The Ayahuasca Brouhaha

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An account of a relatively recent experience of the Amazonian psychedelic/entheogen/ecodelic ayahuasca, also known in Colombia as yagé.

In this podcast, I provide a basic introduction to what ayahuasca is, for those to whom it’s new; I try my best to recount the visions it brought to me; to make sense of how to think of them; and to some small extent to make sense of it in its European and South American contexts. I come clean that I don’t think one is experiencing a simple hallucination, but that something is superintending the trip; while leaving open the possibility I’m wrong about that. And I admit I failed to convey things in the podcast. Enjoy.

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May Diary: hiding out, failing, the Fatima Mansions, ayahuasca, male violence, moments of reprieve

Lately I started writing little entries on Facebook, with the idea that I was ready, as I have not previously been, to write somewhat personally, but also about things as they arise, without needing to be an expert or have done much research (I considered calling them “six Easy Pieces”). I don’t know much the whingy stuff is actually appreciated, but I have occasionally felt some catharsis. And I believe they have some value, so here they are.

29 April

I did a good deal of hiding out from life this weekend… which is fine. What I did do yesterday evening and early today, was listen to Cosí fan tutte, with libretto in hand, and I followed the plot and words for the first time; so happy with my music hall Italian. And I watched the dark fourth part of Wild Wild Country, with a Sheela-style middle finger to the sun.

Yesterday I spent a good part of the day vegetating in bed, with my phone. Amazing how that device can distract you very effectively from the task of deciding to do anything difficult, or even worthwhile, and doing it.

The weather… I think of Philip Larkin’s poetry less and less, but the lines, “If the worst / Of flawless weather is our falling short, / It may be that through habit these do best, / Coming to water clumsily undressed / Yearly…” I think of more and more. The rest of that stanza too; but “falling short” of great weather brings me up short. I do that. Swimming would be great, and I’ve been meaning to do some lessons (because it would be great to be better at it) for ages. So why do I not? Loads of reasons, but none good enough!

Loads of other possibilities too.

And so I have planned tomorrow pretty meticulously, because it’ll mean I’ll get things done, and by the time the next looooong weekend rolls round, I’ll be doing the fun stuff too. If this all sounds like a whinge, maybe that’s because it is. But actually I have a bizarre amount to be happy about these days, so I’d hope to start talking about that in the next while. Because I can’t help thinking, despite the evident possibilities of boredom for us all, that it might be worth writing personally a little more. So that’s the plan.

May 3

My father recently said, very nicely and with the best intent, that he wanted the journalistic work I’m doing to be a success. Internally I gasped, because not long before I woke up that morning, I was doing something like (I cannot remember precisely this hypnopompic state) pleading my case to someone or something about this topic.

That I already was a success; that the recent Canadian stuff was brill; that I only need to continue; and probably, what I sometimes think in broad daylight, that it doesn’t matter if no-one pays attention (or me!), because the clarifying I fundamentally believe it does, has some imperceptible effect on the world; that I have only to hold on. Things along these lines. Also that success was a mirage; that provisioning ought not to depend on it. And of course I drew in my breath, and didn’t mention a word of my dream to my dad.

I had woken up reasonably happy.

I have come to realise a little that what I think of as any unhappiness I feel at the moment, is actually fear. Why fear, when I can enjoy the ongoing moment? Anyway it is real. That I will fail. That I will fail myself. That I will fail others (again?). It’s different from the raw dread I felt seven years ago, under which lay the perception that life was unlivable and pathetic (for me). “The contradictions cover such a range.” This fear, I guess, is knowable as illusory; is a nice blend of my own and others’ limited perspectives as interpreted by me; and doesn’t slow me too much, which I’m glad about. But it’s there.

Sorry if difficult to read. This is only worth doing without worrying about getting right, or taking any pains. It was very nice that people liked (I mean in the Facebook sense; whether they liked it or not!) the last thing. Encouraging, and not to be relied on. As I may have said, I did often feel the pull of, and sometimes have started, just writing about stuff without rehearsal, even on pain of being found to be droning on about mé fein. It is nice to be a little more sure these days that all perspectives are valuable, and that includes mine.

