Full of demons
(a true story on the meaning of darkness)
“Why didn’t you tell me,” said the shaman, puffing solemnly on his pipe, “that you were full of demons.” I shrugged my shoulders, staring at the dusty floor: “I didn’t really know what was going on”. In that moment I was glad we were hidden by night, and he couldn’t see how I was wrung out as a dirty rag ready for burning because the mess it dealt with was too terrible.
Before I took the cup of Ayahuasca, I did suspect that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to drink this evening, that some bad business was waiting for me in the dark. But if I listened to this kind of thinking every time it imposed itself on me, I’d probably never leave the house. So I drank and hoped for the best, believing, as I always do, that because I’m basically a good and reasonable man, darkness will not intrude on my civilised living; and that my narrative is too special to just be swallowed up, to end without warning, out here alone in the jungle.
It took about one hour for the warning to arrive. It began in my stomach, the preternatural swell of dark matter, then shattered into a thousand nightmarish shades, vivid as daylight, shaking, shrieking. All I could do was writhe around on the floor and pray. And my mind, fragmented and doomed like an old computer left in the street, flickered and spun round the loop of its final, failed directive:
threat analysis: black shit / badness / wrong horror gone evil / gone attacking / tryin to get me with its germs and poison breath and dirty nails / and multiple immortal heads which gnash the hair the bone the eye / flapping like you can’t imagine how it flaps in magical blackness —
“Black magic. Demons.” That was the diagnosis. Perhaps it came from someone who was envious of me, or who was envious of the shaman. “The sorcerers down here, los brujos, use magic from books and evil chants to attack good people like us; they work with dead animals, dead people.” Perhaps I had picked up demons from people I supported during ceremonies. Disturbed spirits can see my light and feed on it. “Perhaps that is why you are full of demons.” I had to agree – he saw exactly what I experienced – and there was nothing more to say.
afraid to dream.
Snake eyes: seeing clearly for safety and growth
Black magic, demons and darkness exist. They are part of the human experience. They may test us, teach us in ways no other teachers can, deepen us – or ruin us. These forces are not merely obstacles on the spiritual path; they are central to its definition, and learning how to relate to them is at the heart of any worthwhile relationship with a plant teacher like Ayahuasca.
Black magic, demons and darkness exist. And if we want to go some place meaningful, we need to acquaint ourselves with their myriad forms, to know and to understand them with eyes open. If we do not, they simply possess us; one way or another, they corrupt us.
But if we take one step in this direction, a question arises for honest contemplation:
Who of us sees clearly in the dark?
One may have lived in the same house for twenty years, yet when the lights go out he finds himself stranded in the living room, unable to recognise his own furniture. For it is the dark that in a sense allows us to become strangers to ourselves. As soon as darkness enters our experience, things are usually not what they appear to be. A kind of blinding has occurred.
safety: our survival instinct is to fight or flee dark experience
And as we become blind – as our normal, familiar way of seeing the world begins to fade – we may feel threatened, afraid and confused. The darkness can bring this up in us sometimes, can’t it, like when you’re standing there at night in your underwear and the dogs begin barking at something unknown … and the winds hiss and this old house rattles, and even though you know it is safe here, part of you conjures from the atmosphere a snake in the undergrowth, a man in a black coat just outside waiting for things to go quiet. Blind, afraid and confused, we call on our imagination to keep out unwelcome visitors. So as night comes on, the imagination swings loose, floods into active form, and becomes our lunar lens.
Of course this protective, threat-detecting behaviour is necessary, because darkness in a literal sense can in fact conceal danger: snakes can be deadly, men in black coats exist and occasionally visit houses for midnight purposes. In order to survive, human beings have had to obey the instinct towards protection and safety. Separation keeps us alive in the short-term. This is life from the point of view of our immune and sympathetic nervous systems: threat or friend? Good or bad? Me, not-me. Black, white.
but why are people drawn to the cosmic serpent?
Growth: the dark connects, evolves us
But to be alive in any meaningful sense of the word — and to evolve — it is not enough that we are safe, that threats are identified and kept at bay. To the contrary, dwelling only in the safe and knowable will suffocate us into sterile simulations of living and, ultimately, into pathology. Where would the butterfly be if it did not embrace the cocoon? In order to thrive we must honor our instinct towards growth, the magnetic core in each of us that longs for expansion, for experience, for union. Although darkness may lead to danger, it is also essential for life and growth and connection. Think of soil, its innate fertility. Think of the womb. In sleep, the dark restores us; our dreams need it to hatch. All of our friends were once strangers, potential threats. And for the human heart to feel less alone, it must learn how to befriend the dark strangers who dwell on the other side of its walls… to reconcile opposing or contradictory forces inside the self… to imagine worlds beyond the boundaries of the known.
