I was curious about how much less fear I had going into this ceremony than I’d had in the past. I was bringing with me the intention to feel my self-love and my confidence. That’s what I was asking for, and a body tune-up. Niranjan was to my left and Jo to my right. Across the room was Soulla and her cousin, Costas, and Kerri and Glenda. Don was just left of Niranjan and beside him, Nadia. It was a good group, half experienced, half first-timers. I had organized the retreat, but I didn’t feel overly responsible. My dog, Raffle, was there, lying on the sheepskin rug in the centre of the room. I had my usual immoderate number of talismans: the long brown pin feather of an eagle, the magnificent wing of a young turkey vulture I found dead on the side of the road in Connecticut and preserved by burying it in a box of salt, my crow feather fan I made from another bird hit by a car, that one in Newfoundland, and a second crow wing that Sheryl gave me after my naming ceremony down in Kentucky. I had my goose and flicker fan, made from wings I found on the shores of Lake Huron, bound together—in true Ojibway style, according to a wry friend from Curve Lake reserve—with black hockey tape. I had three little bottles of agua de floridas, a jagged smoky quartz given to me by a friend, and a water-smooth ovoid gerasil crystal from Madagascar that I bought at a horse farm and in which I can sometimes see, in the semi-translucent jagged plates within, the curved, languid shape of a thin man, reminiscent of the figures painted by El Greco, wearing a flat-brimmed hat tilted forward on his head, playing the mandolin. I had a grizzly bear claw that my sister-out-law, Kathleen, brought back from the Arctic, still with a coarse tuft of red-brown hair, a flat bead of Peruvian turquoise, a fluffy, sandy-coloured rabbit’s paw from a rabbit Michael’s dad snared one winter in Corner Brook, and an alabaster frog that I found at a market in Cusco—on the same trip I cured my thyroid by getting, in ceremony, the toad that sat heavily on my throat, to croak. I had my son’s baby shoes, the leather moccasins he learned to walk in, with the ghost-trace of his little foot polished onto the bottom of the soles, so distinctly you can see each tiny toe in descending order. I had a ceramic goblet for burning sage, a plastic ziplock bag full of sage, my abalone shell and rattle and drum. I had a cone of mapacho Carole brought me from the Amazon, and several mapacho cigarettes. I had my pipe in its bag and, between Jo and I, a lighter. I was wearing the yellow embroidered dress that Claudia gave me years ago, which I have worn in so many ceremonies, as well as the Cowichan sweater my mom knit for me and which has a thunderbird in full wingspan across the back.
How could I not fare well, with all this companionship?
Or would I sink under the weight of my own superstition?
The space I’d rented from friends was perfect. In the country, on a lake. There was snow. We’d pushed all the furniture back and the fire in the woodstove had died down and it was warm and fairly dark. Through the angled front wall of windows, as if we were sitting in the deep glass hull of a ship, small lights reflected off the lake from houses on the other side. Dark shapes of leafless birch, some cedar and fir, stood out against a gloomy winter sky that was overcast, yellowish-grey and mauve.
Don lit his pipe, took a puff, and whistled smoke into his bottle of ayahuasca, then started handing out doses. People would come forward and kneel, solemnly receive the shot glass with both hands, bow their head and pause, then knock it back, give Don a little nod of gratitude, crawl back to their matt, or sleeping bag, and settle in with a noisy rustling of nylon. My senses took in the rustling as it made its slow progress around the now-dark room, unconsciously calculating space, distance and proximity. Jo was the last one before me, and his bean bag gave a sound like waves coming ashore a pebble beach as he shuffled to free himself with several collapsing attempts. When it was my turn, I remembered to welcome the medicine into my body, to show respect and appreciation to the spirit of the plant, and to offer my body as a hospitable host.
Small rituals to assist in the success of a relationship exist in the spirit world just as much, if not more, than in the material world. Protocol is your protection. Only the spirits willing to invade you ignore these laws of boundary and permission. They will molest you without any consideration. It is the conscientious ones that wait patiently for an invitation, and will not interfere until you ask them. Which means that they will not help you, until you give them licence. Ask and ye shall receive. Don’t ask, and you might receive what you never intended to give permission to in the first place. I have experienced this time and time again. People want benevolent assistance, but they forget to ask. Their spirit helpers are right there, waiting to lavish them with blessings, and people forget to invite them in. This may be an argument merely in favour of intention, but I like this more interactive explanation of it. The spirit world peopled with characters.
So I addressed her in my mind. You are welcome here, Grandma. Thank you. I welcome you as a friend and as a teacher, a mentor and a goddess.
I returned to my place and waited. I had never welcomed the spirit of ayahuasca as a goddess before—my tendency toward irreverence and cynicism makes it hard for me to seriously acknowledge the presence of any gods at all, even though I crave their presence—but it seemed right, like I had remembered an important ingredient. And I did it genuinely, spontaneously. I could feel my trepidation and my willingness, both.
The medicine came on soon enough, not too strong, but strong enough that I felt transported, away from the recognizable into something at once unknown but also deeply familiar. There were no visuals, but the sounds grew so distinct. I felt an energetic surge, as in a kind of liquefying of the muscles. Things grew more vibratory, pulsatory and rhythmic. Don was shaking his chacapas, a bundle of dried leaves, and it sounded like the earliest, most primitive instrument. He started to sing and I felt the sound weave the medicine through me, beginning to affect my insides, reconfigure me. I felt aroused and breathless. Oh, how I long for what scares me most. How drawn I am to mysticism and foreign states of consciousness. How bendy reality can become, and history, and time, like a straight arrow pulled back upon itself to make a circle. We partake of this consensual reality, but we have access to so many more, if only we could loosen the bonds of what it is we think we know, and therefore believe.
And yet, this ceremony (my sixteenth) seemed to want to take a gentle course. It felt sort of subtle, not super overwhelming. I had been asking for this, too. Hoping not to go to a place that was too dark or terrifying. For a long time, my thoughts seemed to paw and double-back on that fine line between avoiding and choosing, between suppressing fear and taking control. I’d feel my fear rise up, the potential to have some frightening experience, and I’d say, No, not going there tonight. And think: Love. Love. Love. Love. But was I avoiding some instructive experience down the scary path? Or was I choosing to create something different from what I might have otherwise slid towards, or been drawn to simply out of fear, or habit, negativity, or boundarylessness—that cynicism.
Maya Angelou said that cynicism in the young is a tragedy, because you go from knowing nothing, to believing in nothing. Both knowing and belief shape who we are, but our knowing is empirical. It can change. It changes every time we make a mistake, or learn something new. But our beliefs are what determine what we allow ourselves to know in the first place—what we can see and hear and feel. They are far more deterministic than our knowing. They are the invisible forces that limit us, or give us our freedom, cloud our eyes with cataracts, or peel them off.
To know something, we must perceive it, but we perceive what we believe. Beliefs are generative. They come before and determine the limits of our perception. They are self-prophetic. They create the conditions that they predict, and are therefore reconfirmed. If you believe the world is hostile, you will be on the defensive, reading attack into everything. The world, by your belief, will feel hostile. There is no room for it to feel otherwise. Our beliefs precede us, like a fog bank, or a barge, that we push ahead of us, or walk behind, and follow through all our lives. Someone might extend an apple, but through the fog bank it looks like a grenade. Maturation is the process by which we become conscious of our perceptual barge, question it, and take responsibility for our beliefs.
Many things can bring about this inquiry—sickness, crisis, tragedy, near-death, or an ordeal. This is something Indigenous cultures seem to know so well. It is the purpose of the coming-of-age ceremony.
At some point, you start to realize that your parents are not gods, that your home is not the world, and you start to understand that there are other ways of living and being, and that you actually have the power to choose, and indeed must. This is the frightening call of autonomy. You go from the pre-determinism of youth (your life consisting of what gets thrown at you, regardless of what you want) to the freewill of adulthood (where you get to make choices). This is the giant existential leap into self-responsibility that we all need to take in life. It’s called growing up—what Indigenous people sometimes refer to as becoming a human being. And it gets missed in our Western capitalist society, because we are so dreadfully afraid of responsibility, a kind of unavoidable finiteness. No more buying power. To be responsible means you cannot escape. That you are a limited body, in a limited time and place, and this is akin to accepting the limited and solitary nature of your life, in other words, your death. Avoiding responsibility is the by-product of a fear of death.
And this is the point at which we start to self-medicate. Or, as Gordon Neufeld—an insightful teacher of child psychology, particularly of adolescence—says: we avoid the void. In other words, swing our waning attachments away from our parents, with whom we are experiencing a natural alienation, at the crux of our adolescence, and attach to our peers. Which is like getting on board a ship captained by no one who’s ever been to sea. It’s like having a spoiled and terrified teenager in the White House. It is like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
So we miss this important milestone. At the very moment our elders could be making room for our emotional reluctance and assisting us into adulthood. Because how often are we, as parents, too busy to stop and commemorate the moment our own beloved children slip out of our hands and into their own? We fail to support them in their terror.
Which is why the ordeal of a coming-of-age ceremony makes so much sense. It enacts the metaphor. At the moment when you have to cross through that very lonely, terrifying void—the metaphorical dark forest— you actually get sent out into the very real dark forest, without food or water, all alone, with instructions not to sleep at night, but to stay awake and stare into the darkness. It is so wise to match this painful internal process with an equally painful external one. It dignifies our pain and terror to acknowledge that there is no way around it. It assists the one who must suffer to say: Yes, this is going to be difficult, and you have to be brave. But this ceremony is going to reveal that you already have the innate strength and courage for the task at hand. And it requires of the people who love that youngster to suffer too, to make a choice to suffer, to worry and be afraid for them, too. There is an implicit understanding of the paradox, that confronting your aloneness is the best antidote to loneliness. Before conscious union, comes conscious separation. Before freedom, risk. Before love, courage. You cannot have paradise regained without paradise lost. Nobody regains paradise by accident. To regain paradise is a conscious act.
And every time I do ayahuasca, I am reminded of this challenge. Take the reins, if you can. Or not. Either way, you will learn something about how you are standing currently in your own consciousness.
But, in this very moment, I felt I had no idea how to trust my beliefs, I didn’t even know what they were.
If I let my thoughts go dark, the world would rear up frightening. If I let them be light, the world would be exultant. And I felt this wasn’t good enough. I needed more certainty. I wanted to know objectively what the nature of the world was. I didn’t want to get it wrong. I wanted it to be shown to me, but all that was being shown was that I could create it either way. I was looking, not into myself, but to what was outside of me for confirmation of where I should go, what I should do. Like I always had. Reaching outward to fill my emptiness, instead of looking into the emptiness and staying with it—that void I, too, have avoided. I skipped that step, years ago, self-medicated, attached to my peers, gave up control, stayed adolescent.
Because there is something in me that resists the relativism of my own judgment and self-sufficiency, or the power of it, I’m not sure which. There is a kind of profound insecurity in the feeling that the world is only the sum of what I make it. Am I that responsible? That powerful? And if so, can I accept the ways I have failed to stand in that power, as well? Do I really want that power? Would it be exhausting? I would have no one to blame. Could it be there are no standards or limits outside the ones I have imposed on myself? I could be less critical of myself, if I chose. There would be no constant rating of success or failure—no guilt— outside the degree of gentleness I held for myself. There would be no reality that did not already emanate from my centre. Nothing to submit to, in order to be right. I could go beyond good and evil. So why don’t I embrace this? Why do I hold myself hostage in this awkward place of uncertainty, of doubt and half-crippledness?
I eddied in these emotional waters for a while, drawing no definitive conclusions.
Ayahuasca has always been so refreshing, in part, because it has defied my expectations so wildly. It makes me feel like I’m bursting the bonds of my own restrictive subjectivity and learning new, unprecedented things. But right now, in this mercifully gentle ceremonial space of still having a choice in the matter, I felt unsure of myself. I didn’t know what to do. Was it braver to go into the fear, or deny it entry? Was it wise to refuse the darkness, or escapist? I know how addicted I can be to my own suffering, how attached I am to the concept of hard work, that maybe the challenge for me lies in allowing myself to feel my sufficiency and my safety, over and over again, regardless of uncertainty, only without effort, with a cosmic ease. Why am I so suspicious of joy? Of light and pleasure and painlessness? Of humour and unapologetic silliness? I say I want it, and yet I feel to choose it is less valid, less authentic than its darker twin. I am used to the weight of its darker twin. The lightness of having nothing to feel guilty about feels almost too weightless, reckless. I might float away, or faint. I don’t know what would happen. I would not be in control. I might be mocked, and I would have no recourse to vengeance. If I was hurt, I would not be able to hurt back. I would not be carrying any weapons. I’d be defenceless.
