Came back a week ago from Brazil where I was filming a documentary about the native Indian plant medicine Ayahuasca . It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Gary and I flew into Sao Paulo and, groggy from the 11 hour flight, made our way across that Moloch of a city and caught a flight up to Ilheus (the Cocoa Capital of Brazil), in the province of Bahia. We then drove further 40 minutes up the Atlantic seabord to a little eco-resort where the retreat was taking place.
Here’s the deal: Ayahuasca is a tea made in a 48 hour long ceremony from two distinct Amazonian plants. The vine, Bannisteriopsis caapi, (the liana swung on by Tarzan) is beaten to a pulp and then brewed up with the leaves of the chakruna plant, latin name Psychotria viridis. Individually these two plants are chemically inert, but brewed over many hours into a tea, they combine to create an extraordinary pharmabotanical double-act. Not too much is known about the neurochemistry of this tea, but the main brain transmitter that fires up seems to be dimethyltriptamine – a substance already present in great abundance in the human brain. The combination of the two plants allows the DMT to be taken orally and not be instantly neutralised by the body – instead it floods and activates this chemical compound throughout the brain.
So that’s the chemistry. But why the hell am I sitting in a hut on the Brazilian coast, in the middle of the night with 19 other people about to drink the brew and enter a 8 hour hallucinogenic trip?
Well, for several reasons…
First, because my friend Gary asked me to present a documentary exploring the therapeutic uses of this ancient South American plant.
And secondly because on a fathom-deep level, I was needing a spiritual kick in the ass.
I’ve practised Buddhist meditation for five years now but recently I’ve felt that somehow, somewhere along the line things have gotten a little brittle and dusty. My practice needed a little irrigation. So, after a series of jobs fell through in the space of 2 days and a month-long lacuna mysteriously opened up in my diary, I rather impulsively agreed to Gary’s offer…. and packed my bags for the jungle.
But as soon as I committed, I was terrified.
I haven’t so much as drunk a cup of coffee for 5 years, let alone a powerful hallucinogenic. And more importantly, I’ve really come to cherish the mostly peaceful Mind meditation has given me. I didn’t really relish the idea of that hard-won lucidity being ripped apart by some feral drug.
But heigh-ho, sometimes it’s good for the soul to bungee jump into the Unknown.
And so here I am. In the dark, In the forest about to swig back a plastic cup full of vile, vile, vile tasting brown liquid. (Even imagining it as I type, makes me heave slightly).
The group is 20 strong from all different backgrounds. There were some hardened spiritual psychonauts, a girl with early onset Parkinsons, a neurosurgeon, an oncologist, a woman with breast cancer, a choreographer from Manhattan and me. And we’re all being looked after by the calm, egoless and witty Silvia Polivoy , a qualified psychologist from Buenos Aires who 10 years earlier ventured into the Peruvian Amazon to become initiated in the Ayahuasca ceremony by the native Shamans there. Since then her vocation has been to bring the therapeutic benefits out of the cloister of the forest into the broader sunshine of these internationally visited seminars. Her thinking is that the Ayahuasca trip is bumpy enough (there’s a fair amount of vomiting and quite a lot of psychic discomfort) without the dark, insectoid terrors of the deep jungle and the manipulative male-energy of the Shamans.
By the time we’re sitting down in the middle of the night to drink the brew, my expectations are running pretty high. People who’ve done it before all talk about the Plant’s weirdly healing powers. Healing in a psychic sense. The visions you get on the brew aren’t just the random oddness of mushrooms or LSD, they seem to articulate the key issues of your mind in electrifying detail. And most importantly for me, the power of the trip then continues working once you’ve woken up.
This idea of waking integration really turned me on. In fact, that was the single most important reason for coming. In the distant past I’d done a fair amount of recreational drugs. What had finally made me tire of them was the fact that their benefits were so limited. Once the drugs had leached out of your system, the joy, the love, the whatever was also gone. The transience of their happy effects actually left you feeling profoundly miserable. What made Ayahuasca seems so interesting was this idea that the insight you had during the big trip then translated into some permanent change in your “normal” life….
Still what happened if the permanent change was permanent psychosis…? an eternity of swatting imaginary flies or drooling into my straightjacket…?
But then, bosh!, I’ve past the point of no return… I’ve swallowed it, the lights are turned off, some intense tribal music is being played and my stomach is starting to churn.
My first session with Ayahuasca (I did 4 in total) was a a pround disappointment.
I felt dreadfully nauseous and the limited visuals I saw (gaudy fractals of the kind you see in cheap techno clubs) left me feeling very short-changed. All this way for some crappy pixelated doodlings? After a fitful night and one massive barf into my bucket, I woke up engulfed by this overwhelming sense of sadness. I’ve never felt so cellularly sad and alone. It seemed I had never and would never really connect to other people. I started to cry. Big glugging tears. And I lay there sobbing for almost an hour.
