and Loving in Brazil
published in New Age Journal,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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