Introduction to Ayahuasca

The Amazon is home to over 80,000 different known plant species.  Out of all those species there is a vine that is scientifically known as b. caapi but is often referred to as Vine of the Soul or Vine of the Dead.  By itself it has no value. Eating it does nothing.  It doesn’t taste good or provide worthwhile calories.  Ultimately, it’s just a vine growing in the jungle.  There is another plant scientifically known as psychotria viridis but more commonly referred to as chacruna.  Like the b. caapi it has no value on it’s own.  When you pick the leaves of chacruna at and the b caapi. vine, crush them up, let them stew in a warm pot for many hours and then drink it you end up having a soul voyage.

Keep in mind there are over 80,000 different plant species available and these two plants are useless on their own.  What sort of crazy odds led to the indigenous people just happening to mix these two plants together, let them stew in a pot for hours while not letting it go too hot(that will impact the chemicals required for the experience)?  Well, it happened and that brew is called ayahuasca.

My goal of this article is to present and help educate you about ayahuasca from a more analytical and straight-forward perspective.  If you happen to google ayahuasca or talk to people who are really into this space the answers you get tend to swerve into what I affectionately call the ‘woo-woo’.  They might talk about how it’s a gateway to other realms, touching the divine, tapping into ancestral memories and things of that nature.  There are billions of ways to interpret the world so I don’t begrudge them and it’s interesting to think about but I wanted to provide information in a format that doesn’t require any mental gymnastics to people who are a bit more grounded in traditional reality.  Basically, people like myself.

Ayahuasca retreats have been becoming more and more popular with retreats actually popping up in the United States despite it being illegal.  It is a very powerful medicine with the primary psychoactive chemical being DMT, sometimes known as the spirit molecule.  What is interesting about DMT is that it appears to be in a wide variety of plants and animals.  In fact, our bodies actually produce DMT naturally and it’s been hypothesized that some alien abductions or, if we go back further, experiences with fae creatures are the result of our brains producing too much DMT naturally for a short period of time and we essentially have a natural trip. The artist Shawn Thornton had a brain tumor that affected his pineal gland and caused it to produce an excess amount of DMT. As the condition progressed his art took a more surreal yet detailed turn.  He was on a DMT journey that was 100% intrinsic.

Painting by Shawn Thornton

A Quick History

We aren’t sure exactly how long ayahuasca has been used.  Being that it comes from the Amazon where evidence suggests that entire civilizations have risen and fallen without leaving much of a trace it can make it difficult to create a proper timeline.  We do know that it is at least 1,000 years old because a shaman’s pouch found in a cave in Bolivia had the ingredients for ayahuasca.  

In the 16th century when the Spanish showed up they were introduced to ayahuasca and referred to as ‘the work of the devil’.  This is no surprise because the Spanish used their religion to horrifically massacre and suppress cultures all over North, Central and South America.  Their reaction to magic mushrooms, which the natives called flesh of the gods, was similar.  

After this ayahuasca fell off the radar for the modern western world until the 1950s some botanists came across it as helpful that it can become a cure for opiate addiction.  Shortly after that the McKenna brothers started their psychonaut explorations and can be credited to bringing ayahuasca into the mainstream modern world.  The powerful healing and exploratory effects of ayahuasca have caused it to become rather popular with retreats popping up all over the world.  In Brazil it’s been melded into conglomerate religions which, if you experience ayahuasca, makes sense.  Josh Gates, host of the show Expedition Unknown, explored ayahuasca on the show and said “It was the most religious experience of my life.”  This is a common sentiment and many people become much more spiritual after their ayahuasca experiences.

Set, Setting, Dosages and Warnings

Ayahuasca is a very powerful medicine and it is recommended that you do not use it on your own.  In fact, just the brewing of the ayahuasca is an artform that is very difficult to get correct. If you don’t pick the leaves of the chacruna tree at the correct time of day the DMT levels in the leaves will be lowered and you might just end up with a not-so-great tasting tea.  Additionally, if you brew the mixture too hot it can destroy the psychoactive ingredients which again will lead you to a no-so-great tasting tea that has no effect.  If you don’t use the proper ratio of ingredients the same will happen.  While the chacruna leaves have the DMT if you drink those alone you will have no effect because the body will simply destroy the chemical before they can have any effect.  The b caapi has a chemical in it that temporarily stops your body from destroying the chemicals and allows the experience to happen.  And that’s just problems with making the brew.

Unlike many other psychedelic or plant-based medicines ayahuasca doesn’t always have an uplifting effect.  In fact, sometimes the focus of the experience is considered ‘shadow work’ which is more or less dealing with your own metaphorical demons.  This can create a challenging experience and having someone who has generational experience to help create the proper setting and guide you is immeasurably helpful.

