Sipping from the Holy Grail: An Atheist’s Encounter with Ayahuasca

This essay was written in 2017, days after my first encounter with Ayahuasca.

We sit cross-legged atop our cushions and yoga mats like squatters strewn across the dark, hardwood floor. Five tea candles struggle to light the twenty-six people waiting in silence. A log-cabin’s living room has been converted into a sacred temple, decorated with tapestries, goddesses, chakras, and crystals — a veritable New Age portal where we’ve come to encounter Mother Ayahuasca. After months of reading the trend pieces, watching the documentaries, and clicking on endless YouTube testimonials, I decided I needed to experience this too-good-to-be-true medicine myself, if for no other reason than to put the hype to rest. That, and three months earlier my life entered a place of darkness from which I thought I could never escape. As I watch the shaman stir her brew inside the large ceremonial decanter, I know I have everything and nothing to lose.

Much has been said about ayahuasca, the Amazonian tea known for its healing powers and psychedelic experiences, but much has also been said incorrectly. Historically, ayahuasca — translated as “vine of the soul” — was a one-ingredient decoction, not the two-ingredient mixture we’ve come to know now. The tea was made solely from Baristeriopsis caapi, a boa-like vine containing harmine, an MAOI with subtle psychedelic effectsIndigenous peoples of South America used the brew to provide healing and teaching to their patients, as well as a medium for communicating with other plants. Over time, however, shamans found a particularly potent companion ingredient in Psychotria viridis, a leaf containing the hallucinogen DMT. Together, B. caapi and P. viridis perform a chemical duet of teaching and visions credited with creating life-changing experiences for countless individuals, and it is this particular admixture which has become the de facto standard for ayahuasca ceremonies around the world, including the one I now attend.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous. The shaman leading the ceremony is a young, sprite, blond woman whose spirit name translates to Dancing Hummingbird Star — but for our purposes I’ll call her Dana since these ceremonies occupy a legal gray area in the United States, and I do not wish to reveal anyone’s true identity. She’s originally from the Northeastern U.S. and has worked with the medicine for nine years, including tutelage under a number of indigenous shamans in South America. Not even thirty, she’s already a widow, and her face exudes a stern command behind its angelic features. As I kneel before her white ceremonial dress I’m unsure what to make of this hippie American practicing a sacred part of Amazonian culture, who claims that all prayers are just a form of saying thank you. For now, however, I don’t ask questions.

With the main event beginning I receive a blow dart’s worth of rapé up my nose, a powdered form of tobacco that immediately relaxes me with a head rush, clearing out my nasal passage of snot. Then at last I receive the ayahuasca itself with its consistency not unlike a rotten bayou’s muddy floor. Chunks of plant life litter the small 25 ml dosage, the taste is that of wheatgrass and bile. Grimacing in front of Dana and her band of helpers and musicians, I throw it back like the first round of shots at a dance club.

I head back to my yoga mat and Dana instructs us to keep our eyes closed and “journey inside ourselves.” I don’t know what this means, but after about forty-five minutes the only journey I’m making is to the bathroom outside our sacred hall.

My body’s not having any of it. I release explosive diarrhea three times over the course of five hours, in addition to a litany of other reactions: vomiting with intense pain into my barf bucket, bawling for no reason, and shivering under waves of icy body temperature decreases. (It doesn’t help that the real temperature outside is a frigid five degrees Fahrenheit and our yoga mats cover the heating vents.) These symptoms are collectively known as the purge — necessary steps believed to rid one’s body of negative energies in preparation for the healing and visions. For all this, however, I’m rewarded with only vague glimpses inside my mind’s eye. For a while I think the entire room is covered in denim. A little later I sense the two dogs I had growing up running towards me to tell me they’re still my friends. Though I will admit, something is happening, I can’t quite tell what it is, and I’ll admit I’m a little disappointed. For one of the participants, however, the night is far more eventful.

Victor, a bulky man with a deep Russian accent sitting across the room, has found himself caught up in a overwhelming ecstasy so intense he cannot stop exclaiming “wow” and “make it stop” for approximately three hours. His booming voice grows louder and louder as the night passes, distracting the rest of us from that elusive “journey inward.” I watch him grow restless. It’s frightening, to be honest. He flails around on the floor like one of those gigantic, inflatable wind tube men you see at a car dealership, pleading to make the visions stop, demanding to know if this new world is permanent. After a while, Dana and her helpers decide to subdue the commotion by feeding him a spoonful of lemon juice. (Citrus and sugar immediately brings one out of the trance state and offer a brief respite of reality.) Sobering up, he says he feels reborn, and I feel relieved, but by the time he’s quieted down, the effects of the brew have vanished inside of me.

