The Vine of the Dead
I was twenty-three years old before I truly realized we are all going to die.
I lost a close friend. We called him Nobody because nobody is perfect. He was honest, kind, and never late. He respected women, flirted with adventure, and seldom complained. He was about to qualify as a doctor and would have spent his entire life helping others. Nobody is perfect, but Nobody was fucking close.
He drowned in a free diving accident.
In that same year, three other friends were diagnosed with cancer. One of my colleagues formed a lump on his neck – a Mormon who had never touched so much as a cup of coffee. A surfing buddy, exhausted after returning from holiday, diagnosed with leukaemia. And, a few months later, a childhood friend was diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Death is not a water-cooler conversation in your early twenties. Twenty-somethings find solace in time. Time forms the perfect refuge from things such as death. It creates a wall of apathy that is broken down, brick by brick, year by year. I truly believed I wouldn’t need to address death for many decades to come and became convinced of that entitlement.
Death didn’t give a shit about my entitlement. He busted down my door and forced me to stare into the vacuum of his inky veil. I was an atheist. I’d never stepped foot in church, nor bowed my head at temple. My parents waved their hands when I asked about religion. I’d never believed in going to ‘a better place’ and subscribed to death as an empty, final void.
Social normalcy around death relied on its quarantine at the back-burner of my mind, never to be toyed with unless someone dear passed on. Only then would I be granted social permission to dust off my instinctual questions and explore death in all its mandatory glory. I decided to seize that opportunity. Following Nobody’s funeral, I planned a three-month journey through Central and South America. If I were to understand death, I figured I should learn from those who embrace it the most – Latinos.
Nowhere is this acceptance of death more personified than the Amazon Rainforest. For over 4000 years, shaman tribesmen have brewed an entheogenic tea named ayahuasca – literally translating to “Vine of the Dead” in Quechua. The brew is made from the DMT-containing leaves of challypanga or chacruna and the MAOI-containing ayahuasca vine – banisteriopsis caapi.
The combination of these plants with water and fire results in a four to eight-hour visionary and purgative experience, said to simulate the experience of death, answer our deepest questions, and connect us with, what appears to be, a spiritual plane.
On the day of my first ceremony, I was led into the Ecuadorian Amazon by Don Juan, son and apprentice of Don Luis - the leader shaman of the tribe I would stay with for the following month. We harvested the vine and challypanga leaves, bringing our haul back to the ceremony hut at their village. Don Juan's mother showed me how to grind the vine using rocks. We placed the fibers in a cauldron with challypanga leaves and water to be boiled over fire for the following ten hours.
As I watched the sunset that night, I couldn’t help but feel as though it were my last. If it were to be my last, I was grateful it was one. A half-crescent moonrise as the sun slipped beneath the jungle canopy in a wash of indigo. Stars blinked from a darkening canvas and the world was soon swallowed in black.
My ego was loud as I prepared for ceremony. I felt it fluttering in my heart, the last remnants of fear dancing through its cockles. I consoled myself and told my ego that we needed this. I would meet him on the other side and perhaps his fears would be gone.
I opted for black jeans, no shirt. I took a blanket in case of cold. Small tokens of good fortune. Nobody’s memorial card. A necklace from my mother.
The most frightening part of any ayahuasca ceremony lies in the waiting. The killing of time as moments float by in an apprehensive lull. I sat alone in the ceremony hut in nervous silence. The nocturnal rainforest woke from its slumber. The air seemed thick. I tried to meditate between the occasional cigarette, removing myself from the hut to pace in the darkness and drag one puff after the other, staring into the forest.
After a lifetime of waiting, the footsteps of Don Luis and Don Juan pattered across the clearing. They carried a large plastic bottle, full to the brim with the unmistakable thick, brown brew, several half coconut shells for cups, and a bucket for the dreaded purge.
They wore no shirts, their chests strung with necklaces made of feathers and shells. Don Luis wore a woven headband with blue feathers pointing at the dark sky. Not much was said. They seemed in a trance of sorts; methodical and respectful in their approach. For generations, this ritual had been built upon and each movement told a story of ancient tradition. I felt honored to be part of it.
