Ayahuasca, Healing, Self-Understanding, and…Spirituality?
The Amazonian vine and leaf mixture ayahuasca — a potent, natural drug that allows you to explore the unconscious mind — has been exploding in popularity in recent years, especially among Silicon Valley types, new agers, and other pseudo-spiritual, trend-hopping doofuses that have infiltrated vast spaces of American and Western culture in the past decade or so. While ceremonies have been popping up in forward-thinking hipster areas such as San Francisco and Brooklyn, the most legitimate way to experience the drug is to travel somewhere in the Amazonian rainforest, (particularly in Peru) with real native shamans and a higher chance of real danger. After swallowing the devilishly foul-tasting, liquid concoction of ayahuasca it is expected that one is supposed to “purge” — violently throw up or have uncontrollable bouts of diarrhea — and the more you do, the more you can brag to your admiring cronies how enlightened you are. However, the benefits apparently outweigh whatever physical discomfort one has to endure. Tim Ferris, a popular self-help guru, podcaster, and serial experimenter is one mainstream devotee whose original ayahuasca journey was brutal, “the most painful experience I’ve ever had by a factor of a thousand.” Yet several weeks after it was over, he described his anger — a serious problem he had held on to for decades — “90%…gone” and replaced by feelings of utter peace.
Thus while there has been a lot of controversy around ayahuasca’s effects and what it is (one believer describes it as “liquid consciousness”), one thing that seems to be generally accepted by analysts is that the “medicine” can be effective for treating depression, trauma, and various other mental health problems, and seems to be here to stay as a world-changing drug for personal cleansing and potentially more. The problems with the drug are more logistical and legal: ripoff experiences and shady shamans looking to cash in from the ayahuasca boom can mislead unsuspecting backpackers who haven’t done any research into possibly dangerous situations, physically and psychologically. The Western ban of DMT, the active chemical that is emitted when the vine and leaf of ayahuasca are combined, has limited both research opportunities for academic study and responsible regulation for creating safe spaces for people to take the drug. Also — for thrill seekers solely looking to experiment with consciousness-altering drugs — be aware that some shamans and practicers won’t even accept Westerners without a screening process that ensures you are coming to take the medicine in order to be healed. This fact is not to be taken lightly; the shamans take their profession seriously and know what they’re talking about.
A prime example of how not to take ayahuasca: during my travels in South America last year, a couple of friends of mine in the digital nomad group WiFi Tribe (a for-profit company that interviews and selects people with remote, online jobs like myself to travel with on a month-to-month basis in different locations around the world), decided to take the medicine for a single night in Bolivia with a shaman who also took the drug with them. While this is usually the case, unfortunately there was no additional supervision on board to handle any sort of emergency. That’s the kind of lack of safety nets that can lead to problems. As far as their trips, one of them had an interesting and psychologically cleansing time, but the other had a fairly random and unenlightening experience and has been dealing with subtle emotional issues ever since. At the time, I hadn’t heard of what ayahuasca was or how it affected your brain — -all I knew was that it was considered by ancient Amazonians to be a holy medicine, and by Westerners to be a “spiritual drug” trip along the same lines as LSD. Luckily at that time, I was basking in the glow from my vipassana meditation retreat from a few months earlier (in addition to being naturally hesitant when it comes to hallucogenic drugs), so I passed on that opportunity to join in an ayahuasca ceremony and continued to live my life contentedly in spiritual ignorance.
However, by early 2018 that soothing happiness I felt permanently the year before appeared to have been almost entirely siphoned away from my being and I started to feel drained. The causes of this were probably multiple: first, I went through an incredibly rough breakup in late December of 2017 — the circumstances of which I will choose not to reveal — with a girl that I only knew for a couple of months that left me feeling broken, mistrustful, and unable to love those who I once felt closest to. The second reason was financial. While being blessed financially in the previous year thanks to the rise of cryptocurrencies, by March the market had crashed to half its value and I simultaneously struggled with the worst downswing of my poker career, losing almost all the profit I had derived from the site I was playing on that last year in just a couple of months. I suspected, and still do firmly believe this was the case, that the site was filled with not only with colluders (people working together to try and beat you at a given table) but “superusers” who could see your cards as well and therefore play perfectly against you. Poker itself is a risky endeavor, but few realize that the biggest gamble one takes with online poker is the fact the majority of sites are unregulated and not subject to consumer protection or fraud laws. This was the case for the site I was playing on, making it impossible for me to get the money back. It was a risk I was willing to take when I first played on the site, but that realization wasn’t enough to make the loss of time I put in to playing any less frustrating (8 months with no results to show for it).
Both of these events contributed to a crushing, continual sense of emotional stress that would and seemingly could not be lifted and also began to manifest in physical ailments, particularly with my stomach and unpredictable swings in my blood glucose levels (I am a Type 1 diabetic). I wanted direction and meaning and purpose but was unable to find any without poker and work and without the ability to feel love and connection. I was totally lost with what to do with my time and moodily pondered if this was how depression originates in the mind. I hated how I felt victimized, sad and confused. I never had felt like that way in the past, even when I dealt with becoming a Type 1 diabetic in my early twenties. I really couldn’t believe it was happening now, especially when comparative to the rest of the world I was an extremely lucky person.
I tried daily yoga and meditation in addition to a healthy diet and active lifestyle to remove the gloom that surrounded me. I tried talking with friends and family about what was happening to me and read self-guidance books. I tried a bit of modern therapy and found it lacking. While I felt some solid improvement in my mood and mindset, and the darker thoughts were thankfully kept at bay, the strange problems with my body continued to be an issue. I felt like a malfunctioning human computer who needed a complete and total emotional reboot. I looked to book another meditation retreat to give me back my mojo but couldn’t find an appropriate one until late May.
Then things suddenly fell into place. Heidi, one of my friends I met from WiFi Tribe, was with me in Bolivia when our fellow digitally nomadic friends decided to take ayahuasca and — like myself — had also opted out of that experience, but was still interested in taking the medicine. She had done a lot of research about the subject since that point and had pinpointed a reputable retreat center called Gaia Sagrada, in Ecuador. They had open dates for two people for a week-long “journey” with ayahuasca and San Pedro, another plant based medicine, in April and — knowing that I had previously expressed some interest to experiment with hallucinogens — invited me to come with her. I jumped at the opportunity this time, as Gaia Sagrada was highly recommended for its safety and treatment of beginners, which was extremely important to me as a Type 1 diabetic and someone who had never tried a harder drug beyond marijuana.
