Ayahuasca is a potent psychoactive brew made by cooking the ayahuasca vine (banisteriopsis caapi) with the leaf of the chacruna shrub (psychotria viridis) (sometimes other plants are used in the admixture.) It’s been spreading with extraordinary rapidity from its indigenous home in the Amazon into global popular culture, becoming what a recent New Yorker article called “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale.”
Ayahuasca is an ancient medicine that delivers a great deal more than that snide title suggests. Drinking it generates a powerful, prolonged internal experience, stimulating profound emotions and spiritual insights to a depth and degree that many people find life-changing. Its strongly purgative effects (vomiting, diarrhea) are considered a crucial part of the cleansing process. An ayahuasca journey can be a psychological deep dive into the unconscious, stripping away mental clutter and the cobwebs of belief to reveal your very soul.
Ayahuasca has a profound capacity to get to the root of psychological and physical problems.
From a chemical standpoint, ayahuasca is a uniquely synergistic blending of the powerful hallucinogen DMT (from the chacruna) with a monamine oxidase inhibitor (from the ayahuasca). The MAOI deftly disables the human gut enzyme designed to digest DMT, creating a psychoactive cocktail with precisely the right ingredients for an intense experience. It is is difficult to imagine that this astonishing combination came about by randomly selecting from the Amazon’s 80,000 plant species.
While a ceremony can deliver moments of divine bliss, it’s not an escapist enterprise, and by no means is it always fun.
A few things to understand about working with ayahuasca:
• It’s an interactive process. Ayahuasca is a dynamic substance that interacts with your essence, your personality, and your state of mind, as well as with the setting, the people who serve it, and the people who have cooked it. As well, the process is profoundly influenced by the preparation you make beforehand, and the integrative work you do after. For these reasons, it’s impossible to define ayahuasca as just the dark liquid in the cup, when really, it’s the entire interactive flow of experience surrounding it.
• It’s not a quick fix. While astonishing healing can happen within a single ceremony, this is rare. Best to see it as part of a sequence unfolding from preparation, through ceremony, and into integration, with the last widely considered to be the most important stage, and a key factor in determining how much you get from this work.
• It’s a serious endeavor. The psycho-spiritual epiphanies that ayahuasca offers don’t come for free. While a ceremony can deliver moments of divine bliss, it’s not an escapist enterprise, and by no means is it always fun. Start with the hideous taste of the liquid, a blend of molasses and gasoline. Then there’s the nauseous stretches of time spent kneeling over a bucket waiting to purge, the buried memories and painful emotions that can emerge, and the fear, escalating into raw terror, that can spike during the course of a ceremony. Finally comes the lengthy process of integration. It takes a great deal of commitment and courage to work with ayahuasca, and it’s certainly not a one-shot, magic bullet, “drink this and you’ll be okay” sort of thing.
All this said, for those who come to ayahuasca with clear and sincere intention, prepared to work hard and enjoy the beauty and blessings along the way, great benefit can emerge. People speak of feeling more conscious, empowered and grounded; of being more firmly in touch with their purpose and with what really matters in life. Many say it’s fundamentally changed their lives for the better, shifting their worldview in profound ways. “That was so worth it,” is a common post-ceremony sentiment. But very few say it was easy.