June 6, 2017

How a Failed Ayahuasca Experience Taught me the True Purpose of Pain & Loss.

I believe that the universe provides us pain and loss to restore balance in our lives and connect us to our higher selves.

Sometimes, when times are great, we need times that are not so great to come along and remind us not to get too carried away.

Pain and loss are like rocks thrown at us by God (or whatever your word for this is), telling us to change our course. If we don’t listen to the message, if we don’t act in a new way, God throws an even bigger stone—bigger and bigger, until we finally take note of it.

This past year, God threw me a big stone. I had chosen to ignore all the small stones that were thrown at me before because they were easy enough to avoid. But this stone hit me hard, and I felt it.

This past year was a year of hardship, a year in which I suffered some of the greatest difficulties so far in my life.

It was all because of a reckless adventure I undertook through which I sought to transform myself into an “awakened” being: I decided to try ayahuasca.

Having thoroughly researched this plant, especially for its range of medicinal qualities, I had come to believe that experiencing it could reveal to me my true purpose here on earth. I thought that this plant would offer me a shortcut to enlightenment.

I was wrong.

I wasn’t wrong that the plant is well-suited for many people. The plant has indeed produced great revelation and healing in various spiritual seekers.

I was wrong that the plant was appropriate for me.

I didn’t listen to myself. I didn’t listen to what my mind and body were telling me. My mind was too busy and my body was too restless to settle into the experience facilitated by this potent plant.

I didn’t consider that everyone has a different manner of intellect and a different degree of sensitivity, some of which are better suited for experimentation with substances than others.

I didn’t listen for a call either—a call from the universe that resonated within me, telling me to proceed.

I didn’t acknowledge that ayahuasca is something that some people spend years and years preparing themselves to experience, often traveling all the way to Peru and hiking for days through Amazon forests to receive it.

This approach, in my opinion, is the best for experiencing ayahuasca: well-prepared, in a natural, indigenous setting where the ritual originated.

I was also wrong that the plant would be appropriate for many people like me raised in the modern, Western world.

Our environmental conditionings influence our intentions for almost everything we do in life, and one of the problems with living in the Western context is that we live with tremendous work-related pressure and stress that many of us may require months to unwind and detach from fully—a necessary process to undergo before we should even consider embarking on such a powerful experience as hallucination. 

Living in a modern Western context also tends to malign our egos in such a way that we have trouble surrendering. We are conditioned to have a competitive, never-say-die attitude. We are conditioned to keep thinking and thinking until we invent a new possibility that allows us to succeed.

But ayahuasca does not appreciate this competitive nature. Ayahuasca wants to take full control of your personal experience while you are subject to its influence. Ayahuasca requires a tremendous degree of personal surrender in order to successfully embark upon the inner journeys it provides and to appreciate the visions offered by the spirits contained within this powerful plant medicine.

Furthermore, Western society teaches us that we should approach almost every endeavor with an expectation of personal development.

“Do it because it will improve you,” our Western egos say. “Do it because it will make you better than you already are.”

But if we approach ayahuasca with this mindset then, well, don’t feel surprised if it literally kicks your ass, as it did for me.

My experience with ayahuasca caused me great disorientation and some post-traumatic stress, which landed me back on the psychotherapy couch and in my family’s home.

This was the onset of one of the most difficult periods in my adult life.

I cycled through nearly five jobs, I accrued financial debt, I moved nearly 3,000 miles away from where I lived, a place I loved, and I lost a number of friends and mentors, as well as my spiritual teacher.

I was anxious.

I slept poorly. I ate scarcely.

I prayed to God that my fears would subside, and for awhile they would not.

Eventually, they did.

Eventually, with the help of my family, with the help of a great therapist, with the help of some herbal supplements (non-psychedelic, of course), with the help of some gentle yoga, and with the help of some consistent meditation, my condition improved.

I ate more. I slept more.

Yet what was once a feeling of great aspiration had gradually evolved into a feeling of numbness and apathy.

