I arrived at the location for my tenth ayahuasca ceremony feeling a bit agitated. It had been months since my last ceremony and the thought of the intensity ahead quickened my pulse. I describe this as akin to the feeling one has on a roller-coaster as it climbs the first hill, before reaching the top.
An ayahuasca trip is quite like a roller-coaster ride. Just as all the momentum for the entire ride and all the curves and loop-de-loops is delivered by that first giant incline and decent, the first wave of intoxication — which normally lasts about 40 to 50 minutes after the medicine first comes on — is usually overwhelming and (for me) something to simply be endured. It’s the necessary first rush that allows the rest of the four or five hour journey to be so… magnificent! …as another five or six peaks come and go, each a bit gentler than the last.
I’m more skilled in putting up with it now, but must confess what races through my mind during the first wave is thoughts like, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! This is the last time I ever do this, I swear! This is too much! If I remember anything from this experience it must be to never do it again!” But after the first peak I settle down and spend the rest of the night in the Divine Presence (quite literally in heaven) and my thoughts become, “Oh, it was so worth it to endure that first hour! I must never forget how beautiful this is! I must come back here often!”
When I arrived carrying my sleeping bag and pillows, the shaman hugged me and remarked that I seemed nervous. After a while I calmed down, especially after I brewed some Amazon bark tea on the stove and poured it into a thermos for later in the night. All would be well.
This is a little tradition of mine now, this tea, that I order from a friend in Peru. I had maintained a strict ayahuasca diet for two weeks, with no alcohol, spicy food, meat, sex, etc. On the day of the ceremony I ate only a small bowl of granola for breakfast and some bagels for lunch. (I like to eat only things that don’t swish around in my stomach later in the night — a strategy I recommend.) I drank only water for the rest of the day, and hot water (to simulate tea) in the evening. The hot real tea that I pour in the thermos is something I start sipping on at about 2:00 or 3:00 am as the ayahuasca medicine starts to wear off.
I had arrived with a female friend and was pleased when I entered the ceremonial space to see another female acquaintance with whom I’ve sat in ceremony before. I set up my sleeping bag and Thermo-rest mat between the two of them. After socializing with the other participants (we were 10 in total, including the lead shaman and assistant shaman) I changed into the white Shipibo clothing that I always wear in ceremony.
The assistant shaman directed my lady friend and me to a set of animal prophecy cards and invited us to each pull a card. I pulled the Turtle card, and read the explanation. The description of Turtle’s meaning is extensive, and includes idea’s such as it being a symbol of the ancient Earth. An amphibious animal that lives between two worlds (water and land) — very shamanic — it also represents grounding. Though I put it out of my mind, much of the night fit perfectly with this card.
By about 9:00 pm everyone gathered in the ceremonial room and settled in. We were tightly packed in the square-shaped room, which initially concerned me, but later added to the feeling of being a close-knit tribe. Several of the participants had never drunk ayahuasca before, and some had only drank once, so when the ceremony was about to start I went around the room shaking each person’s hand and wishing them well for the journey ahead. This is something I always do for newcomers, just as it was done for my by a thoughtful person the first time I drank.
As things got underway the lights were turned off and the dark space was lit only by a single candle. The shaman passed around hand-rolled mapacho cigarettes that people could use later to clear dark energy, and we each took turns briefly describing our intention for the night. As usual, people’s stated intentions varied widely, including the desire to clear up health issues, interpersonal challenges with friends or family members, or simply to see better the path ahead in careers or life in general.
My own intention was simply to be in the “presence of the Divine” in a manner similar to what I experienced in my ninth ceremony. I feel the medicine healed and cleared up most of my personal issues in earlier ceremonies and that I’ve graduated to being of service and helping others. It’s not “all about me” anymore and I actually get a bit of amusement watching newcomers focus exclusively on their closely personal problems in the first few ceremonies, then watch them mature into deeper layers of wisdom as they further penetrate The Mystery.
Knowing there were newbies present, I offered advice that if a person finds themselves in a very dark experience, it’s sometimes a good idea to sit up and not lie down, which can exacerbate the feeling of being overwhelmed. I also passed along a tip that a shaman shared with me in Peru: If you see a frightening apparition with which you don’t want to engage, simply imagine throwing a green net over it and send it up and away with a rope. Dismiss it. I’ve found this works very well. Yet, ironically, after giving this “wise old man” advice, I then spent most of the night myself lying down and only sat up occasionally in the latter part of the ceremony. (Mother Ayahuasca loves to humble me this way.)
