You may be drinking ayahuasca for the wrong reason. Let me explain.
In countless books, films, documentaries, and articles, enthusiasts tout the miraculous benefits of hallucinogens on our mood disorders, social behavior, and physical health. Psychedelics are seeing a booming resurgence in popular culture. Current research on DMT, “the spirit molecule,” which is the main active compound in ayahuasca and is naturally produced in mammalian brains, continuously aims to prove its marvels. (With more marvels to come; this research has barely begun to focus on the enormous health benefits psychedelics may have on your gut, immune system, and heart.)
More mainstream medical centers are experimenting with and promoting psychedelic-assisted treatment for depression, PTSD, addiction, and other modern physiological and mental diseases. Centers in foreign countries are operating openly and legally, using mushrooms, ayahuasca, huachuma, peyote, iboga, kambo-frogs medicine, rapé, and more.
The shamans I worked with in the Ecuadorian Amazon and Brazil were hardly concerned with those scientific explanations. They know it works. How? They talk to the plants. People are healed and cured. I want to share with you some of my experiences with those native shamans.
Ayahuasca Is Intended for the Shaman
We all have deep soul longing for powerful, divine visions of being one with the universe or with God. However, deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, among the Shuar tribe, before the onset of Western tourists and the introduction of money, only the shaman drank natem. Before working with his patients, uwishin (traditional Shuar healer) Daniel Guachapa prepared and drank his own freshly made ayahuasca. He would not offer this tea to his client unless it had a specific health purpose. But these purposes don’t include hallucinating, enlightenment, or “finding oneself.” These are genuinely foreign concepts to them, as he told my friend who sought to heal his self-hatred.
When the shaman consumes the brew, he enters the “other world” so he can identify the source of his client’s ailment. In his vision, he first observes and then penetrates the client’s physical and energetic bodies. He locates the invisible poison arrows sent to harm the client, sees who sent them, and proceeds to dismantle them. He then finds the black smoke of bad energy blocks, which are created by fear, trauma, and curses, and sends his spirit animal helpers – perhaps the anaconda and jaguar – to clear those dark energies.
Ayahuasca for Your Stomach
Life in the jungle is warm, muggy, and sometimes harsh. Meat, fish, insects, roots, fruits, and other food must be eaten fresh and consumed immediately. Otherwise they spoil and can harm the body. Because there is no way to refrigerate and preserve food, natives often develop digestive problems. All diseases begin in the stomach, some as a result of emotional and spiritual issues, and develop extra acidity.
Ayahuasca’s bitter properties work as a protection method against toxic substances in our digestive system. It kills unwanted microbes, viruses, bacteria, and parasites. It also helps remove the liver’s acidity (anger) and gallbladder’s bile (resentment). Bile oversees our decision making, controls stamina, and affects our visions. It is responsible for our life’s passion, creativeness, achievement, and confidence. The gallbladder is essential as it connects to the pineal gland (our third eye), our visionary center which produces melatonin. When you reduce the stomach’s acidity, it functions better and strengthens your immune system. Ayahuasca’s bitter properties increase the blood flow in our entire bodies and activate our neural, vascular, and hormonal systems.
To clear the stomach and restore health, it is essential to be on an acid-free diet – no coffee, alcohol, red meat, pork, sugar, or citrus fruits – and purge as many times as you can throughout the ceremony (or even before). Many find it intimidating to vomit, but it is essential for good health. The Shuar down several cups of bitter wild tobacco water before drinking the natem (ayahuasca). The Siekopái, in preparation for the yajé ceremony, hold two early morning renewal ceremonies, drinking a special cold orange drink called Yajé Hao. They ask participants to drink nine large bowls and purge until they no longer have anything left to purge.
In the Rio Negro of Brazil, a Piexona shaman visited each of us after we purged on the Amazonian soil to see the color, transparency, and the content of our vomit. If it is clear, the person is doing well physically and spiritually. If it is muddy and dark, or contains different objects, it means that the person carries bad energy and needs more medicine. It’s hard for me to imagine bowing over a bucket in a closed dark hotel room or yoga studio.
Not All Ayahuasca is Made Equal
There is no one formula to prepare the ayahuasca brew. It is not like an industrial Coca-Cola with a secret formula that makes each bottle taste the same. Each shaman customizes his concoction depending on the client’s needs and the plants in his environment. Sometimes the shaman uses an old vine, sometimes a younger one, for different effects. Sometimes you need a strong purgative. Sometimes you need a good heart opener. Sometimes you need more potent visions. Some use chacruna (chaliponga), some use the awakening properties of guayusa. Some add drops of the lethal trumpet flower, datura, and some add the purgative hao. Some shamans cook the brew for a long time, making “Honey Ayahuasca,” a sweet and intense paste.
My friend, who apprenticed in Colombia, told me that not all brews are cooked. Some shamans soak the shredded bark and green leaves in cold water overnight (preferably on a full moon). That tea is pretty powerful too.
Most people in the West think the ayahuasca brew arrives disguised in plastic Coca-Cola bottles with fake labels. They trust their ayahuascero to insure that an honorable shaman prepared the brew. Many times they don’t even care to ask. Why is that we don’t ask? How come we do ask doctors when we take western pills and other medicine. We want to know who made them, right?
I have been in ceremonies where the brew was old, weak, or diluted to accommodate a large number of people. When the participants complained, the ayahuasqueros would shrug their shoulders, or blame the complainers for not doing something correctly.
