Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew created from plants in the Amazon rainforest.
South American cultures have been using it as a medicine for millennia.
It's made from two plants.
The name itself comes from the ayahuasca vine, which is mixed and brewed with the chacruna leaf. The leaf contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which is the main psychoactive ingredient. The vine contains an inhibitor that allows the body to utilize the DMT which would otherwise be broken down and discarded by an enzyme in the stomach.
The two are combined and boiled for many hours.
Ayahuasca has become increasingly popular in North America in recent years.
It's amazing how many people I've met who end up mentioning ayahuasca. Even those who have no experience or interest in other substances are intrigued by the touted healing effects of the jungle brew.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic, and produces effects that can be compared to other substances such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, etc. This includes colored patterns, visions, and altered perspectives.
Ayahuasca also produces another effect that generally isn't associated with these other psychedelics, and that is purging. In areas of Peru where ayahuasca is used as a medicine it is often called just that, 'the medicine,' but some also call it 'the purge.' This is because most people end up throwing up or spending time on the toilet while under the influence.
Traditionally this is seen as a good thing. It is believed a person puking is getting rid of the physical manifestation of emotional pain and trauma accumulated in a lifetime. The puking serves as the physical release of negative or toxic energy within that person.
It was explained to me that the ayahuasca attracted everything to the stomach like a negative energy magnet, and then when enough had accumulated it would trigger the urge to throw it up.
To be clear I am still on the fence as far as all of this is concerned, but these principles are generally accepted by those working with ayahuasca in the traditional style, and it was under these circumstances that I had these experiences.
I traveled to Peru to partake in traditional-style ayahuasca ceremonies lead by shamans. I too wanted to find out what ayahuasca was all about, and to see for myself if it was really the miraculous medicine its reputation made it out to be.
I decided on a very popular retreat called SpiritQuest Sanctuary and was accompanied by a large group of twenty-five other people, each with their own reasons for being there. One man was hoping to finally cure long-term depression, another was a soldier battling post-traumatic-stress-disorder. A few individuals were simply psychedelic explorers, but nearly everyone had specific issues they wanted help with, including myself.
I had already started working on changetruth.com by this point and I knew eventually I'd be speaking with people about ayahuasca. In part I wanted to try it so I could speak from first hand experience, but getting my project off the ground at all was also a real concern.
I was struggling. I'd surge with inspiration and get a ton of work done over a few days, and then proceed to spiral down into anxiety and depression and do little to no work for weeks at a time.
If ayahuasca could help with any of that, I was all for it.
We stayed eight days at the retreat where we drank ayahuasca together four separate nights.
The retreat itself is located in northern Peru outside of the jungle city Iquitos. The city still relies very much on the Amazon river, as it's the largest city in the world that is only accessible by boat or plane. Iquitos is the main hub for ayahuasca seekers and there are countless retreats and shamans around the city, though not all have great reputations.
SpiritQuest Sanctuary is an hour's boat ride down the river from Iquitos.
It's managed by an American named Howard Lawler. He lives in Iquitos with his family and speaks English and Spanish fluently. With over 40 years experience practicing as a shaman, Howard was full of information and guidance for those who needed it. For people like myself who didn't speak Spanish his presence was a large selling point of the retreat, as many others do not cater as well to English speaking westerners.
Howard himself specializes in work with the San Pedro cactus, and so he works with a native Peruvian shaman named Don Rober who leads the actual ayahuasca ceremonies with his wife and son.
The retreat itself is beautiful. The staff do an amazing job with landscaping and everything is kept clean and inviting. A thought shared by many of us was that even without the ayahuasca, just to spend a week in such as setting would no doubt be 'healing' in itself.
We all had our own rooms with private bathrooms, and there were half a dozen showers to share between us. We were also treated to large buffet-style meals which I thought were delicious. Some grew tired of the meals, mostly due to the dietary restrictions that come with the traditional approach to taking ayahuasca.
The major restrictions include pork, salt, hot spices, sex, and alcohol. This is in part due to potential negative consequences certain foods have in combination with the inhibitor present in the vine. The most dangerous thing to mix with ayahuasca however would be prescription medicine, specifically anything containing SSRI's, amphetamines, or opiates.
The food we were served consisted mainly of rice, fish, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. My love for buffets outweighed my love for salt and I personally felt satiated and strong throughout my stay.
Most people were fairly nervous for the first ceremony, including myself.
