This year, as part of my now-annual tradition of spending my birthday in a remote jungle, disconnected from as much normalcy as possible, challenging myself in bizarre and fascinating ways, I took myself to the Peruvian Andes to spend two weeks with shaman, ingesting psychedelic plants, and greeting the possibility that I might come back so changed that continuing to live the life I was vacationing from, might be impossible.
I was afraid, I was ready, and I was prepared to lose my mind.
I spent nights in ceremony with a direct-lineage medicine man, alternately grinning and grateful for the opportunity to experience something so untainted by tourism, and dry-heaving into an abyss of nothingness sure that I had broken my brain.
I was, for more than one full (12-hour) day, flat on my back in the grass too far gone to eat, drink or move farther than a couple of feet – from the sun to the shade, on my hands and knees – once. I was conscious the entire time. I had my notebook strapped to my hand. I wrote things like this:
The stories take days to tell. And some of them I’m still amid. But for now and at least, this is some of what I learned:
Plant medicines are a tool, not a toy.
The shaman, and regular imbibers, refer to these plants as medicine, and they treat them as such. It’s a respected, ceremonial and occasional experience had selectively and pointedly. It’s not a party favor or casual fling. Great care is taken in the preparation and presentation of the plants, and of the persons attending. From diet to time and place to process of processing what the hell just happened.
The Ayahuasquero (the shaman who works with Ayahuasca, as opposed to the Huachumero for example, who works with San Pedro – and even more accurately, our Ayahuasquero was actually a Curandro (healer)) had a favorite phrase, which he would whisper, sing and call out repeatedly during ceremonies: “limpia limpia limpia” (followed by the shaking of a dry-leaf rattle and a whistled breath). Translated: “clean, clean, clean”.
Plant medicines can be a shortcut.
But to what and where, is both yet to be known and/or is entirely individual and subjective.
I thought it was very possible that I would see space, meet god or learn truth. Some people believe that they have.
Regardless, a single session can be as effective as decades of psychotherapy.
One of my friends – a Jungian-therapy’d father and decade-long Ayahuasca drinker – likens the experience to bottom-up therapy, or learning by experiencing and feeling, rather than logically processing. Our language and understanding then catching up to what the body has learned.
Because of the physiological effects of the drug, our brain hemispheres communicate with each other in a way that they otherwise never do. You’re able to re-experience things that cognitive biases have been blocking – for better or worse.
The effectiveness of psychedelics' potential to improve lives isn’t speculative.
It’s well proven and on the way to being more so and more publicly so that plant medicines – psychedelics – are extremely more effective in treating (curing) anxiety, depression and addiction (for starters) than our “best” pharmaceuticals today. A single session can wipe a person clean.
It’s hard. And it hurts.
My first trip (figurative), which was with San Pedro, not Ayahuasca, was hellish. And no shorter than 12-15 hours long. I felt like I was attempting to uproot the tree of life, and that I was both the tree, and man. That night I read more about San Pedro, which I hadn’t researched nearly at all, prior-to. (It's, mescaline.) I swore I would never, ever, under any circumstances even think about looking at “that f***ing cactus” (I’m so sorry, San Pedro) again. However, five days later, I drank another 10 ounces of it. And I would do so again today if I could.
You will see some ... things.
We have a broad misunderstanding of ayahuasca as a visual trip. While it can be, it may not be at all. Certain plants (the tea is actually a mix of at least two plants – one of which is ayahuasca) can cause stronger visions. Unfortunately, some shaman now adjust their traditional brews to meet tourists’ expectations of visions, whereas that is not the plant’s primary purpose.
However, you may have the capacity to see more than you ever have before. I saw thousands of lines in my palm (and traced them with my pen to prove that they existed, to my later-sober self) and new colors. “Dimensions” if you can call it that. Facets in the physical world that I’d never noticed but felt were probably always there, and dream-like visions of things that I’m still attempting to understand. Things unlike anything natural, man-made, imagined or otherwise. Just … different. At some points, I was also as good as blind.
Time is … completely irrelevant.
It just is.
If you’ve had a bad trip, you know what one minute on repeat feels like.
And/or, thoughts like this occur, and given that thoughts are things, things like this happen (also, I was sober for this one):
I feel like I'm here now because I went back from here to tell my childhood self that I would make it.
That experience with time also completely re-calibrates endurance. Now, hunger, discomfort, stress or anxiety is relatively nothing.
We can be reprogrammed.
Our group was 12 people ranging in ages from 25 to 60+ and who were married, single, siblings, parents, happy, un-, lost, afraid and otherwise.
Over the course of the trip, everyone was shaken to their core at least once and most many times. Degrees of bravery before each ceremony varied from night to night, and the range of experiences and epiphanies confessed as we processed throughout the days included traumas, reestablished priorities, resolutions, releases, love, pain, gratitude.
Mine is personal and still unfolding but I will say this much: One morning, I woke up crying. At first, I believed it to be gratitude – for being alive and at least mostly sane, and healthy and there, in Peru, doing what I was doing, of my own accord, surviving, happy … But, I kept crying – through the morning and into the afternoon still. At some point, with the assistance of a woman I now consider a mother and who’s reciprocally adopted me as her daughter, I realized that I was grieving. Not only feeling for a certain past, but feeling it, exactly. Things I didn’t know and would never imagine still resided in my body.
It was exhausting. And immensely cathartic. And, it may take a long time yet to resolve.
Of the group, since the retreat, several have been laid off from their jobs. One is pursuing a new career path. One is beginning a relationship and one is saving a marriage. One stayed behind in Peru and one is moving to Thailand (to work with another of the group). All are now family.
There is so much more.
To this, to learn, to life, than we can ever learn or live.
Returning is bittersweet.
Leaving the jungle, one is raw. Stripped, cleaned and at least partially cured. Broken and bandaged and blessed. Eyes bright and every sense clarified.
It is sad to know - and there's no question about it, it will happen – that we will be desensitized again.
My neighborhood felt foreign - like I'd been gone a long time and it had changed. I had to keep my eyes down often as there was more than I could absorb. I had the sensation that someone had come back with me, inside of me, and that it didn’t recognize the surroundings. It also recoiled from unnatural scenes – it was shy of the subway and confused by unkindness; though swelled near beauty (and it seemed, particularly enjoyed the ballet).
I also realized how absolutely still my mind was. Which I also knew wouldn't last.
I made it a couple of weeks in that state. I put off putting together my to-do lists. I was gentle with myself, and it was sad. (E.g. "My chest aches.")
Everything was more poignant. More details were beautiful and I was easy to tears. My dreams were vivid and often included the ceremonies.
A month and a half later, I feel a deep miss for the experience. It felt like a beginning, because it was. It was also a culmination and a coming-to. It was a chapter in the book of self of which I, and we each, author in every exchange, with ourselves, each other, and every thing around us and within us every day until, The End.
(For the fun stuff - like Incan ruins, weird fruit, plant-baths and Machu Picchu, check out the photos on FB. X!)