By Uma Rangnathan
Who is this, whose presence I feel so deeply around me and within me? Is this what they call God? A personal experience of Ayahuasca, a South American hallucinogenic substance credited with tremendous healing properties
An hour or so after having imbibed the dark red liquid given to me in a glass, I find myself in a space, which I can only call cathedral-like. What a strange, exciting and even scary journey I have embarked on! By ‘cathedral’ I don’t mean the usual kind of vaulted construction made of stones, mortar, or stained glass but more an internal space inspiring the same kind of awe and respect that an immense structure in the external world would. Who is this, whose presence I feel so deeply around me and within me? Is this what they call God? There is total stillness within, in the still space, which I have long known, and yet I so rarely seem to be able to access in my daily life. Faced with the brilliance of this being, which seems to be looking right through me, I am left with a sense of my own puniness, a heavy awkwardness, a sense of overwhelming contradictions in myself.
Not long after I started to bask in the presence of this holy being, I begin to feel myself tightening up, resisting something, struggling with massive blocks inside. I am being asked to give up something, to surrender something. Give up what? Surrender what exactly? I look within.
The answer emerges silently. The voice, which is not really a voice is asking me if I am ready to give up my possessions, to give up all that goes with my sense of personal power (if I can call it that) to surrender myself totally. It feels in fact, as though death is around the corner. Later on, I will see that this death has mainly to do with the death of the ego, the death of illusions; death, the other side of whose face has to do with new beginnings.
At the time though, all I can feel is fear – fear and resistance to seeing what the presence wants to show me. The feeling grows, giving rise to a queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach. Oops! I clap my hand to my mouth. I had been warned about this. Part of the cleansing process they had said. At first I try to keep i t down but when I feel I no longer can, I struggle to my feet from the chair on which I have been sitting hunched up, and ask Paul to escort me to the nearby grove of trees marked out for this part of the ritual. I retch repeatedly, but nothing happens. Finally, I get back to my place with a mixture of disappointment and relief.
Ayahuasca. Sacred ceremonial drink of the tribal people of South America. A substance used since time immemorial to access the secret worlds of human consciousness. A potent catalyst for transforming human awareness. Ever since I had heard about it from friends who had been through the experience and read about it in various journals, I had been wanting to try it out myself. This chance to take part in a ritual in Japaratinga on the eastern coast of Brazil, conducted by a group called Essencia Divina, seemed like a God-given opportunity to see first-hand what it was all about.
So back to the beginning. It is a late Saturday evening in October, close to half past eight when a group of over hundred of us – Brazilians, Europeans, native Indians and I (the only representative from India) gather together in an open space at a guest house popularly known as Willy’s resort. My friends – Ayesha from Turkey, Paul from Switzerland – and I grab three chairs in the second rung of a wide circle formed around a smaller one seated around a table. The inner circle consists of Andrei, the leader of the group, and some of his assistants. A few of them carry guitars. Several women in white quietly go about lighting candles, arranging things on the table. Other men and women hover around the edges of the group ready to render assistance to those who need it. At a certain point Andrei, a stocky genial looking fellow, not exactly how you would expect a shaman to look, summons us to the table where, in a slow moving queue, each of us receives the sacrament in a glass. A dark wine-coloured liquid which we down together, when everybody is seated again. Bitter, awful, stomach churning stuff. I am glad to have managed to get it all down without incident in a couple of gulps. Then comes the wait. At first, there is nothing, only a sense of peace, intermixed with tendrils of curiosity and anticipation. What kind of unknown regions can this bitter tasting brew take me into? Does it really have the potential to heal? It is at this point, as I mull over the question that I find myself gliding into the cathedral-like space earlier described.
Ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic substance based on a mixture of two different plant species (Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis) has been credited with tremendous healing properties. The documented cures seem to include everything from metastasised colorectal cancer to cocaine addiction.
It is considered non- addictive and safe to ingest. In local circles, even youngsters are acquainted with the drink from an early age.
Preparing the bitter brew involves a long and arduous period of training under the guidance of an elder shaman, for it involves not only learning how to harvest the plants, mix the ingredients and to brew them together but also a knowledge of how to work with the various spirits which this drink is supposed to conjure up. The main ingredient DMT (dimethyltryptamine) in conjunction with other plant ingredients is said to account for the visions induced by Ayahuasca.
