I sat up. Then I thought, should I be sitting up yet? Am I sitting up too soon? Will it look like a fight for control when I am supposed to be surrendering? The last thing I said, three times, repeating it from Joel, was, “I surrender, I am surrendering, I have surrendered.”
Then I thought, this self-consciousness, this need to measure everything I do against what others are doing, is exactly one of the things I’m supposed to be working on.
I lay back down and struggled with other questions. I wanted to talk through it, make sense of everything, start processing and capturing. I wanted to say that I knew I hadn’t completely left myself because I could still feel my throat, at the heart of the experience, and I could feel myself swallowing and consciously forcing myself to take deep breaths because it felt like I might die if I didn’t. And then I thought, this need to talk through everything and justify my actions is another thing I’m supposed to be working on. Right now, I’m supposed to just have this experience. Talking about it is what the integration sessions are for, later.
I sat up and looked at my hands, stretched out on the cushion in front of me. I still felt some of the hallucinogenic effects of the 5-Meo-DMT running through my veins, and the skin of my hands was crawling and changing colors. I remembered that at one point, when I first started to come back to myself, I saw one hand as gnarled and leathery, with pointed, scraggly black nails and it looked like the claw of a creature rather than a human hand. The other hand just looked old, like my mother’s hands before she died last year at age 88. It meant something to me at the time, something about a struggle with duality within me but now I couldn’t remember the nuances of it. See? I said to myself. That’s why you wanted to start talking and processing everything, so you wouldn’t lose the lessons learned. Isn’t this also about accepting yourself and who you are? I am, and always have been, a storyteller with a bias for action.
A gardener walked across the picture-perfect landscape in front of me; I watched him through the floor to ceiling glass in the front of the ceremony room. Mountains towered above him and he was carrying tools to tend the flowing hedges that bordered the retreat property. It felt like he was an actor, prompted with exact timing, to show me how beautiful this place was and how painstakingly it was cared for.
I sat up again and looked at Joel to one side of me, then at Victoria to the other. Otto, who would lead my integration session later, was behind me and I couldn’t see him. Joel and Victoria each held one hand over their hearts and said, “Yes.” They had told me that was all they would say during the ceremony.
I said, through a few tears, “I’m struggling with fear.” They nodded. “I’m not afraid for my safety,” I told them. “I have complete trust in you. I’m just afraid of completely letting go.”
“Would you like to try going back in but with just a small dose?” Joel asked. That was perfect, I thought. I’d be likely to resist letting go again, but maybe I’d be able to witness the experience enough to dispel the fear. Victoria moved around behind me, setting up a special device that looked like a very high-tech mechanical bong. I took a sip of water, squelching a burp, and told them, “You were right not to let me eat breakfast.”
Victoria brought the bong-like contraption alongside me on the matt. “When you’re ready, take a deep breath and let it out,” she instructed. Then she held the pipe in front of me and I drew the smoke deep into my lungs. I lay back and held my breath as long as I could, then inhaled a little further to release the molecule into my brain, as they’d taught me.
It didn’t seem any less intense to me the second time. The kaleidoscopes of moving color were like other psychedelic experiences I’d had in the past, but the feeling of dying, of leaving my body, was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I knew my body was still there because I could feel myself swallowing, but my throat was the only part of me that existed. And I knew the only reason that part of me still existed was because I was worried about it. I had two masses in my thyroid that had tested benign before, but one of them had grown recently and I was scheduled for a follow-up appointment and possibly another biopsy.
I tried to let go more than I had before. My mind insisted on processing, judging, capturing, remembering as much as it could, and once again I asked myself, is being a doer and a storyteller the best part of me? Am I supposed to learn how to keep that part but still let go of all the self-consciousness, the judging of what is in favor of what ought to be, the constant need for control?
As soon as I felt the rest of my body, I sat up again. I heard what sounded like a bird tapping on a window, asking to be let in. The mountains in front of me swarmed in colorful patterns and my hands turned old and shriveled again. When it felt like it was time to speak, I asked Joel if he was tapping and he said no. Everyone laughed when I said I thought it was a bird, and then I thought it was Joel trying to make me think it was a bird.
Victoria and Joel brought a matt, pillow and blanket outside the ceremony room and set it up under the enormous old Ficus tree that dominated the retreat grounds, facing the mountains. They told me I could lie there as long as I wanted and Luis would bring me food when I was ready. I lay for a while, looking at the mountains and pondering the same questions. When is it a cop-out to say, “that’s just who I am?” And when, on the other hand, is it acceptance of self, believing that I am enough, as the meditation practitioners and yoga instructors are always telling you to do?
