To say I was
afraid is a vast understatement. My bones shivered, and my internal organs
tightened like fists ready for a boxing match as I approached the building. For
as long as I had known about ayahuasca I'd been intrigued, particularly because
of the firsthand accounts of participants who had "come face to face with their
own death." Only weeks prior to this ceremony, I'd decided that enough was
enough and it was time to end (or to begin to heal) the decade-and-a-half-old
battle with death that had paralyzed my life in more ways than I could count.
But now that the moment had arrived, in front of me by only minutes, my
decision felt all too real, all too consequential. What was I getting myself
into? Could facing my mortality heal the wounds I'd been covering for years?
Could I really do this? The
impending experience felt like an impossible horizon, close, far, and altogether
I tried to
gather myself before I pressed the buzzer. The building was like any
other — tall, tan, and inconspicuous among the other buildings in Bogotá,
Colombia. Once in the building, I had no trouble finding the loft-style space;
I could easily smell it from the instant the elevator doors opened in front of
me, the colorful scent intensifying as I came closer. I knocked. The door
opened. A waft of incense, sage,
flowers, raw berries and fresh corn filled my lungs. I began to relax. I was
greeted by the shaman's apprentice, a thin woman with wavy, light brown hair,
who gave me a hug (despite having never met me before) and escorted me into the
I was instructed to take a seat in a large circle
surrounding a colorful altar made of sand, flowers, and plants, reds and
purples, yellows and greens, images of saints and angels, a statue of the
Virgin Mother, illuminated like a star.
The elements were also present — a bucket of water, a large rock for earth,
incense to represent air, and candles to light the way of the journey. The
shaman was a small, thick man with a dark face. He wore all white with the
exception of a colorful belt; he reminded me a South American hobbit, and the
comical thought helped me to relax. Though small in stature, I could feel his presence. He signaled with his
hands and the group stood up, uniformly bowing their heads as the he lead an
opening prayer. Everyone took a seat on the floor, all thirty or so
participants creating their own space on blankets and pillows, small personal
altars with offerings and requests, pictures of loved ones, prayer beads and
small bottles of rose water. The shaman took out a large glass jar filled with
a reddish, brownish liquid and poured the thick, mud-like fluid into a silver
cup, blew into it with eyes closed, and tipped it back. "Just like honey," he
said, and the mesa filled with nervous laughter. He administered the drink to
his apprentice beside him, and one by one each participant took turns with the
silver cup; some gulping it furiously, some praying with the cup at their
hearts for long moments before taking the drink. Then it was my turn.
I approached the shaman and sat in front
of him. He looked into my eyes for a moment as though he were sizing up
something inside of me, finding a match between my will and the amount of
liquid he would prescribe. I took the cup with shaky hands; the thick liquid
nearly reached the brim of the cup. I put it up to my forehead and offered a
prayer, Please show me why… why I am
afraid, and gulped my cup of ayahuasca. The lights suddenly shut off and we
were left alone with the guidance of candles and the beginning of an ancient
* * *
I was no
stranger to death. By the time I reached the 9th grade both of my
parents had already died. My father was killed in a head-on collision. He was
driving a small 1987 silver Chevy Sprint packed with four other civil engineers
on their way home from a business trip when a drunk man driving a truck rammed
into them, totaling the car and killing three men (including my father) and a
pregnant woman inside inside. The drunk man walked away, virtually unharmed.
When I was in 8th
grade my thirty-nine year-old mother went in to have a tumor removed and came
out of the surgery with news that she would have two months to live. Stage four
cancer had permeated her body, invading, taking it over. The last months of her
life flew by, like when you go to sleep and wake up the next morning feeling
like you never slept at all, but merely shut your eyes for a second. I was
fourteen when I held her as she died. I felt her skin grow cold, watched it begin
to change colors, a subtle blue hue taking over her fingertips and nails and
moving up, the coldness rising like the shift between autumn and winter, the
expected, icy wind-chill. I saw
her eyes fade to lifelessness, rolling to the back of her head, and then the
rest of my teens and early twenties, I became preoccupied with the question
"why." It started with the make-up, shadow tones under my eyes, as though I
hadn't slept for months. It started with why
me. Why my parents. Why did I have
to say goodbye? Then came the drugs. I looked for answers in the mix of
uppers and downers, peeks and crashes. As I grew older the question shifted: why death? I immersed myself in
literature; I memorized Poe's Raven
and fell in love with Alfred Prufrock. I too had come to know the evenings,
mornings, afternoons. I too had
measured out my life with coffee spoons. I knew, as much as he, the voices dying with a dying fall… The
panic attacks, the antidepressants, lists of diagnoses paired with
prescriptions like neutrons looking for a lost electron, PanicDisorderProzac-PTSDXanax-ObsessiveCompulsivEffexor-AderallTrichotillomani,
a funny post-modern poetry. I moved to New York City by myself on a whim.
