The Darkest Night of My Soul: I died, went to hell, and have come back to help.
Warning! This is not a fairy tale. It is a true story of a psychedelic Ayahuasca journey. It may be terrifying to some, but ultimately, it ends well.
If you’re reading on your phone, it is best experienced the way I did — in dark or night mode.
On the morning of December 31, 2014, in the dead of winter, I begin the 8-hour drive from Detroit, Michigan, where I was living at the time, to Boscobel, Wisconsin. I am on my way to attend two back-to-back all-night Ayahuasca ceremonies, one held on New Year’s eve and a second one the following evening on New Year’s Day.
After driving through a remote stretch of beautiful rugged wilderness, I arrive after dark to a massive rustic log cabin near to the Wisconsin River — smoke billowing from the chimney.
Through the chilly winter air, I schlep my gear from my car into the cabin. As I enter the main room, most of the twenty-five or so participants are already situated on their mats, chatting away with each other, in nervous anticipation of the evening ahead.
The ceremony was being held in a capacious great room. The ceiling was at least eighteen-feet high with massive beams across. At the back center of the room was a giant metal cylindrical wood-burning furnace — a small door at the front to deliver logs. It extended at least six feet from the base and about twelve feet from the back wall. This thing was a beast. It looked like something that belonged in the engine room of an old steamship, not in a home.
The group organized itself in a wide and uneven half-circle around the altar. The shaman-guide was seated behind the altar, opposite the massive furnace.
Our guide, Tomislava, was a petite white woman in her 30’s, Polish descent — relatively young but an old soul. She had done extensive studies in shamanism — both academic and hands-on — and had previously led dozens of ceremonies.
This was to be only my third Ayahuasca (colloquially referred to as Aya) journey. My first experience was another double-ceremony format, a year prior, in the Chicago area, also facilitated by Tomislava.
Ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew, originating in the Amazon jungles, made by combining parts from two distinct plants. It is sometimes referred to as “vine of the soul,” “vine of the dead,” or “La medicina.”
Shortly after I got situated, we begin the all-night affair. Intention setting is an essential part of any plant-medicine ceremony. Each of us had an opportunity to state our intentions out loud to the group. At the time, I was feeling a disconnection from life, so my primary aim was to feel a greater sense of connectedness.
At about 10:30 pm, we commenced drinking the special brew. Once the potion kicked in, other dimensions of reality begin to make themselves known to me.
With eyes open, I see highly-structured fluid geometrical patterns overlaying on top of ordinary physical reality. They have a soft translucent quality. It’s kind of like augmented-reality technology.
With eyes closed, the area commonly referred to as the third eye becomes fully alive, and vastly spacious, as if I had just put on super high-res virtual reality glasses. Visuals have an animated quality, yet everything feels hyper-real — more real than anything that I have ever experienced during ordinary waking consciousness.
I find myself fascinated with the intense visual imagery, the kind that I have no reference points within myself to create. As I witness all of this content arising and falling within my awareness, I feel a great sense of reverence and simultaneous trepidation. I have entered dimensions of reality beyond the physical. This is unfamiliar territory of the most magnificent kind.
I see bright jeweled cities slowly flowing and morphing. There are fountains of brightly colored yellowish-gold, cartoon-ish-looking Egyptian headdresses trickling down around me. I enter spaces made of luminous mosaic tiles of varying sizes, where I encounter some alien spirits. One such apparition in the corner of one of the rooms is the large face of a playful and mischievous jester that I have seen multiple times before.
With eyes wide open again, I witness a small translucent fist-sized alien copter of sorts, slowly making a landing on my stomach.
All of the visual entertainment is mind-blowing, but it is beginning to take a backseat to the real work, which is confronting and dealing with my own life shit that is starting to take over the show.
If you’ve ever seen one of the old Scrooge movies, drinking Ayahuasca (or ingesting any other psychedelics), can be akin to opening yourself up to visits from the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Future. There is nowhere to run or hide — no putting your head in the sand. The medicine tends to bring up suppressed and repressed content from the subconscious.
It is showing me aspects of my life that, if not changed, will lead to an unpleasant future.
I wrestle on my mat for the next couple of hours, both physically and mentally, exhausting myself, battling a cacophony of thoughts and feelings overwhelming my awareness.
In the middle of the night, we are offered an optional second cup of tea. I reluctantly accept.
A couple more hours of internal battle, and then BAM, the lightbulb comes on!
In an instant, I have the answers to my disconnection. This isn’t just an intellectual understanding; it is felt all the way to my core.
