HEALTH WARNING: THIS IS A BIT LONGER THAN MY USUAL POSTS
ALSO: LOTS OF WORDS AND NOT MANY PHOTOS FOR LEGAL REASONS 🙂
Ayahuasca is a psychoactive drink brewed from a combination of 12 sacred master plants growing in the Amazonian jungle. For centuries, the brew has been used as a traditional spiritual medicine by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; the tourist trade for ayahuasca has only boomed in the last few decades.
Ayahuasca is a medicine rather than a drug, but as the drink contains concentrated amounts of the hallucinogen DMT it is illegal in most countries except Peru, where the government states that the “wisdom” plant “constitutes the gateway to the spiritual world and its secrets,” recognising ayahuasca’s status as “one of the basic pillars of the identity of the Amazon peoples.”
I travelled to Perpignan on the Southern tip of France for my ayahuasca retreat with 5 other curious travellers, only one of whom had previous experience of the medicine. Three ceremonies were planned over five days by our shaman Ru and his girlfriend Hannah, an energy healer. I had met them both a few months earlier at the Secret Garden Party festival and we bonded instantly. This is me hitting on Hannah (it’s ok, Ru took the photo).
Half hippie half North London boy from the flats, a musician and ex-boxing trainer, Ru did his shaman apprenticeship over 6 months in the Amazon jungle. He is an incredibly spiritual but also totally normal and funny guy who I knew would be the perfect guide for my first ayahuasca journey.
In preparation for a ceremony the body needs to be cleansed. The term ‘Stoptober’ has been coined for giving up cigarettes in October but we stopped almost everything: with alcohol, meat, dairy, sugar, salt and processed foods off limits it was also Droptober due to the weight loss. We were even banned from sex, both with others and with ourselves (Floptober).
The reason for this cleanse is not only to show respect for the ‘divine goddess’ and the plants she represents but also to prepare the body for the ‘purge’ (vomiting) which occurs between 20 minutes and a few hours after drinking the thick, brown medicine.
Each person comes to an ayahuasca ceremony with their own objective which is stated, in the mind, before their first drink. I had no particular yearning for a deeper understanding of anything, feeling I had already been on a spiritual journey in recent months, but Ru said something in the preparatory phase that helped bring me clarity:
“Plants don’t have spirits but all spirits have plants:”
After my walk in the Fontainebleau forest and a beautiful experience earlier in the day watching a hummingbird hawk-moth drain nectar from the flowers in the garden I felt a strong desire to connect with nature and asked ayahuasca to help me.
As night fell and the ceremony began one of the group was overwhelmed by emotion and started sobbing. We each took turns to drink our first cup with the shaman and return to our places. I felt reassured that my place was next to Andy, my best friend for the last 25 years, who would be with me on the journey.
I closed my eyes and waited. Nothing. After 15 minutes another group member started purging aggressively into his bucket. Nothing. Before long I realised Andy was on a magical mystery tour, giggling, mumbling and singing to himself as I sat there in complete darkness feeling nothing. Another hour passed and I took a second cup, still nothing. A few puffs of purple smoke were the only vision I had as I sat there, disappointed and frustrated that it hadn’t worked on me.
Two hours in there was a cacophony: multiple people vomiting loudly into their buckets, Andy having a whale of a time next to me bouncing around in the clouds and me sat there thinking “well this is shit.”
I felt like Oliver Twist as I knelt in front of the shaman and asked him for my third cup. Feeling a bit queasy by that stage I took my bucket with me, knowing that one more swig of the smoky, bitter liquid could send me over the edge, and it did. I puked violently into my bucket 5 or 6 times, still only thinking about what a shitty time I was having, and then sat back in my spot, swilled my mouth with water and blew my nose.
It is common for the visions to start after a purge, and as Ru broke out into one of his many beautiful and magical shamanic songs it started POW. With my eyes closed I was suddenly in a greenhouse with light streaming in from all angles. Space and noise were distorted as Ru sang, with tweeting birds and chirping crickets, frogs and insects providing the backing music. Next I saw kaleidoscopes of neon animal faces before my sick bucket became a menagerie with gorillas and monkeys and birds and plants growing everywhere. I suddenly realised how excited I was to write about this when a hippopotamus looked up at me lazily and said “stop thinking about your blog and focus on the animals.”
