Last week, I ingested ayahuasca. For those who are not familiar with ayahuasca: it is a potent psychedelic/entheogen derived from a particular set of South American plants. This is my account of the experience.
Usually, the brew is prepared as a medicinal tea and is ingested in a ritualistic fashion under the (hopefully competent) guidance of a shaman or an ayahuasquero. The name ayahuasca, which roughly translates to “vine of the soul” or “vine of death,” is often consumed as a spiritual purgative, a kind of curative solution for psycho-physical maladies. It is a somewhat ancient concoction and has been considered one of the strongest hallucinogens known to man, mostly due to its extremely potent effects on the psyche as well as the spiritual depth that it evokes in those who experience it. Its potency has everything to do with its active ingredient,DMT, an organic compound natural to most living beings, which is said to play an important role in dreaming. DMT itself is often consumed as a recreational drug that lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes while the effects of ayahuasca are known to last between 6 to 12 hours, and absolutely require a ritual setting. Now, what’s unique about the ayahuasca brew is that it keeps the DMT in your system for a longer amount of time due the MAOI inhibitors present. (It’s extrememly fascinating how someone, at some point, somewhere in the South American forests figured this one out.) A more in-depth chemical analysis can be found here:Ayahuasca.
So after years of research and a deep interest in the vine, I finally had the opportunity to participate in one of these rituals. I was to go alone and partake of the medicine with people I had never met before. And I won’t lie, for two weeks straight, thinking about the ritual kept me up all night. I just kept thinking about it:
Will it change me?
Will I go insane?
Will I die?
I can’t tell you how many times I decided not to go through with it; that it wasn’t worth the risk. I mean, if you research ayahuasca, the most common experience seems to be that of facing your own death. And, eventually, this is really all I thought about: will I die? I was obsessed with this question, but something in me just kept pushing me forward. I thought that my question was way too binary and that somehow the experience would provide me with an answer way beyond its format–something mystical along the lines of: no one actually dies. But that kind of thinking and hopeful expectation offered no more solace than any hardcore positivist logic. Yet, I knew in my heart that no matter what anybody said, no matter what I thought, I would partake of the ceremony and drink that fire!
Fast-forward two weeks: I’m sitting in a circle, indoors, after a mystical trek through snowy mountain passages that seemed to last forever. In the room, there is a delicious cloud of herbs and music, the 15 or so other participants prepare for the exploration. I mimicked them and though I had spent the last day reading about ayahuasca (a final bout of research that culminated in picking Rick Strassman‘s brain over email), I still had no idea what to expect. But being a kind of self-proclaimed adept – some kind of spiritual hipster – I presented myself as relaxed, unconcerned with what I was about to experience. For some reason, it was important that I appear composed, lest others may consider me unprepared for this voyage. I may have even come off as smug, sitting in my cross-legged position awaiting the end of the ceremonia introduction.
The medicine woman who was conducting the ritual would smile at me from time to time as she sang some of her songs to which I would respond with a kind of desperate enthusiasm. I’m sure she saw right through me, catching that fear in my eye that seemed to say: “well, if this gets crazy there is always Ativan, right?!” I mean, I was terrified, but I played way too cool. I was like some inverted hurricane, composed on the outside while violent-ass winds were in actuality ripping my insides to fucking shreds. A dramatic, and possibly terrible metaphor, I know, but that’s EXACTLY how I felt.
Anyway, so eventually, the first serving went around. I had been sitting near the ayahuasquero and the medicine woman, so got to drink immediately after them. I had heard about the taste and was not too enthused about it, but to my surprise, it tasted a little like cider, except stale, unsweetened and with a hint of decay. More songs were sang and the waves of sage would encircle all of us while we processed our first serving. After about an hour, I wasn’t feeling anything, so I felt pretty proud of myself.
Me: This ain’t shit. I guess I’m just really spiritually stronger than most of these people.
Now, I didn’t actually think these words, but that’s just about the kind of smugness I felt. One guy in the corner was in something akin to agony. He was making all sorts of weird noises, his face contorted in every which way.
Me: Dude is so dramatic. Keep it together, man. Jebus!
That haughtiness was starting to show, and I wanted to say something about the potency of this batch, but fortunately, I kept it to myself. Almost anticipating my question, the lady sitting near me, who had actually been consuming ayahuasca for decades, leaned over to tell me that this was a mild batch of medicine. I felt disappointed, beginning to doubt its potency.
