Why I drank Ayahuasca
Why, knowing all that I knew, at the age that I was, with the life that I had, did I go to the jungle?
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the question of free will and whether we have it. Are we really the authors of our own thoughts, or are we simply the unconscious executors of actions that result from thoughts that arrive unheralded in our minds from some unknown point of origin? I drank coffee this morning. Why not tea? I am in no position to know. The unconscious choice to drink coffee instead of tea was made for me by events in my brain that I could not inspect or influence. I wasn’t aware that there was a decision to be made when I padded bare foot into the kitchen this morning – I just felt like drinking coffee. I shovelled granules into a cup and poured hot water over the top of them. I can’t account for why. It is apparent to me that the intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness, but appears their, sudden and unexplained, like an apparition at the foot of one’s bed.
‘So why all the free-form riffing about free will Francis? I thought you were going to write about your experience of going to the Amazon and drinking a shit-tonne of Ayahuasca and getting fucked up and shit.’ Well, I am, and I will, but to do this story justice I need to start with the question that precedes all good stories. Why? Why does a 45 year old father of two, whose life – to anyone bored enough with their own to take an interest – might be construed as being privileged, not least comfortable, leave behind everything – wife, children, job, Netflix – and travel half way around the world to spend two weeks at a remote ‘healing centre’ in the middle of the Amazon jungle, where a condition of entry, besides agreeing to spend most days alone in a hut with only your thoughts for company, is to drink the distilled brown ooze of a vine and a leaf?
As far as Google searches go, they don’t give one more pause than when one types in the words..’what are the side effects of drinking ayahuasca’, and the search engine counters with ’Did you mean…can I die from ayahuasca’ , which is precisely what it did when the idea came to me. I had hoped that Google might see a question concerning the side effects of drinking Ayahuasca and the possibility of my dying from it as two separate issues. They had been for me. Maybe I was asking the wrong question. Maybe I should be more concerned about dying from this stuff than how awkward it might be if I were to shit my pants in front of a room full of strangers. Below this question was a link of the same name, then another that was titled, ‘PLEASE HELP – ayahuasca aftermath – stuck in hallucinations! .
This, as it turned out, was the title of a thread that someone had posted in a chat room on a website called Drugs-Forum. Seeing this, I don’t know what alarmed me more – the fact that as a result of drinking what I myself was at least considering, if not planning to, someone’s mind had drifted so far from shore that they were asking anyone who might be inclined to respond for tips on how to wrangle it back, or the fact that the experience continued to be so terrifyingly dissociative, that, perhaps in the hope that it would illicit a faster or more considered response, this person had felt the need to capitalise the words PLEASE HELP!
Half way down the page, grouped in a neat box beneath the far less disturbing title ‘Negative Effects’, was the information I was looking for. It appeared that the side affects of Ayahuasca, leaving aside the possibility of death for a moment, were more numerable and varied than I had anticipated. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, body aches, sweats and/or chills. So far so good. Sounds like a regular Friday night. Flu and/or food poisoning symptoms. Ok, a regular Friday night with a Kebab on the way home. Fear and or/paranoia. Still a Friday night. Feeling as though one is losing one’s mind. Depends on how hot the sauce was. Feeling as though one is dying. Refer to previous comment. Disequilibrium, difficulty walking. Bitch please. I can definitely handle this stuff.
The truth is that I don’t eat kebabs, and but for the bottle of white wine that I share with my wife on a Friday night, an undertaking that is more an act of celebration at our having bumbled our way through another week as parents than the weekly routine of hardened drinkers, l would declare myself a teetotaller. I have no fondness for nausea or vomiting, nor am I secretly pleased by the unheralded arrival of diarrhoea. I am as partial to fear as I am to pain, which is to say – not at all, and being inclined towards neurosis and navel-circling introspection, have always believed that the attachments that anchor our senses to the sea-floor of our minds are more likely made of reeds and tangled fishing net than iron and steel.
So the question remains. Why? Why, knowing all that I knew, at the age that I was, with the life that I had, did I go to the jungle? How fucked up does one have to be to take flight from one’s own life? To seek refugee from the ennui that sits as a filmy swirl upon it’s surface. This piece of writing serves as both an attempt to answer this question, and as the introduction to the story of what followed.
