Ayahuasca – the good, the bad and the ugly.
August 2013 – the first time I met with the master plant teacher Ayahuasca. After two terrifying experiences on acid as a young woman in my twenties, I never imagined in a million years that working consciously with psychedelic (or visionary) plant medicines would be something I could countenance. I had so much fear, so much I felt I needed to keep a lid on and control, that the thought of being plunged into other realms from which I couldn’t escape held the same feeling of terror I’d met on those early experiences, and yet four years ago my life started getting ‘weird’ as seems to happen when these medicines begin to call you.
It wasn’t weird in its external presentation, more that I just began to find ayahuasca (in particular) was penetrating my awareness and given it was not something I’d ever thought of or knew about, this was kind of odd. The first moment was the discovery of a book, left on a table at a festival after my boyfriend of the time had just finished interviewing David Icke. The book was Rebekah Shaman‘s ‘The Shaman’s Last Apprentice’, so I ran after David to tell him he had left his book, but he had literally vanished! I took it home, read it cover to cover in 48 hours and wept in some deep inner knowing on completing it. I saw myself in Rebekah’s story.
A series of synchronistic events then unfolded that left me in no doubt I would meet this ‘teacher’ soon. A random flier for a gathering appeared in the healing centre I ran at the time and no-one knew how it got there. Someone I knew but hadn’t seen for a while ‘randomly’ approached me asking if they could offer a talk in the shop I had at the time on Amazonian plant medicines. I discovered my brother in law and his girlfriend had just done it too, so I went to speak with them ‘what’s it like’, ‘is it scary’, ‘is it like tripping’, and ‘did you vomit a lot’, and ‘was it worth it’?
Segway to four years later and I have now experienced this master teacher plant 14 times, San Pedro 4 times, Iboga twice, and kambo (Amazonian frog medicine) about 6 times and I am transformed by all of it. I know in my body, mind and soul that these ‘teachers’ have brought me a deep inner knowing that may otherwise have taken me years to discover. They have helped me peel off the layers of forgetfulness, remember the truth of life, that we really are all one and all connected.
I recently surveyed a number of friends about their experiences with plant teacher medicines too (thank you to those who responded) and here are some of the ‘good’ aspects shared. I’m not defining things generally as good or bad, but in terms of the title of this piece, here you go:
“I feel so much more grounded and centred. I feel like I am able to look at things objectively and get close to people and open up without feeling like I have to shield myself or that they have power over me. I have a strengthened sense of perspective instead of being overwhelmed by emotion. To be unafraid of emotion itself is hugely liberating.”
“I am calmer and more loving, I have more patience and a greater ability to preserve my energy and steer myself through situations that would have spiralled me out before. I think I am able to see my relationships in a clearer and more balanced way”
“I feel like my heart has been opened up and my confidence has been restored”
“I feel that they have helped me confound a level of presence that I was only reaching on occasion beforehand. Feeling a very deep and true experience of Love that was coming from a deep connection not only with the Earth and all other beings but also with myself“
“Ayahuasca helped me to be more insightful and see things more clearly, and also helped me to heal many childhood memories which my older self hadn’t forgiven or understood”
“On a day to day basis my existential experience has changed, I am happier than I could have ever imagined, I wake up each day with a feeling of deep gratitude for everything and everybody in my life for everything that has happened and everything that will happen. I feel as though I am flowing with and through life no longer fighting and judging each experience but allowing and accepting, don’t get me wrong I have my moments of doubt, worry, anxiety, fear but they are more and more fleeting and I know that not only will they pass but that they are as an important part of my experience as the the joy, bliss and love is”
“The most significant change is the love that I now feel for myself which has transformed literally everything, how I view myself, the world around me, the people in my life, the stranger walking down the street”
“Ayahuasca has shown me areas in my own life, and in my relationships with friends and family that needed attention from me to heal. Ayahuasca has shown me what is possible, and encouraged me to live more fully”
“Ayahuasca taught me many things. The most important are that: I like myself; everything is connected; my organism is the earth (not me as an individual); life has a rhythm; consciousness permeates all space and time. And although these things can be expressed as intellectual concepts, the plant medicines (and ayahuasca in particular), allow me to feel that these concepts are in fact the case. The concepts become embodied in me, as the practical, physical manifestation of them”
Most respondents (and myself) seemed to come to plant medicines from a place of deep knowing that there was a great need for inner healing, surrendering into allowing these master plants to share their wisdom despite our fears. We began, using their invaluable teachings to digest the indigestible.
Now then, this isn’t the the whole picture of course – it may well be that I would have cleared many things through my (non plant teacher based) shamanic teachings, my meditation practice or other routes to wholeness, but I’m certain it would have added many years to that clearing process. So now we come to the less spoken of side of journeying with these plant medicines; the lack of integration and the habit of making yet another ‘habit’, another addiction to a ‘fix me please’ mentality which we seem to know so well in the west. The place where we absolve ourselves of personal accountability and responsibility, not just in our healing process but in our awareness of the roots of these plants and medicines, the ethics, the cultures we borrow from and the integrations that need to happen. Ayahuasca (and these other medicines) isn’t a party, it’s a wisdom guide, and if we don’t allow space and time to absorb her teachings, we are likely to end up just as lost as when we started.
