As a teenager decades ago, I read about a fascinating substance called DMT, that exists in many plants and even in the human body, which can be used to achieve extraordinary experiences. I had felt called to try ayahuasca (a plant based drink that contains DMT) for nearly 25 years. I've even had several email exchanges years ago with a leading DMT researcher (Dr. Rick Strassman, University of New Mexico). So it is something that has been on my bucket list for a very long time, and not something that just came up recently due to the fact that ayahuasca has gained a bit of popularity among educated, professionals and academics. Many studies have recently been published on ayahuasca, which is showing potential for therapeutic uses (including curing depression, and addictions), and demonstrating an excellent safety record (when precautions/contraindications are followed). There are two decent youtube videos I’d recommend for more information about what ayahuasca is and how it affects the brain:
Here is a short informative video from ASAP Science called “Your Brain On Ayahuasca”:
And this is a good Ted Talk on the subject from an entomologist/ecologist. You can skip the first 5 minutes of unnecessary intro if you want to cut to the chase.
"Definitely the most terrifying, and exciting, event of my life"
He talks about the psychological healing aspects which many experience, as well as a very honest and in depth description of the entire event (good and bad).
One comment left on the above video caught my eye:
"I have done this once myself in Costa Rica, and I can honestly say that this is a shortcut, it's a shortcut to god, it's a shortcut to Nirvana, to knowledge about yourself and our world, universe, society. Many will say that you should achieve this by yourself through hard work, meditation, etc. Sure, you can. If you can do it, great. Go sit under a tree for 7 years meditating until you reach this state. However. For many, like me, who want to know now, who understand that life is short and you will never know when your existence will dissipate, I suggest this to you. If you're not happy today, if you feel incomplete, if you feel like something is inherently wrong in our society, then I would suggest this. This was the most beautiful and amazing experience I've ever had in my life. This isn't from a "I just did a drug" experience, this is from a "I met with God" perspective. Do some more research on the subject if you're interested, and you'll see that everyone who has done this, professionals, doctors, psychologists, etc., who have done this, express the same. This is not a drug, this is soul medicine. It's on a class of it's own. Many of the people that I did the ceremony with were from all ages and social classes, not druggies but professionals, moms, dads and sons/daughters, they weren't doing this to get high (no one will do this to get high, because it's different from any other substance). Do research, it could be the best gift you could give yourself in your lifetime. It was for me.”
It is worth pointing out that ayahuasca enhances creative divergent thinking. I found a great concise description in pubmed of the DMT experience: "The state of consciousness induced by DMT is one of the most extraordinary of any naturally-occurring psychedelic substance. Users consistently report the complete replacement of normal subjective experience with a novel "alternate universe," often densely populated with a variety of strange objects and other highly complex visual content, including what appear to be sentient beings."
Anyway, through a series of coincidences, many factors converged to make this experience possible. I had arranged to go on vacation in Costa Rica with my wife and a couple of friends, the place we were staying, Finca de Vida, in the remote mountain jungles of Costa Rica, just happened to be minutes down the road from a reputable place called “Sound of Light” that has been doing ayahuasca ceremonies since 2012 in Costa Rica (and many years elsewhere before that), they were also endorsed by the owners of the place we were staying, who themselves have taken part in ceremonies there. On top of that, we just happened to be visiting at a time when they were doing a ceremony, due to the Summer solstice, and one of my traveling friends was also interested which is probably the only way I would ever have done it since there is no way my wife would ever participate and I might not have felt comfortable going alone. (Note: Finca de Vida (farm of life) also does their own ceremonies, but only twice a year, and limited to 12 people, it's also a very different, week long format with too much "woo-woo" for me and additional plant medicines I'm not interested in).
