“Gladness of heart is the very life of a person, and the joyfulness of a man prolongeth his days.”
In the early 1990s I was introduced to “plant medicine” by friends of mine who had spent time with shamans in the jungles of Peru and had invited them to bring their rituals and ceremonies to the California desert. I don’t know why I felt called to attend but I did—in large part because I trusted the integrity and wisdom of the people who were hosting the event. I went on to participate in about a half dozen ceremonies over a period of eight years.
The name “Ayahuasca” means “Vine of the Soul” in Quechua, the language of the indigenous peoples in the area of the Andes that was once home to the Inca Empire. It is a brew concocted of the vine and a few other plants native to that area. The mixture creates a psychoactive substance that, when ingested, induces a spiritual experience.
There are those, I know, who are skeptical of the validity of a spiritual experience that involves any use of substances. The use of such substances is an integral part of the spiritual life of many indigenous peoples. My own experience affirms the authentic power of these sacred substances.
Preparing for the ceremony requires a minimum of two weeks of dietary restrictions—no alcohol, no caffeine (you don’t want to know my daily intake of iced tea and Diet Coke), no heavy spices, no pork, among other things. Participants are also told to abstain from sexual activity for two weeks prior to the ceremony and to wear white clothes to the ceremony. (With the exception of abstinence from caffeine, these preparations are almost identical to those made ahead of an audience with the Brazilian healer, John of God. I spent two weeks on pilgrimage to see John of God in Abadiania, Brazil in 2011. I plan to write about that at a later date.)
Shamans sang and played flutes as we entered the room where the ceremony was about to begin. We took our places in a circle and leaned against cushions and pillows which had been placed along the walls. Once we had all gathered, I began to feel increasingly anxious. The man on my left noticed. “Is this your first time?” he asked. “Here’s a tip. Whatever shows up just say, ‘I am willing’ and another door will open.”
This advice proved true not only during each of these journeys but each time I found myself in a hospital emergency room and, especially, when I experienced a severe bout of food poisoning on a fourteen hour flight from Cairo to New York. It was brutal enough that the flight attendants gave me my own restroom. During the course of the flight, I used up every barf bag on the plane.
The poisoning erupted within a half hour after we had taken off. The man seated next to me on this seemingly interminable flight was Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian stand-up comedian. I’m sure I provided him with plenty of material for a routine.
At some point, I hallucinated that I had become part of Rush Hour, a police comedy with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, which was playing on all of the plane’s screens. I vaguely remember an elderly couple in front of me asking, as politely as possible, if I could be sick “a little quieter.” The flight was filled with many people, who were returning, as I was, from a pilgrimage with Caroline Myss. In my delirium I recall two women debating if it was safe for both of them to do Reiki on me at the same time or could it possibly kill me. It crossed my mind that the two emergency contacts I had given the pilgrimage organizers were both out of town and it was possible I would have a cooling off period in the morgue at JFK. My prayer, as I recall was, “Okay, God, you’ve put a lot of work in me; if you want to take me out it’s on you.” That was the version of “I am willing” I used that time.
Travel tip: if you want to clear customs effortlessly, be in a wheelchair holding a barf bag.
Before an Ayuhuasca ceremony, participants are told they may experience nausea or vomiting. My Ayahuasca experiences have been positive, gentle (unlike my flight from Cairo), occasionally scolding, but always loving. I’ve received profound, life-changing spiritual guidance on at least two occasions.
During my first journey, the medicine played with me like I was a child; it teased me and treated me to what I thought was a previously unimaginable psychedelic light show. I say “what I thought was previously unimaginable” because a few months later when my sister and her two seven year old grandsons were visiting me, I showed them a DVD of Melody Time, an animated Disney movie from 1948 which had been a favorite of mine when I was a child. I mostly remembered stories of Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, and Little Toot, the misbehaving little tugboat. I had totally forgotten a sequence called “Blame It on the Samba” which featured Donald Duck, his pal Jose Carioca, a very strange bird, and an organist, Ethel Smith.
The sequence is available on You-Tube. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
It parallels so many aspects of my first journey that I find it close to impossible to believe that the animators could have conceived of it if they hadn’t sampled Ayuhuasca.
During the journey, the plant voice said things like “You think we do this just to entertain you; we don’t; but it does.” Like Donald Duck and Jose Carioca I had no control over my journey, it was riotous and exhilarating; all I was able to do was surrender to it.
I expected my experience at the second ceremony to be similar to my first. The inner voice promptly disabused me of that presumption. “Why would we do that? Why would we repeat ourselves?” This time the experience was calm, serene, almost meditative. I thought I might fall asleep and then the voice said, “Your job is joy.” “Great,” I replied somewhat dreamily. A while later, I have no idea how much later, the voice repeated in a more insistent tone, “Your job is joy!” “Okay,” I said. After another interval the voice said a third time, “Pay attention! Your job is joy!” “That doesn’t seem fair,” I replied with the logic of someone in a trance, “Other people have really hard jobs like living through the war in Bosnia.” “You don’t understand,” the voice said patiently, “Nobody else wants your job. Your job is joy!”
Weeks after the ceremony, I could not get the voice out of my head. “Your job is joy!” It felt like I was being given guidance. What could it mean? I needed to investigate.
The memorized opening prayers of the Latin Mass from my days as an altar boy began to play in my head:
Introibo ad altare Dei. (I will go into the altar of God.)
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. (To God, who gives joy to my youth.)
