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San Pedro Series 3 of 4: The Second Ceremony

San Pedro
1. San Pedro Series 1 of 4: The Context
2. San Pedro Series 2 of 4: The First Ceremony
3. San Pedro Series 3 of 4: The Second Ceremony
4. San Pedro Series 4 of 4: Six Lessons

Day 2: Are You Gonna Go My Way?

The first ceremony didn’t leave me wanting more. Not because it wasn’t a wonderful experience, but it was just … a lot. Eight-plus hours is a long time to be in an altered state.

Fortunately, Friday was a day of practically nothing. I wrote a bit in the maloca, napped, watched a couple episodes of Squid Game, and generally recharged. Doing nothing is a tough thing for me to do, but I’m proud to report I did precisely that. And to borrow a line from Peter in Office Space, it was everything that I thought it could be.

Amid the nothing-doing, I carved out time to consider my intention for the Saturday ceremony. I had a laundry list of options, but after my wife’s rough experience, and having a bit of a San Pedro hangover, I thought it shouldn’t be anything too heavy. I had recently become aware of a pattern of expectations and disappointment, and figured that might be worth some deep thought. But unlike my illusions of love, it wasn’t that urgent, which turned out to be significant.

The day two ceremony began in the exact same way. An affable kid in his mid 20s named Brandon, who Steve and Sammy described as their adopted son (not literally), had come to spend a few days. He was there for the ceremony along with an older fella named Denny who chain smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and hung out at the retreat for weeks at a stretch. One of those homeless-by-choice, rolling-stone kinds of guys. We both appreciated the extra company.

As before, we did the invocation, the cleansing white-sage smoke, and the “How ya doin’ today?” bit. Then it was time to drink again. The bottle of cactus juice was the same as before, and the unused remainder looked especially chunky. My wife got her same half glass, but for whatever reason, Steve poured me almost a full one. It took about five big gulps of the aggressively bitter slurry to polish it off, after which Brandon laughed and said, “That looked like a lot. I’ll take half that.”

Uh-oh, I thought.

The talking stick was passed around, and we shared our intentions. None were so specific as mine, which didn’t bother me, although in the moment I already wished it had a stronger emotional component. In retrospect, I think that’s the best sort of intention for San Pedro — to confront and maybe convert a troubling emotional experience or pattern.

As before, we went our separate ways. My wife stayed in the maloca and I went back to my hammock.

‘Til The Medicine Takes

That’s the name of my favorite Widespread Panic album, and it happens to fit here. After you drink, there’s an hour or so of just laying there. I used that time to write down questions that I intended to consider: How do expectations serve me? How has their impact on my life changed over time? What about others’ expectations of me? Why am I so easily disappointed?

Once the medicine kicked in, my brain went into overdrive. (It’s funny to look at my notebook to see when I started to write faster and sloppier at this point.) For the first hour or so, I considered these questions at length, but they only led to more questions, and soon I was drowning in them. The answers weren’t coming. To be honest, I panicked a little. I can ask questions all day. That’s not why I’m here.

Amid the deluge, it occurred to me that I was effectively trying to direct the experience, which isn’t the point. Your intention is just that — an intention. But we intend all kinds of shit without actually doing it. I thought back to the invocation to the spirits to protect the “container” we were in, all of which is to say that each of us was absolutely safe. The whole purpose of safety is to facilitate surrender, which is exceedingly difficult for me but highly valuable.

So, I surrendered my intention. “Okay, San Pedro, I’m listening,” I said aloud, and opened my awareness as wide as it could go.

Something Fishy Going On

My hammock was strung between the same two trees, so my view was the same — towering eucalyptus trees and some other kind of tree bearing the epiphytes that had held me so rapt earlier. Eucalyptus leaves are narrow teardrop shapes with a slight arc (see photo). On mature trees, they hang in clusters. As I watched them oscillate and roll in the gentle breeze, they gave the strong impression of schooling fish.

That pleasurable fizzy feeling returned, and I wrote a little haiku:

The leaves become fish
In rushing rivers of air
Striving for the sky

For a time after that, I could think of little else.

Have you ever watched schools of fish moving as one? There’s something magical about it. Individual fish = meh. A shimmering, swirling bounty of them = wowzer. I thought about the crowds at a big concert, waving their arms in unison or holding up lights. I value individuality highly, but I wrote, What if a minnow didn’t enjoy just being a minnow? Would it sit around and wonder, ‘Is this all there is?’ or would it just lighten the fuck up and swim?

After a while, my attention shifted to trout. I’m a competent, but tragically unproductive fly fisherman, so I know a few things about trout. They generally face upstream because that’s where the food comes from. I wrote:

A trout is unconcerned with what has passed it by. It only cares about what’s yet to come.

