Skip to main content

A few weeks ago I sat through perhaps the most outrageous ayahuasca ceremony I’ve ever attended, a chaotic display of anarchy that was a true shitshow. Yes, chaos is a fundamental attribute of ayahuasca, and sometimes pure chaos is exhilarating. And my own experience that night was okay, even beautiful at times. But what I witnessed unraveling in slow time in that room, the impact and effect on the people in the circle, was disturbing. It made me think about what it takes to lead a ceremony, and the real meaning of terms like ‘holding space.’

The man holding the ceremony has perhaps five or six years experience. He’s European, if that matters (it usually doesn’t to me). I’d heard good things about him from several friends, one of whom asked me to check him out.

Into the Maelstrom

Ten of us have gathered for the ceremony, including four first-timers. The leader’s basic perspective, I’ve gleaned, is just let things flow. Whatever you need to express, do that, he tells us. There are just a few rules: don’t talk, don’t touch each other, and don’t leave the property. Sounds good.

We start. Ten minutes in, one of the first-timers is violently purging and moaning. Soon he’s writhing on the floor, knocking over buckets, shrieking with what sounds like labor pains. Cool. At this point, most places would remove him from the group and work on him privately in a separate room. But this is an understaffed and let-it-all-hang-out kinda place, an ‘experiment’ in which we’re “learning to surf the waves of chaos.” Double cool, let’s roll with it.

This article first appeared in Kahpi: The Ayahuasca Hub

The leader works with Shrieking Guy, not too effectively from the sounds of it, singing and drumming over his screams. The single assistant frantically scrabbles at the laptop to play a calming music track, but it takes him several tries, as he keeps being called over to help restrain the man. The rest of us are sucked into the drama that’s unfolding in the middle of the room.

Everyone is politely quiet, enduring the invasion of Babbling Guy’s epically shallow mind.

It’s compelling: the leader and assistant frantically shining their lights on the Shrieker, telling him to open his eyes, calling him back, over and over. Every bit of the leader’s energy is going into this heroic rescue effort. The rest of us are on our own. I can feel the rising anxiety in the group. The man next to me is feebly muttering, “It’s okay, it’s all gonna be okay,” in an unconvinced tone.

And now the shitshow really begins: a nervous group member starts to babble, loudly voicing every random thought that comes into his mind. “Wooooow, this is really strong stuff!! This is a super-strong experience, guys!! I can feel it in my brrrrain! Can you feeeeel it? But it’s sacred space, yes??? It’s a therapeutic process!! Sooooo therapeutic! Woooow, really incredible!!!” And on and on.

The facilitator continues to focus on Shrieking Guy in the center. He’s abdicated responsibility for the rest of the circle. Babbling Guy has been sucked into the energetic vortex of Shrieking Guy. The two of them are synched in some disturbing fashion, and we are all simply jetsam bobbing in the wake of their joint performance. “Let’s get high, guys! Let’s step outside and smoke some weed! Anybody wanna?”

Shrieking Guy’s travails gradually lessen, but Babbling Guy’s monologue, which gradually escalates in tone from friendly discussion to full-on rant, goes on for nearly three hours. I hear my neighbor mutter “Shut up” once, but everyone else is politely quiet, enduring the invasion of Babbling Guy’s epically shallow mind.

Unlike Shrieking Guy’s display of pure energy, which is alarming but somehow also possible to work alongside, his words hook us. Like the paradoxical command ‘Don’t Think About a Pink Elephant,’ it’s impossible for them not to evoke images (“Oooh, I can feel the shit coming out of my butt!” he yells from the toilet.)

There are occasional giggles on the part of the captive audience. His rant is ridiculously comical at times, but mostly it’s pathetic and degrading. Eventually I retreat outside to continue my work.

Returning maybe an hour later, I see Babbling Guy still babbling, lying naked on the floor atop Shrieking Guy, the two of them surrounded by pools of vomit, the ‘shaman’ feebly drumming, people huddled in shock on the benches, the energetic web of ceremony in tatters. It feels like a bomb went off in the room. At which point I leave for good.

What Happened?

