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.

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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.

Build-up

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!

A Sacred Cermony – An Experience of Ayahuasca – Part III

Sunday

I awoke the next morning feeling fresh physically and mentally. I was in a good state and not thinking very much about the coming day. In the kitchen I drank a cup of herbal tea and indulged in a little grapefruit. People were still talking of yesterday’s events as well as the expectations for this, the last ritual of the weekend. Attitudes were mixed – some looked forward to another eventful day, others planned on approaching it cautiously, while other still were contemplating avoiding the ayahuasca altogether. The more I listened, the more anxious I became. I didn’t really feel ready to go through it all again. Of course, overall I’d had a positive day the day before, but still I felt uncertain if I wanted to revisit the strangeness so soon, especially as I was so pleased to get back to my reality. So a foreboding brewed within me that morning.

We kicked off the final work of the weekend in familiar fashion. I had decided to take it relatively easy on the ayahuasca that day, starting with just one shot glass just a little over half full. Else was to be our stretch and yoga master this time around. Unsurprisingly ayahuasca had  not miraculously improved my flexibility, so I struggled by with the stretching positions, despite them not being overly advanced. We practised a little meditation afterwards as we waited for the medicine to do its work. It was noticeably calmer this time around. The scenes from the madhouse yesterday didn’t develop and the music played, from a CD this time, was more of an epic soundtrack vibe. I was feeling on-edge, clearly resisting the effect of the ayahuasca. My mind was racing, that endless chatter of judgemental thoughts ricochetting in my brain. My ego was threatened, I belive, unwilling to be almost dissolved again as yesterday. Questions flashed in my mind – do I like this, why did I do it again after feeling so lost before, what will I experience differently today, do I want a similar experience again so soon?

I walked outside again to try to get a grip on my emotions and overcome my thoughts and fears, so as I could relax into the ritual. The weather had taken a typical west of Ireland turn for the worst – a light drizzle, dull and a little chilly. Like my mood, I thought. I tried to remind myself of the good that came out of yesterday, the wonderful feelings of love that I’d had. To no avail, I couldn’t relax my mind. In a fashion quite typical of me, I decided that taking a little more would be the solution. So I went inside and waited for round two of the ceremony.

I had another half glass of daime the second time around. I sat by the altar trying to calm my mind and just let the experience flow. The effects of the medicine began to take hold. From my new vantage point I saw the altar come alive, slowly starting to pulsate. Faces began to appear in the stone floor. I would blink hard to see if I was just imagining them, but they stayed true to form and remained in place when I opened my eyes. Quite remarkable, but nothing particularly malevolent so it didn’t put me ill-at-ease. I was wondering what I should be contemplating while sitting here. I felt rather like I didn’t have any plan for this session. I thought about the people and places I had felt strongly towards on the Saturday morning, yet I was unable to rid myself of the fear lounging in the shadows, the unwillingness to go back to the strangeness of before.

Perched on my mattress now, I resumed my position of observer. Else and others were playing more songs, some the same as we had heard during the previous works. I noticed how clear my perception had become. Sound was particularly intense, and the room had certainly transformed again into the other-worldly capsule we sat in before. Most striking this time though was the atmosphere. I could really feel the energy in the air. Lulls between songs or even the sound of vomiting produced a very tangible energy shift in the air. The air itself was vibrating, crackling like static electricity. Now I can compare this perception of atmosphere to other events in the past, just before something really exciting is about to happen like an All Ireland final or a much-anticipated gig about to begin.This, however, was infinitely more intense and palpable that anything I had felt before.

I found that I had relaxed into the ritual now and when the shaman announced round three of the drinking of the tea. I was unsure what to do. I thought maybe another half glass would banish the few lingering chattering thoughts that remained. On the other hand, I didn’t need to go too far this time, maybe I’d had enough. In the end, I thought that I should make the most of this opportunity to drink the ayahuasca – after all, I’d been waiting years for the very chance. So I asked for another half glass. The moment I had drunk the bitter medicine I regretted it. Now paranoid thoughts gushed up from within me. Oh no, I’ll truly be lost this time. What if I’ve taken too much? Why did you have to take more? So the struggles with the mind only became worse by drinking more. In hindsight it is a clear example of my inability to know when I’ve had enough of something, as had happened many a time with food and drink before. A lesson to be learned then, but this time I must be sure to learn from it. Mistake made, now there was no turning back.

