Bumper sticker on a beat up Honda: Question Reality
Four men work on muddy ground in front of a pyramid-shaped home. They cut open webbed bags of firewood and lay logs in alternating directions over a four-meter stretch of ground. They stuff gaps with newspaper and begin a second tier. The pile will be close to a meter wide and a meter high when completed. It will burn for hours until nothing remains but bright orange coals. Then they will rake them flat and walk barefoot on them.
What I am wondering: why?
“When you walk on coals, you come to understand you are more than just your body,” Margus Aru tells me. Margus is a friend of a friend of my wife, Janika, and he’s agreed to show a scouting crew from Michael Palin’s BBC travel show how he walks on coals. Because Janika made the introductions and arrangements for the crew, I’ve been invited to tag along. Margus supervises the fire’s construction. A good, even burn is best for walking. “The fire walk helps you understand that you are connected to what’s around you,” he says, packing the logs tighter. “That, like the fire, your body is energy.”
Margus lives in the pyramid behind us and believes the shape of his home channels energy of the universe, putting him closer to the source. He believes sleeping in a pyramid shoots energy directly into his body.
Margus tells me not to make a decision about coal walking now. He’s assumed anyone present is a serious candidate to walk on fire, including the British scouts. In theory, I’d like to do it. I’m interested in anything I’m afraid of. But I’m here mainly because of my wife. She has walked several times and lived to tell about it.
“You should wait and see how you feel.” Margus senses my hesitation. “People usually decide at the very last moment.” Like Margus’s four-year-old child, Kristjan. Margus nods to the happy blond boy on the trampoline. “Last fall he took off his shoes and walked across the coals. Afterwards, I asked him if it was hot. Kristjan answered: ‘Was it supposed to be?’”
How dangerous can it be, I wonder, if they let little kids do it?
Until I met my wife, I associated coal walking with tropical climates and painted warriors in National Geographic television specials. But it is nothing remarkable in Estonia. That is not to say coal walking is the national pastime, but the mention of practices connected to shamanism will generally not draw a strange glance in a country where nõiad, literally “witches,” appear occasionally in newspapers to comment on everything from politics to the competency of their peers.
Several years ago, Estonian witches jockeyed for position in the local press, some suggesting others might be charlatans, one even taking a potshot at Estonia’s only raja yogi—Gunnar Aarma, now deceased—saying Aarma slept inside a faulty pyramid. Usually, though, Estonian witches keep a low profile and, at least publicly, do not argue.
Many witches work as healers or psychologists and offer health remedies and advice only when approached. Some require a fee for their services. Others accept money only if offered, and others, such as Aarma, categorically refuse compensation.
Aarma, in addition to being Estonia’s most famous “witch,” was Estonia’s most unusual. Born into a wealthy family in 1916, his university education carried him throughout Europe, from Tartu University (Estonia) to Oxford to the Sorbonne to Jena (central Germany), where his PhD remained uncompleted when he found himself on the wrong side of the German-Polish border on the first of September, 1939. A year earlier, Aarma had completed his raja yogi exam in Paris. Aarma worked as a journalist, knew Eva Braun, interviewed Hitler, and counseled Hemingway. He married in early 1941, and in June of the same year his entire family was arrested and deported to Siberia. In interviews, Aarma said the Soviets generally sent all family heads to death camps, and he survived only because he and his family were living under the same roof with his father on Tallinn’s Müürivahe Street. Aarma and his family spent the next seventeen years in labor camps, Aarma himself somehow eluding seven death sentences. Eventually, they were allowed to return to Estonia, though he was considered a significant enough threat to the state that he was prohibited from living in the capital. He was sent to the resort town of Pärnu where he taught piano. In the 1990s, after Estonian independence, Aarma finally reclaimed his father’s house in Tallinn. He died in 2001 and was without a doubt Estonia’s favorite witch. He led a quiet, modest life, open to interviews, authored a few books himself, but often suggested that those curious about the subject of shamanism read Carlos Castañeda.
While Estonians perhaps no longer worship trees, it is not uncommon to see one literally hugging a tree (my wife) or to encounter one talking to a tree, seeking permission to cut it down (farmers and foresters).
Aarma’s popularity is only one explanation for Estonians’ openness to witchcraft. Estonians converted to Christianity at the point of a sword in the thirteenth century, though many claim they never stopped being pagans. Even through Soviet times they celebrated Midsummer’s Night with bonfires (and copious quantities of alcohol), and they never lost their reverence for the land. A walk through the forest with even an uneducated Estonian can feel like a botanist-guided nature tour. While Estonians perhaps no longer worship trees, it is not uncommon to see one literally hugging a tree (my wife) or to encounter one talking to a tree, seeking permission to cut it down (farmers and foresters). Many Estonians share the belief of South American shamans that cutting down a tree without legitimate purpose upsets the energetic balance of the universe.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, witchcraft moved to the fore. The KGB no longer interrogated Gunnar Aarma (it is said they once put him in a room and ordered him to levitate), and society embraced all that had been previously forbidden. Some took up organized religion. Others took up UFO spotting and alternative medicine. Some became hippies. “I see a lot of naïveté here,” a Colombia-born, western-educated, PhD-toting shaman said about Estonia. “Everything was forbidden in the Soviet time, and now they’re eager to try anything and everything. I find it wonderful.”
My wife has suffered from this wonderful naïveté. While living in the United States, she was surprised when the twelve-CDs-for-a-penny turned out to carry a twenty-five dollar shipping and handling charge. Jehovah’s Witnesses, cruising neighborhoods looking for new immigrants, those at their weakest and in need of a friend, preyed on her. But she was too strong a force, and they gave up after several tries. She ordered no more CDs, either, and became skeptical of any special offers arriving via post. But her interest in witchcraft and everything spiritual never waned.
Janika’s interest, combined with my desire to understand her avocation, led me to the pyramid people. The BBC provided the perfect rational excuse to examine the irrational. Witchcraft in the name of science. And journalism. I’ll say I’m going to write about it.
There are only six pyramids in the development, but the area, thirty kilometers from the capital Tallinn, has been zoned for an additional fifteen. I ask if the other pyramid people are free spirits like Margus. I hope to hear of “normal” people, too, who live more within the bounds of conventional society. I counted myself a fan of Gunnar Aarma for this reason. He embraced the east but kept a foot in the west.
I am surely victim of western society’s predilection for education: a crazy millionaire is eccentric; a crazy poor man is crazy. Perhaps hippies with yuppie jobs vindicate me. I hold them as examples up to my wife, whom I have unsuccessfully urged to accept money as a minor god. (I married her because she is wonderfully crazy; I am guilty of trying to make her eccentric.) I was born an American and educated in a graduate business school. I have lived the most practical and sensible existence for forty-some years. And it is impossible to take the farm out of the boy. I am fascinated by witches, but I want to make them merely human.
Margus points at the pyramid nearest his. “That man is an alchemist.” I give Margus a skeptical look. I wasn’t hoping for a banker, but I didn’t expect Harry Potter. “Okay, he’s a chemist, too, but he’s really trying to turn lead into gold.” I feel slightly vindicated.
