I was ready for the vomiting. I was not prepared for the yawns. Long, loud, dis-embodied yawns echoed in the jungle darkness, punctuated by tortured moans and retching as some two-dozen of us vomit relentlessly. An epic purge. My ayahausca retreat has begun.
As a therapist specializing in problematic substance use, I often get asked by clients what I think of Ayahausca. Ayahausca is a plant medicine used by the indigenous people of the Amazon for centuries as a healing and spiritual agent. With renewed scientific interest in the power of psychedelics to help treat trauma and addiction, clients wonder whether the powerful hallucinogenic can help them.
The ceremonial psychoactive brew is by made by combining two plants; the vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), and one species of leaf (Psychotria viridis). Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is the very powerful psychedelic substance in ayahuasca. DMT induces vivid hallucinations; hallucinations indigenous people view as a portal to the spirit world. I’ve worked with First Nations communities for over 3 decades and I’ve seen firsthand the healing power of their ceremonies and rituals. I also respect my clients’ innate wisdom and willingness to be brave enough to try to experiment with unorthodox treatment. So I do a little homework.
Dr. Erin Brodwin reviewed scientific literature that sheds new light on the ability of psychedelics (psylocibin, LSD and ayahausca) to treat addiction and mental illness by essentially resetting the limbic system; that region of the brain responsible for memory, emotion, reward, pleasure and drive. This is where trauma lives. She and others hypothesise psychedelics “rewire” or free the brain from rigidly established connection patterns. Friends and colleagues who’ve tried it speak to a “psychic-shift,” a spiritual lightening and yes, intense vomiting.
In another recent review, Dr. Ede Frecska suggests DMT may play an even wider biological role with the potential to help treat…”multiple diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, cardiomyopathy, retinal dysfunction, perinatal and traumatic brain injury, frontal motor neuron degeneration, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, HIV-related dementia, major depression, and addiction, to name a few.”
Research in this area is still in its infancy, but my curiosity piqued, I decide to try ayahuasca myself. In February, with some trepidation I traveled to a Latin American country to join over two dozen others from around the world, in an ayahuasca retreat led by Dr. Gabor Mate.
Gabor Mate, is a retired MD, best-selling author, highly sought after speaker and teacher. He spent the bulk of his years as a physician treating the severely addicted on Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside, where his compassion is renown. In addiction circles, he’s got a cult following. Mate believes all addiction is caused by unresolved trauma. I know the powerful part trauma plays. I know it personally and in my work. I also believe genetics, epi-genetics and many other factors play significant roles. Addiction is a complex biopsychosocial condition.
Three weeks prior preparation begins; no pharmaceutical medications or recreational drugs. Two weeks prior, no alcohol (No problem). One week before, no red meat. Two days out: no dairy, no salt, no sugar, no fats and no sex. I’ve heard plenty of “evil spirit hallucination” stories by those confronting demons. My anxiety mounts. Yet, I’m also excited and up for the challenge.
A boat deposits me on a remote beach, where I meet my fellow ayahuasca travelers.
A group of guides and donkeys escorts us up into an isolated jungle retreat centre. The open-walled authentic-style palapa I share with two other men allows us to revel in the jungle cacophony; birds, monkeys, toads and crickets sing welcome.
The first day of our retreat is spent in mental preparation. Dr. Mate peppers us with provocative and incisive questions. “Why are you here? What do you want to change about yourself? What was your childhood like?” Our traumas, our shames, our humiliations are laid bare.
The second day we meditate on our intention. Establishing an intention prior to drinking is crucial. A “whatever” attitude has the potential to result in a very terrifying experience. My intention: “help me with my shame.” Even though I’ve been well for several years and have a successful practice once again, the memories of my time as a drunk can create a powerful psychic undertow. I profoundly wished to be free of that pull.
Ceremony time. We’re all anxious as we sit in a circle in the maloka, an impressive large open-roofed circular structure thrust up into the jungle on a wooden foundation. A lot of love and thought went into its design. The sky dips inky black above; and below, the slow, soothing burble of mountain streams, creates the feeling we are immersed in nature. We murmur quietly, share anxious glances and nervous laughter as each is given our personal barf bucket.
The shamans arrive and the import of ceremony descends upon us. Candles are lit. A quiet sense of reverence forms. We know what we are about to embark upon reaches through time and space to unite human experience all the way back to antiquity. We are humbled.
The head shaman sits cross-legged and watches over the proceedings. A 2nd shaman to his right sits silently, her eyes closed. The third to his left pours about an ounce and a half of ayahuasca out of an incongruent generic litre plastic bottle into a small glass cup.
Candles are snuffed. We sit in a large circle in the deepest blackest darkness as each in turn presents before the shaman offering ayuhausca. He hands it to me and says solemnly, “I will come around after we sing the first Icaro, you can have second drink if you want.” I down it in one shot.
