Ayahuasca: A Brief Helpful Manual
Currently tens of thousands of people are exploring the visionary medicine known as ayahuasca, huasca, yaje, (and many other names) both in South America and around the world. Many seek the experience out of curiosity and sometimes they have a challenging outcome, however many find it an experience of great value and seek to experience it over and over. This ancient plant combination has a history of many centuries of use in the Amazon jungle although no one knows exactly when it began. In this short article I aim to discuss the various challenges facing the person who is interested in taking ayahuasca in a safe and supportive environment. Based on a perusal of the internet, I find that this information is hard to find. Here I will discuss some of the main variables that make the experience either positive or negative for the attendees, important considerations about set and setting, and some thoughts about what you can do to heal from a negative experience or how you can help someone else who has had a difficult time.
A Little Background
I received my masters in Psychiatric Social Work at the University of California at Berkeley in 1973. I am currently a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in both California and New Mexico and I hold a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the California Institute of Integral studies, 1983. I have been a psychotherapist in private practice since the 1970’s. For the last twenty-five years I have trained with various ayahuasqeros from Peru including mestizos, a Frenchman trained by Shipibos, and a number of Shipibos from the village of San Francisco, near Pucallpa, Peru. While I have been very fortunate working with outstanding ethical ceremonialists I have also come across several unethical ones as well. I will discuss the differences in this article.
I have trained with the Shipibo in Peru since the mid nineteen nineties as an ayahuasqero who may conduct these ceremonies with their approval. I mention this so that you can see that I have been on both ends of the ceremony, a novice participant as well as an experienced ceremonialist with all the responsibilities that come with it.
I might mention here that my experience has been entirely with Shipibo and Ecuadorian style ceremonies conducted in a darkened space, not with the Santo Daime or UDV ceremonies popular in Brazil and conducted in an entirely different style. Their ceremonies are conducted under bright lights and their songs are sung in Portuguese. They are Christian in orientation not at all based on the indigenous tradition which they do frown upon. No individual healings are performed for participants from what I understand. These ceremonies are perfectly valid but entirely different from indigenous style and seeking a different outcome.
The first time I ever took ayahuasca was in Northern California in the mid to late 1980’s. The ceremony was conducted by an American college professor who had done extensive research in altered states. I was given a tumbler of dark bitter liquid to drink down and then lay down to await the experience. Suddenly I was overcome with the most beautiful visions and colors but the state just kept getting stronger and stronger until I could no longer hold my focus. I ended up in the bathroom for hours vomiting into a bucket while having extreme diarrhea at the same time. I do not remember much from the experience but I vowed I would never do it again. I learned later that the dosage was much too high for me. Recorded music was played but there was no singing of the special ayahuasca songs that usually accompany a ceremony.
A couple of years later I thought I would try it again under different circumstances and took it in a group setting with another American ceremonialist. This time the medicine was freeze dried in capsule form and given with a spoonful of powder mixed in pineapple juice which I later found out was psilocybin mushrooms. Again the most beautiful visions started but the experience kept getting stronger and stronger until I could no longer focus and I became sick, disassociated, and delusional for hours. I actually thought that the ceremonialist was trying to poison me and I left and walked home where I remained for a few hours. Eventually I came back when I had come down some. For several weeks afterward I felt very vulnerable and unstable psychologically. Gradually I stabilized. Again I vowed I would never do it again. Later I was to learn that the pineapple juice was completely incompatible with the ayahuasca making me very sick and the large dose of mushrooms was way too strong for my size and weight.
Several months later I was invited down to Peru to attend a ceremony with an experienced ayahuasqero whom I met and felt trust in. This made all the difference in the world. I had a powerful and wonderful experience with ayahuasca that I found life transforming. There were several key elements: 1. He gave me the proper dose of pure medicine not mixed with other things. 2. He knew all the proper icaros (sacred songs) to sing during the ceremony and attended to me personally in a healing way. 3. He spoke English so I could ask him questions and he properly prepared me emotionally, energetically, and psychologically. 4. He put me on an appropriate ayahuasca diet that made a huge difference in the quality of the experience. 5. I trusted him and he behaved in an ethical caring manner that inspired my confidence.
The Key Elements of a Productive Ayahuasca Ceremony
I can’t emphasize enough the lessons of these few initial experiences because the issues crop up over and over again for people taking ayahuasca for the first time.
Most people who have horrible experiences or find themselves very unstable after taking medicine have taken too much medicine for what they can tolerate. One should ask for a little the first time and get accustomed to the experience first before trying a larger dose. There is nothing macho about taking a very strong dose the first time. It can be just plain stupid. What if the first time you took an alcoholic drink you consumed a whole fifth of whiskey? That would have terrible consequences too, right? Remember: More is not necessarily better. If you can’t remember what happened afterward, you have taken too much. What is the point if you can’t remember?