May 6

Cathal Coughlan and his bandmates have reformed Microdisney. I just don’t know Microdisney’s stuff very well, nearly at all. But somehow, somehow, the band Coughlan led after that, from 1988 till 1995, The Fatima Mansions, hit me.

What Coughlan’s lyrics did was: bring together extremely challenging material of both personal and political natures, without compromising either of those things; and without deciding what that material is precisely in the first place. Is the voice in those songs that of a madman, or of an average man? That of an extremist who these days would be brought to the attention of Prevent, or of someone who just sees politics too clearly? All of them.

It might seem a little po-faced to put it like that, but what it adds up to is that, beyond the immediacy of the mind-blowing music and lyrics, Coughlan was reacting intensely to every facet of life; the stuff is brilliant and so funny.

It is worth ever so briefly noting that the music also summoned up a nihilism and a sense of evil well beyond its explicit targets. Coughlan surely had the Catholic stuff bet into him, and he turned it to exhilarated use. Our generation is good-natured, well-intentioned, and not actually challenging quite enough of the explicit targets, for reasons obscure. I wish more of us listened to the Fatima Mansions, or even knew who they were. Every article about them mentions their slogan, “Keep music evil”, but there was a reason beyond the pun to use the phrase.

The guitar sound matters a lot. That was for the most part the work of Aindrias Ó Gruama, who died in 2007, so there can’t quite be a Fatima Mansions reunion. But there probably couldn’t have been anyway: there is too much driving aggression in the Fatima Mansions sound plausibly to have a nostalgic, “middle-everything” concert in the National Concert Hall, the way Microdisney will be in June.

If grabbed by “Only losers take the bus”, some recommended follow-up: “Shiny happy people” (because of the resonant title); “Broken Radio No. 1” (because it’s not political) “Belong nowhere” (“10 civil wars unended” never truer); “It will be cold” (I don’t know if there are any others, but the best song about journalists); “The day I lost everything” (for Talking Heads fans).

May 9

Mike Cernovich is, to quote Wikipedia, an “alt-right social media personality” who bigged up Trump, and wrote a book called Gorilla Mindset about how men should be gorillas. More recently, he has been hymning ayahuasca. This meant I was recently lolling at a tweet that went: “The fact that Cernovich has taken ayahuasca and is still Cernovich is probably a pretty good sign that it’s not the miracle soul-changing drug that upper class white people keep convincing themselves it is.” With a bathos I will not be able to convey writing briefly here, Cernovich calls it “mindset material”. There was another enjoyable tweet which went: “The deeply profound change ayahuasca seems to cause in people is a complete inability to shut up about doing ayahuasca”.

So, clearly there are lots of potential pratfalls and false starts in this part of the jungle. But I would still want to argue a little with the tweeters. To start with, psychedelic doesn’t mean soul-changing but “soul-revealing”…

At any rate, I was glad to attend an ayahuasca ceremony recently. The shaman who minded us lives in Colombia, and calls it yagé, so I will too. I’m writing about this briefly now, because it’s one of the things I can point to and say I’m grateful for. Despite the ease with which one could be cynical about the brew, I tend to a maximalist view of its possibilities. I agree with the kind, earnest man, not attending for the first time, who said to me before things started: “Everyone should do this.” With the caveat that most likely not everyone needs to.

Why do it? A lot to say, but start here: the same man catechised me slightly at the end of the weekend: “Where should we make decisions from?” And I simply touched my heart. What does it mean to make a decision from the heart? Does it not only make sense to make decisions based on the supposed facts before us? No. That would limit anyone. Yagé opens the heart. One response to the second tweet quoted before was, simply, “Sharing is caring.”