Before one takes ayahuasca, there is a procedure set in place by retreat centers called the “dieta” which is designed to cleanse you in order to have a better experience with the medicine. Specifically for “decalcifying the pineal gland,” the dieta demands you become the lamest person alive while also eating the blandest food known to man for two weeks. Among its many restrictions are no consumption of meat, alcohol, caffeine, yeast, processed foods, and salt (!). Additionally, no sex or fun of any kind would be permitted if you wanted the best results. Heidi came to meet me at my house in South Florida and for almost the entire time we suffered relentlessly, dying for any sort of stimulation. The lack of coffee was by far the most challenging situation, especially given how little other options we had available to prod our brains into doing any kind of mental work. I strongly believe without coffee, the entire Western workforce would be at least 25 to 50% less productive; I have no other data to back up that estimation except my own personal experience, but that is how intensely we craved its motivating properties.
We arrived in Quito, Ecuador, a few days before the retreat to meet with WiFi Tribe, who by chance was there until the end of the month. I wanted to be happy to see some of my friends again but in fact I felt almost nothing but dread. My girlfriend was actually a member of WiFi Tribe, although luckily not on this Ecuador chapter of the “tribe”, as they go to multiple destinations simultaneously and — once accepted — you have the freedom of going or not going to any of the by-monthly retreats they offer. Still, I hadn’t been on a chapter since we’d met in Jamaica last year, so I would have to relive talking about what happened for those there who wanted to know why we broke up, something I wasn’t particularly inclined to do, even though I felt I had to disclose some of that information.
However, Quito itself is an objectively cool city and I would highly recommend going. It’s one of the highest capitals in the world at almost 10,000 feet (actually the highest if Bolivia didn’t confusingly consider La Paz to be a second capital city in addition to their original one, Sucre) and surrounded by several stunning mountain ranges and home to colorful — although shabby and old — buildings and architecture. It’s one of the more welcoming cities in South America for Westerners due to its adoption of the US dollar as its currency and anecdotally, the people speak a little more English than most places in Latin America, are very friendly, and the babies are cuter. The most welcoming aspect for me, however, is the comparatively discounted prices on quality food, housing, and transportation that make me feel like a king compared to the west (we rented a apartment loft with a hot tub and sauna for a laughable price). There is also nothing I enjoy more than buying cheap and adorable clothes made from alpaca wool which are ubiquitous to Andean culture, and like Cuzco or La Paz, Quito has thousands of these fuzzy gems spread across its most famous and beautiful neighborhood — the Old City — and I happily indulged spending my money there.
After this brief visit, we took a short flight south to the city of Cuenca and then were picked up at the airport by a driver and met a few of our retreatmates, who seemed be a very diverse and interesting group of people. Then after a short bus ride we arrived deep in the mountains to Gaia Sagrada and were immediately greeted by several retreat workers, painfully hippie in their dress and attitude, with forced affection and unwanted hugs (“It’s SO great to meet you!” “You’re going to have an awesome and groovy time, bro!”). Aware of how cynical and closed off I had become, I tried to rearrange my thoughts in a positive manner towards these spiritual degenerates — -after all, I had come here to heal my emotions and find love and compassion again, and it was a dispiriting sign to see that I was reacting to these innocently happy people and the retreat center with doubt and judgment within the first seconds of arriving. I resolved to restrain my skepticism and brainwash myself as effectively as possible for this one week, despite my misgivings and my natural inclination to do otherwise. Free of negativity and rational thought was the only way I felt I’d be able to ascertain properly what this place had to give.
We also met the rest of our fellow ceremony participants over the next few hours. Strangely, I found out there another poker player was at the retreat. Although not as dedicated to the game as I was, he was struggling with many of the same issues I had dealt with in the past, especially with the nihilism and darkness that comes with gambling professionally and needing to be the cold, calculating reptile that poker demands you be in order to be successful at it, which can unfortunately sometimes permeate into other aspects of your life. There was also more than one person who had done well with cryptocurrencies and wanted to experiment spiritually now that they had made their fortunes and wanted to know what to do next with their life. This shared purpose bonded a lot of us together quickly and it definitely was helpful throughout the retreat to know people were going through a lot of the same things I was going through. Most importantly though, I was very glad I had a friend in Heidi, whom I could talk to at any time during the retreat about what was happening and we could intellectualize our experiences together, as we were wont to do.
The first ayahuasca ceremony was the next night for the 30 or so people who were there. We gathered in a circle underneath a wooden canopy, each of us cushioned by pillows to sit on and swathed in a multitude of blankets to protect us from the biting night cold. The shamans arrived and after a few prayers, doled out the ayahuasca one by one in what appeared to be a ceremonial shot glass, as if we were some sort of deranged spiritual fraternity. Waiting for my turn, I felt my stomach resort to a permanent and turmoiled rumbling. Frantic and anxious thoughts like “What the fuck am I doing here” and “Noooooo” flashed across my mind in rapid succession. I had heard beforehand that ayahuasca has an awful, bitter taste to it so when the medicine finally arrived for me I drained the putrid, thick liquid as quickly as possible and that seemed to mitigate the strongness of the flavor. I sat back in my shapeshift cot and tried to meditate to calm my nervous emotions. Within seconds an older gentlemen to my direct right discharged a wet and tortured blast of vomitus. He emerged slovenly from his bucket some moments later with a wry grin and humorously said “First,” which made everyone burst out in fearful, dry laughter. Well, no backing out now. This is really happening.
It took about a half hour for me to really start feeling the ayahuasca. Interestingly, it was a very calm and welcoming power that I felt vibrating all over my body, something I had experienced before in the later stages of deep meditation. It was if the ayahuasca was saying there was no reason to fear; you’ve walked through these spiritual lands before and everything will be alright. Thus, I was able to remain relaxed and observe what was happening to me despite being surrounded by a cacophony of regurgitation which cascaded in and out of the many sick ceremony participants like a gnarled and demented symphony. After a little bit longer the medicine began to speak to me.
What are you doing here, Tanner?
“I’m here to heal from the emotional stress of the past months. Will you heal me?”
There was a prolonged silence.
I can show you things, but it’s up to you heal yourself.
“Can you show me what I need to do that?”
