The Life Lessons That It Taught Me
When I first was introduced to ayahuasca it was a time when no one really knew anything about ayahuasca and everyone was excited about what the plant was doing in the consciousness of many. It was in 2008 when people were still trying to wrap their heads around the experiences as well as the new and constant flow of Americans and Europeans going to South America to take part in shamanistic journies. Since then I have learned a lot about the plant, through my own personal experiences, reading books from experts, as well as interviewing and discussing topics with shamans who use the plant to heal others. I wanted to share some of that information with you so that if you decide to one day try ayahuasca, you can understand at least on a very rudimentary level what you are getting yourself into.
Ayahuasca is first and foremost a plant. Its another name is Banisteriopsis caapi ( or just Cappi) and is one of the primary ingredients to make Ayahuasca the hallucinogenic drink.
Ayahuasca is both a drink and a plant.
Caapi contains what are called beta-carboline which acts like monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOIs). Caapi is just one part of ayahuasca which requires another plant containing DMT to be added to the tea in order for it to become psychoactive. If you are in South America often Caapi will be combined with Psychotria viridis, which contains a high amount of DMT and allows for you to have the psychedelic experience that everyone desires. The reason that you need two plants is that the plants that contain DMT do not cross into the blood-brain barrier easily, and MAOI’s allow for the blocking mechanisms in the brain to temporarily stop working. This is the first point of potential dangers when drinking ayahuasca and the reason why many people discuss a strict diet before drinking ayahuasca and also after.
What is the Blood-Brain Barrier?
The blood-brain barrier is in place to stop things from entering the brain that the brain sees a potentially harmful. Often many of these substances, if allowed to transport themselves into the brain, could be deadly. Sometimes having higher amounts of specific compounds could be useful to the brain so people have been known to use supplements (such as Saint John’s Wort) that contain mild MAOI’s or antidepressants which can also affect the process of MAOI’s. For that reason, it’s very important to not be on specific medications or supplements before using ayahuasca as they could negatively interact and result in a heart attack or even death. If following the diet guidelines, ayahuasca by itself is relatively safe physically for people to use. In fact, Cappi is known to also be a mild MAOI, meaning that its effects are short lasting on the brain. This makes it even safer to use than traditional MAOI’s that last much longer. Also, DMT is not considered harmful to the brain as its produced endogenously in the lungs and also brains of humans. In that sense, when taking ayahuasca you are allowing for more DMT to transport into the brain. You just don’t want any additional dangerous chemicals to find their way in, so sticking to a diet is key.
Ayahuasca a Bitter Tea
Ayahuasca as a drink is very bitter. The reason for this is it contains a high level of tannins. Tannins bind quickly to body tissue and also have a shrinking effect. Tannins are also used in tanning animal skins for this very reason. Coffee, red wine, and other bitter drinks also contain tannins, and they are relatively harmless to people though at high levels tannins can cause you to vomit. Ayahuasca has exceptionally high levels of tannins, and because of this, the vomiting experience even has been given the name of la purga because it is so profound. Many indigenous people drink ayahuasca to purge because they believe that purging or vomiting helps to get rid of parasites and sickness. Animals in nature also eat plants and things that will cause them to vomit for this very reason. Ayahuasca is also called the la purga because of the psychological purge that takes place during the visions.
Many Americans and Europeans have been traveling to South America in search of ayahuasca because of its healing properties. Stories of ayahuasca healing cancers as well as many psychological disorders can be found all over the internet. Here I am not going to talk about those cases and the facts behind them, however, I will discuss what healing means in the western mindset as well as the shamanistic mind.
Traditionally if someone was going to practice to become Shipibo shaman they would take part in drinking ayahuasca after performing a long and strenuous process of a diet or dieta. The diet included cleaning oneself, as well as removing foods from their physical diet, and also removing themselves from others for long periods of time. Often the apprentice would not see visions for long periods of time and there are cases of it taking months of daily ayahuasca intake for the apprentice to see visions from the plant. After the apprentice was able to perform healing rituals, traditionally the shaman would use ayahuasca themselves and doctors or spirits would come to the shaman and help guide them to heal the sick. These shamans also do not always have to use the plants. They build such strong relationships with the spirits that they do not have a need to alter themselves to see them. They are there all the time.
