Ceremony I: "Show me the true nature of the Universe."

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My cousin Zach and I were nervously rummaging around dimly lit rooms of our jungle bungalow, searching for the white cotton pants and tunics that we had bought in Iquitos to wear to ceremony. The sun had set and day had already given way to night. We put on our robes in the soft glow of a single light bulb hanging from the low ceiling, the soft hum of the distant generator assuring us that there would be several more minutes of power.

Night in the Amazon was unlike any other. The lack of nearby cities or villages fostered a more complete darkness that was only punctuated by the lights suspended in the cosmos. It was obvious that the candles we had been given would not burn through the whole night, a thought that only added to my anxiety of what the night had in store.

The light may have died, but the jungle had sprung to life. Songs from hordes of insects and armies of frogs desperately calling out for mates created an almost deafening symphony in the darkness. Your eyes had no way of knowing it, but it was clear that you are far from alone in the rainforest. It was a re-assuring revelation but also one that was simultaneously, equally disconcerting.

The soft glow of the light only enhanced the bioluminescence given off by our white clothes. Cole had admonished us that white clothes would help protect from dark energy and allow light energy to more fully flow through us. I was initially skeptical at this claim and was reluctant to spend one hundred soles on clothes that would never be worn again. White has never been my color.

We were quiet. Taking turns playing the cheap nylon string guitar Zach had bought only minutes before getting on the boat to Altiplano. Zach’s fingers danced along the fret board, picking out several songs including Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’. Every so often we would exchange quiet, nervous looks, almost as if telepathically reading each other’s unease as the clock neared 7:30. Finally, we heard talking in the distance, followed by a bouncing light and the sound of rubber boots crossing the small wooden bridge by our bungalow.

“Ceremonia,” beckoned a soft voice outside the bug-netted door. The voice belonged to one of the Guardians, a member of Altiplano’s staff whose job it was to escort us to and from ceremony each night. Our instructions had urged us to bring our pillows, a blanket, water, and a headlamp with us. With full arms we slipped into our rubber boots and quietly followed the Guardian over the wet, root-ridden jungle floor.

Once across the bridge, we let out gasps of awe as we got our first glimpse of the Amazonian night sky. Headlamps were extinguished and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of stars and other celestial bodies crowded the vast darkness of the cosmos. “Fucking rad,” I said incredulously as I craned my neck to investigate the foreign-ness of the southern hemisphere’s vision of space in the summer. I had never seen the Milky Way so distinctly. A muttered word from the Guardian urged us to continue.

We clumsily stomped up the wooden stairs to the maloca, depositing tracks of mud on the first several steps. In the dim candle light, we could see Fabian was already seated at a mat on the far side of the room, nearest to the bathroom. Zach and I said quiet ‘hellos’ but the conversation stopped there as we each chose the next mats in line and made ourselves comfortable.

Looking around the large circular room I noticed the table at the front where two lit candles sat next to an unfamiliar, two-pronged, string instrument and a bottle of Agua de Florida, a fragrant tincture made from distilled flower petals. To the table’s left there was a short hall to a bathroom with three toilets, surely there for us to use if our purging took the form of diarrhea. The thought of finding that bathroom in the dark while under the influence of the Medicine was intimidating and made me quietly hope that I would just have to vomit instead. Next to each mat was a small plastic bucket for vomitus. Luckily Altiplano didn’t serve dinner on ceremony days, otherwise the bucket may have been too small to contain the contents of our rice and lentil laden stomachs.

The rest of the group slowly started to filter in, led by the other Guardians. Shane took the mat next to me and Kim took the one beside his so all four of us would be close during the ceremony. More nervous glances were exchanged along with jokes about how we all looked as if we were about to be baptized again.

Our translator Arienne entered with Jose and another elderly man with a small frame and a soft, contented expression on his weathered face, who I assumed to be Horatio. Jose procured a tall glass bottle of a dark liquid and set it on the front table before finding the center of the room and lighting a third candle.

