Ayahuaska has become the “wonder experience” in the last two decades, with everyone from Silicon Valley executives flying to Peru to drink the medicine in polished retreat centers, to regular everyones heading to their town’s suburbs to do ceremony. The medicine, it seems, is now everywhere.
And as it’s become more popular, as its use has become more prominent in the States, I am hearing of more and more people having confusing experiences and difficulty processing.
Given that I worked with this medicine for years, I felt it was a good time to write down my impressions of what you should observe and seek in your own Aya experience in order to maximize your learning and minimize your trauma.
What it is
Ayahuaska is a brown tangy brew made from the combination of two plants that grow natively in the Amazon. The medicine is taken in short glasses at the beginning of the ceremony, and it’s generally easy going down.
The guide then usually begins to sing to the plant, while the participants are in circle. I say “usually” because I have heard of guides who do not sing at all. (I have tried this once, and the results were not as potent. The song seems to be a critical part of the journey. More on this later.)
As the plant kicks in, the group is often found laying on the floor within an hour, as the medicine relaxes and takes hold of the body. It is not a paralytic experience, but the body grows very heavy and becomes less manageable.
In this sleepy state we begin to process blocks and issues in our mind and body, experiencing whatever comes up.
Because of the inherent drowsiness of the process, you need to be someplace you feel safe, with people you trust.
If you do not feel safe with the shaman, the group or the place, trust your gut and don’t do it.
Remember: You will not have great motor function, and you need to be where you can fully relax without worry of harm.
At this point, most shamans leave the plant to do its work and don’t get involved with the personal issues unless absolutely necessary. The idea is that the plant’s wisdom will take care of everything.
All of my work with this medicine was done under the watchful eye of my teacher, who was very different to many. The only time I lay down during ceremony was during my first time.
Hold your energy
It is important when embarking on the journey with this plant that we remember that it is a wily plant. She is called grandmother for a reason – it feels feminine because of how she appears to most people.
Her energy changes course, the visions she provides are sometimes jokes, leaving you to interpret her meaning. She doesn’t always say everything, leaving you to figure out what she means.
Sometimes you’ll get the mother aspect, sometimes the whore, sometimes the crone, etc.
One never knows, because you always get what you need, the lore says, and there are many archetypes you may meet along your journey.
The first lesson I received when working with her, when working with any power plant, was to hold my energy. We were given cloth belts to wrap around just below the navel.
Even though our core energy is Source energy, the human body is sexual, and the navel point is our second chakra, so placing the belt just below (you can use a sarong or any soft cloth that wont disturb you) will hold the energy tight to you and remind you to hold your ground.
This is important because you want to make sure that you are using a clear head when distinguishing the messages.
She can sometimes play with you, showing you what you desperately desire, but laughing at you at the same time, as the visions send you head-first into something that isn’t healthy or good for you as a way of showing you its falsehoods. We must be able to decipher what is meant. Holding your energy tight to you will help with that.
After an experience I can only call a battle, I got a giant cold sore on my lip afterwards. I was exhausted and famished, and I was famished for days after. (Eating the meat soup that is traditionally made afterwards is important, whether you are a fundamental vegan or not, as the stew brings you strength and rejuvenates the body. We were doing ceremony with a vegan family one weekend, and when the stew was made, they ate their bowls with vehemence. The body knows what it needs.)
After the ceremony, I sat outside, puffing on a cigarette (see below for ceremonial tobacco use) and trying to make sense of this. I asked my teacher’s son whether what I saw that night was real. He smirked at me and asked “What do you think?”
I thought it was all nonsense, because the visions told me I would marry him and be crowned with a crown of light. I had no interest in this young man, nor was I buying into the ego trip. I fought the visions until the end, when I finally surrendered and saw myself marrying him on a clifftop, with light shining down upon me.
Later, I realized the meaning – he was simply a conduit bringing me to the cliffs of my own understanding. It was not a literal marriage. It was a symbol of my own maturing.
The point is to hold your own. Don’t become a soft waffle during your experience. Be as present as possible.
Take the cup with two hands
I was taught to take the medicine with two hands, always. This was the ceremonial symbolism of not falling by the wayside of the plant intensity and power. You are dealing with a wild animal, in a sense. She is as intense, passionate and truthful as she is playful and naughty. If you are not prepared for the wild dance of your senses, you can come away exhausted and energetically drained.
I have seen many cases where upon taking medicine the person had a really hard time living in the here and now afterwards.
The plant can create a sense of discontent with the realities you are experiencing, and you must seek the wisdom in that.
What choices should you make differently?What elements of your current reality are unhealthy for you?
For some it meant leaving the city and doing their lives differently. For others it meant imminent breakups with their long-term partners. For others still, it meant nothing more than hopping from one Aya experience train to another, going to ceremony after ceremony, trying to find that *thing* that made sense.
I can relate to the latter because I had such an intense youth, that disconnecting from my reality was desired. I never felt quite at home on earth and had many bouts of depression.
Yet this kind of disassociation – the kind that has one chase the “high” is often unhealthy, as this is a mind-altering substance. There has to be a healthy reality to exist in, even as we explore the finer realities of our world, and that takes being present and working with what’s in front of you.
Find a good guide
I had no other guides to compare my teacher with at the time because there weren’t any others around. My first experience with plant medicines in ceremonial form were in the late 90s, and I knew no one else who had tried them, save some older folks who had traveled to the Amazon.
Call them in
I believe that my teacher found me at a time I was actively seeking him. Reading Carlos Castaneda’s books, I was enthralled with the idea of power plants, and I remember sitting in my room, looking out the window and asking the universe to bring me a teacher like Don Juan. He came a few weeks later. A friend was on some mailing list, and she saw an ad for a weekend with a Peruvian shaman. It cost all the money I had, but I packed it in and went.
