Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Spiral Journey, Or a Heroine's Quest to Be at Home on Earth

Even though the dirt path along the Urubamba from Pisac to Taray was flat, I was out of breath. I had only been in the Andes ten days and we were 10,000 feet above sea level. I was having trouble with the altitude. Five days ago I had turned forty, the traditional milestone of middle age in my culture. I didn’t feel middle-aged, like my life was halfway over. I felt like my life was just beginning. It was not like I left the United States to avoid turning 40, I just opted to mark it in my own way. I didn’t ignore my birthday on the day after Christmas. I told my new friends and we spent the day touring ruins and a salt mine in the Sacred Valley.  We went out to lunch and someone gave me a cintura. If this sounds uneventful, well, my birthday is the day after Christmas. I had had forty years to get used to the fact that Jesus’s birth was more exciting than mine. The day before I had  ignored Christmas, I suppose, losing myself in the Pisac ruins so that I had to stumble down the jagged mountain, searching for the path in the dark. It took hours—my friend was terrified, we had no food and  no water, and for some reason I was wearing flip-flops that were shredded in no time.  I took them off and walked  barefoot down the loose mountain scree interspersed with ancient Inca stairs that were so worn they were far short of level. For some reason I had no fear. At a few points I had to coax her down by getting her to sit and slide down on her butt. She almost had me convinced we should spend the night on the mountain and wait for morning, but I was determined we would sleep in our warm beds that night.  By the time we gotto the bottom of the trail it was raining. I remember how good the mud felt between my toes. I wasn’t worried at all I would cut myself and get a deadly infection. I felt heroic, which was the whole point of this trip in the first place.

When we reached Taray, we turned off the red dirt path on to the cobblestones of the village, heading up the small valley carved into the massive Sacred Valley that  ran from Cusco to Machu Picchu by a waterfall we could hear the whole way. It was flowing down to the Urubamba, we were hiking up, huffing as our legs felt the strain of the altitude. I did my best to ignore the nervous chatter of my two companions, met only a few days before. Faint-headed from fasting, the earth  rolled like a ship’s deck. I wondered if asking these three strangers to come with me had been a mistake. Somehow I was ashamed of them, as if their small talk to pass the time and get to know each other a little better was a weakness. When they asked why I was so quiet I told them I was having a hard time with the altitude. I could tell they thought I must really be out of shape, or perhaps just a lazy American  (one of them was a Swede who had raised six children on a mountain, the other two a couple, from Canada I think, robust and cheerful).  I didn’t correct them. I had been preparing for this hike up this mountain, into this valley, for years. I was on a quest and willing to be misunderstood. In fact, I was used to it. 40 years old, unmarried, childless, a poet—this was only the tip of the iceberg of the ways I had separated myself from mainstream American culture. I was also used to being a scapegoat for those who were unwilling to face their own inner pain, and the destruction our species had wreaked on the earth. Still, I was in pain. Not to be overly dramatic, but I had thought about killing myself many times and wished I was dead even more. Although I am jumping ahead in this narrative by relating my current understanding of why I wished I was dead, I feel that is necessary to reassure the reader that I now see suicide as an impulse of the soul —a darkness so immense and overwhelming that arises when the soul can no longer tolerate whatever is stopping it from being whole. Somehow through the years of despair, I managed to keep hold of the belief that life was a heroic journey, and that suffering was part of this quest to become whole. Still, as someone who had studied initiation, I knew that I had spent too long in the Underworld. I had tried for years to find my way out, but had failed over and over. I decided, like a true hero, to try to blast my way out.

All of the above, and  perhaps something more I can only say felt like the plant actually calling me, led me to Peru to drink ayahuasca, the sacred medicine of the Amazon, although I was in the Andes, following someone I trusted to the doorstep of  Alonso del Rio, a maestro who had spent years in the jungle with the Shipibo, and who I loved immediately when he’d asked  me to come over so he could meet me before the ceremony. I felt inadequate of course, because I was narcissistic and loathed myself. I thought Alonso must have not really wanted me there, but said yes because we had a common friend. I felt like a fraud, especially because I’d brought these chatterboxes along. When we got to the temple I slowly separated myself from them, hoping no one would figure out we were together. We weren’t really. We had all just met. But none of the others gathered there knew that. I had no idea it was possible to not judge, or to have compassion. I saw people through the filter of my own self-loathing.

