Three years ago deep in the jungles of the Amazon in Peru I had the opportunity to participate in an ancient ceremony with a Shaman and a traditional medicine known for its psychoactive properties, called Ayahuasca. Alas, on this occasion is was not to be (for that story, click here). Since then I had been waiting for another opportunity to try it and the opportunity presented itself here in Colombia. This is my personal account of the experience.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a traditional medicine used for millennia by indigenous peoples all over the Amazon region. It is a brew, cooked slowly for hours over an open fire. It is made by combining 2 plants: one containing the extremely powerful hallucinogen, DMT; the other, ayahuasca vine, containing Harmaline, an MAOI (Monoamine oxidase inhibitor).
DMT occurs naturally in dozens of plants found all over the Amazon region.. DMT containing plants cannot be ingested orally, as the DMT is metabolised and broken down by Monoamine oxidases (MAOs) in the stomach before it can enter the bloodstream.
DMT can, however, be chemically extracted and the resulting crystal vapourised, producing short, but extremely intense effects. Some users have reported life-changing, religious experiences, while others have reported being overwhelmed and experiencing difficult re-integration periods (adjusting back to reality).
Traditional methods of ingestion in the amazon are snuffs and the ayahuasca brew. Those clever chaps in the jungle worked out that combining the DMT containing plant with the Ayahuasca vine (an MAOI) would allow oral consumption resulting in a longer, but milder experience (lasting around 4 hours).
DMT also exists in animals and the human brain.. The role of DMT in the human brain is not known, but it is suspected that DMT is released in large quantities when you die, as users have reported similar experiences to so-called “near-death” experiences – loss of ego and feeling of leaving one’s body, travelling through time and space, meeting otherworldly entities and entering heavenly realms. It is also suspected that DMT might be released following long periods of fasting and meditation.
DMT was used recreational along with LSD in the 1960 US counter-culture movement and featured in the famous Tom Wolf book about Ken Kesey, The Kool Aid Acid Test. It was made illegal in the US in 1971. Plants containing DMT remain legal, although the legal status of Ayahuasca remains hazy in many countries.
In the 1990s, a US scientist, Dr Rick Strassman, was granted rare permission for limited clinical trials with DMT. He then later published his results in a book, The Spirit Molecule, which was later made into a film.
Why take Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca (also known as “Yage” in Colombia) has been used by traditional healers (known as Curanderos) along with dozens of other plants in the Amazon region of South America for millennia, prior to the introduction of western medicine. Typical effects include vomiting or diarrhea, known as la Purga (the Purge). This was often used to treat botulism, which was common in the amazon, as fish were often dried in the sun with no refrigeration. Curanderos also used Ayahuasca to treat psychological or emotional issues or even in marriage counseling sessions, as it is said that Ayahuasca allows you to access your sub-conscious mind, relive past events (often from the perspective of others) and deal with unfinished emotional business. Needless to say, if you have a history of mental illness in the family, you are probably advised to steer clear of Ayahuasca!
What are the risks?
Ayahuasca, has a long history of safe human use. That said, there are dangers and it is important to be aware of the risks before thinking of taking Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is starting to become known in the western world due reports in the western media from celebrities who have taken it. It is well-known on the tourist trail in South America, spawning dozens of ayahuasca retreats, centred in Iquitos in north eastern Peru. Ayahuasca is not regulated and therefore anyone can call himself a “Shaman”, so it is important to research very carefully before considering a ceremony. This site, the Tripadvisor of ayahuasca retreats is a good place to start.
In recent years, there have been a very small number of deaths reported following the taking of Ayahuasca. Some of these involve fake Shaman who have left participants unsupervised during a ceremony or adverse reactions to Ayahuasca. It is important to follow a strict diet prior to a ceremony, eliminating sugar, salt, oils and processed foods. More important is to stop all drugs use, prescription and recreational including alcohol. This is especially important in the case of antidepressants belonging to the MAOI family, for example, Prozac. Combining Ayahuasca with another MAOI can result in an overload of Serotonin in the brain (Serotonin Syndrome), which can be fatal.
Ayahuasca is considered a sacred plant by indigenous peoples, allowing contact with the spirit world. The spirits are said to a jealous bunch, therefore another prerequisite is abstinence from all sexual activity at least 3 days prior to the event.
My Ayahuasca experience
I first took Ayahuasca with the Fundacion Camino al Sol in the hills near Santa Elena, a small village with a hippie vibe near Medellin, Colombia. The ceremony was quite different to what I was expecting after the aborted Peru experience. Instead of a one Shaman leading the ceremony, it was a group effort, with a whole community either participating or supporting, overseen by a Taita (village elder). We were a group of a about a dozen foreigners, mainly tourists and were immediately struck by the strong sense of community and good vibes resonating from the group, whose members came from all walks of life, young and old.