Each of us was invited to drink a cup of the ayahuasca medicine, which had been prepared expertly and with great love and intention by a highly skilled person. The shamans told us this was the best medicine they’d ever encountered, and I found myself in agreement by the end of the night.
What followed was a night in which I spent almost all of my time in the presence of the Divine, but in ways that were surprising and not at all like my previous ninth ceremony. This night I had the usual fantastic visuals — as amazing as anything I’ve experienced (which I’ll describe in detail) — but most importantly (and this is what made this medicine special), it was a night of crystal clear teachings.
It was also a night of “remembering.” I’ve sometimes been very frustrated not being able to remember my visions in detail. But this night Mother Ayahuasca actually gave me lessons (over and over and over) in how to remember.
The night’s themes recapped teachings from previous ceremonies. Telepathically the medicine was saying, “You only need to come here when you forget! Remember that the miracle is the dimension you normally live in. The more you can find the Divine in what you think of as the ordinary world, the less often you need to come back here.”
The themes were (loosely): The importance of the mother (her love and suffering) and the role of the warrior (protecting the mother); The favourite secret hiding places of God; Experiencing the Divine in the least expected places (especially among the “dark” reptile and insect world); The physical world as the real miracle; A lesson in choice (“what do you want it to be?”); and, finally, remembering.
The Initial Visual Journey
I drank only one cup of medicine during the night, rejecting the offer of a second. It took about an hour for me to get off, with the first wave coming on slowly. For a while I thought nothing was going to happen and played with the idea of escaping the experience and just lying there all night. But the medicine voice told me, “You will not get off so easily. Remember when you said in the car you ‘have the rest of your life to get a good night’s sleep?’ You will work hard tonight!” And that was true.
The steady build eventually got me as far into the tryptamine space as I’ve ever been. The sticky medicine initially felt disgusting as it hit my empty stomach, but I suffered no nausea. I tried sitting up and lying down, but the medicine voice sort of laughed at me as I noted that whatever I was seeing and experiencing was the same whether I lay down or sat up, and whether my eyes were open or closed.
There was simply no escape.
Thankfully the visual display was stunning. As per usual (for me) it started with a complex geometric pattern of neon-bright, very crisp red lines, that eventually morphed into tints of green/red and then tinges of violet, orange and blue, ultimately becoming a strobing rainbow of beautiful colour of ever-increasing subtlety at the same time as the pattern became more complex. It shifted from being fairly flat into three-dimensional.
As I intentionally “flew” my consciousness into the pattern, it changed again into another kind of vista. This is perhaps the most impossible vision to describe, but I will try. I will approximate.
Imagine standing in a vast, almost infinite room, larger than any cathedral or mosque, in which the walls and other architectural features are made of gold and silver. But this is not sharp-edged functional architecture. Instead, imagine the walls and pillars and other shapes formed as if from melted wax, constantly changing.
Now imagine that these gold and silver walls and melted-wax shapes, that are moving and morphing constantly into other things, are made up of various animals and insects — some very recognizable (a moth, for instance, with its complex antennae, or a lizard) and others you can’t name before they become something else.
Now imagine that as you focus your gaze on one vast wall looming above you into infinity that a shimmering pattern of snakes appears, all of them exactly the same distance from one another, wriggling down the wall. They’re perfectly shaped in their heads and bodies, but are unlike any snake you’ve seen, because they appear to be made of some molten metal, like mercury poured from an immense thermometer. Instead of having scales, their skin is polished and smooth, with perfectly beveled edges, as you’d expect to see on a piece of cabinetry. In place of eyes, the snakes have jewels that reflect shards of light everywhere, like diamonds or other precious stones, and there are also many bevel-cut jewels set into their bodies. In addition to being gold or silver, imagine that off their metallic skin reflects hundreds of delicate rainbow colors.
