Basics: Ayahuasca wikipedia page, whence my introductory remarks on what ayahuasca is, come.
Research and medical matters:
- Exeter and University College London study showing lower levels of alcoholism and depression in ayahuasca takers, compared with takers of other psychedelics.
- Rick Strassman’s study suggesting that DMT is not psychologically addictive.
- The wikipedia page contains useful information on the international legal situation.
- Legal status of ayahuasca by country.
- 2017 Irish Times account of court proceeding against ayahuasca importer.
A phrase I used in the expository part of the podcast, “the betterment of well people”, was coined by Rick Doblin of MAPS, but has been put into circulation by Michael Pollan whose book on the psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind (author’s site book page), is the one-stop shop for the interested, but non-obsessed. I read it in 2019, and recommend it.
Obviously, most of this podcast is based on personal experience.
One Wednesday in March, I called a friend of mine.
She had moved to England at the beginning of the year for work, and the last time I saw her before she went away, she told me with a stirring gratitude that she had attended an ayahuasca ceremony in November. Always apparently confident in herself, always with a sheer trust in life – you only know otherwise when she tells you – she exuded those qualities even more that January evening. It was great to see and I was heartily glad for her. I have to say, I was also thinking, “some people have all the luck”.
Because like a growing number of people, I had for quite a while thought that the descriptions of peoples’ experiences with ayahuasca that I heard on the internet were pretty captivating: of reckonings with the difficult elements of one’s life, of journeys to parallel realms. “I want that,” I thought, long before my friend had even mentioned it. I remember doing some cursory internet searches regarding what the situation was in Ireland, and finding chatrooms where nobody knew either, and also a Facebook profile with no profile picture. I didn’t get in touch, because it all seemed a bit impermeable and exclusive, and anyway could I trust these people? But it did remain a background wish, and as my friend told me, that’s what it had been for her too, until she got the chance. And maybe, in lots of cases, that is what you need for ayahuasca eventually to come to you.
When I called her in March, it was the first time I was doing so since she moved away. And I didn’t actually get through to her. But late that evening, I got a text saying – and of course I’m changing their names for the legal reasons I’ve mentioned – that Shaman Luke and Helene would be in Ireland this weekend. I remembered their names straight away. “You need to seize this opportunity,” my friend texted. I hope I would have done so anyway, that I wouldn’t have found some stupid excuse not to, or let a mental fog of delay make it too late before I took action. But the way she put it – that steely sentence, “You need to take this opportunity,” – meant there was no other option.
Money is pretty tight in these times for me, but for some reason that I couldn’t figure out the previous day I received more than, as far as I knew, I was due to have, from, let us say, a certain government source. I’m not saying it was necessarily more than I was entitled to, but it was more than I knew myself to be entitled to. I was surprised, but naturally I hadn’t questioned it. And now I wish I had. Because either way, in retrospect, it has the ring of sympathetic magic. And my call to my friend and her texted response also feels like magic. I’m glad I called her for the first time in months, that Wednesday, rather than the following Wednesday.
“You need to seize this opportunity”
So, on Friday afternoon, I got the train to the home of my friend’s mother, in a mid-sized Irish town. She too had attended that ceremony in November with her daughter, and I believe gladness for her experience meant she was glad to get me to the right place. She fed me a lovely meal of fish and potatoes, which I ate out of more than politeness. But I couldn’t help thinking I’d be seeing it again soon. As I ate, I was watching the Ireland-Turkey football friendly with her partner. If he was going anywhere later that Friday it was not to an ayahuasca ceremony, but to a pub; and I don’t think he had any idea about what it was or what it involved.
My friend’s mother and her partner kindly drove me to the house where the ceremony was to happen. The last thing my friend’s mother said before we got out of the car was, “If you feel like you need to vomit, don’t wait, just go!” I said a customary “good luck” to her partner, and he just said, “Sounds like you’re going to need that!”
An antique computer, a shabby office desk, a filing cabinet and lots of other clutter had been shunted to one of the walls of the room where the ceremony would be held. There were mattresses right along the length of two of the walls, and a fire was gently keeping itself warm in the fireplace. In one of the corners was a table where Luke, it had to be him, was sitting. We briefly said hello, and his intent concentration quickly went back to his phone, on which he was playing word games, which made me think of my mother, who plays Scrabble online.
His partner Helene by contrast was all busyness, organising the room, greeting everyone like long lost friends. She was dressed in a low-key hippyish fashion, head to toe in brioche bobbled knitting. Mentally I put her in a certain box, and then instantly judged myself for that.
A man from eastern Europe ascertained it was my first time taking ayahuasca. We got to talking about meditation somehow, and he said he had not done it before his first journey, but after that it was just natural to do. A friend and compatriot of his told me I would see how much Luke did during the ceremony. We were all milling around between the ceremony room and the kitchen, and I picked up that everyone there to attend seemed to be male, and then Helene made a comment about it. I felt uneasy about that. Everyone was nice and gentle, but we were an ugly bunch of lads, and it all and I felt a bit sad. A little lustre had worn off the adventure. Maybe I need to be clear here, that it’s not that I was thinking of chatting up women. Just that according to my own anxieties and limited way of reading things, I felt like I had accidentally but quite appropriately ended up attending a sad-sacks’ conference. I’ll get back to the men later.
Surely it is paranoia if the idea only plays around in your head, if you don’t believe it, and wouldn’t defend it, but if you only are willing to entertain the proposition, and might be more seriously willing to entertain it if there was more time in the day, that life is against you. Not people, mind, who are quite nice whether they are “real” or not, but some structure beyond them and you, whose outworkings would also to a great extent include your personality and stupid actions. If at times a malevolent God implanting small hopes and letting the programme continue towards painful disaster, just seems like as possible an explanation as any of the state of things, not more, but from time to time in your feelings like a racing certainty, and the only reason not to mention it in speech is that convention tells us not to, and that of course, as part of the programme, there will never be enough evidence for it, at least until it’s too late to say any of this with conviction, that is paranoia. So certainly I have been paranoid from time to time in recent years, and this feeling had descended on me again, mild and manageable as ever.
