Released on July 17, 2019, the day after the Hindu tradition of Guru Purnima, this is an expression of gratitude and veneration to the teacher which has helped make me the positive, outgoing, dream-following, love-drunk dude who I am today. I have long kept this under my hat, but I feel like the time is right to talk about it. Guru Purnima is a day of thanksgiving to those teachers who have helped us to see the light. If you know anyone who fits the bill, it might be a nice thing to send them a note expressing your gratitude.
I have soaked a lot of electronic paper with digital ink, speaking about my journey, my successes, my foibles, the ways that I have screwed up and gotten better. I have danced around one topic, though, one of extreme potency and personal value.
Before I get any further into this Reflection, I want to be clear about something. The activities described in this Reflection were all very much legal. I sought out treatment for mental illness and went to a traditional healer for medicine in a foreign country. The very first thing the shaman who administered the treatment said to me was, ‘this isn’t drugs, it’s medicine.’ In Peru, the place in which I participated in ayahuasca ceremonies, ayahuasca is considered a national patrimony, or treasure, and it is legal. In Canada, my home, some of the constituents are illegal under federal law. I did not break the law and I am neither condoning nor recommending that anyone else do so. Nor am I making any recommendations that anyone do what I did. What is described below is the experience of a law-abiding citizen, nothing more. The rule of law is very important to the fabric of our society and I hope that you respect that.
The darkest period of my life, culminating five years ago, can be described in this manner: I was brewing beer and drinking it, constantly. Weekday, weekend – it didn’t matter. I was prescribed ADHD medication and I used it in a manner that I shouldn’t have. I woke up out of bed to panic attacks, I was on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. I was, in a word, a mess.
When I hit my rock bottom, it was the summertime. A Friday night, if I am not mistaken. I was out for a few drinks, which turned into several drinks. I became extremely intoxicated. I met and began flirting with a woman. She was receptive and gave me her number. Then another man came by and started flirting. I became jealous. I left. I texted this woman some nasty stuff.
When I awoke in a hangover haze the next morning, I looked at my phone. I saw what I had said, the incredibly egotistical and self-righteous bullshit stared me right in the face. I was mean to a stranger for absolutely no reason. I felt the shame of all shames. Who had I become? Where was the man who thought himself guided by love? Why was I so unhappy and lashing out at the world? I had become something selfish and hateful and I could barely bear it.
Around this time, I was listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast. Two episodes in particular stood out – both of the same guest separated by about a year or so. It was a woman named Amber Lyon. She was a CNN correspondent who traveled to Bahrain to document the human rights abuses that were going on there. She interviewed people who were being murdered and hurt in a myriad of horrific ways. When she left, she had to smuggle the memory card with the footage out in a bra.
Back on U.S. soil, Lyon and her team created a documentary using the footage from Bahrain. I won’t get into a ton of detail on this, as she tells the story better than I ever could, but suffice it to say that Lyon was completely disappointed with her employer and planned on creating a news site dedicated to ‘telling the real stories,’ ones about war crimes and other such darkness.
At the end of the first interview, Joe Rogan told her about ayahuasca. Friends of his had gone to the jungles of South America to participate in traditional ceremonies with this psychedelic medicine which has seen millennia of traditional human use. Lyon responded along the lines with, ‘I smoked one joint in college,’ and was skeptical of the whole thing. She had been told that these drugs were ‘bad,’ and that was it from her perspective. Rogan waxed for a while about the positive psychological benefits of the medicine and then it was over.
The second interview was about… ayahuasca. During the interim period of time, Lyon had a complete mental breakdown. Her experience in Bahrain had left her with anxiety and PTSD. She decided that she would take the plunge and travel to Peru to see if there was anything to this thing that Rogan had told her about.
Lyon’s described her own healing from PTSD and anxiety, about getting OK with her life and the world, of lifting herself out of her dark hole. She gave up her ideas about continuing to be a journalist about war and instead decided to create a website, Reset.me, that is about the science and stories about healing through psychedelic medicines.
Lyon’s story was captivating and moving. It was the catalyst that convinced me do something similar. After I hit rock bottom, I decided that I would use the money I had been saving for a down payment on a house to buy a ticket to Peru and to book a retreat.
