(Psychonautics refers both to a methodology for describing and explaining the subjective effects of altered states of consciousness, including those induced by meditation or mind-altering substances, and to a research paradigm in which the researcher voluntarily immerses himself or herself into an altered mental state in order to explore the accompanying experiences)
I’d first heard about Ayahuasca from friends who’d travelled South America before. I didn’t hear much of it until I started really exploring Peru and meeting other travelers who talked about it. Some having tried it, others sharing stories about people they knew of who tried it. I was curious to say the least. The more I researched and read into it and the more accounts I’d heard about it, the more I was intrigued. A huge part of my trip was personal growth and development. It became clear that Ayahuasca could be beneficial to my endeavours and that I stood to learn a great deal about myself during the experience.
Ayuhuasca is commonly referred to as a ‘plant medicine’ in Peru. Other plant medicines include the San Pedro cactus and Peyote. It is made using the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and various other plant components into a drinkable solution. The solution is a hallucinogen which generally invokes vomiting(purging) and subsequently lucid visions. The trip can last from 4-7 hours. Most report deep introspection, profound and bizarre visions and a sense of clarity or purpose once they have taken the Ayahuasca. Many also report some not so pleasant experiences such as torment, demonic figures and crippling fear. Some say this is a necessary process that ‘Mother Ayuhuasca’ deems fit in order for you to get to the root of yourself. In other words, your insecurities, issues and trouble are manifested in the form of these visions which can be scary as hell as you are laid bare and your ego is taken apart piece by piece. There are many reported scientific studies which have found Ayahuasca to be remarkably effective in the treatment of PTSD, depression, anxiety and drug/alcohol addiction.
Before I begin:
Now, what you’re about to read is going to come across as incredibly loo-laa and I will not fault you for thinking I’ve become a fully-fledged, ‘I’ve seen the light’ hippie worthy of a straight jacket. It gets pretty new age and lofty but I’m simply sharing what I saw/experienced. Take it or leave it. Was it an earth-shattering experience? Probably not, no. Was it a profound, introspective experience that I’ll be thinking about/deciphering for some time to come? Absolutely. This is the thing about Ayahuasca. It has a different effect on people. Some people have claimed to found purpose in their life, others have actually seen God or felt a spiritual energy whereas others have puked straight for 7 hours without so much as one hallucination. Ayahuasca is legal pretty much only in Peru and Bolivia. It is not something to be taken lightly and is incredibly powerful. It is absolutely not a recreational drug and is not for everybody. If you’re interested in taking it in Peru, ensure you follow the recommended diet and fasting protocols and above all ensure you feel like you’re in a safe environment with people/shamans you trust. People talk about not to go looking for Ayahuasca, that the Ayahuasca will find you. I don’t really believe in this however the best thing I can say is that you are well-informed about what it is and get a good vibe from those you will be partaking with.
Below is my account, enjoy the ride! :)
(FYI It's a looong read!)
We piled out of the taxi, about 15 minutes outside of Cuzco with Waynaqapac and Waynaeloy. Joining me was a German girl and a Spaniard who I’d only met that day. The sun was setting when we came across an old Incan ruin whereupon we met our master shaman(whose name escapes me). After a round of introductions, we admired the gorgeous sunset and then set off on our walk to the sacred place where we’d be doing the ceremony.
About halfway in, we sat in a circle and took a break. Coca leaves were offered around and everyone had a chew. We talked for a little while getting to know each other better. The shamans spoke decent English but the German and the Spaniard were fluent so the conversation dipped between Spanish and English. I was already getting good vibes off the shamans and the group but I had no real idea what I was in for.
Darkness was upon us. The path winded down hills, over streams and under trees. It was tricky walking, especially in the dark but the shaman insisted we did not use our head lights. ‘Allow your eyes to adjust to the moonlight’ he whispered. Grand so. I faired better than the German girl who slipped and slid her way down the rocky surface.
We were close. I could see faint structures in the dark and white sheet plastic stretched out making what looked like make-shift shelters. From first impressions it looked like and archaeological site and that’s exactly what it was. The master shaman explained that the site had recently been discovered and that it was a very special, sacred place. Well alright then!
The walk meandered past the main structures until we got to a steep hill shrouded in shrubbery. The master shaman turned to face us and tell us that the entrance was a bit tricky and to be careful before crouching down and disappearing through the thicket. I followed second. I clambered through, soon to be be greeted by a magnificent shallow cave. It ran about 20 feet deep and 12 feet high. The 6 of us would fit perfectly inside.