And then, when Helene’s work was done, Luke’s word game concluded, and we were all lying on the mattresses or sitting against the walls behind them, the ceremony began. Luke spoke about the indigenous people he first started to learn from, the Muisca, 15,000-strong, who live in the centre of Colombia, near Bogotá. And he spoke about the people he has begun most recently to learn from, the Cofan, of whom there are only 2000, but who are among the most vigorous protectors of the rights of indigenous people, living in the southwest of the country. There were other tribes too. I can’t remember from which people he learned the cosmogony, the story of the earth’s coming into being, that he told us, and which I can remember some of. Humans are said by this particular tribe to have come into being after a peace between four different types of creatures, who previously were all at war with each other: the people of the Sun, who sought only spiritual glory, who were directed towards the heavens; the Saturn people, the Saita, who mined the earth, and took its resources back to their planet; the Ogamo, who minded the earth, who were the earth’s tenders; and Cro-Magnon man, who sought to hunt, dominate and reproduce. And we humans are said to contain two genes each from these four peoples. I think that’s a great way to look at us.
Two genes each. Balance is all-important to the peoples of the Amazon basin. We would be receiving the yagé. That is what the Colombians tribes call ayahuasca, yagé. The name ayahuasca comes from Peru, where you find advertisements for it at the airport, in a way you don’t in Colombia, so naturally that’s the more famous name. But I will call the brew yagé from now on, and I’m going to languidly English that to yagé. So we would be receiving the yagé, which came from the earth and it was best to do it with gratitude. We ought to give back too, since we receive from the earth constantly. And according to Luke, we would begin when we vomited later on, that would be received gratefully by the earth. The vomit would be gratefully received, the bad feelings transmuted, and balance maintained.
I had stopped fretting. We were all listening closely. There was a different energy in the room. That was the point of Luke’s speaking: to get us to tune in, to bring a certain concentration in everyone there. And maybe Luke was tuning into us too. My friend swears that Luke picked up that she would need to go outside during the night to see the stars, while he was talking. Harmine, which is one of the monoamine oxidase inhibitors in the yagé vine, was originally known as telepathine. But let’s lay all claims of spooky action at a distance aside for the moment.
In a phrase that’s really stuck with me Luke said, “You will get a knowledge or feeling,” as though the two words meant the same thing. But he worked for years in a recognised profession, and knows as well as anyone that we don’t normally consider these the same things. He said that the way Amazonian people can see even those living in big cities in South America is as people always searching for knowledge, without seeking the type of knowledge or feeling that alone could help to decide what was worthy to pursue. When Luke is working in a ceremony, he is using precisely a “knowledge or feeling” to help him in assisting attendees.
While he was talking Luke had passed around coca leaves, which we put in the left side of our mouths, and ambil, a thick tobacco paste, which we rubbed onto the right side of our mouths using what I think was a jaguar’s tooth. And now, last thing before taking the yagé, Helene used a pipe to blow snuff tobacco right up our noses and, it felt like, straight into our brains. My head felt extremely fresh and clear. I could absolutely believe what Luke said, that two weeks of this had cured psychoses, brought people back to reality, as he said. But its function that night was to make us open, to clear our heads, so as better to receive our visions. Luke called this opahosca; but it’s most famously known by its Brazilian name, rapé.
And maybe it was while Helene was clearing our heads through opahosca that I saw Luke quietly intoning, looking at the brew, which was contained in ordinary two-litre plastic bottles, the plastic looking a little tired and worn, and intoning. As he had said he would, he was calling to his masters, the yagé men and women who had taught him, and who even this very evening would be protecting him, and by extension those attending, if he encountered any danger in the parallel realms we would be visiting. The masters are called taitas, which means fathers, and abuelas, Spanish for grandmothers. Indigenous custom seems to be more conservative in Colombia than elsewhere in South America. Women need to be old before being recognised as worthy to speak about the world encountered in yagé. But Luke had first learned about yagé from an abuela, who had told him to be gentle with people participating in his ceremonies, but especially with Europeans. Luke advised us to take at least two cups of yagé that night, but that we were welcome to take as many as we wished. To pour a cup for us was a blessing for him.
Now, the electric light was turned off, the main light now came from the fire, and one by one, we approached Luke’s table. People who had taken yagé before knelt down to receive their cup, which was followed up by a drink of water. I remained standing, as Luke passed me the cup and said, “Receive all the blessing”. Depending on how it’s made, ayahuasca, yagé, has a reputation for having a foul taste, but this was not bad: like fermented cocoa, slightly sweet. Cocoaey kambucha.
And then we waited. I can’t actually remember purging after my first cup, though I’m sure I did. What I remember is that I started to see a very small white light dart about the room, from left to right, and up and down, like a Pong ball. But it felt a bit more magical than that sounds. And when I closed my eyes, squares and circles of colour exploded in my vision: the so-called psychedelic colours: orange, red, cyan blue, pure blue, parakeet green. They were emerging from a black background. Famously, this is described as being like a computer screensaver. Someone after my second night described what she saw as being like the lining of a suitcase. As hackneyed as it all may sound, both to people who have and who haven’t met these colours with a new intensity on taking an entheogen, coming across this for the first time in personal experience, I was grateful. “Oh, it’s that thing.” The colours are probably the most famous thing about psychedelic experience, but it was new to me, and it was already worthwhile experience. I believe they are a kind, gentle introduction, designed not to overwhelm you, to a world alongside the everyday one.
After some time, I got up, and took a second cup and again waited. It feels a little like ordinary alcoholic drunkenness when you move around having taken yagé, and even at the time, it was pretty funny seeing everyone outside looking and feeling terrible as we purged, when we knew what we had signed up for.
