Friday, April 29, 2016

Don't Think, Just Be: My Ayahuasca Experience

I get into the van outside the Dawn on the Amazon Cafe and can't believe my eyes. Of the 8 people in our group I am the only man. Behind me sits a sixtyish hippie woman and the rest are all super cute chicas bonitas in their 20s and 30s. Blonde, brunette, Israeli, Asian. Hot, hot, hot, hot. I felt like the luckiest guy in Peru. 

The mood during the one-hour ride to the Gaia Tree jungle retreat center is bright. Everyone is chatting and laughing and I'm enjoying talking with the cute Canadian who is sitting next to the aging hippie. There are no external signs of the internal torment that some of them are living with.

Iquitos, Peru is on the Amazon river near the borders of Colombia and Brazil and is the epicenter of the burgeoning ayahuasca movement. Ayahuasca is an ancient plant medicine which local shamans have been using for generations. It is used for personal healing as well as psychedelic visions. I am here mostly out of curiosity, partly as an opportunity for personal growth. If I have any demons in my past or pain buried deep inside me, which I do not think that I do, this will bring it to the surface and help me deal with it. For example, I tend to be shy around attractive women and lack the self-confidence that I see in many other guys -- is this the result of some scarring that occurred being the first kid in school to wear glasses and braces? Wearing a headgear (for the braces on my teeth) to school did not endear me with the cute girls or the cool kid club.

Gaia Tree Retreat Center
My home for the next 7 nights is this tambo, a little 10'x10' hut in the middle of the jungle about 100 yards and thousands of trees from my closest neighbor. There is a mosquito net over the bed and a few termites parading around inside.

Each night from dusk around 6 to ceremony at 9 I lay in my tambo just listening to the jungle sounds. Amazing. Whistles and croaks and chirps and querks and rustling and whooshing. All of the frogs, birds, insects, monkeys and whoknowswhatelses are invisible in the dark.

Five minutes walking from my hut brings me back to the central building where we will all spend most of our down time. Downstairs is where we will eat two vegetarian meals per day and upstairs has hammocks for lounging. We won't sleep much at night so these hammocks will get a lot of use. 

Main building - exterior

Main building - interior


And here is the malorca where our ceremonies take place, 5 in 7 nights. They begin at 9pm and last until nearly dawn.

The morning after a ceremony

The Participants
Four of the eight participants have some serious healing to do. They share stories of parental torment and personal struggles that blow my mind. Now I feel like the luckiest guy in Peru but for totally different reasons. I feel blessed because my father didn't beat me and I was never raped, never suicidal, I wasn't slaughtering chickens in a factory at age 12 and my parents never tried to sell me to a wealthy neighbor when I was 13.

It is some heavy, heavy shit. How can people be so cruel?

Our lovely cook in this kitchen.


The Ceremonies
Ayahuasca is a vine that grows plentifully in the jungle around here. Local (mostly indigenous) shamans chop it up with another plant and boil the concoction down for 12-20 hours. Out comes a liquid blacker than motor oil and nearly as thick. It is the worst tasting thing I've ever put in my mouth. We all struggle to keep it down as it is dispensed out of re-purposed 2-liter bottles of Coke.

Over the seven nights here we will partake in five ceremonies. The ceremonies begin at 9pm and we all sit around the inner perimeter of the malorca, a circular building about 50' in diameter. We have mattresses and pillows and a puke bucket close at hand. Everyone pukes. It is part of the process. Unless you're a shitter, that is. Not everyone purges only from their mouth. There is also a lot of crying, burping and blowing of noses.

The ceremony is run by two shamans -- a husband and wife team. They are barely over 5' tall and fairly thick, but not fat. Each of them displays several silver teeth. They are from a local tribe and have been a part of these ceremonies since they were children. They learned to be shamans from their fathers who learned from their fathers and hey prove to be people of deep love and compassion as they guide the healing process with the bedside manner of Mother Theresa.

I chose to sit in the first position to the right of the shamans, meaning I would imbibe first. I was served maybe 5 ounces, three gulps worth. I shudder now just thinking about the flavor. 