My mind put up a solid resistance to the encroaching spirits from the medicine. So much so that I began to get tired, often forgetting what I was doing here in the first place. I wasn’t so much lost this time, just lethargic and a little uninterested. I felt like I wanted to sleep and wake up normal again. I can honestly say that I most certainly did not serve this experience as I should have done. Villoldo’s books talked of the importance of serving the ayahuasca experience, in other words staying fully alert and present in the moment in order to learn whatever lessons are there to be learned. I failed this criteria, quite simply. I regret firstly allowing my negative thoughts in the morning affect my mental state coming into the ceremony. More importantly, though, I regret taking the extra half glass , attempting to force my mind into submission and only succeeding in numbing it. The mind and body are so intricately linked – a cooperation is required to be sure one is in a fit state before beginning such a journey. I believe not having a clear enough goal also led to a little confusion and disinterest later as I allowed the chance to pass me by. I did manage to stay more physically active however, allowing myself to frequent the toilet as needed and drink water as I wished. One has to take the positives from any experience! I was also glad to take part in the closing ceremony this time, dancing to Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” with the many smiling faces around. What a way to finish!

Conclusion

Breaking another long fast in the kitchen, the usual chatter was again positive and happy. The last activity of the weekend was to be the final sharing, where we could each speak a little to the whole group about our overall experience from the weekend and what we’d be taking from it. It was clear from the mini speeches that many had some profound experiences. Some visited dark places but believed that positive steps were taken towards banishing those demons. I myself talked mostly of my journey on the Saturday – feeling emotions stronger than I had ever thought possible, especially feelings of love towards those closest to me, as well as a strong sense of connection with my home country, and more broadly speaking Mother Earth herself.

My creative juices were flowing. I felt the power to go out and change things in my life and my surroundings. Write more read more, learn to play an instrument, get a job where you feel you are doing something noble and worthwhile, something that is making a difference. I was going to have to make good use of this creative energy, and try not to fall back into my usual, sometimes destructive habits and routines in normal life.

This account of my first experience of ayahuasca, taken in it correct ritual setting surrounded by the right people, is the first step in my new life. My old worldview is completely shattered, but I must work now to try to understand the experience and clarify the important lessons in my mind. It is now a month since I embarked on my first ayahuasca voyage, and already I feel the senses closing and my life returning to the usual rhythm. Although I have made small changes and I have to continue trying to make the right choices for my future. Thanks to Mama Ayahuasca for this new energy and drive to take many steps more into a bright new future.

A Sacred Cermony – An Experience of Ayahuasca – Part II

Saturday

The second “work” was to begin around 11 o’clock the following morning. I awoke early, perhaps around 7.30 as the acoustics in our circular room meant that if one or two were up and about, I would be obliged to follow. Needless to say the night’s sleep was filled with vivid dreams as the daime tea continued to do its work. I still felt my mind was quite rested and physically I felt good, though a little tired. In the kitchen, some more experienced heads were indulging in a spot of breakfast, despite the official word being that fasting should be done at least 4 hours before the ritual. Due to a touch of over-eating the night before, I decided to pass on breakfast and I perhaps felt a little more at ease following the official line of advice. The chatter over breakfast was invariably about people’s hopes and fears for the coming session as well as further reminiscing on the activities of the night before.

After such a positive experience the previous night, I still couldn’t help a slight sense of foreboding about the coming session. As previously mentioned, this was to be the day people got shit done. Any personal or emotional baggage could be dredged up regardless of where or when it was from. Dark demons could be faced. It seemed unpredictable and uncontrollable. I wasn’t even sure if I had any baggage to dredge up, so I was worried that there might be things that I had suppressed or consciously forgotten. Obviously I was a little afraid of what I might find if I went digging!

