Updated: Sep 2, 2020
“You should stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop off and your original face will appear.”
In May 2017, I travelled to Peru to work with Ayahuasca. I went to a retreat center, Lotus Vine Journeys, that integrates Buddha Dharma with the indigneous Shipibo approach to serving the medicine. My initial experiences with Ayahuasca were overwhelming: at times they were nauseating and scary, at other times ecstatic and blissful. Throughout the heaven and hell realms though, I was quite fascinated with how to interpret the meaning of what I experienced.
At times, those evenings felt like massive downloads, full of insights. I wondered how to make sense of the many visions and messages it felt like I was receiving, and how to integrate these changes into my life after the retreat had concluded.
Shortly after I returned to California, my journey to Peru inspired me to start a podcast and blog, Hacking the Self. The platform served to share my experiences in the wake of a personally momentous trip to Peru, as well as a space in which I could share my reflections on the positive impact that working with entheogens, such as psilocybin, had had on my life for the past twenty years, beginning with my first psychedelic trip at sixteen after reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.
After a break of two and a half years, I decided it was time to reconnect with this medicine. First, I did three sessions with Ayahuasca. Shortly thereafter, I did five sessions with a similar brew that the facilitator called Soma, an allusion to a famed verse from The Rig Veda containing a presumably entheogenic drink whose precise contents have yet to be definitively established by scholars.
In the Soma brew, Peganam Harmala (aka Syrian Rue) served as a substitute for the Ayahuasca vine, paired with the Chacruna Plant (the alkaloids in Peganam Harmala and the Ayahuasca vine--Banisteriopsis Cappi--are the same: Harmine, Harmaline and Tetrahyrdoharmine.
From my perspective, the subjective experience between the two brews was virtually indistinguishable, save for the fact that the Soma brew with Peganam Harmala seemed to feel gentler, induced less nausea and was easier to drink than Ayahuasca.
What really stands out this time around is how different my experience has been working with both of these medicines. Whereas before, in Peru, my attention was captivated by the contents of consciousness--the visions, the stories, the insights--this time I felt like the medicine was pointing towards something quite different: it was simply pointing towards the nature of consciousness itself.
The visions, stories and insights were all there, but as the sessions unfolded I came to feel that the most crucial lesson was not to be found in deciphering the meaning of the contents of consciousness, but rather in recognizing one’s true nature as awareness itself.
The journey was simply the play of consciousness, phenomena arising and passing away. While I tried to practice mindfulness of the body throughout my practice, my attention repeatedly was lost in thought. However, as mindfulness reestablished itself, the movements of the mind dropped away, and all that was left was the vastness of awareness itself.
In the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, the teachings of Dzogchen refer to this primordial ground of consciousness as Rigpa. Rigpa has three essential qualities:
Language can point towards this groundless ground of all experience but this space is utterly non conceptual. Consciousness, or awareness, is the screen upon which all of the movements of the mind play out. Awareness is space itself, not the hand that’s grasping in space: the mind, the ego. When we talk about the ego it sounds like it’s an object, but really it’s a process that assembles and disassembles itself constantly in response to changing causes and conditions. The egoic mind is not the one grasping but the felt sense of grasping: either attaching to pleasant sensations or resisting unpleasant ones.
No One hearing. Only hearing. No One seeing. Only seeing. No One thinking. Only thinking. Just consciousness and its contents.
The ego is a process of contraction, but it’s also what can surrender. Like a flame can vanish into darkness, the body-mind can drop away and reveal the vastness and luminosity of awareness itself. Through training our attention and cultivating a feeling of effortless surrender, we can recognize the stillness of awareness that is the silent backdrop against which all the movements of the mind play out.
This is one simple way to define spiritual awakening: it is the movement of consciousness to become conscious of itself. Awareness wakes up from the mind. Spirit drops its identification with the ego.
You can feel into which of those descriptions is a more helpful pointer for you. Language is by nature limited and at best can serve as a pointer towards this groundless ground of all experience, awareness itself, which is beyond concepts and boundaries.
You absolutely don’t need to consume an entheogen like Ayahuasca or Soma or psilocybin to experience this kind of profound shift. Entheogens aren’t for everyone. Moreover, if you don’t have a daily contemplative practice to deepen and stabilize this recognition of awareness this glimpse might simply prove to be just a passing experience that doesn’t fundamentally reorient your Being.
