Thursday, October 7, 2010

Broken Mirrors, Laughing Trees

The only thing worse than the pain knotting up my stomach was the ridiculous things the trees were saying to me. We'll get to the trees shortly, but for now, just know that if you are ever thinking about drinking ayahuasca and you already have a stomachache, for god's sake, do not do it. Do not listen to everyone telling you what a beautiful ceremony it is and how the woman leading it has such a strong practice and what a special occasion it is. Do not consider that that you'll be out of the country before her next ceremony and that this chance won't come again. Stay home, go to a movie, organize your iPhone apps or cut your fucking arm off. But do not drink the tea.

Unless you want to find yourself lying on a mattress outside of the ceremony proper rocking your belly back and forth in a futile attempt to ease the pain, stumbling up to shit as soon as their is any glimmer of hope that something will come out and praying the universe will see fit to make you throw up whatever kind of sewage is curdling your gut.

The ceremony had started out reasonably enough. It was inside, in a brightly lit room with people sitting upright in chairs (objects which I had been previously unaware of in ayahuasca ceremonies) and a bunch of happy people singing together - just like usual. It was led by a woman named Darshan, who held ceremonies twice a month that loosely followed the UDV (União do Vegetal; Union of Plants) tradition, one of the syncretic churches that mixed indigenous and Christian traditions. I'm always skeptical of anything associated with Christianity, but I'd been told she was more about the love than the Jesus; as far as I know, she'd never bombed any abortion clinics or anything. In fact, she’d seemed like a generous and likable person when I'd met her before. And there was the chorus of happy hippies telling me how beautiful it would all be.

Honestly though, it seemed more formal than beautiful, with the chairs and bright unshielded lights, the ornately decorated ayahuasca decanter and the rapt attention to the distribution of hymn books and posture and singing. It was somewhat Christian-esque but still a good experience. But after about fifteen minutes, the combination of trying to follow along in Portuguese, and sit up straight to deal the tempest in my belly overwhelmed me so I laid down outside in hopes of death or some equally definitive form of relief.

Eventually the trees seemed like a better idea than the people; dancing with them seemed like a good idea and in the past I'd been able to manipulate and pull out the knotty pain energy when I was standing up or dancing. That sort of worked this time. But what struck me was the people, who seemed somehow stuck, with their problems and their pain and the energy that defined it. Whereas everything I was going through seemed somehow manageable; as unpleasant as it was, its origin was no deeper than bad judgment and its end was clearly only a few hours away, a lot of the people around me seemed, well, fucked. Their situations seemed to have a spiritual/emotional element that completely transcended anything as readily understood as the worst stomachache on the planet. This is always part of the deal at group ayahuasca ceremonies; I'm basically all right, and other people are loosing their shit. What gives? This is when the trees, with their suddenly human and comical gestures and limbs, started getting all communicative and winking and nodding and saying, 'See, you should be a shaman.'

I cough and look around for whomever they're talking too. I don't see anyone else.

Seriously... with feathers, wisdom, compassion and stuff?

The tree nods with encouragement.

Which just goes to show that trees aren't really that smart.

I'm sure that sounds like a nice idea to most people, and I do love drugs -- which are big part of the job -- and I love nature and I do think I have a better understanding of the nature of the universe and the human condition than most people and, sure, I feel like I can work with energy. But seriously, a shaman? Do I seem like the kind of guy who is supposed to spend six years puking root vegetables and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in some obscure Peruvian rainforest and emerge with a deep connection to mother earth and an amazing ability to heal. More to the point, have I ever been accused of patience or compassion by anyone?

But it also made a lot of sense. I do like a lot of the component pieces; I guess this seems like it could be a logical extension. But it just seemed so extreme. But so obvious, the trees say, laughing.

Just to be clear, the trees weren't literally talking in a mouth and vocal chord kind of way. I mean the branches and leaves do seem to self anthropomorphize into representations of what seem to be recognizable emotions and intelligence the higher you get - but that happens with pretty much any drug worth taking. Mostly, they just seemed to be making a point without saying anything; just like when you ask your girlfriend if she minds if you skip her birthday to go to the strip club with the boys: the response, though silent, is unequivocal.

