The Marble Cup
The Marble Cup: How deciding to drink ayahuasca helped release me from the past
(though I really didn’t need it after all)
By Andrea Afra
Three years ago this fall, I was out with some friends on the patio of a bar downtown while our friend Lucy was telling us about her experience with ayahuasca in Peru. At the time, my knowledge of ayahuasca was limited to what I’d read in Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule, and supplemented by online posts about others’ experiences drinking ‘The Medicine.’ It’s a plant-based drinkable form of DMT known to induce out of body encounters with other beings—both alien and spirits—as well as the ability to hear and converse with plants and animals, and even take on their floral and faunal forms. People have tried to replicate the psychedelic visuals through art, and the results often show interesting similarities, as do their written accounts. Others who drank it didn’t have a psychedelic experience, but it still had a profound effect on their lives in different ways, helping to overcome addiction, depression, and cope with terminal illnesses. I was a bit wary of those forum posts which gave too much reverence to the brew and the incredible revelations it provided them. It just seemed too easy to me. ‘One night with ayahuasca is like ten years of therapy’ was a common claim.
Lucy planned to return to Peru in a few months for a retreat called a ‘Conscious Cleanse’—one part yoga, one part fasting, and one part ayahuasca. I was healthily skeptical, but when she said, “You should come too,” something in me gave a small lunge, and without thinking, I replied, “Maybe I should. I could use some help.” My friend Dutch turned and quietly asked what I needed help with. I told him there were all kinds of things I’d been holding onto for much too long now. He tilted his head and said very frankly, “That surprises me—I thought you were perfect. Girl, I thought you had it all.” His honest revelation about his perception of me collided hard with my perception of myself and how I had grown up thinking others perceived me, wondering what all they could see. It was a weighty notion after two drinks, so to lighten the mood, I summoned Bill Hicks’ joke about needing a ‘good squeegeeing of the third-eye.’ I then excused myself to the restroom, but as I turned to rise, I promptly thumped my forehead on an iron planter hook behind me, just between my eyebrows. I couldn’t help feeling admonished by the universe, thinking, “Okay, so maybe it will be more like a punch to the third-eye.”
From that night until I met Lucy at the airport three months later, a strange current of anticipation began to hum within me, like a chord was struck with her invitation that continued to resonate somewhere between my throat and navel. I knew no matter what, it was time to shake off the past for good. All I wanted was one night to be outside of myself, to find a more objective place in order to see which fears and doubts I held were real and which were only rooted in history. It was hard to tell anymore, and it wasn’t doing me or those I loved any good to be in such conflict. So I enrolled in the retreat and booked a flight, then sent off an email to the leader, an American with an Irishman’s name who had redubbed himself ‘Brother.’ This raised little cynical flags in me, but I reminded myself I didn’t have to buy into the New Age hype to benefit from the retreat, and while I had some interest in yoga, and no interest in fasting, I knew it wouldn’t hurt to try either for a week.
Like most of us, I had a lot of unresolved issues from my past. I doubted my self-worth. I didn’t know what I deserved to expect from others. I didn’t feel like I was doing much of anything right. When I was very young, I was molested by an older cousin while visiting my father. Eventually I said something about it to my mom and she took me to a child psychologist. I tried to pretend I was just like all of my other classmates, that I didn’t know things I shouldn’t know. My main concern until junior high was just to be seen as normal. As a teenager, I became more rebellious, or for a better explanation, I knew too much too soon, and that loss of innocence ripened me before my time. In my forced maturity, I felt entitled to liberties equivalent to the age I felt, but my mom wasn’t having it, and I wouldn’t have either if I was her. I spent a good amount of time in therapy during my teens, but when it came time to confront my father’s family about the abuse, they called me liar. My dad had three decades to tell them they were wrong and admit he had failed to protect me from harm and shame not once, but twice. His refusal to defend me forced me to cut him out of my life. He was an alcoholic man-child, financially dependent on his parents, and didn’t want to risk his comfort by causing conflict. My mother quietly stood behind me on this decision, but never discouraged me from giving him another chance someday. She passed away from a heart attack when I was twenty-three. She was forty-one. Sometimes I wrap my arms around myself and tell her how much I love her because she is a living part of me. We went through a lot together, but our love never faltered. Never.
