Ayahuasca Has a Mind of Its Own

I have at least some experience with almost all the well-known psychedelics, and extensive experience with some. Among other experiences, I was a frequent participant in Native American Church peyote prayer ceremonies for 12 years until a couple of the main roadmen passed away. I’ve also done around 40 ayahuasca ceremonies in varying containers over a 30-year span.

There’s something unique and strange about ayahuasca among these other sacraments. Most other psychedelics have, in my experience and observation, a more or less consistent onset timeline and dose-related strength of effect for the same person from the same batch. For example, depending on admixtures—like Syrian Rue, which is showing up more these days—psilocybin mushrooms may take 30 to 60 minutes to take full effect. Peyote is generally consistent in that way too.

But my own experience with ayahuasca as well as stories I’ve heard from others paints a wildly different picture. Ayahuasca seems to be able to completely override any kind of biological constraints. Large men can have extremely intense experiences on small doses. Diminuitive women sometimes have little or no effect from large doses. “She” seems to decide how and when she will meet with any particular individual. 

A couple of anecdotes for the evidence dock.

I was attending a ceremony in the Amazonian shamanic style led by a man I’ll call Metta, who was trained by a master Peruvian ayahuasquero. For close to three hours after drinking the bitter brew I felt no effect whatsoever, not even an upset stomach as so often happens with ayahuasca. Only then did I remember that Metta had said we could come up for more. I went over, sat in front of him and told him about my non-experience experience. He lit a mapacho cigarette—a species of tobacco from South America that is commonly used for healing purposes—and blew the smoke over the top of my head. 
Then he turned to his side to fill a small glass from a liter-sized plastic bottle of dark, viscuous liquid. The second he made that move I suddenly felt an unstoppable need to vomit immediately. I asked for his bucket, vomited in front of him (yes, embarrassing), then looked down to see he had finished pouring the glass and had placed it in front of me. I whispered, “I don’t think I could drink that right now” and he whispered back, “I don’t think you’ll need to.”

I returned to my mattress and within a minute or less my no-effect experience had blossomed into a full-on powerful ayahuasca journey. How is that possible? When I’ve told that story to others, I’ve heard similar reports. A couple of people told me they didn’t experience any effect until five hours later as the ayahuasquero was closing the ceremony and the rest of the participants were drifting off into varying stages of sleep, at which point the journey began intensely and continued for hours like most aya journeys.

Another offering for the evidence dock. 

I was in Iquitos, Peru in 2011 for a conference that included three days for doing ceremonies out in the surrounding jungle and agriculture country with local ayahuasqueros. I did all three at Nihue Rao with Ricardo Amaringo. The second one of those was the most powerful and long-lasting aya journey I’ve ever taken. I wasn’t going to drink any on the third night two days later, but decided to have a small dose, about 1/4 of the dose from two nights before. After the hour or so it most commonly takes for the medicine to reach full effect, there was only a very gentle, barely perceptible effect. I thought to myself, “Nice, I’m getting off easy tonight. I’ll fall asleep by midnight and get a good sleep.”

Meanwhile, Ricardo was calling each participant individually to come across the maloca (yurt) for him to sing an ícaro (medicine song.) I sat down in front of him. He blew some mapacho smoke over my head and then sang an ícaro to me. Within two minutes of plunking myself back down on my mattress the intensity suddenly blasted off from about a 1 on a scale of 10, to an 8, almost as intense as the previous journey that consisted of 4 times the dosage.

During the morning-after sharing session, I told Ricardo about that and asked if his ícaro had something to do with it. He replied that of course, these songs are spirits that come to him saying “I’m the ícaro for this person right now.”

And one more quick one to pile the evidence on.

At that same conference in Iquitos three years previous in 2008, I got friendly with Wilson. By the end of the conference Wilson was so excited by the possibilities he decided to come back soon after, stay for a month, and drink aya every night. He did that and wrote me when he got back to the U.S. On the 13th night of nightly sessions, he got a message from the sacrament saying, “Wilson, go home and integrate all this.” Beyond that brief pronouncement there was no effect whatsoever that night.Mysterious, no? These experiences and no doubt many thousands more argue for the existence of a sentient spirit animating the ayahuasca medicine. That would (and might) be a topic for another time. It’s a relevant issue in the real world with millions of people now drinking ayahuasca. These tales also support the view that careful, experienced guidance is important in working with medicines like these that can soften our habitual barriers and open channels to what Terence McKenna once called “the angel- and demon-haunted realms.” 

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