The shamans proceeded to throw down a large tarpaulin sheet on the cave floor. We were instructed to take our positions in a circle around the tarp, lay our our sleeping bags and get comfortable.
Meditation, Reflection and the Cave Preparation Ceremony:
It was only about 8pm but we were told we wouldn’t drink the Ayahuasca until 11/11:30pm. The hours leading up to this moment would be spent sitting up in our sleeping bags, focusing on the event and meditating on what we were about to embark on. The shaman instructed we had to prepare our minds and be willing to surrender to the Mother Ayuhuasca when the time came.
After about an hour of breathing deeply and getting comfortable, the master shaman ushered for us to stand and follow him to the mouth of the cave. He instructed we would now give thanks to Pachamama(mother earth), ask for permission to use the cave for our ceremony and finally ask for protection throughout the ceremony. This process included making a wine offering and a blessing to the North, East, South, West, the cosmos and Pachamama itself. Essentially the 6 directions around us(around, up and down). With each direction we faced, we clasped our hands together and looked off in the direction while the master shaman rattled off a blessing, requesting the energies and spirits look out for us. The penultimate blessing was up to the sky, to the cosmos and to the energies that reside there. Personally, I find the Incan beliefs to be fascinating. From what I understand, their faith is based predominantly upon nature which consists of the earth, the cosmos and the ethereal space in between.
Lastly, we got down on our honkers, touched the ground and bowed our heads as the master shaman whispered the final blessing to Pachamama herself and Mother Ayahuasca. He concluded the process by pouring the remainder of the wine onto the soil at our feet.
Mapacho, chewing of the coca leaves and drinking of the wine:
We resumed our positions in a circle just inside the mouth of the cave. Waynaqapac handed us each a generous bag of coca leaves, a dozen rolled tobacco cigarettes known as ‘mapachos’ and a bag of matches. He went on to explain their purpose. The coca leaves would serve to give us energy(we’d been fasting that day and I was struggling to stay awake) and prepare our stomachs for the Ayahuasca. The taste of Ayahuasca has been well-documented as pretty disgusting tasting. Coca leaves are believed to be medicinal in Incan culture and help in the process. With this, we pretty much had a constant wad of coca leaves tucked into our cheeks leading up to the drinking. I didn’t particularly like chewing the coca. I felt like a cow chewing the cud and fought hard against myself to not spit them out immediately. In any case, I desperately needed the energy so I gritted my teeth and chewed away.
Every now and then the master shaman would hand us one of two sweetened ashes, a crystal of either ash or sweet substance which we’d be instructed to mix in with our wad of coca and chew until no juices remained. It did make the coca chewing quite bearable so I didn’t mind it.
Next was the mapacho. These rolled tobacco cigarettes played an important role in the ceremony. NOTE: THIS IS WHERE ITS GETS LOO LAA, BARE WITH ME. The smoke would serve to protect us and ward off the bad spirits and energies. Incan culture views ingesting/inhaling of the smoke to be harmful to the body(they weren’t wrong) so instead of smoking them like cigarettes, we smoked them like cigars, not inhaling the smoke down into the lungs and almost immediately releasing it, blowing it over ourselves and into the space around us. We were instructed to smoke the mapacho throughout the ceremony whenever we could or feel like we could.
In addition to the mapacho, the master shaman would pass around various tobacco pipes which we’d accept with two hands and use in a similar fashion.
Finally in the lead up to the drinking, there were several rounds of wine drinking where the master shaman would pass around a cup of special red wine which we’d accept again with two hands, say ‘Salud hermanos’(Cheers/health brother), sip and pass around. Since I’d fasted all day, I found the wine to be quite tasty and full of flavor, a welcome taste on my now bland taste buds.
The coca-chewing, mapacho-smoking and vino-drinking went on for what felt like hours. Throughout it, we talked openly amongst ourselves but more importantly the reasons why we were there and what we hoped to glean/learn from mother Ayahuasca that night.
Finally, after we were instructed to chew a final wad of coca, the master shaman announced the time was upon us we were ready for the ceremony to begin. ‘Time for the fun to begin’ I nervously thought.
