We work with the Amazonian Ayahuasca brew using only the Ayahuasca vine and Chacruna leaves. Nothing else is ever added. We offer to you the highest of intentions, integrity, and ethical practices in an attentive, supportive (but not intrusive) safe and loving environment.
Ceremony leader has been working with this medicine for over a decade and studied in the Peruvian Amazon with the well known and highly Respected Shaman, Don Enrique Lopez at the Ayahuasca Foundation.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a psychotropic drink that has been used in sacred ceremony in the Amazon region for thousands of years for healing purposes. Today it has made it's way to the modern world and burgeoned into the medical and psychological fields. it's deep and transformative healing abilities are recognized as an effective path to discover finding your way out of suffering, pain, addictions, fear, depression, chronic anxiety, PTSD., A way out of the unfulfilling career, working too much, not following your dreams and a way to understand how to make your personal relationships more fulfilling. A way to recognize that you can change and re-direct any undesirable behavior, Reconnect with your heart, discover your purpose, be happy, love deeply and know yourself fully.
In ceremonies you have the opportunity to see the truth behind the pain and suffering, that you don’t need to live that life any more and you don’t need to keep doing the things that make you unhappy.
But remember, Ayahuasca isn’t for everybody. this is deeply transformative work that allows you to align with who you truly are, not who you think you should be or what society, family and friends tell you who you should be, but who you really are.
Our Ceremonies are held in a semi-traditional format which include live singing of Icaros (sacred healing songs of the amazon) Chacapas, Drums, rattles and other instruments.
Ceremony Leader has also received the Munay-Ki rites of Initiation:
The Munay-Ki are a series of nine Empowerment rites based on the initiatory practices of the Q'ero shamans of Peru, as taught by psycologist Alberto Villoldo. "Munay" in Quechua means "love and will", together with "ki", from the Chinese word for energy, combine to give the meaning: energy of love.
The Rites of the Munay-Ki transform and upgrade your luminous energy field. They are energetic transmissions that heal the wounds of the past – your karmic and genetic inheritance. They re-inform your DNA, enabling you to grow a new body-one that ages, heals, and dies differently than your regular body.
The nine rites of the Munay-Ki are:
The Seers Rite, The Harmony Rite, The Bands of Power, The Healers Rite, The Daykeepers Rite, The Wisdomkeepers Rite, The Earthkeepers Rite, The Starkeepers Rite, and The Creator Rite.
Articles on Psychedelic Therapies:
Psychedelic drugs are poised to be the next major breakthrough in mental health care.
—Scientific American, August 2014
We are in the midst of what many are calling a psychedelic renaissance. After decades of prohibition, both MDMA- and psilocybin-assisted therapies have been granted Breakthrough Therapy designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are expected to become medicinally available in just a few years. Psychedelics show great promise in treating conditions like depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, and more. As psychedelic medicine rapidly enters the mainstream, education on safety, cultural perspectives, and spiritual significance of these substances become increasingly important.
Scientists, doctors, therapists, artists, and indigenous healers from around the world will come together to share current research, potential therapeutic benefits, and traditional use of psychedelics and cannabis.
Come together with the brightest minds and the boldest voices of this movement to share their knowledge, insights, and dreams for the future.
Choose from three workshops, four-panel discussions, and attend presentations from over thirty speakers.
Expand your networking, and connect with open and like-minded people. This is a unique opportunity for people from diverse walks of life to gather together in a common space to learn about and support the current psychedelic renaissance taking place on this planet.
Psychedelic therapies include Ayahuasca, Ibogaine, San Pedro and Peyote among others.
We offer year round ceremonies and retreats. Please contact us for upcoming dates.
The Ayahuasca Phenomenon
Jungle Pilgrims: North Americans Participating in Amazon Ayahuasca Ceremonies
What is ayahuasca? What happens during an ayahuasca ceremony? What types of people from North America participate in ayahuasca ceremonies? Why do they do it, and what do they get out of it?
It almost sounds hokey, but there I was in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. It was very dark, except for the faint glow of the shamans smoking their mapachos. I had been vomiting and dry heaving for over two hours, and had several bouts of projectile diarrhea. Lying down so the nausea was not as incapacitating, I could hear the chanting of the shaman’s singing their icaros along with various jungle sounds interrupted only by the other peoples’ occasional coughs and gurgling sounds as they threw up. Three hours ago I had swallowed a small cupful of a hideously repugnant tasting drink called ayahuasca (“eye – a – waska”), and for the last three hours I felt disoriented, dehydrated, and near death. Yet I was strangely alert and focused on the shaman’s chanting, and the visions in my head.
I wondered if I had been poisoned and would not survive the night. Fear mixed with anger and amazement as I tried to cope with the repeated bouts of nausea and fantastic visions. “Why did I do this?” I asked myself. Why did I pay over $3000.00 to go to the Peruvian Amazon and participate in this ayahuasca ceremony (and two more ceremonies after that one)? Why would anyone want to do this? And what type of person would do it? What do they get out of it?
In this paper, I will explain ayahuasca and the ayahuasca ceremony, and will attempt to describe the ineffable ayahuasca experience. Then, I will present data from a survey I conducted on a sampling of North American people who have traveled to the Amazon region of South America and participated in ayahuasca ceremonies. Finally, I will suggest answers to the above questions.
Ayahuasca: The brew
What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca refers to a psychotropic brew made by indigenous Indians of the Amazon jungle from a woody vine (Banisteriopsis caapi, B. inebrians, or B. quitensis) and the leaves of the chakruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Although the name ayahuasca is often used to describe the B. caapi vine, it also refers to the mixture of these two very different plants (DeKorne, 1994). Local medicine men, or shamans, prepare the mixture, sometimes substituting plants for chakruna (also known as sami ruca and amirucapanga), and adding different plants to the mixture depending on the nature of the ceremony (Ott, 1993). Ayahuasca is used by shamans to induce an altered state during which the shaman can look into the future, travel in spirit form, induce healing, remove spells, and cast spells on others.
