ayahuasca


It’s been four years since I drank ayahuasca.

When I arrived back in Brazil this November to drink again, I met a handful of people who were there because of the little film I made almost 10 years ago, called “The Man Who Drank the Universe”. I revisited that film and was tickled by the tiggerish enthusiasm I filled the screen with, especially back in the UK, three months after my epiphanic Brazilian experience.

A lot has happened in my life in the four years since I last drank, let alone in the 11 years since I first drank back in 2004. Some of my changed thoughts reflect those changes in myself, some reflect a more respectful understanding of the Plant and where it comes from.

The most jarring thing that jumped out at me was my bouncy certainty about how the plant works: “Ayahuasca is simply a chemical, DMT, that opens up your mind to work with the contents of your mind”. Now, I’m not so sure that there’s anything very simple about ayahuasca. And I might also question the plumb certainty of me saying: “your mind is the therapist”.

Much of my work as a trainee, as a therapist and as a meditation practitioner has revolved around the notion of the limits of “my mind”. Where in 2005 I was ebulliently confident and bullish about the power and wisdom of ‘my mind’, by 2015 I am much more humble about its limitations.

When I went to Brazil this time it was following the extreme rough-and-tumble of the last four years. In those years I finished the thunderous training of therapy, I weathered the physical collapse and recovery of my health, I experienced the extremes of mental fragility and I re-connected with the teaching of the Buddha Dharma. And all that made me much more interested in the power of the ‘Not-I’ than the hollow posturing of the ‘I’.

My friend Amanda’s statement in the film that Ayahuasca “lowers all your boundaries and uses you to cross-question you” seemed much more apropos.

This time, I arrived in Bahia with a lot less dissociated anxiety. I had spend 6 years working through the various puzzle pieces of my childhood and adolescence. I had come to a sense of joy around my sexuality and my relationships. I had begun to connect with the power of the World beyond myself through my work with Reggie Ray. So I was much more open to the power of the Plant rather than the power of my mind.

I shan’t list all the visionary splendours of my visions (like listening to other people’s dreams, it’s pretty dull reading) but I can say – hand on big heart – that I am happy to have gone back and despite the interim, the Plant was as powerful and moving as ever.

However, now I might change my understanding of Ayahuasca works. I am now much more attuned to the presence of the ‘Beyond-Me’ in my life. It’s the extreme of arrogance to assume that this miraculous but limited brain of mine is all there is in the world. That view walls off the infinite resources of the Universe as they unfurl and play around my head. Opening, bit by bit, to the vastness of the ‘Not-I’ is what I’m about now. And that is the process infinitely aided by Aya.

By some miracle of human intuition / biological prompting, the wise people of the Amazon saw how to brew these two quite distinct plants together and to drink them. Doing so unlocks a passage way from the narrow, anxious thickets of the ego mind into the wild, energetic expanse of the Other, the Universe. Nowadays, I would be very sceptical about assuming that my little mind has the necessary intelligence to process that amount of splendour. The Plant (or the state of mind the Plant accesses) does. This is an intelligence that we lucky enough to submerge ourselves in.

I saw very clearly that it’s the same intelligence that underlies all spirituality. We might call it by different names and arrive at it by different routes but that fierce ‘Not I’ is dharmakaya, is God, is Brahman, is Heidegger’s Lichtung. And I am feeling very grateful to have had access to it again for a week in the technicolour Brazilian sunshine. 

I’m back in the winter sunshine of Newhaven and perhaps a little less tiggerish than 10 years ago. But perhaps more gently moved and more profoundly comforted. And that’s what I feel glowing in my spine as I sit here in the garden hut and type. The ‘Not-I’ endures and I’m very glad it does.

Thinking about my upcoming pilgrimage to Brazil, I dug out a master copy of The Man Who Drank the Universe and uploaded it to Vimeo, to replace the grainy, crappy google video copy that’s been around for years.

Here’s the new shiny version:

In less than two weeks, I will be lying cocooned in the sounds of the Brazilian rain forest, in a circular temple of green mosquito-netting and gravity defying wooden beams, elevated in an ayahuasca state.

Two weeks before (sometimes, two months before) these journeys, my body and mind start to be full of backward reflections. Shards of the future pre-shadowed in the now. Things slow down, I become more inward, often more infantile. It’s like I’m regressing towards that small door that I know I have to go through. The small brown door in the bottom of that dank-smelling cup.

This film will come out next year. It looks beautiful and it seems to articulate what Aya is about. I haven’t seen it — but there is a wave coming. And this looks like the shiny flashes at the crest.

As always on these adventures, I stop being able to read prose. Sounds silly, I know but in the run up and during the trip, all I can make sense of is poetry. Emily Dickinson seems to be everywhere at the moment:

Presentiment – is that long Shadow – on the Lawn –
Indicative that Suns go down -

The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness – is about to pass -

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Thanks for your kind comments concerning my well-being when I was away. I wasn’t in a great space when I left for Bahia two weeks ago. But I have to say I can’t imagine feeling any better now.

I’m sitting in my sunny sitting room with the snowlight reflecting up from the gardens below. It’s cold and icy here in London and yet 48 hours ago I was sitting on my balcony in Bahia with hummingbirds churring past my head, redhatches pecking at the cashew fruits that grow there, and the sounds of the jungle weaving out in vibrant tendrils from the green, green of the palms.

I know that I always wax rhapsodic when I come back from my adventures with ayahuasca but I can’t help but rejoice in that amazing Plant. This time, more than ever before, I recognized the very distinct external presence of the Vine.

