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Spiritual Nausea

I’m not a very spiritual person.  Whenever spirituality looms I hastily crush it by solving for x.  I don’t understand cosmic energy, auras, psychic interactivity with the galaxy; I don’t understand sweeping connectivity with the universe; I don’t understand floating over mountains, transcending the world and beyond and melding with Ultimate Reality itself, where one is glued to the deeper fabric of the very fundamentals of the ether.  Neither have I seen a ghost.  No.  What I understand is that we breathe in oxygen; I understand electric fields, magnetism, gravity and aeroplanes; I understand drug-induced hallucinations, psychotic episodes, personal attraction, indifference and especially repulsion; I understand that life can be hard and that there are a lot of damaged folk around trying to make sense of it.

As I said, I don’t understand these things but as a concession to ontological alternatives I’m willing to give these possibilities a try now and again.  So it was, on the insistence of a friend, that I drove out into the Western Cape countryside on a retreat a few cold weekends ago to attend a shamanistic South-American healing plant ceremony.  In preparation I had cleansed myself for five days as stipulated by abstaining from meat, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, dairy products, sex and other personal pollutants.  A group of eighteen of us or so gradually gathered in a large farm house.  We were briefed by the organizers and the shaman.  He said that the experience we were to undergo would be more meaningful if we forewent our Ego and let the soul feel, if we went with the flow without resisting.

At around nightfall we assembled in a large room.  Thin mattresses were strewn along the walls.  There was a bucket next to each mattress into which we were encouraged to vomit if we so felt as it was a possible consequence of taking the medicine.  To vomit was good spiritual cleansing, we were told.  I had my misgivings.  We each took to a mattress with our sleeping bags and settled down for the ceremony.  The shaman sat at a small low table with his helper and told us that the ceremony would last for four hours.  We should relax our minds and ease into the experience.  I was scared witless.  The assistant brought around a pack of cards depicting mythological figures.  He held it face down before each of us and we each chose a card sight unseen.  The shaman then asked us to reveal the card we had drawn, to discuss the intentions we were bringing to Mother Healing Plant and what wisdom we were seeking from our impending experience.  Mine was basically curiosity, the cat-killing variety.  I listened up as the first person spoke.

My intention is to break the endless cycle of humiliation and shame that has plagued my life!” he petitioned.  What?  What was I hearing?  The shaman, unfazed, imparted words of comfort and acceptance and then moved on.  “My intention is to heal my male sexual energy, with which I struggle.  My feminine side is good, but I have problems with my male side”, announced supplicant No. 2, a strapping man.  What display of candour before strangers, delivered with utter insouciance!  It was more than one could stomach.  Aren’t such issues best worked through with a therapist in private?  My ‘curiosity’ seemed droopingly shallow now.

Onto the third.  “I am here… (pause, blank stare into space)… to find my Inner Truth!”, he declared.  ‘Curiosity’ was now laughable.  I had better come up with something deeper.  The next person, a well spoken woman, wanted to get into ultimate contact with errr… ultimately, actually errr… God, actually.  Through Mother Healing Plant.  And so we proceeded along the circle of intentions which fell into a broad dichotomy; either the very specific e.g. anger issues with Bobby, periodic self-loathing, Daddy-is-the-problem etc., or the very broad, under which resorted Inner Reality adventurers, Ultimate Truth chasers, Universal Knowledge seekers, Transcendental Pole-vaulters, what have you.

My turn.  I looked at my card.  Bacchus.  The card said he was the god of vegetation and entertainment but I know better.  Bacchus is the actually god of wine, I corrected out aloud for the benefit of all.  To have drawn Bacchus was extremely appropriate for someone who has two wine cellars and who had had to give then up for a week in preparation for the ceremony.  This couldn’t be mere chance.  Perhaps there was something to this cosmic-stuff after all.  Bacchus, the god of wine, landed in my hands, whose else?  Wine is what I should be taking, I knew it meant, but I couldn’t say it, I daren’t say it, alcohol being strictly verboten.  “My intention is to deepen my understanding”, I finally said, channeling myself into the generalist second camp of intentions, luckily for all.  Imagine if I were to churn up my inner psychological gunk before everyone?  They’d flee!  Focus then turned to my neighbour who had no fewer than four intentions.  The last person’s intention was to cut off parts of himself he despised, that soured his relationships with people and that he wanted to rid himself of forever.  Fine.

Onto the next stage.  The shaman stood up, performed some whistling purification ritual and we were then invited to partake of the holy healing drink.  We went up one by one to the shaman’s table and knelt down.  He poured a viscous brown liquid into a tumbler, blew smoke over it and then gave it ceremoniously to each of us in turn.  I put my lips to the glass and was overcome by a deep nausea, last excited when I had downed some slimy green seaweed broth in Japan years before.  It was the vilest-tasting thing; the revulsion pulses through me every time I think of it.  I downed it quickly, shook it off like a punch-drunk boxer and slouched groggily back to my sleeping bag.  When everyone had partaken the lights were extinguished and the ritual proper began.