Norberto invited us to gather around again. We each gave a little status update to the group on how we were feeling and what our hopes were for the day. Some good, some bad. Either way, we were ready to begin. The ritual began in the same way as the previous evening, breaking into the Aya-, Aya-, Aya-huasca chant and forming our communion-like procession up to meet the shaman priest with the crystal jug filled with the sacred brew. Again, I was met by Norberto’s examining look when my turn arrived. He measured a shot, judging presumably by whatever mental and emotional vibes he can pick up from me. I believe he can see much deeper into a person than you can imagine. My eyes alone may betray a lot of feelings. I perform my customary nod and retreat to a spot by the altar. This time the bitterness is more palpable, although still not unpleasant. I swallowed, swept the glass with my finger and promptly sucked the finger. Right then, here we go again!

This time it was Matthew who put us through our paces with some stretching and breathing exercises. Some required dedicated focus as a good deal of coordination and balance was necessary. Again the exercises had the desired effect – body relaxed, mind focussed on the task ahead. The tingling had begun in my feet again, a welcome sensation. Next on the agenda was another novelty. We were to choose a partner and look into their eyes with a persistent gaze, without glancing away as we so often do in everyday life. Blinking was thankfully allowed, so it wasn’t so much of a staring competition! Norberto, our shaman guide, explained how rarely it is that we meet each others eyes in modern life, especially in large cities and towns where people prefer to avoid eye contact and maintain anonymity. Even with friends and loved ones prolonged eye contact is mostly avoided, otherwise social discomfort can arise. We have forgotten how it feels to look deeply into another’s eyes, which, don’t forget, have been referred to as the gateway to the soul even in our own western culture.

My chosen partner was a long-term friend, whom I’d first met twelve years ago when we shared a room together in university. Having known each other so long, we had never looked each other in the eye as we did for the next few minutes. As first, I admittedly felt a little uncomfortable holding eye contact longer than the social norm. That faded though as I noticed with an internal giggle that I could only focus on one eye at a time! Paul’s face also took on an altered appearance as everything around the eyes was blurry and changeable. After settling into our constant gaze I could feel what I could best describe as a strong energetic bond between us. Paul, I could see, was feeling it a bit stronger than I. He began to sway gently on his feet at first, muscles fully relaxed. Next his eyelids began to flutter and close. Mama Ayahuasca had come to him early, I thought. Later he was to describe seeing a flow of ancient symbols and knowledge pouring out from my pupils in a steady stream into his. Some sort of gateway had been opened, for which I had become an unwitting channel! As a sidenote, I would like to mention a scene in The Spirit Molecule documentary, where one participant in the DMT study describes seeing symbols pouring out of a single point – an uncanny similarity in experience.

Exercise over, Paul had to take his place on his mattress while I had to find a new partner. This time we were instructed to find a partner of the opposite gender to the one we previously had. I wandered awkwardly a few steps until my eyes met Suzanne’s, a German girl whom I hadn’t spoken to as yet. This was to be a different experience altogether – holding eye contact with a complete stranger for a prolonged period of time. Looking into Suzanne’s deep brown eyes turned out to be quite a profound experience. After a short time I became once again energetically locked with her eyes and fell into a quite trance-like state. The intensity of the warmth and love emanating from her eyes was almost overpowering. It was like looking into your mother’s eyes again as a child and feeling the love and security of her presence totally enveloping you. Quite similar to the warm, loving energies of the night before, this was an entirely positive way for me to begin the second work.

For others, the beginning wasn’t so positive. One woman had got straight down to business within the first few minutes of the ritual. She was already poised over the little blue bucket at the foot of her mattress, vomiting violently. Getting sick is quite common, it should be noted, and is even considered an important part of the ceremony. It is seen as a cleansing procedure, a way of getting up painful physical or mental problems and ejecting them from the body. Once out, the participant is free to move on from it.

