On granite ankles, in the lungs of gods

Dave King, Director of Breaking Convention; director of the Scientific and Medical Network

Published in JHH15.2 – Healing Journeys

I have always been fascinated by experiences that push our boundaries of self-under[1]standing. As a child growing up in a family with a suicidally depressed parent, I caught a glimpse of the depth and range of human experience. Later, as a medical anthropology student, I began to understand how our inner worlds reflect our cultural worlds, and how beliefs affect our realities. Now, as a final year graduate medical student, with almost 10 years’ experience organising conferences on psychedelic science, I am delighted to see psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies begin to take their place in contemporary psychiatry.

The experience had shown me that the changes I wanted in my life had to be made by me Click To Tweet It was half past nine in the evening and the sun had tumbled down the far side of the mountain; magenta and cinnamon still streaked across the sky in remembrance, blushing the cotton undercarriages that hung high above the cabin. All that could be seen in any direction were the vast, bushy hills, the tallest of which were growing a little bald in their old age. As the light faded, the half-moon to the south became brighter, and the stars slowly recovered their courage.

The room was circular and perhaps 20 meters in diameter. Its Celtic stone walls were two feet thick and the shallow conical roof lay upon 12 radial fingers. There were 15 of us inside, in sleeping bags and on mats and rugs, watching Manuel, our maestro, invert viscous bottles of ayahuasca. He sang softly as he unpacked: a pearl-white singing bowl the size of a cauldron; a small apothecary of leaves and powders and liquids; a Peruvian mat; candles; blue plastic bags; and a book of Rumi parables.

A tarot card arrived in my lap, followed by a small jar of mapacho – strong tobacco leaves infused in water. I was shown how to take it: a teaspoon is poured into the palm of your hand, and then snorted, the left nostril and then the right. It was sharp and spicy and brought tears to my eyes, along with a bout of sneezing, but it soon took effect and I felt grounded and clear-headed.

In turn, each of us introduced ourselves and explained why we had come, and what we hoped to work on. This was the part of the ceremony known as ‘intention-sharing’; it would help guide our experiences and put them into context. We also held up the tarot card that we had received and discussed any meaning it had for us. I had not planned to go into much detail concerning my intentions for the experience, but I was caught off guard by the pertinence of my card, and I ended up sharing the whole story.

My card showed a woman in a dark and cloudy world, devoid of colour and hope. In the centre of the card there was a window to a different world, one of light and healing. The description explained that this woman had been trapped in the colourless world for too long, and that she was finally overcoming procrastination by crossing the veil. This was very remi[1]niscent of my mother, who had recently taken her life after a long battle with bi-polar.

Once the whole group had shared what they wanted to share, I watched our maestro open the cap of one of the bottles. He blew rhythmically across it and chanted gently. Then, one by one, we sat down in front of him and swallowed a thick, salty glass of ayahuasca.

The potion drunk, the silence matured, the dance of the candles sent to spirals, we sat and waited. I was nervous and lay back. In no time at all, I saw the eaves stretching above me, and I knew that the ayahuasca was waking. In some of the traditions from which ayahuasca arises, the concoction is considered to be a sentient, female entity: la abuela. I found it helpful to adopt this model during the experience. Indeed, taking a psychoactive medicine is a little like inviting a guest into your home. No experience is made easier by rejecting or fighting your guest. If you choose to invite them, you must be a good host: courteous, grateful, humble.

You must make them welcome, you must give them the space to be what they are, and you must accept that. Yet, as the ayahuasca began to move through the sacred spaces of my mind, I became intensely uncomfortable.

Why do you do this?’ I asked myself. ‘Why do you keep doing psychedelics? You know it makes you uncomfortable. Much as you try not to, you always fight it, you never relax into it. Why do you forget this?’. It was then that I realised why I was uncomfortable. Despite my occasional fits of extroversion, I am a very private person. Dali once described himself as an inverted introvert. I have always identified with that. Yet here I was, sharing my innermost self with the strange sentience that is ayahuasca. It felt as if I was the caretaker of an ancient mansion, one that I had barely explored, and suddenly the building was overrun with wild teenagers, throwing a party in the splendid halls. But far from the recklessness of youth, the agency that violated my privacy was wise and ageless and loving. ‘Look’, she said, ‘if you don’t let me see, how can I show you anything?’

