It’s what I’ve heard can happen.
And I was dutifully sceptical, as many people often are when regarding things they don’t understand. Ayahuasca’s just a drug, right? A cooked up plant from deep in the rainforest that makes you trip out and hallucinate; a trip that makes you think you’re seeing your entire life and the universe and everything in between.
Probably nothing more than a bunch of hippies getting high. Right?
But then I tried ayahuasca for myself – and immediately I understood that all those suppositions were unfounded. In fact, they couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is an ancient medicine, ingested in the form of a drink, and is the result of brewing together a mix of leaves, shrubs, and other substances. The main ingredient, however, is a particular vine that shamans venture deep into the rainforest to find.
The practice of drinking ayahuasca has existed for hundreds of years; predominantly in South America, where the majority of shamans have spent their lives studying the vine, learning from it and working with it. Conducting ceremonies for other people is a huge part of this shamanic learning process.
Ayahuasca goes by many names; ‘the vine of the soul’, ‘spirit vine’, and ‘vine of the dead’ are all translations of the word. It’s viewed by some as therapy, by others as a portal into one’s subconscious, and most people claim that ayahuasca enables the drinker to experience intense revelations, moments of spiritual awakening and an ability to understand the true nature of the universe.
If you want to drink ayahuasca, think about it first…
The most important thing to know is that ayahuasca is not a drug. It is not something you do casually for fun, or because you feel like ‘getting high’. The moments of clarity and self-realisation can often be accompanied by strong nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and intense emotional distress. The ayahuasca is a medicine, and the process of drinking forces your body to accept this medicine in whichever is most neceassry for you at that time.
Moreover, drinking ayahuasca is not an isolated incident, but becomes, for many, but the beginning of a process to discover the real self.
Each person’s experience of ayahuasca is also wholly unique and incredibly personal. After a ceremony, it may feel perfectly natural to discuss what’s just happened with your shaman, or with the people you’ve shared your ceremony with. It makes less sense, however, to publicise it on the internet, where those you’ve never met are going to read it.
So it’s been difficult, making the decision to write about my experience with ayahuasca. It’s not something I went looking for – although in hindsight, I’ve realised that if you’re meant to drink then the ayahuasca will find you. When the time is right.
For me, it happened somewhere along the road in South America. The time and location are irrelevant: all that matters is that those two ceremonies I participated in – both times drinking a single, small glass of dark purple liquid – were the most intensely personal experiences I’ve ever had.
And it meant so much to me that there’s no way I can’t express it in writing. Or, rather, I have no choice but to read through the pages of frenzied notes I made at the time, and collate them into something readable.
So here goes.
A small room, dark, lit only by candles in glass jars. The sound of the forest outside; trees bending and shifting softly in the mountain breeze.
A small circle of standing figures, hands held, layered up in clothes to protect them from the chill. The low hum of voices, singing words I don’t understand. A shaman with a small tower of little glasses, cupped in his left hand. He pours something thick and dark purple from a plastic bottle, presents me with the glass, and bids me to drink with the slightest of nods.
Everything still feels small, calm, and cosy. This is about to change.
I sit back down, wrapping myself in the folds of my bright orange sleeping bag, lying back against a foam mattress. It seems like the others in the room are either meditating or sleeping; eyes closed, bodies still.
I glance to the folds of orange against my bent legs. The folds look different, somehow; deeper, darker, and more starkly detailed.
Suddenly, the room begins to shift. The walls are longer, stretching upwards and outwards, and they are changing colour, becoming 2D, like a cartoon. The planes of the faces of those silent figures around me are smooth, clean, like the faces of Disney characters. Devoid of detail. I can hear a deep seated buzz descending, as if from far away. A feeling of enormity begins to overwhelm me.
I try to breathe, calmly, and focus myself. I know that the work of the ayahuasca is fully underway now. I try to rationalise what is happening around me, but it’s difficult when the empty window panes opposite begin to gape like yawning jaws. I watch a person’s head stretch backwards, much too far. I realise things are about to get really intense.
I lift my hand to wipe my forehead, and look with shock at my fingers. They are red, tapered, and much too long. I hide them beneath the sleeping bag hurriedly. The orange colour is moving, writhing, and I can see all the workings within it.
I turn my head to the wooden beams of the wall beside me. They are beautiful, fascinating, filled with the movement of whatever wood is truly made of: all the cogs and creatures inside it, crawling and swimming and turning.
