Ayahuasca Ceremony – Path to enlightenment, or trail of false hope and broken promises?

I’m fucking starving! 

Not the first thought many might hope to have the morning after an Ayahuasca Ceremony. But with instructions for the day of the ceremony to not eat after 3pm, and my only food of that day being vegemite on toast at around 10am, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising.

Though I did have a question I was also asking myself: Did I find enlightenment, or any answers to life, through the ceremony?

The ceremony began with a meet & greet and hot teas in the house of the ceremony guide, Diego Palma at around 7:30pm. There were around 20 of us attending tonight, an average looking mix of travellers you might meet on the road anywhere in South America. I wasn’t sure if I expected the ceremony to be full of new age hippy types, but from chatting to those around me it seems most were like me, open minded and curious.

I had been asking myself what I was expecting to elicit from the ceremony. I had been reading up on the ceremonies, on how the ayahuasca drug was supposed to help reveal the answers to questions you had about your life, about the lives of those around you. Being the “open minded cynic” I am, I really had no expectations, but figured that at the very least I would experience a nice trip, and there’s obviously nothing wrong with that. And if I was lucky… who knows what might happen…?

The living room we were in was an absolutely lovely open plan space, soaring ceiling, big ceramic fireplace in the corner. Hosting ayahuasca ceremonies obviously had its benefits, and at 170 soles (US$60) a person, I was sitting in one of them.

Around 8:30 we met Diego Palma officially, as he introduced himself, and gave us a briefing on how the night would proceed. Diego is a very impressive individual, bald headed, tall, looking every bit the “powerful spiritual leader” his reputation had suggested. Originally from Germany, he came to Peru years ago, found his way to the ayahuasca experience, and has been guiding ceremonies for 14 years. He’s apparently regarded as the leading ayahuasca ceremony guide in all of Peru, not too shabby for a foreigner.

At around 9:30, briefing over, it was time to enter the ceremonial temple next door to the house. The temple is a circular building, not quite as remote as I imagined before arriving. I was expecting it to be situated in the middle of a forest area, surrounded by nothing more than trees & nature. In reality it was in a compound surrounded by some trees but also a number of buildings, three or four homes it seemed, plus a few guest rooms for those wanting a bed and private room for the night. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very nice compound, but still seemed more like a hotel or guesthouse than a ceremonial place. Though inside the temple was a different story.

Leaving my shoes outside, I entered with cushion, blankets, water bottle… and vomit bucket. Yes, vomit bucket. One of the most well known occurrences during an ayahuasca ceremony is that the majority of people vomit. A lot. They regard is as a purging of all the bad energy you hold inside. I wasn’t sure if I was looking forward to that part of the experience, part of the reason I had limited my food intake to just the two slices of vegemite on toast.

The circular temple was ringed with cushions. Each of us found a place, and sat with our backs against the wall. Once everyone was settled, wrapped in blankets to ward away the night chill, the ceremony began.

Diego lit candles, turned down the lights, and began his tantra, giving blessings to the land, the spirits, and to those of us welcoming the experience tonight. Once completed, it was time for each of us to drink the ayahuasca drink.

Ayahuasca is a plant extract, rumoured to have been discovered by indigenous Amazonian people centuries ago, and used by them for both spiritual purposes and – apparantly (reading the Wikipedia article above) – for medicinal purposes. The chemicals within the compound kills certain parasites, and the forced vomiting helps to remove them from the body. So seems even if I didn’t experience spiritual enlightenment, I would have a healthier intestinal area.

One by one we approached Diego, kneeled in front of him, and were handed a ceremonial cup filled with the ayahuasca liquid. It was a dark colour, the colour of mud. We had been warned that the taste wasn’t the best, and I expected the worst as I brought the cup to my lips. As instructed, I drank the whole cup at once. The taste wasn’t as bad as I feared. Very herbal, a little “earthy”. Certainly no worse than many medicines I had consumed over the years.

Once everyone had consumed their cup of ayahuasca, we got comfortable under our blankets and waited for the effects to hit. The lights we turned down, candles blown out, total darkness filled the room.

It’s said to take around 30 minutes for the effects to first be felt. After around half an hour I was wondering if I was going to have to take Diego up on the offer of a second cup that was available for those who needed it. Ten minutes later the first of the vomiting started. Within 30 minutes there was a cacophony of vomiting surrounding me. By this time I had started to feel the effects.

