You know how it goes when you are exposed to something that you’ve never heard of before and then almost immediately begin to see, read or hear about it everywhere?
That’s how this story starts.
Six months ago I’d never heard of anything like ayahuasca or DMT. Have you?
Then, socializing at a party one day a good friend of mine made a comment about a Peruvian shamanic ceremony that he had recently participated in and I immediately dove deeper with question after question. We were huddled together for over an hour while the rest of the party buzzed around us, him relating snippets of what was obviously a significant experience and me pestering him for more depth of understanding. Even as a confirmed skeptic I was fascinated by his telling of his ayahuasca ceremony experience.
Soon, almost every podcast I listened to, every vlog I watched, every news & magazine article I read seemed to say something about it. After checking and double-checking precautions, possible dangers or side effects I fairly soon made the determination that I was going to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony given my first chance.
If your level of knowledge is where mine was six months ago, let me help.
First, the hype
Many Ayahuasca ceremony participants report life-changing outcomes such as,
…acquiring deeper knowledge of oneself, personal and spiritual development, or healing for a variety of psychological and physiological afflictions, including substance dependencies.
Ayahuasca is a shortcut to the unconscious. It allows for the possibility to relive stressful biographical situations again, and repair them, reorder them. This has tremendous therapeutic value
Many interviewed ritual participants reported spiritual peak experiences that fostered a connection with the divine: a spiritual power or existential values infusing life with meaning, providing a sense of relief from confusion, and promoting feelings of wholeness and inner balance.
Participants of ayahuasca rituals often report insights that enable acceptance of previously denied problems and dysfunctional patterns. The visionary state of consciousness produced by ayahuasca can also provoke reflections on personal relationships which provided the motivation for making the changes necessary to resolve interpersonal problems.
Ayahuasca can also improve treatment of PTSD through enhancing trust and social feelings. In addition to these beneficial core effects, in proper settings it may also elicit “moral lessons” with subsequent relief and redemption.
Or as William S. Burroughs put it in a letter to Allen Ginsberg collected in the book, ”The Yage Letters” about his ayahuasca experience in Panama in 1953, ”I experienced first a feeling of serene wisdom so that I was quite content to sit there indefinitely.”
What is it?
Ayahuasca ceremonies originate in the Amazon basin where a local shaman administers “medicine” to several participants, then sings or plays music called “icaros” while recipients experience a hallucinogenic state. Today in the US, shamans show up all over the country with with varying degrees of authenticity and training. The practice is becoming somewhat of a fad. It has attracted celebrities & soccer moms, but also psychotherapists and scholars.
The ayahuasca brew is made from the bark of a vine which grows in the Amazon called Banisteriopsis caapi and leaves of a shrub called Psychotria viridis. It is all boiled down, reduced and filtered into a thick tea. DMT is generally considered the main psychoactive active ingredient and it typically lasts 4 – 8 hours. It’s usually a nighttime ceremony among a group of participants with a shaman and a few assistants.
Book-ending the hallucinogenic state, vomiting is usually experienced immediately before and napping soon after. The experience itself, however, varies from participant to participant. For some, ayahuasca is often referred to as “grandmother Ayahuasca” referring to the wisdom, compassion and loving gentleness that the medicine tends to embody. For others “Vine of the Dead” is a nickname conjuring up frightening images darkness, torment and ghosts.
What it is not
Ayahuasca is not a religion. While many people describe the experience as spiritual and with a vocabulary of faith-like terms, there is no dogma, creed or prophets of ayahuasca. There’s no need to “believe” anything to partake, just an interest in participating and succumbing.
It is not a panacea for all physical, psychological or emotional ailments. Very limited studies have found measurable benefits for sufferers of PTSD, anxiety, addiction, and psychological trauma such as childhood abuse. But, there are conditions and character traits incompatible with this experience.
It’s not a recreational drug. It is best experienced under the guidance of a trained, experienced shaman using quality, reliable and pure ayahuasca. Consider also the integration or aftercare of an ayahuasca experience. Some may want to involve a knowledgeable therapist in their pre and post-ceremony approach.
It’s not for everyone. If you can’t immediately think of something about yourself that could be addressed in such an intense, focused way you should probably not bother.
I finally did get to participate in a ceremony and for me it was extremely positive and devoid of any sort of torment.
My ayahuasca experience consisted of a full weekend with two separate administrations of ayahuasca. This happened locally at the above-mentioned friend’s house (I’ll call him Steve) about 5 miles from my home. He invited the same shaman who had conducted Steve’s first ceremony in another US city earlier in the year.
Our shaman (I’ll call him Sergio) was an experienced, South American-trained musician and ayahuasca scholar from the midwest.
On Thursday night about 15 of us all got together to meet the shaman and his 3 assistants and to get an overview of our weekend. I already knew about 8 of these invited guest. The others were friends of Steve’s I’d never met before. In addition to the shaman’s presentation, we all introduced ourselves and stated what our intention was for participating in the ceremony.
