It’s one thing to know when you’re called to start working with ayahuasca. It’s an entirely different matter to know when to stop. When is it time to take a break, or halt, at least for the foreseeable future—and how do you know when you actually need to go back and drink more? Here we’ll look at the issues of timing, sequencing, and pacing, and explore some questions to ask yourself as you navigate through your own personal landscape. I invite your feedback and experiences as well in the comments below.
I live in Pisac, Peru, surely one of the global capitals of ayahuasca use, and knowing when to drink and when not to is a perpetual issue here. ‘When in doubt, go again’ is a popular option in Peru, where ceremonies are legal, plentiful and relatively inexpensive.
—Feeling slightly depressed, anxious, or bored? Go to ceremony and tweak that brain chemistry.
—Feeling good? Take more, and maybe you’ll break through to a permanent state of bliss.
—Friends going on Friday? Go again.
—Haven’t yet resolved that deep-seated and painful issue? Drink some more.
—Not sure what else to do? Go again.
And so on. And to some extent, why not? Intensive work is sometimes exactly what’s needed, and for many people, the focus on ayahuasca is a passing phase that will naturally evolve into something different.
There are no rules here, really; no guidelines to follow in terms of when, how, or why to use ayahuasca, only perhaps the shared experiences of friends, facilitators and the wisdom of 50 years of psychedelic research. We’re all inventing it as we go along, which is part of the appeal.
So how do you know when it’s time to get off the entheogenic merry-go-round, at least for a while?
For some people, ayahuasca tells them. One of my early mentors, a woman with over 1,000 ceremonies, received a clear message one night: No More. You’re Done. This Means The Rest of Your Life. And she respected this, although she had some grieving to do around the loss of what had become the linchpin of her professional, social and spiritual life. Then there’s this eloquent blogpost by Tina Courtney on “Why I Quit Ayahuasca Shamanism,” although she’s since stepped back into the game.
For others, it’s not so clear—but maybe it should be. Simply going to ceremony over and over again can become physically depleting, energetically questionable (think entities, tattered astral bodies) or just set your wheels spinning, repeatedly dredging up the same undigested information. To continue to drink without clear intention, out of habit or desire for “more-more-more,” is at best misguided, at worst difficult or dangerous.
The Downside of Too Much
Some observations on the pitfalls of too many (unconscious) ceremonies:
You risk deepening your personal darkness by avoiding your stuff. It might sound strange, given the degree to which ayahuasca can shine a light on our personal unfinished business. But while ayahuasca is many things, it is not infallibly direct or to the point. It doesn’t always illuminate our blind spots, doesn’t remove every filter or clear every block—it doesn’t always deliver the 100% truth, for that matter. We have to put in our own work too, through ruthless self-inquiry and honesty. Nothing is guaranteed, especially with ayahuasca.
Fooling yourself with psychedelics: Feeling a connection to your higher self in ceremony, you inevitably come back down to your lower self, then conclude you need to drink more to ‘permanently shift your brain chemistry’ (the brain as bio-chemical machine being one of the many ugly myths that antidepressant propaganda has given us.) But simply drinking more ayahuasca, without doing your personal work, leaves you an addict —“addicted to psychedelics for the sake of self-development,” as Nikolai astutely describes in this blog post: How I Fooled Myself Using Psychedelics.
He’s describing a phenomenon I see frequently. The insights and downloads received with ayahuasca can be so incredible that it’s easy to keep reaching for more, thinking at some point you’ll hit the real motherlode, permanent enlightenment in a cup. But, outer substance, inner world: it’s the bridge between these two that really matters. This includes the bridge between our awareness and the parts of ourselves that we reject—the bridge between shadow and light that we build through integration.
Spiritual bypassing happens with ayahuasca, too: Turning again and again to the Light as a means of avoiding the Dark, grasping at spirit over shadow, while ignoring the fundamental truth that the two are united at root, are common pitfalls in modern spirituality. Repeatedly going to ceremony without paying attention to integration, you avoid working with psychological issues. The illusion of ‘progress’ can create some tragic blind spots. It’s a deep ocean to fall into and potentially drown in, full of love and light and spectacular battles with demons.
Again, it takes relentless self-inquiry and ruthless honesty to find one’s footing in this work. The truth is, if you properly integrate, you don’t continually need to rely on ceremony for the next fix. You may choose to go, of course, to continue your work, which is a different thing entirely.
Ayahuasca work is best done in the context of a life. If not much is going on in your life besides more medicine, you run the risk of stagnation. Thus my hesitation when I see very young people drinking ayahuasca frequently. It’s not necessarily giving them the energy or the motivation to go out and build a life, which is their primary task at this point. Ayahuasca doesn’t come with guard rails or crib bumpers. If you lack discernment or discretion, it can send you on a merry-go-round.
Reifying Spirit in the Form of Substance
All these pitfalls bring us into the larger issue of consumer mind. An insatiable hunger for peak experiences is one way a materialist mindset grasps after the numinous—and it’s one sign of a life devoid of connection with spirit.
Ayahuasca can easily be reified in this way, à la, go down to South America and get the Big Bang—or, equally, stay home and load up on kambo, bufo, rapé, mambe, psilocybin, 5-MeO-DMT . . . all potentially valuable experiences, but in their pursuit there is often at least a whiff of spiritual materialism, the tendency to concretise substance at the expense of soul/spirit. And reifying spirit in the form of a substance, be it animal, vegetable, mineral or chemical, is a fundamentally delusional game. (Which is not to say that substances do not contain spirit—they do, as do we all. It’s the attitude of grasping I’m talking about here.)
This kind of consumer view of ayahuasca is a pitfall of our modern mindset. Manipulated by advertising, we’re used to fast and easy grabbing for more. We treat life without proper respect for the finite limitations of material reality (landfills, anyone?). It’s easy to stuff ayahuasca into this psychic hole, another product to be overconsumed.
To do so is a misuse of a powerful medicine with great healing potential. Avoiding this requires recognizing that the transformative potential doesn’t reside in material, chemical form, but at least equally within oneself. Psychedelics are not substances to consume; they’re catalysts for experiences that demand conscious participation. These require the active participation of the taker, the ability to navigate through rough terrain, to not fall into the trap of identification with either the light or the dark.
Part II of this post explores issues of frequency, integration, and questions to ask yourself in deciding when to go back for more; you can read it here