Aaaarrrrrggghhhhh…. What is this?! Why would anyone ever choose to do this? I am never, ever gonna do this again. I’m sorry Mum and Dad, I’m sorry to my whole family, sorry to all my friends, I’m so sorry for everything. Fuck... Maybe this is dying?!”
Those were my thoughts as best as I can recall them, wrenching through my mind and heart as I was simultaneously sucked through a hellish maelstrom of fire. Fire rushing upwards past me, around me, through me. I could feel myself freefalling through the swirling vortex of flame, down towards a tiny red bucket of spew far beneath me.
In reality, the red bucket was safely located between my legs where I sat, and I was merely hanging my head over it, throwing up violently. I was not falling. There was no fire.
My rational self would later tell me that the fire hallucinations and burning sensations were probably induced by all the blood rushing to my head as I threw up. And the throwing up itself induced by my own inquisitive actions and decisions.
I wasn’t sick.
Instead, I was tripping balls on some ancient jungle concoction prepared by a regal looking shaman, consumed during a 12 hour ceremony that was to last throughout the full moon night.
A double-plant concoction called Ayahuasca.
Having spent about a decade living in and visiting the Mentawai Islands of Sumatra, Indonesia, I had grown to know some of its traditional shamanic communities reasonably well. I was lucky enough to witness and participate in many rituals of trance and spiritualism for various celebrations, healings or mournings.
The Mentawai shamans of Sumatra don’t use any sort of drug to induce trance or communication with the spirit world, something I’d always respected. It’s purely through chanting mantras, fasting, dancing and the summoning of spirits that they achieve their incredible state of consciousness. Sometimes, in the more elaborate displays, the ceremony (Punen) sends individuals into fits of shaking, linked to deep contact with their animistic spirit-world. In all my travels, I’ve never come across a traditional culture so well preserved or ‘authentic’, a rare diamond in the rough of our current state of global gentrification and homogeny.
I guess the Mentawai impressed me so much, that I became curious of other shamanic perspectives.
But as it turns out, the shamans of Peru work quite differently.
Before the ceremony
I hiked alone for an hour or so, up to a small waterfall high on the side of the Sacred Valley. Striking a match, I burned some Palo Santo (an incensed wood pertinent to Peruvian tradition) - the sweet smell of the exotic smoke tantalising. My stomach rumbled – I hadn’t eaten anything that day, and for the week prior I’d tried to restrict my diet to greens. No meat. No sugar or salt. No coffee etc.
I sat down with a view of the valley far beneath me, gazing upon lush green farmland and eucalyptus plantations. I figured I should try and prepare myself for what I was about to undergo by meditating – even though it’s something that I’m not very good at. Meditation has, quite ironically, perplexed me ever since I broke the rules and ran away from a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat - on the very first day. On that day the Indian guru pleaded with me to stay, explaining that it was against the rules, that I would get sick if I left early. I walked away, leaving him crying behind me, tears streaming down his face as he realised there was no changing my mind. I felt bad at the time, but scaled the wall of the ashram anyway and lost myself in the thousands-strong throng of Buddhist pilgrims, all chanting for world peace around the Mahabodhi temple of Bodhgaya. I found freedom in the crowds of red robes, but 2 days later was curled up for a week with a brutal illness. Coincidence? Or an interventionist God? I’ll go with the former.
But anyway, this is Peru, not India, and I was trying to meditate. As I mentioned, I tend to get side tracked while meditating. This time in Peru was no different. Just as I had begun to slow myself down, concentrating on my breathing and the light ruffle of the wind through my hair, a friendly donkey decided it was not to be.
Either I am fatefully cursed to never be able to meditate properly, or this donkey thought my very still and unassuming meditation pose was a safe and interesting distraction from rigours of daily chewing. Whatever the reason, the big-eared donkey wanders over and begins to smell my hair.
I do my best to ignore him, telling myself that Buddhist monks don’t even let biting mosquitoes distract them during meditation.
“Be Zen, be present.” I say to myself…
The donkey starts to nibble on my unwashed, straw-looking hair…
I open my eyes and turn to look up at the classic looking fellah, a ‘Burro’ as they say in Spanish. He was a good-looking donkey, as far as donkeys go. Striking markings around his eyes, and a healthy coat.
I gladly took this as an excuse to quit my failed meditation, yet again. I stood up and picked a bunch of thick, green grass that was out of his reach, offering it to the now happy donkey.
