How Ayahuasca Destroyed My Ego and Brought Me Back Home

Banter editor Ben Cohen recounts his mind blowing, life altering Ayahuasca experience.
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Banter editor Ben Cohen recounts his mind blowing, life altering Ayahuasca experience.
Ayahuasca journey

This article was first published  on 'Banter M', our weekly digital magazine on May 28th 2015. I have made some adjustments to the piece having not reading it for several months. The content and timeline of events is unchanged, but I have added parts of the journey I had originally forgotten, and adjusted some of the language accordingly. I have waited to publish this piece for a wider audience largely because I have worried about what people would think. The use of what western culture labels "mind altering drugs" is still a taboo, and I am aware of the ramifications of coming out as an advocate of them. Nevertheless, I have felt compelled to publish my experiences with plant based psychedelics because I strongly believe that they can not only help people suffering from a wide variety of mental and physical health disorders, but may prove to be vital in reconnecting the human species back to our environment that we have been busily destroying. My story was originally broken into three separate pieces, but I am republishing it in full below. Enjoy. 

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Ayahuasca healers blow 'Mapacho' (jungle tobacco) into the brew to bless the medicine.

Why Psychedelics Change Everything

Over the last few months, I have experimented with two of the most powerful psychedelics known to man. I took a large dose of magic mushrooms with friends, then spent time in Peru drinking Ayahuasca in the Amazon rainforest.

I  can honestly say that my experiences on psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and Ayahuasca were the most profound, most terrifying, and most enlightening experiences of my life. It has taken me some time to collect my thoughts and process what has happened to me over the past few months, and I am writing about it with the knowledge that I will be subjecting myself to disparagement from those who dismiss the psychedelic experience. Regardless, I believe what I was shown under the influence of these plant substances is too important to not discuss, and I intend to articulate what could well be, in my opinion, the best way to not only cure us from a vast array of diseases, but to rescue humanity from its spectacular free fall into environmental apocalypse.

Strong words, but with good reason as I shall attempt to explain.

Background

As a teenager, I steadfastly refused to smoke marijuana or cigarettes, and never took any type of mind altering substance.
Growing up in England, I did however consume vast quantities of alcohol believing the damage was minimal compared to the drugs some of my other friends took.  I looked down on marijuana smokers and believed people doing acid or other mind altering substances were losers. How I reconciled this while routinely vomiting from excessive alcohol consumption, getting into drunken fights, and having numerous run ins with the law, is now beyond me.

I now look at this mindset as a disease -- a deliberate cultural infection spread by a power system that does not want people exploring their own consciousness or spiritually sensitizing themselves to our natural environment.

Sanctioned drugs, like alcohol and caffeine assist our economic system by either numbing our minds to the pain of existence, or keeping us alert to work harder and longer. Psychedelics generally have the opposite effect – they expand our minds and put us into states of extreme peace and relaxation. More than that they allow us to connect with our natural environment, which is, as I found out, not too impressed with our behavior.

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The Journey Begins

Indigenous peoples around the world have long believed that psychedelic compounds put humans in direct contact with the spirit world -- specifically "mother nature" and other supposed plant spirits that are here to guide and heal us.

If you had talked to me this a couple of years ago I would have laughed and dismissed it out of hand. From my limited reading on psychedelics, I knew that you could hallucinate on these compounds, and that put me off them entirely. The thought of seeing things that were not real was not my idea of a good time, and I couldn’t for the life of me think why anyone would want to do them. It was only after reading a story about Near Death Experiences (commonly referred to as "NDEs") that made me take a second look at psychedelics, as my mechanistic understanding of the universe was challenged in quite a profound way.

There appears to be an increasing body of evidence that suggests human consciousness can exist, at least for several minutes, after the body has technically died. Dr Sam Parnia, the world’s leading authority on resuscitation techniques, noticed this phenomenon after bringing thousands of people -- quite literally -- back from the dead in Southampton Hospital in the UK.

