In November when I did four days of ayahuasca ceremonies in Costa Rica, the first night was really rough. About an hour after drinking the tea, I started feeling very strange, and this feeling continued to intensify. My body began to feel really heavy, and after a while I felt like I was mostly paralyzed and could hardly move. I couldn’t sit or stand up. All I could do was lie down.
It was reasonably cool in the room, but I was sweating profusely. Soon I started feeling like it was hard to breathe… like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I began to feel concerned. This was my first ever experience of this nature, and I hadn’t heard of anyone having breathing issues, so I didn’t feel prepared for that. I had the sensation like something was pushing down on my chest. So I started pushing myself to breathe harder and faster, which made me sweat even more.
The shaman’s helpers came over to check on me, probably because they could hear me struggling, encouraging me to try to relax and slow my breathing. But it was like listening to them through a fog. Mentally I was telling myself that I’d be okay, but my physical sensations were very confusing and unpleasant.
Meanwhile my mind was flooding with vivid, brilliantly colored fractal imagery at the same time I was trying to get my breathing under control. The feeling of discomfort kept increasing. I started wondering if I was going to pass out from not being able to breathe. What if no one realized what had happened in time? What if I died right there?
The worst was feeling so physically paralyzed, not 100% but maybe 90%, while trying harder and harder to get more air in. I was breathing really loudly and forcibly, almost like a woman in labor, yet I still felt like I wasn’t getting enough air.
But then when I felt really uncomfortable, disturbed, and concerned, I reminded myself to seek out my primary source of grounding, which is my relationship with reality. Despite the labored breathing and the psychedelic imagery, I found immediate comfort in remembering that relationship. And I reminded myself of the importance of trust in reality.
I didn’t know if I’d be physically okay. I hoped so, but it didn’t feel like things were okay in that moment. So I decided to trust on a different level that the experience was spiritually okay. In my mind I just began repeating: I trust you. I trust you. I trust you. I did my best to let go and surrender to my commitment to always trust reality. This included trusting that if it was my time to die, then it was my time to die, and fighting that wasn’t going to help.
This effort to lean towards trust started making me cry, not from desperation though. It was a feeling like I was linking up and opening a communication channel to some aspect of life that runs deeper than what I normally experience on a day to day basis. It felt like the tears were just my body’s reaction to what felt like an energetic response from reality. In some ways it felt like I was really just remembering that this channel is always there. It’s a similar channel to what I often experience while writing, but the frequency range was a bit different.
Never in my life have I had to lean so far in the direction of trust before. Intellectually I can trust reality because I’ve reasoned out that it makes sense to do so. But it was something else entirely to lean into trusting reality when I wasn’t sure which way my body was going to go in the next hour. I didn’t have much control over my body in that situation, and even the contents of my mind were a bit out of control too, but I still had the ability to acknowledge this relationship with reality and to commit to trusting it no matter what happened.
Somehow when I leaned into trust, my body began to follow. My breathing started to ease up. My heart rate came down. It was still uncomfortable, but I began to relax into internal rhythms that felt safer to me. Soon I could tell that I was out of the woods and would be okay physically.
Afterwards I still had several hours of deep imagery and intense emotional processing to go through, including a storm of tears, but that was the easy part relative to the physical sensations. I still spent hours feeling semi-paralyzed and super dizzy like the room was spinning, so I needed help just to walk to the bathroom at one point.
And then I went through three more ceremonies in the next three nights. As you might guess, it took a lot of trust to drink the tea again after knowing what happened the first night. But I also felt that since I’d gone through it once and learned that trusting reality helped a lot, I was perhaps better prepared if I had to go through something similar again.
It turned out that each night was a different experience. I only had the labored breathing, profuse sweating, and semi-paralysis on the first night. The other nights were so different, with some of the worse nausea and dry heaving I’ve ever experienced, including retching over a bucket for more than an hour – quite the ab workout.
Overall that week was a physically difficult experience but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually beautiful. I may even go back again this November, but we’ll have to see if that’s possible.
For some time after that experience, I’ve been wondering about that night where I felt like I could barely breathe. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I understand the purging aspect, which most people experienced during that week, some more than others. But I didn’t hear of anyone else struggling to breathe like I did, at least not among our group of about 40 people. And why did I have to endure that only on the first night? I saw so much evidence of rich meaning in other parts of the experience, but this part stood out to me as a piece that didn’t seem to fit.
At the time I decided to just trust that reality was giving me that experience for a reason, but I didn’t know why. It did help me appreciate life afterwards, and it also shifted my relationship with death. It reminded me that if death is approaching, it’s best to relax and do my best to trust reality rather than tensing up all over.
What I didn’t know or expect about ayahuasca is that it seems to leave a permanent trace effect behind. I feel like it opened up some kind of communication channel that has never fully switched off or closed since November. Most of the time it’s muted, but it’s still present, and I can tune into some threads of information or energy currents that remain accessible.