It all seemed bitterly ironic since I’d specifically asked the Plant for connection and all I got was this devestating isolation.
As the day wore on, I didn’t have any glorious integration but bit by bit I did soret of make sense of my experience.
Walking down the beach that afternoon, still feeling very blue, I was joined by Bartolo the old Alsatian who lived on the site. Without a question he walked with me up the beach and gradually I felt a sense of companionship – if only from a dog. The silly simplicity of it made me laugh. As we got towards the end of the beach, a family with yapping dog stopped old Bartolo in his tracks. I was determined to get to the end but no matter how much I waved and whistled he wouldn’t budge. He just sat there looking at me walking off into the distance.
Suddenly I saw it: here was my connection. But I was about to ignore it because – because what? Because of some random intention – to get to the end of the beach? What was more important having company or doing what I wanted? Well, company of course. So I dropped my plan and turned back to the dog, who was tail-waggingly delighted as I approached. Weirdly, that Alsatian pointed out that you have to choose to be connected.
Well, that seemed like somekind of insight. A little hokey perhaps, but significant. But that was nothing compared to the proof of connection that came in my second session a day and half later…
By that stage I’d just got my head around the possibility of taking another dose of the nasty stuff and talking to other people about their experiences on the brew had also given me some pointers about navigating the experience. Part of the problem of my first session was that I’d been completely prone and passive. Others had been much more interactive: asking questions of the experience, imagining members of the group being there for company, generally being more playful and maintaining a sense of humour. So this time as I sat with the queasy brew in my stomach, I felt better prepared.
It began as before with a fractalized sequence where a wildly pixelated visual field flowed in and out of plantlike imagery: probing, tendrilly, vegetative. Instead of dismissing this as naff I rode with it, smiling and slightly more detached. After a while (perhaps 20 minutes) the fractals dissolved into a more and more clearly individuated landscape: a beautiful. slightly surreal beach flooded with syrupy sunlight and populated by exquisitely graceful plants, pieces of furniture as well as several members of the group. Suddenly able to turn my head and look around thisnew 360 degree reality, I was delighted to find it quite stable and quite human. I suppose I’d been expecting mythical, divine things but the more powerful thing about this whole session was the humanity of it. The people I spoke to and encountered were normal, funny, unpretentious. There was a female character who I supposed was the Plant who was quite sassy and sexy. And there was a male character who I recognised as my perfect lover, warm, handsome, sexy and funny.
I then moved into a long stretch (maybe 2 hours) where I felt all the fear, nausea and anxieties I had about the trip and indeed about life in general slide away. I experienced in a gloriously visceral way that, at root, life is bloody marvellous – easy, effortless, and satisfying. My legs and then later my whole body began shaking. The sort of shivers you get when you’re really happy or excited but multiplied by 100. It felt as if I was being tanked up by a sort of cosmic juice and – most importantly – it felt just right: this was exactly what we deserved — I had no guilt about experiencing such pleasure. And that included sexual pleasure. Long and repeated sessions of tantric sex with my handsome lover saw all my anxieties and hang-ups about gay sex evaporate. How gorgeous that was!
I found I was able to summon people up into the beach lanscape at will. And each friend and family member who arrived exploded a nuclear bomb of love and joy in my body. It was astonishing. I saw quite clearly that we’re all capable of astounding quantities of love. How we mostly work on tanks 10% full and just how glorious a full tank of love feels. Astonishingly it was just as easy to call up my dead grandparents (who I never knew) and feel their love as my living Mum and Dad or friends from London, Berlin and New York.
After 3 or 4 hours of this turbo-charged love-in, I thought surely it must end. But actually that was just the entree.
At that moment, (probably about 2 in the morning) everything went into overdrive: suddenly I was not just experiencing love with all my friends and family on a beach. Suddenly I was connected with everything and everyone on the Planet and then throughout the Universe. Clearly these sort of experiences reduce you to blandly cosmic blather, but there’s no other way to describe it. I felt more clearly than I’ve ever felt anything in my life, that I was experiencing the true quality of the Universe. My life, all human lives, my past lives, the populations of the Earth, birth, death, the microscopic realms and the cosmological expanses of the Universe. The sense of simple simultaneity was hilarious and awesome in equal measure. Any concept, any person, any idea, any event in the whole of history, in the whole expanse of the Universe was happening at the same moment, so everything was possible and perfect. Even the seemingly bad and evil things in life, in this perspective resolved instantly. This was beyond words, beyond religions, beyond everything. And it lasted for ages. I kept grinning to myself thinking: this much knowledge and perfection has to vanish, has to disappear. Surely, this can’t go on. But it did, for about 3 hours.
