I somehow managed to get through high school and college without becoming a drug fiend. Growing up in an alcoholic household, I saw the consequences of over-indulgence, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Pot made me feel stupid and self-conscious. I dropped acid twice and enjoyed it; ditto ecstasy. But for the most part, drugs scared me. My first two long-time boyfriends were both a dozen years older and had already experimented with altered states to their hearts’ content. I joined both of them in concentrating on working hard, building a career, and getting ahead, all of which mattered more to me than getting high. Only in the last seven years have I found myself in a relationship with someone who’s partial to cannabis, who took me to Burning Man, and who has turned me on to some previously undiscovered pleasures.

I am at heart an epicurean. I believe that pleasure is the greatest good in life, and in my sacred intimate practice I’m a champion of healing through pleasure. I’m quite attached to the pleasures in my life: the four cups of strong black tea that fuel my day, the couple of glasses of wine or beer that are my treat at the end of the day, my robust sex life, my enjoyment of music, and the occasional toke that my stoner boyfriend has taught me to enjoy. At the same time, I’m aware that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish pleasure from anesthesia, and sometimes I wonder what pain or fear I might be medicating or numbing with the substances I routinely enjoy. I’m sure I’m a bit hypervigilant about this because my father’s alcoholism left a strong imprint on my life. But I like to believe that I remain in choice rather than compulsive about my pleasures, and I’ve noticed that when I diet to prepare for sacred medicine ceremonies, I get quite cranky about giving up tea and wine and still spend considerable energy thinking about and craving them. There are writing projects that are important to me that I’m trying to summon the energy and stamina and concentration to complete, and it’s unclear to me whether my use of substances helps or hinders that. The constant existential battle between Living a Good Life and Getting Things Done.

Much of my day-to-day explorations merge substances (420, poppers, Viagra, alcohol) with sex, which is different from the extended-play excursions (soma, ayahuasca, mushrooms, MDMA). One night I discovered that when you take a couple of tokes and stroke your penis, it feels really really really sensationally good. You should try it sometime! I made a similar discovery about music, layer upon layer of dimension and nuance revealing itself to me, whether I’m listening to dreamy drifty ambient playlists, orchestral music, or classic rock and roll. How did I ever think I understood anything about rock and roll listening to it straight?

Working with medicine has unexpectedly become a major doorway into deepening intimacy in my relationship. Doing mushrooms together at Burning Man dazzled me – the trippy visuals everywhere suddenly made sense! – and terrified my boyfriend. That night we spent curled up in a ball in the dark in our RV remains a landmark of vulnerability and connection. Cannabis is easier and almost always fun. Smoking makes me cough, I’ve never gotten the hang of bongs or vaping, so edibles are my delivery method of choice. Once the brownies kick in, we’ll collapse into bed, making out, letting words go, discovering new levels of creativity and sensual pleasure.

Getting stoned with my boyfriend took me one step toward plant medicine. Doing ayahuasca rocketed me to a whole other level. I knew several people who had been participating in ayahuasca ceremonies for years. I’d been intrigued by hearing and reading about “teacher plants” and I was curious about ayahuasca. Yet I sensed that it was serious medicine, to be approached with respect and some intention beyond curiosity. As my friend Bruce says, “LSD is movie-theater popcorn compared to ayahuasca.” It was only as I was turning 60 and contemplating how to step into my role as an elder that I felt like I had a question to bring to teacher plants. After a couple of journeys with a trusted friend in California, I traveled to South America to work with an indigenous shaman way back in the rainforest jungle for two 10-day group retreats a year apart – truly life-changing experiences.

I’m not going to deliver encyclopedic information about ayahuasca (what it is, how it’s made, where it’s from, and how it’s used) – ask Google for that. I’m just going to share some perceptions that derive from direct experience of the medicine. I can confirm that the brew tastes nastier than virtually anything else I’ve ever put in my mouth and that in the jungle setting drinking ayahuasca almost always involves purging. During my first ceremony I ended up puking two or three times, quite suddenly and very unpleasantly. I understood the medicine’s method  as home invasion, sweeping through my being in search of debris and flushing it out, burning on the way in AND out – harsh psychic surgery. Some people experience light shows of sacred geometry or visitations by jungle creations or female spirits. I didn’t get any of that. The strongest non-verbal imagery that I experienced was a deep red energetic circuitry, pulsing in meridians and axes all over the room, in the dark. It felt like the lid had lifted off of the material world, so that even as we were sitting on the floor of the wooden maloka with its thatched roof, it was as if we were inhabiting the roots and branches of a large tree, not unlike one of Angelo Musco’s photocollages.