It is fearful to realise that you do not know your own mind. To understand that you have been living your entire life in a valley, and that a whole world exists beyond the hills. The wisest aboriginal could not have imagined the invasion of the white man. The most thoughtful of earth[1]worms will never see the stars. A universe of unimaginable breadth and complexity lurks just beyond the perimeter of the flashlight, and when the sun comes up and the world is lit, your tiny ego shivers in the wind of your true vastness. It is frightening, and in my fright I clung to what I knew to be myself, even as it was tugged from my grasp.

Years of sadness and weakness and smallness, guilt and shame and self-pity, began to well in my chest. These are emotions that we all feel, and I have rarely felt over[1]whelmed by any of them, but now all of their tiny memorials pulled themselves up out of the earth, and all the sediment abandoned my blood, and the heaviness left my sternum, and the tar left my thoughts, and all the whispers of hurtful words and the echoes of self-doubt and the regrets of unfinished moments came together to inflate a sack of negativity, which I cradled in my arms like a stillborn child. It represented every sentence in my life that I had lacked the courage to complete. It contained the stains of every bad decision, every broken love, every unmet desire. I let it slowly balloon for hours, knowing that I had to let it all collect before I did something about it. I saw myself on a sofa, with the sack in my hands, and I knew that I could just drop it and let it go, but instead I saw myself close my eyes and block out the knowledge of my own empowerment, and curl up on the sofa with the sack held lovingly to my chest, because although it was melancholy, it was my melancholy. As I saw this, I saw my own tendency to repress negativity, and I knew that I had to face it. I felt that the time had come to let it go.

Suddenly, powerfully, I was sick. The waves of nausea slammed through my body again and again, lifting my guts and throwing them against the back of my mouth until everything was out. Tears ran down my cheeks and my whole body was shaking. The ancient, congealed darkness had been thrown out. For the rest of the evening I lay on the mat, searching for sleep and peace, wrapped in the comforting arms of la abuela, and wondering how I was going to do all of this again the next night. Although there was some sort of communication with some sort of presence, it had been less like being interviewed by another person and more like looking out of the window to see a mile-long serpent blotting out the sky. There was a consciousness there, but it was not one I could just casually speak to. It had asked me nothing because it did not need to, it saw me wholly and truthfully and did not need to hear the muddy truth of my own perspective.

The next day, during the integration session, I thought carefully about what I had learned. The experience had not been remotely visual, and that surprised me. I shared how I had seen Mum’s decision to die, and my ex-girl[1]friend’s decision to leave, as strings that had run beside my own for a little while, and then been compelled away on their own paths. I realised how much I missed both of them, and how the images of them that I could summon in my thoughts would always lack that magical, irreducible quality that makes another person so special. I reflected on how I had been filled with gratitude for my life, and how liberating it had been to let go of all that negativity. The experience had shown me that the changes I wanted in my life had to be made by me. I had to lead, I had to empower myself, and I was afraid of doing this. I was afraid of taking control and leading my own life, because you need to know what you want, and you need to really believe in yourself to put yourself there, on the horizon, on the front line, at the blade of the flock, mastering time and marching forward into the unknown. I shared how I saw that love was the deepest current of the ocean, and that the storms and turmoils of the surf would never succeed in defying the tide.

I was struck by the poetry of one of the older men, as he described his own experience. ‘I was shown that there is no darkness, there is only light… but if there is no dark[1]ness, why is it that we are blind? … and I saw that we are blind because of the light, when it burns too bright for us to accept.’

