Meeting Iboga

The ceremony was held at a secluded location on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast on the weekend of Nov. 18 to 20, 2011. It was organized by a young man from our west coast region and led by two experienced iboga ceremony leaders from Britain, Sean and Steve. There’s a lengthy interview with them from last spring on this site.

When I met Sean and Steve on that earlier visit I was impressed with their experience, sincerity and commitment to the work. Since then I had been carrying the idea of doing the ceremony on a not-too-far-back shelf in my brain. As the scheduled date for the event drew nearer, the pieces fell into place easily for this opportunity – usually a good sign.

The interview and my accompanying essay Iboga: The Holy Wood Which Cares for Us present enough information about the background and use of this master plant medicine that I don’t need to repeat here. The intention of this essay is primarily to tell the story of my own experience with the medicine as an example of the way a contemporary westernized ceremony could be conducted. Though neither Sean nor Steve are members of the Bwiti religion that spawned this new direction, it was clear from the way they conducted themselves and the ceremony that they have great respect for both the tradition and the medicine. They’ve adapted some of the core approaches from that tradition and created a hybrid that has developed out of their own extensive experience with this and other medicines as well as other spiritually focused ritual practices.

In the week leading up to the ceremony I followed the dietary guidelines of avoiding coffee, alcohol, and other intoxicants as well as cannabis and other psychoactive plant medicines. I also made a point of meditating most days and sending out some intentions. They say that once you make the commitment to go to the ceremony the iboga spirit begins to work with you. I can’t say for a fact that happened to me but I can say that I experienced some unusually intense physical challenges. For over a month my shoulder and neck area were in a continual state of at least semi-seizure. I mean they were sore and for that full length of time I couldn’t turn my head completely in either direction. That may not sound extreme for some people but it was highly unusual for me.

Then about a week before the ceremony the muscles and tendons in the backs of both of my legs got really tight and sore. You might experience something like it if you seriously overstretched those muscles. I could barely bend forward and some nights sleep was repeatedly interrupted by the discomfort. I had never experienced anything like it and I began to wonder, between these two areas of discomfort and tightness, if the body was going to stand in the way of focusing on the effects of the medicine. Now, after the event, I still have no idea what those physical attacks were about. There was some excitation beforehand but not any major stressful conditions in my life at the time. My best guess is that the iboga spirit was ratcheting up the energy level since the symptoms often started or worsened during the night. Interestingly though, except for one vivid dream about my birth the night before the ceremony, the couple of weeks previous evoked no recollected dreams whatsoever, also not a standard situation for me.

In an interesting ‘coincidence,’ when I mentioned my body reactions to K., one of the other participants, he said he’d been going through something very similar with his neck and shoulder. Even more interesting, K. turned to me on Sunday morning and asked how my body was doing. It was only at that moment I realized that since sometime on Friday evening there had been no hint of discomfort in any part of my body. K. responded by announcing that the same thing had happened with his neck.

Back to Friday. With my two carpool companions in tow, I arrived at the center around 3 p.m. Sean and Steve, as I hope will become clear in this recounting, were very thorough and caring in their approach throughout the weekend. One of the first agenda items for them was to make sure we had time to land, so the first few hours were unstructured. We got ourselves set up with mattresses and bedding around the perimeter of the large pre-fab yurt, went for strolls on the beach, or hung out around the fireplace in the livingroom of the main house. We were encouraged to keep as silent as possible for those hours in preparation for the encounter with the medicine.

As part of that preparation, over the course of those several quiet hours each of us was invited to sit down one on one with Sean for about 15 minutes to talk about our intentions and clear up any confusions. That nice touch was part of the careful nurturing attention directed our way by the two leaders.

