Great wits are sure to madness near allied
And thin partitions do their bounds divide
– John Dryden
Creativity and madness are two forms of the same expression. The creative mind is supple, restless, and always in motion, seeking new territory beyond accepted boundaries. While many of us are content to putter about happily within the safe, defined spaces of our gardens, artists and thinkers and other creative types charge towards the horizon with the great joyous leaping strides of a sight hound when a wild hare pops up. Creative expression, for me, is the delight of discovering something unfamiliar, of forging a new form from what was unknown before, and rendering something concrete where before there was only theory and abstraction. It’s the thrill of filling in a blank spot on the map, whether that map depicts the backyard garden or the entire world. Most of the fun lies in making the journey rather than arriving–the creative process, that is– but rev that engine too hard for too long, and madness might be the outcome. That is why someone who might already have a screw loose in the head should never tamper with mind-altering drugs, particularly hallucinogens. The result can be disastrous.
Schizophrenia afflicts about one percent of the world’s population. One of my best friends in high school became schizophrenic during his first year of college. There was a history of mental instability in his family, but he was also experimenting with LSD as well as some truly ‘hard’ drugs, like crystal meth, during this time. He had been reading “The Celestine Prophecy” around the time that he became untethered, and I have no doubt that this book contributed to the religious tenor of the vision quest that followed. After experiencing his psychic break with reality, he dropped out of school and spent a week in some rural woods, by the side of a lake, waiting for God to appear. He believed he was Jesus Christ, or that we all were. He heard voices and had waking visions of angels and demons, and his reality became re-framed in terms of Christian iconography in a way that was uncomfortable for the rest of us to relate to—a roadside prophet in the spirit of William Blake—which may be glorifying the situation somewhat. His family and friends watched in horror as his old personality, the charmer and class clown whom we loved so much, sank beneath a cold veneer of blank expression. He acquired repetitive tics and a hollow eyed gaze. Sometimes he just spaced out and stared into the abyss during a conversation. This new personality was stabilized somewhat with medication, and meditation, but as the years passed, our old friend never came back.
“The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight,” Joseph Campbell once observed. The cause and nature of schizophrenia is even today not well understood. Neither, for that matter, are states of mystical enlightenment, though I suspect that people have been experiencing both for a very long time. And when you really look at it, they share an awful lot of similarities. Both see visions, experience altered perceptions of space and time, and with the loss of ego and self-boundaries, both experience a heightened state of awareness, a transpersonal ecstasy, that seems to accompany one’s communion with the divine. This state of enlightenment, of being closer to God or infused with some higher Spirit, occurs in almost all cultures. The revelations retained from such states are the basis for quite a few religions, including some of the major ones. Mystical states and psychotic states, then, are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Could it be that saints are crazy?
This is one of those questions that challenges one to define the boundary between physics and metaphysics. Science does not attempt to explain spiritual phenomena, and religion, despite its best efforts historically, generally fails when it tries to play doctor or scientist. And yet we have the mystic and the schizophrenic, both adrift in that vast ocean of universal consciousness. Both might be said to be in closer proximity to the Divine, the Higher Mind, or enlightenment by any other name—yet one struggles to stay afloat, and the other is effortlessly buoyant.
Recently, there was an incident at one of the well-known ayahuasca retreat centers located in the jungle outside of Iquitos. A young Scandinavian man in his mid-twenties signed up for a ten-day ayahuasca program, but after three sessions, he was asked to leave. His behavior during those days had grown increasingly more strange and unpredictable, and after he was found setting a pile of his clothes on fire, they thought he might become a danger to himself or others.
This is not the first time there has been a pharmacological casualty here in Iquitos. Once in a great while, someone will not quite return from a trip. Normally, the culprit is Brugmansia, (or Angel’s Trumpet, here known as toé) a very dangerous plant containing high levels of scopolamine and atropine, which can be fatal at high doses. Traditionally in the upper Amazon, shamans have used toé as an admixture in ayahuasca, but not very much, as just a few leaves can enhance the quality and duration of visions. I would not recommend ingesting toé to anyone, but I do have it growing in the garden, because it is a beautiful plant and I have great respect for it, as one would respect a king cobra, or a comet—best admired from a distance. Though there are no statistics for this, I would be willing to bet that on those rare occasions when someone loses their mind after drinking some kind of hallucinogenic jungle brew, toé is usually involved–and the person probably had a screw loose before they ever arrived in the jungle.
When this sort of thing does happen, it produces bad publicity for everyone. It especially gives a bad name to ayahuasca itself, and allows critics to tar it as a dangerous and damaging drug, rather than the powerful and profound natural medicine that it is.
In the case of the Scandinavian, the unfortunate Mr. Finn, things did not go well. I would venture to say that this is largely his own fault. It turned out that Finn had a history of psychiatric evaluation going back almost a decade, and had been on medication for some time. When he went to the ayahuasca center, he told no one about his prior condition, and he also went off his meds. Bad call on both counts. Any reputable ayahuasca center here would refuse to take on a customer with a history of mental illness, for exactly this reason.
After leaving the ayahuasca center, he showed up back in Iquitos, and was soon detained, and released, by police for his unusual behavior in a public park. My friend Geert, who had been hosting Finn at his jungle lodge before his psychic break, offered to take him back out to the lodge, where he could have a few days to sort things out. But the situation deteriorated quickly. Finn was found up on the water tower one night, looking for his luggage in the water tank, when his bags were packed neatly in his room. He set things on fire, destroyed property, became angry for no reason, and generally could not find any peace. Geert had no choice but to take him back to town, and check him into a hostel. The ayahuasca retreat center, meanwhile, had not made an effort to follow up on him, so he was a free agent. Soon he was detained again in the Plaza de Armas, for raving on about looking for his lost possessions, while walking around stark naked and setting his clothes on fire, and this time they arrested him.
Geert went to the police station to sort things out, as Finn spoke no Spanish and was by now in a state of great distress. There, Geert saw that the police had ‘allegedly’ found some drugs on him—a small packet of cocaine. It is also possible, indeed likely, that these drugs were planted on him. Allegedly. I have heard more than once that the police use this trick, to justify an arrest, but planting a small enough amount that the person can later be released without being processed by the court system (possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine for personal consumption is in fact legal in Peru.) But the problem was that Finn had already made a statement to the police that the drugs were not his, and he was emphatic that he had no intention or desire to do cocaine. Which was most likely the truth, as I said, but it complicated matters, because since he’d said the drugs were not his, the police had to accuse him of intent to sell, in order to justify his possession of them. This is a more serious charge, and led to having to phone a lawyer and magistrate to come to the police station late at night in order to work out the formal legal details of What Are We Going To Do With This Crazy Gringo.
Normally this kind of minor legal entanglement can be resolved by paying a small bribe to whoever holds the keys to your destiny. It could be the cops, a judge, a lawyer, etc. These bribes are so common here that they are sometimes referred to as ‘gaseosa’ or ‘ceviche’ money, as in, give me a little something on the side, a little extra to buy my soft drinks and snacks. Everybody’s gotta have their gaseosa money, now and then. But what’s really funny is that when they asked Geert for ‘gaseosas,’ he actually went out to the corner store and brought back a 3 liter bottle of Inca Cola! Hahahaha! Classic. I wish I could have seen the expression on the cops’ faces.
But with that little matter clarified, Finn was released back into Geert’s custody, and before too long had been admitted for observation at a local clinic. Then the embassy got involved and ultimately they put him on a plane back home. He had a bad trip, man. But then again, this man had no business going off his meds and attempting to self-medicate with ayahuasca, without informing the center of his medical history. The center, for their part, could be more thorough in the future by screening everyone a little more carefully before they ever do a ceremony. The center also had a moral obligation to follow him back to Iquitos and check up on him, which to my knowledge they did not do.
This type of situation is of course hard to predict, or prevent. In fact worse things have happened in the past. Once or twice, foreigners have died during or after ayahuasca ceremonies. In each instance, the embassies get involved and the situation is quickly and quietly resolved. I personally believe that ayahuasca is completely safe, and no one ever dies from it unless it is their time to go anyway. Perhaps this was the case—impossible to say.
Naturally, no one who works with ayahuasca or other plant medicines wants to advertise these kinds of things when they happen. I bring it up in order to reaffirm my belief that these plant medicines, made not in a laboratory but by the natural hand of the Great Designer, do have a grand purpose, and were intended to be used by people as medicine for body, mind and spirit. That’s a statement of faith, though I’m not especially religious. Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, it’s hard not to marvel at the many wonders they manifest–a sublimely refined product of millions of years of evolution.
However you explain their origins, their astounding abilities defy easy explanation. In a controlled setting with an experienced shaman, people can and do experience life-altering transformations, insights that lead to healing, and lasting perspectives into self and soul that have positive and far-reaching consequences. Total clarity, peaceful stillness, pure illumination–all are possible. They are incredible gifts, for those who learn how to receive them. I maintain that these plants are master teachers. They merely wait for the student to be ready.
Ayahuasca is not for everyone. But if it calls to you, check first to make sure every screw inside your head is firmly tightened! Having done that, anyone can learn to swim like a mystic.