So there I am, leaning over the glass counter at the deli section of the grocery store, and it hits me—my first contraction. A tornado begins to spiral in my womb and a pain I can only describe as being trampled by wild animals in a stampede. I am hit with a wave of orgasmic energy, and I look up, and I can see and hear and smell and sense everything. I am like a psychic mama deer in a tornado, in a stampede on ecstasy.
And as I look through the crowd, I see this one woman. She comes right towards me. She's present, she's clear, she's bright, vibrant. And she walks right up to me, and she says, "Are you gonna have a baby?" I say, "Yes." She says, "When?" "Now!" "Can I touch you for good luck?" "Of course." We grab hands, and I look in her deep, rich, dark eyes—cornrow hair, dark chocolate skin. And she holds my pale white hand. Two conscious present women just marveling at the experience or the miracle really of birth. Life. "Good luck," she says. Yeah, I was gonna need some of that because, you see, this was not the plan. I was not supposed to be going into labor a month early at the grocery store while my girlfriend is buying sandwiches. My husband is not supposed to be at a job interview in New York City. My midwife is supposed to be delivering a home birth in the canyon—canyon views, nature, birthing tub on the patio, crackling fire.
Yeah. And now that I'm a month early, legally, she can't do that. So we call my backup doctor at the hospital, and he says, "Okay, keep her somewhere close in town for the early labor. And when she's dilated, bring her in." So on the way to my girlfriend's apartment, as I am tornado-ing and moaning in the car, I remember the words of my midwife in birthing school. "Having a conscious birth is your birthright. To choose how to bring in life from the immaterial to the material. But remember," she said, "man makes plans, God laughs. Trust and surrender." This was surrender time.
We get to the apartment. I drop on all fours. My midwife comes in. Three girlfriends. I look up, and I'm surrounded by a circle of women. They put me in a warm bathtub, and my midwife says, "Okay, Amara, this is the part where you open. So I want you to focus on your baby. And when the pain comes instead of pulling back, lean in instead." Okay. So I'm in the tub, and a sort of life review begins—a sort of inner schooling. I remember moments from my childhood. I begin to make amends, accept apologies. Yes, yes. And I prepare myself to be the mother that I need and I want to be.
And as I embrace that openness and become one with the vortex, forty minutes later, I feel my son's head make contact with my pelvic bones. Boom. I look at my midwife, and I say, "Well, you told me to open." She feels me and says, "Oh my God, she's crowning. Get her to the hospital now." I just wanna stay in the tub, but she could lose her license. So we gotta go. They pull me up out of the tub, throw me in a pair of pjs that my girlfriend had worn two years earlier when she was giving birth to her baby. They grab a bag of groceries or handbags, a boombox, and into the car we go.
Driving down the road. Five minutes flat to the hospital. We open the door. The emergency room. They get a wheelchair. Put me in it. I enter the field of the hospital. Bright lights, nurses coming at me, trying to get me to fill out forms, registration. Wounded people in the emergency room looking at me in horror. "What happened to her?" says one guy. "She's having a baby." "Good God!"
They wheel me into the elevator. I get into a quiet room. And now I am a psychic mama deer in a tornado, in the epicenter of the stampede, on ecstasy, and now on fire. I'm like 300 degrees. My girlfriends are sweating. How can anyone even be this hot? And I rip off my shirt. I squat down, and I let out a lion's roar. Waaaaaa! I think I can deliver this baby myself. The nurse comes in, and she says, "You'll have to wait. Your doctor's not here." "Wait? I'm crowning. I can't. I can't. I can't." They put me on a table. They strap me with a heart monitor, and I hear the sound of medical clinking metal equipment coming into the room. An intern walks in, sits down between my legs. She's like thirteen years old. And I look at the nurse, and I say, "I want my doctor." She says, "He's not here yet." "Then I want my midwife." "She's not allowed." "I want my husband." "I don't know where he is." "I want drugs." "It's too late for that." And all I can think is I can't. I can't. I can't. And I begin to wail. I am inconsolable. I don't know if I'm breathing or birthing. I'm confused. I'm lost. I'm panicking. I'm afraid.
My doctor walks in ten minutes later, pushes the intern aside, sits down. He looks at me. He looks at the heart monitor. He looks at everyone in the room, and he says, "Amara, the baby's stuck. His heart rate's dropping. If you don't get him out on the next contraction, I'm gonna pull him out by force." I think. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I know what this means. Metal forceps coming in and grabbing a hold of my child's head. Pulling on his little neck and spine. No. Cutting my perineum. Blood. Stitches. No, no, no, no. My midwife leans in and whispers in my ear, "Amara. This is it. Be present and focus on your child. You can do this."
And so I tune in with my son, and I'm saying, "Okay, okay honey, this is it. This is it." I can feel him. He's cramped. He's squished. He's hot. He's thirsty. He just wants out. "Are we doing this or not? What's happening?" "Yes, this is it. We're doing it. We're doing it. I'm sorry about the . . . it's confusing. It's complicated. "We're going. We're going now." Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. And as the next wave comes, the room suddenly fills with thousands and thousands of little golden Buddhas. Ahhh! And as I bear down to give birth to my child, all the little golden Buddhas they go like this ......
