Staying in Your Place
In the past four years of regular medicine work I've noticed a change in the ayahuasca world. Where it was once understood as a tradition of the Amazon rainforests, ayahuasca is becoming a world-wide, spiritual practice; something as religious and open as meditation, yoga or healthy eating. As this change continues to unfold, with far fewer shamans than participants, it will be up to ayahuasca devotees to offer newcomers guidance as they strive to grow safely, and with integrity in the medicine. One of the first and simplest insights I would share about an ayahusaca practice would be this: try to stay in your place.
When I first drank ayahuasca the insights I received were as numerous as the swirling colors, out-of-body visions, psychic communications, vomit fests, and harrowing encounters with spirits and spirit "worlds." The practical teachings I brought back to my everyday life were simple but profound: drink more water, eat more vegetables, meditate regularly, get exercise, stop watching so much television, stop taking drugs and alcohol, etc. It was like spring-cleaning in a dirty old house.
As the years have passed and my relationship to the medicine has deepened, the insights I keep close to my heart have become simpler and less material (what food to eat, what physical things to do or not do). My ayahuasca insights these days are more about the core, moral precepts and metaphysical assumptions that guide my life. Probably the most basic of these principles is a simple statement I learned this past year: Stay in your place...
About two years into my medicine experiences I was learning how to sit up with a straight spine and whistle along to the medicine songs, without collapsing or purging into a bucket on my hands and knees all night. Things were getting better. After daily meditation and yoga came into my life back at home, and I had cleaned house, I found the ayahuasca experience to be less chaotic. Ayahuasca could take me on a rollercoaster ride into my darkest secrets and shadows, but I wasn't purging all night anymore. Sometimes I was actually sitting up and singing along (although I still couldn't feel my body).
Then I took another step forward. I had a ceremony where I came face to face with a spirit creature that I can only describe as "evil." Where my usual ayahuasca encounters with intense fear or with what might be called “the demonic” had felt primarily internal, archetypal, in some way an aspect of myself or a myriad projection of past sins shaped into the form of something ugly and menancing, this was completely different. Like something as fleshy as a human being and large as a tree had appeared in the mesa, my thoughts ran back and forth trying to manage my impressions: Jesus, what is that? That’s not coming from inside of me. That’s a real demon. (On my knees. Bent over. Heart beating faster. Palms clammy and prostrate on the ground in front of me. Then trying to take off the blankets wrapped around me). Got to get these things off me and cool down before something bad happens. Before I have a seizure or something. (Hands heavy. Face hot. Afraid. Stuck. Can’t find my way out of the blankets.) Wait. Don’t freak out. Remember what to do. You’ve been here before. There is no such thing as evil. It’s just an aspect of yourself. It’s just me... It’s just…(Images of my words curling me underneath the hot blankets and onto the floor. Images of my words tempting me into the fetal position. Disappearing into myself. Formless. Point zero. Seeing black holes in space. Body slouching to the ground). I’m never doing this again.
As rapidly as these thoughts filled my head, some by words, some by colors or shapes coalescing with memories and sound reverberations from places like the busy subways of New York or the honking horns outside my Brooklyn apartment window, back at home, I fell onto the floor into a kind of helpless, fetal vomiting pose. Like Luke Skywalker being electrocuted by the emperor on the floor of the death-star. As soon as I hit the ground, the visions intensified and the creature grew larger. My stomach turned over, and I prepared to vomit. But then, for the first time instead of purging until I felt better, I prayed, authentically, for help: Please (directed exactly at no particular thing, being, or concept) I don't know anything (and in that moment I wasn't being Socratic). Help. Nothing is working. Please show me something true to hold onto. Anything at all. I want to do this without so much pain. I can't promise anything in return. I have nothing to give…
And instantly, as I admitted that I could not mentally negotiate my way into peace, that I was truly empty inside, my help arrived from somewhere or something else. I heard the words, from no particular thing, gender, astral being or concept, "Sit up and breathe. Stay that way until the ceremony is over."
I sat up. Straightened my spine. Palms falling open onto my knees. Taking a deep breath. Gaze lifting. Nostrils opening. Breath flowing evenly. The demon transfigures upward. Flowers everywhere and light so bright it could blind the sun.
To this day, I have no idea where the voice came from, but I knew it was telling me the truth. It wasn't the methodological "truthyness" of sitting up, or the theoretical underpinnings, or physical chemistry of the sitting as opposed to lying down, but the core truth of the words, "Sit, Up," extended into a flowering vision of the infinite. Grids of stars and astrological data swirling at light speed through the perfect outline of a human body meditating in a seated position.
Regardless of whether or not the demon had been just an aspect of myself, coaching myself to believe that everything was one, like it was some kind of ultimate answer to an ultimate problem, had only pushed me further down. By sitting up and breathing the question about whether or not the demon was internal or external ceased to exist, and along with it the demon itself. They simply vanished into the light, a short tickle in my throat on the way up. And by staying in my place the rest of the night, focusing on nothing but my posture and my breathing, I made it through my first ceremony without vomiting.
I would venture to say that most anyone can relate to this particular ayahuasca lesson. Because the same pattern lives inside each one of us and has probably helped us out of some tight spots in our lives. When we are stressed out. When we are reactive. Angry. Hurried. Worried. Compulsive. Obsessed. Defeated. Ashamed. Down and out....but still, I have a light.