Because it was New Year’s Eve it was a large ceremony. The temple built of red adobe, was round, and had a thatched conical roof that spiraled toward the sky like the steeple of the Congregational Church I attended as a child growing up in Connecticut, only we didn’t enter it by walking up steps, we bowed down because the door was so low there was no other way to enter. It was dark inside. I had expected  that, but when confronted with how dark it was even before the door was closed I wondered if I could make it through the ceremony without panicking. I had read that sometimes people lost control of their bowels on ayahuasca. I could imagine nothing more humiliating. I memorized my way to the door, worried that I would make a scene if I had to get out. Since I had always been claustrophobic, there was a good chance I would.  Although I was nervous, I calmly took a seat against the wall, gathered a couple of thick wool blankets around me and  laid claim to one of the plastic buckets placed around the room.

The buckets were for “getting well,” i.e. vomiting. Instead of being considered a sign of sickness, vomiting in an ayahuasca ceremony was a sign that you were purging spirits on a physical level that were making you r soul sick. As I sat there, I felt a chill from the ground creep into my bones and wondered if it was actually coming out of them. My heart was cold. I kept my head down and didn’t make eye contact with anyone in the room. I was terrified, but numb, ready to endure.

Ayahuasca is known as the vine of the dead, or the vine of the soul. It is used across the Amazon by indigenous people to heal sicknesses of body, mind, and soul, as well as to connect to the spirit world for instructions on how to live. I had read many wondrous accounts of people who had been healed of addiction, depression, even cancer by ayahuasca, all of them harrowing. From what I had read, everyone’s experience was different. The medicine gave them what they needed, although there were identifiable realms where people encountered  snakes, condors and jaguars, as well as geometric patterns I had seen stitched into fabric by the Shipibo, proudly sported on the bags and backs of the North Americans and  Europeans flocking to Peru for la medicina.  Everyone I had spoken to had agreed that the intentions of the medicine were good. Those who asked for healing often experienced  terror because they needed to face fear inside themselves. The goal was to encounter death in order to be reborn.  

If ayahuasca does indeed give those who seek healing what they need, it makes sense that westerners who share the paradigm of the masculine heroic quest would suffer in order to purge and be reborn. Although female in body, my consciousness, like most westerners of all genders, was skewed toward the masculine, addicted to striving, progress, and achievement. An intense person, I expected to have an intense experience with ayahuasca, to face my personal demons and emerge stronger on the other side. Like I said, I was going to blast through the Underworld. At the time it did not occur to me that it was ironic that there were so many spiritual seekers on a heroic quest attracted to la medicina, also called la abuela, or grandmother. What kind of grandmother sends her children to hell? One who loves them enough to drag them down into the earth so they can  release their fear of leaving it when they die. One who is willing to strip away the illusion of order to reveal the truth that Chaos is our mother. Ayahuasca shows us we are creatures of the dark and must come to love it to be whole.

 I expected lights, colors, serpents and jaguars, demons or fierce angels. As Alonso sang and played his guitar, I could sense the shift in the dark when the others in the room with me began to hallucinate, retreating into private worlds. Nothing was happening for me. I wondered if the ayahuasca was working. About forty-five minutes into the ceremony I began to feel nauseous. The dark thickened, became denser, pressing me down. From a far distance that was also right inside my head, pouring into the left side of my brain, I heard an old woman’s voice, high-pitched, singing in a language I didn’t know. I could no longer hear the music in the room or even sense there were others there with me. I was being crushed by an immense pressure that seemed to come from within me.  I’ve tried for years to put what I felt into the words, but I haven’t really been able to yet. If I had seen images, maybe I could have, but all I experienced was emotion—terror, dread, the certainty of annihilation (I said later it was like the way it must feel to put your neck on a block on a scaffold knowing that in the next second your head would be severed by an executioner’s axe).

