Following my first journey with ayahuasca, I passed two days in a hammock contemplating my life, plant medicine, and the integration of the two. Again, leading up to the second ceremony, I was nervous, and suspected that this kind of nervousness would never disappear in the face of something as powerful as the vine of the dead.
As evening approached we entered the moloka and readied ourselves in a circle. I had cleaned out the space earlier that day and swept and mopped the floor in an effort to built up the requisite humility. Now, taking my place on my cushion, doubt crept in. I dismissed it without allowing myself to feel it and look at it objectively: perhaps this is why things got so difficult for me after we drank medicine, for I had another overwhelming night. This time was, as advertised, much different than the first session, though the journey began with equal intensity, again with the sensations brought on by the medicine, again with the dark cloak of dread that shifted into a burning heat.
This time, however, it was immeasurably reassuring to realize how I could sit quietly with mental constructs of ordinary reality being blown apart and crashing around me. I used Vipassana and anapanasati and despite the most unnerving of physical, mental and emotional fluctuations, kept a calm Zen centre at my very core. I felt untouchable; the fear snarled around the campfire of my mind but could not reach me.
After the uncomfortably powerful sensations subsided somewhat, I crawled into my sleeping bag, as it was chilly in the moloka. It took me about four years to lie down. I experienced full body tremors for a little while and then slowly drifted into the twilight of consciousness. Dreams came, even though I was mostly lucid. These were no ordinary dreams, however—they were dreams I’d already dreamt, dreams unspooling from across the ages, dreams from different periods of my life being played over for me, presumably to examine them against the new backdrop of the current contents of my mind, and its connection with this powerful plant consciousness. Most of these dreams were fearful in nature, aligned with the theme of old and anxious thought patterns that had evidently been with me since my childhood. I watched these dreams patiently for a while, but felt somewhat helpless in the face of this incessant stream of images I had no idea were still sitting in the storehouse of my mind. Eventually it all seemed too absurd and dark to continue with. I questioned the medicine. I questioned my purpose for being here. The evolving awareness that I had drank ayahuasca for the second time overwhelmed me.
There was no way out. Again. How the fuck had I let this happen? I was engulfed with the perturbation that I’d transgressed my own sobriety, one of my deepest-seated fears since getting sober 11 years ago. I had no rational thoughts or convictions to meet this mental unease—it simply washed through me. I tried paying attention, taking mental notes, but the regret was severe. I took stock of the cognitive constituents of my mind, and saw with some perturbation how I continue to classify, organize, judge, sort, manipulate and stamp all the information that comes in to make sense of it—but it occurred to me how I do this just to fit all the incoming information into my preconceived notions, to support my established beliefs and the well-grooved habit patterns of my own mind. Like with my relationships. Sobriety. Even my notions of spirituality. With dismay I noted how often I was anything but open-minded.
At this point I started worrying about the safety of my mind and feared I was going mad; something was definitely slipping away from me. I was slipping away. I was disappearing. My entire identity was at risk of evaporating in the chilly night air; I panicked, and quickly called in my spirit guides Bear and Leopard (why hadn’t I thought of this before?), and immediately felt them standing guard next to me. This wasn’t my imagination—I was clearly able to call in resources from another dimension, and they willingly responded. Nonetheless, the uneasiness remained. I tried EFT tapping—it was useless. I felt my selfhood being magically vacuumed out of the top of my head; I watched my selfhood slip away into the ether in just a few wisps of smoke.
“Fuck,” I whispered in the darkness. “Fuck, fuckity, fuck.” Who the fuck WAS I, anyway? Abruptly, I had no clue.
I was a blank. Even the recent memory of my once-held singularity was a disappearing punch-line to a forgotten joke. Something about this nothingness tripped a panic switch.
