Open Sandman: Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams (Part III)
JUST BEFORE INHALING I pressed the record button on my digital recorder, which I had placed beside me on the grass. It would provide me with an audio record of details from the salvia dreamscape that might otherwise elude my recollection. Of course, unlike my earlier session in the hammock, this would require me to talk throughout the experience. Indeed, aside for a minute or so of silence, I spoke, or rather babbled, the entire time. But unfortunately my words when replayed offered no insight: I had been reduced to an imbecilic state. Aside from an initial statement of “Okay, I see things, I see lights, yellow ones, purp—” the rest of the recording consisted almost entirely, in varying combinations, of Whoahhh, Oh my god, Holy shit, Things are happening, Lots of things are happening, My legs are happening.
As I had smoked slightly less this time, I thought I would have been able to remain alert enough to be able to coherently describe my experiences. But, once again, only seconds after it began, and as soon as those yellow and purple lights started flashing across the back of my eyelids, I was gone. At that point I plunged into the salvia dream-state, oblivious to anything else except that things—to use my nebulous salvian vocabulary—were happening.
The most frustrating thing about trying to mentally reconstitute the experience is that, while I can recall my sense of awe and amazement at the fabulous shifting universe to which I had been admitted, I can’t remember the details. It is as if the plant had erased part of my brain in contempt of my attempt, via an audio recorder, to arrogantly bring back to the world of ordinary consciousness something of salvia’s awful mysteries.
Not that it is all blank. I remember a frightening yet thrilling sense that I was on a quest of some kind, perhaps a trial, which my friends were observing from a great distance. I was alone in the endeavor, I was sure of that. It was as if I were in a gladiator stadium, with my friends lending support from the stands. That they were standing over me in a semi-circle surely contributed to this sensation of being a spectacle in an amphitheater. Though they could not intervene, I knew they would cheer me on. As for what or whom I was facing, as to why I was off on a quest, all that was beyond my grasp.
Even though I was communicating at a pre-kindergarten level, the recording later proved illuminating, if only to demonstrate how salvia ruptures the connection between one’s sensations and behavior and how sounds from the outer world can impinge upon the inner experience. For example, I had asked the others to occasionally speak to me to ensure I did not stop recounting my sensations. Although I was aware that all of them were there, I felt the presence of S the strongest. His voice pervaded my consciousness with a God-like presence as if he were speaking directly into my ear while simultaneously calling to me from far overhead. Only when I listened to the recording did I realize that the omnipresence of S was simply because he was the only one querying me for the first few minutes.
The recording also explained why I had such a strong sense of being on a quest or voyage of some kind. At one point in the recording, after S asks me what I am feeling and seeing, he says in a slow, drawn out manner “Are you taking a journey? Are you on a journey…?” Hearing these words in the recording triggered a memory of how that single word, ‘journey,’ when filtered through the kaleidoscope of my salvia consciousness, had imparted to my experience a dreamy, surreal Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere. The sound of the word seemed to drag on and reverberate indefinitely—Joouurrnneey?—with the sound rising in pitch while leading to its question mark crescendo.
In trying to emulate the sleep position I had lain on my back but that was short-lived. After a few moments I had propped myself up into a slumped, semi-seated position. But even that did not last long. At one point, I was all of a sudden aware that I was on my knees and my cheek was pressed to the ground. I was staring at an iridescent sea of grass. My right arm extended before me as my palm brushed back and forth across this horizon of vermillion blades. I was also half-howling, half-gasping “It’s the grass! It’s the grass!” while laughing so maniacally that I was barely able to get the words out.
The curious thing is that at the same time that I was kneeling face-down in the grass in hysterics, I was also soberly observing my behavior from afar, as if I were standing alongside my friends, bemusedly watching this mad display. I was perfectly aware that I was raving like a maniac, and yet I could not tear my head away from the grass. My cheek was glued to the ground. That, I later reflected, must be what it is like to be Darl at the end of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: lucid while frothing at the mouth. It is the closest I have ever come to insanity. Not to its anemic nephew, mental discomfort, which young men and women confuse with the real thing because it makes them feel special, but to uncontrollable, unhinged, bare-fanged madness. One need only taste lunacy to shed oneself of delusions that there is anything romantic in it and to give one an appreciation for the comforting banality of sane everyday experience.