I sat there next to this outgoing animal for about an hour. And as I did, I watched distant locals ride through the patchwork of small farms below me, each of them on donkeys or horses, going about their daily business delivering heavy sacks of quinoa or corn.
The village dogs barked at each other, chickens pecked in the dirt, old and wrinkled ladies wearing colourful clothes walked bent-over from years of carrying firewood on their backs. The cracked, mud walls of the cob-houses were warmed orange in the late afternoon sun.
Life seemed so peacefully slow, so connected to the land and to the seasons, it was an idyllic community of traditional Quechua Peruvians.
I gave the donkey a final handful of grass and began my walk back down…
The ceremony itself was to be held inside a circular temple on the valley floor, next to a big river, and surrounded by epic craggy peaks looming thousands of feet above. The Incan wind God, Kon, brought fresh, cool air from the south.
I walked inside tentatively. Took my blankets, an empty bucket and found some space between an attractive Kenyan girl, and a 65 year old white-haired man. There were many of us in the temple, from native Peruvian families to middle-aged European women or the odd wide-eyed backpacker.
The shaman sat in the centre and explained a few important things that relaxed my nerves a little. It was dark, except for a growing shaft of light from the rising full moon.
The shaman was the first to drink. Then one-by-one we made our way to him and were offered the ceramic cup, each person took a moment to consider their intentions before swallowing the liquid brown in front of the circle of participants. I was one of the last to receive the cup, I thought hard for a moment, and swallowed – it tasted better than what it looked.
I sat back down on my blankets and waited for the unknown, as the shaman began his leaf shaking, mantras and smoke blowing.
Soon whisps of fractal light shimmered and edged their way into my limited vision. I lay there in the dark welcoming it, opening myself up to it, breathing deeply.
People around me began to vomit. Or ‘purge’ as the shaman referred to it. That’s so gnarly, I thought. My heart went out to them. I was thankful I wasn’t feeling nauseous, and naively hoped I wouldn’t vomit.
There was a strange, archaic familiarity as the plant took more effect on my body, it felt familiar even though this was my first time - caring, guiding and caressing.
The music began, 10 or so musicians in the group - the most hauntingly beautiful music I’d ever heard – harps and angelic voices singing soulfully in Spanish and Quechua.
I lay on my back enjoying the music and was thinking how nice and pleasant everything was, how enjoyable the experience was - until I felt a sharp stab to the gut. A few moments later it hit me like a train, wrenching me from my blankets into the roaring vortex of fire.
The purging was merciless - I was forced to understand the meaning of it, to somehow cleanse my body and mind. I was begging for forgiveness, terrified, apologising and wondering why anyone would ever choose to partake in this destructive experience. I was brought to my knees in complete surrender - there is no fighting such a thing.
I purged until the last drop of liquid was emptied from my already fasted stomach, and wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I dragged spittles of vomit into my beard – and yet I couldn’t have cared less. All I cared for was that somehow I survived the horrific purging ordeal.
My limbs felt like long socks filled with mashed potatoes, but somehow I managed to pull my shirt off my torso in a broken-beast of an effort to deal with the heat wave that had engulfed me.
I opened my eyes for the first time since purging and things were very, very different. There was no longer any subtlety about any of it, no more whisps of fractal light, instead I was staring at a forest canopy growing rapidly over the temple ceiling, over the skylight, towards the moonlight, growing so fast that it cast dancing shapes and shadows as the canopy closed in over me.
Lying on my blankets I tried to concentrate on my intention, to try and understand the questions that I had brought with me to the ceremony, perhaps to find some answers, perhaps not.
I kept pondering these thoughts as I fell deeper into a dreamtime, until eventually, conscious thought left me altogether. I never fell asleep, I’m pretty sure that would be impossible, but I did fall… far, far away.
I willingly relinquished my last finger-hold on conscious thought and physical body, and melted into a colourful subterranean universe of the night sky.
I was gone, no longer me. I had no body. No longer human. I wasn’t lying on my back inside a temple on a full moon evening – the temple had disintegrated.
I don’t think there is any possible way to describe the next phase; it would be futile and ineffectual to attempt it. To try and apply words to the experience would only denigrate it.
It seems to me that the words necessary, simply don’t exist.
But I will say this…
Hours of searching bliss passed.
The beautiful visions had engulfed me. Entirely.
I felt an approaching rainbow serpent open its jaws and swallow me whole. To carry me. And guide me.
