Search This Blog

Monday, June 18, 2012

Peyote Peep Show

The Glow
She waltzed in the room, pausing in the doorway to twist her right knee slightly inward and fling her arms up wide on either side of her.  She leaned forward and smiled, all Marilyn Monroe.

“Hello there darlings!  I can’t wait to tell you about the glorious weekend I had.  It was ah-mazing!”   She rushed to the table, sat down, leaned back and then tilted her eyes to meet mine.  “Perfect.” She sighed, “It was just perfect.”

She had met a Shaman, a real, live, flesh and blood Native American Shaman who lead peyote ceremonies.  She enthused about spiritual awakenings and personal healing as both her suntan and self assurance shimmered under the blinking fluorescent lighting.  Her eyes sparkled as she explained how plant medicine allows you to be in communication with “The Creator.”  She said it opened up channels and chakra centers, unblocked energy pathways and described how medicine, or peyote, helped you get into proper relationship.  Anticipating one of the many questions she predicted were snapping around in my mind like grease in hot skillet, she looked directly at me, “Getting into proper relationship with other people, with yourself, even with The Creator, means getting clear on your intentions, having clean energy, clean intentions.  It’s not just about individual healing, Sarah” she said with wide and serious eyes, “but about community healing.”

She continued, enthusiastically, to describe the deep connection we all have to nature, to each other, to the divine and to things larger than ourselves and how this connection gets stripped away in our daily routines, and disappears in our lives which are so full of consumption.  “It’s a blessing that he is willing to share his culture, his wisdom and really help people.” She raved about being outside of consumer culture and getting to connect with  nature.  She told me she was developing a spiritual family that was teaching her to push past emotional blocks and how to receive love.

I pictured a group of 30-something middle class white professionals sitting cross-legged in a circle trying to look serene and spiritually serious while getting totally stoned on peyote.  A weekend ceremony facilitated by a U.S. government recognized non profit church licensed to provide peyote did not seem radically outside consumerism or capitalism to me.

How much does it cost?” I asked her, breaking my reverie.  “Isn’t it a few hundred bucks?”

“Oh yes.”  She nodded earnestly, “Of course, you have to offer something.  The money you donate is your intention, the more you offer the more you receive.”

“More what? More peyote?”  I asked.

She laughed, “Money is an exchange of energy, an expression of your intention.  The more you give, the stronger your intention.  The stronger your intention, the more you will get out of the ceremony.”

I sighed and muttered something about how fucked up it is that the rich get more of everything from ocean views, beach access, vacation time, and, it seems, spiritual enlightenment.  She didn’t notice.  As she continued her story, I watched her tan face, eyes bright and clear.  She looked healthy.  Happy.  Her glow made her look like she had discovered some secret skin cream or gone through an expensive spa treatment. She had an aura of confidence and a calmness that remarkably contrasted with the overworked and stressed faces I was used to seeing in my daily life.  It was, to be honest, a little captivating.  Who doesn’t want to have a little more inner calmness and a happy, healthy glow? I sighed again, reflecting on my own sun starved, stress lined face.  I did not glow, that’s for sure.  She finished her story. I went back to work.

A few weeks later, she invited me to “sit” at a ceremony.  She talked to a few of the organizers and they told her I would benefit from the experience.  I felt conflicted about participating in an “Authentic Native American” healing ceremony.  How does one reconcile participating in an experience that many Native Americans and their allies call cultural theft, with the possibility that participating in a such a ceremony could offer deep personal and spiritual healing?  I asked her why profits from ceremonies did not flow back into reservations and how to respond to the sentiment that selling a ceremony experience is like selling your grandmother. I was assured that because the Shaman was Native American, that he (and the profits from his ceremonies) were connected to a reservation, although no one knew which one.  I was also assured that because he was offering to share the ceremony with us, it wasn’t cultural theft. “He is offering this to us, it’s not like we’re going into Native American communities without being invited.”  Another organizer told me.  “Faith communities welcome new observers, they want to share their healing, their message, their faith.”  My friend assured me that healing ceremonies are a way to connect and build relationships between Native and non-Native peoples.  I was told over and over that I could not fully understand until I sat in ceremony.  While I don’t quite buy this (I don’t have to attend a NASCAR rally to know I won’t like it), I did, eventually, decide to “sit.”