The moment I wrote that down, I immediately stopped thinking about fish as though they’d already taught me what they had to impart. What followed was my favorite bit from the whole journey:

Sit under a tree alone long enough, and you’ll write a poem about it.
Sit under a tree with San Pedro long enough, and it will write one about you.

As I chuckled to myself, Sammy appeared with another bowl of mind-blowing Ecuadorian fruits and asked me if I needed anything. I hadn’t had a conversation with Steve, the trained counselor, while in the medicine and I had a question for him. While she went to fetch him, I scribbled down the perfect Onion headline to summarize my day to that point:

Philosophy Prodigy Unveils Breakthrough Analogy

The Archetypes and Spirituality 101

Steve came shortly and sat cross-legged beside me on the manicured grass, a ring of orange still clinging to his short, graying goatee from the maracuyá he’d just eaten. His rheumy eyes settled on mine and he asked what was on my mind.

Part of his well-rehearsed invocation includes a call to the “archetypes — lover, warrior, magician, and king.” I wondered what that was all about.

Psychology, Jungian in particular, is full of archetypes. The ones he referenced are from a book titled, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. He explained it thusly:

The lover loves everything and everyone, all the time.
The warrior is always sharpening his sword, ready to face danger and charge into battle.
The magician is the doer, working behind the scenes to solve problems and uncover the key insight that saves the day.
The king sits back, does nothing but collect riches and adulation, and basks in the majesty of his realm.

The point, he said, is that we are all compositions. Archetypes like these are a way to help make sense of our disparate selves. But he then asked if I was spiritual. For example, did I believe in something bigger than myself? I answered that I’d had experiences that I would describe as spiritual, but that I have never indulged in any spiritual practice. I said I don’t believe in gods or a grand design. On balance, I think organized religion is one of society’s most destructive forces.

After considering this for a moment, he said that the beauty of spirituality is that you can basically form your own religion. That you can take the bits you like from this religion or that,  and mix in what you care about and what’s in your heart. The “practice” represents your efforts to stay true to your personal “religion.”

I said I liked that idea on its surface, and I’d never thought of spirituality that way. I could get behind something like that even though the concept of gods makes no sense to me.

And so he told me a deeply personal story. I won’t betray his confidence by repeating it here, but it concerned his mother’s untimely death when he was just a kid. He told his dad he rejected the god that took her from him. His father said, “Well, son, everyone needs a leanin’ post.”

That last bit really stuck with me. It made me think of the edge of a pool — something you can reach for if and when you need it. We all call it something different, or we don’t believe it’s there. The problem, the more sure we are that it is there, the more self-righteous we become. The more self-righteous we are, the more threatened we are by conflicting points of view.

Welcome to 2023.

At the End of the Day …

As it had Thursday, the early evening hours dissolved into night like a nail in a bottle of Coke. My mood, which had been so buoyant as the first day’s experience drew to a close, was a bit more unsettled.

Ironically, I was disappointed that my intention regarding expectations and disappointment didn’t meet expectations. Valuable lessons still awaited me along with all the fish, but it was also an analog to how so many days seem to go — thoughtful and sincere intentions derailed by inattention, laziness, or other ills that keep me stuck in toxic loops. Did the mystical forces to which I surrendered myself really redirect my focus, or was some part of my subconscious working to protect my fragile ego from the hard truths I sought?

I found myself wondering about the source of my resistance to spirituality. When the concrete and empirical fail me, I turn to abstractions. When those fail me, I turn to distractions. There’s never been anything beyond that. That I’ve never drawn a clear distinction between religion and “the unknowable beyond” suddenly seemed problematic.

That brought me back to something Steve asked me at the very start of our conversation, which was along the lines of, “Do you believe there is something bigger than yourself? An energy, an order — anything like that?”

I said I did, but only from the scientific standpoint — that the total amount of matter and energy in the universe is constant, and that they only change forms. The best I’ve ever let myself hope for is that we simply “merge with the infinite.” As for order, I said the universe demonstrably trends toward disorder and chaos, a.k.a. entropy. That the notion of an order or design that applies exclusively to human beings — one of an unknowable number of intelligent lifeforms in the cosmos — is ludicrous to me. Then again, I write sci-fi.

But I also recognize that we humans need a lot of comfort. If you can convince yourself that a source of comfort exists beyond what you receive from others or life in general, then comfort is always available to you. Thanks to Steve and San Pedro, I get that now.

Whether I was steered toward this critical understanding by forces beyond my comprehension or open-mindedness, I couldn’t say. But in the space of a day, I moved from relative ignorance to an understanding. These days, maybe that’s the best I dare hope for.

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