spilling) and went to the altar to drink it down. It was bitter, each sip seemingly stronger than the last. Not by any means difficult to get down, however. My glass now empty, I waited for the others to get their serving to see what Rini and Norberto had in store for us that day.

We began with another bout of circling the room, making eye contact with each other and settling into the ritual. Soon we were told to choose a partner, someone we felt comfortable with. We were to hold eye contact over a prolonged period with our chosen partner, trying to relax and get past the discomfort that this may cause, as it isn’t the social norm nowadays to hold someone’s gaze so long. This practice was familiar from the last workshop I had taken part in. My first partner was a Swedish guy, David. A kind face and Jesus-like appearance made it easy to feel at ease and just see where it took us. When focussing on the eyes, the rest of the face becomes fluid and changeable, a smile can shift the features completely. We were told to close our eyes for a while and then when opening them again to notice if anything was different. I couldn’t say exactly what was different, but I had begun to feel the effects of the ayahuasca while standing with my eyes closed. After a good hug to thank each other for sharing “a moment”, we were to resume circling and then once again find another partner. This time I was paired with Wim, a Dutch guy I hadn’t spoken to yet. Another warm, kind face to be examined for the next few minutes. It’s amazing how much warmth the eyes can betray, a feeling of caring and connection, despite it being a complete stranger.

Finally, we were to find one last partner, mine was to be a Dutch lady who again I hadn’t talked to yet. This time there was a twist. After another bout of staring, Norberto started to play a song on a CD player. Ironically enough it was Frankie Valli and The 4 Seasons with their song “Can’t Take My Eyes off You“. That gave everyone a good laugh and lightened the mood substantially! We danced along to the song, some people putting a lot of energy into it. Unfortunately, even ayahuasca hasn’t dissipated my self-consciousness when it comes to dancing, especially with unacquainted, middle-aged ladies. We did our best however to not make it too awkward and danced along anyway.

So the formalities of the “warm-up” were over and it was time to hit the mattresses again and start down our own individual paths, wherever they may lead. This part is often the nerve-wracking part for me, as the toil between my emotional self and my logical, thinking self (my ego?) reaches epic proportions. This time, though, was to be different as I was whisked off my feet by the ayahuasca before I could even begin to contemplate the oncoming experience. I was very grateful for this, for once avoiding the tiresome chatterbox’s attention. I was flung into a world of raw emotion, of such immense power I rarely experience. Things get quite personal from here, as well as quite difficult to explain accurately. Take my word for it when I say there are certain things that need to be experienced to be believed or understood. The ayahuasca experience is something of such raw power, such vivid sensations that it really cannot be expressed in words. Words though, are all I have.

The room shifted, as if the ceiling became a whirlpool with the edges of the dome moving slower and the center spinning rapidly. I was emotionally dragged with the current. By this I mean I was still physically sitting on my mattress, but my emotional state was shifted to a completely different plane, and totally out of my control. I felt surrounded by a presence, and the presence was Love. It totally embodied what my now ex-girlfriend had for me, so in a way it felt like she was there, circling above me in the whirlpool and surrounding me completely. The connection I felt to her at that moment so was so incredibly strong, it answered one of my burning questions immediately – did I really love her? YES. I cried and I cried. I cried tears of regret, sorrow, guilt and shame. Everything I had done in the face of this person’s seemingly undiminishing love, all the hurt that I had caused, I really and truly felt for the first time in all its force. I finally felt what she had felt: the despair, hopelessness and fear of never being with her again. All these emotions I had tried to push away when I was feeling my worst a few months before, feeling that I was unable to cope. Instead I tried to forget, tried to pick holes in what we had to justify what I had done. It took something as powerful as ayahuasca to make the sheer emotional weight finally descend, forcing me to bend and break under the strain.

The physical effects during this time were also quite distinct. I could feel a build-up of emotional tension, the quantity of tears rising in tandem with the tension. It was a very real physical sensation, mostly centered around my chest and my stomach. I was writhing on my mattress as my body wrung the tension into tighter and tighter knots. Twisting and turning. Crying and crying. Then the energy in the room would shift again and there would be a huge release of tension. All the negative energy flowed right out of me, the physical tensions evaporating with it. The relief was immense. It felt like literally working something out of my system. Feeling everything in its raw power and then releasing it. This continued in cycles, sometimes helped along by the musicians. Building up and up and up and just like with a thunderstorm: a flash of lightning, a clap of thunder and a torrential downpour (of tears?) clearing the tension in the atmosphere leaving a freshness in the air, so much more bearable than the preceding heaviness and humidity.