Through the wormhole:
While I had read that vomiting or 'purging' is commonplace following ingestion of the Ayahuasca, we were a tad concerned when there were no buckets for doing so like I'd seen from reading other's account in other retreat centers. No harm the shamans said, use the front of the cave or failing that right into the back of the cave. They insisted not to worry and don't think about it too much. If it comes, deal with it then, don't anticipate it and try fight it best you can when it does. I would later find out this advice would not be applicable to me at all.
We were also instructed to use a corner outside the front of the cave if we felt the urge to go to the bathroom. With the essentials out of the way, we got to it.
Anticipation was rising and we could sense the moment was close. I'd been doing a good job at keeping nerves at bay until now however they'd somehow crept up on me. I did my best to stave them away with some deep breathes and meditation. I pondered for a minute. What would Mother Ayahuasca reveal to me? Would it be harsh and punishing? How deep would I have to go to find what I was looking for? How on earth will these visions be depicted? And then less profound concerns like; 'Would I shit myself(there have been reports) and paint the cave with my puke?
'When I hand you the cup, take a moment to reflect on what you seek to gain from Mother Ayahuasca tonight...' said the master shaman. '...and when you thought about this carefully, drink the liquid down without tasting it in as few gulps as possible' -he concluded.
I was up second. The German girl didn't seem to struggle too much with the taste which put me at ease. I'd read and heard of many accounts of how vile the liquid tasted so was therefore pleasantly surprised to discover not that bad. I think I nearly enjoyed it. It was not unlike a funky mix of Buckfast and Kombucha. I swallowed it all and got into a comfortable lying position under my sleeping bag, heavily layered for what could be a cold night. The master shaman had recommended we take a lying position until the visions took hold.
As I lay there, I pretended like could fall asleep and ignore what was happening. I was tired after all but the excitement and tension was too much. I was about to get my ass handed to me and I knew it. My mind played tricks on me in the first few minutes. I thought I saw stars flashing in the roof of the cave but I knew it would be at least 15-30 minutes before there'd be no mistaking it.
There was a period where my eyes were closed and I could feel its onset. My brain felt funny, my body at peace. Things were happening but I couldn't see anything yet. I was able to escape it temporarily by opening my eyes focusing on the cave roof and the cave entrance, the bright night sky sparkling just out of reach. I was able to reaffirm what I as doing and told myself they would only be visions, they wouldn't last forever. I did these 'reality checks' often at first, fooling myself into thinking I could control what was about to be an ego-slaying slap in the face followed by a glowing embrace.
I don't remember the exact moment I lost control but it was quick and vicious. I started seeing a kaleidoscope of patterns and colors. I could feel them around me and inside me. It was pleasant. I was suddenly disturbed by the sound of the Spaniard singing to himself. It was quite soothing.
As soon as the nice colors appeared, they'd vanished and I was suddenly falling through the wormhole. I was in space flying at a million miles an hour, everything a blur. It was incredibly overwhelming but not in a good way. I had lost total control and gone completely insane as I felt my grasp on reality bottom out. 'That's it, I've lost my marbles!' I thought 'Mum and Dad will have a vegetable for a son now! Oh well!' I'd resigned, surrendering to it and oddly peacefully accepting my fate.
Then I heard it, the unmistakable soothing sound of the shamans icaro. (An icaro is a song or chant sung by an experienced shaman in order to either bring on visions, take away visions, call on spirits and take away bad spirits and energies. Crazy right?). Nuts as this sounds, when you're hurdling boundlessly through your mind completely untethered, these icaros were like a lifeline being thrown to my subconscious. I was able to grab onto it and focus on the song. I could feel myself being lifted out of the abyss I'd fallen so deeply down and being rescued from my despair. It was glorious. I remember feeling so grateful for their presence and their support. (If only they had been there that time I had a bad trip on mushrooms in NYC a year before!)
The icaro ended abruptly and with it came complete silence. It was serene. The icaro had silenced my overwhelmed brain momentarily brought me back down to earth.
The remainder of the trip was a blur. It was made up of mad hallucinations, visions and intense feelings of emotion. I was in and out of control/consciousness throughout. When I was aware of my surroundings, all I could hear was the guttural sound of the shamans, the Spaniard and the German puking their ring aka 'purging'. They were relentless, vomiting no less than 10 times each throughout the ordeal. You could imagine my surprise hell even alarm when I survived the entire night without vomiting/purging once! I've heard purging is necessary to remove the bad energies/toxins that contaminate your body but I've also heard if you fasted and live a relatively healthy life you may not need to purge much at all. The jury is out on that one. I'm just happy I had an overall positive experience.