Luis, the retreat’s private chef, was crossing the lawn and I smiled at him to let him know I was ready to be approached and no longer sunk into myself. He came over and squatted beside me, asking if I was hungry. I was. Breakfast for me was usually around 6 or 7 in the morning, and it had to be at least 10:00 now. I had no concept of the time that had passed during my medicine session but I knew they had scheduled roughly an hour each for the three of us that were in residence at Tandava Retreats this week.
I grabbed my phone and laptop out of my room and came back to the main house. Luis, who had been a private chef for several celebrities in Los Angeles before coming to work for Joel and Victoria in Mexico, laid a place for me at one of the tables on the veranda. He brought me homemade yogurt with blueberries and granola, fresh green juice, and a mini-quiche with spinach and artichokes. I heard my phone ringing and instantly regretted having retrieved it, but then I reminded myself that I still needed to be there for my employees this week. Customers could wait, but my employees were all on the road teaching classes and giving exams today and some of them didn’t even know where I was. It wouldn’t be fair to ignore them.
Dustin, one of the other two guests, came out of his session and we sat on the veranda and talked. I told him about my struggles and he said, “You should watch the TED talk about left brain and right brain duality by Jill Bolte Taylor.” I wrote it down.
Roger, the other guest, joined me a little later. “Are you OK to talk?” he asked. We’d been counseled to be careful with one another after our medicine sessions. I nodded and told him a little of my experience. “And how about you?” I asked him. Roger looked pensive. He and Dustin were both therapists and were here as part of their training program to begin serving 5-Meo in their own practice. This was not their first time.
“My session was really challenging,” Roger said. I hadn’t expected that. He didn’t go into detail and I didn’t ask. It wouldn’t take much for my fear to come back, and we still had another round of sessions tomorrow.
At 4:00 pm, the integration talks with Otto started and I was first up. I had been dying to talk about my experience and yet once it was officially time to do so, I found myself tongue-tied. Otto told me to close my eyes and walk him through my experience in stream-of-consciousness form, and I tried. “What was your intention?” he asked after I’d bumbled through the first few minutes. “I went into the session wanting to know why I’m my own worst enemy,” I told him. “I want to know why, even though I’m very clear about how I want my life to be, I let myself get so overweight and out of shape that I can’t enjoy my outdoor lifestyle or my backcountry rescue work anymore.”
“And what do you feel about that? Where do you feel it in your body?” Otto asked.
Those weren’t questions I could answer. I was used to thinking about why I was doing what I was doing, what was causing it. Later I understood, after watching the TED talk Dustin recommended, that he was trying to get me to think with my right brain, and I never did that.
We meditated before dinner, just as we had the previous night, sitting on backed cushions on the steps of the veranda and facing the sunset turning the mountains a peaceful shade of pink. I have never been able to shut down the chatter in my mind, so I am a meditation faker; if it doesn’t go on too long, it’s perfectly pleasant to sit there with my eyes closed and think about whatever I want to.
We ate dinner all together – Roger, Dustin, Joel, Victoria, Otto and Luis, who served us first and then sat with us. We’d had cuisine from a different country for every meal so far; tonight was a delicious miso soup, richer than I’d ever tasted before, and a Japanese naki soba; noodles with chicken and vegetables. Luis explained that his process for making miso was different than most, and he used fish stock from our dinner the previous night. He told us a few stories about his restaurant career, and how he had mentored a young man with no previous experience because he saw the passion in him. The man now had the only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in Chicago. After dinner we went to the hot tub for our evening Satsung, a lecture from Joel about the connections between the medicine, the western practice of yoga, and its origins in Indian religion. He spoke without notes, with an amazing depth of knowledge. Joel had an interesting demeanor for someone in his line of work. He moved and spoke quickly and with energy, always full of enthusiasm for his subject. I realized I had a stereotype of people who served plant medicine; they were quiet, calm, Buddha-like. Joel’s energetic personality made me think about how anyone could be attracted to this life and yet stay true to their own ways.
I slept well that night. The bizarre noises from an unidentified animal that had disturbed the previous night, now that they’d been identified as a peacock, barely woke me. I slept until nearly 7:00 am and woke rested.