I look to my orange covered knees again. They are shrinking. The orange fabric wrinkles and falls, down towards the mat, as the solidity of my legs dissolves underneath. My body is beginning to disappear.
The process of forgetting, and the loss of the self.
What follows is an untold amount of time wherein I cannot realise the idea that I exist. I lose the ability to identify myself. I cannot remember my name, the names of people I know and love – I can’t conceive of their identities. I don’t have an understanding of ‘the self’. I don’t know who, or what, I am.
I don’t have the ability to be terrified because I can’t remember it.
(Later, I am told that this is ‘being entirely present’ – when you are unable to think beyond that precise moment.)
Eventually, after what feels like centuries, this loss of the self begins to readjust. It begins with a realisation that I am staring hard at the group of empty glasses on the floor. I know they mean something important, and that they are intrinsically related to the word my lips are silently forming.
I feel like I recognise this moment, that I appreciate its importance. I have the sense that this situation is forever, and will never change; I have always been here, I will always be here. The enormity of that concept strangely doesn’t feel as enormous as it should.
Eventually, I’m able to cement a few key words and concepts in my head, without them immediately disappearing. One is the ability to look at my left wrist, and see the thin lettering of seven words that I had tattooed there, almost five years ago.
New words find their way to my lips. They taste different. I experiment under my breath – or in my head. I’m not totally sure.
“My mum existed. She existed. She died. My mum died…”
The concept of her death is difficult to hold onto, though. And it doesn’t seem to hold significance for me in this moment. Saying the fact under my breath doesn’t change anything; what even is death, really?
The idea of death becomes transient – and somehow unimportant. I have no need to worry about it, because it’s so separate from what is really necessary: the mind, the process, the thought patterns.
The thoughts about my mum aren’t of her in a physical form, but her, as an energy, as a spirit, as a life force that carried me and carries me onward, always, ever present within me and around me and through me and because of me.
I start to formulate a realisation that even though she’s gone in terms of sight and body and touch, she hasn’t disappeared completely. A large part of her, her energy and her spirit, is still very much a part of me. While I’ve often thought this in the past, this is the first time I truly believe – and understand – the idea.
(Later, I realise that I have connected the loss of my mum to an imagined possibility that I may also lose my own self as a result. The disappearance of my identity in the ceremony is strongly linked with this fear)
At some unknown point, I find myself steadfastly walking up a hill. It could be the hill outside – but, equally, it could just be in my head. The darkness and the mist envelop me, comfort me. It feels as though something is pulling me ever higher; physically, almost, like an invisible rope tugging at my waist. The torchlight flashes from side to side as I quickly stumble. I don’t remember finding shoes or putting on a head torch.
But then I turn my head. I see the space where I’ve been sitting for so many hours, bathed in warm yellow light thrown by so many candles.
I need to go back.
There is a change. I am an insect. I can see with a thousand eyes.
I am a dog; lying down with my face in the pillow, folded over, being on the floor. I am animalistic.
I sit just outside for a long time. Inside our ceremony space, there is soft, slow guitar music, beautiful and comforting. But I can’t go in just yet. I look to the dark night sky, and the blurred stars through a mist of fog. It means everything and nothing at the same time. Like the sky is solid, but I can see through it, and within it.
Suddenly, I am squatting between my legs, right down on the dirt, and I am purging. A respectful word for vomiting this liquid out of my system, feeling the thick bitter taste rise and the sense of this purple entity emerging from my throat. And during the moment it is horribly surprising and unexpected, and I look through the doorway to the warmth and the light, and I connect for a moment with a glance, with a face. But then it’s back to the ground, and there are explosions of colour while this stuff comes out of me. Suddenly, my teeth are grinding together, the feeling so foreign, almost like I didn’t know I’d had teeth before this moment and am testing them out.
But even as I am gasping for breath, I feel the beauty in the actions I’m involuntarily making.
My mind and my body are working together, and the ‘self’ – the ego – that I’ve been deconstructing throughout the ceremony, has no part to play in it. Normally I would feel embarrassed, but instead I simply accept the process, watching and appreciating that my body knows what to do.
The happiness, the colours and the light.
Eventually, I come back to happiness. After the purging is finished, I am in our ceremony space again. I look to a single candle that flutters on the window frame.
It is a portal. It shines down on the group of glasses in the centre of the room, and they fracture the light into a myriad of colours. These colours are strings of multicoloured light that fall from this central candle on the sill to the glasses, and then onwards to the bodies dotted around the room. I look down and see this light emanating from deep inside my chest, or going within, or both.