These snakes, which I saw as just described, were not at all frightening. I knew they were heavenly messengers or some kind of embodiment of divinity, yet they did exude a kind of menace, a power, that suggested they were not something to mess with. I simply looked at them in awe. This went on for a short while before everything changed and these creatures and others appeared to be made up of contoured lines, hundreds of them, in a way that reminded me of those CAD animations one sees in “behind the scenes” tours of computer animation studios, where the characters are armatures that can be moved around and made to walk in a lifelike way, before the realistic “skin” is put on by a digital artist. (Maybe the Christian Fundamentalists are right and everything is produced by “intelligent design”…) These figures were not black and white: the lines were made up of the same laser-like rainbow colours described earlier, though the colours as often shifted to the gold and silver metal, and if I looked closely everything was encrusted with jewels.
Now imagine that what I’ve just described represented about 10 minutes of a an entire night, with visions of this nature persisting for hours, especially when the shamans sang their icaros (sacred songs) and everything sped up and vibrated and whirled. Unlike a dream, the relationship between viewer and the viewed object didn’t move with the direction of my head. Instead, everything maintained its visual integrity and proper perspective just as if I was standing in front of a real scene in this dimension.
I spent much of the night lying on my back looking at this kind of complex landscape, exploring it much as an airplane might climb through candy-coloured thunderclouds or a mountain range sparkling with treasure. Often I sat up in lotus position with hands in prayer, tears streaming down my face at the beauty, sometimes kissing my fingertips or fingering the crystal pendant that hung from a string around my neck. My overall feeling was one of gratitude. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. Madre, aho!
At some point near the end of the first peak the first lesson came to me. Gauging time is difficult in the tryptamine space and some nights I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes, but I’d guess this was about two hours into the ceremony. It was the lesson of the mother.
The Lesson Of The Mother
The lesson of the mother reprised an experience I had in an earlier ceremony (number three in Peru) in which Mother Ayahuasca (or the Universal Consciousness if you prefer) guided me to experience the love and sacrifice of mothers, including my own mother, of course, but also other mothers: the Cosmic mother, the Earth Mother (Pachamama), and the mothers that exist throughout creation, from wolves to eagles, from fish to spiders, from lions to lemurs.
Rather than pedantically being told anything, I was shown the mother’s journey, her burden in childbearing, childbirth, raising her young to maturity, and (most poignantly) her pain in separating from them when they’re grown up.
Almost unbearably I was made to endure the feelings of the mother. This was not some visual tableau. In fact, at this point of the night the visuals quieted down and I simply felt anguish. Then I felt a sense of dread, something building up inside. Finally it broke and I was made to feel the pain and heartbreak of every woman who has ever loved me, starting with my mother and then a series of girlfriends, my former wife, and lovers I have had. I felt the way they loved me from their perspective and their sorrow at parting. It was irrelevant whether there was a good reason to break up — I simply felt a woman’s sadness at the deepest part of her sorrow in losing someone for whom she cares deeply.
At the very depth of this experience my female friend, seated to my right, began to sing a song about lost love. It was achingly beautiful and transformed via the medicine into a true icaro. I found myself sitting up at the end of my mat, and just when I thought of slinking back into a prone position, a telepathic voice said to me, “She’s singing to you! Sit up and pay attention!” and I had to endure the sweet sorrow for a long time.
Again I went to lie down and the voice said, “She’s not going to stop singing until you understand the lesson.” And I knew right away that my friend also knew this somehow, so I focused.
I quickly realized that the sorrow I was being made to feel was the grief of a girlfriend with whom I’d recently broken up. My logical reasons for doing so carried no force in this courtroom of the heart. I had reasons for ending that relationship, but I needed to feel how that person truly loved me. I felt the kind of sadness that can drive a person to jump off a bridge or drink poison.
As soon as I “got” the lesson, my friend stopped singing and the medicine voice indicated quietly that it was okay for me to lie down.
I was also given a very profound lesson in the mother’s eyes — their compassionate gaze — as being one of the places where God resides. This was the first of several lessons in that regard: God’s favourite hiding places.
“If you need to find me,” the goddess seemed to say, “look into that endless chain stretching back through all eternity of mother’s eyes, starting with your own mother.”
This lesson was followed by instructions in supporting all mothers and the role of the warrior. I was thankful for the presence of the two dark haired women sitting on either side of me.
