The Rainforest jungle of Peru is where I participated in a week long Ayahuasca retreat last month. I had taken Ayahuasca about four years ago in a Community Hall in Brixton, London, shoulder to shoulder with 39 others. From 8pm till 9am the following morning it was a horrible night-long experience of extreme nausea with no relief by vomiting. I had muttered under my breath at the onset of the ceremony that I didn’t want to be sick and sure enough I got my wish. Of course what I’d really meant was to not feel ill. Nothing else stood out for me except the strange sound of other people purging in to their buckets. Like small stones hurled with great force. In the morning we shared our experiences. A number of the others had had psychedelic journeys painting the nature of reality and our place in this extraordinary web of life. That’s what I had wanted. I left disappointed.
So did I think a week in the Rainforest taking Ayahuasca in four ceremonies was going to be any different? I hoped so.
My tension increased the closer we got to Kapitari, our Ayahuasca centre a boat ride and jungle walk away from Iquitos in Peru. I was with fifteen other participants, none of whom had taken Ayahuasca before although many of them had previous experience with psychedelics. Why were we all here? I wanted to understand why each one of us was prepared to undergo the fierce purging Ayahuasca frequently demands as part of the journey. How come the other psychedelics had not been enough? And why was I travelling across the globe to stay in a climate which was my least favourite when I could try a handful of mushrooms for psychedelia, or MDMA for a night of heart expanding love-all-my-neighbours, within relatively easy reach of my home?
I have personally never been in to drugs. For a start I don’t like giving up control. But Ayahuasca is considered an entheogen and not a drug. According to Joey Greenstone, who works with the sacred plant medicines of Ayahuasca and Wachuma, an entheogen heals at a deep emotional and physical level and is never addictive whereas a drug, either recreational or orthodox medicinal, masks symptoms with a band aid effect and is frequently addictive. An entheogen is also described as a ‘doorway to the divine’. It was this deep healing and opening to higher levels of consciousness which brought everyone here, although the results they were after differed widely.
I began reading an excellent book ‘Ayahausca – Soul Medicine of the Amazon Jungle’ by a shaman we met in the Sacred Valley, Javier Regueiro. I absorbed his advice before our first ceremony. The suggestions I took on board were: Go in to the experience with an open mind and surrender, don’t compare your experience with anybody else’s, and have an idea of what you’d love to explore and release through the wisdom and healing of this sacred plant medicine.
I’d done my intuitive work and knew that what was on my soul agenda was to resurrect my feminine, reconnect with my body and ripple out my awareness to be more deeply in tune with nature around me. Of course I still wanted the all-consuming, all-is-one psychedelic blockbuster of an Ayahuasca movie but I believed I’d left my expectations outside along with my iphone.
Each time we entered the sacred space of the malocca I’d sit quietly cross-legged, breathing deeply until it was my turn to sit in front of the shaman to receive my cup of brew. I only took a small amount, held the little pewter cup between my palms and bowed my head while whispering my intentions to the strong smelling, thick tar-black liquid. Then I knocked it back, grimaced at the taste, bowed my head to the shaman and made my way back to my mattress.
The first night I sat back on my mattress, watched the final few sit before the shaman. Before long all of us had taken our cup, the rituals of protection had been done, the candles doused. Outside the generator had stopped for the night plunging the whole centre in to darkness. Enough light radiated from the moon for me to see the shadows of us all in a great circle. I was touched and humbled as everyone surrendered to Ayahuasca. In that moment I understood how I always anticipated a ‘less than’ experience. I always expected the worst even though I have always said I’m an optimist. Not so. I was shocked by this revelation. It triggered a quiet internal conversation with Ayahuasca herself. ‘Please go gently,’ I asked her, although I’d been told she took no prisoners. A subtle sensation stole over me that someone sat behind me, holding me safe. Totally intangible, there was nothing to base this on that I can describe, but it hit me hard and tears streamed liberally. For one of the first times life felt benign.
The visions I had came rapidly – two or three, video style, of me chatting to a small number of people about the infrastructure required to set up a co-housing community. Was she telling me to get on with it? I guessed so. After that first half hour nothing else happened as far as I was aware, until nausea crept over me an hour or so later. Frightened I wouldn’t purge and would feel that way for hours I couldn’t purge and felt that way for hours! I sweated buckets instead, which can also be considered purging. Strength and balance fled my body and, unable to walk, I had to be supported to the toilets by a facilitator on one side of me and a security man on the other.
The second night I don’t remember much happening at all except I understood how impatient I was, always waiting for something, never satisfied with whatever I was experiencing in the moment. Sometime later the nausea overwhelmed me once more. This time I managed to purge – just the once. Not like the others who were purge masters by then.
