Hans • • 20 min read
A Shade of Red: My Healing Ayahuasca Experience
Consciousness & Meditation Psychedelics & Drugs Random + Awesome
Prologue – February 2015
My cold showers are quite the shocking little events. First I wash with hot water; then I swiftly turn the temperature all the way down to ice-cold. This jolt causes my body to generate heat rapidly, invigorating my nervous system and sending warmth to my blood vessels at high speed. I get charged with a powerful surge of energy, vitalizing my system.
A few days before my Ayahuasca experience, as I was toweling down after a particularly challenging cold shower, all of a sudden my eyes caught their own gaze in the mirror.
I intuitively understood that if I looked away, this strange and wonderful feeling would disappear. As I stood there, I felt my ongoing daily affirmations of self-love spawn into physical fruition. Right at this moment, I had no doubt: I was in love with myself.
As immediate and clear as this love felt, it did come as a surprise. I had taken nothing — no drugs and no alcohol — this was just me, after an icy shower, gazing at myself as I’m sure my girlfriend sees me in the strongest of loving moments!
It seemed as though the healing I’d sought for so long had begun the moment I truly wanted to heal.
I had a psychologically abusive childhood where I wasn’t allowed to be myself. The journey towards becoming an assertive, strong man has been long and difficult. I remember thinking in my early twenties, “I’m glad this will all end one day.” This thought was not sarcastic. It was an honest anticipation of the relief death would one day bring.
For my entire life, I’ve been desperate to get to a better place. And for the first time, I’m starting to see doors opening that were previously closed.
As I continued to dissolve into my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I knew immediately where this intense feeling of love originated. I knew my heart was ‘speaking’ to me. And when that wise, life-expounding organ speaks its beat-like a beacon of nonstop care it would be foolish not to listen.
The thought that my heart had always been there, beating away every time I’d felt lost and hopeless comforted me. At this moment, my heart’s support blossomed into an incredible gulf of warmth. I felt it on my skin. I saw it in my eyes. God, it felt beautiful.
The reason I’m sharing this shower story with you is because this heart opening I underwent is deeply connected to my Ayahuasca experience. This event was the first step, but throughout the rest of the article I want to share with you the entire journey.
This story is not a scientific investigation or an opinionated blog post. This article is my experience of spending three days in an altered state of consciousness, looking for a way to remember my true self — the Self that first opened its eyes after my wintry shower.
I hope you stay with me on this trip through my consciousness-expanding experience, and that it inspires you on your journey.
Day 1 – Saturday, March 14th, 2015
The day of the first ceremony was carefully structured. To prepare for the Ayahuasca experience, Martijn and I sat in brotherly meditation. Feeling the rising Sun’s warm embrace brought a tear to my eye. It felt so reassuring and familiar. I felt as grateful for this moment as a death row inmate must feel conscious of his limited time on this wonderful orb. A man facing certain death lets go of old grudges and resentment. He finds meaning in gratitude not grievance.
The next step of our preparation was to do some yoga. It was intense and got us loosened up nicely. Upon returning home, we nourished ourselves with some delicious quinoa and rice-coconut-milk with blueberries. Our diet leading up to the Ayahuasca experience had been restricted. We practiced the Ayahuasca ‘dieta’, which is the abstinence of certain foods including cheese, caffeine, alcohol — and pretty much anything bordering on junk food.
Neither of us felt talkative. There is something special about a day in which you know you are going to work with one of the most powerful plant medicines known to man. Our silence felt appropriate.
With our bellies full of food and our minds filled with anticipation, we took the tram to the center of Amsterdam. There, we experienced a full hour in a sensory deprivation tank. This was our third and last preparation. As I felt my naked skin being caressed and fed by the salty water of the cocoon-like urban womb, my heart started beating faster. I knew that the brew was now only a few hours away. My increasing heart rate felt like nature’s alarm clock alerting me of my imminent awakening.
