by Ben Cohen
The process of death, at least from my experience with the sacred ‘Vilca’ was intense to say the least. I had committed myself to keeping as calm as humanly possible during the ordeal, and as the powerful effects of Vilca — a potent combination of DMT (Dimethyltryptamine), 5-MeO-DMT, and Bufotenine — started to come on I resigned myself to whatever my fate would be.
As I lay down on my bed, I began to feel a tremendous force in my head — a pressure the likes of which I had never experienced before. It was as if there were a hidden gateway to another dimension in my brain that was being forced open with the power of a nuclear reactor. It was not painful, but certainly alarming. I reminded myself to settle down and attempted to ‘observe’ what was happening to me, rather than getting too emotionally attached to what I was feeling. Had I given into the sheer intensity of it, I could not have imagined a more frightening experience, and by staying as calm as possible I managed to mitigate the worst of it.
I began seeing incredible kaleidoscopic patterns swirling towards me, pushing deeper and deeper into my very being, penetrating the depths of my mind and body with an unstoppable ferocity. There was a vibration in my head that seemed to be getting louder and louder and louder, and the more I resisted it, the more intense it became. After what seemed like an eternity, my resistance wore down and I accepted more of what was happening. From extreme discomfort I began to sense this overwhelming pressure wasn’t trying to harm me, but heal me, so I felt an immense release and a part of my identity that I was holding onto disappear. As soon as I did this, I was thrust into a tunnel of more swirling colors that seemed to be going somewhere incredibly fast. The tunnel was divided evenly into two separate colors, black and a deep green/blue, and I got the impression that I had to make a choice which one to follow. I shifted my attention to the green/blue and tried as much as I could to stay there. I sensed this was in some way a part of my own mind — the positive and the negative, or the light and the dark, and I was being given a choice as to what part of me I wanted to resonate with. The more I chose to resonate with the positive, the easier the experience became.
I spent what seemed like a thousand years trying to stay in the green, constantly battling the darkness that would creep in over and over and over again. At this point, I began to lose all sense of myself or where I was in physical reality. I merged into yet another space that appeared quite different from the other realms I had been propelled through. It was an infinite pool of consciousness that was incredibly serene and more real than anything I had ever experienced. There was no up, down, left, or right, no time, no physical space — just limitless awareness of the universe, consciousness and everything in it. From this vantage point “I” was everything — no separation, no ego, no me in the physical sense — just a tremendous sense of peace. Was this the afterlife? It instinctively felt like it. However, I did not feel like I was dead or that I had really died. Instead got the powerful sensation that I was actually waking up to something, perhaps to my real self that exists, and has always existed, somewhere in a non-physical reality.
Suddenly, I began to see odd looking shapes floating around near me — undefinable masses of what seemed to be separate sentient beings. I began to realize that they were aware of me too — a surprise that oddly gave me a great deal of comfort. The beings looked at me with surprise too, as if they were perplexed as to why I was there. As I thought about trying to engage with one of them, I began to feel my physical body again. My hand moved, and I became aware of my chest breathing. Wow, I thought. I’m still alive!
The space I had gone to began to slip away and the beings faded from my consciousness as I began my journey back to physical reality. The process was deeply peaceful and life affirming, and as my eyes opened I felt like a completely new person — a reborn Ben who had come back from the dead ready to begin life all over again. I lay in bed in absolute amazement listening to the beautiful sounds of the jungle and trying to make sense of what had just happened. After about 30 minutes or so I headed down to find the others who were at that point sitting down to a magnificent dinner. I served myself food and sat down in complete silence to begin eating the first meal of my life. The chicken, fish, plantains and beans tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten before and I savored every bite of my overfilled plate. I looked up to see my companions in the exact state of blissful awareness, delicately cutting up their food and chewing ever so slowly with every forkful. I caught Michael’s attention and we both began shaking our heads in amazement. Tina joined in our mutual wonder, and soon the entire table began sharing expressions of incredulity and disbelief over what had happened. It was a glorious feeling of total connection — we had all gone and come back from the same place and were alive to tell the tale.
My journey through the three Shamanic worlds was over, and while the experience was unimaginable beautiful, I was glad to be going home. As I downed my second plate of food, I began to think of just how lucky we are to be alive, to experience the wonders of the Mother Earth and all of her gifts to us. I would not take this for granted, I told myself. I’m here to make the most of it.
We said our goodbyes to the perpetually smiling don Howard, setting off for our respective homes refreshed, full of amazement, and changed forever.
The Aftermath, and a New Belief?
In the days and months after my experience of the Huachuma Mesada and the journey to the afterlife, I felt calmer and more settled in myself than ever before. The powerful medicines had given me a great gift that I could use in my everyday life, and the effects were noticeable to everyone around me. My wife noticed how calm I was, and despite the onslaught of the usual stresses of everyday life, I did not react to them in the same frenetic way. I wanted to spend more time with family and friends, work less, and do the things that gave me joy. Huachuma helped me connect to the living world around me, while Vilca helped me connect to what I can only describe as my higher self.
The experience of death did much to remove my fear of it (although not all!), and the experience of understanding life on earth is merely a prelude to our eternal existence gave me a new way of being in the world. You don’t turn into someone else when you die it seemed to me, but the layers of your ego and the “false self” are peeled away to reveal the true you. The further you are away from that true self, the more difficult the process of dying is going to be, so you might as well start coming to terms with the darkness you carry now to ease your journey later. Death, it seems, is simply an illusory human construct that marks the transition from one state to another. While I still have fear of my own death and the death of others, I do know that those fears are nothing more than an animalistic response to the unknown. We fear what we do not understand, and death is so seemingly final that our minds have a difficult time comprehending what it means.
My experiences also tell me that the afterlife is not a mythological construct created by our ignorant ancestors desperate to believe in their own eternal existence — it is a real place visited by Shamans and those who have died and come back to life throughout the ages. Their tales became the construct of all religions and belief systems, and we ignore them at our peril. Intellectually, I can understand how this may seem fanciful to many, particularly those steeped in Western scientific thought. But for those who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) or used substances like Vilca, it isn’t a theory or a belief, it is a description of what happens when the illusory self is ripped away and you experience the true nature of reality. From this perspective life, death and rebirth are all one and the same thing, and the journey through life is just the middle passage. As physics tells us, time is essentially a human construct that only appears linear to our primitive minds. Perhaps there is no beginning, middle or end, merely never ending cycles of creation and destruction — a description Eastern religions have maintained for thousands of years. I am of course ill qualified to make a scientific judgement on this, but my experience lends credence to the esoteric view of life and death.
Would I do this again? Well, yes, I went back to the Amazon this year for another dalliance with Huachuma and Vilca. This time around my experience was more painful, more profound, and probably more rewarding. But this tale is for another time. I will say though, that the plants have taught me that the deeper you are willing to go, the more there is to gain for us individually and as a species. As humanity pushes further and further towards and ecological catastrophe, the plants can not only heal us, but show us a better way to be. We are currently at war with the earth, and consequently ourselves. It doesn’t have to be this way, and perhaps one day we can return to an equilibrium. The plants can help us get there, but we have to start listening before it is too late.