We finally gathered in the yurt around 9 in the evening and the ceremony officially began with gratitude and petitions to the spirit winds of the four directions and the accompanying lighting of candles in the center of the room. As Sean made his plea to each of the four cardinal directions Steve lit the tea candle facing that way. Then Steve made petitions to the four intercardinal positions and lit tea candles facing in those directions. Finally Sean called upon and thanked Mother Earth and Father Sky as Steve lit the large central candle which would continue burning until the ceremony was closed on Sunday morning.

This was followed by some insightful information about how to approach the medicine. My main recollection of that was for us to essentially get out of the way and let the medicine do its work, that is, to try to avoid expectations and fixed ideas and just go with whatever experience came along no matter how radically different from anything we had imagined.

Steve then passed a talking stick around the circle for each participant to share his or her intentions for the journey. We were advised to listen closely and not to think about what we wanted to say while the others were speaking. We were also asked to avoid laundry lists and just speak briefly from the heart about what was most important to us at that time. The results were simple and sincere, with a couple of the participants speaking quite vulnerably about the difficulties they had been going through and their hope for some insight into and relief from those problems.

Ironically perhaps, Sean kept the medicine—a finely ground, dry, powder-like substance—in a small plastic Wiser’s whiskey bottle. After a brief description of how to take the medicine—a small slug of water first, throw the medicine back quickly, and follow with another slug to wash it down the hatch—we retreated to our corners. All lights were then extinguished except the central candle and soon after Sean came around with the whiskey bottle and tapped out a capful of the powder-dry medicine for each of us. Their intention was, as Sean put it, to step us up bit by bit. He told us he would come around every hour throughout the night with another capful for each of us. He said he would ask us how we were handling the medicine up to that point and use our feedback to determine the total amount he would serve to each person.

As promised, this ritual continued through the night, culminating in nine rounds, although not everyone ate on each round. I felt quite queasy for a while late into the wee hours and begged off for two of the rounds. Meanwhile, all was still, almost fully dark, and with no accompanying music or other distracting sounds. Steve also pointed out that they would take care of everything we needed and that we were not to focus on anything happening with the other participants. We were each to meet the iboga on our own in silent darkness.

Some readers may wonder about the taste, especially those who have worked with other medicines like ayahuasca and peyote, both of which can be very bitter. Ayahuasca in particular can provoke shudders upon ingestion. Iboga, or the wood, as Sean and Steve both prefer to call it, is indeed bitter, but the batch we ate wasn’t nearly as intense as any of the ayahuasca I’ve imbibed.

Another likely question for some will be: “Do you vomit with this medicine as is so common with ayahuasca?” The answer, if our event provided any kind of reliable sample, is yes. Most of the eleven participants purged at least once, some several times, and a couple many times over the course of the weekend. It’s apparently well known that, unlike the usual ayahuasca purging experience, one is not necessarily going to suddenly feel that all the toxins have been expelled after an iboga purge. Some at our event felt cleared afterward and some didn’t. I had a low grade and unshifting quease going throughout Friday night and all day Saturday before finally cleaning out the cauldrons late Saturday evening.

Although my intention isn’t to make this a comparison study between iboga and ayahuasca, there are some distinct similarities and since a lot of people have now experienced ayahuasca, it can serve as a useful reference point. The purging issue is an example. According to Sean the purge does, as with ayahuasca, expel psychic toxins. You might not feel completely free of nausea after the heave, but he said that if you didn’t it was an indication there was still more psychic material to be cleared.

Those I spoke with, and myself as well, had experienced some anxiety flutters about the rumored potency of iboga. Sean and Steve had both on occasion made reference to this intensity. They spoke of the journey as a kind of death, a bardo-like experience where the participant is removed from consensual reality and drawn into a deep inner environment.  They mentioned in the interview that they always conduct a lengthy phone consultation with interested participants so that both they and the would-be participant can ascertain his or her readiness to meet this powerful spirit. An indication of their respect for the potency of this medicine is that sometimes they suggest the person work with ayahuasca for awhile before venturing into the deep waters of the iboga experience.

