We were next to a golf club, for Christ’s sake. If they had known what was on their doorstep just off the sixth fairway. I arrived after a coffee in the road stop half a mile back. Walking in, the chief shaman relieved me gently of my three hundred and something cash and showed me to my mattress. There was a bucket beside it. I knew what that was for. Call me naive, but I was looking forward to this.
When we were all assembled we put on our white clothes and the house was smudged with a bundle of smoking sage leaves to help our wishes ascend and to purify the environment. A little gong sounded and we gathered for the tea ceremony, all of us kneeling at the end of our mattresses. The two bottles of liquid were blessed and we were summoned, one by one, to come up and imbibe the muddy liquid followed by the ayahuasca. We were going to get blitzed three times tonight and the same again over the next two nights.
I downed the mud. It lines your stomach so the ayahuasca doesn’t just run through you like a dose of salts. If it doesn’t stay inside you for long enough, the active ingredient – DMT – doesn’t get a chance to trigger hallucinations in your brain. Then came the stuff itself, bitter to the taste. Not a flavour you would ever forget. I returned to my mat.
I lay down, placed the blanket over myself and lowered the eye mask. Darkness helps. The music began. Ayahuasca responds to music. The music was transcendental, sacred music. The one I remember most was Snatam Kapur – soul opening music. I expected it to be like a cinema show. The curtains would go back and the show would begin. Like you were watching it from outside. Nothing. I lifted my eye mask to see if anyone else was drawing blank. Relax. Stop trying. Just lie and be patient.
Then, from the corner of my mind, a glimpse. An impression. A stirring. Something. Something is there. Something that isn’t normally there. What was it? Little by little, the show begins. But it isn’t outside. It’s in my head. Right in the centre of my brain. In my body. Deep inside. Purple haze twisting into recognisable form. Suddenly it gains momentum and is fast. It zeroes in, a snake, straight to a door, behind which is my inner most secret. The snake head turns and looks me in the eye: do you want to go in? The door is one I recognise from a recurring dream I have and behind it – with its elaborate up and down, hidden from view, protective configuration – are two bodies lying under black plastic sheeting. They are quite dead. They are the souls of children. It is the most powerful way this medicine could have announced itself to me. I am in awe. The ayahuasca has taken hold of me now. I am in its grip and we travel on. It is like having your hand held by a spirit of the universe and being whisked from one place to another – much as Ebenezer Scrooge was transported to his childhood in the cartoon depiction of the ghost of Christmas Past.
There is my father, his torso cavity split apart and his two kidney laid bare with my name engraved on one. He died of renal failure and I took this to mean I was engraved into him, with fatal love. Here was my mother, viewed from my fly on the ceiling vantage point, sobbing and bloodied as the doctor callously pronounced “it’s dead” of the baby, stillborn, just ejected from her womb. It is heart rending. Her suffering is unbearable. Here is my first wife, mother of my children, her arms wrapped around our two toddler sons in protection and bathed in an orange-yellow translucence which is her love and protection made manifest.
Before we had started, a woman had asked if she needed a notebook to record her visions. No notebook required. These are glimpses of your life you will not forget because they come from inside you, deep, deep down. They are you, your memory, your wiseness. There are people who have made this trip over 100 times. It is not for the faint hearted – medically or metaphorically – and you also need a strong stomach constitution because in order to take effect, the body has to purge the drug, at one end or the other. The sound of quiet vomiting into the aforementioned buckets is usually a precursor to people’s crossing over into nirvana.
Ayahuasca is affected by your psychological state. I had just returned from a winter working in the Alps and had a broken foot. I had also had a very traumatic break up in a relationship three months earlier, so I wasn’t in the best of states to do this. Nonetheless, I wanted to do it. That first night’s trips – you return to the bottles of liquid for topping up twice more – were profound and afterwards, at about 1.30am, people emerge to sit by the camp fire outside and either exchange feelings and experiences or, like me, sit very still and quietly. There was little else I was capable of doing. Some are euphoric – there was a couple who were doing it together and they turned out to be quite irritating if you weren’t having the greatest of times yourself.
After some soup and a little decompressing, you go back to your mattress and sleep. At 11 o’clock the next morning, everyone gathers to share their experiences. Some people have met God. Some people have travelled to the edge of the Universe and looked back. Some have met all their previous Earthly manifestations, and their future ones. One person experienced themselves as the opposite sex. Some laughed, some cried, all were moved. The Shamans listen attentively. There are four of them and they are gentle souls, well versed in the medicine and its effects. They are vegan and you stick to their diet as they are the cooks.
The second night approaches after a day of floating around the grounds or going for a walk – they discourage travelling away or driving as you will bring impurities back in to the haven and will have to be re-smudged. At 6pm, the gong sounds again and it starts all over again. By now, some have the measure of the liquid. They ask for stronger and stronger doses. I stay as I was. It reeks havoc with your innards and I do remember sitting on the loo at about 4am, hallucinating and thinking how perverse this experience was – debasing as well as divine. It is difficult to feel divine on the porcelain.
The second night was Hell. At one point I had all four of the Shamans kneeling round me and one was wafting smudge smoke in my face. I was climbing up the wall using my back to move, like some broken footed, demon-possessed casualty from The Exrocist. I remember thinking “stop blowing smoke in my face and call an ambulance”. They didn’t, I calmed down. The medicine had conjured up my pain-body – that shrivelled negation of yourself we all carry around which whispers in your sub-conscious how futile you are. The hallucination had started well. As you lie on your mattress, you present the medicine with a question. Mine had been “why am I here?” As soon as the ayahuasca kicked in, it answered: “To be re-born”. I felt I was spiralling up and up, an energy force of purple plasma in a black but electric coloured universe, up and up to a purple phoenix at the top of the trip. I felt expanded and part of everything. I can relate to people saying they felt at one with the universe, and since this experience I have no fear of death because I feel I have had a glimpse of where we all go. It is like being converted into pure energy.
Things took a turn for the worse. I found myself witnessing an elaborate, Pharoah-like funeral procession for my own pain body. The music was clashing, loud, significant and sonorous, like a Russian Orthodox male choir – all deep resonance and vibration. The tableau was gold, Imperial purple and black; the sarcophagus had the pain body in it, being walked ceremoniously to the edge of a fiery pit. Inside the coffin, the small, black creature laughed. “This will make me stronger”. It was scornful. My nightmare caused consternation amongst the Shaman and they sat with me until dawn.
The final night was quiet and I had just a small dose with no top ups. They sprayed the air around us with a perfume which my body yearned for and which transported you away to Heaven. It must heighten your senses to almost unbearable extremes. Which was pure joy. In the morning, one of the Shaman gave me Reiki and I departed after hugs with the other participants and a chat with the head Shaman, who was a kind soul and had tended to me on the middle watch of the middle night. Then I was out in to the real world. It was sobering. I drove past the entrance gates to the golf club. Can there be a more antithetical juxtaposition than an ayahuasca retreat and a golf club? It was like two worlds clashing – both of them mine.
I found my time there to be both comforting, revelatory and mind opening. You are warned not to urge anyone to take the ‘tea ceremony’ or to recommend it. Only when people feel the call themselves is it right to attend. I cannot hope you will feel the call or not feel the call. I can only tell you I felt it and heeded it, and that when the time is right, it might call to me again. I will answer.