Never allow yourself to be pressured into taking a huge dose. Some ayahuasqeros tell their participants that they all have to take the same dose. In my opinion this is just plain wrong. Each person should have the right dose for them. If the ayahuasquero cannot determine this they are not experienced enough and should not be conducting ceremony on their own.
Ayahuasca consists of a combination of several plants. The key ingredient is the vine, banisteriopsis capi that provides the harmaline, an ingredient that prevents stomach acids from destroying the dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT or the spirit molecule. The DMT is what is responsible for the intense colorful visions that can last for hours under the combination of the plants. The DMT can be delivered through various plants, the most common one in Peru being the leaves of the chacruna tree which is really more the size of a large bush. In surrounding regions like Ecuador other plants are used. These two plants are all that are needed to have an ayahuasca experience and are recommended for someone taking the medicine for the first time. However many Ayahuasqeros are fond of using other plants as well to give the medicine even stronger hallucinogenic properties or to support purging etc. Some of them use the leaves of the datura plant, known to be extremely hallucinogenic and dangerous unless taken in small doses. I would not recommend anyone but the most advanced participants taking these additional plants in the recipe.
One should always ask exactly what plants have been included and what they do prior to ingesting any medicine. In this matter I have learned the hard way and pass on my experience to you. Some ayahuasqeros won’t tell you what is in their mixture regarding it as proprietary. Personally I would not take a mixture if I did not know what was in it.
It is recommended that you never buy ayahuasca from an unknown source, for example in the jungle marketplace. You have no idea what is in it, or how it was prepared, or who prepared it. Often it has prayers and songs in it and you don’t know the content of these prayers and songs and whether they are good for you or not. Not all prayers are in your best interest.
The Ceremony Itself What not to do
Never take ayahuasca alone. I have heard many horror stories of tourists going down to South America and attending an ayahuasca ceremony with someone who abandoned them in the middle of the ceremony or allowed participants to wander away into the jungle by themselves with no supervision. Again, in my opinion this is utterly crazy and unacceptable. Ayahuasca is a plant medicine that must be conducted in ceremony, directed by special sacred icaros. If it is not directed by singing, the ayahuasca experience can go off in ways that are nightmarish and uncontrolled. The ceremonialist needs to sing and needs to stay with everyone. One should never be alone under ayahuasca’s influence as it is just not safe. This is not because there is anything wrong with ayahuasca itself, but it does open you up psychically and you become vulnerable to other influences. The ceremonial space must be “secure” and “safe.”
One must always be under the supervision of an experienced ayahuasqero that takes full responsibility for all the participants of the ceremony. They should not fall asleep, be under the influence of alcohol, nor should they wander in and out of the ceremony with longer periods of absence. They should not allow participants to behave in out of control ways, shouting screaming, and generally causing mayhem. There should not be more participants than the ayahuasqero can handle.
The Integrity and Skills of the Ceremonialist
The ayahuasqero should have his or her act together. Acting seductively or touching any participant in a sexual way, male or female, is simply not acceptable. If this should happen, you should firmly block their attentions, gently push them away, and when the event is over you should leave and never go back. The ceremonialist should have a good grasp of the ceremony and the group taking the medicine. There should be assistants if the group is larger than just a few.
The ceremonialist should track each person, check on them, and not let any one run wild and interfere with other participants. There should be an aura of sacredness and blessedness throughout the ceremony without a lot of talking or raucousness. At the end of the ceremony, after many hours, it is common for people to share and for there to be some laughter and talking.
Ayahuasca ceremonies are best when the ceremonialist conducts personal or group healings. This is especially important if someone is sick or is having a difficult time. The ceremonialist should be skilled in conducting these healings, able to use icaros to calm the person, stabilized them, and help turn their experience around. If the ceremonialist makes no attempt to do any of these things, you should move on and never go back. Being an ayahuasqero is more than being just a babysitter or a dispenser of medicine. It requires a whole set of skills that come from long training.
Diet: What not to do
The diet is extremely important both before and after taking the ayahuasca. Anything you have eaten or taken that is incompatible with the medicine will send the experience into the more nightmare realms. It is popular these days for tourist groups in South America to take San Pedro, a visionary cactus plant, on one night and then the next night take ayahuasca. These are two completely different medicines, one being very alkaline and the other very acid and they do not interact well at all with one another. One should always allow at least ten days to two weeks between taking different entheogens. One should never mix ayahuasca with marijuana or any other kind of plant or laboratory hallucinogen. This is just asking for trouble. The exception would be the use of tobacco which is traditional in ayahuasca ceremonies. The protocols for taking ayahuasca are very carefully spelled out by traditional ayahuasqeros and should be followed out of respect for the tradition and for the plant itself. Deter from these at your own risk.
