Ayahuasca is a non-addictive, non-toxic plant compound with physical and mental healing properties. A hallucinogenic concoction (often called a “tea”) brewed from plants that grow in Amazon rainforests, ayahuasca has been used by indigenous people in Peru, Columbia, Bolivia, and Ecuador over hundreds or possibly thousands of years. It’s considered an entheogen which is a substance, typically of plant origin, that is ingested to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious, spiritual or medicinal purposes. The hallucinogenic experience produced by drinking ayahuasca varies from person to person and session to session. Each experience seems to be customized to the individual taking the tea, according to his or her own physical, emotional or spiritual needs at the time. Set and setting are important elements of the experience, and the shaman who makes and administers the ayahuasca plays a central role.
When the Conquistadors and missionaries arrived in the Amazon region and became aware of ayahuasca and the associated ceremonies, they dismissed it as a pagan practice and tried to destroy the culture around its use. As a result, ayahuasca went deep underground for a few centuries. Westerners began to recognize the healing power of this entheogen in the 20th century, and a 2006 National Geographic Adventure magazine article about a woman who was cured by ayahuasca of her lifelong depression helped to quickly expand the interest in this medicine. There is now a large and growing underground of ayahuasca ceremonies in North America, as well as many retreat centers in Central and South America. DMT, the psychoactive component of ayahuasca, is a schedule one drug in the US, making ayahuasca illegal to use here.
Rachel Harris, PhD, a psychologist and researcher with an interest in entheogens as healing agents, conducted a study of 81 people who took ayahuasca to ascertain its long-term effects on their lives. Below is a brief summary of her findings. Participants most commonly reported these changes and observations:
• More compassion for oneself and greater self-acceptance.
• Improvement in relationships with a clear trend toward more honest, direct, and open communication.
• More patience and tolerance in family relationships.
• Improvement in mood including increased optimism, greater serenity, increased confidence, and more joy in life.
• Reduced anxiety, anger and agitation.
• Spontaneous and positive change in health behaviors, such as eating healthier and taking better care of their bodies.
• 40% drank less alcohol or stopped drinking altogether.
• The healing process continued long after the ceremony was over.
Dr. Harris noted that the impact of ayahuasca was, “a rocket boost to psychospiritual growth and unfolding…a quantum change.” None of the participants in the study reported having a bad experience, not even those who grappled with disturbing images during the ceremony. Dr. Harris concluded that “ayahuasca and the other entheogens open the most amazing healing opportunities I’ve ever seen in a lifetime of psychotherapy practice.”
Plant Medicine Ceremony #1
This was never my idea. Jane, my partner, introduced me to the recordings of Terrence McKenna years ago and kept mentioning that she would like to take ayahuasca someday. I occasionally considered and then dismissed it because of what I’d read and heard: it was a bit too mysterious and unpredictable, hard to access (requiring going to remote outposts in the Amazonian basin), and sometimes caused bad trips which could include lots of throwing up. Although I was open to altered states after tripping on LSD in the late ‘60s, I felt uncertain about this experience. My desire to get over my fear of death motivated me to take a psilocybin trip in Mexico two years earlier, and the somewhat disappointing results of that venture temporarily closed the entheogenic door for me.
Then late in the spring, after some fortuitous events and introductions, an opportunity opened up for us to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony without leaving the country. Jane was all in. We already had several books on entheogens in our home library and then found and read a few specifically focused on ayahuasca. Although the accounts in these books reconfirmed the unpredictability of the experience, they nevertheless intrigued me and re-ignited my interest. I decided to take a chance and face my fears.
A couple we’d befriended had attended their first ceremony the summer before, and they offered to drive us to the ceremony site. They were enthusiastic and told very positive stories of their experiences. However, we remained conscious of the fact every person has a unique experience, and each varies considerably not only amongst the participants but also from one experience to the next for the same person.
Neither Jane nor I slept much the night before because of our trepidation about the unknowns around the ceremony, the site, the people we’d encounter and the medicine itself. Based on a consensus of advice, we tried to restrict our diets a few days leading up to our journey. We fasted the night before and ate nothing the day of the event to ensure that our digestive systems would be virtually empty by the time the ceremony started that evening.
We arrived mid-afternoon at the site in a remote and beautiful canyon, getting there in time to join an optional sweat lodge meant for purification. After barely tolerating 15 minutes of the oppressive heat, Jane and I both emerged dripping profusely from every pore and went into a tent to dry off and change clothes. The ceremony would start at 6pm and was to take place outdoors around a central fire pit under a canopy of trees. Along with the other participants, we laid out our mats, blankets, and pillows in a circle around the fire pit and waited. People continued arriving until about 60 folks filled in the space. Jane saw that someone was offering spare back-jacks (floor chairs that support the back), and we gratefully accepted two of them.
