The Journey Toward True Love & Vulnerability: My Ayahuasca Experience
I borrowed a sleeping bag that had long lost its full comfort, but would do well on soft sand. I tried gaining full access to that part of my brain storing 7th through 10th grade Spanish lessons, and sent a prayer out for Ms. Saunders and Mr. Veerhoff, wherever they were, once I realized plenty remained. I hadn’t fasted in six years — since I was Muslim, celebrating Ramadan in Washington, DC, partly with Ro and partly with strangers, having iftar at IHOP in the middle of the night, long after prayer and Howard University library study sessions. Now here I was, entering a space that required a clean mind and body. It makes sense, I thought. If there’s the possibility of talking to the universe, you don’t want that interrupted by heartburn.
I was nervous, excited, curious, anxious, but I had Jésus. He was still mostly a stranger then and assured me the shamans coming in from Peru to see to it that our ceremony would be everything we needed and everything I’d heard about were the real deal. They were. He’s Mexican and served as an excellent translator for what I couldn’t make out, and he introduced me to the nice Mexican man who told me in Spanish that he was an African warrior in a past life. His eyes were kind. I had no reason to not believe him.
Five years prior, I was sitting at a dining room table on Main Street in Venice, eating quinoa for the first time, pronouncing it wrong, listening to a then-friend talk freely about a bird that sat on his chest just the night before, delivering a message of love and hope after realizing a past life or the life of a welcomed spirit ended in disaster when his plane went down somewhere over the Pacific. He said the daughter of that man sat near him, listening as he told the story, finding more than enough similarities to reach the conclusion that she and him were supposed to be in that room together on that night. If the universe works in such a way, I thought, and I was quite sure the universe works exactly this way, we are in this dining room talking about Ayahuasca because the universe knows I need this sacred medicine in my life. It would be five years before it found me.
There were more than 15 of us and we formed a circle. I meditated while the shamans made music, sang icaro after icaro, burned sage and tobacco, and shared it all with us, purifying the space for everything coming after drinking the brown brew from the little cup. Holding the ayahuasca in my hand, I repeated my intentions to myself, loud enough for the shaman standing a foot away to hear in case I forgot everything and I needed her to remind me in the morning. “I want to know what true love feels like. I want to know why I’m not where I feel I should be in my life.” And with twisted lips and a scrunched face, I drank every drop, hoping to go as far away as I could on this journey. I climbed into the sleeping bag, meditated more, practiced breathwork, and waited, repeating my intentions, hoping the spirits listening brought answers.
New mothers stand by their baby’s crib, reaching out after every twitch, every move, every gurgle, every laugh. If we could remember those first moments in our lives, we’d love our mothers more. I felt it. I remembered it. In that sleeping bag, I felt so loved and protected by the mother spirit standing tall above me, reaching for me after every act. Then a door opened and my actual mother stood there on the threshold as clear as anything real I’d ever known, telling me to come to her.
When I reached, her arms wrapped around my entire being as I wandered through every grim moment I’ve ever endured, knowing nothing and no one but my mama would make me good again. Then came the voice with no body: “A mother’s hug is true love.” Then came the tears for what I now feel should have been obvious, and in that moment, I was the happiest I’d ever been in my entire life, hugging my mother, listening to this voice address my intention over and over with the same words, “a mother’s hug is true love.” I wept with unbending joy and simultaneous raging sadness. Sadness because I wondered how those without mothers could still feel true love. I wondered if the love my mother was giving me was enough for me to share with others. I wanted the world to feel true love. I still do.
My weeping was toilful, but stifled. I refused to let my cries go beyond the small space I built just above my mouth, close to the snapping fire, but far enough for the sand under my head to keep cool through the night. Even though I could clearly hear the others navigating through their journeys around me, I wouldn’t let them hear me if I could help it. Simply put, I didn’t want to disturb the others and a large part of me felt a shame I didn’t quite understand. The voice returned and said, “cry out. It’s okay.” I told it I wouldn’t and couldn’t. “Why,” it asked. In the absence of a large part of my ego, I answered honestly, “because I don’t want these people to hear me crying.” Immediately, it responded as if it were waiting for this conversation since I arrived, “and that’s why you aren’t where you want to be. You won’t let yourself be vulnerable in front of other people.” The world blurred and every voice, every snap, every whistling wind stopped. My mother was gone, the voice was gone, and it was just me, in a sleeping bag, knowing the voice was right.
“I want to know what true love feels like. I want to know why I’m not where I feel I should be in my life.” I repeated my intentions to myself under heavy breaths, feeling my face, wondering when it had time to dry, then wondering if I cried at all or if this was all a ploy by Mother Earth to reach the answers she knew I needed. Every great love up to that moment begged for the vulnerability I thought I was giving. Coming off that wave, in the sleeping bag, slightly exhausted, I suddenly knew I gave them very little of me. Some got nothing. Apologies.
