It’s the eve of my second Ayahuasca ceremony and the weather has turned apocalyptic; it’s pitch black outside and the rain is conducting a continuous and deafening assault on my cabin, drowning out all the jungle sounds around me. Bursts of lightning illuminate the sky while the occasional thunder clap booms overhead. It makes for ominous weather indeed. I am sat in my cabin with only the smallest light to guide my way, wondering what this second ceremony will hold.
My honest thoughts so far? Deeply disappointing. After hearing the most incredible stories about Ayahuasca from fellow travellers and accounts on the internet, I was full of trepidation and excitement for my first ceremony. But it passed in the most anti-climactic way possible: nothing happened.
But before we delve into that, let’s rewind and go back to how I ended up deep in the jungle on a 5-day retreat to sample this ancient Amazonian drug.
I had never heard of Ayahuasca until I crossed the border into Peru, and then the stories came thick and fast from countless travellers who had experienced it. Initially I dismissed it as another recreational drug, people who go into the jungle to get high, same story I have heard a million times. But the more I heard about it, the more interested I became. The Ayahuasca ceremony is protected in Peru (and, in fact in several European countries) as a crucial part of the indigenous culture. The Amazonas have used this for centuries as a way for spiritual healing and wellness, allowing them a connection to the universe around them. They seek knowledge, understanding, mental healing and enlightenment through the participation in the ritual. Shamans study for years to be able to perform the ceremony and help guide others through this journey, overseeing and conducting the appropriate healing for each individual person. It comes with it’s own strict diet: no alcohol, dairy, salt or red meat at least 4 days before the ceremony, and no meat/salt/alcohol during the ceremony days.
Ayahuasca in its most basic form is a bark like plant mixed with DMT leaves. This mixture serves to prevent the DMT breaking down in your system and allowing a longer and more vivid hallucinogenic experience. A psychedelic it might be, but here it is sacred; far from a recreational drug it’s an intense and overwhelming personal journey into your subconscious mind (or, if you believe in the spiritual, a journey to other planes of existence). It’s a purging therapy on both physical and mental levels, making you violently sick during the ceremony and can be made to confront your deepest and darkest demons. But this all depends on what you want to get out of it, what you believe and how much you are prepared to face and process.
Note: this is based on what I was told, I’ve not experienced anything as intense as described.
There are now a few major studies into the Ayahuasca and its positive effects and treatment of many mental health and psychological disorders such as PTSD, depression and drug/alcohol addictions.
So where does that leave me? Well like I said, this all sounded very intriguing & I’d never heard anything like it before. My main reason is just pure curiosity – something I have to see and experience for myself. The other, well let’s just say we all have demons we carry around, and I’ll admit I have heftier ones than most. It makes you think, from everything bad that’s happened in your life, have we really processed any of this? I mean it’s not for nothing I’m halfway across the world, escaping from real life and responsibilities at home. So terrified though I might be, here I am. For better or worse, let’s see what this shit throws up.
(I feel it is pertinent to note here that I did a lot of research before making the decision to come out here, making sure it is safe and finding a reputable company to do this with.)
A flight to Iquitos, an hour by boat down the might amazon and a 30 minute walk into the jungle brings me to my home for the 5 days; a basic camp called La Lunas Amazonas. There is running water from the river, but no electricity, cell reception or internet. Gas is bought in propane tanks and the lights are powered by solar energy. There are basic cabins sprinkled around the camp, separated from the elements only by thick gauze to keep out the mosquitos and bugs. There are 2 outside showers and toilets a few minutes walk from my cabin. Back to nature it is.
This bring us back to the first ceremony. I had many expectations and was half terrified and anxious but also full of excitement and curiosity. We all filed into the ‘temple’ building, a big round structure with a high wooden roof, and took our place on the mattresses placed around the centre. The ceremony begins shortly after 9, after the sun has set and we are illuminated only by a few candles in the temple and accompanied by the entire choir of the jungle. The shamans come into the temple shortly after and begin the preparation of the Ayahuasca ceremony. While the liquid is being prepared there is chanting and incantations, to ready the plant and us for a journey into the spiritual world.
