We arrived at a small commune. A happy boxer roamed around, approaching the new gathered visitors but never getting too close. Various paths seemed to lead to small, simple homes. There was no lack of shrubbery nor flowers. And the trees stood tall, over us, the faint blue of the darkening sky just right above. A small, narrow stairway wove its way down a hill and we came upon our shelter for the night: a large, spacious yoga studio in the shape of a pentagon. Large windows and glass sliding doors enclosed the room and outside I could see the green of the thick valley, with scattered homes here and there. On one wall were mirrors, an image of Ganesh on a woven fabric hung on one corner, and Vishnu sat on the other.
I sat on my yoga mat, changed into comfortable clothes, observing the others I had come with. Many seem prepared, the ones who had mentioned of having done this before. They came with mattresses, thick cushions, pillows, blankets. I look at my yoga mat, throw pillow and a thin blanket and realized how ill-prepared I was for my first Ayahuasca retreat.
The invitation to come took place a month before, a friend told me “we’re going to the mountains, take this drug and trip.” I took that at face value. He recommended that I watch a video on Youtube, but I was always game for anything so it hadn’t mattered. I watched the video about an Ayahuasca experience but I must admit true to my nature, I only watched a few minutes of it, simply to get an idea. I like to dive into things with only a glance before I leap.
In retrospect, that might not have been the best route to go considering that this experience turned out to be above and beyond trippin’ balls in the mountains. Earlier in the day when we met with our guide, the shaman, in the parking lot he asked us what our intentions were for participating in this ceremony. I was unluckily enough to have been chosen to go first and I mumbled something to the like of “wanting to receive some guidance.” So, did most of the newbies. The ones with more experience were more specific; wanting to “come to terms with my mother’s death,” as an example.
As we were about to begin, the shaman gave a bit of an explanation of what we were to expect. He tells us that we will take 4 shots throughout the night, he says “There might be a time when you feel you want to purge but it’s possible nothing comes out. But just in case, the are 5 plastic buckets for that purpose on the floor in front.” And certain rules, “Do not engage with your neighbors, you don’t know what they are going through.” He talks about the Ayahuasca, how it is more than just medicine, that it is a divine being that if allowed to can help us; with our lives, our purpose, our meaning. He reminds us that this is not just your normal “trip” and we’re not here to kick it and have a good time. “We’re here to work,” he says.
What? We’re not having a good time?! Work? Another queasy moment passes as I regret not being more prepared.
I take everything with a grain of salt. I try my best to be respectful and listen with an open mind. Though I couldn’t help but think about how I might be very much in the wrong place. As a skeptic, an atheist and someone far from what I’d consider “spiritual.” I don’t pray, I don’t meditate, I despise organized religion, and I have no patience for the hypocrisy of those who claim to be religious.
Even still, the environment alone, the vibe and energy felt undeniably serene and positive. Our shaman tells us some stories of others, how many of them have used it to help themselves; whether it is dealing with grief, depression, an addiction, an illness, or bad habits. We’re asked to repeat our intentions and share them with the group and as I listened to the rest and waited for my turn I thought to myself that this might be a good time to find some resolution to some hate, anger, and guilt I carry around. There were several who asked “for the journey to be mild,” and to be “brought back at a reasonable time.”
“Brought back?” What does that mean? Where are we going? “Reasonable time?” Is there a possibility we won’t be coming back on time? Is it possible to not come back at all? I wondered, amused and curious at the same time. Only afterwards would I know the full meaning of this request.
When my turn came, I said to the group, “Well, now that I have a better understanding of what this experience might be like, I think this is a good opportunity for me to try and work on forgiving my mother, my father, myself and others.” I thought that would be a good start. Considering I didn’t know how exactly this would all work.
So, we begin. All the lights are turned off, and we only have the shine of the moon and the stars and a single lit candle in front of the shaman. My eyes adjusted soon enough. I watch him prepare the medicine, they come in large clear mason jars and he pours some in a shot glass and takes a drink. Then one by one, we came up to take the shot. We sit in silence, though sometimes there was coughing, sneezing, and heavy breathing could be heard, otherwise, we sat in silence.
I sat wondering and observing. Mostly I began to wonder whether this was a waste of money. Though we were told to try to sit up as that would allow the medicine to work better, I grew tired and uncomfortable and so I laid down. I might have been falling asleep as memories of my past came circling around. Though they were not memories I would have thought would come. Memories from the time that I lived in Spain floated in and out of my mind, memories of my time with my ex and our dog, memories from college. I vaguely had control of my thoughts so I pushed those away and my mind drifts. I find myself in different scenarios, different places. I seem to have gone to the mountainside, Boston, and finally a beach at night. The sky was dark, the stars were twinkling, the coconut trees were somehow clear in the darkness. Figures floated in front of the image of the coconut trees, the trees themselves seemed to become illuminated. The water looked strange, the water was of different colors, it looked as though someone had spilled different colored inks and there were colors everywhere. I could hear the ocean. I could hear music, and I began to feel as though I was floating. The air was cold, and I felt as thought I was everywhere and then I realized that the drug was working.