At this point, inspired by something mercifully un-egoic, I crawled forward to pet Raffle where she lay, on the white shag rug in the shrunken centre of the room. There was a sudden collective restless stirring among the group, as if we’d all just called ourselves back from such far flung mental distances as we’d zoomed off to. Her beautiful fur. Soft as rabbit, black and tan and white. The incredible wild markings on her face, and her ears like damp cardboard cones covered in velvet. I felt so much love for her. She is such a smart, intuitive dog. So intelligent in her gaze. I stroked her and suddenly understood that if I stayed with her, I would observe her death. The medicine would take me down that road. As with all things, she too must pass. That relentless teaching: that always, in the presence of love, you must have the willingness to let it go. We are so inclined to be possessive in love, so the medicine reminds us to feel our love and to feel our helplessness, not as pathetic, but as wisdom, as stoicism. That great acceptance. Ayahuasca is stoicism training: hard lessons for the heart. Feel your love, then feel the loss. Let your heart break. Then try to feel your love again. Trust that your heart is made for this work. That it is designed to break and repair itself. Then, it is doing its job. That’s what it’s made for. To metabolize beauty and pain, to build up and break down, to digest, the way sunlight is digested by a leaf, to form energy through photosynthesis, and release waste as carbon dioxide. To absorb and to release. To pulsate. This is the part that is not about you, or what you get out of it. But rather, the force of life at work through you. See if you can still love from this place. It’s scary. Watch what you most love turn to dust in your hands, and rejoice that there was life at all to love. And that you did. You loved.
I noticed that her breath was slackening, the rise and fall of her body slowing down, that she was beginning to sink into herself. If I lingered much longer, I would see her fur subside over the contours of her skeleton like a falling tablecloth. Her black lip would curl back into a snarl and spread like burning plastic to reveal her teeth and gums. Accelerated decomposition would occur and, finally, her white bones would be laid bare. I knew this before it happened, and once again, chose not to allow what might occur. I didn’t want to use her in this way—for my edification. It felt invasive, sacrificial. I didn’t want her to suffer for my needing the lesson of perceiving her death.
There was also the deep stab of imminent sorrow at losing her, and a new thought came to mind. What if, while I still have the chance, I have a responsibility to keep her alive? To uplift her. I wanted to honour Raffle’s trust in me, the part of her life I hold in perceiving her. I had the impression that her life force, to some degree, is amplified or reduced by my perception of it, and I wanted to leave her unmolested by my experiments. I wanted to let her stay fluffy and warm and black and tan and white, with her puppy paws curled at the wrists, sleeping peacefully and breathing through the moist black rubber-ball of her nose. So I left her alone. I’m gonna leave you now, I whispered. I don’t really wanna watch this. And backed off to my mat, and chose the work of love. I chose to create rainbows of love instead. I was going to choose the manner of my life, and the manner of my dying, and it was not going to be fearful and dark. I had that option. I have that choice. And I was exercising it.
John Pierrakos, founder of Core Energetics, wrote: Energy follows thought. I know this to be absolutely true. A few years ago, a friend’s dog died and I had just done ayahuasca and I wrote him this email, which flowed out of me like a fully formed poem:
For now you will feel only loss. Then try to imagine that there is no difference between the visible and the invisible. He’s still there. Always was, always will be, because he’s you. You created him. He’s in a leaf now. A crow. The clouds. He’s in the soles of your feet. He taught you how to walk in the woods. You taught yourself. But the hand craves warm fur. I understand that too. And those traits that seem separate from you. His personality. Though I think you created that as well. By being willing to perceive it. You created the gap in the fence for him to leap through.
Photo by Flickr user Rimantas Jankauskas