Curious About Drinking Ayahuasca? Read This First!

Photos by the author.

Curious about ayahuasca?

With a name that literally means “the vine of death,” this Amazonian brew is not a simple recreational psychedelic trip, so be warned about that reality from the start. Although ayahuasca does induce vivid and colorful visions that can be breathtakingly beautiful and lead to incredibly meaningful insights, it’s also often an intense experience, not just mentally, but physically as well.

I remember one particular ayahuasca ceremony about six years ago in the jungle, just outside of the Amazonian metropolis of Iquitos, Peru, when my stomach was churning like a washing machine as my mind dipped in and out of dark memories that I hadn’t thought about in years.

“I have something inside my gut that is killing me,” I told Luis, the indigenous curandero whose house in the jungle I had been living in for a couple of weeks.

“Yes,” he replied, “you do.”

“But when you fix this,” he continued, tapping at his temple to indicate what was going on in my head, “that will be fixed also.”

The truth is that ayahuasca is a medicine, and it just might be the most potent one on earth for some of humanity’s most pressing crisis situations.

It is exactly this phenomena that is driving its current worldwide popularity, as western medicine fails countless numbers of people and the entire western way of life wreaks havoc on both the natural and psycho-social landscape that we live in. Despite the material comfort that modern living supposedly provides, our spiritual angst, interpersonal conflict and environmental impact are all at an all-time high. Mental health is deteriorating fast around the globe as growing occurrences of stress and lifestyle related diseases cripple humanity.

“Ayahuasca can help people overcome depression, anxiety, PTSD, fear of death, addiction and drug abuse, and many other conditions, even in people for whom evidence-based psychotherapies have not been successful,” explained Rick Doblin, Ph.D, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a California based non-profit organization that has been pioneering research into the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca and other psychedelic substances, along with advocating for their legality and integration into the western health care system.

“Though for some, it may be heresy, I believe ayahuasca is a tool, similar to LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and ibogaine, that can be beneficially used in spiritual or therapeutic contexts,” Doblin affirmed.

The few clinical studies done on ayahuasca have been, in fact, quite remarkable.

A MAPS sponsored long-term study on ayahuasca’s effect on addiction and dependence reported “positive and lasting changes” in every single participant involved, while a recent Brazilian study found the Amazonian medicine alleviated depression almost instantly—even among those who had tried conventional anti-depressants to no avail.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Ayahuasca vine for sale in the Belen Market of Iquitos, Peru.
Ayahuasca vine for sale in the Belen Market of Iquitos, Peru.

Ayahuasca: What is it?

Scientifically speaking, ayahuasca is a concoction that utilizes the monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) properties of a specific Amazon rainforest vine known as Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca itself) to allow the potent hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT), found in a variety of rainforest plants like Psychotria viridis (chacruna), to become active in your brain. The two plants are brewed together for hours, or even days, and the resulting thick bitter brew usually takes about an hour after ingestion to start doing its thing.

But ayahuasca is more than just chemical soup.

Much like marijuana, a plant that co-evolved with ancient Himalayan civilizations, ayahuasca is designed explicitly for human use, a kind of Amazonian natural technology that is the result of close human-vegetable relationships, similar to cultivated food plants.

The fact that ayahuasca contains DMT, a complex psychoactive compound, which also happens to be found naturally in the human brain and spinal cord, possibly holding the key to human consciousness, can only really be explained by this process of co-evolution—just as how the cannabinoids found in marijuana bind to an already existing human endocannabinoid system and have extensive, diverse healing powers.

In the Amazonian rainforest, which has always been densely inhabited and is much more a cultivated garden than a savage wilderness, ayahuasca is considered to be sacred and divine—a direct link between the physical and the spiritual worlds.

In other words, ayahuasca is here to help humanity solve the heavy issues that face us right now, as our globalized civilization connects the entire world. More than just perfect timing, the emergence of a natural medicine that is perfectly poised to deal with our dilemmas right where they are rooted—in our own consciousness—could be considered proof of the deeper underlying unity and interconnectivity of all things.

