Lessons From My Eighth Ayahuasca Ceremony

Guy Crittenden wearing traditional Shipibo clothing outside the maloka at the Nihue Rao ayahuasca healing center.


by Guy Crittenden

on August 20, 2014

My eighth ayahuasca ceremony was special from the start, yet ended up being unusual even by the crazy standards of my previous journeys in the tryptamine space. It included my first experience of a physical substance  brought forth from the spiritual realm.

I’m not a follower of astrology, yet I confess the heavens were shining prophetically on our event. It was the Hindu day of Guru Purnima — a festival dedicated to spiritual and academic teachers that falls on the day of the full moon (purnima) in the month of Ashadh (June–July). Coincidentally I’d attended a lecture about Guru Purnima the night before. Driving to the gathering, news on the car radio mentioned this night would include a rare “super moon.”

On arrival my lady companion and I discovered further perfection in the setting: our ceremony would take place in an off-grid retreat centre powered by wind and solar energy, built and maintained by an older man with an enormous grey beard who reminded me of the old hippie comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The wind turbine whirred high and loud above us as we unpacked the car, carrying our pillows, blankets and other gear into the cool adobe-finished interior. The owner showed us around, pointing out how to use the energy-efficient appliances and shower.

In the large upstairs yoga studio a few people who’d stayed over from the previous night’s ceremony lay sleeping on small mattresses arranged along the walls. I recognized a few souls from previous weekends. I arranged my pillows and other items on the mattress I selected. These included a small colourful Shipibo medicine bag I bought in Peru, in which I keep must-need items for these events, including my water bottle and the all-important small flashlight. I set my purge bucket on the floor beside my mattress — a clear plastic container of the kind in which pineapple cores are sold. The transparency of this container would have utility later that I didn’t suspect at this time.

In time the other participants arrived and I greeted each with a hug (no handshakes in this crowd). Our group numbered about a dozen, and included four friends of mine, which I believe helped boost my energy that evening. The shaman — a young woman — appeared with her partner from another building where they’d been resting. She eventually took her place at the front among an altar-like configuration of musical instruments, crystals, feathers and various bottled unguents.

As night fell and the room darkened, the ceremony began. The shaman invited us to stand with her, raise our hands, and turn through each of the cardinal directions and she offered a prayer for protection from spirit animals such as jaguar and eagle. My heart pounded furiously and I began to sweat in anticipation as we sat down and the shaman began pouring the brown ayahuasca medicine in careful measure from a large plastic bottle for the participants who, one by one, knelt before her. I always liken this to being on a roller coaster as it slowly climbs the first large hill, click, click, click, thinking about what’s to follow.

The medicine was another factor in the power of the events about to transpire. This was no ordinary batch brewed casually by assistants in some Amazon lodge or — God forbid — purchased on the grimy streets of Iquitos. The medicine had been hand-crafted by the shaman herself and a team of adepts who had rhythmically pounded the Banisteriopsis Caapi vines in unison while under the influence of the brew. A prayer was made for each chacruna leaf as it was washed by hand.

These things are worth noting for the novice. Ayahuasca ceremony is not simply the imbibing of a “drug” for recreational purposes. Instead, it’s participation in a shamanic ritual in which every element is important. You’ll find when talking to shamans that details are significant. I once mentioned to a shaman friend that I was going to “buy” a hand drum for journeying, and triggered a lecture about the importance of making it myself, harvesting the wood from a special tree, finding the right animal skin, holding a ritual while washing it, and so on.

Here we had the setting in an off-grid house under a “juicy” moon, the talented shaman, an exotic brew, and a gathering that included four friends. I’d come prepared, having maintained a strict “ayahuasca diet” in the weeks leading up to the ceremony (no red meat or pork, no spicy food or salt, no alcohol, no sex, etc.).

As is customary, before we drank we went around the room and briefly declared our intention for the evening. These ranged from simply “healing” to more complicated requests to overcome depression or figure out career paths. I set my intention as, “To heal my family” by which I primarily meant my mother, sister, stepbrother and myself, all of whom were mourning the loss of my stepfather a year ago and wrestling with vestigial patterns of family dysfunction.

After drinking a brimming cupful of medicine I lay down on my mattress and stretched out my back, in (accurate) anticipation of a lot of sitting up this night. I lay still for about an hour, waiting for the medicine to come on.