Lastly, there can be physical effects from the experience.  It’s often called ‘la purga’ and while you might not speak Spanish you probably can figure out that la purga translates to ‘the purge’.  A very common part of an ayahuasca experience is vomiting and even sometimes diarrhea.  It’s not 100% of the time and some people claim to have methods to make it not happen but it is something to be prepared for.  Having someone help you to the bathroom or anything of that nature is a big help.  It’s also worth noting that while that might sound miserable it’s often reported that the purge is a pleasant part of the experience while you are undergoing it.  You will certainly hear about how it’s a ‘release of toxins’.  Personally, I prefer an evidenced based approach to such claims and I haven’t seen any studies measuring the toxins in the purged substance.

So I don’t have recommendations for set, setting or dosages because you should work with someone who has experience administering ayahuasca.  I do have one strong warning, however.  You must quit any and all antidepressants before working with ayahuasca.  If you are on an antidepressant and consume ayahuasca you run the risk of health issues such as serotonin syndrome.  Antidepressants and ayahuasca are NOT compatible.  Weeks before you do a ceremony you will want to talk to the people administering the ceremony and ensure you won’t run into complications with any medications you are on.

Now, after reading this section you might think “Why the heck would I want to do ayahuasca if the experience might be rough and I am vomiting?”  Well, let’s get to that.

The Uses

Like many plant medicines ayahuasca has a powerful effect on our minds both during and after the experience.  Let’s just list some of the things ayahuasca can help with:

  1. Higher social functionality
  2. Higher emotional awareness
  3. Increased self-awareness
  4. More creativity
  5. Increased Empathy
  6. It can help treat addictions
  7. It can treat or lower the effects of depression
  8. It can treat or lower the effects of anxiety
  9. Treat PTSD

That is quite a list and it could keep going.  The thing is, while all of these things are certainly possible nothing is guaranteed.  As with any plant-medicine endeavor the journey starts when you ingest the medicine but doesn’t end until you fully integrate the experience into your life.  This can take weeks, months or even years.  That being said, the effects are real in both traditional research as well as a mountain of anecdotal evidence. One 2015 study showed a 82% drop in depression scores after an ayahuasca experience.  The effects of this change are immediate compared to traditional antidepressants that can take weeks and, if you count the studies the antidepressant companies tend to bury, the traditional antidepressants are sometimes just as effective as a placebo.  In fact the effects are so profound that charities, such as Heroic Hearts Project, have been created to help military veterans attend ayahuasca ceremonies to help heal the scars of war.

The Ayahuasca Experience

Ayahuasca, like many plant medicines, can facilitate a variety of experiences.  Some people report talking to interdimensional beings or ‘machine elves’.  Others relive and explore past traumas.  Others experience what some might call ‘ancestral memories’, though I really consider those exploring latent fears.  Some just see shapes and colors while others have the most beautiful experience of their lives.  Often, people will experience many of those through various ceremonies or even during the same ceremony.  In every single experience there is life-changing value to be found.  The lack of a mood lifting effect often lets us focus on problems without rose-tinted glasses.

In a traditional ceremony there will be an entire ritual that will vary between locations but ultimately they create the setting and mindset which will help guide our experience.  Often music or chanting will be a part of it.  Sometimes traditional masks or clothing are used.  Ceremonies are most commonly done during the evening and into the night.  The use of a sleeping mask and bedroll are provided to keep you comfortable and help block out any energetic entanglement from other users(basically, you want to be focused inwards instead of what’s going on around you).

The experience can last between 5-10 hours.  That might seem like a long time but typically the onset of the experience kicks in between the 30-60 minute mark and peaks at the 2 hour mark.  After that you slowly return to your normal state.  You likely won’t want to participate in anything else that day and certainly don’t drive or consume other substances that will alter your mental state.

The experience can be very heavy and might take many hours or days to process.  Retreats generally will focus on taking it easy the day after the ceremony because you may feel very exhausted.  While we all know running a marathon is going to wear us out, we don’t always appreciate how much energy goes into making your brain work and it will be working very hard during the ayahuasca experience.

Below is a description from one of my experiences which was one of the most, if not the most, beautiful moments of my life:

I was floating down a river on a raft.  On the shore were the indigenous people of America smiling and waving at me.  Behind them were rows of corn.  I was by myself on the raft and would wave back.  I then found myself somewhere else… and I wasn’t alone.  My wife and I were sitting down in the grass on top of a bluff overlooking a river.  It was a warm, cloudless day with the occasionally cool breeze coming through.  We weren’t talking.  We were just enjoying the beautiful moment together.  

And then I was back to floating down the river on my raft.  The people were still on the shore, smiling and waving.  Letting me know everything was going good and life was there to be enjoyed.  