The next day our group talks about our adventures inside the medicine, or more accurately, the adventures we wished they had had. A general feeling of disappointment sits in the retreat house as many people begin to wonder why so little had transpired aside from violent nausea. A college-aged guy debates staying or leaving and ultimately decides to bail on the second night of the ceremony for fear that he’d have to sit through another lackluster experience, or another experience like Victor’s. Not having driven up myself I don’t have a choice. I have to stay whether I like it or not.

The day passes with hardly any events, and as the time comes to start the second ceremony that negative mood still permeates the group. I can see it in the way the helpers are holding themselves. Sage and incense are requested to cleanse the air after a number of the male participants question Dana’s skills and credentials. One of them demands to know why we’re starting so late (the previous night’s ceremony commenced at 8pm, while tonight’s doesn’t start until nearly 10). But when at last Dana reveals herself from her meditation, she’s wearing a fire red dress and a warrior’s headband as if to show us she will not tolerate such insolence. “The way you treat the medicine informs me how you treat the Earth, and womanhood itself,” she states. “Are you demanding that the medicine entertain you!? Are you looking to take its gifts without giving in return!? Are you approaching ayahuasca without asking permission to enter her sacred realm!?” With every one of her words, Dana shows that she is the shaman. She has been blessed by the indigenous people to perform these ceremonies in the U.S. and she is in charge. There will be no room for misogyny or debate in her presence.

With the second night’s ceremony beginning we once again receive the refreshing blow dart of rapé tobacco up our nasal passages. It doesn’t hurt as bad as the night before, but this night it’s followed by Sananga, a liquid dropped onto each eye that makes one’s eyeballs burn like voluntarily receiving a dollop of mace. Relaxation and, allegedly, improved vision are said to follow the pain.

It’s not long before my turn comes to receive the cup of ayahuasca. My mind sits differently this time, however, not so much as a tourist as a servant. Maybe it’s the sananga working on my nervous system, maybe Dana’s harsh words, maybe something else. But I pause, kneeling at her alter, and give a silent prayer of thanks for the medicine. Dana holds my cup an extra moment before handing it to me, whistling bird calls into its molecules that echo off the walls. A primal fear enters inside me at the sound.

Within thirty minutes intense geometric visuals have filled my mind’s eye. I can feel it taking over my body, guiding my mind into a trance. I don’t waste any time. I ask the ayahuasca to show me something, anything, and the sensation of my mother immediately fills my soul. I’m amazed at what I’m seeing, what I’m feeling. An intense black pain covers my whole body, filling my mind and my spirit with distress. There’s so much hurting; for my whole life I’ve known my mother has been in pain. I’m hyperventilating. I’m bawling in between huffs for breath. I’m losing control of my tears. The hurt is my mother’s, or it’s her pain that I bear myself. I’m unsure. Seconds later I watch the blackness travel back through time, arriving at my mother’s childhood. It’s where the pain is being sourced. My mind searches for connections, trying to find order, trying to make sense, I gather. I’m seeking a cure for her, and I quickly land on a mantra: “you don’t have to be in pain anymore.” It’s a simple sentence, but when I say the words a tiny pause of relief fills my soul. I bend over my vomit bucket, hugging it like my closest friend. My tears and wailing fill the entire ceremony room, but I’m not thinking about that. I’m chanting the mantra into my vomit bucket, to the pain emanating from my mother’s inner child. “You don’t have to be in pain anymore,” I tell her. “You don’t have to be in pain anymore.” Maybe a hundred times I say it, until finally the pain dissipates. The blackness leaves. I sit up, sending the negative energy to the central alter without thinking. A second later I’ve purged the entire first cup into my bucket.

When I raise my head, I smile and laugh. Dana is dancing in circles of fire, not inside the ceremonial hall, but on a cloud of pure white electricity. She swirls like a goddess, red and golden beams radiating from her being like something out of a vibrant Japanese tapestry. She’s spinning and hopping in time with the pulse of the drum and the guitar pounding out the sacred icaros, the songs guiding us on our journeys. I overhear one of the helpers note how much healing I’ve completed. Overjoyed, I ask ayahuasca to show me something about my dad.

I’m expecting an encounter similar to that with my mother, but this time the medicine shows me something completely different. A desert planet appears in my vision and pyramid-like temples rise out of its surface as if inspired by the Game of Thrones intro. The vision expands outward until the entire universe is contained inside a single egg. It’s not much, but inexplicably I know what ayahuasca is trying to say. My true father is not my biological dad, but Time itself, the mystery of what happens after it’s all gone. He gazes in from outside the cosmic membrane, but he’s unable to pass through in this state of existence. I can see Time’s nose, lips and eyes warping the fabric of space. It’s who awaits us beyond the bounds of this universe, and only in death, ayahuasca tells me, will I ever see my true father.