To distinguish the threatening dark from the fertile dark — the capacity to see clearly — is critical for our safety as well as for our growth. But this is not easy to do because not only do we instinctively prioritise safety over growth, but we are masters at self-fragmentation and mental projection.
we are wired not to trust strangers:
“safety first”– growth second.
After all, who of us sees clearly in the dark. Naturally we have favoured our safety over our growth; survival is primary, growth secondary. Without immediate safety there can be no growth. This is why we are wired not to trust strangers. It is not a bad thing, it is only something to come to terms with when in the darkness of the ceremony space you become a stranger in a strange land — the same way you do when you dream each night.
we are masters at projection:
— interpreting the dreamspace of Ayahuasca
The human mind is wired for projection. Perhaps the clearest example is to consider what happens each night when — in darkness — we dream. The old way of seeing fades, rattles, falls away… and we become strangers to ourselves… in those colourful realms of our unconscious making. Each night, we practice so masterfully the magical trance of being lost in dream – fragmenting the sense of self, projecting the contents of our inner worlds into the imaginal realm and then losing ourselves utterly in our projections. It is a sort of disappearing act. But one could just as easily describe it as a possession.
Either way, the dream-show is so good that we lose ourselves in it. The better the magic, the deeper we go. And the best magic is intense, heavy with primordial symbolism, of sex and jealousy and annihilation and getting sawn in half, that echoes along the length of our terrified homo sapiens bones. In this regard, the dreams that draw us into the deepest trance are the ones in which evil chases us.
The day after my demon attack, I awoke in my jungle hut afraid and confused. The shaman had prepared a vapour bath for me, a traditional treatment for black magic and demonic possession. But I was feeling weak and slightly faint, so I decided not to do the bath that day, and instead went into the local town to shop at the market. It was there that I developed an extremely high fever and almost collapsed in the street. After checking myself into the emergency room at a hospital, I received the diagnosis that began to rattle my black-and-white concepts of Ayahuasca and shamanism:
I had malaria.
And once the malaria was cured, the demons vanished. What remained was the nascent understanding that
none of us sees clearly in the dark.
Darkness is never a ‘thing’ to begin with, a noun. We do not know a stranger directly. We do not see them as they are. Actually we can never know them as they are, but only who they are to us. To do this, we engage in a process of interpretation, of guess-work.
Imagine a soldier. To his family, he is a loving presence, a warm center. Other people call him: ‘friend’. Yet when I am at war, I call that same soldier: ‘enemy’. Darkness is a process of interpretation, a verb, it is something we do. It is an expression of our relationship with a strange other who we decide is ‘threatening’. After my experience I wondered what one malaria cell would look like inside the Ayahuasca dream-space from the point of view of another malaria cell.
On an intellectual level, of course, this is obvious stuff. But many people who drink Ayahusaca experience something very different on a gut/emotional/experiential level. On this more primal, mammalian plane, shit is real and scary; nature has taught us to take what we see literally. We believe we clearly see what is going on. If darkness appears, we believe — primate senses trembling with the anticipation of snake-bite — that the eye who sees, sees directly into the nature of an external other. We do not understand darkness as a relational act, an interpretive process necessary for our survival, but prone to presumption and prejudice.
Darkness shows us what is “threatening”
(it keeps our body “safe”)
That is the nature of darkness. In the imaginal realm – whether in a dream or Ayahuasca vision – darkness is an expression of what seems THREATENING.
The point I want to make here is not that all dark experiences are ‘hallucinations’ of the nervous system, but just that our tendency to ‘darkify’ what seems threatening is incredibly deep. It is deep because it has its roots in our physical survival systems. It is there for a very good reason and it functions all the time.
So darkness is an expression of what seems threatening. Threatening to what? What am I trying to protect by interpreting phenomena as dark enemies I need to defend against?
The obvious answer is: my body, the physical self. No body, no life. So must protect. Hence my malaria demons. Slay the baddies. Hence if you drink Ayahuasca while badly dehydrated, the threat felt by the nervous system can manifest as dark entities, utterly menacing the Jesus out of your visions. Or food poisoning – same story – nightmare on underdone Indian fish street.
(and it keeps our sense of self / existing software “safe”)
Yet inextricably bound to my physical self is another, deeper reality of the human being: my emotional/mental/psychic self. Actually there are many selves, many modules of consciousness. There is, to begin with, the fundamental ‘self-and-other’ program. Around this, a constellation of maps and images coalesce. These are the maps and images of reality, of identity, through which I make meaning, understand the world and my place in it. All of this is software. Whatever you believe about an immortal soul, our identity software still dominates our reality.
For good reason. Without the mental, emotional and psychic structures that comprise my sense(s) of self, I would shiver, adrift and naked in a terrifying sea of information known (by the sane) as the universe, and — while doing so — there’s a good chance I’d get hit by a bus and die.
Recall also that we have evolved as tribal creatures. Without functional maps and images of self I wouldn’t know what shirts to wear, how to stand out or be invisible, how to be the ape tolerated by the tribe. This could be disastrous. Our child self has known this for a very long time. We need functional images of self in order to be accepted by the ones who matter, or if we cannot be accepted, how to deal with the emotional reality of this and carry on.
So, sense of self, identity software: need it for acceptance, for stability, need it to live, must protect: how? Identify threats. Threats bad, threats dark. So darkness in dreams and in ceremony can also be an expression of what our self identity – our idea of who we are – deems threatening.
A threat to safety vs a threat to identity software
Now, there is a distinction of brain-curdling significance to be made here. The distinction between two kinds of threats. Can we tell these two apart,
a threat to the stability of your mental-emotional software programs
a threat to physical (or spiritual or mental) safety?
Where the snake can take you
(homeward bound or deeper into the dark?)
The Ayahuasca experience is, in many respects, very much like a dream. And a dream — in symbolic snake tongue — will reflect the dimensions of self with pristine, uncompromising honesty. It will totally lay bare the relationships you have with various parts of yourself. This is fertile ground. In meeting the lonely reflections that roam here unhinged, and learning how to relate to them again, there is immense potential for growth. This open-eyed meeting is one of the primary ways we grow and give substance to the soul.
But the process can only happen if one can look deeply into the dark, has the will to see clearly, to deal with complexity, to challenge black-and-white ideas and beliefs, to tolerate contradictions, to feel… and to somehow hold steady under the mirror as she reflects to you the horrifying beauty of our world. This, I feel, is the holy venom Ayahuasca tries to transmit when she takes the form of a snake and compassionately advances.
The thing is, nobody likes snakes. Spaced-out primates least of all. And it is true that there is so-called ‘external’ evil and darkness which you may encounter during the ceremony.
But as it happens, most of the time we are not afraid because we are being chased by monsters; monsters chase us because we are afraid. If this is so, can we cease the flight from ourselves long enough to listen? Or are we more interested in keeping safe and fattening up our shadows?
Here is the issue: most of us have defined who we are and how we see the world by ‘turning away’ from our pain and darkness, and this is the elephant we sneak with us into the ceremony room. We show up as life-long experts at self-fragmentation, specialists in separating ourselves from our darkness and projecting it outwards. Because this dualistic tendency has its roots in our survival machinery, no one is immune to its blinding. Not ‘spiritual people’, not shamans or those who have drunk Ayahuasca thousands of times.
How do we learn to see more clearly in the dark, to know a threat from a cry for help? First and foremost, by developing an attitude of turning towards internal darkness (see my article: Demonizing the cry for help).
Where would the butterfly be if it did not embrace the cocoon? In a mental asylum. Because when your depression appears as a demon; when your self-hatred becomes an evil entity ‘out there’ trying to get you; when the black magic of sexual abuse or life-long shame threatens your idea of who you think you are: do you fight it or do you try to relate to it? The answer to this question can define the path you walk with this medicine. By this I mean: one path leads to growth, the other leads deeper into the dark.
A primate in a neural thunderstorm
(blindness defines the human mind)
Darkness, demons and black magic exist. It is true, there are many different species which I will discuss in the next article. But before we begin slaying the enemy, we need to admit our non-rational origins as
— a primate in a neural thunderstorm —
quaking in blindness,
wired for duality and self-fragmentation and projection — a cosmic primate,
a dreaming primate, a loveable primate — but a primate we remain, especially on Ayahuasca.
If nothing else, remember this.
And if you are also willing to see, even if it feels uncomfortable, then we can talk some more about the fertile dark and about
what lies beyond the living room.