WTF, Ayahuasca?!

Often, too often nowadays, people expect ayahuasca to be some sort of magical potion, instantly reformatting them into a completely healed state. When this doesn’t happen, they feel resentful, even betrayed: “I did the work, I showed up—why did it do this to me?” This can easily segue into the very common plaint of individuals wrestling with unrecognized trauma: “What’s wrong with me?”

I’m seeing this kind of reaction more and more lately, due in part to the rapidly spreading social understanding that psychedelics in general and ayahuasca in particular can heal. This new consensus does not, yet, have much nuance in terms of discussing exactly how this healing process can work: that it can be messy and complicated; that it doesn’t always feel good; that it may take a considerable amount of time; that it’s not for everybody. This new consensus doesn’t, yet, include a warning label.

But what if it did?

Warning: Contains Ayahuasca

I often joke with clients that ayahuasca needs to come with a warning label. After all, these appear on toys, aspirin, plastic bags—things much more innocuous than this particular substance.

I like to daydream that this warning label would be Very Long. It would contain lots of fine print. It might say something like: WARNING: This substance may bring up your deepest stuff, during the ceremony, or weeks later (few anticipate the “later” part of the equation).

Let me riff on this a bit more. How about:

WARNING: This medicine teaches through deep contrast and intense extremes. You may experience Hell and Heaven, bliss and terror, in a single night. Enter with courage and clear intention.

WARNING: Ayahuasca shines a light on your shadow—a very bright light that may trigger unwanted feelings of pain, despair, and hopelessness.

WARNING: This medicine has the power to go down to the root of your being and bring up psychic material that you haven’t yet felt, acknowledged, or known.

Ayahuasca mines the unconscious, bringing unseen material up into the light. This does not always emerge in the form of coherent memories sequenced to current space-time. Fragmented feelings, disjointed images, and frustrated confusion can be part of the experience, and require time and attention to fully integrate.

The basic formula at play here is: you have to see it for it to be released. Even more importantly, you have to feel it. You Do Not Pass Go until you redeem the locked-away feelings from jail. The frozen sediment of past trauma needs to be liquified into present experience, so that it can flow through and out of your body—not in a “get-rid-of-it” kind of way, but in a deep, sincere, humble acknowledgement of its existence. The magic of the medicine (indeed, the magic of all healing) works in precisely this way.

Paradox Palace

WARNING: This medicine is inherently paradoxical, and works in ways you may not expect. It may wound in the interest of healing.

Contrast ayahuasca’s enigmatic M. O. with that of the quintessential medicine of modern times, antidepressants (currently taken by something like 15% percent of U.S. adults).

I’ve witnessed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication at work in therapy clients, and am quick to acknowledge that they can be incredibly valuable, giving a person a stable platform from which to function—sometimes for the first time in a very long time. In many cases, though, I believe they’re over-prescribed. Repeatedly I would hear clients tell me that the pills reduced their unwanted feelings, but they also blunted their joy, their grief, their full range of emotions—not to mention their libidos.

One woman described how antidepressants seemed to put a lid on all her emotions. Ayahuasca works in the exact opposite way, by bringing up unfelt and unwanted feelings. It does this in the interest of healing, I always hasten to say. It’s not doing this to torture you. This is part of its paradoxical nature.

Perhaps this is an alchemical reason why antidepressants don’t jibe with psychedelics. There are chemical contraindications involved as well, but typically the magic is blunted if you pair psychedelics with antid’s. The downward/shutting down force and the upward/opening up dynamic seem to cancel each other out.

Hypersensitivity and Existential Dangers

WARNING: May induce hypersensitivity

WARNING: May completely dismantle your worldview

WARNING: May trigger an existential crisis

After a series of ceremonies strips away the veneer of socialization and self-deception and brings the deep dark stuff into the light, you can become so much more sensitive to stimuli. You might find yourself overwhelmed by the volume of a movie soundtrack, or by the relatively small quantities of alcohol, weed, or coffee that you used to happily ingest. Old friends suddenly seem like people you really don’t want to hang out with any more.

This kind of situation is understandably confusing, but it can be a good thing. Sensitivity is ultimately a gift more than a problem. You’re becoming attuned to more subtle levels of reality. Your choice what you do with it. You can likely override it and head straight back into old patterns of behavior—or you can take the hint, and the opportunity, to upgrade your life.

Just a few steps further down that line, an ayahuasca journey can be an entry point to an existential crisis. What’s the meaning of it all? Who am I, really? Such questions are great prompts for meditating on the empty nature of reality, but I don’t recommend pursuing them unless you’re stable and grounded. If you’re feeling alienated to any degree, DMT-related substances like ayahuasca offer a number of different rabbit holes to fall down into, seldom to good effect. To enter the gaping maw of Emptiness is truly terrifying.

The Alchemy of Light and Dark

Ayahuasca is often said to bring in light. Inevitably, this light brings up the dark (“when light is made, so is the shadow,” said Carl Jung). And the brighter the light, the bigger the shadow.

When the light comes in, the stuff comes up. Enlightenment experiences classically trigger dark nights of the soul. This is built into the story. It’s not an error, or a mistake, or a personal failing —or a failing on the part of ayahuasca. Expansion is inevitably followed by contraction, release by tightening. It’s a birth process going on here. Knowing this, we can relax into the process more easily. The issue is not whether this happens, but how we navigate through it.

One of the ways I support people with integration is by helping them correlate what they’ve received with their original intentions. Ayahuasca typically goes straight down to the root, to bring up the most important thing for healing. Often, this is exactly what seems to be blocking you in the present moment.

Sometimes we play the “What-If” game. What if what you saw, felt, experienced was a direct answer to your request? How would it make sense? What if your root wound got touched on, painfully, as a part of healing? What if the unwanted feelings you’re wrestling with are actually the next step—not pushing them away or climbing over them, but actually feeling them?

So: What if your complete lack of any experience in five ayahuasca ceremonies was skillfully designed to make you feel your core Mother wound of rejection?

What if the grotesque visions of meaningless insanity that arose in your night was a direct response to your query on if it was okay to have an ego—you were being shown what it’s like to live without one, in a terrifyingly meaningless and disconnected state?

What if the unwanted fears you’re currently struggling with are not obstacles, but the exact next steps needed on your path, asking for redemption?

Very often at some point someone will say, “Oh, I see what I got. I just thought it would work in a different way.” (“I thought it would be like the pulsing cartoon visions they show on YouTube videos about ayahuasca,” someone ruefully commented.)

A Brutal Surrender

WARNING: May induce complete surrender, not in the way that you expect.

A friend related to me the story of going into an early ceremony, excitedly thinking, “I’m gonna meet the Mother, I’ll surrender to her fully, it’ll be so beautiful.” He had it all planned out. Then the medicine hit, and he saw to his horror that he was tied down to a set of railroad tracks, and ayahuasca was inexorably bearing down upon him in the form of a great locomotive. “Nonnononono!” he was silently screaming. “I was going to surrender to you! This is not the way it’s supposed to be!”

We laughed hard over that one. As someone else put it, crouching over the bucket in her first ceremony: “This is not the surrender I had in mind.”

That’s the thing about surrender. It can’t be willed, pre-planned, or controlled (that’s why it’s called surrender). It can only arise authentically from the core of your being as a spontaneous act.

Love to hear your suggestions for warning labels—you can share in the comments below.

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