We continued our journey through Amsterdam’s public transport system. A short while later, we hiked along a little town somewhere in the heart of the Netherlands, coming to a bridge where a sign — probably a leftover from a children’s quest — invited us in, saying we should shout as loudly as we can “Ik ben niet bang!” [I am not afraid!]
As we would later find out, this playful instruction was an omen. Unaware of its predictive nature, we spontaneously accepted the assignment and hurled these words of bravery loudly at each other’s faces.
Martijn and I looked each other in the eyes and felt reassured. A car rolled up beside us and stopped. The driver rolled down her window and serendipitously asked, “Are you going to the Ayahuasca workshop?”
Two minutes and some small talk later, we were engrossed in a lively conversation with this woman who, I’d later find out, did not pick us up out of sheer coincidence. She was one of the assistants at the retreat. It’s a good thing we got along. The next day she would be helping me pick up the broken pieces of my ego from the ground.
Ayahuasca ceremony building
Because I had never partaken in an Ayahuasca ceremony before, it was mandatory to share my intentions in an intake meeting. Here is where I met Norberto the shaman (who doesn’t call himself a shaman). I told him about my previous experiences with entheogenic medicines and a bit about myself. He listened carefully and kindly, and with his penetrating eyes looked past my words and into my soul.
I was now ready to drink the Ayahuasca brew.
Walking down the stairs towards the other gathered participants, I could feel the intensity growing – the air was teeming with anticipation. An atmosphere of excitement, hope, and fear filled the premises. People everywhere were talking excitedly and laughing nervously. But most of all, the vibe was welcoming and kind. Even on this first night, the goodness of the people that were present was among the most striking things I felt. Together, we started towards the ceremony room to drink the bittersweet Amazonian jungle-nectar.
On this first evening, we drank a milky cup of Ayahuasca. One cup amounts to approximately three medium size swigs. I’d heard a lot of stories about how gross the taste was, but it really just tasted like muddy water, nothing too bad. I didn’t feel much besides being a bit introspective and feeling some loving vibes, flowing through me ever so gently. My relaxed state at this stage was fortunate. The Ayahuasca hit Martijn harder, and I was able to give him some care.
Ayahuasca ceremony room
Day 2 – Sunday, March 15th, 2015
The brew of the second day proved to be more potent. I did not have it easy (but thankfully, this time around, Martijn’s travels were much less challenging). The taste was a lot worse than the day before, and I knew it was going to have a stronger effect. When the Aya came on, it pervaded all dimensions of my consciousness. The power of this unknown state was so overwhelming that the sound of Martijn’s primal purging threw me forcefully into a place that was hell to be in. Darkness overtook my sight. My other senses seemed absent. Raw fear enveloped me.
Had I gone too far? Would I die in this raging panic, right here, in this volatile, boundless, animal, aggressive insanity…?!
I was convinced I was dying of insanity. I feared I was one of the few people on whom Ayahuasca can have a severely detrimental effect. In this frenzied state, it didn’t dawn on me that the fear of insanity and death were part of a teaching being imparted to me by the Ayahuasca.
When you’re inside the insanity, it doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to end. You see, at a point during this weekend I spoke to Martijn, and I told him that I sometimes struggle with generating a basic motivation for life. Nothing too dramatic – or shall we say, suicidal – but still, a real struggle from time to time. Well, concerning this struggle, the fear of death had an unsuspected educative effect. When I pondered the panic attack the next day, I saw clearly that the fear of death in reality equals love for life.
Another fear, perhaps my biggest, is going insane. I sat on my mattress, the waves of psychedelic distortion washing over me. These waves got stronger and stronger, I could feel them building momentum in my stomach, like a flood of unstoppable darkness swallowing me whole. Looking to my right, I no longer saw the wall that was there a minute ago. Instead, I could now literally see insanity as some evil spider’s web of sick patterns. This was the web in which suicide is an “ok option”. I didn’t want to look at that web for too long because I felt if I did it would push me over the edge of never coming back to sanity.