About fifteen minutes later I felt a bit of a head buzz and five minutes more and I was puking. The shamans began singing and my vision started to turn into mosaics, but only just a little bit. My body started buzzing like I was on a marijuana high. Then Don Segundo, the husband shaman, moved over to sit in front of me and sing. He would be followed around the room by his wife Belmira, spending 10-30 minutes in front of each of us, depending on what we needed. Their singing right in front of me made everything more intense, but my first experience was fairly mellow.

The woman to my right was gently moaning and the one to my left was humming a little song, kind of annoying as it was out of tune with the singing of the shamans. 

The first night ceremony must have ended around 2am. That's when the shamans left the building. At the crack of dawn I was still buzzing and enjoying the full-body tingle while listening to the sounds of the forest. I was able to sleep for just a couple hours and we all spent the night right where we started it -- on our mattresses in the ceremony building.

My Most Interesting Ceremony
The second night was the most eventful for me. I was given a little bit more to drink and it had a greater effect. After puking it was if someone pulled back the curtain on the universe and showed me a truth. The vision was white on white, a flowing world of energy and joy. There were energy globules morphing into energy tubes and connectors and beings. There were little energy beings from all over existence that had congregated, like the cantina in Star Wars. Each was flowing in and out and morphing at will. Then the vision would change into a face wearing headphones that reminded me of the old Napster logo if it's headphones were pumping out universal joy.

It felt like the only things that truly exist in the universe are (1) energy and (2) joy/love. Everything else is just human-made bullshit. I felt like the shamans were servants of love whose job was to help humans pull themselves out of their self-created misery into the true essence of being and love. 

Then I started thinking about it. I started analyzing what was going on. Why was I feeling these things? What does it all mean?

But as soon as I started thinking, the vision changed. It changed to more of an outer space feel with nodes and connectors like the start of a Dr. Who episode or something. At the same moment my right leg began spasming. Whenever I stopped thinking the vision changed back to the energy and love, but I repeated this cycle several times. Each time I started analyzing the vision, as I am wont to do, I got the leg spasming and the vision change. I realized I could stop my leg from spasming, which felt good that I was still in control. In fact, I was always in control. We all were. We were never 100% out of it. Often we had to go outside to use the outhouse and sometimes people would need some help from one of the facilitators, but we were always aware that we were having a trip.

After a few of these cycles through thinking, spasming, and energy/love a voice said to me: Don't think. Just be.

Just be the energy. Just be the love. This message ties in closely with the meditation and mindfulness I've been working on the past few years. All of our grief and stress comes from fretting about something in our past or worrying about the future. We create so much anxiety for ourselves by worrying about things that are completely out of our control. Anything that already happened is over with. And we agonize so much about things that may or may not happen in the future. If we can just learn to live in the moment, to be, we can remove so much bullshit anxiety from our lives. Our minds are the cause of 100% of our strife. There is nobody else to blame because we control our response to any external stimuli.

Don't think. Just be.

Meanwhile, the Russian supermodel next to me seemed to be going through an exorcism. The shamans had been working with her for a long time and her body was writhing and lifting off the ground, bolting up, laying down. It was like demons were being pulled out of her in a '70s horror film. It was crazy. And it went on until 5am.

The Healing
The most amazing part of the week was the healing that I witnessed, at least in the short term. Time will tell how well these people were healed, but the stories they shared about their experiences were compelling. And I could see it. One woman felt Mother Ayahuasca working on her physical body every night and healing her ailments. One woman came here because she was suicidal a week prior and after witnessing her own death one night in an out-of-body experience realized that she no longer wanted to die. One woman began the week with a negative, mean spirit that really turned me off, but after a couple days was transformed to happiness and positivity. 

The love shared amongst the participants was also amazing. Each day after a ceremony we sat in a circle and shared our experience. There were tears and hugs and people shared things about their personal trauma that they had never shared with even their closest friends. 