Although the weekend was unquestionably powerful  intense, and challenging, the general sense I got was that for many, that was about as much due to the gruelling endurance factor as from the medicine’s extreme potency. As I said, Sean continued to feed us medicine throughout the night, interviewing us in whispered tones beside our mattresses to see if we were up to eating more. I think most of us took a capful on most of the rounds and no one ran out of the yurt screaming and tearing out chunks of hair.

There was actually a quietness about the ceremony that you would not always find in an ayahuasca ceremony, other than the periodic bursts of purging. In ayahuasca ceremonies the shaman typically sings the spirit songs called ícaros through much of the ceremony and, at least in my experience, there are often a few—usually minor—disturbances as the medicine casts some seekers into heavy seas. I think we in this group really were deep in our inner/other worlds for a lengthy stretch of time and mostly remained quite still. Apart from Sean’s hourly rounds, we were left undisturbed from about midnight on Friday evening until around 4 p.m. on Saturday, at which time someone brought in a platter of mixed fruits and berries and called us to the center of the room to replenish our energy.

By then we had been through the inner world for around sixteen hours, some struggling to some extent with limiters thrown up by the ever unwilling ego and others drifting and floating far from the comforting shores of home base. For me the barrage of visions was continuous throughout the night and day. Apparently each person experiences the medicine in his or her own unique way so my experience may offer no reliable signposts for others. Upon hearing my brief description of the qualities of the visions Sean however did say that they sounded very iboga-like.

However that may be, these visions were very different from anything I had encountered before with ayahuasca, psilocybe mushrooms, peyote, Salvia divinorum, or LSD. For one they were, as I implied, relentless and rapidly changing. They came on in a constant stream, a seemingly random grab-bag of wildly varying scenes with no immediately apparent pattern or meaning.

The quiet I spoke of seemed also to inhabit my inner world. One experience by one person is obviously insufficient for drawing any general conclusions. For what it’s worth, for me this journey didn’t include the intense emotions that I’ve often experienced with other entheogens. With some of the other medicines, such as peyote, ayahuasca, and psilocybe mushrooms, there has usually been an extended period of love and compassion as they intensity of the journey began to ease. Ayahuasca in particular tends to evoke compassion for me as it settles down. This medicine had a coolness about it, as if it might say, “Okay, there’s work to do here and we’ll just go about it without fanfare.”

I’ll bring ayahuasca in once more as a marker point for the style of the visionary journey. Although I heard differing accounts in the sharing session held on Sunday morning, my visions seemed to have none of the sweeping symbolic power, portent, and brilliance of previous ayahuasca visions. I remember cluttered environments like the cement floor of an unused factory, a table top with scattered items, brief cartoonish scenes, and just about any other snippet the gods could dump out of their kit bag. Colors on the whole were desaturated.

And all this came by in the briefest of passages. Or should I say, I came by them, because during much of the time it wasn’t the visual scenes doing the traveling, it was me. I spent a lot of time floating through, past, and above these various scenarios, sometimes pulling up and away like a silent airship rising quickly from the ground and much of the time simply floating slowly along like a helium balloon cast adrift and floating through uncomprehended scenarios.

Maybe it sounds as though I’m complaining or somehow denigrating the experience. I will confess that I had moments of judgement, wondering what this all had to do with anything meaningful, especially in that the barrage lasted for so many hours. But here’s the thing. At a certain point it dawned on me that there was only going to be one way to deal with this situation and that was to let go of any thought or interpretation and just keep coming back to the breath, just as in my lifelong simple mindfulness/awareness meditation practice.

That approach worked much better. It removed the temporal element so that in the end the many hours lying still didn’t feel so long. And when I looked back at that stretch of time from the much refreshed vantage point of Sunday morning, I began to see that, just as Sean and Steve had indicated at the beginning, something was working beneath the radar that wasn’t registering in the domain of the intellect or the recognizable territory of past experience. I then also began to realize that there was a pattern to the seeming non-pattern. The teaching was itself this reminder to stop trying to make sense of the experiences and just keep returning to presence. Perhaps the nearly endless parade of random imagery was on some level also a symbolic visual representation of the huge “junk” pile of thoughts that stream through consciousness and no doubt often linger in some dusty storage room in the brain.

