Ayahuasca leads us through subterranean memories, down into primal dungeons where we’ve locked away parts of ourselves. These are not just personal recollections, but the ancient, rejected secrets of our species (ayahuasca works with the species, not just the individual), which need to come into the light to be released.
It’s not unusual to have ayahuasca visions from another place and time. Sometimes these rise up from the land itself, as in my first ceremony, when I was greeted by a horde of Hawaiian warriors. Sometimes it’s a collective event you’re witnessing: the Holocaust, or American slavery.
Sometimes it’s a strong memory of something you know you haven’t experienced in this lifetime—rape, warfare, being burned at the stake—manifesting as an internal knowing accompanied by waves of intense emotion and images not from the modern world.
So what are these experiences, really? Past lives? Ancestral memories passed down through DNA? Random experiences of other beings who’ve lived on this planet, parts of human history not necessarily connected to us personally? Or maybe psychic cinema releases, beamed out to teach us through allegory?
I wish there was some kind of test we could run these things through, but it seems like it’s up to each one of us to sift through these experiences and draw conclusions that resonate.
Transmuting Ancestral Pain
First, the ancestral option. Through plant medicine, I’ve seen the suffering of my Irish ancestors during the Potato Famine, feeling their terrible grief at not being able to feed their children. And I’ve met a Jewish ancestor hidden generations back in my Austrian Catholic lineage (he chose forcible conversion, to his lasting anguish.)
I’ve had many, many other experiences/visions that don’t appear to be related to my blood lineage (more on these in a moment). But given that 10 generations back, we each have over 1,000 ancestors—and 30 generations back that total is a mind-boggling trillion—it’s not hard to imagine that we’re genetically connected to an abundance of beings from the past, and thus through DNA are potentially linked with their wisdom, as well as their wounds and traumas.
The degree to which trauma can be transmitted through generations is explored by the science of epigenetics, which studies how adverse life experiences modify the way genes are expressed in cells, literally altering our DNA. Epigenetics hasn’t yet geared up to exploring 10 generations back, but the line of transmission from great-grandparents on down is clear.
As well, there may be more subtle, as yet scientifically undiscovered means of transmission that etch important experiences onto our DNA, the coded hereditary material found in virtually every cell of living organisms (Stephen Farmer calls DNA the “original ancestor.”)
Enrique, the curandero with whom I diet, once told me that by working with the plants (he was speaking of dieta, but I imagine it refers as well as ayahuasca), we can heal our DNA, and that this healing can extend back to our ancestors, as well as forward to our descendants.
His words are a beautiful message that heartens me as I’m leaning over the purge bucket, clearing out one more layer of my ancestors’ suffering. How plant medicine does this is a great and subtle mystery, No coincidence, perhaps, that the double-helix ayahuasca vine mirrors the DNA with which it works.
Ayahuasca and Past Lives
What about past lives? I have no trouble accepting multiple incarnations, partly due to my Tibetan Buddhist training, partly to having spontaneously seen at least a half-dozen unpleasant visions of different kinds of death and torture, all in the years before I met plant medicine. It seems that the most intense and painful experiences are what imprint most deeply on our soul, but of course it makes sense that moments of extreme pain would have the greatest impact, just as they manifest in this life in the form of trauma.
When I began to work personally with ayahuasca and dieta, more strange experiences arose in even more vivid detail. Memories of being raped, and of raping. Of death in various ugly forms. Of fighting for my life with my bare hands—all accompanied by emotions so nuanced and powerful that they feel like embodied memories, not abstract visions.
The feelings that arise can be painful, bitter. But there’s also the relief of long-repressed emotions emerging, and the simple truth and dignity of them standing in the light. To have their existence acknowledged feels like a relief. The medicine brings them up from deep within my body, from my past, whether that is genetic or karmic or both somehow. Both the victim and the persecutor live within me. It appears I carry a lineage of suffering that is deeply human, rooted in the mud rather than the stars.
An intriguing question arises: Are past lives really “past?” I’m not so sure history exists in the tidy linear sequence of Dark Ages-Renaissance-Revolution that we were taught. My current intuition, refined by plant medicine, is that time is not linear, and that past lives exist in some alternate present dimension. Time loops in on itself somehow, and we have the power to release or transform old experiences through our present choices.
Healing Across Lifetimes
When you’re presented with what seems like past-life karma, the element of responsibility becomes clear. Towards the end of an early ceremony, I asked ayahuasca why I was born into this life with a structurally flawed body—and the word “Consequence” appeared on a screen before me. I can’t imagine a more direct answer than that. It led straight to a sense of accountability for the transgressions I’d seen earlier that night. And I got to taste the clean, good flavor of responsibility, so different than that of guilt.
In subsequent ceremonies, I felt as if I was returning to heal an aspect of myself (again, ancestor or past incarnation) in this loop of time and dimensionality. The plants support us in healing, but they don’t do it for us—it has to come through us, and in the process, we are redeemed as well.
It’s amazing to me still, this God Game in which we become our own healers, how this process works across space and time to heal the past so completely and fully. The karmic/ancestral repair that can come with dieta involves healing with the support of plants, and the connection to the divine they open up. I’m helping these beings who are somehow linked to me to complete their unfinished business, whether they need to forgive and release, or to finally feel their strength and clarity.
“Liberación,” Enrique says knowingly, whenever I tell him about one of these dieta experiences of fully feeling mysterious trapped emotions from the past. It could be something awful, but he’s happy to hear it—está bien. You’re clearing out old feelings from your soul, he tells me.