Yep, I went to an Ayahuasca ceremony, and partook of the medicine. Though, it didn’t go exactly as expected…
An Utterly Wonderfully Spectacular Failure
When I first heard about the potential Ayahuasca ceremony retreat add-on, I removed myself from the conversation, not wanting anything to do with “those people (read: those druggies).” I felt a powerful judgment for anyone who does drugs, and didn’t want anything to do with it. However, as my week-long retreat progressed, and I found out almost everyone was going, I slowly began to reconsider.
I’m an intensely social and context-bound experiential creature, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Sometimes I make a decision on whether to do something by thinking “what kind of story would this experience make?” If the answer is “an amazing one, one that I’ve never been able to tell before, may not ever be part of again, and it will include great characters and people who mean a lot to me,” I am much more likely to take part in an activity, even if I’m not that interested in it.
But Then Maybe...
Additionally, the social and logistical situation was such that it made perfect sense for me to go to the retreat. It was overnight on the one night when I didn’t have anywhere to stay. I’m on a break between quarters in my teaching position. I already had the time off from my research job. Hmm…
Plus, despite having no particular interest in psychedelics, I DO actively seek out fantastic new experiences, and this sure as hell counts as that. Plus this seemed like a natural extension of my time at the retreat, and flowing into the Envision festival afterward. It just seemed… right.
So when our leader actually took stock of who wanted to go, and I raised my hand, I had to concentrate so that my hand wouldn’t shake as I held it up. I judged myself harshly and tried to figure out if I was doing this to go along with the group, to be liked, or if I truly wanted to go. I never did quite figure it out, either, though it doesn’t matter much to me.
The Day Of The Ceremony
As we prepared to leave, I found out that several of the other first-timers had spent years researching whether they thought Ayahuasca would be a good idea for them or not, and everyone was scared. I, on the other hand, could barely even spell Ayahuasca, and had spent no time or energy on my decision. I was there for the story. Nearly everyone mentioned that they had thought numerous times today whether they should back out or not, and what that would look like and how they would feel.
Back to the van ride on our way to the ceremony… we were laughing and joking along the bumpy ride, but when we arrived to the lodge we all suddenly went dead-silent. The fear was suddenly palpable, and the air in the van was thick with jittery anticipation. “Fear is just excitement holding its breath anyway,” I said bravely. It seemed to help the others, but I belied my own false bravado by recommencing panting quietly but terrifiedly. I know that’s not a word, but it’s a great description of my breathing pattern and how I felt in that moment.
We unloaded the van and walked into the stunningly beautiful lodge. We liberally dosed ourselves with bug spray and donned long sleeps and pants despite the oppressive sultry heat of nearly 100 degrees (37C). The jungle hut where the ceremony would take place is in the middle of the rainforest, and has no walls, so bug-protection is a must.
We then wandered around the magical lodge and surroundings for a little while and met the other ten or so people we would be drinking the Ayahuasca with; there were 19 of us in all. I couldn’t wait to see the lodge in the daylight. The rushing water of the stream, the gorgeous energy and loving-kindness everywhere. I thought “this is the kind of place I would have loved to have played when I was little. So much to explore!”
The carefully-placed mattresses, blankets and pillows, insipid smiles and candle-light all screamed “druggie” at me, and I was truly afraid that I would come out of this experience a “dirty hippie” as my friend lovingly describes numerous of her friends; showering infrequently, eating only vegan raw organic fallen-off-the-tree-not-picked food, toking away at my pipe a hundred times a day, and saying “heeeeyyy man, that’s trippyyyyyy” all day long.
I recognized my fear-and-judgment reaction as 100% irrational, with no basis in reality, but it vice-gripped my psyche nonetheless. I stood motionless, clutching the support beam as if for dear life for maybe 30 seconds. During that half-minute, I closed my eyes and just breathed three long, slow deep breaths, filled with love, kindness, and compassion for myself. Then I walked a bit erratically to my mattress.
I sat down heavily on my mattress, and went back to feeling nauseous. There were 3 shamans, and nearly everything was in English, which felt strange to me. As if it were somehow less authentic than if the ceremony had been conducted in Spanish or, better yet, an indigenous language whose mysterious meanings I could only guess at.
The main shaman spoke English with a perfect California accent, and Spanish with an equally perfect Costa Rican accent. With her I spoke English. The secondary shaman, who I bonded deeply with in Spanish, was a motherly, beautiful flowing trilingual Italian woman with a heart of pure love energy. I didn’t connect with the third shaman much, nor did I hear him speak.
They called us nervy newbies up and explained the Ayahuasca ceremony to us at around 10pm. She explained that the Ayahuasca came from Colombia, and about how we would purge (a nice euphemism for throwing up physically, emotionally, spiritually and energetically), and that this was a normal part of the process.
After brief introduction to the rest of the group, who had all taken Ayahuasca before, the shaman gestured each of us to come up and drink the medicine. I was third in line because of where I was sitting, and now flat-out battling to keep the nausea at bay, feeling sweaty and pale.
Next Up To Bat, Samantha!
I tried to hand the wooden cup back to the shaman but she said: “did you drink it all?” I looked into her eyes and shook my head, my cheeks reddening in the dim candlelight. She gave me a “look” and did not move to receive the cup back from me, cocking her eyebrow at me when she saw me hesitating.
I mentally shrugged my shoulders and recited gaily to myself “in for a penny, in for a pound,” tipped my head back, mentally plugged my nose and dumped the contents of the cup into my mouth, swallowing as fast as I could, gasping a little from the fierceness of it.
