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.
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12 Jul 2017
28 May 2016
I imagine that it is difficult, if not impossible, to convey your experience with words. But your words intrigue me. I tend to think it is unlikely I will ever partake of this particular tool… I’m not sure I’m ready to willingly embrace retching nausea that I bring onto myself LOL Have you found the insights you gained to be long-lasting… at least as far as 6 weeks will take you? Do you have a sense as to whether or not they will be with you in a year? You do look pretty at peace in that photo.
Like all insights, the strength of them has faded over time, but I know what to look for now, and I get to practice much of what I learned in these insights every day, and I have more incentive to do so as I see the results in my life.
via @brandags My Journey with Ayahuasca http://t.co/dLYGlKGj0Z
As always it is such a pleasure to read you ;)
I had a friend who spent some time in Bresil and she experienced a plant… It took her months to recover. I like how you emphasize you felt safe in this place. It is so important to choose carefully who we have these types of experiences with. Reading your experience, it makes me feel curious about it. I had no idea this plant existed, and I didn’t know either that such experiences were going on in Spain. It is interesting to see it is right there.
It was such a pleasure having you stay with us ;)
Enjoy your adventures!
Yes, the experience is different for everyone, and different in each group that serves it. Definitely important to choose carefully.
We so much enjoyed staying with you, too! Hope to see you again one of these days. Thank you for everything. Let’s keep in touch. :)
Thank you for being willing to open and share your experience. In recent years I’ve heard accounts from various people of their experiences with ayahuasca and other substances (mushrooms, marijuana, etc.) ; it is quite interesting to learn about. If you are ok with divulging, have you used other such substances before this experience?
No this was my first experience with any kind of psychedelic. I did try marijuana once, but it just gave me a headache. I don’t think smoking is my thing. Mushrooms do sound interesting, though.
So glad you were able to work with such a great group. I think your take-aways from this experience are amazing, and I can see that you are more empowered because of it. I have personally noticed, according to my perspective, that you seem more, comfortable, grounded, focused, integrated, and self-compassionate since your experience. You’ve also been able to hold such gentle space for all your sweet girls, including me; you are so proactive, involved, perceptive, and such great company. :)
Thank you. :) I do feel more aware at least, of where I’m holding myself back from embracing what’s happening in each moment, and being authentically me. It’s not always easy to make the shift to doing so, but it’s getting easier. Thanks for noticing, and for your support.
Your comment: “everything that has happened in my life up to this point has been perfect”, among other things you mention make me feel sad. There is nothing wrong with imperfection. As human beings we are tied together by weakness.
Your answer for working through weakness used to be God. Now it is a drug. Of course, you aren’t the first person to swap methods for coping with the unbearable idea of weakness, mistakes and human frailty. Most people choose to medicate uncomfortable feelings with anything from alcohol to food, to overworking even to performing various acts of piety to their version of diety. The list is endless.
I can’t judge your choice, since, I am full of imperfections too. As a member of a 12 Steo Fellowship I’ve learned there is no substance on earth that can substitute for the real work of surrendering, admitting and reaching out for a higher power of your understanding.
Like it or not, ayahuasca, may have a sexier name than most mainstream substances like booze, chocolate, meth, porn, gambling etc….but it is still a substance that can only give temporary relief/clarity/experience/understanding and make problems worse.
Thanks for your comment. You’ve said there is nothing wrong with imperfection, and I can see truth in that statement. I don’t see where I stated otherwise in my post, but perhaps you assumed that because I had the experience of accepting all of my life up to that point as “perfect”, including what could be called “imperfections”, that I was somehow trying to avoid them?
Medicating uncomfortable feelings is the opposite of my ayahuasca experience, and my take on spirituality in general. It’s about welcoming, and even embracing all feelings fully, and seeing what they can teach me in the process. My choices (good or bad – you decide) have led me to the beautiful moment I’m in today, and I experienced peace in that realization. A common tendency of mine has been to judge my past actions and plan my future ones in order to try and avoid pain, which is of course impossible to do perfectly. Avoidance of pain isn’t the path to peace. But learning to embrace whatever experiences arise (including ones involving negative emotion), or to see the perfection in imperfection, has been an effective method for me as far as I’ve practiced it.