Yes, ayahuasca is Avatar, but for real.

Cooking up the medicine in the jungle.
Cooking up the medicine in the jungle.

What Ayahuasca is Not

“There are three things to learn” my Peruvian curandero Luis told me one night after a particularly powerful ceremony, “And the first of these is patience.”

Ayahuasca is not going to heal all of your ills or solve all of your problems. You are.

What ayahuasca is going to do is show you, live and in technicolor, exactly how things like your ego, fear and stress make you sick or unhappy, proving to you on an intensely visceral level just how real the mind-body connection can be.

“Be careful about expectations of a miracle cure and/or of having a spiritual epiphany that provides clarity and direction for the entire rest of one’s life,” advised Rick Doblin. “While these outcomes can sometimes occur, expecting that they will definitely occur can make them less likely to actually occur since there could be resistance or disappointment with what actually occurs.”

To me, it helps to think of ayahuasca as a diagnostic tool or even an oracle, not a panacea.

You will have the opportunity to heal yourself by applying what you have learned during the ayahuasca experience after it is over. This is something even more extraordinary than a magic bullet and the opposite of the passive model of Western medicine where you simply pop pills and wait for the effect. Ayahuasca is an active medicine, meaning you have to participate fully in the healing process, making concrete changes in your life based on what you learn in the ceremony.

This why so many people refer to it as a “teacher” plant.

Pouring off the water to boil down the ayahuasca.
Pouring off the water to boil down the ayahuasca.

Shamanic Traditions and the Globalized Ayahuasca Movement

“The second thing to learn,” said Luis that night under the Amazonian star filled sky as the ayahuasca after-effects traced iridescent rainbow patterns through the shadows, “is to see from your heart instead of your head.”

As a freelance writer who spends as much time as possible in South America, I have been fortunate to have been able to drink ayahuasca in a variety of different contexts over the last decade or so. I have spent lots of time in the verdant river waterways of the Peruvian upper Amazon near the fascinating jungle city of Iquitos, where ayahuasca tourism is booming and both shamans and charlatans seem to lurk at every corner, as well as in off-the-beaten track locales like the Alto Putumayo of Colombia, where strong yage (ayahuasca) traditions involve spellbinding Andean music under the rainforest covered backside of the second highest mountain range in the world.

I have also drunk the brew with the Brazilian Santo Daime church, where everyone shows up in crisp white digs and sings Portuguese hymns passed down through generations, many as absolutely enchanting and intoxicating as the best of Rumi’s poetry. In Bogota, a mile-high Manhattan-style city of over 10 million people where I like to base myself when not in the jungle, I down the medicine with the Colombian urban creative class, including artists, musicians, activists and bohemians who bring in Taitas (shamans) from the Putumayo area on a regular basis and organize as groups of friends through various Facebook pages.

What I have learned is that there’s not one “right” way to drink the medicine. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

There are, however, some very wrong ways to go about it in my opinion, and that is mostly due to the commercialization that is taking place around ayahuasca. There’s plenty of people charging way too much for ayahuasca ceremonies, especially in places like Iquitos itself where expensive retreat centers compete with each other for the tourist dollar. While not bad people, many of these folks have much less experience than a traditional indigenous ayahuascero, and this has a negative effect on locals who watch their own culture being sold by foreigners at exorbitant prices while they remain in poverty.

Worse, unscrupulous charlatans will often try to convince you that you need their protection, when in fact they are the ones putting you in danger. With their mind on the money—something that traditionally is not mixed with indigenous spiritual practices and is kept out of the newer church based practices like Santo Daime as well—safety and sincerity are forgotten quickly.

Sadly, tales of abuse and even death surrounding ayahuasca are becoming far too common.

“Be sure  that there are protections in place against sexual abuse and other forms of taking advantage,” warned Doblin of MAPS. “Surrendering to the ayahuasca experience of necessity involves an inner focus that can make one vulnerable to external energies.”

And it is this inner focus, where we can really dig deep into our own hearts and start to deal with negative emotions that may even have been normalized in us by society that catalyzes the real healing potential of ayahuasca. Beyond rituals and rules, all of which may have their traditional importance in providing space for this inner work, it is the work itself that is the core of the shamanic ayahuasca experience.