The word ayahuasca comes from the Quechuan Indian words aya (“spirit,” “ancestor,” or “dead person”) and huasca (“vine”). Together these words refer to the “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead,” a vine that reportedly can free the soul or spirit (McKenna, 1992). Different Amazonian Indian tribes call the plant by names such as yage’ (pronounced “yah – hey”), yaje’, caapi, natem, pinde, karampi, dapa, mihi, kahi, and many other local names (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992).
Historical use of ayahuasca
Evidence from pre-Columbian rock drawings suggests hundreds of years of ayahuasca use in the Amazon, although Western scientists and explorers have only been exposed to the brew over the last 150 years. In 1851 British plant explorer, Richard Spruce, discovered the Tukanoan Indians in the upper Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon using a liana (vine) known as caapi to induce a state of intoxication. Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio first mentioned ayahuasca in 1858 while he was exploring the jungles of Ecuador. He described how the source of the drink was a vine used to foresee the future battle plans of enemies, diagnose illness, determine which spells were used and which to use, welcome foreign travelers, and insure the love of their womenfolk (Shultes, 1961). Villavicencio took the drink himself and described the experience of “flying” to marvelous places.
How ayahuasca works
Scientific analysis isolated the main chemicals responsible for the hallucinogenic properties of ayahuasca. In 1923, Fischer analyzed the B. caapi vine and isolated a compound he named telepathine (from the telepathic powers one reportedly gains when under the influence of ayahuasca). It was not until 1969 that a full chemical analysis was carried out (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992), and the compound was actually found contain three active molecules – harmine, harmiline, and d-1,2,3,4-tetrahydroharmine. Harmine and harmiline were shown to be the primary molecules of the B. caapi vine responsible for the altered state of the ayahuasca drinker; however, these chemicals alone could not account for the intense visions and experiences of ayahuasca.
The beta-carboline chemicals like harmine found in the B. caapi vine can be psychedelic, but only in toxic doses (McKenna, 1993). Further research revealed P. viridis (chakruna) as a common admixture to ayahuasca. Assays showed this plant to contain small but significant amounts of the potent hallucinogen DMT or N, N- dimethyltryptamine. However, DMT is rendered in active when taken orally. How does the DMT in chakruna get into the blood when drinking ayahuasca? In the presence of the harmine (found in the B. caapi vine), DMT from the P. viridis plant becomes orally active in the body. Harmine alkaloids inhibit enzymes in the stomach that normally destroy DMT. In other words, the B. caapi vine allows the hallucinogen DMT to make its way to the brain to help induce hallucinations (Turner, 1994). Of the thousands of plants in the Amazon rain forest, only these two types of plants when combined and drank will allow the user to experience a slow, sustained release of DMT and the resulting hallucinations.
Ayahuasca: The ceremony
When I first heard about ayahuasca from the leaders of a personal and spiritual growth center called “Seven Oaks Pathwork Center,” I asked why a person couldn’t just take the drink at home instead of incurring the expense and risk of going to the Amazon. The people who had been to several ayahuasca ceremonies explained that the ceremony was as important as the plants themselves. Some even suggested the experience of the ceremony and the “processing,” or discussion and evaluation of the experience the next day, is more important than the drink itself. Still others included preparation for the ceremony as integral and essential to the experience.
Ayahuasca analogues: Chemicals without ceremony
There are a growing number of people in this country using what are known as ayahuasca analogues. These are plants, extracts, and drugs that have chemicals in them similar to those in B. caapi and P. viridis. The purpose of taking these analogues is to simulate the ayahuasca experience by ingesting similar chemicals found in plants such as Peganum harmala (with its harmine alkaloids) and the DMT containing Desmanthus illinoensis (Ott, 1993). Reports flourish on the experiences of individuals experimenting with these analogues, with the most detailed studies found in Jonathan Ott’s Pharmacotheon. This amounts to experimentation with plants having no long history of shamanic use such as ayahuasca, and for that reason it is not recommended. Ayahuasca and it’s analogues are not recreational drugs – uneducated use could be fatal (DeKorne, 1994). Although chemicals similar to those in ayahuasca can create definite physical reactions in the user, there are still some vital missing elements. For one, there is the role of the shaman.
The purpose of the shaman
To understand the ayahuasca ceremony, one must understand the role of the shaman in Indian and other societies of indigenous peoples. The word shaman comes from the Siberian Tungusic word for the person in a tribe of indigenous people who uses a type of magic to heal, foresee future events, and communicate with spirits, plants, animals, and other worlds. Shamans are most often male, and are also called medicine men, witch doctors, curanderos, vegetalistas, and other names. Shamans either receive a “calling” to their role, or they can be chosen by others. They are chosen on the basis of their knowledge, spiritual gifts, sensibility, relationship to other shamans, or some uniqueness or strangeness about them. Sometimes the shaman is reluctant to accept the role because of the physically demanding nature of the duties, but the spirit world does not let him rest until he accepts (Maybury-Lewis, 1992).
The shamans’ job is to journey into the spirit world, or non-ordinary reality, getting advice and powers to maintain the balance between the natural and supernatural (Harner, 1982) . Shamans most commonly accomplish this journey by altering their consciousness through ritual methods such as drumming, dancing, chanting, and/or the use of psychotropic plants. In the Amazon, Indian shamans use chanting and plants such as those that make ayahuasca to achieve this altered state.
