Ayahuasca: an experiential study

The ancient tradition of drinking ‘Ayahuasca’ brew is common to many Amazon tribes, and it is considered by all of them their most sacred and powerful medicinal and spiritual practice.

The brew is based on the combination of stems from the Ayahuasca vine and leaves from the Chacruna vine, and the chemistry is as follows.  The active agent, from the Chacruna plant, is DMT – the most powerful psychotropic chemical known to science, but strangely abundant in most living things, with a function as yet undetermined.  It is released into the human brain during gestation, and at the point of death, suggesting its function in such ethereal and mind-expansive experiences as those of ‘near-death’.  Its simplicity as a molecule that is almost identical in structure to many essential amino acids, its observed transcendental effect, and its inexplicable abundance, have let to it being dubbed ‘the spirit molecule’.  We cannot normally ingest this molecule however, as enzymes in our stomach tear it apart, hence the function of the Ayahuasca vine, which contains specific monoamine-oxidase inhibitors that allow the absorption of the active molecule through the stomach and small intestine into the blood.  It is not known how the Amazon Indians discovered the synergistic properties of these two plants.

The brew is traditionally medicinal, and is imbibed as both a physical and spiritual purgative and cure.  Users widely experience nausea, laxative effects, intense psychedelic and mystical visions, profound emotional analyses, and cosmic sentiments of universality.  A shaman is present to invoke various spirits and to guide and support the user that they may ‘dominate’ the Ayahuasca, avoiding the emotional ‘freak-out’ that can result from the typically introspective character of such intense psychedelic experiences.  Such a personal psychological challenge, so steeped in mysticism and traditional significance, such an experience of life, but on another level, was a big part of why I came to the Amazon.

And so I found myself hitching a ride downriver to the native Ese-Eja ethnomedical Centro Ñape – a traditional healing centre with several large medicinal gardens in a pristine patch of forest alongside the river.  I stayed here for 3 days, with the native family that live there, following a strict diet of mainly fruit from the surrounding trees.  The ceremony happens only at night, as it is important to hear and feel completely surrounded by the sounds of the jungle; so at 10pm I drank the bitter tasting Ayahuasca in an open-sided circular ceremonial hut with 2 shamans – or ‘maestros’ as they prefer to be called, as it places emphasis on their deep knowledge of curative plants as opposed to mystical wizardry.  For hours they each sang their icaros – personal chants of invocation to the spirits of various plants – and I lay back and waited.  I had some purgative physical effects, and mentally experienced nothing too intense other than seeing for a while many vague sinister shapes and more specific frightening forms, but I was able to rationalise myself away from this unwelcome darkness.  I fell asleep briefly toward the end and awoke to their chants, to an ethereal light although our candle had gone out, and a serene feeling of bodily cleanliness.  I mentioned all this to the maestros and they told me that the Ayahuasca had dominated me, but that this was normal, because the first time it must cleanse the body and prepare it; only the second time can one ‘see’.

So I stayed for the following night as they had invited me to join a group of ‘paisos’, indigenous local people, who would be gathering to drink that evening.  They told me that this time I would feel it, and this time I would start to ‘see’ after half an hour.  I was as open as ever to the experience, but sceptical of what they said – after all, everything was the same, anything that had chemically impeded the experience the first time was, surely, still effecting me one night later, no?  No.

This time, funnily enough, it went down exactly as they said would.  Their brazen confidence was vindicated.  The whole experience has now blurred into an amalgam of what happened during the ceremony, what came immediately after, and the thoughts I elucidated during the following morning of pondering and writing.  But I remember a sense of vibration, and a strong sensation of ascending at great speed to some ultimate point that manifested itself, along with the physical sensation of reaching some zenith, with a vision of white rocks, tinged by rainbows, cleaving magnificently from the force of some rushing white light.  Although obviously not witnessing the beginning of time, as I suggested to myself in the moment, the notion of spiritual universalism was palpable.  I had subsequent visions, of the jungle and other things, that I seemed able to direct, or control, but what has really stayed with me are the very personal thoughts that the experience prompted.

As the voices of the maestros quieted and waned, as did the intensity of the experience, and when they stopped chanting many hours after we drank, the maestro Dionysio counselled the paisos regarding the experience, whilst laying hands on them to cure their aching bellies.  He explained that we were cleansed in body and mind, and that we had taken part in a proud tradition sacred to the native peoples of the continent.  He spoke of their shared civilisation, and sang ancient songs of indigenous unity mentioning Lake Titicaca, the jungle, and the mountains.  Witnessing Dionysio express this rich cultural bond, and impart sound rural wisdom as to how they should lead their lives as proud indigenous people, and in reflection witnessing their deep reverence for this man, the chief of his community, the question occurred to me how much I can ever have appreciated how utterly different my whole perspective is from so many others.  But how the basis of any judgement I pass rests on an arrogant presumption and imposition of my individual perspective on another.  So what truth, or useful meaning, can be elucidated from any situation without restraining this automatic, obstructive mode of thought? i.e. without maintaining the necessary humility of non-judgement?

This thought, and others regarding judgement and perspective, pressure and anxiety, revealed themselves to me in the hours of and the hours following the Ayahuasca.  It seemed to catalyse the makings of thoughts I have had in the past and recently, and I was delivered a clarity of mind that was quite affecting.  I found useful meaning by deciding it was important not to look for it, not to pressure it, but only to think about what I had experienced.  And I only drew out useful meaning as a result of this thought the morning after.  So I asked myself how much was the Ayahuasca and how much was me?  But decided that, really, it doesn’t matter.  An experience like that can make a difference in your life only if you decide it will.

So the experience was many of the things I had hoped for, but not really what I had expected.  It showed me something subtle and vague, far more complex than I could have imagined, and far more inclusive of my will.  Since that night I have felt physically cleansed, with an uncharacteristic disinclination towards cigarettes and alcohol, and psychologically my confidence is boosted, particularly with my Spanish – in a very strange way it has almost delivered my playful presentiment that it could precipitate immediate fluency.   I feel, in all seriousness, a marked mental clarity and peace: a very simple, direct happiness, free from burden.  In short, I feel more like myself, having been beforehand unaware of the deficiency.  It is notably uplifting, and it pertains.

Just to witness the traditional ceremony, with local people, for local people, was incredible in itself.  But to take part, and for the plants, the jungle at night, the shamans in their traditional dress, their talismans, and their chants, all to affect me just as they said (to my genuine surprise); this was profound.  The experience, just as any experience, has changed me in that the time has come and gone, so I am left, of course, with a new perspective.  The question is how new?  How different?  It feels, I think, like a subtle shift over some significant threshold.  It feels like ‘just enough’.

So to those to whom this sounds like ‘hippie bullshit’, I challenge you to reserve your judgement and come, with an open mind, to experience it yourself.