Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Phoenix Rising

(Note: I left the photos out of this post so that you could imagine all of this for yourself. Except the plant itself. You have to see the plant. Oh, and maybe get a cup of tea or coffee. This is a long one.)

In the Amazon jungle grows a wild and gnarly vine called Ayahuasca, aka "the soul vine". It has been used by shamans for many hundreds (maybe even thousands?) of years to call in the spirits of nature to guide humans to a higher understanding of themselves and the intricate workings of the universe. Last week I had the opportunity to partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony. It was a wild ride that I will never forget. Ever

Two shamans, one a local First Nations elder and one a gringo shaman working with traditional Amazonian shamanism knowledge, led the ceremony, which lasted nearly five hours. Likely the longest five hours of my life. As I write this, my heart is thumping, my guts rumbling and I feel a shiver with a deep chill, as the plant medicine resides within me many days after the ceremony has ended.

Ayahuasca takes us deep within our own psyche to face our fears, overcome our inner obstacles and test our limits, as well as to impart wisdom and new ways of being upon us. Every participant will experience a unique adventure and it will be different each time that this plant medicine is consumed.

Here is my recollection of my first journey down the Ayahuasca rabbit hole...

A group of six participants and two shamans gathered into a cozy room with large windows on two sides. Before we began, both shamans opened cases filled with jars containing various dried plants and carefully laid out feathers and instruments of all kinds, as well as their ceremonial pipes.  

 The two shamans smudged us (and the cat who joined in) with special perfumes and smoked herbs to purify us for the sacred ceremony. It was nightfall and we all hunkered down into piles of pillows and blankets as we anticipated the start of the ceremony. We had followed specific dietary and lifestyle guidelines for the week leading up to this night. The plant medicine does not react well with competing elements. It is referred to as a jealous plant medicine.

We were advised to refrain from speaking or touching anyone else during the ceremony and to try our best to avoid leaving the ceremony, other than to use the washroom. We were all given our very own "purging pail", as vomiting is a common side effect.

I was the only newbie in the room and I was told that first-timers get a half dose of the plant medicine, as to ease into the journey. We all took our turn receiving the elixir and most people cringed as they choked down the harsh tasting fluid. After I swallowed it I said to the shaman "huh! It's not nearly as awful as I thought it would be!"  He replied with a smirk, "Just wait until you're vomiting it up all night long." Alrighty then. This should be interesting, I thought. Too late to turn back now...

Once all eight of us had drank the medicine, the lights were turned out and we reclined into our pillow nests to enjoy the ceremony in complete darkness. The shamans invoked the spirit guides and began to drum and chant in foreign tongues.

After about 20 or 30 minutes, my body began to tingle all over and I felt myself yawning and getting a bit sleepy. One of the shamans called each of us up, one at a time, to have a private ceremony where he sang, chanted and played various instruments to help each of us with our individual journey. I was called up second in line. As soon as I stood up, I felt like I was inside a big ship, rocking around on the ocean waves. I reached for my bucket, just in case, even though I wasn't at all queasy. I sat down in the darkness, knee-to-knee with the shaman as he lit some dried herbs to smudge me with. I immediately got an intense rumbling in my lower abdomen and awkwardly told him that I needed a washroom break immediately. He said he could wait for me, so I dashed toward the glass patio door with bucket in hand. 

I stumbled to the outdoor washroom, the pathway and interior illuminated by party-style rope lighting. As I entered, all of the harmless spiders in their webs that I had noticed before the ceremony, had suddenly become animated and intimidating. The washroom seemed to hum with the sound of these spiders spinning webs and creeping about the room. There was one jumbo spider in particular who I found very off-putting. He was the size of a quarter and red and yellow striped. He lurked in his huge, woven masterpiece next to the toilet. I made it to the toilet just in time. As I sat there, I felt my body cool off to an uncomfortable temperature. I began to shake and tremble like nothing I had ever experienced before. I felt as though I was under a spell. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of being surrounded by spiders, I had a moment of clarity, snapped back to the task at hand, and made my way back into the ceremony building. 

I sat back down in front of the shaman. He proceeded to light more dried herbs and blow the smoke around me. He mumbled something and then I heard him reach for two rattles in the darkness. Simultaneously, he and the other shaman broke into wild chanting and rattling. I instantly felt my guts twisting and churning. I still had my bucket, though I didn't feel the need to use it. Throughout the song, I heard the voice of a friend who had given me a deep tissue acupressure massage earlier that day. He said "BREATHE! Remember to keep breathing." So I did. I briefly opened my eyes to see the faint silhouette of the shaman literally rattling me to the core, as he wildly waved his arms around me. When the rattling ended, he spoke a few more phrases and reached for a pair of eagle's wings. I could hear the ruffling of the huge feathers. He also used an eagle bone as a whistle that sounded eerily like an eagle's cry. I was swept away in a torrent of flapping wings and a powerful breeze that took my breath away. It was beyond surreal. Lastly, the shaman took both of my hands into his and wrapped his warm palms around my icy fingers. He said a prayer to thank the plant medicine for guiding both of us. I thanked him and then made a beeline for the door. I stepped out into the crisp night air and was caught off guard by the loud echoing call of two owls in the dark trees before me. Then a third bird chimed in. It sounded very lonely and almost like it was dying. A swan? Then I laughed and shook my head because I was sure that the other shaman and his assistant were playing mind tricks on me by making creepy noises in the woods. 

