Sunday, May 2, 2010

Our story begins...

The journey begins, as many do, with fear. Fear and a realization. Not the kind of fear that one might associate with tales of exotic jungle hallucinations and journeys across the realm of human consciousness. No paralyzing confrontation with my own mortality, human sacrificing natives or lethal jungle fauna. Nothing that cool. Just the fear that after spending eighteen hours on a plane to Brasilia - aka the place no one ever goes to in Brazil because there's not a damn thing happening there - that I might not know the actual name of the town the little town I was headed to, where I was supposed to meet Tolstoy, my host and really only link to plan for what to do next. And the realization was that I could no longer speak a word of Portuguese. This all happened in about the same instant in a taxi. I'd said I'd wanted to go to the bus station- a mother-fucker of a word in Portuguese, I must add, I'd gotten the information person to repeat if like five times for this very reason - only to find out there were two. And the which one I wanted to go to depended on what town I wanted to go to. And the town I wanted to go to apparently didn't exist. In truth I'd only heard the name of the town once, after a sleepless and life changing night at an ayahuasca ceremony, which seemed appropriate to the archetypical journey that I was embarking on, all that mystery and such. But this is 2010, and our world is drenched in accessible information. Nothing but foolishness had kept me in my ignorance; I had to laugh at my own idiocy. The taxi driver smiled (this is Brazil: even if they don't speak English, they are very friendly) and explained the basic problem a repeatedly - I realized I could actually understand a little Portuguese, just not speak it, which is kind of like being paralyzed but sentient - he didn't really know what bus station to take me to if I didn't know where I was going. I smiled and like any first world urban person, looked to my iphone for an answer. I mean think about it, you're lost, you can't find some word, or you have some other information problem - boom the solution is right in your pocket. But in fact, I had no roaming plan, no map, no dictionary, not nutting'. I decided to sit back and pray that this would be the most difficult part of journey scheduled to be an immersion into the famously challenging world of expanded consciousness.

I started looking for clues - the person who had answered the information phone at the airport had said it would be about 40 reals, so as the meter approached that, I looked for bus station like things. As it passed that I tried to ascertain if I was being given the classic foreigner scenic tour. I thought about who I could call in the states who would know the name of the town then realized they would all be asleep. Considered the hassle/expense of realizing I was at wrong station, wondered how stupid I would look wondering about Brasilia for days trying to find a town I could not name, clutched my iphone in hope of salvation… Eventually we arrived at the bus station. Hopefully the right one. We stopped, he took out my bag. I paid, he asked if I had two reals to facilitate the whole change making process - somehow the logic and familiarity of this process was encouraging. I didn't have change so he got it from some one else who also said that Alta Praixa didn't exist, but there was this place called Alto Paraiso… allI could do was hope.

Brazilians have this interesting system with busses, called 'not a monopoly'. As such there was no rolling up a the Greyhound counter, mispronouncing a name few times and buying a ticket. First came figuring out which company served the locale. Naturally the information booth was empty . I wondered around for awhile, reading every place listed on every placard; nothing. I made another circuit, prayed for the return of the information person and began to make peace with the fact that no matter my Portuguese skills, I was going to have to ask someone for help sooner or later. And at exactly that moment the change man rolled up and pointed me to a company which did in fact have a very small sign, hidden behind almost everything, that said Alto Paraiso. It was some kind of turning point. The clerk was friendly, the ticket was cheap, and best of all, the duration of the journey, about three and half hours, corresponded to my imperfect memory of the distance to the town, and I had an hour an half for the bus which is was just enough to time to do this cool new Chi Gung my brother had taught me. When I got on the bus, I decided it must be the right one . Ayahuasca people always talk about guidance and the truth, so I figured if the spirit could guide people away from addiction and towards divine light, it could handle getting me on the right bus.

Once on the bus I began to recap what I was doing there. I'd been telling people I was in the Amazon to drink Ayahuasca. Almost everyone seems to think that was the coolest thing ever. I was often surprised, because I'm at that point in my life when people are generally more likely to ask when are you gonna get it together and you know, do something with your life, something which I seem either naturally resistant to or just to disorganized to accomplish. But last fall, I'd decided that even thought it was about fifteen years to late, I was coming out of the closet, and telling everyone that I fucking loved drugs, and that I owed a huge part of my ability to relate to and communicate to people to them. Not only that, as far as I could see, they were undoubtedly the catalyst to the next stage of human evolution. And that I was gonna devote a good deal of my life to working with them. Quite to my surprise, everyone who has taken the time to listen to the whole story, seemed to think it was a great idea, except of course my mom - but what kind of mother would be happy to hear their child say a thing like that?

