Underneath It All
Several years ago I used to work as a computer programmer in London. I had a well-paid job with great prospects, a packed social life and lots of friends. Yet I was deeply unhappy. My friends and colleagues were all very content with their lives, but to me life lacked meaning. Without meaning, no amount of money, partying or holidays could compensate. I hid my blues well. I was always the life and soul of the party, superficially appearing to be having the most fun -- drinking more and taking more drugs than anybody else. Nobody knew the emptiness I felt inside. Life just didn't make any sense to me. This can't be it, I thought to myself. There has to be more to life than this.
Despite being a nice guy and well liked by my many friends, my self-esteem was zero. I hated myself deeply. I lived in constant fear of being discovered for the worthless human being I really was. My track record with women was a disaster. I never felt worthy of being in a relationship, couldn't understand why anyone would want to be with me. The thought of physical intimacy frightened me above all else. I was convinced I would be no good at sex and so during the rare occasions I was with somebody I would drink even more. The only way I could find the courage to have sex was to get so drunk that I was on the verge of unconsciousness. Unsurprisingly, I would barely be able to perform and the relationship never lasted.
The thought of having to live this life until I died terrified me. I knew I couldn't go on like this any longer, but I didn't know how to change or whether it was even possible. I decided to quit my job and go traveling around Latin America. I was searching for something -- I just had no idea what it was or where to find it. It was February 2004 and I was 29 years old.
After seven months of dutifully obeying my guidebook, visiting all the ancient sites and stunning displays of nature, traveling was no longer fun; it had become a chore. Yeah yeah, another beautiful volcano, another fascinating ancient Incan site. I was jealous of my fellow travelers and their carefree nature. Everywhere I went sadness and loneliness followed me, tainting every encounter, weighing me down like an anchor around my neck.
I sat in a Cusco café with an old friend feeling utterly despondent. He started telling me about a mysterious ancient brew called ayahuasca that he had been drinking out here. Instantly I was captivated. Although I was hearing about it for the first time, ayahuasca seemed somehow familiar to me, and I immediately began researching it. Could this be the answer to all my problems? I wondered.
A month later, I found myself at a shamanic lodge named Blue Morpho, deep in the jungle in far northeastern Peru, 24 hours boat ride from the city of Iquitos. We arrived by dugout canoe at the last house in the last community on this stretch of the Aucayacu River, a tributary of the Amazon. From here you would have to travel six days overland to find the nearest inhabitants: native tribes living on the Peruvian-Brazilian border. We were truly on the edge of civilization.
Like all jungle constructions, the lodge was made from local wood. Our surroundings were basic, but quite adequate for their purpose. The main building was screened to keep out unwelcome visitors, a real luxury since outside the mosquitoes were thick and fierce. We relaxed in rocking chairs in the center, around a small table; this area would be cleared at night since it doubled as the ceremonial space.
I realized sitting there that I had always wanted to believe there was more to life than I experienced in my daily reality. I had heard friends talk of energy and spirits in a way that seemed very real to them, yet my intensely logical, rational mind couldn't accept that such things existed. In truth, I thought it a load of old hippie bullshit. Even so, something in me continued to investigate. I decided that if there was any truth in the many spiritual books I'd read, then ayahuasca must be able to open that doorway and help me to experience it for myself.
Aside from my mental malaise, I was also hopeful that ayahuasca could help with my eczema -- the dry, itchy and sore skin condition from which I suffered. Acute as a child, it had mostly disappeared as I grew older. However, a couple of years ago it had returned and steadily worsened. Now it affected my arms, legs, face, neck and back, making washing and any form of exercise uncomfortable. It could appear in the space of a few hours, especially after drinking alcohol. The steroid cream I had to control it was becoming less and less effective and the eczema was beginning to have a serious impact on my daily life.
By 9pm the jungle had come to life with deafening insect noises. I was nervous but also determined. Two kerosene lamps lit the house, giving off an eerie orange glow, which only served to heighten the unfamiliarity of the situation and the palpable tension in the air.
The table, chairs and hammocks had been replaced by three mattresses lying on the floor, each with its own cup of water, toilet paper and plastic bowl (lovingly referred to as a puke bucket). These were for us guests. In front of the mattresses were two rocking chairs surrounded by numerous bottles of exotic potions. Sitting in those chairs calmly smoking mapacho, jungle tobacco that bore more of a resemblance to cigars than cigarettes, were the two men in whose hands we were about to trust our lives They couldn't have been more relaxed as they joked together in a jungle Spanish dialect.
Alberto and Hamilton seemed like an odd couple. The former had lived his entire life in the jungle, was in his late 40s and had dark but graying hair hidden under a baseball cap. He was considered one of the most powerful healers in this part of the Amazon. Hamilton, by contrast, was almost a foot taller, over 20 years younger and with blond hair and classic good looks that would have seemed more at home surfing the waves of his native Californian coastlines. Yet the jungle had been his home for several years and he was a master shaman in his own right, having just last month completed an intensely difficult period of apprenticeship.
