October 2005


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It’s exactly a week since I arrived home in London from Brazil.

I was over there for 3 weeks to have another bash at Ayahuasca. After my skull-shatteringly amazing experiences last year, I thought it would be churlish not to go back and see what else she had to offer.

I had planned to spend a lascivious week of R&R in Ipanema before heading up North to be spiritual. But when my plane landed in Rio and I trolled into town, I was met with such hilariously horizontal rains and lashing winds that I promptly turned around and took a plane up to Bahia. Rio is possibly the most beautiful cities in the world under a blue sky, but traipsing from bar to bar in the cold, damp rain would have made a travesty of it.

So instead I went – virtuously – up north to the sun-soaked tropical beaches of Ilheus, Bahia. It was wonderful to spend a week acclimatising and getting my head into a suitably receptive state for the seminar.

This year I was teaching alongside the heavenly Sue Minns and Gary Reich. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing there, but diligently taught my meditation techniques of mindfulness and concentration to our wildly disparate group.

It was a big group, 27, and as always it was a varied palate of humanity. A tall, long-haired surfer dude from Southern California, lawyers from London, a physician from Florida, a couple from Toronto, a fashion guru who doubled as a medium in her free time, a couple of sexagenarian seekers from Upstate New York, a Scottish women who’d had a restaurant in Barbados.

The group is such a vital part of the whole experience and Silvia and Gary, Sue and I were at great pains to emphasize that. Traditionally it is the Shaman who controls and contains the whole experience. We wanted to try and create a group energy that contained itself without any one dominant controller. Democratic healing.

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As I mentioned elsewhere, there’s an enormous amount of anxiety that builds up before the first session. Most people have never done anything like this in their life. And over the 3 or so days before we drink for the first time, the to-ing and fro-ing of stories and expectations, weaves itself into a strait-jacket of dilated terror.

One of the sweetest members of the group was a mild mannered maths teacher from Chicago (who I’ll call Bert.) He was in his 60s and about to retire and he’d spend a lot of his latter years travelling the world looking at sacred sites. He was shy and gentle and I liked him from the start.

As we all lay down for the first session, gulping down the vile-tasting brew and settling down in the dark on our cushions, it was Bert who came to the fore.

People often find the first session disorientating and difficult. Bert was torn apart by it.

After about an hour, when I and most people were quite deep into the early stages of the experience, Bert started vomiting with incredible violence. It was as if he was being possessed and torn apart by some internal demon. For about 7 hours his screams and moans and agonised stumbling out into the fresh air coloured everyone’s trips. And although Gary and Silvia were tending him constantly (and all the other people who began to vomit too), Silvia also started playing incredibly intense drumming and ululating tribal singing to push the energy deeper and darker.

It was a tremendously difficult night for just about everyone. I was trapped in a very grim, reduced place for a very long time. Elements that I recognised from my trips last year came back and completely imprisoned my mind – an impassive male face, sphinx like paws, a complete reduction of possibilities. It left me feeling very grim and profoundly unsure as to why the hell I was doing this.

The next day over breakfast, many people were feeling the same. Why on earth were we putting ourselves through such misery?

I recognised the same blank awefulness from last year. Though it was nowhere near as intense. Gary said that he had had that severely claustrophobic vision of the universe in one his early ayahuasca experiences. He saw, with time, that it was an illusion of the ego wanting to reduce the world to familiar, controllable elements – endlessly repeated. On paper, this sort of made sense. But I went into the second session very clear that I wanted to experience joy not entrapment.

Weirdly, 2 days later, everyone, including Bert, walked back into the candlelit room, lay down and drank another dose. It is a little like childbirth, so traumatic yet worth it.

And this second trip was incredibly intense and I went through that stuck place to exactly the same place of Big Bang awareness that I experienced last year.

When I gave a talk about Ayahuasca a few months ago in London, someone in the audience stood up and accused me of missing the spiritual aspect of the plant. I was frankly astonished because what I experienced was the most profoundly spiritual. This Big Bang sensation was not some wonderful drug rush. It was a sustained knowledge of what I take to be the very essence of the Universe. I know this all sounds a little grandiose – but that is what I experienced. And if we’re honest it’s at the heart of what most human beings want to know: are we going the right way? Is the world benevolent? Can we be really happy?

For those few hours, lying twitching wildly on the grass outside the hall, I was experiencing (and I can only speak of my own experience) the ultimate nature of my life: the universal background noise, the baseline of things. And it was a constantly self-creating, roaring, nuclear explosion of positive energy. Every problem, every knot and negativity that my mind came up with was instantly resolved into laughing joy. It was impossible to create problems, impossible to suffer. Gradually I was able just to rest in that incredible time-and-space transcending knowledge.