NASA image, black hole
And then it was over. I didn’t know it was at first. All I knew was that the fear was gone along with the woman’s voice. I could hear Alonso again, feel my body against the earth wall. A smell drew my nose to touch my alpaca shawl. It was wet—I had vomited. I had no memory of vomiting. I wondered if I had fainted, if I had lost control, but the people on either side seemed unaffected by me, still immersed in their private journeys. The main thing I felt was relief. I relaxed into the wall, completely lucid and listened to the music for what seemed like hours, until everyone had returned and a fire was lit in the center of the room. When the flame lit the room I met people’s eyes in the circle, saw myself in them and let them see their beauty in my reflection. To be honest I didn’t know it at the time, but for the first time ever I was present and fully in my body. I fell asleep on the temple floor under a mound of wool blankets at peace, though a little alone. Everyone else had wandered off together, but I was used to being alone. My ability to endure loneliness, not to have need of anyone, was something I took pride in, although at the time I wouldn’t have said that, and although I told my companions in the morning (they had seen all the bells and whistles: snakes, mantis-like beings, colors) that I was content, I was not. I had wanted a vision. All I got was some time in the dark. They couldn’t wait to go back for another ceremony. I had no desire to go back. I could still feel the terror of waiting to be crushed by that black hole. I wasn’t much of a hero after all.

I did go back for one more ceremony. This time I prayed to have an easy time and my prayer was answered. I saw the lights, the colors, angels and lost relatives, was blessed by the music and wandered down the mountain in the morning with the hummingbirds at dawn. Another person I brought to the ceremony had left before it was over—a taboo—and I had been asked to go out and bring him back. He refused, saying the ayahuasca was weak and he was going home. I felt ashamed I had brought him with me, though no one shamed  me. I also felt ashamed that apparently I preferred weak ayahuasca. The next day, listening to him complain, it occurred to me that there was no way Alonso was brewing weak ayahuasca because his intent was to rip people off, or because he thought we couldn’t handle it. I had faith in the medicine by then and knew that each one of us who drank Alonso’s brew was drawn to him for reasons we most likely were not aware of. I can’t speak for my friend, but a couple of years later, still in despair, I wondered why I didn’t swill as much ayahuasca as I could when I had the chance instead of prolonging the misery of trying to get out of the Underworld.  At some point the thought wandered into my mind  that blasting through was exactly what I did not need. I needed to be nurtured (psychiatry says that the root of narcissism is improper nurturing. Think of that the next time you’re frustrated with a narcissist.)--to be embraced and soothed. I needed a heroine’s quest, not a hero’s. One that would take me into my body instead of out of it. My hatred of my body, which I had been trained to see by the masculine paradigm as a vehicle for my self, was just as intense as my hatred for that self I was trying to bring fully into the world.

The next winter found me returning to the Hawaiian Islands, where I had been severely traumatized fifteen years ago while living on the Big Island. Fifteen years later I was still so ashamed of things I had done, I had never spoken of most of what I went though there. Even more telling, was that I was ashamed of what had been done to me, things I had no choice in because I was female and  not strong enough to fight back against the physical violence I was subjected to. My body literally erupted when I set foot on Maui. I got my period three weeks early waiting at the luggage carousel, blood  flowing so heavily it seeped through the dark jeans I had donned back in the Rhode Island winter. It didn’t show, but the smell was on me. Everyone knew. I was a creature of shame. I didn’t deserve to be in Paradise. Although it was not my intent to return to the Big Island, the scene of my trauma, after a week at my friend’ s house on Maui, I was all of a sudden boarding another plane to Kona International Airport. Landing in the harsh, black lava beds after the lush green of Maui was a shock, but as I looked up at the vog coming off the mountain and smelled the sulfur in the air, I knew I was home.

Vog is short for volcanic fog, a result of the continuous eruption of Kilauea, the volcano on the east side of Hawaii that is the home of the goddess Pele. 

Pele, by Herb Kawainui Kane

Fifteen years earlier I knew nothing of Hawaiian culture or mythology. I had no idea that Pele was alive and that she could tear your life apart if she chose, steamrolling over you the way she destroyed the village of Kalapana , birthing new land, sharp and brittle as glass, as she dropped off the edge into the sea. This time I knew more, but I was still not taking her seriously enough to consider that this living goddess needed to be propitiated with sacrifices and offerings if you wanted to live on her island. I had literally crouched twenty feet from where she flowed into the ocean, thinking I would be allowed to go back to Kona to swim with dolphins all day and wear plumeria leis. I did this time around. I even stood at the top of Waipi’o Valley, where I had been such a foolish victim fifteen years ago and told myself I was not afraid. I believed I had exorcised those ghosts.

