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…