So how do I describe it? A cloudy tunnel vision was the first hint that something was starting to happen. My limited vision in the darkness was now focus on a small area in front of me. Silhouettes started to stand out more, so I could make out more of the people around me where before there had just been blackness. I must admit though I was distracted most by the continual vomiting around me.

Thoughts began to crowd into my head, questions, people’s faces… seemed a little like everything in my head was now pouring forward. Was this the start of enlightenment, or just the typical jumble of thoughts and ideas that most drug taking – even drinking – can bring about?

I felt the faint beginnings of the urge to vomit… I picked up my bucket and held it under my chin just in case… I retched, expecting the vomit to follow… the guy beside me had been vomiting out gallons it sounded like… but I had nothing, the urge faded, and I leaned back again into my cushion.

My head was spinning now, not really sure if my “enlightenment” was being crowded out by that and the deluge of thoughts, ideas, questions swirling around my head. I decided to step outside for a few minutes, and see if that would clear my thoughts a little.

How can I describe stepping outside under the effects of ayahuasca? The best description I’ve come up with is to imagine a photographic negative, with the contrast turned way up. And I mean WAY up! The trees, the moon, the buildings, everything seemed to be doused in phosphorus, glowing through the darkness of the night. This, the effects of the ayahuasca, I just sat there for a while taking it all in. No enlightenment as yet, but a very pleasant experience.

Oh, and there’s one more effect I had started to feel before coming outside: I was horny as hell!

Yep, seems whether we’re talking ayahuasca, or marijuana, alcohol, acid, MDMA… they all had one effect on me in common: I wanted sex.

However, taking a moment from my star/moon/tree gazing to visit the toilet for a piss, I found out that while ayahuasca may have an effect on my desire for sex, physically it was not having a positive impact in that area. Either that or it was extremely cold right then.

So, sex was out of the equation (as if it was ever IN the equation anywhere but in my own mind), means I could focus on my mind. Which, after all, is the whole intention of an ayahuasca ceremony anyway.

Truth be told, I’m not sure if I was being taken to “a higher plane” of consciousness, or to anywhere else but within my own thoughts within my own mind. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m a big fan of using available substances to help bring out those thoughts and ideas that most of us have suppressed or hidden within our subconscious. Much of history’s great literature has been written by authors “under the influence” of one drug or another, so anything that could have a positive contribution in that direction I was most welcoming of.

But the idea of reaching some kind of spiritual plane, or opening a connection with “mother earth”… I’m not sure if it was just the cynic in me stopping me from experiencing this… or if, in the end, ayahuasca is just another hallucinogenic drug that allows the mind to relax and open up to thoughts that are otherwise hidden away under the pressures of day to day living for most of us.

Which then beggars the question: Is this a legitimate “path to enlightenment” and a higher understanding, or just another false religion based on fairy tales, false hope and illusions? One that can be quite financially beneficial to those “selling” the experience? (And yes, that is the cynic in me coming out)

In the end I can’t answer this question, if it was simply a limitation on what the drug actually does achieve, or it was just me. As with any drug of this type, everyone’s experience is going to be different, and if I’m to be truly open minded about what might be possible, then who am I to say it is simply just another recreational drug?

I’m certainly not sold that “it’s the answer to the world’s problems, we are here to save the earth”, as one of my fellow participants was impelled to describe to me. I could be more convinced that it simply helps to relax the mind, push aside the day to day thoughts and issues we all have, and allow those subconscious thoughts a way to the surface. And in many people’s subconscious thoughts they have more time to consider the less material aspects of both their own lives, and of those around them, including nature and the natural environment. A little like alcohol can help some people forget about their troubles for short while.

So I am finishing this post a couple of days after the ayahuasca ceremony, and I’m even more convinced of viewing it as more of a very enjoyable recreational drug than any true “path to enlightenment”. Though saying that, I am also interested in trying the experience again, perhaps this time with a friend. I do know that I spent half the night focusing on the actual effect the drug was having on me, rather than allowing myself to fall further into my thoughts. I also felt like I was missing out on not vomiting, seemed like everybody else did, maybe that’s an essential part of the experience? Maybe a second, or even third time, would enable me to ignore that part of the experience, and focus on my own thoughts? Who knows, but I think it would be good to find out. Stay tuned.

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