To the true believers, the Daime is neither drink nor drug nor substance of any sort. It is nothing less than a divine being, a living spiritual intelligence that teaches and interacts with people through the medium of ingestion. The drink is also said to bring one into direct communion with the presence of, among others, Christ, the Virgin Mother, and God; an experience that can heal whatever ails you — spiritually, physically, emotionally.    
       
  To the devoted initiate, the Daime is a divine intelligence. So the best thing you can do when freaking out is… take more Daime… And because José has his own life — saved from cancer — to prove this, it is difficult to argue with him. But I do argue. I have no such faith or confidence in the Daime. What I do have confidence in is my ability to say no, which, for now, is providing me with a hold on reality.    
       
 
   
 

Fear and Loving in Brazil

published in New Age Journal, October 1994

It's four a.m. I'm standing in a line of men, all of us dressed entirely in white, in a rustic church in a remote area of Brazil. At the head of the line, I'll be handed a cup filled with a foul-tasting beverage that in all likelihood will make me — and many of the other visitors here with me — violently ill. But it might also bring visions, insights and guidance from what our Brazilian hosts believe is a divine realm.

I reach the serving bar and choke down the rank, reddish-brown liquid. Before long, I feel a wave of nausea rise in my throat, and I can't help but ask myself: Why have I come here?

Flash back two weeks: I'm flat on my back in Brooklyn with a feverish illness. In just a few days, I'm supposed to fly to Brazil to participate in what promises to be an intense and physically demanding three-week workshop with members of an indigenous religious group known as the Santo Daime church. Now, bedridden and miserable, I find myself in a state of extreme fear about going, considering what I’ve signed on to do: place myself in the hands of strangers somewhere in Brazil for the express purpose of ingesting a powerful, mind-altering substance known as the Daime.

In this state of anxiety and ill health, I decide to see a physician. As I near his office, my ordinarily rational approach is reduced to a form of magical thinking. I find myself asking for a sign. Should I go on this trip or not? At this point, I am even willing to lose the large investment I’ve made — $3,700 plus plane fare — if my intuition and physical health suggest I should stay. In the doctor's waiting room I notice that there is but one magazine, a current issue of Omni. I flip it open to the first article. Entitled "Drug Tourism in the Amazon," this opinion piece, written by a California anthropology professor, argues that a host of "so-called shamans" in South America and their agents are charging naive "drug tourists" thousands of dollars to sample various herbal psychedelic brews, including the very one I’m about to try. Such experiences, the author claims, often catapult users into psychotic depression and "even make it impossible to read or write for an entire year." For someone looking for a sign, this is pretty direct communication.

Yet, three days later, I'm fastening my seat belt on Varig Flight Number 860 from New York’s JFK Airport to Rio. The reasoning that finally got me on the plane had been simple, and was echoed by several friends I called for advice: "You don't have to drink the drink when you're down there. You'll still be able make your own informed choices. If nothing else, you'll get to have a three-week vacation in Brazil." So, ignoring the ominous Omni warning — and the advice of the doctor — I head south, hoping to encounter God or, failing that, the infamous girl from Ipanema.

The object of both my intrigue and my fear — the Daime — is a variation of what is generally referred to as yagé or ayahuasca (meaning "vine of the soul"), a substance used for centuries by the native peoples of Brazil for healing, divination, and religious rituals. To the members of the forty or so Daime groups in Brazil (and roughly ten others around the world), the drink — brewed from two psychoactive rainforest plant — is a sacred potion believed to help users directly experience the divine. The Brazilian government, finding no evidence of abuse or ill effects, has legally sanctioned the beverage's use as a religious sacrament. Indeed, far from being a decadent escape, the ritual use of ayahuasca among native peoples appears to promote social stability and reduce the abuse of alcohol and other drugs.

The current fascination with ayahuasca among North Americans can be traced back at least to 1963, when City Lights published The Yagé Letters by Beat writers William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg — a correspondence describing Burroughs’s search for and exploration of the then-mysterious intoxicant. Accounts by holistic physician and botanist Andrew Weil, M.D. (The Marriage of the Sun and Moon), and, by the late ethnopharmacologist Terence McKenna (Food of the Gods; The Archaic Revival) have brought the substance and those who revere it further into the spotlight. Today, as word of ayahuasca’s powers has spread, a growing number of curious travelers are seeking out such sects as the Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal (another indigenous group) to experience the “vine of the soul” firsthand.

