Photo: Ammit Jack/Shutterstock

The Possibilities and Risks of Ayahuasca as a Sacred Pilgrimage

Photo: Ammit Jack/Shutterstock
Ryan Hurd
Nov 8, 2010

Spiritual Emergency

Another danger of ayahausca is that many are not prepared for what happens after they take it. For guidance, I spoke to Sara Lewis, a clinical social worker and doctoral candidate in medical anthropology at Columbia University.

She told me the inherent problem is that there’s no screening process for ayahuasca: “Everyone takes it.”

Contrast this with traditional diagnosis, Lewis says, where “the ayahuascero might prescribe the patient ayahuasca, but this is only possibility out of dozens of treatments, including other master plants, specific diets, purgative treatments, or other recommendations.”

In a 2008 study published in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness, Lewis discusses the possible ramification of this lack of screening process: spiritual emergency. Defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a destabilizing “spiritual or religious problem,” this condition can be aggravated by shamanic initiations that involves psychedelic drugs as well as rhythmic drumming and chanting. Well, that’s pretty much what goes on in your typical ayahuasca ceremony.

What was soulful in ceremony now may indicate that you’re mentally ill.

All of the subjects in Lewis’s research indicated that they struggled with psychological distress after the ceremony. This distress is part of the transformative nature of ayahuasca, but it goes down a lot better when you have a cultural backdrop for what you experienced.

That’s the rub: most Westerners don’t. After getting back home, the values of our culture conflicts with the soul-shattering experiences in the jungle, causing anxiety, depression and crises of faith of the highest order. What was soulful in ceremony now may indicate that you’re mentally ill.

Unfortunately, there’s no cultural support because most people in the West have not had extraordinary encounters on that plane of reality. It’s literally the definition of being crazy.

Going There

On the bright side, I discovered some helpful possibilities for integrating the experience if I ever decide to take ayahuasca.

Lewis says that seeking out, or forming, peer groups for a few weeks after the ceremony can ease the transition between worlds. For those who are truly suffering, psychologists trained in spiritual emergency can also help to process and integrate experiences.

Lewis also recommends those interested in trying ayahuasca to take a good, hard look at what their motivations are, and how stable they are in life. Of course, people diagnosed with psychotic disorders or severe mood disorders should not partake in ayahuasca at all.

But even the “normally neurotic” need to do some serious mental house cleaning. As Lewis told me:

One should ask oneself—what do I need most at this time in my life? Do I need to be challenged? Disintegrated? Reorganized? Transformed? Or do I need stability, holding, and grounding before embarking on a path of tremendous upheaval?

Tremendous upheaval: that’s the key of the ayahuasca path. This puts into fresh perspective my earlier gut feeling that the time was not right. I was finishing up grad school, getting engaged, and preparing to move across the country. I had almost no anchor at this time in my life, and destabilization was not what my soul was after.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever try ayahuasca. Recent brain research suggests that this substance engages the same parts of the brain as lucid dreaming, which already provides me with plenty of ecstatic travel and confrontational spirit journeys. But, as Evgenia Fotiou suggests, “Above all, do not take yourself too seriously.”

Have you experienced ayahuasca or a drug that had similar effects? Share your stories below.

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