All this could perhaps be worth it, if some good came from it. But the experience didn’t seem to benefit the ceremony participants who were the stunned onlookers of this zoo. Certainly not the fragmented and lonely soul I met drifting outside later that night, or my poor neighbor, who ended up writhing on the floor, banging his head against the wall in complete disintegration. The overall vibe I got was of shock and damage. It’s not an art to evoke these energies. Psychosis does the same.

Maybe it was valuable for the main actors, Shrieking Guy and Babbling Guy? I doubt it. They weren’t present for the rampage happening through their nervous systems; in fact, they were completely gone. Disconnected energetic releases yield nothing of benefit.

The healing power of catharsis is a long-debunked myth from the ‘70s. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the past 20 years of research, it’s that trauma healing takes sustained, steady, carefully calibrated effort, not disconnected, explosive discharges that simply blow out the system. Staying conscious in the release, connected to your body and its energies, is what’s key. And nobody was conscious in that pool of puke, or that torrent of inanities—or in that room, by the time I left.

Container, Alembic, Vessel

To do deep work of any kind—emotional, psychological, spiritual, magical, psychedelic—you need solid grounding and a coherent container. Here in Peru, I sometimes hear people speak resentfully about ‘rules’ and ‘control’ in ceremony. “What gives him the right to tell me what to do?” is the general complaint.

Here’s the thing: Guidance does not always equal control. Container does not mean restriction. These things are sometimes confused with oppression, but they’re not. They just provide a safe place to work, stable ground upon which the dance can unfold.

Without a container, genuine transformation does not occur, only random chaos and slop.

The dance that arises can be chaotic, yes, absolutely. Ayahuasca can be intensely, superbly chthonic. And this chaos needs to unfold within the boundaries of an intentional time and protected place. This is the famed ‘setting’ of psychedelic lore. This is why ayahuasca is customarily drunk in ceremony—in some kind of formal ritual enactment, not an anarchic shitstorm.

Ceremony is the transformational crucible. In alchemy this is called the alembic, the sacred container in which the process of transmutation occurs. Alchemy in essence deals with psychological processes rather than chemical ones, and the alembic is an indispensible holding space. Without a container, genuine transformation does not occur, only random chaos and slop.

Think of the everyday magic of transformation: how seeds grow from within the earth, and soup needs a pot to cook in; the way spirits are born from a still, and metal worked within a forge. Transformation’s need for containment is organic, and extends, especially, to humans. Babies grow in the womb, and infants need to be held and swaddled. Children need consistent, reliable boundaries to mature into their own being: ‘Yes to this,’ and ‘No to that’; and the ongoing, wordless message, “I’m consistently present for you. I care about you.”

How does this relate to ceremony? Ayahuasca can evoke very young states. We all have the capacity to regress in ceremony; to fall into the unbounded chaos of our infant or even prenatal selves. This is not an error or mistake; it can be a crucial part of the work.

In this vulnerable state, we need a modicum of order, grounding, and the reassurance that someone competent in charge and knows WTF is happening, even if we don’t. This is the role of the person holding the ceremony. S/he delivers this wordless message through energy, attention, prayer, icaros, music, the skillful use of conscious silence and clear boundaries.

What I saw was that the leader wasn’t strong enough to truly hold the space. He disdained authority to the extent he neglected his own power and mastery. Ensnared in his own unconscious ego trip of rejecting an authority he considered ‘ego-based,’ he neglected the primary responsibility of any leader: to create a safe container.

He set rules (“No talking,” “No touching,”) but didn’t apply them. He invited explosive energies, then scrambled to defuse them when they turned out to be more than he’d bargained for. He focused on one participant to the exclusion of the rest of us. I felt no direction, no energetic guidance. We were all left adrift, to make our way through the chaos as best we could. 

What It Takes to Hold a Ceremony

So here’s my opinion, informed by a fair amount of personal experience.

I don’t care how many times Madre Ayahuasca has suggested you’re a shaman, or how prettily you’ve decorated the space. I don’t care even how talented you are in guiding people through subtle realms and working with healing energies, although these are indeed important attributes.

