Along with bucket, blanket, red-light flashlight, and something white to leave on your mat so you can find it when you’re coming back from the bathroom in the dark:
Intention: This serves as focal point and compass needle for your session. It can be specific and complex (“Help me release my anger at my ex-wife; show me what right relationship might look like; how can we handle the kids’ schedule?”) or as simple as “Show me what I most need to see right now in my life.” In tough times, it can even be a faintly whispered “Help!” But usually it’s worthwhile to spend some time beforehand discerning what’s propelling you into ceremony, and framing it in a few phrases. Working with an intention is not a matter of hyperfocused ‘meditation.’ Nor is it repeating it to yourself over and over like a mantra. You simply set it clearly, then refer to it occasionally over the course of ceremony, tracking whatever downloads you receive, even if they seem off-topic.
Humility: This is essential. Every time I’ve shown up with anything approaching arrogance or ambition, which for me can take the form of “Show me this, this, this and this—let’s clear it all out tonight,” I get my ass handed to me on a platter. Aiming to release decades of patterning, not to mention multiple lifetimes of karma, in a single night can bring me to my knees, quite literally, overwhelmed by the massive amount of material to purge. Humility means acknowledging my own limits and capacity.
The willingness to accept whatever arises is another essential, ‘cuz you never know what’s going to come. A particular ceremony might be ineffably subtle with apparently nothing going on, or furiously overwhelming, visions cascading from the midbrain like sliced bread popping up from a toaster. Olympic-style purging or blissful serene lovefest, take it as it comes, with gratitude and acceptance. I am willing … I am willing … I am willing is a good mantra to fall back on.
Openness: Trust is a mutual process that takes time, and it’s impossible to completely trust something you don’t yet fully know. But you can show up with a simple openness to the possibility that there’s something here, whether it be plant spirits, icaros, the work of the healers. Be open to the possibility of an invisible inhabited world; that there’s more happening here than a chemical reaction in your brain/body.
Groundedness: You may well be leaving your body at some point during the ceremony. Sooner or later, though, you’ll be coming back. Awareness of the breath can help you navigate when things get tough. Just one breath … then the next … then the next. Tuning into the felt sense of your seat on the mat, your hands on your thighs, the weight of your body connecting to the earth is another way to ground. Or the best steering wheel of all—sensing the open warmth of your heart in your chest, resting in your innate goodness.
(Bonus item to bring: compassion for others—the girl howling, the guy crying, all those brave souls puking into their buckets in the darkness. And bring some compassion for yourself too, plus a little awe for the courage you all have in showing up.)
What to Leave Behind
A short list of things to leave at home:
Expectation: Insofar as possible, show up free of comparisons, desires, and wish lists. I want to feel what that girl said on YouTube …. I want to become a jaguar … I want to meet Ayahuasca/see God/understand my life mission right now. This includes fixating on your intention to the exclusion of anything else happening. Ayahuasca could be unlocking the secrets of the universe, but if you’re fretting over Why isn’t it answering my question about my job? you won’t be able to receive them.
Fixation: The idea that you need to focus or concentrate on a fixed point of attention—for example, the breath—in ceremony is a misuse of meditation, not to mention ayahuasca. Don’t set yourself up with the idea of remaining in a passive, vacant, thought-free state throughout the course of a ceremony. A meditative perspective is immensely valuable in this work, but this means a relaxed mind that’s open to whatever arises, and alert/curious enough to work with what comes up—not shut it down by prematurely returning to the breath.
Judgment: Leave behind the evaluative mindset that judges, anywhere along the spectrum from Am I doing it right? to Is it happening?” to “He’s such an asshole” (said of the guy who just dropped his full bucket). Release the tendency to compare with others’ experience or judge your own as not enough, as too much— whatever. It’s not in your hands: this is one of the big lessons of ceremony.
Any shred of lookin’ for a cool experience, a good time, a story to tell your friends. Ayahuasca is a lot of things, but a recreational experience is not one of them. To have this as your primary motivation is a mis-use just asking for a strong corrective experience.
What it all comes down to: In ceremony we’re all radio receivers being tuned to new frequencies. Torrents of information come pouring in—from the stars, from our past selves, from our future ones; it doesn’t really matter. What matters is showing up in the best possible way: Open. Grounded. Centered. Aware. Humble. Let the medicine do its work during ceremony. Then, guided by the information you’ve received, keep doing your personal work—your integrative work.