Ayahuasca visions, despite their glamorous reputation, are not all light and love—they can be shockingly dark and downright disgusting. Sometimes people feel shame about what they experienced in ceremony, or in the surprisingly intense times that can arise afterwards.
Working as an integration therapist, here’s what I find myself saying, over and over again: “What you’re experiencing in the aftermath of your retreat is part of the process. The dark material that’s arising, the fear, the anxiety, the pain—all this is medicine work.” And: “You don’t need to judge yourself for having had dark visions. Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture of what might be happening.”
Ayahuasca can unearth far more than you knew was possible when you blithely drank that first cup. For many, it instigates a long-term process of change. You‘ve entered the vortex, usually unwittingly (how could you possibly have known what was in store for you?) and, post-ceremony, you’re moving through that rebirth canal for a long time.
Abreaction is the fancy psychological term for it, the expression and release of repressed emotion. This kind of unexpected upwelling happens a lot in the aftermath of ayahuasca—it’s part of the integration process. If you’ve cultivated capacity in your body for intense emotion, it’s usually not a problem. But few of us have done so, and as a result I’m working with these abreactions in a lot of people . . .
People who are having strange dreams, uncanny downloads and teachings, bizarre energetic experiences and terrifyingly powerful emotions months after their ceremonies. I call this process “Ayahuasca: the Extended Release Version.” It’s as if the medicine works overtime in the time following a retreat to maximize its impact and get as much work done as possible.
Sometimes this walk on the wild side proves to be a bit too extreme. Unseen cracks in the psyche can widen, dropping someone into depersonalization/derealization, or, very rarely full-on psychosis (anti-psychotic meds can be helpful here).
Usually, though, the aftermath is intense but workable. Good integration support can help you get the most out of your ayahuasca experience, anchoring what happened in a sense of meaning that’s invaluable in fully working through the material so that you can move forward.
Old Feelings Unearthed
In an integration session I often like to explore the possibility that the unusual degree of fear and anxiety someone is experiencing weeks or months after their ceremonies might actually belong to them, and are not just randomly created by the medicine.
What if, I ask, these uncomfortable feelings emerging are your own emotions from long ago, shoved down into the unconscious because they were too overwhelming for your child self to fully experience at the time, now arising to be cleared out? You asked for healing. Unpleasant as it may be, is it possible that this is how it’s manifesting for you? And, if this is the case—how can we work with it?
Ayahuasca’s healing doesn’t come in the way people expect. Rarely does it immediately restore someone to complete and permanent health, be it physical, emotional or mental. Those widely reported visions of light and bliss are just a fraction of the experiences it can trigger.
Thus the rueful comment I often hear—“It wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be.” But almost always, when we check into their original intentions and correlate these with what they received, there’s a kinky and yet undeniable correspondence. Ayahuasca seems to have a dark sense of humor.
It’s as if drinking the medicine stirs the pot, triggering the slow emergence into consciousness of some very dark stuff. Well after the final ceremony is over, this material can emerge from the psyche in the form of inexplicable feelings or moods, overwhelming emotions, sensations, strange dreams or intuitions. I believe that this is part of the healing process, and it’s one reason why conscious integration work is vital—bringing the material to full consciousness, with courage and compassion.
The process isn’t easy, or fun. But it can be redemptive. To fully feel what your baby self or child self felt, to bring those repressed feelings into awareness, is a necessary part of releasing them. Release doesn’t mean “getting rid of.” Rather, it signifies surrender—a relinquishing of old defenses that allows honest acknowledgement of both what was, and what is. It’s the difference between trying to get over something, and actually getting through it. Only this last can come to completion.
The Hell of Self-Judgment
“Why is everyone else here having such great experiences, flying with spirits and talking with God, while I’m stuck in a hell realm, dying over and over again? Could it be that the medicine doesn’t like me?”
Fairly often I hear people report they felt ashamed of what they experienced in a ceremony. Maybe the morning-after sharing circle turned into such a love-‘n-light-fest that it felt inappropriate to bring up their darker encounter. Sometimes they’re actively shamed by fellow retreat members or facilitators, who unhelpfully suggest that their vibration is low or they’re “stuck” in their “ego.”