In my view, you have no business holding ceremony unless, bottom-line:

  • You are 100% committed to showing up for the circle the entire night;
  • You are capable of holding and working with the intense energies that can arise;
  • You’ve made contingency plans for emergencies (“Here’s what we do if someone flips out/gets violent/falls unconscious/disappears”);
  • You have competent support proportional to the size of your group.

These are not the only attributes a leader needs, but they are indispensable ones. Until the other week, I didn’t even imagine what a ceremony would be like without them.

It’s true that most ceremonies unfold beautifully and tranquilly, in a seamless flow of protection and grace. The wild card each time is the psychological makeup of the people attending. It’s impossible to screen out all the difficult potentials, and indeed I don’t think avoiding problems is the point.

I rejoice in the chthonic nature of ayahuasca, and (at least after the fact) in the shitstorms I’ve experienced within my own being in ceremony. But I do my best to keep my work inside, and not spread it onto others. Partly it’s my natural reticence; partly it’s knowing that the deepest work, the true transformational Magick, happens inside, and is both sacred and secret, to be shared thoughtfully if at all, not spewed into the ears of everyone present.

Not everyone has the awareness or capacity to contain their process. That’s where the leader/shaman comes in. Most fundamentally, leading a ceremony is about your ability to hold space, to maintain your consciousness through the chaos and bring us all through to the other side by the strength of your awareness and your deep, deep committed compassion. Your being sets the tone for the space that’s created, and it needs to be profoundly safe, conscious and capable.

You don’t have to singlehandedly heal every person who freaks out—this is probably not possible, if you’re guiding the group—but you do need a solid plan and competent assistance to support them. These situations might not arise in your first ceremonies, but it’s just a matter of time before they do—especially with the messed-up, dissociated, confused (often chronically stoned and completely unresourced) people who come seeking not much more than excitement and a good story.

I’ve been fortunate to mainly sit in well-organized ceremonies with serious people. The consistent rule I’ve encountered in successful ongoing groups is that participants are asked to contain their process, to the best of their ability. You can vomit, cry, sob, even scream to an extent, but ongoing public emoting is not condoned, in part because it’s contagious, just as Shrieking Guy spawned Babbling Guy, who eventually triggered the head-banger.

Usually but not always, if your process disturbs others for any length of time, you’ll be removed from the circle and worked with outside. This is not necessarily repression, or punishment: it’s a way of containing the intense energies that can arise, for the benefit of all involved—the freaker-outer, the other group members, the leader, and all visiting spirits and entities.

It’s absolutely possible to work with chaotic individuals within the circle as well. This takes a tremendous amount of presence; the capacity to show up for Shrieking Guy, Babbling Guy and the entire circle simultaneously, and through your deep acceptance of and skill with chaos, to transmit the understanding that everything is indeed okay. It demands 100% acceptance, not control—but to a magnitude and depth that is rare, and generally takes years of experience to cultivate.

The Aftermath

Because I left early the next morning, I didn’t get to check in again with the main actors. Shrieking Guy and Babbling Guy probably showed up giddy and glowing, laughing about the “crazy shit” that happened last night. Ayahuasca’s morning-after high is difficult to quench.

For me, it was a sad and sorry mess that I sat through. My heart hurt for the waste of good intention and heartfelt effort, and the travesty it became. But I also felt strangely happy, because the experience gifted me the clear seeing of a key element in leading ayahuasca ceremonies. It’s not just about good medicine and a cool playlist. It’s about having the guts and maturity to hold a clear, clean space for people willing to voyage to the murkiest depths of their soul in search of healing and wisdom, and the ability to truly support them in their work.


  • Larry says:

    Great article. Thanks for the warnings and wisdom.

    • Thank you, Larry. Glad it spoke to you!

    • Jarred James Harvey says:

      You absolutely rock for writing this….and as you are aware…. An evolving topic of discussion (certainly among us Westerners😉) with a budding crop of people “called” to serve….Than you

      • Thanks, Jared. It was highly cathartic to write!
        To be fair, I think someone can feel genuinely called to serve, and initially lack the capacity to hold a circle—which is not (solely) a mysterious superpower, but something that to a degree can be learned through experience/training. Here’s to more people doing so.

