The first time I ever experienced an Ayahuasca ceremony was seven years ago. It wasn’t in a remote jungle hut in the middle of the Amazon, or in some fancy Californian ashram. My first encounter with the legendary “vine of souls” (sometimes referred to as “vine of death”) was in a snow covered New England country house in my home state of Connecticut.
What can I say? The universe works in mysterious ways.
We sat, packed like sardines, in the tiniest room of the house – at the request of the Peruvian shaman who was presiding over the proceedings. The idea was for our tight circle of about 12 people to be so close that our knees almost touched.
Slightly claustrophobic as I am, this was not the ideal setting, but I felt I had prepared myself enough with other exercises and vision-inducing plant medicines to tread these waters with relative grace.
I didn’t realize I was in for the most challenging night of my life.
As we sat there in the candlelit circle, the shaman (whose name I will exclude) gave us the following words of wisdom:
“You will see many things tonight. Some pleasant and some not so pleasant. My advice to you is to assume a comfortable position, focus only on your breathing, and try to be still.
Be a conduit for the energy that is flowing through you and the information you are receiving, but don’t linger too long on any thought form, good or bad.”
Seemed simple enough. I drank my cup, went back to my spot in the sardine circle, and sat down Indian-style on a cushion. We sat for about 30 minutes in silence, broken only by the occasional whisper, waiting for the medicine to come alive within us.
If the circle was a clock, I was sitting at seven o’clock, the shaman was at twelve o’clock, and the person to his left (at one o’clock) had drank first. In anticipation of what was about to happen, I couldn’t help staring at one o’clock to see if there would be any noticeable changes in this person’s manner or outward appearance once the Ayahuasca took hold.
And then I saw something that gives me goosebumps to this day. Starting with Mr. One O’clock, heads and bodies began slumping, one by one, tipping like dominoes in order of who drank first. It only took about fifteen seconds for this wave of impossibility to make its way around the circle to me.
I spent the first hour or two of the ceremony in complete free fall. My bodily strength and sensation of being in a physical form drained out of me almost instantly – and it wasn’t pretty. I panicked and began to struggle for breath. As I dissolved into and through the floor, all of my deepest fears came surging up through the darkness to greet me.
A shrill voice in me cried out that I had made a terrible mistake ingesting this unknown potion and that I would soon die. I was tumbling through nothingness. The only remnants of the sardine circle were the distant echoes of a shaman singing his icaros (ceremonial prayer songs) to the beat of a drum.
I was clinging to any thought, desperately trying to get a foothold. But the only ledges and ropes offered were words of fear, shame, and sadness – each one building upon the other.
And the storm raged on.
Mid-somersault through the void, something unexpected happened. My right foot began to ache (this running injury had been nagging me for months, but I was in no condition to recall that!). Just then, the first emotionally neutral thought entered my consciousness, “My foot hurts so bad right now.”
In that moment ¬– almost as if I had hit pause on the TV ¬– the free fall stopped.
I slowly opened my eyes and saw a whirlwind of cosmic activity happening in the darkness around me, but not in my immediate proximity. The circle of bodies was more lopsided now, some remaining upright and others lying down in the fetal position.
Looking down in the direction of my welcome foot pain, I saw that my right foot was glowing a dim blue. The pain pulsed one more time and almost instinctively I brought my left hand up to my face and “turned it on.” I placed the hand (which was now glowing a faint white) on my blue foot and watched with silent astonishment. The pain dissolved into the darkness while the white glow engulfed the foot up to the knee.
In that moment I was not attaching any words or emotions to my experience, I was simply witnessing with an empty mind what was in front of me.
But unadulterated consciousness only lasts so long, and I ultimately broke the inner silence with a few innocent but ego-driven words. “I think I’ve got the hang of this now.”
Like a trap door had opened underneath me, I fell back through the floor and into the terrifying plummet. The next few hours continued much like this. Periods of feeling lost and overwhelmed, followed by moments of respite that could only be achieved by stopping the ticker tape of inner self talk.
I found that most words were “hot,” meaning they triggered free fall. But certain ones could be said again and again like a mantra to bridge those moments of doubt that are often accompanied by self chatter. The battle-tested words I turned to the most were: thank you, grandma, and love.
I came away from that night with a simple rule of thumb for ceremony, and also for life outside the circle. The teaching is this:
Envision your core self, or soul, as a pendulum that is at pure presence when it is absolutely still. When an emotion or thought form is held onto for more than a fleeting moment, it begins to swing the pendulum – regardless of whether the thought is blissful or fearful.
Another word for this could be attachment.
On one side of the pendulum lies fear and on the other lies absolute joy. If you cling to either type of emotion too long, it begins to pull the pendulum in the direction of that emotion. And we all know that once a pendulum is pulled one way, the laws of nature guarantee that it will swing back, past center, into the opposite realm.
It took me half the night to learn the lesson and stop pushing it either way. Looking back on it, the pendulum model synchs up really nicely with the sage advice the shaman gave us before the ceremony began.
Here are those three spiritual survival tips again. They can be extremely helpful in times of intensity and challenge:
1. Don’t cling to fleeting emotions or thought forms, good or bad, comforting or discomforting.
2. Focus on your breath, it is the river within you that gives life to all else.
3. Be still within yourself. Be deliberate in your movement, if movement is necessary.
That first Ayahuasca experience was reality shattering, but once I learned how to implement these principles, and got out of the way, the night changed entirely.
Sitting in stillness, I began to receive direct transmissions from a higher being who was motherly and compassionate, but also a stern teacher. I was like a pup, being taken by the scruff of the neck and plopped down into different cosmic circumstances to get what I needed to know and then move on.
But that part of the story is for another day!
I hope the three shamanic principles and the pendulum model help you on your path. They have certainly become trusted allies of mine.
Director, The Sacred Science