My relationship with ayahuasca and the other sacred medicines really began several years ago when I watched a 2010 documentary called DMT The Spirit Molecule – or at least that’s when the seed was planted in my mind. I’d never heard of DMT before this documentary but I was intrigued by the title and the description of the subject matter.
DMT, or Dimethyltriptamine to give it its full name, is a compound that’s found all throughout nature and is naturally present in the human body. It’s also one of the most powerful psychedelics that we know of.
In 1990 a professor of psychiatry called Rick Strassman had finally managed to get the necessary authorisation to conduct research into the effects of DMT. Prior to that no scientific research on psychedelics had taken place for nearly twenty years.
Within the first five minutes of the film I was fascinated by the recounting of an experience of one of the study volunteers:
‘I saw this city, in the distance; it was dark green with lights flickering and before that tremendous geometric patterns that are incredibly rapid. I cannot describe it to anyone. They’re so fast. I was watching that and a ball of light went right past me. And you’re in this place. Why am I in this place?
Then I noticed there was this woman off to my right. She had green skin and she had a dial and I realised that she was turning the volume of the lights up and down on the city in the distance. And as soon as I looked at her she noticed I was watching her and she said “So what else do you want?”‘
So this was interesting. Up until this point I’d had some experience with psychedelics, namely a few trips with LSD in my younger years and some more recent experiences with psilocybin mushrooms, but this sounded different and more intense.
Then various scientists and other experts started to talk.
‘DMT is a simple compound found throughout nature that has profound effects on human consciousness.’
‘It’s two steps from tryptophan and tryptophan is an enzyme that’s everywhere. All organisms have tryptophan and all organisms have the two key enzymes that lead to the synthesis of DMT. They’re very ancient enzymes and they’re all over the place. They’re part of basic metabolism. Theoretically anything could synthesize DMT.’
‘DMT is astonishingly widely available in plants and animals all around the world but so far nobody really knows why it’s there or what its function is.’
‘The 64 billion dollar question is, why is DMT in our bodies, in plants, in all sorts of mammals? What role does it play in humans?’
‘What we now understand is that these secondary compounds are in a sense the language of plants. These are messenger molecules. This is what plants use to mediate their relationships with other organisms in the environment.’
‘Why is it that human beings central nervous systems are wired to receive this experience?’
‘I don’t think it’s universally present in nature by accident. It has a real function. We’ve co-evolved with these plants. It has a purpose and a meaning to it.’
I was intrigued by the idea of messenger molecules and plants that use them to communicate with us.
The film went into more detail about the research study and gave more in-depth scientific information, but it was the accounts of the volunteers that really caught my attention.
‘I didn’t know whether it was my birth I was re-experiencing or my death, which was yet to come. Time crumbles; the linearity of time is totally meaningless in these states. You are at the Godhead, the point where all time falls in on itself.’
‘More and more layers of my humanity started peeling off.’
‘You are no longer anything you can identify.’
‘A thousand years experience in 15 minutes.’
‘I thought I’d died, I saw the white clouds and the Gods and angels ….’
‘I was so terrified to be blasted out of my body – to be going backwards at warp speed through my own DNA out into the universe.’
‘I went right into this white light – I lost any sense of being, any sense of past or future, it was absolutely blissful, euphoric.’
‘I was like a caveman in a computer lab; they were so far advanced to anything we know here on earth.’
‘A gigantic dome, the size of a small planet and there were winged beings flying through the space and I had the implicit sense that this is the divine realm.’
‘I was in the area where souls await re-birth. A transcendent peace came over me.’
Many of the study participants had mentioned spirits, alien beings, angels and entities and they didn’t seem to believe that any of this was created by the imagination. Instead to them it seemed more real than the reality we normally experience. In the documentary Rick Strassman says:
‘I think what began dawning on me after a while, once I stopped the study, was that I was really dealing with a spiritual phenomenon.’
It was suggested that DMT somehow temporarily demobilises the filtering system in the brain, enabling consciousness to access other realms and dimensions, as if it opens a window between our usual world and the world of spirit.
I was blown away by all of this. For a very long time I’ve been interested in the workings of the mind and the mysteries of consciousness. I’d also explored various spiritual paths. But this was opening up a whole new paradigm.
It sounded so intense and dramatic and profound. It seemed that here was a way to connect directly with spirit and the study participants all seemed to have been deeply affected by their experiences. It seemed amazing to me that a substance could do all this. Even though it seemed scarily intense I wanted to experience it for myself.