Estonia’s pyramids follow Egyptian design: the angle of inclination is 51 degrees, 51 minutes, and 14 seconds. Witches claim they are not only suitable for positive living but ideal for growing fruit and vegetables. Some claim knives may be sharpened by placing them inside pyramids—in 1959, Karel Drbal obtained Czech patent number 91304 for his Cheops Pyramid Razor-Blade Sharpener. (Subsequent attempts to replicate pyramid sharpening power failed in scientific tests.) Some believe pyramids cure toothaches, headaches, infections, broken bones, and can regulate blood pressure. It’s said pyramid-shaped doghouses will rid Scooby of fleas. And witches will tell you that the space above the tip of the pyramid emits harmful energy. There is a widely circulated, perhaps apocryphal, story of an Oxford University student who was chronically ill. It was discovered that his roommate’s architecture project—a pyramid model—was underneath his bed. It was removed, and the student was cured. In the 1970s, “pyramid power” swept the American hippie culture. More than thirty years later, it has arrived in Estonia.
As an experiment, I once constructed a pyramid in my living room. I used eight pieces of floorboard trim left over from a remodeling project and joined them at the tip with nails and masking tape. Once inside, an errant leg caused it to collapse. Janika had supervised its construction, and I had done my best, but except for its general pyramid shape, it looked nothing like any of the “professional” home pyramids we’d found for sale on the internet. Both of us attempted to meditate in it, but neither experienced positive or negative effects. Janika pronounced my carpentry inadequate, concluding the joints were too loosely and sloppily formed to allow the proper transmission of energy.
But Margus Aru’s pyramid wasn’t built by me, and I am eager to see a proper one. Together with the BBC, we are given a tour. It is surprisingly spacious and has none of the cramped feelings I thought the roof might impart. Its interior is done almost entirely in native pine, and the space swims in light. I could live here, I think. Also, the pyramid community is completely silent in its countryside isolation. Whatever type of energy silence brings, it’s the kind I need more of.
I ask Margus if there are any noticeable differences since he moved into his pyramid four years ago. “I get sick like that!” he snaps his fingers. “But I get well just as fast.” He says negative thoughts contain far more power when they’re created inside a pyramid. “I’ve learned how much my mind can control.” Coal walking, if it holds any practical application for me, might be the same: to conquer one’s fears by learning how much power the mind truly has.
To some, like Margus, coal walking is only a first step on a spiritual journey. “Next year,” he laughs, “I’ll walk off a cliff into thin air like the Indian holy men.” I can’t decide if he’s serious. I’m pleased with myself for suspending my disbelief until this point. I decide not to ruin things with more questions.
The flames diminish, and Margus shifts the fire with a rake for an even burn. He asks us not to take photographs. “A camera activates the ego,” he says, adding that this can be dangerous when coal walking. Once, a crew from Hollywood came to Estonia and filmed coal walking. “The walkers became arrogant,” says Margus. “They were showing off. ‘Look at us! We’re coal walking!’ Three people were burned so badly they were taken to the hospital.” I’ve heard other stories about severe burns. But I’ve also heard of several thousand people crossing the coals in a single night at Tony Robbins’s seminars. The immediacy of Margus’s story wins out, and any enthusiasm I had for walking is extinguished.
Part of the preparation process for the walk involves gathering around the fire in a group. Most stare into it. Some take a lotus position and meditate. Others do stretching or breathing exercises. A few chat quietly. But little Kristjan is still on the trampoline, shrieking with joy. I ask Margus if he finds it unusual that adults require two hours of elaborate ritual to prepare, but his child will just wander over here and walk across the coals.
“It’s because he’s there,” Margus says. “When he’s on the trampoline, he’s only on the trampoline. He’s not thinking about the past or planning for the future. And when he comes here, he’ll only be here.” Kristjan hasn’t yet been taught to analyze the past and plan for the future, something adults are conditioned to do. He lives entirely in the present. “Only when thought stops,” Margus says, “are you in touch with your divine nature.” What before sounded like a New Age video sounds hauntingly believable as I sit before the fire.
Everything is quiet now. Margus takes up a bongo drum. After a few minutes, drums answer. The pyramid people join in with their own bongos and a Jew’s harp. Margus puts down his drum, rakes the coals one more time. He removes his shoes and rolls up his pant legs. He breathes. He stretches. He steps on the coals and walks the five meters briskly. He turns around and comes back. He goes again, this time with smaller steps. He seems to dance a bit.
Another man is on the coals. He easily weighs one hundred kilos. He takes large, natural steps.
Next, comes Margus’s wife. At the far end, off the coals, she performs the gassho, fingers and palms touching at her chest.
It’s Janika’s turn. She’s been standing in line, pant-legs rolled up, eyes closed. She pauses before the coals, feet together like a diver. Then she takes brisk steps across the bed. She jumps in excitement at the other end and returns to the line for another turn.
I want to walk, but I cannot. Part of the reason is the presence of the scouting crew, the relatively large number of people who are not walking. I wouldn’t mind a little group pressure, or “group energy” as Janika would term it. Part of the reason is the skeptic sitting next to me, another guest like me, whispering “This is bullshit” in my ear. He claims it’s all science, that it’s impossible to get burned if you don’t stop. But then he isn’t walking.
Watching Margus and his friends, I believe I could do it. In fact, I want to do it. I feel awful that I’m not doing it. I desperately want a first-hand understanding of what my wife is experiencing.
…the witches I’ve met cling to no dogma (unless one of open-mindedness)…
Janika’s enthusiasm for all things natural and supernatural, coupled with my American pragmatism (organic food’s fine, but I like poptarts) and desire for results (herbal solutions are nice, but for a headache I take Tylenol), has at times created problems. Her brand of witchcraft is spirituality, an embrace of the universe and all its unseen power. I sometimes wonder if our marriage is much different from those in which one spouse is a born-again Christian. Though the witches I’ve met cling to no dogma (unless one of open-mindedness), I know that Janika wishes to share what she knows. Her motives are pure: she wants to alleviate suffering and make life richer and more enjoyable. It is frustrating that someone she loves deeply resists accepting information which she believes to be fact: she knows how the universe is constructed and believes my acceptance of some basic truths would smooth my path in life. She does not actively proselytize, but her genuine enthusiasm for the subject causes it to crop up. I am the agnostic married to the born-again. Though with Janika, there is no eternal damnation, but rather a sincere disappointment that my closed mind manufactures obstacles in my life. From the outside, to friends who are close enough to see the conflict, it can appear amusing. From the inside, it begs the obvious question. When one partner knows—and the other partner is indifferent to knowing—how long can such a marriage last?
I am not here as a writer or curious observer. I am here as a husband. And not walking will do nothing to help me understand my wife. I desperately want to feel the power of the universe. Incongruously, I expect a rational act to expunge my skepticism of the mystical. I reach down and remove my shoes. But I put them right back on. Despite my desire, the moment is not right.
Margus goes again and again, finally with his two-year-old child in his arms.
Others follow. Back and forth. Again and again.
I merely observe.
The coals flicker like a city seen through the window of an airliner. We all stare into them, hypnotized by their glow.
The coal walkers have finished.