For me the experience of yagé was so alien, and for a time I became to myself so alien yet intimately familiar, that it seems that bit less wise not to treat life as fundamentally playful, its sternest duties and tests as opportunities for expansion. For this to be a collective experience… would be good.

A plate that’s also a mandala…

Even the limited recreational, tripping-balls (I laughed so hard when I heard someone use the phrase) aspect of the experience is not to be discounted. It was wild fun playing with colours and sounds. The shaman cautioned us to be reasonably quiet during the night, so as not to disturb others. I wasn’t too bad. Still, typically, at one stage I jumped on to the mattress, calling out a phrase, and was laughing quite a bit. But I probably needed every bit of that.

The darkness that is encountered is temporary, manageable and informative, and help ought to be available.

If all that’s not quantifiable enough, I’ll add this:

In the past two years I had developed a habit of going for a pint or two, two, three, or four times a week, on my own. At the end of the day, frazzled as I was, to keep me reading: so went the rationalisation. Not a problem necessarily, but a pattern. I was always conscious that it slows you down. Yagé has entirely stopped that, with only minimal exertion of the will since. The pub just lost its thrall. And there is a baked sweet shop that hasn’t seen me since. (It’s worth saying that all this was not due to the explicit content of the visions: it’s been surprising.) Lost a few pounds. It’s hard to argue with this.

About the visions: I have been writing them down, with huge delays. It’s been entirely worthwhile, but I’ll keep them to myself (unless I can find a really compelling way of using them). They’re fascinating for me, but for others probably only as interesting as they find other people’s dreams. What I always found most interesting in other people’s accounts of their experience with yagé was their enthusiasm. The enthusiasm comes out, from people who likely have gone a lot further than me, in the film, DMT: the Spirit Molecule, on Netflix, which I watched during the weekend. It is justified.

May 22

A tweet I remember vaguely, and have no hope of finding: not a great place to start, but bear with me…

I guess it was a couple of months ago, maybe after a school shooting, or maybe just at some pointed juncture in the ongoing gender furore. A number of female tweeters were making light-hearted fun of guys who can’t get a date, very likely in an amusing way (given that I was tracking this). And then there was this guy with a pseudonymous account, symbol for a profile pic, saying something like, (no quote marks seeing as I can’t quote it), Why are you all making fun of guys like me? I’m trying to not hurt myself and stay alive (he may have mentioned his family) and be positive. Stuff like this just hurts.

The reason it stuck in my mind was because my first thought was: No girl or woman would think like that, wisely so. I’ve been meaning to write about this theme, and this sweeping generalisation, and the main thing that might have caused me to revise my thought was the sad news in yesterday’s Irish Times that suicide rates among women in inner city Dublin had caught up with men’s. Still I think: No girl or woman would think like that, wisely so.

I considered getting back to this dude, meant to even two days later, and I should have done. (There was no reply from the hurtful coven lol.) It’s possible my guess that this was what it sounded like, a late-teen-early-twenties emo spasm, was wrong, and he has or will come to harm. How much good would it have done? How often does a lad like that, in the grip of frustrated desire, see the value in an invitation to sincerely concentrate on something entirely different for as long as possible? That would be the best advice.

I am fairly sympathetic to his situation. But how shocking even to consider the idea of harming yourself, even unto death, because of a girlfriend deficit, or (a different thing, and perhaps it was really this that bothered him) a sexual deficit. Very shocking also to suggest that jokes, not directed at or mocking him, ought not to be made about this. I can get bored quickly when popular quotes on gender relations get bandied around, which may and may not just be a defence mechanism of my own. But it does put me in mind of the Margaret Atwood quote: “They are afraid women will laugh at them… We’re afraid of being killed.”

Violence directed towards self and towards others have a different moral value, but in this instance surely the same root. If anyone has any special solutions to this mess I’m all ears. There are ideological and limiting learned and personal reflexes in our culture both to overvalue and to undervalue both “nature” and “culture” in why it’s like this… Apart from the necessary decency, maybe a certain lightness of touch and irony about our desire, not impossible to learn or teach, would help; a kind of self-forgiving too. An androgyny, perhaps only of the mind, for those so inclined. All more fun than a hanging or a shooting. But actually, I must admit, the violence, horrific as it is, is not what has me writing about this. There are too many variables when violence manifests. It’s the (male) pattern of thought that has my attention.

Anyway, I was glad recently to read Amia Srinivasan’s LRB article, “Does anyone have the right to sex?” (Free but you have to give an email address.) Some people might be tempted to call her proposed experiments and exercises on attraction almost utopian, but they are refreshing. I ought to reread the article, but, fresh from the tweet I started with and the surrounding arguments, the following passage stood out, and I remembered it ever since. I was not surprised when Rebecca Solnit quoted it in her most recent Guardian article: “It is striking, though unsurprising, that while men tend to respond to sexual marginalisation with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, women who experience sexual marginalisation typically respond with talk not of entitlement but empowerment. Or, insofar as they do speak of entitlement, it is entitlement to respect, not to other people’s bodies.”

It is worth recording the experiences of those inner city female suicides: “Among one group the women have had ongoing issues including ‘poverty, early school leaving, domestic violence, criminality, homelessness and adverse childhood experience” with a history of problematic drug use. A second group has ‘a history of weekend-focused substance misuse’ as well as the similar ongoing issues including poverty and homelessness.” Of course, many men have the same experiences, and die in the same way. This is the difference between frustration and despair.

May 31

Cannot help writing something briefly before ploughing on with a podcast script I started writing on Monday. It is the mere discharge of fear and frustration; but then peeps seem to discharge their fear and frustration on the Twitter, without ever coming to the point, and involving themselves in what they are saying. Or maybe they aren’t discharging, maybe they just care about what they’re saying. I do not know.

I get dread in the summer, the year marches on, things are so nice, I seem to be getting nowhere, no I don’t have holidays planned…

I was walking up a long road yesterday evening, and everything went nice. It’s far far too weighty given its origins in Primo Levi, and I know it’s not the Italian title of his book, but I like the phrase “moment of reprieve,” so call it such a moment.

And it was because things had got empty. The world was no longer the world of doom, and I didn’t need or want to call it lovely or hopeful either. I no longer contained essence of loser, slowcoach, failure. And so on.

This was enough to get me to stop dreading the idea of disinterring some element of my past, and giving it a little airing. I’d actually still be fine doing that, but with a less doom-laden mindset. Just for fun. But sometimes it can feel that to write about that stuff, you gotta feel it again…

Why the feeling of doom anyway? Because I am stuck in my ways, and they are no good. Writing about a period that I associate with thinking that way of being was, for me, essential, might be useful at some point.

Really I do not want to be otherwise… So, this week, but not yesterday, nor, so far, today, I’ve been writing a podcast script, almost shamefacedly, about the CIA protection of the alleged 9/11 hijackers Mihdhar and Hazmi. Shamefacedly, because I’ve gone over this stuff before a jillion times… and I wonder if I ought not to just be working faster, assimilating new material and producing new stuff quickly… and who cares… and lots of other reasons.

But for lots of other reasons, this is unfinished in my mind, and this is one of the things I’d rather be doing than anything else… even if I get slowed down by a sense of futility day to shining day. So why do something else? It’s been going well. And I’ve decided to allow myself to talk personally about my relation to the facts, why it’s unfinished in my mind, to be passionate… And demarcating all that from the facts and analysis, which I want to stand for themselves, and be — what they are — convincing, devastating, bouleversing, is a nice technical challenge.

So, having now written this, it becomes enticing enough to sit at a desk for. Just about. Just a-fucking-bout. Weeesh me luck. Ta-ra.

What I have, and haven’t, learned from podcasting

Sometimes, the way I am currently doing journalism, podcasting, can get me down. The very fact I am writing now is a sign I’m taking a brief time-out.

But I am fundamentally grateful for the opportunities podcasting has given me and the challenges I envisage. I am also grateful for what I have learned, and — trickiest of all — what it has shown me I haven’t yet learned.

The impulse to start was as follows: they can’t stop me! I had had a number of pitches to newspaper editors turned down, and it would have been easy to get discouraged. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said Dr Johnson, but there are no such strictures on podcasting. This fundamental posture, of being responsible for everything you do can be not just a hard lesson, but properly exhilarating.

So early last year I made a documentary podcast about how Vladimir Putin came to power. Made means researched, wrote, recorded and edited. The research alone was quite daunting, and it was occasionally dispiriting to read yet another new and crucial Russian name. But I also remember repeatedly sitting down at my desk, and not getting up until 90 minutes later, knowing that while the progress could not always be measured, I was moving closer to publication.

Since then, I have been interviewing people, which has been a joy. There are plenty of people with, not just interesting, but vital stories and insights (such as Guido Preparata, Emma Blake Corrigan, and Tim Coles), who are not properly being listened to. Here is some wise advice from Shimeka Williams (published in Gary Leland’s book 100 Great Podcasting Tips from 100 Great Podcasters): “If you perceive that attracting guests will be a problem, then it will be. However, if you are always on the lookout for potential guests, then you will find them everywhere.”

Lots of motivational books tell us not to be afraid to approach people with an idea or proposal. All I would add is that from my experience potential interviewees are generous, happy to talk, and easy to get in touch with: if in doubt, send an email.

After some time, I was feeling a little unrewarded. Of course, producing fascinating material (I think so anyway) was rewarding. But I am neither getting a huge audience, nor raking it in. I hope that doesn’t sound like a simple whinge: it just felt like there was a disparity between the effort I put in and the life-progress I want to make. And again I am actually extremely grateful, because a number of people have been extremely generous in becoming my Patreon donors. It has been a lesson in the wisdom of asking for help. My Patreon donors, a small number of people letting me know they care (and giving me a few bob!) have been a huge source of hope. Thank you all again! The intelligent advice, praise and dispraise of all listeners who have been in touch has been equally important.

I have to be honest and say that the donors so far are all people I know. And it is still a puzzle to me, whether my podcasting will make the difference I wish it to make. The questions come thick and fast: Is the material too boring?Am I too boring? Do people want this kind of interview in the first place?What about the fact that the technical side is not my strong point? Am I a good enough marketer? Am I doing too much research?

I haven’t got answers for all these questions. Sometimes I wish I had my own total obsessions, but then I remember the privilege of sharing in someone else’s, what George Steiner called “the privilege of carrying the mail”. I know I need to keep an eye out for people who I can work with in future. I look forward to getting other editorial perspectives. I am pretty sure I could make my life easier when it comes to technology, but at the moment it feels like I can’t even afford to ask what I should do. It can feel like doing intense research for a podcast in which I won’t be saying much is madness. But it does mean I can ask the right questions, and it’s also just me.

Just me! Really I would have been glad to have a title for the podcast other than The Rory O’Connor Podcast. Theoretically, it would be best to have a focus, a clear market. (People have agreed with me about this: but on the other hand: The Tim Ferriss Show.) Being amusing on Twitter seems to be a passport to popularity, but I just don’t care.

And I can’t help being interested in topics from diverse experiences of life. And I intend to throw a few curveballs in terms of topics and interviewees in 2018. If all that works against me, at least I will have been true to myself.

So I take heart from Christopher Gronlund’s words (also in Leland’s book): “Do the podcast you’d still do if only 10 people listened. That’s the show that’s in your heart.” Really it never occurred to me to do anything else! Call it the square-peg feeling. I want to report that for the first time in years, I have the feeling that I know what I’m doing. And that is invaluable, so I will keep going for a while yet.

That feeling, which probably not everyone needs in their work, but everyone needs in life, encourages me to have faith in the project. Learning as I go. Really, it’s the same feeling as knowing I would finish that first podcast.