Well, so much for a peaceful healing experience, or an experience of any sort. After 2 hours of staring at the ceiling and trying to feel something, I got bored and went to sleep. I was left only with feelings of annoyance and frustration, wondering whether I had blown $500 on the biggest pile of shit in my life.
My frustrations continued the next day, despite the peaceful setting and being assured that this is normal and that the Ayahuasca is still working inside me to ‘align my chakras’. You can shove your chakras up your ass, I thought. I didn’t come here to experience nothing, I came expecting some soul-exposing psychedelic spiritual voodoo. What I hadn’t been told is that they give you only the smallest amounts on your first time, just in case you have a bad reaction, and means often nothing happens. Well that was a very costly trial given they had just wasted 1 of my only precious 2 ceremonies. The guys assured me they had the same, and not to worry – something would happen the next time for sure. I remained sceptical because, well that’s just how I am.
Fast forward my second night, and second ceremony; conducted amongst the aforementioned atmospheric storms around us. Again, I consumed the vile tasting liquid given to me by the shaman, a touch more than last night. I lay back and tried to clear my mind, to such effect I dozed off for 20 minutes or so. I woke up with a start, to the shamans chanting and singing away at the front and thought, not again, I feel absolutely nothing. But a mere 10 minutes later everything changed…
Suddenly the world was spinning and my whole body ached with a high fever, sensitive and strange to the touch. It was like being at the height of delirium and I was reeling. I felt completely wretched; nauseous and congested. I ran to the toilet to purge, throwing up a vile blackness while my body shuddered and protested violently against the effects of this drug. However once I had completed the purged things took an entirely different turn, and I didn’t feel sick for the rest of the night.
I stumbled back to the tent, relieved to be feeling much better and lay down. This is when the trip really started. As soon as I closed my eyes a myriad of colours was appearing, drawing the most complex and beautiful of geometric shapes and patterns in front of my eyes. I floated through vivid and fluorescent kaleidoscopic landscapes, almost like a cheesy Hollywood portrayal of an LSD trip. We were soon in space, where the electric colours continued to dance among the stars, like a spectacular array of northern lights in space. Soon they turned into concentrated beams of multi-coloured lights, and I was among them, dancing with the light around the stars and planets. While I wanted to stay on the ground and in reality, I wasn’t allowed and felt my body (consciousness) involuntarily rising to join this other reality. I felt the presence of Venus (whether in body or spirit I have no idea) and she invited me to join in the experience and guided me through the nebulas.
This was the theme throughout the whole trip and you have no concept of time passing in such a linear fashion. At the beginning it’s slightly disconcerting, but I grabbed my necklace (almost as a reminder of something real and solid) and so felt tethered to this (our) reality, and with that I could leave my material body behind and explore the alternate dimensions of the Ayahuasca world; going with bugs to their underground nest, flying with birds among the sky and stalking with predators through the dense jungle. I don’t remember everything and only some of these visions were tangible, but knew this wasn’t a dream.
As quickly as it had started, the trip was over. This gigantic buzzard flew past my ear (not real) and suddenly I was back in the temple, fully conscious and back in reality. What remained was this sense of calm and tranquillity as well as euphoria, and you enter a state of enhanced mental clarity. I guess this is similar to the point monks get when they meditate and those fleeting moments before you fall asleep where you have inspired waves of genius. It’s the time for epiphanies and to ponder your life’s dilemmas. The shaman performs his individual healing near the end of the ceremony (around 2am), blessing you with protection and imbuing a sense of purpose in your soul. He thanks the Ayahuasca for the truths it has shown us and the healing it has done. I slept peacefully after that, having had one of the most bizarre nights of my life. I don’t fully know what to make of it.