Around 40% of those brought back to life claimed that they were aware after dying, and some could relay incredibly specific details about what was happening to them. The advancements in the science of resuscitation have only occurred due to a precise understanding of what is happening to the body when it dies, so Parnia began to study the NDE phenomenon given its incompatibility with modern, materialist science. The results of the study done in 15 hospitals worldwide were extremely interesting and pointed to the real possibility of an intelligent awareness after death. One case in particular was ‘validated and timed using auditory stimuli during cardiac arrest’ leading Dr Parnia to conclude:

This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating. In this case, consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat. This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted. Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events.

I have always prided myself on being extremely skeptical, and have a very low tolerance for pseudo-scientific nonsense. But the reports I read on NDEs made me pause and reconsider my strongly held materialist beliefs. I would not say that the phenomenon made me “believe” in an afterlife, or that consciousness exists outside of the body, but it certainly opened my mind to the possibility of it.

My research into NDEs took me in the completely unexpected direction of psychedelics -- a subject I had never given any real thought too. A chance article in the New York Times on the medical benefits of psilocybin mushrooms and an interview with UFC commentator Joe Rogan on his experience with the even more powerful hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT) began to very seriously chip away at my preconceived notions about consciousness and the entire concept of spirituality.

As I delved deeper, some of the reports coming back from those who had used psychedelics like psilocybin and DMT were truly astonishing, and in many ways echoed that of NDEs. They spoke of parallel worlds, the natural intelligence of the earth, and incredibly personal visions. These profound mystical experiences were life changing, and I couldn’t find any serious evidence that they were harmful in any way After reading more about it, it began to dawn on me that at least from a medical perspective, I had basically been lied to for decades. Not only were there virtually no serious side effects from taking plant hallucinogens, they were in fact serious medical benefits to using them.

This shocking revelation did not just come from user forums on obscure websites, but from serious scientific studies in places like Johns Hopkins and Imperial College London that had done extensive studies on psilocybin. The results from the studies were truly breathtaking, and represent a seismic shift in the ways in which depression, anxiety, PTSD and a litany of stress related disorders could be treated. Participants in the studies, who came from a variety of backgrounds, reported their experiences to be amongst the ‘most meaningful’ in their lives, and found them to be profoundly mystical. The Johns Hopkins study concluded that psilocybin had the potential to make dramatic, positive personality changes with a single session. “There may be applications for this we can’t even imagine at this point,” said study leader Roland R. Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins.

With growing evidence about the extraordinary medical benefits of marijuana and the green light for scientist to finally being able to study psychedelics again, the hysteria of the "War on Drugs" finally appears to be calming down. The shift in the cultural zeitgeist has been noticeable, with feature length pieces appearing in places like the New Yorker and the New York Times,  and more and more people began to speak about them openly. Joe Rogan now openly discusses the use of psychedelics on his podcast, and as a regular listener I began to gain more confidence that these substances weren’t just for hippies trying to escape modern life, but tools for humans to connect with nature and heal themselves in profound ways.

The more I read, the more I could not ignore the mind bending descriptions of DMT, Ayahuasca, and pscilosybin trips. Users spoke of meeting sentient beings in a parallel dimension, sensing the existence of God, feeling at one with the universe. Were all these people imagining these experiences? Having always dismissed anyone who had had a religious experience, I felt confident it was simply a trick of the mind and could be explained by rational science. However, the knowledge that I could have one of these experiences on demand, without spending years meditating or going to church, gnawed away at me. After some months I decided I had to see for myself. I knew that Ayahuasca -- a powerful DMT based brew that caused vomiting and often terrifying visions -- was one of the most serious of all the psychedelics, so I wanted to start out with something a little easier given I had virtually no experience with mind altering substances whatsoever.

I tried a low dose of mushrooms with friends, but did not experience much other than laughing a lot and seeing some interesting geometric patterns as I nodded off to sleep. So a couple of months later, we got hold of a significant amount of psilocybin mushrooms (7 grams) and switched our phones off for the night in order to do significantly more than what famed psycho-naut Terence McKenna used to call the "heroic dose."

The Trip Begins

Mushrooms were to me, an extraordinarily blissful and spiritually profound experience. My perception of time, space and reality were challenged in ways I did not think possible, and it radically undermined my previous understanding of reality and how we perceive it.

As the effects started to come on, the room became alive as objects not only looked incredibly sharp and detailed, but brightly colored and pulsating with energy. The best way I can describe it is that it began to feel like I was in an ultra high definition Salvador Dali painting -- a hyper reality that seemed more real than real. I was highly aware that this was happening to me, and I could not figure out how my brain was constructing this new reality that I had never been aware of.