My stated intention was to address the latent shame that hovers with me from being a gay ex-Mormon divorced father. Many of us were gay or exmormon in the group so similar intentions were expressed around the room.
We all returned the next day at about 7 pm on Friday. We set up our pads, sleeping bags and pillows around the room with buckets and Kleenex at the foot of each station. At the head of the room the shaman set up a table with the medicine, tools and various musical instruments. We each had a one on one meeting with Sergio’s assistant to discuss dosage and intentions.
By about 8:30 the shaman began. Most of us reclined or sat at our stations in a meditative attitude as the shaman ceremoniously cleansed the room with tobacco and sage. At some point, our serving of ayahuasca was presented in a small Dixie cup. Mine was about 2/3 full and I drank it down in one gulp like a shot. It had the consistency of molasses without the stickiness. The aroma and taste was of the exotic plant and root based brew that it is. Our shaman had previously assured us that the concoction was genuine and safe, having been shipped directly from his personal Peruvian contact.
At least an hour passed as I lie there anticipating….something. One by one, a few participant began purging into their buckets. I still felt nothing. At some point Sergio invited us to partake of a second dose of ayahuasca and I agreed. Within seconds of taking my second tiny dose I began to vomit into the bucket.
I hate throwing up, but this felt different. It actually felt cathartic and cleansing like I was wiping off my dirty windshield and allowing myself to see clearly through the lense of grandmother ayahuasca. I immediately began to feel cold and tingly but peaceful. Sergio began playing some sort of mandolin-like instrument that sounded other worldly and for a short time I saw meaningless shapes and caricatures spinning and shape-shifting. Then, it was as if stepped into another world and I felt as if I were being welcomed into a state of intense pure bliss and clarity.
I wasn’t frightened in the least. Instead, I felt an excitement that I was getting to know something or somewhere that had long been held from my view. It’s as if I were suddenly in an elite club and it was grand and marvelous.
The challenge now is to explain in words that can’t even remotely do justice to the actual lived experience. I remember seeing images, hearing sounds and feeling emotions that hearkened me back to some movie, play, song, or piece of art and thinking, “So THIS is where they got that idea!”
After this initial introductory experience I went through a period of time that the sounds in the room around me coming from other participants distracted me and pulled me out of the experience. So, I kept having to relax, concentrate and let myself back in, but I was continually frustrated by the ambient sounds. I kept getting distracted and pulled out of the beautiful world I was in.
At some point, the visions and activity mellowed out a bit. Nothing was happening TO me but I was still in that world. So, I was able to guide my experience and make some decisions about what I wanted.
I first chose to see my kids and so I was immediately taken to their presence. I saw each of them individually and sensed the energy from their souls. For some of them it was easier to sense than from others strangely enough. I saw my baby girl and immediately sense a young woman full of joy and potential. I didn’t get any energy or angst coming from her so I moved on knowing she was OK. I felt a powerful amount of love from and towards each one of my kids. I saw the beauty of their inner selves, at least enough of it that I didn’t violate any privacy or boundaries. That love was intense and I likewise had the experience of seeing that their goodness stems from both me and their mother. I felt an enormous sense of gratitude towards their mother and for the part of creation that we both took part in. I wanted her to have the same intense gratitude for our kids and who they are.
I next chose to see my mother who has been deceased for 15 years. She died before I ever came out or left Mormonism. Like with my kids, I experienced a powerful amount of love and compassion towards my mother. It’s hard to explain, but I also saw her humanity… that like me she was just a human trying to do her best. Without thinking I blurted out to her, “Thank you for dying and paving the way for me to come out and live the rest of my life authentically and in peace. I love you and will forever be grateful for that sacrifice.” Of course, my mother’s death had nothing to do with me and that was such an odd and new thought to me, but I have to admit that I would never have likely come out and left Mormonism with my Mom alive and I somehow sensed that she knew that. The compassion and love that I felt with her was overwhelming.
After this experience, I was again left to select what I wanted to do. At that point I chose to revisit critical times in my life where I could have made a different decision. I got to live out my regrets and twist them into actionable items. In my vision I made the other decision. For example, I chose to date a guy in my first year of college rather than to suppress my feelings. I let my high school crush know that I was crushing on him. I chose not to go on a mission. Some of this was a struggle but still cathartic and healing to experience. I know it wasn’t actually happening, but with grandmother ayahuasca it FELT real and that’s where I believe the healing comes in.
Those are the highlights of my first night with ayahuasca. By about 4 am we were all napping and then at 8 am we shared a healthy breakfast before meeting together again to share the details of our first ayahuasca ceremony.
While there were 19 of us in the room, each of our experiences were unique and separate. A beautiful side effect of the medicine was to feel connected and loving towards all the others with whome we were sharing that experience.
