In the candlelit room on the outskirts of Cusco, Peru, high in the Andes mountains, I drank a cup of ayahuasca handed to me by a stranger, and after forty minutes, I felt something.
Fear can take many forms. It can shoot thru your veins when a car screeches to a halt. It can feel heavy when you’re not sure how to pay next month’s rent. It can suffocate your spirit when you feel a lover has betrayed you. It can make you sweat and fume when you feel a co-worker is plotting against you in an attempt to destroy everything you worked hard to achieve.
My fear, in small room in Cusco, Peru, was a boa constrictor wrapping itself around my rib cage. A distinctly unpleasant squeezing sensation around my torso. And the worst part was the lack of possible escape. My breath was shallow, exacerbated by the extreme altitude of the mountain city. Panic was setting in. My heart was beating too fast.
Was this what it felt like before one died?
I was going to die. By my own hand. Taking a substance I knew very little about from a complete stranger. Maybe I even deserved it. It takes a special brand of stupidity to drink something potentially dangerous, known to have a massive pharmacological response, from someone you met an hour ago.
I was going to die in this apartment with my buddy Aarron the painter next to me. And, now, the darkness traveled from my torso to my brain.
“You have no control,” it said, “you are losing control and now there is no return, no remedy. You SHOULD be scared. There’s a reason you’re scared. And it’s because you are about to die. There’s no shame in that. Everyone make mistakes. Some more costly than others. You should have stayed in your small, dark office in West Los Angeles where everything was safe and you made lots of money. Now you have nothing. And this is what happens when you shut the door on security. On a sane life. A life that makes sense to other people. Mom and Dad were right. And your careless attitude has...”
I’d had enough. Of the squeezing. The negative thoughts. The spiral of fear and death. I simply told my mind to stop.
My next thought was that I had control of my thoughts. And if I could control my thoughts, why fill myself with despair? I told myself that I wanted to see something positive and something helpful. But it was more like a plea to God. I had to get the squeezing of my guts to stop. It was killing me.
The squeezing abated, responding to my shift in thinking. This gave me confidence. I told myself that darkness is a choice. Evil is a choice. And today I was going to go toward the light. I’d traveled a long way for this ceremony and I wasn’t about to spend the night squeezed to death by an imaginary (or was it?) boa constrictor.
I could sense through my closed eyelids that the candles flickered low with an eerie gust of wind.
Juanma, the shaman, started to sing in a language unknown to me. The effect was startling. My entire spine straightened. His voice deepened and got louder. The fear came back and I felt extremely nauseous. I felt like vomiting but I had heard somewhere that it’s better if you wait a while after you drink. Juanma’s song was like vocal, internal acupuncture. It tripled the effect of the ayahuasca, now vibrating in my veins, shaking everything loose. I was slipping so far away from reality that I became worried again. I had done several different kinds of psychotropic drugs in my life, and nothing had taken me this far afield.
Juanma’s singing continued. These songs were thousands of years old and I could picture them echoing thru the massive, verdant jungles in which they were born.
Suddenly, the room shifted, and I opened my eyes.
The entire room was streaming in technicolor icicles of iridescent particles like “The Matrix” movie. Everything: objects, the air in between the objects dripped with sparkling colors that were otherworldly – not part of the usual visible spectrum. There were three figures next me and I could see only their vague outlines. They spoke telepathically: “What do you SEE, Scott? Concentrate.”
I answered back mentally, “All I see are marvelous colors.”
“What do you SEE? CONCENTRATE!” they repeated.
I tried to do as I was instructed but the mesmerizing parade of colors was too much. I couldn’t see past it.
Next to me, Aarron was crying. But it wasn’t sadness. I sensed it was some kind of autonomic response in his body. He sobbed and snorted and made other abnormal noises. They didn’t bother me. I just noticed that they were strange.
I turned my attention to the corner of the room.
A scene was emerging there.
There were hieroglyphs on an ancient wall behind two figures seated at a crude table. It was Egypt. Alexandria, perhaps. Then I realized: I was one of the figures. I was seeing something from the past.
I tried to understand what the figures were saying, but I couldn’t. I just felt joy and an overwhelming sense of familiarity at the glyphs on the wall. I felt gratitude to get a precious memory back, even though on the surface, the depiction was ordinary.
The feeling of gratitude amplified as Juanma’s chanting got even louder. I was losing control of my body. I started crying, tears streaming down my face as the technicolor icicle streams returned in force. Then snot came running out of my nose and I was drooling. Fluids were coming from everywhere on my face and the joy was as profound as anything I’ve ever felt in my life.
Also, there was a thought accompanying this process:
I am always safe.
So much of our lives are spent trying to be safe. A tremendous amount of energy is spent ensuring our safety and that of our loved ones. But what about the millionaire banker who absentmindedly steps in front of a speeding car? All the 401Ks, townhouses in London, Prada Suits, and eating goji berries won’t save you from a moment like that.
What is safe?
At that particular moment I felt all of the safety that is possible. That is available. I felt that no matter what happens, I am safe. And that there’s nothing external you can do to feel safe. It’s all inside you. I’ve met trapeze artsits that feel entirely safe. Because the “UN-safety” of their job allows them to feel the preciousness of each day. Knowing how close they are to death, makes them PRESENT. And, ironically, that makes them feel safe. A banking job would kill them in a week.
The Egyptian scene, the three figures next to me who were presumably my guides, the rainbow splendor of color that dripped like honey in the room, the feeling of safety, Juanma’s powerful singing all combined to make me feel one of the most joyful moments of my life.
A moment so joyful it changed me forever.
I was going to move to Peru.
There was no time to waste. There was no reason to do a job everyday of my life that I disliked. It was absurd. It was utterly absurd to live this way. There’s just no time for that level of wastefullness.
I left life as I knew it that day.
I was going to be the me that I always wanted to be.