Was I creating this new, HD reality, or was it always there and my brain incapable of perceiving it without the aid of the mushroom? The mushroom reality is easy to dismiss as a hallucination if you haven’t done mushrooms, but if you have, the question isn't so easy to disregard.

My two friends (who I had known since we were teenagers) and I sat for hours in what seemed to be an egoless state of hyper awareness where we reconnected as human beings in a way I was unfamiliar with. As emotions rose while discussing our lives and the problems we were facing, we comforted each other and listened without judgment. My body felt flooded with a deep sense of empathy and connection to not only my friends who were with me, but to everyone I knew.

I could see why people behaved as they did – their fears and anxieties manifesting themselves through excessive consumption, career ambition, or emotionless sex. I began to see that much of what we see in today’s society is a product of fear: corporations buying each other to get bigger and bigger, rich people disconnecting from society by walling themselves off in giant mansions, and mindless environmental destruction to satiate insane consumption habits. I saw these patterns as being completely divorced from the extreme connectivity I was feeling towards our natural environment, and knew then that my long held suspicions that something was terribly wrong with our society was right.

As the night wore on, the effects seemed to get stronger and stronger, causing me to want to lie down and go deeper into the increasingly strong visuals of geometric patterns that existed when I closed my eyes. As I settled down, the patterns became more intense and it began to feel like I was being transported into a mystical forest, full of magic and bursting with life. I began to hear a low whispering from what appeared to be highly intelligent elf like creatures who were darting in a out of the trees laughing and singing while comforting me (a well known phenomenon as I would find out later). As I tried to listen to what the elf creatures were saying to me, I felt a healing energy pulsating through my stressed out body. While I couldn't quite make out what was being said to me, I felt the intention very strongly -- the elves, or "natural intelligence" of the forest was assuring me that everything would be ok, and that we humans worry far too much. They seemed to be saying: "We are looking out for you, you are a part of all of this, so stop worrying."

I can only describe it as being profoundly spiritual and profoundly healing experience. Having never considered the idea of any form of higher intelligence outside of our own, it was completely unexpected and I found myself slightly shaken that I had lived so long without knowing anything about it.

I awoke the next day feeling an intense happiness, completely at ease with the world and incredibly grateful that I was alive. As I walked to the store to pick up food, I became intoxicated by the sweet smelling flowers on the sidewalk, marveled at the beauty of the trees, and gazed in wonder at the sheer blueness of the sky. Nature took on a completely different meaning, and I felt connected to my natural environment like never before.

For weeks, I felt an amazing sense of calm and peace, like my brain had been reset and all the gunk cleared out. I was thinking more clearly, more creatively, and more compassionately than ever before, and my body seemed free of all stress. I found myself able to sit quietly without worrying about work or thinking about tasks I had to complete – a feeling I had not experienced in years.

As the weeks wore on though, I began to think that the experience had been imagined, and that my brain had played a trick on me. Although I distinctly remember feeling that the experience was far, far too real to be fake, the actual feeling had dissolved somewhat and my rational mind had begun to take over. However, my curiosity about psychedelics had reached new heights, and I found myself reading up on them on virtually a nightly basis. I listened to hours of Terence McKenna lectures and Joe Rogan podcasts, read everything I could and spoke to everyone I knew who had had experience with psychedelics. I knew that I would never be satisfied until I had done Ayahuasca – the supposed Mother of all psychedelics and a revered "plant teacher" that had the ability to heal like no other.

So, I booked a trip to a reputable retreat near Pulcallpa, Peru, not knowing that I was about to embark on the most terrifying, physically and emotionally demanding spiritual journey of my life.

Pucallpa

Arriving in Pucallpa, a small jungle city on the banks of the Ucayali River in Peru, I felt confident that I would be able to handle Ayahuasca in much the same way I had Magic Mushrooms. Not only was I confident, I was quite excited to have another mystical experience explore my consciousness. Despite some quite serious concern from loved ones, I felt I knew what I was getting into was emotionally prepared to deal with whatever ‘Mother Ayahuasca’ wanted to show me.

