Archive for Reason and Magic

Dissolving boundaries

The Santo Daime service that I attended lasted about seven hours. We sang traditional hymns, sat in silent meditation, and listened to prayers, stories, and lessons from the leaders of the church, Jonathan Goldman and Jane Seligson.

There were two servings of the Daime tea, one at the beginning and another perhaps three hours later. (As I noted in a previous post, I wasn’t thinking in hours and minutes by then.) The tea was served in a smaller building outside the big yurt. I waited in line and approached the table where Jonathan was holding a glass and a flask of the brown liquid.

The spiritual leader of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen is a tall man with a strong presence. He spoke often during the service and I held on to his words as best as I could, but the beautiful sound of the rain drew me away and the tea dissolved everything in a bath of light.

He held up the flask and poured out a small amount.

“This will help you go much deeper into the experience,” he said as he handed the glass to me.

I drank it and thanked him. Then I walked out onto the wooden pavilion by the big yurt. I listened to the rain falling on the canopy overhead and watched the mist gather over the Cascade Mountains.

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The first gift

Like a lot of Americans, I’m preoccupied with schedules and appointments. I look at the clock every few minutes and calculate how much time I have for my current task and when the next deadline will arrive. It’s been like that for so long that I hardly think about it.

There are no clocks in the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen. I wasn’t wearing a watch. My cell phone was within reach but turned off.

After a few hymns and a period of silence, I looked up at the sun coming through the opening in the roof of the yurt. My mind went where it does at such moments and I wondered how much longer the service would last.

Then I thought, “Who cares what time it is?” It felt nice to stare at the daylight with no anxiety for what might come next.

Suddenly, a huge weight fell off my body. It felt like chains breaking and falling away. As the Daime tea expanded my perspective from the small ego to a much larger place, I looked down and saw the burden I’d been carrying my whole life.

The compulsion for time shrank down into a small blob. As I watched it recede, I understood what I’d done—I let clocks and schedules fill up my life and take over. I surrendered to them as they whipped me onward faster and faster.

I looked up at the sun coming through the roof of the yurt, the only timekeeper I needed. I felt light and clear.

That happened ten days ago. I’m back in the world of schedules and deadlines, but I don’t feel driven anymore. I feel less hurried, more patient. When the obsessive need to check the clock returns, as it has a couple of times, I recognize it and I know how to put it back in its place.

I’m very grateful.

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I drank the Daime tea in four big sips and took my seat on the men’s side of the yurt. The young man seated next to asked me if I felt anything and I replied “Maybe a little.” We waited. The members, dressed in white and seated in concentric circles, sang hymns in Portuguese.

The music ended and I noticed the sound of rain falling on the roof of the yurt. I closed my eyes and heard each raindrop falling through the sky and splashing over my head in a vast canopy of sound.

“Heightened perception,” I thought. Little noises darted around me—people exhaling in a whoosh, glass and metal clinking, soft laughter. I could pick out a sound and follow its trajectory through three-dimensional space until it vanished in the distance. The yurt disappeared. There were no boundaries.

I’m an amateur musician with poor eyesight who has been focused on sound and music since childhood. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting and listening to natural and recorded sound. My time in the Santo Daime service, seated at the center of an infinite acoustic sphere, was perhaps the most beautiful experience of my life.

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Perhaps we should discuss the taste up front. The Daime tea is strong, tangy, and earthy. I drank my cup in four long sips. The first sip was a surprise, the second familiar. It reminded me of a gift I received many years ago—a bottle of savory European liqueur, the kind made with herbs and vegetables.

The tea has a very intense flavor, but it wasn’t unpleasant to me. I didn’t have any problem drinking it. There was no discomfort or other physical reaction. Apparently, some people like to chew a mint or cough drop after drinking the tea to clear the palate. I brought a roll of mints for that purpose, but I didn’t feel the need for one. The aftertaste was gone after five minutes.

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I’m back in Wisconsin safe and sound. It’s been a week since my visit to the Santo Daime church in Ashland and I’m still reflecting on everything that I experienced and learned. It’s way too early for conclusions, but this is important. I’ll be back with more after I’ve had a bit more time to think.

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Oregon and beyond

My wife Sarah and I arrived in Oregon during the rainy season. As our taxi drove into Ashland, we passed restaurants, motels, and shops named for Puck, Oberon, Stratford, and the Bard. There’s an All’s Well Herb and Vitamin Shop. The annual Shakespeare festival begins next month.

We’re staying at Anne Hathaway’s B&B in a room that blends Victorian comfort with funky charm.  Tomorrow morning, a representative of the local Santo Daime group will drive me to their church, which is about twenty minutes outside town.

I admit I’m nervous. Part of it is typical social anxiety that anybody might get from being the newcomer among strangers. On top of that, I’ll be participating in an unfamiliar religious ritual that involves consuming one of the most powerful psychoactive substances on earth.

I’ve taken psychedelic drugs before and survived and even enjoyed it. That was 40 years ago, however. The decades have drained my stamina and weighed me down with the choices of a lifetime. Plus, Ayahausca has a rep for causing nausea and vomiting. To members of the Santo Daime faith, this purging is part of the process of spiritual cleansing. To me, it’s one more unknown in a big day of them.