Since journeys in to non-ordinary reality such as those achieved through the use of ayahuasca can be frightening, confusing, and dangerous, shamans help others with their journey. They prepare the candidates through strict diets, purging, and other rituals. The actual ceremony requires just the right location and site preparation. In other words, the set (what you bring to the ceremony) and the setting (location and ambience) are critical to the quality of the experience (Leary, Metzner, and Alpert, 1992). In Millenium, David Maybury-Lewis states:
“If drinking yage (ayahuasca) is so unpleasant and frightening, why do people persist in using it? Because they believe the terror is something a person must overcome in order to attain knowledge. Needless to say, the insights acquired through taking yage depend very much on the training of the taker. An experienced shaman can see many things while under its influence. A novice may only be suffused with panic or lost in ecstatic vision he cannot interpret.”
The importance of diet
The shaman has a wealth of knowledge passed down to him over the centuries, and this information can be critical. When I first took ayahuasca, I was not aware of the importance of certain dietary restrictions. The trip leaders simply said to fast the day of the ceremony. They did not know I was taking megadoses of certain vitamins and amino acids in addition to the “smart” or cognitive enhancing drug known as Deprenyl. The shamans had no concept of people taking large amounts of vitamins and other nutrients that do not occur naturally in those quantities to enhance their physical and mental well being. Consequently, I became very ill during my first ayahuasca ceremony. What I learned only later was the potentially lethal danger of mixing certain foods and drugs with ayahuasca, and the importance of diet as prescribed by the shaman.
Ayahuasca contains harmine (found in the B. caapi vine) which is a MAO (monoamine oxidase inhibitor). MAO is found normally in the body and breaks down potentially dangerous amines from foods and other ingested substances. In doing this, it also destroys the DMT that is the driving chemical force behind ayahuasca hallucinations. When ayahuasca is consumed, the MAO inhibiting effect allows not only DMT to enter the bloodstream and brain, but also other potentially harmful chemicals present. These potentially harmful chemicals can accumulate from seemingly harmless foods such as aged cheeses, red wines, some meats, smoked fish, some dairy products, soy sauce, chocolate, avocados, sauerkraut, some soups, etc. Also to be avoided are sedatives, tranquilizers, amphetamines, tryptophan, tyramine, and phenelalanine (Turner, 1994).
The point is that one’s diet must be strictly controlled before (and immediately after) an ayahuasca ceremony to avoid potentially harmfully reactions (Lamb, 1985). These reactions can include severe headaches, elevated blood pressure, nausea, palpitations, and death! The point is that a special diet (which can include rice, plantains, and fish with no salt or spices) must be adhered to as per the shaman’s advice.
Abstinence from sex
In addition to refraining from certain foods, drinks, and spices, the shaman also abstains from sex for a period before, and sometimes after, the ceremony. There does not appear to be a medical reason for this, perhaps it is because the ayahuasca ceremony can be so physically and emotionally demanding. Some Indians such as the Jivaro or Shuar, may require novice shamans to abstain from sex for periods up to six months or they will fail to become a successful shaman (Harner, 1968). One of the trip leaders for my ayahuasca journey said she avoided being around some shamans during periods when they were preparing for and conducting ayahuasca ceremonies. She felt they had so much sexual power that it frightened her.
Cleansing the body: Drinking latex, turning blue, and mud baths
A friend, Ed Lilly, has traveled to eastern Peru four times and participated in over seventeen ayahuasca ceremonies. Most of his ayahuasca experiences have been at the camp, known as “Yushintaita,” of ayahuascero (ayahuasca shaman) Don Augustin Rivas-Vasquezs. In a recent interview, Ed described the interesting and challenging body-cleansing rituals performed at the camp as integral parts of the preparation for ayahuasca use (Lilly, 1998).
During the first day at the camp, everyone drinks a liquid made primarily of latex and evaporated milk called ojé (“oh-hay”). After drinking a cupful of ojé, participants are encouraged to drink a liter of warm water every thirty minutes for four hours. Forceful vomiting of the white liquid is not uncommon after an hour, which is followed by frequent defecation and diarrhea. The purpose, they are told, is to remove parasites and impurities from the body.
Next, everybody takes a huitol (“wee-tall”) bath. Huitol is an plant dye that turns the skin dark blue by the following morning. Since everyone remains naked during this period, they cannot hide their blue colored skin, which can take weeks to wear off. Don Augustin told the participants the dark blue color of their skin made them look like African Americans, thus creating a paradigm shift. One other possible purpose for this ritual is to create a physical change in the appearance of the body, such as the body painting rituals many endigenous cultures used prior to rites of passage or going into battle. Dying one’s skin dark blue may be symbolic of the personal battles and changes one undergoes during the ayahuasca ceremonies.
After the ojé and huitol, there are at least three types of baths whose function is to remove various perceived impurities from the skin: magnesium, red clay, and herbal. The magnesium baths are made of the white clay found several feet beneath the soil at Yushintaita. The white mud is applied to the skin from head to toe, left to dry, and later washed off. The red clay is used in a similar fashion, followed by buckets of herb laced water poured over the body. According to Ed Lilly, another benefit from these baths is that they help remove some of the dark blue huitol dye from the skin!
At any time during these rituals, Don Augustin may appear with a potion, liquid, or some other form of medicine for you. There is constant attention to diet, cleansing, purging, and healing throughout the two-week stay at Yushintaita. The point of all these rituals is preparation of the body and mind for the rigors of the ayahuasca ceremony.