After a brief welcome by the land owner, the shaman and 18 assistants were introduced. We were asked to honor silence as much as possible. The shaman spoke to each of us personally asking our intentions. When I told her I wanted to get over my fear of death, she gently encouraged me to focus on living instead. That was the last I remember seeing of her until the next morning.
Around 8:15pm the assistants gave each person a small paper cup three quarters full of ayahuasca. It was a thick, dark brown liquid which was not as foul tasting as I’d expected. I got it down my throat in three sips and had a nervous feeling as I tried to relax against my backrest. At the 30-minute mark, I noticed nothing unusual and felt no nausea, although I did sense a slightly sick feeling in my stomach. Then without warning I vomited.
After 10 minutes of recovery, I took a second dose figuring I’d purged whatever was ingested the first time. I initially felt confident I could hold it in, but quickly began have doubts that taking the second dose was a good idea. My inner voices started yelling at me, “You’re crazy for doing this! What were you thinking? You could have changed your mind after the first purge. You’re an idiot! This will not end well!”. I tried to calm down by reminding myself that I had planned this for weeks, had come all this way, paid the money, and had already taken a second dose. Since it was too late to change my mind now, I told myself to just relax and wait and see.
The musician began to play unusual and evocative music that blended South American, Native American, and ethereal techno sounds. While lying on my mat, I felt the overpowering base notes pummeling my head through the ground and the pillow, as if my ear was directly on the speaker. It felt intrusive and I became irritated, so I got the attention of an assistant to ask that they turn the music down. When she said that would not be possible, I realized I’d have to find a way to endure it for the duration of the ceremony. As the sky darkened and the temperature dipped into the ‘40s, I got very cold and began purging again. I looked at my watch and noted it had been one full hour since taking my second dose, yet it still seemed nothing was happening. There were no visuals and no unusual sensations aside from the queasiness in my stomach. I was slightly relieved and thought maybe I’d gotten lucky. Yet I noticed I was also becoming frustrated, angry, and feeling victimized, annoyed by the music and being nauseated.
Suddenly something changed inside me. With my eyes closed, I began to see colors. At first I thought I was just dreaming, but it was more than that. An unexpected series of strong tugs on my consciousness were now threatening to pull me into a void which I feared would lead to complete loss of control. Now it felt like a struggle: me versus ayahuasca. My ego resisted aggressively as my inner voices screamed, “No! You’re not going! This trip is over! You hate getting stoned and losing control. Do not give in – resist!” The part of me that wanted to fly through the universe, meet spirits, have fantastic other-worldly journeys was to be denied. My ego detested giving up control, especially if it meant having to purge again. For a minute or two it wasn’t clear if my ego or the plant medicine would get the upper hand.
Then, in a flash, an image appeared – a colorful, multi-dimensional interactive diagram which I saw presented on a two-dimensional white board. The diagram showed my stepfather’s heritage enclosed in an oval circle with a thin line connected to another oval circle representing my mother and her heritage. Below that were lines connecting specific events from my childhood, events of loss and trauma, along with my emotional responses to those events, the influences of various people involved, and the beliefs I took on because of the events.
Presented visually in this intricate diagram, I saw that all together these events created one of my core defenses. Central to this was that my stepfather had made it clear I was a marginally tolerated guest in his home while his three biological children received his preference and attention. That left me with a lifelong feeling that I was an outsider and will never belong anywhere. I broadly named this personal programming the “Stepfather Effect” to capture this belief system in language, while acknowledging there are no words to effectively describe the complexities of the intertwining people and events that imprinted me this way.
After a few minutes of observing the diagram, the spirit of ayahuasca (which presented as a female voice) asked me, “Do you recognize this?” and I replied “Yes”. Here I was seeing the precise details of how and why my core defense got started, details long buried and to which I did not have conscious access. I could not have recalled them on my own, but these events were instantly recognized and remembered with a keen sense of familiarity as if they’d happened just yesterday. The spirit then gently asked if it would be okay if she corrected it. I agreed, not having a clue as to how this could be done. She proceeded to put her finger on a line linking one oval circle to another. It was as if this line had become a thin stick, and in slow motion she snapped each line apart, one by one. They gently floated to the bottom of the screen like in an arcade game. After she broke the last one, she was silent. I asked, “So that’s it…I’m free now?” She said, “Yes, I just fixed it for you.” I paused in disbelief and then intuitively realized it was true. I started sobbing deeply. I felt so grateful and overwhelmed by her generosity and was shocked at how fast and simple it was for her to get rid of my lifelong programming.
