The following is excerpted from Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest, published by Evolver/Reality Sandwich in partnership with Tarcher/Penguin.
Purging during an ayahuasca ceremony is not like performing normal bodily functions. In holistic health and yoga communities the mind and body connection is emphasized. People meditate to be more present, thinking less and experiencing more, clearing the head of mental detritus. More extreme detoxifying hot yoga classes have become more popular all across the United States. Bikram’s yoga class, for example, a 90 minute workout including 2 sets of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises in a 100+ degree room, with 50% humidity, was designed to detoxify the body and mind. People go to saunas to sweat out holiday debauchery, while ecstatic dance and Pilates awaken the repressed feminine. The list of metaphors and exercise practices related to detoxification both psychologically and bodily could go on, but nothing I have experienced comes anywhere close to what it feels like to purge and detoxify the body and mind in an ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca purging is in a league of its own.
When I purge during an ayahuasca ceremony, it is not just the physical release, and it is not just the emotional, spiritual, or psychological release, but the phenomenal combination of all of the above into an astronomically unique event that makes the purge life altering. I mean never ever the same again. A scream becomes the unique story of an entire lifetime, reaching out into the periphery of individual freedom and diva-like melody. By screaming you claim back something repressed, fragmented or forgotten.
A vomit sounds inhumanly grotesque, painful, relevant, funny, and finally desperate, until somewhere a mountain crumbles and boulders drop like rain off the side of a cliff centuries old and steeped in words like “karma,” and “original sin.” Every muscle of the body forces bile and stress out of your soul. And it’s not just vomit. It’s everything you’ve been holding onto for the past six years. People releasing baggage like typhoons and avalanches.
At the same time it’s not all painful or scary. Laughter during an ayahuasca ceremony is the reunion of thousands of lost children and is often accompanied by tears and sobs like earthquakes, until you laugh so hard you vomit again like the birth of a star. This purge is soul shifting. It is the plate tectonics of your reality. People don’t just lose it when they purge. They feel every shred of their existence, of what it really means to be human, until they might burst, and then they explode and survive anyway.
I remember how my very first ayahusaca purge started, evolved, and finally finished my first night at El Puma Negro lodge.
It was raining hard outside the mesa. Thunder boomed over the tops of the trees. Branches snapped and fell as the larger sentinels of the jungle ran for cover, stirring up birds and the sounds of flapping wings in the undergrowth.
The rodent-sized lodge dog, Cucaracha, growled and barked. The vibration of the crickets grew louder and then vanished. Several splashes sounded off one after another, and reptiles disappeared into the brown river. The sound of rain ricocheted off the water.
The icaro had changed. The pace of Ethan’s melody had quickened. As if Ethan’s icaro was stirring the soup of a large boiling cauldron, gradually building momentum, the medicine song gathered everybody in the circle into the same vision. Each time the melody dipped into the haunting minor notes, I could feel myself getting sicker.
I saw the mesa sitting inside of a canoe, each one of us lying limp on the hull. It was the same canoe my family took onto the lakes during my childhood. The waters were dark and the banks of the river covered in shadows and trees. Red eyes peered at us from the forest. Ethan had morphed into a life-size golden hornet. He hovered above the canoe. His translucent wings buzzed at the speed of light. Small sparks of electric white and silver burst off from their tips as he paddled us down river. Each stroke of Ethan’s paddle fell in synch with the rising and falling of the icaro melody. Each stroke was also the sound of his chakapa leaf rattle, the vague but persistent reminder that I had taken ayahuasca.
As the speed of our journey downriver increased with each paddle stroke, I felt dizzier and dizzier, until I woke in the mesa to find myself on my knees, hovering over my purge bucket in the dark. I choked on stomach acid. My jaw unhinged so wide I thought my eyes might burst. A giant black snake poured out of my mouth. I fell forward as mucus spilled into my bucket.
“Nice healing,” Ethan said to me.
His chakapa whisked over the top of my head. For a moment I saw the glowing red of his cigar near my face. A cloud of mapacho smoke suddenly covered me, and although it was dark I could see the smoke as if it were a glowing, white halo. It smelled sickly sweet. The black snake swam inside of the bucket. Ethan’s face gyrated in front of mine, half hornet and half human being. Thousands of golden sparks danced around his face.
“How ya feeling?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I looked down at the bucket to see the black snake was gone. In its place were rainbow strands of light shooting back and forth.
