“No, that’s all you.”
This week, we’ll be reviewing ayahuasca, the intense and emetic Amazonian hallucinogen long used among various South American communities, in their shamanic practices.
Αyahuasca was relatively unknown outside of these communities until the publications of freak/Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. It was the Schultes lore that lured William Burroughs into the jungle, hoping to cure his opiate addiction, only to be greatly humbled by the encounter. He wrote about this— his “final fix”— in the epistolary Yage Letters, which make as good a brochure as any.
Ayahuasca is now much more common among white people and transdimensional tourists, but I don’ think you’ll ever have to worry about it getting too crowded. The stuff does not permit much in the way of casualness. It’s very all or nothing. Publicly, however, I would love to see it catch on as a club drug craze, being as I am, against casualness of all varieties. I could go for some yage parties where everybody was lying in the dark, puking and writhing from muscle spasms, convinced that a serpent-faced demigod was trying to “deplete” their soul. Sounds like a perfect Saturday.
“Do you feel anything?”
I got into it on my final day in Los Angeles, in decidedly non-shamanistic surroundings. Jonny was going to join in, but can barely hold down a glass of sangría and wisely decided otherwise. Another friend spent the day boiling down the ingredients into a manageable brew; filling their house with an unforgettable aroma that they described as being somewhere between garden mulch and hot dog juice. Αyahuasca is in fact two substances working together symbiotically, a vine and a shrub— and I imagine quite a shock for whichever jungle-dweller first discovered the combo. You have to eat them both. And I was prepared for the worst, but it went down pretty smoothly and I even double-dosed when I found out Jonny wasn’t coming. I’m not very sensitive, I told my host.
I swallowed the first component in one gulp, waited about fifteen minutes, then ingested the second. Hope this works. The taste will never leave me. One person online described it as tasting digital and I completely agree without knowing why. Thinking I had about 30 minutes to whittle, I went into the bathroom for a warm shower, but looking down, the tiles were already getting a little fourth-dimensional. That was fast. Things were growing increasingly wavy and Alex Grey-y and it hadn’t even been ten minutes. I made it back to a darkened room and lay down and already sensed a coterie of little personalities fluttering around me. Taunting me. Might get weird soon. Maybe shouldn’t have taken the second helping. Too late now.
I’m one of those people for whom duh-duh drugs, drugs as pleasure, as stupefaction, never held much allure. I always want to learn something, or feel like I did. Not some big, trippy, transcendental super-truth. Just the kind of things you can learn from any sufficiently otherish experience. And all cynicism aside, drugs can gain you a kind of cognitive cosmopolitanism if you stay attentive enough; especially helldrugs like ayahuasca. Moods, perceptions, categories— I try to watch them bend, warp, come undone. Make notes. Doesn’t always work, but every bit counts. This was what I was doing— or trying to do— in that darkened room, but it was coming on so strong. As so often happens, all the obvious daily dualisms— Night and Day, Pleasure and Pain, Life and Death, Here and There, Inside and Outside— were quickly getting problematic. Started to see the normally hidden workings of my personality on the world. Even my note-taking hit some bumps. I started thinking notes were a vanity. This is what you do, isn’t it? You offer up your thoughts as a public commodity. Things soon turned pretty unpleasant.
I soon became aware of the personality of ayahuasca herself. A she. A really bitchy and malevolent presence that was telling me to prostrate myself before her. The Scorpion Queen. I really didn’t like her, I got to say. The prostration was to take the form of a violent purge, traditionally the centerpiece of all ayahuasca experiences. Fine by me— I thought I had poisoned myself by this point anyway. I was sure. My sensorium was totally scrambled but by some miracle I made it back to the bathroom again and succumbed to the spasms with the door mercifully closed.
I was definitely hanging out on another plane of being which seemed truer and realer, despite my earlier disavows of super-truths. This is common. Αyahuasca convinces its victims that their everyday world is a sham, a production. It’s hard to shake when you’re in the middle of it, but I could go with the flow better since I have pretty fluid, pragmatic ideas of ontology anyw— Gag… it wanted to come out… Gag… I could hear thousands of annoying, little demons teasing me and telling me to bow before her; that I was no match. It seemed like an ego thing. Below me was an outline of something that vaguely resembled a toilet.
Then it came. And as soon as I puked, it felt like I jumped down the chute of some nightmare waterslide. I remember it all, vividly, but it’s too much to disentangle in public discourse; too much of a splatter of my own personality.
When it disappeared, some hours later, it did so suddenly, like a morning fog burning off. All better. Another friend once told me that ayahuasca mythologies usually depict the human world of order as a fragile place floating amid a larger, rushing cosmos of somewhat horrific disorder. I can really see this, and do warn you of its considerable linger. Days later and I still taste its digitality in my throat. The sense of someone— a certain bitchy someone— hovering above me, or on some perpendicular plane, has yet to dispel. What is the status or meaning of this perpendicular plane? There’s this great word: resipiscence. Some of the dictionaries just equate it to repentance, but I learned it as being “wisdom gained from severe experience,” which I think explains the promise of ayahuasca: it is a brutal metaphysical hazing.
There are two possibilities: either no one has successfully translated the deeper cuts of drug wisdom into a common language, or it cannot be done— it can only be won by trials and by wonders; by a very personal and resipiscent transformation.