No dinner was served on ceremony nights, and so a combination of hunger and nerves fluttered in the stomach. We were given instructions to hone in on our intentions for the night ahead, and to reduce conversation and noise in the hours leading up to the ceremony at 8pm.
The setting of intention was discussed a lot beforehand, as was lowering expectations. With many hours to sit around and quietly think about why I was there for about the hundredth time, when 8pm came around I was definitely ready for whatever might come my way.
We had already picked our spots and laid out mats in the big circular hut that they call a molocha. When it was time, everyone quietly entered and took their positions.
The ceremony was lead by Rober and his wife, Eliana, and their son, Carlos. Throughout the night the trio sang a number of traditional songs called icaros, which helped guide the energy in the room. Howard was present next to Rober, as were a number of other staff members around the outside who escorted people to the washrooms and back.
We were instructed not to speak during the ceremony, but for one word.
Banyo, the Spanish word for bathroom, was our go-to phrase if we needed assistance of any kind. You simply said, "banyo" aloud, raised your hand, and one of the helpers would find you with a tiny flashlight.
The ceremony started with a prayer from Rober, individual blessings for everyone, and a final blessing of the space itself. The process took a long time, and for me it felt awkward. Perhaps with a smaller group it wouldn't have been, but Rober was very thorough with his blessings which meant well over an hour of sitting quietly and trying to fight off distraction and a sore ass.
Then finally, one by one, we each walked to the center of the room and gulped down the terrible tasting green liquid.
The large circular room was lit by just a few candles which were gradually extinguished once everyone had sat back down and settled themselves. When Rober decided it was time and the final candle was snuffed, the giant room and everyone in it vanished into blackness. We were left with only our minds and whatever ayahuasca brought us.
Of the 25 people I was the 3rd to drink, but it was slow coming on. By the time I felt even the smallest inclination of a noticeable effect at least a dozen others had already puked into their buckets, each with their own distinct eruption and splatter.
For myself it began with small lines of color that appeared with my eyes shut. They were almost unnoticeable and I wasn’t sure if I was just forcing it. I had the thought that perhaps it wouldn't work for me.
It was soon after these doubts that I saw a silhouetted wolf-like dog walk right past me, maybe a foot in front of my mat. I started to wonder how a dog could have gotten inside, then realized that I hadn't seen any dogs on the premises, and furthermore that they would definitely not allow one inside. I looked back, expecting my hallucination to disappear, but it remained, clearly a dog, and continued to walk around me. I just let it be, and prepared for whatever might happen next.
The coloured visuals continued to increase and one of the first things I saw was in the form of a flower. The center was black, and coloured petal-like shapes protruded out from it. I had the feeling I was being pulled or drawn toward it. Later I found out this was very common with ayahuasca, and that the ayahuasca vine itself has this same shape in the center of it.
I began to have various visions. With my eyes wide open, peering into the darkness, I was shown an image of the night sky with many bright stars. I stared right into it and focused on individual constellations before it passed.
At one point I saw my own eyes in a small rectangular mirror looking back at me. I had the impression it was a real mirror at first, and then as with the dog I had to think for a moment and realize there was no mirror. I peered into my own eyes and they transformed into a different, slightly creepy set of eyes.
I didn't like them, but it seemed my will was enough to make them disappear. I was able to navigate and control much of the experience and I felt very comfortable and safe throughout.
My stomach gradually began to feel queeziness building, as if it really was slowly pulling toxins to my stomach. About 2 hours in I finally did puke, but it was a somewhat pleasant experience. I remember thanking the medicine for doing its work on me as I was in the act.
From the very beginning I couldn't help but dance to the icaros that were being sung. The amount of effort put into the songs by the trio was energizing. I danced and bounced to the quick beat while kneeling on my mat.
There was a real feeling of celebration. I was excited to have finally felt ayahuasca's spirit, and there was an inkling that I shouldn't worry, that ayahuasca was a beautiful, playful, and powerful force for good.
I thought, 'Of course people would worship this!' and for a moment I imagined myself living thousands of years ago, drinking ayahuasca alongside hundreds of others in a massive ritual. We all knelt before a priest leading a prayer from a high altar, giving thanks and praise to a power clearly beyond our own.
There were other random, minor visions, and I was constantly seeing shadowy figures moving around me. I also kept hearing voices that sounded like they were talking to me. Rober’s wife’s voice would trail off and sound as if someone was whispering my name.