Some ayahuasca that is shipped to the U.S. or Europe is cooked in industrial kitchens to meet the high demand. I wonder if anyone prays over it? Did anyone sing to the vines and the green leaves?
Daniel Guachapa, the Shuar shaman, told us how the best natem (ayahuasca) is made. He gets up around four in the morning, the ideal time to harvest chacruna leaves. At this time, the universal energy (qi) is at its highest, and the chacruna leaves are at their most potent. He asks for permission to collect them, and tucks them between each finger. Then he finds the vine and cuts off a piece.
When he returns to the compound, he cleans the vines and peels them. He sets up a three log fire away from other people, to eliminate their energy interferences, and fills a bowl with layers of the shredded vine and green chacruna leaves. He’ll sit there until the ceremony starts, connecting to the plant’s essence, singing to and for the medicine. He is not alone. The Siekopái (Secoya), a tribe that comes from parts of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, still prepare yajé the same way. They speak to the plants in their language, to get in tune with the plants’ energies. No one is allowed to go in or leave the sacred ceremonial space where the sacred medicine is being prepared.
In the rainforest near Manus, in Brazil, I participated in a beautiful Santo Diame church ceremony. Before the ceremony, a group of women all dressed in white, sat in a circle, separate from a group of men who beat the vine with large wooden hammers (I had the honor to join them). The women sat quietly as each one took a leaf and cleaned it carefully with her bare hands, singing a hymn to each leaf of unblemished chacruna.
Many may not appreciate how the brew symbolizes a union between masculine and feminine energies. The vine is symbolized by the snake, the universal phallus, while the chacruna leaf is shaped like a vagina.
Atahualpa, a well-known Quechua shaman in the Western Amazon on the slopes of the Andes, invited us to his ceremonial place. It was a simple wooden frame structure, built near an impressive, old-growth ayahuasca vine, by the side of a small, bubbly stream. This is typical of the sacred spots where ayahuasca ceremonies are held. I asked him to show me his chacruna shrub.
He laughed. “I don’t use chacruna.”
I was surprised. “So what do you use? I asked.
“I use guayusa,” he said proudly.
That was surprising. The only time I drank guayusa before then was on the Rio Negro with the Tukanos, during a ritual the morning following our ayahuasca ceremony. I had to lie down helpless for more than a half hour as the previous night’s visions came rushing back.
Later that night, as his shaman wife served the bitter drink cooked with the guayusa, I understood why they used guayusa in their brew. It was very powerful. In their tradition, only a female can serve the brew, while the male shaman holds the ceremony and performs the limpia healing.
Ayahuasca Opens the Heart
Don Sabino Gualinga, a Quechua community leader and master shaman from Sarayako, the Corn River – almost 100 years old – insisted during my visit that having visions was not the only purpose of drinking ayahuasca.
“It is to help you open your heart,” he said, so you fully surrender to the experience and connect with the cosmos and universal love. His ceremonies were reverent but also extremely casual. Ours was done in the open kitchen, with his family, kids and dogs present, engaging in lively conversations as my group was journeying.
Taita don Shairy Quimbo, who performs huachma ceremonies in the Andes, says the same thing. He is not fazed by participants who claim they did not “see” anything, and that the brew was not strong enough.
“What did you feel?” he asks them, usually with a smile.
“It just felt relaxing, beautiful. I did not feel my body,” they would say.
This view is also held by the yajé drinkers of the Siekopái. They believe that healing can only happen when you open your heart wide and connect with the natural world and its mystery. Then you viscerally experience the invisible web of life and the cosmos. You become one with everything, and everything becomes you. That is how you learn life’s secrets.
The Siekopái believe in deep silence during most of the ceremony. They think that you should not use any musical instruments, that you should listen to nature communicating with you, listen deep within your soul. Experience the river’s murmuring sounds, the wind whispering and blowing in the trees, the frogs croaking in the river, the cacophony of the cicadas, the raindrops, the animals howling, the music of the universe. Only later, after midnight, when the medicine’s effect subsides, will they begin with individual soul songs. But this is not a song. It is a conversion with spiritual beings, the subtle energies of nature, and the cosmos. It is a mystical dialogue, with the shamans weaving the invisible strings that connect us all, bringing our awareness of reality to a new realm.
Do Not Escape. Integrate.
On the trips I lead to the Amazon, I make sure the group spends the morning after ceremonies with the shamans. The Quechua Elias Mamallacta and the ayahuascero who led the ceremony shared what they saw for each of us. Their observations shed light on each participant’s experience so they could be seen from different perspectives, which prepared all of us for smoother landings. Shamans from the Shuar, Quechua and Sarayako sat with us in the mornings, as well. Whenever this is not possible, I hold an integration gathering for group sharing.
But the Siekopai shamans take a different approach. They recommend that you keep yajé ceremony experiences to yourself. Don’t share them with others. Continue with your daily life and your regular tasks as though nothing has happened. The yajé lessons, they believe, need to be processed and integrated slowly into your life, by you alone, and not be used to escape reality. They warn us not to create and live parallel lives, and get lost in our visions. Only then can we be helpful to our community and thrive, they say.
But because us Westerners are so separated from the subtlety of nature’s spirits and its symbolic, poetic language, I recommend that you study at least some basic shamanic teachings before partaking in such ceremonies, and then be sure to integrate the experience with the shaman afterward.