Travel and Dining

Ayahuasca in Peru: Mysterious and Magical Medicine

Some of the visuals I had reminded me of the artwork of Alex Grey.

In the Amazon rainforest there grows a vine called ayahuasca (which translates to "vine of the soul"). When the vine is mixed with certain leaves and cooked into a (foul-tasting) tea, it becomes a hallucinogenic medicine with unbelievable effects. An ayahuasca experience is often described as 10 years of therapy condensed into a single night. People indigenous to the region have been using the medicine for a very long time, but recently ayahuasca has been catching on among the First World crowd. Westerners eager for personal breakthroughs flock to retreats in Peru where people who know how to use the medicine guide them through ceremonies. I recently took such a journey.

First off, a few disclaimers. Ayahuasca can be extremely intense. It is not something to be done recreationally. To use the medicine correctly, you should spend some time beforehand thinking and writing about the kinds of things you want to work on, and afterward—whether you devote a couple days or a couple weeks to the experience—you should give yourself time to integrate the insights you've gained before launching back into a fast-paced lifestyle. The New York Times published a piece last month about ayahuasca, and it talks about a group of young people getting together to work with a shaman in Brooklyn. I have not done this, but I would not recommend it, and not just because it's illegal in the United States. For one, the plant reportedly works best close to where it grows. But more importantly, the tranquility of the space in Peru where I did ayahuasca was fundamental to the transformation I underwent. Having the time to discuss and process our experiences was paramount for me and everyone else there. On that note, be very careful when selecting a retreat. You want to make sure you're in good hands. The place I chose, Amaru Spirit, had very high marks on TripAdvisor (and yes, I see the pun there).

The medicine

You could certainly call ayahuasca a drug, but I think medicine is a better term. I'll spend the next couple thousand words explaining why, but think of it this way. If you have a bad trip on a drug like mushrooms or acid, there is usually nothing to gain from that experience. You may learn a thing or two about yourself, but most of the time people simply suffer through some bad, scary hours. On ayahuasca, if you have a bad experience (which I did; my first night was an interminable nightmare), a day or two later you start to recognize some very welcome changes in yourself. Granted, each experience is unique—not only from person to person, but also from night to night—but that is a theme I have seen with the medicine. Birth can be a very painful process, and you have to go through that pain in order to transform. On the other hand, for some it isn't painful at all, but rather a peaceful and fascinating meeting of the subconscious and conscious minds.

A quick word on how different it can be from night to night. My roommate at the retreat felt next to nothing the first ceremony, even though he drank a second cup of the brew. On the second night he had some amazing metaphysical insights into the nature of the universe. Sitting on his mat, he felt himself rocking as if on a swing, and saw himself banging up against a door. Then he broke through the door, and that's when the universe unlocked itself. Some people can talk to Aya. You'll hear them refer to Aya as "she" or "her," as she is understood to be a feminine energy. At some point after he broke through the door, Aya said to him, "If you're ready, I can show you your death." He said sure. He then saw his body dissolve into particles and merge with the rest of the universe's animate and inanimate matter, and she said to him, "You don't have to be afraid of death. I will always be here. Even the end is not the end." Then for his third ceremony he had a much more personal, emotional experience and had a breakthrough regarding his relationship with his mother.

There is simply no limit to what can occur when one is "in the medicine." Some people travel in time and space. Some see outrageous visuals. One girl had a dragon protecting her. On another night the same girl saw that a man in the room was now a dinosaur. Some of this trippy stuff surely sounds bonkers, but beneath all that I assure you there is something very real taking place. Use your imagination, multiply that by infinity, and that's what can happen when you're sitting in the dark with your eyes closed.

The ceremony

You take ayahuasca as part of a ceremony. Ceremonies may vary a little from place to place, so consider this an account of how they do it at this particular retreat. The ceremony takes place in a round room called the maloka. Each participant has a mat, and the mats are arranged along the edges of the circle, half on one side, half on the other. Amaru Spirit keeps the ceremonies kind of small, with usually no more than 10 people participating on a given night. At the back of the room sits Slocum, the guy who runs the place and who administers the medicine, along with the shaman and his wife. A candle is lit at the beginning of the ceremony, and blown out after everyone drinks. The candle is lit again at the end of the ceremony after the shaman has released the collective energy from the room.