By now we were all back in our familiar position on our mattresses, preparing for our individual journeys. Strange things were starting to happen. Shouts of terror rang out from one section of the room. Whatever demons this girl was facing, it was very unpleasant and she wasn’t willing to continue. There was however no turning back now. The ayahuasca forces you to face facts, whether it is pleasant or not. Despite her fear, she at least wasn’t alone. The many helpers and guides were on hand for precisely these kinds of situations. They can help talk a person through the difficult periods, with the hope that the demons will be confronted and dealt with rather than being further repressed. Others were by now in floods of tears, moaning and sobbing, in their own world of grief. As another sidenote, I would like to add that the acoustics in the circular building, combined with our heightened senses from the ayahuasca, meant that every sound – shout, moan, sob or giggle – was amplified and always seemed to come from right beside or behind you. There was no avoiding that we were all in this together, our experiences were intricately linked, yet still we were very much alone in our own world of experience.

The utter strangeness of the events around me had certainly had an unsettling effect on me. If anyone was to walk in on us now, they would surely think that they had walked straight into a mental asylum. Many were quite animated now. Not all negative, it should be pointed out. Some were in fits of giggles, others smiled widely and still others danced, hopped and skipped about the room. One quite memorable moment was when one participant, who had been conversing with himself for a time, suddenly declared the state to be corrupt and treacherous bastards. “The bastards”, he repeated over and over, “the state is corrupt, the treacherous bastards”. This generated quite a ripple of laughter around the room. I for one laughed at the mere concept of the state, which seemed totally meaningless now. The crying and the shouting had got to me though, so I decided to get outside for a little fresh air and gather my own thoughts.

As I walked around in the sunshine outside, I tried to take stock of things. Why hadn’t I gotten sick? Where were my demons and why didn’t I have anything to cry about? These were all genuine questions, probably stemming from my Catholic guilt – I shouldn’t be enjoying this, should I? I hadn’t felt much of an effect from the tea yet, probably because I was analysing everything too much, my mind fighting so hard to not let go. Every feeling, sensation or thought that came up was hurriedly assessed, trying to predict where things may be leading. Well, I thought, maybe another drop of the sacred brew will help me overcome the mind and step further into the realm of pure feeling, the heart. It was time to go back inside.

Norberto soon announced that they would be offering a second opportunity to take the ayahuasca. This time they would go around to each individual in their place, rather than lining up together. When my turn arrived, Norberto asked how I felt. I said that I hadn’t felt much of an effect and that I thought I was distracted by the activity around me. I needed to let go. He asked whether I had gotten sick, to which I replied in the negative. “Ok,”, said the shaman, looking deep into my eyes, “this one is a big one”. He poured the thick, syrupy substance from the glass jug into the shot glass, filling it right to the brim. My by now customary nod of the head followed and I began to drink it down. The taste certainly seemed to be becoming more and more bitter, each glass was a little harder to swallow. Still, tea drank, now I was once again entering unchartered territory. This time I wouldn’t have to wait long for Mama Ayahuasca to come.

Things are quite hard to explain from this point. Again, time began to dissolve and so what happened and in what chronological order are hard to define. Similar to the night before, strong bodily sensations started to blossom within me. Everything felt good to the touch and I lay there writhing and stretching like a playful kitten on my mattress. Yawning was also a surprisingly nice sensation! I wasn’t expecting visuals like the night before, as we now sat in total daylight. I was very mistaken however, as our room began its transformation all over again. The ceiling began to come alive, the waving, rippling effect of the wooden slats swept over and back. This time there was a very distinct sound accompanying it, perhaps best described as a writhing slithering sound of snake-skin on snake-skin. Everything was alive, nothing was static and the visuals churned and swirled in an ever-transforming tapestry. Before the weekend, I had expected to visualise natural landscapes, jungles, animals and birds. What I saw was quite different – everything had a strangely synthetic, other-worldly feel. Words fail me now as I try to bring it into language. There was a very distinct texture to everything I saw too, including the very air itself. Everything was vibrating, humming, purring. I felt a presence all around me, hands reaching out to me, beckoning and pointing, eager to show me more. I have to say it felt like a very playful, inviting presence – far from the menacing presence others appeared to be dealing with.

