July 2005

the jungle is calling

In September this year, I’m going to be returning to Brazil to help with another seminar on Ayahuasca , the Shamanic tea that I tried last year with profound effects. (See AYAHUASCA and JANUARY THOUGHTS ABOUT AYAHUASCA in my Blog Archive). I’ve had loads of people ask about the seminar and its benefits. So I’ll summarise as follows.

  1. Ayahuasca is an ancient psychotropic plant medicine used by the Amzonian shamans for hundreds of years as a way of communicating with the Bigger Aspects of the Universe. Recently it’s been used by Western psychologists to explore new ways of healing alcoholics and addicts. I went to Brazil last year to do a documentary The Man Who Drank The Universe, about Ayahuasca and the effects it can have on ordinary people, ie. me. It was a profound and disturbing experience – but one with extraordinary benefits.

  2. The 10 day seminar takes place in a beautiful coastal resort in the North East of Brazil, in the state of Bahia, near to the town of Itacaré. The jungle surrounding Itacaré is a UNESCO world heritage site. The setting, food, and ambience is very supportive although the sessions with the tea can be quite disturbing.

  3. Participants take the brew 3 times over 6 nights (one day off in between each session). The dark brown, foul-tasting tea is drunk in the evening and induces an 8 hour trance in which participants can expect to experience very intense visions and psychological journeying. Many people also vomit profusely.

  4. Silvia Polivoy, the Argentinian psychologist who runs the seminars, is resolute that the session take place without any external coercion. The visions are allowed to unfold and work on people as they need, unlike traditional Shamanic practice where a Shaman will guide the trip with drums and singing. There is music but it acts mainly as a common thread to unite the group.

  5. The sessions take place communally in a hall by the sea. There are people to tend you through the session and the group dynamic is very important in the experience.

  6. Many people experience frightening and distressing visions. An equal number have incredibly blissful sessions. Regardless of the content of the 8 hour trips, almost all find that afterwards the visions acted as important keys, unlocking a whole expanse of mental landscape that had previously remained uncovered. My first trip was awful and sad. My second was spectacularly euphoric.

  7. The true benefit of Ayahuasca, I believe, comes in the psychological liberation is seems to enable after the visions are over. As a practising Buddhist, with deep ambivalence to the use of external drugs to achieve liberation, I found that a vast amount of anxiety and self-consciousness melted away after my experiences in the Jungle and that those benefits have lasted and integrated totally into my daily life.

I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND AYAHUASCA FOR EVERYONE – although I’m sure its benefits are universal, the process can be very frightening and distubing . But I am aware that my writings about the trip last year generated quite a lot of interest and those who feel drawn to the extreme experiences I went through can follow their own noses.

Ayahuasca is used by several Christian churches rooted in Brazilian culture – Santo Daimé being the most famous – but I should point out that its use is criminalised in all countries apart from Brazil, where its spiritual properties have been honoured. Silvia’s course in Bahia is a wonderfully supportive and genuine framework for exploring the tea’s use and the seminars offer a fortnight’s holiday that will tear the roof off your normal life.

As I mentioned, I’m over there this autumn teaching some basic meditation which I think helps navigate the intensity of the Ayahuasca experience. The course begins on the October 4th and finishes on the 12th

the jungle is calling



HOLY ISLAND 2005Had an amazing time on Arran this year. Went up a day early – straight after 3 weeks in the States – slightly jetlagged and very tired. Got off the big ferry at Brodick and caught a bus up to see Zangpo in Glenscorrodale just before he went into the 4 year long retreat.

Zang, a handsome young South African, had been in charge of Holy Island when I’d first visited there 5 years ago and for the last 3 years had been working on demolishing and rebuilding an derelict old farmhouse and turning it into a permanent Men’s Retreat Centre where the Traditional Tibetan long retreats could take place. After an bonkers, Milarepa-like building effort in the last 12 months, he and the hardcore of builder monks had created a beautiful shrine room, kitchen, yoga room and bedrooms for 21 men and 3 caretakers. The day after I saw him, he and the other 20 went into the fenced off Centre and kicked off 4 years of solid practice with 16 days of fasting. They won’t leave the compound until 2009!

It was weird to see them “closed-in” but inspiring in an odd way too. I set off to Holy Island very fired up. I couldn’t ever imagine setting aside that much of my life for Tibetan practice – but the energy those things generate is undeniably strong.

Stepping foot on the springy grass of the island, it was as if the intervening year concertina-ed into a few days. It felt entirely like home.

I mooched around for a few days reading over my notes and letting the incredible peace and energy of the place seep into my bones. I’d been working so hard and intensely in the States, it felt wonderful to relax so profoundly.

By the time my students arrived I was completely soft around the edges.

There were 20 this year which is a great number and they were a dynamic bunch. I think a bigger group allows people to be more committed, strangely. The teaching was remarkably easy. To be honest you could just push people out doors and get them to walk around the Island and they’d probably intuit meditation. But everyone seemed to pick up the practices really strongly – and I managed not to confuse anyone unduly.

