October 2008


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.

This trip to Brazil was significant on a number of scores. It was the first time that we had run a session on the completed Land: an old coconut plantation that Silva had bought four years ago and in which Gary, Sue and I had invested by buying the first bungalows. In the space of those four years and with titanic effort Silvia had created a magical space with several beautifully crafted bungalows a wonderfully roomy restaurant, exotic and colourful gardens, a lagoon for swimming and the most magnificent eight-sided ceremony hall for drinking the ayahuasca.

This space, away from the Bahian coast and cupped in a bowl of the rainforest is the perfect space to drink the brew. It was created and crafted by the energy of ayahuacsa and everything here is energized by it. It’s also exquisitely beautiful.

The more important first for me was that this was the first time that I approached drinking the Plant without violent terror. Up until now it had always seemed like I was going towards something voodoo, something otherworldly and alien that happened to have enormous benefit. This time I realized that I was going towards my own unconscious.

Various experiences in the last year, most significantly my work with Rob Nairn and an approach to Jung, had taught me that nothing must be ignored, and nothing rejected. The unconscious is an enormous reservoir of energy and stories, desires and wishes that power our life.

While I was in Bahia, preparing for the first session, I read Guy Claxton’s wonderful book, The Wayward Mind which traces our varied and often antagonistic stance to the unconscious. Far from being the devil in the works, Claxton illustrates with history and neuroscience that we are largely Unconscious and the conscious part is just a little icing on the cake.

Making peace and welcoming in the energies of the unconscious becomes essential work.

This is how I approached the ayahuasca ceremonies this time.

Using the techniques of mindfulness and acceptance I’d learnt with Rob Nairn, I was able to stay with the huge volume of fear and full-body tension that always arises before I drink (no matter how amazing the previous session has been). I was able to practice with staying with whatever arose no matter how strange and how alien it seemed. I was firm in my belief that what I plunged into during those overwhelming night sessions was the depth of my unconsciousness. Those powerful currents and archetypes that Jung sees as powering our conscious lives.

And so it was.

The extraordinary match between my intention going into the ceremony and the insight that flooded me during the peak of the experience, seemed to bear out my hope that I was surfing the very engines of my unconscious. I was able to stay with everything that arose – not pushing anything away into the ‘alien and frightening’ category, but instead welcoming in into the ‘personal but not-known’ category. That way arose enormous understanding.

I am more and more convinced that this work of bringing the unconscious into the conscious is of enormous psychical benefit. Energy that is expended in repressing potential sources of energy is doubly debilitating. Energy is lost both in the repression and the refusal to tap those enormous stores of power.

I was able, for example, to free up enormous resources of tenderness and compassion that had been frozen around the emotional pain of several broken relationships from my 20s and teenage. A teenage love that had held me in its ban for 3 years at least had been pushed into the dullest, numbest regions of my unconscious – filed under ‘trivial’. But revisiting it, with the incredible emotional and memory acuity that ayahuasca brings (I was that 17 year-old again, I felt everything he felt), I was able to re-connect to that pain I felt when I was rejected and allow it arise up again. Not to push it away or ‘cure’ it but to feel it in all its powerful humanity.

I felt this very strongly. That nothing that arises falls out of the remit of being human. Therefore, it’s fatal to want to remove stuff, or push it elsewhere. There is no elsewhere to push it. A better strategy is to embrace it and bring it joyfully into a sense of being fully human.

As I lay there on the mats, heart full to bursting with sadness and pain, I have never felt more beautifully human. Or more alive.

It’s been a while since I’ve written in here about ayahuasca.

This is partly because the work I’ve been doing there, in Brazil, has been so deeply personal that I haven’t felt it appropriate to share. But I have continued to visit Silvia and teach and participate in workshops, once or twice a year for the last four years.

My experiences there this September were so profound and wide-reaching that I had a very strong urge during one of the visions to share more completely. This came about for all sorts of reasons which will probably come out in the telling.

I might have to do it in installments…

Firstly I need to go back to 2006.