Just to be clear, by drugs, I mean those things that are called psychedelic, or - and I find this a little pretentious, though I dig the cheek, and have to say it is pretty accurate - entheogens, meaning 'releasing the god with in'. Some people say medicines, but that seems beyond pretentious to me. I do like holotropic, a word coined by Dr. Stan Groff, who is basically the guru of psychedelic therapy, which means growing towards wholeness. In any case, by drugs I means LSD , Psilocybin, all the various kinds of mescaline, which if sold commercially are probably just LSD, DMT, with the 5MEO or not, 2CB, I and E, THC - that's weed for drug challenged people of the world and on the borderline, because yes kids it is pretty close to an amphetamine, MDMA. There are a whole heap of other synthetic substances, that I don't know much about, but those are the biggies. And my favorite is really Acid. Cleanest, highest, smartest. Again, for the drug challenged, all these things are non addictive, and with the possible exception of MDMA, harmless to your body. The only problem is that they are powerful. They give us access to an understanding of the world that is very different then that which is presented by consensus reality, and although it is very beautiful and liberating, it can be terrifying and confusing either as it revealed to you, or just as a concept to the outside observer, say… your mom. And of course once in a while people get lost in it and get to high and don't' come back, or don't come back quickly, or jump off buildings or do other stupid shit. I'm not saying these substances are completely safe, but neither is crossing the street.

All of this puts them in a completely different category than amphetamines, barbiturates, opiates, cocaine products, etc, not mention pharmaceuticals, or the holy trinity of alcohol, tobacco and coffee. Some pharmaceuticals are certainly good, to the extent that we love work within the western medical paradigm, but other then that all those things are straight poison. And for the most part distributed by organizations - Anheiser-Bush, Merck, the Mexican cartels, who are famous for not have your best interests at heart.

Back in the world of fun drugs, there are also like 900 psychoactive plant alkaloids, of which a lot are to weird or to hard to work with to be interesting. I think something like six or seven hundred of them are native to the amazon, and the one I'm here to dive into, or drink, as it colloquially expressed, is called ayahuasca, which means something like vine of the spirit, or the dead. More into why it has such weird name later, but for now, just know that it's actually a reduction made from two plants. One is bush that contains DMT, which is pretty much the most intense psychoactive substance known to man, produced by pineal gland, opens the gates of consciousness, possibly to other dimensions. This is the stuff that unlike acid or mushrooms, is said to make you see solid objects. Not patterns, not melting fractals, but six foot tall preying mantises, elves, giant serpents, and of course, aliens. What's more, it's present in high quantities in children and many animals - every wonder why kids are so weird? The intensity is made up for by the fact that you body will metabolize DMT very quickly. Like completely back home in fifteen minutes after you smoke it. Unless you have add an MAO inhibitor, which slows the breakdown of DMT as well as doing a whole lot of other things to your body which I am not qualified to explain and severely limits your dietary/medication possibilities when drinking aya. For those of your trying this at home, really read this lists of prohibited foods and drugs. Bad things, theoretically at least, including death, can happened. Anyways, with MAOI you can stay high for hours. And the MAOI is the active alkaloid in the vine that is the other key component to ayahuasca. You put the two of these together, and what you get is definitely a strange brew.

And that's what I'm here for - assuming it's the right here. I look around the bus and try to see if anyone looks like they might be also be going to drink exotic hallucinogens in a dark amazon forest. There is one guy who looks about right, long grey hair, one of those hipster T-shirts with the monkey with a tube for intestines- you know the one and a lot of tattoos. It think about asking him, but it seems like a hopeless proposition. What am I gonna do, say in my none existent portuguese 'excuse me possible fellow seeker am I on the right bus to the city whose name I don't know?' Instead of asking him, I conclude that it is my style to be stupid enough to not know where I'm going, its not really my style to actually wind up at the wrong place. At least I hope.

I also really have no idea what I'm going to to when I get there. Obviously I'm gonna drink a lot of ayahuasca. And I'm hoping that will clarify something for me, which goes a little something like this.

I see people on a spiritual path - via psychedelics or not - so enthused about it that they will grasp at anything they hope can be woven into a magical world. And I want to fucking kill them. I see the world view they construct like this, so desperately, so without consideration for integrity or rationality that the result is inevitably flimsy and weak. And of course they are always defensive and frequently snide. Because their world is based at best on hope, and at worst on desperation and insecurities - which leaves little room for reality. I do spend a lot of time in a pretty hippy-dippy world and I'm constantly on alert - am I becoming one of those people!!?.

So what do I mean by 'those people'? I guess anyone who is more invested in hope then reality. But I am a big fan of hope, so this brings me to the question of what I know to be absolutely real. A partial list starts out like this: Neurotransmitters, a daily practice, a healthy diet, integrity, making peace with one's shadows and ones past, the guiding power of love and the importance of sunshine.

And there are things in which I have yet to see any truth, crystals and dream catchers. Aromatherapy, plant spirits, past lives etc… which I tend to associate with desperate graspers. And so I am skeptical of these things. Oh, and lets not forget the thing that makes me most skeptical of all, this notion that the universe is composed of, or that god or the reason for existence or whatever you wanna call it is this infinite love. I think love is great stuff, but I've yet to see that it's the center of it all. Sorry, sweetheart. Of course a big part of what makes me skeptical is that it's so tempting. I would love to believe is such a universe. But to me that's the same kind of slippery slope nonsense that will get you 'Jesus will absolve us of our sins.' type madness. It's so tempting...

And from this perspective I went to the aptly titled conference: Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century last week. It was awesome, and you should google if you didn't hear about it, or check this
The noise it generated and unprecedented respect it lent to the movement heralded a new era for psychedelics. And since psychedelics (you may not be aware of this but that's ok) are the catalyst for the next evolutionary step for the the human race, it's was a big step for all of us here on planet earth.

I learned a lot of great stuff at the conference, some great neuropharmacology and neurobiology, some brilliant therapeutic models - if you read the Mithofers pilot study, you'll probably agree that MDMA is the future of PTSD therapy. It blows away talk therapy, it blows away SSRIs. It's like a miracle. But that's not actually the main thing I took away from the conference. The thing I took away from it was a real questioning of the investment I have in the extremely structural make up of my world view. I mean I like it - it's solid and keeps me from believing myths or getting caught up in hopeful half truths. And it also keeps me from spinning off into any of into multiple horrors that are available to the fearful or ungrounded who delve to deeply into psychedelia. But my little brother called me the morning of the second day of the conference. He was just waking up from an ayahuasca ceremony and wanted to know why I hadn't told him it was gone be so intense. He relayed his experience - giant snails, extra terrestrials, elves who speak in shapes - and I replied what has become almost a mantra I say it so often: 'I don't really freak out because there's not much to freak out about. I have a daily meditation practice, a pretty clear relationship with my past, a healthy diet, and firm grounding in what is real. Shit just doesn't phase me that much'. I went back to hearing about a very scientific explanation of what goes wrong in the brain that causes PTSD - apparently, it's all about the amaglyda. Over the course of the day, I gave the conversation a little thought, and halfway listened to some models of awareness that had something to do with what makes people willing to accept or question their own belief systems. First, of all, my brother wasn't freaking out. He was seeing stuff I don't see. The reality or utility of what he saw is a separate question, but it wasn't a freak out. I realized that the thing about being as emphatically grounded as I am in this wonderfully rational world, is… that I am emphatically grounded in this wonderfully rational world. You're really never gonna get anywhere by saying hey tree spirits, prove that you exist. I mean if they exist, they exist in a place outside of our rational world. So part of the journey is to experiment for four weeks with letting go or at least seriously reconsidering my affection for the rational in a place where no one can make fun of me because presumably it will be freak central. It's a bit of a stretch for me, but there a couple of very solid scientific realities that not surprisingly, I find comforting in a moment like this. The first is that all sorts of things that are completely rational would've seemed like complete magic a century ago. That iphone for example. The second is that a lot of really cool stuff in science is just running up against all kinds of paradoxes and other weirdness - relativity, quantum mechanics and lots of other stuff I should probably know about but don't. So on the one hand something that seems like magic could be just something we haven't figured out yet - the iphone of 2210. On the other hand it could be that we eventually figure out that as Tennessee Williams suggested, something to the effect of - basically at the bottom of everything there is just a big pile of riddle books.

Eventually the monkey shirt man looks at the book I'm reading, about ayahuasca naturally, and asks, in English no less, if I he can look at it. We talk for a minute. He's going to Alto Paraiso to drink ayahuasca. Not only that, at about that moment, we seem to be arriving. As I, or any reader with a modicum of Brazilian geography probably had begun to suspect, we were not in the heart of the Amazon. There was plenty of vegetation, but not more then say, Central Park. It was a nice little hippy town. Bright colors, ads for health food and places with names like astral this and solar that. About as intimidating as Santa Cruz.

I got off the bus, looked up and there was a Tolstoy sun tanned and smiling. He looked completely happy and like he hadn't slept in a week. As I get my bag, he asks if want some açaí. I said that I did, and soon found myself eating this giant purple açaí sorbet with three or for glowing blessed tanned looking people who also looked they hadn't slept and had been similarly improved by the experience. I took one bite of the supernaturally delicious concoction, looked at their smiles, and began to think that maybe the tree spirits weren't far behind. Not only was I not afraid, bless their European souls, they were speaking English.

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