As the fire wanes, quiet conversation returns. Margus hugs everyone, those who walked and those who did not. He thanks them for coming. Margus hugs me, too, though I’ve done nothing to earn it. I chickened out before a fire on which children walked. I stood before an opportunity to better understand my wife, and I balked. I was afraid. Though it is not his intent, Margus’s hug makes me feel small. I consider that its absence would have made me feel excluded. But I don’t think Margus entertains such thoughts. To Margus, everyone around the fire is part of his circle. He acts as he feels. Something my wife would like me to do.
Finally, the fire dies. There is nothing but darkness and soft scattered voices. And in the quiet manner that is Estonian, all the guests slowly disappear, silently returning home, returning to what we call reality.
Vormsi Enn may be Estonia’s most famous living witch. Enn Mikker is his real name, though no one uses his family name. Instead, he has taken the name Vormsi—an island forty minutes from the mainland by ferry, its name grammatically a natural possessive in the Estonian language. Vormsi Enn. Given Enn’s stature in the Estonian witchcraft community, the appellation seems natural. As if he were king of the island.
When we got off the ferry, we asked the harbormaster for Vormsi Enn, and the man sent us on our way with a gesture toward a gravel lane. How far? we asked. But he had returned to his papers and couldn’t be bothered to answer, perhaps tired of the questions from pilgrims.
But we were more than pilgrims. We were guests. At the invitation of Vormsi Enn’s son, Meelis, we came to camp along with thirty employees of the advertising agency where Meelis is Creative Director. The genes of witchcraft are not hereditary, and Meelis made no claim to supernatural powers, save for the usual egotism associated with creative people in the advertising business.
A walk of several kilometers down a bone-dry gravel road with no tree cover, past a viper sunning itself in the center of the track, brought us to a fenced compound we assumed to be Enn’s. It was surrounded by a rusting fence, decorated with jetsam and flotsam from the sea. The bizarre collection of items placed in the fence—driftwood in ghastly shapes, shards of glass and mirror—surely served to keep the uninvited at bay. Several cats (one black) patrolled near the gate, and about twenty guests were already camped in the compound. We pitched our tent under a tree, though it was hardly big enough to offer any protection from a hot Baltic summer. We were baking and went in search of beer, Estonia’s ubiquitous magic potion. The Germans, who ruled Estonia for close to seven hundred years, taught Estonians to brew. It evidently did not conflict with their pagan principles, for they learned it well: Estonian beer is second to none.
When enough of the other guests had arrived that Meelis felt it time for an orientation session, his father was summoned. Until this time, Enn had remained inside his one-story house, separated from the yard with a red curtain, as if from behind it he might pull the levers of Oz.
Enn’s appearance was intimidating. He resembled perfectly my idea of a cult leader. Standing a good meter above us on his porch, barefoot, completely bald, and perfectly tanned, he was dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans. Postal blue eyes combined with missing teeth added to his sinister appearance. While Enn silently surveyed his guests, Meelis informed us of his father’s wish that we obey a few simple rules: do not enter the house uninvited; do no harm to trees; and never, under any circumstances, enter the stone and sand labyrinth when someone else was already inside. Two souls together in the labyrinth risked mixing their fates. No one laughed at this statement.
After the rules were laid down, Enn descended the porch and ate shish kebab and drank beer in the shade with the rest of us. Since I was a guest and not the leader of a witchcraft research mission, I did not ask Enn to see his broomstick or question whether he had first appeared to us as the serpent on the road. Better, I thought, to play it cool and let the experience unfold naturally. In Estonia, wherever beer is present, you can usually count on a slow unfurling of events with an early-morning culmination. Then everyone dozes off or passes out. Foreign residents often joke that no Estonian birthday party is worth attending before midnight, the witching hour when these northern tribesmen let down their guards and become human.
And so it happened. After a few beers, Enn agreed to a guided tour of his compound. The tree under which we’d pitched our tent turned out to be a pihlakas, a rowan. Once, when my car was broken into, a friend gave me a talisman carved from a rowan branch. Rowan is Sorbus aucuparia, a Eurasian tree that is part of the rose family. In North America, we have Sorbus Americana, the American mountain ash. Most importantly, rowan is the most human-friendly of trees, a plus-ten on a scale running from negative-ten to positive-ten. Rowan is said to neutralize even the worst negative energy. Janika’s mother says she was healed from deep depression by a freshly cut rowan branch brought to her bedside. She grasped the limb, and life could be heard draining from the branch. In just a few seconds, the live branch became a brittle brown twig. She was healed. The tree branch had given its life for hers.
Some Estonians keep a small branch next to their car’s steering wheel which is believed to protect the driver in case of accident. When I was presented with the rowan talisman (carved in the shape of a fish, because my fly fishing gear had been stolen), I hung it around the radio dial, and the car was never broken into again.
Witchcraft in Estonia is not brooms and cauldrons but trees and rocks. That all things are energy, even rocks and dirt, is the basic tenet of this witchcraft. Witches believe all organic and inorganic objects give off energy that can be measured—if only with a pendulum. In the case of trees, Gunnar Aarma wrote, scientists at Cambridge University conducted experiments from 1970 to 1980 to measure the different levels of energy given off by trees. I have been unable to verify the study took place. But to Estonians, no scientific study can affect the way they revere trees.
A tree you will not find in Enn’s yard is the elm. The elm measures negative ten and is the worst kind of tree for human beings to be around. Witches caution not to buy bed frames constructed from elm, lest you give up peaceful rest for as long as it’s in the house. Almost as bad is Fraxinus Americana, ash. While beautiful for use in furniture or parquet floors, it is the plague. It measures minus eight on the witch scale. Readers do not necessarily have to give up quality furniture. Oak measures plus eight and is almost as good as rowan. There’s a reason, witches say, a grove of tall oak produces a soothing effect.
Enn’s garden, it turns out, is the Disneyland of witchcraft, and once briefed, we approached his trees with the reverence a teenager would a rollercoaster. In an isolated part of the garden, away from where anyone has pitched a tent, stood three trees planted at the compass bearings of the earth’s most magnetic points. “Like the Bermuda Triangle?” I asked. “Well, not really,” replied Enn, though he seemed willing to let me hang on to the simile. Those who went before me, sitting or standing between the trees, reported a sensation of being pulled toward one of them. But I was sufficiently inebriated that I could feel only the pull of the ground. I do recall, however, the sounds of the sea wind that night against the leaves of those three trees, producing a sensation of being swept away.
Sadly, I was too far beyond intelligent conversation and had, in the party spirit, given up any quest for knowledge that evening. Enn, no stranger to beer, though surely in better shape than I, might not have been in a professional mood.
Estonia is a country where one steps into a pharmacy and is more likely to step out with the leaf of a shrub than with a modern pharmaceutical product.
If there was something to be learned that night useful to me in my journey of discovery, it is that Estonians are a very special people. There are surely not so many western cultures where you could invite the entire staff of an advertising agency—a profession riddled with skeptics in any country—to a witch’s house and the witch not be the butt of at least a few jokes. As the British writer, Robin Ashenden, has pointed out, Estonia is a country where one steps into a pharmacy and is more likely to step out with the leaf of a shrub than with a modern pharmaceutical product. Also, in a nation of only one million people, it is highly likely an Estonian is related to a witch of some stripe. Here, there are fewer than six degrees of separation. It is a country where those who remark about someone at a party often turn to find him seated next to them. Until the invitation came from Meelis to visit Vormsi, I had no idea of his relation to Enn. That’s the other thing about Estonians: if you don’t ask—and sometimes even when you do—they don’t tell. It’s the perfect nation for witches.