Over the three months leading up to the trip, I worked out as many of my problems as I could. I wrote for hours most nights and kept a journal of my thoughts as the departure date approached. It was a strange, disorienting period of time. Things crawled out of the closets; ugly things, hurtful things—truths, lies, and true natures were revealed. I can only compare it to waiting in a darkened room for years, eyes only halfway adjusted to the absence of light, unsure of which amorphous forms were real, which were imagined. And when the long delayed sun rose behind the shutters to illuminate the room, its rays failed to dispel the creature that had been staring back from the dark all along. I had sensed its presence but doubted myself too much to accept it was real. Sometimes being right just plain sucks, but I was grateful I could finally see the truth. I had been let down by those who should have held me up, disrespected by those who should have returned my loyalty and love. I was right to be hurt, but had they not been struggling in their own ways, they probably wouldn’t have mistreated me. I could only forgive them and change myself. If they chose not to change, I couldn’t let that hinder my personal growth.
I held fast to maintaining no expectations of any overnight miracles of ayahuasca, yet time after time when I told someone about the retreat, they’d raise a brow and say how they would love to hear about my experience when I got home. They too had heard the stories of the surreal and transcendental revelations that could occur. I even worried my husband put too much faith in the results and how it might change me for the better, so I wrote a disclaimer in my journal:
If I were to let a friend or loved one read this I would write, Please know now that I have been in a battle with the past my whole life. I have been seeking peace from the havoc of my mind and can finally say I’ve made a bit of progress. Please understand now that I am not going expecting miracles or anything other than some quiet time with my thoughts and guidance on learning how to better care for my mind and body through yoga and fasting.
I will not lie and say I do not hold the ayahuasca ceremonies foremost in my mind when I think of the reasons I want to go on this retreat. As every experience is subjective, I can’t expect any particular outcome; I can’t even expect to have ‘visuals.’ After reading about DMT years ago, it sounded way too intense for me to fathom. The quick IV-delivered doses I read about in The Spirit Molecule pale in comparison to the duration and physical effects of ayahuasca. Minutes versus hours…painless, flavorless clinical administration of the DMT via catheter versus the foul descriptions of the brew’s aroma and taste that can induce vomiting and diarrhea if it’s really working… and while I look forward to ‘the purge’ as much as I dread it, I still can’t ‘expect’ it.
In the end, I simply don’t want to feel judged by those I care about—I want them to know ‘me’ and accept me for who I am now.
A couple of weeks before we were due to leave, I started following the ayahuasca diet by making some changes like not eating meat or foods that would inhibit or react with the chemicals in the brew. Then finally, mid-January 2013, it was time for us to leave for the first leg of the journey. In the cab on my way to the airport, the chord of anticipation crescendoed to a full orchestra in the pit of my diaphragm. Yet as soon as I met Lucy past airport security, it settled and grew still. After a seven hour flight to Lima and another seven hour layover, we boarded a smaller plane for the final hour and a half trip to Cuzco just as the sun was rising. The hour-long cab ride from the airport to Pisac led us north through the towering Andes, their verdant heights and colossal continuance overwhelming to a sea level born citizen like myself. As we slowed to thread our way through several small towns en route, I noticed the abundance of dogs lazing along the roadside and doorsteps of random houses, sometimes in groups of more than ten mutts. They were free as birds, yet the water bowls outside the homes showed they were welcomed as pets if they chose to stay. Finally, as the driver slowed to navigate a curve, he pointed across a flowing river where the terrain leveled out and said, “Pisac.”