Returning to that evening, the first bout of nausea is soon followed by a second bout of giddiness and need to throw up, which again ends only in a spot of dry retching. It is during the period following this second bout that I suddenly get a sensation of some kind of toxins embedded deep within my system, embedded so deep in fact that it seems almost impossible to uproot them and fling them out. A voice from within tells me that this is precisely what I have to do in order for healing to take place. I am not really the kind of person who sees ghosts and spirits at the drop of a hat and yet, there is this weird recognition of the presence of various spirits fluttering in and around me, helping me to make sense of my own life and circumstances, guiding me through these difficult moments.
And what might these toxins be, what might they consist of? Even as I ask myself the question I become aware of how they influence me and have been influencing me over the decades from within, nameless feelings and emotions which are not just mine, having arisen not only during the course of my own life experiences, but feelings handed down to me over the generations, woven into my very genes. Fear, bitterness or greed for example, among others. I begin to understand how the trials and tribulations of my ancestors, having been converted down the centuries into a noxious mixture, continue to produce dark feelings and insecurities which hinder me even today, in life, as though spewed out by an invisible underground factory.
Before I know it my mouth is full of a bitter fluid. I grab Paul and he helps me across to the grove where before me, several others have already purged. Bending over a patch of earth, I vomit out the fluid in my mouth. It feels like it is all coming from the depths of my bowels, a never-ending stream of vile black liquid, which looks like old and dirty blood. The sensation of puking is accompanied by a strange sense of awe, respect and fascination reminiscent of the feeling evoked by the grand cathedral of internal space I had earlier found myself in.
Finally, when I am done, a kindly assistant pushes a chair towards me and hands me a bit of Kleenex along with a glass of water. “Drink,” he says. I rinse my mouth, spew out the first few sips and drink the rest.
Returning to my spot, I find I am no longer able to sit. My body cries to be allowed to lie down. Behind the row of chairs where Ayesha, Paul and I have been sitting is a huge mango tree under which someone seems to have serendipitously placed a mat. I kick off my shoes, stretch out on the ground, oblivious to the people around me and in seconds, have lost myself in the stars, in the world of plants and trees in the magical atmosphere of the place.
The retching, the vomiting, the resistance of the entire evening leaves me weak and tired and six hours later, as the ritual comes to an end amidst a fury of music and cries of “Viva la Revolution!” I stagger to my feet and along with my roommates, find my way to our quarters. The whole of the next day I feel exhausted, as if I have been slogging hard at something, but the day that follows, dawns brilliant and fresh. I am filled with vigour, a sense of something new unfolding in my life, a renewed sense of purpose. It is as though having finally let go of something old, the door has opened to something new.
From others I learn of similar experiences. Joerg, a participant who comes from Germany, describes how, at a certain point when he was throwing up, his father’s face flashed through his mind. It was a clear sign to him, he laughs, that he needed to let go of the old man. They had anyway never got along and it was time to stop getting hassled over it and get on with his life. “It was like vomiting him out of my system,” he says, in a voice, which is both amused and awestruck. Others like Peter tell me that they had not felt the need to throw up but were instead, catapulted straight away into the universe on a cosmic tour of the stars.
Sandreana, a young Brazilian woman studying anthropology is well acquainted with the drink. “It has helped me to sort out many problems in the past and to come to terms with difficult situations,” she tells me. Cerise, one of Andrei’s assistants, a slim woman with laughing eyes whom I meet a few days later during a lunch hosted by friends, has only this to say about Ayahuasca. “Ayahuasca! My seester. He eees my brother!” A comment, which helps me to understand the very personal link, which many people develop with ‘the spirit’ represented by this substance. She adds that with regular use, the substance has brought her into such close contact with the world of nature that she has had to give up eating meat and become a vegetarian.
Four months down the line, I can say that this experience has caused a definite shift in my consciousness, in my everyday awareness, which at times is difficult to pinpoint. Suffice it to say that a new quietness has entered my body and mind, and I am able to listen to myself and to the world in a way that had not been earlier possible.
Uma Ranganathan is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Bombay. She is part of Basicindia, a network that offers weekend workshops and evening sessions based on music, meditation and dialogue towards self-awareness.
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