You are right that substances don’t substitute for real surrender and reaching for a higher power. And as transformational of a plant as it sounds, ayahuasca doesn’t force surrender. It did, however, make it clearer to me what I’m doing to myself when I resist surrendering. Yes, that clarity is temporary, as are all moments in life. But even a moment of clarity, however obtained, can give a person more motivation to choose a more enlightened path than they had previously followed. Choosing to surrender and embrace life is a lifelong spiritual practice, not a one-time event.
If you’re part of a 12 Step program, then you must struggle with (or enjoy?) some kind of addiction (most of us do, as you say, whether we’re aware of it or not). If so, I recommend the work of Dr. Gabor Maté, who has done some fascinating research on the causes of addiction. Here’s a link to some of his articles and interviews which you might find interesting, if you haven’t already read them.
Hi, what is your take on a critic of Alberto Varela the founder of the Ayahusca International.
Lots of organisations that work with Ayahusca says that he is a fraud. That he and his crew doesn’t have necessary knowledge to administer the medicine in a safe way and he simply exploits people. Have you noticed anything that worried you during retreat? Sorry for my English.
If I understand the critique correctly, there is a strong indigenous tradition of Ayahuasca, and many want to keep it as an indigenous offering – available only under the lineage of people they train to do it the way they think is proper. Whereas Varela believes that the benefits of Ayahuasca should be available to everyone, even outside of the jungle context, and that there isn’t just one right way to hold a ceremony, or one correct lineage that has the rights to do it.
I felt the retreat I went to was held with healing intentions, and I appreciated the psychotherapeutic aspects to it as well, especially since they were in my own language. I felt quite supported. The only thing I felt may have been less professional is that they offered additional substances to ayahuasca on one of the nights for those interested, but I chose to opt out of that.
I liked the honesty of your article but I just thought I should point out that you haven’t experienced taking ayahuasca in a ceremony. I found the ceremonies conducted in the jungle by shamans of decades of experience to have a deeply symbolic importance. You seem fortunate to have been able to guide yourself through the process, perhaps through prior experience of psychedelics. I don’t think others are so fortunate. Whilst I don’t think there is any considerable harm about these retreats, they can be liable to allow you to choose your own way and believe the things you want. They even say that they do not guide but encourage you to learn on your own. I agree that they are well intentioned but they don’t have the experience to provide the depth of support and guidance that you find with shamans.
Yes, I suppose it depends on how you define ceremony, but I definitely understand it wasn’t a traditional ayahuasca ceremony. That’s not the kind of experience I wanted. If traditional ceremonies don’t “allow you to choose your own way and believe the things you want”, as you say, then I’m glad chose not to do it in the jungle. But I would hope the guidance that traditional shamans offer isn’t as restrictive as you’ve made it sound, but is more empowering. I did feel guided and supported in this retreat, but never forced. And for that, I’m grateful.
Hi Brandon. Thanks for the article. It was helpful as part of my research in preparation for my own experience which I will have next month. It was a comfort to hear a rational person discussing their experience in an honest and insightful way. Frankly, I am afraid to confront what is inside me but I know I need to in order to have a good life. I have struggled with PTSD for over 40 years. I feel like their is a dark energy inside of me that feels like I am always in danger and I am always trying and consistently failing at resisting it. I know in my heart that I need to do this. I want to look at whatever it is and be with it in a fully accepting and compassionate manner. Like I said, I am afraid, but I have a deeply held feeling that everything is going to be ok, maybe even perfect.
Hi Lenny ,
I’m so eager to hear about your experience with ayahuasca international. How was it ? Do you recommend it ?
Thinking of doing it in July this year in Denmark, but still hesitant about it .
I appreciate it if you could share some of your experiences at the retreat as it would benefit me and help me make up my mind about it.
I had traumatic childhood and still feel energy blocks though I tried everything possible from psychotherapy, medicine and meditation, they all helped but not enough to remove that block!
how was your experience at the retreat? I am thinking of going next month but I am very concerned after all the negative things I have been reading about Ayahuasca International and Alberto Jose Valeras.
Interesting and balanced view on your experience. First time I heard of Ayahuasca. Have you come across couples attending similar retreats together? Would you recommend it or would you say it is better to experience it separately?
Yes, there were a few couples there together. I think it’s a fine thing to experience together, absolutely. The journey is always individual, but you can be a support to each other through it.