The Slow Death of AA and the 12 Steps

In the 1930’s an alcoholic named Bill Wilson, so the the story goes, met with an alcoholic physician named Bob Smith, and together, on the foundations of the fundamentalist Christian organization The Oxford Group, they co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, and literally wrote the book on the 12 step program. What happened since is a tale of success from a PR perspective, however recently the true efficacy of the 12 Steps as expounded in the AA program has been seriously called into question, with estimates of success ranging from 5 to 10%. 

Bill W.

Bill W.

AA doesn’t like people, particularly people involved in AA, writing publicly about AA. In fact, AA doesn’t like to hear about itself at all from the mouths of others, unless it is old-timey praise for how its patriarchal Christian-based dogma works miracles on the still-suffering alcoholic. I know this first-hand because I have attended AA meetings sporadically since I got sober in 2001. I tried to open a discussion about the problems inherent in AA culture while serving as Editor for Our Primary Purpose, Ottawa AA’s monthly newsletter. As the Japanese proverb goes, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” and this could easily could serve as an unofficial slogan of AA; I was promptly fired for my efforts.

To be clear, I am not bitter about being let go, as I knew it was going to happen before I published the controversial issue. However, I am inquisitive and somehow still incredulous as to how an organization which emphasizes the crucial importance of a personal moral inventory in maintaining sobriety can so broadly shun questioning its own methods and traditions, both official and unofficial.  

Currently there are 12-Step programs for hundreds of the multifarious afflictions and addictions which trouble humanity. The method undeniably involves a certain amount of proselytizing—the Oxford Group, after all, was founded by a missionary who believed that the root of all problems was fear and selfishness, holding as its central tenet that the purging of sinfulness must happen through a conversion experience. In AA this translates as a sort of moral self-flagellation, where members describe themselves as perennially sick and insane and in the process of perpetual recovery, with AA and the 12 steps as the only saving grace in their lives.  AA’s basic text, affectionately referred to as The Big Book by members, outlines in no uncertain terms that AA can never fail: 

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.
Chapter 5 of the Big Book, How It Works

AA's motto.

AA's motto.

So, in AA’s terms, only an alcoholic can fail the program by not being honest enough. And the warnings against failing to work the 12 Steps properly are positively biblical; the only other options for a suffering alcoholic are jails, institutions, or death. What is most curious about this program founded in ultra-religious roots is how it became the go-to method of treatment, codified not only in the medical profession but in our legal system as well. Countless individuals have been “sentenced” to AA by a judge. 

Adapt or Die

Some of the questions I asked the AA community included the following: 

Is it relevant to alcoholics that ancient shamanic plant medicines from the jungles of South America are demonstrating a success rate of roughly 80% when used with hardcore drug addicts? 

Why is Bill W.’s work with niacin, or the vitamin B-3 therapy, not common knowledge, even though it is the work he wished to be remembered for? 

Why are newcomers served donuts, cake and cookies and triple-sugar coffee instead of being advised that at least 95% of alcoholics are essentially hypoglycaemic and need to stay away from sweets to have a 5-fold greater shot at maintaining sobriety? 

How come the scientific evidence which supports the theory that smokers in AA get the same by-products as they do from alcohol through the cigarette delivery system isn’t made readily available to the numerous chain-smokers in AA? 

And finally, what is the real relationship between trauma, anxiety, depression, stress and addiction? 

A lot of information that would be helpful and relevant to recovering alcoholics and addicts has been at best ignored, and at worst shunned and covered up, by members of or affiliated to the AA community. The explanation offered is that AA has a singleness of purpose, and its only role is to address the tyrant alcohol and the conversion experience needed to overcome it. The problem with this ideology is that sobriety does not exist in a vacuum. 

For a group of people who assert we need a regular personal inventory in order to stay sober, many of us are reluctant to admit we need a vast and probing inventory at the organizational level in order to know why AA is faltering—because any way you cut it, AA is faltering—and what steps we can possibly take to redirect the course of an organization that has been helpful in its early iterations. 

Part of the problem for AA at the organizational level is that it is comprised of ex-drunks who still have wacky social and behavioural issues, and most of these people possess a deeply entrenched fear of change. The problem is partly our denial, and when any member questions the status quo, the membership has been designed to beat her or him back into line with dirty epithets like ‘terminal uniqueness’ and ‘self-appointed reformer,’ which suggests that having an independent thought to even bring forward to group conscience is somehow immoral. But the statistics don’t lie. 

AA needs to adapt or die. 