I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water after the purge. I was a little restless. I was thinking of my brother, and I was thinking, “Yes, it’s been interesting, but would I recommend this to him? Not sure.” That I would tell him, try it but don’t expect too much. And I was getting a little frustrated that whatever was supposed to be happening, wasn’t happening. I feel ashamed of that now.
I walked over to the stove, and my attention was grabbed by a decorative plate hung on the wall above it. It was a mandala! If you don’t know what a mandala is, do google it and you’ll recognise it. But the definition is a geometric pattern that symbolically or metaphysically represents the cosmos. This one was not as intricate as Buddhist mandalas, naturally, but it was pulsing with life. The lines that came out from the centre and looped in on themselves were moving in their given pattern like a snake moving around but not going anywhere, and reflecting light afresh with each scale on its body. I would not normally have thought of a patterned decorative plate as being at all like a mandala. This was all a bit much, and feeling ever drunker, I sat at the kitchen table and put my head down. And I began to be stunned.
The colours were ever more intense, I began to have a great delight in seeing them: it’s like they convey more life. And there were “little people” in the vision. For the moment I want to bracket that matter of “little people” who I have only since found out are often seen in visions. The famous, and famously semi-reputable advocate of psychedelics Terence McKenna made them famous and called them “machine elves”, or “fractal elves” – which are less ridiculous phrases than they may seem – and have said that what the elves are doing is holding our reality together and helping further to create it. But this was my first visionary experience. I had no idea that this was a common thing. Instead, my attention was being focused on, in every sense, the heart of the matter.
Because the little people and the colours were accompanied by a feeling of great love. I can only call the feeling of being loved that came to me shocking, something I could not have guessed at; I could not have known it possible. It was of a piece with the feeling of connectedness we might have in daily love, but also beyond it. And both sides of that binary are valuable: daily-love is of a piece with this beyond-love. I can only say that I was forced to drink this feeling in.
This loved-feeling was the background reassurance I needed for the tougher things I was soon being confronted with. For a number of years, I have often felt physically pathetic. A traumatic chain of events was followed by hair coming out in clumps, and, often uneasy in my physical being, that feeling ramped up. Now, sitting at the kitchen table, feeling in part like a common drunk, I was touching my hair, and feeling sensitive about the lost stuff. I felt ugly and old. I touched my face with my hands and it felt thin and worn. I was given the feeling that all those anxieties were true.
I was also put in touch with my anxieties about love relationships: about being wanted, wanting, all that. With all these anxieties, I would normally skip on from them in my thoughts, through various means – reading, drinking, work, running, sleep. Now I was being forced to feel them. All I could do was lie on the table and deal with the feeling of being a human slug. Actually, now and then, right throughout these visions, when things got too intense, I would raise my head and have a stunned look around the perfectly normal kitchen. And then my head would go down again: hard-to-take as what I was seeing and feeling was, it was enthralling. When things got too a little too painful again, I would sometimes find myself saying, “I know, I know”, and things would soften a little. And sometimes, from out of nowhere, it’s not a sound I’d ever made before, “Om”. Going “Om” seemed to make whatever was being brought to my attention bearable, maybe even to integrate it somehow.
My attention was brought to my family and parents. I did now think, my brother has to do this. More spookily, and slightly contradicting what I thought about my brother, I was certain that my parents and siblings all already had done this, that I had been the laggard, and that there would be a new understanding between us now that I had caught up. Now obviously, there was an element of the delusional there, at least as far as I know. (It’s not a topic that’s easy to bring up at the dinner table.) And I guess that could lead people to dismiss the whole experience. If yagé can mislead you that way, what real value can there be in it? All I’d say is that this is another aspect in which you have to take the rough with the smooth. In a yagé trip, people can believe they’re Jesus. But what harm is there in that, if they come out of it, as they so often do, with a little more feeling of love for all humanity? Or just a sense of how they usually fall short of that love? In my case, I was left with a renewed sense of my family as eternal souls, if you like, not just “my family”, and most poignantly for me, “my parents”.
Another thing: I have an interest in astrology. Or rather I entertain it, without needing a proof, on those occasions when it turns up something striking as it did that day. Almost the last thing I did before leaving Dublin was to check where the planets that day were in relation to my birth-chart, what is called my transits. Now that day Mars, which represents vigorous experience and great action was sat right where Neptune, which represents the dreamy and the visionary, was when I was born. So we get a vigorous experience of the visionary, which is pretty apt for that night, especially seeing as that alignment only happens once every two years. But now in my consciousness, astrology was being made highly contingent, was smashed up, rendered useless. This was a nice reminder that whatever astrology would say about my personality, or more importantly what I might say about my personality, was useless. Whatever I was I was different and more than what I seem to be.
Also, relatedly, I was shown a map of Europe, the ebb and flow of its political borders as the Second World War progressed; and a reminder of the pain of both the war itself and of the Nazi dominion was conveyed to me. What I felt was a befitting sadness. For a few years, I have guessed that things could get very chaotic in this century. I don’t like ahistorical panic, because political life has always been pretty brutal, but in a sense things are already getting a little more chaotic. And we’re going to have to respond wisely and well, with our hearts in fact.
What these two things, astrology and the Second World War, have in common, is being part of the time system, and in the plain, call it that, coming to meet me, time, or anyway, time as we experience it, was not of the essence.
I could have stood outside myself
Pragmatically, we can have no conception of what eternality is. All I’ll say is that I had the sense that it is not to be discounted because of our lack of imagination, not to be feared, not to be thought boring even, because of our failure to conceive it. I remember very clearly the sense that my becoming, I would say anyone’s becoming, evolution if you prefer, would be a very long journey, an infinite journey, And that this night was a fresh start. When I am finished with one stage of doing and being, there will be another. This was exhilarating, not daunting, though certainly vast and challenging. It was a very very hopeful thing. Whatever rut we might find ourselves in, there are always more challenges, and things to believe in and act for in life. The feeling that can come, that life is a one-way ticket to the burial place, with added distractions, is not a reality. Life is not stale, but an adventure.
