Stepping Over The Edge: Yage Is Only A Vine


She came into my life at the right time. My age is not important. It was more about where I was at – what I was ready for. It was time to be humbled. She is all about that. I wanted a shamanic experience that was more real than real, like the visions I had when I was fresh out of college. I was ready to meet a Goddess and lay down with her, let her grind my bones to dust.

Plant medicine has been an ally of Shamans for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. Hollywood lore that focuses on indigenous healers often includes plants ground up and used as poultices or potions to heal. We’re comfortable with the shaman ripping up roots and transforming them into medicine for the body, sadly we’re mostly ignorant of the fact that nature has not only provided us with means to heal our bodies, she has also given us medicine to heal our souls. Indeed our own lore: witches standing around cauldrons before taking flight on their brooms – may point to a European shamanic past steeped in sacred plant medicine erased from our history by the patriarchs of our ancestors.

Some shaman are driven by compassion for suffering. Others are driven by the need to know – to experience more of whats hidden. Most have a heaping serving of both. I think these drives connect Shamans and Shamanic Practitioners (SPs) to our ancestors and invite us to reach out to the plant world. Plant allies are always there for us, waiting for us to ask for their help. This time, she had my number even before I picked up the phone.

Westerners new to shamanism often fear journeys into the spirit world can only happen on the wings of powerful hallucinogens. According to Michael Harner the great majority of shamanic cultures, past and present, rely on sonic driving (usually drumming) to facilitate their journeys. However there are some that have for millenia relied on plants to facilitate their journeys. While in the minority, these cultures make powerful contributions to the earth’s body of shamanic knowledge. One ethnobotanist described an experience he had after ingesting sacred medicine as being “shot out of a gun barrel lined with Baroque paintings, and landing in a sea of electricity.” People who are willing to have their sense of self decimated in favor of unvarnished ecstasy time and time again have some interesting things to say about life, spirituality and healing.

Recently they’ve also inspired a boom industry: Entheogenic tourism (taking a trip to take a trip). Psychonauts (a term likely coined by Terrence Mckenna to describe people who explore consciousness by using hallucinogens) travel to South America to experience the golden cow of hallucinogens: Ayahuasca (literally translated as the vine of the soul). In the company of master Ayahuascero’s we seek to cleanse the gateways of perception and experience life as it truly is.

This sacred medicine is unique in many ways. If only the plant alone is ingested nothing out of the ordinary will happen. It must be carefully brewed with at least one other plant in order to have its full impact. The inclusion of this plant is miraculous not only because it rests innocuously amidst millions of other plants in South American jungles, but also because it typically does not grow in the same environment as Ayahuasca. Its not uncommon for the necessary ingredients to reside twenty-five miles apart. That this brew ever came into being is an expression of the miraculous cooperation between shaman and the spirits of these plants.

Like a trip through a baroque gun barrel, Ayahuasca by its very nature refutes the label “recreational drug.” In order to adequately digest it you must eat a very restricted diet for at least the five days. Since some of the forbidden ingredients are things like salt and soy (two items that exist in almost all modern processed foods in over-abundance), maintaining the restricted diet is a serious task. Even if you’re strict in your diet there’s a good chance you’ll wind up spending hours puking and shitting. Then of course there is the actual experience once the medicine takes on its full power.

Meeting her, face to face, is like meeting your maker. She knows you so well, she could take you apart, reduce you to your most fundamental pieces without even thinking twice. You’d be stupid to risk visiting her, you’d also be stupid to pass up a chance to meet her.

Her shaman are called Ayauahsceros. They are given the experience of flight by her, perhaps in exchange for their support in the healing she offers. Though leading the healing ceremony the Ayauahsceros will often ingest the medicine themselves, flying through the spirit world to join participants in their own healing work. They often fly with songs they sing – called “Icaros.” They are the sexiest most reverent and comical music I’ve ever heard.

Though I do not understand the language, the spirit of the song that our Shaman sang was evident and communicated deeply. I was looking forward to my experience of growth and exploration – especially if I would be drifting on his music. Unfortunately for me – at the time I suffered from an illness I’ve suffered from for years – arrogance. In my intention I had – of course – bitten off more than I could ever hope to chew.

The shaman lit a tall candle in the center of the room. The sun slid away as darkness gathered around the candles sharp flame. Just as it began the process of metamorphosing into a black cobra, it was extinguished and we were left to darkness.

I began to feel woozy – drunk and weighed down as if every cell were magnetized to the center of the earth. I vomited, I was not alone. Most discretely “spit up” in sort of a polite manner – as if excusing a fart.  I wretched deeply, feeling my stomach turn into a writhing worm as thick as my wrist, flailing about and trying to escape my body. Every breath was becoming precious to me – sensual and labored as if I were suckling sweetly at life. It was then that the other worlds opened up. I looked within myself and was shown a vast cosmos – enormous, glowing, ancient and alien.

This landscape is of course impossible to describe to anyone who has not visited it. Everything is made of a radiant energy – even the darkness. The colors and qualities are not to be found in ordinary waking life. They are color released from the confines of this physical world, allowed to find their true brilliance. All shapes here are incapable of stillness, everything undulates with a radiant erotic throb. At first glance I expected this world to be two dimensional, but soon discovered it was a place of infinite depth and never-ending serpentine re-organization. I descended rapidly into its writhing vastness.

It was here that She, in the form of the black snake I had seen as the candle was snuffed out, presented herself to me. I could feel her energy pulsing through my body, and I realized that I was physically experiencing the presence of a deity. It was truly a revolutionary experience, to realize that not only are you in the presence of a deity, but that its being is flowing through your body as tangible as your blood and breath. I was both elated and terrified. I could sense that this spirit would be merciless in its gifts. I would not be permitted to hide from its awareness of me, as it permeated every cell of my body.

