DISCLAIMER: Ayahuasca contains DMT which is an illegal substance in many countries. So consider carefully before breaking the law, because it’s naughty and the law is something you should always respect. After all, it’s illegal to break the law! That said, it is legal in many countries, like Italy, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica and in certain religious settings the United States. I had my experience in Spain, where it’s controlled and not unequivocally illegal.
There is a good reason Ayahuasca may be illegal in your country, even though it is an ancient old vine from the Amazon that is used world-wide as a means to connect with the deceased and seek help for various problems like anxiety, panic attacks, depression, addictions and numerous stress-related diseases. It’s nothing to take lightly and certainly not a recreational drug. It is plant medicine.
Whatever you do, I am not responsible if you decide to seek help from illegal substances.
Some or all names in this blog are changed for privacy.
Preparing for the trip
I found myself standing by a fireplace next to a half a dozen Buddha-themed tapestries, holding a shot-glass full of bitter smelling brown liquid and a piece of pineapple, and my heart was pounding inside my chest like it was being buried alive under my rib cage.
I wasn’t alone though.
Next to me there were 20 others standing in a circle, some of whom bore the same confused look on their faces as I, and some of whom seemed to know more than they would reveal. My thoughts were shuttling between “Now it’s too late to walk away” and “What have I gotten myself into?”
I only knew the facts. I was in Alicante, Spain, taking part in a five day healing retreat run by Om-mij, a dutch organisation specialised in healing retreats.
One word came to my mind: a cult. “That’s what it is,” I was telling to myself. And my fears about joining a league of brainwashed zombies started to drift back to my history of anxieties, panic attacks and bursts of anger I have learned to bottle-up.
Was I really voluntarily taking part in a ritual, which for outsiders might seem like something out of Jim Jones’ Wikipedia entry? Would I do it when I damn well knew that some or all of us would have to die tonight? Well, not really die in a clinical way but to totally transform and change, to be born again if you will. Even if I wasn’t going to be buried, transforming into a different person sounded scary enough. Well, it really was too late to regret.
I gulped the drink and washed it down with the pineapple to prevent the intuitive gag-reflect which normally follows after consuming revolting substances like motor oil, Kool-aid, urine or a shot of Unicum with sprinkles of mould on top. Or, like tonight, Ayahuasca, the Vine of Soul, strong psychedelic that is more commonly referred to as The Medicine, or Mother Aya.
Names aside, it’s nothing to be taken lightly though. Ayahuasca is not something you snort in a back-alley trance-club or smoke with them bros in your mom’s basement to a soundtrack by Bob Marley. It’s a heavy hallucinogen that simply puts you down for a lengthy period of time, shows you potentially scary images of yourself without the option to look away. So you better enjoy mental mud-wrestling or stay away from it.
Lengthy set of hugs and farewells made the bitter taste soon forgotten and I four-wheeled to my mattress. Next to it was a vomiting bucket, a pack of Kleenex’s and a water bottle. It was time to let go.
Was I here for a reason?
My journey to this point began a couple of years ago when I was on a Big Trip from Helsinki to Singapore overland through Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Taiwan, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.
When I had left my home town it was a more than year after a soul-tearing break-up with my ex. But decided to change that by entering a new realm of soul-seeking. I had no friends other than those from hostels. I had no home town, no familiar streets, no relatives to visit, no favourite cafes… In deed I had left my life and culture behind in search of a new way of being, completely detached from anything and anyone.
I was such a stereotype, a bunch of clichés for a 30-year-old solo traveler. I had only a small rucksack, sandals and a toy monkey, who was there to remind me of letting go and chill out even if the road calls. He was doing a bad job, I tell you, since I never quite learned to just be and breathe, to live in the moment and appreciate what I have right here, in my body and mind. I was speeding through the continent, on the fast-lane, ready to leave each town before I even had set a foot on it.
Eventually I came back to my home town of Helsinki. But still, after 7 months of lonely travels, random encounters and a couple of minor heartbreaks, feeling devastated. I still hated my life and the people who had wronged me.
I was still going through that, still blaming people of every problem we had left unsolved, and spent my days figuring ways to pay them back. I was tormented, I was bitter, I was angry.
But I had changed, even if just a little.
Traveling alone in Asia, albeit a cliché for a 30-something anxious soul like me, is a crash course in humbleness and connectedness. I came back home with a fresh set of tools. Instead of clenching my fist in frustration, I was openly talking about my problems and looking for ways to improve myself. Naturally, after trying “everything” (like watching a ton of Ted Talks and You Tube videos on how to live your life pain-free) I began to discover Ayahuasca.
The word started popping to both my newsfeed of life and virtual reality. For example, one friend was talking about “some cactus they drink in the Amazon that should take you to other realms and back with new knowledge”. Okay, well that sounded cool. Some other friend mentioned that if pot isn’t doing the trick for you, why not try Ayahuasca. That was less cool, but still it fit into the story that was slowly starting to make sense.