A suitable location for the ayahuasca ceremony such as a small clearing in the jungle is prepared by clearing out remaining large vegetation. Sometimes a hut or other shelter can be used. The participants sit in a circle, with the shamans sitting together on one side. Once night falls, the shaman opens a bottle of pre-prepared ayahuasca brew while he sings one of his icaros and smokes a mapacho, a large cigarette made from native tobacco. Icaros are power songs the shamans use to call in the spirits, and initiate and drive the visions. These songs are said to be taught to the shamans by the plants themselves, and must be sung perfectly for them to provide protection and bring in the proper spirits (Luna and Amaringo, 1993).
My first experience at an ayahuasca ceremony
Don Jose’ and Vladamir, the Indian shamans presiding over the ayahuasca ceremonies I attended in 1995, lit their mapachos and blew the smoke into the bottle containing the ayahuasca. We were sitting in an abandoned Indian hut just off the Amazon about two day’s journey upstream (by boat) from Iquitos, Peru. Don Jose’ sat quietly while Vladamir while began whistling the melody of an icaro. The ayahuasca brew was poured into a small, eight-ounce cup, and handed to the participant closest to the shamans. We were asked to think of a question, purpose, or intention as we drank the ayahuasca. I listened to the others choking down the liquid as I thought of my rather general intention: I wanted complete spiritual and emotional healing. I wasn’t even sure how I would recognize this type of healing, but this was my first ayahuasca ceremony and I was excited!
I watched the person next to me drink the potion. I could see the grimace on his face as he swallowed what appeared to be a black, thick liquid in two gulps. I noticed he nearly involuntarily vomited the drink back up as he handed the empty cup back to the shaman. Don Jose’ filled the cup again and handed it to me. I took it with two hands, put it to my lips, and took the brew in to my mouth as I thought of my intention. When, I tried to swallow the ayahuasca, the potent bitter taste caused my throat closed up temporarily, and I sat there with the awful liquid in my mouth. I finally swallowed it and the rest of the cupful, enthusiastic at having all my problems solved in one night.
Nothing happened for about a half an hour as I listened to the sounds of the Amazon jungle and looked at the unfamiliar stars in the clear night sky. Then, Vladamir began singing an icaro while Don Jose’ kept a rhythm going by rustling palm leaves. I noticed my hands began shaking a little, and I was glad that the potion had begun to work. After that, I lost track of time, but I can clearly remember several events. I heard one of the participants begin throwing up, and I remembered being told that some people may vomit during the ceremony. I heard my friend, Ed, begin vomiting near me and I felt sorry for him as I sat waiting for the answers to come.
Suddenly, a wave of nausea hit me fast and hard, and the vomit was leaving my mouth even before I could turn completely around to direct the stream away from the palm bark strips that made up the floor of the hut. This was no ordinary nausea. It was violent. I could feel my insides forcefully heaving all the contents of my stomach out in a projectile fashion. I sat back upright again, only to have the intense nausea return. Except for two explosive bouts of diarrhea, I spent the next three hours either regurgitating, dry heaving, or briefly recuperating from regurgitating and dry heaving. I felt I was out of control and in the hands of something much stronger than my own will. Nearly exhausted, I felt death was near, yet I was too ill to be very afraid. This was not what I asked for! Where was the spiritual and emotional healing?
Don Jose’ and Vladimir continued taking turns singing their icaros while the participants were alternately sitting quietly or relieving their stomachs of their contents. Between the nearly constant episodes of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, I had visions. It is difficult to put the feelings and sights I had that night into words. The very action of turning these concepts into language seems to somehow change or destroy the content. I traveled at light speed to my home in Virginia, where my former wife was living temporarily. I looked at the mail she piled up for me on the kitchen table, and noticed a particular magazine I thought I had cancelled (weeks later I found myself looking at the same magazine on the same table). I saw, heard, and felt two small projectiles hissing through the air and entering the back of my body. Later, the shamans claimed to have sent them in tome as part of my healing. I saw an Indian man struggling next to the hut, yet when I pointed a small flashlight at him he vanished. As the ceremony ended and we headed back to our boats at the river’s edge, I saw beautiful blue lights dancing over the waters. But most of all, I felt a loss of control over my life. In spite of all my efforts to the contrary, I had to give in to the experience completely. I felt as though my ego had been murdered. I learned to surrender.
Healing during the ayahuasca ceremony
Shamans, believing all illness and malady has a supernatural cause or component, travel to the spirit world, find the cause of the illness, and attempt to facilitate a cure (Dobkin de Rios, 1992). Both physical healing and spiritual healing are integral parts of the ayahuasca ceremony. Many factors such as the above-mentioned special diet, internal and external cleansing, and abstinence from sex contribute to healing an individual preparing to participate in the ayahuasca ceremony by helping purifying his body and focusing his intent. Another form of purification and healing occurs during the ceremony, manifested in the intense purging through vomiting and diarrhea. Shamans believe the purgative action of ayahuasca helps rid the body of various toxins, and it has been suggested the intense vomiting may also help rid the body of internal parasites. The day after taking ayahuasca, I, like most people felt energized and refreshed. Perhaps I was only feeling better compared to the previous night!
One common way shamans use their powers to heal during the ayahuasca ceremony is the removal or implanting of “psychic darts” in the body of the patient. These psychic darts or virotes can be in the form of insects, crystals, and wood, and are acquired by the shaman from the spirit world or from other shamans. He removes the appropriate dart from the patient during the ayahuasca ceremony by placing his lips on the affected area of the patient and sucking out the dart. Although the shaman may even produce a physical object to show the patient the dart has been removed, it is important to note he is working in the spirit world with psychic darts and only produces a physical manifestation of the dart to assist in the healing process. Some patients will not pay the shaman unless he produces a physical “dart”! The process of removing (and, on some occasions, installing) virotes has considerable success in healing or improving the condition of the patient (Luna and Amaringo, 1993).