My good friend Sean, who had joined me on my journey to Peru, was slightly more cautious about it, and as we waited at the humid airport to be picked up by the staff of the Nimea Kaya resort, he relayed some fears he had about the plant changing his personality. “I’m pretty happy as it is,” he said several times. “I’m not sure I need to fix anything.”  Given my experience with mushrooms and extensive reading on Ayahuasca, I felt confident in allaying his worries, assuring him that it would be a positive experience. “If it’s anything like mushrooms, it will be the greatest experience you’ll ever have,” I said boldly. Sean did not seem entirely convinced.

We were met by Jill, the owner of the Nimea Kaya retreat, and Sylvie, one of the leading staff members at the airport, and after some informal chit chat over a cold glass of exotic fruit juice, they took a group of the random misfits who had arrived that morning through Pucallpa and into the retreat that lay on the outskirts of the city. Pucallpa is a dirty, swelteringly hot city that relies mostly on the lumber trade and petroleum exploration, while the surrounding jungle is incredibly green and beautiful -- a contrast that is quite shocking as you move from one area to another. The Nimea Kaya resort sits on 25 acres of rainforest that is literally bursting with life. With wooden huts scattered around the ground, it looked like a yoga retreat more than anything else.

On the first day at the retreat, the staff called us together to welcome us properly and get to know us. We also had to participate in a New Agey style ‘Heart Circle’ session in the Maloka (the tent where ceremony is done) that involved dancing and getting uncomfortably close to the other guests. Sean, a beer swilling  Aussie bloke who spent much of his life in the Australian outback, lasted about 5 minutes as we danced awkwardly in the jungle and did an exercise that consisted of placing our hands on each other’s hearts as a symbol of trust. I did my best to go with it, but I confess that I did feel incredibly awkward when sitting in front of another guest I’d met only hours before and being told to stare into his eyes for over a minute. But I figured there had to be a reason why we were being encouraged to get very comfortable with each other and I worked hard on not breaking into laughter.

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The city of Pucallpa 

There was a lot of chatter about organic food, alternative healing, and yoga type spirituality amongst the staff and other guests at the retreat, and I remember thinking “I’ve got another 9 days of this….”

Later in the day, we took part in stripping the Ayahuasca vines in order to brew them with Chacruna leaves (the unique combination that allows the body to absorb DMT over a period of hours) , and after chatting with some of the other guests I decided that while they all seemed like very nice people, there was little I had in common with them.

As the week progressed however, I was to learn that not only was our awkward ‘Heart Circle’ session vital for our psychological survival, but the sense of ‘separateness’ I felt about the group was just a negative manifestation of my ego – an ego that would take the mother of all batterings. The group would bond in an incredibly intense and moving way as we allowed Mother Ayahuasca to work through us, we would become lifelong Ayahuasca brother and sisters.

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The First Night

On the first night of ceremony, I got to the Maloka armed with a flashlight and a blanket early to secure a spot I felt comfortable in. The Shamans, a couple from a nearby Shipibo village, had already settled and were preparing for the night to begin. A few of the other guests were there and we chatted casually as we waited for the staff to appear. 30 minutes later, we were ready to go.

The lights were turned off and some candles lit on a table in the center of the room with small shot sized glasses and a collection of crystals. The staff came in dressed in white and welcomed us to ceremony. They came round one by one and brushed us down (or ’smudged’ us) with burning Sage, another sacred plant said to clear negative energies.They then offered us ‘mapacho’, a natural tobacco said to have healing and visionary properties accessible through puffing (but not inhaling). A tobacco novice, I took a couple of puffs, spluttered and quickly stubbed it out in the sick buckets laid out next to our mattresses.

After the smudging and the mapacho, we were then offered the Ayahuasca ‘tea’ – the thick brown liquid that had been brewed continuously for four days. I took the glass and downed it as quickly as I could, almost gagging on the disgustingly pungent brew that tasted like a mixture of sweet, rotting fruit and tree bark. I sat back on my mattress and waited for the effects to kick in. Having no idea what to expect, I was completely calm and settled into the noises of the surrounding jungle and the ambience of the dimly lit Maloka.