Seeing it for just a second was long enough to make me realize something profound — it made me realize that I was not it. Again, afterward, my logical mind reasoned that if I can see it, then I am by definition not it. In this way, the Amazonian plants made me realize that I was not crazy and that I really did want to live. Yes!!
Other fears I faced were connected to taboo-flavored sexual wonderings. In recent years, I had struggled deeply with a romantic involvement with a girl that was quite a bit younger than me. My very own “Lolita”, so to speak (well not quite as bad as that novel but she was young enough to provoke some gossip). This was a hard one. For a few moments during the Ayahuasca dream I also lost myself in the fear of falling in love with my sister. This, too, felt particularly dreadful. I lost myself temporarily in these fearful illusions of “wanting what I don’t want to want” — these mind games were driving me crazy, literally! If the worst scenarios of these fears were true, I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself. Thank God these issues were resolved and remained fears not realities.
This Ayahuasca experience showed me that having these fantasies about ‘forbidden fruits’ are simply the possibilities of my imagination. Fears are just scary fantasies. If only my mind wouldn’t have been so curious about the strangest and sickest things imaginable. If only my creative brain would stick to a love of painting horses. But as American writer Thomas Harris said:
“Fear comes with imagination. It’s a penalty; it’s the price of imagination.”
The beautiful surroundings
A few weeks before my Ayahuasca experience, while sitting in my bed just before going to sleep, I had an insight. I realized that my mind always picks up strange perspectives that aren’t truly mine. I saw this pattern as having begun in my childhood. My psyche, it seems, enjoys trying on different masks to see how they fit. A tendency that, if left unchecked, can confuse me deeply to the point I have to remind myself that it’s just role-play and not an authentic drive. If I ever forget that a particular thought experiment is just that — an enactment — I’ll surely go mad. That’s what I fear.
Finally seeing this peculiar dance of my semi-subconscious was a huge insightful leap for me. The timing of this piece of the puzzle clicking into place is magical. I feel as though I am helped, or guided. I can’t explain where this feeling comes from. If I were to say, for instance, that angels or aliens are watching over me, this would take away from the divinity of the phenomenon. The Ayahuasca experience — I also count the weeks leading up to it — and the integration period afterward, was filled with suggestion, serendipity and, all-too-coincidental confluences. These things are best left as they are: inexplicable, ineffable, magical.
The nasty thing with the plant medicine, or rather, the epic part of it, is that it completely digs into your sickness before curing it. I truly was a sicko when I got inside of the delusions that Ayahuasca purged out of my soul, and my fear of dying was genuine as well. There is no way around my own inner hell.
A ‘massage’ is truly the best way to describe how the plant worked on my ‘psychic knots’. I went into the illusion, and then out of it again, over and over, kneading and pulsating into the sick bits, twisting my soul until the knots were loosened up and resolved. Each time the flow rubbed my psychological entanglements the pain would be a bit less than the previous pass, and so on until they were worked out. I took some very free breaths after this “brain massage”, and it felt as if I hadn’t truly drawn breath in years.
While trying to resolve these delusional illnesses the hallucinations intensified. The image that shook me the most was the face of a throbbing, veiny, cancerous organic structure, which revolted inside out like a mad sentient tumor. This was the grueling, ugly, red-purple face of true sickness. And it was devouring my body with everyone else I loved.
All of these fears and illusions I felt in my chest and stomach, the physical counterparts of this psycho-visual ordeal. My body temperature was fluctuating violently, and the panic attack this resulted in shot me through with adrenaline-powered turbulence. I was truly in the grips of fear. Not knowing what to do, I felt my whole world shiver and collapse. This medicine truly demands respect for its rigor.
As awful as this all must sound, I assure you the experience as a whole was amazing. Ayahuasca gave me warm, deep love that I will eternally be grateful for. It came in the form of some deep and beautiful insights and comforting, womb-like sensations — imagine a vision of warm red colors, a feeling of being “inside” this world, experiencing love coming at you from every direction.
