A line of candles on sticks light the trail to a clearing deep into the woods. The light is already fading on a warm July evening. At the centre of the clearing is a large newly lit fire. Twenty or more people sit or lay down in a circle around the fire.
A slight build, dark skinned man sits smoking a long pipe. He has a proud feathered headdress peaking perhaps two feet above his head, his face is painted, his clothes are patterned with bright whites and cool and dark blues. Under his necklaces I see images on his top that look familiar. Before I’m able to identify them the shaman starts speaking. A young woman translates his native Portuguese into English: ‘You must stay in the group until morning when the ceremony ends … Do not wander off into the forest away from the circle … If someone needs help, even the person next to you, do not help them – anyone needing help should raise their hand and I will come.’ The shaman then tells us he has been a shaman for more than sixty years, since he was eight. I wonder, is he trying to reassure us? I don’t think so. As I digest these words the images on his top are suddenly clear; two stormtroopers from Star Wars. Wow, really! And yes of course that is Darth Vader standing behind them. Odder still is that I find this somehow reassuring.
The forest has transformed, the fire is a giant coiled anaconda watching me amid the flames, the shaman is an icaro bird singing and dancing, calling to the forest. The sound of retching circles around the group, participants trying to hold down the thick bitter brown liquid; it’s mostly dry retching as they’ve not eaten since noon. The retching becomes a sort of wordless somatic conversation. My body responds with laughter. The conversation moves on; someone retches, I laugh, others laugh, someone moans. This is Mother Ayahuasca at work. I realise my laughter is joy. I’m not laughing at others’ discomfort, their retching noises or the irony of medicine making them sick. Joy was bubbling up as laughter. I realise joy makes no room for, nor has need of, empathy. Ah yes! Joy, not empathy. Ah yes to respond with empathy only reaffirms the dichotomy of the ‘healer’ and the ‘sick’.
My ‘intention’ or question for this ceremony was about how I approach my work. I was seeing how my question is based on the duality of ‘me and my approach’; with this thought, two things happened. I thought ‘I can’t wait to tell my therapist; he’ll love it’; immediately a voice in me blurted out ‘He doesn’t exist!’. More laughter, more joy. ‘I’ve made him up, of course; of course he doesn’t exist.’
As I lay back tucked into my sleeping bag my joy went from laughter to a stream of emotionless tears. ‘He doesn’t exist; neither do I.’ As Glenn slipped away, this whole night as an experience slipped away also. I saw the sky and canopy reaching down towards me, the trees and smoke dissolving into vibrant living patterns tracking back down where I lay. As I closed my eyes I felt ants crawling on my face, there was nothing there, I could see in my mind’s eye tiny creatures knitting together and unpicking my mind, wave after wave of patterns swept over me.
As I opened my eyes I saw my favourite painting hanging from the consulting room wall. Under it, on the sofa, sat Lena where I’d left her, wide eyed looking expectantly at me. ‘You went to sleep.’
‘Was it for long?’ I was still getting my bearings.
‘No maybe two minutes or so, no more.’
‘It felt like ages, really deep but, yeah just a few moments …’
‘So, did you dream?’ she asked with her eyes fixed on mine.
‘Yes.’ I paused, waiting for words to come out of my mouth.
‘So what did you dream?’
‘That’s just it; I don’t think I’ve stopped.’
ayahuasca is classified as a class A drug in the UK and is therefore illegal. In the Amazon it is treated as a potent medicine. It is unclear what the legal status of ayahuasca is if the boundary between dreaming and waking life has dissolved.
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