After a lazy morning of drinking coffee and chatting, Steve and Sammy excused themselves to prepare for the ceremony. Half an hour later, we were asked to come to the maloca and were reminded to leave all our electronics in the house. We banished our phones and watches to the room and came out with just our water bottles. Earlier, we had chosen our places on the property — my wife in the maloca and me eighty feet away with my hammock strung between two trees.
We sat in a circle around the maloca’s central feature — a figure of Yin and Yang in broken tiles set into a copper-impregnated resin. Crystals were somehow involved. Steve and Sammy came out carrying a metal tray, upon which sat, among other things, a medieval-looking bottle of opaque green liquid. Sammy took straight-faced swipes at a Tibetan music bowl while Steve got a bundle of white sage smoldering. The smoke from this plant is supposed to banish unhelpful energy. I don’t know about all that, but it smelled nice.
One by one, we rose and Steven passed the fragrant smoke over us from head to toe. Then we got re-settled onto our mats as he began the ceremony.
The opening invocation was basically a call to various nonspecific spirits to protect the “container” and watch over us as we surrendered to the experience. Now, I’m not woo-woo at all, but I had resolved to be open to all of it. Because that was my posture, I found the invocation more soothing than smirking. That was a mini lesson unto itself.
Then, we went around the circle to say how we were feeling. I admitted to being a bit trepidatious, but that was about as negative as things got. Everybody reported feeling good.
Next was the main event — drinking the medicine.
Steve gave the bottle a healthy shake to redistribute the thick green sediment at the bottom then poured about half a small glass for my wife. He reminded everyone that the other little bowl on the tray was full of candies that would help cut the taste of the medicine.
Amy drank, grimaced, and immediately popped a hard candy into her mouth. That largely answered the question about how it tasted, but I’d find out soon enough.
Steve poured me a two-thirds serving in the same glass, and per the recommendations, I downed it in three or four big gulps.
The universe doesn’t surrender its secrets easily, my friends. For proof of this, look no further than the taste of San Pedro. It is pure concentrated bitterness with a sharp, acidic finish that lingers on the tongue. I expected it would taste like grass clippings or silage, but it really just tasted like a test of how badly I wanted to do this, almost like being hazed by a plant. I gave a full-body shudder after the final swallow and chose a peach taffy chaser, tucking a second in my pocket for later.
After we all drank, we shared our intentions.
The Best of Intentions
A talking stick made from the dried pith of the cactus was passed around. No one may speak unless they’re holding the stick, so our instructions were to take it, state our intention aloud, and pass it along. The idea here is to hold everyone’s intention in your heart, not just your own.
My wife’s intention was to resolve some childhood trauma. This was mostly for her. She handed me the stick and smiled.
Mine seemed almost silly by comparison. I’d recently become aware that my entire concept of love was shaped by movies and TV, and that this led to frequent disappointment. I’d never really considered what it is to me. So, I said only half-jokingly, my question to San Pedro was the same as Foreigner’s: I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.
After that part was done, I gave my wife a hug, assured her I’d be with her in spirit, and retired to where I’d set up my hammock. While I got in and settled, Steve dropped off a portable speaker loaded with massage/yoga type music. All I had with me was my water, a notebook, and a pen. Steve left shortly, and I was alone.
The medicine kicked in after an hour or so. The first thing I noticed was that my senses, especially seeing and hearing, were augmented. Colors appeared brighter. Sounds seemed louder, more varied, and more abundant. I heard every bird’s song and every leaf’s rattle. My attention was complete and open. On more than one occasion, I thought I perceived the earth itself breathing. It was cool.
I turned off the music almost immediately. It felt intrusive and artificial. Hell, I felt intrusive and artificial.
I let myself take it in and picked up my notebook because I felt some pretty-sounding Khalil Gibran shit coming on.
Silence is just a symphony of sounds we’ve forgotten how to hear.
The first couple hours just brought me deeper into this feeling of attunement with nature. The foot of my hammock was tied to a tree covered in epiphytes, which are plants that grow on other plants.
I thought about epiphytes for the next three hours. I’m not kidding. What lessons could I learn? How am I like an epiphyte? How am I like the tree? On and on like that.
By definition, this relationship is non-parasitic. The tree doesn’t care at all that the goofy spider plant-looking thing is growing on it, nor does it suffer. But what if it did?
What if the tree spent its whole life resenting the epiphyte instead of being grateful for the company?
That made me think about my own resentments. What and whom I feed upon. What and who feeds upon me. Do I take more than I give? If I was an epiphyte, would my host tree die?
Welcome to my brain.
I felt deliciously flush with creativity and insight, but also deeply introspective and honest with myself. I wrote raw, honest, and truly atrocious poetry — the first verse I’ve written since college. That led me to revisit the last time I remember doing it, and to consider my relationship with words. Deeper and deeper it went. For a guy who is basically addicted to thinking, this could’ve gone badly, but the thoughts I had with San Pedro were beautiful and tragic and everything in between. I didn’t judge or direct any of it — I just wrote as fast as I could.