The Roots of Recovery

William Wilson, or Bill W., was named by Life Magazine as one of the most influential men of the 20th Century. Despite his obvious accomplishments, his service to others, and the success of the recovery movement he had helped create, he routinely suffered from bouts of personal problems and inner turmoil. Wilson was eager for publicity while living with depression, loneliness and self-doubt—not to mention a lung-tarring addiction to cigarettes. He was also reportedly a chronic philanderer, even after he sobered up. His paroxysms of what can likely be termed sex addiction caused no shortage of internal discord and friction in his marriage and, one may assume, in his own mind. I’m no judge of this behaviour; I’m merely interested in what we can learn from this information. 

Straight out of a Kerouac novel.

Straight out of a Kerouac novel.

Behavioural addictions such as sex, spending, eating, gambling and working, are tougher to recognize, let alone treat, because it is through the activity itself that the addict’s brain becomes a lab, manufacturing its own supply of the very thing it is craving.

This information serves only to demonstrate that William Wilson, co-founder of AA, clearly didn’t know or possess sustained inner peace.

If the man who literally wrote the Big Book on conventional 12- step recovery suffered so much mental anguish after sobering up, it follows that it is possible that the organization’s program is missing some elements required to achieve authentic happiness, peace and serenity.

The Role of Psychadelics

One of the greatest attributes a seeker of truth needs to possess is an objective, discriminating mind which is free from prejudice. It appears Bill Wilson possessed this faculty to some degree and his afflictions, even in sobriety, eventually led him to dabble in the occult and various forms of mysticism, including his friendship with Aldous Huxley and the resulting experimentation with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD).

Wilson likened LSD to a miracle substance—and he reportedly used it regularly in a controlled therapeutic context well into the 60‘s. Somehow we never discuss this fascinating part of our history in AA. The probable relevance of hallucinogens to Bill W.’s sobriety and research is not part of A.A. folklore. AA members are not taught that Bill W., otherwise revered at AA meetings in quasi-cult-like form, was convinced that LSD could help alcoholics by curing their depression by chemically inducing a spiritual awakening. He even introduced a sponsee, Tom Powers—who eventually co-wrote The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions—to LSD.

LSD-alcoholism.jpg

As fascinating as it may be that AA’s co-founder experimented in-depth with acid, it pales in comparison to how revealing it is that AA will go to great lengths to ignore this information, or at the very least discount its potential impact on recovery. I submit that abject denial of events that do not fit into the closed paradigm of AA Traditions we have fashioned cannot help us expand our awareness. 

Modern Drunkard Magazine writer Richard English even reports that Wilson, near his 70th birthday, had concocted a plan to distribute tabs of blotter to AA meetings nationwide. The notion of feeding acid to scores of insecure, often anxiety-ridden, recovery neophytes who huddled in musty church basements across the continent is, possibly, alarming. However, there is some evidence to suggest that Wilson had at least some understanding of the importance of controlled and safe set and setting for the use of psychedelics.

No substance has been more widely tested and used in the treatment of addiction in North America than LSD, before and after Nixon made it a Schedule 1 substance, and these tests haven’t been without significant successes. Some such trials were eventually published in a book by Doctors Hoffer and Osmond entitled A Cure for Alcoholism. This book is no longer in print. 

when-12-step-programs-dont-work-min.jpg

LSD didn’t seem help Bill W. in the long term with his depression or his various cravings. There were also instances of people having psychotic reactions to the LSD. When the plug was finally pulled on LSD research, Hoffer and Osmond were led to study Niacin, which was validated to be, essentially, a wonder cure for multiple ailments, including heart disease, schizophrenia, and depression. 

Entheogens in the Jungle.

As the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has shown, the research to date shows that hallucinogens can be beneficial in treating addiction, among other concerns. This is perhaps nowhere highly relevant at a treatment centre called Takiwasi, which is located in the jungles of Peru, where French doctor Jacques Mabit works with hardcore addicts using traditional shamanic medicine, specifically Ayahuasca, that is thousands of years old. Ayahuasca, however, is stepping away from the laboratory and moving further into the mystical realm of entheogens, into the sacredness of plant consciousness itself. Mabit’s rate of success for recovery is somewhere around 80%. 

When I recently travelled to Peru to take part in shamanic yoga training, I’d done my homework on the roots of recovery and the nexus between addiction and psychotropic plant medicine—but the knowledge I carried when I arrived in Cusco didn’t do much to discharge my aversion to psycho-reactive substances. I reminded myself that many of these medicines, particularly ayahuasca, are traditionally used for the treatment of addiction and while my recovery program has kept me clean and sober for over 12 years, I have not yet managed to find freedom from addictive patterns of thought and behaviour, as well as depression and anxiety. 