Here’s a peyote peep...

Intentions (Or, Let’s Be Real, My Money)
You had to think of an intention.  As the Shaman’s wife, a deeply tan white woman with long black hair, gobs of chunky turquoise and silver jewelry, and thick bulging veins in her freckled hands, went around the circle, you whispered your intention in her ear.  She made any corrections and then looked at the Shaman who would either nod approval or offer his own suggestion.  After receiving his approval, she handed your intention back to you in an assertive whisper along with your cup of “medicine.”  My intention was to get high and see what all the fuss was about but I didn’t think that was appropriate to share.  I scrambled to think of a more suitable one.  When Mrs. Medicine, as I dubbed her, finally squatted in front of me, on admirably flexible hips, I said in my best dramatic whisper that I wanted to develop more spirituality in my life.  She nodded slowly, maintaining eye contact and repeated back to me, “You are realizing that you need help, that you need spiritual guidance and healing in your life.” Her smile made me want to alternately jump into her arms and slap her.  I felt 3 and 30 years old at the same time. Damn, I thought, she had my inner child screaming to be loved and cradled while my outer-adult was telling my inner child to sit down, shut up, and pay attention to me instead of her.

Mrs. Medicine handed me my cup of medicine.  I drank it, vomited, as is expected, and then got down to the business of being high.  The first time I tried peyote, it was at a beach party in Santa Cruz, California.  Everyone did their own thing.  I walked around enjoying the warm summer night air, the sound of birds singing and the ocean waves lapping rhythmically. When I needed to, I would lie down and let whatever experience was happening occur.  When I wanted to move, I would get up and move. It was a fun, powerful, and surprisingly moving experience.  This, on the other hand,  felt more like school work.  Everyone had to stay in the circle.  We were told quite specifically that we could not leave the circle and it was strongly implied that we were to keep sitting cross-legged.  No laying down or cloud gazing during this trip.  The Shaman informed us that it was necessary to keep the circle intact for energetic principles and to protect our spiritual space which was more vulnerable when earth elements opened to sky and wind elements.  It seemed like straight up supervision to both me and my inner child but I relented, put my punk rock ethos aside and, proudly, neither one of us tried to start a revolt by demanding to lie under a tree.  I watched the fire and let any last yearning for a solo trip dissolve into the ascending sparks.  My body began to melt and I settled in for the ride.

From The Mouth Of Mrs. Medicine
She crouched, brushing her long black hair away from her eyes in a practiced gesture, leaned in to listen to yet another intention, once again silently cursing her bum knee which cracked loudly each time she squatted.  She re-worked the intention while studying the face before her just like she had been taught.  Was the face open? Guarded? Fearful? Excited? Eyes darting? Gaze downward? It all mattered.  She learned to read faces and body language at a very young age, the child of two addicted and unpredictable parents.  She fine tuned the art of interweaving an intention with whatever she read in someone’s expression, just like  she had fine-tuned her attractiveness to the Shaman.  You have a gift, he told her more than once.  A gift that had been alluring to him.  It had been enough in the beginning.  Not any more.  She looked over at the Shaman, smiling serenely, keeping watch on everyone.  She recalled their argument earlier.  He was tired of her jealousy.  She was sick of his endless flirting.  Especially with the younger women.  He insisted it was just healing fatherly-love energy, but she wondered.   It seemed like his gaze landed too long and too often on places fatherly gazes should not linger.  She snapped herself back to the face in front of her.  Open. Waiting. Good, she thought.  Easy.  She murmured back the intention, “You are becoming more aware of how self protective you are and you are deepening your consciousness of the energy blocks you hold.  You need help to unblock.”  The face nodded eagerly.  She looked back over at the Shaman, he was watching her with his Eagle-Eyes.  Those eyes meant she would have to hear what she had done wrong later at home.  She tried not to think about it as she squatted in front of the next person.  Questioning face.  New to this.  Nervous.  “You are afraid of yourself, of what you will discover.  You need to let yourself be held.” She whispered, keeping eye contact, smiling slightly and nodding once authoritatively.  The face before her smiled back with obvious relief.  Bingo.  She felt, rather than saw, David the fire keeper move behind her.  Goddamn dork, she sighed. He was a good kid, but nervous all the time. Frantic, really, trying to do everything perfectly.  He worshiped the Shaman unconditionally.  They all did, but David did so with a desperation that bordered on hysterical.  She sighed again and squatted in front of the next face, bracelets jangling, knee popping, chin angled, cup held aloft, her ear open to hear yet another desperately whispered intention.