The below are the visions I remember most lucidly. They often reoccurred at different times throughout the night. At the time, I had no idea what to make of them, I couldn't really control them. I don't fully understand them and I'll probably be trying to make sense of them for some time to come. Here they are:
Whirlwind of Sparks
The most repetitive and prominent hallucination was the cave entrance theatrics. Throughout the entire trip, whenever I looked out the cave I was mesmerized by hundreds, thousands of fiery sparks or embers shooting past across the sky in a whirlwind of an orange haze. They would sweep in occasionally, flirting with the inside of the cave. It was beautiful and entrancing. It felt like I spend hours just watching this. To this day I haven't been able to make sense of it other than it was just a intense visual experience.
Faces in the ceiling
Every time one of the shamans lit a match to ignite a mompocho or pipe, the roof of the cave would illuminate to reveal many distorted, strange and scary faces. Faces with big noses with a distinctively Incan stone sculpture-like. As soon as I'd see them, I'd lose focus and they'd disappear when the match went out. I remember feeling if I could somehow illuminate the roof of the cave myself, I could force these faces to reappear and explore them more thoroughly. It felt like a scary invitation into a dark place in my mind. I remember feeling torn with part of me wanting desperately to go unveil this part of my mind and the other half of me being stricken with fear. In the end, crippled with the paralytic effects of the Ayahuasca and fear of what I would find, I was never able to draw on myself to light a match myself or reach for my headlamp to explore it further no matter how hard I tried. There was a feeling of somewhat disappointment that I was not strong enough or able to go down this rabbit hole further when I came to and there still is to this day. Did it illustrate I was unable to face my fears or did it mean I simply was not ready for them? The plot thickens.
The Sound of Silence
This vision was faceless, it was more of an auditory hallucination but was extremely intense. It was a sound, a very natural clicking sound. The only way I can describe it is like a really distinct cricket sound which gradually built, getting louder and louder, often enhanced and intensifying by the icaros. It became a cacophony however only the cricket sound was distinguishable. It would build and build getting more and more intense, like I was getting closer to the source but I would never find it. It would always build to a climactic deafening peak and corresponding with the abrupt end of an icaro before I'd be left in complete and utter silence. It was the most eerily quiet I've ever known. A silencing of absolutely everything. The voices, distractions, noises, nature. Not a peep. Was it the silencing of my over-analyzing mind? Did it offer the clarity I longed for?
Pickpockets of Paranoia
A recurring vision and emotional experience I had was of a sense of vulnerability and paranoia. There were multiple times when I came to(opened my eyes) to be faced a with surrounding dark figures and shadows around me and leaning over me. I lay there terrified, clutching my sleeping bag, pulled right up to my face. I felt complete vulnerability for these visions which manifested itself in these dark figures that I was convinced were trying to pickpocket me. One one occasion I was sure local bandits had come down from the surrounding hills, stumbled upon the ceremony and took advantage of us by rifling through our pockets. This paranoia was further enhanced by the fact that at one stage I felt somebody stealing the gloves off my hands. I resisted but eventually the figure removed them and I felt my hands colden. WTF was going on!?
Turns out, during this particular hallucination, it was actually the master shaman who was removing my gloves in order to get my to rub some minty-smelling plants inbetween my hands and smell them in order to help pull me out of this bad funk which he'd sensed I was undergoing. He confirmed this the next day informing me while he got my gloves off he never succeeded getting me to smell the herbs as I was too far gone.
At another stage I thought there were children in the cave rifling through my stuff. I was sure my wallet and phone were lifted, convinced at one stage that the shamans were in on it and had planned on robbing us the whole time. I'd talked with the German girl who had similar paranoid hallucinations of getting robbed. It wasn't true of course but I believe these paranoid hallucinations signified me surrendering to the plant medicine, Mother Ayahuasca, putting my faith in her and trusting her completely. As if being made this vulnerable was necessary in order for me to proceed.