Later that evening, I entered the labyrinth alone, walked through the maze of sand pathways bordered by sea stones, and worked my way to the center. There I gazed at the North Star, hoping for a vision of my fate or even a minor epiphany. But nothing came. Perhaps the peace of silent contemplation was the value of the experience? I have often argued with Janika that I have no need for witchcraft, since my fishing serves the same purpose. What difference is there whether I sit in a labyrinth or on a river? Shamans say that rivers and seas are sacred places where healing takes place. In the case of rivers, they say that the water molecule striking stone produces a vibration that practitioners of the black craft cannot bear. Witches of the dark sort cannot cross moving water. Scientists tell us the water molecule striking stone produces oxygen which accounts for the pleasant feelings fly fishermen get on rivers, being the denizens of rapids and shoals, the fast water where trout hold.
Janika has accepted my fishing as I have accepted her witchcraft, both avocations occupying as much of our time alone. Neither of us proselytizes aggressively, though if the opportunity presents itself, neither hesitates to make our point, me scientifically, she through channeled information. We are both hardheaded people, and it sometimes seems we are the competing heads of a monster.
More and more, though, as Janika bores deeper into witchcraft, I feel she needs me to come along on the trip—and not just for the ride. What difference does it make what I believe? I ask her. God, the universe, whatever, if it exists, is bigger than our little brains can imagine and surely indifferent to what a Homo sapien believes. And what is our hurry to know what’s beyond this dimension? This is the dimension in which we live, this human world. Nothing can change that. For this, I have found support from the witches themselves.
Gunnar Aarma once published the recipe for levitation:
Inhale for 36 seconds.
Hold breath for 144 seconds.
Exhale for 72 seconds.
(Repeat pattern for six minutes and you will levitate two meters for as long as you continue the breathing pattern.)
The recipe is often accompanied by this story: The Buddha is walking along the riverbank and encounters some monks. He asks one of them what he has done with his life, and the monk tells him he can walk on water. “Watch, I’ll cross the river.” The monk levitates and crosses the river.
“How much training did this take?” asks the Buddha.
“Twenty years,” boasts the monk.
“Twenty years of your life!” the Buddha shakes his head. “But they have boats for that.”
It all began with Pholcus phalangioides, granddaddy longlegs, crawling across our kitchen wall.
“Get rid of him!” ordered Janika. So I smashed it with the heel of my slipper. “Not that way,” she shrieked. “Put him in a glass and take him outside.”
“What’s the difference where I kill them?” I demonstrated how the spider’s guts wiped clean with a moist paper towel.
“You don’t know what they’ve done for us!” Killing granddaddy longlegs was forbidden, she explained, because they were friends of mankind. Long ago, when the people of earth were in trouble, our planet laid siege to by aliens, the granddaddy longlegs came to earth to fight on our behalf, saving us from enslavement to the malevolent aliens. Today’s Pholcus phalangioides is a direct descendant of mankind’s savior.
“Okay,” I replied. How else do you answer that?
Later, after a suitable period of mourning for the spider, I asked where she got the interplanetary conflict information. She said it was channeled.
For months, Janika had been reading New Age books. I could identify them on the couch or bed by their lavender or periwinkle covers and lotus-flower, yin-yang, or elephant illustrations. Among the books (I wasn’t snooping; I’ll read almost anything) were papers printed from websites where channeled information is published. Channelers are those who take dictation from the universe and write it down for the benefit of readers to whom the universe does not speak directly.
It should not surprise the reader to know that Estonia, in addition to being a world leader in its per capita witch population, is also home to more than its fair share of channelers.
What other interesting stories have these channelers told us, in addition to spiders’ unique role in our history?
Estonian channelers say certain parts of the earth (Estonia included) will see great physical changes. These changes will manifest themelves in the failure of machinery and, according to others, the complete breakdown of all that is man-made. Houses will crumble, not from earthquakes, but because of quick, natural erosion. Man-made articles will return to natural base elements. No one predicts an apocalypse. Their vision is more akin to the REM lyrics: “. . . it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
Some in Estonia believe there are four hundred thousand “advanced souls” currently living in Estonia. This number is staggering, given that the country’s population is a mere 1.4 million, with about a third of those part of the Russian-speaking minority. Almost one in three of the million Estonians, say the channelers, will be part of the early enlightened. One in three will have the opportunity—whether one accepts it or not is another matter—to, in a certain manner, slip this ugly world and know The Truth. This does not mean death, as these early enlightened will remain very much alive in our present three-dimensional world. These selected souls will have the responsibility of being available to others—like a Bodhisattva—to help them attain enlightenment.
When this moment arrives we will no longer have need for food or shelter, since we will pull the necessary energy from the atmosphere around us. According to some, there are already many of these people in our midst, including several who have not eaten or drunk in fifteen years or more. One of these people, a woman who gets all her energy from light, claims to have a weakness for cappuccino and has consumed six of them in the last fifteen years. This is good news for Starbucks, of course. When the industrial world fails and we no longer need grocery stores, the coffee shop at the mall may remain.
Who are these channelers? (Not Janika, for one. She disavows any ability to talk with the universe.) Channelers are doctors, lawyers, court clerks, artists. Some are guys like Henry, an Estonian we met on the ferryboat to Estonia’s Hiiumaa Island who, according to my wife, “does nothing really.” Henry traveled with a notebook and pen with which he served as the universe’s amanuensis. Janika had read his work, but never met him. For Janika, meeting Henry was, what would have been for me, the equivalent of running into Cormac McCarthy aboard a train.
But even Janika, as open-minded as she is, has come to view channeled information in the way Low Episcopalians view the scripture—as allegorical. “Story value,” some call it. I sense that she is not entirely in the allegory camp, because she still reads channeled newsletters on a regular basis and looks for communication from her very own pair of guardian angels.
Yes, guardian angels. Witches, as well as the “spiritually enlightened,” believe each of us has a set of guardian angels, at least two extra-dimensional “spirit guides” who hover nearby at our beck and call. The angels are willing and able to assist us in any matter. They work in teams and can communicate with other angels—anything for our betterment. Simply ask. Just state your request simply and clearly.
How do we know the angels are watching us? They speak through repeated integers. Janika is prone to happy eruption in the car when the digital clock reads 11:11. A 555 on the license plate of the car in front of us will elicit a similar reaction. The first time, I almost wrecked the car, thinking she was warning me of an imminent collision. But it was merely a repetitive integer.
Guardian angels have names, usually biblical in origin, though it is said you should not aggressively seek to learn them. Often, at some point, your angels will introduce themselves. (Janika has not met hers.)
Despite my enthusiasm for many aspects of witchcraft, as I writer, I remain skeptical of channelers. Whence my stories?
It has been said that Joyce Carrol Oates “takes dictation from God.” Is she a channeler? Where does Cormac McCarthy get his wonderful stories? Don DeLillo? Why shouldn’t I also script the universe?