Keeping The Home Fires Burning
Counter clockwise. Then clockwise.  Stir the fire gently, then blow at the bottom. Otherwise smoke and ashes will spray all over people.  “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he berated himself as ash scattered in the wind.  He had been honored, at long last, with keeping the fire and didn’t want to mess it up.  He wanted a title, a title and a role.  He desperately wanted these things, hoping they would disintegrate the “dork,” “dumb ass,” “shitbag” titles he grew up with and finally severe his seemingly endless role as his father’s verbal and sometimes physical punching bag.  Let’s see Jimmy Wagner tend a fire, he murmured to himself.  Jimmy, a strawberry blond jock with the power to charm venom from a snake, was also meaner than a viper and had directed his rage at David throughout their high school years.  Teachers never believed that Jimmy would stoop to bullying and all but called David a liar.  David’s dad would scream at him to grow a pair and stop complaining.  He would yell at David, spittle flying from his thin bloodless lips, as he told him that he’s the one who should be complaining, having a bean stock smart ass son rather than the football playing, iron pumping son he  deserved.  “Tough break, snot nose.” he would tell David, cuffing him on the back of the head.

David loved sitting in ceremonies.  They saved him.  “Literally, saved me,” he often thought remembering how he had been looking up “suicide + methods” on the internet the same day he saw a flyer for the church on the downtown coffee shop community bulletin board.  The Shaman respected David and he grew more confident under his tutelage.  The Shaman believed in David.  He told him he could tend fire, an enormous privilege, once he sat long enough.  David worked two jobs that winter so he could sit over and over.  At the ceremonies, he wasn’t “David the dork,” he was respected and appreciated. He loved being responsible for the fire. Dashing around, crouching on his haunches, he felt a gush of pride that he could squat so deeply.  It made him feel more spiritual.  He was sure that he was connecting directly to The Divine.  In yoga class, he breathed more deeply, more slowly and more loudly than everyone else.  He even thought he was starting to look like an Indian. He had dark hair long enough to tuck behind his ear or pull back in a ponytail.  He was tan from being outside all summer sitting in ceremonies and tending fires.  David liked thinking that as he shed his boyhood identity as a dork and dumb ass, he was also transcending his born identity.  He knew he could never be Native American per se, but the Shaman had told him he carried special energy that made him unique.  He was appreciated by the Shaman and his wife, even though he thought she looked at him with annoyance sometimes.  She was just under a great deal of pressure lately, he told himself.  The two of them were running three ceremonies a weekend and as the church grew, everyone had more responsibilities.  He loved it.  He spent as much time as he could at the church and in ceremony.  When he was away for too long, he felt like his true self began to fade and his old identity as his father’s punching bag would begin to materialize.  He hated that feeling and fought to push it down.  The medicine helped.  Thank God for the church, he muttered. Thank God for medicine.  He leapt from his crouch and kept moving, counter clock wise, then clockwise, then kneel and stir the fire gently by blowing at the bottom...again, and again and again....

