My Journeys with Plant Medicine, Ceremony 1

Coming Face to Face with Fear: My First Ayahuasca Experience 


A sacred silence fills the circular temple in which I’m carefully and curiously entering. The air is chilly, fresh, and holy. The scents of sage, Palo Santo, incense and cedar fill the room, lightly dancing underneath my nose as I take a deep breath in the doorway. The glow of candles highlights the images of Buddha, Ganesha, and sacred geometry that hang on the walls.  The room is almost full; other seekers are setting up their individual spaces with pillows, blankets and plastic buckets. The sight of the buckets induces a deep drop in my belly and a golfball sized lump in my throat. I’ve heard rumors about purging during the journey - the need to vomit or run to the bathroom. What could I have to purge though? I haven’t eaten in over eight hours. There’s nothing in me to there? 

My eyes quickly dart around, locating my roommate, the only other woman in this group of 16, and I set up a comfortable place next to her, keeping my crystals, a roll of toilet paper and my bucket close by. There are a few whispers and final adjustments made as the Ayahuasquero, the medicine man, settles into a meditative seat. He is not the mysterious, dark skinned shaman from the Andes that I had been expecting, but rather a grey haired, soft spoken Australian man, with kind eyes and a gentle sense of humor. He is wearing all white and sits amongst crystals, feathers, musical instruments and two plastic bottles of thick, pink liquid. 

As the Ayahuasquero introduces himself, I recognize a familiarity about him, as if I’ve met him before. He explains how he isn't originally meant to be facilitating these ceremonies but Diego, his friend and other medicine man, has become suddenly ill and called in a favor. He gives a short story as to how he ended up here in Peru years ago, highlighting the “coincidences” (really ’synchronicities') and all of the puzzle pieces that fit together for him to be here in this exact place at this exact moment.  I’m listening intently and hear him mention his daughter Ziah - a unique name that I’ve heard before and could never forget.  A surprising message of “wait, I know her...” rises up from my belly and I look down to my right ring finger where a gold hummingbird sits; made by an English girl named Ziah, given to me in Thailand on my birthday by her mother, who lived in Australia for 20 years. Whoa. My eyes widen. Talk about synchronicity. Any doubt or expectation I had simply melts away. I know I am meant to be here in this exact place at this exact moment.

After he finishes the summary of his story, Jarrah then introduces his ceremony assistants and those who will be playing the Icaros, the traditional medicine music which will guide us and hold space as we journey. He begins speaking a mix of Spanish, English and Quechuan, asking permission and thanking the elements and the Gods for their energy, their forces and their blessing for us to open ceremony. He invokes the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, the bodhisattvas, gurus, sages and ascended masters who came before us, showing us the way to our higher selves. Jarrah cleanses and blesses himself, his assistants and the two bottles of this Amazonian medicine that sit before us like the holy grail. He thanks each one of us individually for showing up to “do the work,” by which he means facing our fears and demons in the pursuit of breaking the barriers we create by them. He insures us that anything we may go through over the next six to eight hours is exactly the journey we are meant to have. We are encouraged to stick with the challenges and work through them, no matter how hard or threatening they may seem. It is the exact journey we’re meant to experience.  There is a beginning and an end, and we can handle anything that may come up in between.

Jarrah sits and whispers respectfully into the first bottle before he pours himself a cup and drinks it sacramentally, as if taking communion.  One by one we come to kneel in front of him. He blesses the medicine. He blesses our journey. We take the cup of medicine in our hands and spend a moment with our intentions, holding it high in respect, saying 'kausaypaq’  (a Quechuan word meaning ‘life force’ or ‘energy of the universe’) before ingesting the brew. We return to our places as the remaining participants follow and everyone has taken the medicine. The candles are blown out and suddenly, we are all sitting in the dark. Not completely alone, yet not quite together.

We sit silently with our intentions, meditating in anticipation of what’s to come, knowing that we are all still here and in this together. Minutes and moments are extending. Time gets stretchy and I can’t tell if it’s been 20 minutes or an hour and 20 minutes when I hear the first roars of purging. 'Uh - oh,' I think to myself, 'it’s starting...’ As internal struggles emerge as external release around the temple, the music begins and gently initiates the embarkation of the evening’s work. 

I wait. And I wait.

The symphony of burps and purges continues and I begin to notice a writhing coming from the base of my spine.  Beautifully colored shapes form in place of the dark space I had been seeing. I can’t tell if my physical eyes are open or closed, but my mind’s eye, my ’third eye,' is seeing the swirling and twirling of sacred geometry all around me while a serpent is intertwining itself around my ribcage. Intricate, jewel toned fractal images are spinning in front of me and within me. Purples, teals and pinks display dancing visuals: the flower of life, the Sri Yantra, the Merkaba - shapes symbolizing connection, karma, unity, incarnation, life, death and infinity. I watch in wonder as if I’m in an IMAX theater. 

