THE VERY FIRST CUP
Only minutes into my first ever cup of Ayahuasca, the dome of the maloca (the ceremonial house) vanishes into the Amazonian night. I can see the exposed jungle canopy and the night sky beyond it. In a rather dramatic fashion, there is a long pause before the return of the missing roof but this time as a shimmering vault pulsating to the sound of a UFO soundtrack from a Hollywood B movie. The humming sound gets louder as if the maloca and I together are fast approaching the sound barrier. Bang. A clang in my head props me up like a jack-in-the box at the end of “Pop goes Weasel.” My brain quails and I hear a cracking noise as if a gate is screeching to open against a maelstrom. My brain cracks open.
The crack in my brain has apparently split what I know as the thinking “I”. My consciousness has become independent of me. Another loud noise explodes in my head as if something has just mashed my cellophane brain into a ball; I double over. My first ever psychedelic trip is taking a turn for worse. Bang. I am submerged in a darkness that is not so much a color but lack of light. The world as I know no longer exists. In this new world, I only know darkness and cannot even conceive the idea of light. The lack of light brings upon primordial fear that crushes my heart as a mountain would press on a grain of sand. Not even death can free me of this fear. I want something more eternal than death. I want to be purged out of existence just the way a painter might erase an unwanted drawing on a canvass. Then, I hear the voice of Ayahuasca:
”You have never been born and you will never die. Deal with your shit now.”
Face down on the dirt floor, I see the Kuma’s (shaman) feet somewhere above my head. To my astonishment, he is leaving. I ask him to take away my fear.
“I cannot do it for you.” He says. ”Go find God.”
Trapped in a subconscious foxhole, I turn to God. But, I already know that it am a hopeless case; I do not believe in God. The idea of God has long been exorcised out of me. I was born in Iran, a country run by a hierarchy of clerics who have declared their rule to be sanctified by God himself. I hate all religions. I hate men of the cloth.
That night in the jungle I did not find god or the night after. I returned home from the Amazonia feeling lost and confused. And yet, I was back in the jungle within three months to drink again. Over the next few years and many gourds of Ayahuasca later, I began to explore the dark realm that I had encountered on my first journey.
DIAGNOSIS OF A FRAGMENTED CONSCIOUSNESS
My visions of brightly-colored gregarious serpents, jaguars who exchanged bodies with me, Egyptian Gods, and the Eye of Horus, were spectacular. Yet, deconstructing them proved to be a slippery ground. Instead, I shifted my focus on the structural dimensions of my journeys. On that very first ceremony, the sound that cracked my brain also fragmented my consciousness into many distinct and separate entities. There was I “the Witness” who kept a cool-headed commentary going on what I “the Poor Schmuck” on the floor was experiencing. There was I “the Clueless” who was shopping for souvenirs in Iquitos, and then there was I “the Escape artist” who was plotting her escape from the Amazon on a slow boat. And finally, an ancient but alien I who was emanating the visions. Michael Harner, an anthropologist, also reported a similar physical compartmentalization of his brain into four separate and distinct levels during her first ceremony in Ecuador. In his book, the Way of the Shaman , he wrote “[a]t the uppermost surface was the observer and commander …responsible…to keep my heart going. It perceived, but purely as a spectator, the visions emanating from what seemed to be the nether portions of my brain. Immediately below the topmost level I felt a numb layer, which seemed to have been put out of commission by the drug--it just was not there. The next level down was the source of my visions…” (Michael Harner, The Way of Shaman)
THE MASS TRAUMA
In that first ceremony, I knew (the way you know things on Ayahuasca) that a long forgotten trauma had caused the original crack in my consciousness. The primary trauma causing that split was my separation from my source (mirroring the myth of original sin.) And, the trauma caused by the clerics in Iran was merely a tiny reflection of that original catastrophe. With further research, I found out that the catastrophe theory, a relatively new mathematical science, has been used to explain the shift in human consciousness. Immanuel Velikovsky, a psychiatrist who played a pivotal role in founding Hebrew University, has suggested that global cataclysms such as worldwide floods or tremors may have not only fragmented the Earth but also human consciousness, and thus alienation of individual life form from its source. “Perhaps what happened is that in the catastrophe we became morbidly cut off and thus anthropocentric, losing our communion with nature, with the planet, with the ‘gods’ and with each other.” (Jean Houston writes in a forward to Shamanism)
Suddenly, my fragmented consciousness did not seem so fantastical anymore. Perhaps, the latest version of catastrophe in the form of a religious government much like a biblical flood before it had swept further away my belief in a supernatural god and thus shattering my already broken consciousness into even smaller pieces.
