My first ayahuasca experiences

This is an account I wrote some years ago, long before the present project. I include it for interest and also because it is the only bit of 'finished' writing on this subject.

Some years ago, a friend working with the rain forest people in South America returned with incredible stories of being given a magical potion deep in the Amazonian jungle. It was made from the bark of a vine combined with another plant, yet the plants had no effect when taken separately. It was used by some tribes as a rite of passage for young men to learn about the jungle, because each living thing could be seen with absolute clarity. Later, I read in PIHKAL that the anthropologist and psychiatrist, Claudio Naranjo, had explored the drug with many people, and each one had seen jaguars and other jungle beasts. He speculated that the plants that made up the potion absorbed the spirits of the jungle fauna, and that these were released in the minds of those who drank it. Incredible! I resisted the temptation to take the first plane out to Rio and, over the years, forgot all about it.

The Shaman

Then I met someone who told me that the very same magic was now available in the comfort of your own home. I said I was interested. Soon I was visited by René and his girlfriend Lulu. René had, he said, spent 12 years in the Amazonian jungle with the Indians, which was especially impressive since he looked about 30. Lulu had been a model and was still glamorous; the pair gave workshops in Tantric Yoga. René looked a bit of a guru with long wispy hair and beard, and explained that he was now ready to "take me on the journey" after his long apprenticeship with shamans. It was as though Don Juan himself had walked through my door and offered me the ultimate experience. For $400. A bit steep, I thought. But they pointed out that it was only $150 each plus $100 for the materials and they would have to spend a day in preparation beforehand besides both attending me throughout the 10-hour 'journey'. They were not in it for the money but to spread the knowledge, and I was chosen as one of the few worthy to embark on this great journey; others had been turned away. Although my cynical mind drew parallels with encyclopaedia salesmen, I felt that it may be unwise to say anything which could sour my relationship with someone to whom I was about to give complete power over myself, so I agreed. After all, this was to be the experience of a lifetime. It was set to happen in a week's time, and meanwhile I was to prepare myself with a cleansing diet.

As the day approached, I anticipated a real adventure. It was after all not just a trip but a journey, or was that a good bit of marketing to justify the price? I was convinced that René knew the drug well and was experienced in administering it, even though I was frankly not sold on him as a shaman. After all, I enjoyed the Don Juan books even though I believed he was Castaneda's fabrication, and being at home, I would feel secure. The diet, however, smacked of rich Californians rather than the jungle ("Fresh spring water bottled in glass") so I ignored it and ate salads instead.

Taking the piss

Finally, the great day came. They were due at 7pm, but at 5 René phoned from the motorway to say they were running late and could I please come to their place instead since they had everything ready there. Not wanting to cross my guide, I reluctantly agreed.

When I arrived, Lulu announced that she was tired so would I please excuse her going off to bed, and I went along with that too even though René accepted full payment: this was not the time for conflict. René took me to a small room lit by a single candle, heavy with incense and new age music (not my favourite at that time). He told me to prepare by looking at a book on Ayahuasca while he made the final preparations in the kitchen. At random I read: ". . . the vine can give you the power of a magical king; yet it will kill those who dare to take it without the proper dietary preparations." Not what I wanted to hear!

René came back with a full litre plastic bottle and told me the ritual was to drink it all down, then piss into a plastic jug and drink my urine. He said I'd "feel the energy rise" in about 20 minutes; meanwhile he prepared me with tales of his first experience when the shaman told him Ayahuasca would either kill him or cure him. He then went on about the revolution coming and the days of the rich being numbered. As one of the few people in the world rich enough to blow $400 on a night's entertainment, I was not in a receptive mood. Finally I could take no more and dared to tell him to shut up.

I lay on my back with a blindfold while René gave me a nice massage, first my shoulders and then my feet. But even after an hour I saw no visions; instead my head was buzzing with internal dialogue about being taken for a ride rather than on a journey, and the 'ritual' of taking the piss was to save René the expense of providing the full dose. But here I was, I must simply make the best of it, so I lay back and tried to let go of my annoyance and yield to the drug.

Then it started. I gradually realised that the music was not only beautiful but looked beautiful too, in fact it was exquisite. Each plucked string was a glinting drop of gold landing in a lake of gleaming liquid silver, and yet the gold and silver was also solid in the form of great slabs which showed the strength of the music, while shimmering with knowledge of the melody. The music changed to orchestral, and I experienced this as geometric patterns of incredible complexity made up of triangles and hexagons of intense prismatic colours which changed constantly while undulating in a symmetrical way. It was as though superimposed on vast flags waving in slow motion, yet an underlying rhythm was provided by the flowing movement being punctuated by a series of 'fixed frame' steps.

Jaguars?

