Barn of Sorrow

A friend of mine just moved to Peru. He mailed me to tell me he was planning to participate in an ayahuasca-ceremony. Now and then I meet people who tell me about their ayahuasca trip, it hardly ever sounds inviting: aya makes you puke, forget who you are and has the tendency to change your life. Matters I had no need for. Preachers of the spirit molecule I had met were always inspiring, yet good to part ways with after twenty minutes or so. I had never considered ayahuasca and put it on a bucket list of sorts. But when my friend mailed me, I knew the time had come. I was tired of only kind of comprehending what my shrink had been trying to tell me for over a year. Too much I wanted to change. It was time for a heroic remedy.

For about a week I contemplated going to Peru, but then I found out the Netherlands is quite the hotspot for ayahuasca ceremonies. It seemed like a fine idea to take the trip of my life in some meditation space around the corner of my house. Anyone who has experienced the luxury of travel, knows how hard it can be to bring back home whatever you’ve picked up on the road. It’s just easy to forget. This thing could be so far out, a short walk home afterwards seemed wise.

Also I didn’t have the money to go to Peru.

I found what seemed like a well seasoned shaman online and spent a night writing her a very long and moved application.

When I woke up the next morning, she had already replied: I was lucky, her last ceremony was scheduled in 7 days, so I would have a week to prepare. That week I watched all the documentaries and lectures on ayahuasca I could find. I saw my psychiatrist as well, and told him about my plans. He had never heard of ayahuasca, which I found strange, because ayahuasca is increasingly becoming a hot cure in the treatment of depression, trauma and addiction. I tried to explain to him why I wanted to do it. He didn’t like the plan but in the end he kind liked my motivation.

A few friends called me to wish me luck. They liked the plan, but they were worried about my motivation. At the end of each call things got a little awkward, just like the times I had been about to embark on a long voyage: they weren’t worried if I was coming back, they were worried about what part of me wasn’t.

The night before the ceremony I decided to crash a friend’s couch, to make sure I’ll get some sleep. I always sleep better elsewhere. Sometimes, in my own bed, I sleep upside down with my pillows at the foot of the bed, until I get tired of it. There were all these things I was not supposed to eat because of the ayahuasca, like pork, cheese and dairy. This is, however, the core of my everyday diet, so I had hardly eaten for days. I bought a bag of strange mixed seeds and dried superberries, but it got me diarrhoea. Just before I pass out on the couch I devour half of an amazing apple pie.

THE Day of the ceremony

9 AM Three stools already. I drop by my house to pet my cat goodbye. She’s in the socks drawer, where I keep my passport too. For a moment I consider bringing it.

11 AM The meditation space really is practically around the corner of my house, alongside a canal. I sit down on a bench between two houseboats for a cigarette. I made sure I had enough time for a second, but I’m too nauseous.

12 AM   I recognise the entrance by the man guarding it, his last hairs tied up in a pigtail, chewing on a stub of shag. He seems nice.

‘Is this meditation space Citipati?’
‘Yes. You must be here for Loes’.
‘My name is Lex. I’ll be assisting her today. Is this your first time?’

We smoke together, I devour my Luckies as he nips on his stub. He says:

‘You won’t regret it’.

As we enter meditation space Citipati he pats my back.

I know this place! It used to be something different, a friend threw a party here. I had shown my windmill for the first time, but the girls didn’t see it because it was uncool inside, they stayed by the canal and summoned older boys with mopeds and weed.

I count fourteen yogamats with pillows and blankets along the walls of a square room. Half of the yoga mats are taken. Next to the mats are tiny white buckets, the puke buckets. The altar, a multicolour cloth in the centre of the room, is just like in the documentaries: kitschy candles of holymen, dried snakeskin, a box containing tobacco, a big drum, some things I don’t get and plastic bottles containing juices in different shades of black. A big painting stars at the head of the altar, put against a column in the middle of the room. I decide not to look at it and pick a yogamat behind the painting, behind the column. Then I go to Loes to introduce myself. She finds my name on a list and hands me a form to sign. The form states I’m not on certain types of meds and that I’m fully aware that I’m taking this trip at my own risk. I sign the paper. It feels like I’ve just successfully subscribed to tap dancing classes.