The Santo Daime community I will be visiting is located in Visconde de Mauá, a lush, green, mountainous region approximately five hours inland from Rio by bus. The members of our group — twelve Americans, average age about fifty, mostly therapists and "helpers" of one sort or another — have all come at the invitation of a workshop leader and therapist, a man I’ll call Brett. After his first visit to a Daime community, Brett came back testifying that the time spent there was "the most powerful, intense, and meaningful month of my life."

Our reasons for accepting Brett’s offer range from the personal to the profound. “I want some help in dealing with fear,” one woman, a therapist, confides. Another participant, a teacher and writer, explains, “I long to have a direct experience of the living God, so that I can go back into the world and do my work with a real sense of connection to the divine.” I, too, am hoping for spiritual transformation. Though I’m fully aware of the terrifying “bum” trips that can be caused by psychoactive substances, I also know — having spent the past twenty years exploring, teaching, and writing about innovative approaches to creativity and consciousness — that psychedelics can be used to achieve remarkable insights and self-understanding.

Our group is put up in the lovely Casa Bonita, a warm and welcoming tourist inn about an hour's ride from the community. The plan is for us to travel to the community every three days for a Daime "work" and then return to the inn to recover and prepare for the next session. Back at the inn we'll discuss our experiences as a group and rejuvenate with healing exercises, massage, regular saunas, immersion in cold mountain streams, and gourmet vegetarian meals.

At nine a.m., the day after we arrive, we board the van for our first work, an all-day affair that will end near midnight. In accordance with the often arcane ways of the church, we have dressed completely in white. The bumpy dirt road takes us through several small villages before we come upon a patch of woods and farm-land in which sit several primitive structures. We have arrived. The community's central house of worship is a wooden hexagonal church. Most notable among the building's features are its floor (concrete, painted blue, with 6”x12” squares outlined in yellow) and its many windows, the important function of which will soon become clear.

In the center of the church is an altar: a large table in the shape of a six-pointed Star of David, from the middle of which rises the church's principal symbol — a Christian cross — but with two cross-beams. One beam represents the coming of Jesus, the other the rebirth of Christ Consciousness within each person. Twisting and growing around the cross and up to the ceiling is a thick vine — Banisteriopsis caapi — whose woody stem is one half of the ingredients of the Daime (the other being the leaves of the bushy plant Psychotria viridis).

A Daime work is a highly structured ritual. Each of us is assigned to one of the little squares on the floor, where we'll stand during the event, women on one side and men on the other. Musicians sit on chairs in the center, surrounding the star table. In the rear of the church is a "serving bar." When it is time to receive the Daime, we'll form separate lines, slug down a cup of the nastiest-tasting stuff imaginable, and return to our squares, where for the next six to twelve hours we'll sing hymns to God in Portuguese while doing a simple two-step dance movement in perfect unison. Roughly every two hours another drink of Daime will be offered.

The hymns contain the theology and doctrine of the church, a mixed bag of Christian and African imagery. References to Jesus and Mary are common, alongside prayers to Master Juramidam, Mother Oxum ("o-shoom") of the waters, and the Holy Daime itself. This eclecticism dates back to the church's origins in the '20s, when a simple Brazilian rubber worker of African descent — Raimundo Irineu Serra — drank ayahuasca and received the vision and guidance to establish the religion. It is said that the Virgin Mary herself commanded him to sing, and that he subsequently received from an astral plane the hymns that are still sung by Daime groups around the world.

My initiation to the Daime faith is not so revelatory: I spend a good deal of the day either about to vomit, vomiting, or recovering from vomiting. I begin to consider the church windows my friends: When the time arises, I make a mad dash from my spot in the men's dance line to the windows, where a "guardian" of the ritual politely waits and offers me wads of toilet tissue with a friendly smile.

As the Brazilians proceed through the day, they are visibly unaffected by the Daime — they remain glued to their spots, often smiling, and singing and dancing with seemingly boundless energy.

I am astounded (and somewhat relieved) to see three-year-old children, elderly women, and even pregnant women receiving the Daime and participating in the ritual. This eases my mind somewhat, for they all seem fine. I learn later that women are given the Daime during childbirth, and that when a baby is born a drop of Daime is placed on the infant's tongue as his or her first welcome to the world.

As the Brazilians continue to dance and sing, I watch my fellow gringos drop like flies — most of the people from our group are flat on their backs for at least part of the day. And there is much activity at the windows, with lots of toilet tissue being offered. Several of our group also suffer the humiliation of defecating in their pants, right there in the church. I can't help but think to myself, as I hear these reports later, that this is madness. What kind of path to God requires bringing along a change of underwear?

