Owning The Dark Side

I am not a fearmonger saying that ayahuasca is something dangerous to be avoided. Whether you as an individual should work with it, or not, I’m not qualified to say. I believe that ayahuasca has tremendous value as a transformational agent, for both individuals and the collective. As a therapist working with integration, I witness firsthand the tremendous change ayahuasca can trigger in individuals. Along with other psychedelic medicines, I believe it offers some of what we desperately need to make big changes in our society.

At the same time, like everything, ayahuasca has its dark side. Nothing is perfect in this world; everything has a downside, even something as innocuous as ice cream (think tooth rot, fat content, brain freeze). I believe it’s best to take conscious responsibility for the difficulties that can arise with ayahuasca, so it doesn’t blow up in our collective faces; so we’re not surprised when the dark stuff happens, and so we can be educated and informed sources for others.

Here are five difficulties and dangers I see with ayahuasca, none of which negate its value, but none of which are completely avoidable.

1.  It’s tricksy. Often you don’t know what to make of what you see in ceremony. Planetary devastation? The imminent end of the world? Winning the lottery? Dog carcasses dangling from meathooks? Ayahuasca can be twisty. It reveals the shadow, what’s been hidden from your consciousness. And sometimes it just seems to mess with you.

Interpreting its messages is thus a delicate act. Ayahuasca can show you the truth of your reality, inner and outer; it can teach you many things about yourself, the world (many worlds); but it can also trick you. Sometimes it shows you your own doubts or fears—or, equally, your hopes and desires.

To interpret these as truth is a mistake. Not everything you see in a visionary state will come true. You need to put some energy into sorting through things, determining what is what, and navigating through life accordingly. Sometimes it’s helpful to consult with another person in this process, to check for potential blind spots.

2. ‘Post-Ceremony Stress Disorder:’ This is my tongue-in-cheek name for an occurrence I see fairly regularly: someone’s been completely blown out of the water by a recent ceremony. Ayahuasca can be overwhelming, terrifying, exhausting, confusing. It can push things into consciousness that we reflexively resist, as our trauma patterns get triggered. Sometimes this doesn’t go into release, just looping, or a stuck state of anxiety/fear/confusion.

Ayahuasca can show you things you didn’t know, or that you didn’t even want to know—but you can’t put the genie back into the bottle. If you’re not used to doing inner work, ayahuasca can propel you to do so, in ways you’re not accustomed to. Don’t embark on this path unless you are willing to deal with what can come up.

If tough stuff arises, presumably you’re ready for it, but it’s not an easy ride. It can feel like ‘too much, too fast, too soon’—the very definition of trauma. When an experience hits you hard, resistance gets triggered, and sometimes this is simply survival trauma, not the classic framework of ego vs. surrender I see people struggling to frame it as.

The very intensity of the ayahuasca experience can trigger old trauma-based responses in the nervous system (dissociation, freeze, bracing), and without help and support, these patterns can run on autopilot for a while before subsiding. I’ve found Somatic Experiencing work to be an effective way to help ease people through PCSD.

3. Grandiosity/Spiritual Bypassing: Names shall not be named, but we’ve all witnessed the post-ceremony grandiosity of  “I’m gonna save the world…start a center…quit my job… leave my family…”. It takes time and discernment to determine what is an authentic urge and what is temporary inflation unleashed by the psychedelic experience. Sorting out ego from genuine spiritual messages can be a confusing process.

Grandiosity can devolve into spiritual bypassing, using the glory of the ayahuasca experience to avoid your real issues. Believing that you’re healed and your work is done, while dragging around the shadow that everyone but you can see, is a messy and sometimes tragic situation. By flying up into the celestial realms, you’re leaving behind all your human muck for your partner, family and friends to deal with.

How can this happen? In some ways, ayahuasca seems to have a lot of tolerance for misbehavior (see #4). She’s not a moral judge, or a babysitter, or a Good Mom. She’s definitely not human. Maybe she even gets a kick out of seeing us mess up sometimes.

4. Brujeria: The literal dark side of ayahuasca is its use in psychic warfare. Brujeria—sorcery, witchcraft, black magic—is embedded in Amazonian shamanism. It can be deliberately directed malevolence towards a targeted individual, in the form of virotes (magic darts) that bring bad luck, illness, or misfortune. Or it may happen unconsciously, as inward resentment boils over and has a negative energetic effect. Envidia is widespread in Peru, indeed through South America.

While brujeria is at least as common as healing practices in the Peruvian ayahuasca world, it’s not frequently directed at tourists. It’s more a matter of infighting between shamans, or gringos in the scene with perceived wealth or power. Healing from brujeria takes work with a proper curandero, who can help send the malevolent spell back from whence it came.

Why the medicine allows itself to be used like this is a mystery, but the roots of brujeria go back a long way in the Amazon. Remember, ayahuasca is nonhuman, possibly not so moral, definitely powerful, and tricksy.

5. Breakdown/psychosis: A very few individuals become mentally destabilized after an ayahuasca retreat. Sometimes there are cracks in the psyche they doesn’t know about, or they deliberately conceal a past incident in order to get into a retreat, and suffer the consequences. Rarely, this results in a psychotic break.

Usually there’s some contributing factor—egregious breaking of post-retreat dieta restrictions; ongoing drug use; a family history of mental illness. Often there’s an underlying split in the psyche which the person finds impossible to bridge. With a week or so of good care, they will recover. But psyche is delicate; a mental breakdown in any circumstance can leave a person permanently more fragile.

Owning the Dark

There are more things I could list on the dark side of the balance sheet: accusations of cultural appropriation (a nuanced subject dealt with beautifully in this article by Gayle Highpine), claims of potential shortages (which I address in this article); accusations of sexual abuse occurring with some practitioners; and the tremendous energetic vulnerability one experiences with ayahuasca that can leave one open to malign influences (read a very interesting post by Jonathan Evatt).

Despite all this, ayahuasca is clearly here to stay. To quote anthropologist Glenn Shepard:

“The genie is out of the bottle, tweeting about the next shamanic bodywork leadership seminar, and the bottle; well, check and see if it isn’t in the back of your fridge by the vegan TV dinner.”

Given this truth, I believe it’s a matter of integrity that we take responsibility for knowing and owning the medicine’s dark side.  To the extent that we can take ownership, assume responsibility, and include the dark side in the bigger picture—this, and this—we deflect potential scandals that might derail momentum towards incorporating ayahuasca into modern society in an aboveboard and legal way.

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