Immediately after that I was hit by an extremely powerful emotion that left me gasping and in tears.
“What is this feeling?!”
Relief from worry.
“Worry about what?!”
You are a good person. You heart is in the right place. You are on the right path. You know what is right and moral deep down. You don’t have to doubt yourself.
I hadn’t anticipated that being an issue, but as I thought, it made some sense. I had always wondered that because of poker and my past relationship issues that maybe indeed I wasn’t caring enough or I didn’t contribute enough to modern society to be considered a good person. But ayahuasca was showing me that wasn’t the case and it was a very soothing feeling, one of confidence and confirmation. An interesting starting point, for sure.
“That’s good to hear. Why did you show me that, though? I think I already knew that about myself.”
Because even though that’s what you are, you still mess up sometimes.
The voice of ayahuasca had taken the form of Nami’s, a girl who I met in Panama early last year and had an on-and-off again yet generally positive relationship with before and after the breakup in late December with my girlfriend. I was taken slightly aback, as she was not the woman I expected to be speaking to on my ayahuasca journey (as if it was normal to expect something like that in the first place).
“What are you doing here, Nami?”
It’s ok. I just want to show you something. It will hurt, but don’t worry, everything will ok. Just accept and understand what I’m showing you.
Somehow then Nami showed me her emotions and placed myself inside of them, and then I felt an overwhelming feeling of care and attention. I clearly understood what she was showing me: this was exactly how she felt about me, but I didn’t and had never felt that strong of an emotion about her. She put me in her shoes and I experienced what it was like to be her. I felt sadness and guilt.
Don’t feel that way. You didn’t know. You were trying. But what you need to understand this is what you’ve always done. You’ve always been honest and thought that was enough, but you never understood how others really feel and how your actions affect us.
This was hard to hear.
“I’m so sorry, Nami! I really didn’t know. What am I supposed to do?”
You’re not supposed to be in romantic relationships, not until you know yourself deeper than you ever thought you did. Love yourself first, know who you are and what you are meant to do, then you won’t have the problems of the past, the problems of fleeting and impermanent love. Do that, and you won’t mislead or be misled by another lover again.
“What is it that I need to know about myself? I thought I knew myself well already but you’re saying I’ve deceived myself somehow?.”
Don’t worry about that right now. Just feel what I’m giving you right now.
For the next hour I traveled through powerful emotions of love and comfort. I felt like I was being coddled by a knowing and giving mother, rocking me in a cradle of sympathetic understanding. It was bliss.
Eventually a shaman came by and offered me more ayahuasca. Since I wasn’t lying in a pool of excrement, which apparently was the norm, and because I wasn’t seeing much in the way of visuals or the distortion of reality (the “light show,” as they call it), I decided to have some more. I briefly noticed Heidi wasn’t next to me anymore and numbly wondered if she was ok and then collapsed back in to my blankets, vaguely aware of my environment and the distant sounds of people moaning, crying, or projectile vomiting. The shamans were playing some sort of music but the songs unfortunately weren’t loud enough to drown out the pitiful cries of misery emitting from everyone else at the ceremony. A large fire crackled in the middle of the ceremony and briefly I was captivated by its simple beauty.
As amazing as my first shot of ayahuasca was, the second was the complete opposite. For roughly six hours I lay on my side, feeling uncomfortably nauseous and occasionally getting up to purge and dry heave into my bucket. I tried to ask ayahuasca why this was happening and why she built me up with so much love just in order to bring me down. She told me to shut up and accept what she was doing, that she was healing my body. Frustrated but resigned, I continued to remain in the fetal position, hiding under several blankets, and tried to believe that all I had experienced that night was real and that some weird South American plant was actually capable of somehow fixing my physical problems.
I was still tripping hard, although the visuals were brief and incoherent, when they called an end to the ceremony around 3am. Heidi returned to her cot and seemed to be in a different dimension. They let us and a few others lay in the ceremony circle for a little longer to sleep or fight off the effects of the ayahuasca. After a few more hours of hiding and suffering under my blankets, a felt a dull thump on my leg that seemed to be urging me to wake up. I threw off my blanket and staring at me was one of the four ceremony pet dogs that the retreat center had deployed to the circle like a furry, empathetic patrol. He walked up a few steps to my face, gave me a big slurp, and sat down and cuddled next to me.
In that moment I absolutely would have married that dog and got his face and name tattooed somewhere on my body with maybe a poorly designed heart and arrow thrown in around his image for good measure. The connection I felt with him was palpable; without a doubt he had felt my energy — I can’t believe I’m saying that — and came over to make sure I was ok and to heal me. I have always loved dogs; I grew up on a sheep farm, as my parents are semi-professional herders (see the movie Babe if you’re confused about what this means), and I have been around dogs and animals for most of my life. For me, one of the worst parts of travelling is the inability to have a dog with you. I remember a few years ago when I was living doglessly in New York City and was reduced to shambles when reading “Call of the Wild” and Jack London’s description of Buck and the devotional love he felt for his owner. I felt that same emotion in that moment that I did years ago in New York. As I dazedly continued to pet this clairvoyant animal, occasional tears of joy streaming down my cheeks, I resolved that somehow I would figure out how to have a canine companion with me in the future.
Heidi eventually came around and shared her experience with me. Hers was much more visual and scary, although like me the first ayahuasca shot she took was positive — -except she described it was more like being on ecstasy or MDMA instead of a peaceful experience of bliss. Then apparently after her second shot she traveled through space and time and one hour felt like 85 years as she experienced the coldness and emptiness of the universe. If she tried to break away from the visions and look at reality, she said, then ayahuasca would make reality scarier than the visions and turn everyone surrounding her into evil, snarling demons so she would have no choice but to return to the depths of her mind. She interpreted this as ayahuasca telling her that we should appreciate being human and having minds because without that, humans cannot comprehend the chaos of the universe. I told her I wanted her experience next time because it sounded cool and she just as emphatically told me she would want mine for the personal healing involved. We theorized that maybe we switched brains for those hours under the influence of the medicine.