They asked us to dress in all white, so if we wandered off into the jungle during the ceremony someone would have a better chance of finding us, hah. There were some Christian influences in the ceremony which to me was a big plus, I am not into the shamanic/pagan mythology more commonly associated with ayahuasca, nor do I like a lot of “woo”. I don’t want to overstate this however, as no single particular worldview was represented and there were clearly multiple influences. I know it will sound disrespectful to some, but I don’t believe any of the mythology surrounding ayahuasca which is easily debunked by the contradictory accounts from people who have used it. You do not need a Peruvian shaman making irritating icaros (which to me sound like annoying bad singing) all night. The experience happens inside your own brain, and your own background, beliefs, and biases will come forth along with powerful memories from your past. The friend I went with doesn't share my worldview and had a totally different experience.
I was acutely aware that the more I read about others’ experiences, the more tainted my own experience might be (but that didn’t stop me from reading as much as I could in preparing my mind beforehand). I am a Christian, and my main intent, set well before the ceremony, was to meet with and talk to Jesus. I didn’t tell anyone that beforehand, only because I didn’t know if this would even be possible, it was more of a goal.
So I was actually surprised when I got there and found some depictions of Jesus and he was mentioned in numerous songs (that is another interesting thing about this place, they actually had a printed song book that was used and everyone had a copy). The ceremony leader was a musician who performed on and off for the entire night (ceremony started at 8PM and went until daybreak the next day, so almost 9 hours).
I went to the ceremony with a friend named Dean. The place was basically a big open circular pavilion with a roof and no sides, and mattresses all around with sheets and pillows. Dean and I appeared to be the only first timers there, and there were just 10 people total participating. I had read ayahuasca is like a 4 hour roller coaster you can't get off of. Some people panic or flip out. I was mentally prepared for it, and had been training my mind for weeks, learning all of the techniques for turning things around if it went badly. At Sound of Light though they actually give participants drinks every 2 hours, and it goes all night from about 9PM till daylight, so this was really an 8 hour roller coaster you can’t get off of, haha.
We had arrived at Sound of Light early and toured the place getting a feel for the lay of the land and the facilities and ceremony space. We also got to see how they make the brew (they actually grow both ingredients, the leaves and vines, on the premises, no other ingredients are used which is what you want). We drank the first cup of ayahuasca around 9PM I believe (there were no clocks, phones were powered off, we had arrived much earlier, around 6PM). Some other ceremonies just give you one cup, but Sound of Light essentially gives you as much as you want or need, one cup at a time, repeating every two hours, if not much happens after the first cup, they’ll give you a bigger portion for the second. After the initial drink there was a little singing and dancing (which I could have done without), then we sat down on our mattresses. I felt the medicine kicking in before I had sat down. I had read that lying down brings on the most powerful visions, while sitting or standing makes it less intense, so I laid down almost the entire night, mostly with eyes shut, as I wanted the most intense visions possible.
Before the ceremony began, Dean and I joked about another friend who had told us to "Say hi to God for me". This simple thought actually made its way into my experience, where I was in fact able to tell God that this friend wanted to say hi, and a picture of this friend appeared then zoomed out to a larger view of the earth, and then the picture "died" with its "remains" being recycled back into the earth by vines and vegetation like a time lapse photography video.
This was just the start of what turned out to be the most stunning, awe-inspiring, profound experience of my life.
Here are some other highlights of the aya experience: First cup of ayahuasca - I traveled through space and time, viewing alien civilizations:
Second cup - I met Jesus (or at least the construct of Jesus that exists in my own head) who spoke to me and taught me an important lesson about compassion: he showed me an actual act of compassion I had done in my real life, and how it had a ripple effect touching hundreds of lives, he wanted more of this from me, and said it was a way I could show him my love.
