[Editor’s Note: Nothing in this article should be taken as advice. We don’t suggest you try Ayahuasca. This is one man’s account of his own experience and is not a recommendation.]
My Ayahuasca Journey
I once heard Terrance McKenna describe how students at the UC Berkley referenced a mystical Amazonian brew that could induce visions and healing through shamanic ceremonies. It seemed more folklore than fact back then.
He went on to describe how those involved in the psychedelic movement in San Francisco daydreamed of a mysterious concoction that may or may not have even existed. It became somewhat of a legend around drum circles, parties, and peace rallies.
I could only image hearing McKenna’s poetic articulations radiating through the cloudy haze of a dimly lit college dorm room illuminated by lava lamps.
Today, one simply has to enter her name into Google and you’ll find blogs, podcasts, trip reports, and even some research into the ever more popularized shamanic Amazonian tea, Ayahuasca.
In my circles in Vancouver, Ayahuasca is frequently discussed. The increase in awareness around psychedelics, or as I prefer to call them, entheogens, is undeniable. Some are even describing what’s happening predominately on the West Coast of North America and in certain pockets globally, as the “Second Psychedelic Renaissance.”
There’s much discussion around that idea, and just because psychedelics are back, it doesn’t mean they’re here to stay. Public opinion around on the topic is shaky. One could argue that the somewhat reckless and irresponsible use combined with the anti-establishment messages associated with these substances causes angst among the general public.
If we’re not careful, we could fall deeper into the dark seemingly endless abyss of prohibition. The amazing potential of these substances could be squandered once again, just as we saw after President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971.
However, contrary to the propaganda our society as been bombarded with, the proper use of these substances has remarkable potential to benefit mankind when used in the correct contexts, which I would categorize as medical and religious/spiritual.
There are remarkable stories of healing (mostly emotional and psychological in nature but some physical) associated with psychedelic use. Vancouver’s very own Dr. Gabor Mate was using Ayahuasca to treat hardcore addicts on the Downtown East Side with great success, until he was banned from doing so by Health Canada.
What is Ayahuasca
For those of you who have no clue what Ayahuasca is, here’s a brief explanation: Ayahuasca has been use in Amazonian Shamanism for hundreds if not a thousand years. We can conclude this due to how widespread its use is throughout South America. Ayahuasca has been traditionally used in a ceremonial context for the purpose of healing.
The tea itself is comprised of several plants found in the rainforests of South America including the vine Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis Caapi) and Chacruna (Psychotria Viridis), and other ingredients chosen at the discretion of the Maestro or Curandero (Shaman).
These ingredients are then reduced through boiling until it becomes a tea known for it’s distinct, repugnant flavour. There are many biochemical components found in the Ayahuasca tea, but the main active ingredient is Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
DMT is found naturally in many plants and it’s even naturally produced in the brain while we sleep. On its own, eating DMT doesn’t have any psychoactive effect, as a chemical produced in our gut (monoamine oxidase) destroys DMT during digestion.
Yes, somehow, ancient shamans learned that the psychoactive DMT (which comes from Chacruna) works when combined with the Ayahuasca vine (which is known as a ‘monoamine oxidase inhibitor’).
In essence, the second plant’s chemical mixture allows the psychoactive plant to work by allowing absorption, which is usually impossible due to our natural biochemical makeup.
There are thousands of Flora species in the Amazon rainforest and somehow these shamans managed to figure out the right combination to create the psychoactive Ayahuasca tea.
The shamans tell us that the plants divulged this information to them. They believe the plants themselves have an intelligence and were able to communicate the necessary combination required to create the tea.
Given the shocking scale of plant combination possibilities they would have had to experiment with, it seems unlikely they would have come up with this exact combination on their own.
I know this seems a bit “out there.” But the probability of combining these two plants to create a psychedelic effect at a time when there was no scientific knowledge is staggering. It has to make you wonder. And that’s just the beginning. Things are going to get even further ‘out there’ as this post continues, so please try to keep an open mind.
Preparation for the Ayahuasca Journey
The process of journeying into the Ayahuasca realm begins long before the ceremony, beginning with purification not only of the body but also of the mind and spirit. The preparation to drink is just as important as drinking its self.
