HIGH NOTES: The Sound of Iboga

“This life is just a dream. It’ll be over in the blink of an eye. Remember who you are. Remember what you are.”

Omkara’s “Remember” filled the dimly lit, sand-colored living room of my Venice Beach apartment. I was on the cusp of a discovery, or perhaps a rediscovery. The following day, I’d hop on an Amtrak to San Diego, cross the southern border to the beach of Rosarito, Mexico, and ingest the roots of the African Tabernanthe iboga plant.

I recalled advice I’d been given on an ayahuasca retreat a year prior: “Remember to remember who you are.” Why was this coming back now? Who was I that I needed to remember? What part of myself had been lost?

“I just listened to this song, and wow, it hit me,” I texted Dimitri Mugianis, who was about to administer the psychedelic, along with a link to the video. “This life is one of many, and it will really feel like a blink of an eye. And I incarnated here because I wanted all of this… and I chose a big mission for this life. I am here to do something so big, it gives me chills… I’m crying now. It’s like I’m remembering what I am, how big I am.”

Was I already under the influence? Although I hadn’t yet arrived at the apartment Dimitri rented for the occasion, I may have been feeling the plant’s effects, he said. “The ceremony’s already started.”

My motivation for taking iboga, which has been used for everything from treating drug addiction to ushering in spiritual experiences, was multifold. I was trying to recover from chronic Lyme disease, and I wanted to work through any trauma that had led me to contract it.

Before the ceremony, I emailed Dimitri a list of songs I’d like him to play. “Remember” came on in the beginning, just as I begun to feel stiff and woozy and like the room was spinning. I used the last of my functioning brain to sing along, then I slipped down into what seemed like the underworld.

“Show me my trauma,” I told Father Iboga, as they call the plant spirit. What I saw instead was the collective trauma of humanity. I saw the holocaust, I saw slavery, I saw animal abuse again and again. I saw so many cannibals. I asked if there was a word for what I was seeing. “Darkness,” Iboga told me. “Your trauma is a fear of the dark, which is a fear of death.”

I saw all the times I felt dead. I saw my head over a skeleton with grey hair. I saw flashes of myself on heart monitors. I saw myself as an old witch. I saw old ladies trapped in basements, slowly withering away. I saw bones breaking and organs falling out and heard my cousin saying, “Step on a crack and break your mom’s back.” Things falling apart, the death, the horror. The sense of being meat.

Death is not what happens when we die, I realized. It’s when we live as if we’re already dead. It’s when we choose dark. I saw the times I’d chosen dark.

“Show me my trauma,” I repeated. I saw montages of adults yelling at me as a child. I saw an afterschool program with a very mean teacher, a chalkboard, a dark room, a door slamming. “What happened there?” I asked. “That’s where you saw the darkness.” I did not know what that meant. Soon after, the sun came up. “Time to move into the light.”

I saw a cloud with a bunch of little squiggles. These squiggles were our souls. They jumped into Earth like a swimming pool, assuming bodies to communicate with loved ones. And then I met my soul! It was a pure, good soul. It was a part of the cloud where all the souls joined, and it was here to spread light! I cried and cried as I realized who I was: a bringer of the light! I spent the day weeping on the couch and spotted fairies, awestruck, in the night. 

Throughout the next five days, I heard Omkara’s voice from the corner of the living room: “Remember who you are.” Why was this song playing on repeat? I wondered. Then I remembered Dimitri warning me, “You might hear people saying things they’re not really saying.” That would also explain why I heard “Oh my god Becky, look at her butt” during the ceremony.

I thought back to what I told him the morning after: “I’ve been coaxed into the darkness, but I’m here to spread light.” Who was I? I was part of the hive mind, and the hive mind was made of light.

“This life is just a dream, a dream made of love.” I came from a cloud of love. That was who I was.

On the last day of the retreat, Dimitri and I went on a walk. “Is it just me or is the wind singing, ‘Remember who you are’?” I asked him. I knew the answer; the wind couldn’t talk. But my ears were still telling me otherwise.

“Just remember what you learned about the light and the dark,” he said. “The key to maintaining your health will be giving back.”

Over the following week, I heard the song emanating from the oddest places: airplane engines, microwave ovens, entirely dissimilar songs on the radio. Iboga had made the message clear: my job is to spread light. The challenge now is just to remember who I am.

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