A childhood friend (let’s call him Farzad) who had been sent to a prison by a council of clerics in Iran explained to me that confession was never the end but only the beginning of the process with those clerics. “I couldn’t just confess to my sins. My repentance had to be heartfelt and not just to stop them from torturing me. Breaking down my mind and body was not enough. They wanted my spirit. Before Ayahausca, I had assumed that my spirit had withstood the psychological and physical torture without being touched. Ayahuasca showed me my soul as a shattered mirror in which I could no longer see myself as whole.” He explained to me. “You know that I don’t hate them [the clerics] anymore. I feel compassion for them. I think they truly believe that they are right. Just like me. That night with Ayahuasca, my soul was retrieved from that prison cell in Iran. These days, I cannot even remember ever being depressed. And, I don’t want to die anymore. ” He said while showing me the scars on his wrist from many times that he had tried to end his life.
AYAHUASCA THE HEALER
Fragmented consciousness. Fragmented soul. Ayahuasca is not just a diagnostician but also a healer. During that darkest hour of my first fateful ceremony, there was a sudden respite from the chaos. The maloca fell into a stupor much like Cinderella’s castle falling under a magical spell. The darkness was now a foggy grey and everyone in the malco had lost their heads. Then, a ghostly apparition of headless giants appeared before me. Not only I was not afraid of them, but I felt a wondrous sense of calm. For a moment or longer I was whole and complete. Later on, I found out that one of the plants I was dieting (I was talking 12 other plants in addition to Ayahusca) was Ayahuma whose head spirits are headless giants. According to the shaman, their job is to retrieve lost souls from the underworld. My friend, Farzad, told me that during his first ceremony, the shattered mirror of his soul exploded into tiniest pieces and then came together like a movie played in reverse to become whole again. His spirit had been retrieved.
FROM CHAOS OF ANIMISM TO ORDER OF RELIGION
Why am I so drawn to Ayahuasca who often flips a cosmic bird to all my knowledge and beliefs? Is Ayahuasca my divine mother? Is the jungle the new Temple of Solomon? Is the tree of Ayahuma my minaret for cosmic prayers? As always, I turned to books my trusted refuge since childhood to look for answers. I read that religion (whether defined as belief in supernatural or in its etymological sense of the word religare, that is, 'to bind') began as a spiritual experience. The earliest known form of religion, animism, was the belief that all things were inhabited by spirits. When human hunters settled down to farm, animism experienced an equivalent transformation. As farming settlements grew in size, animism reduced the number of supernatural spirits and reorganized itself into a hierarchy. There emerged super gods and lesser gods. Some of those gods eventually won the spiritual battle to be the only gods. Whether civilizations emerged by ecological forces or were products of human mind in an urge to worship, animism morphed itself into organized hierarchical institutions that managed to stay in power as empires rose and fell all around them. Over the centuries, the non-dualistic unitarian animism morphed into many dualistic sectarian institutions. The power was centralized and conferred to priests and clerics. There were those priests who were ineffable because they were sanctioned by one all powerful god and that was true because they told us that god had told them so.
In animism with shaman as its prime mediator, the spiritual experience was and remains a meritocratic process in which hierarchies are reserved for levels of experience rather than for priests and clerics. “Each level and dimension of reality is available to the one who will make the effort to learn and practice the ways and means of the spiritual journey.” (Holger Kalweit, Dreamtime and Inner Space, The World of Shamanism) The great appeal of animism in its most modern form is the possibility of direct contact with supernatural without getting entangled in the dogma of modern religions.
Early on, I noticed that before each ceremony, we were encouraged to share the number of times that we had taken the medicine. By the tenth cup, I had learned to navigate out of my subconscious and my stories into the real. By the twentieth cup, I was able to die without much trauma and enter the other worlds. Around number 30, I learned how to call on Headless giants and accompany them to the underworld to retrieve lost souls. Around number 40, I could leave my body and lose all connection to my present persona. When I approached number 50, I could choose where to travel while I was out of my body. Every cup took me to another circle of reality. In between, I had a few ceremonies when Ayahausca reminded me that all I thought I knew was false. She likes to keep me humble and remind me often that I am just a human being and still does not how to navigate her worlds.
SHAMAN AS A PROPHET
Ayahuasca has done a lot of things to me including kicking my sorry ass on a regular basis. One thing that she has never done is present herself as a guru or prophet or god. She has encouraged me to be my own teacher and my own prophet. Micheal Harner, who lived among Jivaros of Ecuador and has written extensively on shamanism, was asked by another scholar if the idea of every shaman being its own prophet is a dangerous idea. Harner responded ”if a state political organization is founded in part upon a state religion with a dogma based on one or a few “official” prophets, then shamanism, where every shaman is her or his own prophet is dangerous to the state. In my opinion, the real problem is not too may prophets, but too few.”
When I was a teenager, I wrote a story of a utopian world where we all had become our own Messiahs. I might have just found this utopian world of my youthful imagination in the Amazonia.