To the true believers, the Daime is neither drink nor drug nor substance of any sort. It is nothing less than a divine being, a living spiritual intelligence that teaches and interacts with people through the medium of ingestion. The drink is also said to bring one into direct communion with the presence of, among others, Christ, the Virgin Mother, and God; an experience that can heal whatever ails you — spiritually, physically, emotionally. Miraculous healing stories abound, but perhaps the most significant is that of José A. Rosa, M.D., head of the community and leader of our workshop.

José, as we call him (or Padrinho to the community, which means "Godfather"), is a psychiatrist-turned-spiritual teacher who practiced in both Rio and later the United States for many years. In 1984, during a visit to Rio, several friends and ex-clients strongly urged José to try the Daime. His initial experiences were "intense and scary," and he vowed "never again." But several years later, at the urging of an inner voice, he took the Daime again. This time, José recounts, "the Daime got me powerfully. I was shown the spiritual realm. From then on, I was on the religious path of the Daime."

Then, in December 1988, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer — a particularly virulent form of the disease. The following week he traveled to Brazil and officially became a "Star Person," or initiate of the church, and began his quest for healing. Only a month later, José received a vision during a Work stating that "the spiritual aspect of your healing is complete, but the body will take longer." By the following summer, an ultrasound and CAT scan revealed that José’s cancer was completely gone, and any doubts about his relationship to the Daime or its power vanished.

My doubts about the Daime, however, are just beginning to flourish — into outright paranoia. It is our second work, and all my worst fears begin to arise as I feel myself slipping into a state of abject terror and utter horror. Any attempt at prayer or positive thinking has given way to a nightmare of racing thoughts: I'm trapped in the jungle with some weird Christian drug cult; everyone looks like a zombie, lining up to take this drink that makes you sick; José is Jim Jones and we're all going to get the Kool-Aid next; they want to steal my soul and convert me to Christianity; my father's going to die when he finds out his son has had a psychotic break…

I ask Brett to help me. My exact words, when I tap him on the shoulder: "I'm freaking out." Brett pulls himself back from whatever realm his own Daime-influenced psyche is traversing to help me breathe through the experience. I calm down, but I am reaching deep inside myself for a way out of this hellish mental state. Then I remember the advice of my friends: "You don't have to drink the drink. You have a choice." I grab onto this notion for dear life, relieved that there is something I can do — I can "just say no" to the Daime. And I do, for the rest of that work.

Both Brett and José are suspicious of my decision. From where they stand — a place of utter faith — there is rarely a justifiable reason to refuse a drink of Daime. Such refusals can only be a symptom of fear and resistance. To the devoted initiate, the Daime is a divine intelligence. So the best thing you can do when freaking out is… take more Daime. José is confident that such an approach will see a person through to the other side of virtually anything. In fact, his oft-repeated bromide for any problem, fear, or complaint is:

"Daime and time." And because José has his own life — saved from cancer — to prove this, it is difficult to argue with him.

But I do argue. I have no such faith or confidence in the Daime. What I do have confidence in is my ability to say no, which, for now, is providing me with a hold on reality.

During the next few days, as I ponder whether I will attend any of the five works still to come, I begin doing intensive prayer sessions of my own at night. My background is strongly Jewish, and I have brought with me the religious tools of my faith, as a back-up — a tallis (or prayer shawl), siddur (prayer book), yarmulke (cap), and tefillin (small leather cases containing passages from scripture that are worn in prayer). I pray deeply for guidance and protection and reach into the core of my heart for strength. I decide to wear my yarmulke to all future works and, before receiving the sacramental drink, to recite — when everyone else genuflects — the traditional Hebrew blessing over the "fruit of the vine."

Meanwhile, the rest of our group is pretty much divided: At least half report very positive experiences and remain consistently enthusiastic. "For me,'' one woman reports, "taking Daime is like picking up a telephone and getting God on the other line… the connection is that clear and that awesome." The rest of us continue to do battle with fear, skepticism, ambivalence, vomiting, defecating and terror. When I tell of my use of Jewish practices to help me survive in this seemingly threatening Christian context, one woman of Baptist upbringing whose experience of the Daime has been particularly frightening, confides to me "There isn't anything Christian about this stuff except the picture of Jesus on the wall."

Another woman, suffering from lupus, is knocked out every time she takes the Daime. One night several of us must carry her home as she emits random bubbling sounds in what seems a state of permanent psychosis. Still, the next day she shows up singing the praises of the Daime, ready for more, feeling that a deep healing is in fact under way.

The Daime experience differs radically from person to person as well as from work to work. Some people report very clear visual material similar to the effects of other hallucinogens: "There were snakes swarming around my feet, and I felt the floor was liquid." Others speak of a more religious experience: "Mary came and embraced me, and I felt my heart soften with her love." Still others report experiences that sound shamanic: "The Daime came and showed me something all wrapped up in a bundle and said, 'This is what I took from you.' I unwrapped it and found a dead rat. I knew this was my self-hate." Yet others have little to report: "It was almost as if I drank water."

In my case, after several works, my most cogent summary remained "I was nauseated all day."

How does José account for this huge inconsistency of effects? Again, the Daime is not considered to be a drug, a substance whose effects can be counted on to be reliable and consistent. Rather, as a living intelligence, the Daime is said to interact with each participant according to his or her state of consciousness, which varies from work to work. Feeling cocky and arrogant? The Daime might just knock you on your ass or send you reeling to the windows for cleansing. Open-hearted with a reverent mindset? The Daime might pave the way for Christ to lift you to the heavens.

The language people use to tell of their experiences most commonly refers to the Daime as a tangible, external presence, as in: "Then the Daime told me to lie down," or "I was guided by the Daime to breathe more deeply." I, on the other hand, seem to hear only one voice clearly, and it isn't the Daime. It is my mother. "What are you, meshuga? It's four in the morning and you're vomiting in a church in the middle of Brazil, and you're going back for more? What is this mishegas?"

For our third work I wear my yarmulke, and as added protection I meditate on a photo of the Dalai Lama. Invoking his gentle presence, I repeat a Buddhist phrase used for generating a spirit of loving-kindness: "May all beings be happy." I repeat this statement nearly nonstop during the entire eight-hour session, with surprising results. No fear assails me. I remain calm and centered throughout the event. And I experience a deep emotional stirring, a sense of both profound love and unbearable grief.

At our follow-up group discussion, Baixinhe speaks up. Baixinhe (pronounced “by-sheen-ya” and meaning “little One”) is an impish, fifty-eight-year-old Brazilian healer and medium, a tiny woman with a mischievous and loving twinkle in her eye. She coleads the group with José and Brett and often startles us with her psychic insights and the power of her healing hands. Now she says through a translator, “It was very odd, but I felt the presence of the Dalai Lama at last night’s work.” I tell her that I had been invoking him all night. “So,” Baixinhe exclaims, “It was you!”

The fourth work is a pleasant shift: We hold it in our cozy inn, including just the members of our group. We sing the hymns in English, and I accompany on guitar. It is a powerful day for me, and for most of us. For the first time, we begin to understand the structure of the works; how the hymns develop and build on each other. Now that we can focus on the words in English, their meanings shape the rhythm of the day. José says that when a particular response arises during a work — be it fear, vomiting, whatever — it is often directly linked to the specific content of the hymn being sung at the time.

The clearest example of this occurs when one of our male group members turns white and green, growling and emitting the most outlandish and terrifying sounds I have ever heard from a human being. As he does this the rest of us sing energetically: “Mother, please release us from this terrible darkness.” The sheer darkness and horror of incarnation in human form is tangibly present in the room, as is the power of the healing presence through our words in song.

Work number five: another twelve-hour affair, ending at dawn. It feels like a regression to square one for me. I spend the entire night nauseated and vomiting and experience no other alteration in consciousness. I decide that this is a positive sign: I'm being shown, in the spirit of Zen, that ordinary mind is sufficient; just who I am is enough. Or so I tell myself.

When I present this insight to the group, Brett confronts me. "First of all," he says, "being nauseated and vomiting all day is not 'ordinary mind.' And, secondly, it seems you're failing to grasp the very first lesson of the Daime. If nothing is happening the question to be asking yourself is, Where am I that the Daime isn't showing me anything today?"

The sixth work, our next to last, is a departure from the Daime tradition. It is a gira, which derives from Umbanda, an African religion that is practiced throughout Brazil. Mercifully, it is held outdoors on a beautiful day; we are free of the incense-ridden, claustrophobic confines of our little yellow-lined squares in the church. The gira is conducted by Baixinhe, or, more precisely, by various caboclos — Indian spirit guides — that inhabit her body and run the show. We are free to stand, sit, lie down, or dance and are encouraged to let ourselves be "possessed" if, literally, the spirit moves us.

There is much drumming and singing, grunting and howling, writhing and shaking. At some point Baixinhe grabs my hands, pulls me into the circle, and (as José declares "Total surrender!") spins me off into an ecstatic drunken dance that continues for ten minutes or more. As I dance I recall a dream from the night before — my publisher had changed the title of my book from Wild Heart Dancing to Wild Spirit Dancing and now as I leap about the circle in total abandon and freedom I know I am the wild spirit dancing and that my dance is a gift of liberation, an offering to others. I am totally blissed out.

I spend the rest of the day in ecstasy, feeling as if I am being granted a glimpse of paradise. The women in particular seem exquisite angels of mercy in their flowing white clothes, gently moving about and laying their hands on those people lying prostrate. Everything around me has transformed. The hymns, which at previous works had struck me as musically banal and repetitive, now sound like sacred, inspired melodies. Certain accompanying hand movements I had previously refused to perform — seeing them through the eyes of fear as something cultish and weird — I now recognize as being roughly akin to those of "I'm a Little Teapot." In fact, I later learn, the words they illustrate are quite innocent: "I am the shine of sun, I am the shine of moon," and so forth. I am amazed to notice how the world transforms itself when I shift my perception from fear to love.

The work concludes with the group singing and clapping for a solitary bird fluttering above us, clearly dancing to our beat. All of us enjoy a profound moment of communion. Then the Brazilians break into spontaneous circle dances that resemble the hora; indeed, the atmosphere is like that of a joyous Jewish wedding celebration. I leave feeling that there is just one universal prayer of the human heart reaching for the divine, with different cultures simply using different names, words, and forms. And though it sounds simplistic, the purpose of life also seems quite apparent to me: to learn to love ever more fully and deeply, removing any impediment or fears that obscure the heart.

At our discussion the next day, my usual "story" is short and to the point: "I'm happy," I say, and nothing more. What the group does not know is that I haven't uttered those two words together as a simple declarative statement for a long as I can remember.
Several days later we conclude our workshop with work number seven. I experience only nausea. I decide to drink no more Daime., and my energy is restored. I finish the final work upright, singing and dancing with energy, feeling complete with the entire experience.

At our final gathering at least half of our group seems to have embraced the Daime as a path to God. "I know, with a deep certainty," one woman says, "that I am being healed of fear. I pray with respect and gratitude for having been given the opportunity to take this Divine drink that I might be transformed." She and several others, I later learn, will return to the United States inspired: They will begin studying Portuguese; erect altars in their homes, centered around the double-beamed cross; and join others in the States working to establish Daime churches legally in North America.

Others in our group are more ambivalent. “I don’t know that I won’t ever do it again,” one woman tells me. “But I just don’t feel called or drawn. I just don’t want to surrender that much, to say to the Daime, ‘Here, direct my life.’ I’m not willing to equate the Daime with God.”

As for me, I conclude that I, too, am not drawn to the Daime as a path. Apart from my Jewish aversion to the notion of Jesus-as-Lord, my recurring bouts with nausea have ultimately outweighed any ecstatic moments of insight I have experienced. But I do feel that I have received a subtle but important healing of the heart: a remembrance of love as a source of comfort and a common denominator among seemingly disparate religious tra-ditions and peoples. And for this I am grateful.

Sadly, and ironically, Padrinho Jose would die several years later when his cancer returned.

My visit to Brazil ends with a twenty-four-hour stop in Rio, during which time I arrange for a ride with a local hang-glider. After driving up to a cliff high above the beach, I am strapped in beside my pilot, Vachin, and on the count of "um, dois, tres" we run down an inclined launching platform that ends in mid-air — in space — and leap, trusting, off the edge into glorious, weightless flight, soaring like eagles over the houses, trees, ocean, and sand.
What better way to conclude my trip? For if I learned nothing else here, it's that the life worth living will occasionally require leaping into the unknown, trusting that we will soar freely, see the wider view, and then be put down gently on solid ground.

 

 

     
 

 

The Daime experience differs radically from person to person as well as from work to work. Some people report very clear visual material similar to the effects of other hallucinogens: "There were snakes swarming around my feet, and I felt the floor was liquid." Others speak of a more religious experience: "Mary came and embraced me, and I felt my heart soften with her love." Still others report experiences that sound shamanic: "The Daime came and showed me something all wrapped up in a bundle and said, 'This is what I took from you.' I unwrapped it and found a dead rat. I knew this was my self-hate." Yet others have little to report: "It was almost as if I drank water."

 

 
   
     
 
The language people use to tell of their experiences most commonly refers to the Daime as a tangible, external presence, as in: "Then the Daime told me to lie down," or "I was guided by the Daime to breathe more deeply." I, on the other hand, seem to hear only one voice clearly, and it isn't the Daime. It is my mother. "What are you, meshuga? It's four in the morning and you're vomiting in a church in the middle of Brazil, and you're going back for more? What is this mishegas?"