I was depressed.

I felt alone. No longer surrounded by the variety of friends I once possessed, I took long walks by myself. I would walk into nature and disappear for hours.

I felt lost. No longer guided by the encouragement of mentors who were showing me how to become a better speaker and leader, I struggled to assert myself within my new community. I neglected to join new groups.

I felt displaced. No longer having a beach upon which to walk and no ocean in which to swim, I missed the brilliant, beautiful, and consistent sunshine of southern California.

I felt empty. No guru with whom to connect and confide, no great spirit to fill my heart, I felt unable to express what was most important to me. I wondered if anyone else really understood me, really understood what I was trying to do—awaken.

I had reached a near rock-bottom in my life.

But recently, I’ve felt that things are beginning to change, even though nothing in particular has happened. Recently, I have come to suspect that perhaps the emptiness I’ve been experiencing is a gift.

Perhaps this emptiness has created a space within my heart that was once full only of ego and old, rigid ways of being.

Perhaps this new space in my heart has created room for many new things, things that would not have been possible otherwise.

Perhaps this new space in my heart has created room for a new spiritual opening, the kind that I have always sought—enlightenment from ignorance, awakening from a dream, liberation from bondage, freedom from limitation, union with God, and realization of the Self.

Perhaps this emptiness is a sign of a good things to come. I once heard that life is always the darkest, the hardest, and the emptiest right before the rebirth.

Lately, I have come to regard my worst, most irritating problems as the voice of my higher self—and I want to know who I am.

Who is it, or what is it, that we are, knowing that everything we have been taught to believe about ourselves is subject to change—our names, our bodies, our minds, our experiences, our possessions, among many other things?

I have come to believe that everything we encounter has special meaning for us, special lessons that have been put there before us to help, not hurt us.

The places where we are, the people who surround us, the problems we encounter, the happenings that occur when we are in a given moment—they were all put there perfectly before us to teach us the things we need to know. 

Having thumbed through Pema Chödrön’s classic book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, numerous times, I kept encountering a particular quote again and again that has since been posted on my wall:

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”

Lately, I try to listen to my problems. I practice really hearing what they have to say. I listen to my body by feeling into the areas that exert the deepest sense of pain and discomfort.

“What are you trying to teach me?” I ask.

I challenge myself to stay with this uncomfortable feeling and commit myself to riding it out however long I must.

Some mornings, I wake up and the pressure on my body, the physical armoring accumulated from months of distress, is so intense that I wish I were still asleep. But I try to imagine that the pressure descends from angels—hovering above me, pressing down on my body, gently holding me in place. I simply allow the pressure to be, feeling grateful and willing to remain with it until it comes to pass—for I have come to believe that the more crushing that pressure is, the more effort is being made to draw us closer to our higher selves.

Call it karma. Call it recompense. Call it cause and effect. Call it what you will. But whatever you call it, the matter is this: The universe is constantly trying to bring us into balance with ourselves by challenging our egos and putting us in new and difficult situations.

For every high, there exists a low. For every mountain, there presides a valley. For every aspiration, there proceeds a downfall.

In my own case, this past year I had to sacrifice something on the altar of devotion to my higher self. I had to renounce California, renounce my friends and mentors, and renounce my guru—not forever, but for now.

But I know that someday, “this too shall pass.”

Someday, the pains that aggravate us will subside. Someday, the losses that deprive us will disappear.

Yet someday, we also will cease our aversion to the pain, we will cease our attachment to loss, and an even greater path will present itself.

Someday, a path so great may appear that even our natural, innocent longing for happiness must be offered on its altar. We must be willing to rescind simple happiness in its pursuit.

That will be the moment of each of our true awakenings.

Until then, we can feel happy living our lives day by day—grateful for everything we possess, grateful even for every “dark night,” grateful for every little pain and loss that we experience along the way.



Author: Henry Bond
Image: Janice Marie Foote/Flickr
Editor: Callie Rushton

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