As soon as I started to really accept and enjoy what was happening, it began to fade. It actually dissipated very quickly, and for the remaining hours of the ceremony I lay on my mat waiting for the candle to be lit so I could go to bed. I had the impression I only got a small taste of the brew, and should perhaps take more the next time.
Overall I had a very enjoyable and uplifting experience the first night with ayahuasca. Which, as I found out the next day, was not the case for most people.
The day after the first ceremony we had a talking circle. Howard banged out the call to meet on a couple of big wooden drums and everyone made their way to the deck outside the ceremonial molocha.
It was amazing how 25 people could all have such different experiences under the same roof. A few people felt absolutely nothing, while others puked for hours on end, some were met by spirits and had visions of sick family members, while others experienced extreme disorientation.
Before the circle I was quite happy that I personally had a pleasant experience and was feeling confident about round two, but after hearing so many others explain harrowing ordeals of fear and general craziness I didn't want to get over confident. I figured if scary things appeared to them then it could still happen to me too.
We had a day off in between ceremonies, so there was a lot of time to reflect on the first one and prepare for the next.
The second began just as the first, with long prayers and blessings for everyone.
I had asked for a higher dose this time, but from what I could tell it looked like I actually received slightly less. I also smoked a tobacco cigar which was supposed to heighten the effects.
The icaros that Rober sang were slower and of a different energy. I got the impression they toned the whole thing down a notch for the group after so many tough experiences the first night.
I was eventually greeted by similar coloured patterns that I’m accustomed to seeing on mushrooms. I also saw the flower shape once again. My third eye was turned on, so to speak, but when I realized that was where it was peaking I was disappointed.
I played around with visualizations a bit, and at one point clearly pictured my brother John, and that cheered me up seeing him in such amazing clarity, smiling as he does.
But then I started getting frustrated. I had flown all the way to Peru and paid a lot of money for something big, something harrowing, something that would change me for the rest of my life.
I was daring Ayauasca to show me something scary, anything. Nothing came, and slowly I became very confident. This confidence grew to not just my ability to navigate the terrain of the psychedelic experience, but also for the website I was working on and the path I had chose for myself. I felt like I was going to handle whatever came my way in the future.
This confidence also lead me to decide that I should take two full cups the next time. No more messing around. Maybe the guys in charge had forgotten to give me more this time, but if I took two then there was no way I wouldn't get enough.
I had the thought that the first experience showed me I could trust ayauasca, and the second that I could trust and have confidence in myself. I didn’t see that lesson coming, and it made me chuckle to think that even though I may not have gotten what I was looking for perhaps that was what I needed in the end.
It also felt like I was just fishing for meaning though, and I wanted to be careful to not just assume everything that happened was purposeful.
I went to bed that night knowing I had to go for broke and insist on doubling the dose at the next ceremony, because there was no way I was going home without something big.
The day of the third ceremony I had to convince Howard to give me two cups. I met with him and Rober in the afternoon and made my request. He was fairly adamant about the dose not being important, and told me that by asking for more I wasn't trusting the medicine.
I stuck to my guns. I felt that I was trusting not only the medicine but also my own experience with it, and insisted on doubling the dose. He agreed in good humor. I can still hear him and Don Rober laughing together as I walked away. I knew that no matter what happened, I would be in for something interesting that night.
So I drank two full cups. They were damn full, too.
If the cup was 80% full the first night, and the second night about 75%, this time they filled me up to 98%, twice. I did tell them I wanted a big dose, so down they went.
It started about as slow as before, but the queeziness ramped up faster. I was fighting off the urge to throw up early on. I tried to hold out until after they started to sing, but I ended up letting it fly right before they began.
Soon after that the visuals began. It was a mix of bright colours and intricate patterns. This also ramped up fairly quickly and soon I was sitting back hunched over my knees because I was quite nauseous and the imagery was constantly moving and morphing. It became a lot to handle, and I could see how it would be too much for some, especially those prone to motion sickness.
It was as if I was in the center of a giant disco ball. All sorts of coloured lights, shapes, and images rotated around me in a 360 degree bubble. It wasn't scary and was actually quite beautiful, but it was a lot. Combined with the stomach issues it put me into a state of endurance. I had to weather the storm, and to do so I had to let go of all efforts to focus. It felt a bit like if you've had too much to drink and trying to avoid 'the spins'.
It was when this disco ball light show reached its peak that the single most amazing thing of all my ayahuasca experiences happened. I was greeted by three spirits. They were identical, each maybe three inches in height, very slender both in body and head, completely white, and it was quite clear they were doing something to my head.