I began to notice how people I spoke with were still struggling after experiencing ceremonies, how many felt ungrounded, how many rushed back to the next experience to find that place of ‘comfort’ once again, like a mother’s breast full of promise and hope, nourishment and a soothing presence. Ayahuasca isn’t like that; she is a teacher of the tough love school, a teacher to be respected and revered, and we should approach her not from the place of ‘getting something’ from her, but of giving something to her and of communicating with her. Any communication at its best requires deep listening, space to hear what’s being said, it requires processing time, and without this we are likely to remain as unmoved as we may in a one sided conversation, our greedy take-me, teach-me, fix-me mentalities overtaking our true potential for healing which is a real exchange of presence.
“Working with Ayahuasca alone without the other medicines, yoga, meditation and breath work would not have brought me to the place that I am now”
“The first time I was utterly terrified and I spent a lot of energy trying to understand what was happening”
“I find that typically I’ll come away thinking I’ve left a lot of things behind me and then they’ll manifest in my daily life and I have to deal with them. Initially this led to a lot of arguments as I was still reluctant to face things head on”
“I know people who have taken “medicine” over a hundred times, and none of them seem any more aware than a lot of people I know who have never touched plant medicine”
“Yes, of course, they have their perspective shifted, but does that shift actually enable them to change their lives in a positive way? That, I’m not sure of…and certainly, with regards to myself and my experiences, I remember getting rather swept away on a bunch of visions that several people collectively had, which were seriously grandiose in nature, and not a thing came of it, neither with me, nor with my fellow voyagers. The only thing I noted was that my fellow voyagers still maintained their faith, whereas I was quite disenchanted”
“The worst one of all was when I took it just before going into a ten day silent retreat. I had to sit with my disintegrated self for ten days. It was hellish. I just remember it was a tough fucking time. I felt like I had been eviscerated. It took me a long time to recover”
Of course there is also the matter of the taking of these plants from their native habitats, the depleting of the environments and cultures in which they grow and the ignorance around cultural appropriation which if left unchecked, looks pretty unattractive.
“The name tells us that [it] is the vine of dead, so you don’t play with it,” Jaquehua told me. “We don’t offer those kind of trips because we do respect our people, the costumes, traditions, and believe there are rituals that are practiced all over the world that need to be understood and respected.” Vidal Jaquehua, Quechua native.
Are we asking the right questions before we enter into this area of healing? Do we ask where does this come from? Are there any environmental issues I should be aware of? Who made it? Do they honour the traditions themselves and do we in consuming it? Is my taking of this medicine creating an effect somewhere in the world I’m not aware of? When traveling and visiting these cultures, do I learn more about the day-to-day lives of the people, and whether my presence helps or harms that life? What can I give back?
“It is making some people very rich, yet the indigenous communities where these practices originated continue to live in poverty.”
These are the uncomfortable questions we should be asking ourselves as we encounter such medicines, whilst remaining aware that just because we take a plant medicine in it’s natural habitat doesn’t guarantee us a good experience. There is as much shady stuff going on in the jungles of Peru as there is on the streets of a western city – life is life is life after all and human beings are far from perfect no matter where we are located. The problem is that we tend to approach these people, places and things as if by their very nature they should be admired, rather than seeking to understand them. This feels like a colonial approach mired in the admiration of the ‘quaint’ and the fear of the ‘different’ rooted in an inability to simply observe, discern and respect where respect is due.
Overall, my personal experience has been immensely healing and a positive one, and hands held up, I did not ask most of the questions above when I first encountered these medicines. There are those who say these ancient medicines are emerging in the west because they have a wisdom in themselves and know that their healing is badly needed here, that we must learn from them. That’s quite something to contemplate, so let’s do it in full awareness, let’s learn the lessons they bring by living them, and neither relinquishing our power by expecting them to perform miracles without our ongoing attention to their lessons, nor lord our power by seeing these master teachers as just another thing we can spiritually rape.
Terence McKenna says in relation to ayahuasca in particular:
“[Ayahuasca is] the conduit to a body of profoundly ancient genetic and evolutionary wisdom that has long abided in the cosmologies of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon who have guarded and protected this knowledge for millennia, who learned long ago that the human role is not to be the master of nature, but its stewards. Our destiny, if we are to survive, is to nurture nature and to learn from it how to nurture ourselves and our fellow beings. This is the lesson that we can learn from ayahuasca, if only we pay attention.
This could be applied to any of these medicines. We must learn, we must give back, and we must become better human beings from it otherwise it has surely all been a worthless pillaging of culture.
One respondents’ reply summed up my feeling about all of these routes to healing:
“The integration of the sacred and the everyday could be a definition of enlightenment”
It’s all about the integration and awareness.
*Please do not see this article as an invitation to approach me and ask where you can do these ceremonies – there is plenty of information out there. Be aware of the legal status in every country or place you are in, and let’s not become just another ignorant plant medicine tourist*