If you’re wondering or confused how ayahuasca works from the previous narrative, to sum it up it’s kind of like talking to yourself, but a self that knows you better than you ever could know through your own conscious thoughts. You’re essentially having a conversation with your unconscious mind but that mind can emulate other voices and make you feel turbocharged emotions, whether good or bad. It can make you feel impossibly ill or better than you’ve ever felt in your life and those mood changes can happen radically fast. It can also change reality and give you incredibly vivid images and signs to interpret and puzzle over, but it depends on what kind of person you are and what you need. On my first journey I mostly was experiencing things within my mind and body, but other people (like Heidi) had much more strange visuals and otherworldly dimensions to explore. Everyone’s experiences are different, though. I don’t really know how it does these things. I don’t know if anyone does, even the shamans.
The next day the retreat gave a much needed day of rest, as most people were likely to go through a lot of emotional and physical stress from an ayahuasca journey. We had a group sharing where everyone talked about what happened on their journey. It was incredibly varied, with no real trends to speak of. One woman talked about being abducted by aliens and then having her body being worked on by them with tiny space hammers. Although this wasn’t experienced by anyone else at the retreat, apparently it is a common vision. The general sentiment, which I agreed with, seemed to be that it was a positive experience, although difficult. Everyone went to bed fairly early, wanting to be rested and prepared for the San Pedro ceremony the next day, which started very early in the morning.
San Pedro is a medicine cultivated from a special kind of cactus. It’s supposed to make you feel sensations and emotions much more intensely, as well as lower your inhibitions. Basically, it’s kind of like a more emotionally chaotic version of alcohol except you are a little more conscious of your body and you have better motor skills. As the shaman put it, you take ayahuasca and San Pedro in this specific order for a reason. Because ayahuasca is a feminine energy, he said, she can be tricky and fickle, leaving you confused and desperate for answers. San Pedro is the opposite; it’s a masculine medicine that directly tells you what the fuck is up and makes you whole when combined with taking ayahuasca earlier. Ayahuasca raises questions and then San Pedro is supposed to give you answers to make you heal completely.
This ceremony was much different than the first. Instead of being left to your own devices and imagination like ayahuasca, the San Pedro ceremony brought everyone together for what I can best describe as some sort of inebriated group therapy. We were all still in a circle, but then the shaman put a dried cougar fur in front of him and asked us to come up one by one for an interrogation where he would ask us what our purpose was in coming here and then give rambling, drunken advice on how to approach that purpose or solve some emotional problem. It’s about as weird as it sounds, but at the same time it’s also much more effective than it sounds, as the shaman, in addition to being a chemist and musician, also fills the roles of psychologist and armchair philosopher in ancient Amazonian society and evidently knows his stuff.
It became clear to me as each person crawled on top of the poor, brittle dead feline (in order to “embody his spirit”) and poured out their problems to the shaman that some people had come to ayahuasca as a last-ditch resort to get over severe mental health problems like PTSD, trauma, and depression. For them, it seemed like the ceremony was working wonders. One woman, after her time sitting upon the posthumous animal, announced it was like giant weight had been totally lifted from her body and she now felt free for the first time in a decade. Another man dealt with the grief of losing his mother when he was a kid — through a series of remarkable coincidences and sharp probing from the shaman — which healed him in a way he never thought possible. There were some others who seemed to have few or non-impactful emotional problems and were here just to experiment with altered states of consciousness and the San Pedro ceremony had little effect for them, nice as it was.
For me, I fell somewhere in the middle. San Pedro was a really fun and social drug and definitely made me feel stuff and talk about my problems in front of a group of strangers, but I didn’t exactly feel healed from the process. However, the upside was that everyone in the retreat was brought together to a previously untouched level of closeness through the tears we shed. The next day I discovered that much like alcohol, I would drink San Pedro every day if it weren’t for the hangovers and other health problems associated with abusing potent liquids of pleasure. I spent most of the day lounging around and recovering from the lengthy, 16-hour display of personal problem porn.
At this point both Heidi and I were coming to the conclusion while the retreat had been interesting, it hadn’t really solved issues or exploded our consciousness into previously unknown realms yet. She actually felt nothing from San Pedro at all. I held out hope that the next ceremony would give us something different with more depth, as I had earlier resolved to brainwash myself anyway and wanted to stick to that resolution. We attended the nightly workshop for the first time where the founder of Gaia Sagrada was speaking and answering questions. She told us she had done ayahuasca roughly 2,000 times, in addition to countless other drugs and medicines. She talked about things like astral projection, the evolution of human consciousness, strange cosmic cycles that dictated the future of upcoming events, and other things that were pretty “out there.” I didn’t get a lot of what she was saying and it wasn’t exactly comforting before our next ceremony to know our trust in the retreat center was developed by someone who seemed a little like a cult leader, although it was interesting in a abstractically decadent way.
That night something strange happened with my diabetes. I kept having low blood glucose levels and having to drink juice with lots of sugar in it to raise it up, but no matter how much juice I drank it was hard to get it to stay at the right level. I definitely hadn’t given myself too much insulin, which is the normal cause of low glucose levels, as it had been hours since my last injection and thus plenty of time for the artificial insulin to be processed by my physical system. Was this because my pancreas was being healed and now secreting its own insulin again? Or was my body just really confused and stressed out by all these powerful plant teas I was drinking? In the morning before the retreat I consulted some of the workers there, who said they had seen stranger things happen before with supposedly incurable diseases being reversed. It was hard to believe that my diabetes, something I’ve dealt with for nine years, could actually be cured when my entire life I’ve been told by Western medicine that that was impossible. It was tantalizing to think of life without diabetes. Waiting for the next ceremony in the afternoon, I tried to simultaneously convince myself of the possibility that this was real yet at the same time preparing myself to not be devastated if it turned out it wasn’t, which was a very conflicting state to be in.
The next ceremony was an ultimate combination of ancient spiritual techniques and medicines where we would enter a sweat lodge, drink two rounds of San Pedro while immersed in darkness, chanting, and sweltering heat. Then after a brief respite, the third round of shots offered — this time, San Pedro and ayahuasca would be offered together and then we would withstand a longer time lapse in the sweat lodge. Finally there would be a fourth round of shots and music in the lodge where everyone would become so disoriented and suffering from heat exhaustion they would start wriggling and crawling around like naked, sweaty worms desperate to escape the confines of the foreboding death hut they were trapped in. Eventually we would be allowed to come out and be “reborn,” as this entire experience was meant to essentially recreate what it’s like to be in the womb of a pregnant woman who then gives birth to a morass of scared, soaked adult humans upon our exodus from the lodge. The shaman was excited and told us this was his favorite ceremony, which of course made all of us even more nervous.