I’d always thought of joy as a feeling, not an action. The prayer suggests that joy is a gift. The guidance during the ceremony suggested it is a practice.
I turned to my trusty resources the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and in so doing came upon the words glad and gladden.
Glad means having a cheerful disposition by nature.
Gladden means to make happy.
This made me to re-watch the 1960 Disney film Pollyanna which remains to this day a guilty pleasure of mine, in no small part because of Hayley Mills’ extraordinary performance. I once screened Pollyanna in a Sacred Contracts class much to Caroline Myss’s disbelief and dismay. Caroline was equally alarmed when I used Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical South Pacific to illustrate mystical states. Trust me, it works. Ask the students.
Chambers defines Pollyanna as “an irrepressible optimist who is noted for her ‘overwhelming, unquenchable gladness’ and her skill at playing her favorite ‘glad game’ of finding a reason to be cheerful and optimistic in the worst situations.
Was this what the Ayahuasca directing me to do?
Pollyanna is often criticized for her insistence on seeing the good in everything. That’s not an accurate description. Pollyanna’s practice was to look for the good in all things, a practice quite similar to St. Ignatius of Loyola’s direction to “find God in all things.” Looking for the good in all things, as well as finding God in all things, is, I have discovered, a rigorous practice which often requires skilled detective work as well as the surrendering of personal biases and judgments.
Two scenes in Pollyanna stand out particularly. They’ve lived in my memory since I first saw the movie when I was nineteen years old.
In the first scene Pollyanna explains the “glad game” to Mrs. Snow, a bitter old hypochondriac who dwells on death and who is obsessed with finding the perfect fabric to line her coffin.
You see I always wanted a doll, but we never had enough money for things like that. My father was a minister. We had to have the money for food. My father wrote to the missionary people and asked them to please send a little second- hand doll. A funny mistake. When the missionary barrels came, instead of a doll, they sent a pair of crutches. Well, of course I was rather disappointed, so my father made up the Glad Game.
Anyway, about the crutches, my father said, “don’t let’s be gloomy, let’s try and find something to be glad about” so we made a game of it. The glad game . . . And you know what? I found a reason for being glad.
Well there’s nothing happy about a pair of crutches.
Well, we were glad that we didn’t have to use them.
In the second scene, Pollyanna comes upon Reverend Ford who is out in a field practicing his Sunday sermon.
REVEREND FORD (preaching to the wind)
A house divided against itself cannot stand. A kingdom divided against itself can be brought to desolation. If you are an enemy to one another, then you are an enemy to God!
POLLYANNA (listens and then approaches him)
I’m sorry I disturbed your practice.
Do you like being a minister? . . . The way you looked just then reminded me of my father. Once I saw him sort of sad like that and I asked him.
He said he was glad, but it made him sad sometimes when he just couldn’t seem to get through to his congregation.
Did your father ever solve the problem?
He read something one day that helped him. “When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.” Abraham Lincoln
And from then on he was going to look for the good in people. That’s when we both started searching through the bible for the texts. . . . My father called them the “glad passages” you know, the happy ones. “Shout for joy” or “Be glad in the Lord” there are 800 happy texts. Did you know that?
My father said, “If God took the trouble to tell us 800 times to be glad and rejoice, He must have wanted us to do it.”
(Pollyanna leaves Reverend Ford who experiences a profound moment of conversion which is reflected in his sermon the next day.)
There is a third experience I had with Ayahuasca which is a corollary to the second one.
Several years ago I was in Barcelona and had the opportunity to visit the magnificent La Sagrada Familia designed by the architect, Antoni Gaudi.
I was recovering from a broken ankle and was wearing a Velcro walking cast. As I waited in line to pay admission for entry onto the cathedral grounds I could see a magnificent sculpture that dominated the center of the “stations of the cross”. The sculpture, by Josep Maria Subirachs, is called “Man Alone.” It depicts Jesus, naked, tied to a pillar, wearing a crown of thorns, and waiting to be scourged. It is at least one and a half times life size.
Once I got through the ticket line, I moved immediately toward the sculpture. As I got closer, I noticed that someone had left an empty coke can on the bottom of the pedestal that Jesus was standing on. My mind flew into a judgmental, self-righteous rage. I steamed. “Who could be so irreverent or unconscious or mindless as to leave that coke can?”
I limped up the steps of the cathedral, picked up the coke can, hobbled back down the steps, put the can in a trash can, and then limped back up. Eventually my mind calmed down and I stood in awe for some time contemplating the face of the suffering Christ.
Six months later, back in California, I participated in another Ayahuasca ceremony. As the plant medicine took hold, I heard its familiar voice.
“Everything praises me,” it sang, in an incredibly warm and loving tone. “La Sagrada Familia praises me. . . The statue of Jesus tied to the pillar praises me. . . Your reverence and devotion in the presence of this image praise me. . . Even the coke can praises me. . . Your removing the coke can and putting it in the trash praises me.” The voice pause for a moment then, in a primary schoolteacher voice, admonished, “The only thing that doesn’t praise me is your judgment about the people who left the coke can on the pedestal.”
The phrases, “Your job is joy” and “Everything praises me” have become daily inspirations for my spiritual practice. I am most grateful.
If you are interested in more information about Ayahuasca, I recommend a book by my friend Javier Regueiro with whom I’ve journeyed on more than one occasion.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” -Rabindranath Tagore
“Joy, rather than happiness, is the goal of life, for joy is the emotion which accompanies our fulfilling our natures as human beings. It is based on the experience of one’s identity as a being of worth and dignity.” -Rollo May