I’ve gotten this to some degree on every ayahuasca journey: in the dark, I was able to jack into the energy system of a giant plant – the Tree of Life? The Vine of Death? — a massive, infinitely tall  structure with veins/meridians of running light, pulsing, dotted, multicolored, like an anthill perhaps but coursing, circulating like blood. By jacking into it, it entered me, or I became part of this stream – the plants I swallowed being recognized by the master plant, the tree, the earth, whatever.

I had the sense of checking in and being scanned, which I later could liken to logging onto the internet or an encrypted website. I was curious to observe this process but then I realized that if it were going to scan my explaining mind, I would have to surrender control of it, get out of the way, withdraw my consciousness – which I was able to do, like lifting your feet so someone can sweep to vacuum under them. As my bowels started to rumble, I caught a glimpse of something I’ve never particularly been aware of: my own shame and squeamishness about shit. Purging in the other direction is less noxious physically but more awkward socially and logistically. I had the sense of my bowels lit up and technicians at work. Then I connected to my family history: my father’s colon cancer, my own rectal polyps at age 12, and I got the sense that the medicine was performing an energetic colonoscopy and perhaps cancer treatment. Then I somehow sensed that the medicine was assessing and addressing my family history of heart disease, which my mother died of. It was as if I’d gone for a routine physical and got marched in for emergency triple-bypass. I chose to relinquish my body to them (not unlike letting technicians in Bangalore take over my computer and operate it distantly). I channeled the image from the movie Avatar of putting my body to sleep in a pod and letting them drain my blood, clean it, and put it back, with only the dimmest mental activity on my part.

While it was happening and when it was done, I went through chills, the sweats, in my sleeping bag. And of course there were other things going on in the room – the shaman blessing individuals, the musician playing churanga – and I could focus on them for brief periods of time but mostly retreated to my recovery cocoon. At times it was possible to choose comfort, choose joy. After a lot of music, there would be silence and the sense of floating in the dark with these murky outlines of blue-green and purple light and people (or disembodied pods) sighing with pleasure. Definitely two layers of consciousness. I found myself connecting the dots between the group sitting in the maloka, the hive in my vision, and every other “center camp” I’ve ever encountered – at Burning Man, for instance, or the meadow at Short Mountain, places for regrouping and then relaunching into orbit.

I feel like I glimpsed the primordial origin of healing – the way the earth has healed itself from the beginning of time. The substances contained in certain plants contain powerful cleansing agents that purify living organisms and clear out harmful elements, flushing out of the system back into the earth, which absorbs them as compost. The system is self-contained and highly sophisticated. And this system includes everything – there’s a place for poison, beauty, bee stings, even shit.

What teachings did I get about elderhood? Into the middle of the darkness our California-based host, a mensch in his 80s, read a poem by David Whyte called “The House of Belonging” that mentions “the temple of my adult aloneness” as the place that he recognizes as home. That resonated with me. I think it is the capacity to cultivate silence and fulfilment in solitude that constitutes spiritual maturity and elderhood. There’s a joyful recognition that my time on earth is coming to a close and my home is in that place between the worlds. I myself am not ready to completely give up the world but I appreciate the road map provided by those who’ve gone before me. And I see that the way one becomes an elder is simply to take that place in the community, to sit with the old dudes.

I came back from the jungle with many keywords and messages from the mystery. One of them involved devising a regular practice for myself that I call Solo Stoner Sundays, setting aside time on a Sabbath evening to create ceremonies of self-pleasuring as a way of revisiting and extending my medicine journeys in South America. This was a stretch for me. Ordinarily I’d much rather get stoned and have sex with my boyfriend than by myself. But I felt like I’d been given instruction and that it would be dumb to ignore it.

