Ayahuasca diaries part 3: Ayahuasca’s dark side

20th July 2017

First, catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 of the Ayahuasca diaries

On the final night, the shaman sang: In order to approach god, we must first learn to become human. That night, I was to learn the very nature of humanity revealed to me by ayahuasca’s dark side.

By now, I knew the drill. Close your eyes and surrender. Don’t beg. Don’t expect. Just give thanks, and let go. This time it came easily. But it came strong, too. If I mistakenly thought I’d become comfortable in Abuelita’s presence, I had a lot to learn.

First, let me set the scene.


The Ayahuasca vine growing in the Amazon rainforest

Recharging before our final meeting with ayahuasca

Before this final session, a few of our group had taken the short journey to nearby hot springs at the shore of the lake. It was a beautiful trip. On a rocky beach we sank into steaming pools and gazed at the snow encrusted summit of a volcano across the mirrored lake. Once the water became unbearable we hopped over the stone barrier into the brisk waters to cool down. It was the perfect place to reflect, recuperate and prepare for the final ceremony.

Taking ayahuasca is a process that affects body, mind and soul. But it’s completely different to most mind-altering substances. For example, there’s no ‘come-down’. Once its effects wear off, you may feel exhausted, but you’re not in any way suffering. At the same time, ayahuasca doesn’t completely leave you, either. For this reason, most people take part in multiple ceremonies. The effect is cumulative. “And it stays with you,” my friend advised me, “for weeks afterwards.”

As we unwound amid nature’s tapestry, I was aware of the changes within myself. The ceremonies so far had left me feeling different. Sensitive, but not raw. Unpeeled, perhaps. A bride emerging from the slipped veil. A butterfly from the chrysalis. That evening, the frogs’ seranade thickened the warm air. Each aspect of the landscape harmonised. A voluptuous moon slid out from behind the mountains and shimmied across the night sky, lighting the lake. In the morning, I woke early and a poem slid onto the page. It was if a blockage had been cleared. I was flowing.

Ayahuasca’s dark side

After the debriefing of the previous sessions, I was grateful for my experience. I was also aware that not everyone had enjoyed such a blissful trip. One girl in particular had emerged physically shaken from the first ceremony. The purge had been awful, combined with awful hallucinations. “I just wanted it to end. I kept asking myself why did I do this?” Another participant was stark in her assessment. “I died and went to hell,” she told us.

Maybe I had a presentiment that on those first trips I hadn’t really plumbed the depths. Of course, a trip to the darkest recesses of my mind wasn’t really on my agenda. Still, I was beginning to suspect that the greatest healing power of this plant might require me to give a little more in return for some deeper truths.

With this in mind, I set my intention. Abuelita, show me what holds me back. What keeps me from achieving everything I desire?

I silently repeated the mantra to unify my awareness. Soon, I began to feel those first stirrings. My heart was once again a great bellows, sending out vibrations into an infinite universe.

The purge

This time, the purge was stronger than before. During the whole experience, the medicine never made me sick. Rather, it induced an urgent need to expurgate my bowels. People fear the ayahuasca purge more than anything. I know I did. I’d always imagined that scene from Alex Garland’s novel The Beach where the community go down with dysentry. There are scenes of utter chaos as bodily fluids begin to flow freely. All dignity evaporates.

In fact, Ayahuasca isn’t like that. Would it seem strange if I told you that some of the most profound moments of my trip were spent crouching over the forest latrine, purging my guts? At that moment, my entire body was caught between two plains: one corporeal, of the baser elements of our existence, the other spiritual. Once the purge is complete, you are free to move into that other realm. But as the purge takes place, the spirit feels the body’s gravitational pull. Feeling that very pull itself, the separation of elements within the whole, is itself a ratification of a profound truth about our reality.

I wasn’t alone in transcendental toilet experiences that night. My friend recounted the next day that she’d been compelled to stick her head inside the toilet. Rather than encountering a dark excrement filled void, she was projected into an astral realm of twinkling stars and slowly revolving planets.

Abuelita comes on strong

But I digress. Settling back into the circle, I made myself as comfortable as I could within the tangle of sleeping bag, pillows and blankets that were my earthly bower. It was time to let ayahuasca do her work.

Love is a cleansing fire. Come, abuela, and shake out my heart. Turn it inside out, tip out the contents. Shine your divine light into its darkest recesses and make me whole once more.

Previously, I’d been overwhelmed with a palpable ecstasy. But this is only one kind of love. That night, Abuela showed me a different kind. A scarifying love that leaves its mark. Love that never loosens its grip, though its fingers turn to ice. Love like a faithful dog attending its master’s grave. A love that, losing its expression, turns inwards. A love that clenches hold so tight it atrophies with the intensity of its own hold.