Understanding why I drank Ayahuasca is almost as difficult as determining what I took from the experience. How does one fathom one’s own inner workings? Unlike the motor mechanic, who, in order to get to the engine, simply ‘pops’ the hood, access to the reasoning that drives our behaviour is limited, if not entirely restricted. Why one chooses a partner, a job, to have a child, is as hidden to us as the circumstances of our arrival, yet we do these things anyway, drawn to them as inexorably as large moths to giant flames.
In attempting to answer the question of ‘Why’, I can only speculate. Throw up a few theories and trust that one ‘feels’ more right than another. The first and most obvious one is that I am a writer, and as a writer, I am constantly scanning the edges of my world for new and interesting things to write about. Is there anything more appealing then, than the story of my going to the amazon to drink the tawny dregs that remain at the bottom of a beaten metal pot after the cuttings from two plants are brewed and reduced over a fire that burns for a day and a night?
Well, if you tell me that as a result of drinking said dregs I will have a range of psychedelic visions and experiences so intense, so arrestingly terrifying, so haltingly beautiful, that at times I’ll think I’m made from the very dirt from which the jungle has sprung, and at others, am communing with Gods, then yes, there is a more appealing story.
I can not deny that I was drawn to the story of Ayahuasca. It is the story of a found key; a mystical plant whose power unlocks the door to a hidden world. A world so remote and unfathomable that any comparison to those that were discovered by the likes of Cook and Columbus and Magellan seems inequitable and out of place. I know. I have been there. Questions pertaining to it’s origin intrigue me as much now as they did then. Who found this key and how did they discern it’s mechanism, for it is only in combining one plant with another and forging their union in fire – the way a smithy forges steel – that the key is cast and the door flung open?
How long did it take for the people of the Amazon to make this discovery and how far advanced was man when it was made? What mad professor, his face lined and caked with the soot of a thousand fires, brewed batch after batch until this pick was made? What did he think when, one night, perhaps with his village asleep, he put that rough cup to his lips and drank and felt the door to his reality give way, then watched slack-jawed as the universe revealed itself to him, as it did to me.
“Understanding why I drank Ayahuasca is almost as difficult as determining what I took from the experience”
These are questions that have no answers, at least none that I am likely to understand. If answers once existed they have gone the way of the Great Auk and the Dodo; lost in time and to the silk-worm thread of faulty memory. The shamans claim there was no trial and error. That Ayahuasca revealed itself to them in dreams. The writer in me is ok with that. In fact I can’t imagine it any other way. To be given a true accounting of the story of it’s origin would be to be reminded of that hollow emptiness I felt as a child when I discovered Boba Fett on the top shelf of my mothers wardrobe, when only a day prior I had written to Santa asking that this most adept of bounty hunters be delivered to me on Christmas eve.
Though the story of Ayahuasca drew me in, it does not account for why I went to the jungle to drink it. I am as gifted at using the internet as any other (I believe that I have already established my search engine bona fides), and while it might have lacked a certain authenticity, I could just as easily have knocked up a little blog post on the subject from the comfort of my home office. What caused me to have such a visceral response to the notion of Ayahuasca? Why did I feel the need to book a flight, quit my job, and give myself utterly to the experience?
Perhaps it was the prospect of adventure. After all, this was the Amazon, the place that people wrote books about and named companies after, with it’s great meandering smudge mark of a river and it’s dark rain forests so full and thick with life. This might be my own ‘Heart of Darkness’; the journey to the end of the river that I had longed for.
I have always had a hankering for adventure. Where it comes from I don’t know. Perhaps it was my lonely childhood and the skill I developed as a result for manufacturing it in my mind. In any case, things seemed to have crossed from fantasy to reality in my recent adult life, first with a trip to Nepal, trekking along what in retrospect was a fairly tame route to the point at which the southern corner of Mount Everest touches the Kumbu Glacier, then another, this one far harder, a 6500 metre lung-busting climb to the top of a Himalayan peak called Mera, the final ascent made at night, the way lit by a thousand million stars.
Was this me answering another call from the wild? An adventurer conjuring up his next dinner party story out of the kernel of an idea that had blown like a tin can into the town square of his mind? I can’t deny that the thought of another escapade thrilled me. The jungle, a modicum of risk, a mystic brew from an ancient plant – this had all the ingredients to satisfy the most migratory of souls, much less mine. Then there was the name of the facility itself – the one that had been recommended to me. The Temple of the Way of Light. If there is a more thrilling name for jungle lodgings then I can not conceive of it. Upon learning of this place, and being a child of the 80’s, my mind was over-run with images of dusty Fedora’s, backs blackened with the clinging limbs of striped Tarantulas, and natives with bowl haircuts and flapping loin cloths chasing a doctor of archeology to the edge of a brown river, him shouting ‘Jock, start the engine!’ all the way.