I moved to go back to my mattress, now severely pale and shaking from a powerful wave of nausea. I was desperately trying to hold the awfulness down, but in grave danger of ejecting it immediately and violently. This stuff is NASTY. The secondary shaman gently caught my wrist and held my hand next to a small bowl with some unidentified yellow object in it. Having no idea what it was, but hysterically I thought: “sure, what the hell?!?”
She brought my shaking hand up to the bowl, and guided me to take a tiny piece of the strange solid yellow mass. I looked at her pleadingly, not understanding even a tiny bit, and overwhelmed by the experience and my potent nausea. Her compassionate gaze bored directly through my eyes and into the depths of my soul as she whispered softly into my ear es jingebre (“it’s ginger”)… para el sabor (“for the taste”).
“Ohhhhh!!” I gratefully snatched a tiny cube of marvelous overwhelmingly-strong-but-at-least-familiar goodness and popped it into my mouth, chewing as I crawled back to my mattress on all fours. The sharp spicy blast of the ginger trumpeting itself to my taste buds indeed got rid of the taste of the Ayahuasca, but it was ferociously strong of its own right, and not particularly pleasant.
After some more heaving, a few tears and a few minutes of erratic breathing and simply existing, I disconsolately cleaned up my mess. Meanwhile, I received another you-will-listen-to-me-RIGHT-NOW message from Mr Stomach, and made it to the toilet for the second “operation-reverse-peristalsis” of the night. Silly me, I thought my stomach was already empty after the first time. How wrong I was.
I felt ashamed, stupid, and out of place. Everyone was staring at me as I ran away, because only a few people had even gotten the medicine yet. They had probably only gotten 2 people down from me by the time I got up unsteadily to upchuck, err I mean purge. I cried a little more, feeling silly, but then squared my shoulders and carefully walked back to the hut.
As I made my way back to my mattress, both the shamans caught my eye and gave me a questioning eyebrow lift. I gave them a shaky thumbs up, indicating that I was okay. Most of the people in the hut stared as I made my walk of shame back to my seat. Granted, none of them probably were actually judging me, but boy did I feel hot shame as if I had just done something unspeakably terrible.
The shamans had mentioned several times during our introduction that we could come up and get more of the medicine at any time during the night. After vomiting up my entire dose, I considered getting more, as I knew it was expected. However I only thought about it for about a gazillionth of a second before discarding the idea. While I did feel significantly better, I still felt seriously nauseous, and I new that if I tried to put anything in my stomach, especially the vile-tasting goo that was the Ayahuasca, that I would throw it up immediately anyway.
So I hunkered down on my mattress to wait out the night, Ayahuasca-less, and I experienced exactly zero hallucinations.
Kickin' It Sam-Style
But an ancient indigenous ceremony in a mystical jungle lodge with sacredness all around and incredible people and amazing things happening? Now that’s “kickin’ it Sam-style.”
The night-long ceremony was a thing of otherworldly beauty and grace and liquid energy. The shaman blessed the already-sacred water kept on the altar next to the Ayahuasca. She blessed each of us several times, with the sacred water, a censer and some palm-leaf-fans that I didn’t recognize, but in a manner similar to the way native Americans use sage.
The shamans sang tunes in Spanish and created music with a number of different indigenous instruments, and performed numerous blessing ceremonies.
All of this was punctuated by the staccato of lots and lots of upchucking, myself included.
There was one point where they offered each person a full glass of the sacred water, but I whisperingly begged her to only give me a tiny sip, knowing I was going to throw up any more than that. She gave me the “look” again, but this time I held firm, and put my thumb and forefinger about an inch (2 cm) apart in the (universal?) gesture for “just a little.”
She poured me just a sip, which I gratefully swallowed, soothing my parched throat. Unfortunately, even that tiny bit was too much for my brutalized digestive system, and I was sent scurrying to the bathroom within seconds for my fourth (fifth?) episode of vomiting for the night. Yeah, I apparently didn’t have to hold any of the medicine down to get my upchuck on. I guess my stomach wanted to be like everyone else in the group. Whatever, Sam-stomach.
I did fall asleep at one point for three or four hours, and it was blissfully restful. Just before the sun came up, the shaman performed another water ritual on each of us, and we trickled out of the jungle hut in ones and twos to enjoy a superb breakfast.
I say “superb” in part because my stomach informed me in no uncertain terms that for the first time in 24 hours, it was HUNGRY, and would not reject what I put into it, as long as I was reasonable about it. I timidly nibbled on some oatmeal and fresh fruit, then devoured some more food when that indeed stayed down and failed to cause distress. It was heavenly, simple and nourishing.
In the daylight, the lodge was every bit as marvelous and enchanting as I had imagined, like something straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting or a Brothers Grimm Fairytale storybook. The babbling brook, the exquisite architecture (built by hand, brick by brick and plank by plank) made for a blissful idyll that I enjoyed profoundly.
I felt slightly embarrassed when explaining how I threw up the medicine and never went back for more, as my friends described their wild experiences with “the mother of all psychedelics.” Because they had come for the experience of the Ayahuasca itself, it didn’t make sense to them why I wouldn’t go back for more.
Honestly though, I never seriously considered it. I got exactly what I wanted and needed out of the situation, and left feeling gratified, happy and profoundly calm.
What an utterly wonderfully spectacular failure.