As I watched a pink flamingo preening himself I briefly panicked and thought “surely this isn’t my spirit animal?” but the flamingo flew away and was replaced by every animal I had ever seen. I went deep into the rainforest where every noise echoed through the jungle. I joined in and made a few noises of my own: drips and drops of water and then out of nowhere a “KAW” thinking I was a bird, which drew giggles from the other participants.
I found myself in the taxidermy shop on Essex Road in London where I bonded with the big stuffed giraffe that has been in there for years. I felt his pride and frustration as I connected with him.
As my body went into convulsions I felt the spirit of ayahuasca was inside me, giving me energy. When Ru came over to check I was ok he spoke to me as a lion. I giggled as he turned into a hummingbird hawk-moth, then a baboon, and as he played the xylophone beautifully in my visions he was a fly, beating down left-right-left-right on the instrument with his big, bulbous eyes.
Then I was a frog being rescued from the pool in our Hamptons house, before finding myself in a garden populated by all the family dogs from over the years who are no longer with us: Billy, Louis, Rufus, Amber and Baxter; all smiling, wagging their tails and turning over to be tickled before going into their own doggy dreams.
Very briefly I was Indiana Jones, Andy was the BFG, Jackie (not even present) was a mermaid and Hasina was a tree, but mostly it was just me and the animals. Whenever we got carried away Ru said “tranquilo” to calm us down. While there is no dialogue allowed with anyone other than the shaman, Andy, Hannah and I were clearly bouncing off each other’s trips as the laughter at times became uncontrollable. Each of us was given a special time with the shaman called ‘Limpieza’ where we were cleansed and asked what we needed help with. In the height of my high I didn’t really know what I wanted but asked for help in finding my spirit animal. Ru said “maybe you won’t choose one, but all of the animals” as he presented me with a turquoise pendant necklace.
I had been waiting for him all night and then he came – the white tiger – but instead of Pieter the cuddly toy I saw a white version of Tony the Tiger (the Frosties mascot) which started a wonderful period of white tiger faces peeking out at me from behind leaves and branches, smiling and laughing with me. In my head I was saying “come and find me, come and get me” but it was at that point that I realised I didn’t love one animal, I loved all the animals, even the ugly ones as I smiled at a rat. During this epiphany Ru came over, hugged me and, as he does for all participants, gave me my new nickname: Tarzan. It was too perfect and I burst into joyous fits of laughter.
Ru called the ceremony to a close but the journey continued as we were still full of ayahuasca. Gurglings, rumblings and painful wind in the stomach were uncomfortable and I needed food. I ate an apple followed by an unpeeled kiwi. We were finally allowed to talk to each other and it was hilarious. Mine was the most lighthearted and fluffy journey but all of us had incredible experiences with very different outcomes.
Andy took a trip on the love train. Starting with the members of his own family his vision took him around the room and outside the house where he fired love thunderbolts from his wrists like Spider-Man.
Hasina spoke to the goddess in their own new language and was told to draw a series of symbols which she has since been trying to decipher.
Farid purged the pain and suffering of all humanity, feeling an overwhelming urge to save the planet.
It took Justin the whole ceremony, and 5 cups of ayahuasca, to let her in; only after everyone else had left the room did he finally cast his inhibitions aside, purge and see visions of his own, immediately taking on the persona of a cat before being called upstairs by the real life house cat Fauve who was sat, purring, on his bed.
What do these different journeys say about us as people? Only Ayahuasca knows, but it is clear from our first ceremony that ultimately she gives each person what they want and need, not necessarily in that order.
After hearing various horror stories my first experience of the medicine was magical, beautiful and beyond my wildest imagination. How the next two journeys unfold, and whether I touch on anything deeper and darker in my inner psyche, is yet to be seen.
Next stop: Ayahuasca Part II
What is The Gump Method
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