The shaman started a relentless chant, determined and measured.  It was punctuated at various points by the shaking of leaves, pan-flutes and chimes.  The chanting imparted a lilting, hypnotic rhythm to the session that triggered trippers on their way.  It also served as an anchor for trippers to latch onto should they lose themselves.   The chanting was only interrupted by two purification rituals and two more servings of the brew.  Nausea, confusion, doubts, wondering, tossing, turning.  I saw nothing, heard nothing, felt terrible.  People made noises, shuffled, coughed, moaned and mostly dozed.  They worked through visions, anxieties, demons.  I was too awake, too removed, a voyeur of voyagers.  There was a continual procession of people to and from the bathroom, either to genuinely pee or for surcease from the pressure cooker crack den conditions.

I was lost.  At a stage I started seeing chardonnay.  We were called for the third serving.  I went up.  “How is it going”, I was asked.  “Tough”, I said.  Yet another portion of the vomitive got poured and delivered to me.  I only managed to down it by morphing images of cold chardonnay onto it.  I crawled back to my sleeping bag, nausea welling up inside.  Hades, Hypnos and Morpheus, help, I’m poisoned.  Chanting, nausea, chanting, the constant suppression of vomiting.  I waited for visions, signs, wisdom, portents.  Nothing.  Just  a sea of nausea, dolour, discomfiture, heat-and-cold, Spanish and Quechua incantations and emptiness.

My neighbour with the four intentions was having a torrid time.  At a stage she grabbed her bucket, slumped over it and retched.  Splash-splash-splash I heard, I saw.  Now, a confession.  I didn’t want her to place her vomit-filled bucket between our mattresses, so I slid my pillow between us, blocking space.  It worked.  She shakily placed the bucket between her and the smart woman on the other side, the one who had taken my bucket before the ceremony.  Al-e-e-e-e-e-x!  Your nasty, nasty Ego!  This is the bad ego the shaman had warned us about no, no, no!  In the gloom another votary vomited, then another.  Expurgatory bliss to them, emetic cacophony in E-flat to me.  Then it started, the giggles.  Humour assailed me.  I imagined the faces of Graham and Raoul as I described this to them and burst out laughing anew.  Never have I suppressed so much laughter in my life.  At times I had to bury my face in the pillow to stifle it, but out it came, in peals.  I was a laughing cavalier in a vomitorium, an embarrassment in the serious gloom.  The relentless chanting continued regardless.

All eventually ended with a symbolic song about darkness turning into day.  Even the universe ends.  We were congratulated on having endured, encouraged to recover for half an hour after which we had to assemble in the kitchen.

We arrived at the kitchen in various stages of composure.  We ate a vegetarian broth and then the shaman asked us to describe our experiences in turn.  A woman said:  “I saw my arms growing feathers, and then turning into the wings of an owl, and then I myself became an owl, but I was OK with that as I like owls, and I flew!  And with what wisdom!”  Hmm, everyone approved.  Hmm, I muttered.
The next:   “I was overcome with unconditional love for my parents who have abused and neglected me all my life.  I am now going out to forgive them!”  Ah! – everyone approved.  Ah, I muttered.
The third: “It was… (pause, blank stare)… am-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-zing.   It was so, so… such a deep, intense, multi-layered experience…”  cooed a woman reclined on a sofa, the sophisticate who had taken my bucket.  With such control, she was clearly a blasé habitué of séances.  If ever you’re at a loss to describe a vapid experience, note the vocabulary:  “Deep”, “intense” and “multi-layered” passes muster.

I can’t remember what I said when my turn came.  I spoke about Bacchus, the chardonnay firmly etched on my mind.  And then, then, the sophisticate accused me of laughing, clearly getting me back for diverting the vomit bucket her way.  This was her version of caring and being in communion with her fellow man.  I stood ashamed and had to hone my dodging and defense in an instant.  My laughter wasn’t a mocking laughter, I gainsaid, it was a communal laugher, laughter of lightness and ease.  I then spoke about having had images rather than visions and everyone said Ah and Hmm and then others spoke.

The session was wound up but a few stragglers remained behind to discuss varieties of psychic experiences worth having.  One guy told us that after ingesting magic mushrooms at a ceremony he flew around the solar system for six hours and couldn’t find his body until, in a process of gradual approximation the mechanics of which are little understood, he focused on the Earth, then fixated on Table Mountain, and then on the house and only then, curiously, could he find his body.  Sounded like hot stuff, definitely the next trip to try.

I left that gaggle mid-morning on Sunday to yet another ceremony.  Driving back, as I left the farm, I finally heard a voice.  It was Bacchus, calling all devotees.  So I diverted my car to the nearby Groote Post Vineyards and savoured a large glass of their Chardonnay Reserve 2010.  It was the most curative elixir.