At a suburban business park next to a storage facility, I experienced the most spiritual ceremony of my life. What a strange setting for a communion with god.
Depending on what you tune into, Ayahuasca will either kill you or save you. For every dead tourist at a Amazon retreat, there are also stories of salvation and addiction treatment. Spiritually curious and looking for answers in my own life, I attended a retreat stateside at an invitation-only church. On a Saturday afternoon in a plain suburb, I met the Church of Santo Daime.
The cryptic email I received listed the following instruction: 1) No drugs or alcohol five days prior to the ceremony. 2) Don’t eat four hours before. 3) Wear white. 4) Please bring food to share-we will have a potluck at the end. The last stuck me as odd. For all the expectations of vomiting and diarrhea, my experience was going to end with some casseroles and bean dip. Although shrouded in mysticism, filtered through the “drugs are bad” doctrine of Nixon, and trivialized as indigenous “magic,” Ayahuasca—at least at this church—operated like any Christian sect. There will be hymns and prayer, but there will also be cookies.
The Santo Daime Church—founded in the Brazilian Amazon in the 1930s—is a syncretic faith that combines elements of Catholicism, African rituals, and Indigenous Brazilian traditions. It’s primary sacrament involves Santo Daime (“Holy Give Me” in Portuguese). Also known as Ayahuasca, the tea combines two plants. One is an MAO inhibitor and one is DMT. DMT creates a series of visions broadly described as “spiritual.” While sometimes smoked, the combination with an MAOI extends the trip from minutes to hours.
Although present in South America for thousands of years, the tea appeared on the world stage following the founding of the Santo Daime Church by a Brazilian man named Raimundo Irineu Serra. After participating in a ritual and receiving a vision from the Virgin Mary (as the legend goes) Irineu began to spread the doctrine. In the 1980s, it became a national movement in Brazil, was protected by the government in perpetuity, and made its way abroad. The mere fact that we know Ayahuasca by name is a function of this church. Irineu’s doctrine of spiritual awakening through the combination of two plants somehow made it to the suburbs.
Walking towards the door of a nondescript building dressed in khakis and a Hanes cotton t-shirt (my only white clothes), I couldn’t help but associate my Saturday afternoon with a cult. The looks on the faces of those driving past only confirmed this. Going to a ceremony to drink a prepared beverage while dressed uniformly brings forth vision of Jonestown. But my suspicions of spiked Kool-Aid were easily put to rest by the atmosphere inside. Tapestries and crystals adorned the open space and members of the church shared pleasantries. At the center resided an altar, and around it people placed their blankets and pillows. For such a long journey, you had better get comfortable.
In the provided reading for the ceremony, practitioner and author Jonathan Goldman describes Ayahuasca as a path to spiritual awakening and deep healing. It is an incredible setting in which the divine communes with your consciousness. As we went around the circle of 60 or so people and shared our intentions, some expressed similar sentiments while others remained agnostic. God and “the universe” became interchangeable terms. When it came time to speak, I was honest. I was looking to heal my depression.
According to Michael Pollan (yes, of Omnivore’s Dilemma), we are experiencing a “renaissance in psychedelic research.” In his article, “The Trip Treatment,” he describes the use of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) on cancer patients. Helping to relieve anxiety and calm existential distress, psychedelics can provide hope for the terminal. At the center of this phenomenon is the escape from the ego. An overactive ego, Pollan writes, is the source of anxiety, depression, addiction, and the likes. By achieving an ego-less state, patients can return to bodies cleansed and with a newfound perspective. Enticed by such a claim for magic mushrooms, I hoped for similar benefits from Ayahuasca.
After a saging and a reciting of The Lord’s Prayer that perfectly encompassed the confluence of tribal and Christian, we stood in line to take our sacrament. One by one, each practitioner took a swig of the brown liquid. Nervous for both the taste and the effects, I was instantly assured by the look in the man’s eyes as he handed me the glass. I made my way back to my spot and waited for the divine. As the nausea hit, I laid down on my back and stared at the ceiling. Drums, soft chants, and shufflings of rain sticks filled the air. As I slipped into the trip and my body began to dissolve, the Santo Daime hymns began.
As the primary teachings of the church, hymns are sung in Portuguese to facilitate the communion with the divine. I do not speak Portuguese but as I faded into the depths of consciousness, I caught one of the few English verses that the church uses for North American settings: “Trust the Daime, Trust the Daime, The Daime is your friend.” The ceiling tiles shifted and changed color. Flooded with an all-encompassing warmth, I realized that not only was the Daime my friend but that it was also a source of love I had yet to encounter. I felt myself return to the womb and was showered in motherly love. My life and the life of all things appeared as a cycle. Time ceased to exist and I floated on a wave of pure bliss.
As I returned to earth, I felt a sense that my life could be over in the blink of an eye and that would be okay. Everything is one, my vision stated. And so where I came from, I would return. Back on solid ground, I retched black bile into a bucket. All the cheeseburgers, Doritos, and Captain Crunch I had ever eaten rose out of my belly. As I gasped for air, I felt reborn, new, clean. In the dying moments of the ceremony, people danced and clapped to the beautiful hymns. Some cried, others laughed. Then, we had a potluck. In the room where some had puked and others had felt god, we ate pasta salad. And then, people dispersed. Driving their minivans through the suburbs and back to their homes.