Ayahuasca: A Beautiful Nightmare
It’s 8 pm on a Friday night. I’m standing naked in a field, inside a wooden hut, splashing myself with steaming, herbal water. I’m washing off my sins ready for my first ayahuasca ceremony. I pop next door to another make-shift cabin where a shaman wafts smoke around me as he whispers indecipherable Spanish blessings in my ear. I’m now ready, apparently.
Traditional Amazonian ayahuasca ceremonies start with the beating of drums which beckons the community to enter the maloca (a traditional round hut), we enter backwards and find a seat. Gathered around a softly smoking fire we begin the circle of word, within which the community goes around the hut discussing a topic chosen by the elder of the community. I’m nervous and therefore happy for the delay. However, two hours on I’m wondering if this practice is a test — how long can we wait before someone cracks and reaches for the murky brew that sits contently on the altar, contained in a gaudy plastic milk jug.
Once the circle of word ends, things spice up. My heart is in my throat again as we sing a song of prayer, turn the lights off and the shamans dance wildly before the altar. It’s now time to drink. Men drink first, followed by women. This gives me plenty of time to visualise my impending death, curse myself for ever thinking this was a good idea and simultaneously pep myself up for my turn at the altar. It tastes earthy, like pond water — I expected the taste to be worse. It’s drinkable, much nicer than whisky, but leaves a foul taste.
I stumble back to my picnic chair and wrap myself in a blanket. I introduce myself to the medicine and start to tell myself the story of my life – like the shaman advised. I don’t get very far before I feel a surge of energy. This can’t be right, it’s only been 5, maybe 10, minutes. Suddenly I’m extremely hot and struggle out of my blanket. I can feel the descent into chaos wash over me almost instantly. Small stars appear in my eyelids and begin to spiral into intense whirring visuals. It’s so fast I can barely make out shapes beyond a psychedelic smorgasbord. I open my eyes and the room is warped. Now sitting in darkness, aside from the fire — my eyes play tricks on me.
I close my eyes again and try to decipher the whirring visuals. It’s so intense, my heart is racing, I brush my hand across my face to check I’m still breathing. I curse myself for ever thinking this was a good idea. In the madness, there are pockets of understanding. I see a gilded world adorned with gold — an intergalactic ice cream parlour. Jewels that look like app buttons adorn the walls and a pink Ganesh-like being with multiple arms holds out the most perfectly formed of ice cream cones. Suddenly there are 1000 arms reaching out to me with ice cream cones. “Are you Her?” I ask, only to be ignored. The whirring continues, slide after slide of indecipherable information — hieroglyphics melt into question marks, into fractals, into staring ancient jungle eyes. There’s a presence of beings but I can’t make out what. I can hear people start to wretch and puke outside the maloca. It’s all I can do to hold it together. I’m sure I’m gripping my chair like I’m on a rollercoaster. With the moans and wretches, my visions turn green and brown and take on a lurid overtone. I try to think happy thoughts and tell myself it will be over soon. At this point, however, I have no idea how long this will last.
I notice my own voice in my head sounds ridiculously critical “this is no medicine, this is a DRUG. Why would you do this to yourself?!” I curse myself for ever considering such a thing. “If I ever make it out of this alive I’m never, ever doing this again,” I tell myself. I check my eyes again, the room looks more normal but animals faces whip in the flames of the fire. I can see a small colony of mice living under a log, a foxes face flickering in the flames. I close my eyes again and begin to repeat my previously decided intention: “I seek clarity, purpose and motivation. Please help me. Are you there?” After what seems like a short eternity the drug dissipates as quickly as it had set in. I’m back in the room and terrified. I sit and watch my fellow space cadets, many bent over their stomachs, head in hands. We look like a sorry bunch. “I’m never doing that again,” I remark to myself.