Take Aways
  1. I am so fortunate to not have such trauma in my life. I feel like Mother Ayahuasca gave me a clean bill of emotional health, which feels good to confirm.
  2. The essence of everything is energy and love. Unfortunately, humans are awfully good at piling a lot of bullshit on top of it.
  3. Don't think. Just be.
    1. Continue to learn to quiet my mind to all the anxieties it wants to bring up.
    2. We are each in 100% control of our reactions to any external stimuli. Hence, there is never anyone or anything to blame for how we feel.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Listen to This

In the past week I was on two separate 20-hour bus rides in Argentina. I actually enjoy these rides because the buses are quite nice, like first class in an airplane, and I get to fill my curious brain with lots of intelligent podcasts. Here are a couple episodes of Radiolab I particularly enjoyed and think you will, too:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Experience at 10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat

The Compound

If you could see through the fence and into the courtyard you would think you were gazing upon rec time at a loony bin circa 1953. The nearly 2-acre compound holds 5 buildings and is filled with towering pine trees. It is a pleasant setting. 

Inside the yard a few dozen adult humans wander about. They wear loose-fitting clothing and walk slowly, heads down, not making eye contact with each other. Men and women are segregated, separated by a demilitarized zone 3 meters wide.  Over there a woman wearing a shawl on her body and a scarf on her head appears to be caressing a tree. Over here, a disheveled man is simply staring at a stump.

But this is not a mental ward. It is a 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat.


Goals

Why go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat? Here are the overarching reasons that I've been meditating for the past 3 years. My hope was that 10 days of intensive meditation would hasten my journey down the path to being a better human. Specifically, I want to:
  1. Show more love and compassion to people (and animals, too)
  2. Become less frustrated with people or situations
  3. Thoughtfully respond to external stimuli, not simply react
In the past three years I've seen good progress in these areas and meditating for 10 days and 10 hours per day would more than double my lifetime total of meditation time.

Arrival and Initial Impressions

I arrived at the facility the afternoon of Day 0 to get signed in and to turn over all non-essential items. No electronics, no journal for writing. No alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. I took only clothing, toiletries and a sleeping bag.

Participants were asked to arrive between 2 and 4pm on Day 0. After registration we just sat around in the shade waiting to get started. There wasn’t much conversation as the participants seemed to be mentally steeling themselves for 10 days of Noble Silence.

At 5:30 stragglers were still arriving and I was already bored and restless. It was going to be a long 10 days.

Meditation

I’ll never get used to a 4am wakeup call, let alone a 2-hour meditation beginning at 4:30am. Even the roosters weren't awake yet.

And I hadn’t sat cross-legged for longer than twenty minutes since participating in the YMCA’s Indian Guides program with my dad in the 1970s. About fifteen minutes in my right foot fell asleep and a few minutes later the pain in my left knee was unbearable. I constantly wriggled and shifted in order to maintain some level of comfort. Later I would learn that discomfort is a critical part of the process.

Seventy meditators sit in a hall, women on the left side and men on the right. Each has an elaborate system of pillows, blankets, shawls and stools that indicates they’ve done this before. I am sitting on the very pillow I rested my head on last night.

Some people have little stools upon which they place a fitted pillow. They kneel, their feet under the stool and sit on it, wrapping the entire throne in a blanket. Others use multiple pillows and blankets and wraps to build a nest upon which they will perch for the next hour or two. A scarf hangs over many of their heads, mimicking a monk’s hood. They sit, rigid as a Buddha statue, while I shake in physical pain and mental strain.

At the front of the room on a small dias sits Isabella, our teacher. All in the room, including me, want to be more like her. She is calm and compassionate and loving. She smiles a lot and is an excellent listener. She is wise and has the glowing face of someone who has found the key to the meaning of life and is desperately trying to give it to you. Why do you refuse it?

On a chair in the back of the room sits a 70-year old gentleman who has done this before. He is solemn now but after the course he reveals his bright smile and cheerful voice. About every fifteen minutes he emits a sound that is too soft to be a cough, more nasally than a throat clear, but still forceful and determined like a grunting calf. After a few days of this I decide that he’s probably In a state of meditational bliss and feels as if he’s being pleasured by a young Audrey Hepburn. 

Of the 35 men here, I am the only one without facial hair. I stand out like a razor salesman at a shaggy beard convention. 

Vipassana Meditation Technique

The purpose of vipassana meditation, to my understanding, is to reach enlightenment by understanding all sensations as neither positive nor negative. It was developed by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2500 years ago and his contribution to the world is that he realized that we are the master of our own emotions. When we become angry, for example, it is we who make ourselves angry and cannot be blamed on anyone else. By learning to control our reaction to external stimuli we are masters of our own happiness.