Morning practice in the ceremony room was the same as before, gentle yoga followed by Wim Hof breathing exercises. I had done a Wim Hof course before and didn’t remember being so terrible at it, but this was becoming another thing I had to fake. We took deep, full breaths through our mouths and blew them out with force, 30 times, in three rounds. At the end of each round, we held our breath for longer than I could manage. At first, I let Victoria see that I couldn’t hold it any longer, but then I began to hide it because I didn’t want anyone else to stop early. The purpose of holding our breath was to practice for the medicine, because it went deeper the longer you could hold it in. I thought about how intense my experience was yesterday, even though I hadn’t held my breath for very long at all, and I decided this was not something I needed to get better at. Call me wimp, but enough was enough.
We had agreed that my ceremony would be last of the three today since it was first yesterday. Aside from feeling it was only fair for me to be the one hungry until noon, I also didn’t want the pressure of feeling that I was taking too much time. I had shared this with the group and they instantly understood. “We all have that feeling,” Joel said, “the feeling of taking too much space.”
There it was again, that left brain/right brain thing. I was thinking about time but everyone else called it space.
When it was my turn, Joel came to get me on the veranda. I followed him to the ceremony room and sat on the side of the futon first so we could talk about my expectations before the medicine.
“I think you guys should give me whatever size dose you feel appropriate,” I told them, “but don’t tell me what it is. My head is getting in the way.” I told them I was nervous again, despite thinking I wouldn’t be, and they assured me everyone always was, even experienced practitioners like themselves.
After the pipe, I lay back and heard a voice; “Let go, let go, let go.” I wasn’t sure if it was my voice or not. And then…I did let go. I felt my mouth open and slacken, the way my mother’s had while she lay unconscious in hospice, and then I wasn’t there anymore. I understood, in a deep, wordless way, that this might be what it was like to die.
When my eyes began to open, I noticed, curiously, that tears were streaming down my face and yet I had had no awareness of them starting. I sat up and thought about the voice I’d heard. If it was mine, was it OK that my mind was still there to say that? I asked my question out loud and everyone said “yes,” like they always did. I said, “I know it’s OK with you guys, but is it OK with me?” They laughed.
I looked at my hands. They were the same as before, except this time the claw was on one side and then the other, back and forth, trading with the aged hand. I said, “Otto, the left hand and right hand are not different. They are both the same, they are both me, the monster is me.” I had felt my body wanting to purge each time I took the medicine and I understood that it meant all the destructive behaviors come from inside me, not outside. I already knew that. I just didn’t feel it.
A man ran across the lawn in front of me and I laughed. Someone had hired an actor again. I heard a noise, but this time it wasn’t tapping, it was knocking. Something was trying to get in. I didn’t ask about it this time.
I turned to Joel and then Victoria and said, “It’s enough. I don’t need more.”
After a few more minutes I said, “I don’t need the tree. I’m going to go get my laptop.” They nodded approval.
In my integration session with Otto that afternoon, I told him about my insight. “Everything I learned was something I knew already but it needed to go from my left brain to my right brain,” I told him. He asked me again what I felt and where I felt it, and this time I could answer. “The thing with my throat, the swallowing,” I said. “Maybe I have cancer, maybe I don’t, that is to be figured out. The more important thing is that it might be just the toxicity in me coming out in different ways.”
I asked Otto what it looked like on the outside. “You had what we describe as the Buddha reaction,” he said. I remembered that Joel had told us, the night before our first session, that everyone reacted physically in different ways; some were perfectly still, some thrashed about, some threw up and some took their clothes off. I had been terrified at that last bit of information.
“You lay perfectly still except that I could see some swallowing,” Otto continued. “You were so still at first that I checked to see that you were breathing. It was about ten minutes before you sat up.”
“Was my mouth open?” I asked. Otto shook his head.
I considered for a few more minutes, then said, “No one has done anything to me. I haven’t been abused as a child, I haven’t suffered trauma, everything I’m struggling with is within. I just need to hold onto that knowledge this time.” I’d done an ayahuasca retreat years ago and remembered having the same insight, but somehow I’d let it go.
Otto talked to me about the importance of finding some rituals that worked for me, rituals that would help me hold on to what I’d learned. We talked about my mediation problem and instead of trying to convince me that I could learn to meditate, like most people did, he simply suggested alternatives that might fit better for me, like hiking, micro-dosing and yoga.
