In 2015 I isolated myself in a cabin on the shore of River Mayo, in the Peruvian jungle with two other travelers and a shaman for an ayahuasca ceremony. This is what I learned from taking “the vine of death.”
1. Ayahuasca doesn’t cause hallucinations, it takes you on a trip into the unconscious.
Due to its chemical composition, ayahuasca is not considered a hallucinogenic substance, but entheogenic, meaning the altered state of consciousness it produces connects you with your own spirit. The word literally means “to be inspired by gods”, and that’s why we take it — to explore the asleep or stalled parts of our minds or to connect with everything that’s sacred in the world.
2. Ayahuasca is not the substance that causes the trip.
The psychoactive substance that modifies our consciousness is the DMT, which is not in the ayahuasca vine but in the leaves of a jungle shrub called “chakruna”. Our bodies (themselves secreting DMT in very little amounts, for example when we are born) can neutralize the effect of the psychoactive, which means chakruna itself can’t affect us. But combined with ayahuasca, which blocks those neutralizing liver enzymes, DMT is allowed to diffuse unmetabolized into our body.
Fun fact: Ayahuasca is the only plant (among millions) able to block those enzymes. How did the shamans know?
3. The shaman is the intermediary between the visible world of things and the invisible world of energies and spirits.
My shaman’s name was Braulio. We met because my glasses broke and I needed someone to fix them. And I found him. He was a thin, dark-skinned man, with golden teeth and liquid eyes –the kind that belong to people who know lots of things but don’t need to tell them to everyone. We agreed to have our ceremony on his land by the Mayo River.
No matter what you ask shamans, they will always answer what they want. We, the outsiders, come to the jungle wanting to know everything about that invisible world we can’t touch, but they, shamans, know each of us must find the answers on our own. They just serve as guides.
The goal of shamans is to direct the ceremony, that is, to call the spirits (especially Mother Ayahuasca’s) to ask them for healing and learning.
4. Every natural element (including stones) has a spirit or “anima.”
Our Western mentality can’t easily accept a tree, a stone or even something untouchable as the wind as having a spirit. The Amazon worldview understands every element has its own anima, with which we interact in equal conditions (the opposite of Western anthropocentrism which puts humans in the center of everything). In these ayahuasca ceremonies, the animas come to teach us how to “see.” Under the influence of DMT, our sensibility to the invisible world gets sharper and we are able to feel and even see the spirits. Very often we recognize the shape of the old Mother Ayahuasca, a small witch with skin as rough as the Ayahuasca vine (she is her embodiment on Earth). It’s also common to see snakes and boas, the guards of the jungle. The way shamans communicate with spirits is through “icaros” or chants (the language of the Universe).
5. It is absurd to keep on thinking the invisible world is a copy of the visible world.
Ghost movies suggest spirits are a translucent version of physical shapes, but this is not true. Our physical and visible world is complex and made up of millions of particles, from atoms to a mega-stars. The invisible world is similar in that it has hierarchies and its own shapes, some of them too difficult to understand and accept. In my experience I discovered my way of feeling energies and spirits was through my skin — tingling feelings in my hands, uncomfortable skin, a kind of wind passing by…
6. Diet is the most important thing, before and after the ceremony.
As a medicine, ayahuasca has its own user’s guide, and it’s really important to take care of the whole process. Depending on the region where you take ayahuasca, your shaman will prepare you in a different way, but you will always need to diet. This means you mustn’t eat heavy foods, meat, milk, coffee, alcohol or even sugar before and after the ceremony, and the diet can last from a week to 3 months. Ayahuasca is a medicine to clean, purify our mind and our body –be it gastritis or cancer. Dieting is how we prepare our bodies to arrive as clean as possible to our meeting with the plant.
7. You must also restrict interactions with others.
After the ceremony shamans usually recommend a resting period in which you can’t see, talk, or touch other people — this, of course, includes having sex. Why is that? Through physical contact we link our energies to other people’s and what we want is remain “clean” or “isolated” as long as possible to heal ourselves.
When we want to transition back to being with a partner, we have to smudge them with jungle tobacco smoke. This procedure, called “mapachear”, is used as protection, since the anima of tobacco is a guard spirit. It’s usually present in all ritual ceremonies in the jungle, and it’s also an ingredient in the concoction –it makes us vomit.
8. You’ll feel bad, you’ll feel good, you’ll enjoy, you’ll fear, you’ll vomit, you’ll be healed.
The ayahuasca experience is unbounded and it will probably make you feel lots of different and contradictory things in the same ceremony. Ayahuasca can move something inside us and bring to surface those things we had blocked. It’s important to keep in mind that ayahuasca experiences are not defined in terms of “good” or “bad” but as a way of healing. Shamans are always with you to guide you and to help you vanish your fear. Choose one you trust.
9. Ayahuasca is not a tourist attraction.
Those who want to take ayahuasca to have fun should probably try other substances. There are many scammers selling ayahuasca in little bottles all around the jungle. Please, don’t do it. The role of shamans is crucial, as is an attitude of respect to the medicine, the Amazonian culture, and to yourself.
10. There are many interesting testimonials of the different journeys through this medicine.
Example: The Yage Letters, a correspondence between Beat authors William S. Borroughs and Allen Gingsberg, chronicling Borroughs’ visit to the Amazon rainforest in search of ayahuasca (it is also a beautiful travel book to get to know the jungle).
11. There is only one true lesson.
Love. No matter how many questions you need to ask the plants, no matter how many problems you think you should solve, no matter how many traumas you want to overcome, there’s one lesson: If we live our lives with unconditional love for everything that exists, if we feel a part of the whole, we will be living in true harmony with the universe.