The next change of music broke the spell, so I asked for silence. There was plenty going on and I felt like exploring. I realised that, without music, the imagery was slightly plastic, although it appeared strong, in that I could 'push' it in a particular direction. The pretty patterns were on the surface, but I could allow other aspects to rise up and be seen . . . jaguars? No, but menacing forms were in there alright. Yet the scene lacked conviction: it was like watching a movie of a psychedelic experience. It was without emotional content and was somewhat unsatisfying. After a while, I decided to tell René what was going on and ask for his reassurance before delving deeper and facing any demons that might be lurking. But when I called him there was no response. I took off my blindfold and sat up; he wasn't there. A door was open into another room, so I called again but no reply. He'd gone to sleep with Lulu!

Sitting up with wide open eyes, all images were gone. I just felt badly treated, tired and wanted to be out of that claustrophobic room and safely home. But I was trapped in this ridiculous situation and waited, miserably, until Lulu passed through on her way to the lavatory, when I got her to wake René. I told him that, although the imagery had been pretty, the experience was superficial and that I had an uncomfortable feeling, a knot in my belly. His response was to relate my problem to a childhood or pre-birth trauma which he tried to get me to re-live. I told him that that wasn't appropriate, the feeling was not normally there and anyway the situation was wrong for deep psychotherapy as I didn't know or trust him well enough. I simply wanted to get out of this uncomfortable feeling and make the best of the trip. René's answer was Ketamine. He said it would lift me out into a new space. Well, this was tempting as Ketamine was something I'd intended to try one day. Yet doing it now, feeling bad like this . . . surely no. I played safe by snorting half of what he offered which had virtually no effect; just as well, as afterwards I learned that snorting Ketamine produced unpredictable effects at the best of times and in that situation was a recipe for almost certain disaster. An hour or so later the effect was wearing off, so I got a taxi home.

Second attempt I wrote a letter of complaint and René rang as soon as he got it. He apologised and agreed I had had a poor deal, and offered to give me another session. I wasn't too sure about that in case it was a repeat performance so instead agreed he would just provide the material, enough for myself and Ulla, a co-explorer who was dying to try ayahuasca but couldn't afford René's price.

René gave me a smaller amount than I had consumed on my own, adding that it "had plenty of the vine but was a bit short on tryptamines", and suggested we add 4 grams of dried magic mushrooms, which we did. It looked and tasted awful (the bits of rotting vegetation in it had clearly fermented making the plastic bottle bulge) but we mixed in the mushrooms and forced it down. Ulla soon vomited and felt better but I managed to keep it down by lying very still. It hit Ulla first. She was overwhelmed, looking round and exploring the surroundings in their new charm, and reporting back to me. For me it came on later and gradually, and in a different, internal, way. I felt giddy and nauseous when I moved, so I lay rock still with eyes closed. I could float into the music as before, but more freely. I didn't feel like speaking, and found Ulla's observations and analysis interrupted my appreciation of the most incredibly opulent performance. Sometimes it was of geometric patterns, at others I was flowing through undulating shell-like shapes that gleamed like mother of pearl. At other times the forms were animate, but there was no hint of threat anywhere.

Exquisite

Although I knew I could manifest any vision I desired, I was so completely content that I had no need to. This time I was not just an observer, I flowed too as part of the scene, I did not need to describe it to myself. Then I had an insight: it is the mental activity of observation and description that separates us from direct experience, and, without internal dialogue experience is far more poignant. The record was on repeat, but it was just as fresh each time and even improved with the listening, even though it was the kind of New Age music I previously despised. The imagery was poignant and exquisite, and curled up on the floor with Ulla I felt able to open up my heart and enjoy it to the full; though we were having separate experiences we shared each other's joy, sometimes cuddling and once or twice arousing each other erotically. I observed that there was none of the normal empathy; I was conscious that the pleasure of my touch was entirely within myself regardless of any response from Ulla. This lead to an insight: I saw how I had become so used to identifying with my sexual partner's pleasure and relying on her response that I had lost sexual spontaneity, and that in fact being sexually selfish meant being more erotic. I kept quiet except for occasional exclamations of bliss, and I remember saying that it was one of the happiest days of my life; Ulla said my face showed it.

Affirmation

When I got up to piss I felt awful, like being very drunk. I felt nauseous and just wanted to lie down, close my eyes and sink into that other world. Yet Ulla spent her time moving about with eyes open enjoying the world in a new light. Later on I found I could move my hands "within" the music and touch Ulla so delicately that it felt as though only one molecule connected us. She was not my lover yet I felt great affection for her: we fitted together with complete harmony, yet there was no expectation or longing for anything more.

I could see that my life was at a peak, I was happy and fulfilled and surrounded by more loving friends than ever before. I even saw my business (a walk-in DTP studio) with great affection, with all those people working on their separate but noble projects. I was making an assessment of my life, and I received affirmation. After five or six hours the effect waned and I saw the funny side of everything. We both laughed freely and discussed our experiences. I thought it was quite different to the Acid experiences of the past, but Ulla thought the different experience may simply be due to us now being mature.

Though we agreed that Ecstasy is our favourite drug, this was, as Ulla put it, a celebration. Next day my tiredness reflected lost sleep, but no worse, and I felt strengthened in the knowledge that I was on the right road.

©Nicholas Saunders 1993



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