The first three days (thirty hours of meditating) we focused on the inside of our nostrils and the spot just below the nostrils and above the upper lip. With each normal breath we focused our attention to feel how the incoming breath is colder than the outgoing. Sometimes your breath only goes through one nostril or the other. I could feel the stubble on my upper lip as my gentle breath passed over it. I could feel my nose hairs sway in the breeze of each breath.

After honing our attention for thirty hours we turned our new sensitivity to full body scans. The next seven days were spent slowly scanning our body with our mind and honestly feeling whatever we felt, with no regard for good or bad feelings. You know how you can feel your heart beat? And you can feel your pulse in your neck? That same pulse is in every artery, vessel & capillary in your body, just to a lesser degree. By honing our observation skills we can feel it and we can feel every part of our body with our mind. Advanced practitioners can also feel the inside of their bodies.

This was a revelation to me. I learned to focus my attention on my ear, for instance, and could feel it tingling and vibrating. It was pretty cool to get myself into a full-body tingling experience -- like smoking legal Colorado weed but without the brain fog.

Why do this?
The idea is that by closely examining our own body we will come across different sensations like the pain in my knee of the aching in my lower back. And by simply observing these sensations with a neutral mind we will re-wire our brain to also not react negatively to challenging or offensive words hurled at us, for example. The absence of negativity in our minds leaves us left only with joy and love. This is why the Dalai Lama and other seasoned practitioners are always smiling and so gracious to everyone they encounter.

For the past ten years or so, science has been studying Buddhist monks and its findings support what the Buddha discovered 25 centuries ago. From the BBC:

"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn't know previously was possible."
When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.

Daily Schedule

4am  Wakeup
4:30-6:30  Meditate
6:30-8:00  Breakfast and break
8:00-9:00  Meditate
9:00-11:00 Meditate
11:00-1:00 Lunch and break
1:00-2:30 Meditate
2:30-3:30 Meditate
3:30-5:00 Meditate
5:00-6:00 Snack
6:00-7:00 Meditate
7:00-8:30 Lecture
8:30-9:00 Meditate
9:05 Goodnight, Kirk

Where you see multiple meditation sessions back-to-back, they were broken up by a 5 or 10 minute break. It was all run very efficiently. Volunteers worked in the kitchen and served us two meals per day, breakfast and lunch. The afternoon snack was only one apple or one banana. I got a little hungry at times, but actually skipped breakfast on days 3-8. Hunger is another of those sensations that we often don't just sit with. We think we need to overfill our stomach the minute it gurgles. I basically ate one meal a day, a full plate of rice/beans/salad/pasta, and was satiated.


My Experience

The first six days went surprisingly well for me. I thought that by day three I might be running for the exit (there was a tiny brewery just down the street), but I started off strong. The days actually went by fairly quickly because they were broken up into 60-, 90- and 120-minute segments.

Day seven is where I began to crack. Ten hours a day of focusing the mind is quite difficult and my mind was now all over the place and I didn't care to reign it in anymore. Day eight was similar and day nine I mostly mailed it in. On day ten we finally got to speak so there was much less meditating and a lot of sharing with the other participants. We stayed over the night of day ten and had to get up at 4am again on day eleven, so, in actuality, it was a twelve day experience.


Boring. Difficult. Emotional. Inspirational. Informational.

Those words pretty much sum it up for me. Some of the lectures given over audio tape by the program founder S.N. Goenka were quite inspiring and very informational. Others made me feel as if he were a smooth salesman trying to sell me the best thing in the world - enlightenment and eternal happiness - but that it would cost me a lifetime of one hour meditating every morning and one hour meditating every evening. A stiff price.

I learned a lot and am thankful that I am in a place where I have ten days I can just throw at an experience like this. As of now I highly doubt I'll do another one of these, but who knows. There are centers in virtually every country of the world so perhaps in my travels I will try again.

Would I recommend it?
Only to someone who is serious about meditation. Talking with the other participants it seems the ones who got the most out of it, like anything I suppose, were those who were most committed going in. I was only semi-committed and I think that's why I petered out after a week.

Location of vipassana centers


What's Next?

Stay tuned in a couple weeks for a report from an eight day ayahuasca plant medicine experience in Peru...