Below us, centered in a valley barely two miles across, we saw a small village against a backdrop of steep green terraced hillsides that ran up to meet the sky. Even from that distance, I could see Inca ruins atop the plateaus. Our cab twisted down the mountain via hairpin turns and crossed the bridge over the Urubamba river. We passed the town center, a dense maze of vendor stalls amid quaint two-story stucco shops, and continued slowly to the right, hugging the base of the northern escarpment. Between the road and the river, the land was dense with tamed fields and wild flora that strived to reach proportions well beyond the norm. Eucalyptus trees grew alongside cacti, and agaves tall as a man lined the road. Even the rocky facades sprouted curious plant life. The few modest homes were like gingerbread houses made from clay. Colorful and intricately detailed, upon each roof perched small ceramic bulls to summon good luck, wealth, and fertility in the home and crops.
As we drove past a row of unconventional hotels and accommodations, I recognized a few names on the signs from my online research of the town. We turned right onto a dirt road that forced the driver to slow to a crawl as he picked his way around potholes, then turned right again and continued past an open wooden gate. A grove of eucalyptus scented the air until the road ended at a lovely two-story bungalow with a terra cotta roof. It was owned by a kind older Peruvian couple, who greeted us at the door. The wife showed us the kitchen and how to make coca leaf tea should the altitude give us any trouble, then took us to a cozy room with two beds on the second floor. By the time we put away our bags and went for a walk around the property, it was nearing lunchtime. The climate was cool and the surroundings were gorgeous. The backyard was a landscaped subtropical highland garden with calla lilies more than twice their usual size, hummingbirds with the wingspan of blue jays, and several dogs, including a massive bundle of sheepdog named Nala. The building nearest the entrance was a round, thatched-roof ‘temple’ where we would meet for yoga and the ayahuasca ceremonies. Most of the neighboring properties we drove past by were also accommodations for Westerners on spiritual journeys who would attend the ceremonies at the same temple. The locals aptly called that part of the village ‘Gringo Land.’
Just outside the gate and down the dirt road a bit, we came across what had to be one of the most remote Italian restaurants in the world. A man was walking our way, smiling and carrying a plastic bag. He introduced himself as Tim, the proud chef of Escondida Trattoria, and opened the bag to show us a pile of freshly picked mushrooms inside that would be on the menu for lunch and dinner. We followed him inside and ordered cappuccinos while we waited for our food. Soon we were feasting on spinach cannelloni topped with a Ragu of the mushrooms we’d met earlier, and a hearty eggplant Parmesan with pesto. I relished every bite as it was to be our last solid meal before we started the liquid fast the next day. Here is where I must admit later that night I snacked on some frosted shredded wheat cereal I had smuggled in my carry-on. I also crept to the kitchen where I’d spotted a can of vanilla Ensure powder and whipped myself up a mug and drank it in the dark. It was delicious. Lucy and I headaches from the altitude so I brewed two cups of the coca leaf tea and took one up to her. It was soothing like chamomile and after reading for a while, we fell asleep.
We awoke Friday morning and met everyone outside of the temple to drink our breakfast, a glass of greenish juice which was actually delicious. Brother walked up and introduced himself to the group and made his way into the temple. The weather was cool and clear and the breeze through the eucalyptus was invigorating. It was warmer inside where Brother was already seated on the floor. I guessed he was in his late thirties. He was tall with longish hair, a prominent nose, and a slow voice About twenty people from various countries, the majority a cheerful group of Hollanders soon dubbed ‘Team Orange,’ sat with our backs against a cushion-lined wall in a large circle. Tapestries with Hindu, Buddhist, and ayahuasca patterns covered the windows. Inset shelves held candles, sage, and incense. Over the next two hours, we went around the room introducing ourselves, did some yoga, and discussed the first ceremony that would take place that night. Afterwards, a lunch of clear unsalted vegetable broth with lime wedges was served by two young women who were always at Brother’s side. He had introduced one as his girlfriend, but was equally affectionate with both. Lucy and I looked sideways at each other when he asked his girlfriend to go get more spoons while he toyed with the braid of ‘not-the-girlfriend.’ Other than that, he seemed like a pretty mellow guy.
I drained off the soup and ate the flesh of the lime.