We travelled together through bewitching and jade-green junglescapes of this strange new universe, past powerful animals who stood watch over me regally. Together we penetrated through stained-glass windows of serpents slithering beautifully in their hundreds, shattering their forms into brilliant shapes that would coalesce into crocodiles swimming all around me. Everything I had ever imagined, and more, was manifesting itself into a forest of forever-transitioning layers. From Egyptian transcendental symbology, to monsters of the weirdest variety.
Artwork: Martina Hoffman
And just when things couldn’t get any more otherworldly, I began to hear the heartbeat of that same friendly donkey reverberating around me.
How had the donkey found me here?
“Lubdub… lubdub… lubdub…” the heart beats were unmistakeably his.
I couldn’t see him, but the beating echoed as loud as the all-pervading roar of an earthquake, yet somehow softer than a summer breeze.
The serpent paused for me here, and I began to see the significance of the donkey. Visions of the people I’d seen riding horses earlier that same day morphed ethereally in front of me. I felt a powerful surge for how alive the animals were, how connected humans are to the animal kingdom, and how like us, they had noble spirits inside of their giant bodies that must also journey when they dream.
Again my bodiless soul was carried off by the serpent, ever deeper and further into the inky, pulsing universe.
And the music. Man, that music. Heavenly.
I found myself crying. Hot, wet, tears streaming down my face - for the first time in a long time. A recognition of a personal sadness supressed deep in my consciousness, along with the acknowledgement of the flagrant beauty everywhere, and the euphoric release of them together. I visited family and friends.
Much later, and much deeper in the journey, I heard a deep and alluring voice offering to show me the true meaning of ‘madness’. The voice beckoned for me to reach for his hand, he could guide me. He could show me the way to insanity. He explained that this experience was available to me, through the next layer of stained-glass serpents, right there, so close, so tangible - all I needed to do was touch it.
‘Go on’ the voice beckoned, ‘Reach for it’.
My bodiless self stretched out towards 'it'. Hypnotised, I floated closer with trust and contentedness, towards insanity.
Suddenly a lightning bolt of fear flashed into my core, ripping me from the experience violently, and I was sucked out of the magical universe. My conscious mind had somehow blasted into focus, and for the first time in many hours I thought rationally. I recoiled in horror at what i'd almost touched.
Had I almost gone mad? Who was that voice? Why was it so soothing? Holy shit, that was heavy. I breathed fast and deeply, watching the moonlight shine into the temple. It’s all good, I am here, I am here on the temple floor.
I heard the shaman speak for the first time since I left my body, he was offering the third and final round of Ayahuasca. I thought for a moment 'Why would anyone ever choose to do this? I am never, ever gonna do this again.'
I stood up very carefully, walked over to the shaman sitting perfectly still in the centre of us all.
I took the full cup from his hands - and drank it all.
And so things continued into morning…
The next morning
The next morning was strange. I stood and stared for several minutes at a tree, marvelling at how the dew on its branches sparkled in the early morning light. I felt very alive, very connected and inspired – in a way that would continue for several weeks. I felt really good.
I glanced over at my bike, parked next to the sweat lodge, exactly where I’d left it the night before. I was really hungry after all the fasting and purging, and figured I should head to the next village to find some food.
Swinging a leg over the seat, I turned the key with that same rhythmic familiarity and gave it a rev – somehow it sounded a little different.
I rode down the winding dirt road, checking bits and pieces, trying to figure out if there was something wrong with the bike - simultaneously knowing that something had changed within me…
It’s been over 6 months since I drank Ayahuasca. I ummed and aaahed on blogging about it – is this something that I should share publicly? It’s so strange, so personal, so beyond what most people will understand.
I am also conscious of (not) promoting drugs, because whether or not you want to call it so, ‘Mother Ayahuasca’, or the ‘Vine of the Dead’, it is undeniably a drug. An exceedingly powerful one, and I imagine she holds potential dangers for the unprepared or over-eager. Be very careful.
I am no expert in the field by any means, but I feel I owe it to the reader to offer my personal insight here – otherwise what was the point of the blog post, or even drinking the concoction in the first place?
The main point I took away from the experience was that Ayahuasca provides an easy shortcut, or direct access to the subconscious mind, to the soul – simple as that. Something that most of us can’t access easily even when we try.