Although profound, the message is comical, too. (Many of the participants will later comment on ayahuasca’s impeccable sense of humor.) I’ve long viewed my relationship with my father as a field of landmines waiting to explode, but ayahuasca insists there’s nothing we need to go over. It’s not my biological father, but my cosmic father I need to stay focused on. Though I’m a little unclear on the details, the permission to release my dad from my mind liberates an amount of tension inside me as well.

Meanwhile back in reality, it’s about two hours after the first cup, and the shaman’s assistant Jacob is praying over a pitcher of cleansing water for the group. He’s a taut, muscular, late twentysomething with a man bun, but he’s caught up in the spirit just like the rest of us. (The single rule of the night is that every person in attendance must consume a cup of the brew.) It takes him about twenty minutes to list every positive trait of water, but I don’t mind. I’m so elated every word feels like a poem.

When at last he finishes, I hurry to the alter to request a second cup from Dana, something she seems hesitant to provide. I know I’ve been rather loud in my wailing, but I smile and tell her I feel great. I want to go back in that alternate world and do more. She reiterates that I’ll be continuing the work I’ve already begun — the medicine compounds in strength with each successive cup. It’s a subtle warning that I will likely return to a place of painful healing, but it’s what I want to do. Blessing the second cup with another prayer, I give it deference before drinking it and returning to my seat.

It’s not long before the kaleidoscopic visions dazzle my eyes once more. I don’t know what they mean, but they don’t last long. In their place a new sensation takes hold, an energy that seizes my stomach like someone attaching jumper cables to the top end of my intestines. Two small imps walk toward me, pointing to my stomach with a pair of spears. “This is where we keep our struggles!” they say with a laugh. But the electricity is in no way a hallucination; I can feel my stomach collapsing in on itself. Then the tension moves upward, taking hold of my chest, my shoulders, my neck. I feel it entering my mind, and all of a sudden I understand what a near death experience feels like. My consciousness is losing its grip on my being. Thoughts aren’t responding as I command them. My muscles are ignoring my mind, not listening to anything I want them to do. With all my energy I turn back to Jacob sitting two yoga mats down and try to get his attention. What comes out sounds closer to a dying whale’s mating call. I lift my arms and at last he comes over to ask me what I need. With all the energy I can muster I mumble “too much.” “Congratulations, brother!” he says with a wide, Heaven’s Gate grin. “Enjoy the moment. Let it go inward and surrender!” I sway left and right before collapsing on my vomit bucket. I try to surrender. Really. I breathe as slow and relaxed as I can, but my mind trucks onward toward a pure white oblivion, and my fight or flight instincts kick in, desperately trying to make it stop. I struggle, keeping the emptiness from overtaking my whole head when I fling my head upwards. Jacob is still there looking at me. It feels like an hour ago since I last talked to him. How long have I been here? Where even am I? I shake my head “no” in response to something I feel he asked. So he sits behind me on my mat and starts pressing his palms into my back. Instantly energy leaves my body — negative, positive, I don’t know — but I’m shaking so furiously it feels a mix between the most violent goosebumps you can ever experience paired with an equally potent orgasm. The whiteness in my mind passes, though. I take a breath and say “thank you,” something I’ll be saying many, many more times that night, though not always to something human.

He returns to his mat, and with a new lease on life, I’m hurdled into a new plane of existence, a universe of mazes constructed in expanding hexagonal fractals, with the walls made up of words. It fills my entire third eye’s vision, but as I try to discern what the words say, I quickly realize they’re completely unintelligible. They’re blurry and foreign. Zooming in with my mind is pointless; they don’t get any clearer. In a second the whole universe wipes away from my vision like swiping a tablet, and an equally complex maze takes its place. Once again I try to understand what the words are saying — easily numbering an entire dictionary’s worth of words — but I can’t make any sense. I try to enter the maze, but I can’t find the beginning. It taunts and provokes me. Here I am, a writer, seeing a vision of words and I can’t even read them! And as if sensing my emotions, which surely it is, the vision begins to decompose. The words dematerialize into snowy static electricity. The order of the maze gives way to pure chaos. I’m beyond frustrated, and the frustration itself becomes the vision. My body collapses on my bucket once more, and a funny thing Dana said us enters my mind. All prayers are simply a form of saying thank you.

Vito ACCONCI — City of Words, 2010

The truism sounds silly and childish, but it becomes the single most powerful tool of the night, if not the single most powerful piece of life guidance I receive from the entire retreat. I’m crying, heaving, shaking when I mutter “thank you” into the chaos consuming my mind. Instantly, a moment of peace fills my soul. It vanishes a second later, but still, it’s a start. The disarray takes over my mind once more, but again I say thank you. Why? I have no idea. To whom? Nothing in particular. I thank myself, reality, the universe, and somehow I say it with conviction as well. I don’t care who you are or what you believe, but when you’re on the brink of losing your mind, the universe becomes the most precious place you’ve ever lived.