Guilt Is A feeling, (Not A Disease)
He looked just like Indians did in the movies, except without the headdress, the feathers and all that other stuff.  Majestic, that’s it.  He looked majestic.  And, powerful.  She needed help, she knew that much.  Her life was in chaos.  Her boyfriend loved her, but her family hated him.  Her after-school church group was no longer a refuge.  She and her boyfriend had been intimate and that was a bell she could never un-ring. Not that she wanted to, but the guilt was so strong inside her.  It felt like a beast growing in her belly. A beast that would periodically take over her, make her say and do things she would later regret.  She hated this guilt, wanted it yanked from her, pulled out by the roots.  The Shaman’s wife told her that guilt was a disease and that sitting in ceremony would help her get well.  She believed her.  It felt like a disease, or a tumor, and it made sense that there was medicine to fix it.  She reached over and clasped Mike’s hand.  He was a good boyfriend. He stood by her. When her dad called her those filthy names, Mike held her while she cried, rubbed her back and told her she was a good person.  They both had risked being kicked out of their church, but it didn’t matter as much now.  They had a whole new community.  A place to go. A circle of love and support.  She could feel it.  She looked around at all the faces and then at the Shaman.  He radiated love.  He was solid, strong.  He told her that he could remove her guilt like sucking snake poison from her soul.  He said that once this was done, she could truly be the person she was meant to be.  He would remove the darkness that blinded her.  She trusted this.  She did feel blind.  She wished the Shaman and his wife could be her parents.  She just knew that if she had them for parents she would be confident, sure of herself and that things would be ok.  Of course, you can’t pick your parents.  She smiled as she remembered her real father telling her this when they were fighting on the way to Yosemite for a family summer vacation.  Her new friend Mary, who had been sitting for a long time, told her while she couldn’t choose her biological family, she could choose her new family.  She told her this new family loved her, accepted her and would always be there for her.  Thank goodness for the Shaman, she thought, as she felt the medicine radiate in her heart and her fingers began to tingle.  Everything will be ok.  He will take care of everything.

Never Look Back
He was tired.  His knees hurt. He didn’t want to finish the closing ceremony.  He had to go around the entire circle, stopping at each participant and good God, he was happy that the church was growing, but the circle was big and he was tired.  Really fucking tired.  He and his wife had been arguing earlier that morning about how his flirting with the young women was embarrassing to her.  They hadn’t had sex in over a month.  He needed to get laid.  His wife?  Goddamn, couldn’t she just see how hard he worked for them?  It cost a lot of money to do this. Peyote, fire wood, the mortgage on the house and on the church, transportation for the volunteers, park permits.  It all added up.  He worked hard. He deserved some of the good life.  Deserved to not be nagged so much.  Deserved some peace.  He moved on to the next participant.  She had blue eyes that slapped you in the face like waves hitting sand.   He was seeing more young activists like her at the church and man, they made him work hard.  They questioned everything.  He whooshed the eagle feather up the right side of her body, chanting, singing, then whispering to her, “You are strong. Much spiritual energy.”  He used the broken English vernacular he reverted to when he wanted to cut to through their defenses, cut to the core, cut to the fucking chase, he thought. “You are special.  A leader.”  She looked up at him when he said leader, her blue eyes still guarded but more open, questioning. “That is why I chose you for Eagle Feather.  You have great power.”  He flicked the feather around her head maintaining eye contact, watching her shoulders, looking for soft spots, vulnerabilities. “This one may take more work even still,” he thought with a tired sigh. He finished with a grand flourish, circling his wrists, snapping the feather tip lightly and finally enveloping her in an energetic hug.  Sometimes they just need to be held.  You can feel their muscles twitching then slackening as they lean into him, their big, safe, Indian Father.  Even the men, most of them longed to be loved and held by a strong and compassionate father figure and he could certainly provide that.  He held onto her, waiting through her first, second and even third slight pulling away, and then he squeezed just a little more, chanting ever so softly.  She stepped back when he released her. Looked at him, then looked down. Good, he thought.  A tough and edgy woman like her would be valuable for the church.  She could bring in a new demographic.  He nodded at her, using his Eagle-Eyes and then walked away slowing.  He didn’t look back at her. Never look back, he had learned.  It kept them wanting more.