Here are some of the scripture related remarks he made to me (I've added references for these), this didn't happen all at once like he was rattling off a list, each of these came one at a time with what seemed like long timespans between each message which were filled with various visions (although I had no real concept of time during the ceremony):
At one point Jesus showed me something so moving that it brought me to tears (quite literally in this case, I was weeping at this point in the ceremony). The vision was deeply personal and meaningful to me. A perfectly crystal clear image of a little girl named Phara that my wife and I cared for many years ago appeared. Phara was a Haitian baby girl who suffered severely from hydrocephalus. She was being treated in the United States through Doctors Without Borders and a Christian group arranges for the care of these children during treatment which can take months. We became Phara's legal guardians and cared for her full time during her treatment, it was challenging, she was difficult to move and could not even sit up or roll over, but we received so much unexpected love and joy from that child, it was really a blessing to us more than a burden. Anyway, I hadn't thought of Phara in a long time, but there she was in my aya induced vision, bringing back a flood of emotion. To me it seemed like a funeral or memorial of sorts, that's why I became particularly moved, but it was also a celebration of her life. In real life I never found out what happened to her after treatment and return to her family in Haiti but I have my doubts that she survived despite the surgeon's best efforts. In the vision Phara was transformed into a stunningly beautiful, gem covered, living scorpion (the two bumps of her deformed human head became the breast plate gems of a standing up scorpion, this was significant to me because in real life Phara could never stand up on her own, but in her transformed life she was a strong, beautiful, flawless creation of God). I couldn't find any pictures online that match what I saw, it was a bit like a combination of the following, only much more majestic and animated:
The view then zoomed out and there were creatures everywhere, all in motion, with the scorpion at the center, it was really amazing! That scene faded to black then a huge, slowly rotating crucifix appeared, it was outlined in bright yellow and in stunning high definition and 3-Dimensional. This cross was made up of hundreds of cubes, and each cube housed a family of people.
For me, these visions were powerful and at times overwhelming. For a while I lived in the avatar like world of Pandora, filled with translucent, bioluminescent plants and fungi:
In real life we had seen iridescent butterflies in the rain forest that same day, and those guys were in my aya experience:
For a while I was even swimming under water with all kinds of beautiful, neon, tropical fish:
Throughout the night I was checking on my friend every now and then to see how he was doing and to make sure he was OK, one time when doing this, Dean morphed into a sloth (we had just seen sloths that same day in the Manuel Antonio National Park):
He also morphed into a raccoon, and a jaguar (all with my eyes wide open).
At another point, I used the bathroom, then came back, I saw Dean lying on his mattress, but then when I looked at my mattress, I saw him lying there as well, both Deans were in the same field of vision, I thought it was hilarious, and I was wondering which Dean was the real one. It turned out the guy leading the ceremony had sat down on my mattress when I got up, but Dean's face was transposed onto him from my perspective so I couldn't tell the two apart until I sat down right next to him.
A third cup of aya was offered, but Jesus had just told me that all I needed was him, I didn’t need anything else, which I interpreted as him telling me not to drink another cup, so I took that to heart and refused any more aya! My friend Dean drank 3 full cups, but had a much different and less intense experience (for example he did not travel in his experience like I did, I have read that it sometimes takes more than one attempt before a person has a true breakout experience).
Anyway, I will never forget that night, absolutely stunning and profound. The most powerful medicine on the planet. The setting for this was perfect, surrounded by jungle and all its noises, stars were out, lightning came at one point, there was also live music which was perfect, pulling us in and out of the visions (NOTE: At first I thought the music would be distracting, I actually brought ear plugs and a sleep mask with me in case I felt like tuning out all distractions, but I never used these and I feel like the music actually enhanced my experience. My brain was able to tune out the distractions on its own when necessary, totally immersing me in other worlds where distraction could not reach me). I feel like the ayahuasca experience should be on more people's "bucket lists” but if you aren't prepared it could be overwhelming for some people! I was mentally prepared for it, and had been training my mind for weeks, setting my intentions and learning the tricks for turning things around if it went badly.