Even though it was the medicine that brought this love to my attention, the soft, caring awareness came out of my deepest self. When I came out of the fear of dying and going insane (that horrible feeling of staying ‘in it’), all the things I love presented themselves to me, almost as kind of a reward for the struggles.
The memory of my sweet girlfriend made me giggle like a little girl. I felt clean and free. I suddenly remembered how much I love eating, taking showers, breathing, my cat, existence, everything. “I love so much!” I yelled in delight. “I love pink!” I blurted out (this exclamation went especially well with Mario from Germany, who laughed his pants off for the umpteenth time that day as he stumbled back inside, choking on his memorable chuckles).
Susanna, who picked us up on the first day, was the one who helped me the most when I was in agony, and I am eternally grateful to her for that. She recognized my complex mind and knew the struggle I went through as my ego came up with all kinds of twists. She recognized from her own experiences how a knotted psyche can add to the frustration of the Ayahuasca healing experience, wearing yourself down until there was nothing left to resist. From her care, joy came out of the struggles, and the second ceremony of the workshop was over. Time to eat!
Eating was a great, and in its own beautiful way a healing part of the workshop. Much time and effort went into the preparation of foods and beverages. The food was selected by professionals based on their energetic properties. It was the best food I had eaten. Ever.
Day 3 – Monday, March 16th, 2015
This time around we would drink a stronger brew of Ayahuasca. A gust of nervous laughter rolled round the ceremony room upon hearing this news, and we all looked at each other with a kind of “what the hell, why not” expression. This stronger Ayahuasca was extracted from an older, wild Amazonian vine. Trying to overcome the darkness of the second day, I insisted on being positive and hopeful that today’s experience was going to be better. Because surely, it couldn’t be worse than yesterday?!
I had felt increasingly courageous leading up to the ceremony, but the hell of the previous day gave me anxiety. I decided to ask the experienced Norberto:
“How much should I drink today? It was super intense for me yesterday, and I am a little scared.”
‘Are you still scared now?’ He asked me straightforwardly, with those penetrating marbles of his seeking into mine. He was not surprised by my question. “No, not really,” I answered. Strangely I wasn’t that scared.
“You drink a full cup,” he reassured me, smiling his big mysterious smile.
The resolution I felt in Norberto’s deep brown, soothing voice took almost all of my anxiety away, and so, as we danced and meditated according to the ritual playbook of the day, I found myself in a much more uplifted mood than I had dared to hope beforehand.
When I felt the come-up, this time, I immediately felt reassured by the Ayahuasca (the taste was getting more grueling with every cup I drank, however). Even though this brew was stronger, the effects on my mind and emotions were far weaker than yesterday. The ceremony room felt inviting, as though rewarding me for my continuing effort. Still struggling a bit with the intensity from time to time, and still working through some intimidating fear knots, the energy of this day felt much friendlier than the day before. I had the most beautiful realizations into life, love and self-esteem. As we danced, it felt as though the loving mother plant was holding my hands.
Martijn was outside enjoying the fresh air. He looked beautiful and calm, so I went there to join him. We walked and talked and screamed our lungs out, celebrating our bravery. This time, we didn’t need to yell that we weren’t afraid, we knew.
Now was the time to enjoy the fruits of our arduous accomplishments. Early spring was in the air, healing Ayahuasca was coursing through our veins, and the Sun was back out. We took off our shoes, walked on the grass and dirt barefoot. We passed a grazing herd of sheep and acknowledged that we were not trotting next to ‘some animals’ – we were walking alongside our distant mammalian cousins. Family.
Rini, the twinkly-eyed and very wise workshop leader, came up to us and offered us another cup of Aya. When I was going through my difficulties on the second day, his advice was as simple as it was useful: “deep breaths, take deep breaths.” Looking at the jar of the brown stuff, Martijn eagerly accepted. I said no.
