My friend invited me to an ayahuasca ceremony. He’d had the psychotropic brew several times, and I, well… I’d read about it. As a student of shamanism and a spirituality nerd, I was intrigued and a little frightened when I signed up.
Ayahuasca has a long and storied history as a sacred Amazonian medicine. It has also become something of an exotic novelty, what I’ve heard called “spiritual tourism.” People eager to have a mystical experience travel to the jungle (or some unqualified hipster’s living room) to partake, with varied effects. Some lives are changed for the better, some illnesses are healed, and some unwitting gringos are taken for a ride by charlatans. A topic of conferences, documentaries, and scientific studies, ayahuasca and its active ingredient, DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptomine), are ancient mysteries at the heart of cutting edge science.
Thirty of us gathered at a studio in the country, lights dimmed, mats and small buckets at the perimeter of a large open room. I knew that purging by vomit, bowel movements, or sobbing was a common part of ayahuasca adventures. So it’s with some trepidation that I took my seat — and my bucket — in the circle. The ceremony leader said prayers, portioned out our cups, and called us one by one to drink, urging us to remember our intention for being there. My vague intention was to be a little happier. As I took my cup, suddenly I wanted to run away. Still, I drank the bitter, syrupy tea and waited.
Time passed and nothing seemed to happen except songs and the sounds of people vomiting. I looked at the ceiling and thought I saw stars, as though the night sky was indoors, but I didn’t feel any different. Remembering my friend’s (perhaps misguided) advice — that if I could walk up for another cup, I should — I asked for more. Again I swallowed down the brew and went back to my seat. It hit me all at once.
As the room spun and I slumped down onto my mat, a loud voice in my head told me, “This is what fainting feels like.” I was actually conscious of being unconscious. When I came to, I let out a thin cry for help: I desperately needed a bathroom and knew I couldn’t make it there on my own.
An assistant helped me to the restroom, and stayed in there with me for safety, in case I fainted again. I remember feeling gratitude rather than mortification at having company. I’m not sure what I would have done without her steady voice and later, her arm around my waist as we returned to the circle. I had never felt so sick. Struggling to stay conscious, I felt betrayed by my uncontrollable body. And though my period wasn’t due for another week, I started to feel intense menstrual cramps.
I felt betrayed by the ceremony, too, angry, deceived, humiliated, and frightened. I thought this was supposed to be a healing experience, something that edified me and gave me insight. But instead here I was, weak, demolished, relying on a stranger for help. My friend had also advised me not to fight the experience, to surrender as deeply as possible but I didn’t know how to do that; I wanted it all to stop. At the same time, I had no choice but to give in. There was nothing anyone could do for me. I laid down on my mat and the room slipped away.
I have no idea how much time passed. I have dim recollections of songs, people dancing, of the leader coming to me to graze my body with leaves and smoke as she performed a healing. I remember the menstrual pain, which intermittently anchored me in my body. I understood from the voice of the medicine, the same voice that told me I’d fainted, that I was birthing myself into new life. These were labor pains for some new version of me. I felt peaceful about that, but it seemed strange to have a body at all; I hovered somewhere beside it, looking at my limbs with puzzlement. I couldn’t place who I was or what I was doing, or why, or how I’d gotten to the ceremony (what is a ceremony anyway?), or who these other people were. To say that I was having an experience is inaccurate because there was no “I.” There was only consciousness, without personality or stories. Ayahuasca and I were conjoined twins, her voice meeting my ability to understand, distinct but intertwined. We anticipated my thoughts, answering or relinquishing questions before they were asked. I wasn’t sure where the medicine ended and I began because I didn’t really exist in the first place.
Eventually, a spasm of cramps brought me back to my body. There was enough of “me” then to wonder if I’d been dead. There was no heart monitor in the room and no one had given me CPR, but I don’t remember breathing, in that state between life and death, for what was likely two hours. (I learned much later that many participants in certain DMT studies reported having similar near-death experiences. I understand that sometimes, these were blissful. Sometimes not. Mine was neither because opinions can’t exist without a self.)
As the ceremony ended, it was time to sleep. In this room with snoring strangers and clanking water bottles, I was constantly awakened to feel a peculiar recalibrating energy. Each time I woke up, I heard the voice say, “This is another opportunity to surrender. Close your eyes and allow yourself to fall asleep. This is another chance to practice letting go.”
I understood then the point of the whole ceremony. I saw how something as mundane as sleep can be a chance to practice dying. Truly, everything is a chance to surrender to the larger consciousness, and I had gotten a crash course.
I saw that all of my efforts to plan and schedule, to go head-first through ceremony — and through life — were so much fruitless work. Even the cramps I usually hated and this body I sometimes disdain were visceral blessings and beautiful mysteries. I saw that the new life I was birthing had to include the skill of surrender. And for the first time, surrender felt like a relief: there’s freedom in trying less, in giving up the fight against life as it is.
In the morning, we all had breakfast together and shared our stories. I had less to say than the others. It had been the hardest night of my life. I’d been so completely humbled, vulnerable, and incapacitated, but also surprised to find there didn’t have to be any shame in that. This insight alone changed me and deepened my compassion for others. I understood in a larger way that all of us have hard ceremonies from time to time, all of us need an arm around our waists because, whether we fight against it or not, life will be messy and unpredictable.
This hardest night of my life was the initiation to a new spiritual practice, one of deep surrender to life as it is. I wish I could tell you I’ve mastered it. I certainly haven’t. But I remember my night with ayahuasca and know that someday I will dissolve again into consciousness, and so I practice letting go.