Writing it down I feel vaguely dipsy and know that I am doing a poor job of conveying what I experienced. But that’s absolutely fine. What is important is that that Nuclear Noise, that white noise of the Universe was supremely good and all powerful. More important still: nothing, nothing in the created universe would make the slightest dent in its energy.

Gradually the intensity of the vision faded and I was able to move around a little under the palms. I lay for a long time spooning with Gary, profoundly delighted with the human contact, vaguely aware that what I just experienced was almost beyond being human.

Just as last year, I walked around for 24 hours afterwards grinning from ear to ear. Everyone had a much more peaceful and powerful session the second time. It was as if Bert’s traumas had exorcised all our demons and the second session was the space were we all moved forward towards something more beautiful. Bert included.

I must point out that no one ayahuasca experience is the same. No one else had an experience like mine. Everyone’s was unique and tailor-made to their psychic temperament and position. Sue, for example, had a wonderful breakthrough after 4 sessions of horrible nausea and not much else, by asking very specifically to be shown some information about the Egyptian mysteries that so absorb her. Which is exactly what the Plant enabled her to do.

I became hyper-sensitive of people’s tendencies to extrapolate their experience into other people’s. That shift from “my” to “our” is impossible in ayahuasca. I cannot say “the Plant told me that we all are xyz”, I can only acknowledge that “I am xyz”. These insights are unique not universal. That much humility I learnt.

I also learnt that the Plant definitely has a role to play. Last year I concluded that Aya was simply a chemical that enabled the human mind to analyse and heal itself. I still think that in the second half of the ayahuasca session that this is what happens, but the first trip taught me that the Plant is a external agent during the first hour or so and one has to submit to its slightly disturbing workings in order to reach those planes of insight.

Those disturbing elements for me always take the same form. Within 20-30 minutes I start to see coloured dots and fairly dramatically they coalesce into swirling, snake/plant-like shapes. These are not natural forms, they are alien and distinctly non-human and although they never actively scare me, they proble and wreathe and swirl in vivid colours and can be very uncomfortable to experience. Eventually (often quite quickly) their measuring and probing is over and I pass into a rather artificial holding space. This is where I can sometimes get horribly stuck (this year I had a sequence with plastic flowers and fishes, Japanese robots and pink perspex landscapes) but eventually this also transforms.

On my third session, although I had had sublime 2nd one, I was full of inchoate fear. I very nearly didn’t drink. But the group energy was strong and thank goodness I did.

The first half of this session – where I’d taken a much smaller dose than previously – I was battling furiously with those swirling alien shapes. I was determined not to let them happen and I fought with a weird desperation for the Plant not to work. Eventually of course, I saw that, in the words of the Borgs, resistance is futile. I also saw that this huge fear was somehow alien too. It didn’t belong to me and I was able to lay it aside like a big black bundle.

Once I’d become adept at laying that fear aside, I entered another familiar place from last year, an incredibly wonderful landscape filled with everyone I’d ever loved. My heart became ecstatically active and I was able to love like never before. My parents and my brother and sister-in-law and my neice and nephew were with me and I was exploding with love for them.

This wasn’t a mystical state at all. They were there and we were chatting and laughing. It was transcendental only in its simplicity.

Last year, I had the Family and the Nuclear experience consecutively in one session. This year, having them rearranged in 2 sessions, I saw how they fitted together. Where the Nuclear experience had left me feeling rather overwhelmed, largely because it seemed so beyond humanity, this session I was aware of how that Nuclear barrage of positive energy was always there in the background – constantly and effortlessly informing that wonderfully human and natural feeling of love.

It became like the best party in the world. Everyone I thought of was suddenly there. My family, my friends, my dead Granmother who I met dancing under the palm trees, laughingly happy at her own skittishness. And everyone was there in their best aspect. I could see no reason why I had ever argued with anyone, ever had problems with people. Through this nuclear heart everyone was so simply perfect.

In between the 2nd and the 3rd sessions Sue Minns had given the most magical workshop where she created a visualized space where all arguments could be resolved and where past pains could be healed. This is in concordance with Jung’s insight that problems cannot be resolved on the level on which they occur. When it came to looking back into ones own past I immediately and effortlessly came to a moment when I was about 8 and I accidentally told an older boy who I had a crush on that I loved him infront of a room of school friends. The ridicule and embarassment I felt then became emblematic of that young Alistair having to come to terms with the fact that being gay was going to be a difficult ride.