Looking back, I think it may have been all the time I spent with the dolphins that forced me to finally begin dealing with the reality of having a body It was, after all, my body that enabled me to swim with them for hours in the clear, blue bays of South Kona. Although being such a tough coconut to crack I never cried, it was quite common to hear people weeping in the water or on shore afterwards, overwhelmed by the beauty of the dolphins, convinced their hearts had been opened by contact with them. I guess I would have said that happened to me at the time. I certainly knew that I loved them, and felt their pleasure in swimming with me,  blowing rings underwater and playing “the leaf game,” but I think that my heart at the time wasn’t open enough to even know that it wasn’t open. I was still traumatized, in a state of shock, and although my attempts at blasting through the shock had not been successful (or at least as not as successful as I wanted them to be), some part of my soul caught my body’s attention . A few days before I returned to Rhode Island, my body took over.
That's me swimming with dolphins!

It was not just the experiences I had my first time on Hawaii that separated  my spirit from my body. Like so many in our culture, I was a victim of other forms of abuse. Not that I was special.  The way I see it, we are all trauma survivors of a culture which has tried to annihilate the feminine. Since we all have a feminine half of our soul, we are all damaged psychologically as individuals by the abuse to the earth carried out by the masculine paradigm that treats our planet as a resource to be harvested, justified by the desire that endless growth is necessary for our survival. On the plane back, I was struck with diarrhea. It didn’t seem too alarming at the time. I figured it was nerves or a travel bug, totally ignoring the fact that this was bloody diarrhea. I ignored it. In a miracle of denial that I still find amazing, I convinced myself it would go away if I stopped eating and slept a lot. After about a month of this I could no longer walk. A friend called my parents because that’s who you call when are 41, single and poor, and I got on a small plane that looked like a mosquito and flew the 12 miles to the mainland. My father took one look at me and drove me to the hospital. I still thought I was fine and would be better soon. The doctors were astonished I had not sought help earlier. Apparently, I was in a drastic state, my bowels close to rupturing. They told me I could have died from blood  poisoning if that had happened, hooked  me up to an IV and started pumping with me the drugs that saved  my life.  Eventually they told me I had ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease that I would suffer from for the rest of my life. Their advice was to try medication, but that I would most likely need surgery to have my large intestine removed. The medicines would suppress my immune system, leaving me open to other illnesses, and had a high risk of cancer associated with them.

Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease. Researchers are not sure how it happens, but something triggers the immune system to turn on the body and attack it. In my case, it was the large intestine, which serves to eliminate waste from the body. Seen on a symbolic level, it could be said that my body was at war with myself because I was holding onto toxic emotions caused by trauma and abuse.  Of course I refused to accept the diagnosis, and as soon as I was released from the hospital (I actually went back two more times that summer) started a regimen of holistic healing, convinced I could heal myself through herbs, the right food, affirmations—whatever it took. If I had to look dead-on at the trauma I had gone through, I would do it. I would face my addictions and explore every ignored and abandoned corner of my psyche that cried out to be acknowledged. Although I was careful not to use words like fight and conquer in reference to my disease that was exactly what I was doing. Ulcerative colitis was my new heroic quest and I had no doubt I would conquer it. I refused to believe in the word chronic.

Over the next three years I went on and off medication. I would be ok without it for awhile, but eventually my bowels would flare up and my life would become regulated by shame and access to bathrooms. I would eventually give in and go back to the doctor and they would put me on prednisone, nothing as heavy as the chemotherapy treatments of Remacade that I had needed the first flare-up. I took this as a sign that I was improving—I didn’t need the big guns anymore. I was still in denial, still in fight or flight mode. The fall I was forty three I once again booked a flight to Hawaii, even though the colitis was slowly flaring, denying it could stop me from returning to the place my heart longed for.

I turned 44 in Puna, a remote jungle district of the Big Island that is just miles away from the active lava flow. You could say I was living in Pele’s back yard. I was living in a community called Kalani in a tent, chatting with my fellow volunteers at meals, schlepping laundry baskets and making beds, all the while dashing off into the bushes because I couldn’t make it to a toilet.  I stopped eating again. Despite starving myself, my body was still subject to violent spasms, as if it was trying to purge itself of itself. Eventually I was too weak to work and laid in my tent all day, getting up when my bowels spasmed to go in a bucket outside my tent. In the end all that came out of me was red, bloody mucus created my body in attempt to soothe my macerated intestines. It looked a bit like lava.

