To say I was afraid is a vast understatement. My bones shivered, and my internal organs tightened like fists ready for a boxing match as I approached the building. For as long as I had known about ayahuasca I'd been intrigued, particularly because of the firsthand accounts of participants who had "come face to face with their own death." Only weeks prior to this ceremony, I'd decided that enough was enough and it was time to end (or to begin to heal) the decade-and-a-half-old battle with death that had paralyzed my life in more ways than I could count. But now that the moment had arrived, in front of me by only minutes, my decision felt all too real, all too consequential. What was I getting myself into? Could facing my mortality heal the wounds I'd been covering for years? Could I really do this? The impending experience felt like an impossible horizon, close, far, and altogether unreachable.
I tried to gather myself before I pressed the buzzer. The building was like any other -- tall, tan, and inconspicuous among the other buildings in Bogotá, Colombia. Once in the building, I had no trouble finding the loft-style space; I could easily smell it from the instant the elevator doors opened in front of me, the colorful scent intensifying as I came closer. I knocked. The door opened. A waft of incense, sage, flowers, raw berries and fresh corn filled my lungs. I began to relax. I was greeted by the shaman's apprentice, a thin woman with wavy, light brown hair, who gave me a hug (despite having never met me before) and escorted me into the ceremonial space.
I was instructed to take a seat in a large circle surrounding a colorful altar made of sand, flowers, and plants, reds and purples, yellows and greens, images of saints and angels, a statue of the Virgin Mother, illuminated like a star. The elements were also present -- a bucket of water, a large rock for earth, incense to represent air, and candles to light the way of the journey. The shaman was a small, thick man with a dark face. He wore all white with the exception of a colorful belt; he reminded me a South American hobbit, and the comical thought helped me to relax. Though small in stature, I could feel his presence. He signaled with his hands and the group stood up, uniformly bowing their heads as the he lead an opening prayer. Everyone took a seat on the floor, all thirty or so participants creating their own space on blankets and pillows, small personal altars with offerings and requests, pictures of loved ones, prayer beads and small bottles of rose water. The shaman took out a large glass jar filled with a reddish, brownish liquid and poured the thick, mud-like fluid into a silver cup, blew into it with eyes closed, and tipped it back. "Just like honey," he said, and the mesa filled with nervous laughter. He administered the drink to his apprentice beside him, and one by one each participant took turns with the silver cup; some gulping it furiously, some praying with the cup at their hearts for long moments before taking the drink. Then it was my turn.
I approached the shaman and sat in front of him. He looked into my eyes for a moment as though he were sizing up something inside of me, finding a match between my will and the amount of liquid he would prescribe. I took the cup with shaky hands; the thick liquid nearly reached the brim of the cup. I put it up to my forehead and offered a prayer, Please show me why... why I am afraid, and gulped my cup of ayahuasca. The lights suddenly shut off and we were left alone with the guidance of candles and the beginning of an ancient medicine song.
* * *
I was no stranger to death. By the time I reached the 9th grade both of my parents had already died. My father was killed in a head-on collision. He was driving a small 1987 silver Chevy Sprint packed with four other civil engineers on their way home from a business trip when a drunk man driving a truck rammed into them, totaling the car and killing three men (including my father) and a pregnant woman inside inside. The drunk man walked away, virtually unharmed.
When I was in 8th grade my thirty-nine year-old mother went in to have a tumor removed and came out of the surgery with news that she would have two months to live. Stage four cancer had permeated her body, invading, taking it over. The last months of her life flew by, like when you go to sleep and wake up the next morning feeling like you never slept at all, but merely shut your eyes for a second. I was fourteen when I held her as she died. I felt her skin grow cold, watched it begin to change colors, a subtle blue hue taking over her fingertips and nails and moving up, the coldness rising like the shift between autumn and winter, the expected, icy wind-chill. I saw her eyes fade to lifelessness, rolling to the back of her head, and then the silence, nothingness.
