Earlier this month I joined a sacred circle and met Mother Ayahuasca for the first time. Ayahuasca is a tea made from the leaves and vine stalks of two plants in particular (Pschotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi) found in the Amazonian jungle. The tea has been used for decades (some say centuries), primarily by indigenous cultures in South America. The chief entity responsible for the intense hallucinogenic effects of Ayahuasca is DMT, also commonly called the ‘spirit molecule’ because of its profound spiritual effects. Plant medicine has been used for likely tens of thousands of years with intensely potent effects and it could easily be said that Mother Ayahuasca is at the extreme, radical end of healing through plant medicine.
We refer to Ayahuasca as Mother or Grandmother because the spirit of the plant holds this type of energy. But don’t be fooled into thinking that because this is a maternal energy that it is equated only with gentility, comfort, and nurturance. Mother Ayahuasca’s presence encapsulates all of existence and can be both loving and tender, as well as remarkably brutal and unforgiving. Because of this, the safety of the circle that one chooses to sit and drink with is of the utmost importance.
I’ve been interested in journeying with Mama Aya for a few years now. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a spiritual thrill seeker, so it was only natural for me to be interested in trying such plant medicine. But the good student that I am, I’ve spent the last few years researching about Ayahuasca, shamanic circles that offer this medicine, the effects on your brain and body, and how to be as safe as possible. I came across absolute horror stories of Ayahuasca journeys in South America where women have been raped by so-called shamans and healers and where others have died because of the lethal combination of Ayahuasca with other substances (especially psychotropic medication, like antidepressants). I put the intention out to the Universe to find me the right circle in the right place of the world to be able to have the safe and profound journey that I was seeking.
The opportunity knocked on my door and I cautiously but very optimistically answered it. I’ve become quite skilled now at being able to differentiate between the feeling of fear and that intuitive sense that something isn’t right for me and as I made my plans to journey with this medicine circle, all that bubbled up was the totally expected fear of the unknown. I won’t go into many of the specifics of the circle that I journeyed with in order to protect their confidentiality, and I also won’t go into too much detail about what I saw with Mother Ayahuasca because of the sacredness of it, but my intent in writing this is to shed more light on some of the unsafe and unethical ways that these circles are being held so that others can make an even more informed decision as to whether or not this is the experience for them.
As a healer myself, the safety of the container is of the utmost importance to me. The container is the invisible field with which we are all held in. When I am working individuals or groups, the container is set between myself and them, and it’s made up of all the necessary safety measures so participants know that they will be taken care of properly. This includes ethical standards, confidentiality, emotional attunement, providing for psychological and emotionally needs (and sometimes physical needs in certain circumstances), and being willing and able to talk about all the unspoken but absolutely felt dynamics that occur between people. It is the safety of the container that allows people to have experiences; without that, unconsciously you won’t allow yourself to go very far or very deep, or the risk of harm is omnipresent.
Within the last couple of decades, Ayahuasca circles within the U.S. have grown exponentially, all with the intention of bringing this powerful medicine to the masses. While I so greatly appreciate those that want everyone to have access to such medicine, the ethical standards by which it is now being served has slipped dramatically. Traditionally, if someone were interested in journeying with Mother Ayahuasca, they would work with a shaman or ayahuascero for several months ahead of time, to psychologically prepare them; and then for several months afterwards in order to help them integrate all the aspects of their experience. As it popularly stands within the U.S., Ayahuasca is served on a weekend and participants are expected to have their own means of preparation for and integration after the ceremony, which if you’ve never sat with Mother Ayahuasca before or have limited experiences with psychedelics, you don’t at all have an adequate knowledge base with which to hold this experience and get the help that you need to put it all together.
It is necessary to drink Ayahuasca in a small amount first in order to see how you respond to it; you can always drink more medicine but can’t stop the ride once you’re already on it. Mother Ayahuasca tends to be incredibly unpredictable; I think this is part of the medicine that she gives to each of us. But this means that you could drink the same amount every time you sit in ceremony and have a completely different effect every time; making it a very imprecise science. Considering that I had no plant medicine and hardly any psychedelic experience to draw upon, in combination with a very, very fine-tuned and sensitive body, I chose to drink only half of the customary dose. That turned out to be way, way too much unfortunately. Typically, the effects of Ayahuasca will last 4-6 hours; my journey lasted for a full 10 hours, with an intensity that nearly broke me.