My gut urged me to delve into the experience of plant medicine with a teachable heart and to seek out the courage and support I needed to do so—not only from the competent and professional people running my training, but from my non-physical guides and teachers. Ultimately, as much as I feared and had antipathy towards letting anything perception-altering past the blood/brain barrier, I also knew intuitively that there was something in this opportunity that would assist me in becoming more adept at shifting my existential reference point to allow me to more fully experience the lessons which are, I believe, all around us. 

Yet the gerbil in the wheel of my small mind kept running back to the awareness that I was more or less bucking the tradition I come from and potentially isolating myself from my own community of recovering people. 

Ultimately it was worth the risk, partly because it has long confounded me why so many people recovering from addiction are trapped in grief, depression, anxiety, ignorance, subtle layers of denial, not-so- subtle judgement. So many people in recovery, myself included, engage in this navel-gazing victimization, too often re-hashing their problems and living in fear. The characterization of recovering alcoholics as chain-smoking coffee addicts who subsist on an abhorrently unhealthy diet is not far off the mark in numerous cases. 

As a yoga teacher and student of yoga, I have come to understand how, after my breath, the purity of the water and the food I put into my body is the most vital component to my health—not only my physical health but my mental and emotional health. The time for our species’ belief that these states work independently of one another passed a long time ago. 

So here it was: I wanted to know why there so many people in recovery living such unhealthy lives, treating their bodies as garbage pails, similar to how they functioned in active addiction; I also want to know how to help them. 

It’s a sad but earnest truth that for every person who makes it in recovery, roughly 20 don’t. The answer to this problem, by the members who stick around and stay sober long enough, is that the people who relapse and continue to live in misery are just not working a program. They are somehow not honest enough to work the 12 Steps correctly. The problem with such a broad statement is that there's no data to back it up. 

Even more fascinating are the multitudes of men and women who stay in recovery and stay sober but require the use of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) for depression and anxiety, despite their dubious worth and effectiveness—and those who are on medication for stress, high blood pressure and for many other physical ailments, the roots of which I suspect are planted in a lingering and profound sense of disconnection. 

I don’t know of any reliable statistics on the number of addicts who turn to behavioural addictions to continue the natural search for connection and inner peace but my sense of it is that the numbers are alarmingly high. 

These medicines, as has been demonstrated by ancient history, as well as some avant-garde researchers, have proven extremely useful for opening a students’ or patients’ paradigm rapidly and safely. In confronting my own doubts and fears, I reminded myself that these medicines have been considered sacred since before recorded history—likely well before. They are recognized as important, legal and ethical by not only numerous governments around the world, but by the United Nations as well. 

I’m not the only one. AA members need to start thinking outside the box again, fully considering the impact of these other dimensions of experience. I think that is fundamentally what Bill W. had in mind when he wrote Step 12. 

Ancient Medicine

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it—is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience 

Somewhere out there in the ether floats an episode of The Nature of Things with David Suzuki; it’s called The Jungle Prescription and it follows Gabor Mate, a Vancouver physician, addictions specialist and noted author, into his work with ayahuasca. 

Ayahuasca is a primordial plant medicine traditionally used for multifarious purposes, including the treatment of addiction and the often co-occurring afflictions of anxiety and depression. 

Mate’s work in the downtown east side of Vancouver, a neighbourhood with one of the world’s most concentrated demographics of drug addicts in the world, is encouraging. 

As one of the most celebrated thinkers in the field of addiction and drug policy, his conclusions on the usefulness, efficacy and long-term benefits of traditional plant medicines is not just valuable but sorely needed at a time when an alarming number of people suffer from addiction—not just addiction to substances but to self-defeating patterns of thought. 

Thanks, man.

Thanks, man.

In recovery from alcoholism and addiction, it is often said those who cannot or will not recover possess a constitutional inability to be honest with themselves. 

Honest self-appraisal is a tough attribute to come by at any point in life but particularly in active addiction and early recovery, because the brain circuitry is in such a chemical and perceptual imbroglio through prolonged substance abuse, poor diet, chronic negative thought patterns and lack of self-esteem, self- awareness and self-love. 

The addict is incapable of piercing the nature of his addiction with his own self- sabotaging mind; if the brain was a bus, it has been hijacked by the addiction. Thus, the addict is not driving his own bus but just about everybody in the addict’s life (himself included) assumes he is. 

What this means, in practical terms, is that the person we see on the outside is not controlling some of his own thoughts, words and behaviours. 