And while time is perhaps not of the essence of things, it is valuable. The deepest part of this experience was a kind of ratification or maybe you could say a recapitulation of a decision I previously made to be myself, strange as that sounds. During this part of the vision, I felt like I could deeply explore being another person, or people; that I could enter into a wholly other experience. And this was a certainly ecstatic experience in all senses – very happy; but the word ecstatic comes from the Greek for to stand outside oneself. I could have stood outside myself. This possibility was met by the logical objection that I would no longer be me. I was still very excited by this mixing and merging, this sense of other possibilities. But the logical objection took hold a little, and I came back with great gladness into my situation, into being Rory.
Nevertheless, the logic and whole premise of this experience was that there is a choice involved in being oneself. And, or but, also that what one is is different from what we can call one’s day-to-day or personal or ego-experience. Being yourself, and also not being what you ordinarily experience as yourself, which is also quite possible, are both enjoyable, enlightening, and lightening experiences.
What envisioning or recapitulating a decision to be myself – as you can hear I’m having a little trouble deciding how to think of that experience – did was bring together all the threads of that vision in the kitchen. The feeling of shame, the accidents and essentials of my life, the parents I have, the time I was born in, were essentially affirmed.
Well, all this was enough for now. In retrospect I’m glad that yagé caught up with me when I was alone in the kitchen – no one came in during an experience that I guess was about an hour and a half – because it had been so visceral and so personal. I remember my pure exhilaration, and continued disbelief, as I left the kitchen and went back to the ceremony room. So much exhilaration that despite Luke’s instruction that we be quiet during the night, so as not to disturb other people’s visions, I threw myself down on my part of the mattress, saying, “So what’s coming next?!” I clearly remember expecting things to go on being as bright but also as dark as they had been. And I actually didn’t mind, because I already I trusted whatever would come would be for the best. But seemingly, if you can allow me to personify it, yagé kindly thought I had undergone enough darkness that night, and I was treated to a sound and light show. Eyes closed, I saw colours coming towards me relaxedly, mellowly now, with none of the shock and speed and change they had in the kitchen I could hear sustained musical notes sounding. The sound and colours were in sync. All I had to do to change the colours and help compose the tune was move any of my fingers. And I couldn’t go wrong: they were always sweet and beautiful. It sounds so simple that I’m not sure I can convey how much fun this was. I was laughing, and the folks I was with noticed that. People say, high-mindedly and truly, that yagé is not a recreational drug; that it is to be benefitted from spiritually; “worked with,” as they say. But it would give people the wrong impression if I didn’t say that it was fun. I was glad to hear Luke say, when he was asked what a shaman does for fun, that he does a ceremony. This, my only experience of synaesthesia, was play.
I can’t remember falling asleep, and it seems to be the case that in yagé that waking dreams pass into sleeping visions. You maintain a kind of consciousness. Anyway, at some point, I did fall asleep, a little earlier than I would have liked, because when it came time I was determined to remain awake for as long as possible the following night.
But according to Luke, the ceremony only ends in the morning, with what he calls the healing, another part of whose function is to bring you down from the high energy of the night. For example, stripped to the waist, we were sprayed with lemon essence to separate us from the spirits and entities involved during the night. Lemon juice is like garlic apparently, they keep away Draculas but also more friendly spirits.
I can’t remember which morning it was, but even despite the extraordinary visions, during one of the healings I was having some monkey-minded, anxious thoughts. And Luke put his hand at the back of my head for a few seconds, and I’m not sure what he did, but my mind just emptied, the thoughts just disappeared. It was nice, and I wish I could do that. Instead I try to remind myself of what the Buddhists say about random thoughts, including negative ones, that they are “direct expressions of mind’s pure, luminous nature”. But even if to this day I don’t always act like it, the entire yagé journey is the biggest demonstration that your thoughts, monkey-minded or inspired, are not you, that lots of what you think of as you are not you. That entirely other stuff lives concurrent with what we recognise as our pains and pleasures.
After that first night, full of the joys of Spring and just going along for the ride, I said yes to doing a liver cleanse. The liver of course cleans the blood, and receives all sorts of toxins. So the idea here is to clean all that out, and you’re supposed to feel like a warrior after it. Helene made a small foamy drink, the volume of a normal cup, from what is called in the Amazon a cocora seed. Luke and Helene don’t know what the botanists call it, or what it’s called in English. Apparently the cocora fruit tastes like a mango. But the seed is potentially poisonous, so you drink water after drinking the cocora drink.
So we drank the tea made from the cocora seed. And then we started drinking water. I drank a litre of water. The second I stopped to take a breath, Helene started saying, “Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink”. And when I stopped for a second after the second litre, again, “Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, drink”. What was supposed to happen was that you drink a load of water, and the cocora seed brew provokes liver bile to come up as part of the water you vomit. By the time I was on litre three or four, and still seeing crystalline water coming out of me every minute or so, and Helene was still saying, “Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink,” I knew she was a nasty bitch. The two other fellas who did the cleanse both managed to bring up the bile, and they both started to feel like a million bucks. When I was on litre five or six, and Helene, out of nowhere, said, “This is because you do not express your feelings,” I thought, how the hell does she know, and also that she should have been glad that it’s true.
In the end my liver cleanse was called off. I was now quietly worried that since I hadn’t purged the bile, I was going to be poisoned by the cocora seed. But I didn’t say anything. No-one else was particularly worried on my behalf. Helene made me some other potion or concoction to end the cleanse, and this, which turned out to be lovely and sweet, I drank at the kitchen table. Everyone else was just chatting and having breakfast now. But despite the heights of the previous night, after my failed bile purge I felt like a miserable old dog.
