The Pale Cast of Thought
Can ayahuasca cure writer’s block?
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Can ayahuasca cure writer’s block?
In this story: the fear of death, William S. Burroughs, hallucinogens (ayahuasca, LSD, etc), transcendental botany, whale sounds, Gravity’s Rainbow, feats of human endurance, and Jedi mind tricks. For access to Harper’s 164-year archive, subscribe here.
I wrote this essay one Sunday in May 2013. A friend of mine had recently attended an ayahuasca ceremony in upstate New York, and he came back full of big news about ascension to the shared plane of human consciousness and resulting inability to live a lie.
Now Matt’s a regular guy, intelligent, notable for the care he takes to be measured. He’s a writer who cares about not exaggerating for effect, and I’ve never known him to be unkind to or about someone for a punch line. He’s also hilarious—his brand of comedy comes not from exaggeration, but from the exhilaration of hitting the nail squarely on the head. Comedy as truth, told faster than normal. He’s also an excellent poker player. All in all, here is someone whose insights I consider worth a damn; and he told me that if, as an experience, marijuana gets five stars out of five, then ayahuasca gets thirteen, and he would put me in touch with the organizers if I wanted.
I did not want. Ayahuasca is the psychoactive tea used in indigenous Quechuan—South American—religion, something along the lines of peyote but stronger, whose users report massive psychological revelation, access to the collective consciousness, telepathy, encounters with God, and catastrophic vomiting. William S. Burroughs called it the most powerful drug he had ever experienced.
Now, any cigarette stronger than a Marlboro Light makes me turn white and pass out. I do not love marijuana. I’ve never done hallucinogens, mushrooms or LSD, and not PCP, DMT, ketamine or anything a lot stiffer than whiskey. MDMA … is another story. I was a teenager in England. So the rationalization went something like: It’s actually more dangerous to jump in at the shallow end.
“A re you waiting for… Alex?” A rangy guy in a white tracksuit narrowed his eyes at me. I was sitting on a switching box, one of those mysterious pieces of New York street furniture, outside a chain pharmacy, with a backpack and nothing to do. A classic spy contact: four strangers had been told to meet at a certain intersection. We were unknown to each other, but our energies (educated, aimless) were easily identifiable.
I replied that I was. This was Patrick. He was a sculptor. He had never taken ayahuasca before either. We fell to talking skittishly about nothing, like preshow greenroom chitchat.
It was about eight o’clock on a Friday, sunset was washing up the Chelsea streets as far as Sixth, and the neighborhood was getting frisky. Patrick and I noticed a third guy sitting on the far side of the avenue like a hobo, who turned out to be Billy, a video editor for a successful TV show. The fourth man, Alex, a digital interaction specialist who looked like a good Terry Richardson, turned up soon afterwards to drive us all up in his VW Golf. We were all about six foot. “Just push my daughter’s toys aside,” Alex told us as we folded ourselves into this European compact, and we rolled two hours into upstate New York, all femurs and cricked necks, sprinkled with a girl’s brightly colored toys like a bowl of Lucky Charms.
The ceremony was in the house of Ida, a warm, smiling lady who saged us—waved a smoldering sage branch over us—as we entered. A normal house: pleasant, not huge, semi-rural. There were to be six drinkers. This was small, as ayahuasca ceremonies go.
Instead of the usual shaman—a Peruvian named Eduardo who was supposedly a whiz on the guitar—we had the alternate, a saturnine fellow named Shiva who looked like a Latino Ernest Borgnine.
“Sorry wait,” I whispered to my new friends from the car. “The shaman’s name is Shiva?”
“Shiva.” Bland nods.
“Does anyone feel that’s not a … classically good … sign?”
But no one saw anything wrong here.
The other drinkers were Joe, a sad-seeming twentysomething in a beanie and shorts that went most of the way to being trousers but gave up within sight of the finish, and Andy, a handsome devil in his fifties who looked like he’d done a stretch. Things were nervy. There wasn’t much chitchat. We unrolled our sleeping bags on a large tarpaulin in the back room, arranged our vomit pails, and made ready. Four non-drinkers were there to care for us. One of them was Mario. Mario I’d met before.
M ario had emailed weeks ago, wanting first to talk over the phone, and then in person, to vet me. The community that administers these ceremonies is tightly knit, and while they do charge money (I paid $200) it’s in no way for profit. The caution about who attends is no doubt partly due to the legal penumbra—ayahuasca is protected by the freedom of religion clauses in the Constitution—and by a 2006 Supreme Court ruling protecting ayahuasca specifically—though in practice neither is likely to stop you from getting tased when deputies kick in the door. But the vetting was mostly about keeping things simpatico. It’s a sacrament, whose rites are observed in letter and spirit. They don’t want people without serious intentions to attend. This was what Mario mainly wanted to speak to me about: my intention.
“Intention” is an important concept: you’re supposed to focus your mind clearly on what you want to ask the spirits—in Western gnostics, what to work on psychologically. In the rough and tumble of the trip, you could easily lose your bearings, and my intention should be symbolized by a clear image I should get used to summoning. This would perform the same role as a totem in the movie Inception: a plumb line with which a dizzy mind could reorient itself.
I arranged to meet Mario at my local café on a Saturday morning in May. But he was running late, and in the fifteen minutes before he showed my table was gatecrashed by first one and then two knucklehead buddies, Hugh and Ted. I explained the situation. They found it richly comic.
“You’re about to meet your shaman?” Hugh asked.
“Not a shaman, more of an organizer.”
Mario turned up, a strapping Mexican well north of six feet with an amazing thatch of grey hair. He was enthusiastic and kind and brushed off the knuckleheads’ sniggering. We talked about the forthcoming ceremony. I had concerns. I didn’t want to freak out and hurt myself. I didn’t want to get locked into some schizotypal mode where I couldn’t switch off the voices. I didn’t want to have flashbacks the rest of my life.
Mario went at the reassurances with gusto. Watching over my trip would be a spirit known as Abuela. Abuela—The Grandmother—was kindly; like any grandma, although she might give you a stern talking-to, she would never hurt you. Unlike some of these other asshole spirits, I was given to understand.
Hugh and Ted glanced at each other. Hugh had questions. He works for a well-known house of finance, and wanted to know what was the worst thing, no seriously, that could happen.
“Nothing bad,” Mario replied. “I walk with the spirits every two months or so, I know them well, they are very respectful.”
This didn’t satisfy Hugh, who pressed his question.
“I’ve served at over three hundred ceremonies,” Mario replied. “Nothing bad has ever happened.”
They were talking at cross purposes. Hugh explained himself more clearly. In order to evaluate risk, he said, he would want to know what was the absolute worst-case, 100-percent-downside thing that could possibly happen.
“I mean,” Mario blinked, and thought about this, bemused. “Obviously, people have died?”
A yahuacsa has two principal ingredients: the Amazonian vine Banisteriopsis caapi and any of maybe two dozen local plants that contain dimethyltriptamine (DMT). In pharmacological terms, DMT, “the spirit molecule,” is what fuels the trip. If smoked by itself DMT would produce a psychedelic experience lasting maybe ten minutes, but when consumed alongside B. caapi—which contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) that prevents the DMT from being broken down by stomach enzymes—the DMT survives the stomach, is absorbed into the bloodstream, and the effects are prolonged from minutes to hours.
In religious terms, it’s the other way around: while there are dozens of DMT-containing plants, the spirit vine is near unique in its ability to potentiate it, which makes it the crucial ingredient, and therefore, in the shaman mind, the holy part.
A yahuasca came to Western attention in 1851, when it was discovered by British gentleman of science Richard Spruce; but his Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes would not be published until 1908. In 1923 a Colombian chemist, Guillermo Fischer Cárdenas, isolated the active alkaloid and named it telepathine, though this was later found to have been isolated elsewhere as “harmine.” Ayahuasca remained a decidedly specialist topic until after the Second World War, when Harvard postgraduate anthropologist William S. Burroughs, having inadvertently shot his wife in the face, thought it best to go on the lam until the heat died down. It was September 1951. He would have known, from his Harvard days, of an Amazonian vine rumored to be able to heal a badly mangled soul.
He had one of those. He set off to find the vine.
By March he was in Ecuador, and wrote to Allen Ginsberg: “Did not score for Yage, Bannisteria caapi, Telepathine, Ayahusaca—all names for the same drug. I think the deal is top secret. I know the Russians are working on it, and I think the U.S. also.” (Yage is a Spanish rather than Quechua word, pronounced “ya-hey.”) A British botanist came across Burroughs, as he recorded in his diary:
10/3/53: Stayed at the Hotel Niza in Pasto. We found Burroughs, an American, with a publishing firm, commissioned to write a book about narcotics in the Putumayo, having come by road from Cali. A tall, lank, droopy sort of person with a pessimistic streak for conjuring up all manner of fearful fevers one can collect around Putumayo; a pleasant fellow though, talkative and dryly amusing.
19/3/53: Burroughs has just about recovered from his yahé drinking. The old Ingano Indian gave him a wineglass full of the stuff (a mixture of two alkaloids from a wild plant), and within 15 min. it sent him almost completely off his rocker: violent vomiting every few minutes, feet almost numb & hands almost useless, unable to walk straight, liable to do anything one would not dream of doing in a normal state… He got back to the hotel about seven this morning after a pretty awful night.
Course, that’s how it looked from the outside. Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg, “Yage is space time travel,” and, later, “This is the most powerful drug I have ever experienced.” He also made material contributions to the botany, being the first to identify the DMT admixture plants; his notes were bundled together with his Ginsberg correspondence and published ten years later as The Yage Letters. But big things were afoot: 1963 was the year Harvard fired Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert for their LSD research, a drug that was to take the limelight, while ayahuasca remained a psychedelic sideshow for the next decades.
At Ida’s, Mario took me aside for a chat. Had I stuck to the diet? I mostly had. In order to prepare the stomach for the DMT freakshow, I had been instructed to spend a week without alcohol, meat, caffeine, extraneous salt and sugar, hot spices and sexual release. I stuck it for five days, which seemed like plenty.
One of the reasons I’ve dodged hallucinogens is that I’m terrified of my psyche. Ever since we were undergrads it has enjoyed spending nights sitting on me like a dickhead brother wondering why I won’t stop hitting myself. In my twenties we struck an uneasy truce. But it was still a natural predator that reveled in my unhappiness, and here I was giving it infinite weapons and a brick through its window.
Mario knew I was apprehensive. After Hugh and Ted had drifted off elsewhere to rock shades and pop collars, Mario asked about my state of mind. I told him about my sadnesses, failed relationships, the various issues on which I could not stop wondering whether I’d made good decisions. I’ve never had the talking cure (“no shit,” is the traditional response), but I boiled it all down now for this stranger. He listened to my cavalcade of regrets and fuckups at first respectfully and then with something like awe that I was still able to dress myself. At the end, he sat back, eyebrows up, and puffed his cheeks out in a long exhalation. “I don’t know, maybe … maybe you shouldn’t do it?”
T he ceremony started around ten P.M., once all members of the sacred circle were in position, with several preambles and much “aho” in response (the Quechua amen). Salvatore was the music man, who wore a tie-dyed blue and yellow shirt and a grey bandana sheafing his dreads. Shiva’s girlfriend Amy—a wholesome Shelley Duval type with long hair smoothed from a high forehead—passed around a white-paper blunt the size of a boardmarker, but made only from tobacco. A cigar, I suppose we call this. We were each to puff four times. Shiva explained it was to carry our prayers skyward. Alex stood to puff in each cardinal direction. When it was my turn, Salvatore told me I didn’t have to puff; I could just hold the blunt a bit while I prayed. Stung, I muttered that I’d at least Clinton it a bit, for the look of the thing. I nearly fainted.
Then the tea. It looked and smelt like powdered corpse mixed into brown housepaint. Patrick was first. He knelt before Shiva and drank it from an earthenware eggcup. He gave it back to Shiva, who peered into it with his one good eye and told him there was some left. “The medicine you need is in the last drop,” Shiva joked, with Yoda inflections. Patrick produced a wintry smile and drank again.
The same thing happened with Andy and then Billy, same cup, same joke.
Then me. I poured it into my mouth. My gag reflex clamped my throat shut like a beartrap. Everyone waited patiently while I sweet-talked my system into letting this fluid in. I drank it a second time to forestall Shiva’s line, which he delivered anyway, and I held the eggcup upended over my tongue for maybe twenty seconds, eyes wandering the room, while the remnants drooled in.
I was at British boarding school; I’ve had disgusting things in my mouth. I’ve eaten pigs’ trotters in aspic in a Belgrade speakeasy; cevapi in Sarajevo, falafel in Alexandria that gave me amoebic dysentery. Once, on Suicide Sunday and for a dare, I opened an ornamental display of pickled vegetables that had sat on a windowsill overlooking Bridge Street for perhaps a decade—this was at Cambridge—fished out a chunk of yellowed feta cheese, shaved it to its former whiteness, and ate it.
Ayahuasca was worse. Billy, attending his fourteenth ceremony, slipped me some minty chewing gum to take away the taste. I spent much of the next few hours enjoining the universe to give Billy a long and happy life.
Once we’d drunk, Shiva announced they’d turn out the lights and there’d follow a period of about 45 minutes praying or meditating or otherwise chilling. “Once the medicine is in you,” he said, “nothing can help you.”
“Aho,” we agreed, though it wasn’t entirely true in my case—I’d brought a multi-tool in the admittedly unlikely event I absolutely, positively had to kill myself.
A candle flickered in the corner, throwing weird shadows. And soon my yellow sleeping bag began to glow blue, and then demon faces zoomed at me. But after one or two seconds of alarm, I realized they were just cartoons, easily brushed aside. When I shut my eyes, a thick cable of infinite worm patterns reached out at me. But the worms weren’t malevolent, and this was the first revelation: visions have no agency. They’re just movies.
This was an important realization: my main hallucinogen worry was cognate to that panic you get when the mouse cursor begins to move all wrong, and you think, Oh my god I’m having a stroke before realizing you’re holding the mouse upside down. That feeling of being locked out of your own operating system. Weed does that to me, and I don’t love it. With ayahuasca, you’re not locked out, there’s just some mad weird programs running. The cursor still moves fine.
But it was clear that these visions were just the overture for other presences that simulated agency much much better. My apprehension was so intense I started to chuckle about it. If I had this uncancelable appointment with players from the astral plane, I figured it was preferable to meet them in their world rather than invite them into mine. I dug a kikoy—a sarong—out of my bag and wrapped it around my eyes. If things got heavy I could be back in the room in one or two seconds, tops, where my familiarity with the physical world, objects and so forth, might give me an edge.
Hugh had sent me a text that afternoon to encourage me: “Obviously, people have died.”
A t the end of the quiet period, Shiva gave the nod and Salvatore started in with the ikaro: songs to bring on visions. Salvatore chanted, wailed, piped, pan-piped; he shook, he hassled us with some kind of harmonica arrangement. He sang in Spanish, English, and what I took to be Quechua. And it worked! We barely noticed the music as it bore us off into dreamworld places.
It was around this time that Joe started spitting in his vomit pail: nothing serious, just speculatively testing for interest in a full puke. After a while Patrick answered with a belch: a rich, intrepid, baritone thing that went on for seven or eight syllables, generously textured with bubbles and vocal fry. It was practically whalesong, something a ten-year-old boy lies awake under his duvet and dreams one day of producing.
It was answered, like timberwolves gathering for a hunt, by smaller beta and gamma burps.
Then it was open season. The knuckles of Billy and Patrick and Alex and Joe and Andy went white as they shouted liquid into their little pails. In the local argot, they were getting well. I started laughing, more or less uncontrollably. It was so goofy! All this po-faced mysticism surrounding the sacred act of vomiting. The fact that I was in this preposterous ceremony, and was almost certainly going to throw up very painfully, was the most hilarious thing of all. I’m such an idiot!
But I began to worry that my laughter might interfere with others’ journeys, so I tried to keep it unvoiced, and spent the night chuckling breathily like a pedophile. It’s a strange reaction, this laughter—I once regained consciousness after a general anesthetic already laughing. There had been a rugby injury. As the ceiling lights of Addenbrooke’s Hospital passed overhead the nurse asked me how the pre-anesthetic was going down, and I started to laugh mid-reply, and when I came up in the recovery room I hugged my knees still cackling until nurses wheeled me away.
So the trip began. Powered by the music, an impressive son et lumière show kicked in that I’d characterize as Neon Islamic. Second revelation: the palette of the astral plane is the exact chromatic transposition of the imaginary or complex numbers. The mirror spectrum of colors on the other side of black, in every regard like the visible spectrum, except negative. There’s a faint reflection of the dreamworld colorscheme in oil slicks. While there’s no demonstrable way that this is true, I was given to understand that this is self-evidently true.
Add to Project List: medicate Fields Medal recipients into dreamworld, canvas opinion.
The show gave way to jungle vines and treetrunks, all of which had the rosette pattern of jaguars, inverted—anti-yellow on black. Marveling at this kept me busy as a power assembled itself. What I’d thought to be merely flat ground was turning into the curvature of the head of a being vastly more powerful than me. The geometry felt not unlike the taking of a new, physically dominating lover, who you just have to hope is not inclined to harm you. That vulnerability is not unexciting, of course, but it is rather scary, and it struck me again what a raw deal women get from men, on the whole, and that if there was a third sex, males would be shit out of luck.
Anyway, so I was feeling behind enemy lines, and in my apprehension I reached out for what comforts I had. Only the comforts of the mind. In my case: Kipling’s If—, homekey of the stolid world where I teenaged, and which as I now recited it, provided the same comfort that Psalm 23 used to. A ward.
But I was becoming befuddled, and couldn’t remember the second verse. That was distressing. I removed the kikoy, left the dreamworld, came back into the room, saw Patrick sitting up, Joe retching, Salvatore the music man bothering some stringed contraption and stamping little phosphorescent patterns out of the ground. I reconstituted the verse—If you can dream, and not make dreams your master; if you can think, and not make thoughts your aim—and went back in. For all its hokeyness the poem was a major comfort. Poems are spells, of course. That’s not even a metaphor, that’s literally what they are—a string of words that when arranged into their ancient sequences unleash invisible magics. The effect is not the same as the content. Prufrock is a seduction. Mending Wall an apology. September 1, 1939 a curse so powerful it should not be spoken aloud. And If— with its invocation of England in all its quotidian middle-class, reasonableness and decency, a ward against darkness. Even the dreamworld will route around a person who refuses to be intimidated.
So after about an hour of being softened up by what in retrospect felt like minions and forerunners, I was ushered in to Abuela’s presence. She had a ludicrously large office like the one in The Hudsucker Proxy. Everything was upholstered in jaguar spots, even her body. Apart from a vague sense of ageless lankiness, she had no physical form to speak of. She was bent over her desk as though looking at blueprints. She looked round at me when I came in.
“What are you doing here?” she wanted to know. Not unkindly.
“Well,” and I was about to lay all my intentions, regrets and so forth on her, but she waved at me to stop flapping my mouth already, shaking her head.
“No no, you’re fine, you’re fine.”
Slightly taken aback. “Really?”
She nodded. “Yeah, you’re totally fine.” And in that moment it became clear that my carefully chosen intention was irrelevant. It was plain that this was what I had actually wanted to know. “Now get out of here before I change my mind.”
So I left.
Things are often less frightening in hindsight.
My ayahuasca night is a lucid dream, which takes place, like sleep itself, in cycles of about 45 minutes; at the end of each I would take off my kikoy, chuckling and shaking my damn head, stand up, go outside for a breath of air, marvel at the night sky; then re-kikoy up again and go back in. Inside the dreamworld I could hear the real world, like I was sitting near the exit in a cinema showing of an absolutely demented Terrence Malick movie, aware of commotions in the foyer but absorbed in the show. If there’d been a crisis—a police raid, for example—I’d have been able to handle it. I’d say I was functionally about five pints drunk.
Over the course of several cycles I looped back past Abuela a couple of times to catch her up on how I was doing. At Dreamworld U, she was my Senior Tutor. I was doing well. The amount and clarity of information suddenly available to me was astounding. I laughed at the sheer overabundance of it all. It was hysterical and amazing and the information so demonstrably correct, in the science-based actual world, that it made the question of “belief” in Abuela entirely moot. She was pleased in the way one is pleased when a new lover finds delightful the things that you once found delightful. Though she was impatient with my dithering and self-doubt. And this was the third, and most important revelation: pallor.
The usual metaphor is the falling away of a veil. Perhaps scales. For me it was a blowing-away of dust, the act of which made it abruptly clear that up until this point my life had been composed of upwards of 60-percent dust, whitish in color, probably chalk. An insight which, like federal campaign finance reform, would transform everything at a stroke.
Much—maybe most—of my time on earth had been spent not doing things but wondering about doing them, if I was doing them well enough, how they were coming across to others, and whether I should be doing them at all. Abuela had run a find-and-replace on my angst, and replaced it with an empty string. With nothing. Resulting filesize was 60-percent smaller. It took a second. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Everything that was left was fresh and brightly colored.
A burst of Hamlet hit me—in Bertie Wooster’s voice, for some reason:
And thus the Native hue of Resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of Thought And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their Currents turn awry And lose the name of Action.
It’s only after you’re clean that you see how dirty you were. And so it appears that writer’s block is made of chalk, or limestone, some isomer of calcium carbonate anyway, which also manifests as marble and limescale and nacre and bone spurs. (Limescale is not a good metaphor for New Yorkers. Londoners, or anyone who has lived on limestone aquifers—Yugoslavia, the Yucatan—will know how CaCO3 gets fucking everywhere). My whole life and system for thinking about the world had become buried under several inches of recursively thinking about my thinking, until nothing was getting done at all. PALLOR, is all there was. Everything under a chalkdust pallor. I’d enjoyed writing once, but in the last several years I’d published maybe a thousand words, mostly repurposed Wikipedia articles. Irony, self-consciousness, the editorial voice—these were the enemies of promise that calcified the otherwise lithe workings of a mind. Once this was clear, at a stroke, all that interstitial calcium was simply … gone.
It’s the most remarkable trick. I mean, of course I knew, intellectually, it’s not a good idea to overthink things, when you’re trying to bang out three thousand words a day—that’s why Hemingway kept a bottle of whiskey by the typewriter, to silence the quibbler who thinks what you’re writing isn’t up to code. But the quibbler never has any ideas about what would be better. And why my generation pounds the Adderall and the Ritalin and the Provigil and hell, the cocaine, just to achieve an escape velocity from inaction. If you cut that out, you’re there. You’re fine.
Of course we know this. The protagonist of Ben Kunkel’s Indecision goes to Ecaudor, drinks the tea of the San Pedro cactus, ralphs, and experiences revelations that burn off his indecision and make it impossible to live a lie. What’s surprising is the degree to which that novel’s ending—whose sudden deus ex machina aspect some reviewers had a problem with—is now, I think, kind of an understatement.
It turns out that the intention I’d selected—“align head and heart”—was badly misbegotten. Turns out the actual question, lodged in a place where I couldn’t see it, was: Am I doing okay? In the last couple of years I’ve had a number of unhappy collisions with people close to me, and each time I’ve tried to play the hand dealt me as well as I could: Hold on tightly; don’t overreact; be quick to forgive; eject when things get helplessly toxic. But the wreckages have caused ongoing distress.
Abuela dismissed my anxieties with a wave of her hand: You did fine. Was I right to have split up with that girl? I wanted to know. A question that has hassled me for the better part of a year, Abuela, with some resigned amusement, walked me through the answer. You have run simulations to this question so many times, and it has always come out about even, that the only thing to do now is to record an open verdict. But that is nevertheless a verdict, and a verdict enables us to close the case and file it away—as she prised my fingers gently from the file—something it is now absolutely high fucking time to do. I would be free to take it from the shelf and read it in the future, but it would no longer barge unwanted into my head. How was that?
“Thankyou,” I finally managed, after a long period of searching for the mot juste.
She waved it away, ain’t no thing.
The fourth revelation was clairvoyance. An aspect of it, anyway: the noise and clutter and misdirection of the world fell away and I was able to see the true emotional value of things. This is perhaps the most agreed-on feature of the shared plane of human consciousness. The prevalence of deductive reasoning—in which conclusions are not permitted to be of greater scope than their premises (such an important principle in science and law)—was gone. I found that when I turned my mind to any facet of my life with unresolved questions, I already knew the answers. I had been waiting for a too-high standard of proof, which I could now see was not necessary. Almost everything was as it seemed.
I sifted through my friends and when I thought about a person, I felt strongly what were their animating preoccupations, concerns, moods. I could rate their personalities by color and disposition, moral autonomy, density. I could literally make a list of who was naughty and who was nice. Most were wholesome orange-warm, and this essential benevolence was immediately identifiable. One was an angry red—someone waspish and incomprehensibly vengeful—but was mostly just scared. One who was twisted like a yew would like some help, but is too entangled by pride. It felt exactly like looking up the answers in the back of the book.
Of course clairvoyance also requires some extrasensory perception. Not a claim I’m ready to make. Certainly there was a strong sense of joined consciousness, although, per William Burroughs: “Any drug used in common with others conveys mutual empathy.” I was touched by Cargo Short Joe’s pitiful sobbing next to me. It read like bereavement—had he lost his mother?—and with my overabundance of good cheer I wanted to comfort him. To touch was forbidden. Instead I tried to use the Force to push warmth into him, but he seemed so broken down it was hard even to pick him up on my scope.
“Scope”: a metaphor I am only now using to describe the process of feeling another’s state of mind. Something chiefly done in poker and breakups. Poker is after all a head-to-head telepathy, the game of weighing someone’s soul in the balance and finding it wanting a fifth spade. If I could retain this level of insight during poker, I’d be home and dry.
But still it wasn’t actually extrasensory; let’s call it a highly effective separation of signal from noise. As Dr Pointsman in Gravity’s Rainbow says: “Why not say ‘a sensory cue we just aren’t paying attention to.’”
Mario, Shiva and Salvatore had all agreed that the spirits would not simply give the answers, but would show me how to find them. And the way the data I had had access to—even subliminal clues, long ignored—was reconstituted, was so astonishing as to be revelatory. Clairvoyance as clearsightedness.
A cascade of insight followed. In every question I confront, I find I already know the answer. Does she like me? Sure. Can it be made into a relationship? Could be. There are obstacles, but sure. Call her. Should I get my acne scars fixed? Eh, if it bothers you, go for it. How are my parents? They’re good people, they’re getting on, they’d really like you to have had children by now. So would I! So would I, Aged Ps. But sometimes that’s not how things fall out. It’s okay, Tom, they understand. But you have wasted so much time worrying about the future and the past that you have often failed to be present, to be at the table with them, keeping them company and eating the damn beet salad and telling stories that will amuse and fill the hearts of the aging couple that raised you.
I found I was crying. Not sobbing, more that my tear ducts had become incontinent. My god, I would—I would live so well from now on! The euphoria was wonderful. I rocked and shook and chuckled, and occasionally took the time to feel smug about not having thrown up like these other rubes. Lightweights! Vomming over a little tea. Not me, pal. I didn’t need to “get well” because I was already, apart from an actually pretty severe tendency to overthink, basically well.
The next revelation: the body has its own personality.
It seems such a basic construction; in this very essay I have personified my own gag reflex—so it’s sort of amazing I’d never seriously considered my body as an aggregate being with its own presence, and one that is different to mine. Certainly plenty of people have. I hadn’t.
And my body’s is not a super complex personality, something like a bashed-up but despite everything loyal mutt, who just wants to be good but occasionally eats what it shouldn’t, and who tonight is only glad to be recognized as such and patted on the head and loved. And, I realized, I have not treated this body well. I felt like the Herzegovinan peasant I met in the summer of ’94, ekeing out a stubborn, not to say bloodyminded life in the middle of a battlefield, who had nothing but bemusement at the concept of naming her dog. The other aid workers and I wanted to know the name of her scampering little puppy. “Mala,” she shrugged, the small one, looking at us oddly. What next, naming trees?
It’s been an inhumane regime for my dear old body: college-level drinking prolonged a couple of decades too long, savage exercise, inadequate sleep, bar soap for shampoo—real rented mule stuff. I once made it run 250 kilometers across the Sahara. The Marathon des Sables, 2003. We did this carrying all our food and sleeping arrangements across a landscape of rocks, dunes, more rocks, a dried lake bed, gigantic fucking jagged-rock mountains, and vast gravelscapes of nothing but cobblestones. We found our way, sometimes at night, by waypoints every ten kilometers where we would be issued a liter and a half of water. I ran until my toenails had to be sliced off and my hands swelled up like inflated surgical gloves. When I got home, sunburnt head teetering over a body like a stopsign, I wrote an email to my sponsors—subject line: Marathon de Sade—advising them never, ever to contemplate such a thing.
And now I saw my body for the beast of burden it was, and realized that when it did finally dare to speak up, I really ought to listen. And at this point, Friday night in upstate New York, it wanted fresh air. So we stood up—unsteadily—tiptoed out of the sacred circle, and went onto the deck behind the house.
A beautiful cloudless night. Tall cypress and poplar and other trees I could not identify lined a royal blue sky, which, in my state seemed to contain a lot more shooting stars than normal. Ida came out to stand with me. There’s a certain level of drunkenness when the euphoria and buzz have passed and you feel totally okay to drive, and I was in it. I thanked Ida for being there to help me all the same. My body stood out there in its bare feet for maybe forty minutes, arms folded, eyes closed, not caring how ugly it was, rocking and laughing while I frolicked round the astral plane seeing what I thought of my friends. Anyway:
TOM: Body, I’m really sorry about everything.
TOM’S BODY: aw no shucks thats okay
TOM: I’m really sorry, I’ve mistreated you.
TOM’S BODY: aw its ok
TOM: Is there anything, anything, I can do for you?
TOM’S BODY [scuffing floor with bashful toe]: no no its totally fine srsly
TOM: I mean I really feel bad about all the times—
TOM’S BODY: well actually
TOM: What? Anything.
TOM’S BODY: couldnt help but notice u ingested toxic effluent about 5 hrs ago
TOM: Right yeah the ayahuasca haha
TOM’S BODY: i mean i could totally metabolize whatever that was through the kidneys
TOM: yeah ok
TOM’S BODY: if thats what u rly wanted
TOM’S BODY: it would be no problem srsly
TOM: Well, what’s the alternative?
TOM’S BODY [puppy dog eyes]:—.
And that’s when I heard a shriek like pterodactyl orgasm rend the night sky, and it was me, and I was getting well over the deck. All over it. My fingernails sank about three eighths of an inch into the wood rail, while I spewed and spewed, wracked by full-body spasms, until the firing pin just clicked. I was picked up and slammed against the deck. Even after it was all out, some invisible Donkey Kong arm reached down my gullet to feel around for anything else it might drag out of my stomach. Nope, that’s the ball game, buddy.
I had produced about a liter of … god knows what, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
And then it was over. I’d been pitched off the SS Ayahuasca, which now steamed off without me. I had felt the awesome scale of whatever was revealed; I had used my new Jedi powers to spring clean pretty much my entire psyche. I could still feel the wonder, and I would still be able to do some lucid dreaming, but the main action was done.
I bobbed in the wake, elated, peaceful, and wholly impatient to get back to the city and to get on with my life, and to get it right this time.
Soon Shiva the second-string shaman called me back into the sacred circle, where Salvatore was still belting out the ikaros. I curled up in my sleeping bag and tried sleeping, but Salvatore was too loud. He was maybe three feet away and had every intention of yelling all night about his corazon and how todo was his familia. One instrument sounded exactly like a stapler, stapling in 2/2 time.
And the smoke! He had a variety of censers with which he would cense us point-blank. The incense, previously welcome, was now disgusting: the most ghastly ochrish-purple smell imaginable. Probably I was developing sensitivities, as happens after poisonings: my body was blacklisting the smells associated with such violent nausea, and every smell for a hundred yards was making the list. But Salvatore wouldn’t stop censing. He censed us senseless. It was only four A.M., and this wasn’t supposed to stop until nine. I wouldn’t be able to make it. I had to get out.
I went over to Ida, the lady whose house it was, to ask if there was a room somewhere I could crash. She was rather anti the idea of abandoning the sacred circle.
“A lot of people, the first time they take medicine, they resist, and that makes it bad for them,” Ida told me.
“No no,” I assured her, “way past that.”
“You just have to go where it wants to take you,” she assured me.
“It wants to take me somewhere I can breathe.”
“You can breathe here,” beatifically, “in the sacred circle.”
“Um.” I rubbed my jaw. “Have you ever woken up after a big night with a really sticky hangover?” I asked.
She conceded that she had.
“Well imagine you’re there, the alcohol journey has ended, you’re still in bed, you feel like you want to die, but there’s some dude playing a didgeridoo in your face trying to make you do tequila shots,” I explained.
She looked at me. My tone was not winning. “Is where I’m at,” I added.
Salvatore had put down his instruments and was now crouching by me and Ida. “What seems to be the problem, brother,” he said.
Ida: “He says he can’t breathe, he wants to leave the sacred circle.”
“You can’t leave the sacred circle,” Salvatore shaking his head gravely.
“I literally cannot breathe in this room,” I explained, as Salvatore regretted he was unable to help me.