I am a militant non-smoker, so it is understandable that I did not know why the shamans continuously smoked their mapachos (hand- rolled tobacco dipped in rum) during the ceremonies I attended. At first I thought they just had acquired a bad habit like so many others. Later, I learned tobacco is considered one of the most powerful medicines by shamans. Tobacco smoke is used prior to and throughout the ayahuasca ceremony to aid in the healing and purification process. Tobacco leaves are a common admixture to ayahuasca. When the B. caapi vine is found in the jungle, Indian shamans often speak to the plant to ask permission to use it before removing any sections for making ayahuasca, and then will leave tobacco leaves near the vine.
Processing: The day after the ayahuasca experience
Don Jose’ looked at my bare back and lower chest, raising my arms up and speaking with Vladimir in Spanish and Quechuan. I had just finished describing the previous night’s ayahuasca experience, telling them how awful I felt throughout most of the ceremony. The interpreter relayed this information to the shamans, who then smiled and nodded. As they spoke, I understood the words bueno, bueno, or “good, good”. The interpreter told me they said the ayahuasca was good for me, and that I should participate in another ceremony. The first words popping into my head were “no way!” I wondered how something that felt so bad be good for me? Most of the participants expressed similar concerns. They were not expecting such a violent purging. Actually, few people ever admit to having a pleasant experience with ayahuasca. Later I was to learn that the reason people submit themselves to this harsh experience is the relevance of the hallucinations for personal growth (Kensinger, 1973).
From their staccato banter of the shamans, I recognized another word – frio – cold. I certainly wasn’t cold as I sat, a bit sunburned, in the midday Amazon sun. Gerry, acting as interpreter, said Don Jose’ saw cold in my body and prescribed the chirisanango vine as medicine. I accompanied Don Jose in the jungle as he gathered the vine. Later, he cut and pounded the bark off the vine and immersed it in aguardiente’, a type of white rum commonly used by modern Amazon shamans and curanderos for creating medicinal tinctures. I was told to drink a small glass of the tincture each morning and evening, followed immediately by a shower. However, the shamans said drinking the chirisanango would prevent me from taking ayahuasca again for the next few days. I was not sure why at the time, but I waited to drink the chirisanango until later. Instead, I decided to try ayahuasca again. My experiences were similar to the first time, although not as intense.
The day after an ayahuasca ceremony, the participants normally sit together with the shamans to talk about their experiences. It is here that the shaman tells what he saw in your body or spirit during the ceremony, and offers help, suggestions, or more healing. Interestingly, the shamans respond to the questions and descriptions of each ayahuasca journey with surprisingly practical answers. I learned from my ayahuasca experiences and my survey of other ayahuasca pilgrims that North Americans and Europeans often ask questions of a personal growth or spiritual nature. The shamans on my trip struggled with these questions, as they were accustomed to providing answers to more practical matters such as illness, money, and relationship problems. Each question, though, is seriously considered and answered by the shamans who will offer advice based on their observations during the previous night’s ceremony.
Limitations of the survey
Finding people who made the journey to the Amazon for ayahuasca was difficult. After over six weeks, I connected with only twelve people willing to speak about their ayahuasca experiences in the jungle. Two of these are what I call “trip leaders” – people who take groups to the Amazon jungle to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies. I connected with the remaining ten people by networking through a local friend, Ed Lilly. Ed and I had worked together, and were in the same group when I first experienced ayahuasca in the jungle. Ed has been to the Amazon five times and participated in at least eighteen ayahuasca ceremonies, so he was able to put me in contact with a few people who were willing to speak about their experiences.
It is important to keep in mind this is not large sample. The information presented represents the opinions and data given me by people who were willing (and eager) to speak of their experiences. Not represented in this survey were people who went to the Amazon strictly on their own as did the early researchers and some educated curiosity seekers. Many of these people went on to write about their experiences and several are cited in this paper.
Also not represented are the drug users following what one trip leader called the “ayahuasca trail”. I do not wish to judge people seeking ayahuasca as a “high,” but merely distinguish them from the ones interviewed for this paper. The growing demand for finding new and exotic drug experiences in foreign lands, known as drug tourism, leads people in increasing numbers to ayahuasca (Dobkin de Rios, 1994). According to one trip leader, most of these people are disappointed with the physically demanding ayahuasca experience, and usually do not repeat the experience. Charlatans – self-proclaimed healers using ayahuasca without having undergone an apprenticeship and often without scruples – abound in cities near the Amazon. Some ayahuasceros (usually mestizos practicing ayahuasca shamanism) fall into this category, charging tourists hefty sums of money and giving them ayahuasca without proper preparation or guidance (Bear, 1997). At least one trip leader from the United States falls into this category, advertising trips to the Amazon to sample various hallucinogenic plants and substances. Trips to the Amazon jungle usually cost over $2000.00, so instead of traveling some of these people are experimenting at home with ayahuasca analogues mentioned earlier in this paper. Interviewing these people would be difficult due to their reasons for trying ayahuasca, and therefore they are difficult to locate. As for the ayahuasca analogue users, they do not meet the purpose of this paper – to answer questions on why people go to the Amazon to do ayahuasca. According to my interview with trip leader Jaya Bear, there is at least one drug addiction treatment facility in Peru using ayahuasca to help get people off highly addictive drugs (Bear, 1998).
The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale
How ayahuasca, an ancient Amazonian hallucinogenic brew, became the latest trend in Brooklyn and Silicon Valley.
By Ariel Levy
September 5, 2016
Ayahuasca, used for centuries in South American jungles, is booming in the U.S.
