What is ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca, sometimes called yage’, comes from the jungles of the Amazon and is used as a medicinal tea made from a combination of several plants, especially caapi and chacruna. It is a key part of several religious ceremonies for native peoples, particularly in Peru. Shamans in the jungle call it a medicine, as they do not see it as a drug. 

Ayahuasca has hallucinogenic effects that give users the ability to feel the spirits of others, including plants.  The main ingredient, the caapi vine, is also called the “spirit vine” or “vine of the soul”, and it is then mixed with plants that contain DMT.  It is this substance that makes ayahuasca illegal to possess in the United States. 

Caapi is an MAOI, or monoamine oxidase enzyme, which is used chemically in modern medicine, to treat depression and Parkinson’s disease.  Because of this, any medications that one takes, should be documented to ensure there are no harmful interactions. In the case of ayahuasca, however, there are no known long-term side effects, unlike what is found in typical chemical medications dispensed in the west. 

Ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years, so its track record is well known. When the brew is made, it is done by a shaman who knows exactly how to mix each ingredient properly.  He will often teach apprentices who must spend years learning and practicing, under a strict “dieta”. The brew sometimes takes other components, besides the caapi vine and chacruna leaves. Shamans must also learn about the properties of each of the components, like toe’, which can be extremely dangerous if used in high amounts, as it is highly psychedelic in nature.  Natives associate it with witchcraft, and those who consume too much of it have been known to wander the town naked, unaware of what is happening to them. Before you consume Ayahuasca, make sure to ask your Shaman what plants are in that specific brew.


Going into the spirit worlds- what to expect during an Ayahuasca ceremony

Ayahuasca is used frequently for spiritual applications.  Users find that they receive revelations about the universe, their reason for existence, and how to become a better person, and they are able to reach spirits who become their life guides.  They find that they operate on another dimension during the ceremony and most users find that their lives are forever changed, finding enlightenment. 

While they are apprenticing, shamans learn “spirit songs”, called icaros, which are used to summon the plants’ spirits to perform their unique tasks during the ceremony and to provide healing to the participants.

A shaman has to be able to handle going into the spirit worlds and calling forth the right ones to help in the ceremony. Many of the Amazonian shamans often blend Catholicism with the native religions, merging the European influences with their own traditions. Some will start their ceremonies with a prayer, asking for God to be present with them.

The shamans will use chakapas, bundles of leaves from the plant of the same name that have been bound together to create a rattle.  The shaman will shake his chakapa to provide comfort to the participant and to help with the elimination of the evil spirits.  Each shaman knows a series of different motions to use with his chakapa to move the energy in a different way, and he often sings an icaro at the same time.  All of the actions are designed to enhance healing. 

When the ceremony begins, usually at night, participants will have been fasting since lunch.  The jungle is filled with the sounds of very large insects and other creatures and everyone is seated in a circle on mattresses inside the shaman’s hut. Once everyone has drunk their serving of ayahuasca, the lamp is turned off and everyone is allowed to begin to experience their own spirit contacts. Some see things almost immediately, while others take some time.  The shamans call this “seeing with the third eye”. 

Physically, vomiting is a common after-effect from using ayahuasca. Shamans will say that this has to happen to allow the evil spirits to leave the body, taking negative past experiences with them. Bad emotions and harmful energy from one’s past life keep one from being able to be free enough to experience life, and it is believed that the nausea and vomiting is both beneficial and essential. Because the ayahuasca produces vomiting, each participant is given their own bucket and some paper to wipe their faces. The taste of the mixture can be bitter with a slight sweetness, and it is thick, grainy, and sludgy. Some have said that they see dark patches of material in their vomit buckets, which the shamans explain is the negative energy that has been released. Since most participants have fasted for several hours, the chances that these are food particles are reduced.

Because of the powerful hallucinogenic and purging qualities of ayahuasca, most shamans will say that it should only be used with their guidance.  Shamans believe they can provide spiritual shelter from any negative spirits that might try to come in during a time of vulnerability. They also take some ayahuasca to be able to be with each participant in their purging, to know and see what is happening.

The shamans believe that the negative energy each person holds is caused by a spirit, even leading to illness or mental issues like depression or drug addiction.  The ayahuasca ceremony is meant to remove these spirits from the body. Typically there are several ceremonies in the entire process, held over several days at the same time each day, with each one lasting several hours at a time.


Experiences and visions during the ceremony

The visions people experience as a result of consuming ayahuasca have been documented for ages. Anthropologists have written about it, and modern people have been making treks into the jungle to be part of this amazing spiritual ritual. 

