The following is excerpted from The Sacred Science: An Ancient Healing Path for the Modern World by Nick Polizzi, published by Hay House.
December 11, 2009
I’m sitting in the tiniest room of a snow-covered New England country house along with 12 other men and women. We’re packed in like sardines—at the insistence of the Peruvian shaman who presides over the proceedings. The idea is for our tight circle to be so close that our knees almost touch.
Slightly claustrophobic as I am, this is not an ideal setting for me, but I’m convinced that I’ve experienced enough vision-induc-ing drugs to tread these waters with relative grace.
We all arrived around the same time, about an hour before the ceremony was scheduled to start, and other than a few casual hellos to one another, everyone has remained fairly quiet. The one thing I have picked up from the banter between a few of the women to my left is that this is a pretty advanced group whose members have sat in ceremony with Roman before. Looks like I’m the only rookie.
As we sit in a candlelit ring, Roman gives us the following words of wisdom:
You will see many things tonight, some pleasant and some not so pleasant. My advice to you is to assume a comfortable position, focus only on your breathing, and try to be still.
Proceed through the next eight hours with an open heart, an open mind, like a child does, with no attachment whatsoever to what you witness, good or bad. You will most likely feel some disturbing emotions, visions, and thoughts; don’t push them away. Let them pass by, simply observing without connecting any meaning.
You also may experience some beautiful sensations and imagery. The same principle applies to these. Do not reach for them or attach any significance. Simply notice. Envision yourself as a young child, sitting on the bank of a river, watching as leaves, branches, flowers, insects, and maybe some fish float and swim past you. The child simply watches, without injecting any ego or inner assessment into these passers-by.
Stay present with all that you experience. Focus on your breathing in times of difficulty, and try not to resist or cling to what you are about to see. You are everything. You are nothing. In this way, you can fully experience Grandma and go deeper with her.
Seems simple enough.
“You each have a bucket in front of you, which you will most likely be using to purge at least one time tonight. Keep it close, and try not to confuse it with your neighbors’.”
A few people chuckle at this; apparently this is something that happens. I feel the first pang of fear well up in my stomach.
The shaman produces a small flute from his bag. Perched on the edge of his cushion, he looks at everyone in the circle one by one, starting with the woman sitting immediately to his left, at 1 o’clock, and working his around to the man sitting at 11. His face is kind, but there’s a graveness to his expression that activates a survival instinct in my gut. I’m at 7 o’clock, and as our eyes meet across the circle, the reality of what I’ve signed on for sets in.
Roman plays a short and beautiful song on his flute to com-mence the ceremony, as his apprentice carefully places two clear bottles containing a brownish orange substance on the floor in front of him. Once the melody is complete, he says a quiet prayer in Quechua and begins to call people up to drink their cup.
Some of us are completely meditative, holding pure space for each individual who approaches to receive the medicine. Others of us, myself included, are a little more restless. Even though the circle is small, I can’t quite make out the short exchange of words between Roman and each recipient before they drink. I can, how-ever, conclude that the beverage is not overly tasty, judging from their expressions after downing their cup, which range from a slight wince to controlled gagging.
As the man next to me, sitting at 6 o’clock, stands to get his cup, the tension in my chest rises a notch.
You got this. You’ve eaten mushrooms and other psychoactive com-pounds before. You’ll be fine.
The very presence of this positive inner coach is alarming. It only comes out when I’m about to endure something awful.
Do what he said, and focus on your breathing . . .
The two finish their exchange. Not wanting to show my fear, I get up with as much grace as I have in me and maneuver toward the center of the circle in front of the cross-legged shaman.
“Hello, Nick. How are you feeling?” “Scared.”
“It’s good to be afraid sometimes. Fear is not our enemy, and it often comes on the path of our own evolution. I’m happy that you are joining us tonight.”
Roman unscrews the top of the one-liter plastic bottle by his knee and fills a small clay vessel roughly the size of a double shot glass. He lights a small stick of incense, known in South America as palo santo, and holds it over top of the cup while he prays in an indistinguishable language with eyes closed. When his blessing is complete, he hands me the cup.
I bow and raise it to my lips with both hands. I do my best to let the thick, sticky liquid drop straight past my tongue, but the taste takes over my mouth nonetheless. A combination of bile, apricot juice, and alkaline battery, the gulp hits my stomach and immediately wants to come back up. Eyes watering, I do my best to bow again to the shaman and crawl back over to my cushion. A few minutes pass and the feeling of nausea subsides—replaced by a renewed sense of general unease.