I opened my eyes and I was right. I was tripping.
The ceiling was moving and opening to the sky and I could see the sky from inside the room, the other people were shadows, there was music playing, beautiful music playing, most everyone were still just sitting or laying down. I could hear someone laughing. No one was moving around too much. I look out the window the stars were gorgeous. Everything was fuckin’ weird. It felt short and it felt like forever. It stayed that way for some time, I sat mesmerized and time froze. I watched figures, random images float around and nothing was making sense and yet I understood everything.
We take the second shot, and this was what I think was the strongest. And when I felt the worst. Everything was so dark and scary, and then I felt sick, I felt like throwing up, and I was purging, laying down and throwing up but I wasn’t throwing up anything. It was all just air but it felt like so many things were coming out of me. I felt better when it felt as though my stomach had emptied. Then it became freaky, I kept feeling bad, feeling lost, feeling like I wanted someone to stop it and I wanted to get out of there. I kept muttering “Save Me” I don’t know if anyone heard me, or even if I was saying it out loud, but I kept saying that over and over. I even wrote it in my journal, in the dark so seeing the words in the morning looked like it was written by someone who was possessed. And I just felt alone and bad. The music goes from loud to soft and the Shaman plays music that’s calmer to bring us out of our “trip” and we sober up after each round.
We took the third shot and that’s when I really tripped balls. I went outside to go to the bathroom. They put out little tea lights to guide the way to the bathroom because it’s dark. I didn’t have a flashlight and that walk to the bathroom which was probably just 50 feet felt like a mile. The walk, this very short walk during the day and when without being inebriated takes less than a minute, but that night it was an adventure. Every step was taken cautiously and occasionally I’d stare out into the dark woods, only a small tea light as my illumination. I was about to go back inside the room and get comfortable again when I decided to watch the stars. I went to the balcony, it overlooks the woods and I stare at the stars for so long. It was amazing and beautiful and just wow. I think, even if we weren’t tripping it would have been just as gorgeous. I stared at it for so long, and that’s when I felt a bit of peace and I really loved the stars. I had a strong urge to be with the stars, a feeling that hoped someone would take me up there. I even climbed up the seats of the balcony and leaned out so I could see more. This was dumb and dangerous and this is why you don’t do drugs. I kept doing that until I finally talked myself out of it. Then I laid down on the balcony because I felt like I wanted to be with the stars. Until I got cold and went back inside. I laid down, and it was very cold. I only had a thin blanket, and so I laid down anyway, and tried to get warm. Then I felt something magical happen because the small thin sheet I had felt very big all of a sudden, felt like a large thick, tent and I kept playing with it with my hands thinking… wow, I wish it to be warm and here’s a magical blanket out of nowhere and now I’m able to stay warm, wow. I’m amazed and I laugh. And I fell asleep.
The music stops, we take the fourth shot. People are becoming more interactive now, someone went around each person and waved feathers around us, there was sage burning, a single candle stood in the middle of the room, people played instruments, really beautiful music. There was singing. I sang without knowing the words. Then I fall asleep and my mind is just rushing everywhere, I feel so much. Then I get waken up. It’s daylight, people were awake, I still kept falling asleep, they kept waking me up. I finally was able to sit up and join the group and be back in ‘reality” and then that’s when I realized no wonder others had asked for “grandmother” to bring them back at a reasonable time.
To this day, weeks after, I still don’t really know what happened. We sat in our circle the morning after and shared our experiences. What we felt, what we learned, how we feel now. Many mentioned feeling loved, something that I did not feel that night which I found to be odd. I shared as well, and I told them “I always considered myself a very unemotional person, I don’t quite allow myself to feel whether it be love, or anger. I often shut my feelings out, and do things to distract myself from how I feel. And I’m quite good at it. But after taking the medicine, in a way it left me unguarded. I couldn’t control my emotions, I felt so much. I didn’t realize I could feel so much.” Surprisingly, I began to cry. I was very confused and exhausted and amazed and so many things that I couldn’t even begin to find the words to describe.
The shaman looked at me for a long time, he was watching me as I spoke and finally he says, “I can see a vast well of sadness behind those eyes.” Tears flowed and I couldn’t stop it. He suggests to me to work on allowing myself to feel, to take some time to cry, to let the tears flow, and then maybe if I decide to come back we could work on family matters.
Soon, the ceremony officially ended, we said our goodbyes, and gave our hugs. Before I climbed up the hill to go back to the car, I went out on the balcony, curious to see the difference between what I had seen and felt the night before to how the world looks now, in the daylight. I looked at the sky; blue, the clouds white. I looked at the valley, green and lush and beautiful. I wondered about the vast contrasting worlds of day and night. Everything was amazing. Everything that was, was peace and quiet.
Well, wasn’t that fuckin’ eye-opening!?