All 30 or so of us entered the sweat lodge, which was a very short and rotund stone entrapment, built directly over the earth with a few holes poked in at the top and sides so people wouldn’t suffocate. It was cramped and awkward. After we had all gotten to our hands and knees and crawled in, prayers were said, San Pedro was drunk, hot rocks were put in the middle of the lodge for the heat, and then finally the exits were covered by the retreat workers with thick blankets, encompassing us in a totally black, hot semi-existence. It was difficult to breathe almost immediately; I resorted again to meditation to calm my autonomous nervous system’s rational fear that I would run out of air in this hostile environment. After about a half hour of repressing my panic, the blankets were lifted, oxygen was returned to us, and another round of San Pedro was given out. The hot rocks were replenished and then we repeated the same process again, slightly more high and sweaty than before.
Then came the round of San Pedro and ayahuasca, which the shaman jokingly referred to as the “power hour”. This continued to bolster my impression that I was participating in a spiritual fraternity, replete with the shaman filling the role of the 5th-year senior professional deadbeat who headed the society and deemed it necessary to haze his new recruits. He actually served us ayahuasca in a crystal skull. It lasted about an hour, and when the endpoint of the songs and chants was mercifully reached, I felt my head swimming from the heat and my mind being forcefully altered by the medicines. When the doors refreshingly opened and we were allowed to embrace air again, the incoming light permitted me to glimpse at the bleary world unfolding in front of me.
When we started the ceremony, we were somewhat organized in two concentric circles around the heated rocks in varying positions of sitting or crouching from the lodge’s distinct lack of height. By the end of the 3rd round, however, everyone had slouched, moved, or flat out given up and laid down on the ground or — in the absence of fresh earth — across multiple people. Everyone’s eyes were in various states of dreaminess and/or bugginess. The stench of human perspiration engulfed the air and everyone was drenched with their own sweat, as if we all had swam around in a body of water and only had just emerged from its depths. Some people looked too zoned out to have emotions, others were crying and begging for forgiveness, and some looked simply grateful to be alive. Somehow, I felt great. My eyes met Heidi’s from across the room and we began to laugh uncontrollably from the sheer, indescribable weirdness of the scene. The shaman started a new chant, howling incoherently and loudly banging a stick on his drum. I raised my index and pinky fingers and made a fist with the rest of my hand to signify the devil’s horns and mouthed the words “this is so fucking metal!,” which was so ridiculous it made both of us laugh even harder.
I was then struck by the unshakeable feeling that everyone in this room was brought here for a reason, like the TV series Lost. It was about that point when the ayahuasca began to slowly speak to me again and I quickly and clumsily asked if that feeling was correct. She demurred, but told me the universe doesn’t exactly work that way and it was beyond my comprehension to understand those things, so that feeling should be dismissed. I did so instantly, excited ayahuasca was talking to me again. My mind trembling, I posited the question I desperately wanted an answer from the spirit world and asked it in my head clearly:
“Can you heal my diabetes?”
I could feel the ayahuasca stirring within my mind and body, contemplating how to best respond. I asked again.
“Can you heal my diabetes?”
I chortled involuntarily. Apparently ayahuasca today would be speaking to me straightforwardly and sarcastically.
I cannot heal you alone, but you can fix yourself, if you want. I told you that last time.
“What do you mean? I can heal my diabetes myself? How?”
Not the answer I expected to hear at all. I was perplexed.
“Go home? I don’t want to go home. I like traveling and learning about the world.”
You can keep traveling if you want later, but understand you’ve learned a lot already and now it’s time to share what you’ve learned. Your family needs your knowledge. You need your family’s love and the stability of home. You need to fill your role and accept your humanity and the first step to learning that is to go home.
I really had not seen this coming. My relationship with my parents was good already, so there wasn’t anything that came to mind that needed to be fixed. However, I knew they had recently retired and were conflicted about what to do next. There were some slight mental and physical health problems as well, but nothing extremely pressing. They seemed like natural old age problems to me. I didn’t quite understand what ayahuasca meant yet. I fired out a rapid succession of confused questions in my mind.
“What does my purpose and accepting my humanity have to do with my family? Am I not using my time wisely? Should I be doing something else besides poker? What does accepting my humanity even mean?”
All humans are designed to have a role within the greater tribe. All humans need love and understanding. Poker has taken you away from what you were designed to do. It has taken you away from your home because it gave you the freedom to travel and explore, which are good things if used correctly, but unfortunately it’s made you give your thoughts priority to things that are sources of negativity, such as the overpursuit of money and global, political problems. Those things make you angry, frustrated, and stressed out, cluttering your mind from what’s important.
I vaguely knew this already and had theorized before I would quit poker eventually to do something else more valuable with my time, but there were a few new variables ayahuasca added that I didn’t understand.
“What am designed to do then? What is important?”
You are supposed to be a scholar and a teacher. Your brain is meant to learn things and interpret them for other people to benefit from. You service humanity with your intelligence, to discover truth, invent new ways of thinking, or inspire through thoughtful imagination. That is why you’ve struggled to maintain contentment and lasting happiness, because you’re misaligned with your purpose. You’ve been living for yourself and putting too much emphasis on individualism, and not contributing to the human tribe. Every human has a role that’s valuable for the survival and cohesion of your species, whether it’s a mother, a leader, an explorer, a healer. When you are filling your role, life feels meaningful and good because you were designed that specific way.
That wasn’t something I was aware of. I pondered what that meant and then asked a more abstract question to see what would happen.
“Does this mean I have no choice for what makes me happy? Is there no free will?”
Free will does exist, although only for some who choose to develop it. You can choose to do whatever you want, it doesn’t really matter in the bigger scheme of things. You can find some happiness through other choices. But understand that if your goal is maximize your value and become self-actualized in this life, there are things embedded within all beings genetically that need to be met. You need familial love and community support before you can reach higher stages of meaning and love. You need to start following your designed purpose and then motivation and understanding will come naturally. Use your mind the way it was supposed to be used. This is what we mean by saying you need to accept your humanity.
It was a rambling response, but I supposed that answered my questions to some degree. I asked for clarity.
“So if I go home, quit poker, and start my correct path involving being a teacher or learning something, then I’ll find truer belonging?”
