Ayahuasca and the shadow of slavery

The Amazon sacred medicine made me think about what ‘facing your shadow’ really means.

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This is an excerpt from my new Amazon Kindle Single — Holiday From the Self: An Accidental Ayahyasca Adventure. It’s about my experience taking part in a nine-day ayahuasca retreat in October 2017, and the strange two weeks that followed the retreat. You can get the Kindle Single here. It will be available as a paperback next week.

Throughout all the ceremonies, I felt like I got ‘lessons’. This is quite a common experience with ayahuasca, apparently: Amazon Indians talk of the plant showing them things. ‘It’s TV for the jungle’, one ayahuasquero has said, but not trash TV, more like the Open University. I felt these clear messages form in my mind, and I would nod and remember them, and write them down in my journal after the ceremony. They still feel vivid and useful, 18 months on.

This is the extraordinary thing about the technology of ayahuasca. Imagine an intelligent virtual reality machine, which manages to penetrate deep into your subconscious and detect your most toxic beliefs and painful memories — not over years of therapy, but instantly. Imagine it somehow intuits what you need to learn in order to grow, then conjures the idea or experience in front of you with all the skill of a genius theatre director. It helps you confront it, feel it intensely, learn from it and then purge it.

Imagine the intelligent machine somehow responds in real-time to your mind, so that a terrifying monster instantly transforms into an ally if you can bring to mind the appropriate intention. Imagine, all around you, members of your group are plugged into the same intelligent machine, and sometimes your virtual realities overlap, so you appear in each other’s visions, help each other and purge for each other. The intelligent machine gives you a glimpse of a reality beyond the individual self, beyond the body, even beyond death. Now imagine that this incredible technology grows wild, can be picked for free, and connects you to the awesome intelligence of nature.

It’s a magic theatre of pain and purgation, in which you are both the subject matter and the audience. Who is the director? What is this awesome intelligence you encounter? That’s a difficult question, one we face all our life: who are ‘you’, really?’ The psychiatrist RD Laing wrote:

Ask yourself who and what it is that dreams our dreams? Our unconscious minds? The Dreamer who dreams our dreams knows far more than we know of it. It is only from a remarkable position of alienation that the source of life, the Fountain of Life, is experienced as the It. The mind of which we are unaware is aware of us. It is we who are out of our minds.

The first lesson I got, when I was confronted with a dizzying and almost nauseating panorama of infinite gods rising and falling away, was: you think you can capture this in words? It was a dig, I think, at my attempt to analyse ecstasy in The Art of Losing Control. I laughed and said ‘no, OK, got it’. But then, the second lesson I got was: this is you. You are this power. This Infinite Creative Mind is you. One of the maestras, Laura, sat in front of me and sang a beautiful, loving icaro. As Laura sang to me, the message I got was: You’re a man of power. Don’t be afraid of your power. Don’t hunch your shoulders and try to hide. Be proud. Sit up straight with your shoulders back. Don’t hide your light. The medicine was being very nice to me, giving me a pep talk, like a coach. That was reassuring, particularly as this was the first time I had tripped since a bad trip 20 years before.

While I was still feeling great about being a man of power, Gennaro, the elderly maestro, came and sat in front of me, and sang his icaro. It was slow and sad, like Mississippi blues. I started feeling my ankle and shin. Suddenly, I had a vision of African slaves chained up round their ankles while being shipped across the Atlantic. I could vividly see their misery, the humiliation of their condition. And then I had a strong sense that I had owned slaves in a previous life. I was a Quaker, John Marple, who had lived around 1865, and owned slaves. Marple loathed himself for his hypocrisy, and that (I felt) was where my cynicism comes from today. I had a deep sense of the evil done by the British Empire, in glorifying the Anglo-Saxon race at the cost of other races’ dignity and freedom, and how London — my home — was the heart of darkness, sucking in money from global exploitation — including from the Amazon. We were the barbarians, not the ‘savages’ we enslaved in the name of civilization. I felt that my heart was in chains, in this life, partly as a karmic consequence of my sins in that previous life.

It was a new and unsettling thought — my emotional problems in this life stem from karmic crimes in previous lives. How could I repay that debt? The medicine suggested I research my history, the history of the UK, and make British people more aware of it, rather than overlooking it, as we still overlooked the Bengal Famine. Earlier that year, I’d visited India for the first time and learned about the Raj’s racism and the three million Indians who’d died in the Bengal Famine in 1943. The medicine often said to me, look at this, don’t look away, you can take it. I thought how empires often try to overlook or hide the suffering they have inflicted on others while glorifying their own race.

I began to see how ‘facing one’s shadow’ has a political, historical and ancestral component. What has your civilization overlooked, hidden away, refused to face? I saw the ugliness and smallness of racist nationalist politics. I literally saw it as a tiny rally amid the cosmic infinity, a pathetic attempt to make yourself feel bigger by putting other nations and races down.

By the by…there was one black guy on the retreat, an African-American from Texas, called Matt. We bonded on the retreat, in a somewhat abrasive way — teasing each other and arguing. We also had similar visions — he had a vision where he was on a slave ship, feeling powerless and humiliated . In the last sharing circle he said: ‘I might as well mention the elephant in the room. I’m the only black person here. And I felt pretty bad about race relations in the US when I arrived. But I feel a bit more hopeful now. And I want to say I particularly enjoyed hanging out with this guy’ — and he pointed at me. It was so unlikely, our connection, that I wondered if I had imagined this comment in the months afterwards, as a sort of white fantasy! But I checked and I didn’t.

When I came back I obviously Googled to see if there was a Quaker called John Marple who owned slaves in 1865. There was a guy called John Marple who owned slaves in Kentucky in 1850. It also turned out that Marple is actually a Quaker surname — the town of Marple was established in the US by a group of English Quakers, from Marple in Manchester, in the 17th century. I also discovered that my Quaker ancestors — the Rowntrees, pioneers of ethical capitalism — bought cocoa from slave plantations as late as 1900 (as did the Cadburys), albeit unknowingly, until this was exposed in the press.

I don’t quite know what to make of the John Marple thing…this was just one moment of one ceremony, but it gave me a good reminder of the rising racism of our times, and how it might connect to our ancestral past and our personal, family and tribal karma. There’s deep roots to the stuff that happens to us, which we’re usually not aware of at all.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open www.philosophyforlife.org

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