After meeting with the group, we broke off and headed to town to find an ATM. We needed cash to pay Brother and I wanted to see if I could find a particular style of hat the women of the region wore—a simple wide brim bowler. Following the road along the riverside, we met new dogs around every turn the whole way to town. I was impressed by the variety of shops we passed as we wove our way inwards to the square, but I didn’t see any hats. We pulled cash and ordered coca tea to go. The sun overhead quickly warmed up the day. The heat magnified our efforts and we both found we were winded and tired, so we agreed to head back to rest. I seemed to keep forgetting I was nearly ten thousand feet above my normal elevation and how that might affect my endurance.
It was going to be a long night and dinner wouldn’t be served until after the ceremony. I had never fasted before, but Lucy had and she worried the juice and broth were too watered down to do us any good. I mentioned I had a few snacks tucked away in a drawer, but we both decided to stick with the program for the ceremony. She went up to the room while I walked around the gardens with Nala at my heels. We laid in the grass and let the sun warm us while I pet her belly. I marveled at how the black and white cows in the distance, smaller than flies from where we lay, grazed upon those plunging mountainsides as easily as if they were on a gentle Texas pasture. Across the river, low drifting cloud-shawls swathed the peaks, seeming just out of reach from the road we arrived by. These beautiful distractions, and knowing the ceremony was only a few hours away, quelled my appetite.
When the sun disappeared and the valley grew dark and cool again, we gathered inside the temple. Piles of cushions and wool blankets filled the entrance for us to use, along with a stack of plastic ‘purge’ buckets, as it was very common to vomit after drinking ayahuasca. We gathered our supplies and found a place against the wall. Brother sat cross-legged with his ladies, an arm around each. My friend and I both noticed the look on his girlfriend’s face when he took away the arm around her to shake hands with the attendees while leaving his other arm around the other girl. She looked crushed though she maintained a smile. While I didn’t understand their relationship dynamic, my respect for Brother fled the room and I wondered how I was to tolerate his presence, let alone his teachings, for the next week.
Next to him sat a tall clean shaven man named Diego, the ‘ayahuasquero’ who would lead the ceremony along with his wife. He was lightly plucking at an acoustic guitar while softly singing a folkish tune. A candle served as the only light and we grew quiet as Diego’s wife started to sing with him. A liter Cielo water bottle on the ground next to the candle was filled to the top with a dark concoction. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. When the song was done, Diego introduced himself in English and asked how many Quechua speakers were present. No one raised their hand as their were no locals in the group. He laughed, ’How about Spanish?’ One person raised their hand and he laughed again. How many first time ayahuasca drinkers were in the room? There was less than an arm’s length between each of us—the room was full. Most hands went up and he gave a low whistle. He continued, stating that no one had died from taking ayahuasca. There would be a beginning and an end to the ceremony, with ‘the window opening’ at one point so one could drink again if they felt they needed to. He said, “If you are still able to contemplate drinking again, then you should.” He took a few more minutes to bless the bottle and cup with tobacco smoke and sage. It was time to begin.
Diego drank first then poured a cup for his wife. They’ve held these ceremonies every Friday for the last eight years and yet she still had a pained expression as she swallowed the drink. A woman assisting with the ceremony went next. Lucy followed. She looked beautiful and serious in the candlelight.
Then it was my turn. I knelt on a cushion in front of Diego. He looked at me for a moment. Smiled a little with his eyes and lips. Poured from the bottle into a white marble cup marked with two lines inside near the top. I was relieved he only filled it to the lower mark. He said a Quechuan blessing over the cup and handed it to me. I held the cup, cold and heavy, to my heart. The initial eloquent intention I had in mind was replaced with a simple, ‘Take it all away.’ I raised the cup to my forehead and then down to my heart again, saying, ‘Kowsipa—to Life,’ as we had been instructed. I swallowed the thick tea in one draught, and passed the cup back to Diego. Wiping my lips with the back of my hand, with tears in my eyes and the taste of tree resin in my throat, I thanked him. It tasted like pine sap and honey. It really wasn’t so bad. I took my place on my cushion, got under my blanket, and gave Lucy a quick hug. We smiled nervously at each other: Here we go.