A real shaman uses ayahuasca as a tool to reach an optimal state of mental and physical health, and is then able to explain the process and guide others on this path to inner peace. Only with the hard work of the practitioner can one overcome negative emotions like hate and anger and instead develop love and compassion for the entire world. Shamans aren’t imbued with supernatural powers, and they don’t cast spells or sing songs that are going to do the work for you. That type of wishful thinking can actually lead to dependence and abuse.

Just like with ayahuasca itself, a shaman is not going to heal you, you are going to heal yourself. Beware of anyone or any place that makes claims to the contrary.

A "Tambo" hut used for dieta in the Peruvian Amazon.
A “Tambo” hut used for dieta in the Peruvian Amazon.

Deep Healing: Integrating the Ayahuasca Experience

“The last thing to learn, and the hardest one of them all” continued Luis, “is to see reality for what it really is.”

When the profound insights learned during the ayahuasca ceremony are applied to your life, real healing begins to blossom like a flower. In the Peruvian Amazon, this time to integrate and reflect upon the ceremony is done through a process known as the dieta, where you spend a week or so in isolation in a tambo hut in the jungle after a ceremony “dieting” with a particular plant . During this time, you go through a process of deep introspection, much like a Vippassana meditation retreat or a Native American vision quest where the issues that came up during the ayahuasca ceremony can be deeply explored and changes integrated into your life.

“Ideally, the context would be one that is led by somebody experienced with their own personal use of ayahuasca, that the providers are more interested in spirituality/healing than in making money, that there will be people speaking your own language, and that the context focuses not just on the experience itself but also on the process of long-term integration that transforms profound experiences into enduring personal growth,” Doblin shared, emphasizing the fact that true healing will ultimately come from within.

While this may sound disheartening to those who feel they need real help, my experience has been that learning how we ourselves wield much control over our own suffering is in fact the most empowering skill we can master.

Ayahuasca, used as a tool. alongside a commitment to spiritual growth, has helped me transform my life in many ways. Where there was once frustration and despair, there is now gratitude and a firm belief in the bright future of humanity. My view of reality has been changed permanently, and that is where the deep healing lies.

Ayahuasca is true medicine for troubled times, a powerful gift straight from the heart of Mother Earth to help us realize change right now, exactly when its needed most.  Its very existence is proof that nature does in fact have our back, more-so, that the entire cosmos is conspiring with us as we evolve together as one.

That, in itself, is cause for celebration.

Resources For Those Thinking of Drinking Ayahuasca

Much of the info about ayahuasca on the web is published by centers motivated to earn your business or vendors hawking products. Alternatively, these unbiased resources will educate you more about this truly magical medicine and its incredible potential to change the world.

ICEERS Foundation
With offices in Spain, Uruguay and the Netherlands, the International Center for Ethnobotanical, Education, Research and Service is a non-profit dedicated to the acceptance and integration of ayahuasca and other potent psychoactive plants (such as iboga) into modern society. Find great resources for beginners, including information on taking ayahuasca and support and psychological services to help you integrate the experience afterwards.

The Ayahuasca Forums
This authoritative ayahuasca forum was established over 15 years ago, and now contains a wealth of information to explore in various threads and subcategories like “testimonials” and “connections and events.” Some of the senior posters are quite knowledgeable as well, so it’s also a great place to ask any questions you might have.

Reset Me
Started by former CNN correspondent Amber Lyon, who dropped out of corporate media after drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon, is devoted to providing the public with high quality information about mind-expanding medicines like ayahuasca through articles, interviews and coverage of the latest scientific studies on psychedelics. (Disclaimer: I am a frequent contributor to this awesome site.)

Launched in the year 2000, the Erowid Experience Vaults contain a treasure trove of user submitted experiences with hallucinogenic substances, making this a great place to prepare for when you might consume ayahuasca. Erowid also contains detailed instructions on preparation, a valuable tool for solo explorers.

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