Summer 2002 (images are links)

Altered State

People began gathering for the ceremony around 8:00 pm. When Larry and I arrived close to a dozen people were already in the room. With unusual foresight, in case I got asthma, I had stopped at a Walgreens so that I could pick up a Primitene Mist. As I looked around the small ranch style house, I counted seven cats. I suspected that this was not going to be easy. I had no idea.

Larry and I looked for a place to rest our backs against the wall around the outside of the room. There was no furniture. In the center of the room were ceremonial objects and a large thick ceramic bowl filled with sand, leveled off at the brim. Later, this bowl would be filled with briquets and wooden embers from the fireplace that would be blazing along the Northern wall.

As I took a seat, I noticed a dog walking with great difficulty toward the door. I am not allergic to dogs, and often feel a deep attraction to them. This one was not in good health. Though she could stand, lifting her head was too difficult to attempt.

I’d been invited to a traditional American Indian ayahuasca ceremony. Our guide was a shaman from the old tradition, a visitor from South America. By midnight, with the ceremony about to begin, over twenty people had gathered. Over half were experienced in the altered state created by the herb. I was not. In fact, before this week I’d never heard of ayahuasca. And by the frequency of my sneezes I suspected it was clear to the other participants that this was a new experience for me.

Near midnight a fire was started in the fireplace, and shortly after the first embers were carried by the assistant Sundance Chief to the bowl with sand that sat before the shaman. The shaman began to sing, accompanied by a rattle. The assistant sprinkled some kind of dried leaves on the flaming briquets. Tobacco in the form of a traditional cone like cigar was introduced. Everyone went into meditation. I did not. My sinuses had made a transition to an intense drumlike throbbing pain.

Next to cats, I am most allergic to tobacco. And whatever they were sprinkling on the fire, this made cats and tobacco seem benign.

Then the ayahuasca was passed around for each participant to take a drink of. It tasted like a weak bloody mary mix. The singing was otherworldly. It went on for hours. As the sound filled the night, so did the smoke. By 2:00 am the ranch house room was filled with a thick soup of tobacco, burning herbs, wood smoke and a couple other traditional burning herb fragrances. I was in sinus hell. And my lungs were struggling. Unable to clearly see the Primitene Mist dispenser, I took it from my pocket to administer a dose. This devise was more familiar to me than any other object in my life. I do not exaggerate. I’d started using Primitene was I was 8. At some points in my life I’d commonly administer a dozen doses in 24 hours. Most of my childhood it was always in my pocket. I am 49 now. Though it had been 5 years since I’d last needed it, my asthma had so improved, I could put the unit together and use it with my eyes closed, which is just about what it was like in the dark smoke filled room. I pressed the applicator while inhaling. Nothing seemed to happen. I repeated. No noise, no mist, no distinctive flavor. It was clogged. I tried it two more time, inhaling while pressing.

The asthma lifted, but the dispenser was obviously clogged. I stood up, carefully tipped toed between the meditating bodies, and went into the bathroom. I held the Primitene mist up to the mirror and pressed, preparing to begin the unclogging process. A very fine mist came out, and I realized it was not clogged. They had changed the design of the dispenser and base solution. After over 40 years of using this device, they had made the mist more fine, and it was now flavorless. I had just given myself a quadrople dose.

I returned to my seat, sinuses throbbing, but lungs totally clear. Unable to think about anything different than my sinal distress, let alone meditate, I watched the other participants (every single one had eyes closed) and listened to the beautiful singing of the shaman. Then, I noticed my left testicle was throbbing. Beating along to the same beat as my sinuses, keeping time to the leader’s rattle. It seems I had jumped my metabolism into an adrenaline infused state overdosing on Primitene mist, with the side effect of an aching left testicle.

Needless to say, the ayahuasca herb that I had imbibed in the form of the liquid drink, was not having the desired effect. The goal, which the other members of the group were actively engaged in, was an experience of gratitude and honouring the earth for the opportunity to experience life. Hopefully the sounds that I was making; sneezing, wheezing and the occasional trip to the bathroom, was not distracting them from their experience. It was good that everyone’s eyes were closed. For hours I was busily engaged in massaging deeply my cheeks and face, wishing I could somehow get my fingers underneath my eyeballs to slip down inside my sinuses and massage the pain away. Yet, through all the physical distractions, I experienced a sensation of calm and a feeling of gratefulness.

The sun began to rise around 5:30 am and by 6:30 things were winding up. More smokes were made in the closing ceremony, as I grew to dread whenever the assistant rose, which meant more smoke and fragrances were about to be created. Finally, after traditional songs were contributed by other members of the group, the last prayer was intoned.

Larry and I went out and had breakfast at Baker’s Square, the first ones in the empty restaurant. I insisted to the hostess that we sit in no smoking.
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