The breath is still coming.
The heart is still beating.
I have the power to choose optimism.
And right then and there is born the first and most important prayer of a young adult's saintly aspirations: Please give me more love in my heart. I don't ask for power or possession. Rather that a corporate spirit of optimism be increased. In the world and inside of my heart. Help me to be firm in myself. Help me to sit strongly inside this power. Help me to love more. Help me to stay in my place without being shaken by fear.
In the medicine world an insight like this, even though it's powerful, doesn't mean all the shadows are gone, the demons illusions, the purging done for good, and the mystery of reality "solved." It simply means this: things can always get better, and every one of your tiniest efforts truly matter. If you believe in goodness, in your goodness, and in the goodness of life itself, you can encounter darkness yet stay upright without falling over. You might fall over again next ceremony, or in thirty seconds, and you might have many more ceremonies in the future to spend purging, but for now, for this ceremony, in this moment: Stay in your place. Breathe.
It's been no joke. An astronomically difficult experience has become exponentially more manageable for me by just those little words. I'm not striving to be an ayahuasca shaman or ayahuasca guru, but I know that where I first used to give a lot of advice to people embarking to drink the medicine for their first time, I wouldn't say so much nowadays. If I was asked for advice, this is right where I would start. Try to stay in your place, and remember your breath.
Of course, in my everyday life, I've seen the exact same lesson play out in different ways:
1. Gossip. There is a propensity in spiritual and visionary communities to use our psycho-analytical and visionary imaginations to diagnose each other's "stuff." Sometimes it's diagnosis plus prescription: "Oh, trust me, you just need more ‘x'." But the truth is that the most difficult things we face in our lives happen beyond the grasp of our understanding or ability to manage. Things like Haitian earthquakes or major cities being flooded. We should remember that every last one of our opinions about anything or anyone is an energy force we release. That force has the power to be creative or destructive. So sometimes it's best to keep our opinions to ourselves and stay in our place.
2. Relationships. Anytime I feel myself reacting to my romantic partner, or a co-worker, or a family member or friend, or even random people on the street or in the subway negatively, I stop and ask myself "can you stay grounded in peace right now?" If the voice in my head says "no way" and starts to argue its cause, then I know it's time to be quiet. Because, for me, the answer to this question has to be "yes."
Yes. I can stay firmly grounded in peace and love right now. I will always choose to believe that I have enough strength to do just that much, just right now. And if I can't, or I don't, then I'll forgive myself quickly, ask others for forgiveness, and find my center again. Believe it or not, most relationships in my life, even the ones I thought were dull or completely impossible, have become better because I refused to come out of my metaphorical chair to respond negatively to what I'm feeling inside. Truth be told, if I tried to hold everyone accountable for everything I felt inside, in all of my interactions, I would have no friendships. I would be a correctional facility. Always looking to the past. A prison. I would have old systems of discourse. Structural comparisons, cynicism instead of humor, deadlines and spiritual dehydration.
The more I forgive others and balance my internal world, the more I love each person in my life. Like a big glass of water for my soul. That's been a lesson about staying in my place.
3. Work. Sometimes people think that discordance only exists within my head. Within my perceptions. I don't believe that's true. I can't go that far. Sure, I believe in the oneness of God. I believe we are all god(s), or at least that we have far more power than we know, but I also believe that God, whatever that means, is larger than all of his/her creations. In other words, I still believe in God's transcendence as well as imminence. And I'm not interested in going for personal enlightenment (where I, Adam, realizes all separation is just an illusion and God wakes back up). I believe the world has real problems. They aren't just my inability to stay "blissed out."My belief in the world's problems doesn't necessitate their existence because I'm simply not that powerful. And it's not a reflection of God's character that his creation has its share of problems, either.
I'm interested in redemption or evolution: a place where all boundaries and all of dualism are constantly moving toward higher union with God. Where there is work to do, but it's all good work. Redemption can be delayed but never, ultimately, avoided.
On that path, it is important for me to find my calling. My spiritual path. While I may not have perfect understanding of my "purpose," humility is going to be essential to my purpose, whatever it is. So I remember to ask the question, "Am I doing something to serve others right now, or am I reaching outside of myself, trying to take something and run from the work in front of me, from my responsibilities?"
More and more these days, I see the work of evolution doesn't go away just by hoping it will or thinking it's not there, or believing it's all an illusion. I can't use metaphysics to avoid following my path with integrity. Staying in my place means believing that I can and should contribute to the project of creation. Starting now.
So, where did the voice who spoke to me come from? Was it the ayahuasca grandmother? Buddhist and Christian ideals lingering somewhere in my subconscious? Exactly who uttered the phrase "Sit up and breathe" to me during the ayahuasca ceremony? Truth be told, it doesn't matter. Every religious practice has this exact same voice in common. In the coming months and years, as we face the moral responsibilities we each have, it will be important that we follow the universal voice inside of us, however we find it, however we hear it, staying true to our path, seated firmly in our place, instead of talking about reality objectively. For today, that's where I'm at with the medicine...
Image by Viviane Lamarlère, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet