The Why, The Fear, and the Exploration of the Curious Curios Presumed Inside - Part III
Before the discovery, there is the "exploration of the curious curios presumed inside."
Some experiences are indelible, transformative. Some of these enduring personal events we see coming, even plan for, like childbirth, deployment in combat, or walking on the moon. Others hit us with unexpected, stunning power.
The effect of my first encounter with Ayahuasca was like combining all three -- giving birth while being deployed in combat on the moon. Plus, it was sudden and unexpected. So much so, it jarred me loose from myself and any objective sense of certainty about reality. Gallows humor would note that afterwards I had an acute case of the 72-hour PTSD.
According to the Mayo Clinic, "Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event."
Check. Check. Check. And double-check on those symptoms. So out of it was I, there was nothing that could get me to go back to the maloca a day after for a second ceremony. Are you kidding? No way was I returning to the scene of the crime for another beating. I guess PTSD has a way of leaving you stunned and defensive like that.
The Mayo Clinic also says, "Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while, but they don't have PTSD — with time and good self-care, they usually get better. But if the symptoms get worse or last for months or even years and interfere with your functioning, you may have PTSD. "
I didn't have a lot of time to wait to see if things got better. And there was little self-care available. What I had managed so far was sitting among eucalyptus trees for 16 hours, listening to the breezes lecture me. They made no sense and yet they were so compelling - indicative of my state of mind. I had to decide. Was the two-week retreat over for me, blown out of the water by my initial dip in the pool? There were other ceremonies to come. I could participate or choose to sit things out. Was it cowardly not to plunge into the traumatic unknown once again or good common sense to stay away? I never heard of Dante penning a sequel to his Inferno. So maybe some trips are better taken -- once.
On the night of the second ceremony, my decision was obvious. I was not prepared to risk a repeat performance where I was the major protagonist, out-numbered in what appeared a hopeless fight in a foreign land. So I stayed by myself, knowing all the while that down the darkened path, through the tall trees, the ceremonial fire was being lit once again in the maloca. As the hour got later, the haunting night progressed and I faced times when opting out presented its own unique challenges.
The retreat camp was all but deserted except for me. Mostly everyone else was down at the ceremony. Even though I couldn't see or hear the ceremony I was missing, I was still surrounded by many of the same environmental trappings that had provided a stage for my first experience. The cloaking darkness, the same mountain vegetation, the occasional bark of dogs in the distance, the same clicking of frogs set the stage as before. Now with memories to deal with, the setting became ever so dramatic. Never discount the power of isolation and one's imagination to relive experiences and find ways to extend them into the present. I knew I couldn't be a part of the ceremony, but I hadn't expected my solitary reflections under the stars to evoke such strong emotional echoes. I found I didn't need to drink any of the brew to continue my odyssey. If not visual, the emotional flashbacks only reinforced my 72-hour PTSD.
I was glad when the night was over. And I wasn't the only participant to opt out of the ceremony. Two others had bowed out as well. They weren't forthcoming as to why but the deep somberness of their mood spoke volumes. One other participant had quickly fled camp for good after the chaotic energy whirlwind of the first ceremony.
The next day I heard retreat participants react to their second experience. Some had a very different experience from their first time. It started an undercurrent in me, a subtle prodding to re-examine my decision to opt out. I wasn't about to let it churn me into knots. It may seem a dilemma to choose between "can't go back" but "can't give up." But it's only a dilemma if I let it become an impasse. There had to be a way I could go back into ceremony and overcome the fight-or-flight catatonia of will that had overtaken me.
The next day, there would be a sweat lodge ceremony. It would be held in a different location - not in the maloca. This was good. Also, the sweat lodge ceremony was scheduled to start during the day - lasting from about 10am until about 9pm. The new location and daylight might be different enough. Plus the daylight would allow me more sensory access to nature. Being in nature has always been spiritual to me, even when I was a kid. Nature would be there for me. This I could try. Of course, I wouldn't go under the blankets of the sweat lodge. That would be too claustrophobic in my condition. Plus, I had gotten enough heat to last several lifetimes from the first ceremony. Instead, I'd be part of the group who chose to participate outside, under the sky and around the fire. The fire would be tended by volunteers who would be fire keepers and prepare the hot rocks for sweat lodge use. Also, the brew for the sweat lodge ceremony would be a special mixture of Ayahuasca and San Pedro. My intuition told me that such a combination might be the right prescription for what ailed me.
Walking down the path the morning of the sweat lodge ceremony, a part of me was yelling out of both ears - what are you doing - go back - you know what this means!? The shouts were very persuasive but by the time they got hell-yes convincing, it was too late. I had joined the circle and the fire was lit. Oh shit. What had I gotten myself into? If things got bad again, there was nowhere to run, no way to escape it. I was in for the duration. I had a simple intention - survive and not quit.
First around the circle came a tobacco liquid to snort. It was not the same tobacco that gets blended in cigarettes and even if it had been, it was lacking the toxic 200 chemicals added to cigarettes. The snort was good, clearing the sinuses and no doubt doing other things only the shaman fully understood.
Things slowed for a while after that. Participants needed time to make their way into the sweat lodge. Helpers had to complete covering the dome with blankets. Hot rocks had to be transferred into place. All of it left plenty of time for nervousness to mingle with anxiety to become dread. By the time the Ayahuasca-San Pedro brew made its way around the circle, the drinking of it had become anti-climatic. My mind had already raced far ahead and hurried back. The reconnaissance it provided was obscure but didn't look promising.
Finally, the shaman exited the sweat lodge to attend to those gathered around the fire. One by one, each of us received individual attention. The brown sludge poured from a worn plastic bottle into a small glass. The shaman blessed and purified the brew by passing it towards the fire before offering it back to me. A half an hour passed before there was any effect from swallowing the nasty mixture. As before, it began with a sense of queasiness to the passage of time. Soon to follow was a subtle unease. A bilious ache rose from within. The whole setting, now including the entire sky, seemed to be holding its breath, awaiting something. From inside the closed sweat lodge, the muffled rhythmic singing of the shaman could be heard. The breezes responded in kind and the extra-tall eucalyptus trees swayed their dance to the song. Nature seemed to be taking notice and consciously responding to the icaro.
But something else was also paying attention. At first it was a foreboding unease from the intuition. Then it became a trepidation that quickened the breath. Before long, it was a disquiet from catching movement in peripheral vision. My eyes darted. I turned my head but I sensed movement with the intent to stay hidden - for now.
As an hour passed, the feeling of them returning around me strengthened. At first it was just glimpses of movement at the bases of far trees. Dashes of darkness. Gliding flourishes of dark capes of shape-shifting. Silent but trackable with my expanding senses. They were entities. The same ones I had encountered at the first ceremony. It was hard to catch my breath. This couldn't be happening again. I shouted silently at myself - why oh why did I ever join this ceremony?! I felt a literal descent into the same thing and there was nothing I could do about it.
Or was there? In desperation, I looked up into the trees and tried to concentrate on their breezy dance. It was time for nature to come to the rescue. If only it could. Thankfully, there was no intense heat or cold as before but that did little to assuage my rising panic. One by one, I sensed them moving out from among the trees and coming nearer. In great, hissing spirals they swooped in, hugging the ground. I felt one, then another make a glancing swoosh around behind me.
I could hear their menacing exhales of satisfaction as they passed. I was rooted to the spot, sitting in a chair before the fire. Ceremony rules dictated that even those outside the sweat lodge not break the energetic circle. Just because I was outside didn't mean I could jump up and go somewhere else. There was nowhere else to go, anyway. No way to escape them.
The next several hours was a battle of wills. Once again, they did everything within their powers to intimidate and frighten me. Once again, they floated elaborate suggestions why the ceremony was really theirs. Retreat personnel had either been co-opted in their dark purpose or, like most of the volunteer workers, were simply useful idiots, unaware how they were furthering the inverted agenda.
From 11am until well after 3pm, I fought a seesaw battle, timeless and never-ending. An alternating pattern developed. The entities would approach and the oppressive isolation and fear would squeeze me catatonic. Then I'd fight back, desperately looking to the trees and sky for escape, if not rescue. My breaths came deep and fast. I'd try to concentrate on the movement of a cloud floating by. The nature gambit would borrow some relief, then a dark distraction would pull me back into the dreaded morass of fear. The cycle never let up. Over and over, the seesaw jerked me between ultimate stress and promising relief. I felt it would -- it could never end. I weakened and felt faint. The dizzying effort to keep it together took its toll. I felt myself slipping away, unable to hold on. I struggled to gasp what seemed my last breaths.
One last time, I looked to the sky - to the beautiful puffy clouds - for my parting solace. The clouds were gorgeous - massive puffs of beauty lined with opalescence. The afternoon sunlight bounced off them in iridescent shards. All the while, the dark entities swirled about. I was in heaven and hell all at once. The ultimate contrast brought tears to my eyes. I was giving up, with no energy left to fight. This was the end.
In that moment, I heard a voice.
It was everywhere, nowhere. I reacted by looking to the left, to another part of the sky. It was that part of the sky out of which the wind was coming. The voice was strong. It was emphatic. It boomed across the expanse of blue above me with nothing less than a command.
"STOP THE DRAMA!"
I startled out of all feeling. I simply was.
I looked back to the puffy cloud I had been watching.
The voice returned, only this time it didn't shout.
It whispered, as if reciting a poem that had become the moment's prayer.
"Look for the beauty...go with the flow of life!"
The words were not so much words as something poured into me.
A dam had burst. So much flowed into me, it overflowed. And I cried.
Instantly, I felt shivering tingles race over my skin from head to toe. The joyous quivers covered me.
I realized that each minute tingle was the eruptive applause from an unseen chorus. A zillion tiny thingies were cheering, their cheers flooding over me and becoming body tingles.
The effect was as if someone had shouted "CLEAR!" and a jolt from a cosmic defibrillator had jump-started my heart. My mouth dropped open and I took in sweet, living air. I looked down from my puffy cloud and gasped at what the tall eucalyptus trees had become. They waved as if in celebration. The thousands of fluttering leaves were also applauding.
As the applause reverberated across the sky, the leaves all became eyes - they all looked like the eyes on peacock feathers. But these eyes were alive, alive with joy. All around me, the living plants shimmered with the love of life.
And the dark entities? What had become of them? They hadn't disappeared but they had retreated. The chorus of cheers, the living peacock eyes, the shimmering nature had overwhelmed them - for the moment. Now it was up to me to apply the message and keep them at bay.
"Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster,
and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you."
The sweat lodge ceremony continued. I sat for the next couple of hours in recovery. Nature cradled me and gave me time to recover. The dilemma hadn't been answered in all its aspects, but at least now I had a lesson, a message to use in going forward.
As I watched the dividing line between sunlight and sunset move across the tall trees, the voice returned with one last message. Watching the contrast between light and dark, I felt twinges of dread at the coming night and what it would mean finishing the ceremony in the dark.
The voice offered a parting whisper.
"There is no good. There is no evil."
It felt like the voice knew there was a chance that I may fall back into catatonia and fear and wanted to leave me with comforting, parting words. It was whispered and said so matter-of-factly. I felt some relief hearing the comforting voice, but it was confusing at the same time to hear those words. The first ceremony's stark reality and this ceremony's final message, "There is no good - There is no evil" seemed in opposition. It left me with a new paradox. If good and evil doesn't exist, then why did I experience what I experienced, and why was the shaman's protective rituals so vital?
Maybe the answer to the dilemma is too simple to grasp in the heat of battle here on Earth.
Too simple unless one awakens to the realization.
Transcend all duality. Realize something more. Realize oneself.
I had read enough philosophy and comparative religious texts to know it wasn't an original idea.
But then, maybe there's nothing new under the sun.
To find that new thing, the thing that was always a part of us,
we're going to have to go somewhere else. But where isn't a place.
It's a state of being beyond mind. A state that understands.
"Two paradoxes are better than one; they may even suggest a solution."
As the ceremony wound down in darkness, the fire keepers arranged the large pile of burning embers into the shape of a heart. The glow of it was easy to stare into. Out of it came studied reflections.
I had participated in my own rebirth.
I fought an intense tug-of-war with dark entities to see myself through the labor.
And all of it took place in a faraway place unlike anything I had ever experienced.
It was once again - giving birth while being deployed in combat on the moon.
Only this time, the victory was a surrender.