Conversation ceased and Arienne gave a welcome to us on behalf of the two curanderos. She said that tonight would be a very special ceremony and expressed Jose’s hopes for the forest spirits to be with us in ceremony to protect and look over us. We were reminded that the newcomers would be receiving a smaller, introductory dose of ayahuasca in order for the Medicine to establish a relationship with each our unique bodies. It was also to serve the purpose of a diagnostic assessment of how we respond to the Medicine to inform our later doses. Jose reassured us to have trust and patience, telling us that he had thirty years of experience and the Horatio was going on fifty years participating in ceremony.

“Ayahuasca is a powerful medicine, capable of healing many ailments,” he said in Spanish with a quiet confidence, “The icaros that you will hear tonight are to guide the spirits and each of you in your journey. Some will be sung in Spanish and others in native Quechua. Now, let us begin.”

We all watched as he uncorked the glass bottle and put his mouth to the opening and begin rhythmically blowing into the neck, making low whistles. After a moment, the bottle was passed to Horatio who proceeded to do the same. Then they each took turns pouring ayahuasca into a small cup and tilting their heads back and reaching for a cup of water. Jose then beckoned for Fabian to sit at his side. Fabian slowly rose to his feet before nervously walking over to the table. Jose poured a small amount in the same cup and blew into the cup’s contents, blessing it, before passing it to Fabian, who hesitated a moment before knocking the cup back. Zach then followed suit.

I was already on my feet and on my way to the table as Zach returned to his mat. I sat next to Jose, embraced by the light of the candles, as he put a gentle hand on my back and smiled with a loving softness that spoke to the unmistakable wisdom behind his eyes. He blessed the cup once more and passed it to me. It was about a quarter full, and by the light of the candle, I could see darker specks in the dark red liquid. I closed my eyes and raised the cup to my lips; the thick liquid went down quickly but left a complex, pungent taste in my mouth. It was kind of sweet, kind of spicy, and kind of savory, and in light of the bland food I had been eating for the past several days, I was grateful for its robust flavor.

As I walked back to my mat, the realization truly dawned on me that there was no turning back now. The familiar phrase ‘Ride the lightning’ once again crossed my mind and I sat cross legged, smoking a mopacho, and internally re-enforcing my intention for the evening as the rest of the group received their doses.

After the administration of the ayahuasca, the curanderos began at opposite sides of the rooms, taking the agua de florida to rhythmically blow it gently onto each of our hand and use it to mark small crosses on our hearts and foreheads. Jose then took his lit mopacho, a rolled cigarette with jungle tobacco, and proceeded to form a smoke circle around the group to provide additional protection from malevolent spirits. Upon completion of the smoke ring, Jose returned to sit at the front of the room as we all basked silently in the light of the candles a waiting for the Medicine to take effect. Several more silent minutes passed before Jose grabbed a leaf fan and rose to extinguish each of the three candles, and we were plunged into darkness.

I heard the leathery fluttering of a bat fly through the un-netted windows of the maloca and whiz past my ear in the darkness, and to my surprise I didn’t jump but remained focused on my intention. “Show me the true nature of the Universe,” I repeated quietly in the confines of my mind.

Jose began singing. His voice was ethereal in its tone, “Medicina poderoso, Ayahuasca…” I began picking out as many lines as I could, sometimes struggling to translate as the tune and rhythm of the singing disrupted the usual pattern of how the words are spoken in conversation. Powerful medicine, Ayahuasca. Protect us tonight. Doctor plant, chacurnita. The tune was heavy with smooth and drawn out legatos across large sweeps of notes, while the words obviously were part of a carefully orchestrated mantra. Despite the predetermined words, the influence of the ayahuasca informed the curanderos how to sing the icaros with each unique ceremony.

Someone to my left puked abruptly, but Jose’s voice did not falter. More gut wrenching vomiting soon followed affirming that Fabian’s purging had begun.