Diego’s wife and assistant were singing icaros, songs intended to guide the drinkers through the ceremony and keep them grounded when the brew kicks in. When the last person took their turn, Diego joined in on the song until it ended then blew out the candle. Silence filled the room for a moment until a dove started cooing from the rooftop, then the icaros began again. Soon, the dogs of Pisac began howling, seemingly for the sole pleasure of hearing their own echoes through the valley. Then silence again. I was clueless to how much time had passed in the darkness before I heard someone yawn the most luxurious yawns, over and over. A few people chuckled. Across the room, someone began taking deep breaths and then sighing them out with an audible, heavy ‘Hmmm.’ The room swelled with the sounds of others attempting to control their breath, deep inhalations through the nose and long ‘haaahs.’ A woman directly across from me let out a series of wild sounds: ‘Shooo! Shhhooo! Pshoo…Pshhhooo!’ A man seated near the door began to retch and I realized I too felt nauseous and reached for my bucket. Others made soft sympathetic sounds as if to comfort him. I found just hearing him get sick somehow made me feel better, and I recall feeling grateful to him, even though I couldn’t see him. My bucket remained empty.
Hearing the activity around me, I began to doubt the first cup would have any effect on me. Even the largest Dutchmen, easily twice my weight, had already taken flight. But I was still there. At that point, I was considering another cup when the window was reopened. Whether an hour or three passed since the ceremony began, I had no clue, but soon enough, the candle was relit and the call for those who wanted to drink again was given. Diego’s wife served the second round. I waited for a few others to take their turn then went up and sat before her. She held the bottle with two unsteady hands and poured so quickly I made a soft noise to stop her from filling it to the top. I drank it and returned to my cushion. The candle was extinguished and the room went black again. We had been told to bring little flashlights with us to assist in seeing our way out if we needed or wanted to leave the temple. I could see people moving around the room wrapped in their blankets, trying to find the exit. The effect of their tiny points of light and lumbering bulky forms made them appear to be floating.
I grew warm, then hot. My stomach warned me of an uprising. I tried to suppress the nausea with deep breaths while I fumbled for my bucket, finding it just in time. Others soothed me in the darkness and I hoped I helped someone else feel better. We’d been directed to go outside and dump our pails in a small creek which crossed the property, and I managed to make my way out without kicking over any buckets. The sky was clear and filled with stars, but they wouldn’t keep still, and I couldn’t focus on just one, so I went back inside and settled into my spot. More time passed. The girl to my right got up and left the temple. Several minutes or an hour later, someone screamed from outside. I thought it might be her. The dogs howled in response. I was worried about her, but I didn’t get up to help. Her boyfriend didn’t either. He just sighed once, and the others made more sympathetic sounds for her. Diego and his wife were singing. I didn’t realized they had stopped until they had started again. I also noticed I was now laying down with my hands behind my head, but my eyes were open.
It’s hard to describe my experience that night, as it’s hard to describe the details of a vague dream. Between intervals of awareness of the icaros and the room, it was like one long thought, or a dialogue between both narrator and protagonist of my own story. At first I joked (to myself) that I came all this way to drink ayahuasca and I didn’t even get to see any cool psychedelics.
In response, before my inner-eyes flashed a series of humdrum fractal patterns, and the thought, “There. Satisfied?”
Though I felt gently chastised by my counterpart for even taking this route, I knew it was my pride interpreting my own thoughts as such. This back and forth of me and another me, who didn’t put up with my own bullshit, continued for the remainder of the ceremony. Wherever my subjective thoughts seem to lead, the objective thinker put me in my place and led me back. The only distinct message I can articulate was something I had already sensed, but still didn’t quite believe. I heard it quite clearly.
“You have it all.”