When you judge the material that arises in a ceremony, you’re applying dualistic thinking to a radically non-dual experience. To invite the psyche to open up, then label the material that emerges as “bad,” is as counterproductive as driving a car with the brakes on.
By criticizing yourself for having those experiences (Why are other people having such a great time? I must be doing it wrong. Maybe I’m an inferior soul) you’re digging yourself deeper into the hole of self-rejection. (Which, of course, may be the exact obscuration arising to be cleaned!) To see the unwanted content that arises as evidence of your inadequacy is really just another ego trip—this time the perversely low-self-esteem ego identification.
Instead, you can work to see what emerges, in ceremony or after, as simply Stuff Coming Up. The fear, the hate, the anger, the disgusting visions, have all been part of the human experience for as long as we’ve been on this planet. You don’t need to internalize it or identify with it. You can, however, acknowledge it. See it. Greet it, and even honor it. Use it in an open and honest process of self-inquiry that takes courage, stamina and insight.
And if you can’t do that—because this kind of objectivity is sometimes impossible—then just forgive it all. Forgive the darkness, and yourself for struggling with the rough stuff that’s coming up, in ceremony and beyond. For having an ego and being an imperfect and afraid human.
“I Must Be Bad”
When we have a dark experience, in ceremony or in life, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion “This is bad; therefore, I must be bad.” This is exactly what children do. When bad things (= trauma) happen, the child will invariably conclude “I am bad.”
As in: My mother constantly berates me, or my father molests me, and it’s too terrifying to clearly see that actually they are responsible. If my main caretakers, the people charged with keeping me alive, are doing bad things, then I’m in real trouble. Better to internalize it, which gives me at least the illusion of control.
One of the macabre twists of trauma is how, once internalized, the effects stick for decades past the particular event. Thus Peter Levine’s dictum: Trauma is not in the event itself, but in the nervous system’s response to it. The neurological overwhelm of trauma generates so many incapacitating illusions: I’m lacking. I’m damaged. I’m unlovable. There’s something wrong with me.
And an infinitude more. Painful as these beliefs are, they’re preferable to the brutal truth that “My mother is mentally imbalanced” or “My father doesn’t value who I am.” The child is incapable of seeing this. It takes an adult to go back, sometimes many years later, and acknowledge the truth—and in the process retrieve lost fragments of his or her soul.
Ayahuasca is superb at shining the light of truth on early experiences. It can unearth previously unremembered good things. Or it can reveal that things really were as bad as you feared, sometimes way worse than you dared to let yourself see.
Being both compassionate and wise, the medicine doesn’t allow us to fall into blame (although we can go there if we really, really want). In a parallel display, it can also show the suffering that created our abuser, illuminating a bigger picture to which the only possible response is compassion.
Coming through this intricate mindfuck and retrieving the entirety of our soul is part of waking up. The human race has a lot of waking up to do, releasing the innumerable traumas that overwhelmed our ancestors, our parents, our selves, all people around the globe. We’re all in this boat of messed-up-yet-somehow-divine human-beingness together.
Redemption and Release
I believe that the healing triggered by ayahuasca is work we’re doing for ourselves, sure—but also sometimes for the collective. The dark material that comes up in a ceremony to be cleared is not always ours personally, but the clearing of it benefits us, and the whole. To put it another way, some of us lightworkers specialize in releasing the dark, in ways that differ from those who are blessed with shining the light.
It takes both of these and so much more to clean out the layers of suffering from our ancestry, our karma, our own past experiences—from human history. Evolution, like healing, is by no means a linear emergence into the light, but rather a spiraling journey through layer after layer of repressed experiences that can only be liberated by the light of consciousness. Plant medicine is here to help us with this mighty task, both the visionary plants like ayahuasca, San Pedro, psilocybin, iboga, and the lesser-known plant teachers of dieta.
To understand that the darkness you’re dealing with is not just personal, and that your inner work has meaning that extends to the collective, can be hugely redemptive, and boost your courage in what feels like dark times. We’re all in this together, with different roles to play, all of them valuable. And over time we can find that the darkness we’re so painfully making our way through doesn’t obscure the light, so much as defines it.