I started to feel my heart beat stronger throughout my body; it became a pulsation that felt as though my heart was pumping the thick ayahuasca through my blood vessels, away from my heart to penetrate the extremities of my body. My body began to slowly rock back and forth with the pulses, as if to embrace the sensation. An unmistakable sense that every component of my body was being looked at, analyzed by the ayahuasca as it intuitively began assessing my very being. It was as if I was being scanned, finding points of strength and weakness within myself that I even I was even not consciously aware of. The feeling was one of unprecedented intimacy and a level of comprehensive understanding that I had no idea was possible.

Clouds must have gathered above the maloca as a soft rain began to fall on the thatched palm roof, the pitter patter providing a background of static to Jose’s singing. The small gaps between the woven fronds allowed for microscopic droplets to fall in a cool, almost imperceptible vapor upon my outstretched body.

As the assessment continued to inspect my body, I laid down on my mat. My eyes were closed but pinpricks of twinkling light started to appear directly above me in the dark field that occupied my mind. My body became overwhelmed by a tingling vibration that slowly grew in intensity as my field of vision opened up to become a starry night sky before my very eyes. The tingling spread to all of my body, with the exception of the right half of my head and face, until it reached a frequency that seemed to harmoniously meld with that of the rest of the matter in my environment. It was a glorious sensation of letting go of my physical body through full assimilation into my surroundings. However, the disparity of sensation between the right side of my head and the rest of my body allowed me an avenue through which I could still ground myself in my physical body.

The rain had now begun to fall heavier and more intensely, growing into a healthy jungle shower that seemed to create a comforting barrier around the maloca. Beside me, more violent puking erupted from both Zach and Fabian. Although conscious of the purging going on around me, my eyes remained closed and I continued to focus on maintaining an even rhythm to my breath. I was so relaxed that sometimes my transitions from inhale to exhale were almost imperceptible.

The sky that I saw open up above me was changing. Spectacular forms of monolithic scale looked as though they were hewn from technological crystals took shape in a new celestial dimension. I was moving, soaring through some atmosphere populated by wispy, white clouds and these mysterious suspended structures of deep azure and radiant gold. Hurtling on, I saw that not only were there more of these structures, but that some of them were slowly changing and taking on new shapes.

Suddenly, I found myself in the presence of a vast new form. A seemingly boundless mechanical device comprised of an incalculable number of interconnected gold components; gears, arms, springs, levers, dials, columns of interlocking pieces moving tirelessly. The Universe. But it was made clear that this device was a metaphor for the sake of my incredibly small realm of experience to make sense of an entity that is vastly beyond my comprehension.

I continued to float within the mechanical behemoth, taking note of the columns of interlocking pieces that bore the resemblance to combination locks or the tumblers in a safe. Each column was a stack of cells with individual organisms that spun and rotated in tandem with the others around it. The overwhelming sense that the Universe is just as much a puzzle solving apparatus as much as it is a cosmic clock pervaded my mind. Not only that, but it was a living system with nothing at the helm. Each and every one of the magnificent parts of the behemoth all play a particular role in governing how the machine functions, and does so eternally.

This system was entirely self-sufficient; creating an infinite number of puzzles for itself as it simultaneously creates an infinite number of solutions. The puzzles were characterized by constraints of limited amounts of matter and finite amounts of energy, while the solutions were involved with finding ways for energy and matter to come together in a harmonious equilibrium that is healthy for maintaining the system.

Having all of these puzzles and solutions could have looked like the omniscience of ‘God’ that I had been told of many times, but this consciousness was far more beautiful and just shy of perfect. The beautiful imperfection of this consciousness came from knowing the puzzles and the solutions, but not always knowing the circumstances of when, where, and with exactly what components bring about the harmony that the Universe so desperately tries to cultivate. Experience through trial and error is the key to the eternal expansion of this collective consciousness, each life playing a vital role in providing another piece to the grand puzzle. All matter has a life, whether it is in the form of an igneous rock, a blade of grass, or in the form of a human being and each and every one of them are a body of experience in the eyes of the Universe; energy acting upon a body of matter as a test of what can be created given circumstantial constraints.

Given the imperfect consciousness of the Universe, there will inevitably be successes but there will also be failures. But there is no need for despair. Even the ‘failures’ are necessary for the path towards creating a more perfect consciousness; just is much is learned from failing as is learned from success, and there are rarely instances that demand a balance is found on the first attempt. And if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Eventually the Universe will find equilibrium.

The interconnectedness of all things had never been made as clear to me as it did as I was in the presence of such an awe-inspiring entity. It inspired a humbling gratitude to sweep over my being as I realized the need for me to acknowledge how indebted I am to all the things that came before and things that will come after me. The Universe depends on us all. Consciousness is ‘God’, a term that seems incredibly inadequate at describing what I was witnessing. ‘God’ is found within in each us in the form of consciousness, and each consciousness is a part of the collective consciousness of the Universe. As products of the Universe, we are not only individually whole, but also part of an infinite whole.

As quickly as the mechanical Universe had appeared, it dissipated into black.

What faded into view next was a vibrant picture of two pairs of hands, one male and one female, connecting over a red and white flower mandala on a patch of grass. The field of vision only extended as far as the mid forearms and there was no other anatomical information to confirm the identities of the figures. Not that I need it.

I knew that these were my girlfriend Caitlin’s and my hands. Our fingers interlocked and our palms took turns enfolding the others in an intimate moment of exploration of each other. I could feel that I was physically smiling and soon a new, yet very similar pair of hands took Caitlin and I’s place.

Once again there were no additional visual signifiers of identity, but I knew they belonged to my friends Nikki and Jeff. There was no mandala, they were holding each other’s hands over a table which I knew was located in the bar that I work at. I was perplexed at why I was being shown someone else’s relationship, but settled that it must just be affirming the legitimacy of their affections for each other. Upon reaching this sufficient realization, I thought of my other friends who were in relationships. I tried to picture Travis’ and Meagan’s hands in a similar manner, but was surprisingly denied any inkling of that image.

In the space that followed, out of the darkness came a vision of the white ceremonial clothes that I was wearing being consumed by fire. Although the specific reason for this was not clear, what was clear was that these clothes were destined to be an offering; an effigy that was to be destroyed by flame.

The visions then started to dull, and almost as a parting farewell, the Universe consolidated itself into the facsimile of a cosmic face and winked at me. It seemed surprisingly cheeky, but it was an unmistakable message that said, “Here’s a glimpse, but this is far from everything there is.”

I opened my eyes to find that Jose had re-lit the candle in the middle of the room. I slowly sat up in awe of what I had just been taught, the flickering flame of the candle bringing me back into existing in my body, conscious of the room full of awakening dreamers. To my left, Zach was smoking a cigarette and turned to look at me with wide eyes of bewilderment that left me with a burning curiosity of what he had experienced.

Jose spoke and Arienne translated, “That concludes our ceremony tonight. Feel free to stay in the maloca as long as you want, the Guardians will be here to take you home when you are ready.”

Everyone remained sitting on their mats. Cole and Andy exchanged a few indiscernible words across the room, but we largely remained silent. Objects still left tracers as they moved through my field of vision, almost creating the sense that I was witnessing objects in multiple planes separated by minute intervals in space. Elation is the only word adequate of describing my state of being. My intention had been entirely fulfilled; I had seen what most people would describe as ‘God’.

After a few minutes, Zach and I gathered our pillows and water bottles and found our muddy boots. One of the guardians lead us down the steps as our feet clumsily found each step as we struggled to maintain our balance. Once in the clearing, we noticed that the rain clouds had dispersed and were met by an even more impressive view of the cosmos, almost as if ayahuasca granted us the capacity to gaze deeper into its vastness. We stood in awe for a few moments before continuing on to our bungalow. At the door we bid goodnight to the Guardian and thanked him for his help.

Zach and I didn’t talk much following the ceremony, and I generated most of the meager dialogue in the candlelight. From my seat in the hammock, I could see Zach slowly smoking a mopacho, his face indicating an internal grappling with whatever he just saw.

We went to bed early that night. The jungle must have been merciful to us as I don’t recall being kept up with a barrage of mysterious rustlings among the leaves. Instead, I was sung to sleep by the lullaby of the chorus of frogs, birds, and bugs.