It wasn’t all the water I’d drunk, which had all come back up, or the cocora seed, which as far as I knew wasn’t going to poison me. It was an emotional thing; I felt sad. “This is because you do not express your feelings.” Those words had hit me. The fact of being at the kitchen table, where everything had kicked off for me with such delight a couple of hours before, felt deeply ironic. I was still little me and I felt sad. The joy and glad insight had been worthless and I was back to square one. After a while I just started quietly to cry, and kept crying for quite a while. Everyone was nice, but no-one was particularly effusive, they just kept talking, and let me get on with my tears at the table.
I don’t know if the liver cleanse is supposed to sometimes work like that, if this was Plan B, but the crying was my cleanse. I started to feel happy again. It was a supernally sunny day, coming not long after the Beast from the East. One of the attendees, Malcolm, used the phrase “tripping balls” about the last night, and the contrast between the exalted spiritual states we’d been in, and the no-getting-round-it fact that we were all blitzed on Colombia’s very strongest, struck me as the funniest thing in the world. I was lolling again.
Malcolm, a first-timer like me, had in fact had a very powerful experience. He had been toying with the idea of going back to college to get a further qualification, a Master’s I think. The vision that he had asked him to consider that he would have less time for his wife and two sons, who were there that morning, and also that he might not enjoy the work he would qualify for when he had the degree. He was also shown symbols from a particular stream of Buddhism, and enough information that he was able to google it, and find out its name. So, a lot to chew on, and even though he had booked two nights, Malcolm was keen for his wife, Jane, to participate instead of him on the second night, which she did. Apparently, they’d both been interested in taking ayahuasca, but had never talked about it to each other, until Malcolm got the opportunity in just as chancy a way as I did.
Another participant, Charlie, had seen octopuses, had actually been forced to look at them up close, to see everything beautiful in them. I just remember that little detail, out of all the things people said about what they saw. But it’s the kind of thing yagé does: take something like octopuses are ugly, and turn it on its head, make the world stranger, highlight the contradictions.
For example, that silly judgement, rooted in my worries, that I had stumbled on the sad-sacks’ conference, had of course vanished. I would defy anyone not to feel the greatest solidarity with people who they’d attended a yagé ceremony with. A couple of people there did have very non-mainstream backgrounds – a yoga instructor, an energy healer – and I would bet that’s the case for lots of ayahuasca retreats. But, quietly for me, these are my people. Anyway, very quickly, I just loved everyone there.
I had made no plan for going home or staying a second night. And definitely that Saturday morning, I was thinking I couldn’t do that again for a long, long time. But the extremes of emotions that morning – the misery of the liver cleanse, the tears, the gladness of being after the tears – had taken a lot out of me. Physically I felt a little weak, but more than that, going right back to Dublin and resuming the daily grind felt impossible. So, I just stuck around for the afternoon, still thinking but I’m not doing that again.
Some people did go off home. And then Luke, Helene, and a couple of people who were staying for another night decided to drive off for coffee and a walk. And just because I was tired, I wanted to stay at the house. As their car went along the driveway – by the way, I was amazed anyone thought they could drive after the previous night – in self-conscious imitation of childhood, I started to run ahead of it, I wanted to beat the car in “the race” to the public road. When we all got there, and the car stopped, we were all laughing, and I was really glad to hear Helene say, “He is like a child!”
Maybe it seems like I’m wandering off the subject of the yagé experience, but it is actually part of it all. The extended aftereffects of yagé are to me some of the most interesting. They’re also little easier to talk about. I’ve since read that one of the avenues of scientific research on psychedelics is to do with their effect on what’s called the default mode network, or DMN, which is the brain network activated when thinking about oneself, about other people, while remembering the past, and while planning the future. All very adult stuff, and the DMN is what neurobiology more or less recognises as the ego. What the psychedelics do, say the neurobiologists, is shut down the default mode network. Other beings whose DMN is underdeveloped are animals and children. As has been said, children are tripping all the time. So it makes sense that I’d be racing against the car like a kid.
When everyone was gone, I rested for a little while. By now, I felt not so much weak as delicate. But there was a commercial Sitka spruce forest nearby that I was determined to walk in. The house where we were did have some fields attached, but I didn’t really know what belonged to the homeowner, and after all I had barely met him.
I don’t know if it sounds like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here, but while climbing over the steel gate I was afraid of being either shot or told off, but also aware of how ridiculous it was to fear such things. But I think all those feelings are common enough – for example, my father recently mentioned the risk of scary minor rebuke you run in using someone’s wheelie bin to dispose of litter you kindly pick up on the street, and the slight encouraging oneself necessary to do it. But as I say, what hit me was how ridiculous the whole complex of small-scale fear, and counter-argument you make in your mind to get past that fear. Anyway, there were of course no problems, I didn’t get shot or told off.
My walk in the forest was lit by the wisdom Luke and the visions had imparted during the night. Luke had said, the earth gives so much to us. It was brought home to me as more than a platitude that forests are where we get the air we need to live. They need to be looked after, for their sake as well as ours. Again, I found myself going Om. It has an effect on the body. And, forgive me, I defecated in the forest, which in all sincerity was a giving, as Luke had said the purge was. Suffice it to say, I was taking stock of the earth, which we would all do a bit more if we had guidance from people living in the Amazonian forest.
On the way back to the house, there were two horses in a stable, one extraordinarily timid and the other very stubborn. I wasn’t surprised when the homeowner later told me that the timid one had been abandoned by his mother at birth. When I was with him, silly as it might sound, I was trying to communicate some peace and ease to him, just with my mind. Yagé will do that, make you open to the idea of wholly mental communication with animals. And then, I wish I was kidding, when I went to the stubborn horse, what I took as confirmation of that possibility, of horse-whispering I guess, happened. As I was stroking the horse’s nose, his mouth took a firm grip of my jumper sleeve. I tried to pull it from him a couple of times, with no joy. And then I totally silently, with no gestures, just said in my mind to the horse, when I think now, you’ll let go like a good horse. I waited, and then thought now, and he did let go of my sleeve. Coincidence? I think possibly, but not necessarily, and I definitely didn’t at the time. I was delighted later that afternoon in the kitchen when Helene said, “The horses understand humans so well!” Just for what it’s worth.