After the final cup is administered, Roman fills it once more. He closes his eyes and prays very quietly to himself for a few moments. His eyelids open, and he raises the cup to us all and says, “Salud” before downing its contents.
His face doesn’t contort like the rest of ours after drinking the brew. Instead he seems to be taking in the flavor, searching with his taste buds for certain characters in the blend, almost like a wine connoisseur might let a sip linger on his or her tongue and carefully experience its effects of taste and smell.
Putting the cup down, Roman meets eyes with us once more. “Because you are my advanced group and have all sat in cere-mony with me quite a few times—well, almost all of you—I have a special gift from Grandma that you are welcome to try if you feel so inclined.”
The woman to his left, who is apparently one of his appren-tices, pulls out an additional plastic bottle that, through the dim candlelight, seems to contain a similar substance.
“Over the past year of carrying this batch, a sediment has formed on the bottom of our jugs that is, in essence, a concen-trated ayahuasca toffee. In the jungle we call it candy. This med-icine is very potent, so I will only be giving one teaspoonful for those who would like to try it.”
As each person in the circle approaches the shaman and is served a teaspoon, two things suddenly occur to me. One, since I am in an advanced group, this medicine is probably very strong. Two, nobody is saying no to the candy, and I won’t let myself be the only one who does. Which means I’m about to double down on my ayahuasca dosage.
Moments later, I’m seated in front of Roman scraping the thick caramel jungle goo off the teaspoon with my teeth and feeling it slide with a kerplunk into my digestive system.
I go back to my spot in the sardine circle, fending off the urge to regurgitate, and sit down Indian-style on a cushion. We sit, letting the digestive discomfort settle, for about 30 minutes in complete silence that is broken only by the occasional whisper, waiting for the medicine to come alive within us.
In anticipation of what is about to happen, I can’t help staring at the woman at 1 o’clock, who drank first, to see if there is any noticeable change in her manner or outward appearance as the ayahuasca takes hold. Nothing noticeable is happening, unless she’s a total master. Eyes are still peacefully open, breathing seems normal, vomit bucket is still pristine.
Then I see it.
Starting with Ms. One O’clock, heads and bodies begin slump-ing, one by one, tipping like dominoes in order of who drank first. It takes only about fifteen seconds for this wave of impossibility to make its way around the circle to me.
It starts as a tingle up my fingers into my arms accompanied by a loudening hum. Within moments I am enveloped by it. My strength and sensation of being in a physical form evaporates almost instantly—and it’s not pretty. I’m panicking and begin-ning to struggle for breath. I dissolve into and through the floor, and all of my deepest fears come surging up through the darkness to greet me.
A shrill voice in me cries out that I’ve made a terrible mistake ingesting this unknown potion and that I’m dying. I’m tumbling through nothingness. The only remnants of the sardine circle are the distant echoes of a shaman singing his ícaros (ceremonial prayer songs) to the beat of a drum.
I am falling, clinging to any thought, desperately trying to get a foothold. But the only ledges and ropes offered from myself to myself are words of fear, shame, and sadness—each one building on the others.
As the storm rages on, I become keenly aware of a pressure that is starting in my bowels and bubbling up through my stomach. I’m partly relieved to be feeling my body for a moment, but this is immediately replaced by panic at this growing sensation within me. I fight it, pushing it back down with all my might. Nobody else in the circle has used a bucket, and I don’t want to be the first. At least you’re still there enough to care, Nick. Maybe you’re not as lost as you thought.
And then it comes. The loudest, most ferocious vomit I’ve ever purged, right into my neighbor’s throw-up bucket. The sound star-tles the entire room, and I hear my neighbor involuntarily laugh while whimpering at the intensity he’s apparently in the midst of. I heave one more time, now deciding that this will be my bucket, and I lean back with a moan of my own. I hear a moan come from another spot on the circle, causing a chain of moans that bends back around to me, like one long snake working a sensation through its system.
The purge seems to have stopped my descent into the hellfire abyss momentarily. I look across the room and see the shadow that is Roman bringing an object to his chest. He plucks a stringed instrument and begins to sing a haunting song that dips and soars, changing the shape, color, and dimension of the room with each note.
“Ayahuasca, la-di-di, ayahuasca, la-di-di. Ladidididididididi-diddidi . . .”
It’s too much to bear. I’m swallowed by it again. Mid-somersault through the void, something unexpected hap-
pens. My right foot begins to ache from a recent running injury that’s been nagging me for months. Just then, the first emotion-ally neutral thought enters my consciousness. My foot hurts so bad right now.
