Six weeks before my birthday in 2005, just around the time my mother had begun to lay curled up in a fetal position, sleeping pretty much around the clock, I woke one morning to a voice that whispered from deep in my consciousness: “This year for your birthday you’re going to take ayahuasca in the desert outside Santa Fe.” Huh? I had heard voices speak to me like that a few times in my life and learned to trust them completely. For instance, eleven years earlier I woke from a sound sleep to a voice saying nonchalantly: “Ho hum, you have breast cancer.” That gave me the heebie jeebies and I went straight to the gynecologist, who palpated me and found nothing. But a subsequent mammogram proved the voice right. The tumor was so tiny it couldn’t be felt by hand. But ayahuasca? What was that? A friend of mine with an unintelligibly thick French accent had mentioned a drug that “helped you know yourself” with a similar sounding name a few years before, so I decided to make inquiries.
Oddly – or perhaps presciently – I only did enough research to learn that the drug was connected with vision quests, shamans and beautiful ceremonies in which the participants wore white. Had I learned more, like the drug filled you with terror and made you sick as a dog, I wouldn’t have had the courage to even flirt with the idea of taking it. But I allowed myself to remain clueless. When I asked around and discovered that a shaman from Brazil would be leading an ayahuasca journey in Santa Fe on April 15, my birthday, I knew I had to go.
Derived from the combination of several Amazonian plants, ayahuasca is not strictly legal in the U.S., though one can legally possess any of its ingredients, giving quite a bit of latitude toward its mixture and use. It is definitely not recreational and, in my opinion, requires the presence of a guide or shaman since once it is ingested – whew! – one can be transported from one’s body into another dimension in a way that can feel almost violent.
The ceremony I attended was in a geodesic house in the desert, several miles outside Santa Fe. There were thirty participants, almost all of them psychotherapists, psychiatrists, physicians and bodyworkers from different parts of the country. We gathered in a large circle, women on one side, men on the other. The shaman, who had a sweet, round, babyish face, told us in halting English that while you might feel as if you were going to die from the drug, no one ever had and it was perfectly safe. He was accompanied by three or four musicians and almost immediately they began to sing Portuguese songs – odes to the drug – in soft, rich voices. We were beckoned one-by-one into the kitchen, where we were given first a glass (three or four swallows) of the mixture, and then a strong piece of ginger to cover the taste. After that, we returned to our places. It would take half an hour for the drug to hit.
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