I was physically incapacitated for the majority of this time, unable to even lift my head up by a few inches, and losing all control of my body’s functions, along with intense and incredibly painful vomiting for about a quarter of the time. For those 10 hours I was bounced between the unfathomable depths of hell to the indescribable peaks of nirvana. My consciousness was blown open by a billion percent and I stared at the edge of my psyche in terror that I was about to cross the threshold of psychosis and never come back again. But now here’s the incredible part; I wasn’t traumatized (and as a psychologist, I do not use that word lightly) by all that Mama Aya showed me. I was traumatized by the felt negligence of the facilitators. In the ceremony that I attended, there were a few dozen participants and only a handful of facilitators, making the sheer numbers themselves completely disproportionate. All throughout the night I kept asking for all that I needed, water and comfort in particular, and wasn’t properly or even adequately attended to. I was terrified and alone and was physically unable to do anything for myself. I am forever in such deep gratitude to the participants that were sitting next to me that fed me water and tended to me as best they could, even though they were on their own journeys with Mother.
I will never forget the wave of relief that came over me when I saw the sun begin to rise because I knew that the most terrifying night of my life was finally over. I chose to stay in the ceremonial container for the entire duration of the weekend (and refused to drink the brew the second night), purely in hopes of finding some way to integrate what my experience had been. And much to my dismay, the integration circle that was held was only the chance to share your journey, without any actual help or insights into integrating it from the facilitators or ayahuascero. I was told that at the end of the weekend, a list of resources would be sent out, which come to find out, only included the contact information of the facilitators. Needless to say, after their negligence in ceremony, I wasn’t going to trust them to help me put all this together after the fact.
I came to the circle feeling healthy and solid in my life and left that circle traumatized, confused, and in desperate need of anyone that could help me put myself back together. And here’s what I realized:
Medicine is that which gives you meaning. Without that meaning, medicine becomes trauma.
I was able to lean on my remarkable community to hold this journey with me and was finally able to slowly give some bit of meaning to what I went through. Part of this was achieved by doing a soul retrieval with my magnificent reiki teacher, who is also an incredibly skilled shamanic practitioner. My experience of not being properly cared for and unintentionally shamed for my process was so deeply traumatic for me that it led to a part of my soul becoming fractured and leaving me as a way to contain all that I felt and endured.
I fully know and feel that all that I experienced in my journey with Mama Aya, within the ceremonial space that was created, and with the facilitators and ayahuascero that I journeyed with was necessary and preordained. Every single bit of it was my medicine, and I will continue to make meaning out of it for decades to come. I share my journey not out of anger for what happened, but out of a desire for others to have even more information so they can truly know what they’re in for and can consciously consent to all aspects of it.
My tips for journeying with Mother Ayahuasca
- Know your body well; if you tend to have physical and/or constitutional sensitivities, start with a quarter of the recommended dose. You can always take more at a later point in the ceremony; but you can’t ever take less once you’ve ingested it.
- Ask how many participants will be attending the circle and how they hold space for those with little to no plant medicine or psychedelic experience. If the ratio is 30 to 5 or even 20 to 5, you’re more likely to have a journey without much assistance.
- If you are doing a weekend ceremony (which is the most common in the U.S.), ensure that you already have a session scheduled with a healer of your choice the week after your ceremony, to help with integration. And ideally, work with an ayahuascero at least a month prior to your ceremony, to help set the intention for your journey and to prepare you for what you may experience.
- Remember that you have the right to choose not to drink! In the second night of the ceremony, I refused to drink because I knew that Mother Ayahuasca was still with me and in me and what I needed was integration, not more medicine that I couldn’t make meaning of.
- You may consent to drinking the medicine, but once you’ve taken a substance, you’re forced to endure it through to the end. Make your decisions based on this knowledge.
Mother Ayahuasca offers the most powerful and profound medicine that I think exists on this astounding planet of ours and she will show you (oftentimes forcibly) that which you need to heal and what you’ve been avoiding. She is meant to be respected and revered and once you have sat with her, she is forever, lovingly a part of you. Thank you Mother.