graduate school. The question repeated like a mantra. Why why why why why? I dove deep into religion and philosophy,
theories of the living and the dying, the stacks of books and papers,
libraries, research, the need to find, like thirst, like being held underwater
for too long, about to explode. More panic attacks, two times a week, three
times, crippled by the fear of death, on my knees praying. Why why why? I wrote to comfort myself. I studied existentialism —
how we are born into being only to face its impending end, always coming closer
like the ticking of a clock, louder with each moment, a limitless horizon to
one day fade away or simply vanish without warning.
* * *
After drinking the
cup of ayahuasca, I felt the Amazonian brew integrating within my body like the
roots of a tree growing down from my stomach, making its way through my legs,
my veins, to the soles of my feet. My chest, lungs, arms, and my fingertips
began to grow, to reach farther than I'd ever reached before, like a flower
taken from a pot and planted on fresh ground.
I found myself
losing track of time. One hour? Two hours? I tried to keep up with the medicine songs sung by the
shaman and his apprentices. Rattles and drums, guitars and voices lifted in a
melody that swam through the atmosphere. I closed my eyes and felt their voices
as if they were my own, but I was unable to speak. The ayahuasca inside of me
was alive and intelligent, full of intention and power, moving through me like
a sentient river. I felt a rush beginning to overtake me. It would soon reach
my torso, my stomach, my chest, my heart. What would happen once it reached my
brain? Would I die? I will die, I thought, panicking. I will die. This is it. It wasn't that I
was afraid to meet my parents in some other world, but rather, I was afraid of
the experience of dying itself — the inevitable fading, the inescapable falling,
the how long does this last? I
pictured my father calling out on his deathbed, reaching with his shattered
body, the memory of my mother, "hija,
hija" as I held her, but she couldn't remember my name — the way in which
they both grew fainter, faded from here to there, from flesh to blue, eyes
gone, pupils large as moons.
My body tingled. The
numbness had overtaken my fingers, my arms, my neck and face; it crawled up my
head. The ayahuasca knew what it was doing. My eyes rolled back, my head
falling… falling into nothingness.
I was startled awake
by the shaman in front of me, holding a potent smelling substance under my
nose, much like a combination of wildflowers and rubbing alcohol. I felt as
though I'd zipped back across miles and ages, and with a violent breath, I was
in my body again. But as soon as the shaman removed the substance from under my
nose, I found myself fading away, recessing into a great abyss, an incalculable
darkness within me.
"Stay with me," the
shaman said. I looked up. His face was black with giant feathers covering his
"I'm going to die,"
I said. He let out a chuckle that
reverberated through the ceremonial space. My eyes began to roll back. I could
not control my falling. The medicine was taking me.
"Look at me!" he
raised his voice.
I snapped back from
the abyss and found his eyes. I couldn't see any whiteness there, just pupils,
large, round piercing pupils, like black moons inside sky sockets. His face was
no longer his own. It morphed into
a black jungle cat, a wide-nosed puma with wings the span of centuries. His
eyes widened. With all my force I
tried to keep myself within myself, within the small frame I've come to know as
me. He began to whistle a song, not to me, but to the ayahuasca
inside of me, like a conversation between old friends. I could feel it reacting, answering the
call. It was simmering under my
skin, playing in the space between my bones and in the nooks of my muscles. The
shaman took a puff of tobacco and blew the smoke on my forehead, rearranging
the silky airwaves along my head.
He pressed his fingers along my eyelids and held them open. He began to
whistle again, and the ayahuasca responded: my body shook, my voice cried out,
"I don't want to die!"
"Keep looking at
me!" the shaman instructed, as he waved a wand of feathers across my face.
From a far away
place, I could barely make out the drums, the rattles and bell chimes that were
making noise around me. Faint
voices of the group were signing songs that began to guide me along my
departure. It was as if they were
I want to fly high, so high like
an eagle in the sky.