Yet just as even experienced meditation practitioners continue to find value in sitting intensive silent retreats, so too there can also be value in continuing to work with an entheogen for contemplative training.
Entheogens have a profound capacity to expose the limitations of the ego. Even when a medicine like Soma feels strong it’s actually not the intensity of the medicine that’s creating the problem but the ego's resistance to reality. When we can bring our contemplative training in our entheogenic journeys we can have deeper insights into all the ways in which our patterns are interwoven. Not to say one can not do so without entheogens--most of the great contemplatives presumably did so without them. However, entheogens have played an important role in the path of many great spiritual teachers.
As one Buddhist teacher and Ayahuasca healer Spring Washam describes the relationship between entheogens and the Dharma: these compounds can serve as accelerators along the path of awakening.
One profound gift of the entheogenic experience is the opportunity to witness our resistance very intimately: returning again and again to surrender to the truth of what's happening here and now. That’s quite a different framing from “this is a bad trip.”
Above all, I’ve come to feel that what entheogens are pointing towards is our true nature itself: towards this vast awareness that is empty and luminous and compassionate. Every enchanting archetype, every frightening vision, every fascinating story: all of these are just the movements of the mind.
Depending on your intention, it can be completely appropriate to work with the contents of your entheogenic experience. For example, integrating your entheogenic work into a psychotherapeutic context can be profoundly healing for many people. One book that I really enjoy outlining this approach is Rachel Harris’ Listening to Ayahuasca.
However, just as psychological integration is one important facet of self actualization so too is the path of awakening that contemplative traditions offer. From this perspective, we can notice that the contours of our entheogenic journeys are simply consciousness playing out.
The more I practice meditation and the more I have had the chance to work with entheogens, the less enchanted I am with the contents of consciousness, which are impermeant and unable to offer any kind of lasting satisfaction. Entheogens bring us face to face in a very vivid and undeniable way with a core truth: not only that everything that the mind can observe is impermanent, but also that The One observing--the ego--is subject to impermanence itself.
There is No One resisting, there is only the process of resistance. It is the natural, instinctive, correct calculation that this particular personality inhabiting this particular body-mind will one day come to an end, at an uncertain point in time.
Compassion arises with the recognition that suffering is an inherent part of this incarnation as a human being. To be human is to be limited, fallible and vulnerable. Of course, life is filled with love, creativity, and joy. But the undeniable hardships of aging, disease and death is just part of the package that comes with this body-mind. So too is the suffering of grief as we lose those we love along the way: not only physical death, but the loss of relationships, careers, identities.
The self is a necessary illusion. From a psychological perspective, identities are important. On the relative level, the ego is wounded and needs to heal. This is absolutely true and entheogens can play a very important role in facilitating this healing. AND from another perspective there is a deeper part of our nature that was never broken, doesn't need to be fixed, and is already whole: consciousness itself. The luminous, empty and compassionate face of consciousness towards which the Dzogchen masters of Tibet were pointing. The True Face towards which Zen master Dogen was pointing.
Awareness can recognize itself: vast, luminous and empty like the sky, the screen across which clouds float by. Sometimes the sky is clear, sometimes it’s partly cloudy and sometimes there’s a storm raging. Ultimately, this is the greatest gift that entheogens and meditation can offer.
Returning to the recognition of awareness as our true nature is our refuge. Awareness does not have to be identified with the mind; spirit can drop its identification with the ego.
This is the true face that reveals itself when the body-mind drops away, as Dogen so eloquently described. It’s the true face that finally appears when we stop chasing after enlightenment or God or love or having the right kind of psychedelic or spiritual experience. Causes and conditions are innumerable and beyond our control and if we hinge our happiness to trying to have the right kind material experience we are destined to ride an emotional roller coaster until our dying days.
Instead, through training in both entheogens and contemplative practices, we can come to recognize Presence, this awake awareness which is already and always available. Whatever can finally bring our seeking to an end, allow us to take the backward step and let the body-mind drop away, to reveal our True Face.
When I prepare for an entheogenic journey, I try to sit with this truth: that I am no longer trying to acquire anything. This sense of self is actually trying to empty itself: of expectations, opinions, concepts, hopes and fears. It’s an invitation that brings me home through sweet, silent, surrender, to this groundless ground of all experience, consciousness itself: empty, luminous and compassionate.