Throughout the rest of my teens and early twenties, I became preoccupied with the question "why." It started with the make-up, shadow tones under my eyes, as though I hadn't slept for months. It started with why me. Why my parents. Why did I have to say goodbye? Then came the drugs. I looked for answers in the mix of uppers and downers, peeks and crashes. As I grew older the question shifted: why death? I immersed myself in literature; I memorized Poe's Raven and fell in love with Alfred Prufrock. I too had come to know the evenings, mornings, afternoons. I too had measured out my life with coffee spoons. I knew, as much as he, the voices dying with a dying fall... The panic attacks, the antidepressants, lists of diagnoses paired with prescriptions like neutrons looking for a lost electron, PanicDisorderProzac-PTSDXanax-ObsessiveCompulsivEffexor-AderallTrichotillomani, a funny post-modern poetry. I moved to New York City by myself on a whim.
I started graduate school. The question repeated like a mantra. Why why why why why? I dove deep into religion and philosophy, theories of the living and the dying, the stacks of books and papers, libraries, research, the need to find, like thirst, like being held underwater for too long, about to explode. More panic attacks, two times a week, three times, crippled by the fear of death, on my knees praying. Why why why? I wrote to comfort myself. I studied existentialism -- how we are born into being only to face its impending end, always coming closer like the ticking of a clock, louder with each moment, a limitless horizon to one day fade away or simply vanish without warning.
* * *
After drinking the cup of ayahuasca, I felt the Amazonian brew integrating within my body like the roots of a tree growing down from my stomach, making its way through my legs, my veins, to the soles of my feet. My chest, lungs, arms, and my fingertips began to grow, to reach farther than I'd ever reached before, like a flower taken from a pot and planted on fresh ground.
I found myself losing track of time. One hour? Two hours? I tried to keep up with the medicine songs sung by the shaman and his apprentices. Rattles and drums, guitars and voices lifted in a melody that swam through the atmosphere. I closed my eyes and felt their voices as if they were my own, but I was unable to speak. The ayahuasca inside of me was alive and intelligent, full of intention and power, moving through me like a sentient river. I felt a rush beginning to overtake me. It would soon reach my torso, my stomach, my chest, my heart. What would happen once it reached my brain? Would I die? I will die, I thought, panicking. I will die. This is it. It wasn't that I was afraid to meet my parents in some other world, but rather, I was afraid of the experience of dying itself -- the inevitable fading, the inescapable falling, the how long does this last? I pictured my father calling out on his deathbed, reaching with his shattered body, the memory of my mother, "hija, hija" as I held her, but she couldn't remember my name -- the way in which they both grew fainter, faded from here to there, from flesh to blue, eyes gone, pupils large as moons.
My body tingled. The numbness had overtaken my fingers, my arms, my neck and face; it crawled up my head. The ayahuasca knew what it was doing. My eyes rolled back, my head falling... falling into nothingness.
I was startled awake by the shaman in front of me, holding a potent smelling substance under my nose, much like a combination of wildflowers and rubbing alcohol. I felt as though I'd zipped back across miles and ages, and with a violent breath, I was in my body again. But as soon as the shaman removed the substance from under my nose, I found myself fading away, recessing into a great abyss, an incalculable darkness within me.
"Stay with me," the shaman said. I looked up. His face was black with giant feathers covering his head.
"I'm going to die," I said. He let out a chuckle that reverberated through the ceremonial space. My eyes began to roll back. I could not control my falling. The medicine was taking me.
"Look at me!" he raised his voice.
I snapped back from the abyss and found his eyes. I couldn't see any whiteness there, just pupils, large, round piercing pupils, like black moons inside sky sockets. His face was no longer his own. It morphed into a black jungle cat, a wide-nosed puma with wings the span of centuries. His eyes widened. With all my force I tried to keep myself within myself, within the small frame I've come to know as me. He began to whistle a song, not to me, but to the ayahuasca inside of me, like a conversation between old friends. I could feel it reacting, answering the call. It was simmering under my skin, playing in the space between my bones and in the nooks of my muscles. The shaman took a puff of tobacco and blew the smoke on my forehead, rearranging the silky airwaves along my head. He pressed his fingers along my eyelids and held them open. He began to whistle again, and the ayahuasca responded: my body shook, my voice cried out, "I don't want to die!"
"Keep looking at me!" the shaman instructed, as he waved a wand of feathers across my face.
From a far away place, I could barely make out the drums, the rattles and bell chimes that were making noise around me. Faint voices of the group were signing songs that began to guide me along my departure. It was as if they were saying goodbye:
I want to fly high, so high like an eagle in the sky.