I took a seat on a mattress at the far end of the ceremony hut. Don Luis made a fire and sang into the plastic bottle as the flames crackled. He sang to Mother Ayahuasca, a female deity, said to visit those who drank the brew. She was supposed to be harsh but fair in her lessons. He called to her, blowing puffs of Amazonian tobacco into the bottle.
Don Luis became still and placed the bottle before him. The firelight flickered off the deep wrinkles in his face as he nodded at me. My stomach lurched as I stood and put one foot in front of the other towards him. I sat and he held my gaze, pressing his thumb into my forehead. He poured the thick, brown liquid into one of the coconut cups, blessed the cup, blew smoke into it, and raised it into my hands.
I stared into the brown liquid. There were networks of floating debris from the ground vines and leaves. The liquid itself was thick, boiled down, and concentrated considerably. I felt my stomach lurch as I took a deep breath and, in one swift movement, threw the tea into my mouth.
It was bitter — an intense smack of sharp, earthy bitterness. I was relieved when Don Luis passed a second coconut cup with guayusa and water to wash my mouth, gargle, and spit.
Don Luis blessed me once more, looked into my eyes and smiled.
‘Okay,’ he said.
There was a moment of calm as I returned to my mattress. A certain clarity in the realization that there was no turning back now. My fate was in their hands; the plants, the shamans, and the strange female deity they prayed to.
I lay on my back and listened. The cricket song rang in a constant murmur. There was a vibration to it, a deafening hum that reverberated through every pore of my being. An orchestra of millions, tuned to the same note.
Don Juan and Don Luis walked around the ceremony hut, blowing smoke in the air and speaking to things I couldn’t see. There was a seriousness to their approach, and I became nervous of what they were protecting me from.
Don Luis sang icaros over the rattle of leaves as a metronome. I drifted away from my apprehensions as his melody dipped and flowed with the buzz of the nocturnal rainforest. The vibration of the jungle grew louder. The cricket drone became so shrill, it felt as though it were convulsing between every cell in my body.
I stared at trees on the edge of the forest. Their limbs blew gently in the breeze and seemed to reach for me. I rubbed my eyes as their branches twisted into hieroglyphic patterns, ancient scriptures woven intricately in their leaves.
Don Luis sang louder as the jungle’s vibration grew. I lay on my back and closed my eyes, falling into a warm blackness. The dropping of my eyelids brought a warm sense of familiarity, and from this darkness came my first visions.
There were two horizontal lines, radiating in pink and blue. The lines appeared from the darkness like the luminescence of a deep-water fish. My brain continued to function on a normal, cognitive level, suspended in a dark inner space. There was peace.
The pink and blue lines took on the forms of snakes, twisting around each other, and dancing to the shaman’s song as if they had heard it before. The snakes seemed to be hosts of sorts, guardians of the medicine. I felt no fear, and they seemed accepting of my presence.
They coiled around each other into eternal blackness. Networks of bridges pushed from their flickering skin and latched onto each other. Together they took on the form of a colossal double helix. An infinite strand of DNA stretching forever above me.
I flinched as the spiral of DNA snapped back at lightning speed, colliding as one, static line before me. For a moment, the line was motionless, then subtle twitches of movement. Two antennae popped from one end, and two eyes sprung beneath. The line took on the form of a caterpillar, writhing through the dark space and flashing in rainbows of color.
The caterpillar suspended itself upside down, hanging in the empty space and beginning to weave a beautiful chrysalis around its rainbow body. I looked on, hypnotized by the intricacies it wove.
‘Do you recognize the caterpillar?’ A voice spoke through the space.
The voice startled me. It was crisp and clear, without echo or distortion.
I thought of the word 'no', and it boomed through the space in my voice.
The voice laughed, softly. ‘Why, the caterpillar is you, John.’
I was pulled toward the cocoon in a riptide of blackness. I reached the surface and stared down at the kaleidoscopic flow of energy in its fibers, trying to see the creature beneath. The patterns cleared, and I reeled back at what lay inside. There, lying in the technicolor cocoon, was me. My body, resting on the mattress in the ceremony hut of the Amazon, fingers interlocked over my stomach. The patterns washed over the cocoon’s surface, and I was pulled into them, as if caught in a river, surging through infinite tunnels of spiraling fractals.
There were no walls, no gravity, no time, and certainly nothing to hold onto. I careened through an electric world, free of my physical body, and strangely calm as I disappeared into the psychedelic abyss.
