When someone asks you if you want to take a trip, make sure you know which kind they're talking about.
I’m lying in a sleeping bag looking up at a painting I can barely make out in the late night gloom. To my left are two more people in sleeping bags. To my right, my friend Brig and beyond her, a woman shaking a rattle, smoking a cigarette and ceremoniously puffing the smoke in our general direction.
I’m wondering, when is this stuff gonna kick in? I think I see the portrait above me warp a little. Is that a trick of the eye or is this “it”? Is ‘the plant’ starting to affect me? Every visual anomaly makes me wonder, is my psychedelic journey about to begin, my own mentally-generated episode of Jamie and The Magic Torch.
Everyone in the room is quiet. I pass through difference mental spaces. This is exciting. This is fun. This is scary. This is stupid. I feel sick. Shut up, Brain! I feel sick. Our shaman, Ariana had told us the concoction she had given us may indeed bring on nausea. Ah, the power of suggestion. I sat up and Ariana shook her rattle, blew smoke in my face and then spat something onto me or more like sprayed it on me. I lay back down, bewildered. The nausea slowly subsided but what the hell had I gotten myself into?
A few months earlier and Brig is excitedly telling me about Ariana, a second-hand story about a woman who’d forsaken her busy, London life and media-orientated job to head to Peru to learn shamanism, as you do. But props to this lady for not only becoming a powerful master of the craft but bringing these acquired skills back to the UK and offering small workshops to people that would like to work with “the plant”. “Work with the what?”, I asked.
Basically, what Ariana was offering was a milder version of the experience many people have had with Ayahuasca, a South American concoction made from plants with hallucinogenic properties that shaman’s administer to people seeking clarity in their lives, healing of past pain and spiritual experiences. The drink has even been known to be an effective treatment for PTSD. Who knew that what a war vet with violent flashbacks needed was an acid trip?
I’ve seen videos of people who’ve taken Ayahuasca and one of the more memorable side effects is its propensity to make imbibers, purge. Not energetically, but physically, both ends by all accounts, projectile in some cases. And all this while in the depths of the Peruvian jungle. It certainly sounds like fun, what with you shitting like a fire hose, vomiting up your last eighteen meals and tripping so hard you think the world has turned inside out. What larks.
Luckily, the substance Ariana had brought into the country and was using for her ceremony was considerably milder but, she assured us, would still do the job.
Brig got together a group of four of us and we all went to Ariana’s swish London apartment to discuss our intention for the ceremony. As I trotted up the carpeted stairs to her first floor Marylebone flat I thought to myself, hmm shamanism pays well these days.
Of course, this apartment was just one of the remaining remnants from her days working in media. Ariana came to the door. She was a petite, young English woman. I’m not sure what I was expecting, for her to be wearing a bear’s head or have a bone through her nose whilst casually sacrificing a lamb? I don’t know. But I suppose I expected something but she was very… normal and very nice. “Come in”, she trilled and all of us sat down in her minimalist but homely living room.
Here Ari talked through exactly how the ritual worked. She told us a little about the plant and how we would work with it (The phrase intrigued me. I’d never thought of a plant as a colleague.) and that it would take place in a country home near ley lines which we’d visit before the ceremony. She explained that she was not a smoker but smoking helped her work with the plant as well as using a rattle. She then asked us what our intentions were and what we wanted to achieve. All my desires only ever seemed to revolve around work and that most elusive of things (to me), a relationship.
She told us that part of the process included getting present to the idea that we may gain nothing from it. For the first time, anxiety crept in. Clearly I was staking more on this than I’d imagined. Somewhere in my psyche, I needed this spiritual cleansing or whatever it was. It wasn’t that she was preparing us for disappointment but more that she was helping us let go of the outcome so that we could be free to receive whatever knowledge came our way.
There was an excitable buzz in the room as we left and made our plans for taking a trip to the countryside.
A few weeks later, on a train out of London, the four of us were again talking in excited, hushed tones about what lay ahead of us. Ariana had a good friend who lent her their country home for the ceremony and that’s where we were headed. We would stay the night and return to London the following afternoon. Though we tried to manage our expectations, we were still curious about the possibilities awaiting us on the other side of this psychedelic adventure.