Stuck in this pattern of use, the subtle but starkly illuminating truth of his own powerlessness, at a neural level, in the face of the substance in which the focus of addictive patterns has manifested, remains elusive. 

As an alcoholic, I understand how the repetition of self-defeating actions and words of the addict are steeped in denial and ignorance. The insanity of our own mental make-up kept us ingesting alcohol repeatedly over a prolonged period of time, despite catastrophic consequences; in active alcoholism, we stop at nothing to drink, even though the alcohol is very thing that is killing us. 

To break free of this cycle, we need to be somehow visited by Grace. 

As a younger man I knew and revered the subtle truths I've since forgotten.

As a younger man I knew and revered the subtle truths I've since forgotten.

The grace that comes in early recovery is at first characterized by a higher state of consciousness, a state which is often referred to as that moment of clarity in which we realize that what we are doing is really not working. This moment is sometimes born through a grace-induced insight but more often than not, it is crystallized from the consequence of some combination of public humiliation and deep personal shame. 

As we move through some dissolution of the ego and the uncomfortable release of mental and emotional patterns, the grace can be characterized as tapas: a burning desire, a strong determination to achieve sobriety. This marks the first of many perceptual shifts along the path of recovery. 

Sages of all stripes have long held that sense-gratification should be balanced in such a way that it doesn’t control an aspirant’s life. The illusion of separateness—from not just each other but the rest of existence—is part of mistaking oneself for the body/mind. 

In our world of illusion and delusion, we have misconstrued our perceptions in this very limited plane of existence for reality in totality. We really don’t know what’s going on and most of the time our ignorance, judgement and denial prevents us from recognizing this. 

The two elements in the shamanic traditions that pose the most direct and radical challenge to the accepted Western worldview are the existence of multiple worlds or realms of consciousness and the reality of spirit beings. Such conceptions are considered completely beyond the pale of both reason and science within the mindset of the modern world. However, for the many thousands of explorers from North America and Europe who have used hallucinogenic plants, including ayahuasca, as a shamanic tool for serious consciousness exploration, the recognition of multiple worlds and the reality of spirit beings is becoming quite common.
~ Ralph Metzner

It has been drilled into me through my own recovery journey that any substance which can alter perception is a drug that is no good for me; this position categorically rejects much wisdom, Bill W.’s own experience, and can ultimately be quite limiting as a healing modality. I understand these limitations as potential blockages to greater awareness and growth, yet they remain strangely persistent and clearly deeply-rooted in my psyche. Thankfully ayahuasca meets you exactly where you are at. 

Vitamin B-3

What happened to Bill W.’s work with Niacin? 

It is an open secret in Alcoholics Anonymous that, during the final decade of his life, Bill Wilson advocated the mega-dose use of vitamins, in particular Niacin, for its medically proven efficacy in the treatment of depression, which has long been a co-occurring affliction of addiction. Wilson worked in close contact with numerous physicians who were mavericks in their own right, acting outside of the paradigm already set by the American Medical Association and the pharmaceutical industry. Bill W. wrote three papers in all, addressed to the intended audience of ‘A.A.’s physicians’: The Vitamin B-3 Therapy: A Promising Treatment for Schizophrenia—and its high relevance to the field of alcoholism (December, 1965); The Vitamin B-3 Therapy: A Second Communication to A.A.’s Physicians (February, 1968); and The Vitamin B-3 Therapy: A Third Communication to A.A.’s Physicians (January, 1971). 

Bill W. worked earnestly in conjunction with Dr. Abraham Hoffer, Director of Psychiatric Research for the Department of Public Health, University Hospital, Saskatoon; and Dr. Humphry Osmond, also in Saskatchewan acting as Director of the Bureau of Research in Neurology. The research of Dr. Hoffer and Dr. Osmond at the time of the first paper demonstrated that massive doses of niacin—3g or more daily—had not produced any adverse or harmful side effects, apart from mild flushing, after being given in large quantities over a number of years to their schizophrenic patients. 

Dr. Abram Hoffer

Dr. Abram Hoffer

Bill W. is on record as saying that he would rather be remembered for his work with Vitamin B-3 therapy for alcoholics than for being co-founder of AA. He trusted AA’s physicians to carry the message. They failed him. 