I was split from ear to ear in one big grinning happiness. Seeing all this and seeing that it was OK. That bedrock of the World was good and perfect was so immensely comforting. I kept laughing to myself: I never have to worry about work, about politics, about religion, about relationships, about sex. Everything is resolved. How amazing. How weird. How the hell am I going to be able to tell anyone about this!?
Eventually, as the dawn came up and the vision slowly decreased in intensity, I was lowered back into reality. And I woozily stood up and walked down the beach which was glowing and comically magnifient in the early sunshine.
A skinny dip and several grinning encounters later, I was still feeling almost uncomfortably blissful. Too much happiness! Perhaps I should go back to the old, disconnected sad Alistair. But there was no going back. This experience was definitely going to change something.
The challenge of integrating that sort of peak experience back into quotidien 9.5 was the substance of my last 2 sessions with the Plant. The 3rd time I did it – I went in with the question: how do I use that insight in my daily life. I took a smaller dose and stayed much closer to the ground. I didn’ t have the spectacular vertical-take off ot the 2nd session – but after a relatively uneventful night, as I walked back to my bungalow, I popped into see Fiona, the girl from NY with Parkinsons, to find that she was having a terrible panic attack, She asked me to lie with her and I found my self stretched out on the floor under a blanket holding her naked body and chatting happily away with her for almost 2 hours. Her panic subsided and I felt totally at ease. A week previously there’s no way that I would have been able to do that without at least feeling chronically self conscious. And although that sort of easy companionship comes on drugs like MDMA or Ecstasy, this felt substantially different.
There is no recorded toxicity from Ayahuasca according to a Lancet report. There is none of the chemical comedown that Ectasy users experience. No serotonin depletion. The sense of connection and love seems to come from a psychological shift rather than a pharmaceutical shot. As I lay with Fiona I was fully aware of why I wouldn’t have been easy lying with a naked woman a week ago, and I was increasingly clear why it was now OK.
On my 4th trip I saw more clearly how Ayahuasca works psychologically. In the intervening days I felt the intensity of that 2nd experience dim and retreat into (admittedly vivid) memory. I worried that it would prove as chimerical as my previous drug experiences and I noticed how I was starting to disconnect again. How the old mental habits of solitary, anxious Alistair were creeping back. So I asked the Plant quite specifically to show me the situations in which I disconnected, explain the mechanism and show me how I could intuit a way out of that habit.
And that’s exactly what she did all night long. The extraordinary thing about the Ayahuasca experience is that the drug allows the brain to run real experiential vision: hallucinations which actually access the emotional experience of a given situation. I could vividly feel what it was like to be picked up from my cot and held by my Mum circa 1972 (a time when I was 2 and she was grieving for her Mum). Not only that but it creates the space for you to simultaneously see the psychological pattern that experience sets up and – if necessary – how to defuse it.
For example in the middle of that 4th trip, Fiona who was lying some distance off started speaking to her friend Stanley. It was the middle of the night and I was very high, but I remember thinking: she’s having a seizure, I must crawl across and hold her, give her some support. In point of fact, she was fine but I entered a labyrinth of guilt and anxiety: was I truely compassionate, or was it just show? how rubbish that I couldn’t even move 3 feet in the dark and be there for her… Moments later she got up to go to the loo, and flash! I saw clearly how this was exactly the sort of negative disconnective move my mind habitually made: my guilt served no useful purpose, it created negativity to myself and it didn’t help Fiona. And seeing that I was able to let it go and relax.
That pattern of being shown something either in reality or in vision and then shown a way out repeated all night long. After about 4 hours, I was sneakily wishing I’d asked for more tantric sex, but although many of the insights came so quickly, I had the distinct impression that they were all being registered somewhere inside. But by the time the dawn came I was exhausted. Quite beyoned knackered. Not physically but as if I’d had 7 years of useful psychotherapy in one night.
It’s been almost 3 weeks since those experiences in the Jungle and I’m now back in London immersed in life here. But I don’t feel in any sense separated from what I experienced in Brazil. My previously ubiquitous sense that any happiness I had was desperately fragile and any slight slip could send it shattering to the ground has gone. I feel very solid in my happiness. The comfort of having seen that life is OK is really radical. Anxiety and insecurity seem like abberations rather than the normality of life.
I’ve also begun to get used to that sense of connection.
There are a million questioned raised by my experiences. Would everyone have the same experience at some point? All the group in Bahia had wildly different experiences. Some did have blissful trips but others spent 4 nights vomiting and left disappointed. But I can’t imagine what I saw isn’t somehow universal. Does everyone on the Planet have to go to Brazil and take it? Would everyone benefit? How does the Plant work? Why is something so universally beneficial so obscurely buried in the South American jungle?
Will keep you posted as answers arrive!