After a month of this I stumbled into the Kalani office and  mumbled that I needed someone to drive me to the hospital in Hilo. The reaction of the doctors was much as it had been back on the east coast, shocked that I had made it so long. They had no idea what I could endure. I lay in a bed in the Hilo Medical Center for two weeks. I shit in a commode next to my bed and sometimes the floor, sometimes on myself, just as I feared I would during the ayahuasca ceremony three years earlier. I was treated with nothing but respect and kindness by the orderlies who cleaned up the floor, the nurses who helped me shower, the doctor who sat by my bed for an hour (it was a much slower pace in a Hawaiian  hospital than on the mainland) chatting about literature, and by the social workers who got me into the Hawaii state medical system to pay for all of this since I didn’t have health insurance. I slept very little because of the prednisone. As I lay awake in the dark listening to Coltrane on my headphones one night, I finally surrendered to my illness.

I had always heard there was peace, even bliss, in surrender, but I could never do it. I could never do it because it can’t be done. It has to happen by itself and  requires total acceptance of what is, no matter how painful. I needed to accept  ulcerative colitis, not just acknowledge the traumas I thought had caused  it. I needed to accept the help of those doctors and nurses and the state of Hawaii who paid for my hospital stay. I needed to believe that I deserved to be helped simply because I was human. I needed to learn how to stop feeling ashamed.  This was the heroine’s journey—not to struggle against, but to embrace.
Make sure you bring this with you to the hospital.
One of the things I had to embrace was the shame at the core of my self image. I was led by a therapist to the work of Karla McLaren, an empath who defines shame as a form of anger that arises when a boundary inside has been broken by something you’ve done or have been convinced  is wrong. You can read more about her work at  McLaren distinguishes between authentic shame, when you actually have done something harmful to self or others, and manufactured shame (being shamed), which happens when we are coerced into embodying someone else’s ideas of right and wrong. The practice for working with authentic shame, according to McLaren, is to “make it right,” by strengthening your boundaries and atoning for your transgressions and amending your harmful behaviors toward yourself and others. Viewed in this manner, shame has the potential to provide deep healing for the heart. I found that as I began to work with my authentic shame, my compassion deepened and I was led to begin the process of forgiving those who had shamed  me. Ultimately I was grateful for all of it. Being a victim had put me on the path to sovereignty.

In that hospital, spiraling into other dimensions through Coltrane’s saxophone, I began to truly inhabit my body. I was even grateful for Remacade when the doctor put me back on it. If my body needed  to be injected with a toxic chemical in order to be well, I would give it what it needed. When I was finally well enough to leave the hospital and  return to Kalani, this time I really was living in Paradise. The sound of rain on my tent roof, orchids in trees, the welcome of everyone in the community that I had only lived in for a month, clean sheets to be folded, beds to be made, rooms to be vacuumed--I passed the rest of the winter there and flew back to Block Island and  have been here since. I am still taking medication, although it is the mildest, least toxic one available. My second  to last doctor told me my colitis was so severe it probably wouldn’t work and recommended I should continue with the Remacade treatments, but I told him no. My latest doctor told me when I saw him three months ago that my bloodwork showed no signs of colitis. If I continued to show no symptoms for another six months he would support my decision to gradually wean off medication.
Reclining Buddha, Kalani Oceanside Retreat
A couple of years ago I had a colonoscopy to see how my bowels were doing. Because the medication suppresses symptoms the doctors have to look inside to see if the tissue is affected. At that point I was in a rebellious stage, not taking my medication. I decided to eat only fruit for the week before the test so there would be nothing for the doctors to see. By the time I got to the hospital my blood pressure was so low they couldn’t anaesthetize me all the way. I consented to the procedure anyway, telling myself I would look away from the screen so I wouldn’t be repulsed by the site of my intestines. Groggy from the anesthesia, weak from fasting, I turned my head slowly turned toward the monitor like one of the sea turtles I used to swim with at Honaunau, The Place of Refuge where Hawaiians who had violated kapu, sacred law, would be given sanctuary if they could reach  it. What I saw on the screen was like a hallucination, unexpected, hard to believe--and totally convincing. A white serpent lived inside the dark of my body. As the camera revealed my interior, I was awestruck at the sight of my intestines, spirals of glowing pink-white flesh, perfect, mysterious, beautiful. A revelation. I smiled and asked the doctor, “is that me?” He was nonplussed by having a patient who was awake, but he answered,. “That’s you, all right.” “Amazing,” I said, closing my eyes so that I would always remember what I had seen. I had finally accepted my body. My first place. My last place. Now, every place is inside me.
DNA, the double helix

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