I was way too light, as if I’d spiral off the planet any minute; there was nothing to ground me—no food, no TV, no internet, no relationship, no kids, no friends, no rationalizations, no memories, no excuses for the totality of my existence. Over this bridge of fear, doubt crept in, thick and black as midnight, and yet again I questioned the medicine, the motives of the shaman, her icaros. I doubted everything and everyone. Somewhere inside was the faint knowledge that this was just another fear rearing its head in the face of this terrifying ego dissolution. I see-sawed, alternately living through some of my deepest fears and then stepping back from all my projections to examine them and learn from them. Then a new wave would wash over me. I lay in my own mind, questioning everything until there was nothing left to question.
In a trice I became cognizant of my immediate surroundings. Ayahuasca was a serpent crawling through the moloka, churning through everyone’s guts one by one, mine in turn. I experienced abdominal cramping and the pressing need to defecate, but the idea of getting out of my sleeping bag and the task of actually standing, walking, leaving the moloka to find the outhouse in the dark seemed monumental. Eventually, after much internal coaxing, I stood up and made for the door, but the courage it took to do so was unreal. The release I experienced in the outhouse was explosive and similar in nature to the vomiting I had experienced in the first ceremony: it was a visceral, emotional and psychic release of toxins as much as it was physical. I was shitting out antique fear.
When I returned to the moloka I gratefully accepted a bottle of agua de florida from a fellow traveller—an M.D. from Canada— that was handed to me wordlessly in the darkness. After rubbing it over my hands, arms and face, I wrapped myself in my blankets once more. A few moments later, the medicine seemed to just get up and leave. It was as if a set of cosmic fingers snapped and the effects of ayahuasca just evaporated from my brain.
I sat up and watched one of the experienced assistants approach a woman who was having a very miserable time with a lot of purging; I witnessed him in perform a traditional extraction, which was violently intense—I observed with fascination and mild horror as he basically sucked demons out of the top of her head and spitting them into the night air, ostensibly rendered inert with the agua de florida and his experienced shamanic intentions. Another student, an energy healer from Washington, later reported a vision of a small red demon-like being hanging on miserably to the sick woman, attached to her spine and manipulating her spinal cord and internal organs in an energy version of her body. After the extraction, a swarm of blue iridescent butterflies passed over the woman and absorbed, or ‘ate’ what was left of this demon. Apparently it often happens in ceremony that there are shared visions, where something completely out-of-this-world will be witnessed by several people as a shared experience.
Most of my visions were mild and internal. Accessing other realms, other dimensions, and visions of alternate realities is day-to-day stuff for shamanic explorers of consciousness and has been for millennia. In contrast, we seem like ignorant infants with our disassociation from the natural world, from a sacred balance, with our obsessions over the economy and politics and consumerism, carrying the illusion of control and knowledge in an experience so vast and mind-blowing that it appears we construct our paradigms, our schemata, our matrix, if you will, on the tiniest scraps of information that our senses can absorb—and we call this ‘reality’ and tell ourselves it is the only thing that exists, because to admit something we can’t perceive is too frightening.
What my second ayahuasca experience showed me, among other things, was how little we have truly explored in our self-righteous age of information.
The number of people suffering from mental illness on this fragile planet right now is staggering. A viable solution to this suffering will not be found in a pill or a policy, and this ancient knowledge that a modern scientist and seeker like Mate has exposed is seen as a threat to the matrix of the health industry, an industry that is more interested in keeping people sick and ignorant than healthy and enlightened. This became patently obvious when Health Canada threatened Mate with criminal prosecutions if he continued to use ayahuasca as an addiction treatment modality. Mate’s response was that he would comply with the order, stating that, “It’s not a big personal loss for me because it’s a small part of what I do. But it’s a loss for the people who can benefit from this work and we have people whose lives could be saved by it.”
The viability of bringing traditional medicines like ayahuasca into a western health care context is severely limited by the insurmountable obstacles and rigidity our institutions raise to such a paradigm shift. Notwithstanding the clear need for viable long-term strategies in dealing with mental illness, and despite the obvious success of the work Dr. Mate has done to date using sacred plant medicine, the Canadian government has all but shut down his work with ayahuasca in Canada because it is a banned substance. When contrasted with traditional treatment modalities, the effectiveness of ayahuasca, measured most commonly through number of relapses, appears to be a boon from the ancients that we can’t afford to ignore.