It turned out that this was not an uncommon thing. Westerners dealing with mental health issues have been flocking to South America for years now for the healing promised by ayahuasca, and I found a guy from Canada who was co-ordinating retreats in the Peruvian Amazon. His name is Dan Cleland and he was running a retreat called Pulse Tours. Given that Dan was a fellow Canadian, and that his retreat was highly rated on the Internet, I decided to give it a shot. I am so glad I did. He and most of his wonderful team have since moved on to Costa Rica, founding a treatment centre called Soltara. I want to express my gratitude to all of the people I met in Peru, including all of the facilitators and shamans.
My first trip to Peru occurred in December 2014. During the months before my departure, I stopped drinking alcohol and going out with friends. I had to come off the anti-depressant medication to participate in the ceremonies, so I did. I stayed housebound, watching documentaries about the medicine and reading other people’s stories on the Internet. It was difficult – some of the stories described horrific visions and terrible experiences. Others were glowing with praise of the medicine.
When my parents found out what was happening (I was still living in their basement at the time), things went sideways. My mother freaked and, given my unwavering conviction to go forward with my plan, my distraught father said, ‘I don’t know what to do aside from physically restraining you.’
In spite of this, I stayed the course. I exercised every last ounce of courage at my command to finally get on that plane and fly to Peru.
The only way to describe my experience is ‘illuminating.’ The medicine, in my experience, is like a therapist with unparalleled skill. Only instead of using literal explanations of neuroses, the lessons came to me through visionary metaphor. I started to understand where I was going wrong in my life. I experienced death, at least what death represents. I was wasting my life by being so selfish, and one of these days I would return to the earth to feed the worms. I truly grasped what mortality meant, in a way that I do not feel I could have sussed in my regular life. At least not until a brush with the reaper or the main event.
The other main lesson was about judgment. When I thought back on my youth, my siblings and I were constantly mean to each other. We all laugh about it but that childhood experience taught me that judging other people to make myself feel better was a good thing. In a vision, judgment was personified as a poisonous snake, one that envenomed itself with every outward bite. By judging people, I was hurting myself and it had to stop.
Finally, I became OK with my job as a lawyer. I saw the value of loving service in everything that I do. I saw that, no matter what I do in this life, as long as I do it with love, I can be happy. It was a lesson that guides my hand to this very day.
After the trip, I returned home. Things were significantly better, as I started to put my lessons into practical use. I started to walk the walk. But I was not quite done yet. I knew I had some more work to do. Nine months later, I was back. This time for two weeks, instead of the single one in the jungle the previous time (I mean, I had to check out Macchu Pichu the first time I was there!).
The lessons this time were much more difficult. I learned that almost all of the things that were making me unhappy in life could be directly linked back to early childhood wounds. I forgave people for their trespasses against me in a very real way. I learned that a daily meditation practice would help me to take back my life. I learned that by letting go of the reins a little, I could get a chance at being happy. I learned that being of service to others is the greatest thing I could aspire to do. I learned that I could one day be a writer if I followed my dreams and did my work.
My memories of my friends and my time in Peru are some of the most cherished ones that I have. I opened up to people in an extreme way, I heard the vulnerable stories of other people’s plights, and I developed my mission. I understood who it was that I was destined to become and I began to put all of my energy into that.
As soon as I came home, I cleaned up my home. I painted my landlady’s deck, I cooked meals for my family. I intentionally helped out where I could at my parents’ home. I worked hard at work, and I made writing a regular habit.
Sure, there were some downs to go with the ups, but those low times started to become fewer and far between, and they did not last as long. Provided I was meditating and writing and being of service, I understood that I could get happier.
And so I did. My life has been on an upward spiral ever since my time in Peru. I am more joyful than I ever dreamed possible and I draw a direct link from that joy to ayahuasca’s teachings. My life isn’t perfect, but who has one of those? I have a wonderful daughter, day job, and I am writing whenever I have the time. I am following my dreams. If I did not have the courage to get on that plane, I know that I would probably be in a much worse situation. I have my doubts that I would even be here at all.
I suppose, if I had to boil it down to one thing, what ayahuasca did for me was to act as my guru. Guru literally means ‘remover of darkness.’ It acted as the doorway through which I stumbled upon self-realization. At writing, it is the day after Guru Purnima, the Hindu day for honouring our gurus. By following the recommendations set out by my experiences in Peru, I managed to remove the darkness from my vision, to see life with clarity. Illumination, enlightenment – whatever you want to call it, ayahuasca helped me to get there.
I gave a silent word of thanks to ayahuasca yesterday, in honour Guru Purnima. The word ‘ayahuasca’ comes from Quechua, a Native South American language from the Amazon basin. In one translation, it means ‘vine of the soul.’
Given that it helped me to find my own, I cannot think of a name more apt.