A Night With Ayahuasca

Writing about Ayahuasca, or Yagé, and my experiences with the master medicinal plants has proven to be an intimidating and stilted process. Words do not do justice to the depth of feeling evoked by an Ayahuasca experience with the Cofan healers of the Colombian Amazon, and at times I have felt that any attempt to articulate the brutal purity of Ayhuasca’s spirit and teachings insults and diminishes the plant’s sacred place in my life. It is akin to going into the kitchen in the morning and attempting to place into a linear, comprehendible narrative your dream from the night before for your roommate; the very act of articulating the experience to another human being deprives the dream of its power and potency. You scramble for a color, a face, a voice, or a segment, which inevitably fades into the abyss the more frantically you search.

5 years of Ayahuasca ceremonies here in Colombia have made me more able to withstand the drunkenness or ‘chuma’ brought on by the brew, which for me comes on somewhere between a half hour to an hour and a half after the shaman administers the first cup. By withstanding I mean to say that one learns how to invite the remedy in, how to allow it to flow through the body and mind without becoming fearful of either the forthcoming purge or what the plant medicine may reveal. You rather give ourselves over to the Ayahuasca and the shaman. We do not attempt to restrict its passage. We can accept and embrace the feeling that it gives of the vertical body or chakras floating in a calm but softly swirling sea. When we give thanks for its presence we are also saying to the Ayahuasca that we will be its students for as long as it will teach us.

The advantage of inviting and not resisting cannot be understated. In Colombia we work with a fire in the center of the maloka, or ceremony space. The fire is my guide, my blanket, my ancestors reincarnated, my friend, my vibrancy, and my strength. Freely admitting the plant to search out, wrestle with and potentially purge you of energetic and physical toxins also permits one to interact more profoundly with the calming and reassuring presence of the abuelo fire. When we are startled by the ultimate power of the Ayahuasca we have imbibed, become fearful, and try to hide ourselves from ourselves, we are unable to find solace in its flames. I recall the Buddhist teaching that firewood doesn’t turn to ash: There is firewood and there is ash. It is to say “open to the here and now”; be present with the shaman, the fire, and the medicine right now.

Yet at the beginning of the sacred ritual that is an Ayahuasca ceremony it is dark. The fire is low or non-existent. The solitary candle on the shaman’s altar illuminates his silhouette from the perspective of the drinkers set around the maloka, and the shadow he casts upon the walls dances as he caresses and snaps the air with his wayra sacha, or leaf-fan. It is in this dark and shadowy context that his first icaros, or songs, call to the spirit of the plant and to the spirits of the jungle. In this moment of heightened tension we drink the first cup one-by-one.

For a number of ceremonies the taste of Ayahuasca is revolting, and the bitterness is sometimes enough to send the uninitiated outside to purge. For the experienced drinker who accepts the taste and the way the Ayahuasca coats the mouth and throat, the moment that the brew passes into the stomach is a conscious leap of faith taken with the shaman, and it is a conscious step toward the ego’s death. The death of the illusion of separation is not painless, nor does it come to pass in a predictable way. This is never a comfortable experience. This ‘ego-death’ is profoundly humbling. I am no longer the king in his court, the ruler of my reality. I am no longer the cause of the effect, the dog that wags the tail, or the boat that causes the wake. It becomes apparent in these moments during the ‘pinta’ that I am at once a miraculous representation of the infinitely interwoven universe, and that my mind’s beliefs that I am the main protaganist of someone else’s novel; that I know what I know with such unflappable certainty; and that I stand apart from the rest of life of the planet, are fallacies. I fall to my knees in front of the fire in submission to Ayahuasca’s power, in recognition of its unlimited wisdom, and in gratitude for this most luminous form of death.

In the Cofan tradition one does not discuss his visions with anyone other than his shaman, or taita, and I encourage individuals that come to ceremonies with me to cherish their visions in their meditations in the days and weeks following the medicine. If your Ayahuasca experience does include, visually, an animal, a specific place or setting in nature, a future form of yourself, or any other ‘vision’, my recommendation is to cherish it. Do not allow it to be diluted by giving in the inner urge to explain and share. Hold it close and meditate.

In the days following a ceremony the work begins. I use this time of sensitivity and clarity to write, paint, walk in the woods, cook my favorite healthy meals, and spend time with loved ones and those individuals who support me, and my process with the medicines. I avoid entering the city and technology.

In your life, the overall impact and consequences that an Ayahuasca ceremony, which in the end is the combination of the shamanic prayers, the Ayahuasca itself, the fire, the setting in which the ceremony is held, and the energy and strength that you dedicated to your self-study, is determined by the simple decisions that you make after the ceremony ends.

A ceremony will not make you a better person. The ego will reappear, insulted by the Ayahuasca’s dominion over it and furious that you put it aside for even one night. The work begins when the ceremony ends.