Ayahuasca is a sacred Amazonian plant which engenders altered states in which enormous insight and psychological healing can arise. It’s been used for millenia by the tribes of the Brazilian rain forest and more recently by sycretic Christian groups like Santo Daime. The Argentinian psychologist Silvia Polivoy has developed and built a magnificent centre in Bahia, NE Brazil, to promote a new path: the mix of the Plant’s magic with western psychological insight. To that end participants drink in comfort and in a group, there is a lot of support and workshops to explore the Inner Child work in which she specializes.

My first drink was in 2004 and was totally revelatory. It showed me – in essence – that the Universe was profoundly OK and that indeed I was profoundly OK and the choking coils of self-conscious doubt and anxiety were unnecessary. It was a completely transformative experience. When I came back my family and friends were witness to a very abrupt lifting of my, till then rather withdrawn and disconnected, personality.

Subsequent sessions with the Plant have been much more therapeutic, digging deep into the memory store and unrooting toxic thougts and memories that had conditioned my life. This can be quite disturbing but ultimately massively healing. Like invasive surgery, it is sore but excises the things that are killing us.

For me this came to a head (or perhaps a commencement) in a particularly turbulent session in April 2006.

Ayahuasca sessions take place at night and in a group. If the brew is strong and the participants are struggling, the 4 or 5 hours of peak experience can be quite noisy. People purging, strange emanations bubbling up from their unsettled psyches.

On this particular evening, everything kicked off. People were roaring and jumping around, there was a lot of noise and I became utterly terrified of one female participant who was lying next to me.

I have never experience a terror like this. It felt utterly alien and eviscerating and left me curled up in a foetal ball out on the grass, hands over my ears. It lasted at full strength until the dawn.

The following day I could not make any sense of it at all. All my other experiences on Aya had been deep and unusual, but nothing like this. And there seemed to be no relief. In fact, the woman in question, rather ominously took me aside and told me I had not begun to experience my true fear and it would completely destroy my life.

That statement was much to do with her particular journey but in retrospect, and in a totally upside-down way, she was completely right because the next session, one day later, showed me the most incredible insight into my life and did indeed completely destroy an old way of living that had hobbled me since childhood.

I saw, gently and insistently, that at the age of 6 I had made a decision as a child that had completely programmed my life from then on. Silvia does a lot of work on this, taking you back to a traumatic moment in your childhood (and the trauma can be slight) where you made a decision as a child that then filtered unconsciously through every subsequent adult moment of life. It becomes the root of your complex.

For me, aged 6, I made a decision to deal with the singular fact of my sexuality. Knowing that I was gay and my desire was contrary to everyone else around me, I made a decision that I would have to survive in the world on my own. I remember telling myself: everyone in the world, including my parents, are trying to kill me and the only way I can stop them is by pre-guessing their method; that will protect me.

The sadness of this stance that a little boy of six assumed – always alone, always under threat, and only the most extrememe fearful self-consciousness will protect him – made me sob uncontrollably for several hours. The release and healing of those tears was indescribable.

I saw, with the singular clarity that the ayahuasca state brings, how that paranoid thought (“It’s me, alone, against the world, for ever”) ran like a scarlet thread through my entire life, colouring every stage of my teenage, adult years. Obviously, at some point, I let go of it as a literal belief but – because it remained unconscious and unquestioned – that sense of fear and distrust and that extreme, paralysing self-consciousness become the fundamental building block of my personality. It totally pre-programmed my relationships to failure, of course, and as Silvia insightfully pointed out, it also perversely led me to chose a career which was about constantly putting myself on an exposed, impersonal pedestal and daring people to shoot me down. How exhausting.

In the communal sharing that follows every group ayahuasca session, I told my story and sobbed again. Deep, cavernous, snotty sobs that seemed to come from below me, outside of me and were the most cathartic beautiful things I have ever experienced. The sense of peace and relief, the enormous outpouring of compassion for myself was indescribably wonderful and has percolated into my life ever since.

I can’t begin to detail the ramifications of that healing on my day-to-day psyche. But it definitely began one strand of liberationary thinking that has led me to recently change profession from a presenter to a therapist; to gradually fade out the one (which served my psyche in its turn) and then move to something new and ultimately more in line with my natural bent, rather than echoing and re-living a fateful decision I made in incomprehending fear, aged 6.