The sick would hardly ever take the plants themselves. The shaman acts like a helper for the spirits and performs the actions that the spirit ask them to do. They can do this because of the long relationship that they have built with the plants. The healing process that takes place from this encounter can also take time. The relationship with the spirits can last for years and healing is continual as it’s not something that always happens quickly.
The western view on healing is vastly different. Often in the west, the sick person would take the plants and chemicals to make them feel better, not the doctors.
Additionally, in these traditions, each plant has a spirit and to become a master shaman one must diet on each plant separately to hear that spirit and understand how it can be best used to help those who are sick. In this sense, the diet is the way that the shaman puts on the glasses to see the spirits, and the plants contain the spirits that communicate back.
The western view on healing is vastly different. Often in the west, the sick person would take the plants and chemicals to make them feel better, not the doctors. The doctors know about the plants because of the amount of schooling they go through to understand the human body and how these substances interact with the patients. The chemist also extracted what they found as the active component from each plant and turned it into its most basic active compounds which are very specific to what they do. The patients often remark on how well these medications are working based on their interaction with the chemicals, as they feel something internally change or have an experience that feels different.
As you can see there are some differences between what shamans view the healing process is and western perception of healing. When these two vastly different cultures collide, the results are strange.
Many of the experiences that you read about ayahuasca are due to the visions that the plant provides. This means that whoever is discussing these experiences has used the plant themselves. As we have discussed, this is not a typical healing ritual that would have been provided by shamans for the healing process. The individual experiencing the effects of ayahuasca may receive personal healing through the visions that they see as well as the purging process that is provided by the plant, but again this is not traditionally what is done.
Additionally, many westerners do not consider being healed without some type of event that takes place. In the case of ayahuasca, purging or vomiting all over is not enough, they must see visions. Since ayahuasca sometimes can take months of daily use to provide visions of spirits, it is known that many shamans have added in additional plants that are dangerous and hallucinogenic to cause visions for their guests. The plants such as datura, large amounts of tobacco, and other plants can be very dangerous if misused. This is a clear misrepresentation of what ayahuasca is intended to be and its traditional use in healing.
Is Ayahuasca for Everyone?
Ayahuasca is not for everyone. In fact, I don’t think that ayahuasca is for many people. Its a medicine and should not be used as a way to prove to yourself or your community your worth by having a troubling “experience.” If you take ayahuasca to boost your ego you may be in for one of the worst experiences of your life as its very unforgiving and can turn from a good experience to a bad one in no time. I have had such experiences, and that realigned my respect for this powerful plant pretty quickly. Additionally, to having a horrible journey and causing you massive depression, ayahuasca can also physically harm you. There have been some cases of individuals with poor health and especially individuals with weak hearts having heart attacks while on ayahuasca, so it would be smart to consider your physical health before taking part in a potent hallucinogen.
I have realized that most people are going to do whatever they want to do regardless of the warnings, and the same thing is with people who are interested in ayahuasca. Ayahuasca may just be the missing element that you need in order to realize what lessons you need to learn. For everyone the experience is different, and because of that, I could never tell someone they should not take ayahuasca. I would, however, ask them to research and learn about the plant, its traditional uses, and go into a ceremony with respect for the plants and the spirits within. It’s important to realize that when you take part in putting ayahuasca into your body, you are creating a relationship that will be for the rest of your life. It is not something to do without thinking about first.
Ayahuasca will always be a part of my life that I will hold close to me as long as I live. I have not partaken in any ceremonies for years now, but I don’t feel that I need to. I can sense the plants guiding me when times are hard, and that is enough for me to remember the lessons that I was taught and to continue to work on them over time. I hope that if you decide to take part in this amazing culture, that you approach it with openness and gratitude for what you are about to receive.
If you would like to learn more about ayahuasca and the culture that surrounds it, we have a number of interviews with leading experts on the subject. You can check them out here.