Up until that moment I had only ever read about the purging of an ayahuasca ceremony in books and magazines. I knew the purge could be life-changing, violent, and terrifying. I had read that people could purge addictions and old “stuff,” the life-baggage each one of us carries, but nothing could have prepared me for it.
Watching my jaw unhinge and a black snake pour out of my mouth, my body clenching like a medieval bone crusher and geysers of unknown substance evacuating my stomach (we had fasted for the entire day before ceremony, what was it?), I had sat squarely situated in not just the fear of death by consummation of ayahuasca, but a fear of death so primitive it had simultaneously conjured up the most timeless visions of finality: Hubble-like pictures of dead stars; forest men killing animals and drinking their blood; the underground plates of the earth moving back and forth; the blank stare of a decomposing body; and the nebulous floating black of that which is not physical but always present, that blank container from which all life passes in and out, the place I sat experiencing for the first time as I watched myself purge every last inch of a giant black snake.
Realizing such little time had passed since drinking my cup of ayahuasca, I wondered if I would make it through to the other side. Could I make it until morning without losing my mind? And if I did lose my mind, would it ever come back?
“We have to learn how to say yes to our experiences. Especially if we want to stay centered during an ayahuasca ceremony.” Ethan blew smoke over my face again, and I felt the leaves of his chakapa rattle brush across my cheeks as another out-of-body vision ensued.
Spouts of flame shot up from the oily muck of a black-red fire swamp. Back in the mesa my body sweated profusely. Each reminder of my body, each droplet of sweat translated itself into the spouts of flame that shot up from the swamp. Next to the swamp was a stairway that reached from the pits of the bog into a far-away light. Each step upward was painted in silver hieroglyphics, like nothing I had ever seen before. The letters and words on the stairway were more coherent every ascending step, but the light in the heavens seemed too far away from me.
“I can’t do this,” I said.
“Believe in yourself,” Ethan answered.
“It’s too much to expect of someone,” I argued.
There was no reply.
I woke in what must have been the ceremonial lodge. It was strangely quiet. The rain was gone. The jungle noises were gone. The icaro was gone. Cucaracha was silent. I could not sense Ethan’s presence or anybody else in the mesa with me. For several moments everything was empty, and then I heard the sounds of one man purging.
I tried to determine which group member was struggling, but I could not trace the sounds back to anybody specific. Whoever the man was it quickly ceased to matter. He was purging so hard that his plight seemed insignificant. Beyond reach and impaled upon the most arrogant delusions of grandeur, an unseen hand squeezed toxic waste out of the man like a wet sponge in the humid jungle grass.
As the man continued to purge I saw the dragon again, wrapping and coiling around the man’s chest and throat (now I could see the man’s body but still could not make out his face). The rainbow colored serpent squeezed chunks of black matter from the man’s stomach into his purge bucket. I saw the man’s inner organs. They were pink and red. His veins and arteries and nerve branches glowed and trembled. Each time he vomited the dragon squeezed its grip tighter and his eyeballs jut further out of his skull. Still I couldn’t identify the man purging. The purging sounds were so impersonal they were almost beautiful. Almost transcendent. But trying to relax into the sounds, I felt something tugging at my very essence, as if I were a grey puddle pushed by the wind.
Then I cupped my hands over my ears and momentarily saw myself curled into the fetal position, somewhere, disoriented and trying to escape. But escape from what, exactly? Not the effects of the ayahuasca or the visions, but something deeper, something residing at my core: the malignant feeling of being insignificant and alone in a universe far too vast and vicious for me to make headway. If it was my responsibility to find happiness, then I would never succeed. Who could?
“I can’t do it,” I blurted out.
“Yes, you can,” Ethan’s voice answered.
As if on command from Ethan’s voice, I found myself kneeling again in front of my purge bucket. I could feel my body. Thunder clapped above the mesa. Rain pounded the lodge roof so hard I could barely hear Cucaracha howling outside. People vomited around me. The medicine song darted through the circle like a jungle snipe. I saw piranhas swimming through the air and devouring demon like entities as they left people’s bodies. The rainbow serpent circled the mesa in the lodge rafters, looking down and watching over us. The guardian creatures were being commanded by Ethan’s singing.
Somebody screamed, “I can’t do this!”
“It’s impossible!” another man yelled.
It became clear to me, like a black-velvet curtain had been slowly pulled back, the person I could not see purging in the dark had been each one of us, suffering in exactly the same way. The man I had not been able to identify in the darkness was not anybody in particular, but rather the entire mesa together. The illusion of absolute individuality was exposed. Like all of the existentialist philosophers I had read and loved instantly became people no different than me, suffering was revealed for what it is: an impersonal state of being; something we each feel despite our stories and reasons, not because of them.
