“You have the power to heal your life, and you need to know that. We think so often that we are helpless, but we're not. We always have the power of our minds…Claim and consciously use your power.” - Louise L. Hay
What does it mean to be powerful? I’ve lived a good portion of my life feeling disempowered, with the exception of rare moments of pulling life up by the bootstraps, taking a deep breath and plunging. Interestingly, these rare moments have altered the course of my life, such as when I decided to get clean from heroin, or when I decided to quit my banking software job, and when I decided not to wait around for my (now) husband to call me after we first met. And also, more recently, when I decided to participate in an ayahuasca retreat.
Funny how now matter what my external circumstances look like I could still default to seeing myself as weak and disempowered - even though I run my own company, manage a household of 3 kids and shoulder a ton of responsibility. But still, there’s this nagging voice that pokes at me.
What is this voice? Is it friend or foe? I can tell you that this voice is the hunger that my spiritual seeking desires to nourish, the reason I get up at 5am to meditate, breathe, exercise, take cold showers and whatever else - and why I devote a good portion of my time to cultivating compassion and presence in my life. And it is also what compelled me to travel to Costa Rica and drink sacred plant medicine with shamans and 80 other people seeking their own answers.
What is this sacred plant medicine ayahuasca?
For those of you unfamiliar with ayahuasca : Often called the "vine of the soul," ayahuasca is a sacred plant medicine brew typically made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and Psychotria viridis leaves that grow predominantly in Brazil, Peru and other regions of South America. The resulting tea contains DMT, (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) which is a chemical substance that is both a derivative and a structural analog of tryptamine. It can be consumed as a psychedelic drug and has historically been prepared by various cultures for ritual purposes as an entheogen.
Even though I had read and watched a lot of content about people’s experiences with this plant medicine - their mystical experiences, their insights, their divine encounters, their miracles, as well as accounts of terror and snakes and confronting death, there was no way to really know what I would be signing up for . But after 2 years of hemming and hawing, the voice kept getting louder and louder, until I finally decided to take action and commit - not unlike the process I went through before deciding to have a 3rd child.
Over the course of 7 days in Costa Rica, I participated in 4 ayahuasca ceremonies, the final two being 12 hour ceremonies that were held by a renowned guest shaman from Colombia named Taita Juanita, descended from a long line of shamans, and whose brew was repeatedly referred to over the course of the days prior to the ceremony as “really powerful stuff”. What could that mean? I wondered. Was I going to finally have irrefutable evidence of infinite consciousness, leave my body and travel to other realms, meet Mother Ayahuasca - maybe even God?
Funnily enough, my greatest fear? Vomiting. Seriously. I belong to a pedigree of strong stomachs. I had not vomited in over 20 years. My children have vomited maybe once or twice each. It was so unfamiliar - and thus, the notion so terrifying. I was more ok with the concept of suffering an ego death than of vomiting.
So I was determined that, no matter what, I was not going to vomit. Everything else, bring it on.
Or so I thought.
I didn’t vomit until the 3rd night - aka the Taita Juanita night.
But I digress.
By that time, I had already been through the depths of terror (first night) that lasted the entire night and most of the next day during which I decided that I would never, ever drink ayahuasca again and resolved to spend the rest of the week in my room during the ceremonies, then board my plane and go back home to my safe life and be ok with my existential problems, thank you very much. I cried a lot that day.
It took every ounce of courage I had to drink the 2nd night but I did it because I knew that all the safety and comfort in the world does not equate happiness. And I desperately wanted answers to the questions I’ve had my whole life. The 2nd night, I fully surrendered to the sacred plant medicine, ready to embrace whatever experience came my way. As someone there expressed to me “You have to love it all - love the terror, love the vomit, thank it and accept it and ask to be shown more.”
The second night was gentle to me though. Part of the deal that I made with myself to even partake in the occasion was that I would only take half a drink. The first night made me humble before the medicine; I spent the second night in a state of gratitude and relinquishment of control which was rewarded with a sense of tranquility and beauty. No visions, no vomit. I now believe that it brought me to the starting line of what I was really there for.
On the third night, I chickened out when it was my turn to take a drink and again asked for a half glass. Taita looked at me for a moment and then poured me a full glass. As soon as I choked down the vile and bitter sludge, I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to avoid throwing up that night. Whereas on the previous nights, it had taken a good 30-45 minutes before I could hear the sounds of people retching all around me, on this night it started almost immediately.
