The most fascinating thing about my first ayahuasca experience wasn’t even the medicine.
Irony of beautiful ironies, a short while after ranting about the hype around psychedelic-assisted therapy, I found myself clad in all white to attend a clandestine ayahuasca ceremony in Miami.
Having established trust and rapport with a Brazilian psychologist and Santo Daime leader at the Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson this April, I missed the small Tucson one but managed to get on the list of a ceremony he was leading in Miami a month later.
Only they don't call it a ceremony.
They call it "work," because that's what it is: 7 hours of nearly nonstop hymns laden with Christian motifs sung rhythmically in the Santo Daime tradition. There were drums and guitars and lots of maracas. It is ceremonial work with all the conventional trappings of ritual: a dress code, rules of decorum, strict gender segregation, and heavy religious overtones.
What is Santo Daime?
Santo Daime is a new religious movement (NRM), a syncretic tradition from Brazil. It started in the 20th century, and now there are chapters worldwide. It's basically an ayahuasca church.
How did I prepare for it?
About a week beforehand, the leaders of a Miami chapter of the Santo Daime church scheduled a Zoom orientation with me. The orientation lasted over 30 minutes. They sent me some videos so I knew what to expect.
--It would last (5-6 hours, but it went almost 7).
--Wear a white blouse covering the shoulders and a long skirt. Please don't wear black.
--Bring a blanket and maybe some snacks for afterwards.
--We drink Daime three different times during the day. The effects for each dose last about 90 minutes.
--Work would taking place on Saturday and Sunday. I could go one day or both days. Most people go both days but I only needed commit to one day. I went Saturday and left Sunday open
--Admission is a $150 suggested donation, open for needs-based negotiation.
What's the medicine like?
It is impossible for me to separate out the feel of the medicine from the entire context of the experience: the set and setting of Santo Daime.
They didn't tell me to fast beforehand, so I didn't. Surprisingly, I felt fine and did not throw up, but I did get queasy towards the end. Others did take advantage of the many plastic bag-lined buckets for a little upchuck.
Oh, and the brew tasted not so bad, They sweetened it well. It tasted like earth.
How effective is language to describe a psychedelic experience, anyway?
I told one a friend who pressed me to compare it to other medicines, I said it was its own thing but Daime reminded me little of 5MEO-DMT. But she had never tried that, or any other tryptamine, so the analogy was meaningless!
A lot of the ego dissolution stuff, some empathogenic stuff, and obviously some entheogenic stuff.
No open-eye visuals. The DMT-esque closed-eye visuals (neon light tones, mechanical elf-like video game like characters, symmetry) arose during the second and strongest of the doses. These visuals weren't as powerful as expected and didn't last as long. No serpentine goddesses or otherworldly beings on this trip.
It was not as emotionally intense as expected, although I heard some sobbing in the room. I let myself think about some difficult stuff but also coaxed myself back to mindful awareness. They strongly encourage presence in the body, not mind-wandering or falling down rabbit holes. One of the central functions of the repetitive singing is to provide you with a focal point to return to if you do wanter. If you go to a healing area for a while, gentle prodding by the sentinels will bring you back to awareness.
Otherwise you're left alone.
An elevated emotional state was deliberately cultivated by the group via the singing but also via many years of experience working with this medicine. There was a lot of love in the air. Love and discipline.
There were three doses administered at the altar. You line up to get your little cup, and many people made the sign of the cross or another religious expression upon receiving it. It was pretty much a eucharist experience.
After drinking the brew, several people went into a trance state replete with convulsions. That didn't happen to me. I believe those experiences arise because of the Santo Daime context.
OK, then what was the set and setting like?
The work took place in a house which is a dedicated ritual space for Santo Daime. It was a lush home in South Miami with a large and lovely limestone fish pond out back.
A man and a woman greeted me at the door and asked to sign a waiver.
Inside, the first thing I noticed was the long row of prayer books, which are different hymnals. There were about seven of these self-published booklets.
