If you asked me the question, “Would you participate in a Shamanic healing journey, i.e LSD trip, in Cambodia?” I would have replied, “Hell, no.”
Especially as this particular journey was not being conducted by an old Shamanic healer from generations of prior Shamanic healers deep in the jungle, but by a skinny white guy my own age from the suburbs of Philadelphia. I am not big on drugs or drinking, for that matter. Living in a hard partying ski town, this often sets me apart.
Also setting me apart is a restlessness, a desire to do and be something more that translates into action.
What more there is for me, I’ve come here, to this devastated, backward, thrilling tragic country of Cambodia, to find out. After five months on a pilgrimage through New Zealand, India, Thailand and now finally Cambodia, studying and teaching yoga and meditation (and incidentally experiencing creepy Shiva priests at the top of forgotten temple towers, pig slaughter and sacred elephants, among many other things), I have become familiar with the logic behind keeping your “temple” pure. Yoga teaches that drinking and drug use (I won’t speak about hash chillums that seem to be the life blood of Indian babas) blocks our true awareness.
True consciousness is the whole point of my pilgrimage.
Yoga and meditation are practices to get close to the Divine oneness that pervades all things, which as far as I can tell, equates to pure love—call it happiness or peace. Anyway, LSD is something I took in high school with Drew Beard and John Cassidy, sitting in their apartment by the Highland railroad tracks in Memphis, Tennessee, watching Pink Floyd, “The Wall” and getting freaked out by a big rat.
So when it is announced that a Shamanic journey will commence at the retreat center where I teach yoga and meditation, I decide I am out.
Not just out, but out.
Literally, I packed my bags and told my friend Brian when to meet me at the bus station in Phnom Penh. This is the last straw in a long line of last straws.
Cambodia and the retreat center, have pushed every last button, showed me new buttons I didn’t know I had and then pushed those too.
At the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, I’d been assaulted on all sides by Korean tourists yelling and jumping up in the air for action shots in front of crumbling ancient walls. I wanted to find some peace, the purpose for the temples’ painstaking placement ages ago.
Finding a quiet, deserted space, I sat cross-legged in front of a giant Buddha, and immediately jumped back up, having sat on a bee—at which point, a puppy growled viciously and tried to bite me.
There is noise in this Cambodian village, all the time—either from thumping trance music played in bamboo huts at ear splitting decibels, or from Aharon, one of the gardening boys who is obsessed with beating the box drum, an instrument I never knew existed but now fantasize about breaking over his head. Cambodia is full of bugs (I don’t remember when my skin wasn’t crawling with them). There are rats (the real kind, not safe behind a TV screen).
My desire to stay in Cambodia has been tested, truly, every day.
At this point, I should also mention that Cambodia is colorful beyond Western imagining. That the sky is huge and dramatic. The babies are possibly the cutest anywhere. Its people, in general, are so happy and content with so little that it could also be one of the best places to be in the world (minus landmines and a very recent genocide). It teaches you lessons that, in the long run, will make you a more peaceful and generally decent human being.
But an acid trip is dumb, I think, and Joel, the founder and director of the center, doesn’t tell us anything about how it will work. I feel responsible for the guest’s experience not to mention my own here.
Most of the guests choose in advance not to participate even though they will be present. I picture the evening’s adventures pretty much looking like a bunch of retreat center volunteers swaying around to more trance music. As a dutiful employee (until the next day when I will be on a bus), I sit in a circle outside in the yoga pavilion, along with all the guests and volunteers.
Joel finally speaks to us in detail about the purpose of the journey. He tells us that this pure form of LSD is some kind of natural mold that forms on top of rye.
Having always thought that LSD was a chemical cocktail of toxic proportions, this begins to relax my mind to the concept. Back in the U.S., I researched mold on rye and find that it does often form the basis for LSD.
I also found fascinating links to poisoning in the Middle Ages, possibly the Salem Witch Trials, and a fertility cult mentioned in Beowulf.) Sitting in this circle of expatriates and Western tourists, my frustrations begin to melt away.
Some of Joel’s words get through and begin to entice me.
“For generations, native cultures have used certain medicines for physical healing and others for emotional and spiritual healing,” he says.
I am a sucker for participating in native traditions, from sweat lodge ceremonies to medicine wheels and most things in between.
Something about a deep sense of loss surrounding my own connection to the Earth, my disconnection from, for lack of a better word, Spirit.
“Everyone, whether they are taking the medicine or not, is a part of this process,” Joel tells us.
The guests who have opted out are smiling sportively. I can’t help but think about how I would react as a paying guest on a yoga retreat when confronted with this situation.
The guests humble me and make me want to practice a more open mind. Joel gives us crayons and paper to write our goals down or draw pictures. I write about breaking free of fear, being more present, letting go of control and judgment in favor of freedom. I draw green curlicues, rainbows, stars and ocean waves.
Joel comes around with a small glass jam jar.
“You want some?” he asks. “Maybe just two thirds of a dose to start?”
I nod. His eyes widen but he pours something clear from a Visine bottle, mixes it with sand filtered water and waits quietly while I drink. I put my palms together and bow my head slightly. He does the same and moves on to the next person.
Fifteen minutes later, I sit next to a pile of cow shit, behind some dusty trees in the field out back, crying quietly, staring at the sky.
I don’t know how long I cried, but I feel like I have always been and will always be crying. In the distance are the sounds of the other journey takers shouting and laughing. Minutes or hours later, I hear popping noises and immediately decide the neighbors are shooting their pigs.
As soon as there is a popping noise, I assume animals are being slaughtered. Maybe it’s because I experienced this phenomenon in a Thai hill village last month. It’s probably good to mention that, with the exception of the Lahu Village, this is rarely the case.
In this case, it is a rolling, running, jumping group of small boys throwing firecrackers. They are sneaking closer and closer, daring each other to approach the Barang, white person, by a few more steps. I smile at them from a red, wet face and they laugh and wave.
Soon after that, Joel appears, says a few words in Khmer, and they retreat, but not before throwing a brave last round only a few feet away. It explodes and we laugh. They might have regrouped and come closer but by then Hugo and Ita, two of the gardening boys, have come into the field.
This same little rolling hill of boys surge toward Hugo and Ita across the dry, desolate field of desiccated rice paddies, throwing a tentative round or two of firecrackers in greeting. Hugo and Ita send a frisbee spiraling toward the boys. The boys are the color of the bare patches on the field.
They are a river of constant motion, surging forward, collecting itself, spilling and sloshing to the sides and regrouping into a powerful forward force.
The boys give up on the explosives and adopt the language of the more peaceful frisbee, pointing as Hugo and Ita leap through the air and improvise dance moves. The river of boys collects momentum joyfully mimicking the leaps and dancing.
In this moment, it is as if the earth, so barren in this spot, is saying, with its river, its poem of boys, Look. All my devastation is worth it.
This tangle of mischief and abandon is my greatest beauty. I stop crying, or I keep crying, but also laugh. The tears are never bad. They are just necessary, like air. Judgment doesn’t play into it anymore. Without judging myself, I can cry and sit in a dry field for hours or minutes, and it is nothing but necessary.
Without judgment or expectation, it is as if everything I am doing, sitting in the dirt, watching the boys and the sky, feeling whatever I am feeling, has nothing attached to it.
It is then that I realize how I can be rich without money, without even beauty. Because if I am still within myself and there is nothing to be added to that stillness.
At some point, my friend Pia, the resident Reiki therapist, puts her arm around me and we move to the top of a huge mound of dirt, displaced for a meditation pool under construction. We sit here for hours. I know because eventually the full moon rises above the jack fruit tree. I fold my legs in meditative asana, facing away from the moon because it is so bright, running my hands over the earth.
Eventually, I am rolling in the earth, sliding my limbs across it and there is nothing I want so much as to feel part of it, that solid and also pliable.
Sometimes, I scoop up a big handful, turn toward Pia, and she murmurs, “Mmmm.” Understanding, as far as I can tell, that this for us is it. The substance of earth, the way it is part of us and keeps us tethered to our home, the orb that easily could shoot free from our frail forms if it were not for this rooting, grounding substance.
I cover my bare skin with its essence. I wish to diminish into its solidity.
“Look at the moon!” Pia points.
“It’s too bright,” I say.
“That’s your power. Are you afraid of your power?” she asks in her Norwegian accent, so ethereal and fairy like.
“I don’t know. Probably.”
Its pull, the one guiding the tides, attracts my whole made of Earth mass and won’t release its grip.
Even when Pia wanders off in search of a coconut, and the gardening boys, one by one, climb the mountain of earth attempting jokes and flirting, I can’t stop staring at the moon.
It is the deepest and most profound wordless conversation.
The boys and Pia sit around the mountain of earth and start a fire. For a while we have conversations that overlap and then don’t, and long periods of silence. I need to continue this session with the moon on my own.
I make my way barefoot across the bare ground to the yoga hut, where I put on my friend Brian’s Sanskrit chants playlist. Then I climb the wooden steps up to the tree house platform, where I sway in the wind along with the coconut palm and gaze at the moon.
Occasional lightning illuminates the whole night sky. The moon and I have come to an understanding, at this point. Our silent power struggle and debating has come to an end well past midnight.
I’ve wrestled the moon angel, in a sense, and will wake up the following morning, pilgrimage completed, ready to return home to Colorado.
The moon and I decide that we are fierce. We are elemental. We hold secrets and we transmit.
That is our job, the moon and me, to reflect the light of a larger and more infinitely substantive light. Therein lies our power.
Editor: Olga Feingold