Some tips: Don't fight it, try hard to relax your body, practice deep breathing and relaxation techniques in preparation for the ceremony and use them during the ceremony, give in and let the experience unfold, go where it wants to take you, however focus on your intent also and you will likely be pleased by what happens. Feel free to have more than one intent, but keep them simple and go over them in your mind every day for at least a week before the ceremony. I actually had 4 intents, and 3 were realized. If you want to change the experience, move around, even just lifting my arms was enough to change the visions, purge if you need to, sit up or stand up, switch from open or closed eyes, change music if possible, use sound as a tool (in our ceremony at one point the leader went around the room with a singing bowl and rang it over each person, which felt amazing as the vibrations went right into my bones and I wanted as much of it as I could get). In addition to preparing your body well before the ceremony, prepare your mind: for at least a week before the ceremony I removed all negative stimuli from my life, I only watched or read things that were positive or educational, nothing scary or violent, I only listened to upbeat, positive music, I made a playlist just for this occasion, I did not respond to any negative messages, I spent more time in prayer and contemplation and out in nature, I even rescued an injured and trapped animal that I found days before the ceremony.
Note: Neither myself nor my friend purged at all (we both have iron stomachs), though many around us did, this didn't bother us (we expected it). Some keys for this, follow an MAOI doctor recommended diet for at least 3 days before your ceremony, and fast (water only) for at least 8 hours before your ceremony (don't worry about feeling hungry or any other pain for that matter, such do not exist when on aya). In retrospect it was probably ideal that we spent all morning that day in the jungle exploring and viewing nature, many of the things we saw in the jungle appeared in my visions. Both of us got up at 5AM feeling well (although I was a bit queasy) and we actually went on a snorkeling tour straight from the ceremony (not recommended, but hey we are living proof that it's doable). I spent the rest of that day mostly in contemplation despite doing activities with my friends, and in fact I was still having very mild hallucinations even late in the day, for example even after a day of activity and two meals, when we were on a high speed boat ride far off shore where the only real sounds should have been the ocean and the boat engine, with my eyes closed I was hearing all the sounds of the jungle -- this did not disturb me at all, I thought it was quite wonderful. I did not feel completely grounded and back to this world until after sleeping that night and letting the aya completely pass through and out of me the next morning.
As I stated before, I believe this experience was completely internal, I do not believe any of the mythology about any psychedelic drug, the things I saw were the profound effects of the chemical on my brain and manifestations of my own mind and beliefs. I do not claim to have received special revelation from God even if it appears that way above. I had a beautiful and powerful experience, and I'm comfortable just leaving it at that. If you are the type of person that enjoys exploring your own mind, you may greatly appreciate the aya experience. If you don't know what you believe, perhaps aya will help you sort that out, but its certainly not an optimal path for that in my personal opinion. My secondary goal was spiritual growth, and that is what I got, so I was completely satisfied.
I may never use ayahuasca again, but I have absolutely no regrets -- it simply took me too close to the edge of madness and terror to do this again anytime soon. A good analogy comes from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, imagine that what happened to Scrooge was not just fiction but a real event, Scrooge would have described his experience as bringing him to the edge of madness and terror, and yet it was also the most important thing that ever happened to him, it changed his life forever (for the better), he learned from his visions and reevaluated his life, putting it back on the right path. At the end of his “visionary encounter” could you imagine him saying “Gee I wish I could go through that again!”? I don't think so, he got from the experience what he was meant to receive and he applied the insights to his life, end of story. This is pretty much exactly how I feel about ayahuasca. I don’t want to discourage anyone who is ready for it, from trying it, and for someone who didn’t have an experience like mine, trying it again even, it may be one of the most meaningful and amazing things you ever do. Just know that it could be quite challenging in many ways (emotionally, mentally, and physically), but you will survive and likely be better off for having had the experience no matter what happens.