Slocum calls each person up one by one to drink. After you drink you return to your mat and wait. It usually takes about 30 to 40 minutes to start kicking in. Sometimes it doesn't kick in, though, so after an hour or so Slocum asks if anyone wants a second cup. Throughout the ceremony, the shaman sings, and his wife joins in with him. The songs (called the icaros) are in the language of the Shipibo people who are indigenous to that area (near the town of Iquitos), so I didn't understand a word, which was just as well. Our shaman had a really unusual voice, and the singing really added to the otherworldliness. Slocum occasionally goes around the room ringing a deep-sounding chime or blowing smoke and moving energy around, but for the most part you just sit or lie there with your eyes closed. Laughing and crying are fine, but you don't want to scream, touch anyone or turn on any lights, as these things can distract others. Touching someone in particular could transfer energy in an unexpected way.

Somewhere in the middle of the ceremony, Slocum comes around the room and asks each person if he or she would like a limpieza, which is essentially an energy cleansing. You go to the back of the room by the shaman and lie on a mat on your back, and the shaman and his wife sing songs over you. While they do this, they pat you down with a flowery, aromatic plant, patting your body up and down in a soft rhythm. Then the shaman sprays a perfume-like liquid over your head, your stomach, your legs. Even with my eyes closed I could see bright specks of light falling over me like a wilting firework. Then the shaman does something with your hands, something with your forehead. It's all very mysterious.

Lastly, I have to mention the gross part. Next to each person's mat is a bucket. This is for purging. Sometime after ayahuasca gets in your system and starts doing its work, you have to purge it from your system. That means it either comes out your mouth or out the other end. (There is a bathroom just outside the maloka.) And sometimes you have to vomit in a hurry. So in the middle of meeting an ancient deity, you might hear some not-so-lovely sounds.

My experience

People seek out ayahuasca for all kinds of reasons—to kick an addiction, sort through personal pain, figure out what to do about a relationship or a career, talk to a dragon, you name it. I read a testimonial from one young woman who said she returned from her trip, quit her terrible job, cut out people from her life who were feeding her nothing but negativity, and told those people why she was doing it. I had a few reasons for going, but the main one was anxiety. My anxiety had come to block me in a lot of ways, and I knew this was happening. I looked back to the person I was 10 years ago—an openly emotional person who could find tactile gratification in breathing in the night air on a quiet night—and I missed him. It hasn't helped that I've been living in the pressure cooker that is New York City for the last six years (not a lot of quiet night air in the metropolis), but that was only part of the problem. I needed some kind of overhaul. This was my backdrop.

I was at the retreat for four and a half days, and I participated in two ceremonies. A lot of people go for much longer stays. It's common for someone to go for two weeks and drink the medicine nine or 10 times. Some of the people I met had drunk dozens and dozens of times over however many years, and still each experience was a new one. For me, two ceremonies were enough. After the first one, I didn't think I was going to drink a second time. I didn't think I was going to do it ever again.

My reaction was largely physical. As I sat there the first night, the effects starting to wash over me, I saw some incredible visuals, but more than anything I felt physically overpowered and overwhelmed. Slocum asked if anyone wanted a second cup, and someone went up and took a second cup. When he asked if anyone else wanted a second cup, I misheard him and thought he asked if anyone needed help. I said, "I think I do." He replied, "Come on up." I was too weak to walk, and so I began to crawl to the back of the room. The guy next to me helped me to my feet, and I made my way back to Slocum looking like a crippled old man. "Are you sure you want a second cup?" he said. "No. I want help."

I slowly collapsed right there, onto the floor. And there I lay writhing, off my mat, for the next 6,000 hours. In actuality it was only about three hours, but it felt much longer. (Time tends to disappear when you're in the medicine. You could have your dead grandmother tell you invaluable secrets in the span of a thunder-crack.) I can't describe very well what I was going through during that time. All I can say is that it was incredibly intense. I was overpowered. My only recourse was to breathe. Which is what Slocum reminded me as I fought through it, as I begged for it to wear off. "It's gonna wear off. Just keep breathing," he said. It helped to hear him talking to me, but I was so messed up, I didn't even know where I was in the room. It was an experience I wouldn't have wished on my worst enemy. (Remember, this has a happy ending.) Eventually it did wear off, and eventually I made it back to my mat, and then my hut, but I was really shaken.

