As a teenager I discovered the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic subculture. During these early years I had many beautiful experiences with psychedelics, usually mushrooms, usually at shows, sometime out in nature. During these experiences I gained tremendous insight into matters of the spirit, of politics, and swift satori-like bursts containing lessons about how the world works. But clearly there were those around me who were overboard, just there for the party. Indeed, the Dead scene seemed to have this dichotomous feature of the ’60s subculture embedded within in it: the deep flowering of insight, beauty and art and the ugly underbelly of excessive hedonism in all its forms.
For my part, after reading that Joseph Campbell had attended some Dead shows and likened the experience to the Elysian Mystery festivals, I declared myself a religion major and pursued a course of study focused on the intersection of mythology, Jungian depth psychology and Eastern philosophy. During this time I was also exposed to the writings of Mircea Eliade and the concept of shamanism. At the same time the late Terrance McKenna was near the pinnacle of his early ’90s “the Leary of Mushrooms” fame. His writings were thought-provoking and often completely off the wall, but through them I became aware that a shamanism that employed the use of psychoactive plants is an ancient and global phenomenon, practiced by nearly all indigenous cultures at one point. I learned that shamans used these plants as technologies to travel between the various worlds for the benefit of their people.
In particular I learned about Ayahuasca – the Vine of the Souls.
It’s an Amazonian, DMT-containing, vision-inducing, shamanic brew that is still used across the Amazon area, and now in other parts of the world. I soon found that not only were Westerners heading down to the jungle to drink Ayahuasca, but to my amazement, that shamans from the Amazon were bringing the brew to the U.S. to run ceremonies for groups here.
Somehow I ended up invited to one such ceremony in upstate New York. Each participant was directed to follow a special cleansing diet for the week before the ceremony, and upon arrival, was issued his or her own personal barf bucket, as Ayahuasca is famous for the purge it causes. What I learned that day, however, was the purge is not only physical, but psychic as well.
The Amazonian Indians speak of Ayahuasca as if it is an entity; they call it “Grandmother”. Indeed, soon after the effects came on, I felt as if I was being probed by an ancient and perhaps alien intelligence. My soul was being examined. And over the course of the next several hours, as I vomited my guts out, I was forced to view many of my faults and the darkest corners of my being, view them, accept them and spit them out.
I pleaded for leniency during this trial. I cried out, “I’m just a human! Have mercy!” It was a true Day of Atonement. I felt as if my soul was standing on a twelve lane superhighway being run over by tractor trailers again and again. I felt as if I might die. Certainly a part of me did die that day.
All in all it was the most unpleasant experience of my life, but also the most profound. By the end of the ceremony I understood fully that it was a sacred medicine. I felt renewed, light, and bonded with my co-travelers. I knew that I learned many lessons in a language beyond words.
The positive feeling endures to this day, nearly 8 years later. Until that day my proverbial glass was always half empty. I wallowed in the negative. After the ceremony I began to be a glass half-full kind of a guy. I subsequently returned for several more ceremonies (these, mercifully, were less harsh and quite beautiful). During each ceremony, the shaman and other facilitators the group made it very clear that participating in the ceremony was only one step in this “work” in which we were engaged. The real trick is in integrating what you learn into your life. This is something I’m still working on, and which I imagine will be my life’s work for the remainder of my time on Earth.
(Photo of “traditional shaman dress” by Gracy Obuchowicz, who writes: “Spirit Songs A Musical Taxonomy of the Amazon” is a documentary that my friends and I are making about healing songs—called icaros–and the shamans of the Peruvian Amazon who sing them. Until recently, these shamans have served for generations as the doctors, pharmacists, psychologists, and priests for the over three million indigenous people that live alongside the Amazon river in Peru.” Watch a teaser for the film here. See many more of Gracy’s wonderful photos here.)