  • Stephen says:

    I’ve enjoyed all of your articles to date, they are filled with deep insight and have provoked interesting lines of personal inquiry. This is the first one I’ve felt genuinely moved to reply to as it dances around questions that have arisen for me in my own life.

    Years ago I had a similar experience on some levels, where one person flipped out and left the retreat in the middle of the ceremony and drove off into a horrendous storm. I was the under-qualified “help” at the time, and I was left traumatized in a way that has taken a lot of time and work to unravel, and I am a stronger person for it. A year ago, I would maybe have had something different to say about my experience- there was a lot of judgment about the quality and capability of the facilitators and the way the ceremony was conducted. There was no contingency plan for a situation like this, not that I was aware of anyway.

    After some time has passed and things have settled my perspective has shifted a bit. I do have a personal preference for a comfortable setting- where there is enough experienced assistants and the container is held tightly and gently where deep healing can occur in many forms without any one persons individual process becomes the energetic spotlight and theme for the evening for everyone involved, triggering chaotic responses in others. For now, there are a few select facilitators I would trust to sit with. I continuously receive invitations to all types of circles, all of which I am sure the intention is pure. Though as this work is so very delicate, for the time being I am extremely particular with the spaces I choose to dive into the deep waters. Personally it is important for me to feel safe enough to fully let go without wondering if that is really going to be okay.

    All of this being said, I feel it may be possible that life has a greater plan beyond what we would consider “an ideal way to maximize healing potential.” I can see these questionable ceremonies as a microcosm of what is happening on the planet right now. I hear over and over again in all kinds of spiritual circles that we need to “heal the planet” and that the world is fucked up and needs to be fixed. It’s possible that life (or spirit, or something greater, whatever you want to call it) is already taking care of that in a way that is more intricate and complex that we could ever understand. It also looks different than what we would think would be the best way to go about it. We have people killing each other in the streets and devoting their lives to chasing happiness by means that will never bring true peace (materialism/capitalism).

    It is easy to say that things “should” be more graceful, and believe me I wish they were too. There are countless tragedies every day that are incredibly painful to hear about. Possibly this is naive of me, but I am playing with the idea that everything that is happening is an expression of evolution and a movement towards greater harmony and understanding, though it certainly does not appear that way at times. And it definitely looks like there is much to be changed before even considering that this is already happening. This means that EVERYTHING is a part of the evolution, including all of the spiritual circles begging for us to heal the planet, and the strong desires in each of us for things to look the way we wish, desires for more coherence and peace, all tragedies, and this article, and ceremonies that could use more support, expertise, and more stable energetic containers.

    In short, I could go as far to say as “there is no problem here, it’s all perfect and part of a much larger divine orchestration” though in saying that I would not say so as a way of bypassing the feelings and the embodied experience of each individual that is affected by sitting in spaces like the one you’ve described. I am not sure how the man that drove off into the night is doing today, and I wonder how the people who you sat with are digesting their experience in that circle. On one hand you may be right, they could be laughing it off the next day. They could also be severely traumatized and not even fully aware of that, not even knowing that they could use some support.

    I have also seen in what one may consider the most pristine of spaces, that some people get handed a riveting experience that triggers them deeply and they are left feeling like there is something wrong with the medicine or the space or the facilitator. Though the night had been gentle and there was seemingly no chaos, I have seen some people spend years integrating some very painful experiences even with expert guidance and follow-up support. It may be a year or longer before some of these people have come to a deeper understanding of what actually happened during that one ceremony they felt was so “wrong”. You have a beautiful article that touches on this.

    I am fortunate that in my traumatic experiences with this medicine, I have sought the guidance I needed and have used these experiences as a way to grow and heal. I feel that the “shitshow” I was a part of was designed so masterfully to tap into trauma from earlier in my life to be felt thoroughly for once. I also see that possibly I have chosen to believe this because it is better than any alternative belief I came up with. I did believe for at least six months after the experience I had that I was “permanently energetically damaged and doomed (whatever that means).” I was daily feeling sensations of terror that I fought hard to suppress and avoid with mental play.

