It was September, 2010, and I had recently returned to Los Angeles after a successful trip through the University of Chicago, where I did graduate studies in Psychology. I spent the first couple of weeks reconnecting with friends, and dishing out resumes to land a job.
One day, unexpectedly, my phone rings. It was my friend Vartan. He and I had been practicing Zen meditation for several years. I hadn’t heard from him in about two years and I was excited to hear from him. I answer the phone, and the first thing he says to me is, “Alfredo, let’s go take Ayahuasca in the desert with a shaman that I met.”
I thought to myself, “what a strange invitation to receive,” and quickly said yes. He gave me a few instructions. We were to take it a week from Saturday, which gave me roughly 10 days. Three days before the ceremony, I had to abstain from any meat, and was encouraged to drink plenty of water. I was also told to bring a change of white-colored clothes for the ceremony.
Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic, a South American brew prepared from the B. caapi vine and other DMT containing plants. Scientists are still uncertain how the natives discovered the precise combination of plants to produce the psychedelic brew. It is typically used in healing and religious ceremonies by the natives.
We drove out to the desert in Southern California (I won’t mention the precise location, to preserve anonymity). It was a blistering hot day, our lungs inhaling the dry and warm air, and we stopped at a small sandwich shop to have breakfast (this would be our only meal of the day). We drove out in a group of seven, anxiety coupled with anticipation within us. Not long after, we reached our destination. Many of my imaginings were immediately dispelled, and the stark reality of our adventure was beginning to settle in. There was a large dome-shaped tent, with room for about twenty-five people, where we could leave our belongings.
With my scientific eye, I immediately began to observe and record any and everything I could, including any unrelated impressions. There was a vague impression of being at some form of hippy compound, and many of the people I met seemed decidedly cheery. I attempted to remain objective about the whole thing and made note of everything without too much reaction. I walked with Vartan as we moved into a small apartment (seemingly in the middle of nowhere), where he would introduce me to the Shaman. “Alfredo,” he said, “this is Dr. John.”
Before me stood a lanky, middle-aged man with thick glasses, very bad teeth, of undetermined nationality. He was accompanied by a middle-aged, and colorfully dressed woman, with the kind of make-up you would see on a teenage raver, a pony tail hanging down from either side of her head. My first impression was that if this man was a Shaman, then I was Napoleon. Once again, much of the romanticism associated with this type of experience was immediately smothered by reality. Still, I kept an open mind (I was here, after all, and it was too late to turn back). I spent the day in quiet isolation, taking in impressions and recording as much as I could about the whole experience. The sun beamed down on us with fury, and hunger crept into us with deep claws as we awaited something that remained profoundly unknown to us.
Evening had arrived. We had all changed into our white attire and sat around in a large circle waiting for the ceremony to begin. I had a plain white T-shirt and white sweat pants that I had cut up into shorts. The sun was already setting, and the mood had correspondingly changed. The Shaman soon stood before us and gave us instructions and suggestions for our forthcoming travels through the other world. “This may seem obvious,” he said, “but it’s very important that you remember to breathe.” I would later discover how sage this advice was. He also asked that we meditate for about fifteen minutes on what we wanted from our experience with “The Medicine.” “You must be sincere in what you ask, and careful,” he mentioned, “because She will show you what you ask for.” Shreds of paper were passed around for us to write our intentions and requests from “The Medicine.”
There was an opening ceremony of music and shamanic whistling. In total, there were about forty of us that day. I had heard from someone present that it was a particularly large crowd on this occasion. Ceremonies with Dr. John usually had about a dozen people, not counting his helpers and “guardians.” Guardians were people who themselves had taken Ayahuasca in the past, but who remained sober on this occasion to help guide the rest of us through our travels. They were seasoned spiritual voyagers looking out for the rest of us.
One by one we were called up to take the Medicine. I was one of the last ones to take it. I remember walking up to the Shaman. I sat in front of him, and he asked me, “how do you feel?” “I feel good,” I responded. He then looked me in the eyes, and presumably checked my pulse from my wrist. He then offered me a very small cup of the Medicine.
I took it back with me and sat back down in the circle. I held it in my hands, smiled inside myself, and swallowed the Ayahuasca. I remember it tasting like a combination of prune juice and dirt, with dirt being the stronger flavor. Now began the wait. What would happen? What would I experience? What the hell am I doing here with these crazy people taking some unknown drug? All these thoughts, and more, traveled through my mind.
After about ten minutes, I began to see people visibly affected by the Medicine. Some began rocking back and forth anxiously as they sat cross-legged on the ground. Others began making noises, and as time went on, people were visibly wailing with discomfort. The discomfort did not seem physical, but emotional. Lamentations were heard piercing the night, and people seemed to be undergoing powerful inner turmoil and grinding. I sat there, wondering how soon it would affect me. A half hour passed, and then an hour, and I felt nothing. Nevertheless, I could see everyone else visibly affected by the Medicine. Some were laughing with great joy, seemingly deranged. Others wailed and lamented in suffering. Still others were vomiting constantly (a side effect that was to be expected). The vomiting was considered a form of cleansing, a catharsis.