In the mid 1990s, after I completed two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived for a time in San Francisco, what I hoped might turn out to be a kindler, gentler New York City than the one I’d known under Mayor David Dinkins. I took a room in an apartment on Nob Hill after undergoing an interview with the elderly leaseholder and one of her boarders.
“Sorry we weren’t alone at the interview,” the boarder later told me. “Otherwise I would have warned you.” He was responding to my question about the strange notes Katherine the leaseholder slid under my door each morning. Don’t believe the hype, read an early one. I know you are one of them, came later. When I finally confronted her, she refused to talk, except to ask me to immediately move out. Later, she clarified through notes under the door that I was being manipulated by the dark forces in their ongoing battle with her.
The day I moved out brought her relief, and she showed me her pocket full of dimes she used to make chiming sounds when she used the book, I Ching. To make all decisions, including from which shop to buy toothpaste, Katherine consulted this classic Chinese text. (Her boarder had related the story of having purchased laundry detergent from a non-approved shop and Katherine insisting he soak his clothing in vinegar to drive away the evil spirits. Arguing that vinegar would ruin his clothing, he reached a compromise where she allowed him to place it in a bag with one vinegar-soaked rag.) Katherine also informed me that I would never work in advertising (though I already had for five years) since my facial structure was wrong. “You just can’t naturally smile enough,” she said.
Her observation, in fact, was not dissimilar to what the chairman of TBWA Advertising, Bill Tragos, once told me. If I wanted to stay in the business, he said, I was going to have to learn to smile more. I’ve never liked fake smiles, which is probably one reason Estonians suit me (they smile even less) and why I eventually got out of the client-service business.
Katherine was good-hearted and sincere, although a genuinely fucked-up old hippie. After I’d left San Francisco, she returned my security deposit in an envelope along with a half dozen newspaper clippings on treatments (both surgical and New Age) to help me smile more.
And so I was not shocked the first time my wife produced a wooden pendulum from a red velvet bag. We had just rented a new place, and she needed to arrange the furniture.
In my Midwestern American culture, furniture placement is quite simple. The television is placed near the electrical socket, the couch in front of the TV, the Barcalounger next to the couch, and so on, the furniture virtually placing itself.
But Janika’s pendulum had different plans. The furniture was to be placed in the zones of positive energy, most importantly keeping the bed away from strong underground currents, because there is nothing short of a gypsy tavern next door that can disrupt sleep like an underground current.
There were a few arguments I won, though by default. Special receptacles were required for the washer and dryer units, so these could not be placed too far from the places The Universe, channeling through an architect, originally planned for them.
Janika, to my surprise, was no pendulum dilettante. She was a certified pendlimeister, a Pendulum Master, with an actual diploma bearing the signature of another meister. I asked her if there was a final exam where she was required to find a sewer line or buried bone. (Note to unmarried readers: she did not find it funny.) My smug attitude was doing nothing for the relationship. But neither was, I felt, her rapid descent into the more daffy dimensions of witchcraft. But I’d been wrong before.
In Appalachia, healers invoke Ezekiel 16:6 to cure burns:
And when I passed by you and saw you struggling in your own blood, I said to you in your own blood, “Live!” Yes, I said to you in your own blood, “Live!”
Appalachian shamans repeat the stanza three times, replacing “you” with the burn victim’s full name and insist no single word of the passage may be left out. So says the magazine Foxfire, a project born in 1966, in part, to occupy the minds of Appalachian schoolchildren and distract them from the region’s cycle of poverty, but also to preserve the traditions of Appalachia which were, up until the publication of Foxfire, largely oral.
My wife is also a healer.
Janika does not chant Bible verses but rather places her hands near the ailment—a headache, for example—in a laying-on-of-hands fashion. This is known as Reiki, and she also possesses a certificate giving her the right to practice.
Reiki, an ancient healing technique using massage therapy to channel universal energy, is used by eastern cultures to re-channel energy and reduce physical pain. I have undergone dozens of reiki sessions to remove pain from behind my eyes—long hours at the computer, an outdated eyeglass prescription—but I have few results to report, other than to say that someone in pain generally welcomes physical touch.
Some of my more skeptical friends have given reiki a try and swear to its benefits. They claim to walk away feeling light and energized. Reiki is also making inroads in western clinics, where doctors are more frequently prescribing it as a treatment for the pain associated with cancer.
I try to remind myself that just because I have not experienced the benefit of reiki first hand is no reason for me to be skeptical. I am doing my best to stay open-minded about Janika’s pendulum, as well as the dimes that jingled in Katherine’s pocket. But my wife is not kin of Katherine. Janika is not crazy. She has an off-the-charts IQ, and I have seen her go head to head with philosophy professors and make them back down. And she is a witch. She is not of this world.
And her beliefs bring her results. I must testify that what she needs or wants in life has always been delivered to her. By the universe she would say. If she is in need of money, it comes. When her soul cries for travel, the opportunity arrives.
It is an oversimplification at which Janika would chafe, but I cannot help think of the times when my mother made her children go to the door and tell missionaries she was not home. “Why don’t you want to talk to them, Mom?” we asked. “Because they can’t take no for an answer,” she replied. “Praise Jee-sus,” my little brother would shout, thrusting his arms skyward. “Don’t make fun,” mom cautioned. “Maybe they know something you don’t.” The trouble is, of course, they’re just sure they do. Trap a Mormon missionary, and he knows only the scripted text. He has not climbed out of his shell to examine the structure within which he lives. He will not have read books critical of his faith. He exists in a blissful, ignorant state.
Janika’s faith is different. She tolerates all questions, all doubts. She takes all comers. Just as an infant knows her mother will always be there, Janika has complete trust that the universe will provide for her. She is at peace. And this, this I truly envy.
But without the involvement of Jesus or his missionaries or witches or any “mature” minds, the child-authors of Foxfire perhaps say it best:
We are a little skeptical true; but that is natural for several reasons. First, we have not actually seen any of these healers at work; we have only talked to them. Second, we are young, and we are the products of an age that has taught us to believe that things that cost money are better than things that do not.
And I am more the product of that age than the children who wrote those words forty years ago. But I still want to see. I want to experience. I want to believe.
I’ve been given a second chance. But this time the stakes are higher.
Michael Palin’s scout called, and both the star and the producer want to film the fire walk (“fire walk” is sexier than “coal walk”) for Palin’s segment on Eastern Europe. Margus has agreed to let it be filmed—surely due to the perfect manners of Palin’s scouting crew—and Michael and the crew would like Janika and I to join them.
I know I want to walk. I also know I won’t in the presence of Palin’s cast and crew. There’ll be at least one movie camera to activate the ego.
This time, though, it’s a more intimate affair. While there is still light, Palin and his crew set to filming the pyramid community and interviewing Margus Aru’s wife, who tells Palin that living in a pyramid puts her “closer to God.” When not interviewing someone, Palin is as unobtrusive as his crew. They stand away from the action and speak in whispers. The still photographer, a stylish man of Asian descent, has a gift for being unobtrusively in your face. He is present without being present, a Zen quality which no doubt aids in his craft. Joan Didion once said being small helped her writing, since subjects tended to discount her or even forget she was present. I ask the photographer if he plans to walk—perhaps he is a high priest—but he only laughs. He’s a London boy. Fire walks are not for him.
