By Christopher Lux
“About twenty years ago, I was in Brazil,” recalls singer Sting about his first experience with ayahuasca, the psychedelic Amazonian brew. “I met somebody in Copacabana and my wife Trudie and I got in the back of his car and were mysteriously led out of Rio through the favelas and into the jungle. There was a big church and they handed out this brew. And Trudie and I looked at each other. We saw everybody drinking it so we did too … and then after four minutes something coursing through every cell in my body, like an intelligence searching everything. And I am wired to the entire cosmos. I look at the ground and I see a crack in the ground and inside that crack I see a little flower growing … it’s my brother. Everything. And I realize for the first time this is the only genuine, religious experience I’ve ever had. It is this direct access to the Godhead or whatever you think that is. I have no idea what it is, but there is definitely an intelligence — a higher intelligence — at work in you during this experience.”
In his song “Spirit Voices”, Paul Simon also recounts an ayahuasca experience. “I drank a cup of herbal brew. Then the sweetness in the air combined with the lightness in my head and I heard the jungle breathing in the bamboo.”
The BBC television presenter and indigenous rights advocate Bruce Parry traveled to Peru and had a slightly different experience. Parry described the ayahuasca brew as “thick as molten glass” and “as acrid as battery acid.”
Ken Wilber, American writer and philosopher, has promoted the use of ayahuasca in conjunction with spiritual practices. “Some people using both (psychedelics and a form of spiritual practice) do better than people using either alone … the more altered states you experience, the more it can help you transform.”
Ayahuasca is a combination of an Amazonian vine and dimethyltryptamine, which contains plants that give users psychedelic experiences when combined. Amazonian tribes use ayahuasca, or yage, as an important spiritual and medicinal tool.
Users of ayahuasca have reported having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose in life, the true nature of the universe, and their future plans. An abundance of positive life changes have been reported after consuming ayahuasca during ceremonies.
Vomiting sometimes follows the use of ayahuasca, and the purging is considered by many shamans and experienced users to be an essential part of the experience. Some report purging in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and hot and cold flashes. For them, this represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life.
Ayahuasca tourism in South America has increased in recent years in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil, with retreats offering the traditional indigenous brew.
Many tourists and expats in the Cuenca area have gone through the ceremony, most of the them in the jungles to the east and southeast of the city (see video below).
The ayahuasca experience has also been gaining popularity outside of South America with retreat centers opening in North America and Europe. The centers appeal to those who wish to experience the Amazonian tradition without traveling to another continent. Often, the ceremonies in the retreats are are conducted by non-shamans, claiming to have been trained by shamans.
Not all ayahuasca experiences are good, whether in the Amazon or in elsewhere.
Earlier this month, a Cambridge University graduate and London financier was killed at a spiritual retreat in the Peruvian Amazon by a friend, after taking ayahuasca.
In 2012, a Peruvian shaman admitted to police that he and two other men had buried the body of Kyle Nolan to cover up his death during an ayahuasca spiritual retreat. The U.S. teenager paid more than $2,000 in cash to take part in the ritual. The shaman told police that Nolan took too much ayahuasca.
Then, in 2014, the body of a British teenager was found by the road in a Colombian forest, after he took part in what was advertised to tourists as a “shaman experience.” Henry Miller’s family said that he took part in a local tribal ritual, drinking the herbal concoction and apparently suffering a fatal reaction to the hallucinogenic infusion. His body was found dumped by a road near the city of Mocoa, close to the Ecuadorian border.
It’s unclear how ayahuasca can kill someone. According to information provided by Gaia Sagrada Eco-Community and Retreat Center outside of Cuenca, “When deaths are connected to ayahuasca, it is normally because the shaman has mixed other substances into the medicine that should not be there, sometimes in order to make the medicine stronger if it is weak, and it is not from the ayahuasca itself. It is what they mix into it sometimes that is dangerous, but we don’t allow that.”
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Many shamanic centers require participants to cleanse their bodies for several months before taking ayahuasca.
Dharma Mystical Tours offers spiritual and healing retreats around the world with the objective “to help others to connect with their inner self, connect with Mother Earth and with the Divine, so that we can all live in harmony with each other and the nature and live a healthy and meaningful and happy life whilst fulfilling our divine purpose of being here.”
In Ecuador, Dharma Mythical Tours has ayahuasca retreats in Olon on the coast, the Yunguilla Valley near Cuenca, and Vilcabamaba near Loja. The retreats are designed to provide “a sacred space of healing and learning. The ceremonies offered are suitable for all ages and are adapted for urban westerners.”
To prevent negative effects and to promote positive outcomes, retreat centers like these have guidelines that users must follow before and after the ceremony. Examples include a diet three days before and after the ceremony. The diet prohibits pork or spicy foods as well as drugs or alcohol. It might also include a period of sexual abstinence or the exclusion of women from the ceremony during menstrual periods.
It is also advised that people do not use other drugs such as marijuana within a week of the ceremony. According to Dharma Mythical Tours’ website, one should not participate in the ayahuasca ceremony if they: have serious heart illnesses, have epilepsy, suffer from hypertension, suffer from schizophrenia, take medication for depression, are pregnant, or use drugs like cocaine or heroine.
“The most important thing,” Dharma Mystical Tours says, “is that you should not have ayahuasca if you think this is just a psychedelic trip, as you do not have an idea of the sacredness of the dimension you will be entering into.”