Although my main practice is the peyote prayer meetings of the Native American Church, the researcher in me is drawn to periodically explore the teachings of other medicines as well. I have a particular fondness and respect for the ayahuasca medicine. For those unfamiliar with ayahuasca, there is no shortage of information online and in books on the pharmacology, history, and current use of this Amazonian brew. There’s also a chapter on ayahuasca in my book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality (O Books, Nov. 2010.) In that chapter I give a more detailed description of the brew, its effects, and its ritual use. Suffice it to say here that the brew is made from a combination of at least two plants which work in tandem to produce the psychoactive effects.
Ayahuasca is very close to my heart. I’ve imbibed it ten times as of this writing. Though I suspect I’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential, I have already had a number of very powerful and beautiful experiences with the brew. I’m feeling especially inspired at the moment since I recently participated in a weekend event that included two consecutive nights of drinking ayahuasca. I believe I’m beginning to understand its genius.
The ceremony leader, also referred to as the shaman, the curandero, or the ayahuasquero, plays a very important role in the success of the work. The man guiding this particular weekend event, Ronin Niwe, encouraged the participants to understand that ayahuasca will always relate appropriately to each drinker. It will show you where you are at that moment. In that sense it’s like an enlightened Buddhist teacher, who, traditional teachings say, functions as a clear mirror to the student.
Again, for those unfamiliar with ayahuasca and its cultural context, this suggests a living presence of some sort. Those experienced with the plant, and especially the indigenous people of the Amazon who’ve been using it since who knows when, will readily say that indeed, this is the case. Ayahuasca is described as a spirit, a being. It’s often, but not always, experienced as a feminine spirit, and also a serpentine entity.
Ronin was a good communicator and a good listener. He encouraged us to express our intentions. What did we want from the experience? What did we need help with in our lives? In the intention-setting discussion that immediately preceded the drinking of the brew, Ronin worked with each participant to hone his¹ intentions until they were clear and uncluttered.
According to Ronin, the ayahuasca spirit will respond to that intention during the several hours of one’s time in her embrace. This appeared to be true in my own situation and was also confirmed by the others in the sharing sessions that were held in the morning after each encounter with the medicine. Though it wasn’t always clear to each of us at first, with some probing and nudging by Ronin, for most of us it gradually became clear that the plant spirit had indeed responded to our intentional requests.
I’m fascinated by the deep intelligence and creativity of ayahuasca in this respect. Ronin cautioned us to enter the experience with intention but not expectation. As the weekend progressed it became increasingly clear to me how we tend to clutter our minds with analysis and speculation. Ayahuasca appears to cut to the chase, to hone directly in on the heart of the matter. If you have a fixed idea about how she will respond, you may well miss the actual teaching or healing. In fact, it looks like she often doesn’t even require us to consciously realize what has happened. Ayahuasqueros will often tell you she is a healer and that she does her work regardless of how much we recognize and understand what is occurring.
Ronin reminded us that it’s all energy. When we can tune in directly to the energies we’re working with, or that are working us over, we can better align ourselves with ayahuasca’s work. Near the end of one of the ceremonies, as I lay reflecting while the medicine gradually let me go, I sometimes thought of the plant spirit as a poet. It doesn’t necessarily ‘think’ in the rational, left-brain style that so many humans do. It can teach in a great variety of ways: feelings, memories, visions, physical healing through purging, ferocious blasts of energy, gentle invitations to inner stillness, contact with entities . . . if you’re reading this and you’ve had some experience with ayahuasca, I’m sure you could add your own shortlist of ways that she teaches and heals.
I want to point out that, as I understand it, the ayahuasca spirit doesn’t do the work for you. That may be self-evident to many. I bring it up because—and I know this from personal experience too—there’s a tendency for many of us to bring along what Buddhist teachings call a theistic mindset when working with ayahuasca. Theism is described as the illusion that anything outside of ourselves can save us, as it were. The thinking, generally not conscious, is that if we acquire the ‘object’ of our desires, we will feel better. The object of our desires can run from longing for an ice-cream cone all the way to what my old Buddhist teacher labeled “spiritual materialism,”² where we harbor the illusion that the teachings, the practices, and in this case the medicine itself, can save us.
The way I understand ayahuasca’s work at this stage of my education is that it can shine a light on previously hidden knowledge at almost endless levels, from the intensely personal to the universal. As I said earlier, the medicine spirit appears to respond directly to our sincere requests and intentions. If we can surrender to it, the medicine can help us release old wounds, open our hearts, and show us new possibilities. The important qualifier here—and again, I say this based on years of experience with this and other healing/teaching medicines—is that the intensified, clarified condition brought on by the medicine tends to fade back to one’s normal equilibrium state. She gives us the information, she shows us the possibilities, then she leaves us with the ongoing responsibility, and the choice of course, of bringing the learning onto our daily walk.
An example of this for me in these recent ceremonies relates to my request for help in calming my mind. I had had a lot going on in the months prior and for whatever reasons, my normally active mind had been racier than at other times. I spoke to the medicine spirit and asked her to help me tame this wild mind. She appeared to respond to that intention. During both of the ceremonies, and especially the second one, I experienced moments of deep stillness and peace, sometimes accompanied by visions representing and emanating that peaceful energy.
But then I didn’t get to walk away dusting off my hands and saying, okay, we’ve got that one taken care of. In the weeks following, I noticed the busy mind trying to take over the workshop again. What has shifted perhaps is the realization and recollection that that bedrock, unconditioned peaceful place is always there and can be accessed, or surrendered to. It’s as though the medicine spirit is saying, “Okay, here’s what’s possible, it’s real, and you yourself have the tools to open to that understanding and manifest it in your life.”
In the chapter on ayahuasca in my book I mentioned earlier, I’ve gone into some detail on the crucial issue of how to nurture this and other medicine spirit paths as they become better known and spread their influence. I’d also refer you to the interview I did with Ronin Niwe that’s posted on this site both as an audio clip and in text form. I want to say here that if the spread of ayahuasca is done right, with great respect and knowledge, I believe it can help a great many people and can be instrumental in ushering in the consciousness transformation so urgently needed on this planet. It does require courage and there are definitely people who are not ready for this kind of healing and awakening work. However, I’ve certainly seen a lot of—how to describe them?—regular, fairly ordinary people who have drank and benefitted from ayahuasca.
Until the use of ayahuasca—along with other similar medicines—is much better understood and accepted in the mainstream cultures, this growth will be primarily like that of a mushroom that extends itself through a mycelial network just below the surface. At this point in that growth process it’s up to each interested person to find his or her own way to make contact with this loose network. If I could offer any helpful advice at all to people not yet connected, perhaps it would be to clearly state your intentions to the universe. Doing some study and research on the internet and via books would also bolster the likelihood of realizing the intention.
As always, I offer these thoughts in the spirit of the prayer for the healing of the planet and all that implies. And also as always, I warmly invite comments and questions.
1. Given the painful history of male domination on the planet, it’s unfortunate that our personal pronouns default to the male gender. In this case, it really was all men. Five of the ten participants were involved with each other in a men’s group. Since they had presumably already ploughed some ground together, the result was that the level of sharing very quickly dove beneath the surface to reveal deeply personal concerns. I believe this in turn influenced the ayahuasca experience, to some degree at least, since by the time we drank the medicine, our intentions had all been laid out nakedly.
2. I’m referring to Chögyam Trungpa, a brilliant and influential Tibetan Buddhist teacher. One of his books is titled Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.