As Don Howard Lawler said, “it’s more than just what’s in the cup” and “you can fool everyone in the world but you can’t fool mother Ayahuasca.” He’s the founder of Spiritquest Sanctuary just outside of Iquitos, Peru where I took my journey with Ayahuasca.
The physical purification begins by eliminating as many unnecessary substances as possible including all drugs. (Note to the reader: No one taking any mental health related medication should EVER drink Ayahuasca. The substances in Ayahuasca are completely incompatible with the medications any form of SSRI medications and must not be taken at the same time.) Doing so could cause harm and or could be fatal. Always consult a physician before participating any of this sort of work.
If you’re clear from all of that, the next step is to eliminate as many unnecessary drugs as possible. This would include alcohol, caffeine, cannabis and anything else. Ideally, you don’t want to be addicted to nicotine, however, clean, black, naturally grown tobacco does work well with Ayahuasca, but I’ll get into that later.
Next is your diet or as the Peruvians call it ‘dieta.’ The longer you can be on Deita before you drink the better. Basically, you need to avoid red meat, sugar, salt, and spices. Also, Deita includes abstinence from sex and masturbation (not so much for the physiological processes around sex but because Ayahuasca is jealous).
Next comes a the psychological/spiritual cleansing. I include those into the same point because they are interrelated. This element of the cleanse reference to how morally/mental inline one is, otherwise known as equanimity. Are you living an integral life? Do you do the right thing to the best of your abilities? Are you habits, actions, words, and behaviors congruent? Only you and Ayahuasca truly know this.
Now, there are certain degrees of purity. You won’t have empirical measurements, but I’m sure you have an idea where you stand ethically. If things aren’t as good as possible then Ayahuasca will provide a powerful tool. It’s known as “the purge.”
Purging can come in many forms. It’s sometimes shows up as a big yawn, laughter, or crying. However, the most noticeable type of purge is vomiting and/or diarrhea. It sounds gross, but believe it or not, purging feels great. It can be intense, but it’s also relieving.
I started my dieta roughly 6 weeks in advance beginning with a cleanse (no meat – especially pork and red meat, caffeine, alcohol, etc.) Personally, after the breaking my 3-4 cup per day coffee habit, which with withdrawal symptoms that lasted several days, I found salt to be the most difficult thing to eliminate. But, I wasn’t too concerned, as I exercise and sweat almost daily.
When I finally arrived at Spiritquest Sanctuary after 36 hours of travel, we were all put onto dieta. All of our food was prepared and served to us. Typically, we ate a bland combination of rice, fish, vegetables, taro root, potatoes and maybe a banana or watermelon for desert. We ate like this for the full 10 days of the retreat.
I loved being on dieta. The food was all organic and super clean. Eating like that for even a short amount of time felt incredibly healthy. All of my bodily functions worked beautifully. I also have continued eating near that clean as often as possible while home and intend to eat that way as often as reasonably possible.
The accommodations at Spiritquest Sanctuary are ideal for this sort of work. The whole place reminds me of something out of the Swiss Family Robinson TV show. Raised wooden walkways connect the entire facility together. The whole place is completely surrounded by jungle and lays on the bank of an anaconda-like brown river snaking it way through the Amazon jungle. Luckily, the river was extremely low since I was there in August (2016) and in the middle of the Peruvian winter, which kept the mosquitoes at a minimum.
Our rooms were minimalist with just two single beds and a small bathroom. Each unit had a flushable toilet, which was a welcomed utility compared to other resorts in the area.
There is a communal dining area that overlooks the river, which was a great place to hang out, share and listen to Don Howard share his thousands of hours of accumulated wisdom.
There are several other noteworthy features at the resort, including a tower with two levels of hammocks, and the star deck, which sat on the highest point of the property and was ideal for stargazing after the ceremony. And of course the Maloka, where the ceremonies took place.
On top of operating a perfectly optimized resort for this kind of work, Spiritquest has extremely high ethical standards. One problem with the rise of Ayahuasca tourism is the conservation of the vine itself. A sad fact is that many Ayahuasca providers do not take sustainability into consideration.
Don Howard insured us of the ethical harvesting practices at Spiritquest. He only harvests vines from offshoots of old growth and never old vines. This means that shoots from the old growth will continue to perpetuate.