The realization: I just need to be more honest and authentic with myself and all of my relationships. The recognition of this simple insight creates a profound shift inside of me.
Had this simple insight come at the beginning of my journey, it probably wouldn’t have had the same impact as receiving it after several hours of internal battle.
Aya will make you work for it, and the work is often what makes the realizations worth it. We tend not to appreciate those things that come easy.
From this moment, for the next couple hours, in the darkness of the early morning, I experience feelings of peace, serenity, and bliss, while listening to heart-opening music.
I am now going to live from a place of total honesty and authenticity, and this is the remedy to the feelings of disconnection and discontent that I had been seeking.
I begin to question whether or not it is even necessary to stay for the second ceremony. I feel like I have received what I had come for. Maybe the best thing to do is take my belongings and profound realizations and make my way back home to Detroit.
The philosopher, Alan Watts, once said, relating to the use of psychedelics: “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” He went on to say, “For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope; he goes away and works on what he has seen.”
But as the sunrise draws nearer, I’m not so sure of things anymore. As the medicine leaves me, the euphoric confidence behind my convictions is starting to melt away. Self-doubt begins to creep into the spaces where only deep knowing had recently abided.
The idealistic values of total authenticity and honesty are now merging with the rational mind and real-world considerations of vulnerability, rejection, shame, and self protection. How honest and authentic to be?
Discernment is entering the picture.
Fast forward to the next evening.
I convince myself to stay for round two. As Alan Watts may have said, my eyes are still glued to the microscope.
Between ceremonies, we all pretty much just lounged around and bided our time — sleeping a little, eating a little, journaling, and chatting with each other.
Around 8 pm, I am lying on my mat in the great room, along with the other psychonauts (an explorer that traverses the inner cosmos). I spend some time journaling and writing down new intentions.
Before setting down my notebook, the last thing I write — an afterthought in the margins of my last page — “explore the meaning behind the frequent encounter of the number 1111.” All my life, that number has been showing up in spectacular ways.
I scoot over to join in a nearby group discussion. Almost immediately, I connect with a few of the other participants. Making insta-friends at a plant-medicine ceremony is easy work, as we have all been through battle together, or about to go into battle. One guy in particular that I connected with was Szymon — a young, married father, born in Poland. We had both seen the movie Avatar multiple times in the theater.
About an hour into the group conversation, shortly after 10:00 pm, our guide dims the lights and signals that it’s time.
I crawl back to my space and reach for the digital watch that I had left near my gear. I push the Timex Indiglo button. It’s exactly 11:11. This is my signal to pay attention. I get the feeling that this will be an especially important ceremony. The actual local time is 10:11, but I hadn’t adjusted my watch since crossing from the Eastern to Central time zone.
Eventually, the lights go completely dark, and only a few small candles illuminate the space.
One by one, each of us makes our way to the altar. The guide makes a pour of Ayahuasca tea — using intuition to inform her of how much to fill the cup. I sit there for an extended period, holding the cup reverently with both hands, silently affirming my intentions and expressing gratitude as I look into the viscous tea. I make sure not to leave a single drop before handing back the empty vessel.
I make my way back to my space and sit with anticipation, like waiting for a train to arrive at the station.
As with previous experiences, once Aya reaches saturation, the visual sense becomes hyper-activated. Some of the things that I see are more pleasant than others.
I find myself subjected to an onslaught of religious imagery — a common theme during previous journeys. With eyes closed, Stars of David (a.k.a. Jewish star or six-pointed star) rain down all around me. This does not feel good. It’s heavy. My ancestry is Jewish.
After two or three hours into the journey of the unknown, a second cup is offered. I accept.
Around 45 minutes into the second offering, I need a bathroom break and am also feeling quite nauseated. Nausea and vomiting are very common side effects of ingesting Ayahuasca, especially within the first hour. I carefully make my way to the candle-lit restroom, where I carry on with my internal journey while simultaneously carrying out my business.
This was unlike any bathroom break I had ever taken. While under the influence, the restroom takes on a deeper meaning. It feels like purgatory. I’m in between worlds. Emptying myself, no matter from which end, feels like I am also releasing accumulated mental, emotional, and spiritual gunk (many others report this same phenomenon). The nausea is coming on strong.
The internal journey takes me back to the birth canal before I was born. I feel suffocated with cigarette butts, smoke, and ash, like I am inside a dirty ashtray, or like the ashtray is inside of me. My mother smoked throughout her pregnancy. At the time, I held some resentment toward her for that.