And when my time has come, I want to lie down and fly.
Pachamama, I'm coming home to the place where I belong.
Pachamama, I'm coming home to the place where I belong....
My arms began to flail. And then I fell into the dark abyss, surrounded by the nothingness I dreaded more than anything. As I fell beyond its threshold, I saw images of Tibetan Buddhist monks with their bald heads and orange robes reciting prayers. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was lying next to the bedside of ill bodies, weak bodies on the verge of the passing.
Immortal one, you who has been called:
The time has come for you to find your path in the reality of the spirit.
Your physical breath has stopped and you begin to experience the spirit reality; barren and void like space.
You must immediately recognize this
void as yourself.
You must stay centered within this experience.
Now the vision that begins to manifest in the void is the image of mud which represents the earth merging into water...
water merging into fire...
fire merging into the wind...
wind merging into consciousness...
I saw the passage of time as the Tibetan monks prayed for 49 days without ceasing, 49 days following death, their chants like guides, like oil lamps for the dark path ahead of the newly departed soul. There was incense, the burning of amber, of myrrh, a lit candle, blurry and big like a Hindu pyre, as some type of preparation for cremation. I heard a cacophony of songs, along with the wailing and the mourning of retired bodies being cleansed in the Ganges, the great holy water, perfuming the corpses and processions: families, friends, the dead, adorned and awaiting. Bodies caught aflame, turning from solid matter into ash and then smoke, taken by the wind into the air and water, and the earth.
I saw fresh fruit, ripe red berries, corn still husked. I saw Egyptians, loved ones buried with favorites, foods and possessions, garments and toys, sometimes sacrifices of spouses and children. Some cried, some smiled, happy to go together, to walk together forward. I saw animals sacrificed in North Africa on the desert plains. I saw the Jewish bury the body within 24 hours of death; Native Americans burying corpses in coves and caves; Iroquois exhuming bodies after the skin and muscle had dissipated, polishing the skeletons like golden instruments, gifting bones away to loved ones, tokens, souvenirs from a life lived and passed; Australian Aborigines placing bodies in trees for the birds, offerings to the sky; and souls come out to play on El día de los muertos, food and music at cemeteries, like family reunions in between realms.
And then there came a voice of wisdom, like an ancient grandmother, or more like the souls of all grandmothers in one.
You are morbid child because you are afraid, she said.
I saw my father's body. Mangled. I saw his face twisted with pain.
You are afraid because you cling.
I saw my mother's last breath; I squeezed her hand, hard. How can you let go of your mother's hand? How can you let go when you know that you'll never get to hold it again?
Everything is always given back. Nothing is yours.
I was just a child, so young, asking, growing up with the question "why?"
But this is the cycle.
I saw myself on my own death bed. I saw myself there time and time again.
The ego has to die someday.
I saw my constant panic attacks, the pills, the tears, EKG's, tests, the constant fear, the falling, the I can't make it stop.
The ego fears the end of itself.
In that moment, I sensed my own heartbeat, pumping, pumping, fast, holding on, holding on so tight, so scared.
But the end of your ego is the beginning of something new.
Then, I saw myself in white. I was singing a song, echoing the voices of the Buddhists, the Aborigines and Egyptians, the Native Americans, the Incas and Aztecs, the Africans and Hindus all at once. I sang a song for all of our goodbyes, a song for the nearly departed, for those who had died long ago, for those working their way there.
I sat upright and began singing along with the ceremonial circle. The shaman shook his chakapa. I sat taller. I looked around and saw some bodies still lying in the fetal position, others sitting straight like me, holding and creating space and prayer for those still in times of transition, facing their own deaths, their own demons, their own teachings. And here I was, I'd come through. I was back.
I sang louder. I sang a song of goodbye for my father and another for my mother. My first real goodbye to them in all this time, with tears, a smile, knowing it was not goodbye at all but a releasing, a letting go, like a wave returning to its ocean.
And I sang a song for myself, a song to say goodbye to the constant clinging, to panic and to fear, knowing that the cleaning started now. I grabbed my rattle and found the beat, joined the drumming and guitars, my voice clearer than I'd ever heard it, the chorus of sunrise streaming through the open window. And as I sang, I knew that I was different after leaving and returning, after holding then releasing, after singing my goodbye to the illusion of life ever really dying.Tweet