The well-being of guests at Spiritquest is the highest priority. Even though Ayahuasca use in Peru is completely legal, every guest at the resort is screened by an in-depth questionnaire, insuring that each participant is completely aware of the risk associated with drinking Ayahuasca while taking any sort of prescription pharmaceutical drugs.
This particular retreat was ten days long and included five Ayahuasca ceremonies, one Bobinzana (plant medicine used for heart opening) ceremony and one Tobacco ceremony.
The mapacho (tobacco) ceremony came first. The tobacco we used was natural black Amazonian grown which is completely different than the tobacco used in cigarettes. It’s completely organic and only inhaled into the mouth as you would smoke a cigar.
Tobacco plays a big role in Ayahuasca ceremonies. First off, it’s used as a “chacaruna,” which simply means “bridge tool.” A bridge tool is anything that acts at bridge to transfer energy or intention into the Ayahuasca. It’s also used to calm down the energy of Ayahuasca during ceremony if at any point things become too intense.
We all gathered under a sheet metal roof just off the main facility. This is where Don Rober, Doña Eliana Acho, and Don Carlos Acho were preparing the Ayahuasca that we’d be consuming for the next week. Don Rober’s mastery of the art of Ayahuasca shamanism is extraordinary, spanning over 50 years of diligent healing practice in the Lamest tradition of the upper Amazon. He is a true ‘banco’ ayahuasquero among few living today. A ‘banco’ is an elder maestro who has mastered a shamanic art at the highest level.
Don Howard opened up the ceremony by invited us all to get quiet and still and tune into the present moment. I focused on my breath and brought my awareness into my body. Within a few minutes I was grounded in the present moment, dropping out of my head and into my heart.
Then we each lit our Mapacho. I inhaled the sweet jungle tobacco into my mouth. It had the consistency and smoothness of a high end cigar.
Then we started focusing on our intention and petition to Ayahuasca. My intention was simple; just give me what I need in order to help me reach my highest potential, my initial petition was to eliminate fear from my life.
My reasoning for asking for the elimination of fear is rooted in the idea that fear is what causes most of the dysfunction in humans. I wasn’t referring to the useful fear of fight or flight that protects us in times of danger, more so the fears around scarcity, the unknown, and those of an existential nature. These type of fears are, for the most part, unnecessary, given my personal circumstances
Once we were each clear, we individually walked over the the pot of boiling Ayahuasca and blew the smoke into the brew for the purposes of transferring our intention into it, before wandering out into the jungle and calling in the seven directions.
In Native American shamanistic practices, they will typically call in the six directions which are north, south, east, west, towards the earth, and to the sky. Peruvian shamanism includes the seventh direction, which is inwards, meaning into our own bodies.
As we faced each direction, we would inhale some smoke into our mouths, mentally state our intention, then blow the smoke with our infused intension in the direction we were facing. We completed three cycles like that, finishing with the seventh direction by blowing the smoke into our hands and pressing it into our heart center. That marked the completion of the first ceremony.
After that we spent the afternoon just relaxing around the centre, becoming acquainted with our tribe of inner space explorers that would be spending the next ten days together.
Drinking the Jungle
I was nervous on the night of the first ayahuasca ceremony. I’d heard stories of people entering into their own personal hell and experiencing bouts of temporary insanity after drinking. Even though I had this nervousness, I still felt called to be there.
Ayahuasca has been on my radar for the past five years. Knowing that something of this nature exists compelled me to try in. I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life with only second-hand accounts and wondering what Ayahuasca really about. If it could be a tool to truly help me, I wanted to experience it first hand. Now was the time.
We fasted for several hours leading up to ceremony. As prescribed by Don Howard, I spent the time before hand in solitude, laying in my room and napping before the three-hour ordeal.
Early that day we had all set up our mats. Knowing that I have naturally tight hips I made sure that I had several layers of mats to prop my body up into the most comfortable position. Strategically placed beside my mat was everyone’s best friend during ceremony — the purge bucket.
Purging is an interesting aspect of the Ayahuasca experience. Oftentimes the purged is preceded by troubling streams of thought. During the sharing circles, people would often explain how a certain disconcerting aspect of their life would would be relieved and/or healed by the purge — as if something was being physically expelled by the body.