The Alien

After about 30 minutes, I started to see some morphing patterns that looked like small creatures, and felt some movement in my bowels. Still calm, I accepted this as the beginning of the trip and tried to make myself more comfortable as I closed my eyes to experience it fully. As soon as my eyelids closed, I was catapulted into a completely alternate reality and came face to face with an alien being with gigantic probes as hands. Completely aware of what was happening, I began to seriously panic. What in God’s name was this, and what had I just taken?

While staring at this apparently soulless, grey alien being, the small creatures I had seen before had become fully alive in this alternate dimension and were entering my body and rifling through my stomach. To my utter horror, I then saw my body lifted into space while the alien began to probe me. From witnessing this from a third person perspective, I was transported into my own spine as the probes spliced into my body, and I was shown in great detail tender points that only I know about. This alien (or whatever it was) was seemingly completely aware that I suffered from the pain condition fibromyalgia. The experience was so incredibly real that at first, I was too shocked to do anything. Whatever was going through my body knew me better than I knew myself, and my rational mind felt on the brink of complete collapse. How on earth was this happening? The alien did not seem loving or cruel, just matter of fact, like a doctor performing a routine surgery on an unidentified patient -- a demeanor that made it all the more unsettling.

At this point I completely lost the plot and tried to fight my way back to reality. The more I tried, the more this supernatural ‘intelligence’ began to amplify my fibromyalgia pain with a force that was utterly overwhelming. Then began a brutal war between what I learned to be my ego, and this new reality that was overwhelmingly asserting itself. I opened my eyes to see if this alien reality would go away, but instead I was confronted with shape shifting, luminescent entities moving in a pulsating matrix that was once the Maloka. This was frankly far too much for my poor Western mind to comprehend, and I descended into a dark abyss of fear and terrifying confusion. My stomach then began to feel like it was being wrung out, and I vomited violently several times. As I wretched, if felt like toxic energy was being released – the harder the purging, the cleaner I felt. Every time I purged brought a brief feeling of relief, but the pressure in my stomach to wretch became so strong that I flipped over in a summersault. I later found out that the staff had to pin me down, but I can only recall plunging back into this other world where I had no control over anything.

A while later, unable to emotionally or psychologically handle what was happening to me, I began banging on the floor so that the staff would come and help. I remember crying out "I need help. Help me. Help me." I could hear voices coming towards me, but my sense of time and space were so confused I couldn’t tell who it was or what they were saying to me.

As the sheer physicality of it progressed, I began to develop the sensation that I was being physically reattached to some sort of living root system that I had once been a part of, and was now almost completely alien to.   I was being cleaned out from head to toe, and completely unable to control my body - -a process that little by little I was succumbing to despite my monumental efforts to resist it.

As I tried to come to when talking to whoever came to help me in the depths of my despair, I became vaguely aware of other people in the room were pulsating bits of energy, some of whom seemed less vibrant than others. I started to see those with less energy as being ‘dead’ or at least very sick, surrounded by a healing energy that was working to bring us back to this engulfing root system we all seemed to be a part of. I could see the healing energy, but I could not access it. The staff member helped me purge more and, I think, tried to encourage me to breathe properly. It remember it helping somewhat, but I was so disoriented and distressed that I continued having breathing difficulties as the night went on.

To alleviate the extreme discomfort I was in, I tried relaxing and breathing, but a radiating force and a pulsating noise in my head got louder and louder no matter what I did. The force would start in my chest, the force would radiate throughout my body, reminding me that I was not in charge, that Mother Ayahuasca -- or whatever it was -- was doing its work and would finish when she was done with the job.

I tossed and turned, trying to get the pulsations and noise to calm down, but I was stuck in a never ending cycle of pain and discomfort where everything I tried wasn’t quite enough to relieve myself. I had incredible visions, scenes that were far more real than reality, and was overwhelmed by the extraordinary colors and patterns that seemed to be gateways into alternate dimensions that I was thrust in and out of. I remember seeing a sea of liquid gold that was so beautiful and detailed that I knew, at least at that moment, that what we perceive to be every day reality is merely a simulacrum of the "true" reality -- and a poor one at that. The other visions were less visually precise, but more physically affecting as I felt my body being pushed and pulled from the inside out. The overall effect was to take apart my entire sense of self, or ‘ego’, that was desperate to find some semblance of normality.