Vitamin B-3 had proven to be reliably counteractive to the toxin created by malfunction in the adrenaline andrenochrome metabolism in these patients. The implication this work had on alcoholics was staggering, as Bill W. noted in his first paper: Schizophrenia, or a schizo tendency, is often the principal cause of many of the emotional troubles that beset us alcoholics, both before and after sobriety. This state of affairs, to which something like one-third of all alcoholics now appear to be more or less subject, goes far to explain many of A.A.’s failures: also many of our ‘slippees’ and so-called ‘unhappy sobriety’ people. These classes of cases are seldom acute situations. For the most part they are individuals having schizophrenic tendencies—a condition that heretofore went largely undiagnosed. 

I’ve been active recovery and attending semi-regular AA meetings for well over a decade, and this haphazard finding—a poor copy of Bill’s typewritten manuscript—was my first introduction to the apparent ‘schizo- tendencies’ that exist among at least a third of the alcoholic population. 

Medicine has its fashions and we, the consumers of medicines, are carried from one apparent epidemic to the next: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactive disorder (ADHD), chronic pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia. My right-brained intuition as a scientist of my own experience tells me that these are all medical terms for concepts and tendencies both real and imagined, at times excruciatingly palpable on a daily basis to the sufferer and at other times misconstrued and exploited mercilessly by the industry that medicates them. 

I’m not alone in this theory; it has it’s backers from the medical field. In his revolutionary work The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of MindBody Disorders, John E. Sarno, M.D. asserts that health care “is in a state of crisis” and that certain segments of medicine “have been transformed into a dysfunctional nightmare of irresponsible practices, dangerous procedures, bureaucratic regulations, and skyrocketing costs. Instead of healing people, the broken health care system is prolonging people’s suffering in too many cases. Instead of preventing epidemics, it is generating them.” 

If this is the case, what’s at the root of this chaos in the medical field? There are multifarious reasons: one of them is the sinister agenda of not only the pharmaceutical industry and government, but the system that controls them both. The more obvious and readily dissectible aspect to this crisis is the bewildering tendency of the medical profession to willfully ignore psychosomatic medicine, or the impact emotions have on illness. As Sarno explains, “though it has yet to be appreciated by either physical or psychiatric medicine, unconscious emotions are a potent factor in virtually all physical, non-traumatic ills. The true cause of the pain serves the purpose of primary gain, that is, to prevent the conscious brain from becoming aware of unconscious feelings like rage or emotional pain.” 

It is not surprising to me in the least that Bill W. became unpopular with board members he himself had appointed to AA International, who felt he had no business messing around with vitamins or the potential impact they had on helping integrate unresolved emotional luggage. They refused to pay attention to the hard science which demonstrated, in Dr. Hoffer’s words, that vitamin B-3 is so versatile because “it moderates or relieves the body of the pernicious effect of chronic stress [and] therefor frees the body to carry on its routine function of repairing itself more efficiently.” 

As a yoga teacher I know that we all of us carry our emotions in our bodies. Our unresolved feelings bury themselves in our very tissues, causing a whole host of problems and conditions that are often, at root, the fundamental fear that feeling our feelings too deeply or too authentically can kill us. This is essentially why alcoholics and addicts turn to booze and drugs in the first place. Psychosomatic illness serves the same purpose: to distract the conscious mind. 

Any alcoholic or addict can understand the concept of schizo-tendencies or being of more than one mind, and acting against one’s best interests and genuine wishes despite drastic consequences. 

“What have often been regarded as ordinary varieties of neuroses,” writes Bill W., “are now seen as cases whose emotional difficulties are greatly aggravated by the long time presence of the schizo-toxin, even though the quantity might be minute.” 

In the face of all the science, there is a heart-centered understanding among many recovering alcoholics who have made at least an initial survey of their own lives, and the motivations, reactions and tendencies that drive behaviour. This shared understanding seems to suggest that alcoholics and addicts are much more than our addled brains. The medical terms for our often co-occurring disorders, such as anxiety and depression, all encompass one vital principle: the lack of power or vital energy in our own lives to grasp for joy or achieve any sense of peace. They describe, on the material plane, a deeper spiritual malaise. 

And yet we ignore the physical plane at our own peril. As within, so without. In a letter to Bill W., Dr. Hoffer (pictured above) wrote the following: 

I have personally administered large amounts, three or more grams daily, of these vitamins to large numbers of schizophrenic patients under my charge; this over a period of many years, most of them since remaining permanently on these materials. During the course of this work, certain other benefits have resulted for these and for other people: arthritic conditions have been helped, circulation improved, blood cholesterol lowered, memory and energy improved—to mention a few. Quite contrary to some still prevalent impressions, neither massive niacin nor nicotinamide appear to have any damaging side effects whatever. Many years of experience have fully demonstrated this to me. Therefore you may recommend these materials freely to anyone. There are no contraindications regardless of the condition of patients, and no interference with any other medical treatment they may be taking. You may use my name in saying so. 