Key to the recovery from addiction is the treatment of the incredibly co-occurring afflictions of depression and anxiety and the injudicious and frighteningly ubiquitous use of SSRI’s (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) to treat these conditions, despite all the attendant nefarious side-effects of these drugs, the blanket nix on the use of this ancient plant medicine smacks of either willful ignorance or of a government in bed with big pharma. It boils down to the unlikelihood of any large pharmaceutical company being successful in patenting a plant medicine that is thousands of years old. Our current government, sadly, will never support treatment modalities that nobody can make a killing from, no matter how effective it is. Pharmaceutical companies are realistically the only entities that possess the resources necessary to submit to the controls that are currently in place. This is by design.
Part of what my experiences with ayahuasca have taught me is that it does have tremendous value for people who are suffering. We don’t need more drug companies and biased clinical research for our modern ailments; the ancient truths that Gabor Mate has underlined in his own work are that compassion and insight are far more important than the medications we in West are prescribing for all sorts of diseases. I think a supportive environment around a traditional medicine ceremony, especially as ayahuasca naturally boosts serotonin levels (which likely accounts for some of the purging), would dispose of the bulk of our ‘need’ for SSRI’s. Our governments and the pharmaceutical industry are willfully out of touch with this reality, if not terrified of it, and this is harming us and the care we give to our ill.
In the field of addiction, we need to have enough voices challenging the dominant paradigm through trial and experimentation with ancient healing techniques in tandem with the depth psychology inherent in the 12 step program (not just for addiction but for spiritual recovery); I think this is a more viable path to fulfillment, peace and a sustainable end to suffering. There is a good reason that Takiwasi, the addiction treatment centre in the Amazon jungle, is having such remarkable results. For people in recovery, particularly people just coming in or having trouble with chronic relapse, this sacred plant medicine that has been around for millennia and the insights it brings can prove to be tremendously healing. It is so effective because ayahuasca meets the consciousness of the person taking it and then brings everything to the root level, shedding insight onto the kernels of sometimes nameless anguish or trauma that give rise to our addictions.
Traditional treatment modalities require a complete psychic change, which for some people takes years of effort, honesty, unrelenting self-examination, open-mindedness, patience, strong determination and willingness. Very few addicts in early recovery possess those traits immediately—many come to acquire them, but the help of a plant consciousness that can effect this psychic change in as little as one night needs to be seen as a boon in recovery circles and society at large. Having experimented with LSD in the past, I consider it a psychedelic that is a poor cousin to the potency and holistic power of ayahuasca, but Bill Wilson’s commentary on the impact it brings is salient: “It is a generally acknowledged fact in spiritual development that ego reduction makes the influx of God’s grace possible. If, therefore, under LSD we can have a temporary reduction, so that we can better see what we are and where we are going—well, that might be of some help. The goal might become clearer. So I consider LSD to be of some value to some people, and practically no damage to anyone.”
There are very compelling reasons why people in our age of technology are turning to ancient healing practices. Ayahuasca has long proven to be extremely valuable as a master plant in the expansion of consciousness and healing, not simply a ‘modality’ of treatment. This sacred brew, when delivered appropriately and with respect, can help cut through denial and ignorance at the earliest stages of recovery, and to resolve addiction’s self-sabotaging behaviour patterns and the trauma which lies beneath them. Somehow ayahuasca helps focus consciousness and energy where it is most needed, and augments cognizance and consideration for the protection of the Earth. This plant routinely provides a heightened spiritual connection to the natural world.
The most dangerous drugs in our society are tobacco and alcohol (though tobacco too is a sacred and purifying plant, but it has been so adulterated and abused this spirit of this plant must be, I am guessing, like that of a battered spouse); it’s time we, as families and communities, woke up to ancient healing that is available for present-day mental illnesses that plague our society. By forging ahead with these types of treatments—on our own if necessary, without the cooperation and support of our current infrastructure—we will not only heal large numbers of people but will, as Gabor Mate has already demonstrated, cast light on the ingrained and ignorant deficiencies of our political, economic, medical and familial institutions.