Ego Death

Ayahuasca broke me in so many ways that night that I was sure I was going to die.I didn’t know whether it would be in the physical or spiritual sense of the word, but I was sure at several points that Ben Cohen was not going to exist for much longer. I could not believe that something this powerful could actually exist, that there was this entirely new reality that was almost completely alien.

After what seemed to be the millionth time that my entire concept of self was shattered into a million pieces, my will to fight finally seemed to dissolve into nothingness as the pain became unbearable and my energy to cling to reality too exhausting. Suddenly, the pulsating force in my body disappeared along with the pressure in my head, and I was catapulted into a new dimension of complete peace and what I can only describe as "knowingness". I realized then that I could hear the "Icaros" coming from the Shamans – the healing songs sung to protect the space and invite positive spirits into the ceremony. I remember the distinct feeling that I could only hold onto this new blissful realm if I kept my focus on the Icaros and synced with its rhythm – a rhythm that appeared to be a sort of language that generated reality -- or our reality -- itself.

One of the staff members came to ask me how I was doing, and still diving in and out of different dimensions, I babbled some nonsense about what I had seen. Amazingly, she seemed to understand exactly what I was saying, making me realize that she had gone through this before many times and knew precisely what I meant. As my brain began to settle, I had the profound realization that I had been connected back into Mother Nature in the most intense way possible, and she had started the long process of bringing me back into her rhythm, away from the madness of our civilization and culture that has severed us from her long ago. The next couple of hours were incredibly serene as I sat outside with Sean and had a cup of Coco tea and discussed our experiences. While somewhat shell shocked from the ordeal, I understood that it had given me exactly what I needed, and exactly what I could take in order for it to work. Sean had had a totally different experience to mine and had kept his eyes open the whole time, and he told me of the profound realizations and visions he experienced. “I’ve got it all worked out mate,” he told me. “I saw visions about my life, what was holding me back, and what I need to do to move on,” he continued, pointing to the stars where he then tried to explain the vision of himself as an eagle. My head still swimming, I couldn’t understand how we could have had such different experiences. Sean had had no alternate reality shatter this one, no visiting aliens, and no purging. Instead, he’d had a great time and turned into an eagle.

As I was to learn later however, Ayahuasca meters out its message in very different ways depending on what the patient needs to see.

The Day After

After sleeping for several hours and well into the afternoon, I made my way down to the kitchen from my room to hopefully find someone to trade stories with. There were several guests there and we began to learn about each others experiences. I listened intently as the majority regaled amazing visions, profound healing, and a new sense of spirituality. Only two or three people had had experiences like mine, and I listened to their journeys into a dark abyss they all thought they’d never return from.

“That was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had,” said one of them, ghostly white from the experience. “It was just pure death. Nothingness and death.”

Although I empathized greatly with him, I did feel somewhat glad that I hadn’t been alone in my prolonged misery.

From speaking with the other guests, I found out just how badly I had reacted to the medicine as the other guests told me I had been shouting and done a fairly impressive summersault (a fact I had been dimly aware of). The girl who had been next to me during ceremony told me she had been really concerned at how fast I’d gone under and how violently I reacted to it. Apparently the staff had carried me to the the back of the Maloka so I wouldn’t disturb the other guests (thus explaining why I came to in a completely different place).

My body felt remarkably good though – refreshed and cleansed, although physically tired. I actually looked forward to the vegan food on offer at the retreat, and the thought of meat, alcohol, or sugar made me feel ill. As I tucked into a cucumber salad and fruit smoothie, my mind was still racing to get some sort of perspective on what had happened the night before.

“How do you feel now you’ve been back in reality for a few hours?” one of the male guests asked me at the lunch table.

“Pretty out of it,” I replied. “I’m still trying to figure out whether this reality is real, or the Ayahuasca state was”.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “You’ll get to ask Ayahuasca about that tomorrow night”.

Fuck. I had forgotten that I had signed on to do another three ceremonies.

A sense of sheer dread crept over me and I wondered out loud whether I could handle going in again.

“It usually gets much better after the first ceremony,” said one the staff members eating with us. “She should be much kinder.”

It turned out mother Ayahuasca was not kinder to me the next night, and my journey had really only just begun. Again.