The universe was with me, birthing with me. Out my baby comes onto my chest. I look at him, and I am looking into the eyes of Source. Source is looking back at me. This is what we are. My girlfriends cut the cord. Placenta comes out. Everything's cool. And the nurse comes over to take my son. And I know what she's thinking because I'm psychic. She wants to take him away to do unthinkable things in this moment of trust, at this most profound moment in our lives. To cut him and inject him and leave him abandoned, looking at the fluorescent lighting. I reach over. I grab her hand, and I say, "Take your hand off my baby." Mama deer becomes tiger mama. I step up off the table. I'm naked with my child. And everyone in the room gasps. I walk over to the boombox. Background music my girlfriend had been playing, and I turn it up. And the song that happens to be on is Hare Krishna by Krishna Das. And so I begin to dance around the room with my son. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare. Everyone backs up.
And I am so happy. One of the nurses in the corner, she grabs the phone. "Yeah, she's doing that bonding thing. Yeah. We're not gonna be able to take him. No, no, no. It's not gonna happen." My girlfriend from the grocery store, she pulls out a bottle of champagne and chocolate cake, and we have a party. The nurses eventually warm up. They come over to me, and they ask, "What was it like?" They had never seen a natural unassisted birth in their career. Never. Not one. I told them about the psychic mama deer and the vortex and the stampede and the ecstasy. And my doctor comes over. He looks at my child. Five pounds, five ounces perfectly healthy. Legs off the charts.
"He's small. You're small. Your husband's small. It's okay. He's fine." I'm alone in a room resting. And I'm looking at my precious son, his little head fitting in the palm of my hand. He's waiting for something, and I know what it is. And then his head just turns towards the door, and in walks Daddy. Yeah, he's psychic too. Daddy picks him up. And in these last moments before he falls asleep, Source meeting Source, they bond, connect. And he takes him in his arms as he falls asleep. My husband looks at me, and he says, "Honey, you look great. How was it?"
That day, behind the fear and the doubt and the story that says, I can't, I can't do this, I can't, I found my I can. And I'll tell you this. Man makes plans, God doesn't laugh. God smiles.
"Mommy? Can you tell me a story?" My head just hit the pillow when my six-year-old daughter asked me the same question every single night. I was so sleepy. All that I could think of was bed. So I told her, "Okay, I'm gonna tell you five stories of my life that happens on five beds."
The first story, the first bed, is my childhood bed. It's the bed where my mom and I would cuddle every night, and she would tell me bedtime stories. But my mom was always so exhausted after a long working day that she would always tell me incoherent stories. And I was always correcting her. "Hey, Mommy, it's not right. The person you talk about now already died. How come she came back to life?" Little did I know at the time that people we thought were gone can and do come back.
The second bed was a death bed. Nineteen-year-old me was lying on an operation bed, legs wide open. "It's done. You can get up and go now," the doctor said. One month before this, I was a sophomore at the top university in China. And I had just been elected as the president for the biggest association in college. I also started my first love affair ever with an English lawyer. For the first time in my life, I invited a man between my legs and had wild ecstatic sex in the heat of which I unconsciously created a baby. This man, who asked me to marry him few weeks ago, never saw me again since he knew I was pregnant. I stumbled out of the operation room into the arms of my mom, who was trying to hold her tears back. I knew something between my legs has changed forever. I went from top student to scandal. A shame for my family and my community.
However, as my good girl mask got torn up with my yoni that got torn in the abortion, the old me died with my baby, and the new me was coming into being. So I ran away from classrooms into the wild, into my wildness to find myself and to heal. I started doing yoga and qigong daily. I went to nature adventure clubs. I became a vegan. I left my promising career opportunities in China and went to Europe in search of a new landscape, a new lifestyle, a new identity. People said, "Sometimes you have to leave in order to come back."
After five years of world travel, I came back to China, the land where I was born, and I found myself on the third bed. Twenty-four-year-old me lying on the small bed at home, legs wide open again. Only this time to give birth to my baby girl. It's seven long hours after my water broke. I've done everything the midwife told me to do. I held onto the thigh of my husband and the bed. I groaned. I pushed. I was exhausted. My baby was not coming. My husband and my friends, who had been cheering me on for the last seven hours, had now become quiet. "It's too long. She needs to be taken to the hospital," the midwife said. All my life, I've shut myself down, swallowed, digested, and accepted everything. But at this moment, I knew if I don't speak up, there's no way I can birth this baby. I would die in the hospital.
So I finally had the courage to say, "I don't think the midwife's way works for me." A woman came to my ears, and she said, "If so, just do it your way." I felt blood rush back to my veins again while I felt still weak. So I asked with the last ounce of energy I still had, "Could you please gimme some encouragement?" And now they all went, "You are doing great. You're amazing. I can see the baby's hand already!" I took a long deep breath and one last roar. It felt like the biggest poop of my life just got squeezed out of my yoni. And there was my baby—only she's shining like gold, and she smells great.
I'm so happy that I gave a much better birth to my baby than my mom to me. My mom had such a traumatic birth experience with me that she thought I would go through exactly the same. Looks like I defied her prophecy.
Soon I realized I was married to a man who was exactly like my dad—abusive, violent, dependent on me for money, gave me sexual trauma. And that made me feel worse than a prostitute in my own marriage. I was determined not to repeat the history of my mom. So I left my husband, my job, my house, everything I had in China again and went to Europe to heal myself. In the worst days in Europe, I was picking up horse shit for $10 per hour—one arm with my baby sucking my breast. And I remember five years ago, I was the top student in Cambridge, hanging out with Oxford and Harvard friends who got $1 million job offers right after graduation. And now here I was—jobless, penniless, homeless, a single mom. I was the most unattractive woman I knew.
Until I met Barack. I was pouring my heart out desperately on the piano in the museum when Barack, a single dad from Turkey, walked in with his son and saw me. Two months later, we were in bed in his flat, having the most epic savage cathartic sex of our lives. I was having mind-blowing heart and ass opening, bed rattling, neighbors complaining, and soul stretching liquid explosions of orgasms of my life.
In that worst period of my life, outside of that bed of orgasm, I felt totally worthless—ugly, the smelliest piece of shit. But Barack? He fucked the shit out of me. He penetrated me to the core and unleashed that lioness that'd been sleeping there all along. And he told me, "You gave me the best sex in my life." And later, only later, I knew from friends that actually every man says that to every woman, but I chose to believe him. And I thought, maybe I'm really good at this. So I got out of bed, went to my desk, and wrote down every single detail of the orgasms and pains of my yoni. And I shared it on social media.
Now, this is such a taboo in China that it went viral very soon. So I created my holistic sexuality course for women in China. And in one year, I went from zero to my first one thousand clients. From zero to my first six figures. I got on TV, in newspapers, magazines. My business was growing wild, like my baby, but my relationship with men is—I wouldn't say a contrast to my business success—but it's like sex. It's in, out in out. I really wanna stay in longer, but I'm mostly out.
And one night after yet another devastating breakup, instead of just looking on Tinder for another guy to give me some love, I called my mom. "Mom, can you tell me your story of your yoni?" My mom told me everything—her yoni, her mom's yoni, her love stories, her pains—with tears and a lot of joy because finally, someone cares. We became friends again. I taught her yoga, dance, couch surfing, and BDSM. She came to my tantric classes in a women's temple. And with my help, ten years after the day she was almost bitten to death by my dad, she found the love of her life, who was a Danish hippie. And they just celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary.
My last bed is the bed at the very beginning of my talk, where my daughter and I would cuddle and tell bedtime stories. So she asked me to tell her a story, and I told her the story I told you tonight. And when she heard the part about my first baby who died in the abortion, guess what she said. "Mommy, that was me." So twenty-five years after the incoherent bedtime stories of my mom, I finally realized that people that we thought were gone can and do come back.
My yoni, which has been the greatest source of shame and pain in my life, has now become the greatest source of power that created a baby, created a six-figure income, a business that gets a lot of yonis well fucked by life and a time location free life here in paradise Bali, which is exactly the life I dreamed of five years ago when I was picking up horse shit. So my shit has become my gold. My greatest pain has become my greatest power. So can yours.
Can I ask everybody, put your hands on your heart for a second. I just want you to take a second and ask yourself, Who loves Julia Roberts? Yeah? Yeah? Guys, do you wanna hear a story about how Julia Robert saved my life? All right. We'll get to that in a second. First, we'll go back to twelve-year-old me.
Now, believe it or not, I didn't always look like a Bollywood villain. You see it, right? You could see it. I could be a fucking Bollywood villain, I promise. It's a dream of mine. Twelve-year-old me wasn't this guy. Twelve-year-old me was fat. He had braces. He had glasses. He had asthma. He had a gap in his teeth from the braces. Did any of you ever have the wrench that made your teeth gap? You know what I'm talking about here? It was bullshit. Twelve-year-old me had all that. I was the slowest runner in my entire grade. Everybody would be waiting for me on the other end, and I'd be jiggling along cos I had boy boobs, not man boobs—I was twelve. I'd be wheezing cos I had asthma, and I'd be whistling coz of the gap in my teeth. It's not like I needed any more attention, but I got it.
Now my dad. He was born in Vancouver, but he's brown. He's a coconut. He's brown on the outside, white on the inside. And his name's Paul. He was born named Paul. Paul was an angry dad. He'd be there yelling all the time. Mainly at any of my sporting events. I used to hate going to baseball. Baseball's a high-pressure sport. I could catch. I could hit. But the running part wasn't my jam. That was the hard part for me, you know? And Paul would be yelling from the sidelines. And every time I'd hit almost a fucking home run, he'd be going. "YEAH, run, Aren, RUN." And I'd be running as slow as possible or as fast as I possibly could like an underwater slow-motion hippo going, "Fuck you, Dad." And the coaches would be like, "Paul, can you wait in the car?" cos he was just too much.
Now I grew up in East Vancouver, the rough part of town. My school was known for gang violence, machete attacks, and recruitment into local drug dealing trafficking operations. It wasn't the best place for the kid with the whistle. It wasn't the best place for the kid with the boy boobs. I used to get called Bitch Tits Bahia. Don't you fucking repeat that. (That's my housemate.)
So my best friend at the time, his name was Ricardo. He was from El Salvador, and he had abs at eleven years old. It was fucking bullshit. I was the fat friend. He got all the girls, and I was sitting there whistling. Ricardo had an older cousin named Nelson, and Nelson was a gangster, and everybody loved Nelson. Everybody gave Nelson respect. And when I was with Nelson, people were nicer to me. I didn't get bullied when I was with Nelson. So me and Ricardo wanted to be just like Nelson.
It wasn't long before I started dealing drugs because that was the thing to do in my neighborhood. If you wanted girls, you wanted respect, and you didn't wanna get fucked with, sell some dope. So I started off selling weed, then MDMA, and then this and that and this and that. Before you knew it, I was running a nationwide drug dealing operation.
I thought it was like a rap music video. My life was cool at the time, you know, for a couple of years, and the distance between me and my father grew and grew and grew. I wasn't exactly making Pops proud, but it didn't matter to me. I had money. I had women. I had a white Mercedes with a tan-colored interior. Inside fish sticks, outside tartar sauce—it was the paint job. So I used to pull up that Benz next to my dad's old truck like Fuck you, Dad thinking I was all cool. And it wasn't until I came home, crying to my folks at twenty-three years old. And I was a drug addict. The stress and trauma of that life had gotten to me. Once the Mexican cartel started getting into the picture, things were just a little too scary for me. Once my friends started getting kidnapped, things were a little too scary for me, and I was popping pills just to stay okay with everything happening, but I wasn't okay.
It was the rock bottom part of my life. I needed to do something to change. The drugs really gotta hold of me, as Eminem would say. So I found this counselor, and he told me to do something called iboga. Anybody heard of iboga before? It's an African plant root from Gabon. I didn't know where Gabon was either, don't worry. It's like ayahuasca from Africa, except it's horrible. It's like your stern, angry dad telling you how much of a fuckup you are over and over and over. And if you move, you'll throw up. So you just gotta sit there and take it.
I did this for a week straight and, on the third day of an eight-hour journey, I saw my entire life flash before my eyes. I saw how did this guy become a drug dealer? How did little fat Aren whistling along go to becoming adult boy? I saw all the choices. I saw how I was that guy. But I also saw that I could make some changes. I saw that I could take responsibility for my future. And I saw that I needed to make a big leap. I needed to do something different.
Now the mornings after you take iboga, you sit there shivering in a blanket, contemplating your life. And they told me, "Yeah, you could watch Netflix." I was like, "Okay." So I'm sitting there, and they're like, "Don't watch anything violent. Don't watch anything scary. Positive, happy things only. It'll come up later in your journeys." I was like, "Okay." Already a strange situation. So I flip on Netflix, and that's when my world changed. That's when I saw a miracle. I was taken to a new scene. I was taken to somewhere completely different than anything I've ever witnessed before. I saw the magic of Bali. I saw an offering, devotional prayer. I saw beautiful Balinese people. It was different than anything I'd ever experienced. I knew whatever that was, I needed it in my life. That's when the movie Eat, Pray, Love changed my life. Who would've thought?
So I'm sitting there shivering, and I go, "I need to get there. Where is this movie?" Tap, tap, tap, Google, Google, Google. Bali. Dope. Book a ticket to Bali. "Where's Bali?" Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, Indonesia. Awesome. "Where's Indonesia?" Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. "Really? Fuck. It's there?" I swear I thought it was near Japan or some shit. So two days later, I land in Ubud, Bali. I mean, I get there, and I'm still adult boy. I rock up in a Louis Vuitton shirt and diamond earrings to Yoga Barn! Like, "What's up?" I'm just like, Whoa. It's a completely different world to me, but I know I need to get engaged in this community somehow, some way, and quick.
Now I used to teach kickboxing in Canada, and I thought, Well, there's a yoga teacher training starting next week. It's like the same thing, right? I could do this. It's like kickboxing teaching, just with better asses. Great. So I end up in this yoga teacher training with this teacher named Denise Payne. She's about that big. She's looking up at me, and she doesn't take any shit. And I still rock up with the same ego I had in Vancouver. I was still that same guy trying to make it in the world of green juice and quinoa. That yoga teacher training was tough. I didn't exactly do a good job. While I was trying to learn about chakras, I was partying on the weekends, going on Tinder dates, getting tattoos. I was still exhibiting the same patterns of East Van Aren in Ubud, Bali.
She didn't have any of it. She wasn't happy with how I showed up in that. And I didn't give a shit. I was still a drug dealer. The culmination of it was at the end at the graduation ceremony. And everyone's happy. It's a celebration. Except she comes to me, and she goes, "Hey, I can't pass you in this yoga teacher training. I can't put my name on your certificate." And I look at her. She's about that big to me, but I felt small. I think Am I the only person who's ever failed yoga teacher training? Shit. I give my best "I don't give a fuck" face. She goes, "Aren, when are you gonna give a shit about something? When are you actually gonna show up? You could be so great if you just got over your bullshit." No one ever talked to me like that, and it hurt. I tried not to cry. Tried to be tough. All the other yogis are happy, prancing around—fucking mala beads everywhere.
And I gotta go back to Vancouver. I failed the shanti shanti world, and I gotta go back to East Van, and I know it's waiting for me. I know I gotta get out of that life cos it's gonna swallow me up whole.
I'm flying back to Vancouver. My heart is in my stomach. I'm scared for my life. The next six months were the hardest six months of my entire life. I chose that I wanted to get out, but anytime you wanna make a leap to do something different, you're gonna meet resistance. It's like the universe asking you, "How bad do you want it?" And I had to go through it. I remember one moment that was a shift for me.
Now to get out, I needed an exit strategy, and to get out, I needed to make some cash, and I couldn't just leave like that. So I was still in the dope game, and I had to do this one drug deal. I was selling two kilos of coke to a couple of guys I didn't really know well. I was setting up for this drug deal, and I brought a big gun with me. It was a .40 cal. with a silencer on it. It was about that big. I was trying to figure out where to hide it just in case things went wrong so I could shoot these guys cos I wasn't trying to lose these two keys. I couldn't afford it. As I was trying to figure it out, I had a moment where I just stopped and collapsed. I was having a panic attack. I thought to myself, Is this what my world is right now? Am I trying to psych myself up to shoot a couple of guys over some blow? This is MY life?
It was a dangerous place to be on that ground. A broken boy with a loaded handgun and just then Denise Payne. "Aren, when you gonna give a shit about something? When are you actually gonna show up? When are you gonna get over your own bullshit?" And I sit there, and I'm like, Fuck Denise. She's right. She's right. I knew what I needed to do. I made a decision right there.
Six months later, I'm in prison. The prison's name is Hotel K—Kerobokan maximum security prison in Bali—an hour away from here. But I'm not a prisoner. I'm teaching yoga. Denise Payne had me finish my yoga teacher training by volunteering a hundred hours in prison to these prisoners. Being in jail was great because I could leave. It's like a low-pressure situation. Now, I wasn't a very good yoga teacher, but it's not like the students could go anywhere. It's not like they had anything better going on. I even made friends with the Balinese mafia. It's not like they took my classes or anything, but they'd crowd around watching me teach, smoking cigarettes, going, "Hey, bro, nice tattoos," and I'd be like, "Thanks, Maaray, cool."
That time in prison was important for me. I was clearing karma. I had to do my time. I had to go back and finish something that I fucked up and come back at it as a better man to show that I could change. I wasn't that guy that I showed up as. I could shift. I could make a decision. I could be a new man.
So I moved to Ubud, Bali and I chose that I wanted to be a good guy. I didn't wanna be a criminal anymore. I wanted to make my parents proud, but I knew I needed to do a lot of work right here. Cos, that guy that was buying everybody wheatgrass shots wasn't killing it. I was cheesy. For real. So I did a bunch of self-work. I did eight meditation retreats, three yoga teacher trainings, a bunch of tantra trainings, authentic relating. I saw psychiatrists, spiritual counselors. I saw shamans. I did ayahuasca. I did Kambo. I did cacao ceremonies. I danced ecstatically.
I did a bunch of shit that guys in my old neighborhood would question my sexuality for. Cos I was eye gazing with guys named Sheva, and I was crying with dudes named Lion. I would've gotten my ass kicked. These are important times for me. I had to do it. I had to shift. I had to put in the work, and I learned a lot during those years. It's been quite a journey. Since that time making those shifts, making those changes, and investing myself, I learned I could do anything I wanted.
In four years, I opened up four businesses, and all of them had a big impact on the island. I was done making money that didn't have something bigger than just me. I didn't wanna make another cent that didn't make my dad proud.
The first business still funds a school for mentally disabled Balinese children. And when I took Paul there, he was about to cry. He saw that I wasn't that gangster anymore. He saw that I was doing something better than who I was then. And I got to see my dad finally proud of me.
We're putting out online global vipassana, helping everybody meditate in the whole world, and I'm not selling coke anymore. I've been free of opiates for four years now. Completely clean. Thank you.
So my dad. He called me like a month ago, and he was, you know, catching up with me. We're cool now. And he goes, "Hey, I'm getting fat now." And I go, "Really? What's going on?" He's like, "Well, I just can't get motivated to run. I can't get motivated to do anything, you know. I'm just being lazy." And I'm like, "Well, Dad, I've been running every day." And he goes, "YOU'VE been running?" I'm like, "Yeah. All the time." He's like, "You used to hate running." And I'm like, "I know, but I'm not that kid anymore, you know. I revisited something that I wasn't good at back then. And I'm a different person now, and I love running." He's like, "Wow, that's inspiring. Do you have any advice for me?" And I was like, "YEAH, run, Paul, RUN."
Dressed in all white, sitting cross-legged on this mat, waiting for the shaman to call my name up for my fifth cup of ayahuasca - it's my fifth ayahuasca journey. Waiting. No nervousness. I did this four times already. I know what to expect.
He calls me up. I pop up off my mat with this arrogance, with this lack of humility, with this overly confident asshole kind of vibe that only a native New Yorker who has a penthouse in Manhattan, fancy clothes, all the trappings of a posh life that you could have. I approached the shaman and his facilitators. He hands me the cup with two hands with all this reverence, and I look down at him. I don't even sit. I kind of bend down a little bit. I take the cup with one hand and look at him in his eyes. And he's like, "Take a second, brother, bond with the cup, set your intentions, breathe."
I look at him in his eyes, and I'm like, "Cool, here we go. There you go, champ." I make my way back to my mat. Sit down. Ten minutes goes by. I feel the medicine snaking through my system. You guys know. You guys know what that feels like, right? I feel the beads of sweat. I'm like, All right, heating up a little bit. It's about to hit me. That fucking medicine hit me like Thor's hammer. Bonzai! I lay on the mat.
It takes me right back to the eighteen-year-old me standing in a courtroom looking at a judge. "What? What'd you say?" "Guilty." Wrongly imprisoned at eighteen years old. Sentenced to eight years in a New York state prison. I turn around. Look at my father. See the utter look of powerlessness on his face that he can't save his boy. I see my mother, and I can just feel her heart just contract. I look at myself, the eighteen-year-old and I see him just fall to pieces.
Another wave of the medicine hits me. It takes me to the nine-year-old me. Seeing my first murder and my father standing over the guy as I watched the life go out of his eyes. He said, "You see, son, that's a crackhead. Don't do drugs. Come on, let's get a hot dog."
Bang! Another wave of the medicine hits me. It takes me to the twenty-one-year-old me on my 87th day straight in solitary confinement, standing at my gate, waiting for the officer to give me my lunch. And he looks at me, at my eyes. He spits in my food, says "It looks like it could use a little seasoning." I smile back at him and slap the tray back on his pants and go lie down. I won't be eating for the rest of the day.
Bang! Another wave of the medicine hits me. It takes me to the twenty-seven-year-old version of myself standing over my father's lifeless body. He just died a few hours ago, and I wouldn't let the coroner come see. I wanted to see how he died. And as I looked down at him, I didn't even know what to feel. I couldn't even cry. I just looked at him. Then two days later, me walking my sister down the aisle to give her away at her own wedding.
As I laid down on that mat . . . well, actually I couldn't be lying down 'cause I was purging. Everything was coming up. Everything. When there was no more liquid in my body, it was just that deep, dark black, dry heaving. I was making sounds that I did not think that I was capable of making. Getting it all into this bucket, shaking and crying and screaming. I lost my shit. That ceremony lasted till about 4.00 p.m. the next day. Just an agony. And throughout that whole experience of me seeing all of these formative events, I just asked, "Why?" Not "Why me?" Because self-pity is a luxury that I could no longer afford. I was asking, "Why? Why are you showing me this?" The medicine told me, "I'm just showing you this to show you who you became."
Fast forward. I'm back in New York in my apartment. Living my life. You see, when I went to Peru, I weighed 185 pounds. I was jacked, jacked! All right? I left that retreat ten days later, weighing 165 pounds. And I realized that I lost 15 pounds of fury, not anger. Anger's too simple. Fury. Cold fury that I was ready to unleash at the drop of a dime. If you looked at me wrong, ooh! And I sat in that apartment with my expensive rugs, custom-made mirrors, sharp lights, all of that. I was like, No, you did all right for yourself, though. Fuck 'em. You're here now. None of that shit matters. Yeah. None of it matters.
Until I was smoking a spliff at 11.00 a.m. on a Wednesday. I'll never forget it. My penthouse overlooked the Empire State Building. So I was looking at the Empire State Building. Looked back into these big beautiful windows, saw my rugs, my tables, my chairs, my lights. And I was like, No, you did your damn thing. You're all right. You're good, man. So I said to myself, Well, what would the twenty-three-year-old prison version of Melvin think of who I've become? So I went to him, and I was like, "What do you think?" He's like, "Oh, you're doing your thing, man. Look at you. You're on top of the world. You have everything that we wanted."
Because when I was in prison, guys had pictures of women in bikinis and all of these things. Not me. I had rugs. I had flatware. I remember one of my guys walked by my cell, and he's like, "Yo, what? You gay?" And I was like, "What do you mean?" And he's like, "What's with all this shit on your wall? I was like, "No, this is all the stuff that I'm gonna have." The twenty-three-year-old version of me was very satisfied.
So then I went back. So, well, let me ask the thirteen-year-old version of me. And I looked at the boy who I was, and I said, "Hey, look, this is me. Got cool dreads. Got a little beard. Got some muscles. I got cool shit." And the little boy looked at me, and he said, "But who are you?" And I was like, "I'm you. Look, we have the same scars. We look exactly the same." He said, "You're not me. You're my betrayer. What happened to our dreams? What happened to being like Indiana Jones? What happened to adventures? What happened to all of that stuff? Look at this." And I looked at my apartment, and it took me all the way back to my fifth ceremony when I was purging up all of that armor that I had on, all this bravado, all of this kind of insecurity, lack of confidence, lack of self-worth. Because to that version of myself, that's what the world taught me I was, and I needed to have these things in order to become somebody of repute.
In that instance of me standing on my balcony, looking in my apartment, I shook my head, and I was like, Yeah, you did good, but we're done. This is done. Let's get outta here.
Three months later, I find myself back in Peru. Invited to come and live, to study the medicine, to become initiated under their mesa, but actually to go deeper into my own journey, to see who I really am because all of those external trappings that I accumulated actually blinded me to who I really was. Those were just another form of armor to keep me from getting to my own truth.
So I go into my initiation. Ten-day tobacco diet in isolation. I've done 270 days straight in isolation in prison. Ten days is nothing. I could do that on my head. What? I don't have any books either? That's fine. Don't worry about it. And I went from somebody who was the facilitator first, cleaning up your purge buckets, walking you to the bathroom, rubbing your back, holding your hair back when you were purging to holding my own retreats and operating my own mesa and pouring my own medicine.
And after three years of that, I realized I put myself in another cage because you had to come to the mountain to see me. And it was quite easy for me to throw thunderbolts down from Mount Pious. "Drink clean water. Yeah, no, you shouldn't eat junk food." I grew my own food there. Right? What I realized, though, is that there was a dissonance. It's all well and good to be at a retreat or hiding out somewhere, sequestering yourself and wielding your medicine. But how effective are you wielding that medicine in the "real world?"
So I found myself back in my old neighborhood in Chelsea, walking down 23rd Street, fresh off a flight, fresh from JFK, going to see a client. 'Cause, that's what I do. And there was a woman standing on the corner of 23rd and 6th Avenue, and she was asking for help. And everybody had their headphones in. People were looking at her. Thought she was homeless. Kind of ignored her. And I walked right over to her, and I said, "You need some help?" She said, "Yeah, I'm looking for Burlington Coat Factory." And I was like, "Yeah, it's right across the street. Look." And she was like, "Yeah, if I could see, I wouldn't be asking you for help. I'm blind." And I was like, "Oh, well here, come on. Let's go." So I walk her across the street. "Why are you going to Burlington Coat Factory?" "Oh, I got invited to a wedding. I want to get my niece a nice present."
So I take the time to go into the store with her. We buy a nice gift, and I ask her, "Well, do you live in Selis Manor?" And she was like, "Yeah. And I was like, "Oh." She said, "How did you know?" And I was like, "Oh, I used to live right across the street in 144." And she was like, "Oh." I walk her back home. We get in front of her apartment building. And she said, "Can I touch your face? Can I see what you look like?" "Sure." I lean down. She touches me. She feels my hair. "Oh, beautiful—inside and out." "Thank you."
I walked down the street. My phone goes off. It's my mom. "Hey, Mom, funniest thing just happened." "What, Mel?" So I tell her the story. And she said, "What's so funny about that?" And I was like, "That's so bizarre." And she was like, "Why, son? That's who you are."
I thought that this journey was this path of spirituality. This path of oneness, this path of shamanism, mysticism, all of that. Not for me. It's just a path to remind me to remember who I really am. I've been called a lot of things in my life. A shaman, a healer, a good therapist, Hartzog, 98A3345, an asshole, nigger, piece of shit, servant, useful. But what do I call myself? I'm just Melvin, the widow's son. Thank you.
I remember the day I came out to my mother. We were both sitting across from each other at the kitchen table where we normally ate. Gravely I mentioned there was something important that I needed to tell her while struggling to hide the nervous mix of misdirected anger and anticipation pumping through my veins. "Mother, I'm an atheist," I told her. And as the words rolled down my tongue, I could feel the liberating joy that every self-respecting teenager experiences when making a stance against anything their parents stand for. Mind you, this word 'atheist' I had just heard for the first time just a few weeks earlier.
And for long nights afterward, lying awake on my bed, staring at the ceiling, I kept pondering about its meaning and the implications of this word. Was there really no God? It's impossible. Especially when considering that I have never directly experienced anything remotely close to my preconceived ideas of what God looked like. And to make matters worse it wasn't the first time my parents had lied or been wrong about something. So after having survived the traumatizing truths of Santa Claus in childhood life, I didn't want to be taken for a fool anymore.
You see, in my head, those who professed their religion did it because 1, they needed to be told how to behave. Otherwise, they would act like pricks. And 2, they were so afraid of their own death that this was the only way they knew how to find solace. At thirteen, I knew better than that.
So I went through life thinking myself better than those around me, clutching to the identity I had crafted for myself. That of a hardened rationalist who pretended to be smart enough to understand Nietzsche's rhetoric without having picked up a single one of his books, let alone write the man's full name from memory. Now I never much believed in the Catholic view of an afterlife, but nobody ever told me about the sinking feeling in my chest that accompanied the anxiety-inducing thoughts of my own death. Scared as I was of my own questions, I kept burying them deep inside me because I was an atheist, dang it. And life is hard. Everything is meaningless. The cake is a lie, and I better man up, put a fake smile on my face, and pretend to be happy with it all. Sure, I was terrified of dying, but at least I didn't need no holy text to tell me that killing was wrong. That is obvious. Was there anybody who really needed a reminder of that?
To cope with the fact that this was going to be the only life that I would ever get to live, I got fixated with the idea that pleasure was a real way to really experience life. Flirting, drinking, inhaling, ingesting, and snorting my way through countless sleepless nights and increasingly disgusting hangovers.
After a while, once I got bored of this, a friend introduced me to yoga, and I was like, Huh, this is easy. I can do it. I got it. So I started practicing every now and then, and man, I started feeling so good about myself. So blessed and in touch with a universe that surrounded me while smoking the second joint of the day. Sometimes the third one, if it was a lucky day—just before midday so my girlfriend wouldn't see me high when she came back home from work. Man, how I wish somebody had told me earlier that spirituality would feel so great. And so easy. All I had to do was sit there for a while and relax. Then try not to fart too loud during downward dog. Why did I ever want to be an atheist in the first place? I even had a Buddha on my arm that I'm sure brought me this much closer to enlightenment. Until one night dancing with my girlfriend in one of her favorite bars.
To be honest, at that moment, I thought I was hypnotizing her with my sexy Latino movements, but I must have been doing something pretty wrong because instead, she grabbed my arm and asked, "What's wrong?" "What do you mean what's wrong? Nothing's wrong? I'm just dancing." But she just made a funny face. "What do you mean with the funny face? You're funny." But at the same time, inside my head, alarms were going off. Not just because she was giving me that witchy stare that women do every time they know something's up. But because right there, I knew that no matter how much I said I loved her, my words would be forever hollow if I didn't confess the secret I had been keeping from her. Still not believing what I was about to do, I turn around and look at her as I'm standing at the edge of a cliff with my foot ready to jump. "I slept with someone else," but the music was too loud, and she didn't hear. So she asked, "What?" "I said I slept with someone else."
Later that same night, sitting in the bed we shared listening to her sobbing, I kept searching inside me for something, anything that would help me figure it out, what the heck was wrong with me. I was supposed to have no need for a god that judged my actions, no need for an external law that condemned me to hell if I did wrong. I was supposed to be a good man for the simple fact that I knew what good looked like. And instead, here I was. Nothing but an asshole willing to trade yet another one of my values for a two-minute fuck. To say that I was ashamed says nothing about the repulsion I felt when thinking about who I had become because the whole time I knew, I knew what I had to do, but I always had a good excuse not to do so. Things were either too hard, too tasty, or too cheap for me not to indulge in them and, in the process of doing so, I churn myself into my own biggest lie.
Now I must say I was hopeful because, despite the fact that I was not proud of the things I had done, in knowing that I had stood up for something that at least for once I stood up for something that I believed to be holy, I could see a faint glimmer of the real being that couldn't wait to surface inside of me. Now, it wasn't easy. You see for a long time afterward, a terrible guilt and self-doubt kept creeping on me. I felt unsure that I would ever be able to trust myself again, but by keeping tiny promises, simple things that I knew, hopefully, that I wouldn't fail and be able to do every single day.
Slowly I regained my confidence, the confidence that I had lost. And thanks to this, I finally realized that I was not defined by the things that I had done in the past but by the actions that I was committing in the present moment. Along the way, I realized the importance of living in something bigger than my ego. You see, it's not easy to be truthful. It's not easy to be yourself. It takes an incredible amount of courage and an almost masochistic willingness to face your most painful fears.
I am hopeful, though. I mean, I'm happy actually because today I can say that my words are no longer hollow. Now, instead, thanks to everything I've done since that day, they're filled with love. And through that, I've regained my faith because now I am convinced that inside me lies everything I'll ever need to be my best self, the real self. If I'm only there being honest. Thank you.