I guess you are never too old to experience something totally new, as long as you are willing to be open to it.
When we were in Guatemala a few months ago I heard a lot of people talking about a variety of traditional ceremonies performed by shamans and most of them were happening right here in Central America. I heard stories about cacao beans, ayahuasca and peyote; different sorts of natural substances used in ancient ceremonies to get in touch with the spiritual world, with the ability to cure all kinds of illnesses. I have always been very skeptical towards mind-altering substances, whether they are chemical or natural and have always had the feeling that I don’t need them in order to reach another level of reality. For example, hiking up a mountain with a few close friends and riding down the pure white snow definitely changes my perception of reality and fills my whole day with a enhanced sense of connection. And music played in the right setting also has the power to take me to another level, even without any extra mind-altering substances, including alcohol. Because, let’s face it, alcohol might be socially accepted, but it is a highly addictive drug and in a very high doses, it blacks out your reality instead of enhancing it.
The substance that came along our path is called Peyote, a small, spineless cactus mainly found in the centre of Mexico. Like alcohol, it is legal to use but with the restriction that it can only be used in a religious context and only by certified shamans who can grow, carry and transport it. And in contrast to alcohol it should enhance your reality. Welcome to my road to the world of mescaline.
A few weeks ago some friends of ours told us there would probably be a peyote ceremony happening in the near future and that we could join if we wanted to. This kind of hit me as shock and It took me a very long time to make my decision, but in the end I decided to go for it. Mainly because I always try to follow my instinct in life and also, when would I ever get another opportunity to attend an ancient ceremony under the guidance of a very experienced shaman with only a few close friends? When I finally made my decision I couldn’t help but think of one of my favourite songs by the Wombats: ‘Jump into the fog’, no words could better describe my sentiments at that precise moment.
We arrived at a secret location in the mountains near San Cristobal and the first thing we did was create a circle of comfortable beds around the altar of the shaman. Beds? You might ask. Yep, this kind of ceremony starts around 8-9 pm and lasts until the sun rises. And although I did not sleep at all, I was glad I had the opportunity to lay down from time to time. The whole night was filled with rituals. Before drinking the peyote, we cleansed the place by honouring the four wind directions, the sky and the earth.They all have their own specific symbolic meaning. Next, one by one, we were purified with a special ‘copal’ and offered tobacco to the holy fire. We also put a lot of delicious food (like home made lasagna) in front of the altar, which wasn’t to be touched till the ceremony had ended, because eating lessens the experience and the peyote spirit gets an assortment of food offerings in the morning.
Once the shaman offers you the peyote and you drink the beverage, the voyage starts after about 30 to 45 minutes later. Some people need to vomit almost immediately after drinking it (this is said to be a symbol for the release of negativity from your past). I found it quite easy to drink and digest, so I didn’t throw up. I have to say though that my stomach has been known for exceptional performances in the past, so it didn’t really come as a surprise to me. Just as a side note: If you would ever find yourself somewhere in centre of Mexico and come across some peyote cacti in the nature, don’t go off and start eating them straight away, because the effects are much stronger when you eat them! I would definitely recommend to take it in the presence of experienced shaman who knows what he is doing. Ps: He himself drank about 6 glasses with diluted peyote during the night, one was more than enough for us…
Peyote makes time slow down and at a certain point your whole perception of time vanishes, just because it is not important anymore. It is a very strange experience and I do believe this is one of the main reasons why many people call this a spiritual experience; realising that time is only an illusion is a regarded as a very advanced state of mind in many religions. The other extraordinary aspect of this experience was the singing of the shaman, every song had a different meaning and some of them seemed to last forever. My whole body shook with every note he sang and his voice definitely took me to a higher state. The musical climax was when the shaman used a traditional violin-like instrument to evoke an incredible intense connection to the music. It almost felt like he was playing to my soul. In between the songs the effects were a lot less stronger and at one point I decided to explore the nearby woods with Jenny, our English roommate. Everything I touched felt so real; every tree around me, the ground I walked on and the grass I laid on. We watched the stars and moon dance in the pitch black sky for what seemed to be an infinite time. This part was probably my favourite part of the whole night, being so close to nature. That and also the fun I had with Val, most of the evening we were laughing and having an amazing fun time, especially when we were looking at each others faces, which turned into different shapes and forms. Not once did I feel anything negative, this to the contrary of some fellow participants who were crying, letting go of their past or quietly searching for answers.
The biggest lesson I have learned out of this whole experience is that mind-expanding substances do exactly what their name entails: they expand your present state of mind. This makes the experience different for everyone at any given time and place, because your own self-perception changes every moment of your life.
While I am writing this down it almost is as if I am at that place again; I feel, see and hear everything in full detail, almost the exact way that it all happened that night. And this is the biggest difference with the other legal mind-altering beverage, alcohol: this particular night I will be able to recall forever in full HD!
The strangest thing probably was that the moment the sun rose and the shaman stopped singing, most of the effects were instantly gone and we entered the beautiful feeling, known as the afterglow.
The whole night we had been joking about how amazing the lasagne would taste, but we couldn’t touch it and when the ceremony had ended, the first one to eat according to tradition was the fire. You can imagine how we felt about that little extended sense deprivation! After we offered some food to the fire, the time had finally come to let our taste senses go wild and wild they went! I have never eaten a lasagna that tasted so good (thanks Chloe)! This was followed by cake, bread, tea, coffee, chocolate, sweets and fruits. You can imagine the feast! I have never seen so many happy faces!
The rest of day flew by, we sat in the sun, talked, laughed and enjoyed each others company. The shaman was exhausted, but there was a certain kind of glow around him, that is hard to describe. He sat silently against a tree and for some reason we were all drawn to him, so we joined him and had a glorious afternoon together.
The beauty about being around a real shaman is that you hardly notice him. He is the instigator, the driving force behind the scenes and will only talk when spoken to. He is the one who provides the blank canvas, which you can explore at your own pace.
I don’t know if I will do this ever again, but I do know now that it is not something to be afraid of, providing you are in the right place in your mind and body at the moment the opportunity present itself.
PS: Of course your body needs to recover from the whole endeavour, but I can tell you this: the moment your visit to the toilet isn’t a disappointment anymore because you couldn’t go, is the moment everything is physically back to where you started (normally this happens somewhere later in the day). Your mind, however, will probably never be the same (and this in a good way).