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Brewing the Ayahuasca

Lessons Learned, and the Science Behind Ayahuasca

After I took part in my first ayahuasca ceremony, I did three more over the following days. Having gone to the jungle armed with a note pad and my phone to record voice memos, I could barely bring myself to write anything down or attempt to record anything for future reference. I scribbled on my note pad an intention after the first ceremony, saying simply “Please Mother Ayahuasca, be gentle with me tomorrow,” as some of the staff had told me when we arrived that they had had calmer experiences after asking Ayahuasca for an easier time. I had written this off as New Age nonsense before my first ceremony, but now I was listening.

The experience had been so profoundly overwhelming that all my energy was spent trying to reconcile a world view that no longer seemed applicable in any way. My experience on mushrooms had opened my to the notion that there was some sort of natural intelligence that all life was a part of, but Ayahuasca ripped that into tiny shreds and offered up something far, far more complicated and far, far more disturbing than I could have possibly imagined.

I find it hard now to distinguish between the ceremonies after the first one, mostly because I would experience Ayahuasca flashbacks throughout the day, and particularly at night. These would amplify just after ceremony, and dwindle during longer periods between. The second ceremony was again, enormously difficult and there were several points at which I thought I might die. While making a concerted effort to ‘go with it’, there appeared to be much more work to do, and the medicine continued to zone in on the fragile parts of my psyche and physical self that Ayahuasca was showing me were intrinsically linked.

The staff were truly amazing and seemed to magically appear when things got difficult, helping me breathe and stay grounded as the medicine rifled through my body and mind, working, working, working to evaporate the cultural conditioning I had gone through, crushing my ego as what I had known as reality continued to dissolve. By the third ceremony my mind was unable to muster the energy to fight this astonishing force, and as it came on, I finally allowed it to do its thing while still in the depths of the experience. Accepting the rhythm of Ayahuasca allowed me to work with it to a degree, and I had some success navigating my journey and moving away from the pain towards a state of pure tranquility. Any small deviation from this rhythm would pull me back into a state of terror and darkness that I had become all too familiar with, and the more I panicked, the further I went in.  The more I gave in to it, the faster I could come out of it. Operating as some sort of finely tuned biofeedback system, I began to see Ayahuasca not as a magical medicine, but an access point by which humans could plug themselves into, or back into as it were, Mother Earth itself.

The work required to experience Ayahuasca’s magic is no joke. It was the single hardest experience of my life, and to this day I still struggle to come to terms with what happened to me. Looking back now, the particular images and experiences I went through seem less important than the overall lesson I seemed to be receiving. The experience of a traumatic rebirth, seeing alien entities, watching the jungle birth a panther then becoming that panther myself, disintegrating into language, feeling humanity’s pain through a nuclear holocaust, and experiencing love in its purest form were as real to me as anything I have ever experienced. But given the wide variation of experiences reported by those who have taken Ayahuasca, it seems naive to assume that the particular things I went through have any real meaning as it relates to what what we define as our every day reality. I can say with absolute certainty that my mind did not conjure up the vast majority of the imagery and experiences I saw and went through, and if it did, then I know absolutely nothing about myself or my subconscious. But whether they were “real” is almost a meaningless question given I can’t say whether the reality within which I am writing this story is “real”. I experienced it as reality, just as I experience this one, and there isn’t much I can do about it.

Since my experience, I have thought long and hard about whether to speak openly about Ayahuasca. I had intended to write about it before going, but having done it, the ramifications seemed infinitely more serious and potentially detrimental to my credibility as a writer. Knowing full well that much of what I am saying could be interpreted as New Age psycho babble, I know that I must tread carefully when making any claims about its benefits. But as Terence McKenna said:

In the Amazon and other places where plant hallucinogens are understood and used, you are conveyed into worlds that are appallingly different from ordinary reality. Their vividness cannot be stressed enough. They are more real than real. And that’s something that you sense intuitively. They establish an ontological priority. They are more real than real, and once you get that under your belt and let that rattle around in your mind, then the compass of your life begins to spin and you realize you are not looking in on the Other, the Other is looking in on you.

Knowing this first hand, it would be irresponsible and untruthful for me to pretend otherwise. So here I go.

