Over my birthday this year, while the family was in Ronda, Spain, I took a train to Madrid for a 3-day retreat where an Amazonian plant mixture called ayahuasca was used to facilitate greater self-awareness. I first heard of ayahuasca in 2012, shortly after arriving in Bali for the first time, and have been intrigued by the idea ever since. Over the years, I’ve met dozens of people who have benefited from it, either by experiencing an increased understanding of who they are, an increased sense of purpose and direction in life, greater connection and appreciation of the people and things around them, healing from psychological or physical illnesses, overcoming an addiction, or other benefits. Some even speak of having a complete loss of their “self” (ego identity) and an encounter with what they can only call divine.
Of course, there are some downsides, such as almost guaranteed nausea and vomiting, which some see as part of the purging of that which no longer serves you. And because ayahuasca’s nature is to make conscious that which is unconscious, some of the things it reveals about oneself can be embarrassing or painful, especially when resisted. Ayahuasca (as a brew, not as a plant) is also illegal in some countries, but there are usually religious exemptions. Spain is one of the countries where it is legal.
The retreat I went to was run by Ayahuasca International (part of Inner Mastery International), an organization dedicated to spreading the therapeutic use of ayahuasca. Traditionally, ayahuasca ceremonies are performed by shamans in the jungles of the Amazon, but there are pockets in nearly every country where you can find it, although not all groups have the same intent and experience when offering it. Personally, I appreciated the feeling of safety and comfort in this countryside villa in Spain, with space being held by English speakers who understand my culture and psychology. I also appreciated their view of the plant as a tool or aid for psychotherapy and increased consciousness, and not as a magic cure-all worthy of worship, nor as a recreational drug to be abused. Ayahuasca can’t heal you, it is said, but it can help you see how to heal yourself.
So how was my experience? It was beautiful, difficult, revealing, and perfect. Interestingly, I found the group therapy and integration sessions held by the facilitators just as helpful, if not more so, as the ayahuasca experience itself. Some of my interactions with the other participants were also incredibly insightful, as barriers to intuition were much thinner, and the subtlest of lies to myself and others were immediately apparent. The music also made a big difference (in both positive and negative ways for me).
During my three nights at the retreat, I took ayahuasca three times. Each experience was different in duration and intensity, and each taught me something important. Overall, my main takeaways were:
- An acceptance of the desire within me to live a bigger, bolder, braver, and freer life that is more authentically me. As fantastic as my life has become, I realized I’m still setting limits on the positive things I allow into my experience. I want to release those limits and allow even greater enjoyment and fullness into my life, and find more ways to share these joys with others.
- A strengthening of my love and commitment to Jen and the girls. I had several dream-like visions and powerful feelings that taught me about what I can do to help my relationships thrive even more. Focusing on giving direct attention to my wife and kids, without mental distraction, is a big part of that.
- A greater awareness of some of the patterns in my life that have caused me suffering, such as approval seeking, self-doubt, and self-judgment. I’m able to recognize more easily now when I’m doing these things, accept that I’m doing them (rather than judge or condemn myself for it), and make appropriate choices. It’s still not easy, but it’s more clear now how much work I have to do.
- That everything that has happened in my life up to this point has been perfect. Every pain, every success, every abuse, every emotion, every choice, etc. It’s all perfect as it is, and it will continue to be so. Every event has led to this moment, and things are unfolding now exactly as they should. I felt this profoundly. I’m human and learning as I go, with every choice.
- LOTS of practice in trust and surrender. I learned to embrace nausea, mental stories, suffering, judgment, and many other things that when I resisted, only made things worse. But when I allowed them into my experience and embraced them, they taught me, and then dissipated. Putting this into practice more in my life has been very beneficial since I’ve come back.
I don’t know when or if I will take ayahuasca again, but I do see it as a powerful tool for expanding self-awareness. I think that meditation, writing, traditional psychotherapy, group therapy, and other methods can all lead to similar results, although I can see that ayahuasca might speed up the process or help someone remove a block and gain clarity if they’re feeling stuck with other methods. It was also interesting to be reminded of the masks I often wear, and the coping strategies I’ve picked up over the years to try and protect myself, and to feel what it’s like letting those go, at least partially. And I am finding myself more aware of them now, than before the retreat. I wouldn’t say that ayahuasca is for everyone, but I’m very glad that I could have the experience.