In early April I heard of a group doing ayahuasca on the Big Island of Hawai’i. I began to make inquiries, which led me to a young man who had been with the group for several experiences, or “works,” as they are called by the Santo Daime church of Brazil. We met at my house one evening, during which he talked non-stop for over three hours about the sacrament and its psychic and physical healing properties. I sat fascinated as I listened, and concluded that I must find a way to have this experience, to see for myself if the accounts I had read and heard were true. Could this really be a curative experience, or was it just another psychedelic trip?
A few weeks later I learned that there would be a “works” on the Big Island, and that I could join the group. I readily accepted, even though I was still in a weakened condition from the surgery. This was to be my introduction to ayahuasca.
The group met in the late afternoon on an isolated knoll where a devotee of the Santo Daime had built a house, consisting of a large hexagonal room with three or four bedrooms off on the side. (I learned later that the hexagon is an important symbol within the Santo Daime.) About sixty people from all over Hawai’i had gathered for the event, most of whom had done it before. We were all dressed in white (as required), and when the time came to begin we took our seats in chairs that had been arranged in two semi-circles facing each other, men on one side and women on the other. I then began to realize, much to my disappointment, that I was in a very structured, group experience, not at all what I had anticipated from my limited reading on the way ayahuasca is traditionally used in the Amazon. Nevertheless, I entered the experience with hope, as well as apprehension. The residual pain from the surgery was a constant reminder of why I was there.
I will not describe the Santo Daime rituals that I observed during the two successive nights of the “works.” They have been described elsewhere. Rather, I will focus on my own experience, for which, as it turns out, I was unprepared. My only frame of reference was limited experiences with LSD, mushrooms and mescaline during the Sixties, none of which were associated with healing. I wanted to discover what it was about ayahuasca that led to the claims of its ability to heal and to teach.
After some preliminary church rituals, we lined up to take our first cup of the brew just after sundown. A second dose was given about two and a half hours later. Within twenty minutes I began to feel what seemed like a faintly familiar rippling effect coursing throughout my body. As I looked around the room, I noticed that others were doing the same, while shifting in their chairs and trying to sing the church versions of icaros in Portuguese. At this point, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.
Then, all of a sudden, the plant grabbed hold of me, and led me through a long trip into another reality, one that I was totally unprepared for. When I attempt to describe the ayahuasca experience to others who know something of psychedelics, I tell them that things like LSD and mushrooms distort and give new shapes to the reality that you are familiar with; ayahuasca takes you to another reality that you’ve never seen nor imagined before.
As I closed my eyes, images – if they can be called such – began racing at an ever-increasing speed before me. Swirls of colors, shapes, forms, textures and sounds simply overpowered me to the point where I became immobile. Like many others before me, no doubt, I became somewhat frightened. What had I let myself in for? When I opened my eyes, the phantasmagoria of forms vanished, and I saw myself in the same room with the others, all dressed in white, most of whom were moving their lips to the songs being sung by the Brazilians from the Santo Daime. I closed my eyes again, and immediately the images returned with surging intensity. They seemed to be trying to enter the deepest recesses of my body and soul. I found myself thinking, hey, this isn’t much fun.
During this period of initial disorientation, I was able to regain my focus on what brought me here in the first place. I was a condemned man. The oncologists and their bible told me that my chances of survival were slim. I had come to ayahuasca for a second opinion.That is when I began to let go, and let the plant do its thing. That is when I began to get my first glimpse into the incredible, stunning world of ayahuasca. There was no going back now. There was nothing to do now but let it happen.
As others have reported, I saw plants, serpents, birds and jaguar-like animals soaring, swirling, twisting and racing at almost lightning speed throughout my entire system, as though they were exploring a new habitat. At first, they didn’t pay any attention to me, even though I tried to stop them long enough to have a closer look. Before long, however, one of them would race up to me, pause momentarily, then rush off as though it had urgent business somewhere else. Then another would come up in my face, and do the same thing. There was no time for any communication between myself and the things that I was seeing. It was as though they wanted to take a complete inventory of who I was and what was going on inside me before they were ready to talk.
After a while (one loses track of time with ayahuasca) the figures began to slow down and fade somewhat in intensity. I was coming down, much against my will. My questions – whatever they were – had not yet been answered. At that moment, the Daime leader gave the signal to line up for the second dose of the brew. I took my place in the line. Needless to say, among the group of sixty people there had already been a lot of purging through vomiting; I was not yet among them.
As the second wave came over me, I felt much more relaxed and ready to talk to the animals if only they would talk to me. As though on cue, the racing figures began to stop by, look at me and smile before darting off into their world again. Then, all of a sudden, I saw a deep, black void. Nothing but darkness, which stayed in place for what seemed like minutes. All of the flashes, colors and forms disappeared while the blackness hovered over me. I sensed that it was death making its statement. It seemed to be saying, “Yes, I’m here too, part of the system; but I’m not so bad, so don’t be afraid.” In a short while, the darkness began to fade slowly as the kaleidoscopic frenzy returned until the brew and I both were exhausted, and I returned to my friend’s house for a long but fitful sleep.
The group of sixty gathered again the following evening for a second “works,” which I entered with much less trepidation, hoping for another bit of insight from the plant. That proved to be a false hope, probably because the plant had nothing more to tell me. Nevertheless, during the second trip I again felt the presence of the plant racing throughout my body, peeking and poking into every nook and cranny in search of something to work on, to straighten out, to put back in order, to polish. There was a definite presence, with similar shapes, colors and sounds. But, unlike the first time, there was no message that I could discern. The plant was just busy doing its work.
Several months passed before my next experience with ayahuasca. In the interim, I had continued with my vegetarian diet and Chinese herbs. I was gradually regaining weight and strength, while the scars and soreness of the surgery were slowly healing. I wanted to visit with the plant again to see if it had anything new to tell me, and to determine whether my first experience was delusional.