A floral gateway opened before me, and I soared through intricate tunnels of gold, where eyes blinked from the walls. Spat out the other side, I glided over the deserts of Egypt. I’d never been to Egypt, but in that space, its endlessness stretched beneath me in flawless detail. I soared over the sharp peaks of the Great Pyramids, the Nile river sparkling past the ancient ruins.
I came to a statue standing alone in the deep desert, with the head of a dog and body of a man. Upon returning home from the jungle, I researched this Egyptian symbol and found it to be Anubis – the Egyptian God of death. But I wasn’t to know this that night, as I circled the Egyptian reaper, taking in every carved crevice.
The large dog head turned to me, holding a hand forwards. His hand was closed in a fist, and I asked him with my thoughts to open his palm. On command, he released his fist, and I recognized the object inside immediately.
Anubis held an American one-dollar bill. The paper floated from his grasp, levitating above his palm. On the left side was the pyramid and Eye of Providence at its peak. The eye separated from the bill, hovering forward to me. The eye studied me. It looked wise, knowing, and seemed to look through me. With a blink, it returned to its place above the pyramid.
A strong wind rushed past my face as the desert began to tremble—the bill quivered above Anubis’ palm, and each letter of the word 'ONE' peeled from its center and floated to me.
‘It’s all One,’ the voice said. ‘Once you understand this, your lessons will begin.’
‘How can everything be One?’ I said. ‘I'm separate from this world, and the world's separate from me.’
‘What are you so afraid of?’ the voice said as I was shot through the center of the letter ‘O’.
The desert disappeared in a network of tree branches, vines, and leaves. I heard the shaman’s song, somewhere in the distance, and it embraced me, as if his words were sung for me alone.
‘Death,' I replied. 'I'm afraid of death.'
‘You know what’s worse than death?' the voice said. 'Fear of death.'
I hesitated. ‘Maybe it’s the idea of Hell that scares me. On the off chance it's real, an eternity of torture is not something I want to deal with.’
The voice laughed from beyond the trees. ‘Why would you be afraid of Hell when you’re so hard to convince of Heaven?’
‘Fear’s an easy motivator.’
The voice paused as the tunnels of leaves and vines deepened.
'Hell is not a fiery pit in the earth. Hell is the Earth itself when you choose to live in fear. Your Ego is capable of great fear. It wants more, lies more, loses its temper, cheats, and steals. But your true self speaks as the voice of guilt in the background. Over the coming weeks, you’re going to understand this. You're going to start listening to your voice of guilt and understand the difference between your higher self and lower self.’
I became aware of the rainforest again. The cricket drone and crackling fire. I opened my eyes and Don Luis was sitting before me, rattling a bundle of leaves over my head and chanting softly. Thousands of eyes blinked from his skin and watched me from his bare chest. I closed my own eyes to escape their judgment.
I saw the cocoon again, glowing in indigo and illuminating the space behind my eyelids. There was a bulging from beneath its fibers, and a neon wing pushed through. Another erupted from the other side, and a butterfly clawed its way from the cocoon’s snare.
It flapped its neon wings and soared high into the blackness, hovering in the air above me. Its wings formed into intricate networks of grooves, each transforming into distinct hemispheres of a human brain. The brain glowed and vibrated, pulsing with energy above me.
I felt warmth at the top of my head as Don Luis latched his lips around the crown of my skull. He heaved with all his might, retching loudly as he pulled dark tangles of energy from the brain. They passed into his mouth and he spat them from the ceremony hut, onto the forest floor.
I opened my eyes, and there was a sense of knowing in Don Luis' smile. I wondered if the rumors of shamans could be true – if he had followed me into my visions, watching quietly from the shadows.
Don Luis nodded, and I thanked him before stumbling outside to sit by the fire. The visions tapered off as I stared into the flames. The familiar weight of sleep beckoned my eyelids, and I walked across the clearing to my hut, climbing the ladder, and parting the bug net to my bed.
I scribbled my visions and lessons into my diary before tiredness overwhelmed me. It was a dreamless sleep, my mind opting for the sweet embrace of silence and blackness in recuperation of the myriad of colors and visions. There was simply a void— a dense blackness that cradled me until morning.