Illustration by Bjørn Lie
The day after Apollo 14 landed on the moon, Dennis and Terence McKenna began a trek through the Amazon with four friends who considered themselves, as Terence wrote in his book “True Hallucinations,” “refugees from a society that we thought was poisoned by its own self-hatred and inner contradictions.” They had come to South America, the land of yagé, also known as ayahuasca: an intensely hallucinogenic potion made from boiling woody Banisteriopsis caapi vines with the glossy leaves of the chacruna bush. The brothers, then in their early twenties, were grieving the recent death of their mother, and they were hungry for answers about the mysteries of the cosmos: “We had sorted through the ideological options, and we had decided to put all of our chips on the psychedelic experience.”
They started hiking near the border of Peru. As Dennis wrote, in his memoir “The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss,” they arrived four days later in La Chorrera, Colombia, “in our long hair, beards, bells, and beads,” accompanied by a “menagerie of sickly dogs, cats, monkeys, and birds” accumulated along the way. (The local Witoto people were cautiously amused.) There, on the banks of the Igara Paraná River, the travellers found themselves in a psychedelic paradise. There were cattle pastures dotted with Psilocybe cubensis—magic mushrooms—sprouting on dung piles; there were hammocks to lounge in while you tripped; there were Banisteriopsis caapi vines growing in the jungle. Taken together, the drugs produced hallucinations that the brothers called “vegetable television.” When they watched it, they felt they were receiving important information directly from the plants of the Amazon.
The McKennas were sure they were on to something revelatory, something that would change the course of human history. “I and my companions have been selected to understand and trigger the gestalt wave of understanding that will be the hyperspacial zeitgeist,” Dennis wrote in his journal. Their work was not always easy. During one session, the brothers experienced a flash of mutual telepathy, but then Dennis hurled his glasses and all his clothes into the jungle and, for several days, lost touch with “consensus reality.” It was a small price to pay. The “plant teachers” seemed to have given them “access to a vast database,” Dennis wrote, “the mystical library of all human and cosmic knowledge.”
If these sound like the joys and hazards of a bygone era, then you don’t know any ayahuasca users—yet. In the decades since the McKennas’ odyssey, the drug—or “medicine,” as many devotees insist that it be called—has become increasingly popular in the United States, to the point where it’s a “trendy thing right now,” as Marc Maron said recently to Susan Sarandon, on his “WTF” podcast, before they discussed what she’d learned from her latest ayahuasca experience. (“I kind of got, You should just keep your heart open all the time,” she said. “Because the whole point is to be open to the divine in every person in the world.”)
The self-help guru Tim Ferriss told me that the drug is everywhere in San Francisco, where he lives. “Ayahuasca is like having a cup of coffee here,” he said. “I have to avoid people at parties because I don’t want to listen to their latest three-hour saga of kaleidoscopic colors.”
Leanna Standish, a researcher at the University of Washington School of Medicine, estimated that “on any given night in Manhattan, there are a hundred ayahuasca ‘circles’ going on.” The main psychoactive substance in ayahuasca has been illegal since it was listed in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, but Standish, who is the medical director of the Bastyr Integrative Oncology Research Center, recently applied for permission from the F.D.A. to do a Phase I clinical trial of the drug—which she believes could be used in treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s disease. “I am very interested in bringing this ancient medicine from the Amazon Basin into the light of science,” Standish said. She is convinced that “it’s going to change the face of Western medicine.” For now, though, she describes ayahuasca use as a “vast, unregulated global experiment.”
Most people who take ayahuasca in the United States do so in small “ceremonies,” led by an individual who may call himself a shaman, an ayahuasquero, a curandero, a vegetalista, or just a healer. This person may have come from generations of Shipibo or Quechua shamans in Peru, or he may just be someone with access to ayahuasca. (Under-qualified shamans are referred to as “yogahuascas.”) Ayahuasca was used for centuries by indigenous Amazonians, who believed that it enabled their holy men to treat physical and mental ailments and to receive messages from ancestors and gods. Jesse Jarnow, the author of “Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America,” told me, “It’s a bit less of a to-do in many of its traditional uses—more about healing specific maladies and illnesses than about addressing spiritual crises.” Now, though, ayahuasca is used as a sacrament in syncretic churches like the Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal (“union of the plant”), both of which have developed a presence in the United States. The entire flock partakes, and the group trip is a kind of congregational service.
The first American to study ayahuasca was the Harvard biologist Richard Evans Schultes, who pioneered the field of ethnobotany (and co-authored “Plants of the Gods,” with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who discovered LSD). In 1976, a graduate student of Schultes’s brought a collection of the plants back from his field research to a greenhouse at the University of Hawaii—where Dennis McKenna happened to be pursuing a master’s degree. Thanks to McKenna, some B. caapi cuttings “escaped captivity,” he told me. “I took them over to the Big Island, where my brother and his wife had purchased some land. They planted it in the forest, and it happened to like the forest—a lot. So now it’s all over the place.”
Terence McKenna died in 2000, after becoming a psychedelic folk hero for popularizing magic mushrooms in books, lectures, and instructional cassette tapes. Dennis McKenna went on to get a doctorate in botany and is now a professor at the University of Minnesota. When we spoke, he was on a book tour in Hawaii. He had been hearing about ayahuasca use in a town on the Big Island called Puna, where people call themselves “punatics.” “Everybody is making ayahuasca, taking ayahuasca,” he said. “It’s like the Wild West.”
If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale. It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness.
Ayahuasca, like kale, is no joy ride. The majority of users vomit—or, as they prefer to say, “purge.” And that’s the easy part. “Ayahuasca takes you to the swampland of your soul,” my friend Tony, a photographer in his late fifties, told me. Then he said that he wanted to do it again.
