If you're not entirely sure what ayahuasca is, read over this beginners guide to get up to scratch.
You’ve probably heard about ayahuasca before. You might not know what it is, but you’ve probably heard its name slither across your ear drums. Maybe you read about it here on Highsnobiety a few weeks ago, or in ELLE a while back.
You might be one of those oh-so-fashionable people who’ve flown out to the Amazon to consume it in recent years, because it has become so very fashionable lately, just like yoga and paleo diets and reiki, or whichever other brand of pseudo-spiritual nonsense cosmopolitan people like to believe in these days. Either way, just about everything you’ve likely heard is a load of rubbish that shouldn’t be believed.
But before I continue further, let me explain what ayahuasca is to those just tuning in: in short it’s a drug. A very potent psychedelic that’s been consumed by tribes indigenous to the Amazon basin for hundreds of years – some say thousands.
It comes in the form of a disgusting brown sludge brewed from a combination of the banisteriopsis vine and the psychotria viridis leaf, but any plant that contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT for short), like chacruna or chagropanga, can be used because DMT is the key element here – that’s what makes you hallucinate.
While DMT usually comes in a smokeable crystallized form, when inhaled the trip only lasts for a few minutes. The ayahuasca brew contains a Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitor that, when consumed orally, allows you to trip balls for several hours.
The Amazonian people regard ayahuasca as a sort of religious sacrament, using it in shamanistic ceremonies to look into their souls and speak to the spirits and the Gods and what have you, a process that gives them insight into the secrets of the universe. Or so the story goes.
Now that it has caught on with Westerners that shop at Whole Foods, ayahuasca is marketed as this magical potion that can instantly cure depression (“it’s like 20 years of therapy in one night,” an avid user of the drug once told me), wash away life’s problems, and reveal your true destiny, allowing you to quit that dull, pointless job of yours that makes you so unhappy. This is all bullshit.
How do I know? Well, because someone who definitely isn’t me –because why would anyone incriminate themselves admitting on the internet that they’ve taken an illegal drug before?– someone who we will refer to as “Bruce” throughout the course of this article, has spent a grand total of 14 nights drinking ayahuasca. Bruce knows multiple shaman and upwards of 100 people who have consumed the magical brew before, so Bruce knows what he’s talking about.
Bruce’s first ceremony was four and a half years ago. Bruce was feeling a bit depressed, rudderless, and life was generally pointless and miserable. One of Bruce’s friends, a high-rolling lawyer on a six-figure salary, with countless friends, an incredible social life and a rotating lineup of very hot girlfriends, had recently drunk ayahuasca.
The lawyer, who revealed that he suffers from terrible bouts of depression that therapy couldn’t alleviate, told Bruce that ayahuasca has changed his life. It had cured his depression, helped him find God (who happens to be a woman, btw) and convinced him to quit his job and move to the Amazon to become a shaman. The lawyer is now living somewhere in the jungles of Peru doing ayahuasca ceremonies of his own. He claims to have never been happier.
This sounded incredible to Bruce. Who would say no to a magic reset button that heals away all the bruises they’ve accumulated through the process of living, consigning them to the bowels of memory, and immediately transforming them into the self-actualized person they’ve always fantasized of being? Bruce is not the sort of man to say no to that offer. So Bruce asked the now-former lawyer to put him in touch with the shaman because he too wanted a simple solution for everything.
To cut a long story short, it was incredible. Well, the aftermath was incredible – the process itself was one of the worst things Bruce has ever experienced. Excruciating nausea. Cold chills. Such forceful puking that it felt like being turned inside out. Terrifying, terrifying hallucinations. People who’ve never done psychedelics think that you just see patterns, no. This was like being on a completely different plane of consciousness. An alternate dimension. There aren’t words to describe it.
When it was finally over, Bruce had some new clarity on his life and its frustrations. Some Freudian-type stuff that had something to do with his father. Basic psychology, really, but comprehending something intellectually and understanding it innately are two very different things. Bruce felt beaten, drained, melancholic, and then suddenly felt himself welling up –he was going to burst into tears– so he quickly ran to the nearest shower and wept like a refugee for a solid hour. Uncontrollable sobbing that felt so, so good.