After getting comfortable on the mats, the group sat silently in dim candle light. One by one, Don Rober and family made their way into the maloka followed by Don Howard.
Then, Don Rober and his son made their way around the Maloka. Before ceremony started, they opened with a protective arkana, which is a song that protects us from anything that may wish to enter our bodies with bad intentions.
The staff at Spiritquest take the spiritual protection of participants seriously. In fact, there are multiple levels of protection that I envisioned to be like protective force fields. The first level starts around the boundary or the property. The second is around the maloka and the third is actually around each individual participating in ceremony in the form of the arkana and the agua de florida (flower water) smeared in the shape of a cross on your forehead and chest.
Don Rober began addressing the group as Don Howard translated. He explained that they are not witches, nor do they practice black magic. Before attending Spiritquest, I would have probably described myself as an agnostic.
I wasn’t full atheist, because I’m open to the possibility that human beings may not know everything that is going on in the known universe, and that perhaps there are forces at work that we are not aware of.
So, I’ve always kept the door open to the idea of ‘spirits’, however, until my visit at to Spiritquest I can honestly say that I had never experienced anything that would have indicated the existence of such entities. However, my point of view has changed.
They finished opening the space by calling in the seven directions (north, east, south, west, the earth, the stars, and within), and Don Rober whistled an arkana (or icaros) to the Ayahuasca in the bottle waiting to be dispensed.
Working our way counter-clockwise from the mesa (The alter where Ayahuasca is dispensed) we each step up to receive our first cup. Don Rober poured me three-quarters of a cup for the first night. I was nervous drinking, as I knew that once I drank it there would be no turning back. Whatever would happen, I’d have to ride it out, which required a leap of faith on my part.
I glanced over at Don Howard, and he gazed back at me with kind eyes to give me a nod. I held the cup in front of my face, mentally restated my intention to eliminate fear, and I drank.
Ayahuasca tastes acidic and can be very hard to get down. The funny thing is that some nights are easier than others. I preferred to get it over with as quickly as possible, so I slugged it back to avoid the taste. Then I reached for a mapacho, lit it, and returned to my mat to wait.
Sitting in the maloka in silence, you notice how loud the jungle is. An orchestra of insects and wildlife were singing in chorus, as Don Howard blew out the last candle.
I sat in the darkness waiting to be overwhelmed my mother Ayahuasca. My personal mantra was simple — acceptance. Just accept whatever comes and don’t resist. I’ve heard that the more one mentally resists the experience, the harder it is. I waited and waited and waited… but nothing happened.
After about thirty minutes of sitting is silence Don Rober and family began shaking the bundle of leaves in their hands and singing the icaros, which are songs passed down to shamans through the plants.
They can be learned, however the true icarros are received through some sort of transmission from the spirit of the plants directly. Each icarros serves a different purpose during ceremony and the lead shaman can utilize different songs as his discretion. You can sample some icaros here.
I laid down eventually, as I was exhausted and could no longer sit up. Before drifting off to sleep, I made a request. I’d heard of beings called “little doctors” that visit participants during ceremony. As Don Howard describes them, they are familiar, meaning these entities visit ceremony frequently and heal people. So, I called them in. I asked them to heal my joints as I’ve put some hard miles on my body.
After laying there for a few more hours, they lit the candle (signaling the end of ceremony), I got up, and went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up and every joint was extremely stiff and sore. I couldn’t help but wonder if it had anything to do with calling in the little doctors.
Before breakfast, the morning after a ceremony, everyone has a flower bath. The water has been soaking with a variety of flowers and herbs over night. To cap off the ceremony, Don Rober and his wife pour the water over your head and body while singing another arkana. To them, this is very important as it “seals off” your ceremony, protecting you from anything that may try to sneak into the next ceremony.
As the day wore on, my joint pain dissipated. The following days after ceremony my joints felt better than they had in years. Six months later, they still feel better than they did before.
I’m going to skip explaining the next three ceremonies and get right into my breakthrough ceremony.
It was the day of the fifth ceremony, and I hadn’t experienced much during the first four ceremonies. Throughout the week Don Howard repeatedly explained that drinking Ayahuasca is about more than just what’s in the cup.