Me: Maybe ayahuasca is a placebo. Or maybe this particular ayahuasca batch is a placebo. Maybe they’re taking everyone’s money and giving us acid…or cider! Ugh, everyone’s so “love and light” they might never even suspect it. Or maybe the serving was too small? The ayahuasquero probably thinks I can’t handle a bigger serving!
So I decided to make every effort to demonstrate that despite the serving, I was very much sober and could certainly handle the brew. I would ask him questions and engage him in such a way that he could see that the tea had not affected me in anyway. I was hoping he would see that I required a little more; I thought it would be rude to just straight-up ask for more given that it was a ceremony and all.
Half an hour later, I got what I wanted: the second serving was passed and the ayahuasquero (probably picking up on my perhaps all too transparent hints) did, in fact, give me a hefty dose. I greedily took the cup and gulped its contents down with gusto. I think the ayahuasquero did something of a cartoonish double-take which made me feel proud of myself. But I see now that sometimes pride can be easily mistaken with foolishness.
Enter the experience: for about 20 minutes, I felt nothing and just sat with my legs crossed, hoodie on, and back more erect than necessary as I tried to resemble some kind of street buddha overlooking the actions of the other participants. And then it came, that swift kick in the ass that knocked all that arrogance out of me. Something suddenly, and without warning, turned on and it hit everybody in the room at the exact same time! The synchronicity was unmistakeable. I felt a kind of energetic charge wave through me. I closed my eyes calmly only to find myself looking into a giant eye centered in my vision. It was a single eye composed of something akin to phosphene matrices and highly symmetrical, moving geometric patterns. It was hauntingly beautiful. And it was not inert as if like looking at a mere picture of an eye. It was alive. I could feel it. It had that energy of someone staring straight at you – through you, even. Yet it did not seem sinister or even benign, it just was. Needless to say, I was a bit shy and tried my best to not really engage it that much, but it was IN my vision and it could not be avoided even upon opening my eyes.
So it kind of just stared at me for a while until I mustered up enough nerve to engage it. At that moment – seemingly acknowledging my new resolve –the eye suddenly closed and disappeared, dissolving into the room I was in. It’s almost as if it had been waiting for me to brace myself for what was to come. Its disappearing certainly marked a turning point. I felt that things were about to get weird.
And they did.
And it was terrifying. I kept seeing the strangest, most maddening shapes and fractals. The visuals kept morphing; drawing me in, forcing me to feel them. I saw lights and “heard sounds” and felt that every artifact experienced was somehow pulsing with powerful raw emotion the likes of which I did not feel equipped to handle. I tried relaxing into everything, but could not seem to find a way to submit to the experience. I told myself there was nothing to fear, but there was and it was looking right at me, enveloping me purely. I thought that I would be one of the lucky ones who had an entirely positive experience. Nope. This was continuous psychic pain, and I felt that there would be no release from it.
I began to feel exhausted, drained. I was shaking, sweating cold. I felt weak, very weak. I wanted to throw up, but couldn’t seem to. (Actually, throwing up is extremely common when ingesting ayahuasca, but for some reason, I didn’t throw up at all.) I wanted to sleep but could find no way to do so during what felt like a psychic bombardment. I tried rationalizing, justifying, telling myself this and that, all to no avail. Something inside was saying to me:
It: You’re fucked and none of your little tricks are going to work this time. You’re going to experience all of this and you won’t escape from it no matter what.
And so I kept trying to submit to it by laying down and letting go. This is when it hit me: all that shit about facing your death was true. I was dying, and I had to be okay with it. My body felt weaker and weaker as the experience drained me with its fear. I felt like my life force was being sucked away. I was “attacked” by liquid darts, swords, poisons – all sorts of shit. I laid there for about an hour or so, seeing all sorts of images, scenes, and circumstances, taking in all sorts of impressions, frustrations, and emotional pains. It was pure cosmic grief. (I found later that, in a way, I was grieving myself). Was something wrong? Was it a bad batch or is this it? Eventually, I got up and looked around, thinking that the people in the ritual had it together and that I was just being a lunatic.
But no, everyone was having their own experience and so I found no refuge in them nor in drawing comparison, which led me to the realization that this was just another escape tactic on my part, that I could not alleviate my experience through other people nor through the positive reversal of my own inner critique. I turned to the lady who had previously offered her assistance only to find that she was in pretty bad shape herself – involved as she was in her own version of inner purging. It turns out the batch was actually quite strong, after all, which rendered her unable to really help me. (They say that no two experiences are ever the same.)