One of the funniest aspects about the weekend is that the homeowner, a reserved but friendly man in his 50s, didn’t know anything beyond the very basics about ayahuasca. So he was listening to what must have seemed like a load of nonsense at the kitchen table. When I pointed at the plate over the stove, and said “It’s a mandala!” Luke just kept playing his word game, and the homeowner’s eyes widened in mild disbelief.
Everyone who’d been there the night before slept a bit in the late afternoon and early evening. Then a couple of new attendees arrived, all women. And things started to take shape for my second evening. There was talk about what the night would bring. Charlie at one point said with perfect seriousness, “We need to smash the system”. We were talking about and meant really the head system, which produces fears, doing the same old thing again, getting the same results, rationalisations, the cautious course, the world of convention. And really we meant it personally, but if it happened to enough people, it would have a societal effect. One of the longest lasting effects of yagé is the ongoing occasional reminder of the possibility of experiment, of doing things differently.
In time, everyone entered the ceremony room and the door was closed. After the same quietness and aloofness from everyone else attending, Luke began to speak. The next day he said that the reason for the quietness is that he is always nervous before a ceremony begins, wishing it will go well for everyone. And he’s relieved when it begins, and he starts to enjoy it. Again, the speech, the tuning in. Again the opahosca, the snuff tobacco, little black particles of which I’d been blowing out of my nose during the day. While Luke was talking, I saw what looked to me like an expression of pure terror on the face of a young woman who was with us. I couldn’t interrupt, but I felt the strongest sympathy for her. I wondered a little what was the matter, and I knew that in this ceremony at least there was no cause for terror.
We took our cups. We “received all the blessing,” as Luke said. Now that I knew the territory, I was actually much more apprehensive than the previous night. But the beginning was the same. The faint colours, the gentle introduction to another world. But very quickly, Albert, who was lying right beside me, was in great distress. He was talking to anyone around him, including me, in his native Slovak. I felt like I couldn’t be much use to him, and while sincerely wishing for his best, I focused on trying to calm my own developing nausea. Luke came quickly and started to shake his leaves. He sang a medicine song. I wonder now if he directed the purifying energy of the blazing fire to Albert too. Apparently, it was his doing this spontaneously at someone in distress during a ceremony, that had caught the attention of the abuela, the grandmother, who began to think it was worth training Luke as a yagé man. She had not thought it would ever occur to a European to use this type of magic.
Albert later told us that at that moment, he had been attending his own funeral. Ayahuasca after all is called the vine of the dead. No one attending the funeral was helping him, which I guess included me, lying beside him at that moment. And when Luke turned up to help, what he had done was speed up the funeral! And it worked. A couple of minutes later, Albert was past his funeral.
In due course, it came time for me to purge. I went out to the old-fashioned iron railings, which surrounded the front lawn or field. You know how it is in country houses, the grass is halfway between lawn and field. I purged and felt absolutely awful, as though I’d been attacked from within. The kind of puke when you have had too much alcohol, know you are a bloody fool, hate yourself, know it to be fundamentally a moral problem, and also know that you do not love yourself as you should. Like, you know you have a problem, right? So, at the end of the purge, I let out the rawest and most primitive yell of my life. This was so long, loud and guttural, yet also so low-pitched, that Albert, who by now was again right as rain, told me to come away from the railings for the sake of the neighbours, who were only across the road. The next day he recommended that I get a Tibetan singing bowl, because I would seemingly make a great Tibetan throat singer, like the ones you see on Grafton Street in Dublin. I know what Luke means when he says that you are also “vomiting feelings”. I felt like a devil had been ejected from me and I went back inside.
And not long after that, I came to be sat on the end of my mattress, quietly steeling myself to take the second cup. I sat there for ten or fifteen minutes, knowing I had to do it, but just allowing the will to crystallise, because there would surely be something tough about the night. When I walked towards Luke’s altar, he was smiling broadly as he had not before. He said this thing, which he would say now and then during the night, after banging the drum, rattling the leaves, and the other things, which he did to keep the energy in the room at the right level. It sounded something like, Deshhhhh! It makes me smile now, because I can’t remember precisely the sound it was, but it was something like this Arab name for ISIS, though I definitely wasn’t thinking that at the time. I guess it’s said by the taitas in the Amazon. But Luke’s smile and saying Deshhhhh! was the encouragement I needed, and for the first time I knelt to receive the yagé. I had a reverence for yagé’s power by now, I knew it would take me somewhere and to kneel in thanks seemed only natural as I drank.
Helene then encouraged me to come to the fire, to think of and thank my ancestors. And after thinking of them, thanking them, and making a wish, I threw a nut into the fire. And then some of us there danced for a while… But think of that, acknowledging one’s ancestors. George Orwell wrote, when writing about planting a tree, that only a great-grandchild would see it in maturity, and who cares for their great-grandchild? Of course it was less common to see them in his time. But the same is true in reverse: who cares for their ancestors? Helene, I think, meant, and I was thinking about, the ones lost in the mist of time, who couldn’t be known, who have left no trace. We moderns recoil, rightly I think, from ancestor worship and from the idea certain cultures have that people are reincarnated only into their own tribes. But to acknowledge them, and be thankful, was a strange but welcome thought. You are here at all, but also with the parents and genetic inheritance, and many other things that you have, because of them, after all. It is not necessary to know anything about them to think of and thank them. When I mentioned once to a friend just in passing that my maternal grandfather had died before I was born, she replied that nevertheless I could talk to them. As I did, in due course. But I have needed Helene’s and my friend’s encouragement even to think of these topics. So, if you’re at all inclined to think along these lines, may this be the encouragement you may be seeking.