In that moment—almost as if I hit pause on the TV—the free fall stops.
I slowly open my eyes onto a whirlwind of cosmic activity happening in the darkness before me, but not in my immediate vicinity. The circle of bodies is covered in an explosion of geometric textures and images, too much for me to try and comprehend.
Looking down in the direction of my welcome foot pain, I see that my right foot is now glowing a dim blue. The pain pulses one more time. Almost instinctively I bring my left hand up to my face, and it ignites in the darkness. I place my now white hand on blue foot and watch with silent astonishment. The pain dis-solves into the darkness while the white glow engulfs the foot up to the knee.
In that moment, I’m not attaching any words or emotions to the experience, simply witnessing with an empty mind what is in front of me.
But this unbroken consciousness lasts only so long, and a moment later I say a few innocent but ego-driven words to myself. I think I’ve got the hang of this now.
As if a trapdoor has opened underneath me, I fall back through the floor and into another terrifying plummet. The next few hours continue much like this, with periods of feeling lost and over-whelmed followed by moments of respite that are achieved only by stopping my ticker tape of inner self-talk.
I find that most words are “hot,” meaning they trigger free fall. But certain words can be said again and again like a mantra to bridge those moments of doubt that are often accompanied by self-chatter. The battle-tested words I hear myself using most are thank you, Grandma, and love.
· · ·
Drinking ayahuasca is like letting the forest and all the laws that govern it into your body. This medicine shows you what is really there, who you really are, what this really is. If you’ve been telling yourself stories or spackling over holes, the jig is up as soon as you enter the circle.
My mind is a constant stream of thoughts, primarily consist-ing of words and images. Some words are benevolent, but others carry a deeply negative charge that disturbs the harmony in my reality whenever conjured.
The power of words isn’t a new idea. It’s a major talking point of self-help gurus who preach positive thinking and the law of attraction (something that helped me quite a bit earlier in life). Even in popular, non-hippie-granola-eater culture, the truth of that law is recognized. As they say, the pen is mightier than the sword. But this is all vanilla compared with the loving cosmic bitch slap that Grandma gives us. At the height of ceremony, she delivers direct analytics on each word I’m thinking and the impli-cations for the integrity of my soul.
It’s grueling to be tossed around in the turbid waters of your own scattered, self-defeating, and excruciatingly potent thoughts. There are some images in the feed, but the majority of the inner dialogue, for me, is made up of words.
· · ·
As the ceremony howls on, I gradually learn how to quiet my mind and let the thoughts go. At a moment of total emptiness, I begin to feel the presence of a familiar and welcome feminine en-tity descend upon me. The tingle of soothing warmth flooding my system is such a contrast to the deep discomfort and semi-terror I’ve been feeling that my eyes begin to tear and my body shudders.
Everyone talks about Grandma Ayahuasca, but I had always thought it was just another thread of rich tribal mythology. I was wrong. I am now in the presence of a feminine spirit who is com-municating with me without using words. I am not looking at a woman in front of me in the dark. She is coming into my body through the top of my head and filling me up. Crazy, I know. You can’t make this stuff up.
She tells me she’s proud of me for facing my own fears and suffering in order to find truth. “I am with you now and will be for the rest of the night, even if you don’t think I’m there.” She encourages me to stay sitting up even though I’m exhausted; there is still a lot more she wants to show me.
“You may think I’m gone while you’re working through a dis-turbance, but I promise I won’t let you stray too far into the dark-ness. Are you ready to go deeper?”
I’m actually being offered a choice here. The volume on the suffering could actually be turned down if I ask. Just moments before, I would have done anything to make this stop—hell, I thought I was going to die. Yet the knowledge that Grandma is real and is with me tonight has changed everything. Emboldened by her words of encouragement, I am shocked to hear myself com-municating back that I’m willing to go anywhere she takes me.
I sit there in the whirling storm of the earth mother, or Pachamama, smelling of vomit and breathing very heavily, unable to get quite enough oxygen into my body. I begin to poke back at the beast that is me.
Somehow the quintessential negative words like evil and bad don’t seem to have any effect or induce free fall. I categorize them as benign for now. The derailing thought forms are much more slithery and disarmingly normal. Something as innocent as “I can’t handle any more of this” becomes an immediately self-ful-filling prophecy, intensifying the experience to the point of near unbearability. Unless I can neutralize the emotion in the next moment, all energy and equilibrium leave me and the level of visual and aural chaos gusting around me escalates as I hurtle downward out of my body into a sea of misery.