Nothing happened. It was only the second time I’d felt no effect from the first cup of medicine. Just as I was thinking this, the shaman (who’d been wandering the room singing and interacting lightly with people) invited us to drink again.

I hesitated, not wanting to drink a second cup in case the first cup’s effects came on late, but the shaman assured me not to worry.

Guardedly trusting her, I drank a second time, the liquid tasting like coffee left on the burner overnight. It joined the first batch in my stomach and sloshed around. Blech!

In no time the second cup hit me with force and I slipped into visionary hyperspace, overwhelmed with intensely-coloured geometric patterns traced against a deep black background. Each line was perfect in its precision, with the forms arranged in layers of complexity beyond the capabilities of any Persian carpet weaver. Green and red neon line arrangements quickly accreted into objects, landscapes and animals comprised of thousands of close-set strobing luminescent lines. Most items manifested like those CAD renderings computer artists devise to set their creatures in motion, before adding the grey digital skin.

These crystalline visions filled much of the night — vast shimmering bejewelled realms beyond the descriptive capabilities of a Coleridge or a Keats. A kaleidoscope unfolded of radiant spirit emissaries, turreted cascading temples and mercurial skies so beautiful I wept.

As always. amid the psychedelic visions there were lessons.

During the first hour or so I received a stern lesson from La Madre about how it’s her job, not mine, to decide whose experience of consensus reality is to be interrupted. The universal consciousness (I was told, by an alien-yet-familiar grandmotherly telepathic voice) created this dimension and prefers that creatures embedded in it experience it as real, without a person like myself calling attention to its being a holographic illusion.

Just as I wouldn’t interrupt someone engrossed in a video game and say, “Hey, it’s just a game!” I’m to leave people in their emersion, though I can invite people to the medicine who appear drawn to it, and especially those who seek healing.

I recall being asked over and over again, “Whose job is it to pull people out of the illusion?” with me answering, “You, eternal mother!” and again, “Whose job is it to pull people out of the illusion?” with me answering, “You, eternal mother!” Mother Ayahuasca kicks my butt like a drill sergeant sometimes.

When the medicine backed off (it comes and goes in waves) I sat up with the help of a highly-recommended fabric yoga chair and listened to the sacred icaros sung beautifully by the shaman, and watched her dance from mattress to mattress, gesticulating in silhouette like some crazed Haida bird creature, sometimes channeling the ancestors in a high pitched glossalalia.

During all this I’d forgotten about my intention: to heal my family. Then I felt a shift in my digestive system: the two large cups of ayahuasca were working their way through my digestive tract. I used my short sober intermission to assess things. Did I need to throw up? Was I about to have diarrhea? I couldn’t tell for sure, so I decided to head downstairs to the bathroom, while I still could. Something told me to bring my purge bucket, just in case.

As I stood up the medicine came on again. Still, I was able to find my feet and slowly walk barefoot across the wooden floor toward the dimly lit stairwell that led below. I was near the stairs when an inner voice said, “You’d better hold your container close to your face.”

Then followed a series of truly volcanic heaves like I’d never experienced, even from the medicine. The cosmic retching came from the deepest core of my being and no superlatives can do justice to the sheer animal spasticity of the barfing. It was loud and accompanied by horrid gurgling sounds similar to those of the lead shaman from my first three ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru. I felt the eyes of the people in the room on me and a few offered sympathetic comments of the, “Way to go!” variety.

Vomiting is common in ayahuasca ceremonies and people had been purging all evening. Knowing the healing that accompanies it, it’s a sound I’ve grown to like. I often pray or salute in the direction of people healing this way. I knew that after this enormous purge knew my stomach would feel fantastic for the rest of the night. I also had a queer sensation I’d thrown up many issues that belonged to my family members.

Was it possible that I’d “taken one for the team”? Had people not present in the room somehow been remotely healed through me? Or through the shaman?

I made my way downstairs and wandered across the darkened main floor to the bathroom. My plan was to empty my purge bucket in the toilet.

Everything looked normal and I wasn’t hallucinating: plain old toilet, sink, faucet and walls. A small lamp sat on the vanity for illumination.

