Diving Into Inner Realms With Ayahuasca — And How Plant Medicine Can Help You Too
What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a type of traditional South American psychoactive tea used both socially and as part of medicinal and religious ceremonies. It is actually made from two plants: the Banisteriopsis caapi or ayahuasca vine, which contains alkaloids that act as MAIO inhibitors, and the Psychotria viridis or chacruna shrub, which contains 0.3% dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT. As readers may already know, DMT is a psychoactive compound with fast-acting, potent effects. It is known to give visions, cause spiritual experiences, induce time dilation, and sometimes cause ego death. Users often report seeing complex geometric shapes, fractals, and strange creatures, including aliens, gods, and small creatures called machine elves. DMT is usually short acting, lasting just 5–10 minutes instead of hours like mushrooms or LSD, which earned it the hilarious nickname of the business trip in the 60’s. However, when the two components of ayahuasca tea are brewed together, the MAIO inhibitors in the chacruna leaves prolong the effects and allow users and facilitators more time to work with it: 3–5 hours instead of minutes.
Evidence of ayahuasca use dates back at least 1000 years in the highlands of the Andes, and similar substances have certainly been used by shamans in traditional cultures for even longer. It has been consumed to help commune with the natural environment and as part of shamanic ceremonies where users purge bad experiences and energy (partly through vomiting up the tea) and confront obstacles and problems in their lives, including addiction and depression. The psychedelic visions also give a sense of spiritual guidance and wonder. Many would argue (including me) that Ayahuasca is the kind of substance that can convince nonbelievers that Gods are real, and that it has the potential to change people’s lives. This sounds wild, right? And maybe a little scary. After spending a week at a retreat, I can assure you it is.
Why did I try this? Why write about it?
I come from a background in physics, math and programming where experiments are conducted by the book, so maybe I don’t seem like the type to go into the forest to talk to God. There’s also a stigma in the scientific community against sharing such experiences, partly because of the drug war and the puritanical underpinnings of our culture, but also because of the sense that scientists should be professional and not let such things cloud their objective judgement. We have careers to consider, classes to teach, students to guide, and relationships with colleagues and coworkers to maintain. But the reality is, lots of people have tried such things (though not necessarily ayahuasca). They’re just afraid to talk about it.
Mainstream voices also discourage such discussions from the wrong people. I was listening to Michael Pollan recently, who wrote the great book This Is Your Mind on Plants. While Pollan’s book has done tremendous good, in some interviews he and the hosts have noted how hippies, shamans and others have tried to explain the benefits of psychedelic medicines for decades, but of course they were ignored because they weren’t academics or businessmen. Don’t get me wrong — I get it. We’re trying to convince politicians, doctors, and businesses that potent plants and mushrooms from deep in the jungle can not only be used safely, but therapeutically. One needs to explain things like a square, so to speak, to be taken seriously (and in perhaps not like the controversial and very enthusiastic Timothy Leary).
However, this becomes a catch-22. In the past, scientists who shared their experiences risked being labeled as kooks, weirdos, or even criminals. This sort of censorship also dismisses the knowledge and expertise of native peoples, whose cultures and traditional practices were suppressed, supplanted, and nearly wiped out. From Mexico and Peru, to Hawaii and Siberia, human beings have long known about the power of certain plants and mushrooms that scientists at Harvard and Johns Hopkins are now winning acclaim for discovering. Again, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that this work is happening and I’m grateful about the people it will help; I just wished we’d all listened sooner.
My point is, while I have dabbled and explored in my own ways, I’d never planned to visit an ayahuasca retreat or to write about it, and not just because of the stigma. Such retreats are intense, multi-day experiences and can last for weeks, and the vacation time alone is an imposing thing to cobble together. Also, as folks who have done intense doses of mushrooms can tell you, it’s not something you usually plan to do two days in a row.
But my partner had found great value in such retreats and thought the experience could be good for me as well, so she convinced me to sign up. Though I knew it would be challenging, it sounded like a good idea after all the stress and events of 2020 and 2021, a nice break from academia, and a chance to experience a new culture. The retreat she picked out was located in the jungles of Peru close to the Amazon river and run by a traditional Shipibo family at the Marosa Healing Center. When we went, we’d be experiencing authentic food and culture and supporting a local village.
I should also mention that the family that runs the retreat encouraged us to share our experiences, and to come back again if we could. They want the word to get out about ayahuasca’s therapeutic effects, much like the scientists now studying similar substances. So here I am, writing and sharing, though it’s hard to summarize such vivid and experiences.
How does it work?
The process begins before you even leave your home. First, you’ll have an interview (likely via zoom or on the phone) with staff from the retreat center. They will check on your health, habits and medications to make sure you’re ready for ayahuasca. The substances inside the psychoactive tea can interact with certain medications, so it’s especially important to read up and heed their directions. It’s also a strenuous, intense experience, so best to be in good health when you go.
When the date of your retreat begins to approach, you’ll also begin to change daily habits and go on what’s call the dieta. The idea is to cut back oon other loud voices in your life, includes alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, caffeine, and even salty or spicy food. For my SO and I this was challenging even though we knew what to expect ahead of time. Our retreat was in November, so this meant cutting out alcohol and yummy take-out meals at a time where Chicago was getting cold and rainy. Some folk will forego this part of the process, but in my experience it did feel good to change our weekly habits, even if it was challenging, and it prepared us for the food at the retreat.
Next comes the adventure! You head to the retreat center, which in our case was near Iquitos Peru. This started with a flight into the city, followed by a bumpy tuk-tuk ride deep into the Amazon jungle where the center was located. The place was wild — literally! We passed by small villages and towering trees while jungle birds squawked in the trees around us and critters hopped out of the way. It was a fitting way to start a journey that would involve communing with the spirts of local plants. I know, that sounds cliché and kitschy, but I think there’s something to the idea and I’ll write more about it later.
At the retreat center, the first day or two usually involves rest and preparation. In our case, we met the staff and shaman at our center, ate simple meals, and learned our way around. Our guide Tony spoke English, but we also had plenty of opportunity to test our Spanish and chat with the family at the center. On our second day, we had a lunch of plain chicken, vegetables, and rice, then walked the grounds and listened to the birds and the trickle of the river. There was no wifi or cell reception, so we were mercifully free of digital distractions, even if I was missing the convenience of the Spanish-English dictionary on my phone. Again, the loud voices get left behind.
Finally, the time came for the the first ceremony and my first actual experience with ayahuasca — which I’ll attempt to describe in more detail in part 2.