I have prepared as best I can. I have my blanket and pillow, my yoga mat and snacks of fruit and nuts. I am bringing as few expectations as possible. I will post again when I return from the journey.

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Westward, ho!

To make a long story short, my search for a shaman in Peru led me to members of the Santo Daime church in Oregon, the group mentioned in the previous post. They welcome visitors, although there’s a fairly rigorous screening process.

I received a newcomer packet via email with information about the church and the Daime tea (aka Ayahuasca). One section contained a long list of foods, beverages, and medications to avoid before participating in a Daime ceremony.

It’s extremely important to avoid drinking the Daime tea if you’re also taking antidepressants such as Zoloft or Paxil. They can interact with one of the chemical ingredients in the tea–monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI)–with potentially serious results. The list of foods includes things like chocolate, red wine, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, all of which interact with MAOI.

I filled out the application form, which included an extensive medical history, and mailed it in. The next step was a personal interview. Usually, the interview is face to face, but since the church is on the west coast and I’m in Wisconsin, we did it by phone. The interviewer was very friendly and helpful.

I had a number of questions about the ritual. All Santo Daime services involve the consumption of the sacramental tea. There’s an extensive liturgy of hymns and prayers in Portuguese, the language spoken by the founder of the church, Mestre Irineu. Some services emphasize quiet meditation while others involve ritual dancing that can go on for ten or more hours.

There’s a dress code. I drove to the Boston Store and purchased a pure white cotton shirt and matching pants. My interviewer suggested that I also bring a blanket, a pillow, some fruit or other light snacks, and a water bottle. It sounds a bit like a slumber party.

My flight for Ashland, Oregon, leaves this afternoon. Wish me luck.

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Santo Daime

Ayahuasca is an herbal beverage made from plants native to the Amazon region, one of which contains the psychoactive chemical DMT (dimethyltriptamine). DMT belongs to the big family of hallucinogenic drugs that includes LSD and psilocybin.

Amazonian shamans have used Ayahuasca in traditional rituals that go back into the mists of time. Ayahuasca is legal in Peru where shamanism is a respected institution. It’s illegal pretty much everywhere else in the world, as is DMT itself in any form.

There’s a problem with blanket prohibition, however. If shamanism is a religious practice, shouldn’t the use of Ayahuasca be protected by laws that guarantee the freedom of religion? That’s the argument used by the plaintiffs in Church of the Holy Light of the Queen v. Mukasey, the 2009 trial that pitted the U.S. federal government against a small religious group based in Ashland, Oregon.

The Oregon church is a branch of Santo Daime, a new religious movement that started in Brazil in the 1930s. It’s an eclectic religion that combines elements of Roman Catholic Christianity, African tradition, and Amazonian shamanism. The Portuguese word Daime (“give me”) is the name of the sacrament used in church ceremonies—the herbal beverage known elsewhere as Ayahuasca.

The government claimed that its prohibition of Daime protected the health of church members and prevented it from being used for recreation outside the church. The judge disagreed. As of this writing, members of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen in Ashland are free to consume their sacrament.

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Psychedelic choices

There aren’t many options for people who wish to use psychedelics legally.

You can apply to be a subject in a research study. A few universities conduct research on the use of psychedelics for treating medical issues. There are only a handful of openings, however, and those are usually for people with specific conditions such as cancer or PTSD.

If you’re interested in Ayahuasca—the plant-based psychedelic used by traditional shamans in the Amazon region—you can go to Peru or Brazil where it’s legal. Many Peruvian shamans and spiritual groups offer Ayahuasca retreats to visitors from around the world.

In fact, there are so many ways to take Ayahuasca in Peru that the hard part may be making up your mind. Do you want a comfortable bed or a sleeping blanket with mosquito netting? A traditional shaman who requires a month of celibacy or a street vendor who offers you a bottle of brown liquid as you get off the bus?

When I decided to go to Peru, I tried my usual strategy of online shopping, browsing for Ayahuasca retreats like a tourist looking for a congenial cruise ship. Indeed, some of the web sites I found resembled Club Med or Carnival Lines with lush photos of rainbows, bonfires, and satisfied, tattooed customers.

Once I plunged into the discussion forums, however, the terrain got murky. I waded through controversies over the authenticity of shamans and the ingredients in their Ayahuasca. I heard stories of gringo seekers looking for enlightenment and finding sexual abuse or disappearing into the jungle.

With enough time and research, I probably could have found a reputable shaman and a place to stay without too many hardships for a soft American. That level of comfort would have been fine for ordinary tourism, but psychedelic drugs are unpredictable. They grab the smallest things in your mind or your environment and amplify them until they take up your entire consciousness. Any worries in the back of your head, any funny noises out in the jungle darkness, can blossom into full-blown paranoia and a bad trip.

For that reason, I wanted a safe and familiar setting for my first psychedelic experience in 40 years.

I lucked out. My search for a safe place in the Amazon jungle wound up much closer to home. See the next post for more.

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