It’s midnight Saturday and I’m laying in a tent, wrapped in an old mattress protector, using a toilet roll as a pillow. I’m cowering under an elasticated corner trying to calm myself down. I’m in another world. An extravagant golden, beautiful word. Actually, it’s the same world from last night but this time more vivid. I can see the vast complexity of the world and creatures within it. Crazy psychedelic creatures that see me, as I do them. I’m scared. I can barely see beyond my own hand and am trying desperately to ignore the wrenching sounds from the next tent. “You’re fine,” I tell myself unconvincingly as the chaos descends. The world is beautiful, amazingly beautiful, and terrifying, absolutely terrifying. I attempt to cling on to reality stroking my face for comfort but there is nothing for it. I realise this must be the spirit world. I try to distract myself from the fear by thinking about my life; my questions I had prepared to ask. I come quickly to the dawning realisation that I am, in fact, a spoiled brat who essentially has no problems, not real ones anyway, and I probably didn’t need to scare myself half to death to realise it. “What a fool I am,” I think. As the drug dissipates I gain amazing clarity of mind, I find myself telling myself jokes that seem unfathomably hilarious in the instant and snicker away in the darkness. I’m not alone in the tent and probably sound like a maniac. Thankfully now everyone is laughing. We laugh hysterically at essentially nothing until a Shaman comes and tells us to be quiet. We stifle laughter until we managed to regain the function of our legs and slither out of the tent like a trio of wet sardines. “That was wild,” I think. “I’m never, ever doing that again.”
It’s Sunday night, I’m standing in the queue waiting for my turn at the altar. I’m 95% sure I do not want to drink another cup. In fact, I’m deadly sure. The last two nights have scared me enough to think this really isn’t for me. However, not drinking seems impossible given the circumstance so I make the educated decision to ask the Shaman for half a cup instead, in hopes it might serve me better.
I lay down on a mat inside the maloca and prepare for the worst. “Please be gentle with me,” I ask. The diamonds appear in my eyelids and I feel the surge. I tell the hallucinations to slow down, on earlier advice from the Shaman. To my surprise, they obey my command. I begin to walk up a path in my mind’s eye, creatures come to greet me, running towards me like excited children. They are dream-like creatures. I cannot fixate on their features but I know they are humanoid and I know they are happy to see me. Again I feel hands reaching out to me, hundreds of hands. I ask them to be kind to me and they signal to me cheesy “okay” and “thumbs up” gestures. My mind is calm, I begin to ask them questions.
“How can I be a better person?” I ask — I suddenly see a vision of a man dressed all in white, he’s gesturing to a flickering neon sign above his head “JUST RELAX” reads the sign, blinking in the darkness. “Of course,” I think. I need to stop being so uptight all the time.
“What shall I do with my life?” I ask. I see a fresh, white bed. A distinctive bed — a hospital bed, inside a bright white clinical room. I have the sudden thought She is telling me I should become a nurse? A mother? Am I going be committed?! Each seems more ridiculous than the last. I continue to muse to myself and my mind wanders, washing through scene after scene of creatures calling out to me to come in and join them. I’m suddenly aware I can feel the end closing in. “Thank you for having me,” I say, in what seems like an incredibly formal, yet necessary, manner “but I have to leave now. I hope I’ll be back but I don’t know when.” I can feel the empathy and love of the beings as they wish me goodbye and a thousand excitable waving hands flutter past me. I’m back to the room. I’m suddenly aware that I have tears rolling down my face; I’m crying. I lay there, exasperated. “What a crazy ride. Did I speak to God? Am I going mad? Please tell me I’m not going to have a fucking baby..” I suddenly decide that ayahuasca, whilst nerve-wracking, is, in fact, mind-blowingly beautiful. All I had to do was stop fighting it.
I notice stirring in the room and a harmonica plays out of the darkness. Guitar, drums, pipes and whistles join in. The shamans begin to play beautiful, eerie songs. Songs about the earth, stars and moon. I lay and listen to them until the sun comes up with a huge grin on my face. I feel happier than I’ve felt in some time, this may be one of the best nights of my life, even.
“That was crazy,” I think “I am definitely, definitely doing that again.”
TLDR: I went to a 3-day ayahuasca retreat, scared the living shit out of myself, went to the spirit world, potentially spoke to God, didn’t die, and had a fucking amazing time. Also, I’m currently convinced my spirit animal might be an ice cream cone.
A side note: Ayahuasca is not for the faint of heart. It is an extremely strong psychedelic that has the potential to be absolutely terrifying, amazing and lots of other things in between. It is legal in the Amazonian region where it is administered by expert shamans in a traditional setting. It is used as medicine for healing by these communities, not as a recreational drug.
I attended a legal ayahuasca retreat in Santa Elena, Colombia.