The Power of Plant Medicine
After years of interest in drinking Ayahuasca I finally did so in Peru (where it’s legal). Over two weeks I drank this powerful brew on eight separate occasions. Without question, it was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. But it was also one of the most profound, extraordinary, and worthwhile decisions that I’ve ever made.
Why was I drawn to doing this?
Ayahuasca is famous for making those who drink it purge, a cleansing that can manifest in many ways: vomiting, diarrhea, the cold sweats. Sounds enticing doesn’t it? You may well be asking: do people voluntarily sign up for this assignment or is this an enhanced interrogation technique reserved solely for enemy combatants? Fair question.
For a long time I’ve found psychedelics to be a very powerful tool for exploring my consciousness. Primarily, these experiments have involved psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) and LSD. I had a little experience with a synthetic form of DMT, which is the predominant psychoactive chemical in the Ayahuasca brew. During several earlier encounters, I had very significant psychedelic experiences that changed me for the rest of my life. Through psychedelics I started to perceive everything in the world as deeply interconnected (this axiom, as I would later discover, has strong parallels with key tenets of Eastern religions). Often times, the trips provided me with perspective on myself and on significant events in my life. These journeys frequently left me with worthwhile insights and a profound sense of gratitude.
But in recent years it didn’t feel like I quite got so much out of using psychedelics. Effectively, I had hit a plateau. More significantly, I felt stuck in other ways as well. Meditation and yoga have had a very positive, transformative impact on my life in many respects. These practices have helped me to uproot some deep seated kleshas (a Sanskrit word meaning “poisons” or “obstacles). But in other respects I felt myself repeating the same old, unhelpful habitual patterns.
In this Tantric artwork from Tibetan Buddhism, the crown of five skulls represents the five kleshas (poisons, or obstacles): avidya (ignorance), asmita (egoism), raga (attachment to pleasure), dvesa (aversion to pain) and abhinivesa (fear of death).
Source: “Everything about Tibetan or Tantric Buddhism”
I had read several accounts of people who had drunk Ayahuasca and who spoke with passion about the transformative, even healing properties, of the plants contained within this potent concoction. When I found out that a Buddhist meditation teacher, Spring Washam, runs retreats integrating Ayahuasca with Buddhism I was intrigued. In a podcast interview with Dan Harris on his show “10% Happier,” Spring spoke about encountering a similar impasse in her personal life that her meditation practice was not cutting through. She spoke about how Ayahuasca had helped her to break through these barriers and to deeply heal a lot of her past wounds. Above all this was my biggest motivation for drinking Ayahuasca: I hoped that the experience would serve as a catalyst for personal growth. I saw it as a practice that could potentially deepen the work that I was already doing through yoga and meditation to become a more awake, compassionate, and conscious human being. Having made this decision I signed up for a retreat with the organization that Spring spearheads, Lotus Vine Journeys.
To believe? Or not to believe?
Before I start talking in detail about what it was like to work with Ayahuasca let me just begin with a brief preface. If you find yourself dismissing any of what I’m going to tell you as complete fantasy or the delusions of someone on a drug I completely understand where you’re coming from. I’m an extremely skeptical person who has spent pretty much my entire adult life priding myself on my rational approach to arriving at decisions. If the evidence isn’t there I simply won’t believe it. Period. I rejected any system of thought that required a leap of faith. This is what drew me to the highly scientific, non faith based approach of Buddhism.
But all I can say is that what I’m going to share with you is what I directly experienced–and the clarity and the profundity of these experiences shattered old beliefs and opened me up to new ways of engaging with the world. Moreover, the spiritual and medicinal qualities to the Ayahuasca journey were not something that I had encountered through using other psychedelics, making me less inclined to dismiss these insights as delusions from a drug but rather to conclude that there is something special about the plants that come together in the Ayahuasca brew. Furthermore, as I’ll share with you, I’ve considered alternative explanations to some of my conclusions but any doubt has been swept away by the power and clarity of these experiences…and the consistency of the messages over repeated occasions for myself and for many, many other people.
Ayahuasca shook some of my most closely cherished beliefs right to their core. It opened the deepest parts of my being to the beauty and mystery of this universe. It taught me the value of being guided by my heart and not always intellectualizing everything. I’m not talking about throwing reason to the wind. But in listening to these stories I would ask you to expand your definition of “evidence” to the power of personal experience (including the accumulated experiences of many people, in the case of Ayahuasca). Be critical. Ask tough questions. But we can’t wait for everything in life to be measured by a double blind clinical trial before we decide if it has any value. Buddhism and yoga have helped me to appreciate that other forms of evidence, mainly the power of our own personal experience, is also an indispensable tool, along with the scientific method.
How is Ayahuasca different from other psychedelics?
There are two key ways in which Ayahuasca is distinct from other psychedelics: spiritually and medicinally.