As the fire blazes, Margus beats his drum to assemble the pyramid people. They arrive with their own drums, play a bit, and then launch into preparation rituals, stretching, breathing, meditating. There is one hippie in her sixties dressed like she just left an Indian ashram. She takes a seat on the grass and stares into the fire, smiling the whole time.
Margus rakes the coals and the line forms. Palin and his crew are invisible except for the still photographer who is shooting with his flash. No one seems to mind. It’s such a genial collection, and everyone has left his ego at home.
Margus goes first, and then some of the big boys fall in. They’re heavy-footed, the size of Maori warriors. Every step produces the sound of coals packing down to burn hotter. Margus’s wife is next. Then Janika. It’s all going rather fast, though my watch shows forty-five minutes have passed.
I decide I want to go. There is no long, melodramatic cognitive process or angst involved, aside from reaching the logical conclusion that there will never be ideal circumstances for walking. I simply decide to walk. Janika’s first time was similar. She was sitting around a bonfire with friends when one of them—a witch—decided to walk. “Shouldn’t we do something to prepare?” Janika asked. He told her she could if she wanted but that the preparation process was hokum. You’re either ready or you’re not. You either do it or you don’t.
I consider the camera but only briefly. I’ve already been told to steer clear of the cameras. Michael Palin doesn’t want any actors from America in his productions, only the genuine local article. But by now he’s surely got the footage he needs.
I remove my shoes and socks and roll up my pant legs, but it still doesn’t feel right. Something is wrong. It’s my wristwatch, the apotheosis of our constructed, rational world. The watch makes me feels tainted, like I’m flying the flag of the past and future, instead of the now. My credit cards and money clip feel wrong, too. I remove them and set them aside. My rowan talisman stays.
I try to clear my mind. I say a short prayer to my guardian angels to carry me safely across. I shun any preparation ritual; rather, I think about Margus’s son Kristjan. I like his approach. He is where he is, there, playing with his friends in the background. I try to be here.
Janika appears at my side and takes my hand. She walks me to the edge of the coals. “Whenever you’re ready,” she says. I pause and look into the fire, coals glimmering below like a city of a millions. I take the first step and Janika is there, too. She has not let go my hand. We continue into the fire and I pay careful attention to my first thought: Shit. This is hot.
I had somehow expected to automatically reach a heightened state where I would be immune to the temperature. But I can feel every single one of the one-thousand degrees Fahrenheit. I move quickly across, but not too quickly. I don’t want anything but the full effect, the unadulterated experience, and sprinting across would necessitate a repeat performance, which I do not want.
At the far end I step on to cool, moist ground. Janika hugs me. Margus is there, too, and he hugs me. Everyone is hugging now, including Palin’s crew. It’s a love fest, and I feel entitled to it.
For hours after the walk, in fact until the next morning, my feet tingle with pain. It’s a pleasant sensation, and there are a few “kisses” on my feet which I worry may turn into blisters. The pain visits and recedes and then returns again. The throbbing is cleansing and refreshing. I ask Janika if that’s what she feels, and she says she feels something different every time, though, yes, she has felt the tingling.
The tingling passes, and I feel light for a few days. There is a sense of calm, of perspective. My thoughts turn to the universe and my energetic membership in it. I am but a speck, but I am not unimportant. I am somehow an essential element. That feeling will be shortly forgotten, I know. I will soon return to every day life’s trivial worries. Back to my mortgage. Back to reality. The reality I share with my unreal wife.
Ayahuasca is the express train to the shaman’s world. And for the uninitiated, one of the scariest, too. If fire walking is associated with imagery of dark-skinned tropical warriors and seems unwelcoming to pale-skinned suburban American boys, then ayahuasca holds a higher place, the elite domain of the Amazon shaman.
Used by at least seventy-two tribes in the upper Amazon, ayahuasca means “vine of the souls,” or, a bit less hospitably, “vine of the dead.” It is a “psycho-integrator” (not to be confused with hallucinogens, say some) made from the Amazonian vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and the leaves of a plant much like coffee, which contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. It is used as a medicine to treat the body for tropical parasites and, in one case made famous in American literature, in hopes of curing opiate addiction.
Generally, outside the Amazon basin, ayahuasca is used to gain a direct path to the spirit world, allowing the traveler to maintain consciousness but view other worlds through his mind’s eye. The brew achieved literary popularity in 1963 when The Yage Letters were published, correspondence between William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Other celebrities followed, including Paul Simon, who experimented with it and wrote the song “Spirit Voices.”
The Yage Letters, if they did nothing else, served to create ayahuasca tourism. This popularity has produced a negative side effect: since everyone and his brother in South America seem to brew it, an ayahuasca tourist may never know the quality of the brew he’s getting. Drinking ayahuasca has become a rather risky proposition. Those returning after suffering negative trips have made reports, which have caused governments’ ears to prick up about DMT, as well as scaring the hell out of many who might otherwise be inclined to try it.
A good thing, most would say. So what if a drug, organic or not, is misrepresented; you shouldn’t be taking that shit, anyway. I have sympathy for that argument. But in the interest of seeing the worlds my wife had described, I was willing to take the risk, if I could find a trustworthy shaman and a safe environment.
Janika had visited other dimensions through breathing exercises, and I had tried them, too. The breathing techniques were not unlike watered-down versions of the recipe for levitation, but I have never been much of a swimmer, have suffered constantly from a plugged-up nose, and was unable to experience any effect by changing breathing patterns. Ayahuasca, however, takes no skill. Any idiot can gulp it down and, for a period of several hours, alter the chemical composition of his body.
That is not to say I wasn’t afraid. I had a long list of fears. I feared I might do something akin to a college student after his first six-pack. Would I gnaw on my toenails in public? Would I drop my trousers in front of a pretty girl?
Or would some physical effect befall me? Would my left testicle swell to the size of a basketball and I be taken to a hospital in the tiny Estonian republic, where everyone would know the next day?
My next biggest fear—and later I would realize the most legitimate—was shitting my pants. (There is no nice way to put it.) Ayahuasca, which thoroughly empties your system, is called “the doctor” for good reason. Even veteran trippers have been known to empty their bowels in their pants if they wait too long to reach the toilet.
Vomiting is the most real fear, and nearly everyone does it. But given that, it’s talked and laughed about enough that novices are put at ease.
Another concern, which came as a cautionary note from my wife, was losing part of my soul. “Remember,” she said, “you always have a choice. The moment you’re uncomfortable, refuse to go on.” She was not talking about peer pressure; she was talking about meeting beings from other worlds and being asked to surrender part of my soul. “The soul has twelve parts,” she said, “and if a creature asks you to give him some of them, promise me you’ll refuse.” She made me swear I would “come home whole.”
I was going alone to drink ayahuasca, simply because she had not been invited. While the witch culture in Estonia is alive and well, the ayahuasca culture is directly linked to foreign relationships, since none of the plants necessary to make it grow in Estonian forests. If you want to drink it, you need a friend who has links to South American shamanism. Estonian witches, for the most part, are not a gregarious lot, and I had a personal connection she did not. She was jealous, she admitted, and I took unhealthy satisfaction in taking a step she had not. For the first time, I was venturing further into her field than she had gone and would, importantly, have news to deliver upon my return.
