Losing Thy Mind by Choice, Part II: Peruvian Shaman, Plant Medicines & Breaking Myself

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!)

Losing My Mind By Choice: Why Go


My greatest fear has always been losing my mind. I'm about to do it, by choice.

Lose it, lose myself, lose control. Control, which from before I have conscious memories, was my comfort.

I know now, (at least many of) the nuances of control and fear and logic and perception that have guided, and misguided, my mind and body through anxiety, relationships, life choices and self formation, to where we find ourselves today - at another chapter fold and open. Caused, as we are more capable of than we often realize, by choice.

This choice isn't about anxiety (which is a symptom not a root). And it's not about control, ultimately, either (though that's deeper and closer to why I've chosen to "lose my mind").

Today I leave for The Sacred Valley of the Incas to spend two weeks with a Peruvian Shaman, and plants - one of which contains the most powerful psychedelics on the planet. While not shy of drugs, I've not so much as eaten a mushroom. (You know what I mean.) Psychedelics scared me. They still do. Anything that tampers with this fragile "reality" was the last of my wants. I've always needed the ground, not a trip to space.

So, why?

At the beginning of this journey, I started keeping a list of what I believe. That is actually the title of the list. It's a series of conclusions and resolutions - answers to questions I've been asking since I could. In writing this note I realized that the culmination of that list is the answer to that why.

Because, I Believe:

That experience is the way to knowing. That knowledge is growth. Growth is motion. Remaining in motion, I believe "is" "life." Moving means leaving things behind and meeting newness. It means encountering change, and the unknown. The unknown is uncomfortable. Scary often. But, fear is a mirage. It's a two-way mirror. Fear can be heard, understood and sometimes heeded but should not be a hinderance to going.

(An aside, my novella published six years ago was titled "Go Gallantly".)

What persists through going into change and the unknown? Self. Self reliance requires grit. I believe in grit. Wherever we go, it's expansion. Externally or internally, which are ultimately the same thing. Outward, we might learn something that is true. Or did we know it all along? If it's true, does that mean that others, maybe everyone and everything, know it too? I believe in collective consciousness.

Going in, is learning self. We die alone. Or, all together. Knowing ourselves is the minimum must.

And the expanses of our minds are greater and as unknown as space or the sea - as well that's where we spend more time than anywhere else - which is one hell of a travel destination. It also happens to be where we make this so called reality. The one we think we're so attached to.

I believe that reality is subjective.

When we know ourselves, know something, or know that we know nothing, we might better know what’s right, and when. ("Know" just lost a lot of the meaning we typically attribute to it, did it? Maybe "know" isn't a thought.)

I believe we can feel "knowing".

Call it what you will, and be it because we know it, or that we believe it - by choice ("faith") or because we learned it.

I believe that sometimes we only know we have to go because on the other side is something more to know, to life.

And so, I go.

Podcast: “The Primacy of Direct Experience”


This is my absolute favorite podcast of late, from a channel I listen to regularly.

The notes I’ve been gathering to share about it were becoming comprehensive enough to serve as a transcript so, rather, herein a few quotes from the transcript (which you can read in entirety, here).

Terrence McKenna was eloquent and exceptionally progressive. He's a pleasure to listen to, especially, as his presentations of complicated concepts are clear, and often funny. Currently, I can't get enough of him.

This one's well worth your time, and repeat listens are recommended.

“The Primacy of Direct Experience” - Terence McKenna. 1994

Source: The Psychedelic Salon - 450

What life I think is supposed to be about is the reclamation of the primacy of direct experience. That means sex, and psychedelics, and dancing, and conversation, and good eating, and lots of exercise, and travel, and attention to what Wittgenstein called the present at hand.

"The present at hand, meaning what you can reach is what’s real.  Everything else becomes progressively move hypothetical, more abstract.  Anticipating Wittgenstein, talking about our reach, William Blake said ‘attend the minute particulars.’  This was his advice for life.  Attend the minute particulars.  Well that’s good 18th century prose for pay attention to the details.  Keep your eye on the ball."


“You know, Martin Heidegger, the German metaphysician, the way he got it together was he said, what life is for is what he called ‘care for the project of being.’  Care for the project of being!  This is what we are called to.  Again, Heidegger’s phrase.  We are called to care for the project of being.  That means an appreciation for the minute particulars.  An appreciation and a recognition of difference.  An appreciation and a recognition of our position in the cosmos, which is both insignificant and paradoxically grandiose and the same time.  Pascal said man is a reed bent by the wind but he is a thinking reed.  That’s the paradox of our being, our fragileness in nature.  Yet, the supernatural grandiosity that we sense in the hallways of our souls."

"And Shamanism is not religion, really, at its fundamental level it’s the science of direct experience.  Other forms of science may deal with the states of the quanta or the orbits of the Pleiades, but shamanism is the science of direct experience and its laboratory is the human body and the human nexus in space and time."

You’re given on average, sixty or seventy years, and on average, a hundred and forty-five pounds of meat.  This is what you’re dealt, the meat and the time.  Then it’s up to you to sort this out and make of it what you will.  The entropic path, the downward path into blame, unhappiness, self-blocking, so forth and so on - that’s always there.  You can release yourself into the river of consequences and take no responsibility for who you are but the higher stakes game, the more interesting game, is to see the whole thing as an opportunity.

On the body:

“Heidegger - I’m amazed that I’m quoting Heidegger so much this morning - Heidegger again, he said the body is not a thing, nor is it a process, which is surprising because that’s considered an advanced view, that it is a process.  He said it is not a thing, nor is it a process, it is a window of opportunity which opens into eternity.  It’s a window of opportunity.  But opportunity implies the non exercise of itself.  An opportunity is something that you must seize.  It doesn’t press itself upon you.  It doesn’t force itself upon you.  It merely is there if you want to use it.”

On love:

“Salvation occurs simultaneously through an act of love (that’s not news, but here’s news), simultaneously through an act of love and an act of rational apprehension.  Understanding!  Love without understanding is not the full story.  Real love requires understanding.  Rational apprehension is a kind of penetration of the beloved, person, nation, ecosystem, whatever the beloved is.  Understanding is the higher dispensation."

On the imagination, the soul and the future:

"We are going to live in the imagination and the imagination is the domain of the soul.  I’m not kidding!  [Laughter]  We are going to live in the imagination.  It will cease to be metaphor.  It will become real estate.  That’s how real the imagination is going to be.  It may be virtual reality, pharmacological reality, after death reality, nano-tech reality - we’ll find the way.

"We will be living then in the imagination and yet celebrating the body in three dimensional space.  History will be over then.  We will understand what it means to have history be over because we will be living the way people lived before the first furrow was plowed."


"So if evil exists, and I’m not sure it does, it is ignorance, which is a Hindu position.  Avidya.  Obscuring of Vidya.  Ignorance.

So I think there is an obligation to understand.  To understand!  I’m not putting aside the obligation to love and to feel.  Those obligations seem to have their defenders everywhere.  But there is an obligation to understand.