Then things shifted quickly. I saw and heard what seemed like a machine with blades that made typing sounds. The spirit was moving next into something about how I work, and I feared it would involve becoming nauseated again as well as a stronger pull into the unknown that seemed dangerous. My ego refused to allow this, probably because it was about to be left behind. I pleaded with the spirit of ayahuasca to be gentle on me with the purging. The spirit was respectful and polite; she granted my wish and retreated.
There were no more visuals or contacts with the spirit the rest of the night. The nausea gradually subsided. Before I knew it, it was 1am and the immediate surroundings came back to my awareness. Celebratory and ethereal music was being played by the musician while ten people danced freely around the fire. I watched and admired their energy and vitality. When the music stopped about an hour later, some people began to share their experiences out loud. One woman said she’d had an orgasm in her mind. Another spoke of traveling through the universe. A man said he physically became part of nature and had inhabited the bodies of trapped animals. A woman described a long conversation she’d had with a cougar. Multiple stories emerged, each unique to the individual speaking. Around 3am I overhead a woman talking about how ayahuasca had transformed her life. She now felt free to express herself authentically. I heard the passion in her voice as she described holding nothing back anymore and living her life fully. “There’s nothing to fear – why not just put it all out there?”, she asked. That deeply impressed me as I laid quietly on the mat.
I eventually fell asleep around 4am and woke up an hour later. After being still for a while, I arose and walked up a canyon trail by myself to watch the sunrise at the top. On my return, I saw some assistants preparing breakfast in the mess tent. As I approached them, I began to cry uncontrollably and turned around to go back to my mat. By then Jane was awake and asked me how I was. All I could do was cry, and the tears of gratitude lasted for an hour.
By 8am almost all the participants were awake, chatting softly with each other about their journeys. Everyone had an interesting story and we all learned from each other, as if each had a piece of a puzzle we were trying to put together to get the big picture. I was touched by the level of sincerity, honesty, and willingness to connect from all. The atmosphere was peculiarly full of a feeling of loving kindness, gentleness and compassion. Every person was approachable and interested in each other’s stories. There was a sense of offering and sharing with the common features being the search for deeper meaning in life, healing of the soul, and respect for the sacred plant medicine.
The four of us left around 10:30am after finishing breakfast. Although my fast had lasted 36 hours, I never felt famished or tired. Each of us shared our experiences on the drive home.
The first two weeks post-ayahuasca I continued to process the experience and observe my behavior. Here’s what has happened so far:
1. I lost my desire to drink alcohol.
2. I no longer feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong anywhere.
3. I’m embracing life and not worrying about death.
4. I now connect to friends in a more personal way.
5. At work and in general, I’m negotiating more effectively.
6. My inner critical voice is weaker.
7. My relationship with Jane has strengthened.
8. My driving has improved.
9. I am able to lift progressively heavier weights without worry of injuring myself.
Overall effect – So far this one ayahuasca experience has changed my life more than anything I’ve done before, including talk therapy, group therapy, primal therapy, neurofeedback, and multiple personal growth retreats. None of these efforts produced results like this. And while I’ve taken LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin, this entheogen was qualitatively different. Since the results seem unexplainable, it’s as if I encountered a bit of magic. I entered a foreign realm which was hallucinogenic yet highly specific to my psychological defenses. Despite the strangeness of the experience, I did not feel stoned. My sense of self was maintained; I could open my eyes at any moment and feel oriented. In a word, this medicine was transformational, and I remain amazed and grateful.
How long this will last remains uncertain. I’ve read some accounts of the effect of one ceremony becoming permanent, while others need more than one to really make it last. I have already signed up for my second ceremony.
July 9, 2018 – Testimonial
Today is the 50th anniversary of my first LSD trip. That day I became aware that everything I had been taught was either completely false or only partially true. I had a sneak preview that I was God, those around me were God, and all that I saw was God. Non duality and love were all that existed. I understood everything was connected and was one. The next day my consciousness returned to consensual reality, but the experience never left me. It opened a portal, even for that brief moment, to the awareness there is so much more out there that is hidden from view, just not accessible from ordinary consciousness. It affected me for the rest of my life, taking me in a direction of studying the mind, earning an advanced degree in psychology, teaching courses in consciousness, and later practicing psychotherapy. In 1968 I didn’t know psychedelics could be used as a tool to assist in psychotherapy. Only many years later did I discover the volumes of research. Now, it is clear to me the incredible potential of psychedelics (better termed entheogens) have in healing deep psychological wounds. I had the opportunity to personally take ayahusaca 49 years after my LSD trip and experienced benefit far beyond what could have been accomplished using traditional psychotherapy methods. Entheogens are medicine and belong in the future toolbox of every clinician. It’s time for mental health professionals to seriously look at how entheogens can be appropriately integrated into clinical practice for not only those who need healing, but also for those seeking a better life.
Dan Staso, PhD