And when my time has come, I want
to lie down and fly.
Pachamama, I'm coming home to the
place where I belong.
Pachamama, I'm coming home to the
place where I belong….
My arms began to
flail. And then I fell into the dark abyss, surrounded by the nothingness I
dreaded more than anything. As I
fell beyond its threshold, I saw images of Tibetan Buddhist monks with their
bald heads and orange robes reciting prayers. The Tibetan Book of
the Dead was lying next to the bedside of ill bodies, weak bodies on the
verge of the passing.
one, you who has been called:
The time has come for you to find your
path in the reality of the spirit.
physical breath has stopped and you begin to experience the spirit reality;
barren and void like space.
must immediately recognize this
must stay centered within this experience.
the vision that begins to manifest in the void is the image of mud which
represents the earth merging into water…
merging into fire…
merging into the wind…
merging into consciousness…
I saw the passage of
time as the Tibetan monks prayed for 49 days without ceasing, 49 days following
death, their chants like guides, like oil lamps for the dark path ahead of the
newly departed soul. There was incense, the burning of amber, of myrrh, a lit
candle, blurry and big like a Hindu pyre, as some type of preparation for
cremation. I heard a cacophony of songs, along with the wailing and the
mourning of retired bodies being cleansed in the Ganges, the great holy water,
perfuming the corpses and processions: families, friends, the dead, adorned and
awaiting. Bodies caught aflame, turning from solid matter into ash and then
smoke, taken by the wind into the air and water, and the earth.
I saw fresh fruit,
ripe red berries, corn still husked. I saw Egyptians, loved ones buried with
favorites, foods and possessions, garments and toys, sometimes sacrifices of
spouses and children. Some cried, some smiled, happy to go together, to walk
together forward. I saw animals sacrificed in North Africa on the desert
plains. I saw the Jewish bury the body within 24 hours of death; Native
Americans burying corpses in coves and caves; Iroquois exhuming bodies after
the skin and muscle had dissipated, polishing the skeletons like golden
instruments, gifting bones away to loved ones, tokens, souvenirs from a life
lived and passed; Australian Aborigines placing bodies in trees for the birds,
offerings to the sky; and souls come out to play on El día de los muertos, food and music at cemeteries, like family
reunions in between realms.
And then there
came a voice of wisdom, like an ancient grandmother, or more like the souls of
all grandmothers in one.
You are morbid child because you are
afraid, she said.
I saw my
father's body. Mangled. I saw his face twisted with pain.
You are afraid because you cling.
I saw my
mother's last breath; I squeezed her hand, hard. How can you let go of your
mother's hand? How can you let go when you know that you'll never get to hold
is always given back. Nothing is yours.
I was just
a child, so young, asking, growing up with the question "why?"
But this is the cycle.
I saw myself
on my own death bed. I saw myself there time and time again.
The ego has to die someday.
my constant panic attacks, the pills, the tears, EKG's, tests, the constant
fear, the falling, the I can't make it stop.
The ego fears the end of itself.
moment, I sensed my own heartbeat, pumping, pumping, fast, holding on, holding
on so tight, so scared.
But the end of your ego is the beginning
of something new.
Then, I saw myself
in white. I was singing a song, echoing the voices of the Buddhists, the
Aborigines and Egyptians, the Native Americans, the Incas and Aztecs, the
Africans and Hindus all at once. I sang a song for all of our goodbyes, a song
for the nearly departed, for those who had died long ago, for those working
their way there.
I sat upright and
began singing along with the ceremonial circle. The shaman shook his chakapa. I
sat taller. I looked around and saw some bodies still lying in the fetal
position, others sitting straight like me, holding and creating space and
prayer for those still in times of transition, facing their own deaths, their
own demons, their own teachings. And here I was, I'd come through. I was back.
I sang louder. I
sang a song of goodbye for my father and another for my mother. My first real
goodbye to them in all this time, with tears, a smile, knowing it was not
goodbye at all but a releasing, a letting go, like a wave returning to its
And I sang a song
for myself, a song to say goodbye to the constant clinging, to panic and to
fear, knowing that the cleaning started now. I grabbed my rattle and found the
beat, joined the drumming and guitars, my voice clearer than I'd ever heard it,
the chorus of sunrise streaming through the open window. And as I sang, I knew
that I was different after leaving and returning, after holding then releasing,
after singing my goodbye to the illusion of life ever really dying.