Perhaps it’s possible to refine meditation practice for many years and achieve similar access to the subconscious mind, but for me, as already explained, I’m not so good at formal meditation. I’m also not sure if meditation could provide that same inter-dimensional experience.
The closest thing I’ve ever experienced to Ayahuasca were short moments of being utterly overwhelmed by nature. It’s only happened a handful of times in my life, short moments spent alone, perhaps only lasting 10-20 seconds, a profound realisation or impression of my surroundings and my place in the world.
Ayahuasca is a spiritual experience. It brings you into the spirit world once you’ve drunk it – there’s no stopping it. I'm sure it would drag you kicking and screaming if you’re not prepared to fully surrender to the experience. It took me far deeper than anything I had experienced in my life before – even in Mentawai.
Was it a positive experience? Remarkably so.
Would I do it again? Possibly.
Is it the answer to the world’s problems? I don’t think so.
It’s a shortcut or easy access to the subconscious, to the soul, and another dimension – and these things can be achieved without the ingestion of drugs - just ask the Mentawai.
I do think that we as people, as individuals, could do with a little more introspection - and Ayahuasca definitely provides that. Our world is deeply seated in the Anthropocene now, that’s no secret, and most informed people, regardless of political persuasion, can see that we need to make changes. Real ones.
I don’t think we all need to go out and drink Ayahuasca. But perhaps we could start by thinking more independently, by affecting change in our own personal lives. I think we’d benefit greatly by turning off our televisions, and turning down the powers that be - most of them only interested in more power.
Maybe you’ve made it this far in the post, maybe you’ve discredited the whole thing as whacky new-age rubbish, I don’t blame you - some of the stuff surrounding Ayahuasca certainly seems to be.
But I ask you this.
Why are the indigenous cultures around the world, those who possess similar connections with the ‘spirit world’, dreamtimes and Mother Nature – those cultures who possess such proud and lengthy histories, why are they the people so often persecuted by modern systems? We are losing the traditional knowledge and language of the shamans, the spiritual connection to the Earth, in the same manner that we are losing the plant and animal species of the world. What’s the correlation?
Why do we no longer look to the sky, or deeply within ourselves, instead craning our necks ever-closer to our hand held devices? Is this really the best way to stay connected?
Ayahuasca has supposedly been used for 5000 years - it’s still legal and widespread in Peru today. Why is that?
Why have the shamans of South America been held in such high regard for so many thousands of years? What about the shamanic Mentawai culture, still so strong, so rich? Or the animistic Native Americans of the north? Not to mention the Australian Aboriginals, the oldest living cultural history in the world? Over 50,000 years.
Is 50,000 years not the definition of sustainability - socially, environmentally and economically?
So why are we saying goodbye to this highly evolved knowledge, culture and ritual - especially when it’s so obvious we’re on the wrong modern trajectory?
Why don’t our leaders consult the elders of these cultures on ideas of sustainability? The elders are living-proof, that living sustainably is possible.
Think about it. 50,000 years…
The indigenous. The animists. The shamans.
Perhaps, if we learn to listen to them, instead of delivering more marketing messages, the notion that plants can be used to effectively heal or examine ourselves isn’t such an obscure ‘new-age’ idea after all.
“We have to create culture, don't watch TV, don't read magazines, don't even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you're worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you're giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told 'no', we're unimportant, we're peripheral. 'Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.' And then you're a player, you don't want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that's being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”- Terrence Mckenna
Thanks for reading.
Although this has nothing to do with Ayahuasca (as mentioned earlier, the Mentawai don't use any form of hallucinogen), I feel like this is a good opportunity to introduce a close friend's project, the Indigenous Education Foundation. Rob has spent many years in the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia, learning and working with the Sikerei (shamans) to help them build an educational platform for their own people about their own detailed knowledge of the jungle and spirit world. Rob is not 'teaching' them anything - he is facilitating platforms to empower the shamans, to assist with the continuation of traditional knowledge and language.
Photo: Rob Henry
The traditional Mentawai have survived in tact, through a history of government, religious and corporate persecution. They are proud, and should be.
There's not many working out there, and if you discount the religious organisations (who bear much of the responsibility for the death of Mentawai culture), the number dwindles into a mere few.
It's difficult work in a globalised world. But in the same way that we need species diversity for healthy ecosystems, we need spiritual/thought diversity for healthy human evolution.
Rob's about to release a documentary film As Worlds Divide - well worth getting on the mailing list for, or even better, don't buy a coffee today and drop a few pennies in here.