I proceeded to the toilet when a telepathic thought entered my mind that I should inspect the container’s contents. I held the clear plastic container directly under the lamp’s bright light, perplexed.

For it was not vomit, at least not in any conventional sense. The container held a dark semi-transparent liquid with the texture of mucous. (Disgusting, but bear with me.) The colour was the black-green of a night sky just before a tornado hits. Through the transparent sides of the container I detected fibrous dark cloud-like matter. Looking closely into the top, the surface formed a white phlegmatic foam that then retreated toward the container’s circular inner sides. The centre of the liquid depressed while the sides appeared elevated, and the surface began to pulse up and down like the skin of a drum.

Remembering a scene in the movie Alien I wondered if something was about to jump out at me, and pulled back my head. At that moment dark bubbles foamed their way to the surface. I looked uneasily until I could make sense of what I was seeing. Eyes! What I first took for dark bubbles were hundreds of black eyes looking out at me from inside the container. My skin turned gooseflesh. They weren’t human eyes with whites and irises: they were insect-like eyes, like on spiders, all glossy and black. And  they were pissed off! In fact, they were FURIOUS!

In an instant I knew that I was looking at spirit entities, dark forces that had attached themselves to my family and had lived with us parasitically for generations, even centuries or millennia. They were looking out at me, angry beyond description at having been found, and trapped now in this inescapable shamanic phlegm.

It was hypnotic looking at the sea of eyes. I asked myself if they could just be bubbles, but over and over again the answer came, “No, those are eyes.” I felt their intelligence looking out at me, and their venomous rage.

I began to fall under their spell and thought for a moment about putting the lid back on the container and somehow preserving the liquid. I was like a character from Lord of the Rings, spellbound holding the ring. Then, without further hesitation, I poured the liquid in the toilet and flushed. At first it wouldn’t go down but after two solid flushes it was gone, and along with it I believe the source of much suffering over the years of my family.

I can imagine the skepticism an account like this would trigger in anyone uninitiated in shamanic experience. I’m actually as skeptical as anyone and doubted the event myself, except I was there and remember its impact.

Were the eyes a psychological event, explainable in purely Freudian or Jungian terms? Perhaps. But I’m more inclined to feel the plant entheogens grant access to universal consciousness and what she shows us is real, though not in the usual sense. Ayahuasca allows an unmediated experience of the divine; I’m not required to believe the written second-hand accounts of bearded mystics in some desert who saw a burning bush or a magic ladder three thousand years ago.

I can see it for myself.

So I accept what happened as true, but only possible to experience in a heightened state of shamanic awareness.

I returned upstairs and rejoined the ceremony that lasted many more hours. I recall a night of extraordinary beauty, of bejewelled visions and information downloads that followed one another in rapid succession.

I was treated to viewing the world as a spider sees it, running across  endless amounts of web in iridescent colour. I became a snake and spent some of the night curled up, breathing through my skin.

I experienced the sheer intensity with which these beings live! Unlike us, who waste our lives working indoors unaware of the weather or sitting stultified in front of our television sets, these creatures are fully exposed to the elements and engage in daily life or death battles with their predators and prey.

I was instructed to befriend a spider, let it live in my house, and learn from it.

The final hours of the night were a  kind of reward time. Mother Ayahuasca asked me why I never ask her about life in other parts of the galaxy.

“I created all that, too,” she said. “Would you like to see how things are on other planets?”

I answered “yes” and was treated to a guided tour of living beings in other galaxies and star systems: I recall tall thin gauze-like creatures vaguely reminiscent of jelly fish, except they floated in the atmosphere, and long conical stretched-out creatures that reached from near the ground into the sky. I saw many different vistas and creatures as bizarre as anything conceived by science fiction illustrators.

In the final hour or so before the ceremony ended I felt great happiness but also and intense nostalgia. Half intoxicated and half sober I was in the liminal space of grey mists haunted by Hermes psychopomp and the tricksters who can cheat death. The visionary landscapes in their rainbow beauty began to fade, and I felt sorrow over everything I was about to forget.

This is the shaman’s burden, I suppose. To see and know too much. To be aware that this world is an illusion, Brahma’s dream. And to be laughed at or scorned for one’s strange claims.

Did we think we could enter the realm of the dead and not pay this price?