I Think I’m Dying, But It’s Okay
Three years ago I moved to New York from St. Louis. A week later I went to the subway at four in the morning and the platform was empty except for a book. It was a sci-fi choose-your-own-adventure book. I still have it. A year later I found a room in a loft space with fourteen other people. Outside the front door, painted on a gas pipe were the words "choose your own adventure." I knew I was in the right place.
The fourteen people that lived there ranged from raw foodists and foot fetishists to message therapists and yoga teachers to numerologists and astrologers, hailing from places like Korea, Australia, Chile, and Canada. Then there was me, the Midwesterner who's into baseball, red meat, money and partying. The loft's website coined the space "a holistic multi-cultural center dedicated to spirit, healing arts, and community" next to a picture of the founder in some Indian-style chi-like pose. My dad called me after seeing the website to make sure I hadn't joined a cult.
A couple of months later the founder told me about the ayahuasca ceremonies that were held at the space and that if I wanted to try this hallucinogen for free, I could volunteer to be a guardian. He said that the guardians help bring people to the bathroom during ceremony, that twenty people would sit in a circle and a shaman would play music as people vomited and shat for six to eight hours. I signed up right on the spot.
I showed up to the ceremony with four other roommates/guardians all dressed in white. Twenty other white-clad strangers entered our house, gathering in a circle on mattresses around the shaman. It looked like a scene straight out of The Twilight Zone. If this shit happened in Missouri, it was way beyond my circle.
The shaman was an American "body psychologist" and self-proclaimed "neo shaman," who said he'd found ayahuasca to be a useful "tool." His intro was brief and included a single warning about taking a "death dose" that many encounter in ceremony. "You may experience a feeling of dying," he told us. When he broke out an i-Book and put on some low, tonal trance music, I named him Shaman Macintosh. As people came to Shaman Macintosh, they would kneel and drink. After the last person drank and returned to his mattress, the circle was complete -- people blindfolded, music on, and plants of various sorts giving the subtle illusion of a rainforest-like atmosphere. We turned off the lights and covered the windows with dark curtains but the car alarms and people chatting in the street were frequent reminders that this was the concrete jungle of NYC.
After spending a half hour in the dark and seeing no real action, I got bored. I went to my room, smoked a joint, watched some TV, came back to the circle, and still nothing. I didn't need to be here. I looked at the four other guardians watching over the room and decided to leave. I ordered some Thai food for the guardians. We took turns eating and that's when the puking finally came. I don't know if it was the aya or the smell of chicken pad Thai, but I finally got to help someone to the bathroom -- the only one in five hours. This guardian thing wasn't nearly exciting as I thought it would be.
After the ceremony, a roommate and I asked the shaman if we could drink some aya. He smiled and poured us a shot. We went to our room and pulled out our i-Book, with our way better music, and sat across from each other with puke buckets in hand. We didn't purge, but it was the most visual trip I'd ever had. As the ayahuasca came on strong, I felt as if a big beam of light was fucking my pineal gland. Even blindfolded, the walls were melting. After several hours of this, I knew I was a satisfied customer. I had to try this again.
Months later I received an email listing the preparation for our upcoming ceremony. It read: PREPARATION: A clean and healthy diet will help the medicine do its work. The less physical poison it needs to purge, the more work it can do with you on higher levels. Avoid processed foods, especially those with sugar and salt. Avoid fried, fatty, fermented and spicy foods. Avoid aged cheese and dairy products. Avoid also coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, or any other drugs (Those are my four main food groups!). Avoid sex for three days in advance of the ceremony. (I avoid taxis on Broadway, falling pianos on Park Ave. I don't avoid sex.)
I broke nearly every precaution before the ceremony. I was out ‘til five in the morning with three hours of sleep from a nine-hour bar shift on the busiest day of the year. I had a shot of whiskey at lunch and a burger, rare with cheese wrapped in bacon. I ran from work to the space, frantic to make it in time to get my drugs. Now, I had been told that this shaman was the real deal, fifteenth-generation-Peruvian-Amazonian-jungle-Quetchua tribe-motherfucker, but I missed his intro. I showed up dripping with sweat, last person there, and sat down next to my best friend who'd saved me a seat for the journey.