I began to feel terrible, truly terrible
I went outside to purge, not in the direction of the neighbours this time. But it kept not happening. For a while I talked to a friend of the woman who earlier had the look of terror. It turned out her friend had cancer. It was the birthday of the woman I was talking to, and she had been invited on a night out in Dublin. But she wasn’t going to let her friend do this on her own. So here they were. I got talking to Albert and his relative, Jackie. Jackie pointed up to the night sky, and said, “It’s a globe, the world is a globe,” and yes, at that moment you could see, because of the stars, the curve in the sky, the ever expanding sphere arising from our point in the macrocosm. I have felt since the yagé ceremonies that whatever the infinite spaces beyond us are all about, and even if they did turn out to be eternally silent, as the philosopher Blaise Pascal feared, it does not frighten me, as he said it did him. If you can begin to be comfortable with parallel dimensions, you can certainly be comfortable with whatever is going on this one, and not take its vastness as a challenge, but be at one with it.
Jackie left, and all of a sudden, I began to feel terrible, truly terrible. These were the most unredeemably terrible few minutes of the weekend. Doubled over, I felt never more alone, even with Albert there, and being kind. I wondered what the hell I was doing there, looking at the stone paving in front of the house, whatever the hell was I doing there? My luck had run out. This was going to be a straightforward, good old-fashioned bad trip. The next few months would be pain and the memory of pain, flashbacks. I took it like a stab in the back when Albert quite reasonably said he was going inside. I could not have imagined being on my own at that moment, so I joined him.
I never did purge. Maybe those darkest few minutes of the weekend were enough. Part of yagé is that you know yourself to be of the essence of the world – the illusion of separation is removed – but for those few moments all I was I was the shit on your shoe. The feeling passed.
And the visions came. In an uncanny way, the territory of some of the visions that night was familiar to me, I had encountered it in what I felt at the time was an unusually intense and strange dream a couple of months before. It had struck me, stayed with me. But, for us normal people, what can come of a strange dream? It is an irruption into consciousness, of which we can make nothing further, and usually forget. But here it was again, repeated, expanded, intensified, and happening while I was awake.
We come to the questions: what are dreams, and what is the nature of the visions that arise in yagé? The fact of the dream’s being repeated could lead a materialist to say that the vision is what they say a dream is: a brain defragmentation, like when a computer is resorting what it contains on its memory drive, in order to be more efficient. A bringing forth of irrational connections to be able to inter them better. Anyway, the dream-stuff, and the vision-stuff, would have to be in your head already. And I am not saying that’s wrong. No matter how mind-blowing and beyond me it seemed to me, to be minimally comprehensible to me, I had to have encountered things that could be reformulated somehow into the thoughts and feelings that I met that night.
Again, all I can say is that I believe something beyond, and superintending, me, maybe with intermixed elements of the irrational or transpersonal, was showing me things, during the dream months before, and during the vision that night.
Here’s how some of that vision went. Odd as it sounds, I was introduced to the idea that something like a game app for a mobile phone, was being rolled out. In some ways in was like an upgrade to the life we know. To some people at first, and in due course to others. There was a long process of learning to play, which was difficult to learn.
A feature, if you will, was that we can go up a level, go “one up”, or and in due course go up many levels. We can advance in the game. This was represented like in a videogame, with an audiovisual celebratory display. It’s worth saying that videogames were never a big part of my life. I can’t imagine the ideas being shown to me here were shown this way, because as a young man of the right generation I might be expected to grasp with it this way, naturally, since it was at one with my experience. It’s just the way it came. In the same way, I never much liked psychedelic art, the colours you see in the work of the artists Alex Grey and Robert Venosa, because it didn’t feel real and seemed garish. I have to say now, that whatever I think of their painting, they’re depicting real experience, and their work has the power to bring things back to me.
Anyway in the game, this game of life of a kind, we were excited for one another if one of us had gone up a level, which was a kind of spiritual advance. Thrilled, in fact. No matter what stage any of us were at, we all had a knowing that our own personal advances would come at the proper time. Looking back at that, from the outside, I would say that in the game that there were no spiritual injustices. But inside the game, it was more that it was a game, with rules, but the idea was always to enjoy it no matter what was happening.
It was not all easy-going. We game players were confronted with a kind of challenging force, which I guess in our everyday consciousness we would call evil. The bit of this vision that most touched on my life was some encouragement I got to continue to study and hone my skills in the investigation of state-sponsored terror, which I was given to understand may end up also being useful in other respects too.
I feel not embarrassed, but open to teasing, about excitedly recounting a vision of something like a videogame about a communal project of love and betterment for the world with dragons in boxes making an appearance. Because it could seem so flimsy, so ludicrous from the outside. On the other hand, I mentioned Charlie’s vision of octopuses, of seeing them as beautiful, and while I didn’t have that, I don’t think it at all ridiculous, am absolutely prepared to believe the depth and true meaning it had and I’m sure continues to have for him. So having a parallel experience absolutely opens me up to an imaginative sympathy with his vision. And I guess that’s what I’d say to anyone too keen to mock or undervalue it.
As I said when introducing the podcast, dimethyltryptamine is a molecule very similar to serotonin, the happiness endorphin. And I guess someone imagining what scientific common sense would say about yagé visions would say: you’re out of your mind blissed out, and that’s what attaches you to the simple, and, looked at in the cold light of day, generic, platitudinous messages received; and to the dragons and other crazy stuff you see, which is really just mental candy.
Well, fine. If there was nothing especially revelatory about a yagé vision, its value would be in the object lessons it provides, and the way it tears down defences while delivering them. The experience of the second night felt way more intense than the first night, which was already the strangest experience of my life. I gather that this is the way it works: yagé readies you with milder experiences, and lets it get ever more intense in its usual contradictory way: more beautiful, more sublimely challenging. A couple of the people who had experience of yagé before that weekend had very challenging experiences that night, Albert’s funeral was only one example.
