What the psychedelic drug ayahuasca showed me about my life.
Inside the loud, stuffy ceremony room, people were laughing, crying, chanting, gyrating, and, yes, vomiting, around me. When my time finally comes, I think: Just aim for the bucket and keep your ass above your head like the shaman told you.
I try to wipe my face but can’t grab the tissue paper because it melts every time I reach for it. Nearby, a man starts to scream. I can’t make out what he’s saying on account of the shaman singing beautiful Colombian songs in the other room.
I finish vomiting and start crying and laughing and smiling all at once. Something has been lifted in this “purge,” something dark and deep I was carrying around for years. Relief washes over me, and I slowly make my way back to my mattress on the floor.
For four consecutive nights, a group of 78 of us here at a retreat center in Costa Rica have been drinking a foul-tasting, molasses-like tea containing ayahuasca, a plant concoction that contains the natural hallucinogen known as DMT.
We’re part of a wave of Westerners seeking out ayahuasca as a tool for psychological healing, personal growth, or expanding consciousness.
I flew to Costa Rica hoping to explode my ego. And I was not prepared for what happened. Ayahuasca turned my life upside down, dissolving the wall between my self and the world. I also stared into what I can only describe as the world’s most honest mirror. It was a Clockwork Orange-like horror show, and it was impossible to look away. But I saw what I needed to see when I was ready to see it.
Ayahuasca exposes the gap between who you think you are and who you actually are. In my case, the gap was immense, and the pain of seeing it for the first time was practically unbearable.
An ayahuasca boom
Indigenous people in countries like Colombia and Peru have been brewing the concoction for thousands of years, mostly for religious or spiritual purposes. It’s considered a medicine, a way to heal internal wounds and reconnect with nature.
It wasn’t until 1908 that Western scientists acknowledged its existence; British botanist Richard Spruce was the first to study it and write about the “purging” it invokes. He was mainly interested in classifying the vines and leaves that made up the magic brew, and in understanding its role in Amazonian culture.
Ayahuasca emerged again in the early 1960s with the counterculture movement. Beat writers like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac all described their experiences with ayahuasca, most famously in Burroughs’s book The Yage Letters. Scientist-hippies like Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary then went to South America to research and experience the drug firsthand. All of this helped bring ayahuasca into Western culture, but it was never truly popularized.
Today, the tea is having a bit of a moment.
Handler’s experience appears to be common. The scientific evidence on ayahuasca is limited, but it is known to activate repressed memories in ways that allow people to come to a new understanding of their past. In some cases, it helps people work through memories of traumatic events, which is why neuroscientists are beginning to study ayahuasca as a treatment for depression and PTSD. (There are physical and psychological risks to taking it as well — it can interfere with medication and exacerbate existing psychiatric conditions.)
My interest in ayahuasca was specific: I wanted to cut through the illusion of selfhood. Psychedelics have a way of tearing down our emotional barriers. You feel plugged into something bigger than yourself, and — for a moment, at least — the sensation of separation melts away.
Buddhists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers have all made persuasive arguments that there is nothing like a “fixed self,” no thinker behind our thoughts, no doer behind our deeds. There is only consciousness and immediate experience; everything else is the result of the mind projecting into the past or the future.
But this is a difficult truth to grasp in everyday life. Because you’re conscious, because it’s like something to be you, it’s very easy to believe that a wall exists between your mind and the world. If you’re experiencing something, then there must be a “you” doing the experiencing. But the “you” in this case is just an abstraction; it’s in your mind, not out there in the world.