Lama Yeshe, the abbot of the island, came for a day and gave a storming talk. Although the content of what he said was nothing new, everyone picked up on his incredibly happy and solid presence. When you watched his face and body-language what he was saying seemed indisputable. Rather outrageously, he claimed that he was happy 100% of the time. Despite the fact we’re all conditioned to think that an absolute impossibility, no one in the room doubted him for a minute. The fact is that our economy would completely dry up if we could get happy without buying the newest car, the freshest washing powder, finding a better girlfriend/boyfriend. Suddenly, this jolly, incredibly high-achieving but penniless, celibate monk offered was scandalously suggesting we can get 100% happy and it doesn’t cost a penny or involve any change.

With little baby steps, we made a start in this direction.

All the meditation practices I taught were about being curious as to what was happening right now in our minds and bodies. W.H. Auden once said curiosity was the one human passion you could indulge without any fear of satiety. And that endless, attentive curiosity as to what our minds are doing is one of the major prongs of meditation. I can’t really speak for my excellent students, but after 2 or 3 days of teaching, I found that my mind became incredibly happy and content on the Island and from that place of happy contentment I was able to observe, with sharp attention, what was happening in my life.

Thoughts affect the emotions: I think about the Australian I’m in love with and I feel happy. Emotions affect the body: that happiness in my heart makes my body tingle. The body in its turn sparks emotions: my grumbling stomach makes me feel uncomfortable. Emotions colour thoughts: that discomfort makes me worry about the boy from Oz. And thoughts combine with emotions to create moods: my worried thoughts gell into a rather anxious mood. Moods sometime solidify into “character traits”: I am an anxious guy. Which can lead to a lot of misery – because we believe our character is permanent and can’t be changed: “Oh God, I’m never going to shake this anxiety, I’m doomed to unhappiness.”

Buddhist thinking, which emphasizes the swirling, infinitely creative but changing nature of a complex system like the “human self”, permits us to be constantly different. On the one hand, there’s the boon of knowing that bad things end. All difficult emotions, black moods, nasty thoughts will definitely pass and can just as easily mutate into positive moods and creative thoughts.

But more importantly it gives us a standpoint above the good and bad. We get used to occupying that smiling, joyful spot where “bad things” and “good things” can both be allowed to happen. Where both happiness and sadness are seen as changing plays of the same light. Fact is there’s always going to be good and bad stuff in life. The secret is how we “hold” things. Working on a gentle, kindly “hold” means that we’re only a step away from a happy existence. 100% of the time. With no washing powder or fast cars necessary.


Written in pink lipstick on the pale yellow tiles of the Ladies loo at the Cross:



Unable to stay in, as instructed, watching increasingly pornographic news coverage of the bombings – “How many injured? What kind of injuries? How many dead?” – I ventured out on my bicycle. The numbing rain that had mirrored everyone’s mood was being replaced by kinder sunshine. Somehow I felt that I wanted to be out and about in London – not stuck in doors. I was fine, completely unaffected by the biggest attack on the city, but I felt I wanted be out IN the city, not hidden at home.

The streets were quiet, but when I got to Kensington Gardens on my bike, there was vast crowds of people walking out of Central London. All the transport was down – no buses, obviously no Tubes, taxis all taken – so most people walked westward through the park. There was a steady stream of people in the sunshine. All heading one way, like in those disaster movies, but smiling mostly. Getting on with it. It made me happy to see Londoners just “getting on with it”. I suppose we’ve all been waiting for it so long, that when it came it was a horrid relief. There was definitely a surge of “we survived it” gluing us all together.

I continued into town. There were a few police cordons near the American Embassy, otherwise it was deserted. Like a quiet Sunday afternoon. No buses which left the streets feeling very spacious. Peaceful even.

I had too much energy to stop. So I headed to the gym. Although I wasn’t at all conscious of being in shock – infact, I felt rather detached from it all – I guess my body needed to reassert itself, relish the fact that it was still around. Not bashed or torn in a underground tunnel. So I did a workout. In an all-but-deserted gym.

The whole of Soho was 3/4 shut. Most bars, restaurants, shops closed. I met a few friends wandering round, bemused. I thought the streets might be full of people celebrating their continued existence. It was actually very quiet. Though as the evening came there was an amazing almost surreal light over the city. The sort of lurid sunshine you get directly before or after a storm.

Joshua cycled in and we went for a drink. Vaguely euphoric. We wandered down through Leicester Sq and down to Trafalgar Square. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with love for the city. Much more than winning the Olympic bid, the stoic beauty of London in the face of such hateful violence seemed wonderful to me. Big Ben was distant down Whitehall, the column with Nelson’s back to me, those comically mournful Lions, the words of Ken Livingstone, that London will always be a beacon for freedom and people will always come here to be free. How strange that London and Londoners can turn such carnage into something so strong. I felt honoured to live here.