Ayahuasca as a Spirit
When Ayahuasca comes on it feels like a spirit coming up inside you. As time passes there is a very distinct, feminine quality to this presence. The feeling is maternal. Among the people who have used Ayahuasca that I have met, without exception all of them described these basic yet unmistakable qualities to the experience. People refer to the medicine as “She” because it has such a distinct feminine quality. After my Ayahuasca journeys I felt like I finally understood why many cultures around the world repeatedly refer to our environment as “Mother Earth” or “Mother Nature.” Drinking Ayahuasca is like drinking Gaia: it’s earth consciousness. Pure and simple. This presence of a spirit makes it distinct from other psychedelics.
Artwork depicting Ayahuasca as “Mother,” i.e. a form of the Divine Feminine.
Source: San Pedro Workshops
Moreover, while you’re on the medicine, “she” teaches you lessons. While I’ve had profound insights on mushrooms or LSD I would never say that the fungi or the molecule “taught” me things. I would say that “I experienced ‘such and such insight’ under the influence of this psychedelic.” Quite notably, even when I did pure DMT–the psychoactive molecule in the Ayahuasca brew–I did not have this experience of an outside force teaching me lessons. This makes me much more skeptical of purely neuroscientific explanations of the Ayahuasca experience: if it were simply a matter of what a chemical was doing to the brain then why wouldn’t directly ingesting that chemical (DMT) by other means produce at least generally the same experience?
[If you’re interested in reading more about the science behind DMT I’d suggest reading Rick Strassman’s research].
But Ayahuasca is fundamentally different in this respect, in the way that there is a distinct presence of a female spirit. It’s also unique in the way that the plant unfolded lessons for me. The knowledge didn’t come from outside of myself but Ayahuasca allowed me to perceive these lessons in a much more powerful light. These were teachings that I had studied for years in some cases: of yoga and of Buddhism, and she unfolded the wisdom of these teachings for me in a way that was systematic, clear and profound. In particular, she took me much deeper into the teachings of a tradition that I’ve been studying over the past year, non dual Shaiva Tantra.
She helped me to appreciate the difference between knowledge and wisdom, or between what some in Shaiva Tantra would call academic knowledge vs. a kind of knowledge that can actually pierce through your delusion and liberate you from suffering. In many cases “she” enabled me to move from understanding a concept on a purely intellectual level to directly experiencing the truth of that insight. I’ll elaborate on many of these points and with examples in subsequent blog posts.
Ayahuasca as Medicine
Secondly, Ayahuasca is truly plant MEDICINE. If you’re smiling at calling a psychedelic substance “medicine” I was right there with you until recently. People kept referring to it as “the medicine.” After this kept happening I was thinking to myself “look I really appreciate the value of psychedelics but medicine!?” But it only took one experience for me to understand why people insisted on using the term “medicine” when talking about Ayahuasca, and my appreciation for this term only grew over the succeeding seven ceremonies.
The central role of shamans in Ayahuasca ceremonies underscores the spiritual and medicinal aspects of working with these plants.
Source: “A Gathering of Minds”
Ayahuasca is medicine and it is deeply healing. I base this conclusion not only on my own experiences but also on the accounts shared by my fellow participants on the retreat. A desire to heal intensely traumatic experience is a common motivation for many people to work with Ayahuasca. To hear first hand accounts of how Ayahuasca explicitly engaged trauma from people’s past and helped people to transform this pain was revelatory. As I listened to numerous accounts of how Ayahuasca helped people to confront, skillfully work with, and ultimately let go of painful trauma from their past, break free from addictions, and forgive unimaginable betrayals I was left in awe of what exactly this plant medicine is and how it has this healing capacity.
In what ways was Ayahuasca healing?
Ayahuasca works on people in different ways in accordance with whatever issues (physical, mental, emotional) are present. Speaking from my own experience, Ayahuasca compelled me to take a very hard look at some of my issues and hang ups. It showed me my attachments and aversions–how they arise in the mind and how they hook me. Then it helped me to LET GO of this grasping. It allowed me to forgive: both others and myself. It empowered me to confront lingering grief from my past and to release it.
It utterly shattered my ego. It would showed me a particularly destructive emotion, such as pride. It would reveal to me clearly an area of my personality in which I exhibited too much pride and then it would walk me through an experience of totally shattering my small sense of self. Destructive emotions like pride interact with our egos in ways that create particular identities in which we become heavily invested in nurturing and protecting. The medicine revealed to me these layers of my ego and unraveled them.
In one instance, she used the imagery of a sand castle. She revealed to me the rigid structures of my ego, the places in which I was very attached. She often used imagery, such as this one, to convey these truths. In this instance she built a castle in the sand to serve as a symbol for the rigidity of the ego; then, after a brief pause, the wind came in and totally dissolved it (in yogic texts wind is often a metaphor for the divine energy of the universe, or shakti, which has the power to destroy existing forms and give rise to new ones in its place). The resulting feeling was a complete sense of emptiness, which I experienced not as a destabilizing force but as a profound opening into vastness, into something beyond my small sense of self. It imbued me with a deep sense of humility. It opened my heart and showed me that I could hold both the beauty and the suffering of this world simultaneously.
