What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a tea that’s made from two plants found in the Amazon rainforest. What’s remarkable about these two plants is that when used together they allow the psychedelic DMT (dimethyltriptamine) to be absorbed.
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How did indigenous people learn to combine these two plants out of all the plants in the jungle?
They say, “The plants told them.”
How is ayahuasca used in South America?
Indigenous people use it for a variety of purposes. Primarily it’s a medicine for health problems which are considered to be spiritual in origin. It’s also used to improve luck in love or to locate good hunting sites. And, important for living in the jungle, it also removes parasites. The word, ayahuasca, means vine of the dead – ayahuasca opens up portals so people can communicate with the dead.
Practitioners call ayahuasca a medicine. Why?
Ayahuasca is considered a sacred plant medicine. In the West, it’s used mostly for healing both psychologically and spiritually within a ritual or shamanic context. It’s called a medicine to clarify that it’s not just another psychedelic drug that can be used recreationally.
Ayahuasca is also considered a religious sacrament in the Santo Daime and Uniao de Vegetal churches. These churches originate from Brazil and they’re expanding into the West. They use ayahuasca in their services strictly for spiritual purposes.
How can this medicine help with depression, addictions, PTSD and anxiety?
My research study asked, “How did you change as a result of your ayahuasca experience?” 81 people completed an in-depth questionnaire and I interviewed another 50. A few people had what I call miraculous cures.
“Depression is GONE. I now have a feeling of self-worth. I’m slower to anger and quicker to smile.”
“I can hardly drink now.” “Alcohol is not appealing any more.” “I used to drink too much alcohol. I do not enjoy it since meeting Grandmother Ayahuasca.” “I have more awareness around abuse of alcohol, so I drink less.” “No desire for alcohol.”
Not everyone has an immediate miraculous experience. Some people described more of a process of incremental growth and unfolding.
“I’m more socially outgoing, more attentive to others, and less self-absorbed; more open, spontaneous, and expressive. I’m less self-critical, more accepting with a better understanding of who I am as opposed to who I thought I was. I feel much less sadness, less anxiety and gloomy thoughts. I have flashes of joy and hope, the possibility of being alive. I’m aware of the pos- sibility of transcendence. I want to live before I die.”
Is there research indicating these therapeutic benefits?
Yes, such research is just beginning and more is needed because ayahuasca is showing great therapeutic potential for a variety of diagnoses. Ayahuasca is the most difficult of all the psychedelics to study since it’s impossible to control the dose or potency of the medicine. Shamans claim the intensity of the medicine depends upon what time of day the plants are harvested, what prayers are said over the plants. Spanish researchers are using freeze dried ayahuasca to control for these factors but when an American study asked shamans to work with the freeze dried medicine, they refused saying, “The spirit of the medicine is not there.”
Ayahuasca is similar to other psychedelics so in the book I drew on current on psilocybin and LSD research, especially the studies using fMRI data. Research in England is exploring how psychedelics can lead to dramatic changes in worldview and sense of self. Studies at Johns Hopkins show enduring change after a mystical experience with psilocybin. At NYU and UCLA they’re finding reduced anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
What’s the experience of drinking ayahuasca?
The tea, itself, is like drinking mud – it’s disgusting. And it leads to purging, both vomiting and diarrhea. So it’s not likely to be used recreationally. The purge is important to the healing process – there’s a letting go and a cleansing.
Ayahuasca is a visionary medicine – some people see elaborate displays of fireworks, others see scenes from their lives unfolding in front of their eyes like a movie, and others are actually in the scene, reliving the events from their past which can be from childhood or trauma. Some describe encounters with animals, people who have died, and ancestors. People can experience a wide range of emotions during ayahuasca ceremonies – from ecstasy to profound sorrow. They can also have incredibly therapeutic experiences where they feel deeply loved in a way that changes them forever.
Is ayahuasca dangerous?
No, you can’t overdose because you’d just vomit if you drank too much. But there are warnings not to drink ayahuasca if you’re on antidepressants, specifically SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or MAOIs (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors). The most conservative advice is to be off these meds for at least five weeks.
You do have to be careful that the setting is safe and that the people in charge are legitimate and have enough helpers to watch over everyone. There are an increasing number of stories of rape and death in South America so be very careful choosing where you go. This is all word of mouth and that’s not always 100% reliable. Ayahuasca is illegal here in the states so the ceremonies are held discreetly. The only exception are the churches in NM and OR that have the right to use it as a spiritual sacrament.
What inspired you to research ayahuasca?
In my first ceremony I re-experienced my father’s death – he died at my home. I traveled with him as he left his body and dissolved into the universe. This was such a profound experience – It was healing and also it prepared me for my own death journey
From that first ceremony, I’ve been amazed at the therapeutic value of this medicine. As a therapist, I’ve had lots of my own personal therapy, and my experiences with ayahausca have been the most healing. But I’m not just talking about the ceremony, itself. The therapeutic effect continues far beyond the ceremony and my research has focused on how people change after the ceremony. My book describes how therapy can help people integrate those changes into their daily lives.
What do you mean by Grandmother Ayahuasca?
The biggest surprise from my research was that 75% of the 81 respondents described an on-going relationship with the Spirit of Ayahuasca. In many indigenous cultures, plants are considered to have spirit teachers associated with them and Grandmother Ayahuasca is one of these plant teachers.
I had my own relationship with Grandmother Ayahuasca but I didn’t realize that most everyone else was also hearing from her – sometimes actually hearing a voice like I did, sometimes an intuitive communication in dreams or meditation, both in and out of ceremony. In other words, whether under the influence and not.
I can’t explain what this voice is – it’s a continuing mystery to me. But I can say that listening to Grandmother Ayahuasca has changed my life – certainly it’s upset my worldview and added other dimensions to my life.
What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?
The book is intended to be a therapeutic container for your ayahuasca experience. It will help prepare you and it will help you to integrate afterward in the most therapeutic way possible. I use my own experiences and those of others to illustrate how you can work psychologically and spiritually with ayahuasca experiences. The book will also help guide therapists who are working with people attending ayahuasca ceremonies.
About the author:
Rachel Harris, PhD is the author of Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety. She received a National Institutes of Health New Investigator’s Award, has published more than forty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals, and has worked as a psychological consultant to Fortune 500 companies and the United Nations. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine. Visit her online at http://www.listeningtoayahuasca.com.