Then came my own research phase. I found podcasters Aubrey Marcus, Tim Ferris and Paul Rogan who were constantly (well, it feels like that when you learn a new word. Look up Bader-Meinhof-Phenomenon) talking about this magic substance that makes your heart pop open to let the light in, making you embrace the world around you like it just gave you the best blowjob of your life.
No, that’s not exactly what they told, but you get the point. Some of their podcasts are pretty rough takes on self-discovery, wiped clean of any traces of new-age bullshittery. I also found some YouTube clips, like Madventures, Charisma on Command and many others I had somehow missed even though I was sure I had seen every video on the planet about self-improvement.
I found out that Ayahuasca is in fact not a drug at all, but a sacred medicine that is consumed in rituals almost sacramentally in indigenous cultures. And it’s not a cactus. It’s a potion made of two vines, one that has a high dose of DMT and one that makes your body absorb it instead of rejecting it. It is a mystery how these two plants were found out to work together like this. The shamans will tell you that the plants themselves told them how to be used. Go figure.
Anyway, once taken, the medicine affects you pretty similarly than other hallucinogens like LSD and Magic Mushrooms by showing all the colours and patterns of the world and then some, but unlike most other hallucinogens, Ayahuasca penetrates deep into your subconscious, the abandoned warehouse of memories that reeks of rotten fruit and smothered anger. The Archive of Disappointments, so to say.
For many, if not for everyone, that is the very place you store all the painful experiences to not deal with anymore. In the process of force-forgetting, you have also forgotten to keep the archive tidy and organised, so that every time you go there to pick up something you genuinely need, you get a load of smudge and slime as a bonus, turning you anxious, hateful, nervous… basically making you lose your cool when it’s of no benefit.
This unwanted garbage is the price you pay for not sorting out your painful memories, but instead running away from them only to find all of it in front of you over and over again. Ayahuasca or The Medicine is there to take care of the shit you left behind, believing it’s never to be seen again.
The Amazonians consider Ayahuasca as the Grandmother spirit, a feminine entity who is there to show you the secret parts of your inner world. One way to translate the word Ayahuasca is Vine of the Soul, but some argue that it’s originally called Ayahoasca, Vine of bitterness, and it’s supposed to wash away grudges and anger, in one word: bitterness.
Indeed, this washing happens also physically when after drinking you involuntary purge, release any unwanted smudge through vomiting, laughter, cry and, what seems truly frightening, a messy diarrhetic shotgun blast out of your behind.
But there is more to it. You have to participate in her work, and that might get messy too. Once the Grandmother gets inside your brain she starts to wipe the clutter and layers of dust you have been collecting in your subconscious, and once she finds something that’s causing the bitterness, she unhesitatingly digs it out for you to examine (whether you want it or not) and to decide if that’s something you still need in the future or if it’s something that should be released to the dump-yard of your history. Rest assured: Aya cannot erase your memories, but it will organise the storage room little by little so that you can have room for love and happiness.
I repeat: this is not something to take lightly. The experience may be anything between a nightmarishly horrifying album of monstrous images and real-life events you wish you had buried deeper for Aya never to find them, or a fast-forwarding film reel of colourful painting of bliss and light. Hallucinations are common, so are physical seizures and out of body experiences, sudden bursts of tears and compulsory dancing, singing, laughter and shouting. You may feel cold, hot, out of breath or full of breath. You may feel entering different dimensions, ancient kingdoms, visiting dead relatives… basically everything that human mind is capable of imagining is possible. Some say that Ayahuasca is capable of showing you supernatural realities, like Daniel Pinchbeck and Sophia Rokhlin say in their book “When Plants Dream”:
Throughout Shamanic cultures, dreams are understood to be portals that connect to the evanescent realms of spirits. Dreams can offer information about the past – or even the future. Shamans often retrieve useful messages from the oneiric and hypnagogic realms, translating them into waking reality. The ayahuasca trance, in itself, has dream-like qualities. The drinker enters a state of being where the common laws of physics, reason and order no longer hold. Under the effects of the medicine, drinkers viscerally experience visionary dimensions with their bodies and minds. They learn lessons, encounter old trauma, solve riddles, meet the unborn an undead, encounter mythical creatures. Sometimes they bring information back into ordinary reality.
I doubt you can enter anything that doesn’t already exist in your mind, but I can’t rule that out either because I am just a rookie in Ayahuasca travels. Snakes and dragons are common visuals. I you meet them, feel free to follow their lead. It’s said that they tend to take you somewhere deeper to explore your true self, in their world — outside the one you know.
Some don’t see visuals at all, and some can see all the colours and patterns imaginable and beyond. Wherever you enter in your psychedelic journey, it’s worth noting that every action or image you see in the ceremony (or after it) carries a deeper message for you to think about. You are the one doing the actual work. Ayahuasca is only there to organise and clean the storage, and you just have to make sure it stays the way Aya left it.
You can count on it that Mother Aya will always give just what you need at the moment, and nothing more than you can handle. Expect nothing, accept everything. Give her your trust, and she will take care of you.
I wish I had fully internalised the power of Ayahuasca before embarking on the journey of my life.
Go to part 2