Why is it always an Eagle?
I watched his deeply lined face, wondering how old he was as he flicked the eagle feather up and down my body. The small wisps of air felt intimate and vaguely sensual.  I refrained from taking a step back while I wondered if I felt uncomfortable because he seemed so intent on making me feel special, or because his gaze seemed slightly manipulative.  He used broken English, which I though was unnecessarily dramatic.  “You have great power.” He said in a breathy whisper, lowering the feather and clasping me in a bear hug.  I let him hold me for a few seconds then tried once, twice, and a third time to pull away.  He waited a beat after this then released me.

The ceremony ended, we packed up and headed back to our guest house.  The rest of the weekend was pleasant enough.  We had a communal dinner, went swimming, discussed local development projects and explored good hiking spots.  On our final day I had my “exit interview.”

She called herself Eagle Soaring.  As we sat at a big wooden table, sipping green tea, she watched me with sharp brown eyes and peppered me with questions. “What did you learn from the ceremony?” “ What work do you need to do to continue your journey?”  She shared what the Shaman thought I needed to do including a detox cleanse, Reiki and an herbal tincture.  She asked when I was planning to sit again and if I had other friends or family who could benefit from sitting. I was told to expect that there would be people who would not understand ceremonies and was offered talking points on how to counter their ignorance and prejudice.  She clasped my hand with chubby, amethyst adorned fingers and told me I could always count on the community here to support, love and hold me.  I was encouraged to keep sitting, keep expanding my consciousness.  If one ceremony was good, another was better.  I thought of Milton Freeman’s free market principles and how expansion-capitalism modalities were never in service of the poor and working class.  Maybe I was just being stingy and transcendence-adverse because at $250 a peyote pop, “more as better” was simply out of my price-range.  I told Soaring Eagle how much I appreciated the experience and said something vague about when I planned to sit again.  I had the feeling that if I told her I was not planning to sit, she would organize another Eagle Feather or energy ritual of some kind.  And I was ready to be home.  I had no intention of sitting again.  Not only did I not have the disposable income, I was uncomfortably aware of the intensely operational energy under the ceremonial flare.  These people were running a business.  My special eagle feather ritual and exit interview with Soaring Eagle were part of the hard sell.  As the plane took off whisking me back to Seattle, I wondered why it was always an Eagle.  White people never name themselves or their retreats and rituals after a tiger, dog, elephant, red ant, or queen bee--which are all fantastic animals.  Why not a ground hog drum circle?

I got home late, tired and hungry. I ate a dinner of heated up leftovers.  After dinner, I crawled into bed and settled under my covers, loving my bedroom, my pillows, my bed.  It felt good to be home.  As I dozed off, feeling the cool pillow on my cheek, a voice whispered quietly in my head, “What if you are wrong? What if you are just being cynical?  Why cut yourself off from the love and acceptance these people are offering? You will be alone and unloved when you could be loved and accepted.”  I froze.  For a few heartbeats I couldn’t breathe or move.  I waited for the voice to pass, my body tense and guarded as a deep panic pulsed throughout my body.  I thought to myself, “What if the voice was right?” “What if I was cutting off the very thing I really needed?”  I don’t remember falling asleep.  I woke the next morning with a jolt.  As I lay back down under my comforter, feeling the morning light sprinkle across my closed eyes, I recalled the voice and shuddered.  This was powerful stuff.  The capacity to get under one’s skin, inside one’s head this way.  “This is the stuff of cults,” I thought. “The cult of wannabe Eagles lead by Mr. Shh-shh-shh-Shaman,” I giggled trying to insert some levity into the slowly pulsing panic that had begun to rise inside me.  Besides feeling caught off guard by the whispering voice in my head and unsettled by the actual doubt it inspired in me, I was anxious.  The rituals, the ceremonies, the fancy feathers and flashy flourishes were seducing.  The illusion of ancient history, the offering of a family, and a leader who would provide you with answers, all of these were very alluring. It was difficult to feel anxious, alone, uncertain and, at the same time, not want what they offered: security, certainty, family.  Doubt and insecurity continued to burrow in the deepest parts of me.  After a few minutes, though, this began to piss me off. “Get the fuck out of my head, Mr. Shamtastic!” I shouted silently.  It worked for a while, but I knew he would be back.  Voices like his, voices that have a certain resonance, a particular tone that play on the shadows of uncertainty would always return.