It was one of those intense, pivotal moments in life where you think to yourself, “What the hell am I doing? How did I get here?” There I was, sitting cross-legged in a traditional Shipibo ceremony house, called a maloca, in an isolated part of the Peruvian Amazon, minutes away from partaking in my first ayahuasca ceremony.
Psychedelics were no stranger to me, as I already had several LSD and psilocybin trips under my belt, but I found little peace from those previous dives into the unknown. I had done my research, read countless stories and articles about ayahuasca, the mysterious jungle brew, yet I was still quite terrified of the unknown that lay ahead.
Jose and Horatio were two Shipibo men from long lineages of shamans, or curanderos, who had a combined fifty years of experience working with the jungle medicine. Despite their small frames and Horatio’s advanced age, I could tell that these men were beings of a different caliber. They emanated an aura of gentle kindness and a wisdom that spoke far beyond their years. The shamans dutifully began the rituals of establishing a protective aura around our ceremony space, and blessed the dark bottle of ayahuasca which they had brought with them. Then, one by one, we were invited to come up to the table and partake.
It was my turn. I walked up nervously to the table, Jose beaming at me. He put an assuring hand on my shoulder and offered me a small ceramic cup. I quickly peered at the dark contents before the cup met my lips. I tilted back my head and was surprised at the robust complexity of the brew’s taste, a uniquely acrid blend of bitter, savory, spicy and sweet.
That was it. There was no going back now.
After we had all partaken, the candles were extinguished, leaving us in utter darkness. My heart was racing as I laid on my mat, and I could slowly feel energy surging through my body. I focused on holding my intention (“show me the true nature of the Universe”) at the forefront of my mind.
Then Jose began to sing. His voice had a beautiful, twangy timbre as he percussively plead for guidance from Mother Ayahuasca. It was Jose’s songs, or ‘icaros,’ that would be the conductor of our visions, guiding us as we came in contact with the spirit realm.
I suddenly had the incredible sensation of an external presence investigating me with great intensity. Conventional language is a crude tool to articulate such an experience, but I felt as though I was having an MRI scan that was assessing my physical, mental and spiritual being. I could sense its beams of energy as it began at my heart and passed over every inch of my body.
Intuitively, I understood that whatever this presence was, it understood me far more than I knew myself. I was utterly bewildered that I could encounter something which so closely resembled what I perceived as omniscience, but the sensation ultimately brought me comfort. At that point, the energy in my body had begun to vibrate with such intensity that I experienced the dissolution of my physical body into the surrounding landscape. As I felt the bounds of my body merge with the jungle air, my dark world erupted into a sky cast full of stars, as if I was being integrated into the body of the Universe itself.
The sky which opened above me was changing. Spectacular forms of monolithic scale, hewn from technological crystals, coalesced in a new celestial dimension. I was moving, soaring through some atmosphere populated by wispy, white clouds and mysterious, suspended structures of deep azure and radiant gold. Hurtling on, I saw that not only were there more of these structures, but that some of them were slowly changing, taking on new shapes.
Suddenly I discovered myself in the presence of a vast new form. A seemingly boundless mechanical device, comprised of an incalculable number of interconnected gold components, tirelessly engaging with one another. The overwhelming sense that the Universe is just as much a puzzle-solving apparatus as it is a cosmic clock pervaded my mind; it is a living system with no singular captain at the helm. This system was entirely self-sufficient, creating an infinite number of puzzles for itself as it simultaneously creates an infinite number of solutions, seeking balance and harmony.
These puzzles and solutions could be considered similar to the omniscience of the ‘God’ I had been told of many times, but this consciousness was far more beautiful, and just shy of perfect. The imperfection of this consciousness came from authoring the puzzles and the solutions, but not always knowing the circumstances of when, where and exactly which components bring about the harmony that the Universe so desperately tries to cultivate.
The only universal constant is change, an endless cycle of life, growth, death and rebirth, as circumstantial constraints are in constant flux, and each manifestation of matter and energy is integral to the eternally-expanding body of experiential consciousness of the Universe. Godly ‘perfection’ is a false destination, stifling and inert; the real beauty lies in the infinite journey, and pursuit of growth where there is no end.
The interconnectedness of all things had never been made as clear to me as it did in the presence of such an awe-inspiring entity. It inspired a humbling gratitude to sweep over my being. I realized the need to acknowledge how indebted I am to all the things that came before, and things that will come after me. The Universe depends on us all. Consciousness is ‘God,’ a term that seems incredibly inadequate to describe what I was witnessing. ‘God’ is found within in each of us in the form of consciousness, and each consciousness is a part of the collective consciousness of the Universe. As products of the Universe, we are not only individually whole, but also part of an infinite whole.
As quickly as the mechanical Universe appeared, it dissipated into black. And in the darkness that followed, I felt the Universe ‘wink’ at me, as if cheekily reassuring: “This was a mere glimpse, there is still much more to learn.”
Someone had lit the candle in the middle of the room, and the warm glow called me back to the physical world. After several minutes of contemplation and reintegration, I managed to collect my belongings and was ready to return to my bungalow. As I left the shelter of the maloca, my gaze was drawn upward, where it met the most immaculate night sky my eyes had ever seen. How lucky was I to witness such a spectacle?
Dazzled by the symphony of the nocturnal jungle, I found sleep that night feeling overwhelmingly loved by all that surrounded me. And I found that I loved it all in return.
Stuart Holland is a visual artist based in Boise, Idaho. More unabridged accounts of his ayahuasca experiences and art can be found at his website, www.stuarthollandart.com, and you can follow his work on Instagram @_grave_witness_ .