Upon arriving, Ariana collected us from the station in her very normal car (again, I don’t know what I was expecting, perhaps a giant hawk or psychic bear) and took us to the house. She showed us around. I love big homes. It wasn’t quite a mansion but it certainly wasn’t just a house. It had several bedrooms upstairs, an indoor pool at the back and stunning views across rolling hills at the front.
As the sun set, Ari took us for a walk into the surrounding countryside so we could go to the ley lines. At the back of my mind, I really just wanted to get on with the ceremony.
As we walked back, I thought, here we go. However there was still more preparation to come. Once inside, Ari told us to write down what we’d like to learn, heal or achieve from the ceremony and we had to write several reasons why it would be good if something shifted. But then, much more challengingly, we had to write why it would be good if nothing happened. This was so much harder but, as she’d said before, it was an important part of the ritual, part of the letting go of the outcome.
Eventually I managed to write ten reasons. “Good”, she said. “Now write ten more”. My lip curled in preparation for an expletive but instead I wrote ten more, eventually. “Really good, guys. This is so important. Now” she said, “let’s have ten more”. A lip curl later and we were done.
The ceremony began. One at a time, she gave us a bottle of the potion she had prepared. Brig was the first to go. She took her swig, got a puff of smoke in the face and then was asked to get inside her sleeping bag. We were in a row, lying on the floor in the drawing room of this grand home. I was next. Just like in the movies where the witch doctor hands out their libation, the drink tasted vile. How about a little sugar or agave, that’s South American, right? But I didn’t have time to think about serving suggestions because I was getting a massive puff of smoke in my face. I got into my sleeping bag. Ari went along the line and once each of us had taken our drink and laid down, she turned out the light.
I don’t know if it was coincidence, but that night there was a glorious and bright full moon which shone straight through the patio doors, quietly creeping across the room as the night went on. Eventually, after much wondering about if the plant was taking a hold, it changed up a gear and my thoughts went from, is this it to yes it definitely is.
It had started. Ariana had told us that we would be flooded with thoughts and experiences and that every person’s encounter with the plant would be different. Just then Brig broke out into laughter. She couldn’t stop. So the plant had kicked in for her too.
I became aware that my temperature was shooting up. I pushed my sleeping bag off and went and sat at the window by the stairs, staring up at the stars. With Brig’s laughter, quiet moaning coming from the other two and Ari occasionally shaking her rattle and blowing fag smoke into the room, if anyone had walked in at that point, they would have thought it was the weirdest sleepover since Mel B and Eddie Murphy got together. Yeah, I know, that totally happened.
I came back to my sleeping bag and crouched down, staring at a shaft of moonlight that was slicing across the floor. I put my hand on it and immediately it became a panther’s paw. I crossed the other hand over the top and that was a panther’s paw too. Interesting, I thought.
The night pretty much continued in that vein. It wasn’t that I was hallucinating as such, it was like these things were being generated by my mind’s eye rather than my physical one.
It didn’t feel like I was high either, probably more to do with the environment than the potency of the substance we’d taken. It just felt like I was in an alternative, weirder reality.
After a while, and honestly, I had lost track of linear time at this point (it could have been the following week for all I knew), Ari took us through to the kitchen where she served us what I assumed was some magical, ancient, healing broth. I later discovered it was just lentil soup. We ate at the table while Brig quietly warbled a song to herself, the rest of us giggling like stoned students in a lecture, trying to keep the noise down. Like Ari told us, it affects you in different ways.
After we’d eaten, we went back into the dark yet moon-lit room and the psychedelic journey continued. I was together enough to make notes. Things were coming to mind thick and fast that I didn’t want to forget. I was getting bombarded with insights about my life, my history, my hurts. I made peace with some very deep and personal pain which had hung with me for a long time. That in itself was a gift that made the whole process worthwhile. I couldn’t have known this is what I needed when I’d originally written down my intentions back at Ariana’s flat.
After what I’m assuming was a few hours we headed upstairs. Brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed all happened in a strange haze. I was still in my alternative, timeless reality. I wasn’t sure I would sleep but when my head hit the pillow I realized how tired I was.
The following morning, Ari cooked us breakfast and we completed the whole process by talking through what we’d gotten from the whole thing. I shared some of my experiences as did the others.
In truth, even to this day, I’m not really sure what happened to me or what the lasting impact of this experience was but as someone with an interest in exploring my own consciousness, it was certainly a memorable journey but one that’s made me think, if this is the milder alternative, what the hell would happen if I took Ayuhuasca?