As I return to my yogamat, I catch a glimpse of my fellow travellers: a man in a white robe, a few older women with matching short hairdos. A nervous couple, she is curious, he is wearing a suit. A tall white skinny yogaman, in deep meditation. His posture is quite impressive. Two Swedish dudes. Next to them a girl who is my type. Next to my yogamat a woman, I’m not sure if she’s my type. We all exchange glances and nod. The shaman asks:

‘Who’s here for the first time?’

Half of us raise our hands in relief. She counts, looks at the black bottles and appears to do a small calculation in the back of her head.

‘Do you have any questions?’

We have no questions. Loes is fifty-something, but she appears suspiciously youthful. There are so many types of shamanism, I know so little of it. I was raised very Dutch: there was no spirituality on my silver spoon. Yet I chose Loes because on her website, she goes on and on about demons and complains about shamans who cover everything with a blankie of love, ignoring ‘entities’’ on people, so when they come to her she has to deal with all the entities those lazy shamans neglected. See I liked that. She sounded like a public servant. Invested in her work to say the least.

More reasonable people than me failed to comprehend why I decided to put so much faith in someone who believes in archangels and all. But I believe in her experience. Her angels are Christian ones, at least I know some of those, instead of bewildering Peruvian plant-spirits.

After having explained the basics of the itinerary, Loes starts singing in Portuguese in a very Dutch accent. The helper, Lex, walks around and burns sage around us. Then he hands me a piece of tobacco. I’m supposed to tell the tobacco what I want from the ayahuasca. It’s a woolly little cloud in my hand, I pet it. There will be amazing crazy hallucinations later on, I get that. It’s this ego-dissection thing I fear, to completely forget who I am. But then again: I am tired of who I am most of the time, anything beats that. Plus: I’m totally unsure of who I am anyway. So that. Smaller than I have ever been, I fold my hands in a box for the tobacco and whisper truthfully, :

‘I’m just tired of being so fucking scared all the time’.

Lex the helper collects the tobacco and puts it all together in a box. Ayahuasca is consumed in two parts: first a drink that keeps the enzymes from breaking down the DMT that’s in the second drink. The first drink tastes like coffee gone sour with maybe some animal breeding in it. We wait for fifteen minutes. I stare at the candle and know I can’t go back. It’s a nice twilight place to be. The second drink, the actual Ayahuasca, is quite undrinkable, about half as bad as Crodino.

I wrap my head in now that I still know how. The head wrap was in the box that my cat was supposed to give birth in, but she kept bleeding and the kittens died in her belly. Her womb had to be removed. I smell her, Nina, and breathe into it, it smells of sick old blood. Two tiny red lights are lit, like sea-urchin eyes. No, they belong together. Something’s breathing. The eyes pull away. It’s getting smokey behind my eyes. I lay down and think about exactly all the things I had planned not to think about. The thoughts turn into shapes, the shapes dissolve into layers, flat two-dimensional layers overlapping in a meaningless manner, it’s clutter, images lost and thin like rice paper. The layers bore me.

But then, all of a sudden, it’s quite fantastic again and super confusing. I need to get rid of it. I sit up and purge. I’m not here to hallucinate, I’m in a room filled with people purging. Mass purging. I remember now, this is where I heard ‘My Adidas’ for the first time.

Barn of Sorrow

Now this is a barn of sorrow. I join and gag, purge a little. The woman next to me purges and cries. The big helper comes over to hug her.

It’s beautiful: people grow and wander, collect their pain and crawl up together in a barn to purge it out and collect the vomit. I look at the candle in front of me again and decide to return now and to greet her. I visit all the places of pilgrimage I have been to, but I get to see them anew: not as a pilgrim, but as the place itself. The pilgrims crawl through me. I feel their hopes and breaths. I can do this. I’m amazing. I say:

‘I can see again’.