It had become entirely normal to see people on all fours with heads in buckets, vomiting and retching violently, people in tears with shoulders hunched and heaving with grief, others laughing and giggling maniacally. I noticed myself laughing at people getting sick or even people crying, without the slightest feeling of guilt on my part. At one point, however, I found myself in a fit of tears. I was like a child, loud, uncontrollable sobs, face stained with a steady stream of tears. I hadn’t cried in years, especially not in front of others. I was crying for everything I missed in life – my family and friends back home in Ireland, my brother in New York, my late granny who had passed away around three years ago. I realised just how much I loved all these people, and that I couldn’t spend even a fraction of the time I’d like to in their company. Photo images popped into my mind of those closest to me, clear as day, all of them smiling and happy. Warmth, love and compassion flooded my being and I cried uncontrollably. I even realised how much I missed my girlfriend back in Sweden, despite having been with her only a couple of days previously and was to see her again in just a few days time! Visions of my life in Sweden were also thrown at me, again all positive, showing me what I was lucky to have. What I felt Mama Ayahuasca was telling me was that it was ok to miss everyone at home – the loving bond I had was very strong and wouldn’t be broken. She was also showing me that I had a lot to be thankful for in my present situation in Sweden, and that by leaving that behind I would have many people and places that I would also miss. All in all, things were good – be happy and grateful for what you have. Also make sure you show people how much you care and that they are loved.

So, the tears subsided and soon gave way to happy laughter. Laughter just as uncontrollable as the preceding tears! What a total turn-around! I could hear Paul laughing at me, which only fueled my fire and made me laugh more. Now my tears of sadness soaking into my pillow were joined by tears of joy. The circle was complete.

The day’s journey, however was far from complete. Things were only getting weirder and weirder. Now it wasn’t just the ceiling that appeared different, but the entire room was completely transformed. It appeared other-worldly. We seemed to be in a bubble completely separated from that which we call reality. It occurred to me that this seemed similar to a pantheon of Roman gods, lounging in their heavenly abode. People sang and danced, rapt in a swirl of creativity and freedom. I, on the other hand, was rooted firmly to my mattress, capable only of wriggling and writhing from one position to another. Not to forget yawning, of course. I was witnessing an amazing burst of creative energy, to which I was but a passive observer. Else on the hauntingly beautiful harmonium, singing hymns and repetitive mantras. The shaman played soft and gentle melodies on the guitar. Most notably I thought was Gráinne on the harp. I had been fascinated by the harp first as a child at Brú Ború at the foot of the Rock of Cashel. An incredibly delicate and captivating sound and very typically Irish.It suited the mood perfectly and I was amazed to hear afterwards that it was the first time that Gráinne had played in front of people and had only been learning for a few months. One wouldn’t have guessed. Besides the wonderful musical contributions, some random bursts of poetry also burst forth, to be granted generous, almost rapturous applause.

I felt by this stage a little lost and confused. Nothing was particularly threatening, so it wasn’t that I was afraid as such. I just seemed to be drifting in a timeless void, the strangeness of the scene around me finally starting to overwhelm me. I had no real idea of where I was at this point. I remembered vaguely that I was here for a weekend, but days or hours just didn’t have any meaning that I could grasp. Simply put, I didn’t know how to get back to what I considered normal and I didn’t know if I was ever going back. While the creative energy blossomed and bloomed all around me, I felt very much in the role of observer rather than participant, and what I was observing was too fantastical for me to fully grasp. I had spent some time kneeling with my little bucket at the ready, feeling nauseous as my stomach churned and tied itself into knots. A little dry retching was all I could manage though, there was to be no physical cleansing for me. I do hate getting sick and normally avoid it at all costs, so I think my mind was battling my body in this regard. My physical discomfort was spreading – I had broken into a cold sweat and lay curled in the foetal position, trying to ease my stomach cramps. After a time I felt totally unable to move. My visions were still powerful – the eternally churning wheel of creation turned relentlessly before my eyes. There was no turning out the lights. I needed only two things in life now – a drink of water and a trip to the toilet to relieve my bladder. A bottle of water stood directly behind my head, only inches away. The toilet was a mere 10 or 15 metres away from where my mattress lay. Both seemed miles out of reach, an impossible goal. I could vaguely hear the shaman announce the end of the ceremony, and realised everyone was standing again in the circle, hands joined and chanting their thanks to Mother Earth. I was still so far gone, detached completely from my surroundings. Michel the friendly giant offered his hand in warm gesture of understanding and I could only hold his hand and gaze in awe at the utter godliness of him towering over me. Paul, I recall, also tried to talk to me about something but I was totally incapable of conversation – words were unrelated symbols that together made no sense.