I stumbled once more to the outdoor washroom and felt extremely weak as I wrestled with the door that had deer antler handles (that part is real). I was greeted this time by a spider dangling right in front of the toilet and a few earwigs scrambling on the floor, walls and mirror. Ugh. I felt disgusted, but was so ill that I didn't care. I sat there shaking violently as though I were riding a mechanical bull. Was this an exorcism, I wondered? If so, thank goodness! Better out than in!

Again, I achieved a brief moment of clarity and remembered that I should head back inside. The two owls faded away into the distance and as I stepped into the ceremony space, I heard the two men who I had suspected were lurking in the woods. They were right in the same spot that they were when I left. Those were some seriously bizarre bird calls then. I wondered what they were saying to me...

I laid back down in my nest of bean bags and blankets. I buried myself in as many blankets as were within arms reach. I was also wearing sheepskin boots over wool socks, pants, a flannel shirt and a down vest. It was probably about 15 degrees in the room (or for Americans, about 65F or something) but I was certain that hypothermia had me in its grip. I just couldn't stop shaking. 
My own breath felt like a cold Arctic wind on my fingers. I twisted and turned and wriggled around to try to find a warmer position. 

I then rationalized that people don't typically freeze to death in temperatures that warm. Duh.

Meanwhile, in between the seven private one-on-one ceremonies, the shamans performed song after song with drums, chanting (sometimes in a language that seemed like gibberish), and many instruments. There was rarely a break in the music for more than a couple of minutes.

Before long, I felt another rumbling in my belly. I felt like I was in the movie Groundhog's Day. Again?! I begrudgingly wrestled the unnaturally heavy pile of blankets off of me and headed for the door with my bucket. When I reached the washroom, the insects and spiders had appeared to multiply! I felt as though they were having a great time laughing at my expense. Can they actually do that? Cracking themselves up over humans that are silly and uncomfortable around them? Who knows. This time, as I sat there in the cold outhouse, I set the bucket down on the floor and laughed. I suddenly got the message that I was different. Just because everyone else was vomiting into buckets didn't mean that I had to follow suit. My body had a different evacuation plan - obviously!

I went outside and looked up at the clear, starry sky and felt super dizzy. I spun my feet around in circles and decided that I had better go back in and lay down before I got myself lost in the woods. The medicine seemed to have hit a peak of intensity and I was seriously questioning my own judgement.  I crawled into my nest and bundled up. I continued to shake violently. I then felt like someone was laying on my legs...but they weren't. Just another trick. A friend who laid next to me stood up with a blanket around his shoulders like a cape. His silhouette appeared 12 feet high and I was sure he was either Batman or Zorro. Or both. Multiple times. The old tabby cat was hunkered down next to me most of the night. His purring sounded like a machine gun and I could feel it vibrating all of the cells in my body.

The event lasted nearly five hours. My entire being felt so relieved when the shamans closed the ceremony around 3 am, and the room became quiet. Then the talking and laughing began. We all shared our experiences. Most of us were still feeling heavily influenced by the plant medicine. All of my senses felt like they were on steroids. I mentioned that I felt like I was going to freeze to death, so everyone piled more blankets and several sheep skins on top of me. Ahh. Just right. I later realized that I had no verbal filter and words just kept pouring from my mouth for the next couple of hours as I struggled to feel any hint of comfort. Apparently, some of the things that I said were hilarious to some people in the room. I also think some of the other things that I said may have been labeled as rude. I felt as though I was a puppet, possessed by the plant spirits. Eventually, people trickled out of the room and I fell asleep amongst a few friends. When I opened my eyes and saw the light of day, I was stunned and also thrilled to have survived the longest night of my life! Yahooooo! I made it!!!!!

I, myself, was strongly affected the entire next day. I had an ayahuasca hangover. With a lot more toilet time, a severe headache... and even some vomit bucket time. I laid most of the day on our futon, feeling heavy with the medicine. My heart pounding. I was chilled to the bone. I gazed out the window at the trees and just barely forced out a  smile. I had faced my ego head on. I experienced what utter helplessness felt like. I learned that the spiders and creepy crawlers were here to teach me to relax and let go, not to harass me. I learned that I am different. Not a follower. I learned greater patience and to just go with the flow. Suddenly, everything I face each day seems so much simpler. I find myself laughing at my thoughts and actions and at the follies of all humans. 

The spiders are still with me though. Every day. In lots of ways. When I least expect them. I think I had better get used to it. They outnumber me billions to one.

Look for an ayahuasca ceremony near you. Worth every penny!