And then I was in a grass field with a huge oak tree in the center.  Hanging from the oak tree was a bench swing.  My wife and I went and sat down on the swing, enjoying a lazy afternoon on our own land.  We were there for hours just enjoying the moment.

And then I was back on the raft but.  But it was different this time.  I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t floating down the river.  I had somehow drifted into a ditch that was clogged up with roots and other natural clutter.  I was stuck and I was dead.  An animal was actually feasting on my corpse.  It wasn’t as unpleasant as it sounds but this drastic change in direction was jarring.  It’s impossible to say how long I stayed there but eventually I was somewhere else.

My wife and I were now on our porch.  We were much older.  Like before we were happily enjoying each other’s company and loving the life we had together.  The love and joy I felt was overwhelming.  I knew tears were falling in some other life that I existed(aka reality).  

I was transported again.  This time I was a very old man and I was alone.  I was also full of grief because my wife had passed.  It wasn’t healthy grief.  It was the unprocessed oppressive grief that leads to depression. My wife has warned me that she gets to go first and that is what happened.  I couldn’t understand the point of going on.  All that happiness is gone.  Physically everyday I am simply becoming weaker and more elderly.   What’s the point of being alive when just grief, pain and exhaustion are all that is left?

I took a book off my bookshelf and opened it.  Inside were all the memories my wife and I had made in our lifetime together.  The oppressive grief I was feeling transformed into a healthy grief.  It was an overwhelming sense of sadness about what I will be missing but also an overwhelming wave of gratitude that I had her in my life.  That book of memories gave me a reason to go on.  They give me something to think about as I wait out the rest of my days.

Words are a poor tool for conveying these experiences because unlike a regular story when you are in a psychedelic experience you get pulled in all the way with your mind and body.  What happened there was a type of reality.  That being the case it was actually hard to share and am only slightly surprised that thinking about it still brings tears.

The entire experience was a metaphor up until the end.  The river was my life journey.  When I was transported it was showing me treasurable moments in my life.  Those moments might not have actually happened but it showed the importance of making those moments happen.  When I was stuck in the ditch that was me dealing with a very bad episode of depression that I was actively dealing with at the time.  I was just getting over a chronic pain condition that wrecked my life for months on end and wasn’t in the best place mentally.  The animal that was eating my corpse was actually just my cat who had been cuddled up next to me but started cleaning himself which is probably why it  wasn’t unpleasant.  Since life went on after that it was telling me that “Yeah, you aren’t stuck yet but life will go on.”.

The ending was the most powerful moment.  Any couple that grows old together is going to have to deal with one of them going on alone eventually.  That can be tough.  My wife and I don’t have nor will we have kids.  That can create a rather lonely and miserable ending.  The shield against that end is living a life where you mindfully go out and create experiences and memories.  My wife and I now make it a point to go out and have an adventure even if one of us isn’t feeling up for it.  

Safety

Researchers have tried to overdose mice with ayahuasca but they gave up.  The amount required just gets preposterous.  You don’t really need to concern yourself with a physically harmful overdose.  

Ayahuasca is non-addictive.  In fact, it can be used to help treat addiction in many cases.

The biggest danger of ayahuasca is when users are on certain medications like antidepressants and then also consume ayahuasca.  There can be complications between the two.  All retreats will ask you what medication you are on before you arrive.  If you are on antidepressants they will ask that you taper before your experience.  

Integration

As with any plant-medicine the initial experience is actually just the first step no matter how transformative it feels.  While your world view might have changed, your friends, family and co-workers are all the same.  Your job, habit, hobbies and routines still exist.  In order to make lasting change you need to make a concerted, sustained effort. 

At a retreat they often have integration sessions while you are there.  These are very helpful but the retreat typically doesn’t continue to offer those services once you head home.  When you get home you have 3 options.

  1. An integration coach.  
  2. An integration therapist
  3. An integration circle

Depending on your issue I suggest a coach(*ahem* like myself) or a therapist.  An integration circle can be great but a key part of people helping you integrate is that they need to make sure they aren’t subconsciously putting their bias and desire unto your experience.  Good therapists and coaches are trained to do this.  Integration circles are just groups of people who are working on processing their experiences and you can run the risk of your personal experience being mixed up with someone else’s goals or interpretations.

 In Conclusion

The depths of ayahuasca can go much deeper but this article should give you an introduction on what ayahuasca is and what it can be used for.  It’s a very powerful medicine and like any powerful medicine it needs to be respected but when used in the proper context and setting it can be one of the most transformative experiences of your life.

If you need help finding a reputable retreat feel free to contact me.  I work with retreats occasionally and can give you my opinion on one that suits your desires.  I don’t charge for that service.

If you need help with integrating an experience or plan on going on a retreat and want to prep yourself for the experience feel free to contact me as well.  If I have availability I will take you on and if I don’t I can refer you to someone who can help you.

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