The Shipibo people in Peru do not have a grounding in western science, so speak of Ayahuasca and the visions in terms of spirit. The Santo Daime Church in Brazil, a Catholic sect that uses Ayahuasca as a sacrament believes Ayahuasca is the literal blood of Christ. One of the guests at the retreat spoke vividly of finding her sacral chakra after ceremony. None of these descriptions mean anything to me, but I believe we all experienced the same thing, and attempt to describe it according to our own cultural conditioning. It should be noted though, that there are many, many reports of shared visions, communication between Shamans in alternate realities, and a countless tales of telepathy between people taking Ayahuasca. This makes the notion of other dimensions and undiscovered mental capacities far more serious a proposition, and I am all for scientists studying Ayahuasca and its effects as much as they possibly can.

Western science tells us very little about what Ayahuasca is, largely because research on psychedelics has been shunned by the scientific community for decades due to its illegality in the West. Thankfully, we appear to be experiencing a renaissance where serious institutions are being allowed to study them in controlled environments. As I wrote about previously the medical trials on psilocybin done in places like Johns Hopkins and Imperial College London have yielded truly astonishing results, but there is still very little on Ayahuasca. Of the few, limited studies done however, there appears to be real evidence of Ayahuasca’s healing properties. Neuroscientists at the University of Sao Paulo published results from the first clinical test of a potential therapeutic benefit for the plant based medicine. The scientists involved reported that the drink began to reduce depression in patients “within hours, and the effect was still present after three weeks”.

Another medical research paper from the Federal University of São Paulo looked into Ayahuasca’s potential for treating various cancers and found evidence that it could have a positive effect. The study looked at 9 patients who were treated traditionally and found that the majority benefited immensely from Ayahuasca. Of course more research must be done, but it is at the very least, very interesting.

These studies are hugely important if Ayahuasca and other psychedelics are to make their way into the mainstream of Western society, particularly given the connotations associated with their use. The western psychedelic community has done itself no favors over the past few decades. The orgiastic hedonism of the hippie movement created the militant backlash against psychedelics, arguably leading to their current legal status. New Age spiritualists have also developed ludicrous cultish belief systems based on personal visions and play their part in alienating themselves from intelligent people who would otherwise be interested in exploring their own consciousness. Psychedelics are in dire need of some scientific and intellectual credibility, and in the West this can only come about if rational, intelligent people begin to speak openly about them.

The Message

Having reintegrated myself as best I can back into life in the West, I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I cannot convince everyone of Ayahuasca’s power to heal, and what the ramifications of its existence truly means. I have desperately wanted to convince those I care about to experience for themselves its enormous benefits, but the resistance has often times been strong, with close friends and family taking offense at what I am saying . This is something I will need to get to grips with in the coming months, as I am coming to understand that most people are either not ready to take the plunge or just don’t want to do it regardless of its transformative benefits. Nevertheless, I will do my best to articulate what I believe Ayahuasca to be and will continue to speak about it in the hope that it may resonate at some level with those at least partially open to listen. Because as Terence McKenna said:

Our world is in danger by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness. And so to whatever degree any one of us, can bring back a small piece of the picture and contribute it to the building of the new paradigm, then we participate in the redemption of the human spirit, and that after all is what it’s really all about.

In speaking openly about it and writing this series, I hope that I too am contributing to the building of this new paradigm in some small way. Because for me, Ayahuasca allows us to hear Mother Earth — a sentient organism in deep distress because of human destruction of her bio systems. Ayahuasca and other plant psychedelics act as mediums through which we can sensitize ourselves to the earth as a living being, and once this happens, we are able to see the insanity of our wanton environmental destruction. While taking these plant medicines can be unbelievably challenging, the benefits are indescribable and life changing. While I am not fully healed from my fibromyalgia pain, I know now where it comes from and have taken steps to alleviate it. I no longer eat red meat or pork, and have an ever deepening affinity for our natural environment. Ayahuasca never stops working through you, and to this day I continue to learn from her.

The plants are there to help us, and Mother Earth is singing to us to come home.

And we need to start listening before it is too late.

For more information on the Nimea Kaya retreat, please go here. I would recommend it to anyone interested in taking Ayahuasca and would trust the staff there with my life. 

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