Ayahuasca: Understanding the Sacred Plant Medicine

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You’re sitting in a circle surrounded with anywhere from 20 to 30 people. Each person is situated with their own five foot wide space where they have laid out their yoga mat and on top of that, however many pillows and blankets they please. You’re doing the best to get comfortable as you mentally prepare for the next 10 hours ahead of you. None of which will include sleep. You have been fasting all day, and have been advised to follow an essential diet for the past two weeks. And up until you put that cup to your mouth, filled half way with an odd smelling, thick black slush, the scenario looks pretty innocent. The rest of the night you will have completely lost yourself, in the quest of trying to find yourself and trying to heal yourself. Icaros, spiritual traditional songs, also referred to as, “Songs of Heaven,” float through the background, as the shaman occasionally plays a jewharp and some acoustic guitar. You can hear people around you laughing, crying, moving, and some reaching for the buckets that have been placed before them, and with a loud release, purging violently. Purging, because they need to get clean. Purging, for sake of healing.

The experience explained above, may, to some, sound like one hell of a gamble. And it is. This black slush is known as Ayahuasca, a sacred plant medicine. The ayahuasca experience is wild ride in which one finds themselves deeply exploring their own minds and the universe we all live in. While it has been primarily a South American indigenous tradition for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, modern day people, like these native New Yorkers, have become curious, and have put their lips to the cup.

Ayahuasca is made by brewing the ayahuasca vine with chacruna leaves.
PHOTO SOURCE: http://poojainparaguay.blogspot.com

Mason Lacas says that, “I heard about DMT and I wasn’t so interested in the short three minute jolt that DMT sometimes offers when you smoke it. I was interested in the ceremony, being able to ingest it with others, meeting a shaman, and going through the whole process and really having time to focus in on myself, rather then just a quick rush. Ayahuasca was a way for me to reconnect with myself and with my mother earth.”

Ayahuasca is a vine that grows deep in the jungles of the Amazon. It is a hallucinogen containing the DMT molecule. While not to undermine any other psychedelics, for all of them are known to help an individual gain an enormous amount of introspection, ayahuasca is particularly unique and stands out due to it’s traditional ceremonial process. Ceremonies are led by shamans or “ayahuasceros” who have worked extensively with the medicine. People gather and sit in a circle as the shaman guides them through their experience by first introducing the medicine and it’s abilities.

I spoke with James Riverstone, who has studied shamanism for 13 years and has assisted shamans in various ceremonies. He explains that, “Drinking this healing herb is a powerful modality and is to be only ever ingested in the presence of a trained shaman called an “Ayahuasquero.” It is held in a ceremony demanding the highest level of respect. Ayahuasca allows entry into the matrix of Creation which is a very powerful thing. This experience requires a guide to navigate the conduit of this matrix.”

The ayahuasca experience is commonly referred to as “The Purge,” because of it’s purgative abilities. A very specific diet needs to be followed before one can partake in ceremony. The body must be cleansed and people are told to follow an alkaline-diet, and to refrain from processed foods, meat, sex, alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drug use. Aside from whatever intention a person sets for themselves, and what it is that they would like to gain from their experience, this process is all about detox. And that means detox of toxins from the body as well detox of accumulated emotions that may be wearing the person down psychologically. James Riverstone states that, “One of the greatest side effects of drinking this medicine is the fact that it induces purging of unwanted ideas in the body. Releasing or vomiting these energies is what can truly heal the body, mind and spirit. What comes out can be attachments to beliefs, fears and concerns in their life, as well as cancers and disease.”

Andrew Stephen Pratt, a native New Yorker, spent a month in Peru and drank the sacred brew seven times. He explained that he’s heard some people refer to ayahuasca as being “almost like seven years of psychotherapy.” It shows one, and amplifies for them, the reality of their experiences and the emotional implications they carry.

A Shaman at his altar as he prepares for ceremony.
PHOTO SOURCE: http://www.flickr.com
Some people may not understand how ayahuasca is considered a “medicine” and may be taken aback with the ceremonial process. But what needs to be understood is that “modern day medicine” is really only about a hundred years old. Greg Freeman, also known as underground hip-hop artist Truth Now, adds that, its key to understand that “just because something isn’t in a prescription bottle, doesn’t mean that it’s not medicine.”Because we are “civilized” and live in such an industrialized society, many may not relate or resonate with what ayahausca offers, which is both immense healing and introspection from a sacred plant medicine. Some may not feel it’s relevant to the world, while others would greatly disagree. “Ayahuasca is my greatest teacher, she runs through my veins like my blood,” comments Linda Burroughs. She continues to say that, “ I always felt like when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I feel like the world has become ready for this medicine to reach critical mass. People are needing the medicine to wake up, to get well, to be healed.” Linda Burroughs first drank the brew in Ecuador and has since continued to make visits to South America.

In the past few years it has been clear that people are more desiring of alternative healing and are seeking to “go deeper” with their understanding and/or perception of life. This has been seen within the past ten years, with something so simple as fast food restaurants beginning to offer salads on their menus to the growth of people who began to show more interest in things such as yoga and meditation.

In an article titled “Yoga Teaching Increasingly Popular as Second Career,” by Alexis Grant, it was found that “about 14.3 million people in the United States practiced yoga in 2010, up from 4.3 million in 2001.” In that same article, Bill Harper, publisher of Yoga Journal, a magazine filled a plethora of uplifting and insightful advice for mental and physical health, explained that “the magazine’s circulation has increased 300 percent since 2002, a time when most print publications have shrunk.”

Of course these examples are only a select few, but all it takes is for one to simply look around. This “spiritual revolution,” as some may call it, may have something to do with 2012 because the idea of the Mayan end date has left some people curious regarding what the coming times will bring. Authors such as Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Ester & Jerry Hicks, amongst others, all bring up this topic of spirituality. The book and documentary “The Secret” has also sparked a lot of interest in making people think twice about what we consider to be absolute truths. Some have referred to this movement as “New Age.”

James Riverstone adds that, “Humans are realizing that there is a mysterious urge inside of them to reach for higher evolved thinking, feeling and releasing of their old ways. Shamanistic tools can assist us all in seeking more of life’s meaning.”

Andrew Stephen Pratt feels that the need to evolve is not only natural and unavoidable, but absolutely necessary. He goes on to say that, “I think that we’re at a point in time where as humans we are beginning to rediscover this connection to something that is beyond the material world.”

Known to shake people into an awakening, ayahuasca has the ability to encourage reflection, understanding, as well as offer immense healing on the physical, spiritual, and emotional level. While not everyone may understand the desire to sit in ceremony, and for some who may be uncertain and maybe even fearful, because ayahuasca forces you to see yourself as you truly are, it offers tremendous insight into one’s life and mindset. It may be the honest truth you have been searching for, the thing to “set you free,” or it may just remain something you read about in a magazine and move away from as you flip to the next page..

Charing, Harold G. Preparation For The Ayahausca Experience.

Grant, A.. Yoga Teaching Increasingly Popular As Second Career. 26 April 2011.

McKenna, Terence K. Food Of The Gods, The Search For The Original Tree Of Knowledge : A Radical History Of Plants, Drugs, And Human Evolution. Bantam, 1993.

Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open The Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. 2003.

Strassman, Rick. DMT, The Spirit Molecule : A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research Into The Biology Of Near-death And Mystical Experiences. Park Street Press, 2001.

A BIG THANKS to all interviewee’s:  Linda Burroughs, Mason Lacas, and Andrew Stephen Pratt, as well as to, James Riverstone, for his powerful  knowledge and insight.