In the back seat of an SUV leaving the city behind I realize there’s no way to back out anymore. I’ve been researching the ins & outs of ayahuasca rituals for over a year now, reading articles, watching documentaries and talking to people about their own journeys. I considered spending a week with Peruvian shamans, yoga-based practitioners and even tuning in with a Daime following here in Brazil. When Mari told me of a friend having done a ceremony with a reliable group of people in the rainforest out of town, it was time to get on board. And at some point being driven down the highway to the lodge, I realize that months of theory have finally turned to practice, and that there’s no way of backing out now.
We arrive late at the cottage late in the afternoon. The ceremony lasts about twelve hours and takes place in an empty room with the proportions of a shoebox. 25 travelers, seven guides a handful of helpers and a master of ceremony lay propped against the wall on mattresses. I’m on one of the long walls, facing west, in the element of water. Travelers have each brought blanket and pillow, which we’re told will be crucial towards the end of the ceremony. We have been encouraged to dress in bright colors and bring other tokens for a safe journey. At the foot of every mattress sits a small plastic bucket, lined with a black plastic bag. For throwing up. Ayahuasca ceremonies might be spiritual journeys, but the body goes through a physical mangle in the process.
Guides robed in white, marked by feathers, ribbons and face-paint. The first few hours are marked by guides and helpers cleansing the air with peace pipes, giving the air a surprisingly pleasant smoky smell. As night sets, a culturally diverse set of rituals begins. We are ritually smoked, we chant, pray to the elements, align our chakras, expunge spirits and eventually welcome the vine of the soul of nature by drinking the ceremonial brew.
Ayahuasca works by activating the pineal gland, a chemically sensitive body of cells in the center of the brain. Twenty minutes after drinking the brew, you start sensing the effects, which are fundamentally different every time and for everyone who takes it. No two trips are alike, as they say. Ayahuasca journeys make profound sense for the traveler, but sound largely lunatic to everyone else.
I sit upright, cross my legs, and wait.
My journey begins where intense meditations usually peak, at the extreme of plunge deep into myself.
With each breath, physical sensations were taken away without losing awareness, until the grounding rock clasped in my hands feels like it's floating in mid-air.
With each additional breath, my body dissolved like an espresso spilled into a full bathtub.
With each breath, my spirit tugged outwards and up from my spine, as if someone was pulling myself out of my body. As if I was standing when sitting down.
With eyes closed, the presence of other travelers felt to be standing around me. As if collectively awakening.
I am presented with colorful visions, shimmering fractals, profound truths and belief-inducing experiences. Words are pointless. I am told how to behave, am shown people a world away, and am reminded that love truly, genuinely underpins everything.
I come back down psyched for a second round. The first drink had affirmed all preconceived expectations from a chemical, spiritual and religious journey inwards, and I was ready for more. Step up with wobbly legs. Pray to the earth mother. Drink up. Back to the mattress. Wait for the trip to begin.
I start tossing restlessly. I wait for something to happen. Nothing happens. I haven’t eaten since noon and am hungry. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong. I’m supposed to be enjoying this. I’m supposed to be having fun. My belly whines and my body aches. Cold, hungry and sober.
After a while of this, an unpleasant feeling wells up deep in my gut. Pushing upwards and down, this feeling wants to get out. Many others had thrown up during the experience. But I wait. I figure it’s not worth doing the deed now, given the evening is almost over and we’ll be home and in bed in a heartbeat (it would take another five hours).
This goes on for a while. All signs point towards the bucket while I respectfully refuse. After enduring this for a while, the ceremony begins to wind down. We go around the circle sharing our experience. It’s only after telling the group about my journey that I finally let go. Grab the bucket and dislodge the feeling. No grand visions. Just a delayed catharsis, teaching me something about holding back on decisions in a meta-level experience I would otherwise never had understood. Powerful.
They say the spirit of the vine remains with you for weeks following the experience. Side-effects include the sensation of unity and inner peace.
Something clicks after you’ve tapped into higher conscience. After you’ve connected mind & spirit into the otherness we all carry within. Suddenly, something infinitely small has shifted inside, allowing you to understand the world outside with a little more clarity.