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An analytical perspective beyond the spiritual hype.
Taking the leap
The first time I heard about Ayahuasca was a decade ago, I can't remember exactly how, but I wouldn't be surprised if it came from Vice. In the meantime, I've been reading up on the subject occasionally, and eventually discovered the existence of trip reports – a personal account of an individual's experience with a psychoactive substance – which took me further down the rabbit hole of jungle medicine. In the existing body of literature, some of the accounts are tantalizing, but many others are equally frightening, and for a while, the latter part strongly discouraged me from jumping on the shamanic wagon. Until recently, certain life circumstances made me change my mind.
One of the main motivations for writing about my experiences came from the recurrence of confusing testimonies I've listened to. In most instances, people tend to be vague and sound more spiritual than analytical when describing their relationship with the plant – although this could be explained by a selection bias of esoteric personalities – and from my perspective, this type of rhetoric was not helpful in understanding the overall effect of the plant. Secondly, it's important to keep in mind that this report remains subjective, and while I generally endeavor to describe most of my experiences with psychedelics from a logical perspective, that doesn't make it any more true, as I could be completely wrong or overly confident in my own interpretation.
Into the world of shamanic healing
The rise in popularity of Ayahuasca ceremonies has brought the mother plant to the attention of a large audience. Nowadays, and thanks to the globalization of the shamanic industry, traveling to South America is no longer a prerequisite for attending retreats, as the high demand has led to an abundance of alternatives in Europe, North America, and probably, less officially, in other parts of the world. After searching the Internet, I've found a plethora of retreats with a variety of different options: from the donation-based ones where you have the bare minimum of comfort, to those offering high-end villas with infinity pools in a glamorous destination. At this stage of the process, it was important to consider which type of setting would be most appropriate, as I didn't want to be surrounded by fifty people in the middle of nowhere, or mingling with influencers selling Yoni eggs. And after thoroughly evaluating the various options within a reasonable geographic distance, I found a potentially good candidate.
A few days before the retreat, I received an email containing a set of instructions: how to get to the place; a form to fill out regarding allergies and mental health issues; a restrictive diet to follow, no meat, sugar, spices, dairy products, sexually related activities, and in a very broad sense, any kind of drugs. The diet is intended to be part of a cleansing process in order to receive the medicine more deeply. When the day came, it took me a full day to get to the place, which was on a hill overlooking a pine forest. I had a quick chat with the organizers while the rest of the participants gradually joined us before being quickly briefed on the retreat schedule. The ceremonies began at night, while the day was dedicated to integration sessions. One thing that struck me was the diversity of the participants, and ironically, the last time I'd seen such randomness was during my mandatory military service day.
For the first night, I was unusually still as I watched the shaman perform some rituals before instructing each of us in a circle to stand, come and drink the beverage. Despite its reputation for terrible taste, it wasn't that bad and even reminded me of the flavor of fermented soy. The onset of the substance usually takes half an hour, but even after a long time I still felt quite lucid and had the feeling of tripping on ~125 μg of LSD – which is a pretty average dose in terms of intensity. I was slightly frustrated as I expected a violent knockdown that would turn me into a mouth-breathing dead fish. I took a glance around and realized that some of the participants were in agonizing pain. At one point, a lady had completely lost touch with reality and screamed continuously in a horrifying manner, but also made other very strange animal noises – which I found absolutely hilarious – and completely disturbed the organizers who vainly attempted to communicate with her until they made the decision to evacuate this person from the ceremonial site. Immediately afterward, there was a general sense of relief as silence became the most precious thing in the universe. The shaman asked if anyone needed a booster, I quickly raised my hand and realized that I was the only one. They seemed a bit concerned about the panic incident and made sure I was sufficiently aware and ready to take a second dose. I reaffirmed my desire to escalate further, and about an hour later the intensity of the trip increased dramatically, reaching an overwhelming state that I had been eternally waiting for.
The first ceremony was a strong psychedelic trip, but comparatively not as ground-breaking as other experiences I had. I reflected with other participants and some of them also shared mixed feelings. I later learned that having a non-extraordinary first experience is quite common and generally indicates that subsequent ceremonies are more likely to be deterministic. Interestingly, I recognized many similarities to other substances such as psilocybin or mescaline, but the main fundamental difference was the sensation of an external presence or entity, which some people referred to as God, Alien, and more commonly by indigenous people, The Plant. As a matter of personal preference, I'll stick with the latter to explain some of my reasoning – although I hold the assumption that this phenomenon is entirely rational and may be explained in the future from a neurological standpoint.
When the second ceremony began, I felt more anxious and decided to drink only one cup and waited patiently, hoping for some sort of mystical revelation. Then suddenly I lost control of my thoughts and the whole experience turned into a total nightmare. I was unable to stop myself from thinking negatively, and I felt as if my emotional state was being hijacked by the plant – in a similar way to the Indiana Jones voodoo doll being used against me. These relentless thoughts portrayed me as a selfish individual, while my intuitive response was to deny these exaggerated interpretations of my personality, as rationalization is a natural reaction to negative feelings. In most cases, it's practically possible to escape a bad trip through willpower or deep breathing exercises. Unfortunately, none of these strategies were effective because the same thought pattern kept invading my mind. Eventually, after hours of resisting, I gave up and took the visions projected by the plant at face value – this process of acceptance is commonly referred to as surrender.
I woke up from that horrible night in a confused state of mind, wondering if most of my interpretations were accurate or completely delusional. Out of any reliable means of lucidity, I called my mother, explained what I had actually been through, and shared some of my concerns regarding my selfishness. She hesitated for a few seconds before saying: “I'm glad you finally figured it out” – which made me cringe a little deeper inside as this external perspective added more credence to this narrative. In retrospect, the teaching process of Ayahuasca was very direct and brutal, like a child whose parents have never grounded him, but suddenly decided to throw everything he has done wrong in his face, which admittedly was not pleasant. In a way, this joins a common interpretation of receiving years of therapy in one night. It's an enlightening but radical means of giving you a different perspective on yourself.
Integration and communal benefits
In the past, I've rarely been interested in taking psychedelics in a communal context. On previous occasions, like music festivals, it was always a challenge to find meaning in these massive hedonistic rituals where I barely felt any sense of bonding with the crowd – maybe because I'm too selfish. Alternatively, I rather preferred to be a lone wolf, seeking trip settings that were the most distant from civilization. In a completely opposite way, the shamanic ceremony had fundamentally different goals and wasn't designed for recreational purposes, where the overwhelming majority of people who came had a decent understanding of what they were doing. The unique and to some extent religious aspect of this retreat was made possible by the shaman himself, who took charge of the ceremonial practices, which contributed greatly to creating a warm atmosphere and made the experience transcendental – especially listening to Pachamama chants in my desperate attempt to vomit.
Perhaps the most frequently asked question I get is: “Was it life-changing?” It depends. It's extremely unlikely that someone will wake up a profoundly different person. There is no such thing that will instantly and fundamentally alter aspects of your personality – unless you suffer permanent brain damage. Generally speaking, radical changes take root from other extremes – or as a reaction to them; a traumatic experience can translate into resolutions that often lead to new habits and, consequently, significant results over time. That's why having at least two ceremonies is a safer bet than one enjoyable experience that's unlikely to teach you anything valuable. For my part, I've made some small adjustments and have become one percent less selfish than I was according to the best-case scenario. More importantly, I've realized that it's a waste of energy to relentlessly fight against your most unappealing traits, whereas it's much more helpful to accept them. In the end, self-awareness won't substantially change your dispositions, but you can always anticipate situations in which you can act on them positively.