The details are up to you. Free will does exist. You don’t have to do what we say. We are giving and will continue to give you knowledge right now, knowledge that is timeless and forever true yet is consistently being forgotten by humanity. It’s up to you how you use it. Going home is only a first step in the right direction, and all we can really say.
“And then you’ll heal my diabetes if I do all that?”
I could feel ayahuasca getting exasperated with me, especially for asking that question over and over again.
Maybe, if you want to go down that path. But it’s not in our power, it’s your choice to figure out how to do that. You were given diabetes because of the stress poker put on you and drinking too much alcohol: you made the wrong choice relative to your path. It was your actions that gave it to you. It was a lesson given to make you return to the right way, which you did in some ways with your health and appreciation for life but not fully. You might not want to fix yourself at all, because those lessons are strong reminders and good for you. If you do choose to try, though, it’ll take more than realignment to heal yourself. It’s only the first step.
A lump in my throat was gathering. I developed diabetes directly after several semesters of partying and drinking, playing poker with maniac obsession (even though I was barely winning then) and ignoring my studies in college. I had postulated many hypotheses why I could have gotten the disease before, but the doctors said there was no known single cause for Type 1 diabetes, especially for late-onset cases like myself. I simply accepted that and didn’t look into the issue further, but apparently the answer was there all along. What ayahuasca was saying eerily rang true. I estimated that realization might have been something that was in my unconscious mind the whole time but something I never addressed because of my psychological and immediate need to survive the disease.
“OK, I think I get it now. I wish you would give me more direction though. I’m still a little confused about how this all works and how I’m supposed to heal myself. If it were possible, how come no one has done it? Why hasn’t anyone figured this out? I still don’t know how I have the power to heal myself from something like this and that statement alone doesn’t make any sense to me.”
By this point, the shaman and workers were bringing in more hot rocks in the center of the circle and getting ready to start the fourth round of the sweat lodge ceremony. I was barely cognizant of my what was happening around me and had forgotten there was more shots to do and more chanting and heat to endure. I started to feel some powerful force urging me to leave the ceremony. It seemed like ayahuasca was trying to control my body and will it to crawl outside of the lodge.
“What are you doing?”
Look, all those questions you asked are ultimately immaterial and you’re boring us. We have something more important to show you, something that may or may not give you the answers you want but talking to us and intellectualizing isn’t going to get you anywhere right now. You need to experience before you can truly understand. Go outside. Go outside, and we will show you what you need to see.
I dragged myself to one of the holes where the blankets had been temporarily removed while the workers and the shaman were preparing for the next round. I told the shaman that ayahuasca was telling me something and I needed to go outside. He looked totally unsurprised or concerned a merely gave a slight, nonchalant glance and nod towards the exit, indicating it was fine for me to do so and that if ayahuasca told anyone to do anything, it wasn’t his place to question it.
Outside, the light was blinding compared to the apocalyptic darkness of the sweat lodge. The ceremony had gone on for roughly three hours and it was now probably past five o’clock, although time is a hard thing to process while on ayahuasca. I quickly stumbled a few paces and clumsily flopped down on a blanket that the retreat workers had put down on the grass earlier, which was intended for when everyone was finally leaving the lodge at the end of the ceremony to protect against the cold. Much like the shaman, they also seemed unfazed I was coming out to lie down and simply covered me in a couple of blankets and then left me to my own devices.
Thus protected by my woolen shields, my body relaxed and my mind went still; there were no directions from ayahuasca or the presence of any personal thoughts. I turned on my back and looked upwards at the sky. It was a blue day with a scattering mix of white-gray clouds — one of the nicer days at the retreat so far, as it had drizzled relentlessly in a depressing, smog-like mist until that point. Then it happened. The clouds started moving, quicker than normal clouds can actually move, rearranging themselves specifically for my own perception. Then light, blazing rays of light, shone down amidst the small partings of the clouds and purposefully directed their warmth upon my existence.
I have never believed in God. In fact, I have never even been to church before or participated in mass; all my personal experience with spirituality, limited as it was, was from meditation and Buddhist thought — things that had been at least semi-supported or deemed plausible by Western science. However, in that moment I knew exactly what I was seeing: it was the Creator showing himself to me and opening up his arms, sort of like the religiously inspired paintings of Renaissance-era art. It was beyond beautiful — probably the most beautiful thing I have seen in my entire life by a wide margin — and yet again unsummoned tears poured down my face, this time in gratitude.
I wanted that feeling to last forever, but I was not given any time to bask in it or contemplate what I was seeing, as the scene in the sky shifted and the clouds removed themselves from the equation. God was gone and replaced by a vast array of synchronous patterns etched perfectly in the sky. They ebbed and flowed naturally into constantly changing, new and awesome shapes. After some unknown time watching this, the patterns then conglomerated and remade themselves into distinct, strange cosmic beings composed of yellow and indigo that contrasted strangely yet somehow correctly with the still, baby blue sky. I saw what I can best describe as mythological gods across the spectrum of ancient religion — potentially the Buddha himself, as well — and they drew themselves closer to me: they were smiling at me. Ayahuasca started to speak again.
This is what you are. This is where you are from. When you’re dead, you will join these beings, your brothers and companions. You are just occupying human form for a brief time to perceive things in a different way your cosmic consciousness experiences things: you are here to experiment. That’s why everything was created. The universe is only a playground, a scientist’s lab, endlessly creating, destructing, and expanding. Humanity and earth is just a miniscule side project for us and your ultimate higher self, a force you cannot understand because you have a stupid, silly human mind right now and it is limited by your hilariously basic language and intelligence.
I started to feel sick, as the combination of the visuals and overwhelming information being poured into my brain was apparently too much for my stupid, silly and weak human body to process.
“Hold on a minute ayahuasca,” I mumbled this softly, under my breath, but still out loud. “This is a little too much for me and my ego to handle right now, but I really want to hear more and truly understand what I can. Can you make me not feel so awful so I can do that?”
The shaman unexpectedly came over and asked me if I wanted to go back to sweat lodge, as the next round of the ceremony was about to begin. I was befuddled, as I was sure at least eight years had passed since I had removed myself from that world. I tried to say something to the effect of “no, I don’t want to” and I think I got that message across, but in a different way than I intended, as the shaman seemed to think whatever I said was funny. Nonetheless he assented and then threw a couple more blankets over me, as I appeared to be shivering uncontrollably, and then left swiftly without another word. I sheltered myself from the now-menacing sky and the outside world, curled up in a familiar fetal position underneath the blankets, and immediately felt less sick.