The next day, Slocum said it was really unusual for someone to be affected as intensely as I was on the first time. (Remember my roommate, who felt next to nothing his first time after drinking two cups? You can imagine my shock when he got back to the room that night and described it as "kind of a non-event.") Slocum said I "connected with the medicine." He gathered the group of us together to talk about our experiences from the previous night, which was really helpful. It took quite a bit of processing, but over the course of that day and the days to come, I started to understand what I went through and why I went through it. I could go on and on about that—I practically wrote a tome while I was there—but in a nutshell, I needed to let go. The medicine made me feel helpless, and it's quite possible I needed to feel helpless. I can be a calculating person, one who clings to control, and I needed to let go of that, surrender to something bigger than me, trust and give in to the invisible flow that guides us from moment to moment.

After I got over feeling shaken and started to open my mind to the possibility that my night of terror may have actually done me some good, I noticed a physical change in me. This may be hard to believe, but I felt like a mass of anxiety had been ripped out of me. Surgically removed. That first night may have been physically overwhelming because the work that was being done on me was physically extreme. Once that tension was taken out, I felt my emotions open up and move freely. I felt a number of realizations about my life gently float to the surface. I had to get my ass thoroughly kicked to get there, but I felt like Aya had vanquished a shadow inside me, crushed the darkness into pieces until the darkness was too small to see, and left me with lightness and light. I can't tell you what a relief this has been.

By my fourth and final night there, I had come around to participating in a second ceremony. Slocum knew to give me half a dose this time. Which was essential. It was still physical for me, and still difficult for the first wave (though nothing like the first night, not even close), but I knew better what to expect and how to approach it. I went in with a mantra this time: "Show me. Guide me. I trust you. I surrender." During that first wave, the visuals were amazing. I saw a female eye with long lashes. The eye blinked and the lashes turned to beams of light. The beams of light turned to streams of water, and the streams of water bent and twisted into an indescribable ever-changing tapestry of geometric patterns. Again, multiply your imagination by infinity. Aya doesn't talk to me like she does with other people, but on a couple occasions she conveyed a message to me visually. As I lay there, breathing through the heaviness, I saw two hands swirling in a circular motion over my body, misty streams of smoke vapor trailing off the fingertips. What this said to me was, "The medicine is doing its work. Let the medicine do its work." Which made me feel like a patient who's conscious during surgery.

They performed a limpieza on me (the energy cleansing), and after that I went back to my mat and started to come out of it. I felt peaceful for the rest of the ceremony, and was able to observe the collective nature of the ceremony. For the most part, others are going through what they're going through in stillness and silence, but every once in a while someone would laugh, and that would make someone else laugh, and then a string of laughter would work its way around and make me laugh. There was a really loving and supportive vibe in the room that night. Before the ceremony started, a hugging epidemic spread through the room just as the laughter would later do. It makes me feel good just thinking about it.

The takeaway

While some people have specific epiphanies while they are in the medicine, all my insights and realizations came later, rising slowly into consciousness over a handful of days. The ripples of the medicine stick around for a while—some continue to have visions as they're falling asleep a few days after their last ceremony—and my insights settled in as the ripples faded out. I now feel such clarity on so many issues where I was previously stunted. And with my anxiety largely cleared out, I've been acting on that clarity with surprising swiftness. I quit smoking pot, which I'd been meaning to do but hadn't done—actually quit, didn't just lay down intentions to quit. I ended a relationship that wasn't easy to end—which I had seen coming but was finally certain about. I even called someone I'm close to and told her about something I'd been carrying around with me for seven years. Seven years ago she did something that made me really angry, but the timing never seemed right to say something, and so I never said it. I called her on the cab ride home from the airport. I fixed it in a second. And of course, I'm getting out of New York now. The logistics of that one may take a couple months to arrange, but I'm through with being unhappy. (Don't get me wrong, I loved New York for the first five years, but every man has his breaking point.) I'm also going to eat better, drink less alcohol and hopefully sleep better because of those healthy choices.

Speaking of sleep, I didn't mention that I had the worst time trying to sleep after taking ayahuasca. I don't think that's all that common, but it really jacked me up, affected me all week. Just another reason why rebirth can be a difficult process. This has been the most difficult and challenging experience of my life (the mosquitos alone could drive a person batty), but it has also been the most rewarding. I feel like it has changed the trajectory of my life for the better. I'm so much calmer. I walk and talk at a slower, easier pace. Important tools, like patience and empathy, have been dusted off and given a polish. And I feel like I can take on the world without swallowing all the war and poverty and corruption in one devastating gulp. I have balance. The relief is immense.

James Heartsock is a political journalist with a master's degree in international relations. His mother is quite relieved to have him back on U.S. soil.

The Amaru Spirit website is here.