Remembering And Another Place God Hides
As mentioned, a theme for the night was “remembering.” This theme applied to each of the lessons. Whereas I can often only glimpse ayahuasca lessons “as though through a glass dimly” afterward, this night the medicine gave me strategies to retrieve lessons later and apply them in my life.
One lesson I made an extra effort not to forget is quite difficult to explain. It was another of “God’s favourite hiding places” which turned out to be… the voice we hear constantly in our own heads.
The voice that’s with us always that we think is us, is God. It’s not the only place God inhabits, but it’s a favourite of hers. Contrary to what we’re told in meditation classes, the voice we try to quiet in meditation is a place where God hides, laughing at our attempt to silence her. On a profound level, I realized that I am God (as are you) and don’t even exist in the way I normally think of myself. That ever-present voice is the still point in the turning wheel; God hides there laughing like the Buddha at our attempts to quiet her, the Universal Consciousness.
Finding The Eternal In The Profane
I was astonished at my female friend’s range of expression as she was invited to sing several times. She channelled cosmic forces that night.
The lead shaman — also a beautiful singer — performed wonderfully and also took long breaks. We sat in silence at times for longer than usual. The shaman mentioned the next day that the person who prepared the medicine had said this ayahuasca was especially good for silence. I appreciated these gaps as a time to absorb the lessons and work on “remembering.”
The next lesson was an intensely visionary and immersive experience. As I sat in wonder in an especially beautiful landscape looking upward, trying to “go into the light,” visions of more beautiful snakes and other reptiles appeared and I asked the medicine if things were about to turn dark, to which she answered, “What would you like it to be?” with the implication that I had a choice. I recognized this as a reminder from earlier lessons that I’m able to influence the course of things.
With trepidation I found myself asking (or agreeing) to go into the dark, which was at great variance to my initial intention to be in the presence of the Divine, but I sensed I was going to be shown something.
Quite quickly the beatific vision became realistic, as in a lucid dream, and I found myself in a sort of bayou environment with shallow warm water and muddy reeds beneath a piercing blue sky and beating sun. I felt like I was near New Orleans, and my mind made an interesting connection between this environment and blues music (for which I have an obsessive passion playing).
I spent about the next hour floating around in these waters with various reptiles — mostly snakes and alligators, and some frogs, etc. These were realistic with leathery hides and dark greenish brown skins and scales. They moved around me, sometimes entwining me and otherwise interacting. No matter how much I thought about it, I didn’t find any of these creatures frightening.
The medicine voice almost taunted me to find any of it scary yet I simply could not. Then each of the creatures started toggling between its natural appearance and its metallic-jewel-encrusted spirit manifestation and the lesson became apparent: I’ve always thought of the “dark” places — the realm of creepy-crawlies, centipedes, snakes and spiders — as sinister. However, they are every bit as much a manifestation of the Divine as the ethereal realm of light energy beings, rainbows and candy floss clouds.
This was a profound lesson. While there may be such a thing as “evil” the opposite of the Divine is not the dark that I associated with these creatures and their realms, which are simply different levels of life’s complexity and novelty.
As I sobered up again and came back into my body, I realized I have choice. Whenever I see something potentially frightening, I can re-imagine the medicine voice asking me, “What do you want it to be?” and turn it toward the Divine.
The following day I also answered a question: “What animal was I in that muddy bayou?” It was obvious I was a large turtle, which, with its hard shell, is inherently safe from the snakes and alligators around it. This was the card I pulled from the animal deck before. This had all been a great lesson in grounding.
The Miracle Is All Around Us
The final major lesson emerged around the same time that an especially juicy music session took place, in which I participated.
It was in the last third of the ceremony, which went very late. I can’t even guess what time it was but it could have been two or three o’clock in the morning.
The lead shaman came and sat directly in front of my female friend, who was sitting crossed-legged to my right. The two of them looked like a pair of American Indian women, which suited the rhythmic song that they began to sing faster and faster. Something came over me and I felt the urge to stand up.
I was wobbly from the medicine and also because I was standing on my Thermo-rest mattress. The medicine voice told me to anchor my right foot to the back and plant my left foot forward in a warrior pose, with my fists crossed in front of me, arms partially outstretched.