Eventually the geometric images fade and images of nature take their place. The snake that had been slithering around my sternum minutes (or hours) ago is now at the back of my heart between my shoulder blades, making its way upward. A lush jungle scene with hummingbirds and butterflies forms in my third eye as the heartbeat of the Earth syncs with the heartbeat in my chest. The experience of observing this scene dissolves as the jungle, the majestic winged creatures and I all melt into one being, one heartbeat, one consciousness. It’s no longer a third person viewing like a movie, rather it’s complete omnipresence. I have never experienced such wholeness. My physical body has disintegrated and every cell in my ethereal body is floating in a space of infinite bliss. I am weightless. I have no form but existence.

This euphoric feeling is being disturbed by the snake that’s made it’s way to the back of my neck. I begin to feel a small lump in my throat and find that I can’t swallow. I’m having a hard time breathing.  I check my scarf and my necklace to make sure they’re not too tightly wrapped as I stretch my neck, rolling my head back and finding that both are resting loosely on my chest. Minutes (or hours) of this go by. I’m constantly checking to make sure my throat is clear, but I still can’t swallow and my fear of suffocation is beginning to play in my mind. My heart beat begins to race. My throat continues to close and I’m now convinced I can’t breathe. A panic attack is instinctively being induced. What do I do? Do I cry for help? I open my mouth to call for one of the assistants but the snake is quickly tightening its’ grip my around throat. From my peripherals I see the sudden, sinister entrance of two dark hands coming at me from either side. As quickly as I am aware of their presence, the long, shadowy figures with sharp claws instantly grab and forcefully squeeze my throat, choking me relentlessly. 

I gasp and try to scream, but I am completely cut off to air flow. A murky figure in front of me is pressing its thumb into my trachea with increasing force.  I give up on attempting to get help and intuitively understand that I need to face this alone. My jaw gets warm, courage is building inside me and I deliver a forceful ‘NO' to the shape hovering before me. I regain my strength and reach out, slicing the cloudy arm's grip on me. The dark mirage disperses into the air as I find my bucket and begin violently purging. Up and out come the anticipation, panic, terror, and anxiety of being without oxygen. No, it’s certainly not lunch I’m purging. I sound like an off pitch dinosaur as all my fears of suffocating, drowning, death, entrapment and claustrophobia are delivered forcefully from the pit of my stomach to the bottom of my bucket. This deep, guttural clearing persists as my higher self boldly demands these phobias leave my being. I struggle and try to hold back the purges but they are incessant as Madre Ayahuasca has informed these dark limits that they do not serve me; she has let me know that it is now up to me to release them. After hesitation, resistance and the constant attempt to control each hurl, I finally stop fighting and fully surrender to many more rounds of heaving out my deepest fears until there is nothing left in me. When I am certain there is nothing left to release, I lift my chin to the ceiling and draw in the deepest, longest, freshest breath of air I have ever inhaled. Every cell in me fills with violet white light and I feel as if I have just taken my first breath in this human body. As I exhale, I return to the original state of weightless euphoria that I was experiencing before I was choked. I have returned to wholeness, to oneness, and now - limitlessness. The walls have been taken down and I can freely be. And freely breathe. 

I spend a long time in awe of every breath I am drawing in and letting out. Each breath is clear and new; crispy like the first few days of autumn. I realize how loud the sound of my own vomiting was, grateful it had been accompanied and overpowered by the Icaros and many instruments. We now sit in stillness, savoring the sound of silence that's slowly filling the room as the orchestra of purging subsides. With silence comes the chills and I notice the temperature drop with each wintery respiration. I can see my breath. A cold breeze comes through. Certainly they wouldn’t let the temple get this cold, would they? Is there any heat in here? I gently touch my nose. It’s frozen. My fingers are getting numb and my body is beginning to shake. I try and trace all my layers - my hat, my scarf, my gloves, my poncho, my blanket. Any skin that is exposed to the chilly air instantly freezes as I try and tuck myself in with any extra material I find. Darkness has fallen on me again. It is colder in now than any winter I’ve experienced. Colder than living in Montana. Colder than my winter visit to Alaska. Colder than my January visit to Antarctica. Listening and feeling, I find that I’m in a dark hole. The ice is packed tightly around me. I hear grunts coming from outside my lair and footsteps crunching in the snow. I peer out, but can’t see anything. It’s endless darkness. Intuitively, I know that I’m in the Ice Age. The external grunts and shuffling outside of my ice cave are coming from my Neanderthal family who are attempting to make fire. I am curled up in a ball, tightly wrapping myself in fur pelts, wishing I could help contribute but completely unable to leave this position. I wrap each layer tighter around me, curling up smaller and smaller, getting colder every second.

Suddenly, a small orange glow appears. I peer out from my many layers. Fire. As a huge sigh of relief escapes me, I let go of my grip on the blankets and slowly release my tight fetal position, realizing just how much I had been struggling with the experience of cold. Holding on, fighting, resisting what I was being presented with.  As I gradually loosen my grip, I warm up with each breath, relaxing and accepting the present moment. 

The sound of a lighter sparks and three more sources of fire are lit.  The orange glow of candles in the middle of the temple signifies the ceremony is over.