The event was to be held in secrecy, and I was sworn never to divulge the place, date, or names of the participants. That is not hard in Estonia, since many of the travelers did not introduce themselves, and those that did used only their first names.
But word of the event had already spread. One foreign witch in Estonia (a guest-worker witch, if you will) who had tried to wangle an invitation was turned down, and rumors started to fly. At a dinner party the night before the event, Janika’s friends knew the place and some of the participants (they were unaware of my participation) and voiced concern about the “black magic,” adding that they wouldn’t be caught drinking “any potion some shaman told them to consume.”
But I had, to my satisfaction, researched ayahuasca and the shaman involved. For reasons of confidentiality, I cannot print more, but let me say that my fears were allayed by the number of legitimate scientists—anthropologists, botanists, and psychologists—who had sought out the shaman for his expertise. This would not be a gathering of tripping hippies. These would be serious people with a sincere interest in the worlds that lie beyond our immediate perception.
When I arrive at ayahuasca headquarters, I find that hippies have infiltrated my scientific mission. But surprisingly, as if to prove there is balance in the universe, there are yuppies, too. There are middle-aged businessmen and an elderly couple. There are even a couple of foreigners.
But it is the hippies who scare me. I am afraid of classical “tripping,” friends gathered in a room and spiraling out of control. And as a newcomer, the jokes scare me. The hippies seem to relish the vomit bag ritual. Enthusiastically, they place colorful plastic sacks inside gallon trashcans and set them at the foot of everyone’s mattress. “You’ll be surprised how much comes up,” says the shaman, noticing the look on my face.
When the vomit bags are distributed and everyone has found a space for his mattress in the room, we sit in a circle and the shaman passes a rope. Following tradition, each traveler ties a knot in the cord and describes his expectations for the trip.
A large Estonian businessman of about thirty says, “I’m here to take the ride. I’ll take whatever ayahuasca wants to show me.” I like his attitude.
It’s my turn, and I knot the rope and outline my four-step program which I never could have concocted without the help of Janika. She paraphrased Sathya Sai Baba, the South Indian guru: If you’re going to pray, don’t waste it by asking for a pretty handkerchief. With all the seriousness of a Spartan mother, she told me: “Don’t come back with the handkerchief.”
I tell the group I want to meet my higher self, the divine part of me which is my better, true self. I say I want to meet my guardian angels, though I had promised Janika I would not breach witchcraft etiquette and ask for their names. I say I want to address the problems in my relationships. I want to know about my writing. When will the book sell? I gloss over these last two, keeping them so general no one will know what I’m talking about. These are private matters.
Not knowing how ayahuasca will affect my conscious self, I write key words from all my goals down on a tablet in front of me and place it next to my vomit bag.
At ten-fifteen p.m., the group lines up for the shaman to pour our drinks. Veteran trippers are consulted about dosage but generally given one hundred milliliters. I’m given the same, and the shaman tells me that will be fine. I can have more later.
It occurs to me that this group of people in comfortable clothing lining up to receive cocktails is similar to Jonestown. We are all disciples of a sort, though Jones’s people settled in for a much longer trip.
Everyone grimaces from the stink of ayahuasca. I remark that it doesn’t smell that bad to me, and this is met with a chorus of “just wait until you taste it.” Ayahuasca has been described as the “jungle all ground up and mixed with bile.” One traveler admits the smell is not that bad but says members of the group are reacting to their memories.
“You need to keep it down at least one hour,” the shaman tells me. “No vomiting or going to the toilet for that time.” We’ve undergone a lot of preparation for ayahuasca. Participants have been asked to remain alcohol-, meat-, and sex-free for a period of three days before the trip. Finally, I hold the vine of the souls in my hand.
The shaman raises his glass and makes a toast to ayahuasca. Everyone throws back. It’s bad, but not as bad as I expected. There is coughing and spitting. People bite limes and oranges.
“Have a good trip,” a fellow traveler says, extending his hand. I take it gratefully and wish him the same.
There is quiet conversation for a half hour before moving off to our own spaces on the floor. The shaman spends a few minutes getting his sound system volume right and his Macintosh screen dimmed so that the mood is right. When most of the group has retired to mattresses, the music begins. It’s peaceful sounds, waves breaking against the shore, wind in the trees.
I return to my mattress and sit. Most are lying down but the shaman told me South American shamans traditionally sit. But after a few minutes I lie down, too. I look at my watch. Thirty minutes since launch.
I stare at the ceiling. Moonlight passes through the rafters under the translucent roofing, but it’s the same moonlight and same roof I saw before. No strange colors. No creatures. I nod off for a while.
“The bar is open,” I hear the shaman say. “Boosters, anyone?”
My watch says one hour since launch, and I feel nothing. The material world seen through my open eyes is what I’ve always known, and closed eyes reveal nothing in the mind’s eye different from the usual visual effects I can get by rubbing my eyelids. It’s an all-around disappointment.
“Should I take a booster?” I ask the shaman when the others have left the bar.
“Have you seen anything?”
“I don’t think so.”
He laughs at this. “If you’d seen something you’d know it. Visions are very clear.” He gives me another eighty milliliters and I return to my post.
I am awakened by a clear signal to empty my bowels, but it is controllable. I am on my side and what I see is like a painted maze, a two-dimensional labyrinth with points veering off to form tribal headdresses. The image is in my mind’s eye only—eyes open I see only a fuzzy, black-and-white world—and it’s as if I’m looking through a dirty pane of glass. I try to travel forward, to get closer. It eludes me. The more I consciously try to steer, the more it moves away. I want to seriously crap, but I resist. I try to read the time, but the photo-luminescent numbers on my watch are not in their usual places.
I revert to my notes for purposes of navigation. But I can’t read them any better than my watch, and I find I don’t need them. My conscious mind is perfectly clear. There are none of the feelings associated with stupid, drooling drunkenness. I think about meeting my higher self. Ironically, this thought plunges me downward, as music from the sound system moves around and then inside me. My body has lost its mass and become a sponge accepting everything around it. I want to stop the descent, and I do so by opening my eyes and sitting up. Now I want to vomit, but I resist that, too.
All around me the hippies are dancing. They are composed of gray and black particles, and when they spin their bodies dematerialize from the torso up. Their lower bodies rotate across the floor and reunite at the other end of the room with materialized torsos. It is wonderful. I am in love with the dancers. The hippies. I want to dance, too, but I want more to spectate. I also want to vomit, though not here. A sense of decorum dictates I must, if at all able, pick up my bucket and move elsewhere. I choose the staircase, for some reason, where I empty my stomach. The shaman passes by, smiles, and leans down to pat me on the back. He’s right about how much could be in there. I puke until I’m bringing up bile. Then I go to the toilet. There’s more in my bowels than in my stomach, especially considering I’ve eaten only fruit and vegetables for the past three days.
In ten minutes my body is empty. But I don’t feel completely cleansed. My body is just back from an overseas journey and still heavily jet-lagged. I don’t know if that’s a problem. I feel safe enough to return to my mattress where I curl up in a sleeping bag, close my eyes, and stare back into the labyrinth.