One pattern I was able to discern was a repeated scene or dream in which I felt I had to do something, a feeling not uncommon in my daily life. Each time I wracked my brain for what I had to do, I began to feel confused. At that point another countervailing thought occurred to me: You don’t have to do this, you just need to breathe and be present. This has been the biggest surprise for me about iboga’s mysterious and subtle ways and at this point probably the greatest teaching: We don’t need to reach for those ‘things’ we carry in our heads that we think we need. The whole pattern of our known world creates a limiting gridwork around our awakened minds that keeps us stuck in repetitive, habitual patterns. It’s something about trusting life, trusting the wholistic experience of the now, allowing some space around the compulsions that keep pulling us out of the now.

A key word here is “control.” Ego’s survival strategy finds us continually trying to shape experience and squeeze it into boxes with labels based on past experience. Rather than meeting the moment with what some Buddhist teachers have called the “don’t know mind” or “beginner’s mind,” we’re always attempting to exert our personal version of mind control over experience. The unconditioned, indestructible awakened mind within, in this situation via the medium of the iboga plant spirit, is calling us to let go of control and allow things to be as they are. I recognized during this iboga journey that that control mechanism is more subtle and persistent than I had previously seen, like a computer program running silently in the background while one goes about other tasks.

On Sunday morning, after listening to us all briefly outline the nature of our experiences during the journey, Steve, in his cheerfully amused way, told us that whatever story we were telling ourselves about the success or failure of our encounter with the medicine wasn’t the core of what had happened—and was still happening, maybe even just beginning. Our job is to give the medicine the space and simplicity to do its work. They called it a thirty-three day ceremony: three days for the event itself and another thirty during which time they said the medicine would keep working in us.

For that reason they cautioned us to keep ourselves as simple as possible during the follow-up month, continuing to avoid alcohol, coffee, and other strong intoxicants and mind-altering substances. Sean talked about how iboga goes in and pulls up the roots. He stressed that the space created by the meeting with the iboga spirit would allow those sticky patterns that hold us down to come to the surface during these next few weeks. He said that this would be a rare opportunity to see this material rising into consciousness and to work on releasing the little demons that bedevil us.

Continuing on that track, he then made it clear that if we failed to see the old ego-based habitual patterns arise they would come around again soon enough and even stronger until, perhaps slapped hard in the face, we would be forced to recognize them for what they are and not blindly fall yet again into acting out our unproductive, nowness-obscuring patterns of behavior.

After the fruit break late Saturday afternoon we were left alone again for a few more hours until two large glass dishes containing a simple, unspiced casserole of a rice-like grain with chopped root vegetables like yam on top. If the others were in any condition similar to mine at that point, a real appetite had not yet returned. I suspect that like me, most of the others ate to gather strength. By then we had eaten either nothing or precious little since Thursday evening, two days prior.

After this light meal, served around 9 p.m., our caregivers announced that more medicine would be served and then we would dance. Perhaps observing some surprised looks, they explained that it would feel much different this time now that we had been through the peak period and had grounded ourselves somewhat with the food. The dancing, they said, would also contribute to a different and less intense experience of the medicine.

Although I wasn’t watching everyone closely, I don’t think anyone took the full compliment of three to five servings suggested by Sean. For myself, one capful combined with the dancing was enough to activate the long held queasiness and bring on an unrestrained purge within the hour. Sean, ever attentive and nurturing, told me later he was very happy to see that energy finally move and clear my system.

