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Ayahuasca: Food for the Soul

aya I first heard about ayahuasca some 17 years back when reading William Burrough’s “Yage Letters.”  Burroughs sought the vine, which originates from the Amazon rainforest, because it is reputed to be able to cure addiction (he was a lifelong heroin addict.)  The first time I came close to encountering the vine was last year in Salento, Colombia, where a coffee shop owner told me it had changed his life, saving him from a road leading to death.  I finally had the honor of encountering the vine these past two weekends in the desert, and I’d have to say that saying it’s life-changing would be an understatement. Psychedelics are a class among themselves.  Ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years for divine healing purposes by inhabitants of the Amazon, and Terrence McKenna posited in Food of the Gods that ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms is what led to human evolution past the animal stage.  An experience with ayahuasca would have you start believing the validity of this theory. The first ceremony took place at midnight in a house in the desert.  Ayahuasca ceremonies are held at night because of the intensity of the visions and the fact that it creates extreme sensitivity to light.  Also, they are usually conducted by a shaman, an experienced sherpa of sorts that guides the process.  About a dozen and a half people attended, most of whom had experienced ayahuasca before. The active ingredient in ayahuasca is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a compound naturally occurring in the plant kingdom and in humans as a neurotransmitter.  Normally, DMT is inactivated by stomach enzymes, but somewhere along the way in the Amazon they figured out how to brew it with another plant that contains an MAO inhibitor, which neutralizes those enzymes and allows DMT to cross the blood-brain barrier.  (For that reason those on antidepressants like SSRIs can’t take ayahuasca as the SSRI/MAOI combination can lead to serotonin syndrome, which is potentially fatal.)  Some postulate the fortuitous combination of those plants was divinely inspired. After reading multiple accounts about the foul taste of the resultant brew, I was surprised to see that its color and aroma most resembled that of – soy sauce.  In fact, before the vomiting started, I half-suspected that I’d traveled deep into the desert to experience elaborately served Kikkoman. The Peruvians call the ayahuasca experience “la purga” – the purge – because it causes people to violently expel what’s within them.  However, the purge is considered beneficial because it rids you of toxins and purportedly, your demons.  Certainly, this is no ordinary retching.  Your whole body reacts violently to the concoction, and it does indeed feel cathartic.  After the horrific purging, I entered the ayahuasca universe. It is impossible to describe the experience in any way that would do it justice, much like telling someone the definition of wisdom would not make the listener wise.  I’m doing it because reading of others’ journeys helped me prepare, psychically and otherwise, even though no experience is like any others’.  Some that I journeyed with had very visual experiences; mine was emotional and spiritual.  I had specific questions about life and its purpose for me and my goals.  I was not prepared for the battle that awaited me. The ayahuasca ceremony has been described as ten years of psychotherapy completed in one grueling 8-hour sitting.  Sense of time distorts, lending credence to the idea that time is not linear.  Upon emerging from that world, I felt that I had been gone for years, fighting my demons.  I felt exhausted as I had done spiritual warfare. It is like you are placed in a higher plane, given the gift of insight and clarity that your normal quotidian thinking blocks.  I was shown a vision of my own death.  When I asked the Salento coffee shop owner how ayahuasca had saved his life, he told me that he had seen his own grave – and the spirit of ayahuasca had told him that if he continued on his current path, that’s where he would end up soon.  Visions of death with the vine are commonly reported, often as symbolic representations of the ego.  My vision, however, was my literal death- should I continue on my current  path. Then, suddenly, I had the power to write my own adventure.  It was just like those choose-your-own-adventure books of yore – you know, where you were confronted with a choice, and could turn to different pages, like page 44 – “You will die horribly and ignominiously.”  Bad choice.  Then you could go back, and make the other choice – page 131 – “You live out your days in glory and love.”  Better.  If only life were like that.  Ayahuasca, while I was in her world, gave me the power to see what my life would look like down the line, were I to continue some of the self-destructive patterns in which I was engaging – and what life could be, were I to make different choices. More importantly – and more profoundly – I was able to see why indulging in those patterns was not only ludicrous, and destructive, but why I could easily walk away from such traps.  As a fellow voyager said after the experience – ayahuasca helps you resolve the state of conflict.  Oftentimes, your mind wants something that’s good for you – you want to eat healthier, etc. – but another part of you is in conflict (your body craves sugar, you want to indulge in emotional/depressive eating because you feel down, etc.) and so you don’t end up doing what you know is right.  In that universe – I was able to isolate the conflict, and resolve it.  As simple as it sounds – and answers to cognitive problems were as clear in this world as they were intractable in ours – the answer was love.  Love in the original Greek sense of agape, “spiritual love,” and not eros, “sensual love” – although this is a very sensual world, as well.  In fact, it is extremely easy to get distracted with the many visions – some quite erotic – that are presented.  But I had work to do. I felt the love around me, and I saw how those around me cared for me, but how I was blinded by my own barriers, my beefs with the world, and how my attitude and worldview changed the things and people I saw and actually created my own reality.  