It took me weeks, maybe months to get around to the practice. I marveled at the creativity of my resistance. But I finally cleared the calendar on a particular Sunday and ate a small quantity of mushrooms I’d been holding for quite a long time. After 45 minutes, nothing was happening so I ate some more. Another 45 minutes, vaguely starting to feel something, I got naked, went to bed, took two hits of pot, plugged myself into headphones, and I was OFF for the next three hours. As is so often the case, I landed on the perfect music. The Ishq album Sama took me through the first hour and change, and I went so many places. I struggled as usual with the naming part of my brain and kept trying to conjure “no naming” and “no choosing,” to get beyond my conscious mind — always difficult. But when Sama came to an end, exquisitely, the next Ishq set came on a little too strongly for me. I went to Mixcloud in search of the ideal Low Light Mixes playlist and found the perfect one: “Deep Sky Time – music for stargazing 2013.” Unbelievably deep slow quiet space music, ideal for the place where I was, post-peaking. Somehow I still managed to inhabit my body in this part of the trip.

My heart was aching from all the gratitude I was feeling, especially to my teachers and my lovers. I was aching to feel open everywhere, including my asshole, so I brought out my vibrating thruster and very slowly worked it all the way in, amazed to be functional when also super-high. And I managed to have a very very erotic self-pleasuring experience, largely inspired by thinking about Joseph Kramer and how much I learned from the Body Electric School about merging erotic energy and spiritual energy and how much I use that every day, and just exactly how beautiful erotic energy is as a doorway to transcendence. At times my dick wasn’t hard at all. I was just going with the embodiment experience. I found myself entertaining lots of crazy otherworldly fantasies of merging shamanically with everyone who ever fucked or got fucked. Ultimately I got off dwelling deep inside the fantasy of getting fucked and bred and “not knowing where it came from.” It was an interesting introduction to that piece of shadow material, which felt like part of the blessing of this journey (along with awareness of the grief that travels below gratitude — how gratitude can in a certain way be an easy mask and a way to avoid other deep emotions). Fantastic orgasm. Then I just hung out in the dark (at a certain point nothing would do but total darkness), hovering on the verge of sleepiness but not wanting to waste the trip by dropping off. I got hungry and went to the kitchen for some watermelon salad, so grateful that I’d spent time in the afternoon making it, and it was so juicy and delicious. Later I ate a yoghurt. I was a little fixated on making sure my hands were clean, and my ass — I did actually take a shower, which was another ecstatic experience. Blessings all round.

My ayahuasca adventures led to an invitation to join another community performing ceremony centered on a substance these teachers call soma, a medicine known as 5meo that’s close to DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, but that is smoked in a pipe and produces a journey that comes on within seconds, lasts much shorter (perhaps 20 minutes as opposed to five hours), and has an extremely powerful and unpredictable impact. The onset is so fast and the ascent is so steep that it can be quite frightening. Almost immediately upon taking my first pipe, I felt the edges of my awareness – my conception of “me” as a separate self – start to shimmer and dissolve. Summoning everything I’ve ever learned about breathing and staying present in the face of fear, I found myself almost instantly glimpsing the opportunity to merge with universal consciousness. I had the sense that this is what it’s all about, this is the essence of merging with the divine that all spiritual practice prepares one for, that all deep sexual exploration is a metaphor for. This is what I’ve been waiting for ALL MY LIFE – the teacher I’ve always wanted. And it feels like a payback for all that I’ve given – I GET TO HAVE THIS. My return from the peak was characterized by long bouts of uncontrollable joyous laughter. Among other things, it felt like what there is underneath when all the layers of grief have been pulled away. And I related to orgasm as the beginning of my life – thank you, Dad, for your orgasm that launched me – and also orgasm as fantastic preparation for dying, releasing with joy into the realm of consciousness beyond this life.

After the first round’s invitation to “meet the medicine,” the next day’s ceremony delivered an initiation dose. Having gotten a sense of the territory, I was able to release fully into the experience of MERGING WITH THE INFINITE. The medicine zoomed me right up to a threshold of transcendence, and then it became my choice to merge with the sound, the consciousness, the everything, the nothing, the void. The return to that space beyond body/mind/self allowed me to understand what it is that makes crossing that threshold so scary, so challenging: you have to surrender your individual identity. No name, no I, no body, no thought. Soma allows you to do that experientially, not theoretically. You can get there with sex or meditation but not as precisely and completely. And once I surrendered, I had to laugh at the idea of that being anything other than the most perfect thing to do of all time.