“Yes, thanks. Did you send the shaman over here?”
No, dummy. We told you before, you’re not going to understand how things like that work and we can’t explain it to in a way you’ll understand.
“That makes sense,” I drunkenly accepted this explanation without any more hesitation. “I can’t guarantee I won’t ask questions like that again, but that’s ok, right?
Sure, it’s fine. Try not to waste your time, though. What else do you want to know?
For the next hour or so, which felt like years, I was allowed to ask ayahuasca whatever came in to my brain, questions about human evolution, philosophy, why war exists, psychology and development, death and rebirth, man’s role with nature, and other general existential questions that had bothered me for awhile or just had randomly popped into my mind during that time. Sometimes I was given answers (mostly incomplete), sometimes I wasn’t, but no matter what I asked for I slowly began to understand the world, humanity, and the universe is a place of infinite nuance and complexity. God likes puzzles and is consistently creating more of them to make sure He doesn’t get bored. It would take eons of human existence, as well as consistent thought patterns, to truly understand what is going on. We aren’t meant to entirely get it and our tools are poor.
That realization, however, never made me feel small or insignificant in face of the magnitude of the universe; on the contrary, it made me appreciate having a human mind and body that can experience and perceive things in a way that the universe can’t. Of course, we only have the briefest of moments on this stage, the shortest inhalation of eternal breath, and everything we do is ultimately meaningless. But that doesn’t mean we should cower in existential terror, wallow in degenerate sensuality, or live a life full of narcissistic self-aggrandizement. While most of life is subjective and mired in the inability to rise above our most basic of human emotions, there are underlying laws of the universe and of nature that if followed and understood, can lead to the purest forms of joy, peace, and connection. If we have the courage to grow, to make art, and to learn, then bestowed upon us is the most powerful force the universe has deigned our weak consciousness to experience — -that of eternal and consistent love.
From what I understood from ayahuasca, our unique perspective is why we were created, why earth and life exists. The vast multitude of ways we create, have emotions, and develop is what makes us different from cosmic beings and makes human life so fascinating — -to ourselves and to those forces watching us. There is a little bit of the creative consciousness of the universe in man that is non-existent in other earthly life forms, although I’m open to the idea that other things like rocks and other inanimate objects having consciousness too because at this point, why not? I just ingested a sketchy plant brew and now I believe in some sort of God, so I think I’ll have to consider the merit of any suggestion, no matter how weird.
Eventually someone came to me and shook me out my conversation with the cosmos, as much as I didn’t want to leave. It was completely dark outside by now, yet it was only seven o’ clock. I had passed through life and death, time and space, and experienced the infinite and it only took an hour and a half in imperfect human measuring units. I wandered around, still swooning slightly from being in reality again, and as I passed around a giant bonfire the workers had built, I saw Heidi for what felt like the first time in a decade and celebrated with her that this journey to Ecuador had blessed me on a scale I never thought possible — -and found out her trip was just as meaningful, except this time she had an amazing and healing personal journey. Like before, our brains were somehow switched.
After putting our clothes on, as everyone was still in bathing suits from the sweat lodge, we went inside the community center of Gaia Sagrada and found a magical feast presented for us. Food had never tasted so good; there were even items with salt in them. After talking with Heidi for a long while, we went back outside to enjoy the fire and company of our fellow retreat members. Every conversation was fluid and full of life and everybody loved everybody. My previous judgment of the hippy workers that first greeted me seemed like a lifetime ago: I loved talking and being around these people now. The moon was out and brighter than ever before, looking like a great purple eye juxtaposed against the imposing night clouds swirling between it and the earth. Its beauty captivated everyone. Almost every single person characterized that day as being the single best day and night of their lives, and I couldn’t disagree in the slightest. Ayahuasca had given me more than I ever anticipated. It gave me everything: healing, understanding, motivation, and ability to feel joy again. It was now up to me to make sure I preserved what I had learned.
CONCLUSION AND LESSONS
Before going on a long-winded rationalization of the benefits that ayahuasca gave me, I want to thank Gaia Sagrada for the work they do. They are clearly a top-notch organization, respectful of the shamanic traditions and they are non-exploitative in every way. I was only there for a week because that was all I needed to heal and “get it,” but they have longer retreats for those who have deeper emotional issues or need extra help experiencing its true nature. I think anyone who went on a single day ayahuasca journey would, at best, get temporarily relief or understanding; at worst, possibly a psychologically damaging experience from the fact the medicine and experience was given no history, context, or structure. If you are considering taking ayahuasca, I strongly urge you to go to Gaia Sagrada or another highly ranked and reviewed retreat for at least a week — -and probably the longer the better.
The first thing I want to emphasize is that I am skeptical and analytical by nature; I am not some drug junkie fixated by his trips and I’m actually shocked how much this experience showed me. However, to doubt is to be human, and I’m sure I’ll be doubting and reexamining what happened many a time over the immediate and late future. Even though science can tell us that taking ayahuasca is just taking a chemical (DMT) that alters your brain state — which sounds dull and marginalizes the experiences people have while under its influences — in my opinion, however, there is more going on than that.
For example, if I was looking to explain ayahuasca’s effect on the brain with at least semi-logical Western psychological analysis, I would say when you are talking with ayahuasca it’s basically like talking to your inner brain: your unconscious, your higher self, whatever you want to call it. The effect the mixture has then is to expand that part of your mind in order for you see and feel things you have unintentionally deprived yourself of, and to access higher emotions, deeper learning, and increased imagination that isn’t present in your ordinary, day-to-day consciousness. The experience may be best described as a dream state where you are consciously aware of your dream’s images and able to speak with the people and things in them, and to your dream selfs narrative. The difference is that this dream state is less random and easier to interpret than in a normal, REM state.
That alone is an interesting state to be in, and for some people that might be all they get from an ayahuasca journey. But if that’s all regular people hear about, it makes it easy for them to be cynical about the medicine, which I sometimes was. Now having taken ayahuasca, however, I think I am beginning to understand more about spiritual thought than I ever imagined I would. The parts about seeing God and other cosmic beings have been particularly impactful and for me, hard to explain away so easily — -and trust me, I’m aware of how bizarre I sound. The fact it didn’t show me or tell me things I directly wanted to know, but creatively used images and argument to direct me towards what I needed to hear, was also especially convincing. It didn’t delude me into thinking I could cure my diabetes. It showed me God when I didn’t really want religion in my life and when I wasn’t scared of death in the first place, but it knew if I didn’t see something that powerful I probably wouldn’t have accepted a lot of what it had to teach me. Whatever is going on, this sentient vine knew me and what I needed, as well as every other person at the retreat.