“I came home reeking of vomit and sage and looking like I’d come from hell,” Vaughn Bergen, a twenty-seven-year-old who works at an art gallery in Chelsea, said of one ayahuasca trip. “Everyone was trying to talk me out of doing it again. My girlfriend at the time was, like, ‘Is this some kind of sick game?’ I was, like, ‘No. I’m growing.’ ” His next experience was blissful: “I got transported to a higher dimension, where I lived the whole ceremony as my higher self. Anything I thought came to be.” Bergen allows that, of the nine ceremonies he’s attended, eight have been “unpleasant experiences.” But he intends to continue using ayahuasca for the rest of his life. He believes that it will heal not only him but civilization at large.
The process of making ayahuasca is beyond artisanal: it is nearly Druidical. “We pick the chacruna leaf at sunrise in this very specific way: you say a prayer and just pick the lower ones from each tree,” a lithe ayahuasquera in her early forties—British accent, long blond hair, a background in Reiki—told me about her harvests, in Hawaii. “You clean the vine with wooden spoons, meticulously, all the mulch away from the roots—they look so beautiful, like a human heart—and you pound these beautiful pieces of vine with wooden mallets until it’s fibre,” she said. “Then it’s this amazing, sophisticated process of one pot here and one pot there, and you’re stirring and you’re singing songs.”
She and her boyfriend serve the ayahuasca—“divine consciousness in liquid form”—at ceremonies in New York, Cape Town, Las Vegas, Bali. They showed me pictures of themselves harvesting plants in a verdant Hawaiian jungle, looking radiantly happy. I asked if they made a living this way. “We manifest abundance wherever we go,” she told me. Her boyfriend added, “Consciousness is its own economy.”
Like juicing—another Kale Age method of expedient renewal—ayahuasca is appreciated for its efficiency. Enthusiasts often say that each trip is like ten years of therapy or meditation. Ferriss, the author of such “life-hacking” manuals as “The 4-Hour Workweek” and “The 4-Hour Body,” told me, “It’s mind-boggling how much it can do in one or two nights.” He uses ayahuasca regularly, despite a harrowing early trip that he described as “the most painful experience I’ve ever had by a factor of a thousand. I felt like I was being torn apart and killed a thousand times a second for two hours.” This was followed by hours of grand-mal seizures; Ferriss had rug burns on his face the next day. “I thought I had completely fried my motherboard,” he continued. “I remember saying, ‘I will never do this again.’ ” But in the next few months he realized that something astounding had happened to him. “Ninety per cent of the anger I had held on to for decades, since I was a kid, was just gone. Absent.”
Ayahuasca enthusiasts frequently use the language of technology, which may have entered the plant-medicine lexicon because so many people in Silicon Valley are devotees. “Indigenous prophesies point to an imminent polar reversal that will wipe our hard drives clean,” Daniel Pinchbeck wrote in his exploration of ayahuasca, technology, and Mayan millennialism, “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl.” In an industry devoted to synthetic products, people are drawn to this natural drug, with its ancient lineage and ritualized use: traditionally, shamans purify the setting by smoking tobacco, playing ceremonial instruments, and chanting icaros—songs that they say come to them from the plants, the way Pentecostals are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues. “In Silicon Valley, where everyone suffers from neo-mania,” Ferriss continued, “having interactions with songs and rituals that have remained, in some cases, unchanged for hundreds or thousands of years is very appealing.”
Ayahuasca isn’t the only time-honored method of ritual self-mortification, of course; pilgrims seeking an encounter with the divine have a long history of fasting, hair shirts, and flagellation. But in the United States most ayahuasca users are seeking a post-religious kind of spiritualism—or, perhaps, pre-religious, a pagan worship of nature. The Scottish writer and ayahuasca devotee Graham Hancock told me that people from all over the world report similar encounters with the “spirit of the plant”: “She sometimes appears as a jungle cat, sometimes as a huge serpent.” Many speak about ayahuasca as though it were an actual female being: Grandmother.
“Grandmother may not always give you what you want, but she’ll give you what you need,” an ayahuasquera who calls herself Little Owl said, a few months ago, at an informational meeting in a loft in Chinatown. Two dozen people of diverse ages and ethnicities sat on yoga mats eating a potluck vegetarian meal and watching a blurry documentary about ayahuasca. On the screen, a young man recounted a miserable stomach ailment that no Western doctor could heal. After years of torment, he took ayahuasca during a trip to Peru and visualized himself journeying into his own body and removing a terrifying squid from his intestines. The next day, his pain was gone, and it never came back.
After the movie, Little Owl, a fifty-two-year-old of Taiwanese descent with black bangs nearly to her eyebrows, answered questions. “Do your conscious and subconscious work on different frequencies?” a young woman in a tank top wanted to know. “And, if so, which one will Grandmother tap in to?” Little Owl said that Grandmother would address your entire being. A friend of hers, a young African-American man in a knit orange cap who said that he taught mindfulness for a living, was standing by, and Little Owl asked if he had anything to add. “The medicine is like shining a light on whatever conflict needs to be resolved,” he said.
A Caucasian guy in his late twenties asked if there was anyone who shouldn’t take the medicine; he was deciding which friends he should bring to the next ceremony. Little Owl, who has a background in acupuncture, replied that every participant would fill out a detailed health form, and that people who have such conditions as high blood pressure or who are on antidepressants should not take ayahuasca.
An older man with silver hair and a booming voice spoke next: “Do you have doctors or anyone on hand who understands what’s happening on a pharmacological level if something goes wrong?”
There was a tense silence, and then Little Owl replied, “We are healing on a vibrational level.”
Aplant is constantly interacting with its ecosystem: attracting insects it needs for pollination, discouraging hungry herbivores, warning other plants that it competes with for nutrients in the soil. It communicates using “messenger molecules,” which allow for semiosis (signalling) and symbiosis (interspecies coöperation), helping the species to improve its circumstances as the process of evolution unfolds. Some of the most important messenger molecules in the plant kingdom are called amines, and are typically derived from amino acids.