The fear was further amplified yet again by the attire the shamans wore. They wore heavy, baggy, woolen multi-colored shawls and pelts, not unlike the Wildlings from Game of Thrones. Two of them had feather headdresses. It seemed like they moved around the cave a lot but mostly when I caught site of them they stood at the entrance of the cave, statuesque. I couldn't tell if they were looking out or looking in. All I could see was their silhouette against the night sky. Were these dark figures protecting me, watching out for me or did they represent a dark, ominous presence in my life? Again...I have no idea.
The light in my heart
At one point during the ceremony while I came to to the faint words of 'light in your heart'. I stirred and heard it again. 'The light in my heart?' I questioned. 'Yes Brendan, find the key, the light in your heart.' came the voice of the master shaman. I was lucidly conscious but I did as he instructed. I pictured the brightest, warmest ball of light I could think of and traced it through my body, through me veins until I found it there in the middle of my heart, glowing. I felt my eyes water as tears accumulated on the side of my face and rolled down my cheek. I was overcome with an inexplicable, overwhelming wave of joy. I was crying with joy, not even actively, they just flowed out. It was absolutely bizarre.
I awoke multiple times to find I had been tearing up but this was the only time I remembered why. I'm pretty sure my family were forefront in my thoughts throughout most of these moments. I could feel their energy, their support and presence. They were cheering me on and I felt incredibly grateful for them.
End of the Ceremony
By about 5am the effects of the Ayahuasca were starting to wear off for the others. I was still seeing the firey spark hallucination at the cave entrance but I was very much on my comedown. I was in a complete daze with the biggest shit-eating grin on my face and I didn't know why. I just saw there, sitting up feeling elated and somehow rejuvenated. The shamans lit a fire which I couldn't take my eyes off. The flames danced away while the cave slowly illuminated with the morning light. We all tried to talk about our experiences but most of us were lost for words. I needed time to process the mindfuck I just experienced. The shamans were really supportive and trying to help us understand it but I knew I'd need to figure this one out on my own. We left the cave and walk a short distance to some more of the old Incan ruins. It was there we stood around in a circle while the master shaman rattled off some Quechuan(Native Andean language) thanking the powers that be for looking out for us during the experience. It was similar to the cave ceremony in that we faced each direction and concluded it by pouring more wine on the ground.
The master shaman then went on to explain the importance of the sun in the ceremony. Mother/Mother Ayahuasca was to Earth as Father was to the Sky/Sun. As the son rose, he encouraged us to open ourselves up to the warmth and light of the sun and to feel the energy go through us. At this stage I was all in so did as he asked and remarkably I did feel a certain energy burst through me. The heat of the morning sun felt amazing on my face, on my skin and was warming me up. All the while this is going on, workers working on the archaelogical site are filing in behind us to begin their day. They don't even bat an eyelid, I guess this it not so alien to their local culture. Or maybe they'd seen the shamans here a few times before and just left us to do our thing.
Finally, we finished up and walked about 30 minutes through this gorgeous valley path to a stream where we would finally eat some of the food we'd brought. It had been more than 24 hours since I'd eaten anything and I could tell, I was physically very weak and unsteady on my legs. We piled all the fruit and food into the middle of the blanket and the master shaman said a brief prayer/blessing before we all tucked in. It was delicious but then again I was so hungry I could have eaten the arse off a low-flying duck so anything would have tasted good. The shamans instructed we refrain from alcohol, sex and meat over the coming week. They said we could reach out to them if we needed to talk further about our experience. We arrived back in Cuzco and then parted ways. That was the end of that.
In conclusion, I believe I had a wholly positive experience. It was dark and at times terrifying, however each trough was followed by immense peak. The light was always strongest and won out. It sounds loopy I know but it's so hard to describe it any other way. The whole thing was nuts from start to finish as you have read but I feel I was incredibly lucky with the group we had and how it went. I had planned on doing a second ceremony the next night however I'd gotten far more than I expected out of it so didn't feel I stood to gain as much from a second ceremony. Did it bring to the surface problems I've been dealing with? Absolutely. Did I learn anything about myself. Sure. Has it given me new-found purpose in life? Not exactly. Did it make me a better person? Only time will tell. Only one thing is for sure, it won't be the last time I take the plant medicine. Because that's what it is, a medicine. Not FDA or universally medically-approved but still a medicine. Anything that helps us learn more about ourselves, the inner workings of our minds and has the power to set us on the right paths to better ourselves is as beneficial as any medicine out there.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience. Feel free to contact me if you'd like to talk more or have any questions relating to this.