The next day held something completely different; a San Pedro ceremony. San Pedro is another potent psychedelic plant, a cacti. It’s boiled down and drunk much like Ayahausca but the effects are much less intense. It’s a more of an easy going and fun natural high, and lasts for 10-12 hours. I could only manage about 1/3 of a cup, as I was still recovering from the Ayahausca the night before, and my stomach just couldn’t keep any more than that down. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s the most vile-tasting-vom-inducing liquid I have ever had the displeasure to drink. So I didn’t trip as hard as the rest of the gang, but I was definitely along for the ride. There was 4 of us ‘patients’ in the camp, 3 guys and me, and our guide/interpreter Karina joined in somewhat later. It doesn’t feel like being drunk but it can be most likened this state, we were tired/peaceful/energetic/restless and having deep and meaningful discussions about life all at the same time. The guys fidgeted, ran around, wrestled, swam in the river, had moments of complete lethargy and moment enlightenment, tripped out, giggled, got the munchies and danced around like lunatics throughout the whole day. We had this heightened sense of being and everything around us got this magical aura. We gazed in wonderment at the scenery all around us. We walked to the amazon and swam in the amber glow of the setting sun, we discussed life and all its meanings and, when night fell, we stargazed and danced under the canopies of the jungle alongside some rave music. The day was one of warm and embracing companionship, as well as pure, unadulterated joy.
We said an emotional goodbye to two of the guys the next day, half of our new family. It might only have been 4 days but what we had been through together had shown all of us our true selves, and we had bonded over that shared experience. The guys had been here 7 days and had 4 ceremonies, and while I can’t attest to tangible changes in my mental state, I clearly saw it in them. They had purged (physically and mentally), fought demons and faced ghosts of the past to come out stronger, happier and more at peace with themselves than they were before.
My last ceremony passed in somewhat of a blur; I was feeling pretty drained from the last days and kind of wanted to just sleep, but at the same time I had asked for this ceremony and wanted to immerse myself fully into it. It resulted in something roughly in the middle, where I wasn’t tripping fully but wasn’t completely with it either. Throughout the trip my whole body ached, burned and vibrated with the drug, which I take as the cleansing properties of Ayahuasca in effect, but I didn’t really go on any adventures. In hindsight I should have taken more and plunged further in, rather than teetering on the edge as I did, but I wasn’t exactly in a sober enough state of mind to realise this. The Shaman mentioned the same the next day, but what’s done is done and part of me was glad to be fully lucid have two feet firmly planted in this reality. Maybe I’ll be back one day to really delve into the mysterious depths of the Ayahuasca world.
What are my thoughts on the whole experience? I’m not exactly sure.
I felt completely and utterly drained when I came back, like my mind has been raked through by a plough. But it’s a feeling like after you’ve run a marathon, when you have finished the hard work. Now that I’ve rested I feel calm and re-energised, so maybe my ‘chakras’ are now ‘aligned’. What I don’t know if it’s the Ayahuasca, or just having the chance to talk through a lot of this stuff with other people. After all, it’s a wellness retreat and there’s not much else to do but chat; and so we talked at length about life, death, work, money, friendships, insecurities, happiness, the demons sitting on our shoulders and what it means to be here.
That said, while I may not have had any earth-shattering revelations or gone through intense purging, the Ayahuasca did give me clarity and a great feeling of euphoria after the trip. The absence of a twisted, demon infested and nightmarish trip has led me to believe that I’m not as conflicted as originally perceived. Maybe I’ve processed a lot more than I imagined, and have somewhere along the way made peace with who I am post-cancer. It’s been a long and often difficult journey to get to this point, piecing together my new identity and accepting the irrevocable changes I have gone through. But maybe I am ready to move forward with my life and am much further along this healing journey than I thought. It means that, while there may still be obstacles to come – especially going back into normal society with all its pressures and stresses – the road looks much less dark than it did a few years ago.
All in all, whatever you believe, I got to dance among the stars in a glorious blaze of light, and that’s pretty cool.