“We can all walk toward the light,” Ethan said. “One moment at a time. We make it through the night by focusing our minds and believing in ourselves and each other.”
“I don’t believe in myself,” I said. My words choked in my throat as another stream of vomit left my mouth. “I don’t believe in any of you, either. I’m sorry,” I said. I pounded my fists on the floor of the mesa. “I’m a tourist; I admit it. Please make this stop!”
“Don’t exaggerate. Life gets easier when you stop lying to yourself. It took courage for you to drink ayahuasca,” Ethan said. “And you’re being honest right now, not cowardly. This is your moment. Right now, you’re becoming a man. You wanted to drink ayahuasca. This is what ayahuasca medicine is about. It’s about getting real.”
I vomited once more. I could see myself changing before my eyes. I saw visions of myself as an adult, calmer and more reflective. What did I know, anyway? I was experiencing something so far out of the ordinary, so transcendent of my everyday boundaries, what could I possibly claim to know with absolute certainty? Knowing I would never be the same again, and knowing I could never capture the profundity of what was taking place in the mesa, I knew that I would become a kinder and more humble person. I would not become kinder because the ayahuasca was imparting a moral lesson, but rather because there would be no other choice. I would have to admit, from that moment forward, that I didn’t have the slightest grasp on anything. My only truth would be the simplest statements: I’m breathing, and my heart is beating. I’m alive.
Ethan sat in his rocking chair, collected, linear and professional. “That last icaro melody was Domingo’s,” he said. “And it was taught to him by Arturo. They taught me the icaro during my apprenticeship. So that was an official medicine-song greeting from my teachers. They hope they can meet you the next time you visit El Puma Negro.”
“Next time?” a woman asked.
“Of course,” Ethan joked. “You’ll be ready to do this all over again by tomorrow afternoon!”
The woman vomited and then began to laugh uncontrollably.
“I had no idea,” I said.
In the brief moments of clarity that followed my first round of purging, I reflected on the difficulty of explaining ayahuasca to empirically minded, “scientific,” people. I thought specifically of my best friend back in the United States, a PhD Chemistry student and intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Before I had left for Peru he had said to me, “You know your brain can produce some pretty amazing things. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be entering the spirit world.”
As I briefly thought of my friend I felt an overwhelming sense of love for him. I imagined hearing his commentary next to me in the mesa and knew that he would probably not be able to rely on his empirical reductionism to quite the same extent. Even if my brain was firing randomly and creating the spirit world I had entered, even if it could all be reduced to some “thing,” then what chance occurrence of reality had created creatures so puzzled by their own existence?
But the more I pondered in the mesa, the more I felt that perhaps all my philosophical questions and answers were no more than a self-made virus, the equivalent of pulling my own hair on the mesa floor, pounding my fists until I would purge by the help of a gringo shaman and a rainbow colored serpent.
“I had absolutely no clue about any of this,” I said.
“Of course not,” Ethan replied. “You can’t know until you find out.”
“You drank a full cup, didn’t you?”
“That’s right,” he answered.
“How did you learn to do this?”
“With good teachers and a lot of hard work,” he said.
Throughout the course of nearly five years, Ethan had lived and trained in the jungle: fishing for his food in the Amazon River, bathing with natives, collecting and harvesting his own plants and healing herbs, and learning the medicine path from his maestros.
After hundreds of ceremonies and dozens of rigorous plant diets in training, Ethan had earned the title of practitioner only months before I arrived to the Amazon. Arturo and Domingo had given him full responsibility over the mesa and instructed him to perform ceremonies alone for the time being. From the first day Ethan began studying, whenever locals asked Domingo and Arturo about training a white man, they would say, “We’ve seen that he has a good heart, and we’ve received the vision to train him correctly. The ayahuasca medicine vine was first given to the people of the forest as a gift from the one who planted the garden. It was given to the people for healing, and it should be given to the rest of the world in the same way. Let fall on us what will. We are going to train this man to be a master ayahuasca shaman.”
It was only the mid-point of my first ayahusaca ceremony. While the rain softened, each of us in the mesa enjoyed a small break: the sounds of shared laughter and the feeling of our body on the solid earth. Ethan was quiet in his rocking chair, rocking back and forth in the dark, whistling lightly under his breath and puffing a mystical mapacho cigar.
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Teaser image by jdrorer, courtesy of Creative Commons license.