But I had somehow forgotten that there was already another glass poured for me yesterday that I’d said yes to, and was still there waiting for me. Was it the fear of confrontation that caused this lapse of memory?
I was about to find out that my work wasn’t quite done yet. I felt like I had to drink this other cup. At first I didn’t want to, but both Martijn and Susanna explained how hard it is to prepare the Ayahuasca and that my saying ‘yes’ to the cup was not just a word – but also a commitment to be taken seriously.
I didn’t need much convincing to know it was what I wanted. What I needed, was courage.
Courage came from reconnecting with my intention to heal. So I went back inside, away from the Sun to face the darkness that I had come here to face. I collected the cup that had my name written on it and went to my sleeping bag.
Martijn supporting me through my healing
I sat and meditated – prayed – with the cup in my hands, also giving the brew a chance to take on the temperature of my body. Minutes later, I felt the added mass of the drink flowing in my stomach, and I knew that in a short while, the intensity of the experience would increase again. This scared me, because if that intensity meant going back to the place I was the day before, I was in for another bout of utter darkness. Feeling unable to evade the upcoming threat of terror, I decided to get myself into the mindset of wanting to go towards that blackness once more. As Terence McKenna might have said, I opted for the “forward escape,” i.e. straight through hell and out the other side.
How did I make myself want to go through this? I didn’t have to think long. I decided that gratitude was only option. As my salivary glands were readjusting once more to the bitter aggravation of another brown muddy happening, I looked inside for all the things that I was thankful for: this opportunity to heal, the love of my girlfriend, the Sun, being alive, and so on. It seemed to work because connecting to these treasures calmed my mind and had me ready to go back into the deep caves of consciousness, now illuminated by a torch of love.
Embracing this perspective, I welcomed the fluid teacher into my body to join the older, softer Daime of the day. I made sure I got every last drop inside my stomach. I swallowed every morsel and licked the cup clean with my fingers. I wanted to get everything out to show the plants how committed I was.
I then meditated and prayed some more, and waited for the plant teacher to come up a final time before the ceremonies were done. When it did a short while later, the healing was softer than yesterday but still hard. Delusions and fears were distorting my grasp of reality again, but I sat through it. I thanked God that it wasn’t as bad as yesterday, even though I knew I wanted to bring light into the darkness. Perhaps it was enough, for now…
I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it must have been on this third day an amazing moment occurred. Everybody was in the midst of working hard, digging away, purging away, growing through pain, climbing from depths and reaching new heights. And as everyone was reaching the core of their work, somehow, simultaneously, musical notes started to fill the air and organically became a common calling for the entire group to wake up. In a perfectly felt intuitive moment, one of the ceremony participants started playing his ektara (an Asian one-string instrument) and sang the deeply uplifting sounds of Ayodhya Vasi Ram Ram. His beautiful chant filled up the room. I felt like the Sun just broke through clouds in my chest, and as I sat up, I could see the others opening their eyes too, sitting upright, moving to the front of their mattresses and listening in bliss to the delightful sounds of this music.
This Ayahuasca experience was truly a group awakening.
The perfection of this moment is hard to fathom, even today. Some kind of guidance surely had to have been present, because this collective synchronicity, this unspoken coordination of the organism that we formed as a tribe, creeping closer and closer to the warm fire of this divine melody, is something beyond the best of storytellers. This was an impeccable happening of the soul, a moment of rising group awareness. I’m not overstating if I say this felt like the stuff holy books are written about.
The movie American Beauty crossed my mind’s eye several times throughout the Ayahuasca experience. The scene with the dancing bag especially struck me where Ricky Fitts delivers his awesome speech:
“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”
I too saw and see this beauty. I’ve always felt a deep connection to the character of Ricky, or to what his role conveys in the film (the awareness of the underlying, ubiquitous beauty in the world). This is the beauty that was there, in the Ayahuasca and inside me.