But that was okay, because I needed to work through this alone. Anyway, eventually, I generated enough energy to sit back up. Realizing that everyone was new to this, even if they weren’t, gave me a boost of confidence which allowed me to forget about myself for a bit. Upon doing this, I noticed one of the participants was going through a very hard time, so I went up to him and hugged him. Now, let me tell you something: when you’re working with ayahuasca, hugging is just about the greatest thing you could ever do! It was incredibly healing for the both of us, creating an instantaneous bond.
Feeling much better – but definitely not out of the woods – I spoke to the medicine woman. She was deep in her own process, but was able to speak soberly to me with astonishing grace and warmth. Probably realizing how much it had helped me before, she gave me a hug and told me about her first experience, which, to be honest, seemed far worse than the one I was currently having. The recounting of her story helped immensely.
Her: Just allow yourself to ride it out. Try to endure. This is the experience.
And I stopped seeing it as a bad trip. I began to see it as “this is what it’s like.” That there was no plateau to reach where everything would be better but that the point was to endure the entire wave. I realized that this is basically what happens when you have loads of shit to process. Indeed I was processing loads of shit, and it had been growing exponentially in accordance to my negative responses to it. Her words, support from others, and the supporting OF others allowed me to break out of the cycle I had been in. I began to see that no matter what happened, there was a part of me that retained total awareness and direction.
I had been reaching out to a higher self or god for assistance, but nothing happened until I realized that the very awareness that I am is the higher self that I was seeking. Resting in that sober awareness, everything else seemed to encircle me. The hurricane had reverted back to its original state. This realization inspired yet a deeper realization about the simplicity of self and people. I suddenly felt something “fall” off of me. It was strange. It felt as if I had a giant entanglement consuming my mind and body at once and this web suddenly fell away, leaving me bare, exposed, and real. I felt clear for the first time and suddenly saw the falseness of what I had always been.
I saw that the “I” that I had always been was a fiction, a kind of deep psychic Contraction. I like to call it, the Tense-Ready, a kind of psychological fight or flight response mechanism. I realized that I was constantly in a Tense-Ready state to lie and fabricate, thereby protecting myself from the “onslaughts” of everyday life. I realized that I was ashamed of who I was, that I was embarrassed of how I behaved with people, that I was angry at myself for constantly going against what I thought was right. I realized that I had created elaborate psychological traps from myself and that, despite my lifelong quest for enlightenment and Understanding, I was actually frightened to find Myself. All of this began to unravel in this immensely magnificent way. I remember laying down again and closing my eyes to receive more of this information.
In this suddenly new Beingness, I felt that I could understanding all of my problems AND fix them. I began to visit the past traumas and unresolved issues in my life. The answers would pop in, just like that. I would decide how to fix it and move on to the next one. It was starting to feel like a dialogue with pure intelligence itself, except I was on both sides of the exchange:
Me: Alright, let’s revisit the problematic areas. Okay, my recent break-up, what’s troublesome there? Examine, analyze, SOLUTION! Next. My sister’s death. Examine. Analyze. Solution…
I was downloading information, and kept doing this for about two hours until I felt that I could confidently see the truth in everything that I had ever thought composed me. I felt that the ayahuasca was speaking to me, informing me. (Its energy was actually very feminine which aligns perfectly with the medicine’s nickname, “La Abuela,” or the grandmother.) Either that or it was enabling me to flash a light on my own personal invisible monsters so that I may have a chance to see the wisdom they were obscuring.
I felt new, like something died in me. I felt that I was no longer content but Context. That the Tense-Ready, the “me,” that I had always known had just slipped away into some kind of void. I was Collected and felt simultaneously that the greatest Mystery that has ever faced man was/is at the same time the simplest. I realized that I could say exactly what I mean at every point in time. That I could tell anyone that I loved them and be excited about my life and myself and anything that I wanted to be excited about and that there is nothing wrong with it. I felt that the war I had with myself was over. That it was finally finished. And I was right.
Now, I don’t believe it’s the end of all my problems by any stretch of the imagination, but I realized that the center of focus had switched. I had experienced the kensho I had been seeking. Something in me certainly died that night, some kind of living mask. The ayahuasca was alive in me and it led me Home.
The insights are still coming to me while I adjust to the world, but I can say with confidence that it was one of the most amazing and most terrifying experiences of my life. Suddenly everything is different and there’s a new depth to the world that I never knew existed.
(Originally published on Disinfo.com on Nov. 4, 2014.)