After the huge releases of energy, I would sit up, wipe my face and blow my nose (which incidentally was the only way I did any purging all weekend, copious quantities of snot!). I would sit there like I had just come out the toughest experience of my life, shaking my head and sometimes chuckling to myself at the incredible force that was working me over. It was just incredible, and so fantastic to be aware of the work happening. Sometimes I would be on the verge of giggles, the release of negative emotion was so energizing. It wouldn’t be long though until the sadness and grief started to creep back in. At times I would be feeling literally equal amounts of happiness and sadness simultaneously. I would sit whilst chuckling to myself and feeling tears of sorrow welling up again within me. And so I would descend into another bout of grieving, feeling… facing up to the feelings I really needed to process.

While all this was going on, I have no real recollection of anything I saw. I was totally oblivious to any visual inputs and was totally in the realm of emotion. So as there were no visuals to process, my analytical mind was silent and unnecessary. This in itself was liberating, I was no longer trying to figure the whole experience out with analytical questions like “what is it?”, “what do I see?”, “what relevance does this have?” and instead was physically and emotionally working through the issues I had. During one bout of grief the question did pop into my head of “What is it that you really want?”. It felt like I was asked this question, rather than posing the question myself. I muttered the answer to myself – I just don’t want to feel so anxious anymore, I don’t want to carry this burden of guilt around with me every day, I just want to be happy. So there I had it, I had answered my own question from my preparations as to what I really wanted.

After this very intense introspection I began to broaden my horizons and look more outward. I looked around the room, which until now I had been almost completely oblivious to for God knows how long. I felt such incredible love for everybody in that room, words just cannot begin to describe it. Each and every one of them was in the midst of working through their own issues, and I admired our bravery for choosing such a difficult and beautiful way of facing ourselves on the brink. I felt a burning desire for everybody to be happy, in whatever they do. I hoped and prayed that my ex could be happy, that she could move on, find someone new and be treated the way she deserved. I hoped she could find the love in her own heart again, of which she had an over-abundance before, and that she would be able to share this love with a suitably deserving person. I realised that all of us humans are living each day for the first time, trying to find what it is that makes us happy – and most of us are pretty rubbish at it! We’re stumbling our way through life, leaving a trail of hurt and chaos behind us. No matter how evil another person may appear to us, they are only trying their best to be happy. I wished that everyone could taste the ayahuasca experience so that they could feel the over-powering love that is within us all and which deep down we want to share with everyone. Synchronicity alert! Just as I write these words, the lyrics boom from my speakers “I feel love, I feel love, I feel love, I feel love, …” from a track I’ve never heard before. The universe has a great sense of humour sometimes!

A brief summary of some other insights are also in order. I was told to be nice, to appreciate every human’s right to be present and their need for validation. Again, everyone wants to be happy. People who I find difficult sometimes, for example at work, I was to go easier on, acknowledge their right to be as well as giving them credit where it was due. Being hard on them was actually also being hard on me and was costing me a lot of energy. It’s fine to be demanding and to have high standards, whilst accepting that not everyone can or will live up to these expectations, including sometimes myself. I had to admit to myself that I would have a much bigger appreciation for my friends in Sweden if I made more of an effort to see them, instead of pining after my (great!) friends in Ireland who I all too rarely see. Another maybe obvious but at the same time necessary insight was that I really have to concentrate on being happy right now, in the present moment. Do whatever it is that will make you happy right now and ask yourself the question, what is it that you need to feel happy right now? It can often be a surprisingly simple thing that can make you happy in the present moment. The random bleating of a sheep for example, which now began to penetrate the bubble of the ayahuasca space. Sheep can sometimes be genuinely hilarious – sounding grumpy, terrified or content!

This mindful insight was nothing new to me of course, but a timely reminder that much of my anxiety and grief was created by over-analysing, over-thinking the future as well as the past, whilst totally neglecting the only thing we definitely have – the present. Sometimes when I felt things were getting too much, the feelings of fear or pain becoming too powerful, I could just focus on the actual bodily sensations, breathe, and let them pass. More mindfulness training put to good use. All this stuff makes good sense, but is more difficult to implement practically than one might expect. These were just reminders that practice is the key and that these are necessary to my current well-being.

All of this took place in a timeless dimension for me, I had no concept or need for time, only a vague recollection that this experience wouldn’t last forever. I’m not sure how much time had actually passed but it was possibly in the region of five hours. I gradually started to come back to myself, my logical thinking clicked back into some kind of low gear. I noticed as soon as my analytical thinking resurfaced, so too did my most common anxiety symptom – tightness in the chest. It is possible that my thinking and over-analysing causes my anxiety or I guess also possible that my emotional self didn’t register the discomfort as there were so many other inputs and outputs to take account of.