Finally, as the others chatted and laughed around me, the medicine loosened its grip enough for me to take an almighty thirst-quenching gulp of water. I was also building the courage to embark on the by now urgent journey to the bathroom. With wobbly legs, I stumbled my way across the room to the toilet, which was luckily unoccupied. I promptly relived my complaining bladder and sat trying to get a grip on myself. I couldn’t shit despite my willingness and desire to do so. Suddenly I realised how claustrophobic the toilet was and decided at once to flee. Clumsily I buttoned my trousers and tried to escape. There was a knack to opening the door, which in my panic I had forgotten. I weakly threw my shoulder against it to no avail. What a way to die I thought, caged up in a toilet. Comparisons to Elvis would be made later! Finally though I managed to get it open, by chance re-discovering the knack and was met by a much welcomed fresh cool breeze. By this point I was white-faced, dripping with cold sweat and feeling very light-headed. I wasn’t sure if I still needed the toilet, so I was reluctant to leave. I was on the floor on all fours, with my forehead pressed against the cold wall. Suddenly a pair of feet appeared back between my legs outside the door. I was caught, I thought, they had found me. I waited, but the feet didn’t move and nothing was said. At last, I decided I had to turn myself in and give up. I arose slowly and turned facing my discoverer who was none other that our shaman. As if facing a wild, cornered animal he hung back in an open, non-threatening manner. He asked if I was ok, to which I replied that I couldn’t decide if I needed the toilet or not, and was too tired to make the trip back to my mattress. How tired I really was! Norberto said that I just needed to lie down, calm my blood pressure and relax. He guided me carefully back and I collapsed gratefully onto my mattress again. I thanked him and lay for quite some time dozing, allowing the medicine to finally release me from its grip, letting a normal complexion return to things.

To say the least I was glad to be back in my own body, with time reinstated and the familiar feel of our human reality almost fully restored. The kitchen beckoned with another royal vegetarian feast awaiting. The usual excited chatter was in full swing as I entered. I was relieved to be a part of the group again, no longer lost and cut adrift, unable to partake in the activity. First off I apologised to Paul for totally blanking him earlier when he tried to make conversation. Obviously no hard feelings there, it was probably plain as day that I was still away with the fairies. Then followed the recollections and stories from the last five or six hours of the ritual. I remember an overwhelming sense of relief and that I had really gotten through something tough that day. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say I experienced the death of my ego, but there clearly was a time when I couldn’t tell if I would be coming back to what I knew as reality.

Talking with the others really helped to put things into perspective. Hearing how others went through similar experiences, visions and emotions was comforting, as was speaking to people who had gone through a whole lot worse than I had – dark, threatening and frightening experiences. People had really gone through a lot, it seemed like years worth of experience packed into a few hours. The mood was bright and positive that evening as seemingly everyone felt a real sense of having taken on something difficult and coming through unscathed on the other side. Some had faced up to some dark demons from the past and present, so really I should count myself lucky to have had such a positive experience overall, with feelings of love to the fore.

Later I talked a little to Norberto about my fear of not coming back to reality. He said that he never feared for me as with the ayahuasca one goes into one’s inner being. Everything that is experienced is coming from and through oneself. So, unlike LSD for example, where one has a sensation of journeying into outer space and may conceivably be lost in its vastness, with ayahuasca the journey is into inner space and a coming together with Mother Earth. These were comforting words from an expert in traversing this space. I chatted further with a few others, slowly grounding myself and feeling more and more at ease. Soon it would be time for bed again, as we had an even earlier start the next day and it all began again!

Click here for Part III!

A Sacred Cermony – An Experience of Ayahuasca – Part I

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.

Build-up

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 Windsthe 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.

Click here for Part II!