Wednesday, 11 January 2012

One Man's Experience into the Spiritual World of Shamanism: Ayahuasca

I have written before about the ‘spiritual plant medicines’ used by tribes originating from South America to enter new worlds in order to heal the body and soul. They have been a topic of interest for me since first reading about them some years ago and obviously I had considered the prospect of trying out such an experience for myself one day, but that had always seemed a very distant concept. That was until I was invited to an Ayahuasca ceremony last Saturday night…

My personal standpoint on drugs is one of curious caution, I believe in the hands of the sensible and the sane they can certainly be a source of interesting, relaxing and even mind expanding experiences, while in the wrong hands they can quite simply be dangerous. The fact that this ceremony was being run by friends of friends who had invited a Columbian ‘Shaman’ to their home made me feel it was a safe and worthwhile experience to try out. After all, how can you possibly write about a subject matter of this nature with any conviction unless you have a first-hand experience of it yourself?

So just a short drive out of Mexico City to the hills of Xochimilco and moon lit winding and bumping roads that led to the small eco-park that was to be our final destination. We arrived at the naturally fuelled house and were welcomed by our most friendly Mexican hosts into the large garden surrounded by trees. It was cold and dark and so the collection of people gathered were huddled in a circle of 50 or 60 people around a fire in the centre of the lawn, hand drums beating and strong incense burning as the atmosphere grew.

After some time the Shaman arrived, dressed in traditional feathered headdress and painted markings upon his skin. His set up his stall to one side of the large lawn and then invited the congregation to line up in order to take the ‘medicine’ which we were warned could very well make us feel unwell. We were given clear instructions to which ditch we were to attend if we needed to either pass diarrhea or vomit. I was aware beforehand that the concoction could cause quite severe nausea so did not find this too unusual.

I took my place in the line as I watched people take the liquid one by one, some of whom went immediately to the vomit ditch, the sounds of them hacking away clear for all to hear as my own trepidation gradually built. But how bad could it possibly be?? I waited patiently until it was my turn to kneel before the Shaman. I watched him measure out a small glass of what looked like a thick orange/brown soup like mixture while he muttered offerings in a language I could not understand before he blew rapidly onto the filled glass several times and then handed me the medicine. I took it down as quickly as I could, the flavour of which I could only describe as a thick, strong ‘off’ tasting bitter beer that burned the stomach as it went down, souring the palette immensely in its after taste.

The nausea was instant, but I didn’t feel the urge to be sick or squat in the bushes like so many others were, and instead took my place beside the fire. I sat and looked up at the night sky and listened to the rhythmic music that was being sung and played with drums, guitar, pipes, rattles and horns of various forms, while others floated around the circle carrying small cauldrons of thick burning incense which only added to the light headed feeling that was quickly descending upon me. As time ticked by my head ached so much so that it hurt my eyes to even have them open, so I closed them and snuggled up into my sleeping bag in attempt to get comfortable and warm – which proved increasingly difficult as shooting pains began springing from my stomach.

I had glanced at my watch to roughly time events. I had taken the potion at around 0030, and by 0230 I had experienced nothing mind-opening or spiritual and only considerable discomfort. I felt increasingly cold and tired as time wore on and decided it was probably best to simply sleep. But as I relaxed I eventually began to hallucinate, first of well-defined patterns in front of my eyes like being inside a giant twisting honeycomb structure, which soon switched to patterns similar to those seen in the Ayahuasca visions decorated onto Peruvian Shipibo pottery and textiles (examples here). It was then I knew for certain I had finally reached the ‘experience’. For the next few hours I saw more of these wonderful patterns and then visions of beautiful colours as though I was watching ink being dropped into water. Later wonderful snakes glided forth in front of my eyes, all as the music and singing continued around the site of the camp fire. My body felt better as I began to come around, the visions subsided and I became relaxed again.

It was then that the Shaman asked if anyone wanted to take a second dosage of the brew, at around 0400. Not everyone went back for seconds, but I considered that as I had come this far I may as well go the whole hog. Again I knelt before the spiritual leader and took the medicine. This time it made me feel a whole lot worse and within moments I was squatting into the ‘diarrhea ditch’ with uncontrollable stomach cramps amidst tall cactus plants on unstable footing. Once that terrible bout had subsided I dizzily lurched over to the ‘vomiting ditch’ where I remained for some time until I felt completely drained and empty, only with another pounding headache. This was truly a painful experience and not one I look back upon with any pleasure whatsoever. I felt incredibly unstable at this point, and managed only to limp back to my sleeping bag to huddle into a ball of discomfort.

The hallucinations then became stranger and deeper, at one stage a half snake half rodent creature approached me with intrigue, while at another time I was watching a white coloured baby demon sitting on a demonic throne attempting to talk to me, but at no time that evening did I have any audible hallucination to hear what it was saying, it was only visions in tremendous colour, almost computer graphic in nature.

Soon after I must have fallen asleep, and slept peacefully for a couple of hours only to be awoken by more loud music and a knock on the head at sunrise. I sat up feeling disorientated and nauseous. The incense was even more profound at this time, the fumes of which were swirling around the camp in every direction as the sweet aroma filled my nose and throat to such a sickening extent that I had to spend the next hour or so at the vomiting ditch, while several others continued simultaneously around me.

The music finally stopped at around 0700 and breakfast was served. I did not feel like eating at all but the rice and beans certainly succeeded in easing the sickness. After the food was served people began to leave and the experience was essentially over. But what could be taken from it?

I can say that the experience was interesting while at the same time immensely uncomfortable and strange. Being made to feel that unwell was one thing, but to witness many others being sick in different ways en mass around me was something else. I had no feelings at all of a ‘spiritual’ experience, the hallucinations were mildly stronger than the visions attainable in a deep meditative state, and of a different nature, but I did not feel as though I learned a great deal from them or managed to ‘cross world’ so to speak. People I spoke to at the ceremony said much the same thing, they felt their bodies had been ‘cleansed’ and they felt a sense of clarity come the end of it without going as ‘deep’ as they might have expected. I certainly felt good at the end of the experience; but I think anyone would feel good in a relieved sort of way in recovery after feeling so very bad for so many hours.

I would not typecast all Ayahuasca ceremonies into this one experience, but I can say from my one trial that it was a strange uncomfortable experience I didn't get a great deal from barring perhaps a cleansing of the stomach and intestines… The hallucinations and visions were very real but apart from beautiful colours and shapes there was little there to learn from, nothing more that could be achieved from a deep meditation through a practice such as self-hypnosis.

Would I do the ceremony again? In that location I don’t think I would. Perhaps with a different Shaman on a more personal level the experience would be more profound, and it would need to be given the discomfort the brew brings about. The ceremony wasn't quite what I had hoped for but it was an experience of an ancient practice I shall never forget, and one that in time I hope will inspire me toward a greater understanding of the human mind and human consciousness.


jack johnson said...

This has lead me to my personal fascination with knowledge of self and the universe we inhabit. Shaman And Ayahuasca I share my experiences, opinions, and information I have come across with the world.

Greg said...

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Jack. I like the look of the webpage and look forward to reading it in greater depth promptly.