Joel had booked a massage therapist to come to the retreat, and after being pummeled and cupped and hot-stoned by a silent Mexican woman with incredibly strong hands, I spent the afternoon reading and writing. I’d been afraid to learn too much about 5-Meo before traveling here, after hearing that it was the “Mount Everest of psychedelics,” but now I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. Joel had told us about an unscrupulous practitioner named Octavio, who had been responsible for several deaths and was now on trial, and I read an infamous article about him in the New Yorker called, “The Pied Piper of Toad.” (5-Meo is the synthetic version of an extract from Bufo Alvarius, or the Sonoran Desert Toad.) Octavio’s methods were indeed unscrupulous; he dosed masses of people, all at once, and poured water into their noses and mouths while they were indisposed, claiming that they needed this rough handling so they would “let go.” Indeed, at least one of them let go so thoroughly that she died.
What struck me most, however, was a spot-on quote from a 1980s article that said, unlike most hallucinogens, which distort reality, toad “completely dissolves reality as we know it, leaving neither hallucinations nor anyone to watch them.”
At dinner that night, Joel asked us, “How do you all feel? The hard part is over! Now you can just relax and enjoy the rest of the retreat.” We all laughed. I did feel that way, kind of like when you finish climbing a peak and sit comfortably back on your couch with an ice pack on your knees and a glass of Chardonnay.
Samadhi, Victoria and Joel’s playful but aloof cat, climbed on the back of Victoria’s chair and peered covetously at her plate while she added some words of advice. “You might want to avoid making any big decisions for the next few weeks. Wait and see how the medicine’s teachings settle in with you first.”
Roger and Dustin exchanged a glance. I knew they were already considering big decisions; they had planned to go to Costa Rica from here on Sunday to investigate it as a secondary place for their practice, but now they were talking about moving back to Sedona, where they’d lived before Hawaii.
We talked about tomorrow, Saturday, our last full day and a day to experience Tepoztlan. Our hosts had already planned a visit to town in the morning, a sweat lodge ceremony in the afternoon and a sound bath in the evening. We asked if we could also go for a hike – the mountains towering over the retreat had beckoned me all week – and Joel said Luis could take us in the morning. He would drive us to a trailhead in Joel’s car, a sleek black Mercedes. We had all laughed a few nights ago when Joel told us about his guilty struggles when he bought the car recently, after not having had any car at all for three years. “The locals all see him as a rich Gringo anyway, so what difference does it make?” Luis joked. Luis was American, born in Chicago, but he’d moved back to Tepoztlan a few years ago to reconnect with his Mexican heritage and give back to his community, and now he volunteered with the local fire brigade when he wasn’t working at the retreat.
As I woke on Saturday morning, the sprinkler on the lawn sounded like cosmic chatter with little bird songs bursting forth every few seconds and that was how I knew I was back in it. Then I had the recurring thought that I couldn’t ask for more, I had to give back instead, whatever that meant. But I was awake and I could get up, so I did. My throat clicked as I sighed and swallowed. My face was just a little bit numb. I put my contacts in and everything looked just slightly south of normal. “Yessss….” I remembered more than heard. I saw now that a reactivation was for remembering, just a little, what it was like. Joel had told us about reactivations on the first night but I hadn’t expected to have one, so I’d forgotten about it.
The drive to our hike was on a steep, rocky road and I worried out loud about the Mercedes, which made everyone in the car laugh. Luis told us more about his work with the fire brigade on the way up. “It would not have been a good idea for Joel to take you hiking,” he explained, “because the trails in the mountains are closed this year during the dry season and he would have been questioned for bringing tourists up the mountain.” We had already heard about the fires last year, but I asked Luis to tell us more. “How did they start?”
“One of them was started by a tourist who was practicing fire dancing in the mountains and ran away when the fire started,” Luis said, “and the other one was caused by a man taking some kind of hallucinogens who believed he had been told by the Messiah to set the fire. That one took eight days to put out.”
I still felt the effects of my reactivation as we hiked. I inhaled the over-oxygenated air from the trees with a giddy feeling, reveling in being out in the forest for the first time since we arrived. Luis showed us an Agate tree, a large hollow tree that attaches itself to rock and funnels water through its trunk, and we hiked to a rock formation with a giant boulder precariously balanced on neighboring rocks that we could walk under. Luis showed us a ravine he had fallen into once when the ground gave out on the trail above. Hiking during the rainy season could be dangerous, he told us, but it was also beautiful because of the waterfalls.