I already have everything I need within me to find what I need to find, to be who I need to be in order to feel fulfilled in this life. It was the spiritual equivalent of frantically searching for my glasses for thirty years, only to finally have someone stop me and point to the top of my head, where they’d waited all along. Soon or hours later, I couldn’t say which, a small light appeared to my left. It was the candle. We all began to stretch and look around. Diego and company were still singing icaros. My back was in knots from being still for so long and I felt weak. The girl I’d heard screaming outside was sitting next to me again, smiling but visibly exhausted. Lucy was to my left, and when we looked at each other we couldn’t help but laugh, but she looked uncomfortable. Brother’s ladies were walking in with trays of bowls with more broth, but we decided to skip it and go back to our room to sleep.
In the morning I woke up sick and ran to the toilet where I heaved a neon green liquid. After washing up, I went back to the room to lay down. Lucy looked pale. She felt bad and just wanted to sleep. Worried about her, I ran down to the kitchen and made her a cup of Ensure and coca tea and told her to screw the fast and drink it all. She listened and soon felt better. We talked for a bit and decided we both wanted to go home. We didn’t feel safe to entrust our health to Brother’s fast, nor to keep us safe during the second ceremony we were to attend that night. My heart longed for my husband and children. Instead, we changed our flights and laid low in our room during the morning yoga session and lunch. When I felt rested, I walked back to the village. I tried to climb the mountain to see the ruins, but I had to take a break every twenty steps and I decided it wasn’t a good idea to push myself. Not only was I still tired from the previous night and lack of food, the altitude still had ahold of my breath.
Luckily, it was the big market day in the town plaza, where villagers from all across the valley came to sell their produce and wares. Short old ladies with long, shining black braids sat on the ground with spreads of gourds, potatoes, and corn, a multitude of varieties I had never seen before. I enjoyed this time to myself in a little village where I didn’t know one word of the main language. I bought an alpaca wool shawl and some socks, then stumbled across an open courtyard where I locked eyes on a huge adobe oven against the back wall. A little boy pulled me over to his father who was taking out a pan of fluffy cheese empanadas. I promptly bought two and polished off half of one before the boy could count my change. In the corner, a miniature clay building about six feet tall housed a herd of guinea pigs, a popular meat in parts of Peru. I was perfectly fine with my pastry.
I spent a little more time browsing the stalls and bought a few trinkets for my sons and husband. Finally, I walked the mile back to the house and packed my bags. We were leaving in the morning. During the ceremony that night, we stayed in our room and read. Lucy was trying to stick with her fast, so I had more of my cereal and washed it down with Ensure. Later, I slipped out to the balcony to write for a while before calling it a night. The dogs were howling here and there, but there were no sounds from the temple. The next morning when our cab arrived, we had still said nothing of our departure to anyone except the old man that owned the house, but he showed no signs of knowing English. We thought we should tell someone so they didn’t worry about us. As we were loading up, Brother’s girlfriend walked out of the temple and noticed our bags. I ran over, gave her a hug, and told her we were leaving.
“And you’re a big part of why we’re going. He shouldn’t treat you that way. You deserve better.”
She smiled but her eyes looked so sad. Then she shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said, then turned and walked back into the temple. I hope that she finally realized he’s just a man, and she shouldn’t have to share him to keep him if it caused her heartache.
It was a long journey home and when I got back, I could tell my husband was disappointed that I had cut the trip short. He had his own expectations about the results of the retreat and didn’t understand why I came home early. I explained I didn’t feel there was anything left for me to discover there, I was disappointed too, but it wasn’t a total loss. It was a beautiful experience—I was in awe of the scenery the whole time. It was my first time out of the country with a friend and I had the best time traveling with her. As for my expectations of the ayahuasca ceremony, I acknowledged I felt let down for not having a more ‘mystical’ experience, though I knew that wasn’t what I had gone for nor was it what I needed. By the time I left for the trip, I had read everything on the internet about ayahuasca and others’ fascinating stories of what happened to them under its influence. They spoke with dead relatives and extraterrestrials, watched ‘light surgeons’ enter their bodies and correct their flaws, and some were even visited by Mother Ayahuasca herself. Many drinkers had the sensation these beings were still waiting for them in a parallel realm. But the only one awaiting me on the other side of the cup was myself. I never questioned who it was. It wasn’t the first time I had met myself on that level, nor the last.