The documentary also touched on the subject of ayahuasca, a DMT-containing brew, which has been used by the indigenous people of the Amazon for thousands of years in order to connect with the plant and spirit world, to seek answers and for healing purposes. It was explained that whereas the experience with smoked DMT is very brief indeed, usually lasting a few minutes at most and with injected DMT still only lasting about 15 minutes or so, with the orally ingested ayahuasca the experience generally lasts a few hours.
‘Orally active ayahuasca tends to pick you up and gently carry you into the space and hug you and embrace you and clean you and show you all sorts of mystical visions and then it very gently brings you back down like you’re floating on a feather back to the ground.’
However, when taken orally, DMT on it’s own isn’t active. This is due to certain enzymes in the stomach which break the molecule down and render it inactive. But when the DMT containing plants are cooked together with the ayahuasca vine, those enzymes are deactivated and the active ingredient can then enter the bloodstream.
No-one really knows how the indigenous people discovered the long and complicated process of cooking together, in a very specific way, two plants which don’t even grow near each other, out of the thousands of species that there are in the jungle. It’s hard for our western minds to comprehend, but when asked, the indigenous shamans say that it was the plants that told them what to do.
Many people even believe that the ayahuasca vine is a sentient being with an agenda of it’s own. This was touched on in the film too:
‘It seems to me that Ayahuasca has had a plan and that it’s reached out into the world and brought DMT into many, many thousands of lives and it’s done it very rapidly.’
This was the first I’d ever heard of ayahuasca and it was all so far outside my usual understanding of the world that it was hard to take it all in at first. After watching the documentary I spoke to several people about it and through a friend of a friend I came across someone who’d smoked changa (a DMT-containing substance) many times. I toyed with the idea of obtaining and smoking some myself but the opportunity didn’t materialise and as I was rather nervous about pursuing the matter, I forgot about the whole thing for a while.
Then, two or three years ago whilst watching various random videos on youtube, I was led to an intriguingly-entitled lecture by a guy I’d never heard of at that point called Graham Hancock. The title of lecture was ‘Elves, aliens, angels and ayahuasca.’
The word ‘ayahuasca’ was familiar but I couldn’t remember when I’d heard it or exactly what it was and so I decided to watch it. Graham Hancock began his lecture with the question:
‘What happens to us when we die?’
Well that’s a big question and I was hooked straight away. For the first half hour or so Graham Hancock spoke on many topics relating to the matter of life (or the possible lack of it) after death. Although seemingly unrelated, each topic had led nicely onto the next and I thought that Graham Hancock was a great speaker, being clear and easy to listen to. He then began to speak about the deforestation of the planet and in particular the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, asking:
‘What kind of global civilisation is it when we know that the resource of the Amazon is of fundamental importance to the ecology of the entire Earth – it’s like the lungs of our planet and yet for economic reasons the Amazon is being cut down? How could any global society ever allow its lungs to be cut out unless that society is in fact insane, which I would say our society is.’
This is a matter that I’ve been saddened by for a long time and so I agreed with what he was saying.
He then said that he’s been told, with great passion, by the Amazonian shamans that he’s met, that they believe the problem is that …
‘you (the West) have severed your connection to spirit. Unless the West reconnects to spirit you are going to bring the whole world down in flames.’
This was disturbing, all the more so because it rang true for me. Then, just as it was all starting to become uncomfortably thought provoking, he said that the shamans have a remedy for the situation. I was, of course, very interested in this. Was there at least some hope?
He said that the remedy they propose is none other than ayahuasca, or as it translates ‘the vine of the soul’ (or the ‘vine of the dead’ by some interpretations). This was something even bigger to get my head around. Not only did it appear that DMT and ayahuasca can connect us to spirit, but also, according to Graham Hancock (via the shamans of the Amazon), it might also be the very thing that could save our planet from destruction.
He then went on to speak about the long and complex process of cooking the ayahuasca brew and of its two main ingredients, the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna leaves, which contain the active ingredient, DMT. He spoke briefly about the chemistry of the mix and how the addition of the vine renders the DMT orally active.
So here it was, firmly back on my radar again, – ayahuasca – and it’s active ingredient, DMT. I was all ears when Graham Hancock began talking about his own personal experiences with the brew; it’s appearance, it’s consistency and its taste, which he describes as:
‘The worst taste on the planet, a pile of old socks, some raw sewerage, some battery acid, a little bit of sulphur and just a hint of chocolate.’