We ventured into the village of Tepoztlan after breakfast, and it was easy to see why so many people described it as a spiritual place akin to Sedona. The streets were filled with crystal shops and psychedelic murals. Otto ran into a colleague he knew from New York, unexpectedly. “The world of psychedelic medicine practitioners is a small one,” he said, explaining away what I thought was an extraordinary coincidence. We went to the market and sat at one of Joel’s favorite food stalls, where Otto and Dustin and Roger ate enchiladas and I had a fresh orange juice, still too full from breakfast to eat anything.
Back at the retreat, Joel introduced us to Fernando, our shaman for the sweat lodge. Fernando was a warm, welcoming, jovial Mexican man with long hair and a broad smile. He had been tending a fire on the lawn for several hours, heating the volcanic rocks that would be shoveled into the tent to make steam. Joel explained to us that we would be experiencing Temezcal, a Mayan sweat lodge ceremony meant to cleanse the mind, body and soul by sweating out toxins and negative energy. Over a light lunch of salad, Dustin and I confessed trepidation about the sweat lodge, both of us being heat intolerant, and Fernando assured us that we didn’t have to stick it out if we didn’t want to. He explained the process. “We will pour water on the rocks four times,” he said, “once for each direction, east, west, north, south. After each, we will open the doors of the tent to get some air, and if you want to leave, you can.” Joel told us some shaman were very strict about their traditions; we were grateful for Fernando’s easygoing approach.
We stood in a circle outside the tent, which was a wooden dome frame with a denim cover over it. Fernando asked me to hold a small statue with incense burning inside because it was meant to represent the mother spirit. Victoria had caught a stomach bug and was in her room, so I was the only female. We faced each direction in turn, Fernando recognizing and thanking the spirit gods. Then we crawled into the tent, one by one, touching our foreheads to the ground as we entered. We sat in a circle and Fernando asked us to say a few words honoring our families and expressing our gratitude. Joel passed seven hot rocks into the tent with a shovel and Fernando stacked them in a small, dug-out hole in the middle of our circle. We closed the denim door and it was pitch black. Fernando chanted and sang as he poured water over the rocks. I tried to sing with him, as he asked, but I was soon lying flat on the ground, trying to escape the claustrophobic heat and darkness. When the door was opened for the first time, I crawled out immediately. I was impressed that Dustin stayed, but I was done.
“Could I be the person who tends the fire and passes in the hot rocks for the rest of the ceremony?” I asked, not wanting to quit altogether. “Yes!” Fernando said. “The firekeeper is an ancient, time-honored position.”
Later, privately, Dustin grinned at me and said, “You know what the secret of the sweat lodge is? You’re so miserable during the ceremony that you feel wonderful when you come out.”
That night after dinner, a beautiful young local woman named Analeise came to perform our sound bath. I had heard meditation practitioners play crystal bowls before but this was beyond any sound experience I’d ever had. We lay on cushions in the ceremony room, eyes closed, drifting, as Analeise made sounds into something with texture, something that wrapped you up and caressed you and made you feel as if you were floating. There was a hollow, windy whistle that whipped back and forth across the room above us, and something that sounded like trickling water and an Australian didgeridoo, and the reverberation of the crystal bowls, and Analeise’s own heavenly voice occasionally rising above the other sounds. At times I wanted to sit up and see how she was making those sounds but it felt too good to stay lying down and letting the sound run over me. It lasted nearly an hour, and then we got up and went to our rooms with barely a word except to thank Analeise.
I came down early to say goodbye to Dustin and Roger, who had planned to leave at 7:30 on Sunday morning, but I found Roger was sitting on the veranda alone. Dustin wasn’t feeling well and it appeared he had the same stomach bug Victoria had had the day before. We ate breakfast, hearty bowls of potatoes and vegetables, and I lounged on the veranda, talking to Roger and Joel, waiting for the taxi that would come at 11:00 to take me to the airport. After several plan changes, Roger decided they would stay until Dustin recovered enough to travel. Then they were going to Sedona, inspired to consider a big change, just as Victoria advised against, and we joked about that. Sometimes the medicine tells you to take a new path and you must listen.
I thought about how the lesson I was taking away was different. The medicine showed me that my life was perfect; I was living exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do. My challenge was to feel that on top of knowing it, to be grateful for it, and to stop getting in my own way of that gratitude. Perhaps I had a cancer battle in front of me, or perhaps not; that didn’t seem very important right now. I had felt what it was like to die, just for a moment, and so everything would be OK, either way. To let go could mean many different things, and I would try to embrace them all.