About an hour and a half passed, and I still felt nothing. I was a bit disappointed, but very interested to see people’s reactions to the Ayahuasca. It was very much like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. During all of this, the shaman was performing all manner of whistling and songs, imitating the sounds of birds, and dancing as though in a trance. It was quite the scene. Soon after this, the Shaman asked that if anyone wanted to come up for seconds, now was the time. I nearly sprang from the ground, hoping that he would give me a bigger dosage this time.
I went up, and once again he asked me how I felt. “I feel normal, I don’t feel anything at all,” I responded. He seemed taken aback by my comment and looked at me with curiosity. He took my pulse with my wrist once more, and said, “I’m going to give you a special dose.” When I heard this I thought he was going to give me half a gallon of this stuff, but instead he gave me even less than the first time. I doubt this will do anything, I thought to myself. I returned to the place I was sitting, drank the second dose, and waited. Not five minutes later…I was in another world.
The effects were very sudden, and came on with extreme subtlety. It’s a lot like how a dream works, where one moment you are in one place doing one thing, and then suddenly you are in a completely different place doing something else entirely. In dreams we don’t notice those transitions as they happen, only after the fact. It was a lot like this. One moment I was sitting down, in one particular state of mind, waiting for some form of effect, and the next I was in another state of mind altogether, except that it was unlike anything I had ever experienced or sensed before. Words do not help, but I can only say it had the sensation of being another world. Call it what you wish.
Visual hallucinations set in, especially as I looked at the stars in the sky. I had no idea how long I had been there, who I was, or what I was doing. In order for me to remember all of that information, I had to make a great effort. I had to try really hard to remember who I was, and why I was there. And when I was finally successful in doing that, that information seemed to belong to someone else. “I am Alfredo, and I….came here…to take Ayahuasca?” That information seemed to belong to someone else who was NOT me, and yet it was me.
This is difficult to explain. During this experience I had the sensation of dancing between two worlds. There was the ordinary world, where I am Alfredo, with such and such a history, such and such memories, such and such friends and family, such and such ways of thinking, feeling, and sensing. But in this state of mind, all of that seemed very inferior, and meaningless. It seemed to belong to someone else. In my present state of mind I could sense another world that was far superior, but required new abilities to grasp and understand. And so, it was confusing. It was like trying to swallow the ocean in one gulp, or trying to download everything on the internet in 5 seconds. It was simply overwhelming.
When you are experiencing visuals, they are so entrancing, so captivating, that you literally forget to breathe. So the shaman’s advice to remember to breathe was very important. I would spend an unknown amount of time completely entranced by the visuals, and then suddenly come to, and realize I had been holding my breath. It was like coming up for water, and I would take huge deep breaths, before immediately being seduced by the visuals again.
I remember looking up at the stars and feeling complete confidence and certainty that it was I who was controlling them. This was later proved when I pointed my finger in the air, and swirled it around. When I did this, the stars followed my finger’s motions. I then said aloud, “When will the sun come up?” The shaman was nearby and said to me, “When do you want it to come up? Now or later?” I sensed what he was saying, that it was I who was fashioning my experience, and that if I so desired, I could make the sun come up now. I smiled, and said, “later.”
All of this was very pleasant and profound. But moments later, approximately forty-five minutes after my second dose, I became extremely alarmed. After floundering with the visuals, I came to again. This time I had a greater sensation of my body, and realized that I was still sitting on the ground. I had to move. I got up, completely terrified, and started walking around. Some of the guardians noticed this, and kept a close eye on me. I looked at them with great suspicion. I started walking around the desert, much like Homer Simpson during his chili hallucination, except that I kept stumbling. I must have looked much like Frankenstein when he walks, with no coordination. It was like I had to learn to walk once again, like I had forgotten.
I stumbled through the desert, and I began to see some of the guardians following me. I was already terrified enough, and I know not why, but I was convinced that I was going to die. I was so scared, I thought the guardians were trying to hurt me, that I was in trouble, that I had gotten mixed up with the wrong people, and that what we really drank was poison. Death was certain, I felt it in my being.
I was so terrified that I almost stole my friend’s car, hoping to make a getaway. I was trying to break into his car when one of the guardian’s approached me and asked me if I was ok. I pretended to be ok, even though I was visibly not. The next thing I did was go into the dome-shaped tent to grab my phone. I decided to call my family, if for no other reason, than to say goodbye because I was soon going to die. I spoke to my parents, who were drastically concerned (how else would someone react when you receive a call and that person says they are going to die?). I hung up on them abruptly.
All was nearly lost when I was found by the woman with the raver makeup and pony tails. Through her great efforts, she managed to calm me down, and massaged my shoulders. After a few minutes, I felt more or less composed again, as composed as someone on Ayahuasca can be, anyway. I realized then, I had peaked. I was now beginning to come down.
Coming down takes about another 3-4 hours, but those hours were perhaps the most unbelievably peaceful I have ever experienced. I felt a new courage, a new love for life, and a redoubled energy to transform both myself and those around me. I was, in the very essence of the world, inspired. I felt that I had survived something profound and life-changing, and was returning to my previous life with a new insight, a new wisdom.
The next day we gathered and talked about our experience. A few days later, I still felt inspired. But after about a week, all semblance of this experience seemed to have disappeared. I had reverted back to my old self, and all I was left with, was the memory of once having seen and felt, in all its profundity, another world.