Then he spoke of the physical effects, which mostly come on after about 45 minutes. The use of ayahuasca, he explained in detail, usually involves quite a bit of unpleasant bodily activity.
‘It’s not for nothing that ayahuasca is called ‘the purge’ in the Amazon.’
To be honest it wasn’t actually sounding too attractive a proposition at this point. But then he began talking about the visionary experience of entering a completely sentient realm where trees, animals and creatures are filled with intelligence and they all communicate with you. He said it was depicted in this painting by Pablo Amaringo, an ayahuasca shaman and artist:
He also said that ayahuasca gives you messages and that in many different cultures they think of ayahuasca as a female spirit whose business is the planet and whose essence is love. She can manifest in different forms, maybe a serpent, a jaguar or a woman. She has a deep love for humanity and she wants to teach us and to help us heal. He said that the messages that come through again and again are of the …
‘… sacred, magical, enchanted nature of all creation and an interdependence between the material and spiritual realms. One encounters intelligences in the ayahuasca trance who communicate with you telepathically. This of course, to those who haven’t had this experience, sounds completely nuts.’
Now this was once again sounding like something I very much wanted to experience.
He said that if you work with ayahuasca for long enough you’ll eventually go through a life review as often happens during a near death experience. All the excuses you’ve made about your actions and behaviours are stripped away and you see yourself as you really are. He said that the only real way to relate to ayahuasca is through complete surrender, as depicted in this painting by Martina Hoffmann:
He then said that ayahuasca shamanism is part of a much larger, global, body of shamanism that’s been kept alive in remote parts of the world and only now, when we really need it, is it becoming accessible to us in the West.
He went on to talk about the similarities between the experiences of ayahuasca drinkers, alien abductees and ancient mythology and then spoke about cave drawings which he says show pictures of visionary experiences. He demonstrated that there are major similarities between cave drawings dating back at least 35,000 years and the visionary art of modern day shamans who still live in traditional indigenous tribes. He says there’s evidence of the use of hallucinogenic plants way back then and that it’s now universally accepted by anthropologists and archaeologists that early cave art was reflecting the visions seen during altered states of consciousness.
At the end of the talk I was even more intrigued than I had been by the DMT documentary and I really wanted to find out more. I started to google ayahuasca and came across page after page of information and endless websites advertising retreats in the Amazon region, mainly Peru. This was a revelation to me at that time. I was excited to think that I could actually go on a trip and experience ayahuasca with indigenous shamans. I began researching enthusiastically.
I was telling a friend of mine and she said she’d always wanted to visit Machu Picchu in Peru and so on the spur of the moment we started planning a trip for a year or so in the future which would give us time to save up. (It was going to work out quite expensive).
After much googling we found a retreat in the jungle of Peru that seemed perfect and we worked out how to combine it with a trip to Machu Picchu. We were on the verge of booking it all up and then a further internet search of the retreat we’d picked brought up the report of a death at that very place a year or so previously. This completely spooked us both and we put the idea on hold for a bit, during which time my friend decided that ayahuasca and all the purging involved wasn’t really for her.
I was still keen however, but I wanted to find the right place, somewhere I’d feel safe, not only at the retreat centre itself but also somewhere that wouldn’t be too nerve-wracking to travel to, especially as I would now be going alone.
A couple of months passed and the idea was still in my mind, (although it had taken a bit of back burner) when a post about a retreat venue in Mallorca suddenly appeared on my facebook page. It looked good. There were loads of positive comments regarding the place and there were several retreat dates coming up. Taking the bull by the horns I contacted the guy and we sent several messages back and forth. He added me to their community page where there was loads of information and great feedback from previous participants. It was much more affordable than going to the Amazon and it wasn’t nearly so far out of my comfort zone, although it would still be enough of an adventure to be exciting.
I was interested in a 2 or 5-day retreat but these were all booked out. There were however, available spaces on an upcoming 7-day ‘sacred plant detox retreat’ during which participants would be offered ayahuasca, kambo, San Pedro, rapé, sacred tobacco and bufo, plus fire and temazcal ceremonies. Well, apart from ayahuasca I didn’t really know anything much about any of the other stuff, but within two hours of seeing the facebook post, I’d booked the time off work, reserved my place and booked my flights. I was going to be drinking ayahuasca within two months. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself as I began researching all the other plant medicines I’d be experiencing. Some of them seemed quite extreme and unpleasant but I decided it was a case of ‘in for a penny in for a pound’ and that I’d throw myself into the experience and see what happened. Little did I know where it was all going to lead …..
To be continued ….