I regrouped. I had to find the right language to unlock cooperation here. “So I had a lovely chat with Abuela,” I said.
“Aho,” said Salvatore.
“Aho,” Ida agreed.
“And one of the revelations she gave me,” I said, “was to listen to my body.”
“Aho,” said Salvatore, the head shake turning to a nod.
“Aho,” Ida agreed, her face lighting up.
“And my body wants to leave the sacred circle.”
There was a pause, and I believe I saw a glimmer of respect in Salvatore’s eye. But he gave it a go anyway: “A lot of people, the first time they take medicine, they resist,” he explained.
“Yeah, let me be clear,” I said in unelided syllables, the way you tell a cop you do not consent to a search. “I am in distress. Here is the part where you care for me.”
Ida and Salvatore looked at each other. But they were good people—they are good people—and after maybe ten minutes of rabbinical back-and-forth, Shiva allowed me to break the sacred circle. I was shown upstairs to an empty room, where I put my head by the sill of an open window, and crashed into lurid, swooping dreams.
The nausea stayed with me all the way back to the city. We rode mostly in silence, me and Billy and Patrick and Alex in Alex’s car, tired but satisfied, listening to weird John Adams music, as bleary and bizarrely articulate as the day.
I want to be careful talking about ayahuasca: no doubt if I reviewed heroin after one hit, it’d get a pretty good write-up. And no doubt there are the usual risks with long-term use and use in still-maturing minds. But my main takeaway is that there is absolutely something there. There’s plenty that exists in symphonic complexity inside the head, but which is difficult to reduce to the one-dimensional line of words necessary to fit out of the mouth. Music, for example; nevertheless there is music journalism. We manage to find a vocabulary. Which raises the further problem of the lack of agreed terms in the spiritual / psychonautical field. I feel like “dreamworld” is a pretty good layman’s term for astral plane / spirit world / shared plane of human consciousness. That and the whole topic has become so jammed up with huckster churchmen, consciousness revolutionaries who don’t want to add to the canon of knowledge so much as tear it down and start again, and New Agers whose use of abstract nouns parks clean across agreed meanings (energy is an established concept, fellas, that you cannot just have). No doubt the admixture plants, the music, the human company, and the religious underpinnings all influence the experience. But the fact that access to Abuela is through the well-understood chemistry of DMT doesn’t seem to faze her at all; even if we stick with a Western gnostic system, the revelations and insight are a reproducible effect with such demonstrably therapeutic qualities as to make the question of belief irrelevant. I would go so far as to say that anyone who gives even the slightest portion of their life to religion—who attends a service once a year on Rosh Hashana or Easter—may get a better view of what it is that those services are worshipping, within a properly administered ayahuasca ceremony. It is by several orders of magnitude the most religious thing I have ever experienced. And it is absolutely amazing that the United States of America has legitimized it as such.
Mario and his organizers have now formally declared themselves a church, the American Yage Assembly (AYA), and applied for 501(c)3 status. Mario and Salvatore and Ida and Shiva need to eat and pay the mortgage, and they would like to draw a salary and pay taxes and emerge into the overground of American life. I can understand why they would like to make a career out of introducing people to the spirit vine, in the same way that I cannot see why one would devote one’s life to religion without an experience of this type. I wonder that it’s not part of the core curricula of seminaries. The Church used to be at the cutting edge of technology—the cathedral at Chartres was the Imax of its day—but it’s fallen steadily off the pace since Luther. If religions want to survive—and some, despite everything, are still net positives to the world—the Methodists, the Quakers—they might consider being catholic enough to embrace new technology the way their forerunners did.
I could also see why Billy had done it fourteen times.
It’s possible I’d do it again myself—never say never—and while access to this level of insight is wonderful, getting there is by no means fun. In fact, it’s fucking disgusting. It’s pestilentially foul. Perhaps if there were someone I cared about enough who wanted to do it, I’d accompany them, to be near to them in what can be an apprehensive time. I later emailed a friend of mine, who had lost a son to suicide, and who had spent much time searching for echoes of him in the universe, that if he was to be found anywhere, it’d be through ayahuasca. For now, I just want to get the memory of it as far behind me as possible, and to live brightly and presently and bring as much happiness into the lives of those around me as I can. Ultimately the test of a lifechanging experience is not how much or how well you talk of it, but the degree to which your friends and family can tell that you have changed, and for the better.
Ratio of the average cost of a gallon of gas in Britain last September to that of a gallon of Starbucks coffee:
Her Majesty's Customs and Excise (London)/Starbucks Coffee Company (London)/Harper's research
The faculty of embarrassment was located in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex by neurologists who made brain-damaged subjects sing along to “My Girl” and then listen to their own singing played back without musical accompaniment.
Greece evacuated 72,000 people from the town of Thessaloniki while an undetonated World War II–era bomb was excavated from beneath a gas station.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."