It’s 4:30 am and the first glimmer of daylight is beginning to illuminate the inside of the maloca, a twelve-sided ceremonial structure nestled in the tall trees near the retreat center I have been staying at. There are close to thirty of us in this ceremony, the second one this week.
All of the shutters are open and a cool breeze is moving through the space. The three facilitators who led the ceremony have performed a ritual closing and a pipe is being passed around. Before the pipe comes to me I am overcome with nausea and rush outside to purge near the same tree that I purged at two nights before.
“Thank you,” I whisper to the silent giant.
When I return to the maloca there are some quiet conversations going on and some people are beginning to filter out, back to tents or cabins. I drank for a second time late into the ceremony and the second dose had taken me into the realms of some fierce entities that were evoked during a powerful chant that may be of Native American or First Nation origins.
As the room gets lighter and the crowd thins down I realize I am still very high and there is something that remains unfinished. I know what it is but I am resisting going there because it concerns what was perhaps the most painful period in all of my life. I recognize it as a place inside that needs to heal but at the same time I feel exhausted, like I don’t have the stamina to wrestle this particular demon right now. But the medicine is insistent. She tells me that this is the time.
I’m confused. Now there are just a few of us left in the maloca and the guides who facilitated the evening have left. The ceremony is done but I am somehow stuck in the middle of an incomplete journey.
A young woman that I had become friends with over the week is seated next to me. She senses that things are not OK and asks me how I’m doing. I explain to her that I feel unfinished and begin to describe what is coming up. It involves an experience I had when I was eighteen and had been hitchhiking around the U.S. for several months.
In 1973 hitchhiking was still an accepted form of transportation. A good friend from high school and I had ended up in a fundamentalist Christian commune outside of Atlanta, Georgia. This was a year after I had been institutionalized for what I know now was a spiritual emergency, a very powerful awakening experience that I did not have the maturity, background or guidance to deal with at the time.
During my stay at the community in Georgia I had been doing nothing but fasting and reading the Bible, most of the time in isolation, at the suggestion of the group leader, a fifty-something ex-gangster turned preacher name Jehu. In short, the experience put me, once again, over the edge.
After some very apocalyptic, extra-dimensional experiences that took me from speaking in tongues for hours on end to becoming convinced that I was damned for eternity (and that the sun would never rise again), I left the commune hours before sunrise following a traumatic episode. During this experience it had seemed as if the events in the Book of Revelations had been played out in the living room of the house I was staying in and the people in the house had become the archetypal characters from the Bible.
When I left the house at around 4am, I stuck out my thumb and was picked up by two young men. The radio in the car was playing a song, “The World is a Ghetto.” I felt uncomfortable and tried to open the door to get out but it would not open. One of the men turned to me and said, “Are you going somewhere?”
We continued to drive through the night until we came to an all night doughnut shop. I walked in with the two men and sat down. They left and continued on their way. I was seated next to a man, who was looking at flash cards of complex equations. He had with him two books, Seed, which was published by the Lama Foundation, the same group that had published Ram Dass’ spiritual classic, Be Here Now, and Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, a book written by the Russian born mystic, Gurdjieff.
This book would have a profound influence on me later in life. I asked to look at Seed and he passed it to me. The first lines I read were, “There are as many ways to God as there are souls being born, yet there is only one way.” I spent the next couple of hours with this man engaged in a weirdly cryptic conversation. He seemed to have known I was coming.
We parted ways early in the morning and he told me that I should try to find a crisis center, the name of which I don’t recall. I spotted a police cruiser and asked the officers inside if they knew where this center was. They asked me what my name was and I told them I didn’t know. At the Christian home I had been given the name Ishba by Jehu. One of the officers said, “You said the magic words,” and I was asked to get in the car.
They took me to the seventh floor of Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta: the bowels of the inner city, the bosom of the rebel South, a psyche ward that felt like a dungeon for lost souls. The three days in Grady were a hellish bardo realm of terror and despair and I was, to put it simply, a raving lunatic.
Every sound or visual image possessed some kind of Biblical significance that only confirmed that I had been damned to hell. I felt an aching deep in my chest, the kind one feels at the loss of a loved one. I was convinced that I was in a place of eternal separation from God and being punished for committing some unpardonable sin. After three days of unbearable misery, I eventually managed to convey to the staff that I had family in
California and they contacted my parents. My father made the trip out to pick me up. Once back in California, I began a slow and difficult healing process.
It is now fully daylight in the maloca as I recount this tale to my friend. When I get to the part about my father coming to take me home, I suddenly see his eyes and I am overcome with the pain he felt when he saw me in the institution, my head shaved, my eyes vacant, twenty pounds underweight, frail and emaciated from not eating. At this point, the grief I have been holding inside for so many years pours out of me like a damn bursting. I begin to sob and wail uncontrollably. My friend lays my head in her lap, strokes my hair and holds me while I bawl like a baby. It is a cry from the depths of my soul, touching a sorrow that I had been pushing down for years.
Another man that I have become close friends with comes over and begins to massage my back and neck as I surrender into the healing moment. Over the next few hours, the three of us deepen into a process of accessing deeply rooted trauma, working through and releasing it. Now it is my turn to nurture, hold and massage the others in our healing circle. Later that morning I am invited to experience watsu, a full body massage that is done inside a warm pool. I surrender into the bliss of gentle touch and soothing water.