The list of dietary restrictions for ayahuasca are many and varied. The main things you should stay away from for three days prior and three days after are vinegar and any strongly acidic foods containing citric acid, ascorbic acid and the like. This includes citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, grapefruit, pineapple, and strawberries. Interestingly limes are fine and often used to clean the stomach and liver the next morning. Also basic restrictions include ice cold drinks, hot chiles, spices, very fatty foods like ocean fish and beef, and most lists include avoiding pork. One should especially avoid pharmaceutical drugs and especially anything that is an MAO inhibitor. This includes most cough syrups and antidepressants. For these you should be off them for at least two weeks and preferably more. Also you should avoid smoked meat products, bananas and avocados past their ripe stage because they are MAO Inhibitors. Since ayahuasca is also an MAO inhibitor you could experience a severe drop in blood pressure that could kill you. Before I knew this I experienced a strong drop in blood pressure and not only did I feel terrible for a while but it actually intensely frightened me.
The diet includes more than foods or substances however. One should avoid horror, thriller or action films because of the adrenaline rush and disturbing content, also anything with anxiety producing or depressing content. This includes amusement park rides because of the adrenaline rush that ayahuasca is not compatible with. After the ceremony one should totally avoid being out in the hot sun, hot tubs, and saunas for a least two days because of the extreme heat. The liver tends to heat up becoming a problem. It is also best to not engage in erotic activity for a couple of days on either end of the ceremony for similar reasons and because the hormones released disturbs the ayahuasca chemically.
People sometimes wonder what happens if they violate the dietary restrictions. At best nothing negative will happen. However there can be many negative consequences both physical and psychological. Physically speaking you can end up with severe diarrhea, headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, racing heart and the like. You can experience symptoms similar to anxiety or even those associated with heart attack although this is rare. This is more likely to happen if you have adrenaline rush experiences. You might experience confusion or a sense of being destabilized, fearful about your own stability. You may just feel out of sorts and uncomfortable.
Do follow the diet for three days prior and three days after if at all possible.
If you have been taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication you should get off these preferably a month in advance. Two weeks would be the shortest time recommended. If you cannot do so without severe reactions then stay on your medications and put off doing ceremony with ayahuasca until you can.
Do seek quiet and tranquility.
Do meditate and quiet the monkey mind.
Do not make any huge life decisions until you have stabilized in a week or two.
Maintain privacy. Do not seek to tell everyone about your experience until a couple weeks have passed.
The Aftermath of the Ceremony
I have taken ayahuasca innumerable times and I have had many different responses varying from the sublime to quite difficult states that took me some time to get through. I would say that all of these responses have been valuable, each in their own way. We all want to feel wonderful and ecstatic after such an experience, it is only natural. Fortunately many people feel wonderful following a ceremony as if they have a new lease on life. They may have experienced a spiritual renewal, a psychological breakthrough, an emotional release and the like. These are the most common responses to a good ayahuasca ceremony. However this is not always the case and it is not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen.
Sometimes the medicine can show you aspects of yourself that are not flattering and this can be hard to look at. I have seen people who experienced guilt over perceived wrongdoings and regrets over things they have done. Sometimes people are made aware of certain events in their childhood that they had repressed. These are hard lessons and they need to be purged somehow. The results can be massively healing if done with proper guidance.
At other times some people may feel destabilized like they don’t quite know who they are anymore. While it is easy to blame the medicine for this, it is usually the case the person was already feeling this way and it became more pronounced through the influence of the ayahuasca. Often the motivation for taking the ayahuasca in the first place was that the person was looking for change or wanted a new identity. This should not be interpreted as a bad thing. It is actually a sign of growth. No one can stay static for too long. Personal growth requires change and is often accompanied by some discomfort to the personality. That is not the end of the world. Most indigenous cultures believe that short bouts of euphoria, trance states, and getting out of the mind is actually good for people and I would agree. I believe that most westerners today live in an overly controlled and rigid environment that is not good for them in the long run.