Ayahuasca is not just some “psychedelic drug” you ingest to trip your balls off. It is an entheogenic medicine for the soul, to be taken with respect and gratitude.
Drinking it caused some crazy psychedelic moments. I saw a woman look at me with her eyes open and closed at the same time, I saw someone with forty alternating faces (was it one face for each ceremony participant?), shifting rapidly like a mushroom-enhanced version of a Rorschach test.
Also synchronicities, some psychic abilities even (sensing someone’s spirit guide animal as we talked), trippy perception alterations, and basically just your run of the mill strangeness: they were all present. But in the end they are non-essential. What stuck with me were the people, the healing, the connections, the openness, and the life and love the group shared from the first moment until the last.
I did not purge (vomiting is a common effect of working with the brew) although I had wanted to. I guess Ayahuasca chose differently for me this time. As the workshop ended, everybody — all 40+ of us — made new friends and indeed felt reborn into a new family. We danced together, celebrated together, ate, walked, slept, and talked long and deep conversations and short, meaningful ones too. We were a tribe of human beings, walking under the sun as reawakened children of our beautiful mother, planet Earth. Ayahuasca, in this vision, seemed to be her powerful and graceful daughter.
At the final sharing session of the workshop, we carried out the old Lakota tradition of passing around the “talking stick”. If you hold the stick you talk, and the rest listens. As the stick went round, everybody had his or her say. I believe those present felt that these stories and also their counterpart of active silence was truly our group story instead of a collection of individual stories. There was so much healing done throughout this Ayahuasca experience. This is just my story, there were 39 others.
Along with the healing came stillness, reflection, pain, suffering; there were tears of joy and sadness. The air was still full of all the emotions, sounds, insights, realizations, choices, and bravery that had transpired in the last 72 hours, for the tribe of forty in this March of 2015.
Our hearts were opened, and we wished health, love, and happiness for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for all of our brothers and sisters. In these high spirits, the ceremonies finally ended.
Epilog: Day 4 – Tuesday, March 17th, 2015
Martijn and I had a fourth day of healing where we invited Santa Maria to come pray with us to our sweet mother Ayahuasca.
We proceeded to do a lovely hour of peaceful yin yoga, where I had a new awakening, an second rebirth if you will. As I was lying in “reclining hero” pose, I suddenly became aware of some beautiful colors inside my body. I know that might sound weird but, trust me, I could see these colors as real as the letters you are reading. They appeared inside my flesh, from within. And I realized somehow, these colors were me. I recognized myself in the bright and lively reds, oranges, purples, greens, and blues that I saw with my inner gaze as I took long deep breaths in and out, growing further and further into my newly invigorated muscles, bones, ligaments, and organs.
I think this experience was, in fact, a synesthetic convergence of my proprioception (feeling your body from the inside), sight, and tactile senses. I was aware of my own being on more levels than I was used to, simultaneously.
These colors were alive, they were I, and I was they. This ‘second awakening’ on the yoga mat surprised me like a perfect cool breeze on a hot summer evening. Marcel Proust calls this vivid remembrance a “revelation of involuntary memories,” and indeed it was kind of like that. Such an unexpected feeling of being utterly at home right where you are. The moment is so new and yet so intimately familiar at the same time. Somehow, these colors were a memory of me being myself in the most obvious way — this is also why the experience might be a bit hard to convey. Because how can a shade of red be a recognition of your soul?
I saw myself with an uncharacteristic feeling of self-love during the Ayahuasca experience weekend, and I have both myself and my kind Ayahuasca-brothers and sisters to thank for that, and, of course, the shamans and their absolutely fantastic supporting crew. I saw my inner psychedelic geometry shift from angular to flowing in these few days — a sign of the inner softening that had taken place over the course of the ceremonies. And when I dreamt of Ganesha the night after the yin yoga, the friendly young, eloquent Hindu elephant — the symbol of wisdom and new beginnings — I realized that strangely, but surely, I had transformed.