He was very playful and politically incorrect, and over the next 5 years, I learned with him how to work with the medicines, get my body to healthy and learn to exist in my reality.
This was very important, as I write this years later, because inasmuch as I sought an escape, he kept bringing me back. “Finish your schooling. Get a good job. Be a productive member of society. Use the plants to guide you and support you. Do not become a victim of mindless wandering.” Were always the tenets.
Buddhist beliefs have a term “the hungry ghost”. This is a soul that is stuck, a soul that has no respite. It was a term used to describe the beings stuck between world, those who did not want to go back to Source to continue their journey. But it also represents those very human people who do not have peace in their physical realities. They keep seeking, consuming experiences, and never being satiated.
This aspect of our energy has to be dealt with.
You do not need to be continually doing ceremony to try and find yourself.
You are here and now, and if you are lost, the plants may further confuse you, especially if you do not have the right guide.
The right guide will set you on a solid path of plant discovery. They will teach you how to hold energy, how to breathe properly, how to know whether the energy you’re picking up is yours or someone else in the circle and more.
The wrong teacher will do none of that, will not guide you properly on your journey, will potentially endanger you and will leave you confused and isolated. These are signs of a charlatan or an inexperienced shaman.
Talk to your friends who’ve experienced the person you’re considering. See how they’re faring.
Grounding,Tobacco use in ceremony
Ceremonial tobacco use was introduced to me the first time I took Ayahuaska. My teacher blew tobacco into the glass of the medicine before handing it to me. I didn’t understand what it was for, but it was later referred to as “Juan Tobacco”. This plant is also a power plant and must be used correctly.
It has the power to ground you to earth and let you settle when you are too “far out.”
If you are having a hard time in ceremony and you need to ground, or as a tool after ceremony to settle, you can use tobacco. I would recommend getting unadulterated tobacco. American Spirit is an accessible brand that has an organic option. Even better is rolling some tobacco yourself, sans filter, as they have toxins as well. If you are not a smoker normally, go easy, as tobacco is also a purgative. Since Ayahuaska is a purgative as well, tobacco has also been used to push the “stuckness” through.
In other words, if you are feeling unwell and can’t vomit, tobacco can often help push the medicine up or down. Some people have trouble vomiting, so they end up purging the other way later.
Don’t be afraid of purging
During my years with the medicines, I have seen many people who have trouble throwing up.
This is either a physical thing or a mental one. Some people feel shame or embarrassment at vomiting in front of others (you should always have your own “puke bucket” in front of you) and aren’t comfortable letting themselves go.
My teacher used to get on his hands and knees and pantomime violent heaving. This would get many people heaving themselves, and they would finally let go.
If your guide doesn’t do this for you (I realize more and more with the years just how unique and powerful my teacher was), do this for yourself.
If you feel sick and can’t seem to let it go, remember: you will feel a lot better if you throw up. The belief is that the plant is cleaning you, absorbing a lot of garbage from your emotional and physical systems, and you don’t want to hold onto stuff if you are nausea. Let it go. You will feel release a new experience of “flying” afterwards.
Sing, find your own song
Many shamans will sing songs during the beginning. That song will often trail away after a while, and many will opt to play music off their digital systems. In my experiences, electronic music was always used towards the end, and real singing, whistling and the use of shakers as accompaniments went first.
If your guide doesn’t do this, sing your own song. You can hum to yourself, or do so internally, or even out loud. A peaceful, repetitive tone is good, as that will help weave your experience.
Traditionally, the plants always have songs.
The song is believed to “raise the plant,” and I have been witness to this during ceremony I officiated. I remember palpably feeling the difference in the room as Grandmother arose and took over. I kept singing, holding space, and the energy of the plant moved among the people doing her magic.
Singing is a big part of the experience, but if you can’t sing, bring an egg shaker. Fill it with rice and shake away.
Seal your energy afterward
After the ceremony, people feel a bit like limp noodles. You are spacy and out there. I always smoked tobacco afterwards to ground and be able to share space with others. Your mind expands to such proportions during a good journey, that it is sometimes tough to come back and be on earth, especially if you have to cook or just speak to people.
A good way to seal your energy is to stand with your legs shoulder width apart, your hands on your second chakra – over the belt you’re hopefully wearing – and to breathe the earth.
You will feel this energy rise up your legs. You can further move it by contracting your pelvic floor muscles if you’re a woman and tightening your anus if you’re a man. This is an energy lock, and you can experiment with how you feel when you inhale with a relaxed muscle and exhale while contracting. Then switch and see which feels better for what you’re trying to do.
Nourish your body
As I mentioned earlier, the stew was always on the menu afterward. A good piece of beef with a bone was sought out, and a slow cooked stew with plenty of parsley or coriander, potatoes, onions, carrots and garlic was made. (You can start the stew before-hand in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker, to have something for yourselves afterwards. Depending on how long the ceremony lasts, you can be eating 6 or 8 hours later. )
The growth and challenges you go through during your ceremony take a toll on the body, and you need to replenish. Like the vegan story I cited earlier, your body knows what it wants and needs. Don’t allow your mind to dominate you. If you are craving meat while you normally don’t eat it, don’t hold back. If, conversely, your body is not craving it, don’t push yourself. But do try some, as you might change your tune after you get some on your palette.
Feel free to write down what’s coming up for you. My teacher always mentioned having a journal by your side, but I never managed to do anything with it while there. I did recall a lot just afterward though, and jotted down my “to do” list as was instructed by the plant / my higher self.
Your mind is still so open that you should trap the necessary things for you to do as much as possible.
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