Bruce went home with a feeling of anxiety. He was fixed now. Right? Everything was better, no? The missing pieces of the puzzle were all in place, surely? Of course they were. That’s what happens when you drink ayahuasca. Except that Bruce quickly realized it wasn’t all better.
He felt fantastic for two weeks: light, airy, free of anxiety, his internal monologue had quietened. He felt at ease with himself, but going back into his everyday routine he encountered the same problems that drove him to drink ayahuasca in the first place. So he went back another dozen times searching for The Solution.
And he would encounter many of the same people again and again and again. New ones would come, then they would return. Probably because, like Bruce, they were chasing a blissed-out state of Nirvana that they had been promised by other ayahuasca acolytes.
And I’m not exaggerating here, aya devotees speak about the drug in the sort of absolutist hyperbole common to religious fundamentalists. Think Christian televangelists only softer, more hippy-like, less fire-and-brimstone and more infinite love. Yes, it’s fairly benign, but there’s a soft fanaticism to it that makes Bruce wary.
Now this is Bruce’s problem with the ayahuasca community: they so desperately want to believe in all this New Age spiritual nonsense, that they have to tell other people loudly and forcefully that yes, this is The Answer, just so they can drown out the sound of their own cognitive dissonance. There’s an unspoken fatwa among ayahuasca drinkers that denounces this sort of critical thinking. It’s very cultish and cults have little time for dissidents.
Bruce doesn’t think they’re bad people, they’re just misguided and desperate to validate something that gives them a feeling of security in a terrifying world. But by doing this they set other people up for disappointment. And there are some truly desperate people that seek out ayahuasca ceremonies.
At these ceremonies Bruce has met child abuse victims, drug addicts, bulimics, countless conspiracy theorists that probably suffer from varying mental health problems, and a variety of other stragglers doing their best to limp through life.
One heroin addict became his friend, and after ayahuasca failed to make him better, the junkie in question turned to iboga, a similar psychedelic substance that is often paraded as a miracle cure for addiction. After his first iboga ceremony, said junkie asked Bruce if he could lend him some money. Later that evening he went and bought himself some more heroin. Not much of a miracle cure, then.
It’s scientifically proven that psychedelic drugs have huge therapeutic potential for treating depression, anxiety and numerous other conditions. Bruce believes in this wholeheartedly. But he also believes that they should be administered by psychologists or qualified medical professionals in a scientific setting – a bit like those end-of-life clinics in Switzerland that use LSD to help terminal cancer patients come to terms with their impending deaths – not someone who thinks that they can talk to ghosts.
Bruce took ayahuasca in Europe, but most adherents to the cult of ayahuasca will tell you that you need to travel to the Amazon to get the true experience, because “that’s where the magic happens.” But Bruce, as an atheist with a university degree, takes a dim view of this. There’s no such thing as magic. It’s a drug-induced chemical reaction in the brain that makes you hallucinate uncontrollably. This can be proven, ghosts can’t. Bruce is skeptical of anyone that asks for his absolute blind faith.
What’s often overlooked is that ayahuasca powers an entire micro-tourism industry that has sprung up in the Amazon. Opportunistic shaman prey on naive Westerners for cash and compete with each other by sometimes using dangerous ingredients to create ever-stronger brews that will reel in customers that want more bang for their buck. People have died as a result. This isn’t magic, it’s capitalism at its crudest.
But what can you expect? The shadow of the War on Drugs creates a dank breeding ground for crooks and hacks. Legalization and regulation is the only sane answer. Moral puritanism costs lives.
The point of this whole rant isn’t to try to put people off of ayahuasca or insult the people who worship it – not at all. Bruce thinks it certainly has its benefits and would recommend it to everyone. Bruce just thinks that there’s a lot of vested interests out there trying to sell easy answers to complex problems, and too few people scrutinizing their hyperbolic claims.
Ayahuasca is almost certainly not going to magically make all of your problems go away. Neither are anti-depressants. Your psychiatrist is not your Fairy Godmother. We live in a transaction-oriented culture where we’re taught that if you buy this shoe you will feel cool. If you wear this perfume you will feel sexy. If you take Zoloft you will be fixed.
Life is much more complicated than that. That’s what they won’t tell you, because how do you sell someone an easy solution to complication? This is something that needs to be shouted loudly, clearly and often. Some problems can’t be solved, only managed. And accepting that is often the first step in moving forward.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.