As for the challenges -- just losing control of your body and mind can be quite disturbing. At times I had trouble moving, at times walking would have been impossible. Often I felt queasy but never so much so that I felt like vomiting. We were also warned ahead of time that aya changes your perception of temperature, some feel cold (many wrapped up in blankets even though it was pretty warm outside at the time), some feel hot (this was me, I was sweating bullets at various times, but not the whole night). I was also warned that the air could feel "like liquid" which again could cause some people to panic, this happened twice to me and lasted for what seemed like 5 minutes at most each time, whereby I had labored breathing, but I was able to overcome this by taking very deep slow breaths, relaxing my body, and focusing on a white light inside my vision (with eyes closed) and moving toward it (in my mind, not physically). I found that I could also "call" up a white light whenever I needed it, to help me through any difficulty, just by speaking the name "Jesus" (not out loud, but in my mind), which I did many times. This was another fascinating part of my experience, it was almost like God was teaching me to trust him more, and that he would always be there for me when I needed him, and that he would also not give me more than I could handle.
From this experience I received all that I had hoped for and more. The experience has been therapeutic to me in many ways, and has really caused me to reevaluate my entire life. I immediately implemented the things that I learned by ending unfruitful or toxic relationships, refocusing on what is important, avoiding distractions that drain my energy, and reflecting much more than I used to on so many things. The experience has given me a new appreciation for life, an awareness of how I need to make the most of the time I have been given on this Earth.
ADDITIONAL NOTES ON SAFETY
Before taking ayahuasca I did extensive research, I read the abstracts of EVERY article in pubmed mentioning ayahuasca, the full text of numerous articles, as well as general web and youtube searches. It has a very good safety record. There are several contraindications however. It's very important to follow an MAOI diet for at least 3 days prior. And I highly recommend fasting for at least 8 hours prior. I would not recommend aya to anyone taking medications or with high blood pressure. May not be good for someone with a family history of major mental illness, but is good for people with anxiety or depression.
If you search, you will find some stories of people who died after drinking ayahuasca, but when you dig deeper you find that it wasn't due to the ayahuasca, in most of these cases some idiot mixed another substance into the brew which is why it's so important to go to a reputable place that grows the 2 ingredients themselves and uses no additives. Some problem additives have been tobacco, datura and brugmansia (toe'), all potentially very harmful. I would never recommend anyone go to Peru for ayahuasca where most of the bad incidents have occurred, Peru also has many thieves and hucksters and the so called "shamans" down there love tobacco which in my opinion has no place in the aya experience (they throw it on top of their brew pots, this can be seen in many youtube videos, they also blow smoke in your face, in hopes of warding off imaginary evil spirits). Flights to Costa Rica are dirt cheap and the country is safe and beautiful outside of San Jose, it also has clean pure safe tap water almost everywhere you go which is a nice bonus. Costa Rica also has phenomenal tourist attractions and the US dollar is accepted everywhere so you don't even have to exchange currency if you bring dollars (credit cards are also widely accepted, for example at every major grocery store and most of the tourist activity type places and restaurants).
Some post experience follow up comments: I mentioned that I am a Christian, I attend a pretty great, young local church that is really aligned strongly with my personal beliefs and thoughts (for example they have had an impressive list of guest speakers including a notable astrophysicist, an Oxford professor, and several scientists, this was right up my alley). Anyway, after returning from our vacation, I kind of thought the whole aya experience was "done" but upon attending church that first Sunday back, I was surprised to find that everything for me was "heightened", I really felt like I was reconnected to that consciousness that I had experienced during the aya ceremony, this feeling was especially strong during the worship music. The sermons themselves seemed remarkably relevant and captivated me, the first was on the need to take risks for God, the second was actually titled "How a Day with Jesus Can Change Your Life Forever" (haha), the third was titled "How do you & I make the most of our time on Earth?" and the fourth was on Pascal's Wager. I could not have scripted it better, all of these topics have been acutely on my mind since the aya experience. I still feel strongly connected to God even though many weeks have passed since my encounter.