As we sat in our circle, waiting for the ayahuasca to take effect, the musicians plied us with their beautiful music. It was call-and-response. They would sing a phrase and we would dutifully repeat it, most of us unsure of its meaning since the words were in Portuguese. The scene was incredibly hypnotic: black starry desert sky peering down through the glass domes of the roof at all of us dressed in white, candles everywhere, voices raised in song. But plastic vomit bags lay within easy reach and that didn’t bode well. And indeed, suddenly a chill, a fine darkening of the air, descended over us and what had been beautiful moments before underwent a subtle shift and became ominous. I felt as if I were on a boat I no longer wanted to be on, a boat that had pulled away from the dock and was already well out on open sea.
First there was the nausea, a wave that seemed to hit all of us at once, thirty odd people groaning and reaching for their vomit bags. There was cramping, diarrhea, but worse than that, for me, was a kind of psychic sickness that’s hard to explain. I didn’t want to be in my skin. I didn’t want to sit. I didn’t want to stand. The music sounded creepy. I was intensely aware of my mortality. I felt my smallness in a universe filled with beings who weren’t necessarily friendly that opened suddenly like a vast accordion, an infinite ever-expanding space shot with areas of bright white light and implacable wormholes of darkness. I have never in my life been so terrified. And then out of that horror, after what seemed like eternity, stepped a being, a guide who knew me intimately and must have been connected to my soul.
I took two ayahuasca trips that spring and summer (the second, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, was led by a female shaman from Peru who sang the whole three hours). Both times were the same, initial sickness and terror followed by the arrival of a guide. On trip #1, the guide took me on a three-dimensional tour of my first marriage and several other failed relationships, explaining what had gone wrong and why. On trip #2, I was led into a shadowy place, a kind of mental maze I couldn’t find my way out of, and it was explained to me that this was the inside of my mother’s mind: she was ready to move on, but couldn’t find the exit. After both trips rose a feeling of profound peace and knowing that lasted for weeks.
The actual living horror of the experience was extinguished from memory in the same way one forgets the searing pain of childbirth (I wouldn’t have taken the second trip otherwise). I knew without question that my life had been altered by the drug. This may sound crazy, but I knew the guide who appeared to me was as real as my hand. You can call it what you want: an envoy of the soul, a part of my being that existed on a spiritual level. I knew the whole reason I had taken the trip was to learn about death and dying, and how to help my mother clear the way to her final exit.
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