Having found a pathway to ecstatic consciousness (ecstasy literally means “standing outside oneself”) through medicine work, I began to glimpse similar tiny moments of self-transcendence in my meditation practice, during sexual encounters, and in my sacred intimate work, shepherding clients to that threshold of intensity and encouraging them to hang out there long enough for transformation to occur. I want to go deeper into exploring the shamanic possibilities of plant medicine, seeing what kind of ride I can take through my body and soul into that threshold space, where pleasure turns into surrender, where something beyond this temporal/material existence gets glimpsed and some opportunity for transcendence appears. My intention is to cultivate that nourishment.

In an excellent anthology called Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, I read a compelling interview with Ram Dass in which he talks about the relationship between the use of psychedelics and spiritual practice. “As I gained experience in the use of psychedelics, I realized that I was accessing spiritual planes of consciousness. These chemicals can get you in the door, but you don’t stay on these planes like you do when you become adept at meditation. However, the psychedelics give you faith in these new, spiritual perspectives – faith which is necessary for later spiritual growth,” he says. “Psychedelics can’t give you a permanent spiritual immersion. But they can give faith about the existence of these other planes, and you need faith as a foundation for spiritual practices… Psychedelics can open doors, and if later you want to revisit these spiritual planes, having had such experiences will make it easier. But on the other hand, if the psychedelic experience is too mind-blowing, it can detract from your ability to recognize the spirit in the moment. Because this moment doesn’t necessarily have the pizzazz of the psychedelic moment.”

At the same time, there is a struggle in me between the pleasure principle and the spiritual quester. I believe there’s a link, but I keep giving in to the smaller quicker pleasures. I like giving blowjobs but I long for soul communion through mind body heart and soul. I enjoy drinking wine, I enjoy getting high and listening to music, there’s a big joy and glimpse of transcendence when combining wine with pot with poppers with good sex (making out, cocksucking, getting fucked). But I know there’s more and I’m not sure what it is or how to get it. I find myself chasing that elusive chemical merger. I sometimes feel out of integrity in terms of drinking wine, getting drunk, a little high, going on Scruff, and having sexual encounters that do not live up to my values of intimacy, quality, transcendence. When I find myself after midnight in an East Side apartment with half a dozen naked guys who are having sex, smoking drugs from vials, and exhaling the smoke into each other’s mouths, I know I’ve crossed a line. I delete Scruff from my phone the next day. That lasts several months. And then the cycle begins again.

I observe the adolescent nature of my relationship with substances — equating freedom with getting high, drinking wine, listening to music, and having sex. Wishing I didn’t spend so much of my time planning and anticipating such pleasures. Suffering the nagging feeling that there are important things in my life that I am neglecting when I devote so much time and energy to those things. I’m less likely to over-indulge in psychedelics or plant medicine; I’m more susceptible to the family curse of loving to drink too much. One of my key challenges is saying no when I’m perfectly sated and happy. My curiosity, greed, compulsiveness, cock-whore cum hunger takes over.  But as with the fourth glass of wine — after the first one, do you really taste it? do you really take in all the spiritual substance and erotic nourishment?

I talk to my friends Glenn and Michael about using substances and sex and wonder what I might be numbing. Mostly I notice that when I let myself imagine NOT drinking or using pot or sex, a lot of sadness comes up — the sadness of deprivation, sadness of lack of pleasure, the sadness of the world seeping into my consciousness that I try to keep at bay. It does help me relate to the experience of people who are sad all the time. Is white privilege another form of numbing? Can I use this inquiry as a way to strengthen my resolve to do good things in the world?

My friend Collin refers to medicine work as a profound exploration of consciousness beyond rational understanding. He suggests that I use these substances as a path to deeper understanding. Doing mushrooms in the dark with music is like taking a class with a teacher with no distractions. Ask a question. Journal afterwards. I’m on a journey to more competent navigation. Acknowledge that I’m an apprentice. Treating my life experience as a sacred journey. And the best advice I’ve come across is an oft-cited quote from the Zen scholar and philosopher Alan Watts, who said, “When you’ve gotten the message, hang up the phone.”

First published in RFD, Fall 2016; republished online in Reality Sandwich, April 2017