In the visualization, Sue had us call that younger you up into the space where we were, and give them the help or love they needed. I was able to visualize my 8-year-old self with a blond puddingbowl hair cut, incredibly easily and just as easily I could let my younger self know that far from being risible, being in love with that older boy was a wonderful thing… indeed I was able to flash forward through all the crushes and loves, requited and unrequited, through my whole life and refigure them afresh. Away from being an apologetic outsider and into being a powerful boy filled with love.

And that sense of coming into power was really potent in my love-a-thon in the 3rd session. Quite unlike last year, where all 4 sessions saw me nailed to the floor for the whole night, this year I was able to get up and move around a little. On this third session, I made it to the toilets and there in the lights I stood and looked at myself and was rather delighted with what I saw. Giggling slightly at the audacity of it, I saw for the first time that I was a big, good guy with a big good heart. In one night I switched from being the weaker brother to being the stronger one. From being the needy partner to being the one who could provide and nurture. Standing there infront of the mirror in that wooden toilet, my hands fluttering with the dizzy energy of the plant, I knew that my purpose in life was to go out and love people. Look after people. Act in love.

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Striding outside (rather unsteadily) I started doing some yoga, enjoying the glory of my physical body. I was still able to call people to my side at will, so I lay under the incredible tropical stars with my family, occasionally bringing in ex-boyfriends, dead English teachers, friends from University.

It was a beautiful, beautiful night. The human incarnation of that scary, overwhelming beauty from the night before.

I could have left it there. In fact the seminar officially ended there, but some of the people who have been involved with the project for a long time stayed on and we moved from the lovely pousada on the beach where the session had been held, to the new land that Silvia has bought and is gradually transforming into a permanent centre for the seminars.

It’s a little away from the beach and 45 minutes further up the coast, close to the fashionable surfer town of Itacare. The land itself is part of the Mata Atlantico, a UNESCO world heritage site, and over the last year, Alfredo, a Argentinian like Silvia, has worked in inspired fury to establish what will become an amazing community.

He’s landscaped a colossal lagoon which will function like a swimming pool. There’s a mineral water spa and an octagonal building for drinking the ayahuasca, along with the first handful of 15 bungalows, scattered among the forest.

This is where we did the 4th session. Unlike the first three, this was more freeform. There’s no electricity on the land as yet, so we had only the light of the three-quarter moon and a fire. We had no convenient bucket so we had to dash out into the jungle to purge. There was no music only the deafening collage of the jungle insects, birds and frogs.

I took a small dose again but it had immense effects nonetheless. The swirling alien forms came strong but I welcomed this time with delight. I was lying outside in the full moonlight and quite quickly I found myself able to walk. I made my way unsteadily away from the Octogon and found a spot down by the marsh and stared up at the moon and the jungle.

To tell the truth I was receiving far more information than I could process, but the message I intuited quite clearly was that I should not try to interpret or understand, merely stay with the experience. Which is what I did. I found myself dancing a strange sagging dance by the swamp. I made my way carefully up the hillside to my bungalow and lay shaking for quite some time on the decking there, being filled up with strange knowledge – most of it overwhelming but never unpleasant. I came back down to the group. Sat watching people move around the lagoon in the moonlight. I started to dance in a rather serious pounding way up and down the gravel and decking infront of the Octogon. And then I went back inside to the group of people various scattered around the fire.

I sat on the low wall and one by one people came up to me and I found myself holding them, hugging them while they cried. It was a beautiful sensation to feel that I could hold someone and offer unconditional love and support while they sobbed out some ancient hurt.

Eventually, I lay down and drifted off to sleep. It was cold and damp now. And the moon had set. There was no real beds and I was quite uncomfortable but finally I found a spot and curled up till the dawn.

Having got through those 4 gruelling and exhausting sessions is a feat in itself and I and almost everyone there felt elated to have finished. To not have to go through it all again.

After almost a month of no sugar and no salt (one of the dietary requirements) we all piled off to Itacare in the car for ham rolls and chocolate milk in the morning sunshine. It felt heavenly to be so normal again. I felt lung-stretchingly happy to be there in Brazil, in all that vivid green vegetation, among all those stunning dark-skinned Brazilians, full of those delicious, guiltless calories.

Unfortunately we were pretty much straight back to London after that. Sue Minns and I had a massive 36 hour journey home, which acted as a long integration limbo, where we started to fit all the insight of the sessions back into waking, walking, talking life. And that integration carries on apace.

I think the most interesting thing was how so many of the experience on Ayahuasca were the same as last year, but how that intervening year’s growth put me in a completely different space to recieve them all. I’m all excitement as to how they will filter into my life in the coming months.

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