Ayahuasca illuminates dark and light in equal measure, unleashing both terror and bliss, often in the same night, sometimes in the same breath. Ultimately, if you can open to whatever arises with a degree of equanimity and assimilate it over time, the practice can lead to a grounded wholeness that’s Tantric in its depth and completeness. It all depends on how deeply you do your share of the work.
The medicine stirs the pot, bringing everything you’ve buried up onto center stage. All those terrible overwhelming experiences you couldn’t bear at the time will eventually rise up into consciousness to be felt. Digested. And released.
The experience is frequently intense enough to trigger Big Fear. I often hear people blame “ego” for their inability to surrender in ceremony, but more and more I think it may simply be the activation of the survival instinct, the biologically hard-wired imperative within each of us to live that doesn’t surrender lightly in the face of perceived threat. Intense experience can trigger this reflex, particularly for those of us with trauma histories. Then we’re left to thrash out the past on the mat or into the bucket, through this medicine of direct experience.
The divine one encounters in medicine work is not just blissful and ethereal: it can also be overwhelming, and scary as shit. When you cross the threshold into numinous experience, you give up the ability to pick and choose, to filter for only “good” experiences. In working with ayahuasca, as in working with the unconscious, you can’t control which Gods may drop in for a visit.
Walking the Poison Path
One aspect of integration involves embracing all the pain and toxicity you may be carrying, coming to fully understand and transmute it. This extraordinarily rapid route to liberation is known in esoteric traditions as the Poison Path.
Within the Western traditions of alchemy and magic, the Poison Path appears as occult herbalism and witchcraft. European witches of old anointed their broomsticks with ointments of poisonous plants that launched them into flight on hallucinatory journeys.
In Eastern Tantra, the Poison Path is likened to the way the peacock feasts on venomous snakes, transforming their toxicity into its gorgeous plumage. The metaphor conveys the ability of the adept to feel deeply and completely into disturbing emotions, liberating their primal energy into pure wisdom.
“In poison there is physic.”—Shakespeare
Why the Poison Path? Some of us appear to be wired for extreme experiences. When we confront and move through their intensity (this means digesting the content, not just seeing it) we grow in strength and wisdom.
As we learn to open to the dreadful and the blissful alike without being overwhelmed, we expand our capacity to tolerate intense experience, regardless of content. A similar process occurs in Somatic Experiencing, through working with nervous system activation and settling. The same kind of expansion and transmutation takes place in Buddhist meditations on the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.
Ayahuasca shines a light on everything repressed or forgotten in the psyche. Working with this takes a willingness to embrace one’s shadow, to turn towards the pain, not away from it—and in this process, to transmute it.
Of course you don’t have to drink ayahuasca to do this kind of deep work: this territory is traversed by alchemists, witches, meditators and depth psychotherapists, among others. Still, ayahuasca + integration work can be a powerful accelerator of growth in making the unconscious conscious.
Trust Comes From Experience
So yes, ayahuasca is a vehicle on the Poison Path. It’s a rough ride sometimes. I work with a fair amount of people blown away by the intensity of their experiences in ceremony. It can feel like you’re being torn to pieces—especially if you’re holding stuff in your body.
Me, I have a lot of holding, contraction wired into my body by early trauma. The initial stage of almost every ceremony for me, as the medicine starts to come on, has an “Oh no” quality to it. Why am I doing this? I ask myself each time, simultaneously knowing how the sequence will play out and I will end up better and stronger for it. But in some moments it’s not fun. I laughed out loud when an ex-addict friend expressed the fear he would crave increasing amounts of ayahuasca: it’s not something you ever really long to drink again.
My own experience has been hard-earned. The difference is that now, if the storm hits, I know how to ride it out. I know, deeply, in my bones, that it’s a stage that will pass, and I can more or less navigate, even when my spirit’s floating upside down in some gravity-free astral zone. Sometimes I can even bear rueful witness to how extremely ripped I am.
Ayahuasca once asked me in ceremony, a bit impatient with my cringing: Have I ever hurt you? And I had to honestly answer No. No, I have never been damaged by ayahuasca. I have always been better off following a ceremony, even the really hard ones. I always learn something; I always see something —usually much more than one something—and I always come out cleaner.
Through experience, I’ve learned to trust the process. But I didn’t have that degree of trust to rely upon in the beginning. Trust comes from personal experience, and experience takes time. It can’t be willed; it can only be earned.
Fear, and Courage
That’s where courage comes in. Looking around at the new souls in a circle, I’m always deeply moved by the raw courage on display. You could call it foolhardiness, or maybe the innocence of diving into unknown and very deep waters—but it’s equally true that at the end of a ceremony, the vast majority of people are smiling, relieved, inspired and intact. It was so worth it, is the sentiment I hear regularly at the end of a hard night. There’s a palpable feeling of relief, of, “I made it to the other side”—and that the other side is really good.
Ayahuasca work requires a tremendous amount of courage—and this is not the same as the absence of fear. Complete fearlessness is really just ignorance. Courage consists of feeling the fear, and doing it anyway.
To be aware of your fear and your courage, which ultimately rests on your commitment to doing your work—that’s integrity. To feel the fear, and go in anyway. To allow the fear to arise and unfold in full consciousness, and commit to riding the waves all the way through, is an exquisite act of healing that ayahuasca work delivers you to, over and over again.
Each time you go into a ceremony, you can offer up all the crossed wires in your nervous system, all the imprints of trauma you carry, to release in the present moment, with a full commitment to clearing this out. So that you can show up more and more fully as your unique self, liberated from the energetic baggage of the past (which includes your ancestral and karmic lineages, as well as all human suffering throughout history). It’s another pathway into the Magnum Opus, the Great Work, the alchemy of human healing.