In response to my talk of control and empowerment and decision-making, Manuel reminded me of the importance of accepting that which we couldn’t control, and allowing life to take you where it willed. ‘I have a Zen story for you’, he said. ‘There once was a king, and he was an avid archer. He had great longbows made from willow, and tough shortbows of pine, and crossbows of polished hardwood. One day he was riding in the forest and he saw hundreds of targets, painted on the trees. In the perfect centre of each target was an arrow. “My goodness!”, he exclaimed, “Who can this marksman be? I must meet him!” So, off they rode into town, where they were directed to the archer’s house, and as they arrived the king jumped off his horse in excitement. He pounded on the door, and a little boy answered. “Young man, I am the king”, said the king. “Please take me to your father, for I much admire his skill in archery.” The boy shook his head. “My Dad don’t shoot”, he explained, “he got no sight in his eyes”. “But I have seen the targets!” cried the king. “I have seen his mastery!”. “Ooh, aye, that be me, that be”, said the boy, “I just shoot at dem trees and then paint targets round the arrows”.’

I slept for most of the day and woke shortly before the next ceremony started. I had no fear of the night, and no excitement. I was calm, and empty, and ready. It would prove to be the single most beautiful, meaningful, powerful experience that I have ever had.

After the inward-focus of the previous night, I was keen to keep my attention on the music, the room and the other people present. There would be no more lying down with the blanket over my head, no more getting lost in the catacombs. I threw the marmite ayahuasca syrup back and sat on my rug, waiting. A little dribble of mapacho tickled its way out of my left nostril. Wisps of smoke floated upwards from the extinguished candles and threw them[1]selves into chaos. Manuel moved forwards on his mat and wrapped his legs around the huge singing bowl. I placed my pillow by my feet and lay on my belly with my chin on my hands, watching him as he prepared to play. As he moved his hands around its mouth, the bowl began its wailing siren song, and the noise reverberated around the dome of the room like whale song hitting the harbour.

In concert with the bowl drone, the ayahuasca began to play with me. As I watched Manuel, the room broke into bidirectional spirals, as are seen in the heads of sunflowers, and he became infused with a soft white light that shone from the cracks in the pattern. It was stunning. I closed my eyes and found that my mind was blank – there was no dialogue, no verbal chatter. Instead, I saw dazzling vistas of colour and tessellation: pillared temples that stretched effortlessly through Escher-like dimensions; teaming swarms of giant preying mantises, emerald green and wickedly intelligent. The great bulk of these visions are now hidden from my recollection as if my memory were bound by some ancient law, the password to this chamber of sacred sights withheld, and even in the moment of their experience I knew that it would be so, that they were too incomprehensible to be held by the clumsy manacles of remembrance, too beautiful to be captured or repainted, too sacred to ever approach the vulgarity of my ordinary consciousness. So, I cannot say much about them except that they were the most beautiful sights I had ever seen, and that tears of beauty and gratitude ran down my cheeks, and that I was struck by the knowledge that up until that moment I had never known what the universe inside my mind was capable of, and by extension that I had no idea what a human was, or where it could roam. And as the visions swallowed me, I was aware that the air in those hallowed theatres was corrosive to my sense of self, and the imaginary head around my imaginary eyes fell apart, and my eyes fell into the air like the smoke from the sleeping candles, and there was nothing left of me to be observing anything at all, because all of the indescribable beauty that was unfolding was me, and how could it be anything else? I learned that I had been completely wrong in my assumptions of where the human begins and ends.

Manuel had left the singing bowl and he was playing flamenco on his guitar, his voice filling the room. I slipped back into the visionary worlds and found myself in the jungle. My skin was brown and I was standing in a small clearing with my back to the trees. Silently, but with a musty fanfare of smell, an enormous tiger paced into the glade, his eyes like sapphires. A little voice in my head spoke to me: ‘you must be afraid! he wants to eat you!’ It was true, I could see it in those gleaming jewels, he did want to eat me. But I could not run, for he was much faster, and I could not fight, for he was far stronger, and so I sat and watched him, and smiled. ‘Panic!’ said the voice. ‘Panic! He will eat you!’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘he will’. ‘Oh’, said the voice, ‘that will be horrible!’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘I think that that’s actually up to me.’ And then the tiger moved behind me, like a locomotive in carpet, like a God, and put my head between his jaws. I smiled, and the tiger bit down.