As the virus situation has been escalating this month, I’ve been feeling this channel open up more, as if the ayahuasca energy signature is tapping me on the shoulder and trying to get my attention. I also keep hearing music looping in my mind that I heard during the ceremonies.
When I learn about people being on ventilators and struggling to breathe, this channel opens up more clearly, and it reconnects me back to the vivid memories of when I felt that I could barely breathe. I even feel some of the sensations in my body, like I’m acting it out again. Sometimes it becomes so uncomfortable that I have to pull my attention away for a while and allow my body to relax.
Meanwhile the reason why this is happening comes through clearly as well – empathy.
Whenever I think about the people who are struggling to breathe – and the many more who will soon be joining them – I can’t help but feel some of those physical sensations myself. I’m reminded of how terrifying that can be, and all sorts of emotions come up. And I have to keep surrendering to those feelings and reminding myself to relax into trust again.
Even though a virus isn’t a plant, this open ayahuasca channel is somehow showing me that plant intelligence and viral intelligence are connected. Maybe they’re linked via the energy patterns or intelligence of nature. I can’t really explain it. I just sense that this viral situation isn’t some random or chaotic event but rather that there is an intelligence behind it, and it’s part of the same intelligence that I danced with during the ayahuasca ceremonies.
These realizations have been guiding my behavior in recent days. On the one hand, I’m strongly motivated to encourage people to practice good social distancing, and I want us to move towards stronger measures faster and sooner, partly because I don’t want anyone to have to go through the experience of feeling like they can’t breathe. Knowing that more and more people will soon be gasping for breath brings up a flood of emotion, especially this feeling of connection to the fear and stress they’ll experience as they go through it. Putting my attention on this creates strong sympathetic sensations in my body.
And yet there’s this other aspect of trust as well, which has multiple layers to it. One part tells me that if people have to go through this experience, then it’s best for them to lean into trusting reality as much as possible, even going so far as to trust that it may be time to die. Mentally and emotionally resisting and tensing doesn’t seem like it would help, but letting go and allowing the body to respond with its own intelligence just might help.
Another layer, which might sound odd to many people, includes trusting the virus itself. This doesn’t mean trusting that it won’t infect me and running around risking people’s lives.
By trusting the virus, I mean trusting that it’s part of nature and part of reality, and so if I lean into trusting reality, that includes trusting the purpose of whatever this virus is doing. I can’t say exactly why, but I do sense that this virus has a purpose, both for us as individuals and for the world.
So while one part of me empathizes with seeing it as a threat and wanting to prevent harm, another part of me trusts that it’s not really here to vanquish us. When I look at it this way, even death doesn’t look like a form of harm per se, just a type of transition.
Because of this perspective, I feel that if I got infected, one part of me might want to frame the virus as an invader that I have to defeat in order to survive. But another part of me somehow knows that this level of perception isn’t accurate and that it would only fuel more tension and make the experience worse. It makes me consider that perhaps I should welcome the virus as a form of intelligence, to let it do its dance with my body and trust my body to respond appropriately. Maybe its purpose is to teach me something or to give me an experience that might actually be a precious gift.
So presently I don’t feel aligned with the “war on virus” frame that I’ve been hearing lately. To me that sounds about as ludicrous as declaring a war on kale. I don’t think the virus is declaring war on us. I sense no hostility or belligerence in its intention.
I do think the virus has a positive purpose to serve, and I don’t think that going to war with it acknowledges that purpose. I’m not 100% sure what its purpose is, but I’m pretty sure that it isn’t here to make everyone stock up on toilet paper.
I sense that this new virus is here to teach us something. I see its presence in the world as an invitation – a complex invitation with many layers to it, both individually and collectively. I know that I’m not the only one who’s considering this perspective right now.
Whenever I write a new blog post, I pick a frame and write from within that frame. This virus situation has many layers to it, which makes this an especially big challenge because no single frame can address the entirety of the situation. One day I may write from a frame that encourages social distancing, which may be a rational course of action within that frame. Another day I may write from a frame that suggests the rationality of acceptance and surrender. Some people may see these as being in conflict. I don’t. They’re just different lenses for viewing the same reality, and when we consider multiple lenses, we discover deeper levels of rationality that make sense across multiple frames.
Recognizing the value of surrender doesn’t make me want to abandon social distancing, for instance. I can and do practice both. I can do what I can to reduce suffering, even while feeling intense sympathetic emotion. And I can simultaneously accept and align with where this story wants to go without feeling like I’m fighting reality. What binds these together is trust. When we trust, life plays us like instruments.
I think a common objection to trusting reality is that it will make you passive, complacent, or foolish. I think that’s an irrational objection though.
If you consider this virus situation as an invitation for you, what kind of invitation do you think it is?