I believe it is a stronger force than my theorizing is capable of truly understanding (and most others’). Regardless of the veracity of the medicine and more to the point though, I don’t think it really matters. I feel now with utter conviction my purpose, how to live healthily and in harmony with nature, and what is good and beautiful in the world. I understand myself and human nature better than ever before and I feel like my intelligence, empathy, and peace has grown tenfold. Time will tell if it lasts. I am still perplexed about how I’m supposed to heal myself from diabetes, or if that’s possible at all, but in general I don’t really care if it’s all a trick or spiritual placebo: after all, if my goal in life is to be happy, liberated, and wise yet still retain my ambition and all the things that make me me, then I will continue to trust in what I experienced until I have some direct evidence to convince me otherwise. I maintain that even if all ayahuasca is is a way of expanding thoughts and being able to draw lessons from a dream state, that process can still be infinitely valuable for healing, self-understanding, and personal development.
The most important, practical teachings I can take and give from ayahuasca is that love of one’s self, of nature, and of one’s fellow man are the end goals that every human must strive for in order to be eternally happy. Reaching that state requires self-understanding, growth, and shedding a lot of what has been subconsciously learned by culture, political and economic systems, and even from direct relatives and friends,to learn what is really left within when all that language has been dismissed. Once that is done, the ability to actively choose which path you think will be the most meaningful and emotionally satisfying is exactly what free will is. Again, ayahuasca is but one option on the spiritual path: things like meditation and yoga can be just as effective alone or in combination with consciousness-enhancing psychedelics for discovering personal and universal truth. I don’t think you can simply take ayahuasca and expect to maintain deliriously happy: you have to understand and accept the questions that it raises for you, and then supplement your life with the correct processes in order to find lasting peace.
Also, before you dismiss me as some tree-hugging, smelley Marxist who wants to return to cavemen times, understand that I still greatly respect Western civilization and its accomplishments. The problem isn’t what reason and the Age of Enlightenment taught us and helped us evolve into an era of material comfort, it’s how we abuse those lessons and refuse to evolve further that keeps us stuck in a time devoid of spirituality, self-understanding, and compassion, and instead full of abhorrent nihilism and ape-like stupidity. Smartphones, for example, can potentially cause problems for people because they can be addictive, but they are not inherently addictive in themselves alone: we make them that way. I quote Thoreau, “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things”. This is true, but it doesn’t have to be that way; we can overcome the problem of our inventions — of which many are truly fascinating and earth-shattering in this day — and use them for good and bettering ourselves. That is why Western thought and progress cannot be thrown aside, and without that history I wouldn’t have gotten to the place I am today. Technology has its place in making the world a better place, but only the wise are using it correctly for that purpose.
I am not a devoted and brainwashed member of some ayahuasca cult either. After doing more research about the dieta and talking to workers at Gaia Sagrada, for example, I’m not exactly sure how important it is to strictly follow its every recommendation; there seemed to be a lot of arbitrariness involved for which foods were selected or deselected for the dieta and probably had little to zero effect for most people. Of course, it is of the utmost importance that all pharmaceuticals and supplements must be stopped before taking ayahuasca, as the combination of them with the vine could cause potentially dangerous complications. And apparently there was one person who ate a giant, sloppy burger from Johnny Rocket’s at the airport right before the retreat and vomited his brains out immediately upon taking the medicine, so not eating meat seems like a good idea. In addition, alcohol and other drugs should be avoided so there are no repressed emotions to hide from. On the whole, though, I think next time I consider taking ayahuasca I’ll eat salt and bread and be fine with that decision; removing those two pillars of Western foods really made things unnecessarily difficult for little gain, in my opinion.
Abstinence has always been something that’s bothered me about religion and spirituality. Why is sex, for example, almost universally — the exception to my mind being Hinduism — seen as something shameful and reviling across all world religion when it’s an absurdly natural and purposefully enjoyable activity for most parties involved? Health issues aside, why is alcohol considered to only be a cause of evil when almost all of my experiences with it have been harmless fun? Specifically directed at the teachings of Gaia Sagrada, why are meat and other foods so bad when there is scientific evidence to support it’s fine to eat in smaller quantities? Why can’t I just remove red meat from my diet, since that has harmful environmental concerns, but still eat my delicious chickens and seafood? I get that for some people they can be devastating causes of addiction and desire, which removes clarity of thought and purpose, but that could be said for a lot of things in life. I think taking a semi-Buddhist approach when it comes to the potentially damaging but too-good-to-pass up things that modern life offers is the best path to follow. If moderation and balance are practiced, there is no reason why I should live in such a rigid way and pass up some the most pleasurable parts of life. I think discipline and wisdom is what’s needed when it comes to “sinning,” and if an individual has developed those things in abundance, then there is no need to be so dogmatic.
In fact, I’ll go a step further and claim becoming aware of your cravings and fears and facing them and instilling discipline and wisdom is what spirituality is all about. Religion places an all out ban on things because it doesn’t trust people to know any better and instead of explaining why it simply rules and dictates. The religion and truth of the modern age and of human evolution, however, is self-empowerment and understanding, empathy and love. In other words, do you what you need to find your personal enlightenment and meaning. Embrace, confront, and then master your issues until harmony and balance is reached. Objectivity, determination, and curiosity are all the attributes you need to do so. If you want to change the world, change and better yourself first and then the world will reflect itself in your image.
I only have just written this a week after the retreat. I’ve spent an incredible few days out hiking and absorbing nature in Ecuador which has been unbelievably stunning and I wouldn’t have appreciated them nearly as much had I experienced them before the retreat. I feel certain that I will give up poker and start a new path. I will go home to my family and tell them I love them. Hopefully this wasn’t all bullshit and the new way I choose for myself will confirm my newfound philosophy. I suppose change is always scary, but also usually for the best — -funnily enough, the thing I’m afraid of most is becoming a pseudo-spiritual doofus. However, if that is what makes me happy, I guess I will choose to embrace that identity gladly.