From one corner of the darkness comes the brightest light, as if I were a child under the covers and someone has lifted an edge to the bright sunlight. It is a source of energy so colossal I cannot comprehend. I somehow intuit that I’m being offered a peek at a place I am not yet prepared to go—am not yet allowed to go. There is downward pressure on my body: I’m flattened against the mattress. There is no physical pain; it’s a curious feeling. I am conscious and in control, but there is another driver now, one to whom I can give instructions.
I revert to my list of questions. I think of my wife and I am raised high and plummeted low in the same instant. My mouth is open in a silent expression of joy, and yet I am crying, bawling like a child. It’s a feeling of confirmation, of being in the right about having chosen Janika. Or having been chosen by her.
I think of two departed friends: Kevin, lost to the 1998 Swissair crash, and James, who more recently took his own life. I have read of people visiting the dead with ayahuasca. But neither Kevin nor James appears. Indeed, I have not seen a single three-dimensional or familiar image, and certainly nothing even approaching what the shaman described as “visions well beyond the limits of the human ocular system.”
The downward pressure on my body is unsettling, so I sit up to watch the dancers. This clears the head, and I lie down again. The mind’s eye returns to the labyrinth. This time, colors arranged in patterns like native-American beadwork flare in the distance. It’s as if I’m staring into a piece of art. I put my hands behind my head and alternate between the mind’s eye and my own ocular system bringing me the dancers. Both are pleasing. The music—Flamenco guitar and Gitano vocals—is nothing like I’ve heard or felt before: the music has fused into me, something no sound system is capable of producing.
I know my trip is coming to an end, because I can make out the figures on my watch. It is three a.m.
As I close my eyes and allow myself to drift off to sleep, I consider the stories Janika has told me. She has said that we’re only “playing” human. She has described human beings as divine energy fooled into thinking it is bound by what we believe are the physical laws of the universe. She has escaped these bounds three times in her life.
As a child, she was running through a field and tripped on a stone at the edge of a deep ravine. She plummeted forward, sure to meet a dirty- and possibly crippling end. But just as she was about to hit her head, she was lifted up and set down before the stone, as if her last step had never been taken.
A second instance found her under a large oak tree with her pet chow. One moment, the chow was on the ground, and the next he was in the tree, barking from a limb three meters above the ground. About the time she began to consider how to get him down, he appeared at her side.
And once in India, my wife and a close friend settled in for a fourteen-hour bus ride across a desert landscape. In the blink of an eye, they arrived at their destination.
In my state I don’t attempt to explain or evaluate her stories. I merely contemplate them. I had hoped for something similar, something to give me first-hand experience. Something to take home. Perhaps, selfishly, something to best her with. But in all cases, something real, an experience to make me believe.
The next morning, the group gathers and we pass the rope and untie our knots. We tell our stories. What did we see? What did we learn or discover? Did the trip meet expectations?
The large guy who said he was “here for the ride” tells the story of going to the bathroom while tripping. He knew the bathroom was only a few square meters large, but still he crapped in a grand European cathedral.
Another man reports a lot of nothing, a generally pleasant trip to some of the best music he’s ever heard. He says he’s more relaxed and refreshed than he’s ever been in his life.
One of the girls has had a bad trip. She was asked to surrender part of herself to a higher being. She thanks the shaman for coming to her side and helping her retain herself. I have a distant awareness and recollection of her screaming for help in the night, everyone sitting up to see what was up.
A second girl begins to cry. She describes the litany of problems she’s dealing with and concludes, still in tears, “I don’t know why I won’t let myself be pretty.” Everyone looks at her in sympathy, but no one, including the shaman, does anything but offer a consoling glance, perhaps because no one in the room is a professional psychologist equipped to deal with the types of problems she has in the real world. Finally, one of her friends holds her tight.
When it’s my turn, I describe what I saw through the dirty pain of glass. I mention the wide range of emotions I experienced, my pleasant sense of confirmation and contentedness. I speak in general terms. Private topics shall remain so. I talk about my vomiting. Advice from the group is unanimous: I should have emptied my stomach and bowels after having kept the ayahuasca down an hour. One should never hold back; the experience always becomes richer after the purge.
Finally, before we adjourn, the issue of secrecy is raised. There are several high-profile Estonians in the group, and if the real world thought they were ayahuasca junkies, their businesses would suffer. It’s mentioned that ayahuasca use isn’t an accepted practice in this part of the world, and the host notes that anyone who blabs will not be invited back. The shaman makes a personal appeal for confidentiality. He leads another life, as well, and says if he’s discovered he will put a stop to everything.
Later, I mention to one of the celebrities that if he were discovered it would probably only help his income. “Like coming out gay, but better.” He agrees.
With all the secrecy, it’s no wonder ayahuasca gets the black magic rap in the Estonian community. Not to mention elsewhere.
In the Amazon, children call ayahuasca “jungle TV.” Adults refer to it as “Doctor Ayahuasca.” The shaman serves merely as a guide, because the doctor—the plant itself—does the teaching. There is a Spanish word, vegetalismo, which means “plants as teachers.” The plant/teacher idea has been studied by scientists, and it has been the subject of more than one PhD thesis, but somehow the word has not manifested itself in English.
The shaman himself has taken thousands of trips, and although he has revisited certain places, every trip is new. He has carried brushes into the rainforest and asked other shamans to paint what they’ve seen while on ayahuasca. He shows us slides of that work, and there is my labyrinth. My native-American beads are there, too. Also the headdresses. Though it proves nothing, it is comforting to think we are all traveling down similar paths in the universe. That in that infinite space, time, and power there is something, some small part which is common to us all.
If a plant can teach, and if the universe is infinitely layered with chambers and cells full of creatures beyond the scope of our imagination, then perhaps it is not so much a stretch to consider that a spider climbing across my wall might have, as recently as now, defended mankind in another dimension.
I am not ready, nor will I ever be, to devote myself to the study of the supernatural. Edward Abbey wrestled with mysticism and finally concluded that he was “too fond of fresh air and mundane pleasures.” I cannot go as far as Abbey to suggest that mystics are “luxuriating in a most enormous vanity,” but I am not at all uncomfortable in this world we call reality. Like Abbey, I marvel at things in the everyday, “. . . one cloud floating over one mountain . . . the love of a man for his wife.”
Janika would say it is precisely because of Abbey’s earlier mysticism that he was able to appreciate “one cloud floating over one mountain,” that mysticism provides perspective necessary to fully appreciate our three-dimensional world. That without mysticism, reality is less meaningful.
Now that I have glimpsed Janika’s world, I will return and report the results. I hope she will respect the effort I have made to experience her world. I know she will. But I also hope she will accept that my curiosity is not boundless. That our own limited world is still quite interesting to me and offers plenty of opportunity for exploration. Places and things we can explore together. But beyond the borders of the three dimensions, I believe I am done. Unless it sneaks up and presents itself, I will not see it. But if I better appreciate my world because of my brief pursuit of the mystic, then I am only grateful.
Reprinted by permission of The Normal School, Copyright 2008 by Scott Diel.