We watched intently as the shamans covered their bodies with the various bottled mixtures, Hamilton explaining how they contained different plants used to protect their bodies spiritually. They each then sang icaros, commands to the medicine spirits, into the bottle of ayahuasca. Finally, Hamilton handed me a cup of the thick, bitter liquid. I downed it in two large gulps and was overcome with nausea the second it hit my stomach.
The lights were extinguished, plunging us into total blackness. Within just a few minutes I could feel a tormented beast stirring inside me. I began writhing on my mat in agony. I lost all sense of where I was, who I was or what I was doing and entered a space of total insanity. My body contorted in physical agony and as I was tossed around, I did a back flip straight into a headstand, balancing there for a few seconds with my arms and legs outstretched until someone came and pulled me back down. It was a move I had never done previously and have never done since. Hamilton later told me that as this was going on, he saw a huge black demon, 30 feet high, coming out of my chest, spitting and cursing as the medicine spirits removed it from my being.
When it became clear that I wasn't going to respond to words, Hamilton picked me up and half-carried, half-dragged me to the shower. Eventually I began to calm down and come back into my body, and he earnestly told me to focus on light and love and to go into my heart.
My heart! The mere mention of the word conjured forth visions of terrifying, demonic entities, spitting fire and tormenting me mercilessly. "You are worthless. You don't deserve to be happy. You will never know love," they screamed dementedly in my head.
I am never, ever, EVER drinking ayahuasca again, I said to myself as I searched franticly for a way out, for a glimmer of light, any small shred of hope. Death would be a welcome alternative I thought as I wallowed in years of self-hatred. Little by little the intensity approached a crescendo and I desperately tried to hold on, my head vibrating so fast it might explode. Focus. Light. Love. Heart. Love. Light. Love. Love. Love.
The tension, the ferocity, became too much to bear and there was an audible crack, followed by a rushing sound and a tremendous release of pressure as something inside of me gave way. I vomited again and again. It was the most foul-smelling substance imaginable. I was filled with complete disgust and wonderful relief.
Seconds later, absolute peace filled every cell of my body and I opened my eyes to a pristine world, like a newborn baby seeing for the first time. Everything was beautiful and perfect, from the lady sitting opposite me, to the floorboards and the way they fitted together, to the pattern on the shower curtain.
Wait a minute, who's that lady? I questioned. Turning to look at her again she appeared to be about 40 years old, with long, straight white hair and a serene, blissful expression on her face. She radiated beauty and grace and her caring gaze transfixed me, enticing me deep into those sparkling, emerald pools. "I'm your Guardian Angel," her eyes told me, and my heart burst open, uncontained joy and gratitude spilling out. Awash with tranquility, this interaction was perfectly normal and I beamed a big smile in her direction. No longer could I doubt the existence of spirits.
By the end of the week I felt reborn and confident that the eczema would now quickly clear up. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I returned home excited to start my new life, but almost immediately the eczema got massively worse and continued to do so on a daily basis. In no time I was covered from head to toe, every single inch of my body was bright red, agonizingly painful and unbelievably itchy. My skin fell off in piles until I was left with raw flesh. At night, a sticky, thick black substance would ooze from my pores, leaving me smelling of death and decay. An inferno raged inside my body. Every slight movement brought another tear in the skin and another cry of anguish.
The doctors couldn't do a thing to help me. So I explored every alternative treatment I could think of -- acupuncture, Chinese herbs, hypnotherapy, aqua detox, Reiki, raw food diet, water fasting, but nothing helped. The pain and itching drove me to the very brink of insanity and suicide. Even wearing clothes was excruciating, and so I only ever got out of bed when I absolutely had to. Every minute of every day was a fight for survival. I badly wanted to put an end to the suffering, but no matter how much I wanted to give up something forced me to keep going for just one day longer.
Through it all, the thought of ayahuasca kept returning to me. I didn't know if it could help, but I had run out of options. After a year in this state and out of sheer desperation, I made one last bid for salvation. I went back to the Amazon and decided that I would stay until either I knew it wasn't going to work or until I was healed, no matter how long it took.
I returned to Blue Morpho, although by now the center had moved to a new location, much closer to Iquitos. This camp was larger, with a dedicated ceremonial house and separate sleeping bungalows, and constructed to a higher standard than the old one. Hamilton and Alberto were still running all the ceremonies.
Back in the jungle, ayahuasca opened me up to fear on a scale I never imagined possible. For more than a year I lived in a state of perpetual disorientation, terror and physical torture. I had no idea what was happening to me. I felt like my entire existence was being destroyed. Everything I thought life to be, everything I thought myself to be, was shown to be an illusion. I could find no reality to hold on to, I no longer knew what was true.
I felt intense fear as I came face to face with my own mortality. I realized I was immensely scared of dying, but equally fearful of living. I saw how until now I had never really been alive, but merely existing. I was forced to experience and purge countless demonic spirits that I had collected through my excessive drinking and drug taking, as well as constantly confronting deeper and deeper levels of self-loathing, misery and loneliness. Ayahuasca took me time and again into the depths of my own personal hell, showing me what my negative thoughts and feelings truly looked like. It was an appalling experience having to feel them again as I struggled to release their grip on my life.