My Ayahuasca-influenced mind told me that by puking, I would release all that energetic heaviness and that I would be reborn. I violently vomit into the toilet. The release gives me much relief. However, no matter how much I try, I feel as though I can’t get it all out. Try as I may, there is some residual stuff left inside, stuck just below my throat. After several unsuccessful attempts to fully release, I decide to rejoin the group.
Once I navigate the dim room and return to my mat, things begin to turn darker. The mental irritation of not being able to fully purge becomes an obsession. I feel as though I won’t be able to make it through the birth canal — I will be stuck.
All manner of crazy thought begins to occupy me. The voice in my head:
What if the blockage is only energetic, yet feels physically real, like a phantom limb? And what if no one can help me remove it?
What if I suffer with this blockage in my throat for my entire life, maybe for all of eternity?
My mind begins to close in on me with a singular focus on extricating this obstruction.
Psychiatrists refer to this as psychosis.
I reach for my water bottle and start chugging. The guide notices and instructs me not to drink so much.
I kneel and lower my head over the nearby puke bucket, attempting to force myself to vomit. Nothing is coming up.
Everything begins to irritate me. The strong smell of burnt white sage permeating the room is overwhelming to my senses, and intensifying my unwell feelings. I can’t escape it.
I practically rip off my shirt.
I’m wearing a necklace with a pendant made from an Ayahuasca vine knot. My brother had picked it up on a recent trip to Peru. This is also irritating me. I quickly remove it and throw it aside.
With shirt off, I squirm around on my mat, grunting, and making other sounds that indicate extreme discomfort.
Against the wishes of the guide, I drink more water. Tomislava notices and walks over to admonish me. She firmly tells me to stop drinking and to lie down. I interpret this to mean that there is nothing more that I can do.
I have a deep sense of resignation. It is time to prepare for my death.
I lie down, close my eyes, and await with ultimate gripping fear. On one level, still aware that I am in a room during an Ayahuasca ceremony, I find myself in a very dark place, both visually and viscerally. Gone are all elaborate visions. What ensues is ever-increasing levels of darkness.
This is it. I am dying. Judgment day is upon me.
It is here.
The world ends for me.
I find myself entering hell.
Things get even stranger.
Hell is complete annihilation in the dungeon of the universe. I’m alone, by myself, with my thoughts, for all of eternity. Forever — an infinite moment.
Hell is also solitary confinement within Auschwitz, a Nazi-occupied concentration camp in Poland. The only difference is that outside of the thick walls of my cell are my captures. I may as well be a rat in a cruel science experiment. My suffering is inconsequential to those beyond my cell walls.
I fluctuate back and forth between the two settings, and sometimes they merge as the same. My personal experience of both realms is virtually indistinguishable.
Hell on Earth is in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Hell beyond Earth is located in the deepest basement of nowhere. But it makes no difference whether it be hell on Earth or a hell far beyond.
In this solitary cell, I can scream, I can cry, I can bang and bang on the cell walls, and not a single soul will show mercy on me. No one is coming to save me. Not even a one in a trillion chance. Not ever.
My mind fragments into an innumerable number of pieces. All of the thoughts that occur over a lifetime are now streaming at once, all independently, and at very high velocity. It is like being in a giant situation room with hundreds of monitors on the walls, all tuned to different channels, and the volume turned up on each one. The broadcast from each screen is competing with the others.
When I died, I felt with absolute conviction and sadness that the entire world that we call the universe had died along with me. It felt as though what we call life was never truly real in the first place. It was just a giant simulation. I was both the one simulating it and a subject within it.
As the subject in this simulated experiment, whoever was running it, removed the plug from the wall, and walked away forever. It was as if a 10-year old boy outgrew his old video game console, and never returned to it. I was left in the abandoned game. All the vastness and richness that we call existence and life was over, and it was like it never existed.
As the simulator of this experiment, it felt like I had created all of the phenomena of existence. Video images of pop culture streamed through my mind — a commercial for a Samsung Galaxy phone, a snippet of an old Seinfeld episode, a stock ticker running at the bottom of a CNBC segment. It was all just contrived nonsense, never truly existing in any real sense. On one level, I had imagined it all in what was now just a silly faraway dream.
At that moment, my mind, connected to the collective consciousness, was entirely and singularly alone. It had always been that way, yet in the previous 40-year “dream” of existence, I temporarily escaped from that ultimate reality. I existed amongst a sea of other that my mind had created, like a curious child hanging out with imaginary friends.
Now in the depths, there is no one but a singular I — imaginary friends are no more — isolation and aloneness are all that exist — buried alive in the darkness, trapped with and tortured by my thoughts for all of eternity. I am convinced that the morning will never come — the blackness of the night is all that will ever be.
While in both versions of hell — concentration camp and beyond Earth — through the thick cell walls of my prison, I can faintly hear the voices of other souls in confinement. We are too far from each other to actually have a conversation. Even if we could communicate with one another, nothing would come of it. We are all lost souls, tormented and tortured, each of us schizophrenic, our minds completely fragmented.
I still maintain some level of awareness of the physical cabin room, yet I am locked to my mat. I’m not physically paralyzed, but I may as well be because my mind has me convinced that I am gone. I am completely divorced from consensus reality.
The elements in the room begin to merge with my inner journey. It’s all just one big happening.
The imposing wood-burning furnace in the center of the actual room where we are all gathered represents the crematoria. I can sense the faint red fiery glow through the small furnace door. I am deftly afraid of being fed into it.
Almost all of the ceremony participants are actually of Polish descent, including our guide. Most of them are first-generation, and Polish is their primary language.
Even the water bottle that I picked up at a gas station one-hundred miles away says Poland Spring (the water is actually from Poland, Maine, but the prop fit well in this cosmic play).
Some of the participants around me, on my side of the room, represent the Nazi officers, and they are responsible for guarding my cell.
The varied ceremony music that had been playing throughout the evening has now been weaponized. It is being piped into my cell nonstop, to torture me by keeping me awake. It’s blaring. I can’t escape it. I hear religious music that seems to go on forever. For very brief moments, the music ceases, and then it comes back on again. This cycle continues over and over.
At some point during the night (time is irrelevant, but it’s probably around 4 am), Tomislava gives everyone permission to get up and dance within their own space, but my mind has locked me to my mat.
The other participants represent both the guards and the prisoners, simultaneously. Their role is as guards, but on another level, they are also the prisoners of this Earthly hell — as much a prisoner as me.
High-spirited devotional music is being played. I peak through my eyelids. Like a Native American rain dance, I get a sense that everyone dancing is silently crying out to their God, pleading for the savior to come to Earth and rescue humankind. These dancers represent everyone on Earth, right now and for all time, wishing, hoping, and praying for “the One” to arrive and bring them salvation.
I know better. I consider these poor souls to be silly misguided fools. From my vantage point in eternal hell, I know the truth. Just as I can pound on the walls of my prison cell with no result, I understand that the prayer for some outside heavenly force to intervene is futile — wishful thinking. My conviction is absolute that no one is ever coming to save us/me. If it’s to be, it is going to be up to we, us, me.
I open my eyes a bit more and see one of the guards/prisoners (participants) next to me. His dance is like miming the act of climbing. I see him attempting to scale the high barbed-wire fence of the concentration camp, overseen by imposing watchtowers on both ends of the wall. This guard is a lost soul. I feel deep sadness for him.
Four spaces to my left, in the half circle, is Szymon. He represents the archetypal Nazi German guard. He is the one that has the main responsibility for guarding my cell. While dancing, he is facing in the direction of my mat. His dance looks like shadow boxing — throwing punches into thin air. It feels very confrontational. I perceive him as a terrifying threat.
Lost in a never-ending cycle of despair, still trapped in eternal hell, I need to find some way out. Trying to reconcile the situation with my mind is not working.
At some point, I gain a sliver of awareness of my participation in the ceremony. I want to walk up to the altar and ask for help, but I am fearful that if I try to leave my mat, I will be punished by the guards.
I decide that I’m going to face my fears head-on, and walk past the guards. I work up enough courage to approach. I ask Tomislava for help, without going into much detail of what I am going through. She is cold and terse with me. She tells me to go back to my mat, breathe, and find my center.
I heed her instruction. I lie back down and try to find my center. Finding my center isn’t working. After some time passes, I get bolder. It’s time to pull back the curtain on this nightmare and turn on the lights.
In Ayahuasca ceremonies, at least in this one, we had been instructed to have no contact with one and other during the journey. We are not to touch each other, console each other, speak to each other, or even direct thoughts to each other while under the influence.
I walk back up to Tomislava. I have a seat right next to her. I grab her hand. I need physical contact. I need her to tell me that it’s going to be okay. I need some maternal love. She pulls her hand away from me and implores me to go lie back down. This motherly love that I crave is nowhere to be found. I grab her hand again. I wouldn’t easily let go. I’ve had enough. I start to get a bit hysterical. I tell her that I am going to turn on the lights. I begin to get a bit loud.
She stands up with me and tries to walk me back to my mat hand-in-hand, sternly warning me not to turn on the lights. While standing, I take her hand and place it on my heart. She allows me to keep her hand on my heart for an extended moment.
In hindsight, I think she realized that this was better than the alternative of me turning on the lights and continuing to make a ruckus. I remember referring to her as mom. She embodied the spirit of Ayahuasca. In that moment, she was mother Ayahuasca to me.
Szymon, the guard, isn’t having any of it. He tries to remove my hand from Tomislava. I gently put a hand on his shoulder and give him a soft smile. He backs off. I also lightly put my hand on the shoulder of another guard and give him a reassuring nod.
All I needed was some physical touch and some reassurance that everything was going to be okay.
Still in a state of heightened vigilance, over the next hour or so, I begin to find peace and relaxation as the medicine slowly wanes. The previously torturous music shifts. It is now comforting me as the night sky meets the rising sun.
I’ve come back to serve.
I worked up the courage to escape from that nightmare by breaking some rules and confronting the source of my fears in an unconventional way — grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns. I had tamed the prison guards.
I truly did not think I would make it out. I feel like I have been given a second chance — a second dream.
My experience is my experience. It should go without saying in the retelling of it that there is no intention to disrespect the millions who suffered agonizing deaths, and the millions more who endeared unbearable misery at the hands of fellow human beings. My heart goes out to all.
What made this experience so real, so intense, so palpable? I was literally awake during the ceremony while “dreaming”. Generally aware of my mat and whereabouts, the physical surroundings, including the other participants, were merging with my inner dream world. Other spirit realms and dimensions of reality were woven throughout. There is a good reason why Aya is referred to as “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead”.
Sometimes plant medicines dole out tough love. That was certainly the case this time around. I have chosen to imbue my journey with significant meaning and purpose, viewing it as a challenging and difficult experience, rather than a “bad trip”. From the rearview mirror, I see the experience as one of the most important and pivotal moments of my life — forever grateful.
I don’t want to completely dismiss the risks associated with Ayahuasca and psychedelic use. For a generally healthy person with no serious mental health issues, the long-term mental-health risks are low, but not nonexistent. It is entirely possible for someone to undergo an experience of similar intensity to mine, and end up mentally, or emotionally harmed.
Fortunately, I managed to bring back gifts —valuable insights and lessons — from the journey. Some insights came right away. Others took more than a year to realize. And more than three years later, I’m still processing and integrating the experience.
One thing I am certain about is that while heaven and hell may exist elsewhere, those experienced realities also exist right here, right now, on Earth. We each have the capacity to make a relative heaven or hell out of ourselves, each other, and this planet.
From this darkest of journeys, I got a small yet hyper-intense glimpse of the hell that humans are capable of creating for each other. I have developed a deeper compassion for all who suffer, especially the forgotten ones.
The experience didn’t transform me into a selfless all-caring saint, but it did help to shake me awake. It illumined some things. It helped show me what truly matters and how I want to show up in the world. But it has been up to me to find my way. I have had to summon the daily courage and make the commitment to live according to my newfound convictions. It has been the most worthwhile thing, but I can’t say it has been easy.
In November of 2016, I started a project called Spread the Hug. The purpose is to break down barriers between people, reduce fear and hostility, crack open hearts, and encourage a culture of kindness. We have hugged in busy public spaces— on urban street corners, outside of sports stadiums, at daytime festivals— while holding a sign that says “NEED HUGS”. Regardless of the chosen location, the response has always been overwhelmingly positive.
On the project website, spreadthehug.love/my-story/ I share the story of how I got started — “The More Beautiful Dream that My Heart Knew Was Possible”. In a sense, this project is my loudest cry from a rooftop. It is the fullest expression of the most important gift from the journey that I have great difficulty articulating and transmitting to others through words.
This plant medicine journey was the story behind the story, which I have only shared a few times, and never publicly, until now. This was not and is not my only fuel, but it may have been the spark that ignited the flame.
Along my way, I hope to inspire others to become the savior they are seeking. We are going to need many.
It is time to turn on the lights.
The Morning After
In the early a.m., after Tomislava brought the ceremony to completion, we each shared our experience while still in the circle. With full authenticity and naked vulnerability, I gave an abbreviated account of my journey to the whole group.
Once we were done, everyone was free to connect with each other. I walk over to Szymon (the head guard). With right arm stretched out by his side, I catch him slowly forming a fist below his waist. I call him out and ask him why he just made a fist.
He says, “I don’t know. I guess there was a lot of energy left back there. Do you know where I was born?”
I say, “Yeah, Poland.”
“I was born in the town of Auschwitz.”