I felt I had opened a portal the night I agreed to go to Peru and unwittingly stepped over its threshold into a passage with the door disappearing behind me. There was no turning back. I couldn’t regress into the mental states that had left me too drained to be productive. I couldn’t allow those I gave my trust to disrespect me, and if they did, I couldn’t doubt I deserved better. Once we come to these realizations, we must act on them, or we miss that chance for growth and continue struggling until we break through to move on in our individual quests. The only impetus we can depend on is our own will. My acceptance of the invitation was an eager surrender to the chance of gaining the insight I needed to move on from my past. It was the most important commitment I had ever made to myself and has served only to benefit me since. But a month after my return, I felt stuck. I thought I had reached the end of the passage where I’d find another portal door because there were no signs of any turns in the path ahead, but really I had lost the momentum to continue. Part of this inertia came from being jaded by the spiritual bunk I’d been fed on the retreat and the amounts of data I ingested prior to leaving. I needed a break from others’ ideas about our soul’s progress and purpose. I also felt I’d been selfishly focused on myself for long enough, though I was trying to be a better person for others as well, and so letting my workload fill more of my brain and schedule, I kept busy but remained aware of another part of me pacing backstage, awaiting a cue.
My unrest was dulled by everyday distractions, but nearly a year passed until I could no longer ignore it. One night while taking a bath, I had this dialogue with myself. It was uncannily similar to that long, dark night in the temple:
“Andrea, you have to cut all of the ties that bind you to the past.”
“You decide to do so. You could start tomorrow. Or even right now.”
I wept into the bubbles. The year before, I had been preparing myself for a ‘spiritual’ journey, but felt that journey hadn’t taken me very far. The experience fell flat, yes, but I had prepared myself for something more, and when I returned, I still yearned for that something. I knew I should remain patient and wait for the answers I needed. But what were the questions? What came next? What was I missing?
“There are some things you can’t think your way to knowing.”
“There are some things you can’t think your way to knowing. You learn them through living them.”
It was then I knew I wasn’t on a hiatus; I was in the midst of the journey as I am now, and now. Less than a week passed before I also knew I needed a professional opinion to really settle the inner score, so I found a therapist who deserves all of my gratitude for her wisdom and gentle honesty. After having several therapists assigned to me in the past, only one of who I really felt to be on my side, my new counselor is the first I have chosen on my own. It took us a few sessions for her to get me to see that much of my doubt and distrust was actually justified. I had been wronged and my feelings were perfectly normal. She also helped me hone the skill it takes to control my thoughts before they become emotions. It’s as simple as not fanning your own flame, and as challenging as focusing on a light ahead in the distance while the present is caving in around you. I’m beginning to discern my ego from my intuition, but their timbres, so subtly distinct, require a clear mind to tell the two apart. It’s rare for our true inner voice to shout to be heard, so I have to get to a quiet place in my head and listen for the murmur beneath the chatter. Writing gets me to this place faster than any other avenue.
I knew all along I didn’t need to fly over three thousand miles to South America and drink ayahuasca to conquer my problems. But I didn’t know the decision to go would be such a powerful catalyst, solidifying my pact with my higher self to secede from the past, to say the last goodbyes to my ghosts: the wounded little girl who didn’t want anyone to see where she was broken, the angry and conflicted teen, the man who never earned the name ‘Daddy.’ The last to fade was the woman I became after decades of doubt and self-dissection, searching for the source of the pain without ascribing any blame to those who had hurt me. I was blind to the fissures and cracks in the pedestals upon which I balanced the people I loved and respected, and one after another, without understanding why, I watch them fall. But with these last three years came the gradual emergence of the truth—we’re all flawed and capable of hurting those we love when we are hurting. Acceptance of this lesson requires compassion as a balm to heal what can be healed while knowing our good intentions won’t always be welcomed if another isn’t ready to receive them. And like the ghosts we must send off with a final farewell, we’ll know people who have a place in our heart but are too noxious to allow them a place in our presence. Whether they remain in our lives or not, we have to pack up all of the blame we took responsibility for and send it away with the true owners, those who should have carried from the beginning.
