It was back in college when I first heard about ayahuasca from a housemate of mine. She told me about a psychedelic medicine from the Amazon capable of incredible personal transformation and healing. People taking the medicine often reported recovery from deep depression, addiction, and anxiety. They reported incredible experiences of traveling through the galaxy and different dimensions. They reported speaking with dead loved ones and ancient ancestors.
Yet, they also often reported intensely terrifying, nightmarish experiences. People in the grips of the medicine were known to see demons all around them or black snakes bursting out of their chests. It was as if to transcend their biggest fears and anxieties, they first had to confront them head-on.
I was hooked immediately.
But it was several years later, after a decent amount of daydreaming and waiting, that I actually found myself in Peru for a conference. I knew that my opportunity to try ayahuasca had come.
In the weeks and days leading up to the ceremony, I took great aims to prepare myself. I knew the medicine was something to take seriously and I wanted to approach my experience with the utmost respect and attention.
I knew that a big part of the experience was purging – vomiting, dry heaving, even shitting out whatever inside me needs to come out. I knew that this was often deeply uncomfortable, even painful. I knew that very likely I’d experience both incredible highs and incredible lows as well as extreme experiences that didn’t fit cleanly under “good” or “bad.” Of course, I hoped that I would have an all-positive, cosmic adventure of an experience. But I readied myself for an incredibly trying and scary experience. I was ready for either extreme. I would welcome whatever experience came to me as a lesson and a gift, I told myself.
I held that intention as I took my first gulp of the sludgy, green potion. Sitting in ceremony at night in a circle of a dozen or so others, I felt the tingle of fear and excitement all around my body, pulsing with anticipation. I waited for what would certainly be one of the most unique and powerful experiences of my life.
Sure enough, 45 minutes or so later, the ache in my gut started coming on. It got worse and worse and worse and worse and worse, until I finally, mercifully, vomited it out.
I sat and waited. More than an hour on, no visions. No galaxies or snakes or jaguars. No intense insight into myself. Just me sitting in a room, watching others as they fell deeper and deeper into their trance, some clearly in bliss, some clearly working through something much more difficult.
The shaman came to me and knelt down beside me. He asked if I’d like some more. I gulped it down, determined.
I again sat and waited patiently. But nothing. No visions. No insight. No nothing.
An hour later, another gulp. I had now had far more medicine than anyone else in the room.
But still, another hour later, nothing. No visions. No radical, far-out experiences. No mystical jaguars or Earth goddesses or cosmic sages, as I had imagined. No intense insight or epiphanies into myself or the nature of reality. Just me in a room, for hours and hours, watching others as they all went on their journeys.
When the ceremony finally closed, on the surface, I told myself how mature it’d be to not be disappointed, to say “I had no expectations.” But the truth was I couldn’t help but feel sadness and disappointment, even shame. All that preparing. All that anticipating. All that puking my guts out. And then nothing. What did it mean? Did I do it wrong? Was there something wrong about me? Maybe I wasn’t “spiritual” enough to “get” it?
I went back to my room in a nearby lodge and spent the night awake, curled around my toilet, alone, constipated. I alternated between trying to vomit and trying to shit for hours, to no avail. It was awful. It felt like an eternity. I was still in pain, circled around the toilet, as the Sun came up.
In the days, weeks, and years leading up to my ayahuasca experience, I believed I had imagined all possible outcomes and experiences I might have when I finally tried ayahuasca. I imagined the most terrifying lows and the most transformative, mind-bending highs. I imagined what I’d tell myself if I got into a really dark situation. I imagined what I’d say if I had an experience of seeing my dead father. I made peace with every scenario I could imagine.
But the one scenario I had not prepared myself for is exactly what happened: nothing. This maybe has been the most profound, and annoying, cosmic joke of a lesson that I could have had.
Even when I’m actively trying not to create expectations, as I had done that night, even when I’m actively telling myself I have no expectations, I still hold small, silent, hidden expectations about what will happen and what should happen without knowing.
These expectations are a prison that I lock myself into every morning. I expect life to be something profound, something “real”, something incredible, something different than it actually is. I expect myself to be profound, interesting, something more shiny than what I actually am. Yet, somehow, the more I expect and need something, I am learning, the less likely it is to come to fruition, the less likely the universe is to provide. The more I let life just happen, the more able I am to see it as incredible and profound as it is.
I’ll remember this experience as the night I started really growing up. I expected, almost demanded on some level, that the universe offer me deep insight and transformation. Instead, it looked me in the eyes and laughed, saying “Not yet. You have to have to do your own work first.”
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