‘In the now, at last.’

And then this now smears itself out.

Then it’s time to think of death, but that too seems to lack any substance. I realise I always thought people dying around me had left shadows on me. As if death had infected me and I had come to terms with that, I found comfort there. Whenever I got tired of the pointless clutter in my mind I would look for silence in thoughts of a nice bit of musky soil to dwell or the steel on my cheek of the tram I had missed while taking an exit on my bicycle.

I see a fat and bloated body. It’s beating and bleeding and sweats oils. It’s life and the beak and tail are death, at most it encloses. No point in dwelling on the matter. While all along there was always love. Never malevolence. Maybe I was hit by some splinters of battles that weren’t mine, it wasn’t about me.

I forgive my self-pity.

The shaman comes over to me and asks me something. I try to reply. She puts a hand on my shoulder:

‘Dear, I’m asking you a very simple question. Is the ayahuasca working? Do you see colours?’

I think I can do more and I say something. While I drink again, I do some confusing attempts to communicate with the shaman, but she doesn’t seem to hear it. The shaman expels entities with her tobacco pipe. She says:

‘There’s a woman here. One day she was running in the park, and then she got raped’.

It’s the woman next to me, I’m sure. As I crawl back into my headwrap, a boy across me starts kicking and screaming in Spanish. He starts hitting the tall skinny yogaman next to him, who turns around, and snarls without removing his eye mask:

‘That’s not good enough! It’s just not good enough!

He then continues his journey. The boy, however, grows wild. The big helper tries to hug him, takes a punch, then drags him to an adjoining room. The shaman follows them. She sings, hisses and spits, when she hisses it is everywhere. Her hisses shape the tobacco smoke into lovely things with wings. As a group, we’re on our own all of a sudden. A few of us gaze around. An older lady glides over to the laptop and changes the music. Quietly I enjoy a rice cracker, not sure if we’re supposed to eat yet. My ego is tiny and rebellious and I love it. I slip outside for a cigarette. The smoke is thick and woolly, the cigarette lasts a century. Next to me is the big bucket containing all the puke collected by the big helper.

When I return, one of the Swedish boys is crying on his friend’s lap. The girl next to them and I watch them. She turns to me and shakes her head, I join her. My heart hurts a little. We’re shaking our heads because it’s all just so goddamn beautiful. The shaman is still hissing. At the end of every hiss she mutters: ‘god zij genade’ (lord have mercy). But spiritualism is no friend of the Dutch language, it’s alien to us, the speech does not endure it.

Loes puts on a new playlist. Every playlist is a phase, from the chakra-phase we move into the didgeridoo-phase. I close my eyes, but I keep seeing. All of a sudden the shaman is in front of me. But it’s not personal, I am not her business. She blows smoke at my heart and says some stuff. She squats in front of me and whispers about there being an entity on my heart, but that she was unable to remove all of it. It was nothing to worry about, the entity was weak.

I look at the girl next to the Swedes. She is covering her eyes with her hands and is still shaking her head.

The last few songs are hymns, Celtic new age of some kind. But all cliché’s are welcome now, we’re coming home. The Spanish boy is asleep and he’s fine now, Loes comforts us. The last songs, Lex and Loes are dancing. The woman next to me gets up and joins them.

7 PM Outside I call my friends to tell them I’ve landed, all the way home I stay on the phone. When I get home I sit on the couch with my cat who seems to have some difficulty recognising me. I hear her purring even when she’s too far away. As I hear myself on the phone, I realise I sound like an idiot who has seen the light and all. Old thoughts cross my mind:

You see. You just did this so you can say you did it. To write about it.

I smile and walk away.

3 MONTHS later

My friends who meditate a lot are jealous, they say I took a shortcut and feel a little wronged. Also my psychiatrist and I concluded I don’t need therapy anymore.