Santo Daime

These accounts of our first Santo Daime service will form part of a chapter that will include the history and beliefs of the church; more of our experiences, interviews with followers from several different countries. The book will also include how to make contact with the church, but such information will not be given at this stage so please do not ask.

Nicholas' account

I was still musing over the Benedictine monk's idea that I should write a book on the spiritual use of psychoactives, when I learned that the Santo Daime church was established in several countries in Europe including Holland. And it so happened that I had been invited over to Amsterdam for a conference on Ecstasy just at the right time to attend a service. This was surely the confirmation I needed to go ahead with this project.

I borrowed the required white clothes and, on the back carrier of my friend Arno's bike, rode to the venue where we had to be vetted by the head of the Amsterdam church. We had heard good things about her: after being diagnosed as having an incurable brain tumour, she had travelled around Europe and then South America in search of cures until she reached Mapia, deep in the Amazon jungle of Brazil, to seek help from the Santo Daime. Two years later, her cancer apparently cured, she founded the Amsterdam church. Here she was, and my immediate impression was of a very special person, someone who was both strong and soft. And I felt relief: here was someone who I could entrust myself to, whatever was to happen that evening.

We were then given instructions: we could not leave until the end, must sign a waiver and give a large donation which we were told used to bring over Santo Daime elders from Brazil. We may feel nauseous and vomit: helpers would bring a bucket if we raised a hand, but for our neighbours' sake we should come out of the rows if possible. Chairs were neatly laid out to face a central table with men and women on opposite sides. It was all very neatly arranged, and we had to sit precisely where we were told.

As the congregation of over a hundred arrived, I was surprised to see that they looked pretty straight, not old hippies like myself. But the most surprising part was the uniforms worn by the initiates. Women wore calf length heavily pleated dark blue skirts, white shirts and black bow ties, while men wore a brass star that resembled a sheriff's.

The senior members sat around the central altar with some Christian ikons including a statue of Our Lady. After a few prayers in Dutch, they sang hymns in Portuguese. These were not like the Catholic ones I knew, they had a bouncy lilt and were sung with great gusto, the chorus lines being repeated with more enthusiasm each time. We didn't kneel, but there was lots of standing up and sitting down like the Catholic Mass I was brought up with.

Soon the time came for the ayahuasca, or Daime as they called it. We were directed to get up in line and follow a precise route to a side table with a Brazilian elder behind it, just like going up to the altar to receive Holy Communion. The man glanced up as each person approached before pouring a suitable dose of the brown liquid into a glass. I took mine with a formal gesture and swallowed it down against all my bodily instincts.

Back in my seat (by defined route) I sat through more and more hymns until the time came for silent meditation. The first thing I noticed was that I yawned and yawned again, then I leaned back and closed my eyes, sure enough, there were the flowing geometric patterns. But that was about all. After a while we were directed to rise and people moved out of their places, and my first thought was: "Well, this must be the end. Pretty weak stuff, but I suppose it might impress someone who's never had a psychedelic before."

But I was wrong. We were getting up to take another dose, and this time it was much darker. The taste was also stronger, so much so that I gagged. As I glanced up, penetrating eyes told me: "DRINK IT DOWN". So I did.

Once we had settled back in our places, the announcement was made: "Santo Maria!" and the helpers immediately passed round joints, the normal European three-skin variety with cardboard filter and twisted end. A neighbour told me to inhale three times; for the Sun, the Moon and the Stars. And so I did.

Hacking coughs followed the inhalations, the sound accompanied by retching as people vomited into the neat little white buckets and occasionally muffled lavatory sounds. Looking round at these straight-looking people, dressed up in ridiculous costumes, smoking joints in neat lines and drinking this foul tasting brew, I got the giggles. My friend Arno leaned over to me and said he had once had that problem and solved it by turning his mirth into a beatific smile.

This time the effect was definitely stronger and I had to hold onto the back of the chair in front when we stood up. I also felt more nauseous, and I hastily got out of my seat to find a place where I could vomit freely. I threw up a little bit, but stopped the flow: my mind wanted to 'let it all out' but my body refused. Feeling dizzy and with hot and cold flushes, I sat with the bucket on my lap and leaned my forehead on its rim while cold sweat ran down off my face and dripped into it. I felt rotten, not helped by the insight that this inability to vomit was a metaphor for being unable to let go emotionally. I had a block which I hung onto for fear of what lay beneath, and knew that I had to vomit to overcome that fear. The harder I tried to vomit, the more my body resisted. When I opened my eyes I saw my vomit in the bucket swirl... up and around the room! Yes, this was stronger all right.

I desperately wanted to lie down but that was clearly not an option. In fact there were no options: we all had to sing, stand and sit down together in a way that strongly resembled a Christian church service. At first I felt resentment for this restraint since I held the belief that psychedelics were to do with letting go and exploring. On reflection later, however, I saw how this could be of value in focusing each person's experience towards the common aim of the ritual. The discipline provided a secure setting in which to allow the congregation to go deeply into the religious experience, while discouraging individuals to fly off into other realms.

After a while, a helper came and told me to go back to my seat which I did with surprising ease since I had assumed I could not walk. But I had not let go, so made the best of it by observing the women opposite who were facing us. I could not see Anja most of the time, and was a bit concerned as when I caught one glimpse she looked distressed. Then I watched the face of the Madrinja. She radiated with energy and health, she could not possibly have cancer and was not blocked like me, and once when she caught my eye I looked away in shame. Another woman was apparently 'going through some stuff' while others were apparently lost in deep spiritual experiences.

Finally, after more hymns we broke up at 1.30am having started at 7. Hugs all round, but I did not feel good. We walked miles through the fresh winter night back to where we were staying with the ayahuasca still doing something, but next morning I awoke surprisingly fresh and went on to play an active part in the conference.

©copyright Nicholas Saunders 1996

Anja's experience

I had read and heard about ayahuasca and was sort of interested, but apprehensive till a Dutch friend of mine told me about her experiences. She had felt a connection with her mother, and all mothers and spiritual teachers, but what convinced me most of all was her liveliness the next day. She was open and gentle and, with a glint in her eyes, said she would never be the same again.

So we found out about the ceremony and got our names on the list. When I arrived in the room, in my white clothes, not having eaten for some time as was prescribed, I felt rather strange and sceptical at the sight of all these women with their dark blue pleated skirts and the men in white shirts and dark tie. This was not my style at all. The room had striplights; a table in the middle with images of Mary and Christ and I thought "well we'll see, but I'm not going to be converted here!". However when I met the Madrinia, the woman leader of the church, I was amazed at her bright eyes, vigour, open heartedness and warmth. She also seemed very down to earth. I knew it would be OK and could trust it. I still felt uncomfortable though, having to sit with my chair exactly in line with the others. The woman next to me did not seem to want to share her booklet with songs, so I humbly sat listening to all these Dutch people who were singing their hears out in Portuguese. I had no idea what it was all about, but it sounded quite jolly. Occasionally there were Our Fathers and Hail Marys in Dutch. This triggered all sorts, because I knew them well from my childhood. What a strange experience to be back here in my hometown Amsterdam, where one of the biggest Santo Daime communities in Europe is based, amongst all these Dutch people deeply involved in this Brazilian church, singing Portuguese with a Dutch accent.

It was time for the 'tea'. We lined up. I had been told the taste was not desirable. I looked to see how the Madrinia, who was first to drink, took it. A few big gulps, a face of disgust and a shiver afterwards was what I saw. She had taken it hundreds of times and obviously had not got used to the taste yet - not very encouraging... When it came to my turn, I was brave. It was truly disgusting. Even Chinese herbs are a delicacy compared to this stuff, but then it was only a horrible taste, not the end of the world.

We went back to our designated places and I closed my eyes. I did not know what to expect except that people saw images. I waited expectantly and indeed some moving geometric shapes in electric colours appeared. I felt myself travelling in a bigger space. I also began to feel nauseous. "Where is this little white bucket? Ah, thank God it's near" I took it and felt like I could really gulp it up, but that would certainly make quite a noise as it hit the plastic bottom. I had not heard anyone making this sound and was not sure if it was the appropriate thing, so I held back and let out a little bit. Later I realised that was a shame, because it blocked me somewhat from then on and it would have been fine to let it all out. What really moved me was the woman who took my bucket and replaced it with a new one. She then disappeared quietly to clean up my vomit, leaving me with an incredible sense of humility. My body wanted to lean over to one side, I would have liked to get up and move freely, but that was not on. I got an image of a kind of bowl, a holding vessel and a ball, floating, searching for a fitting place. The ball slotted into the bowl and came to rest. The image was simple, but the insight I got was about conception: the place of rest being the beginning of life. This was not a thought process in words as much as a sensation like one can get when being absorbed by a film. After that I had visions of a completely golden world: doors, hallways, thrones, ceilings, windows, people. I could connect with Nicholas at this time- the only time during the session. I felt his presence close to me. In this world I was an observer. I was not part of it. It was quite beautiful, but it did not move me. I stayed an outsider and was not sure what to do.

After some more singing and praying, we were called to have some more Daime. The Padrinio enthusiastically called "Daime!!, Dai - me!!'. Many people joined in, eager to get further into it and have some more 'tea'. If the taste of the first time was bad, the second time was definitely worse, probably because I anticipated it making me feel sick. However in the hour to follow, I realised that I could actually control my nausea.

I found myself in a world between this life and the next. I had seen my hand turning blue, then white and waxy, the fingers curling up like dead hands. It did not disturb me in the slightest. I looked at my hands and thought "yes, that is what they look like when they're dead." In this in-between-world, I had a choice to either go to the Light, which I knew would be the best thing to do, or go back to the earthly world I came from, back in my body, back to the people and situations that had been part of my life. When I was moving back into my body, I felt sick and nauseous, but if I could concentrate fully and precisely, I could move out of it into another vibration, which would lead me to the Light. My focus needed to be 100%, though. As soon as I connected with my body, or the material world, it was as if I 'fell' back into it and my stomach started turning over again.

I was aware that I had a yes/no choice all the time. On the one hand it was obvious that I did want to go to the Light and not feel sick, but I was surprised how difficult it was to keep full concentration and how strong the attraction of my body was, even though it made me feel horrible. Many pictures of situations and people in my life flashed past. It was as if I sat at a computer and clicked quick yes/no choices on each of them. I could go into any if I wished. It went so quickly, I cannot remember all the images, but one I remember, which was a picture of my ex-husband. I could in a flash see all his pain and suffering and I felt compassion for him which I had never felt before.

Each time I paused on a picture, I pulled back into my body and felt sick. When I could tune my mind into a different realm, focusing on the Light and without any hesitation or doubt choosing YES each time, I felt light and without any notion of nausea or discomfort. The next day I remembered accounts of people seeing their lives flash before their eyes at the moment of death. I wonder if it is like this. I felt as if I got a chance to go over everything once more, looking at it and staying with it if I wanted to or choose to move on to the Light. There was no emotional involvement on my part at all. It was like a finger exercise for playing the piano but this felt like an exercise in dying.

The service ended with lots of songs and this time my neighbour allowed me to look at her booklet. I had held her hair back earlier when she was vomiting, just like I had seen other women do: it seemed a nice gesture. Maybe it softened her up, or maybe it was the Daime, which brought us closer together. I had to stand during the songs, which I found quite difficult. After a variety of songs I felt less 'out of it' and by the time we finished, I was quite awake and bright. Before going home I thanked the woman who looked after me in the beginning. She was quite surprised that I should mention it. For her it had been an act of pure service.

I had been absorbed in my own world, it had been a very mental world, with little feeling. It took me a little while before I could make sense of it. It's not every day I practise dying.

©copyright Anja Dashwood 1996

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