At the time he wrote these papers, Bill W. insisted that he not be publicly identified with the research and promotion of the use of Vitamin B-3 therapy—a therapy he used himself. One can surmise that the already established members and directors of the AA corporation would have, whether out of ignorance or maliciousness, frowned upon ingesting large doses of niacin as an adjunct to the 12 Step program, despite its proven effectiveness. Bill W. didn’t spend years giving his time and energy to accumulating and disseminating the good news about niacin as it relates to alcoholism and depression just so that it could be filed away into a black hole; he trusted the doctors affiliated with AA to ‘carry the message’ about Vitamin B-3 therapy. From all appearances, they didn’t. 

I should end this exploration of AA’s drawbacks by stating unequivocally that I sobered up in August of 2001 and after provincially-funded 12-Step rehab, AA was part of my ongoing recovery plan for years. I am indebted to AA for bringing me in contact with numerous individuals who helped me understand some basic and vital truths of getting and staying sober. AA also introduced me to some very sick people, who have all been powerful reminders of the kind of life I do not want to live. So, in this sense I am indebted to AA. The most powerful way I can think of paying back a little bit is by being as authentic as possible in relaying what my research and experience has shown me.  This is exactly what I have done with The Metta Method, taking the best inter-related elements from yoga, qi gong, shamanic journeying, Ayurveda, pranayama, the 12 Steps, CBT, and self-analysis to bring a program of recovery that touches the root level of our dis-ease. As time goes on, this program of dynamic awareness will evolve with me, and with us, as a species.

I think AA would do well to remember that Bill W. believe AA would self-correct in its own evolution. It would be nice to think that fear of change won’t stop it from doing just that.

Otherwise, AA is destined for the history books.

My First Journey With Ayahuasca

One thing Peru—more specifically ayahuasca—had taught me was that I still seem to be running the same self-defeating patterns in my life.

Arrival in Lima. I didn't stay long.

Arrival in Lima. I didn't stay long.

Ayahuasca is the ancient psychotropic plant medicine—most accurately referred to as an entheogen—that dissolves the rational mind while uncovering spiritual dimensions. It’s not a trick of chemistry or faith, but a merging with plant consciousness where shared visions are commonplace. In the face of such a new, and often disturbing, reality, ego is deconstructed and the root of one’s trauma becomes apparent, often through heavily-weighted symbolism. It is a visionary formula which unlocks emotional memory, causing paradigm-shifting catharsis in those who drink it with appropriate intention. Many people don’t drink it with appropriate intention, and yet that doesn’t matter either because Ayahuasca has a way of teaching us exactly what we need to learn.

Sacred vine of the souls. Photo credit to  Temple of the Way of Light.

Sacred vine of the souls. Photo credit to Temple of the Way of Light.

I was in Cusco September of 2012, so I was roughly 11 years sober the first time I tried ayahuasca. I spent weeks leading up to the ceremony agonizing about how the use of psychotropic medicines, ancient or not, would impact my sobriety—both in my eyes and in the eyes of people I knew in recovery. Part of sobriety that takes getting used to is how deeply and how often I question my own judgement. I wanted input from someone I knew or could trust, but I was in Peru with people who were virtually strangers. 

Running a business of posing for tourists in Cusco.

Running a business of posing for tourists in Cusco.

I’d been reading Dr. Gabor Maté’s brilliant In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and I knew he had done some work with ayahuasca and addicts in Vancouver, so I wrote Dr. Maté an email asking if, in his opinion, I could reconcile the limiting beliefs of the AA tradition with the knowledge contained in ancient shamanic practices. To my astonishment, Dr. Maté wrote back almost immediately:

I understand [your tradition’s] suspicion of ‘drugs’, but ayahuasca is not a drug anyone uses for recreational purposes. Unlike addicted drug use, the purpose of which is to lower one’s level of consciousness and awareness, ayahuasca—used in the proper context with the right leadership—gives access to higher awareness. It does not encourage ongoing use. 

An expert.

An expert.

It was enough to solidify my resolve, and I am immensely grateful to Dr. Maté for taking the time to answer a jittery Canadian seeker.

Of my six fellow students in Shamanic Yoga training, I was the only male, deepening the impression that Peru was an experience of strong female energy. Ayahuasca herself has a powerful gender presence. 

