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Ayahuasca Ceremony


 At the last minute the tepee in Wales was changed to one in Somerset. Driving up in the dusk it looked huge, but by ten it was packed with some fifty people sitting in a circle round a blazing fire. Mostly they looked like hippies, the majority in their 30s, and many with young children in tow. It was a night in early March and bitterly cold.

 'The ceremony' the friend taking me there had called it. First tobacco, then peyote, then ayahuasca. Based loosely on the Native American Church and led by a shamaness from South America… Things did in fact start the way Native American Church ceremonies did: with everyone rolling their own cigar out of maize leaf and what was referred to as sacred tobacco though it looked like Golden Virginia to me. As these monsters were smoked various people in turn prayed aloud to the fire, voicing whatever they wanted from the ceremony. Mostly things about their relationships, though people's sheer spiritual intensity reminded me of satsang . Then a dish of brown powder – dried peyote mixed with San Pedro cactus – with a spoon in it went round the circle for you help yourself. This was followed by a bottle of cold peyote tea.

 As an old druggie I thought the whole point was keeping the peyote down. Much too late did I realise that, in this context, the point was to sick it up: the model was one of purgation. Throughout this stage of the ceremony – someone playing a drum went round the circle to accompany anyone who wanted to sing their peyote song – there were the sounds of people vomiting into the little plastic bags which had been handed out. "Getting well" this was called. The songs were a mixed bag – some sounded like indigenous peyote songs, some were ad-libbed, some Hindu mantra – or you could just shake the rattle and stare into the fire. At no point during the night were you pushed to do anything you didn't want to do.

 I just lay there, feeling gradually sicker. The wood smoke kept getting in my eyes, and I had a headache coming on. But there was an undeniably Ecstasy-type glow throughout the tepee. The presence of love was almost tangible. Some people continued to throw up, while others occasionally shouted or wept. I was lying next to a young woman who also felt ill and as we lay there I began to feel strangely bonded with her. She had curls to die for.

 By now all my fucked liver symptoms were doing overtime. Headache, nausea, insomnia and complete exhaustion. Great, I thought, I've never felt so shite on a trip. I realised I had to stay awake along enough to get some ayahuasca down so I could throw it all up. And when the shamaness, decked in all her South American finery, finally brought the ayahuasca round (in a grimy 2-litre plastic Coca Cola bottle) I drank my wineglass straight down. You could tell this was the real McCoy. My whole body went convulsive and the stuff was heaved up instantly. It wasn't much of a trip, but I felt a lot better.

 By this time you could glimpse a cold March dawn through the firehole in the roof of the tepee, and there was a lull while a ceremonial meal was prepared. During this a big guy sitting nearby started freaking out seriously and had to be held down; he was flailing round and roaring, like a case of demonic possession. Gruadually I started feeling bad again, and by the time a meal covered with daffodils came round I couldn't eat a thing. I hadn't sicked up enough.

 By ten in the morning the wind was getting stronger and the tepee was tugging and creaking ominously. The young woman next door and I decided we'd skip the sweat lodge with which the ceremony was due to end, and were wandering round together, looking for a lift back to London...

 In retrospect, what that night opened up for me was the way I thought about 'groups.' Not only a highly sophisticated handling of psychedelic set and setting, 'the ceremony' fused elements of encounter, of satsang , of healing – and, to be more down to earth about it, of a really good party. As a form it was extraordinarily flexible. You could either relate outwards, and express yourself; or on the contrary lie back, close your eyes, and go cosmic. Either space was equally available. Presumably, if the ceremony were an ongoing feature in the life of a community you'd work through a lot of the bodily and emotional stuff and when that was cleared move into the more psychic realms opened by the drug; and this, as I understand it, is also the basic trajectory of Osho's Tantra.

 I remember reading that the appearance of the Native American Church was a response to the final defeat of the Plains Indians by the white colonists. Broken, scattered and humiliated, the peyote ritual played a uniquely powerful role in their regaining their individual and community self respect; particularly in combatting their alcoholism... From the number of died-in-the-wool young freaks there that night it looked to me like this type of ceremony could play a comparable role in the West today.