I was a First Nations warrior, with long black hair. I started to move in time with the rhythm of the song and, unable to really sing along, I clanked my wrist bracelets like a rattle or tambourine. Then, almost unconsciously, a drone started to emerge from deep in my chest and up my throat, and I began to chant, providing a deep rhythmic bass for the women’s soprano singing. The assistant shaman joined in with a rattle and pretty soon the four of us really had something going and built the volume higher and the rhythm faster. We were inside a large teepee and I tapped into something very primal and beautiful, my most essential humanity. It all built to a crescendo and then the singing stopped, with the women collapsing into one another’s arms.
In case anyone supposes this is some cringe-worthy instance of Caucasians “appropriating” the culture of indigenous people, I believe the music came from a deep archetypal repository. We weren’t copying First Nations people; rather, we were copying the thing that they were copying, singing the song that they had heard in the same dimension we were then inhabiting.
This manifesting of the warrior was extremely powerful so it was interesting to me the next day when the assistant shaman told me he’d “seen my spirit” that night, which appeared to him as a bison or buffalo, with a large head and broad shoulders. The significance of the buffalo (especially the white buffalo) is very important in First Nations culture and this is something I’ll have to think about.
As the medicine gently subsided I lay down and thought about a great many things, and learned other lessons besides the ones I’m reporting here. I decided it was time to sip some of the tea from my thermos, which was no longer hot but warm enough to soothe. I checked the feeling in my stomach and had no nausea or need to use the bathroom.
An important final lesson (really the most important of the night) came to me as I lay resting.
The lesson (of which I’ve had variations in the past) was this: We are welcome to come to this place (the other dimension) when we need reminding, but we must not obsess that the miracle is somehow “over there.” The real miracle is in the physical world we normally inhabit, all around us. The problem is that everything has decayed into a cliché. We look at trees and grass and the Sun and stars and just think, “Oh yeah, same old trees, grass, Sun, stars, etc.” We forget we’re living inside a miracle, and are miracles ourselves. It’s the purview of sages to be fully present, and we fall short.
Ayahuasca reminds us (deeply) of the Great Mystery.
This lesson led to a long meditation with visions of the mass extinctions taking place on our planet, especially of elephants who are being killed for their ivory tusks at a rate of something like one every 15 minutes. Within a decade there will be no more elephants in the wild, and the same is true for many other animals. As I thought about this the medicine voice again asked me “What do you want it to be?” and I realized that the same choice we have in the tryptamine space (to turn a dark situation into the presence of the Divine) is also a choice we have in the physical world.
We can have seas devoid of whales and sharks and other species, and continents where no wild tigers, lions, or elephants roam, or we can live on a garden planet brimming with life. The power belongs to us to shape this fate. We simply have to ask ourselves, “What do we want it to be?”
The ceremony ended in the early hours before daybreak. I was amazed at the stamina of the shamans.
After saying a prayer, the lead shaman lit a candle and the assistant shaman brought hot tea from the kitchen along with some snacks. Most of us were still awake; a few people had drifted off but eventually roused themselves, joining in discussion about the amazing night we’d just shared.
We eventually went to sleep and reconvened again after daybreak for a breakfast and a conversation in which we shared our experiences, passing a feather as each person took turns talking. Some people had had visions while others had had more physical experiences of healing and cleansing.
At the end of last year I left my job of 25 years editing magazines on environmental topics. I still have much to consider, but after this ceremony I feel great clarity about my path, which is a shamanic path. My writing is my medicine bundle, as well as other forms of creativity. I make no pretence of becoming a Peruvian-style “curandero” serving up cups of ayahuasca or healing people with Amazon plants. But there are other forms of shamanism, and I feel called to go deeper into the Great Mystery. I also can’t imagine or accept living in a world devoid of elephants and lions and other animals roaming in the wild. I need to work on solving that crisis. On that score I’ve answered the question, “How do I want it to be?”
This piece first appeared on Guy Crittenden’s Blog.
Guy Crittenden is a freelance writer with more than 25 years experience. Winner of 14 Kenneth R. Wilson Awards for excellence in business journalism, his articles in national media have covered diverse topics in the environmental field and, more recently, consciousness and entheogens. He lives in Collingwood, Canada and maintains a blog that you can access here.