It’s something I can only quantify as energy, as a kind of life force, emanating from every single object and person I can see, connecting them, uniting them. It’s so intense that my eyes find it hard to focus – or maybe that’s the point? I realise it doesn’t matter if they’re opened or closed: the colours appear regardless. My eyelids flutter as I see layer upon layer of colour and light stringing and beading its way around our ceremony space. The air is not empty, but filled to the brim with these pathways of energy. It’s like being in a fourth dimension. Or a fifth.
The colours, and the feeling that accompanies them, are utterly delightful, and I want to hold onto this ability to see the world through such a lens. I get the distinct feeling that this is how everything actually looks – we just don’t have the senses for it in our day to day lives.
I touch my stomach – hold a handful, feeling it in my fist, clenched together between the fingers – and Mama Ayahuasca tells me that my body is just an extension of my clothing. It means nothing because all that is truly important is in the mind.
I look to the structure of this half built space, and Mama Ayahuasca tells me this is like my life; that things are still in flux, still in process, but with warmth and love, friends and family, it’s ok that things have changed and my mum isn’t here anymore.
This new family, this new life, this new structure will carry me through. If I’m ready, willing, able to understand that there’s work to be done, on this land and in my own being, there will come a time when everything will make sense. Eventually.
The importance of music.
At some point, I am singing. Not with words but with a melody I feel I’ve always known, while the sound of two guitars intertwine in the room around me. The music is perfect. I’m sure it’s always been there, throughout the whole experience.
The music helps me realise the existence of others in our ceremony space. Other figures, smiling, stretching, focusing on each other. The love and connection I feel to all of them is indescribable; the belief that I have always known them. My cheeks ache from smiling; the sense of warmth and comfort is all encompassing.
I get up, slightly shakily.
“I just want to hug everyone..”
The first words I’ve uttered in six or seven hours. Words I don’t really mean to say. They come straight from the heart. Straight from the ayahuasca.
The aftermath of ayahuasca
For a long time afterward, as the effects of the ayahuasca faded, we talked about our experiences. What we’d seen, how we’d felt, what had changed. I talked out my emotions, lying on my back, covered by an orange sleeping bag that looked somewhat normal again. I felt safe, happy, contented.
And now, quite a while after my experiences with drinking ayahuasca, I remain sure that it has changed my life – my outlook on life, anyway.
A few months after my mum died, I remember explaining to my then-boyfriend that it felt like my whole life up until that point had been a rehearsal; a practice run for coping with such sudden, aching loss. I told him I honestly couldn’t remember what my life was like before she’d gone.
Now, I can see similarities. Ayahuasca takes you where you’re supposed to go – and my first time, I was supposed to understand just how beautiful the world can be. It has always been that way. I just needed clarification on the subject, and my eyes to be opened.
But I was incredibly lucky for my first time meeting the ayahuasca: in a safe and comfortable environment, with a group of people I knew, and with a shaman I trusted implicitly.
There are other places deemed not so trustworthy – like the Amazonian town of Iquitos, Peru, where there have been reports of unscrupulous shamans offering fake ceremonies to eager tourists. Although I’m not condemning the entire place, it definitely pays to be careful.
Ayahuasca is not a drug, and it’s not a plaything. If you’re planning to drink for a quick fix, for an attempt at weight loss, or even just to ‘get high'; I wish you luck in your endeavours, but I don’t think you’ll find what you’re after. Ayahuasca has a strange way of providing the exact right experiences for the person involved.
It is a process, and an education.
What ayahuasca showed me
I needed to readdress the issues surrounding the passing of my mum, and make some form of peace with them. I needed to look deeper into myself, and accept the person I am.
Despite feeling terrified, overwhelmed, and essentially nonexistent during both the ceremonies I took part in, I still see the incredible benefits of pursuing the path of ayahuasca. It provides an ability to see and learn untold amounts about the world, and about everyone’s places within it.
Talking with my friends from both ceremonies gave me the smallest of insights into what can be done; rebirth, healing and facing one’s own death. Only to come out, with certainty, on the other side.
So I don’t know when I’ll drink ayahuasca again – but I’m sure it will happen eventually.
There’s a lot of work left to do.
All photos by Marco Reeuwijk are reproduced with his permission. For more of Marco’s work, please go to www.marcoreeuwijk.com.