I hung on for a good while though, laying very, very still on my mattress in the bizarre and surreal environment that I found myself. Imagine a room of almost a hundred people in a darkened, suffocatingly sage smoked room, in varying stages of unrest, from moaning to crying to screaming to the deep, guttural sounds of purging. And then the occasional laugh. When I described it to my husband the next day, he remarked, “You sound like you’re describing hell.” In actual fact, it didn’t seem so far off. I thought of my Mom and how she had no idea what I was actually doing in Costa Rica and how it was so far from her realm of understanding that I wouldn’t even know where to begin to explain what I was doing.
At some point one reality merged into another, and I felt myself losing my sense of orientation. The sounds of music floated in the air, and I was convinced that the melody I was hearing was meant specifically for me and everyone was hearing their own version. Even though I was surrounded by people, I felt alone in my experience, and suddenly the urgency to be sick called on me and I desperately got myself in “position” as we were coached to do. This meant getting on all fours with your head over your bucket and your butt higher than your head. A small part of me was still lucid as I recall my horror that this was really happening, that I was going to vomit and there was no way out of it. Tears.
And then - to my utter surprise, as the powerful waves of purging overtook my body, I found myself both an observer and inhabitant of the experience in exactly the same moment. Incredibly, like a slap in the face, I suddenly remembered who I was - at once this small, scared, teary-faced child and simultaneously this omnipotent and mighty force of a being, unapologetic in its magnificence. This recognition was so familiar, so in my face, how could I have forgotten? The purging, short-lived and over, became a complete afterthought as I lay back down to contemplate the amazingness that had just transpired.
Could it be that it was simply a choice that I had to make as to who I wanted to be? Because I was most definitely both, more often the child than the resplendent me. I didn’t have much time to ponder this because the alarm bells of regurgitation starting sounding again, and I once again got myself onto all fours, ready this time.
Except that instead of the heaving session that I anticipated, I found my body rocking in circular motions of its own volition, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until I felt like I was frantically rotating over my bucket. Given my muted level of awareness at that point, I noted with some disassociation that something very crazy was happening, and as I flitted in and out of lucidity I recall turning my head to the right to look over my shoulder. As I turned my head back, I felt a sensation creep up my right arm and then up my neck into my face and then overtake my entire body - and I had the sudden realization that I had become a big, powerful cat. Not any cat, mind you, but a throbbing, feral, black panther of a cat that had me panting ferociously over my bucket. I had but a moment to ask myself what the fuck was happening when I suddenly felt my face smushed down against the mat while my body struggled and writhed against the powerful hand on my head that was keeping it down.
Whose hand was this? To this day, I’m not sure, but I venture to guess it wasn’t human. My best guess would be that I had been graced with an encounter with Mother Ayahuasca.
I wish I could tell you with crystal clarity what happened after that but it’s somewhat murky. I don’t know how long I persevered but I do know that at some point I felt another gentle hand on my back and the soothing voice of Sarah, one of the resident shamans, in my ear, telling me to just breathe through it. And in that moment I knew that I was in the midst of an ego death. Fade to black.
When I awoke, I found myself curled up on my side in a fetal position, with the morning light streaming through the windows. I had the sensation of being cradled in a beautiful feeling of love and safety. As the remembrance of the fight of my life - or death - started to come back into my perception, I was overcome with a sense of awe and wonder. Had all that really happened? The thought immediately flashed me back to the sensation of coursing power I felt in the body of the feline I had incarnated and I knew that it had definitely been real.
More importantly, two months later, where has this left me? Integrating would be the key word here, as I was told to expect. I would love to say that I now walk around fully in my power all the time - but I don’t - and doesn’t that sound kind of egotistical anyways? It’s not like that at all.
If anything, my experience has given me a precious touchpoint that I can reliably call upon when I need a reminder of who I can choose to be, but it’s always a choice that I have to make. It occurs to me what an incredible gift I received, for which I am deeply grateful.
My journey did not end that night, nor the next -which was even more insane - and which I’ll save for another time - but unfolds as I continuously follow this path of self-acceptance and self discovery on this adventure called life. I can’t wait to see what’s next.