I was also greeted by a tangible feeling of their good intention. They floated just above the left side of my head, which began buzzing both audibly and physically. They seemed to be doing some sort of work on me. I was sure I needn't fear them, and so I just let them be. The trio stuck around for only about ten seconds.
Later I had the thought that I had been purposely distracted by all the visuals and feelings of nausea as a sort of psychedelic anesthetic, so that the little spirits could do their work without me freaking out or posing too many questions. That's my attempt to make sense of it at least.
I also found out these little guys are fairly common for people to experience, and in fact others at the retreat described the exact same encounters on different nights. The shamans call them the 'little doctors' and believe they are spirits of plants called in to help heal the people in the room.
After the peak experience subsided it became much more manageable. There was still a lot of visual stimuli, and I got really into the icaros being sung. At one point I just couldn’t help but hum along.
My nose also became very runny at a couple points and I didn’t have any napkins. My fingers transferred seemingly huge amounts of thick fluid from my nose to my pants. I wondered if it was common to 'purge' out of one's nose so heavily.
After that I lay down and felt terrific. I felt very clean and light and I had a few different visions through this period. I felt that I had been rewarded for showing courage, both in deciding to take two cups originally, and then also for pressing when Howard tried to convince me otherwise.
And then this feeling came over me that there was nothing to fear. Truly nothing.
Fear was an illusion. I saw fear as a construct of our culture. Something that has been cultivated for so long that we've all accepted it into our lives. We continue to live burdened by fears because we lack the wisdom and perspective to see through them.
I was presented this idea in many ways, though It was mainly through a vivid vision of an open field. Bright green grass danced in the wind, and different people ran around free and happy. Each expressed themselves through their own creations. One man used trees to construct a house, others created beautiful artwork and tools, and I saw that I should use my own gifts to create as well.
The vision was accompanied by a feeling that to truly create something beautiful or truthful we must move beyond fear. It was an understanding that everything will be okay. Failure is okay. Death is okay. No matter what happens we'll be alright, and we should express ourselves as honestly as possible.
It was an amazing vision and feeling, and it's a lesson I've carried with me since my time in the jungle.
We had a day's rest in between each of the first three ceremonies, but the final ceremony was directly after the third.
In the morning I ate breakfast half a bite at a time to keep my stomach from turning. The two full cups the previous night had taken its tole, both physically and mentally. I was in need of a serious night of sleep that just wasn't possible at the retreat.
Many people had trouble sleeping at night. The jungle heat and chorus of crickets may have played a part, but falling asleep after a night of ayahuasca visions is challenging in itself.
So despite a leisurely day I was still low on energy for the final ceremony.
I drank a little more than a cup. Early on I threw up in the dark and misfired onto the edge of the bucket, which then splattered onto my leg and mat. I spent the rest of the night attempting to maneuver myself into a comfortable enough fetal position that didn't include the smell or feel of my own puke.
I listened to the many icaros, grateful for Don Rober's enduring energy and tireless performance, and had visions of sleep.
This clip was recorded during the final ceremony. The first icaro is Don Rober and his wife mid-ceremony. The second is a closing blessing by Rober and his son which is repeated for each person in the room. They stood over us, singing and drumming the chakapa on our head, and then blew out tobacco smoke.
Many months have now passed since my ayahuasca sessions.
I still have ups and downs. I still spiral into procrastination and flirt with depression. This blog post you're reading now should have been edited and posted a month earlier.
But I'm getting better.
Anxious feelings now remind me of this other feeling I once had. A reminder that fear should not be bowed down to, but triumphed over.
I've since pushed myself into many new situations that make me nervous. As each new challenge ends up behind me I feel more and more confident. It's a great feeling, and I'm thankful to have had the push from ayahuasca to help get to this point.
I'm welcoming the unknown into my life with faith. It's faith that not only will I come out the other side OK, but stronger than before.
I'm sure that ayahuasca is not the only way to reach this point. Life seems full of different ways to learn its lessons for those who pay attention. Ayahuasca seems like a great way to get a little help though.
I feel as if I've seen the light, even if it was only a glimpse. And now, back in our complicated reality with infinite doubts and difficulties, I will continue to express courage over fear at every opportunity. I will do this because in one powerful moment of clarity I felt that I should.
It's a feeling that stays with me. And though it's difficult to describe, it's easy to remember.