Aficionados of Ayahuasca are fond of pointing out that the psychedelic agent DMT is not only easily found in many plants but is an essential aspect of our own physical chemistry. This spirit had lit up every molecule of DMT in my body – she was obviously the master of all she touched. I imagined I could feel all of the work of countless healers,  building and maintaining a sacred substance that would be a suitable vessel for her. Suitor after suitor had sung to hear, flown with her, learned from her. I understood that the ritual/spiritual aspect of the preparation and consuming of the brew was as important as the psychoactive substance itself. Without the living presence of this Goddess my experience would have been a pointless and somewhat dangerous cartoon.

And then I rocketed backwards out of that world and was sitting again in the room – I gasped in a deep breath – apparently I hadn’t taken in any air for quite some time. My return to the ordinary world felt like being reborn. I then turned to vomit again. The others around me lay like dead weight, moaning in what sounded like syrupy slow orgasmic ecstasy. I was again plummeted back into the inner landscape.

She started to talk directly to me. She told me I had many lies within me, layers of false self, that I would be asked to give up. I would have to face these lies if I were to grow and follow the intent I had come to her with. She then swam to a cloud of darkness within me. I lost her in the shadows as she went to the center of the blob and pulled at something. I could feel her tug before it dislodged in my belly. As she disentangled this lie from the cluster, an experience of the falsehood she selected overtook me. Inevitably she confronted me with a deeply buried fear.

I pulled back into the ordinary world to breathe again. This time I began crying and bargaining, overwhelmed by hidden cowardice. I did not want to give up my lies. My false self was struggling for its existence, it would not go without a fight. As I finally accepted the gift of her insight, fully releasing the lie I was holding, I turned to vomit into the garbage can. I was slowly spitting up my own lies. I was only getting started.

As lie after lie was shown to me my tears and begging only grew in their sincere desperation. I found myself flipping between 3 realities, the numinous inner world, the cage that was my dying false self, and my true heart in the present, ordinary moment. After each release I was given a moments pause to vomit, and then begin the cycle of healing again. Between my crying, begging, sobs , and occasional moaning with ecstasy  as the medicine filled my bones, our assistant came over to connect with me and see if I needed help.

Our ritual leader was having problems of his own. After singing his first icaro he became dizzy.He kept saying: “I have lost my balance and I can’t fly.” Over and over again he kept chanting this until eventually all of us collapsed into silence and moans as we were all apparently overwhelmed by the medicine. There would be no visits from the wise healer tonight, as we all worked on our own with the medicine. Somehow I think she liked this, I think it was meant to be this way.

The assistant tried to calm me – I fell on her lap trying to hide from the medicine. She gently encouraged me to find my intent – that snapped me back into the work. The cycles began again, my bargaining was futile. After several hours of physically draining catharsis I thought to myself – where are my spirit guides, surely some spirits are watching over me now? Won’t someone save me from my own fear?

I flipped back into the room and the veil between me and the spirit world dropped. Above me stood 4 looming spirits awesome, terrifying and real in their presence. There was nothing to temper their extraordinary presence. I couldn’t stand the breadth of their vision and compassion, I shut them out – preferring the work the medicine had for me instead.

I could now feel that the purging would not limit itself to vomiting. I knew if I didn’t find my way to the toilet soon I would shit where I sat. My body was exhausted and wet from crying and sweating and begging – somebody else had recently vacated the only toilet available to us. I began to slowly crawl out of the circle toward the toilet. When I left the circle I was able to drunkenly haul myself to my feet. One is drunk and soaring in a psychedelic world of spirit at the same time. She spared me her presence until I made it to the toilet.

Pausing the process of dismembering my temple of lies for a moment, she introduced me to her own temple: an Aztec complex where she ruled. She coaxed from within my spirit a me that was a rainbow snake. I slithered up her steps and gathered with others at the top. She said she wanted me to learn to “shake my tail.” She moved my body and newly formed radiant tale through the base of my spin – she shook it hard for me! I think I then began to vomit and shit at the same time – a garbage basket stuck to one end and a toilet to the other. At that point I was beyond begging.

As I completed my purge something loosened up in my belly and I began to sing. Freed from lies and ignited by the medicine, the voice that came through me was not my voice. It was the voice of an old man and he was singing in Spanish. I don’t speak any language besides English. An icaro erupted out of me. It was not one I had heard. The ancient lineage of the medicine was singing its song through me. Slowly both it, and my purging, ended.

While staggering  back to the circle the assistant stopped to encourage me, telling me that the purging should end soon and things should feel better. I sputtered a tearful and despairing response and crawled back to my spot. When I settle in again the medicine was ready for round 2 but I was not. My body simple gave out. I couldn’t continue to process. Gratefully I drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

Not a bad first date. It took me several years to fully digest all that I learned on that maiden voyage. I hope to meet with her again in my life, though I’m not sure when that will be. I want to give her a chance to teach me how to shake my tale. I want to give the vine a chance to sing through me again.

Medicine like this, of this potency is needed in our culture. That doesn’t mean we all have to meet Her, not even ten percent of us. Only enough of us so that her presence can be felt by all. Experiences like mine take us to places in ourselves like few things in life can. They strip away all pretenses, making us available to real change, to real compassion. Scraping away centuries of dense layers of psychic and spiritual corrosion takes the kind of juice only sacred medicines like Yage seem to have.
– back to introduction
– previous chapter: Into The River
– next chapter: Open Message To The Dead


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