Through Ayahuasca I’ve felt significantly greater levels of compassion–not only while I was on the medicine but in the subsequent weeks since taking it. Moreover, it has motivated me to not only feel more compassionate but to act in ways that express this compassion more fully in the world.
It has also cultivated a greater sensitivity to appreciating awe and wonder. At the same time it has prompted me to appreciate the miraculous wonder of this world and it has inspired me to serve it on a much deeper level. It has showed me how intricately my well being is intertwined with the well being of others and, eventually, she even showed me ways in which I could more positively contribute to the welfare of others.
Source: “Peacock Mama Aya”
Ayahuasca is healing not only a psychological and emotional level but also on a physical plane. People who take the medicine can purge in a variety of ways. Though the amount of purging will depend on a number of factors, one’s diet and lifestyle has a significant influence on the extent to which one will purge. I did not vomit that much. I also had been on a vegan diet for months going into the retreat. Moreover, I had not been drinking alcohol for several months leading up to the retreat as well. Anecdotally, friends who are vegan or vegetarian told me that they also didn’t purge too much. So, to some extent, people can influence the degree to which they will purge but closely adhering to proper guidelines around diet in the weeks heading into the retreat. That said everyone will purge and it is part of the cleaning process.
This isn’t to say that the experience will be pleasant but I definitely felt that it was a positive, detoxifying process by the end. For example, on several nights I was continually blowing my nose. It felt like I had taken an antihistamine, like Sudafed. I can’t remember the last time that my sinuses felt so clear. While the physical work of Ayahuasca for me paled in comparison to the psychological work it still was notable. For one it showed me how deeply interconnected the body and the mind are (modern medicine and science continue to affirm this truth, such as the research on how trauma is stored in our bodies). Notably, for many others the physical aspect of the medicine was much more pronounced.
What Ayahuasca is and IS not:
Let’s clarify what Ayahuasca is NOT. It is definitely NOT something that one does for recreation. Undertaking eight ceremonies in twelve nights was nothing short of a crucible on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. At times, I experienced bouts of intense nausea, mixed in with some vomiting, diarrhea and cold sweats on the side.
Emotionally, I experienced some of the deepest states of bliss in my life, but I also sat with intense feelings of sadness and grief, associated with painful memories from my past. It pushed me to the absolute edge of my psyche. One night in particular was one of the most challenging nights of my entire life. Eventually the journey turned into a profound teaching but the first few hours was like putting my soul on trial. Think Old Testament. Book of Job.
So Ayahuasca is certainly NOT something that one does for fun. It is also definitely NOT for everyone, even for those who have the best of intentions. Those with certain mental illnesses should not partake. Nor should anyone on any medication such as antidepressants, which can interact in severe and dangerous ways with Ayahuasca. Furthermore, it’s not for many people who are perfectly mentally healthy and medication free but who are not willing to let go of control and to totally surrender. Chances are that Ayahuasca will push you to the brink of your psyche and the potential benefits for some people are not worth what they will likely have to go through to reap the rewards.
For those who are seriously considering working with Ayahuasca, take your time; do your homework. Use site like Aya Advisors or Retreat Guru to read reviews on the various organizations that offer Ayahuasca ceremonies. Unfortunately, there are many charlatans out there, and stories of abuse from incompetent gurus with bad intentions are not uncommon. Read about how Ayahuasca works from a variety of sources. Speak to numerous people who have done it. Personally, I can say that I had a very positive experience with Lotus Vine Journeys, and I will do another retreat with them in the future. If you do decide to use Ayahuasca, I would strongly suggest having a consistent meditation practice going into any retreat (or working with any psychedelic, really).
For me, and for many others, working with Ayahuasca has been a life changing experience for the better. In spite of all of the difficult moments throughout my retreat drinking Ayahuasca was one of the most worthwhile things that I’ve ever done. The medicine did not make me experience anything that was not ultimately a beneficial teaching. Life is not an unrelenting blissfest and this isn’t a substance that will help you to escape from the harsh cruelties of reality. Instead, this medicine took me through the darkest shadows of my mind and transformed them into light. She took my pain, sorrow, grief and showed me how to heal. She showed me how to let go and how to forgive. Ayahuasca opened my heart and inspired me to serve the world more deeply.
Source: “Faces of Buddha” by Virginia Peck
As my teacher Spring noted: the true test of the medicine’s effectiveness is the extent to which our lives have changed in the weeks and months after our retreat has ended. In this sense the onus is ultimately on us to ensure that these gifts from Mother Ayahuasca blossom into something more enduring and more impactful. Ayahuasca is a powerful tool for accelerating personal growth but it’s not an easy short cut. If you’re lucky enough to receive meaningful insights on how to improve your life you need to actually have the courage and discipline to follow through on making these changes. That’s what I’m starting to do now.
I feel extremely blessed that I was fortunate enough to receive these teachings. While there is so much still to process, there is no question that I feel more awake in this world than before I drank this sacred medicine. The word “Buddha” means one who is awakened. That is the beauty and the calling of this life: to wake up for the benefit of ourselves and for all beings.