Love has a way of tempering the pain, but only for so long. It’s up to us to decide how many chances we give someone else to hurt us again, how much of our light we can spare another who is lost in their own shadows. Yet, in turning our light on ourselves to illuminate our misgivings and the steps we take to overcome them in order to move forward, we can be a guide to those who desire to do the same while continuing to make progress on our own. There is a certain peace around someone who is quietly gathering their strength to slowly put one foot in front of the other, a moving grace in their determination to reach their path and bravely follow its course. When I encounter another who I might be able to help, I’ll listen to them, show them how they’re not alone, and do my best to rally them to trust in their own courage. There are a few people who have told me I helped them rise to stand up for themselves, to heed the subtle wisdom inside that is always patiently waiting to be heard. Nothing makes me feel more purposeful than knowing I might have helped someone in need, and I can only hope my path continues to intersect with others I can help.
And so here I shine a light on myself and admit that the hum is back, a pacing, padding up and down the passage, waiting for release. It lies dormant for the most part, only to awaken suddenly, expanding my chest and calling up tears before I have a chance to lull it back to sleep. It wants out and I want to set it free, but all I can do is quell this captive with patience because neither of us can see where the path is leading. My own light fails to reach beyond the present, trapping me in with no other way out than to trust and pray each step I take will convey me in the right direction. Looking back, I can still see how much distance I’ve made, but without a map, I have only my intuition to guide me to the next threshold unless, once again, I’ve already crossed it unknowingly.
If the message I brought home from that night in the temple is true, all the answers we seek lie within us, waiting to be revealed along our path at life’s pace, not our own restless tempo. We may not be able to verbalize the questions, as some are much too large to be captured with words, but when we fasten our intentions on what is essentially evolving into a better form, the universe seems to respond by challenging us to duel after duel until we prevail. If the answers were printed in an old book, or whispered in our ear by a mystical being, we still wouldn’t comprehend their meaning without first living the questions, which is why following another’s path will not lead you to your destination. There’s no template to spiritual enlightenment, nor shortcuts to personal wisdom, and no chemical guru we absorb will ever provide more knowledge than we already harbor inside.
I recall being about five years old and staring into a mirror, looking deeply into my own eyes, until all at once I became aware that I wasn’t the one seeing myself in the reflection, nor the one looking back. There was another party present, and from somewhere both inside me and beside me, I heard a voice, genderless and ageless, but surely older than me. It said, “That’s not you. I am you.” Sometimes I couldn’t understand its words, but I felt their meaning. And now when I look deeply into my own eyes, I still hear that same intonation saying, “That’s still not us. I am and always will be.” I don’t know the origins of this identity, yet it’s undoubtedly the foundation of who I really am, the eyes behind my eyes, the thoughts beneath my thoughts. It interprets what it witnesses dispassionately, yet love is more than evident in its guidance. When I stop to think about all I’ve been through and what has helped me the most, it’s clearly this shadow companion of mine that calls itself the true me, often forgotten and long ignored though it has never left my side. I’ve accepted it sits at a vantage point unpolluted by the past, unfiltered by doubts, and I’ve chosen to try to let that part of me get first dibs on how we should feel or act towards something from now on. If my mind starts to wander into the shadows, I remember the weight of the marble cup in my hands one January night, and call it back like a runaway dog. I can say it’s getting better about listening each time. Making this cognitive shift isn’t much different than switching places with a friend on a road trip; when you need a break, you let the other person drive.
Get to a quiet place, alone. Take a long walk or a bath and ask yourself what is standing between who you are now and the highest concept of who you are. Then listen. You may already know the answer, but listen anyways, then ask how you should proceed, though you may already know that answer too. If not, the answers will come. Making that final choice to act on this knowledge is solely up to you, but it is the essential keystone upon which your future depends. Trust yourself enough to consult the source of your intuition. It will not mislead you. Even if you wind up in a remote village in Peru.