During my years as the manager of a holistic center in central Mexico I learned a great deal about human nature, not so much from the practitioners themselves but from my observations of those who came through its doors, as well as from my interactions with them.
I first heard about ayahuasca in 2013 (I know: a bit late in the game.) The city where I lived and worked, where the holistic center was located, remains a hub for those seeking to receive alternative healing at the hands of numerous teachers, gurus, practitioners, shamans, etc. Once a place becomes a focus location for this type of activity, its energy shifts: it is a beacon of light as much as it is a petri dish for those seeking to get rich as they ride a wave of a false spirituality.
During my 5+ years managing this place I came upon a handful of people who were the real thing, at least as far as I could tell. The rest of them were drifters who had created ellaborate personal mythologies in order to project the image of who they wanted to become: yoga teachers who were all ‘love & light & namaste’ and yet saw nothing wrong with not showing up for their classes, leaving their students hanging; self-proclaimed healers with obscure certifications who boasted that they could ‘cure’ mental illnesses and emotional blockages, and yet only showed up once or twice (usually at the beginning of their collaboration at the center) and failed to reply to e-mails or drop by to get acquainted with the local community, only to vanish in the mist never to be seen again; shamans who lived modestly, had a certain magical quality about them that was real, who had accumulated a vast following, but who had no issue with exposing the staff to the hatred and rudeness of a volatile patient under their care…I could go on but I’m choosing not to.
The shaman I just referred to was the first person to talk to me about the dangers that lie in the wronful use of ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is not a single plant but a ceremonial potion that incorporates various herbs which can be found in the heart of the south-american rainforest. It is then brewed in a very specific way by the brujos or medicine men of several indigenous tribes, who come from a lineage of healing and magic. There are expected side effects, such as vomiting and hallucinations, which are part of the purging and enlightenment process. People who participate in real ayahuasca ceremonies have maintained a certain lifestyle prior to the ceremony, and they abstain from certain foods, drinks, and practices in order to be better prepared for the ayahuasca journey.
What we were beginning to see around town and on local Facebook were various ads promoting ‘weekend ayahuasca retreats’. Many of them pointed out the leadership of a certain medicine man, curandera or similar who were said to have a vast deal of experience and to have participated in numerous ayahuasca ceremonies. Two or three locals were known to be ayahuasca enthusiasts and I knew them socially: one of them went from being a very easy-going, although shy, man in his late forties, who took reasonable care of himself (as in: wearing clean clothes, good hygiene, etc.); to this insecure and permanently frightened-looking man who increasingly seemed to neglect himself in every way. The other was a woman a few years older than me, a social maven with tons of connections who was always travelling internationally and who had several projects at any given time. I will never forget when I ran into her one night at an event: we said hello, she told me about a product she was promoting and invited me to another event, and continued to ‘work’ the room. About twenty minutes later we bumped into each other again at the same event, same room, and she acted as if we hadn’t seen each other yet, said hello, and again gave me the same pitch she jad just given me a few moments before. It was like her inner record player had skipped and then had gone on to play the same bit of the same tune.
I wondered what could have caused these radical behavioral shifts. My intuition told me that they must have felt something inside them felt better, even healed, after drinking the ayahuasca; which is why they must have kept participating in these ceremonies. However, something else within their spirits was not yet in place before they took part in the ceremonies, which led to the fragmentation and reconfiguration of their personalities.
Some other day, a group of us (friends, clients, practitioners etc) were celebrating the birthday of the director of the holistic center. One of the guests was that shaman I referred to a couple of paragraphs earlier, who had been coming to the city once every other month for several years. I must sasy that even though his values weren’t entirely aligned with his practice, he possessed a strong personal magnetism, which had gained him quite a following over the years. If anything, he knew the spiritual pulse of the place better than most. The conversation led us to the topic that most concerned him on a professional and on a spiritual level: the use of ayahuasca.