I saw the power of attitude in creating my own life and how I co-created my own reality.  I had visions of my own victory and success, and accomplishing the goals and dreams that I had that sometimes seemed so lofty – but were not if I saw my own talents clearly.  But I was also told that these things would not come to pass unless I made the right choices, and now that I knew what they were, I had no excuse to dally any longer.  The world – this universe – could be mine, were I to choose it to be so and to do what it took.  Much like the end of Scarface with the giant globe (“The World Is Yours.”)  Only without as many men with machine guns coming after me, hopefully. I played out so many scenarios I felt as I had lived many different lives at some point during the night – some tragic, some glorious.  I lived the different lives to which various actions lead.  And even though I felt like I’d been in that world for years, some part of me – the one that was in this dreamlike state – knew that time was running out.  I had three questions to answer, and I had to get through them before my time was up in this world. The experience was too dense to unpack right away.  But as the sun came up and that world faded away, I jotted down a couple dozen mantras, things that I had realized in that world – epiphanies that were life-changing.  Realizing, that word, seems to imply a sort of cognitive change.  This however, is more an emotional, a spiritual change.  Your spirit feels different.  You see the interrelatedness of life and beings.  It becomes clear how love is the best way.  You understand that you are rich and loved, and you already have within you the things that you want – if you so choose to accept them.  It can be an emotional journey – some people cry, many laugh – during the excursion. A week passed between my first journey and ayahuasca redux.  During that week, I went back to the normal world of work and profit.  The healing had begun.  I went through everything I owned and purged much of it, preparing my physical space for the fresh new projects I had planned.  In my time in the ayahuasca world, I had this overwhelming urge to just eat better, cleaner, greener.  The toxins had felt so horrible coming up, I just thought – wouldn’t it be easier to never take them in in the first place?  I felt better physically, and because I felt better physically, my emotional and psychological state improved.  I reincorporated working out and lost 7 pounds (maybe some of them were expelled demons – heavy, heavy demons.)  More realizations and epiphanies came as both my conscious and subconscious began to unpack the first experience. But halfway through the week, I grew anxious.  What if, I fretted, I forgot my epiphanies?  What if I didn’t get all my questions answered the first time?  What if I lapsed and forgot all the lessons learned?  I grew ever more anxious.  So I prepared a new list of questions for the vine.  This one was 7 times as long.  That’s right, 21 new questions for the oracle. The second time was in the desert, in the outdoors under the stars.  I promptly abandoned all my questions in the first 30 minutes.  The message that came to me was – my questions were a product of my rational mind.  An inquisitive, searching mind that wants to figure out the how and why of everything.  But the answers that I sought would not come from the rational mind that must compare, contrast, distinguish and label – it would come from consciousness.  I no longer wanted to spend this time with ayahuasca in my own head, fighting my mental demons.  I wanted to glory in the beauty of the universe. I looked in the sky, and I saw multitudes of universes.  Galaxies galore.  I looked within myself and saw whole worlds.  I felt what Walt Whitman meant he wrote “I contain multitudes“- David’s emotions in Psalm 23 when he wrote “my cup runneth over.”  The beauty of the world – the galaxy – overwhelmed me.  I marveled that I had ever felt down or disconnected from this beauty.  I knew there was nothing left to figure out.  There was the journey – which would be just as wondrous as I would allow it to be.  Most people will not allow that.  The mind wants to take over, the ego would like to boss you around and say you don’t deserve to be happy yet – but you are not their slave – unless you choose to be.  I decided I would no longer fight myself, nor the world, and get in the way of wondrous creation.  Another voyager next to me went through a physical battle – I could see that he quite literally was battling himself (his ego.)  Later, he told me he arrived at a wondrous place, where he communicated with beings telepathically, the shaman and his sister were in his vision (and he was in theirs), and it was a beautiful place, better than this world because there was no evil. The thing is, the ayahuasca universe is already here.  Once you’ve opened yourself to it, you can see it if you let it be.  Every culture, every way of being and civilization creates its reality, has its strengths and its blind spots.  For example, as powerful and healing as ayahuasca is, it has been outlawed in many places by a 1971 United Nations treaty, and the U.S. classifies DMT as a Schedule I drug, meaning it supposedly has no medicinal or therapeutic value.  Just for comparison, not even cocaine is considered a Schedule I drug.  Meanwhile, there are medical doctors – in Vancouver, for instance – that have used ayahuasca in Canada to successfully treat lifelong heroin addicts where Western “rehabilitation” and medicine have failed – that is, until one was sent a letter threatening him with imprisonment if he continued to heal people with ayahuasca.  How can a vine that has spontaneously cured depression – and has scientific basis in enhancing serotonin levels – essentially, acting as a natural antidepressant, but without the sexual side effects or weight gain – be highly illegal, while prescription antidepressants with a whole host of greatly undesirable effects – like suicidal ideation – be legal (and highly profitable?)  You signed up to cure depression, then you got suicide.  Maybe Terrence McKenna was on to something. After having experienced ayahuasca, I realize how much I don’t know.  But instead of being a downer, it’s inspiring.  It means there’s a whole new universe out there to explore. huasca