Otherwise, I would have gagged. It’s terrible. Bitter sweet, like gritty dark molasses gone rancid. The Icaro, a traditional chanting and singing essential to the healing of this ceremony. It is sung through a bottle. Ceremonial mapacho tobacco smoke wafts over us, punctuated occasionally by the shamans spitting rosewater at us. Helpers watch over us, ensuring our safety.
I feel queasy and a little nauseous. A strange electrical buzz builds in my ears. Birds sing to me, “get ready here it comes.” Dogs bark warnings. I sense, more than see my companions. Many vomit and yawn. Several cry and others laugh. The dark trees above me move as if breathing. I’m acutely aware I’m in an altered state. A soft female voice in the tree says, “You’re close. Don’t be afraid, come closer.”
As promised the shaman comes around and asks me if I want another shot. “Yes” pops out of my mouth before I can stop it. I throw it back. I return to my mat, lie on my back and pull the thick Mexican blanket up to my eyes. I don’t know why, but I’m scared. Really scared. My body catches fire and I throw the blanket off me. I tear off my t-shirt. Sweat pours down my face. Unbearable agitation sets in. I can’t sit up and I can’t lie down. Why did I take that second drink? The old days come to mind when I couldn’t stop drinking alcohol. Why am I so impulsive?
I frantically grab my little yellow bucket just as my stomach hurls all its contents. Small black baby snakes and little black lizards fly out of my mouth and wriggle and writhe in the bucket. I retch relentlessly, with such force I’m gasping for breath. I’m so cold. I pull on my shirt, lie down and tuck the blankets tight around my body.
The sky and the trees explode in intensely colourful geometric patterns. I’m mesmerized as they shift and change shapes. A warm powerful electric energy pulses through me. The female helper whispers in my ear, “Would you like to get worked on?” She grabs my hand and leads me to a mat and I lie on my back in front of the head shaman. He sits cross legged at my side and begins to sing. He lightly places one hand over my heart and the other over my abdomen. Energy hits me instantly as his singing intensifies. Louder now. His hands penetrate my body and deep pain that has dogged me much of my life disappears. His work on me seems to last a long time. The helper leads me back to my mat.
Now my body shoots straight up into the sky into what I think is the stratosphere and I burst into trillions of tiny particles of light and energy. I’m nowhere and everywhere at the same time. I have no sense of a body, just infinite energy. Complete silence. I don’t even know for how long because there is no sense of time when in an instant I’m back on my mat again with my body. I feel utter bliss and contentment. From the geometric patterned tree above, a large black jaguar floats down suspended within touching distance. She says softly, “I am mother ayahuasca. You are loved so much you can’t even know how much you are loved. Watch.”
Instantly, I fly over a beautiful countryside I think I recognize. It’s fall. The trees are yellow and red. I see my mother walking down a road by herself, a little suitcase in hand. She’s moving quickly to the local small hospital. She’s so young and so pretty, but she’s crying and she’s scared. She’s very pregnant. With me. My father is gone. Drunk again. She sees me, stops crying and smiles, “Michael, I’m so happy you’re here with me. I love you so much.”
I’m back on my mat in the maloka. The woman beside me purges, whimpers. Mother Jaguar floats before me; her head so big it fills my vision and she’s smiling. “It’s so important to honour the mothers, the grandmothers. We are the givers of life and love.”
The warm glow of a single candle in the middle of the maloka signals the ceremony is over. The next day we all sit in the circle with Gabor and process our experience. It creates connection and promotes learning and insight, essential to the healing process.
The second and third ceremonies deliver a similar theme. Mother ayahuasca visits me each time. I visit what must be ancestors from a very long time ago; all mothers and grandmothers. Where are the men? Slowly, I understand. Alcohol took them all away. On the final day of the retreat our convoy of donkeys and guides escorts us from the jungle and deposits us on the beach, where the boats await. We leave transformed.
The skeptical reader may find this account a little too “woo woo.” Before my experience, frankly, I would have too. Yet my ayahuasca journey fundamentally altered me. It tossed all my certainties into the cosmos, releasing me from the stories I’ve told myself for decades. It allowed me to see within myself another reality, one that’s more forgiving, more accepting, lighter. It even challenged my growing belief in atheism. Deep in my ayahuasca journey, as I exploded into millions of tiny particles of light, I caught a glimpse of eternity. It is the closest I’ve felt to bliss in my life. The ayahausca journey is a profoundly spiritual one. I’d be a fool to think otherwise.
So what do I tell my clients? This experience is not for everyone and I’d want to be confident each could handle the physical and mental rigour required. I’d also insist they participate under the supervision of a trained professional, like Dr. Mate. I’d need to be sure my client is in safe hands for the journey.
Home, I’m told I’m a changed person. Less reactive, less intense, more at peace. The weight of the shame I’ve carried for decades lightened. I’m intensely grateful for this moment. This moment matters.