Either way, this was a clear sign that the really deep ayahuasca trip was coming to an end… at least until Norberto announced that there would be another opportunity to drink ayahuasca now. Jesus, I thought, I’m exhausted from what seemed like many lifetimes of experience and now there was a chance for another glass? I admired the fact that others were so willing to dive deeper, fearless and brave. Well, at least brave. I think everybody has a certain amount of fear even if they are experienced. Anyway I felt I wasn’t in the brave category right at that moment. I felt like I had gotten through a lot of work and that I would have to be content with that. If I drank another glass I was afraid I could undo some of the benefits of the process I had just been through. I could reignite the fires of fear and anxiety whilst delving deeper into the unknown within myself. This would have to wait until a time I had the energy to do the exploring and deal with whatever popped up.

I lay for some time, quite content to listen to the amazing soundscapes the musicians were creating. My eyes still fluttered, the ceiling and the flags still quivered and undulated with an extra-dimensional glow. I was still very much under the influence of the ayahuasca, however now I was very happy to be there in that space and welcomed its embrace. At one point I heard some commotion on the other side of the room as one of the Swedish guys, Johan, was calling out to someone across the room. He was wide-eyed and bright-faced. It was a little unusual to hear people speaking above more than a whisper, but as usual in this state I just assumed they knew what was going on and I was oblivious. Later Johan would tell me he was just returning to himself from a wild ride where he lost all touch with reality. He was so wide-eyed and happy because he was starting to realize that other people around him were real and did exist! I could empathise with the relief that it can be to return to reality after such a long-haul trip away from it!

A torrential downpour had begun creating a different atmosphere in our ayahuasca space. The raindrops pummeled the roof and skylights and the sound was also pouring in through the open windows.The moisture in the air was refreshing. I mustered the energy to get up to have a peep out the large open window behind my head. I rested my chin on my arms and gazed transfixed at the tumbling rain and dark, angry skies. More raw, natural power on show and I was a keen observer. To my left and standing outside was another of the Swedish crew, Hillevi. She glanced my way and her face was beaming with delight. I never saw a person so happy in the rain! She high-fived me through the open window and we exchanged broad, knowing smiles. Only yesterday I had thought it was going to be impossible for me to enjoy the ayahuasca experience and now here I was after going through the best and the worst of it and left with a thoroughly satisfied feeling. I had finally broken through to a level where I could appreciate the beauty of the experience without finding it too strange or discomforting, whilst at the same time being able to put its power to some good use in dealing with my own issues.

The rain cleared and I decided to go out to get some fresh air and watch the retreating thunderstorm in the background. I had begun to disconnect from the happenings in the room now, as those who remained had probably drunk more ayahuasca and were delving deeper into the mysteries of themselves. My work was done and I wouldn’t have been contributing anything to the group with my presence. I walked out onto the damp grass and just soaked up the sensations – the feel of the wet grass on my feet, the sparkling of the raindrops in the sunlight, the fresh and pungent aromas in the air from the plants and animals about. How alive everything seemed! And how oblivious the sheep were to what we were up to in that little room! I was looking at how playful the lambs were when I heard footsteps behind me. Vatsal, an Indian guy had also emerged from the room to get some fresh air. He had just drunk his fourth glass though, so was on a slightly different plane than I was! We sat on the grass and chatted for quite a while, about lots of different topics. I was amazed how lucid he was, able to track conversations easily and engage fully. How different this intoxication is to, say drinking a bottle of whiskey! Instead of sinking into unconsciousness, you soar to a kind of super-consciousness with perception sharpened and enhanced.

It took a couple of hours or so for the others in the group to finish their journey and for the ceremony to finally brought to a close. It still amazed me that others went so far, if my one glass caused what seemed like an eternity of experience, I couldn’t begin to imagine what three or four might do! All in all the ceremony lasted about nine hours I think.

So the hard work was done, it was back to the dining room to be treated to another feast. As usual I was famished and wolfed down as much as I could. I was much brighter humour after this ceremony and the conversation flowed easily with many of the other participants. Tired too though, it wasn’t long before I hit the hay.

Tomorrow I would do it all over again!

Click here for the third and final part!

A Sequel Sacred Ceremony – Further Journeys with Ayahuasca – Part I

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.

Click here for Part II!