San Blas market square, Cusco

San Blas market square, Cusco

We journeyed by bus from Cusco to Calca. By car we were jostled over broken strips of land that passed for roads until we arrived at a natural sanctuary in the Sacred Valley, where a maloka (indigenous word for cabin) was surrounded by trees, cactus, mountains, and a waterfall. Almost immediately after our arrival we entered the maloka and hung out on our yoga mats and mattresses for several hours until it got dark. Every now and then I glanced at the white plastic bucket next to my mat. Everyone had one.

The moloka

The moloka

“For vomit,” one woman said. She was a doctor from Canada and had done this before. 

Sometime after dark, Elisa, the Shipipo shaman who’d travelled all the way from the jungle village of Pucallpa, entered the maloka. She laid out various ceremonial materials in front of her: a bowl for burning; Palo Santo, which is a fragrant and sacred wood used as incense for purification; a bottle of Agua de Florida; her own plastic purging pail; and two large plastic water bottles filled with a dark, viscous liquid. 

Ayahuasca. The sacred vine of souls.

After an hour or so of relative stillness, the lights in the maloka were dimmed and Elisa called for a ceremony full of force and love. She set two crystal glasses in front of her. We students were called in pairs to come and drink. I was one of the last students to raise a glass to my lips before the shaman and the teachers swallowed their portions. 

There was a small moment before I drank where time stretched out to reveal a swirling sea of doubt. I was acutely aware of how little confidence I had in myself. I could not make sense of why on earth I was drinking ayahuasca. I couldn’t even remember why I’d come to Peru to study shamanic yoga in the first place.

As I kneeled on the floor in front of Elisa, the intriguing ayahuascero, I took the crystal glass in both hands and breathed the only intention that came to mind into the thick black liquid: give me the teaching that is most useful to me right now. 

The shaman smiled gently, and I sensed she had a kind a trustworthy heart. Feeling slightly safer, I drank all that she had poured out for me. Tradition holds that the medicine itself informs the ayahuascero how much to portion out for each person. My portion seemed too much, and it went down much more slowly than I would have liked. It tasted vile, like a coffee syrup that had turned sour after being spiked with moldy lemon rinds that had been seasoned in a heavily used 1970’s ashtray. 

I returned to my cushion and watched time pass unendurably. I closed my eyes and brought my attention to my breath, trying to remember how to meditate. I knew nothing. I opened my eyes and saw small pale ghosts dancing outside the maloka. It took me a few moments to recognize that it was the movement of Tibetan prayer flags responding to the trickery of the moon and the wind. I closed my eyes again and white-capped anxiety lapped over me like waves crashing into the surf. 

I knew intuitively that I would have a much easier time of things if I could just surrender completely to the experience, but I also knew that with the type of mind I was carrying, it wasn’t going to be possible for me to just surrender. I was going to have to be psychically broken down, there was no way around it—the medicine was already teaching me the obviousness of this reality—and it fucking terrified me. 

Despite these uncomfortable understandings I continued to fight whatever was already washing through my gut, my heart, coursing past the blood/brain barrier. 

I had to feel everything with the dreadful knowledge that it was certainly going to get much more horrifying before I would get back to any sense of peace. I steeled myself against what was coming. In a sort of perceptual paralysis, I understood I was capable of creating my own reality but knew that the only reality available to me for the next few hours was one whose origin was my own denied horror. 

Then I felt Her move. Like a serpent, Ayahuasca slid into the seat of consciousness, coiling herself around the base of my brain and squeezing.  From the top of my head came a cold fountain of terror. 

I desperately kept bringing my focus back to my breath, breathing long and deep until I acquired some confidence that I might make it through the experience, which had, in 3-dimensional time, barely started. As soon as I felt that confidence and trusted in it, it was ripped out of me with a spasmodic sensation of icy treachery. Everything was so utterly unpredictable I felt irretrievably lost. It was as if every panic attack I had ever had during the seven worst years of anxiety had been woven together to create a thick cloak of dread which lay across my shoulders. It was so heavy—so cold and so shocking—that for several moments I couldn’t draw a breath. 

When I did eventually inhale again I did so greedily. I opened my eyes and couldn’t see anything. I closed them and then opened them again. My vision had utterly disappeared. I was trying to understand if this was part of the medicine or if I had coincidentally happened to go blind at this very instant. Then I lost my hearing. 

Blind and deaf, my world was completely internalized. Something told me that I didn’t even have a voice to cry out for help. But I wasn’t sure - I could have been screaming and there was no way to know it. I was stricken with a new variety of alarm, a distress so penetrating that every cell of my being vibrated in panic. I was going to die. And still, even with such palpable fear, fear I could literally taste, my ego was intact enough to not want to be the only dude in ceremony who was crying out for help. 