The human brain, too, is a kind of complex ecosystem, coördinated by messenger molecules of its own: neurotransmitters, which govern everything from the simple mechanism of pupils dilating in dim light to the unfathomable complexity of consciousness. The neurotransmitters that mediate emotion, awareness, and the creation of meaning are amines—such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine—which evolved from the same molecular antecedents as many plant-messenger molecules.
The main psychoactive substance in ayahuasca—N, N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT—is an amine found in chacruna leaves. Ingested on its own, it has no effect on humans, because it is rapidly degraded by an enzyme in the gut, monoamine oxidase. B. caapi vines, however, happen to contain potent monoamine-oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). Some ayahuasca enthusiasts maintain that the synergy was discovered thousands of years ago, when the spirit of the plants led indigenous people to brew the two together; others think that one day someone happened to drop a chacruna leaf into his B. caapi tea, a psychedelic version of “There’s chocolate in my peanut butter.” However the combination came about, it allows DMT access to the human brain: when a person drinks ayahuasca, a plant-messenger molecule targets the neurons that mediate consciousness, facilitating what devotees describe as a kind of interspecies communication.
If the plant really is talking to the person, many people hear the same thing: we are all one. Some believe that the plants delivering this message are serving their own interests, because if humans think we are one with everything we might be less prone to trash the natural world. In this interpretation, B. caapi and chacruna are the spokesplants for the entire vegetable kingdom.
But this sensation of harmony and interconnection with the universe—what Freud described as the “oceanic feeling”—is also a desirable high, as well as a goal of many spiritual practices. Since 2014, Draulio de Araujo, a researcher at the Brain Institute, in Natal, Brazil, has been investigating the effects of ayahuasca on a group of eighty people, half of whom suffer from severe depression. “If one word comes up, it is ‘tranquillity,’ ” he said. “A lot of our individuals, whether they are depressed or not, have a sense of peace after the experience.”
Having studied fMRIs and EEGs of subjects on ayahuasca, Araujo thinks that the brain’s “default-mode network”—the system that burbles with thought, mulling the past and the future, while your mind isn’t focussed on a task—is temporarily relieved of its duties. Meanwhile, the thalamus, which is involved in awareness, is activated. The change in the brain, he notes, is similar to the one that results from years of meditation.
Dennis McKenna told me, “In shamanism, the classic theme is death and rebirth—you are reborn in a new configuration. The neuroscientific interpretation is exactly the same: the default-mode network is disrupted, and maybe things that were mucking up the works are left behind when everything comes back together.”
In the early nineties, McKenna, Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and James Callaway, a pharmaceutical chemist, conducted a study in Manaus, Brazil, that investigated the effects of ayahuasca on long-term users. Fifteen men who had taken part in bimonthly ceremonies for at least a decade were compared with a control group of people with similar backgrounds. The researchers drew blood from the subjects and assessed the white blood cells, which are powerful indicators of the condition of the central nervous system. (McKenna told me, “In psychopharmacology, we say, ‘If it’s going on in the platelets, it’s probably going on in the brain.’ ”) They found that the serotonin reuptake transporters—the targets that many contemporary antidepressants work on—were elevated among habitual ayahuasca drinkers. “We thought, What does this mean?” McKenna said. They couldn’t find any research on people with abnormally high levels of the transporters, but there was an extensive body of literature on low levels: the condition is common among those with intractable depression, and in people who suffer from Type 2 alcoholism, which is associated with bouts of violent behavior. “We thought, Holy shit! Is it possible that the ayahuasca actually reverses these deficits over the long term?” McKenna pointed out that no other known drug has this effect. “There’s only one other instance of a factor that affects this upregulation—and that’s aging.” He wondered if ayahuasca is imparting something to its drinkers that we associate with maturity: wisdom.
Charles Grob told me, “Some of these guys were leading disreputable lives and they became radically transformed—responsible pillars of their community.” But, he noted, the men were taking ayahuasca as part of a religious ceremony: their church, União do Vegetal, is centered on integrating the ayahuasca experience into everyday life. Grob cautioned, “You have to take it with a facilitator who has some knowledge, experience, and ethics.” In unregulated ceremonies, several women have been molested, and at times people have turned violent. Last year, during a ceremony at an ayahuasca center in Iquitos, Peru, a young British man started brandishing a kitchen knife and yelling; a Canadian man who was also on ayahuasca wrestled it from him and stabbed him to death.
Grob speculated that the shaman in that case had spiked the ayahuasca. Often, when things go wrong, it is after a plant called datura is added to the pharmacological mix. “Maybe facilitators think, Oh, Americans will get more bang for their buck,” Grob said. He also wondered if the knife-wielding British man had been suffering a psychotic break: like many hallucinogens, ayahuasca is thought to have the potential to trigger initial episodes in people who are predisposed to them.
Problems can also arise if someone takes ayahuasca—with its potent MAOI—on top of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a common class of antidepressants. The simultaneous blocking of serotonin uptake and serotonin degradation encourages enormous amounts of the neurotransmitter to flood the synapses. The outcome can be disastrous: a condition called serotonin syndrome, which starts with shivering, diarrhea, hyperthermia, and palpitations and can progress to muscular rigidity, convulsions, and even death. “I get calls from family members or friends of people who seem to be in a persistent state of confusion,” Grob said. He had just received a desperate e-mail from the mother of a young woman who had become disoriented in the midst of a ceremony. “She ran off from where she was, and when she was found she was having breathing difficulties and is now having what appears to be a P.T.S.D. reaction.”
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