Misrepresentation of Shamans
Not only is ayahuasca being misrepresented but also the term shaman. With the vast amount of tourism that is attracted to the experience of ayahuasca, commercialism has been taking advantage of the local culture. Many popup retreats have been showing their heads over the last ten years which have enlisted the help of a poverty-stricken people to act as shamans to administer ceremonies and make brews. There is no verification process for who is a shaman and who has gone through the proper training. There also have been many horror stories of individuals abused, sexually molested and raped, and dying under the care of such “shamans.” Additionally, the term shaman has been used pretty loosely in South America and other areas of the world and doesn’t mean a person who has high moral character; there are plenty of dark shamans who attempt out greed and hatred to harm those they dislike. I have personally spoken with several shamans in South American on this very topic, and they are very concerned about people being injured or taken advantage of due to this misunderstanding.
Local Legality Issues
If you are someone who can’t afford the plane ticket to the Amazon and wish to partake in a local ceremony, then there are also many things to consider. Due to the legal status of ayahuasca in America and Europe, it is not readily available. The Santo Daime is the only authorized group in the United States that can use ayahuasca legally. There does seem to be a number of groups that are trying to gain legal status by becoming a church, but I am still on the fence about their actual legal status. Either way, these organizations require that you become a member of their church and that can include using ayahuasca in a particular manner, not always appealing to others who are trying to heal in a religious neutral setting. Taking ayahuasca in any other environment where it is illegal, produces an additional number of risks which include paying large sums of money to those providing the service, and breaking the law which can lead to not only jail time but also a very paranoid experience.
Regardless of the dangers involved with traveling to South America or even taking part in a ceremony near your location, there is room for having a very unique and profound experience with ayahuasca.
What to Expect?
If you are able to take Ayahuasca, you may be wondering what to expect and how this can help you or to grow as a person. I have personally taken ayahuasca enough to understand its effects.
If you have never used any psychedelics before, know that DMT is considered one of the most powerful hallucinogens available to mankind. Ayahuasca since it contains DMT makes it a very powerful experience as well. Unlike smoking DMT, ayahuasca has a long-lasting effect and can last up to six plus hours depending on the person, potency of the plant, etc. Since it is a plant, there are many different elements that go into the experience such as the type of Banisteriopsis caapi as there are many different types, as well as if any additional plants are added in or used for the DMT provider such as mimosa hostilis. Because of all these reasons, it’s hard to say how long or how intense the experience can be.
Typically when drinking ayahuasca it is profoundly horrible and bitter. It also is very dry and the taste can make some people gag. A small group of people enjoy the taste, which I find almost unbelievable. After drinking the tea, it can take about 20-45 minutes to start taking effect, and you will know that it’s having an effect by a change in temperature of your body. You may feel cold and start to shake some. Soon after it takes effect, you will most likely begin to vomit or purge. This is your body reacting to the tannins in the tea. If you purge early on in your experience, you may not experience any visuals or hallucinations as your body is unable to absorb the active components in the ayahuasca. If you are able to keep the tea down and not purge for some time or not at all, you will likely start to experience visuals or sounds.
When it comes to talking about experiences with ayahuasca, everyone is different. I have found myself to be extremely sensitive to psychedelics and it doesn’t take much for me to be in my own world talking to things that no one else sees. For some, it takes a lot. I have a friend who has used ayahuasca every weekend for over a year and saw much of anything. Seeing through is not always what is needed. Ayahuasca is not all about seeing something to know that it is “working.” There is a lot of focus today on seeing things, and I would suggest you get away from that when partaking in ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca from my perspective its a living breathing spirit and it knows what is needed for the individual who builds a relationship with it. This may sound a bit new agey, but it works for me. Over time I have built a relationship with ayahuasca in a way that I would with any close friend who has helped me work through some tough things.
The experience of ayahuasca can also be very ungrounding and even increase depression and anxiety if you are prone to it. Many times over the years I have reflected on some of my most traumatic experiences with ayahuasca and even the thought of the experience itself can cause me to start to sweat. It can be pretty terrifying at times. Over time it did, however, help me to heal myself and to become a better person but it took a lot of work on my part, not just the plant. I believe as many shamans have told me, that the plants continue to heal well after the experience. I also know that the plant doesn’t do the work for you. It may instruct you to change something, or face something in your life that is causing you problems, but it your choice to make those changes. It will not do it for you.
Lee is the creator of Taileaters. He writes about sleep and dreams where explores the symbolic and scientific relationship between sleep and consciousness. He is currently is pursuing his Ph.D. in Jungian Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
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