It welled within me, this emotion, as deep as all the oceans of the world. I felt like a dam shut up, while tonnes of water pressed against me. Or like some great bird of prey on a high point, with wings drawn in close, but terrified of flight. I longed to open up, but I felt myself drawn in so tight that each time I tried to move even a little, a great rush of fear spread through every nerve, so that I increased my grip once again.

Let battle commence

Physically, I was bunched up, rocking to ease the suffering. But I wasn’t in pain. Not bodily. The rush and surge I was subject to was only an extreme form of the emotional and spiritual life. It’s something we’re all familiar with: the knot in the stomach, the butterflies, light heads and knock knees. Only this was ayahuasca prising open my oyster heart, cleaning it of the dirt and debris that petrifies the tender flesh.

Each time abuelita came at me with her firm but gentle grip, the fear leapt up again like some fierce mastiff blocking her entrance. With such an instinct, we protect ourselves from hurt. But with each surge, attack and inevitable further closure, came a greater sense of fear.  I had become trapped in a vicious cycle, where I myself was victim, defender and perpetrator.

What was this fear? Put simply, fear of death. Not some distant grim reaper, but a palpable sense of my own mortality. A great sickness was overtaking my body. I suffocated. I felt within my bones its inevitability. I was a hopeless case. Moribund. And still, in the midst of this intensely personal experience, I knew, also that this was not me. This was some other body. It became, at once, mine and theirs. Into the throng, came another sensation. At first, it was like some deep keening wail that then resolved itself into a silence of such intensity. It was the sense of others attached to me – to this person – standing over my death bed, unwilling to let hold their grip.

A chink of light

As long as this went on, the more I began to see what I must do. The thought came to me this way:

I am sick. The body calls for release. And the only release is love. I must heal this sickness through release. Although the body will die, I will be born again in eternity, to senses fully open and a heart full of joy.

By this time the shaman had sensed my unease, although I was far from sensing him until he came to me and began blowing his calming tobacco smoke and singing to me. I remember at this point calling out to the group several times, “I can’t do it.” Familiar voices bolstered me from the dark. “It’s ok, we’re with you.” It was enough.

Like the eagle perched high, but with a gargantuan effort, I forced open my wings. All the time during this opening, I was aware of an intense pressure against me, as if the air had turned to granite. Simultaneously, I moved inexorably towards death. But with each inch that I forced open, the healing light of ayahuasca flooded in, aiding me as I flexed to my full emotional span.

This human heart of ours is so sensitive, we spend years barricading it, erecting a fortress that guards our deepest loves and hates, our joys and fears. But in shielding them, we preserve our deepest hurts. Ayahuasca brings all into the light.

This miraculous light expanded my entire being. It cleansed me wholly, with the brilliancy of scouring metal, and the heat of a desert sun. There was nowhere to hide. After what felt like hours of suffering and indecision, drawing in and out but fearing to let go, that final release started a revolution. All I had needed to do was embrace ayahuasca, and trust.

Let it be

The remainder of the ceremony was as different in tone as it could have been. I began to feel others around me. I stood on the shore of an infinite lake. My voice ventured out across the void of perfect stillness. I was not alone. One by one, I felt the presence of sentinels on other shores. Their voices rang out in the darkness. You are not alone. You will never be alone.

A great sense of shared love and consciousness emerged. Fragments of songs and poetry floated through my mind.

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be…

The words of William Blake, too, visited me.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narow chinks of his cavern.

As familiar to me as they were, they seemed changed, invested with new significance. The gospel of life suddenly seemed clear. It was love. No, more than this. We are nothing more than vibrations, and love is the highest of these.

Ayahuasca footnotes

Just as I had experienced the contraction and expansion of love battling with fear, it seemed to me then that all life was composed of this endless cycle of opposition. Here are some notes I made that night as the tide of ayahuasca ebbed away.

Silence and free will.

Light and darkness.

Love and fear.

Birth and death.

Sickness and healing.

Belonging and separation.

Inhale and exhale.

It is only through one that we know the other. Both are with us.

Our greatest healing love comes when we fully face our fears.

In these divine truths we find the light of the world, and eternal hope.

Each journey is a cycle, from one opposite to another. In crossing through one, we become the other, and vice versa.

Healing comes from sickness.

To be reborn we must first die.

To know love we must embrace fear.

Only in silence can we fully exert our will.

Only through separation do we truly know where we belong.

That night had been unforgettable for us all. We ended in exclamations of wonder, and a shared promise to keep the bond we’d created.

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