October 2011 was the last time I spoke with my grandmother, Irene Elizabeth Jones. She was in hospice and after hearing she’d stopped eating, I went home to be with her and hold space for her and love on her as much as she’d loved on me for 29 years. She wasn’t responsive in the end, and on her last day, it was just me and her in the room. “I don’t know if you know I’m here,” I told her, “but if you can hear me and if you want to go, go. You’ve done amazing work here, and if you’re waiting for permission to go, this is it.” I played Coldplay’s “Fix You” from my phone, singing along when Chris reached “lights will guide you home.” The song ended and I told her I’d go so she could, too. It took me 20 minutes to reach my dad’s. I walked in, sat on the couch, and the phone rang. She was gone.
Now, here I was, thousands of miles away from that hospice room, in a sleeping bag, next to strangers, telling this medicine to “take me deep.” I turned my head to the right and I was looking at a reflection of me, except this me was an elderly white woman in a hospital bed, ready to go. I never found out who she was. I turned my head to the left, and rotating vertically were my grandmother’s friends and some family, all sitting in the same chair, staring me in the eyes. Imagine a slide show. Then there I was, sitting in the same chair as the others, in the same clothes as the day she died, staring back at myself. Looking with intention, I realized the chair I sat in was the chair in my grandmother’s hospice room, closest to her bedside, and the person in the chair was indeed me, but the person he was looking at was not. In the sleeping bag, I’d become my grandmother. “These are all the people who came to visit me,” she said. “And this is you, sitting there asking me if I knew you were there. I knew.” I don’t remember if there was more to the conversation, but I remember love in abundance. I remember her hair, and her hands. I will always remember my grandma’s hands.
Years later, I found a video of Maya Angelou sharing the story of her mother and doing for her what I did for my grandmother — liberating her with love. Sometimes people need permission to go. Love liberates.
“If you need water on your journey, say ‘tomo agua,” one shaman said earlier while running through the basics for us first timers. I desperately needed water, but I was too weak to speak and too blind to see if any shamans were close by. “Think it,” the voice said, and I did. I thought about water and all the life it gives and at that moment, a soft hand wedged itself between the back of my head and the sand and lifted me. With their other hand, the shaman poured water into my mouth. Any pieces of a wall I tried building around me was now in crumbles at my feet. With the Jupiter, Saturn, and a few beautiful souls as my witness, an unfathomable level of trust grew inside me. Those same hands lowered me to the ground and moments later, a shaman asked if anyone wanted more medicine. I found the strength to raise my hand and whisper to the voice, “take me deeper.” Then I drink it.
I watched my body lose fat and muscle and I watched my skin tighten and darken. “Am I dying,” I asked, but no voice answered. “Is this AIDS,” I asked.
When I was 12, all I knew of my cousin Maine was that he lived in Kentucky and he was dying. It was the early 90’s and many families were ignorant to HIV and AIDS and refused to be anywhere near the word, and certainly stayed far from those living with it. So when Maine wanted to come home to Charlottesville to die, there was obvious tension over where he’d go, who’d be there to hug him, listen to his stories, tell their own to him over instant coffee and all the foods he missed since leaving. My grandmother, his daddy’s sister, held space for him in her home, perhaps the smallest of them all, even when it meant the kids who normally took over the house wouldn’t be able to come because their parents were too afraid to allow it. My mother knew there was no risk, having already helped take care of one cousin who died from AIDS-related complications, and she knew how devastated I’d be if I couldn’t go to my grandma’s, so off I went on my bike.
I remember talking, but no specifics. I remember hugging and high fiving, and getting him ginger ale, and clearing his plate, and I remember smiling. I remember a sweater and how he crossed his legs. I don’t know exactly when he died, but it wasn’t long after. I don’t remember a funeral, or much talk of Maine after that. I remember those small moments that never seemed too significant.
And there I was, in that desert, watching my body transform into my dead cousin’s — a man I hadn’t thought about in nearly 20 years. I listening to him tell me, “Darnell, I never got the chance to thank you for being one of the only people I felt loved me in the end. Thank you.” Then he was gone, and I was me again, in my body, regretting ever looking at my cousin’s last moments and thinking so small of them. Those moments changed us both.
I grabbed the bucket next to me and I vomited. Sweet relief.
I’m not sure when I fell asleep, what the dreams were, who the elderly white woman I became was, or how long the others had been awake when my eyes finally opened in the morning, but I knew I was different once I stood, grabbed the bucket next to me, and tossed its contents into the still blazing fire. Every face around it was love. There were bowls of pozole, breads, veggies, and “mas agua.” There was just so much gratitude.
Once everyone was awake and the safe space was reaffirmed, we talked. The 9-year-old middle child who came with his two siblings and mother spoke about meeting the spirit he felt was always protecting him. Some spoke about the dissolution of their egos, a Peruvian woman spoke about a past life as an Indian man, and I shared the story of my mother while still processing what it all meant for me, knowing I’d share more in the car with Jésus on the way back to the city.
In the years since, I’ve become a death doula, holding space for many as I held space for Maine when I was 12. I’ve become a better partner to those I’ve loved and love, and a bridge for those on a journey to find their own versions of true love. I hug my mother when I see her and I am exactly where I want to be in life. I’ve had many journeys since with other medicines, but I haven’t gone back to this sacred vine. I am grateful for every moment I’ve ever had.
For Delancey “Maine” P. Jones, Jr.