Eventually my hard work began to pay off and I started to feel better inside. I liked myself more, I became less judgmental of both myself and others, and more accepting of life. From time to time I would even laugh, something I hadn't done in many years. At the same time the condition of my skin began to improve too. But something was still missing. I had drunk ayahuasca more than 200 times, yet since my initial experience I hadn't felt a single moment of peace, joy or happiness in ceremony.
Finally it dawned on me that I was still holding on to the belief that life was difficult, and so that was what I was experiencing. The realization hit me that this was just a story, it simply wasn't true. People had told me this previously, but only now did I comprehend that truth as a knowing rather than a thought. That night I went into ceremony and everything was different. I felt neither darkness nor fear and was able to completely surrender to the medicine.
In a state of stillness and receptivity, I recognized that I was in my heart; I had consciously connected to it for the first time ever in my life. All this time I had been looking everywhere for it without success. The instant I gave up searching, the split second I stopped trying to find it, I encountered it.
In that moment I experienced love for the very first time in my adult life. Immediately everything made sense. I finally understood all the spiritual teachings that Hamilton had been imparting over the last 5 years. Insights about universal philosophy that had previously only been words and intellectual ideas now resonated within my whole being.
I saw the entire Universe, right there, inside my heart. It was beautiful beyond description. I saw the perfection of creation and recognized that the answer to every question I have ever had and will ever have was in my heart, always. My heart always knows what to do in every situation.
In that moment, my whole understanding of life and of "the work" was revolutionized. I saw that the work was not to face and overcome the darkness, my fears, the past. That is the way of actively doing - a force of will, an act of the mind. The work was simply to find my heart and stay there. There was literally nothing else to do.
By remaining present, by bathing in the blissful state of being, all that exists is love, and love unifies everything. Love makes everything OK. There is no need to fix anything because nothing is wrong. I just needed to love it. I just had to remember love. That's all. In love there is no struggle, no conflict. Love is love is love is love. What could be simpler?
Love showed me that there was nothing to heal, that I was perfect exactly as I was. Love removed all discord, gently and effortlessly. There were no thoughts, just a direct experience of life. I saw it for what it really is. Life is eternal. I am eternal. In this space there is no linear time. The mind creates time. When thinking stops, time disappears and eternity is revealed. I was never born and can never die. With that realization, my fear of death dissolved and I felt as light as a feather.
There is no past, there is no future. Since there is no past, there is nothing to heal. I realized that every time I think of something that I believe to be in the past, I am actually re-creating it in the moment. The only thing that exists is what I am experiencing right now. The entire universe is constantly manifesting in every moment. The world literally re-creates itself every moment.
The absence of time means that there is nothing to achieve, nothing to do, nowhere to go. There is only being. I realized that as human beings we are already enlightened, and our hearts already know this. It is simply something we are either realizing (by being in the heart) or not realizing (by being in the mind) in any one moment.
I relaxed deeply as my whole body bathed in love. It soaked it up. It had been desperate for it for so long. I cannot be separate from love because I am love. "Just look for love and you will see it everywhere," the spirits told me. "In a flower. In a smile. In music. In food. The whole world is made of pure love. Your only job is to look for it and follow where life leads you. This will take you into deeper and deeper experiences of love, if you will only relax, surrender and allow it to."
These revelations were so obvious and simple that I laughed and laughed. They were right there in front of my eyes all this time and I couldn't see it. They were totally straightforward and matter of fact, not at all how I'd imagined an epiphany to be. I became hysterical and the laughing sounded uncannily like a donkey - hee haw, hee haw. Life is an infinite party and God is the DJ.
Life is so much fun and so simple when you are in your heart. Get out of the way and life flows through you in a never-ending stream of beauty and love. "Do not try to live life, let life live you," I heard the spirits say.
I was ecstatic. This is what I had been looking for all those years. I had to search the entire planet first and not find happiness, joy, peace or love, and it was only in the moment of total surrender, of no effort, that I finally experienced them. It wouldn't be accurate to say that I found them -- they were never lost to begin with. When I stopped trying and became receptive I discovered that God, divinity, oneness and wholeness were always right here, patiently waiting for me.
* * *
I returned to
England utterly transformed. Things that used to terrify me no longer held any
power over me. I started public speaking and met a beautiful girl. I have never
again felt the slightest desire to drink alcohol. I am confident, much less
concerned with what others think of me and happy for no reason. The skin
condition keeps on improving as I open myself up to the love that exists
everywhere in every moment.
More than five years after my initial encounter with ayahuasca, life continues to get better and better. Had I not discovered it, I have no doubt that I wouldn't be alive today. Instead I can honestly say that I absolutely love my life. I am so blessed to have the unending beauty of the medicine forever guiding and supporting me.Tweet