I am constantly amazed at how the medicine can find the cramp, the place that is stuck and needs to move, and puts us face to face with it. My resistance that morning was futile. The wisdom of the web that connects us all, that which Phillip K. Dick called the Vast Active Living Intelligent System or VALIS, is hidden only because of our reluctance to see it and our inability to let go into what it is trying to teach. That morning many things came to light regarding my relationship to my father and my relationship to two different male spiritual teachers that I had been involved with over the past decade.
I began to understand how I had projected my own father stuff on to the teachers I had worked with. I also understood how teachers could use these kinds of projections to exercise control and wield power. It became clear how one teacher that uses shame and humiliation to keep his students (especially women) in line was struggling with his own mother wounding and father issues. I also realized that while I had enormous gratitude for what I had gotten from these men, I was also able to see that they were human beings struggling with their own demons and conditioning.
Unfortunately, when a teacher is venerated and revered by a group of students or disciples, there is often a tendency to pretend that their own neurotic behavior is part of the teaching. If the teacher is cruel or sadistic, it might be explained away as something that was needed to break the students’ ego, which was hindering their development.
With the help of the medicine I have been able to work through my relationship with these men, who had such a powerful influence on me. Sometimes this process takes the form of an encounter on the astral plane that involves engaging in a kind of cosmic struggle of archetypal forces. In fact, I encountered this type of galactic challenge during the first time I took ayahuasca five years ago. It had been more than twenty-five years since I had touched psychedelics and I had no idea what to expect.
When the effects came on, about an hour after drinking, my deepest fears were immediately realized. I entered a world of sheer terror as I became convinced that aliens who had no conscience or concern about my pain or fear were experimenting on me. That vision, coupled with extreme physical discomfort and an escalating ringing in my ears caused me to sit up and begin to take deep, slow, intentional breaths. I repeated to myself that I had taken the medicine on my own volition and was prepared to honor and accept what she had to show me.
Years of doing Vipassana Meditation were proving to be a great ally. The whole scene shifted in a nanosecond. The unpleasant feeling that was coursing through my body like a raging river shifted into the sensing of a low hum not unlike the sound of an electrical current traversing a high voltage line.
I was on another alien ship but this time the beings I encountered were benevolent. They informed me that the energy that was passing through me was being used to make a very important connection that somehow had to do with the creation of a new world. They telepathically informed me that they were actually from nine billion years in the future and that they had evolved to a place where they were now the creator gods, traveling through space, designing and creating new systems that would evolve new life. I understood that the destiny of humans was to eventually evolve to this same status and that creation is an endless cycle of upwardly perfecting evolutionary life force.
I was so filled with joy that I felt my heart would burst. I remember being in a state of complete awe and bliss as I watched worlds being created out of nothing but pure love. I remained in this exquisitely sublime state for several hours and saw things that were far beyond anything I had ever imagined. As with my experience in Georgia, in order to heal, I needed to stand in the face of fear.
When we stop rejecting and resisting what is in front of us, we can then open to new worlds. This lesson is not always easily learned.
Back then I was completing a Masters program in Integral Counseling Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where pioneers of the psychotropic realms, Stan Grof and Ralph Metzner, were still teaching.
I had come to CIIS after having left another spiritual community in Grass Valley, California. Although the forms and teachings were very different, the experience in Grass Valley had paralleled the Georgia experience in that both schools were run by powerful, charismatic men whose authority was taken as absolute. The Grass Valley experience had also caused me to become extremely ungrounded and also was followed by a period of deep depression.
CIIS offered an opportunity to study with people who were no strangers to altered states, spiritual emergency, and the gray areas that lie between our spirit and psyche. The medicine work seemed to dovetail nicely with everything I was learning about the intersection of spirituality and psychology. As it is said with gurus, ” You don’t go find a guru, the guru finds you.” I believe the same holds true with ayahuasca. Some interesting synchronicities preceded my first voyage and it feels as if the doors opened at just the right moment to make the journey possible. It has been that way since my introduction to the medicine; when the time is right, she presents herself.
These days, it seems, I am less likely to experience the fireworks and intensity of some big, blown out, extra-dimensional state and more likely to deepen into the subtleties of the work and how it impacts daily life, my physical body, work, family and relationships. I am constantly reminded of how little I know and how knowing that helps me welcome uncertainty. I often come away from a voyage with a feeling that I am living a good part of my life in a bubble, a trivial soap opera that has somehow hijacked my attention away from the real world.
If it is a long time between voyaging I sometimes have the feeling that my lover has gone away and I am longing for her embrace again. I also recognize that there is so much more to the work than just the medicine. The lineage, the culture, the diet, and the community all contribute to and affect the experience.
I have come to appreciate the many worlds we live in. The transitions don’t feel as bumpy as they did when I was younger. Perhaps I’m learning the art of voyaging elegantly. A life review of the past forty years reveals a tale of remarkable experiences woven together by a theme of awakening to a more authentic, compassionate and liberated self. As I deepen into personal experience I also deepen into relationships with trusted friends, relatives and community. I carry a profound sense of gratitude for the medicine and the many teachers and guides that I have encountered along the way.
I now have a private practice as a therapist, which affords me the opportunity to help guide others through the pain and joy of learning how to live full and uncompromised lives. My practice is greatly informed by what I learn in ceremony. It is richly rewarding work that I love to do. I really couldn’t ask for anything more.