But my recovery time is improving. I find myself in this purga-tory for only a few minutes at a time now, before I remember the operating principle of emptiness and acceptance. As I’m learning the hard way, holding balance in these ceremonies requires the sitter to remain thought-free, something that is far easier said than done. I realize then that the absence of thought in our culture is associated with lack of intelligence, unrealized potential, lazi-ness—another stale concept that I am discarding as of tonight. Thoughtlessness is highly underrated.
Every twenty minutes or so, Grandma picks me up by the scruff like a pup and plops me into a new scenario, whether it’s an actual change of location in place and time, or the sudden onset of a deafeningly loud hummmmmmmm like a thousand bees in my ears, or a challenging bodily sensation that culminates in a forceful physical purge into my handy puke bucket. About four hours into the ceremony, I’m getting used to the suffering and now understand the purpose it serves. But I am being brought closer and closer to my edge, and when I start to tailspin, the only thing that can right my vessel is stopping thought or calling on my newfound power words.
When I briefly come back to awareness of my body, I find that I’m sitting directly on the bones of my butt with my back fully erect and both hands in the air directly over my head, with palms outstretched. I’m rocking forward and backward, thanking Roman for the powerful ícaros he is singing from across the room.
“Ayahuasca, wa-di-di, ayahuasca, la-di-di. Ladidididididididi-diddidi . . .”
His haunting voice is not merely providing ambience for our journey with Grandma; these ancient songs were spun together by the masters to bring everyone deeper into their intensity and strengthen the effects of the medicine. In one moment, the music can be torturously needling to the psyche and nerves, but then in another, when all seems lost, it can actually help you find your way back.
Right now, I am making what appears to be a physical gesture of gratitude and humility to Roman, who sits somewhere in front of me in the hot blackness. Am I really grateful, or am I striking this pose of gratitude to counter the disturbing feelings that his words are invoking inside me? I don’t know, but questioning any-thing I’m doing in the moment is a total no-no, if I want to stay above decks.
· · ·
After about four hours of learning how to stay afloat and right the canoe when it capsizes, I notice a very clear visual metaphor emerging. Inside me—not in my body, but inside me—there is a large pendulum, sitting relatively motionless at this current moment. To its right live joy, elation, excitement, bliss, beauty, and ecstasy. On the path of its leftward swing live fear, sadness, grief, shame, and despair.
It seems pretty obvious that the right side of the long pendu-lum arm is where the preferred experiences are, and for the first few hours tonight, those were what I was reaching for, chasing after the appealing visions and emotions that flashed across my ticker tape while fighting to keep the more disturbing apparitions and emotions at bay.
But a pendulum, by its very nature, swings. As I cling to posi-tive sensations, I’m in effect pulling my pendulum from its center, drawing it against the cosmic gravity by which it operates, cock-ing it back like the hammer of a revolver so that even the slightest slip of the finger will send it crashing down, swooping through and past center into the opposite realm. The realm of suffering and disorientation.
Similarly, when I indulge the resulting panic and despair with even more defeating thoughts and word forms (Oh, shit! I’m going to die! or my new favorite, You pushed it too far this time. You’ll never make it back. You’re not strong enough to handle this. Roman and the others are going to know you’re a phony now), I push the pendulum even deeper into that dark frontier. Now the slightest glimpse of comfort or hope will send it crashing back the other way, past center again, surging into the ecstasy that awaits on the other side.
The result is a roller-coaster ride that many experience in the stronger ceremonies—not only with ayahuasca, but with any ancient rite of passage. These spiritual interventions are all about the same thing—bringing individuals into full contact with their fear, their mortality, and ultimately their power. This is usually done via intentional intensity, whether that be the heat of a sweat lodge, the physical trial of a sun dance, or the consumption of a psychoactive substance like ayahuasca, peyote, San Pedro cactus, mushroom, or venom.
After tonight, I will use the pendulum as an operating princi-ple for ceremonies and life itself. Keep that arm still—always.
By four in the morning, our circle has lost its shape, morphing into a scattering of bodies in varying states of consciousness. Some are still in the throes of Grandma’s teachings, sighing and whim-pering now and then; others are in deep sleep, unbothered by the lack of proper bedding. The room has become something akin to a hive, one writhing pile of bodies curled up with little concern about the proximity of others.
We’ve been through something together. The shared suffer-ing and the space we’ve held for one another’s vulnerability have forged a primal bond among us all. The notion of social awkwardness is thousands of miles away from us now. My elbow is touching another’s woman’s foot, and part of my blanket is being used by my neighbor to the left. The room has become one living, breathing organism.
Image: Amanda Sage