The lunatic, Kant once said, is a wakeful dreamer. Considering that salvia admits one into a waking dream state, it is no surprise that most of us had exhibited signs of mental illness that day: hysterical laughter, drooling, rocking of the body, blank stares, kicking of the legs, incoherent mumbling, oblivion to the outside world, cringing under demonic visions, exulting in beatific ones. Just a few days ago, the group of us had been in suit and tie, clinking champagne glasses at a wedding amidst Bentleys and horse carriages and carpets of rose petals. Now here we were in the California wilderness, a bunch of freaks twisting our minds up into Gordian knots. Lost Coast indeed.
In the audio recording I kept claiming that I could see something ‘over there’ in the grassy area in front of me. There are gaps in my memory but one thing I do remember, along with some spectacular shifting and pulsing of colors, is a snaking motion through the grass, as if a sidewinder were slithering away from me. The earth under that curving path then suddenly dropped away, leaving a winding canyon in its place between two precipitous grassy ledges. These visual pyrotechnics went on for some time. In retrospect they were like the fancy special effects of a Hollywood shoot ’em up that consists of plenty of action but little else.
There was, however, a span of about a minute or so as the salvia began to wear off (this time, rather than abruptly ‘waking up’ I emerged slowly) that seemed to possess a transcendent beauty. I was still face down in the grass, which was now aglow with the religious amber of the sun’s parting rays. The mental inferno had been extinguished and a glowing sense of yogic peacefulness permeated me. A gust blew and a crisp curled-up brown leaf suddenly landed on the grass directly in front of my eye, towering diagonally over my field of vision like some small-scale earthy fusion of La Sagrada Familia and the Tower of Pisa. Pulsing with a supernatural significance, this delicate veined object surpassed in beauty any sculpture I had ever seen. It rested serenely upon its emerald bed of grass, not a dead leaf, but a piece of manna tossed from heaven. A few more leaves drifted gently to the earth, one even grazing my neck, or rather gracing my neck, before tumbling to its grassy repose.
It is no surprise that psychedelic substances are primary objects of reverence in pagan religions—consider the Huichol Indian sacred rites of confession and purification in preparing for the peyote hunt—seeing that they bring on a sense of awe and exultation in the natural world. In Christianity, however, the worship of nature is sacrilegious: the reverence is seen as misdirected towards the created rather than the creator. This may partly explain why the ingestion of hallucinogens has been markedly absent from the rituals of Christianity, in which the emphasis is not upon the natural kingdom but upon the everlasting one, the one that, as we are told, is only accessible post-mortem. Wine, with its warming but numbing effects, makes for more appropriate communion. Having said that, the existence of early Christian mosaics depicting baskets of bright red Amanita Muscaria, or fly agaric mushrooms, have prompted claims from some heretical camps that the forbidden apple in the garden of Eden may well be the fly agaric, while the snake guarding the Tree of Knowledge is an imaginative representation of the root that mycorrhizally connects the mushroom to its host tree. As for Adam being punished by a frowning overlord for partaking of a fruit that gives knowledge of good and evil, one can only say that things haven’t changed much since the dawn of human time.
I was slow to emerge this time, perhaps because a compounding effect takes place when salvia is ingested multiple times in succession. I remained there, lying on my back, for another ten minutes or so. C too was lying on his back not far away, obviously also still feeling the effects. I had hoped for some insight into the salvia experience, in particular in relation to the dream state, but in spite of all my efforts to record and understand the plant’s effects, I could say nothing definitive about it, or at least nothing any more definitive than I could say about dreams. Aside for that brief transporting moment when the grass and leaves took on a supernatural light, I could not even say that it offered me a fresh gaze upon reality. All I could say is that salvia had shattered my everyday reality, or rather had snatched it away and replaced it with its own raging, ever-shifting, fiendish landscape. I had read numerous accounts of how salvia brought on shamanistic journeying, recollections of past experiences, feelings of mystical union, etc.—and though I have a decent bullshit-detection mechanism hardwired into me—I still couldn’t believe that salvia offered nothing more than a brief mind-fuck.
Two days later we drove to the Corning ranch of M’s father, where we would spend the night before heading south towards San Francisco for our return flights. After five days in the boonies we were ready for a night out at some of the bars in the nearby college town of Chico. M, however, came down with a nasty stomach flu so we ended up staying in. That was when the possibility of one last tussle with salvia grimly presented itself to me. I had recollected more of my second salvia attempt than of my first one, so it did seem to logically follow that this third time I might recall even more, perhaps gain some fundamental understanding about this elusive plant. It was not something I was eager to do, and it was far less appealing than a boozy night out in Chico, but I felt that if I passed on it, I might later regret the missed opportunity.
M’s father had offered us the cabin neighboring the house but as there wasn’t much space in there, I decided to pitch my tent on the lawn. By the time I returned to the cabin, everyone was asleep. I packed the final bowl of salvia and then guiltily roused S from his sleep, as he had offered to watch over me. The two of us then went outside.
There was no wind. I had not attached the rain tarp so that I would not feel constricted in the tent. This time I asked S not to engage me in any way, just to watch over me silently. I sat down, half inside the tent, with the pipe and butane lighter in my hand. It was very dark. It would be a few hours still before the moon rose over the hills. I took a deep breath to slow my quickening pulse. My mouth was dry.
-Here goes, I said. See you in a little while.
Under the bright blue glare of the butane flame I saw that I had packed more salvia into the pipe than I needed. I did not want to smoke any more than was necessary to break into the salvia dreamscape. But in the agitation and nerves of the moment I got carried away, especially as I knew this would be my final effort, and so in a kind of last-hurrah I ended up inhaling the entire amount, perhaps the largest dose I’d taken yet. I handed off the pipe and lighter, holding the smoke in my lungs.
-I didn’t see you exhale anything, S later told me. I think you just held it in until you basically passed out. You went shaman-style.
I paid for this act of unthinking bravado. What followed ranks easily among the most terrifying experiences of my life, if not the most. Not that it was the only so-called ‘bad trip’ I’ve ever had. One of my most frightening encounters had taken place during the psilocybic excursion into the Chiapan jungle of Palenque mentioned earlier; at one point, while I was unwisely wandering barefoot off the main jungle path, a burning sensation on the tops of my feet brought it to my attention that I was standing upon a teeming nest of fire ants. Swiping the ants off my inflamed feet, which were now covered in red bumps, I was overwhelmed by lurid visions of sweating feverishly in a hospital bed. It ranked among the most memorable of my worst-of psychotropic experiences, but even that seemed mild in comparison to this final salvia dream.
I remember very little from this third session in the tent, about as little as I remember from the hammock. But though only the faintest intimation of the terror remains with me, I will never forget the realization that some powerful, conscious, willful and extremely-pissed-off entity was after me.
For the first time I felt that I had come up against a tangible spirit. Not a benevolent spirit, not some interlaced-fingers-on-belly chuckling Buddha, but a cackling psychopath, a destroying angel. I had felt malicious presences closing in on me when I was in the hammock: but this time there was only one presence and it was more than just hostile. It was downright evil; it was, in fact, trying to kill me.
Once again, I had no idea what had happened to me. All I knew was that this demon was coming at me from my left. It was no run-of-the-mill demon; I had come face to face with my own private White Whale. All of a sudden, I was awash with a horrific recognition of this fiend’s identity. Not only did I know what it was but I knew that it knew that I knew. The revelation, however, only lasted as long as the dreamscape, leaving me with the exasperating memory of having momentarily understood something of awesome and terrible significance only to then have had that awareness yanked away from me.
All I now recall of this demon are circular saws, razors, teeth, blades—all of them spinning and whizzing with a geometric fury, nearing within millimeters of my body, threatening to slice me if I moved the slightest. At the same time, a weight was crushing me down. I could not budge. Even if I could, these saws would grind me up into mincemeat. A violent end awaited me if I even took a breath. I did at one point sneak a gulp and I remember exulting in the fact that I had managed to trick this demon, to swallow without getting carved up. I waited a few seconds and then I gulped once more. Again, I celebrated inwardly. I did not, however, dare to take a breath. That was risking too much.
I had again recorded the experience, even though this time I remained silent throughout its entirety. Six minutes had passed from the moment I pressed the record button, which was shortly before inhaling the salvia, until the moment that I first said to S, “Oh my God, oh you’re back, I can breathe.” S later told me that while I had been lying there, immobile, he could not see any outward signs of breathing. He was just about to check up on me to make sure I was drawing air when I finally emerged from my salviamare and spoke to him. I doubt it’s possible that I wasn’t breathing for the entirety of those four or five minutes that I was ‘under.’ But I am quire sure that for as long as those saws were whirling at me—perhaps two minutes—I did not take a breath.
It is precisely this aspect of the experience that makes it so frightening in retrospect. I’ve had to fend off psychopaths and mass murderers often enough in my dreams and can generally take it all in good stride. While I may prefer sunnier dreams, especially lucid ones, I’ll take a nightmare any night over uneventful sleep. But this inability to breathe was a frightening physiological infiltration of a dreamscape into my flesh-and-blood body. While on a few occasions I may have tried my hand, or rather my head, at perception-threatening substances, I have left alone the life-threatening ones as I have a healthy instinct for self-preservation. But the realization that I seemed to have stopped breathing for a period imparted a more sinister quality to the plant. Having said that, I cannot prove that I wasn’t drawing small quantities of air. And even if I had stopped breathing for a period, it seems certain that, salvia or no salvia, if the body needs oxygen badly enough, it will find a way to get it.
My eyes had obviously opened at one point because I remember looking at the side of the tent, watching the canvas flapping in towards me, as if someone outside was beating upon it. S later told me that immediately after I had lain down, some strong gusts shook the tent. It may have been bad timing, but I had no doubt that even in more tranquil settings, my experience would have been equally terrifying. As S put it, “it’s going to find a way to get you.”
It was such a relief to be conversing with S, to be out of that fiend’s clutches, to know that I had escaped intact from that infernal region. I didn’t want any more of it. In fact, I was looking forward to a night of placid, dream-free sleep. S and I talked for fifteen minutes or so before he retired to the cabin. One thought dominated all my others: Never, ever, ever return to that place again. I had taken enough abuse from this plant. Were salvia a god, it would be a wrathful one, demanding endless sacrifices and punishing those who enter its temple as skeptics not worshippers. Salvia might remain a maddening mystery to me but I was done with it.
Salvia, however, was not done with me. I began to hear sounds outside the tent, the scrabbling of raccoons, the scurrying of footsteps. The wind again intensified, bringing with it beach sounds of children’s laughter and breaking waves. Creatures were crawling on me. At one point I even returned to the cabin and, callously waking C in the process, I asked him to apply the searing head of an extinguished match to a mole on my upper back which in my paranoia I thought was a tic. The moon had long ago risen over the hills and was harshly illuminating the clouds scuttling by below. The tent made such a racket under those gusts that it was impossible to sleep. But every time I intended to pack up and head to the cabin, the loud flapping would subside and I would remain; then, just as I was drifting off to sleep, the gusts would resume with a renewed violence. It was about three am when I finally broke down my tent, cursing loudly, and headed in to the cabin for a place on the floor. I had requested a dreamless night, but this was not what I had in mind.
It has not been my intention here to either glorify salvia as a medium for visionary truth or to demonize it as the lethal threat to individual and society that some drug prohibitionists want it to be. I am aware that, especially in this final encounter with the plant, my account seems to lean more towards the latter. This surely was in great part because our experiences stemmed from a 10x concentrate. Smoking or chewing the leaf in its natural non-extracted form, the way the Mazatecs ingest it, would I am sure have made a world—quite literally—of difference.
In recent years, there has been a major push, especially in the United States, to criminalize salvia. Although salvia is best left to the shamans and veteran explorers of inner consciousness, I do not share these prohibitionist sentiments. Leaving aside the lessons of Prohibition on the effectiveness of criminalization and leaving aside potential research and medical benefits, anyone who calls for a wholesale ban on the plant on the grounds that it is dangerous to self and society will have to explain, assuming it to be true, why they are not also calling for a wholesale ban on alcohol, which lies behind tens of thousands of cases of human road kill per year, untold acts of violence, and innumerable pools of vomit. And if anything, an outright criminalization of salvia is unfair to those harmless explorers of consciousness sometimes referred to rather ludicrously as psychonauts, who want to occasionally voyage to the outer regions of their inner space in their own private quarters, unmolested by a hostile state.
Nevertheless, I see no harm in emphasizing Salvia divinorum’s raging underbelly. Its active ingredient is a naturally-occurring chemical portal into the dream world, one which as everyone knows is just as populated by ghosts and goblins as it is by nymphs and sprites. One need not expect the worst, of course. But though one hopes that, when summoned, the Sandman will waft in with his bag of glittering dream dust, one should also be prepared for the advent of his alter-ego, the Lord of Dreams, who always comes storming in on a galloping night mare.
- Open Sandman: Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams (Part II)
- Open Sandman: Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams (Part I)