He explained that one of the toughest hurdles our ‘western minds’ has to overcome is the idea that dose (quantity and potency) is not the most important factor when drinking. Everything leading up to drinking, mostly deita and intention, are equally as important.
Without getting too personal about the exact issue I was having that I now believe is the reason Aya wasn’t working with me, I entered into a negotiation with Aya, while lying in my bed the few hours before ceremony about the exact issue that was getting louder and louder all week long that I choose to ignore. After “making peace’ with Ayahuasca, I was almost certain something big was going to happen.
Fast forward to mid-ceremony. Sitting in the dark I started receiving insights around my judgements of another individual that was in our group. I’d been having these judgement all week, and it’s not that my judgements were wrong, but just the fact that I was judging him was enough to affect my experience.
Who am I to judge anyone?
After this experience, I’ve been working with the idea that we’re all perfect beings on our own journeys though this life, in which the totality of our life’s experience mostly dictates the type of personality we have (at least our egoic self).
Then, I felt a rumble in my gut that could have shook the maloka. It was unstoppable, and I purged into my bucket with multiple heaves until my stomach was empty. When the purging was done I laid down and covered my eyes with a blind fold.
This is where to story got a bit crazy. I felt as if I could move my consciousness into a black space that I could access through my body. I moved my awareness deeper into that black space, which actually felt warm, loving, and peaceful. I had the idea that I could actually move my consciousness infinitely deeper into this black space. While there, I had the notion of healing my inner child. Later, I learned that I actually brought this on myself. This is what they call, “working with the medicine.”
Then, in that dark space, clear as day, myself and a small boy emerged. I wasn’t too sure what to do next, so I decided to hold that little 5 or 6 year-old boy and tell him that I loved him before mentally beginning to repeating the mantra, “I love you Andy,” over and over.
The words got louder, and a second voice joined in. The words “I love you Andy” from the the second voice merged into a vibratory sensation that overtook my entire consciousness. Every element of my being was engrossed in the vibrations of that phase. The only way to describe the vibrations is as universal love energy. Then, my inner child merged into my body, and shortly after I opened my eyes.
The candle was lit, and the entire ordeal felt like it lasted about 2-3 minutes. But the maloka was empty, and the ceremony was over. Approximately one and a half hours had passed by.
I soon noticed the feeling within my body, which I can only describe as complete bliss. I was in my body but experiencing everything from a higher plain.
I heard someone weeping, curled up on her mat. She was still in the middle of it. All I heard her say was, “no, he shouldn’t be in the snake pit.” In my euphoric state I briefly sat with her. She begged to “make it stop.” I held her hand and said, “You must surrender to it,” before exiting the Maloka.
I wandered up to the star deck. Surrounded by Amazonian rain forest, with astonishing variety jungle flora, it felt like being in the movie Avatar.
I lay on the star deck staring up at infinity for the next few hours, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the planet. I felt extremely connected to everything and didn’t want that feeling to end.
The next morning, as per usual, we had our flower bath and took the next few days to integrate our experiences with others on the retreat during sharing circles and one-on-one conversations. Eventually, I said my goodbyes and made my way back first to Lima and then home to Vancouver.
If you made it to the end of this and are skeptical of what you’ve read, I’ll leave you with a few closing thoughts.
Everyone that week drank the same brew. Some nights, people would have otherworldly experiences and and others would experience nothing. The next ceremony, the roles would be reversed.
If it were simply a matter of dosage, and everyone were drinking the same brew each night and having different experiences each time, perhaps that indicates that it’s more than just what’s in the cup. Try running that experiment with alcohol and see what happens.
Do you think it’s possible that we don’t understand everything about the universe? Is it possible that tribal shamans could have tapped into something that we can’t explain with science? I believe it’s possible.
I truly believe this experience healed something deep within the core of my being. I’m still not exactly sure what that was, but ever since the experience I’ve felt “more complete” as a human being.
I urge you to keep an open mind. And if you feel that call to meet Ayahuasca in person, follow it.
Andy Zaremba is co-founder (along with his brother Mike) of The Float House, one of the world’s leading floating and sensory deprivation companies.
The Float House has 5 locations in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, including their cornerstone location in Gastown, Vancouver.