Words are the threads that connect me to myself.
Words have to matter because I am made of them. (Ouch.)
Nothing is as beautiful to me as being able to describe it to you. (Ahh, better.)
Occasionally, I could hear or even see my wife purging (throwing up). Purging is a huge part of ayahuasca ceremonies, but less common with San Pedro. Steve sat with her for a long time, guiding her through the grueling work of forgiveness. It was hard to keep my distance, but those were the rules, and for good reason.
Sometime in the mid afternoon — I couldn’t tell you when — Sammy checked on me carrying a homemade salad of tropical fruits and holy fucking shit they were good. We’re talking maracuya (passion fruit), mangoes, and yellow pitahayas (dragonfruit) all at the peak of ripeness. I paused long enough to write, Was there always this much juice?
As promised, the injection of fructose and water sent me back deeper into the medicine. It was starting to cool down, but the wool blankets I’d lined my hammock with weren’t cooperating. All I wanted to do was get back to my notebook. Finally, I sort of managed to smooth them out and cover up. I grabbed my notebook and wrote:
Everything makes sense … except for these blankets.
Once I knew what the experience was going to be like, it was easy and natural to really dive into my intention.
I won’t get into my meditation on love other than to say I gained a deeper understanding of it, how I’ve been so grievously misled about it, and what that means for me and my relationships. It was the kind of meditative state one cannot enter unless the mind is clear of distractions and pre-judgments. At times, I felt like Thoreau, fully considering the woods until their lessons were fully absorbed. I honestly can’t imagine a healthier mental activity for someone like me.
(A quick aside: When I worked at the University of Oregon, I took a mindfulness-based stress relief class. During one particular exercise, we were handed a raisin and asked to consider it for several minutes. Where did it come from? Who brought it here? How was it harvested? What forces concentrated its sweetness? That sort of thing. It found it a valuable exercise in focused and thoughtful attention. San Pedro makes it easy to bring thoughtful attention to seemingly trivial things.)
Around 6 p.m., I wandered back over to the house and laid down on a small deck overlooking the valley. I thought about how much work it is to live out in the country fighting a constant battle against nature. I thought about my parents, who fight those battles every day. As much as I enjoy country life, I don’t like the work involved. I thought about why that was and what it says about me. Why I didn’t see how much work it took. What more pleasurable activities it kept them from, and still keeps them from.
Shortly before dinner, my wife came over and laid beside me. She’d been through the ringer emotionally and was still a bit nauseous. My gleeful descent into the rabbit hole of unanswerable questions contrasted unpleasantly with the grueling work she’d done in setting fire to one of her emotional bags o’ shit. But like they said, everyone’s experience was different.
Dinner was a bland vegetarian soup and hearty bread, which I think is by design. I wasn’t hungry per se but knew I needed nourishment. We ate in silence. As with the fruit, eating kicked me into another little stretch of being in the medicine, which I used to refine some of my insights throughout the day.
After cleaning up from dinner, we took some time to digest (in all the ways) then retired to a U-shaped couch for the closing of the ceremony.
This is where it gets a little more woo-woo.
Before the day began, we were reminded to make note of any animals we “saw.” That didn’t mean Steve and Sammy’s dogs or the birds or the mooing cows nearby — it meant seeing shapes among the clouds, something watching over you through the leaves, that sort of thing. Spirit animals, if you will.
Some of us had (not me), so Sammy would find the animal in a reference book and read what it meant. Like having your fortune read, some things seemed prophetic and on-point while others didn’t. But to be fair, it was never couched as being especially significant. More like a spiritual nightcap. At best, it would pair well with something you experienced or thought about, and it made you go, Hmm.
Finally, we proceeded through a set of cards they referred to as “angel cards.” The cards would be fanned out, and we selected one. Those, too, corresponded to entries in a paperback book that did, in all cases, strike some particularly relevant chord with the person who chose it. It was an appropriate bookend to the day and I could enjoy it without putting much stock in it.
The day’s parting note was an exhortation from Steve that the various spirits and ancestors to whom he’d called at the opening remain with us as we slept, which I thought was a beautiful sentiment.
I didn’t feel the presence of any such spirits or the guiding hand of San Pedro himself, but I did feel a closeness to the spirit of the earth, which in this part of the world is called pachamama. Ecuador’s enshrinement of the earth’s rights in their constitution is proof of how seriously they take this earth-spirit concept. It’s a beautiful worldview that really resonates with me, as I’ve always relished nature and unspoiled places.
Sleep came fitfully at best. I was too tired to be awake but too wired to sleep. I think my brain was still keyed up from a day of distraction-free thinking, the judgment-free loving kindness of our spiritually comfortable hosts, and a sense of gratitude — especially that San Pedro had helped my wife set down one of her burdens. But there was nothing that needed to be done the next day and no obligations left unmet in this one, and that, too, was something to be grateful for.