The purpose of the dancing, as Steve and Sean discussed in some detail in the interview on my website, is to bring everyone back from the other worlds and into their bodies. They used a recording of Bwiti music—simple, repetitive melodic and rhythmic motifs played on some sort of traditional mouth bow instrument. For the next hour and a half we stepped and swayed to the pulse of the music in a circle around the central candle. In that interview Steve had said that it was essential to keep dancing until he could clearly see that everyone was back. He said that otherwise people might leave the ceremony the following day still ungrounded and not fully back in their bodies.

By the time they turned off the music it was after midnight and we were encouraged to get some sleep. Although the medicine was still moving in me enough that I doubted the likelihood, forty hours without sleep was apparently enough to invite the call. I was out within minutes and slept well until around 8 a.m.

Steve had suggested we clean up our bedding and accessories from the yurt, take showers to cleanse and clear the mind/body from the long inner trek, then gather in the main house for a breakfast of cereals, nuts, bread, juice, and herbal tea.

At around 11 a.m. we reconvened in a circle in the yurt for a sharing session and some parting wisdom and advice from Sean and Steve. Considering what we had been through I was struck by how fresh everyone looked. Steve suggested we spare each other much of the detail and speak simply from the heart about what struck us most about the journey. If I could offer a generalized summary of that sharing, the phrase that comes first to mind is: a humble gratitude. With a couple of possible exceptions, and again without really being able to get a rational handle on what had occurred, it seemed that people felt the medicine had done its work.

I’m writing now a little over four weeks after the ceremony. I can’t honestly say I know what happened and what the impact has been. What I do know is that something has been working in me during these past thirty days. I feel as though I’ve been shaken up. One of the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist practices I did years ago as part of the Four Foundation—or ngondro—practices, was known as prostrations. We were asked to visualize the  lineage tree of wisdom masters and with eyes closed do prostrations to the lineage tree while offering up our obstacles and neuroses. People doing this practice often said that it provoked a state of “heightened neurosis,” where the existing neurotic patterns were stronger and more present than usual.

In line with the way Sean spoke of how those obstacles, now pulled up like buried roots, would present themselves to consciousness, I think I’ve been experiencing something like it since the ceremony. I’ve been more moody and sensitive than usual, more easily thrown off balance, more likely to feel the knife go in sharply when treated harshly, and in need of more sleep than is the norm for me. I’m not prepared to claim that I’ve been always able to take the attitude of viewing this arising material dispassionately, as what my old Buddhist teacher called “temporary vomit.” I seem to have been hooked and hoodwinked at times by the power of some of the heightened energies. If Sean’s observation is correct, I may expect to see some of this material—these pulls out of balance and out of nowness—come calling around again.

Not all the heightening has been from the dark side of the street however. I’ve also been falling in love a lot—with trees and skies and wind and my friends and my sister’s fluffy puppy and the gracious young woman at the corner store, to rhyme off a few. My longtime love of photography has also increased to a devotional passion to honor and register the beauty around me.

One final comparison to the ayahuasca experience. This again may be different for everyone, although a friend who knows several people who have experienced iboga told me recently that she has heard something similar from them. Though ayahuasca experiences can be powerful and no doubt on occasion life altering, the after-effects of any single encounter seem not to leave such a long wake as with the iboga. A month later, though I’m hard pressed to find language for it, the effects of the iboga medicine are clearly still working on me. As I’ve indicated above, when I get caught in the grip of little demons the pull has sometimes been stronger, and when I’m able to empty into presence that too has at times felt deeper and clearer.

Knowing I intended to write about the whole journey around the iboga ceremony, several of the other participants wrote me short descriptions of their personal experience. I wasn’t able to find much commonality in those reports except for one thing. Though everyone experienced the ceremony and its aftermath differently, as I read between the lines I sensed that, just as Steve had advised, something other than our story was running beneath the radar. Based on those few testimonials and my own experience of the medicine, my tentative conclusion is that iboga does pretty much what elders in the Native American Church say the peyote medicine does—it shows you yourself and through the clarity it provokes, gives you the opportunity to examine and hopefully release obstacles to awakening.

May all beings be free from suffering.

Stephen.

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