    Is it possible I could have received a more gentle and effective healing of the same trauma in a more experienced group? Maybe.. I will never know. Am I right about anything I’ve written? These are just thoughts possibly worth pondering, as each experience we have in life is an opportunity to gain something. There might be more treasures in this experience beyond seeing more clearly the importance of circles being held in a certain way. To play devils advocate, I wonder if the desire to have these circles being held to certain standards is a way of exerting control to have things play out in a way we are most comfortable with and that align most closely with what are own beliefs and definitions are of “healing”. I have found in many spiritual circles and in my own belief systems that healing is supposed to look a certain way. Sometimes the “shitshow” can touch deeper parts of us that need love than any other alternative. Or maybe that is just a clever way of justifying the experience. Certainly there are deep lessons to be gained from every experience that life has to offer, but that does not mean I will try to tickle an alligators chin or pull a tigers tail.

    Thank you for taking the time to articulate your experiences so that the rest of us can maybe take a shortcut and not have to learn lessons in the same ways! All the best wishes for you and your life and unfolding. And thank you if you have taken the time to read all that I have written, it has been helpful for me to write it all out.. I did not know what would come out when I started typing, I just felt moved to write something.

    • Thank you, Stephen, for your thoughtful comments and taking the time to unpack this further. I agree with many things you say. None of us really control anything, despite our best efforts, and life can indeed have greater plans.

      Strangely/synchronistically, in working in a plant dieta two days ago, I asked to see/understand some further aspects of what I write about in this post. Your comment showed up about five hours later. Clearly the Magical Net is at work! What you write illuminates several other facets of a rather complex subject. Together we see more than we can individually. And we ‘modern’ peeps learning to work with ayahuasca in ways that best serve it, and us, is very much a collective effort.

      I also believe that if we sit through an apparently horrible ceremony, we can work in the aftermath to discern what the message may have been for us. Sometimes it is indeed the case that right place/right time was operating after all, in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

      Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Vishal Mann says:

    “Staying conscious in the release, connected to your body and its energies, is what’s key”

    is the take away for me.

    Great article. Written like a story. I could visualize it all.

    • Yes. Something to aspire to in all of life. Not always easy to do with ayahuasca, but we have the opportunity to work in the aftermath (i.e. integration) and fine-tune this further.

  • does this experience suggest to you that a first time participant should do a half dose ? I did a half dose for my first time and still had trouble holding space….It was a healing experience regardless and connected me with my parents who are physically gone. I want to continue that work and have an opportunity to do it again, in an organized group with veterans of the ceremony ….should I do a half dose again ? My girlfriend wants to try it as well…should she do a half dose ?

    • Often but not always, I see first-timers served a little less, to see how the medicine sits with them. My best suggestion is to consult with the person who’s serving you.

  • Hana says:

    I`ve been wanting to try ayahuasca for such a long time but I am incredibly scared what might unfold. My mother had a psychosis, I`d say a carry a lot of built up trauma from events that occured over the years. What are the odds one might not return from the session, I mean I`m not scared of dying (I think, majority of my family did that already), but rather of “instead of healing the psyche partly, making it even worse than it is”

    • Generally speaking, people with a personal or family history of psychotic disorders and bipolar (true bipolar, not just a casual diagnosis) should avoid ayahuasca. It’s not worth the risk of triggering a break.

      • Hana says:

        Gosh. Thanks for the recommendation to rather stay away… How to access my inner “root” mode then (spent the night trying to recover data from my broken Android phone), that will remain a mystery…

  • Anna says:

    I just had my very own ayahuasca shitshow experience and I’m so happy for it. Our shaman is nothing short of amazing and gifted, but his only rule is not to leave the room. Five of us were first timers. I connected with many in the room and found myself assisting them, coaching them, and even releasing the dark on their behalf, if that makes any sense. I wouldn’t have known how to do that without the support of my shaman who realized what was happening and gave me permission to be vocal and guide people from across the room. He recognized my gift before I even knew I had it.
    As a first timer, I’m still processing and doing my best to integrate following my own intuition; your posts have been super helpful 🙏🏼 Thank you for sharing.

Leave a Reply