It's funny because, on paper, being a shaman does seem like a great job to me. Drugs, nature, lots of travel. No one expects you to give a fuck about the most recent episode of CSI, Sarah Palin's latest inanity or any of the myriad of other things that I always find myself confused as to why people seem so swept up by. You can travel, and meet lots of interesting people. I'm sure it's super easy to get laid. I imagine that as long as you have western clients, it pays ok. But even more than the presumably unpleasant apprenticeship period, I think what I find fundamentally repugnant about it is all the respect and reverence associated with it. Not to mention my complete lack of enthusiasm for indigenous culture. I'm not hating - live in the forest, respect the earth, cover yourself with cool tattoos, declare the folly of the western way; go big. I'll watch it on Nova. At least while CSI is having a commercial. I just think I'm the kind of person who needs a higher rate of stimulation. And cynicism. Or at least sarcasm.

Eventually the ceremony and the agony and the trees begin to wind down. We sing the closing hymns and are released into the aftermath and the balance of difficulties shifts: once again the task of communicating (or, to be honest, preventing people from trying to do so with me) in Portuguese seems more formidable than the pain in the belly. Starving and desperate for something as straightforward as food in my stomach, I inhale several cups of soup. I look around at the people who really seemed like they were going through hell. Most of them seem happy and relieved like they've just conquered some great adversary, just freed themselves from some great pain. I'm just feeling divorced, tired and embarrassed at my lack of Portuguese, which I've found to be somewhat a standard scene after group ceremonies.

Eventually I make my way to Bellisimo's house, where I'm spending the night. Bellisimo is a great guy - he's always smiling, making food and hugging people, with almost clownish abandon and cheerfulness. I tell him about the whole shaman thing and for what seems like the first time ever, he stops laughing, walks away from whatever he was doing in the kitchen, sits down right in front of me and says in a very encouraging and serious tone that if I feel this calling and it’s great and I should follow it. Not exactly the 'Dude, you were just high' response I was hoping for.

The next day, I tell the whole thing to my friend Napalm. He's like 'Dude, don't worry about it. Everyone thinks that when they first start to drink ayahuasca. You were just high' - a friend indeed.

But in truth, looking back, I have to say, my energetic disinterest in shamanism and my ambivalence towards the indigenous cultures it stems from is firmly rooted in, well, a complete absence of information. I realize that when I think of indigenous cultures, I mostly think of my annoyance with the white people who revere them, or casually adapt their wisdom or artifacts. Dream catcher anyone? I guess I feel like I've met a lot of people who look to an indigenous or some non-western cultural with a kind of blind reverence and very lightly hand it some great legitimacy. It's about as ridiculous as drunken college kids who assume, more or less entirely based on the quantity and texture of my hair, that I have some god given insight into what is ‘up’. All of this nonsense more often seems like an attempt to align oneself with something that seems more significant than the mundanity of modern life or piss of their parents or find solidarity with the problems they have with society at large or any number of agendas that have nothing to do with the actual thing itself. Which is more less what I can say for my own understanding of indigenous cultures.

I think part of my ambivalence to other people's reverence is that nothing has ever made me deeply fear or respect god or ayahuasca or mother earth or any external entity. Perhaps I'm just asking for it by admitting that out loud, but it’s a simple truth. My life, both the good and the bad seem to be very much of my own making, granted I drew an excellent hand: I was born in a good situation to someone who loved me silly and fed me well in a country with no civil wars and gold plated passports, but beyond the gift of comfortable and loved first-world existence (which come to think of it, is a pretty big deal), I've pretty much made my own life. And I’ve made my own mistakes. And I feel the glory and blame are entirely my own. And although kindness to the planet and its inhabitants makes a great deal of sense to me and the universe seems clearly to have elements that are beyond the scope of consensus reality, none of these realities has ever ransacked me in the night as the terrifying truth in the way so many people talk about. So how the fuck could I possibly be a shaman?


This is my first blog entry with an afterward; looking over what I wrote and reflecting on a few more recent events have brought me to a slightly more unsettling conclusion. While writing this entry, I was also intermittently visiting a friend I met recently. Over the course of her life she had had a few things happen to her that were really far more distressing than the worst things that have ever happened to me, by like a factor of ten zillion. Ironically she seems to have survived through all of it and really flourished; she is not the kind of person that it would ever occur to you to mistake for a victim or feel sorry for; if anything the turbulence seems to have just given her more motivation to live her life as fully as possible. But listening to her talk about some of the things that had transpired, I had a few really 'there but by the grace of God go I' type moments. Things had happened to her that seemed about as likely as a piano falling on your head while walking through midtown Manhattan. These were not stories of the bad thing that happened after getting drunk and playing paintball in traffic, or getting kidnapped while hiking close to the border of some autocratic anti-American country. These were perfect storms of misfortune that no one could've predicted or prevented. The one thing that seemed to distress her about all these things was trying to find some reason or justification for all of it. Uselessly rational, I told her there was none, that sometimes bad things happen to good people and that we can make ourselves crazy trying attribute meaning to an unlucky role of the dice.

The day I met up with her her iPhone made it's way to the bottom of the ocean - the new 4G one with Face Time and HD video. Later, something knocked into her surfboard, which fell into a mirror breaking both of them and sending shards of glass falling onto her couch, ripping up the upholstery. Man, I thought, is she having a bad day. Then I opened up my computer to check something and found that it wouldn't turn on; the prognosis eventually being dead motherboard, which, for those of you unfamiliar with Apple's replacement parts pricing, means getting a new computer. So that's several thousand dollars (and all of the photos homegirl had taken since July) up in smoke.

This all sucked, but like my stomachache, all these were just very bad mosquito bites; annoying, expensive, but honestly without real impact on our lives. But this was a person who I have a feeling could be one of the people who greatly influences my life and thinking about the precedent of the first 24 hours, it occurred to me to consider that perhaps the universe was trying to send me a message about exactly what kind of influence I was in for.

Over the next few days, I was still trying to figure out what that message might be. It didn't seem like run away, but c'mon, broken mirrors? That's so classic it's cliché. After writing parts of this blog entry about the lack of reverence and fear of I have towards the universe in general and ayahuasca in particular, I was talking on the phone to my friend about some of those genuinely distressing things that had happened to her in the past. And then I started thinking maybe I'm a fucking idiot. In a way, part of my approach to ayahuasca had been, well ok, but when are you gonna scare me for real (This is not quite as retarded as it sounds, well actually it is, but let me give you some background- ayahuasca literature is full of stories that are essentially: 'oh my god I'm scared, oh my god I'm scared, oh my god I'm scared, ok, I'll relax and except everything, oh my god, now the universe is beautiful and full of light and I'm over my life long bipolar disorder and accept and forgive every bad thing that ever happened to me and now I know my true calling in life. A part of me felt like I was missing out by not having such an experience.) And listening to someone who had been scared for real, completely without ayahuasca, I kind of started to feel like I was taunting my own doom. I was in southern California at the time, where the weather was uncharacteristically rainy, and I had the flash that maybe the weather report had missed one falling piano with my name on it.

A few days later, I'm sitting on my friend's couch - same one, though cut, it was still serviceable - and I feel something hard hit my head. And suddenly there is a mirror in my lap. Apparently she had been so distressed by the lack of mirror that she had set this one where the old one was, without really attaching it and a loud laugh or something sent it hurling towards my head. The mirror and I were unharmed but I imagined for a moment what might've happened had this mirror broken into the same type of spiky shards as the other one - a stream of imagination made all the more vivid by some of the gruesome things my friend, who worked in a hospital, had told me about her work.

It was beginning to occur to me that even if I couldn't muster reverence that maybe I didn’t need to put quite so much energy into irreverence.

The next day the potential for some very good luck landed in my lap - the details are to complex to go into - but it was about ten times as surprising as the mirror and as far as I could tell, equally unrelated to anything I had done to earn it. That evening, as I was sitting down to meditate, I realized I was making a very subtle change to my meditation approach, from something like closing my eyes and focusing really hard, to closing my eyes and seeing what the universe presented to me. Somehow, in the course of accepting this fairly subtle change, which was greatly informed by everything I've just written about, I found myself for the first time ever, certainly not accepting as de facto, but being open to as a kind of working hypothesis, the idea that perhaps the universe, or some concentrations of it, actually had an intelligence or an intent behind them. And that whatever they were, for some reason, they had taken it upon themselves to be very, very nice to me and that maybe I shouldn't be sticking my tongue out at ayahuasca or anything else, daring it to show me something big and scary. Maybe I, with my remarkably healthy body, loving friends and family and essentially trauma-free life, should just shut the fuck up and be grateful.