I was going to die. 

I was suddenly freezing and was about to die. It almost made sense that it would end like this, once I came to the understanding that the only way out of my fear was through death. It seemed a little extreme, of course—not to mention disappointing—but in many ways it made perfect sense. 

Death is so much easier than we imagine.

The moment I accepted my death, a small aperture opened up in my mind’s eye and I knew I had to pass through it. I took what I literally thought was my last breath and let go, surrendering completely. 

I was sucked through the aperture and the sounds of the world returned with a tremolo hiss, then a peaceful blankness, and then as my sight and hearing returned, I remembered to breathe. I found myself back in the maloka gasping for air, as I have done many a night since the early 90’s. 

Eventually I relaxed somewhat into my seated positioned, and noticed how the fluctuations of my mind had started dancing with the medicine. Or, more accurately, the medicine danced in perfect step with my mind, meeting each thought in perfect cadence, outpacing each notion as it arose.  

The sensation of cold left me and my body became a series of interdependent pinpricks of fire. With the sensation that I was choking, I ripped off my alpaca hoodie and the medicine bag that had been gifted to me by a Q’ero shaman. I threw these items beside me, and knocked over my gear into the inky darkness. All the care and concern I’d taken, the circumspect attention I’d paid to the placement and order of blankets and pillows and water and headlamp, etc. was completely fucked. 

I sat in worried darkness for a long time, slowly understanding my habitual way of thinking until I was ultimately overcome with a profound feeling of compassion for myself. This sensation centred in my heart with a sunrise of consciousness spreading over the landscape of my usually fearful mind. 

Eventually my fever subsided and I lay down, wrapping myself in my sleeping bag, with a clinical awareness of my internal organs. I studied my bowels, the pressure of gravity on my skin, the movement of my cells. 

I abruptly took flight right then, and in one breath travelled back decades to find myself where I used to hide behind the couch with my dog. I took myself by the hand, and could feel the smallness of my own fingers as a boy, and walked myself to the park near where we’d lived in a suburban area called Barrhaven. I pushed myself on the swings until the boy version of me was smiling, and until I sensed that he trusted me. 

I knew instinctively what had to be done, and I told that boy he was beautiful. He was me and yet he wasn’t me. In that moment I loved him so much that my body in the maloka shed tears of happiness. I would later learn from the shaman, through rocky translation, that this type of episode is known as spontaneous soul retrieval

There was more sitting up, lying down, adjusting clothes, adjusting pillows. I could hear others shifting in the darkness. Someone started vomiting, and it struck me that I, too, needed to purge. After some fumbling in the darkness I found my bucket just in time before I started heaving. Nothing came out, however, and after a few minutes of dry-retching I was seeing stars and returned to a supine position. 

Every single thought, of which I had perhaps thousands each minute, became a question exploring why I thought that way—why I thought in that particular manner. The lessons, as endless as my thoughts, were so instructive and illuminating into the prison of my own conditioned thinking, exposing all the habit patterns of my mind, my bias, my denials, my myopic judgments.  

It was clear to me that I had been granted access to a virtually endless stream of information from a source contained within the dimension I had obviously passed into through the aperture of my little death as the medicine had first taken hold of me. I felt on the cusp of great illumination; I was on the verge of reaching up to pluck a fragrant kantuta out of the night air in the maloka and decoding the fibonacci series. 

And then Elysa, the shaman, started to sing her icaros, the lilting high-pitched melodic songstaught to a shaman by her spirit guides. These songs were simultaneously unsettling and soothing, and Elysa filled the space both within and without her own voice, and a new dawn broke in my mind. With my eyes shut tight, my inner vision filled with warm light and foreign birds spiralled softly around the maloka, carried upon the currents of the ancient strain of icaros. The melody surgically extracted fear from me until I was filled with a genuine compassion for all beings.

I saw the ancestry of so many men, so bereft of will they used their fists in mock show of power. I saw them in the gloomy hours of a waxing moon, numbing their minds with drink until they were so full they crested, spilling their own fear over the banks of their lives, rivers of fear breaking the levies of denial. 

I could see my own resentments against my ex-wife playing out through the generations to come after my own children. I subsequently went through every single relationship and discovered my own character defects at work in each. What the medicine appeared to be doing was giving me an unbiased capacity for empathy. 

That night, my first night journeying with plant medicine, I emerged at dawn with the awareness that I was transformed and I knew things. I would forget them in time, but for a while, I knew these beautiful things and understood them all deeply.