Thirty minutes in, the visions started. Faces and moments flashed in sequence through my head -- from my earliest memories of my mother and father to the people at my bar minutes before. They all appeared seamlessly linked as action and reaction, cause and effect, leading up to this moment. There was a certain quality in all of their faces, like they were looking at me with a smile and a wink that said they knew. What did they know? All of a sudden I felt very sick. My hair seemed to fall out and my skin was flaking off. I was rapidly aging. I realized that those faces were telling me it was time to graduate, that I was going to die, to leave the physical world -- the purgatory, the suffering, and confusion -- and join all of them in the spirit realm. Was this a trick?
OH MY GOD! I JOINED A CULT! I TOOK THE DEATH DOSE! I drank the purple Kool-Aid. My soul's going to jump on the asteroid and I don't have my black Nikes for the trip! I turned to my best friend and said, "Am I dying?" "Don't worry, just breathe, baby," she told me. Of course, she was in on it too. Why am I always the last to know? The shaman walked by me singing and I was so angry that he poisoned me that I almost chucked my water at his head. I felt sick again. I left the circle and went downstairs to my room and found my roommate watching a baseball game. I said, "I think I'm dying, but it's okay," and went into the bathroom. As I began to purge, I felt that my insides were liquefying and I was going to shit to death. Visions flashed in sequence before my eyes, only this time they were not of people I knew, but of me, experiencing a variety of violent deaths. It was as if this was my final step in life, experiencing everyone's suffering, the whole world's pain for all of the ages. After purging, it occurred to me that a change of venue might be helpful. I left my room and at the stairwell I ran into two of the guardians. They asked if I was all right.
"I think I'm dying, but it's okay."
"Don't worry you're fine, just trust us," they said.
"Trust you? You're the ones trying to kill me."
They said I needed to be in the energy of the circle, to concentrate on my breathing, that the shaman's sacred chants would heal me. I muttered words like "bullshit," "liars," and "I'm not ready to die!" I put my head in my hands and they gave me an ultimatum -- I could go back to my room and suffer for the next four hours or I could come back to the circle for healing. I realized my choices were to die watching a baseball game in a basement or to die next to my best friend in a healing ceremony. So I went back to the circle ready to die. As I breathed and listened to the shaman's chant, I realized I wasn't going to die. With the medicine coursing through my system, it finally hit me that today was the first day of the rest of my life. I had been tricked, but the joke wasn't on me, it was for me. "Ha ha. You're not dead, now whatchya gunna do?" I recognized I had some changes to make. The "joke" carried a message that no one could contextualize as clearly as ayahuasca. I was dying to the old me, purging out experiences and bad habits that weren't serving me, so that I could become a new and better me.
I also had some improvements to make as a guardian, for I now had a context of what these people went through. The next ceremony I met personally with all of the participants -- no more stranger business. Trust was important for this; it's all a guardian can provide. "Trust us," "trust the circle," "breathe," "be healed." One participant was a first timer. She was a teacher. She seemed comfortable with what she was about to do, but thirty minutes into the ceremony she shot up and ran to me. "What time is it? Why won't my phone work in here?" I pulled out my phone and showed her it had only been a half hour. "I'm a teacher and I have to teach class tomorrow! Will I be able to teach class tomorrow?"
"Yes, you'll be fine in a couple of hours. Remember, you have to breathe and listen to the chants, feel the energy of the circle and the message will come."
"What message? I want to go home." She wouldn't return to the circle so I laid her down on a couch with a blanket. With about two hours left I managed to bring her back to the circle. After the ceremony she gave me a gigantic hug and said that it was one of the most amazing experiences of her life.
The next night it was my turn to journey and this time I followed the prep list to a T, an herbal tea. The new shaman spoke of aya as a medicine, not a drug. He said we were all creatures of light and dark and that the journey could lead us to either end of our selves, that along the way it may be terrifying and beautiful. He said that an intention could be used to focus the journey. When I went up to drink, I told him my intention, and he started whispering into the glass, then to whistle into the glass, and then to sing into the glass. My intention apparently went inside the aya and then I drank it inside of me. During my journey I again felt death upon me but I immediately accepted it. I visited important issues of my intention and I came out refreshed and sure of what I needed. After the ceremony I talked with another participant about why people take ayahuasca, suffering for hours, shitting and puking, and dying, and still come back.
I know why I came back. What I had been given by ayahuasca was a way to look inside myself, removed from time, and see the patterns and connections in my life. It allowed me to focus on change. I could choose my own adventure. So can everyone.
Image by lilmisshothead, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet