Citation: Shannon A. "The Night I Saw the Stars Dance: An Experience with Peyote (ID 72245)". Erowid.org. Aug 1, 2011. erowid.org/exp/72245
Nestled in a secluded, high southwestern desert valley, there exists a quasi-legal, all-race peyote-using church. I say quasi-legal because protection for growing its sacrament, peyote, is by state statute alone, not Federal law. Officially formed in the late seventies, the church has thrived for many years fighting for all-race religious peyote use. Based upon the tenets of the Native American Church and fused with some of the doctrines of Mormonism, the church teaches love, holiness and a respect for nature that is literally awesome to behold firsthand. As I arrived at this seemingly barren location late one afternoon, I wondered what I would encounter in such a brutally hot desert locale. I was not disappointed. All I can say of the weekend experience is that it all finally made sense to me.
Greeted at the door by the original founder of the church, I was received with open arms and immediately felt the love of my hosts. I was given a brief tour of the humble premises and was then shown the “Peyote House” where over 1,000 peyote cactuses were growing. One of the “apostles” proudly displayed a collection of illegal sacred plants. I asked how the church could operate such an openly illegal practice given the strict Federal laws regarding the growing and harvesting of peyote, at which she replied that their state and the surrounding community have taken great pains to protect religious freedom. Being a predominant Mormon community, the area has had its fair share of religious disputes with the Federal government in regard to religious freedom. For the most part though, the Federal government has turned a blind eye to the religious practice of growing peyote for religious purposes.
After settling down and setting up my tent on their land, I was awed by the beauty of nature that surrounded me. The desert was teeming with life and a home nearby was decorated in colorful pottery, which supports the financial aspect of the church. Leaders of the church spend hours working on the pottery and seem to pass the time peacefully in intelligent conversation.
It is solely up to these individuals to decide whether or not one is “worthy,” so to speak, of partaking of the holy sacrament. Upon my arrival, I can honestly say that I did not know whether or not I truly wanted to participate in their sacrament or whether I was prepared for the experience. This said, my first “test,” it seemed, was with the founder of the church. He is a kind and gentle 25% Native American man who asked where I came from and the purpose of my visit. We spent time in rocking chairs while he introduced me to all of the pets and the wildlife that regularly visited the window of the house. He told stories of his military service in World War II and unselfishly imparted his words of wisdom upon me about the meaning of life, the history of his legal troubles, and his fight for all-race peyote use. Though he is a dedicated servant to the church, I felt no pressure from him to comprehend the complexities involved in using peyote and I was unsure of what he thought of my responses to his many questions. One thing I did know for sure, this man had religious and social convictions that were on par with any man I have ever met.
My apparent test continued through the night and into the next morning while I had pleasant conversations with other leaders of the church as they told me how they met the church’s founder and how they were able to obtain and sustain such a great quantity of peyote. They mentioned their love and respect for their Mormon neighbors, who have paradoxically been some of the most ardent protectors of their religious freedom in the area, although Mormonism in no way advocates their use of the controlled substance. I began a fast in the morning at the recommendation of one of the apostles and spent my time hiking and exploring the wonders of the desert location. I love the mountains and hike quite often, but nothing could prepare me for what would happen that night. I assume I passed their test of sincerity since I was soon to be given a peyote tea. I was honored at this gesture and listened intently as the apostles explained what to expect, if anything. Again, I was not disappointed, for that night was the night I saw the stars dance.
The peyote sacrament was prepared in a tea, and I was also given two dried capsules of peyote to help enhance my experience with the “medicine.” I signed some legal papers reporting that my use of the substance was for purely religious purposes and off to the desert I was sent for what is called “The Spirit Walk.” Unlike the structure and ritual of the NAC peyote ceremony, The Spirit Walk is a solitary journey that the church’s founder reminded me was the key to finding out the answers to difficult questions. The leaders’ disdain for the rigidity and structure of organized religions was painfully transparent, and for the first time, soon before I began my walk, I think he actually preached as a Christian zealot that he believed this was the only way one could come to understand what “The Peyote Way,” what life in general, was all about.
I retired to my tent slowing ingesting the most disgustingly bitter tea of my life. As I relaxed on a lawn chair, literally in the middle of nowhere, I awaited the effects of the psychoactive substance in peyote, mescaline, to take effect. Ever so slowly, my body began to feel warm and intensely uncomfortable. A small buzz arose in my ears and it culminated in what seemed like the vomiting of the entire tea that I consumed over the space of about an hour. I swallowed the peyote capsules given to me with a splash of water, and slowly but surely, everything finally made sense!
All the years of my research and reading began to unfold before my eyes. The “Is-ness” of Huxley, the “tune in” of Leary, the “set and setting” of Smith all fell into place as I watched the moon begin to brighten with an intense array of color. The trees and the ground below me were infused with what I can only describe as “life.” Their colors, though it was now well past dark, were a heightened green and brown with spots of red, blue and yellow. As I looked up into the beautiful night sky, I noticed that my mouth had been wide open in awe for quite some time because my throat, lips and mouth were entirely parched. I soon became consciously aware of why this was the case: I was watching the stars dance.
I understood now why Huxley had such a hard time describing his mescaline experience in words within his book Doors of Perception. I understood why the set and setting so ardently defended by Huston Smith played such an important role in this experience. My mind was entirely preoccupied with what I would normally to have considered trivial. The rocks on the ground exploded with color, the stars ebbed and flowed with the music I was listening to and I began to sing as loudly as possible. An overwhelming sense of joy and even a sense of love infused my whole body. So I started to laugh, very loudly. I laughed so hard I began to cry. My tears were not tears of sadness or of pain, but of a giddy and even childish joy at all that was occurring to me. My body seemed to melt into the lawn chair and I felt as if I was part and parcel of everything around me. Then came Huxley’s infamous “heaven and hell” experience.
Huxley wrote another book soon after Doors of Perception about his mescaline experiences in which he describes something similar to R. Gordon Wasson calls “Ecstasy.” However, as Wasson reports, “..ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles.” I was so overtaken by the visual sensations that I was experiencing I retired inside my tent for a while. What awaited me was the “hell” and a sense of guilt and horror at all of the things I had taken for granted in my life. I reflected on the words of the church founder when he said you can learn more by following the path of the fly than the words of a preacher. I believe this simple phrase was meant to remind me that we are all somehow metaphysically connected to everything around us and no preacher can teach us the sublime nature of such a doctrine. Although the preacher may be able to tell a person of the ontological importance of such doctrine, to actually follow the path of the fly, aided by the peyote experience, give a direct personal contact to what the preacher can only talk about.
I could not tell if I was talking to God or not, but what was happening to me felt like a direct experience of something divine. Though reminded of my imperfections, I was imbued with a renewed sense and desire to overcome my imperfections and to somehow make them right. The beauty all around me was evidence enough to convince me that I had to do something different with my life and to perceive the world in a better light. I had to change some things and become a better father, husband and person. I finally understood why there was such an overwhelming respect for this cactus and why it leads many Native Americans (and others) to shun alcohol use and other intoxicating substances. In everything, I saw... goodness, and I inexplicably felt I was part of that goodness.
By this time I had lost all sense of time and sleep escaped me. I returned outside (admittedly a little disoriented) to see my dancing stars and started a small fire, which is recommended by the clergy of the church if conditions are favorable. I gleefully watched for what seemed like hours but was probably only minutes as the smoke and fire dwindled into the most beautiful embers of fading light. I noticed that the mescaline was finally starting to wear off because my stars began to be fixed in their places, and I succumbed to my fatigue and fell into a blissful rest.
So what does this story have to do with harm? Well, nobody was harmed by the use of peyote except for my family who had to endure my being gone on a three day long trip to the desert. The right set and setting aided me in finding out some crucial information about an illegal substance revered by many a portion of the “divine substance.” The fact that I felt a part of that divine presence evoked a pleasure that I shared with my host the next morning.
As I broke my fast that morning with oranges, grapes and nectarines, I savored the sweetness of each bite. In contrast to the bitter peyote, I found that even a piece of gum was immensely tasteful. I conversed with the church founder about my experience and he again showed no signs of pushing the importance of the religious use of peyote. His only concern was that I learned from the personal, solitary experience and that I let no other interpret what I had felt and seen.
In regard to that last sentence, I honestly do not know how to interpret what I felt and saw. I admit that years of research did make a lot of sense to me after ingesting peyote, but I am still at a loss to describe what happened to me. The naturalist/physicalist in me wants to explain away the experience by an appeal to the scientific evidence of how mescaline affects brain function. My religious leanings point to a holy and sacred experience that I share with the reader in story form, hopefully with reverence.
I do not know if I will ever take a hallucinogenic substance ever again. It is not that I am presumptuous enough to claim I have learned or experienced all there is to know about these experiences, but quoting Alan Watts, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” For now I have received enough of the message concerning the religious and recreational use of hallucinogens. I respect the fact that others consider these substances sacred and holy or even just pleasurable and I share my peyote experience only to show that their religious use can and ought to be protected. Although I am just as honest in defending that given the right set and setting, the hallucinogens’ recreational use seems to be as benign and harmless as their religious use.
Hallucinogenic substances do appear to be a boon that with the right kinds of controls and education could be used to benefit many a person. I just hope that my story helps relay the importance of more protection for our beloved nation’s liberties in regard to hallucinogenic drug use.
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