There are some common themes in the visions, and they occur regardless of where the person is from and what their past has been like.  These themes come in a few different types:

  • Animals – like snakes; cats such as jaguars, mountain lions, and tigers; and birds, such as owls and eagles.
  • Structures like earthly palaces and heavenly sights.  This is interesting in that the accommodations out in the jungle are very basic, usually consisting of a tent with insect netting and a kerosene lamp, so it is not simply a case of looking around the room.
  • Eyes of animals, people and spirits.
  • Spiritual creatures.
  • Ancient cultures like pre-Columbian or even Egyptian.
  • Non-jungle terrain like African savannahs or meadows.
  • Gilded objects with crystals, gemstones, gold, and a white cloth covering it.
  • Colorful moving patterns and designs.

All of these visions defy standard psychology, since there is no logical reason why people from different parts of the world and different cultures would have such shared experiences that are completely free of human appearances.  This lends some credence to the shaman’s beliefs that ayahuasca does indeed bring visions, and on a broad scale. 

Users of ayahuasca also experience very personal reactions, including a feeling of clarity of thought, deeper insight, and greater ability to think and reason.  Over time, and with repeated use, some users find this part to be better than merely receiving visions.  They start to want to partake of the introspection and the contemplation that results from the use. They seek answers for issues in their lives and peace from the turbulence of their worlds. This part of the experience does change depending on the background of the individual, of course, as the answers that the person receives will be unique to him or her.  Even still, there is some commonality here, too, no matter where in the world a person is from. For example:

  • The meaning of what is real becomes apparent, and it leads to an inner examination of existence. This includes an examination of the meaning of human life and how we should all behave, not just towards each other, but to everything around us. 
  • The philosophy of knowledge and the understanding of consciousness become clearer.
  • People using ayahuasca experience an awareness of the spirits of all things, and that they are all interconnected, that we are all one with the universe.  One person described seeing a spider web that was cast out over everything and bound it all together. He found others who had the same experience.  Users begin to realize that having a code of ethics matters, and how we behave has a significant impact in the world.  The experience feels like communion, not just a ritual. It has been called “ego disintegration”.
  • A religious feeling of understanding how we, God, and the rest of the world all connect, and for many, a realization that God is real through seeing him in the ceremony. 
  • Some report feeling like they are living parables as would be found in the Bible, but with a unique aspect of the story meant just for them, not just a re-enactment of an existing parable.

Some ayahuasca ceremony participants come to an awareness of thought that the ideas they learn in school are always there, but they must be summoned forth by a professor or instructor.  Several users who ponder these thoughts recall Plato in their visions.  These scenes come across social and geopolitical lines to affect multiple people, much like other experiences do.

Other users of ayahuasca have described being able to feel the experiences of their fellow participants in the ceremony, or that they can see their organs bathed in colors while they lie on their mats. What many find is that though they know what it is they are experiencing, they find it difficult to put that experience into words, even immediately following the ceremony.  For some, the visions fade just as quickly as they come.

For the shamans, taking ayahuasca during the ceremony allows them to gain insight into their “patients” and a fuller understanding of their needs. They are able to see and yet not see into their patients, but regardless, it helps them diagnose exactly what the person needs. A writer for National Geographic described it as giving the shaman “a window into the soul.” 

She went on to say that during her ceremony she was in a “tunnel of fire” and apparitions told her she would not ever leave.  She felt a crushing weight of suffering, as if she was taking on all of the world’s sadness.  She was in control enough of the experience to be able to get out of the fire, and then on into a peaceful white light.  When she awoke the next day, she realized that the childhood depression that had plagued her all of her life was gone, a success that she had never before been able to achieve with conventional psychotherapy. When she returned to the fire on another night, she saw her younger self, and with the help of the shaman’s apprentice and his chakapa, she saw the fire turn into ice and she was able to rescue the child.  The child then came back into her body.  The shaman told her when we experience trauma, we often lose a piece of our spirit.  Through the ceremony, she was able to reclaim that missing piece.

She goes on to caution people that the spirits may reveal parts of your consciousness that you thought you had suppressed successfully, so your visions may reveal things you did not expect, and you may not necessarily be ready (or want) to confront.  The shamans believe trying to hold back and “being strong”, as we believe, is actually a sign of weakness.  Their stand is that facing the pain, is actually what defines strength.  The demon spirits create the fears we feel and that by conquering the demons, we release ourselves from the fears. Not everyone faces such deeply personal experiences, but many people have similar visions.

Depending on your past experiences and expectations of the experience, you may find that you enter a state of bliss or you may share in the descent into hell that the National Geographic author experienced.

Physically, Ayahuasca has been claimed to cure some cancers and relieve drug addiction.  This latter phenomenon was observed in the Amazon by a team from UCLA, who included a research trial in their trip.  They found that not only did ayahuasca help with reversing drug addiction and improving mental health, but they also found that serotonin levels were more even, due to a change in the serotonin receptors in the body’s nerve cells.  This is what makes Ayahuasca an effective anti-depressant, too.

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