There were a number of rituals including a bath with herbs,, group dancing and various blessings with fire and tobacco and an itchy liquid applied to the skin. Just prior to the start of the ceremony in the traditional tent (Maloka), we gathered around a campfire and were given a horrible brown slime to swallow, which turned out to be a horrid mix of tobacco and coca (both also considered sacred in the amazon). This was to induce a pre-purge and most vomited almost instantly before returning to a normal state after 15 or 20 minutes. I and a few others, however, fell violently ill. I hate tobacco with a vengeance. I never smoked it in my life and just the smell of it makes me want to vomit. I was extremely weak, yet had a horrible tobacco buzz. I tried to purge, but couldn’t. I was left alone by the fire as all the others had entered the tent to begin the ceremony, a series of speeches. Eventually they carried me in, but I started to vomit violently and had to be carried out again. People asked me if I would continue and take the Ayahuasca. I replied that I had come this far and had gone through the preparation, so couldn’t pull out now.
We all took the first cup and then were allowed to remain in the Maloka or go outside and sit by the campfire or wherever we felt comfortable. There was no chanting or whistling from the Shaman. Before taking the Ayahuasca, we were told the importance of having an intention, a reason for taking the medicine, to make changes or improvements in our lives, be it in our relationships, family, work or whatever. I was told to tell the spirits my life story, from childhood then, once I had reached the end, ask the spirits for answers or solutions. I sat by the fire and after a short while, the nausea started to fade and I began to feel euphoric. I saw no visions or spirits, so decided to tell myself my life story. I had these amazing memories of my childhood. I relived scoring the high score on Space Invaders at the local arcade in my hometown in New Zealand. It was incredible! Then, when I remembered some bad memory, like getting bullied at school, I forgave my assailant. In fact, I started forgiving everyone who did me any kind of harm in my childhood. It was intensely liberating.
So, when it came to the second optional round, I was first in line, running to get some more of that feeling. Alas, it all turned sour again. This time, I could not purge and felt nauseous for hours. Finally I vomited, and it was horrible choking on my vomit and dry retching. The ceremony concluded in the small hours when a band suddenly fired up in the Maloka playing traditional instruments.
In the days following the ceremony, I felt strangely clean – pure and detoxed. I felt calm in my mind and had a fresh resolve to stick to my convictions and make positive changes in my life. They say with Ayahuasca, you get what you need, not what you want. Everyone has a different experience and no 2 ceremonies produce the same results. With this in mind and wanted more of the cleansing, detoxifying effects, I decided to travel with the same community over Easter to a retreat in a village near Bogota called La Vega, spectacularly located on the side of a mountain overlooking a valley. This was the big annual gathering of all the communities from all over Colombia, from the Sierra Nevada in the north, to the amazonia in the south. All the taitas from the respective regions were represented. There was an amazing community spirit there. The children were so curious and were enchanted by our group of huge foreigners.
The plan was to do 3 ceremonies in 3 days, a gruelling schedule. We were to sleep in hammocks in a under a huge tarpaulin next to the Maloka (a huge one accommodating upwards of 150 people each night). Sleep, however, was impossible due to the constant activity during the day – seminars, film screenings, drumming and kids running around. This did not seem to bother any of the Colombians, who bounced around with energy all day, despite severe sleep deprivation.
On the first night I experienced nothing at all but a bad case of diarrhea. On the second, after the first drink I immediately felt ill and purged. As soon as this happened, I felt myself begin to start tripping intensely. The visions were random patterns similar to those of mushrooms and had no particular significance. I had no anxiety, however, and lay back in my hammock to enjoy the experience. The visions were started to fade as it was time to take the second cup. I declined, preferring to kick back and try and get some sleep before the music started later in the evening. Suddenly the nausea returned with a vengeance and I had to purge once again, this time violently, bringing the hallucinations back stronger than ever. I crawled back in my hammock and fell into a dream like state fading in and out of consciousness. I was awoken suddenly with the urge to purge and ran to the toilets to relieve myself. I begged for assistance and a kind soul carried me to the kitchen, where I was able to regain some energy slowly sipping a hot chocolate.
I was still ill on the third night and decided not to partake in the ceremony. This was a shame, as the third and final night culminated in a huge traditional dance with music and singing which lasted the whole night. Some in our group reported minor discomfort and others revelatory or visionary experiences. I, however, was still horribly ill on the road back to Medellin and took days afterward to recover. The whole time, the community members were telling me it was a good thing, what I was experiencing – I was cleaning house (limpiar la casa). The community was incredibly supportive and assured me these were normal symptoms and that I just needed a really decent cleanout of my system.
However on the journey back came the speculation/recriminations – had I not followed the diet perhaps, was I paying the price for a profligate past?
What have I learned from this experience?
I am still trying to come to terms with it, but I have resolved to make positive changes in my life to try and eliminate destructive habits. Maybe the experience has taught me that I should stop searching for the answers, because I will not find them, and instead just make my own decisions. And that although Ayahuasca is a very powerful healing tool, it is not a panacea – the answers you are seeking have to come from within.. One thing I took away was the incredible bond in the community – a strong humanitarian and environmental awareness – a sense of our relationship with each other, nature and the earth – what I refer to as spirituality. A refreshing contrast to western values of individualism and self-enrichment. The members told me, this will always be my home (tu casa).
Taita photo courtesy of Permahabitate.