Previous to that I’d been struggling with / hiding in the smug Western intellectual attitude that somehow it was my brain chemistry, my consciouness, my intellect that was working on my own psyche. There was no external entity, the Plant was just neurotransmitters. But I’m more respectful. From the Shamanic perspective, this world is full of many more things than just human brains. The spirit of Ayahuasca is a big presence in the world. And it’ll whup your ass if you disrespect it.
For the Amazonian Indians there is no doubt that Ayahuasca is a real presence that you interact with (if you’re lucky). It’s the World in fact. The jungle, the soil, the birds, the water, the rocks. It’s everything but my intellect.

In this sense, Ayahuasca is profoundly ecological and deeply suspicious of Western individualism.

I’ve been reading a lot about the ancient Greeks and their attitude to Gods. When a God appeared on Earth, in a human, in a tree, in a shower of gold, then those nearby were struck with terror, with awe. The place where the god appeared became numinous and bright, reality quivered a little and those who witnessed it felt sick to their stomachs before being lifted up into the brightness.

That’s exactly how I feel about the Plant. The day before I feel quite excited, intellectually, I can appreciate the honour of having this one-on-one with the Goddess, but then the afternoon wears on, the darkness descends like a bolt and then I feel sick to my stomach and intellect is useless. This is the emotional body of a child before he is able to speak. Experiences only register on a gut level.

But the ceremony begins, we stand in a group, share our intentions and drink. And then it’s done. There is no going back. The Plant’s bitter, fermented, moist substance is inside and the only strategy is surrender.

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It was a great group this year. Small but very courageous. Almost everyone was working with their childhood memories and the constellations of life that spring from them. And everyone bravely threw themselves into the work even if it involved going to the most challenging, dark places of memory.

I received amazing confirmation of all the work I’ve been doing in therapy this last year – which has been painful and challenging on all sorts of levels. But in the arms of ayahuasca, it raced on and become turbo-charged.

I don’t need to go into it all here. The need for external confirmation is much less. But I did want to share the tremendous benefit of the work Silvia does in Bahia.

It’s been a very difficult year for ayahuasca-healing and Silvia’s project on the Land. She is such a great therapist and she is getting better and better. But this work with light is not without it’s unfortunate side effects. In her psycho-spritual therapist role, she is so egoless and works without any of the clonky self-presentation of many group therapists. My friend Joshua saw her as a hummingbird – a potent animal totem – hovering over us as we dreamt.

And yet, her positive work also pulls dark moths to it.

Despite the enormous benefit of her healing work, people, disgruntled with her for other reasons, have come out of the woodwork and tried to discredit her work. But I will not stand for that. I have to speak out in her support.

I have never come across therapeutic work that has the fast and powerful effects of Silvia’s work with ayahuasca. It’s interesting that the psychologist Deborah Quevedo had been in Brazil doing research into the effectiveness of ayahuasca therapy in treating things like neuroticism and shown astonishingly positive results.

I am convinced (especially since I’ve been studying psychotherapy) that the combination of childhood therapy, transactional analysis and the enormous spiritual power of ayahuasca will have a massive impact in years to come. And I’m proud to be associated with Silvia’s work and will always speak up in her favour.

The silly and frankly absurd slurs made against her in the internet are actually testament to how challenging her work is. If I had my way, I’d pay for planeloads of people to go to Bahia and experience the beauty of the place and the healing potential of her work. What a priviledge it is to be involved.

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We did the last session during the day. Traditionally ayahausca is drunk in the night, in the pregnant dark, digging and dealing with unlit world of the unconsious. After the 3 main sessions, the five of us that were remaining were allowed to drink a very small dose during the day.

We walked through the jungle down to the river that runs through the Land and waded through the shady, fast-flowing waters, following the thickly overground curves.

I had to sit down as the ayahuasca state came on suddenly.

The sound of the insects and the birds, the flow of the water, the weed moving in the current, the shimmering sunlight through the curtains of vines and ferns. It suddenly seemed almost too much.

But i am familiar with that overwhelming and sat and settled. Allowed the wonder to unfold.

To be in nature, to be with plants and water was incredible. I walked so gently back up the red earth path, past plants that seemed to reach out to me, so electric was their life.

Everything shimmered with an super-real intensity. I lay down on the soft grass by the lagoon and watched – laughing and shaking with pleasure – the antics of a little white wagtail, dancing by the waterside.

Have I ever mentioned how paradisical the Land is where we drink ayahuasca? It’s like walking through Eden.

Scarlet breasted weaver birds with lemon-yellow bills and bright blue eyes darting in and out of their long sock-shaped nests, hanging like fruit from a cashew tree by the lagoon.

Swallows and yellow-tufted jays scooping across the water surface, snatching water boatmen.

The constant, gentle rustle of palm leaves stroked by the wind.

Bright butterflies, branded with flaming orange and yellow stripes loping past the hibiscus hedges.

Coming dreamily back to my bungalow I sat in utter stillness as a female humming bird perched on a branch right in front of me, panting, staring straight at me. Me and a hummingbird in direct communion. It was astonishing. I’ve never seen a hummingbird – with its exquisite long beak and tiny piercing eyes – so close or so still. We stayed for 10 minutes or so in silent rapprochment.

To sense that mystical intensity of all life with my eyes open, moving round this field of vibrancy was very intense. It really did feel like walking in divinity. And I – who have struggled for many years with an alienated sense of what ‘divinity’ might mean – saw very simply that life is divinity. That God is that quiviering vibration underneath everything, the fundamental goodness that Christ and Buddha and all mystics have spoken about.

Later as the intensity mellowed and we all sat, gobsmacked on the pontoon of the lagoon, feasting on apples and bananas and coconut water, we felt unbelievably lucky. (I remembered that in German the word for lucky and happy is the same). And even today, two days later, when the fierce dreams that always mark the end of the session have passed, I spent the day on my own on the Land walking round almost laughing at the absurd beauty of it all.

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