By the third ceremony I had to steel my will to participate. One person had pulled out because their experience had been so powerful the night before she knew she was ‘done’. Another pulled out because she felt she needed to do her own inner work. Another pulled out because she didn’t think it was for her.
My intention for the night crystalised through a conversation with one of the others. I chose to explore and release what held me back from experiencing life as fully as I could. Once again within half an hour of taking the distinctive tasting potion I had a series of visions. This time I saw myself as a violent man during wartime where I perpetrated appalling tortures on others. I witnessed these images as if they were played on a silent black and white movie screen. The insights were that these were past lives and this lifetime I’d punished myself by not participating fully to the degree I hadn’t had children. I obviously hadn’t chosen a horrid life but I had pulled back to being more of an observer – useful as a writer in some ways of course. It felt real enough to weep at the decisions I’d made but it was not all-consuming. I felt more like ‘ah right, I was like that, no wonder I’ve been like this…ok’. Then it was gone. I waited for more. Nothing came.
Before long I was clear headed, able to go outside without help. I could stand up. I could balance. It felt amazing. I was like a child who had just learned to walk on her own. The world was my oyster, baby. But the security man was not going to take a chance. He walked behind me holding one of my hands up in the air above my head to make sure I didn’t take a sideways step and topple off the wooden walkway in to the ever present rainforest mud. I laughed and in the moonlight the woman in me stirred. I just wanted to dance with him. I sashayed along the path, spun a pirouette or two outside the toilets, did my business and smiled my way back to the malocca.
I thought the Ayahuasca had worn off. As I had no intention of taking a second cup I lay down with the blanket around me. The heavens opened and spilled torrential rain from their skirts to drum on the thatched roof above. There is nothing quite like the sound of rainforest rain. Nature raised her voice to match, with all her unusual noises I couldn’t identify beyond the bull frog and the cicada. In with this wove the voice of the shaman as he sang his potent Icaros songs. It was the most wonderful symphony I had ever heard. An all encompassing sound-womb of glorious music. A delightful night, full of lightness and joy, even when the usual nausea hit which I couldn’t seem to release.
By morning I’d compartmentalised this wonderful experience along with the previous two nights.
I’d not had any psychedelia, I’d not had any ‘all-is-one off the scale’ immersions, I’d not had any visions that were different (or better) than I have when doing my normal intuitive work. In fact I’d not had a deep Ayahuasca experience at all. It was definitely ‘less than’ most of the others. Most of that I could have had without flying so far or being flattened by such overpowering nausea. Hmphhh. I was disappointed and deflated – again.
I decided not to participate in the final ceremony. What was the point?
My first two weeks back in the UK were hard going. I couldn’t settle, I didn’t feel like talking, working or doing anything much at all. And boy I missed the sounds of the rainforest and the deep connection with our ‘tribe’. So I added depression to the disappointment and deflation.
In the third week of being ‘home’ I woke to a profound realisation which nearly blew my head off.
When I expect an experience of ‘less than’, and anticipate being disappointed I only see the aspects of the experience which prove this. I’d had this so many times in my life I could hardly believe I hadn’t really understood it before. So could I look at this Ayahuasca experience and see it differently? That was when I got it. Of course….
If I had wrapped those moments of dancing in the moonlight and revelling in the symphony in technicolour psychedelia it would have conformed to my expectations. Because it wasn’t, it didn’t and I discounted it as anything other than something fabulous but NOT an Ayahuasca experience. I thought I’d had it despite Ayahuasca. But the truth is of course it was my Ayahuasca experience. And did I get what I set out to get – the resurrection of my feminine, my reconnection with my body and the rippling out of my awareness to nature? Absolutely. In that moment all the illusions I’d set up of creating experiences which were disappointing crumbled to dust and I saw my life as a kaleidoscope of amazing experiences I’d simply labelled in a way which separated me from them. Did Ayahuasca help me explore and release what had held me back from experiencing life as fully as I wanted? Well, when I opened myself up to the answer the lid came right off the entire fabrication.
In hindsight, I obviously had a number of criteria which have to be matched to satisfy a ‘real’ Ayahuasca experience (and any other experience I’m after for that matter). Anything other than that is considered a fail in my book. But this ‘fail’ is directly linked to what my expectations reveal to me. My deeply embedded expectations show me a sliver of the whole. Take the blinkers off and I can see the truth – the entire gorgeous juicy orange instead of one miserly dried up old segment.
It is a challenge to enter the malocca and an Ayahuasca experience without expectations. In fact it’s probably worth assuming that you will take them in with you however beneath the surface they hide. Then you can explore your experiences with this in mind. Take off that sense of being a rational grown up who compares and compartmentalises and jump in and be the innocent child happily loving and leaping in to life.
Are you going to tango and rumba with Ayahuasca or be a wilting wall flower? It’s always up to you.