By about 11 am we all went back to our respective homes to relax for the day. I spent the day thinking, sleeping and caring for myself with a facial mask, bubble bath, etc. I still felt a lightness and clarity about me – perhaps the “hangover” from the medicine. It was a beautiful day of self love and self care.
Then, by 7 pm on Saturday we all returned to do the ceremony one more time. They say grandmother ayahuasca knows us and knows the experience we need and that’s why each experience is so different.
My second night was NOTHING like the first, but I think the medicine knew I needed that positive uplifting experience before I got down to do the real work of healing. My stated intention for the second night was similar to the first as I didn’t feel like the first night really addressed the shame or struggles in my life. This time grandmother ayahuasca thought I was ready.
The ceremony started out the same as the first night. I asked for a slightly higher dose as I felt I was too easily pulled out of the world on my first night’s experience. I had also prepared slightly better. I bought some earplugs to help block the ambient noise, a face mask to not get distracted by changes in lighting and extra clothes to keep me warmer. I also moved my position in the room away from the noisier participants.
Again, it took a while for grandmother to arrive but when she did I was greeted with purging and similar visuals and sensations to the first night. Except this time, at some point in my introduction to the ayahuasca world I felt attacked by a dark force. I wasn’t really afraid at this point as I was aware that I was in ceremony and that this was part of the process. It became a psychological battle of sorts where this evil force was trying to communicate with me and I was fighting it.
I knew exactly what it was. Five years ago I shared on my blog that I had been sexually abused in my adolescence. You can read part I here and part II here. To be honest I have dealt with this issue in counseling and wasn’t feeling especially needy of addressing it anymore. It wasn’t why I chose to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony, but I also knew it was a possibility that it would come up if grandmother ayahuasca so chose.
This war took me on a tour of my sexual abuse and the sexual molestation in my extended family and then in generations past and further into the psychological mutation of sexual abuse in the evolution of man. I saw those who had given into the mutation and cursed them for not being stronger. I then confronted “IT” and had a battle where I proudly and defiantly declared it that it never got ME and that I won by protecting my kids from it. I knew in that moment that I was a better man for having done so and for conquering that evil strain of sexual mutation in my family. It was almost like a chest-thumping primal experience to feel like I’d beat the shit out of that evil.
I won in the sense that it doesn’t have me and it doesn’t have my kids. I protected them. And can say I faced it, resisted and am better for having done so. I needed to feel that power…that this pansy-ass gay boy is braver than the darkness. That I was man enough to face it and to resist it was an indescribable privilege.
During this struggle I was sitting up with the purge bucket between my legs, rocking back and forth. I imagine that I was the one making the noises at that time, but no one said anything or complained. When the struggle was nearing the end, the shaman sat with me lightly patting my back as I came down from the battle. At some point he held me in his lap for a couple of minutes and then laid me down so that he could sit by me and sing one of his unique icaros to me. It was beautiful and so, so powerful.
This. was. life. changing.
The night wasn’t even half over at this point and the rest of the night gave me additional insight into myself and the way I present myself in the world. I heard a voice at one point say, “Pretense is the enemy” and that phrase kept being repeated over and over again. Grandmother ayahuasca made it clear to me that being fake or inauthentic was poisonous to me, that my best life was to be lived without pretense. I still have that mantra in my head and in my heart and I believe it will be a guide for me throughout my life.
What I’ve related is probably about 1/2 of everything that I gained and learned from the ayahuasca experience. Afterwards I was raw and emotional, quite a contrast to the insight and clarity I had felt the previous morning. But still, it wasn’t a bad, bruised and damaged sort of raw. It was more of a healing, scab-is-gone, now you are stronger sort of raw that made me feel both insignificant and powerful in the universe all at the same time.
Like I said, this sort of process will not be for everyone, but it seemed to have been tailor-made for me and I’m a better man for having done it. I feel like I was able to clean up some emotional and psychological trash. I would do it again although I would most certainly wait 6 months to a year before joining another ceremony.
I welcome respectful thoughts, questions and reactions. Please don’t hesitate to reach out by commenting or e-mailing me privately.
I’m also adding some additional information with links below:
mild to extreme mood lift, euphoria
ego softening / ego loss
oceanic feeling of connectedness to the universe
feelings of love and empathy
a sense of inner peace and acceptance of self, others, and the world
profound life-changing spiritual experiences
emotional healing / mentally therapeutic
claimed physical healing (such as anti-cancer effects)
strong visions; some typically reported include snakes, big cats, insectoid aliens, female goddesses
meaningless visual “noise”
auditory hallucinations / sound distortions
altered sense of space and time
increased likelihood of embracing magical thinking, paranormal ideation
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, sweats/chills (alternating), and other flu- or food poisoning-like symptoms, much less common after multiple experiences
fear and/or paranoia
feeling as though one is losing one’s mind
feeling as though one is dying
disequilibrium, difficulty walking
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