He was worried, he said, that as years went by he came across more and more cases where the sacred brew had been misused. He often teamed with his longtime life partner to treat people who came to them after experiencing prolonged side-effects of ayahuasca. “We had a woman”, he said, “who couldn’t sleep”. Somebody wondered aloud if her insomnia couldn’t be due to other causes. “No, you don’t understand”, he said, “she went to bed, and invariably every night she would have the most horrific nightmares, and then she would wake up extremely distraught and terrified…Then she tried to go back to sleep and again, nightmare after nightmare…After a while she just didn’t dare to go to bed, which began causing other issues, and this is when she came to us”, he explained. All of us were at a loss for words, trying to imagine what that must have been like. Insomnia is awful enough, but this? I thought it sounded like something straight out of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
The use of ANY sacred plant (including but not limited to: ayahuasca, peyote, and yes – even marihuana) or plant-based brew, potion, etc is extremely delicate. I don’t pretend to be qualified to tell people what to do or what to put into their bodies; I understand these are all personal choices and that the effects of the substances found in nature vary from person to person. What I would suggest is to be aware and to fully acknowledge the potential effects all of these things could have on your divine physical body, as well as on your sacred spirit.
Sometimes we place faith in people because they come ‘with great references’, with ‘impressive credentials’, or ‘numerous certifications’. We can be extremely impressed by someone’s ‘aura’, attire, or even feel dominated by the power or the strength of someone’s personality. There are, after all, several ways in which energy can be constructed, employed, and yes: manipulated. How do you know, then, if taking part in an experience of this type will be beneficial for you? How can you tell if practitioners and/or organizers are ‘whoring’ the goddess of Ayahuasca?
- Take every testimony and ‘recommendation’ with a pinch of salt. Remember that every person and every spirit is different: results can vary even from city to city, from one continent to another, and even depending on the phase of the Moon during the ceremony.
- Do your research online: Google the names of the organizers as well as those of any priest(ess), shaman, bruj@, that is leading the ceremony. This will not guarantee any type of result but you might find out additional details that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and make a more educated decision.
- Get a thorough physical examination. Your doctor will check your heart rate, blood pressure, and even run basic blood tests. This will uncover any physical issue you might have that could put you at risk when you consume any type of natural psychotropic or hallucinatory.
- Taking part in sacred ceremonies ‘last minute’ or as a ‘thrilling’ part of an exotic vacation is seldom a good idea. Most serious practitioners of ayahuasca recommend several weeks of specific dietary restrictions, as well as personalized spiritual daily practices such as meditation, bodywork, etc along a certain time frame. This is why those ‘weekend spiritual retreats’ that culminate with an ayahuasca or peyote ceremony are seldom reliable: you simply cannot achieve adequate spiritual and physical preparation for something so major in such a short time.
- Ask the organizer(s) and the ceremony leader(s) where they are sourcing their ingredients from. Bonus points if they prepare the brew from scratch in front of all the participants. Why? Well, in Spain there have been occurrences of synthetic drugs (MDMA, ecstasy, etc.) being added into the mix without disclosing it to the participants because the ‘ceremony leaders’ and organizers couldn’t get the necessary amount of ingredients to prepare the ayahuasca, and they intend to ‘replicate’ the effects via synthetic drugs. This, of course, turns a sacred ceremony into something entirely different, and (most importantly) it’s not what people were originally paying for; not to mention the risks of synthetic drugs, combined or not with the ‘real’ thing.
- Stay away from organizers and practitioners promoting ayahuasca as ‘a cure-all’, or as a form of ‘express psychoanalisis’. Having been in contact with this type of people before, I can assure you that those who use ayahuasca in this way get addicted to it as a form to escape their realities, unaware of the permanent damage they’re doing to their own psyches.
- Know that even if everything is legit and carried out in the proper way, by actual people who know their shit and respect the sacred power of the plants, you cannot control the experience or how it will change you. Because yes, ayahuasca (and other similar natural plants and brews) WILL change you. That is the point: spiritual transformation. After taking ayahuasca, you will never be the same – for better or for worse.
There is always a price to be paid and I don’t say this in a fatalistic way: that is how life works, it’s a give-and-take. We become so used of being able to think, to create theories, to plan, to have an inner dialog with ourselves, to dream; that we never consider what our life would be like if all those processes were to change, or if we lost them entirely. Given the fast pace of life these days we have also grown impatient: we think we don’t have years to wait for therapy to ‘solve our problems’ – we want healing NOW, and fast, and total. But at what cost?
Remember that there are no shortcuts in life, much less in spirituality.