To open yourself to knowledge you must accept your lack of it

Soon thereafter, the ayahuasca and I played a game. She would show me visions of horror and death, and I would look at them and say ‘Yes, that is what they are’, while the little voice of fear would stare at me like the secretary of the official who has casually set fire to the office. Here is a demon, ready to shred my spirit in flaming vices. Here is a black hole, luring me with inescapable charm so that it may crush me to nothing[1]ness. Okay. It’s all okay. I accepted my fate, and there was nothing left to be afraid of. I saw my own death, and I had nothing but gratitude for having a life at all, moved to tears with thankfulness for ever being in the position to die, to have something to give up. It did not, after all, have to be so. And the universe did not need to be so beautiful, and yet it was.

With these realisations that fear was useful only for showing me the difference between what I must accept, and what I must take control over, I stood up and felt limitless confidence surge through me. It was not the reckless confidence of drunkenness, but the true confidence of the man who knows for the first time what he is. With perfect balance and composure, I walked out of the room into the night.

The unbounded elegance of the night sky tempted fresh tears. The stars were out in greater number than I had ever seen, as if I were watching the fierce glare of headlights beam through the pinpricks in a sheet of aubergine satin eaten through by a million tiny worms. Not a single cloud dared to get in the way. The world was as bright as morning. I wandered down to the outhouse in a state of unmatched marvel. It was occupied, I could see that from a distance away. No matter. Although I was sure that I had diarrhoea, I knew that I could hold it at bay for as long as was necessary, without discomfort. I have never experienced such effortless communication with my body before. It was not that I was in control of it, but we were in concert and we understood each other.

Later, when I returned to the cabin, the room was full of screams and guitar chords. One of the Spanish women was on her hands and knees, screaming in operatic despair. A man by the door was being violently sick in a bucket. I felt completely saturated with love, and I grinned at them both as they had these traumatic experiences. This may seem like a strange reaction, but I knew that they were going through something tremendously powerful, perhaps the most powerful moments of their lives, and that a vast reservoir of darkness was being cast into the light, and it was the darkness that was screaming. I wanted to comfort and touch them, but something deep told me it was forbidden – they needed to have these experiences and it would be wrong of me to take away even the smallest bit of their attention. These were significant moments, and they were not mine to interfere with. I sat on the mat with my legs crossed and my back straight, and felt phenomenal energy and joy filling me, vast torrents of joy to fill the vastness of my inner worlds. I was in love, not with anyone or anything, but in love nonetheless. Around the room, people purged and relaxed. The lady who had been screaming when I had returned was now singing at the top of her voice, and dancing wildly. A man to my right started playing his flute, and it was angelic. Another man began pounding the drums. Manuel was singing and strumming at the guitar and the girls to his right were on their feet, clapping. Others around the room were hidden beneath sheets, or inside sleeping bags. Yet more were crouched over the bins in sickly paralysis. I let myself drift through the magic of the room, and then off into the brilliant cosmos of impossible creativity, and then into thoughts, among which I found myself fondly thinking of all the people in my life whom I loved and admired, and felt compelled to start better expressing my love and thankfulness and appreciation.

Eventually the room was swallowed by exhaustion and morning, but I was the last to fall asleep. It had been the most important night of my life. I had been shown how to throw away bad habits, how to reclaim my mind from unconscious reactivity, how to pay attention to other people and how to overcome fear. I felt overwhelmed by a desire to learn, for I realised how little I knew about anything, and how my pride prevented me from learning (because to open yourself to knowledge you must accept your lack of it). I was more comfortable in my own body and mind than I ever thought possible.

As the subsequent months rolled by, I slipped back into old patterns, but at least I now knew what I had to work on, and what might one day be.