The Temple of the Way of Light advertises itself as an Ayahuasca healing centre, the benign tone of which seemed a far cry from ‘PLEASE HELP – stuck in hallucinations!’ Perhaps this is what I sought; healing. I was just as broken as the next person. Maybe more so. Maybe Ayahuasca could…well…fix me. An only child, abandoned by a wandering minstrel jazz singing father, cursed with the ginger gene, I mean – where does one start? My adult life had been one long series of aftershocks after consecutive childhood earthquakes. I had roamed around ever since, as a plasterer might through an abandoned house, troweling stucco into the hair-line cracks that ran like power lines along the walls of my life, mounting pictures over the holes that no amount of plaster could fill. I could do with some healing. I could do with a great deal of it.
Beyond healing, the Temple claimed to help visitors ‘re-discover their true nature’ and ‘re-awaken to their true purpose’. Now this was more like it. Sure, fix me if you can, but for the love of God – tell me what the hell we’re all doing here! One of life’s burdens, for me in any case, has been a fascination with those big philosophical questions. You know the ones – Why are we here? What is my purpose? What is it all about? For most people they belong to that quixotic sub-category of conversation known as the ‘deep and meaningful.’ They are of a weight and baring that ensures they get asked rarely, if at all, and are submitted most frequently around camp fires, when the night is still and the sparks from dancing flames get flung into the chaos of the milky way, or by drunken mates among the quiet ruins of a party, or by sombre relatives at the wake of a man whose body was discovered next to a still running lawn mower. They are awkward and big, like a child suddenly grown.
The desire to answer these questions, or at least pick them up and weigh them in my hand, the way one picks up a bocci ball – not to throw it – but to feel it’s burden, has been a constant in my life for as far back as I can remember. However abstract the question and unlikely the answer, it is a load I have been unable to shed, hanging like the dead weight of a wrecking ball around my neck; a huge diamond encrusted dollar sign on the end of a gangsters gold chain. I can not stop looking for answers. I have a gambler’s impulse. A hair-trigger finger. The urge to search belongs as much to me as I do to it. We have become co-dependant; grown old and mostly out of love, yet rusted so hard to each other that to prise us apart is to invite tragedy.
I have moved from one object to another, the way a stray dog zig-zags down an unknown street; pausing just long enough to sniff out a things meaning before the memory of the places left to visit compels it to move forward. At some point the streets become familiar, the objects all the same, and one realises, like the dog, that all the scents of a place have become known. All that remains is the darkness, and it’s haunting possibility. What answers lie within reach, just there on the other side? What might be revealed if I were to simply extend my arm? Bravery, conceit, or stupidity are the only ways to gets there; three cabs at a rank waiting to take passengers to the other side. Was this the impulse that drew me to Ayahuasca? The chance to keep searching, this time in my life’s shadowed umbra.
The story. Adventure. The healing. Some Answers. Is it possible to apportion blame? Did one theme push me more towards Ayahuasca than another, or was it their combination – the measured parts of a witches brew – that compelled me to partake of the ‘medicine’ ? Now that I am back, and it is done, I suspect it was none of these things.
Each of us has our own truth. Mine is that I was called. As roundly as a mother bids an errant child back home. Ayahuasca spoke to me from 8000 miles away. Whispered my name into the breeze the day I was born; giving it up to the wind and rejoicing in the certainty that it would find me. Across oceans. Across continents. Across lifetimes.
Nothing is an accident. Everything is planned. The decisions we make, each one seemingly unique, build upon the ones that have come before, like stacked boxes in a bonded warehouse. Soon the stack is so high that if one were to sit atop the tallest crate and wonder how he got there, a look into the void below would not discern a point of origin. We are a million forgotten decisions. A million thick thumbprints pressed hard on the same spot, each one slightly altered by the former.
I drank Ayahuasca because there is no choice. Not for me. Not for anyone. Though it feels otherwise, each of us is following a thin red line stretched out on some great cartesian map. Dotted along it are the events of our lives; the co-ordinates of our start and finish as firmly plotted as the episodes in between. Drinking Ayahuasca was one such episode. As likely to happen, and as deliciously irreversible, as my drinking coffee this morning.