Comfort washes over me in split second intervals with each utterance of gratitude I can manage, and in doing so something else completely different begins to emerge. My arms and my chest are wanting to move. They want to be free. As I say thank you, my muscles fling left and right. My torso contorts and twists. My neck and my back are jack knifing, and even though I know I must look like something from The Exorcist or The OA, I can tell it’s a dance in the spirit I’ve been wanting to do for so long.

My body is out of my own control now. I’m whispering thank you to the spirits occupying my muscles. I can’t see them, but they’re moving me like a lifeless marionette and I’m exhaling pure ecstasy as I let them talk through me. I’m swaying and falling. I’m being lifted up and made to bow over and over to the floor as if beckoning the coming sun, only hours away from dawn. My shoulders roll and crack. My jaw expands so wide I think it might break. I feel the spirit of a snake roiling up my spine, curling and straightening as it winds its way to my head. Somehow I’m not afraid of these spirits, these energies, these companions. I know I’m being caught up by forces I can neither see nor comprehend, but their dark nature feels so necessary. For all my life I thought demonic possession would rank up as one of the most frightening occurrences I could ever experience, but now my thoughts have changed. I can undoubtedly feel something possessing my spirit, but they’re bulldozers of the soul, demolishing me in ways I desperately need to be demolished, and though the experience is not fun, it’s essential.

I’ve never stopped saying thank you through all of this, and I start to realize the statement is drawing the energies into my body. Far from being the Victor of the second night, I spend four hours welcoming these forces as they slip into my muscles, jostling me in ways I’ve never moved. Somewhere in that nexus between the spiritual world and my physical form, a transformation is taking place. The negative energy is being grounded by my bones, and when I feel it sufficiently processed I send it on its way to the glowing alter in the center of the room.

Jacob has begun to wail and moan, and just hearing him, I’m once again caught up in this uncontrollable, unpleasant dance. I hum and moan, saying thank you without end. Something inside of me feels Jacob and I have connected on the same wavelength, perhaps since the moment when he came over to my aid. I’m bearing some of his pain and processing it through my vessel. As I release a strong wave of energy I laugh out loud in catharsis. Jacob hears me, turning his tears into chuckles. The next day he would tell me my laughter helped him get through the night.

The ceremony continues on like this for nearly three more hours. I’m completely at the whim of spirits I can’t see while most of the room has fallen asleep. Why I’m still awake, moving with the spirits? Then the answer hits me. I, along with Dana, Jacob, and her helpers, am keeping my peers safe as they journey through their dreams. I’m taking the negative energies and processing them through my body, an empty chamber where the spirits could carry out the conversions needing to take place. I don’t know how I know this, but settling into that truth provides me a sense of absolute divine peace.

In that moment I had become a healer. A guardianship activated inside of me, fueled by gratitude, which allowed normally unwelcome spirits inside of my body that I might process them and set them free. The maze of words suddenly made sense, at least in part. It was my body, not my mind, that needed to be touched by the spirits. For so long I had been neglecting and harming my own body. I had broken all channels of communication between it and my mind. Ayahuasca had prioritized what what I needed to work on first, not what I wanted.

As the fervor fades away, I can still feel my body drawn to this energetic dance — and I still feel it, in fact, three days after the ceremony has ended. A serene calm comes over me with long, deep breaths as I recline out of my cross-legged pose for the first time in six hours. The sun rises behind me and I’ve never witnessed a more joyful dawn. I lean back onto my mat and lay my hands on my chest, on my arms, on my shoulders, on my stomach, repeating the lesson I had taught to my mother: “you don’t have to be in pain anymore.” The energy rolls off my skin as I sent it to the alter. “Thank you,” I whisper.

Journeying through that night with ayahuasca is without a doubt the most incredible, mystical odyssey I’ve ever experienced. I learned to let spirits inside me and move me in ways I’ve never known. I cried and cried through the rest of the day. A spiritual, mental and physical massage was what the shaman ordered. I didn’t think the medicine would get me to change my views on the potential for a spirit world, but it certainly has. Sure, the whole experience could be explained in neurological terms, a short circuit in the wiring of my brain, but why? What then is reality itself? Couldn’t our own consciousness simply be called a magnificent short circuit of reality? In my recollection, the experience of ayahuasca deserves to be enshrined in something more sacred.

I see no reason not to accept that this heightened state of consciousness occurs on a different plane of reality, where energy and spirits and intentions overrule our known materialistic universe. What harm does it cause to label this plant medicine-induced, alternate dimension, as a spiritual experience? Something undoubtedly acted upon me that night, whether it be my own mind or the spirits in the room. Either way I was not in control. I was at the mercy and grace of something I could never have experienced otherwise. And if that isn’t the definition of a spiritual experience, I don’t know what is.

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