Straight-backed chairs were arranged in rows facing the main table/altar. The chairs had name tags on them. Men sit on one side, women on the other. I introduced myself to my female neighbors. The people were warm and friendly and helped me get my bearings including which hymnals to use.
There were about thirty people there, women slightly outnumbering men.
When it started, they just dove right in. There were a few formal announcements but no instructions on how to do the work, or anything like that.
At noon, they started playing music and singing. When I looked confused (mainly when not knowing what hymnal to use), my neighbor or one of the sentinels helped me locate the right book or page number. Hymns were sang in Portuguese and English.
There were three sessions of about two hours each, with a five minute break in between. At no time does the music stop except for when one of the leaders shares a brief story. All hymns are sang in the exact same rhythm, so it comes across more like chanting.
The lyrics of the hymns honor Jesus, Mary, the founders of the Santo Daime church, the Daime medicine, and nature.
Sometimes we were asked to stand for one or two of the hymns. There wasn't any dancing except for some cute side-to-side movements during song about ants in the forest.
There were male and female sentinels who took turns standing on the sidelines of their respective gender groups. At times, other veteran members helped maintain order or offer help.
Rooms to the side and on the back patio were also separated by gender, offering some space for laying down or sitting. These were designated "healing" zones: chillout spaces for people to take a brief break from the ritual.
However, you're not supposed to spend too much time in those areas. I laid down on the divan, and after a while (I don't know how long in clock time), a woman came over and gently prodded me to return to my seat.
The restrictions on my behavior surprised me but I was actually thankful for the reminder to participate. At another point, I stepped outside for some fresh air, but was soon ushered back inside for another round of Daime.
The restrictions on my personal freedom during the ceremony did lead to discomfort arising, which I warmly welcomed. I didn't sign up for a joy ride. I went in wanting to learn and experience something different, and to get outside of my daily routines, which I most certainly did!
People stayed on for a short social hour, but I was tired and wanted to go home.
I wanted a beer and solitude.
After committing to do the work, I felt a strong presence of the Daime spirit helping me to prepare.
Then a few days before the work, Padrinho (the psychologist/priest I met in Tucson, who is an elder in the church) visited me in these imaginary precursor sessions too. He offered gentle energy and the beginnings of healing. This was all very cool.
I enjoyed wearing a white dress I had never worn before, and didn't mind the dress code or the gender segregation. In fact, I would say I felt more relaxed and comfortable because of it.
The first dose of brew was mild. I remember thinking, "What's the big deal? This is nothing I've never experienced before." Which was a funny thought. Padrinho checked in with me during a brief break and said he would give me a powerful dose next.
He delivered on his promise. I tripped out during the second dose. The come-up was fantastic, filled with colorful interior imagery; but no visuals or even shifts in auditory perception. It was more the entire atmosphere increased in its intrinsic intensity. I found the religiosity more discomforting as the work seemed to drag on, and I wanted to go home.
Intentions had been set in the months leading up the work, since I heard Padrinho speak in Tucson. That helped me maintain positive outlook and focus. The work helped me align with my desired reality. When I got home I went into integration mode and journaled about my experience.
I tried to remain present but eventually decided I might allow myself to lie down and see if the medicine might help me heal some of my psychological wounds. It helped. There's still work to be done but I do feel different. I think some of the trauma was processed.
This was a "you get out of it what you put into it" situation. I put a good deal in, and got a great deal in return. When I got home I said I'd never do the Santo Daime work again, but only a day later and I'm considering going back in a few months for a touch-up.
Why? It feels like onion work. Each time you go in, you remove another layer. You might cry a little but in the end it's worth it. Plus, I love a good challenge.
Just as I felt the medicine and Padrinho working with me before the work, I feel their presence in the days following the work too. There is a lot of potential for using psychedelics systematically.
My main takeaways included GRATITUDE, VIGILANCE, FREEDOM, DISCIPLINE, and SISU. The latter is a Finnish word with no direct English translation. It's basically grit and determination to win.
I'll dive deep into sisu in a follow-up post leading up to my four week sojourn to Suomi.
Wrapping it up