I mentioned paranoia early in the podcast, the fear of having little hopes implanted, and then the programme continuing on to disaster. During both nights, I was contending a bit with the idea of the world as a computer programme or simulation. Now previously if I ever seriously entertained this idea, and I’m not sure I can remember doing so, but whatever: it would have induced that mild, manageable, all-in-the-mind paranoia I mentioned. Because silly as it is, you can’t disprove it. What’s more it’s kind of a fashionable idea at the moment, and some techie and scientific people who are not quite thinkers are putting it forward: the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the state-aided billionaire Elon Musk. They seem to like this idea. To me, it remains a sub-optimal theory. We need to accept and welcome mystery, and I do; but the world as programme or simulation is something else: finally more like deception.
I remember even as a child, and I mean 10 or 12, not 4 or 5, I would sometimes wonder, why do we have bodies and why do we have to walk, why walking? The fact of physical space was evidently not a good enough answer to these questions, because to the pure thinking in me it seemed so contingent. We know nothing. Why space?
The essential part of this is the blissful feeling or knowledge of reckoning easily with what appears in daily life the contradiction between finite life, which can lay on people more or less, so that it might seem to some like creating a drama to dwell on it, but it has been able to make me quite sad and cut up and unresolved at times about life and my life, between all that and the intimation of immortality, or infinity. Yagé makes you feel like you are known by eternity, it provides an introduction to it. That contradiction is essential.
So for me, pretty much by chance, but also in line with some current intellectual trends, if you want to call them that, I started thinking about the illusion in terms of the app, the computer. But of course that matter of illusion need not necessarily be approached that way. This is the purest speculation, but I recently had the thought that maybe when some Western people took yagé in previous generations, they were brought into visions about what seems like the cinematic in life, and about what may be spooky in that. Cinema was the critical medium for a couple of generations, and it has long been associated with illusion. So how that might have seemed unreal in life, what might have turned up in the visions, what may have needed reconciling with, would be: the fact that, as cinema would represent us, we are all pitched into events in life which from the outside can look like stories, but from the inside like catastrophes; that, cinematically, we appear to be characters immersed in those stories, while to ourselves there is something recessed from all that happenstance.
If life was a video game, to be played, something that I took from the yagé experience is that there would be no point in taking things overseriously. If you were in some sense being played, it would be equally true, in that sense, that life was essentially play. If life is play, that makes one free to take risks. There was less to fear, no wrong decisions, no catastrophes. We are a lot freer than we think, and we could use that reminder occasionally.
In writing this article about yagé, I have utterly failed in many respects to recap the vision of life I was given, in its unity and intensity. I can only remind myself that yagé would forgive the failure. I actually spent a week in Sligo on my own soon after the experience, doing little else except trying to write down as much as possible about it. And I still only managed to get early in the second night, so that I wish now I could recall more of that game, which went on for hours that night, and involved a lot of learning, and is now gone, except for a little bit that’s come back while writing
Really what’s important about yagé for the rest of one’s life is the reminder to be without fear, that’s we’re connected with life even when we feel alienated. And I don’t mean anything airy-fairy by that, I mean: “being connected with life” means having some power and control in it. Even while playing with the sounds and colours, one of the things I was being shown was the power I had in other aspects of life. Also, that improvements are possible. I can’t say I live like that all the time, but I’d still say that as a direct result of the experience I started running again, lost weight, cut back on drinking alcohol, and I have a certain trust that things I sometimes am in fear of, will work out. Sometimes I do also look at all of life as being alive, I mean even the stones, the minerals, the cars; which is nice. So it’s a worthwhile experience.
During the second night I found out by chance, followed by a little experiment, that the visions became less intense, receded a little, if I lay on my side, not my back. And I found this useful, because it got to be more than I could handle at times. It was the same as raising my head in the kitchen. And then I noticed, as the sun started to rise, that whenever I looked at Luke, on his mattress, he was flat on his back, face and toes pointed to the ceiling. When we were all up, I asked him if he did that to be more receptive to the visions, and he simply said yes. I guess the idea of being pointed in the direction of the sky to receive the visions is evident, and to me intriguing, but I’m not pressing it.
Day started to take shape, the healing happened, the men and women doing it separately. Later at the kitchen table, I was quite sorry to hear that none of the women there had had any intense experiences during the night. I know that women having their period don’t see visions, because of their own energy at that time, which Helene said can be harnessed instead for a moon ceremony. And apparently ayahuasca is not to be taken after women are two months pregnant, and for men after their wife or partner is five months pregnant. Anyway, they seemingly had quite enjoyed seeing the convulsions and craziness of the men.
Luke and Helene were going to be there for one more night, but by the late afternoon, it was getting to time for me to go. The homeowner, who had been aloof from all the proceedings of the weekend, started to get interested on Sunday, and said he might participate on the final night. I don’t know whether he did or not, but I really hope he did.
In due course, after big hugs for everyone there, I got a lift back to Dublin, laughing all the way with my new friend, safe as houses, but still not knowing how he wasn’t crashing. I got out of the car at Heuston Station and walked along the quays and also a couple of blocks off them, beside the 30s built Amsterdam-style council flats, and the newer ones, just sampling a relaxed urban Sunday evening. And when I got to the real centre of town, Dame Street, Grafton Street and so on, I just started giving small change to homeless beggars. In one respect, it was the usual story for me: I passed one, and thought I’ll give to the next one; and then I gave to a couple more. It wasn’t out of control at all, but they do say, you should not have a business meeting for the first two weeks after a yagé ceremony. The difference was that all the usual thoughts and feelings weren’t there. It’s useless, a cop out on real action. I’m not cash rich myself. I’m only doing this out of guilt. All those thoughts just didn’t come up. There was just the simple act of glad giving to people.
I had not really thought of it till I got writing this, but that glad giving is part of the game I saw in the second night’s visions. All the players in the game would be really excited by that – really excited for the giver and the receiver. So maybe that vision can begin to make sense to you. Being really excited and enthused, and not as if it’s a “supposed-to”, about the things we know we’re supposed to do. And knowing the possibilities of the good things we do in life are endless. World is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural.