Ceremony II: "Teach me how to become my higher Self."
The next morning, I awoke early to the sound of another rain shower and a bowl of freshly cut pineapple, watermelon, papaya, and banana that had been delivered to our bungalow an hour before. My body showed no sign of the mental or physical exhaustion that often followed my mushroom trips; what seemed to be taking its place was a clarity, humility, and gratitude for the awe-inspiring experience of the night before and the incredible natural world that provided me such an opportunity.
Zach was still sleeping deeply as I put on my boots and began walking to the dining hall for breakfast, eager to hear about everyone’s journeys.
I sat at the table, joining Andy, Shane, and Kim who were talking quietly and intermittently with one another. We exchanged ‘good mornings’ and they asked how I felt. I reported that I felt very well, and still elated. Our conversation then turned to how incredibly intense the ayahuasca experience was, all expressing some anxiety and excitement as to what we would be in store for tonight with full doses of the Medicine.
We ate a breakfast of eggs and fried bananas with fruit juice and a bowl of soup consisting of a bland broth, some cabbage and carrots floating just below its surface. Our conversation didn’t delve into the particulars of our individual experiences, as we focused mainly on replenishing our energy.
Shortly after our meal, we were joined by Zach and Cole. Cole wore a look of zeal that reflected his eagerness for our next ceremony, hopeful to once more expand his understanding of his calling as a healer. On the other hand, Zach’s face wore the same look of bewilderment that I had seen after last night’s ceremony.
As Shane, Zach, and I sat at one of the long wooden tables, we inquired about Zach’s well-being. He seemed to silently ponder for a moment before answering. Slowly, in a low, purposeful tone, he told us that in Cusco, the curandero Augustine had made a shocking prophecy in a coca leaf reading about Zach’s trek to the jungle and that Augustine’s prophecy had already come to fruition in the first ceremony.
This came as a surprise to us all. Many of us that had been given coca leaf readings went into them with a healthy skepticism of the clairvoyant abilities of such practices and Zach may have been the most skeptical of the group.
Cole and Andy soon joined our table and Shane encouraged his brother to share his experience with them. Upon the second recount, their faces showed the same surprise that Shane and I’s did.
Our conversation then took a turn towards the healing powers that ayahuasca has on those who come seeking liberation from substance abuse and addiction, focusing on how it changes one’s inner dialogue and self-definition in relation to their past. As usual, Andy’s comments were largely based on the words of famous yogis. As wise as these words may have been, in our present company and Andy’s lack of personal experience with addiction, his comments were somewhat insensitive. The rest of us were quick to try and direct the conversation and comments in a more constructive and thoughtful trajectory and began to discuss the power of ‘I’ statements.
This was a topic that I had thought about a great deal several years earlier when I had really begun to refine the maturing, young adult that I was to become. ‘I’ statements are the most powerful declarations that an individual can make in terms of their self-definition, a constant act of empowerment and awareness of one’s Self.
We talked about how the translation of ‘God’ in the Bible equates with ‘I am’, perhaps the two most powerful words that can be conceived by the human mind. So much of our internal dialogue can be influenced by these two words, both in ways that empowers us as well as relinquishes power over our beings. I was eager to share my philosophy of our inherent nature as ‘gods’, beings capable of all the divine powers that the main religions attribute to a supreme being of god. There were several nods as I stated that all of us are capable of creating and taking life, being creators and destroyers of worlds, the privilege of accumulating a seemingly infinite amount of knowledge, and ultimately being the writers of our own lives and destinies. I relished in the validation I received from these wise men that I respected gave me, all of them almost a decade older than I. It was a validation that made me immediately grow closer to them, seeing us as a group of friends and brothers. In conclusion, we all acknowledged the need for us to implement this divine right of self-definition in our conversations with ayahuasca, using it to give us both strength and guidance as we confronted our truest selves.
Our conversation dwindled down until we parted ways, some of us to nap while others either read or played card games.
One by one, we each had an opportunity to speak with Jose about our experiences and let him further assess how we uniquely interact with the Medicine. I was particularly eager to share with him my thoughts and feelings.
When my time came, Arienne found me in the dining hall and beckoned me out to the lounge area. I followed her, both of us making gentle thuds as our feet rose and fell on the weathered, wooden planks. We sat on couches adorned with the Chipibo fabric that we were now so familiar with. Jose was sitting with his soft and peaceful demeanor and eventually spoke asking if I needed Arienne to translate. I replied in Spanish that I knew a good amount of Spanish but would prefer to have a translation to ensure that I didn’t miss anything that he had to say. He gave an understanding nod and said “Bueno.”
“How was your experience with the ayahuasca? How did you feel?”
I began to recount that it had been a very gentle experience that gave me a great deal of information that I had hoped to attain that night. He seemed to know that I hadn’t needed to purge, as he commented on how calm I had looked throughout ceremony. A smile of deep satisfaction spread across his gentle face as I told him that the Universe had coyly winked at me and he reaffirmed that there would be much more to learn. We sat smiling for a moment before reminding me that there would be a floral bath in several hours. I thanked him for his time and re-enforced my excitement for our next ceremony.
As the jungle air finally began to cool and four o’clock got near, Zach and I put on our swim trunks, gathered our towels and made the hike to meet for the flower baths. We walked across the hard clay ground in our boots, trying our best to avoid tromping on the swaths of leaf-cutter ants that were creating highways in the grass.
After a short walk, we came to the sauna building which lay on the swampy edge of the river. A few dozen tree trunks shot up through the cool, murky water to form a canopy above us, the last strong beams of afternoon sun poking through gaps in the foliage. Jose was standing outside the sauna with several large, plastic tubs of water next to him. It became clear that this bath was not going to be one where we each lounged, almost submerged in warm, floral water. The buckets of clear river water were full of leafy, green clippings of various flowers and herbs from the refugio’s garden that Jose had picked earlier in the day.
We stood next to each other in our swimwear, everyone had come with the exception of Shayne and Kim, and awaited our turns to be bathed.
Baptized may be a better word for it. One by one we stood in front of Jose and Kelly as they filled buckets with the fragrant water and tossed it over us. I laughed as each of the Canadians flinched and squealed at the ‘frigid’ water, finding their reaction ironic. We were encouraged to refrain from brushing the clippings off our bodies, allowing it to cleanse and permeate our skin. However, they granted us permission to get any uncomfortable bits that the rush of the water had forced down our swim trunks, which we were all grateful. The earthy aroma of the concoction was indeed refreshing and seemed to at least mask the sweaty musk that we were surely accumulating from the jungle climate. Our bodies dried and we slowly shed bits of green as we walked back to our bungalows.
Several hours passed and once again the sun began to set on the Amazon jungle in a brilliant palette of oranges, reds, and violets. Shane and Kim had come by to visit Zach and I at our bungalow before we headed to our second ceremony. We conversed for a while under the light of our lantern powered by a distant generator that hummed aggressively off in the distance, a sound that seemed strikingly out of place among the incessant calls of the nocturnal jungle.
Zach and I were disappointed to find out that Kim would once again not be partaking of the Medicine in that night’s ceremony. As Shane and Kim prepared to return to their own bungalow in preparation for ceremony, we each gave Kim a hug of love and encouragement and told her we loved her. Once out of the bug netted door, their voices and light of their headlamps faded into the darkness.
Several minutes passed as Zach and I once again put on our white ceremonial clothes. We sat listening to the chorus of awakening bugs and frogs. My excitement to learn something new and profound largely drowned out the nervousness that had plagued me the night before. In the dim light, it was hard to tell if Zach shared my excitement or was bracing himself for another harrowing night as he smoked several mapachos.
All of a sudden, our heads swiveled almost in unison as we heard a jarring sound from just outside the walls of our bungalow. It was a loud, breathy, almost speech-like sound that stood out amongst the usual rustlings foliage. We didn’t know what we expected to find as the lime green bug netting that formed the walls just barely obfuscated the world that lay just outside them. Our gazes lingered on what we could not see for a moment before we looked uneasily at each other, both of us slightly unnerved. After a couple more drags of Zach’s mapacho, we heard it again.
Whatever was making the bizarre sound seemed to have shifted several feet before producing the eerie sound. Even with all my substantial knowledge of rainforest animals, I was utterly perplexed at what kind of creature could make such a sound. It sounded like nothing I had heard before, and it sounded almost supernatural and caused the hairs on my arms and neck to stand on end. In my discomfort I joined Zach in nervously smoking another mapacho as we looked at each other. Silently, we exchanged looks that displayed how freaked out we both were. Two grown men sitting scared in the jungle like two young kids camping after hearing a particularly scary ghost story.
Zach nervously rose from his wooden seat and walked to the bathroom. I could faintly hear the sound urine hitting porcelain, before the sound returned again, louder and even closer to discernible words than before. And it was just outside the bathroom. Almost immediately, I heard Zach call from the bathroom, “What did you say?” I was scared before, but I was now terrified. It was clear that Zach had thought this last vocalization, for lack of a more fitting word, had been me talking to him. As he came back from the bathroom, he must have seen my terror even before I muttered that I hadn’t said anything.
The ominous presence outside our bungalow was now utterly undeniable and making itself absolutely known.
We both picked up headlamps and walked to the limits of the bug netting, shining the beams through the tiny holes into the darkness. The lamps were only capable of illumination a short range outside and failed to expose the source of the sounds. Unsatisfied and perplexed by the lack our lack of findings, we returned to our seats huddled at the center of the room, struggling to rationalize our fear of this invisible tormentor.
As several more minutes passed spent smoking and trying to quell our disquieted composures, we heard boot steps on the dense, clay of the path leading to our bungalow and a loud spitting of our Guardian coming to take us to ceremony. In my head I was scared for him as he neared the spot where we believed the presence to be hiding and briefly considered calling out to warn him, but then realized how infantile I would seem to a man who lived in and knew the jungle far better than I.
We proceeded to follow him nervously into the clearing. Dense clouds produced by the dense jungle hung above us, obfuscating the magnificent view of the cosmos that we had seen the night before.
Our bungalow was the closest to the maloca and once again we were among the first to arrive for ceremony. I sat cross-legged and proceeded to once more calm my mind and push the thought of the voice we had heard out of my mind. As the others began to filter in and assume the mats they had occupied the night before, I focused on formulating and refining my intention for the evening. I had learned about the vastness of the Universe, now I wanted to learn about bettering my Self. I took a great deal of care as I searched for the right words to define my desire to learn, ultimately settling on ‘Please send me my spirit animal to teach me to become my higher Self.’
Once again, the participants of the ceremony began to filter into the maloca. My cousins and friends were always noticeable, even from across the room in the dim candle light, appearing in the doorway looking like shimmery specters in their white ceremony clothes. Jose and Horatio arrived with Arienne and the tall, glass bottle of dark ayahuasca.
There was a good deal of shuffling about as everyone made themselves comfortable, ensuring that buckets, water bottles, mapachos, and lighters were all within a familiar arm’s reach when the candles were snuffed out. The thrum of the generator could still be heard in the distance.
After repeating my intention several more times, I opened my eyes to the room and began watching Jose prepare his materials. Horatio was sitting several feet to Jose’s left, craning his neck to look at something near the entrance of the maloca. I could not see the expression worn on his aged face in the candlelight, but his stare lingered, unmoving for several moments.
Thinking we may be waiting on another person, I took a mental roll call of the room. Fabian. Zach. Me. Shayne. Kim. Curtis. Danielle. Kelly. Andy. Cole. Chris. Everyone was present for ceremony. It couldn’t be that Horatio was looking for someone.
He then turned to Jose and muttered something in Spanish that I was unable to make out. Jose then proceeded to crane his neck to peer into the same patch of darkness that Horatio had. And there his gaze also lingered. It seemed as though the curanderos were aware of something that the rest of us were oblivious to, something that demanded their attention, delaying the ceremony for a few moments. I was struggling to retain the calmness that I had finally regained after Zach and I’s disconcerting experience in our bungalow. The ominous feeling of a presence which I could not see returned.
The shaman eventually exchanged a few soft words and redirected their attention to the beings within the room. Whatever it was that had drawn their gaze seemed to not be of immediate importance, and that gave me a small sense of relief.
“Tonight we will begin our healings,” Arienne began translating for Jose. “Each night we will work personally with three of you. Tonight we will be healing Fabian, Kim, and Chris.” Jose pointed a beam at each one to indicate to Horatio where each was sitting so they could more easily find them later in the darkness.
The shaman sanctified the Medicine, drank, and one by one, we each rose to partake. This time we were each given our full potency dose. We then sat again in silence, basking in the candlelight while it lasted.
After several minutes, Jose stood and walked to the middle of the room. With one swoop of the leaf fan, both the candle and distant power generator went out. It was an eerie, unplanned orchestration that made the plunge into complete darkness seem even more austere.
I laid on my back, my head cradled in the cushion of my pillow. My eyes shut and I began focusing on filling and emptying of my lungs with the fresh, jungle air. Soon Jose’s voice began singing the familiar icaro from the night before, only this time with a slightly different melody. I was eager for the same geometric patterns to manifest in the field of my mind, dancing to the smooth legatos of Jose’s singing; my body anticipating the warm, vibrating sensation to take hold of me and sweep me out of the physical room. I waited for what felt like an hour, with only the faint inklings of the Medicine taking effect.
Earlier at lunch, Kelly had told us that if you felt the desire to go deeper or that you needed a larger dose at any point in the ceremony, you could ask for it and it would be given to you. My impatience mounted until I got up the guts to rise to my feet, and slowly make my way to the table.
Horatio had taken over the singing of the icaros and as Jose sensed me approaching the table, he shone a dim light to help me wend my way in the darkness. I sat on his right side as he put a fatherly hand on my shoulder. “Mas?” he questioned me. “Si, por favor. No siento mucho” His found the small cup that we each drank from and filled it again halfway with ayahuasca and blessed it before handing it to me. I tilted my head back and swallowed. The Medicine was slowly beginning to taste more and more acrid with each dose, and I made a sour face as I handed the cup back to Jose. With a series of slightly unsure steps, I found my mat with the help of Jose’s light. Surely this would be sufficient for me to learn another profound lesson.
Waiting in the darkness, my impatience continued to mount. I was sitting with eager eyes opened and my legs crossed, trying to keep my back as straight and strong as I had seen Cole’s and Andy’s in yoga practice.
Just then another soft light appeared and I saw Andy make the same trek to the front of the room to get a second helping. I was perplexed. We had been told that this was a particularly strong batch of medicine and that it wouldn’t take much to elicit strong visions. Two of us had now gone up for more. Was this a different batch than the night before?
I was growing more and more frustrated. A feeling of being forsaken by God started to take over me, as I was reminded of the story of Jesus’ suffering in Gethsemane. I had witnessed the nature of the Universe and had been taught so much last night, but that could not possibly be all I was meant to learn in the jungle. I was surrounded by my family, friends, and several strangers, yet I felt utterly alone; left behind to fruitlessly wait as they all took a journey into the realm of wisdom and knowledge. It was as if anger was about to begin surging through my veins as I had felt the ayahuasca do the night before.
I could hear the guttural heaving as several of my companions begin to purge violently into their buckets. As I sat in the darkness, my mind was beginning to concoct vivid images fueled by my mounting frustration and loneliness.
The first consisted of a tiny orb of white light giving off a dim, yet illuminating aura. The orb was in a disorienting space, void of solid forms or any sense of horizon or grounding. As the orb hung in the air, a dense, abyssal darkness was condensing around it. It plumed as tendrils of blackness emerged from the shroud as if to further close in on the orb and slowly suffocate it. Both of these entities were very much animated, personified as if they were participants suspended in a display of predator and prey. The darkness swirled with an inky fluidity around the orb, searching for a hole in the aura that emanated from the orb’s core, but was foiled at each attempt. Despite its infinitesimal size, the body of light remained undiminished by the vast darkness which beset it. My eyes were open at this point and as this image permeated my mind, and I struggled to determine whether I had truly begun my conversation with ayahuasca yet.
As the image of the orb faded, it was replaced by a one of an immensely foggy waterfront. Whether I was seeing a freshwater or marine shore was unclear; the water and thick, misty atmosphere blended together beautifully in a wash of silver-grey. The scene reminded me of the serene, Japanese ink scenes of sublime tranquility in nature that I had seen in museums. A dark wooden dock jutted out of the fog and over the glassy, undisturbed water providing the only sense of physicality to the scene. At the end of the dock was a young man. Dressed in a drab, grey tunic and matching pants, he was kneeling penitently with hands pressed together. But his meditation was interrupted by the slumping of his body as it fell almost lifelessly towards the water. The image was frozen leaving me with a disquieting anxiety as I helplessly witnessed this young man head towards what seemed like a watery fate. His body just hung there, never nearing the water’s surface.
Suddenly, I was free of the young man and his impending fate. But relief was not what followed in their wake. A choppy, sea of darkness pressed itself to the forefront of my mind. The dark waves crested and meet a dark sky void of any starry pinpricks of light, dense blackness hung low overhead. A small origami boat rode the disturbed waters. Flames began to consume its papery sail and hull with tongue-like lapping, illuminating the scene with a gut-wrenching orange glow. The consistent theme of violently disrupted tranquility was unnerving and demanded that I work to keep a calm composure.
Once more, the image dissolved. This time I saw a familiar scene resembling the layout of the maloca that I was sitting in. It was dark, but a single candle burned in the center. There was a semi-circle of mats, pillows, and blankets around the blanket all showing signs of disarray as they had all been occupied and vacated. All of them but one. Another young man was still sitting on one of the mats that was just left of the middle of the arc. He was alone and embodied my feelings of forsakenness as his companions had embarked on a journey and left him to wait nervously by the light of the candle.
As I continued to brace myself for the incredible sensations I had experienced the night before, I was still skeptical that the Medicine was really taking full effect. So in a desperate last attempt, I once again rose to my feet. This time my steps fumbled as they crossed the wooden floor, hoping not to find themselves landing on a hairy tarantula. Jose once again guided me to the table but this time greeted me with a soft face displaying a healthy dose of confusion. Or perhaps it was concern; either way, I’m sure it mirrored the expression I wore on my own face.
“Todovia no siento nada,” I told him, explaining that I was still struggling to be plunged into the Medicine. He filled the ceramic cup again two-thirds full blessed it, and passed it to me to partake.
I sat again for a few minutes, free of the dark images that occupied my mind. My frustration and impatience were at their peak, but with a final dose I was also hopeful that something would happen. “Please let me learn something tonight,” I thought to myself, almost offering up an open invitation to the Universe. “Anything.”
My stomach gave a small gurgle as I began to contemplate that perhaps tonight I was meant to learn from just being present in the room, holding space for others, and enjoying being in the jungle air, listening to its song.
The shaman had begun their healings. Both worked with Fabian, their joint abilities seeming to draw out even more violent purging than before. Then it was Kim’s turn.
I was laying down listening to the icaros helping cleanse Kim, finally having reached a peace with my night, gazing through the windows of the maloca when it happened.
It was though I had been struck, so suddenly seized by something dark, powerful, and ominous. I could not see my attacker with my eyes, nor feel it with my tactile senses but it hit hard and fast, shaking me to my soul. My whole body went cold, sweat starting to pour from my forehead as it started to quake.
Then came the smell.
It was a pungent odor, one that seemed to engulf my whole being; one that reeked of death and shit. I was now quaking and experiencing blackouts, losing connection with my corporeal body as my attacker began to fill it with darkness. Utterly disoriented, I thought perhaps I had shit myself in one of the lapses in my consciousness. I quickly stood up on my mat to check for any sign of incontinence, only to find none. After only a couple seconds on my feet, weakness drew me back down. I was now feeling absolutely helpless at the hands of my assailant, and losing connection with my body quickly.
“Ayuda,” I called out seeking help in feebly spoken Spanish, while also trying not to alarm the others in their vulnerable state. After calling out, I became terrified at the prospect of the shaman not knowing that I was calling out to them, and the possibility of them dismissing my calling out as addressing something in a vision I might be having.
After another brief blackout, I gained enough strength to call out again, more loudly and desperate this time. “Ayudame.” I called out into the darkness, hopefully loud enough to be heard over the icaros. Seizing the momentary strength, I called out again, even more declaratively. “Ayudame, hermanos.” Help me. Help me, brothers.
I was fading hard and fast. The darkness was starting to engulf my being. I was now the embodiment of the orb of light that I had seen earlier, and I was now facing a very real darkness that sought to oust me and take hold of my body.
As blackness took hold of my vision, I could hear the shuffling of feet and muttering from Jose, Horatio, and Kelly growing nearer. I even got a brief glimpse of a headlamp as they reached my mat and began to try and support my now weakening body. My consciousness waned, waxed slightly, and waned again, I muttered to my rescuers solely in Spanish. It was as if I had no choice to speak in English.
The war waged on, feeling as if it was a war over my body but one that had to be fought solely by my spirit. I was utterly bewildered by what my assailant was and where it had come from. It was completely unfamiliar to me, something that I had not been previously harboring and had zero experience with, and consequently left me desperate to find a way to defend against it. I wasn’t sure if it was just my memory, but I could almost hear the half-voice that Zach and I had witnessed earlier. Both were equally dark and alluded to a great deal of power that I wasn’t fully able to comprehend.
I collapsed to the wooden floor of the maloca and gasped for a metaphorical lungful of air during a moment where I glimpsed my physical surroundings. I was slumped over near the bathroom, utterly confused as I had wholeheartedly believed that I was already in the bathroom. A surge of animosity filled me in my desperation, my head swimming as I tried to reconcile my reality.
I was being supported by several arms, none of which seemed to be connected to the bodies that came to my aid. The beam of a headlamp shone over me as someone brought me some water. I could vaguely hear the shaman hovering over me and chanting, and my panicked desperation only grew as I felt as their healing powers were futile and inadequate. It seemed I was truly the only one that could help myself. Beads of icy, sweat were streaking down my hot cheeks as havoc was reeked on my stomach, a tempest was brewing in my belly.
“El baño. Quiero sentarme en el baño,” I adamantly told those around me. I needed to sit upright, and the closest seat was the toilet several feet to my right. Noticing my newfound urgency, I was assisted to my feet and escorted to sit on the porcelain.
Despite my lack of physical control of my body, I was able to get my pants around my ankles, bracing myself to expel something in attempt to save myself. My rescuers had all retreated beyond the bathroom doorway to attend to the others, except Kelly who placed a bucket, a headlamp, and a water bottle within arm’s reach of me before saying “I’ll be right outside” and latching the door behind him.
Still blacking out, my tormentor continuously attempted to gain ground as I fought to retain a connection between my body and mind. A surge of nausea in my belly caused me to reach out for the bucket and put my sweaty, gaunt, face in its opening and vomit into its depths. The umbral bathroom was suffocating me and I reached out for the headlamp with my free hand, the other still clutching the bucket.
I found the power button that lit the headlamp with my trembling index finger, producing a dim, purple hued light. I expected for the light to produce relief, but instead my warped perspective made the bathroom to appear incredibly vast. Its tiled walls seemed to extend several meters away from me, giving me the sense that I was in a dark geometric prison and alienated from any help and the world that lay just beyond the door.
Another surge of darkness caused my stomach to turn. I again heaved into the bucket, emptying my stomach of its viscous contents. My body felt so distanced from myself that I was unsure if vomitus had splashed back onto my face or shirt, but the thought quickly passed as I realized that was the least of my worries now. The smell of death and shit still clung to the air and was constantly prodding at my gag reflex.
The sense of being forsaken was incredibly overwhelming and my thoughts again turned to Christ’s solitary suffering in Gethsemane. I summoned enough strength to call out and ensure that someone was still outside. I wasn’t sure if it was a conscious decision due to Kelly’s horrible grasp of the Spanish language, but I finally called out in English.
“Kelly, are you still there?”
A moment passed before I received affirmation of his presence. “Yeah, I’m here buddy,” he said. I could not spend another minute in this prison, isolated with only my dark attacker. “Would you come in here and just be a presence for a minute. He obliged and stood in the dark corner. As I continued to reel in my torment, I saw him with a look of slight discomfort of being in the bathroom with me. I couldn’t blame him. The reason I had respite from what are normally uncomfortable boundaries was that I was instead focusing on fighting for my soul, my mind, my consciousness.
Now realizing that I was not in any danger of diarrhea, I struggled to pull my pants back up to my waist. Another twinge in my gut reared its head.
“How are you doing, man?” Kelly asked from the corner as I slumped over with my glistening face cradled in a shaky hand. I looked side to side, vivid tracers moving across my field of vision as I did so, almost as if I was answering with a desperate shake of my head. And that answer would have been fairly accurate.
At this point my frustration and confusion were at an all-time high as I struggled to reconcile the origin and meaning of the war I was waging. I told Kelly I had no idea how I was and expressed my utter confusion, mentioning how I had never experienced any sort of crisis like this before and how I was scrambling to try and find a way to manage it.
For a moment, I began to worry that I may never be able to bring myself to do psychedelics again. This venture into the unknown was making me reconsider my ability to manage my reality under such vulnerable circumstances.
kelly was surprised when he found out that I had gone up for a second and third cup, letting out a slow “Oh, yeah… You’re going to be high for a looooong time, buddy.” His attitude rubbed me the wrong way. It was comforting as reminder that I was high and that ultimately things would give way to ‘normalcy’, and simultaneously slightly insensitive trying to declare this existential war I was taking part in as strictly the product of a high. Either way, I had no time to linger on such trivialities. He stayed for a moment longer before leaving once more to attend to the other participants.
Once more I reached for the puke bucket as my stomach surged. I was half afraid that the bucket may overflow, but in the light of my headlamp I glimpsed the frothy bile only taking up half of its volume. Half empty. “No, half full,” I said to myself. In this battle, perspective and attitude was going to dictate my fate.
My blackouts were slowly starting to be less intense and less frequent, and the longer I sat in the bathroom, the more I wanted to leave. Finally deeming myself fit to return to my mat, I stood up and walked to the bathroom door. There was a dull thud and a creek as my fingers found the latch and began to swing the door open on its hinges.
I was immediately bathed in the soft, familiar, orange glow of the candle in the middle of the room. It stood with such a strong identity, with a triumphant, living light that felt impervious to the darkness. Kelly was still standing as a silhouette next to the bathroom door, his cap and ponytail distinct in the dancing candlelight.
He turned toward me and put a gentle hand on my shoulder before saying “Welcome back, Captain.” I remembered that one of my early grade school gym teachers always called me Captain Stu. I thanked him as my feet, still unsteady, slowly stepped across the floor into the circular arrangement of mats. Somehow I truly felt as though I had left my ‘crew’ and ‘ship’ behind, embarking on a peril filled adventure where I was forced to make do without their love and support. Several of them were already sitting upright on their mats, coming out of their visions. They seemed to watch me as I made my way back to my seat.
The battle was not yet one, but I had gained some ground. Being enveloped in the light of the candle gave me something to ground myself with, gaining strength from being present in body and mind as I devotedly gazed into the flame. I tried to re-posture myself to physically reinforce this centeredness, crossing my legs, and straightening my back.
The respite from my torment was only temporary. Suddenly, the darkness surged again.Almost as if aware that it was losing its grip on me, it reared back for another full-fledged attack.
My body once again became weak and I was engulfed in despair. I looked right and left at Zach and Shayne, both seemed to still be quite preoccupied with their meditations with ayahuasca, but Kim was sitting soberly just beyond. Instantly, I knew I needed Kim’s help. As my arms and voice began to shake, I got up the courage to speak.
“I know this is a strange request,” faltered my voice, “but I feel like I really need to be close to my family now. Zach, Shayne, and Kim, if any of you are comfortable with it, it would help me a lot if you guys came and just sat next to me.”
Almost immediately, Kim began to rise and walk over to my mat. I knew that Zach and Shayne weren’t able or ready to come to my aid, and I forgave them, merely wishing they were going through less suffering than I was. Kim sat down to my right and slightly behind me. From across the room, Cole also rose from his mat and walked over to mine to sit on my left side.
In the midst of my grappling, I requested that they each place a hand on my back near my heart. Both happily obliged and I could immediately feel their warmth giving me strength. Kim’s hand moved in a soothing and motherly circle, while Cole’s stayed firm and unmoving. I felt as though I had finally found my grounding, almost as if I had been dialed into a state of perfect receptiveness. My posture was impeccably strong and my mind was clear and pointed as I slowly turned my head and gazed wide-eyed and alert around the room.
An overwhelming surge, one of equal intensity to the one that had initially fallen upon me, coursed through every fibre of my Being. However, this time it was a surge of complete love. It warmed me, casting a radiant glow into the darkness. This was what godliness was. The outpouring of love from, and for, these two individuals quickly made tears well in my eyes. I was witnessing and experiencing absolute divinity from these two mortals who came so selflessly to my aid.
Shaken by the tsunami of love I was experiencing, I struggled to find my voice and words that appropriately demonstrated how much I loved and appreciated Cole and Kim. My voice shook and my words felt as though they were incredibly inadequate of conveying the degree of love I felt. I hoped that they could just feel it radiating from my heart, through their hands, and straight to their own hearts. “I’ve never believed in guardian angels before, but this is what I imagine it feels like. You guys have saved me,” I said with a quavering voice. They both told me that they loved me too.
I felt another pang of nausea, and quickly grabbed my bucket and tilted forward in an attempt to shield my saviours. Their hands stayed firm on my back. I felt almost sucked out of my body as I spewed into the bucket, an eerie sense of dissociation as the vomit fell from my mouth.
Kelly walked over to me with another bottle of water, which I drank from, even if only to rinse my mouth.
As Cole sat channeling healing energy which he had been shown in the night before, he asked about what I was going through. I paused before telling him that I had been fighting a violent war over my soul, that a darkness was seeking to oust me from my body. It was then that he said something so striking and something that resonated so hard within me. He looked into my eyes with and spoke with a grave tone. “We are the lucky ones. We get to have bodies.” Coming from a Mormon upbringing, I had been taught in church that one third of all spirits had been denied the opportunity to receive corporeal bodies; these spirits were forever resentful of the other two thirds and coveted their bodies above all else, and often sought to beguile those spirits with bodies into physical vulnerability. Despite the never-ending list of my grievances over Mormon doctrines, never had such a concept felt so possible.
Now that he knew a bit more about what I was dealing with, Cole further encouraged me to draw upon our conversation from earlier that morning. He advised me to declare “I am.” I hesitated a moment to summon all of my focus and energy before finally gazing into the flame of the candle. “I AM.” It was not even just meant as “I am”, but as to formally address my assailant that “I am, and I am not yours.”
This statement only added to the bastion of support that I was receiving, continuing to show glistening hope in my struggle.
As Cole felt me easing under his and Kim’s hands, his relentless sense of humor began to show its head. He began making jokes about the fictional new TV drama we had created called ‘Safari Jack’, a show following the antics of “a loose-cannon park ranger named Jack” that foiled the plots of poachers and was full up to his fedora with safari puns. We all were at the mercy of Cole’s barrage of jokes that quickly put us in stitches. The fact that I could laugh again was a good sign.
Several people were starting to chat as the curanderos bid us goodnight. It seemed as though no one was in any particular rush to leave the maloca.
I was still experiencing swells as we sat together. Someone called out in surprise as a fairly large tarantula made its way into the light of the candle and crawled toward their mat. Surprised, we all shifted in our places in unease. The spider was ten feet from me, but it immediately began to cause me a great deal of distress. I was not afraid for my safety but certainly was not ready to have to think about such a presence as I sat trying to maintain a calm composure. As a few people gathered around it, the tarantula made a quick dart and I asked if we could do something about the spider. “Please don’t kill it, but can we somehow move it away from here?” I by no means wanted to witness a death in my current state, but merely wanted relief from its presence. Kelly found an empty bucket and placed it over the spider to at least put it out of sight and limit its mobility.
Finally, Shayne moved closer to join our family huddle. Kim and I began talking about music festivals, our drug experiences, and about Caitlin and I’s history. As someone that I had not met prior to our trip to Peru, I was quickly growing quite fond of Kim. She may as well have been a blood relative that I had known for most of my life. I told Shayne that he was a lucky guy to have Kim in his life, to which he promptly replied “Oh, trust me. I know”
Surrounded by my family, my love for them grew exponentially. Each one of them was now considered one of my dearest friends. Ones that I hoped to keep for the rest of our lives.
My battle was clearly coming to a close, with me as the triumphant victor. As I began to try to analyze and interpret my experiences, I was unable to shake a number of resounding similarities to stories I had heard in my religious upbringing. Considering my apostasy from any organized religion and general disdain for its agendas, I was puzzled by how my experiences spoke to those frame works. Was I about to reshape my concept of spirits and religion? I nervously tried to put it out of mind for the time being.
After several more minutes in the maloca, Zach, Shayne, Kim, and I decided we were ready to leave and go back as a family to Zach and I’s bungalow. We gathered our things and embarked out into the darkness.
Shayne and Zach decided to fetch a couple extra blankets and pillows from Shayne and Kim’s bungalow, one of the furthest from the maloca, leaving Kim and I to talk. I sat in the hammock, gently swaying in the light of the candle as she sat in the rigid, wooden chair.
We spoke about how great it was having a smaller group here in the jungle compared to the group of eighteen that we had been a part of earlier in our trip, laughing at the idea of how unprepared the two blonde girls from the group would be in the jungle. Our conversation then shifted to talking about our families and siblings. Kim talked about how annoying and rude it is being an adult in their 30’s and having everyone always ask when they were going to start popping out children as if that’s the only purpose to exist. We took turns in voicing our agreement on how crucial it is for parents to be able to balance a finite amount of time and attention to children, and dividing that time up into smaller, disproportionate pieces as they bring more children into the world. At some point it becomes a selfish act. To have one or two kids but still feel that they are not enough? An absurdly, ungrateful thought.
My two cousins returned safely and we sat quietly conversing for an hour as Zach played intricate melodies on the guitar, his fingers sounding even more articulate on the fret board than usual. Kim started to drift off to sleep as we were kept awake and alert, still processing each of our experiences. After an hour, Shayne and Kim decided to make the trek to sleep in their own bungalow. We each hugged one another and voiced our love for one another before they embarked.
Zach and I returned to our seats and enjoyed a few moments of silence before either of us spoke. Surprisingly, it was Zach who broke the silence first.
He slowly turned to me and with a low voice said “This is between us for right now, but I have a theory on what happened tonight.” I voiced my vow of disclosure before Zach continued. He began to talk about his feelings that he and I had a joint experience tonight, fought the same demon. A list of crazy coincidences from the night’s proceedings came to fall into an unnervingly cohesive theory that supported the timeline in which the presence we heard and sensed outside our bungalow, Horatio’s staring outside the maloca just before ceremony began, how the generator power had cut off just as Jose had extinguished the candles and plunged the entire compound into darkness, and the number of individual healings that occurred that night.
My body filled with buzzing energy, as the depth of this theory came to be fully realized in my mind. Zach theorized that we had each taken part in exorcising a darkness that someone we loved had been harboring; a great darkness that they did not yet have the tools or experience to conquer without it destroying them. It was the combination of our mutual love for this person and our experiences that gave us the capacity to undertake this mission on their behalf. This idea only reinforced my earlier thoughts that I was experiencing a torment that I could not tackle without the help of Cole and Kim, and sent jolts of buzzing electricity through my extremities.
What an incredibly beautiful concept, that acts of love allow us to help others conquer their darkest moments that they cannot vanquish completely on their own. This act alone is our highest calling as human beings, to be redeemers of our fellow beings. Isn’t that what made Jesus so remarkable? Being part human and part divine, he supposedly suffered and died for the sins of all, something that no other was able to do for humanity, and redeem us all. We may be born gods, but we are not born redeemers.
We talked about the correlations between what we were experiencing here and the religious framework that we had each grown up with. Acknowledging the bit of truth in the common Christian phrase “Faith without works is dead”, it became clear that it was our preparation in readying our Selves that allowed us to be able to tackle someone else’s burden. In each of our lives, there will come a time where we are called upon to do something for another who is unable to do so for them self. It is our job to make sure that we are adequately prepared to undertake the sacrifice. Without being sound in our own Selves, it is next to impossible for us to be capable of not being shaken by the weight and struggle of the task of bearing another’s grave burden.
Our eyes glowed wide with amazement in the dim candlelight as we took turns, seemingly spewing revelatory truths. After several minutes, our conversation took a pause and we each seemed to take a big breath as the gravity of our words amalgamated in our minds.
I had spoken in tongues earlier. It may not have been in a dead or dying language, but in my most desperate hour of need I had managed to speak a language other than my first with astounding authority, given the situation. Zach told me how shocked he was when he first heard me call out in the darkness and hear me continue to speak as I collapsed and regained consciousness. With his lack of any Spanish skills, I’m sure it sounded even more like a bizarre, non-terrestrial tongue.
Still reeling in the lucidity that I found occupying my mind, I began to notice congruencies between my experience and the body of art that I had begun before coming to Peru. Conceptually, this new body of work was exploring the physical and existential natures of light and darkness and how they are related to practices of ceremony and ritual. As I stared at the flickering flame of the candle, I realized that I had landed myself in the perfect opportunity to learn about these ideas first hand.
In writing about this new body of work I had written about the world in which the first humans had lived at the mercy of light and darkness, two magnanimous entities which dominated early man’s physical and spiritual existence. Darkness was, and still remains, the natural state of things. Light must be created and cultivated, where darkness merely is and always will be. Although, despite the its dazzling beauty and complexity, and even its often violent tendencies, Nature itself is inherently morally void. It is up to individuals to generate light, casting new knowledge and awareness out of the shadows of the uncertain and the unknown. In order to truly know the light, I had to experience absolute darkness. Both physically and spiritually. I had already been cast into the dense, physical darkness that so thickly blankets the Amazon when the sun sets, but now I had been thrust into the spiritual abyss. I had seen the other side, and made it back.
I suddenly knew that this dance with darkness was the reason I was meant to burn my ceremonial clothes. It was as if the bleached white garments had been soiled and desecrated; now possibly harboring scattered remnants of darkness in their fibers.
Zach and I continued to talk through the night talking about the implications of the night’s ceremony, taking note in the sky’s transition from a deep navy to lighter shades of red, orange, purple. As the night shift was returning to their nests and burrows, the Amazon’s day shift began to call out in the fresh, morning air announcing their awakening. As light started to peek through the foliage, we put on our rubber boots and began walking to the dock where we had arrived.
We descended a long series of wooden steps down to the wooden dock. The soft morning light reflected off the glassy surface of the river, the green leaves becoming brighter as the sun climbed higher. We sat in two handcrafted chairs made from reclaimed materials as we gazed across the water, watching fish jump to snatch tiny insects hovering just above the surface.
As I followed the gentle ripples radiate, I couldn’t help but realize how impossible it is to feel alone in the Amazon. The reminders that life, in all its forms, is all around you are constant. It was a realization that simultaneously brought solace and disquiet. But ultimately, I was just incredibly grateful that I had Zach with me. I wouldn’t have been alone without him, but his presence was an incredibly comforting one. After quietly contemplating the night’s events for several moments, I joked that we were going to have to write a “Bible”.
Zach and I continued to watch the sunrise over the tree tops until we heard the rustling of cookware up the hill as the cocineras began to prepare our morning bowls of fruit. The thought of fresh banana and papaya made my stomach growl, but a massive yawn reminded me that I was in dire need of sleep.
We climbed the stairs with heavy, tired feet and made our way back to our bungalow in relative silence. Before climbing into our mosquito-netted beds, I gave Zach a big hug, told him I loved him, and thanked him for being there throughout the crazy night.
My eyelids began to take on an unimaginable weight as I slowly clambered up the steep series of planks that led to the second floor of the bungalow. As I walked to my bed, I caught a glimpse of two large spider molts that had fallen from the vaulted ceiling, but was too pre-occupied with exhaustion to bat an eye. With eyes closed, I reached out to find the opening in the mosquito net canopy and practically careened onto my bed. Sleep had never come so quickly.