Hooking up with a good counselor after a particularly challenging ceremony might be just the right thing to do although I offer some words of warning here. The counselor should be someone with an open mind that does not carry a heavy prejudice against a medicine they have no experience with. That negative judgment can be very detrimental to the person seeking support. The truth is that anything can precipitate a spiritual or psychological crisis: the death of a favorite pet, the loss of a job or mate, a hard breakup, an accident, an injury, a mugging, a trauma of any sort. Many people mistakenly blame the event for their difficult state of mind instead of seeing that it actually brought to the surface earlier unresolved experiences that need healing. Blaming the event is not helpful in solving the crises. Understanding the deeper and older wounds that were unleashed by the event is more important and can lead in most productive directions.
Who should not take Ayahuasca
There are some people who are not good candidates for taking ayahuasca under any conditions. If a person has a long history of instability, has been taking psychiatric medications for long periods of time, has spent time recently in a psychiatric facility, is suicidal, is emotionally desperate, is on a bipolar roller coaster, exhibits paranoia or delusions on a regular basis, or is psychotic, they should by no means take this medicine. There is another class of person who is not a good candidate for ingesting ayahuasca. This is someone who refuses to take responsibility for themselves in life; someone who blames everyone else for what happens to them. This a person who refuses to ever see or admit that they might have something to do with how their life turns out. This is a highly defensive person who actually enjoys blaming others, who is deeply angry with the world and wants to punish everyone for their own pain and suffering. Ayahuasca will not cure this person. They will only blame the medicine for their further travails.
With all this said, there is nothing quite like ayahuasca. It is an extraordinary combination of plants that open doors of perception and feelings of extraordinary love, connection, and fulfillment. I have seen people quit smoking packs of cigarettes a day, overcome phobias, completely change the perspective on their lives in a majorly positive way, and quit addictions such as alcohol, heroin, and methamphetamines. This is not easy. There is a price to pay for such outcomes. Often the process is quite emotionally painful but worth it.
No two ceremonies are exactly alike. It is a mistake to think your second experience will be just like your first. They are quite likely to be totally different. I have seen people have a very difficult experience the first time or an uneventful one where they hardly felt anything at all, only to have the second one be very benevolent or much more intense. You roll the dice and take what comes, just keep an open mind and make sure the circumstances are as positive as possible.
Ayahuasca is not an enemy, just a catalyst for transformation. If you are afraid of looking at yourself honestly then this medicine is not for you. You may not be ready for the experience today but a year from now you may be perfectly ready. You may take it once and that is all that is needed or you may take it many times and receive many benefits. On the other hand you may never need to take this medicine. It is always a choice just as you have a choice to meditate or not.
Ayahuasca and Sorcery
These days there are many people who put themselves forward as ceremonialists and ayahuasqeros. Many are just interested in the money or status, are untrained, and not up to the real task. Buyer beware.
Not all indigenous ayahuasqeros are trustworthy either nor are they necessarily highly conscious people. Sometimes they have strong narcissistic traits, can be greedy, manipulative, and controlling. Sometimes they are sexual predators or cult leaders. Make sure that the ceremonialist has a reliable reputation for doing good work and is a bonafide healer. When you take ayahuasca you are making yourself very vulnerable and open to what is around you. If the ceremonialist and their group is not trustworthy you can go home with psychological parasites and experience great difficulty that may require an experienced healer to clear up. A little research and planning is worth its weight in gold. Don’t be too naïve. Do your homework and you will be well rewarded.
The greatest challenge for the seeker is to find a safe setting where the ayahuasca is administered by a knowledgeable and ethical ayahuasqero where you can have the powerful and wonderful experience you have heard about. Be respectful and follow the guidelines set out by highly trained and experienced ayahuasqeros and you are much more likely to have a powerful positive experience. If you hear about or notice any hanky panky or anything that makes you cringe, clear out immediately. You are your most important asset. Do not compromise yourself for any reason. With good strong intention you will find what you are looking for.
Thank you Jose for this very valuable article! As a shamanic practitioner and psychologist I often receive questions about ayahuasca as well as hearing about “fallout” from ayahuasca experiences and ceremonialists who are not in integrity. As you indicate, I think overly high doses are very common. I always tell those who are interested to to trust their own call to do the medicine rather than to do medicine because someone else said they should or because of fear of missing out, to carefully check out the ayahuascero/a, and to follow the appropriate diet. It is very helpful to have all this information gathered together in one article. Is there a way to download the article from the SSP website?
Great article, Jose. I always appreciate your very balanced viewpoints and guidance.
Thank You Jose for an amazing well written article! I have had some individuals come to me post ayahuasca in an unsavoury state. I feel in shaman training there should be a whole module on it! I thought I knew quite a bit but learned a few more things in your article. Thank you so much for taking the time, your lived experience to share in a well written article of Ayuahuasa! Ho! And a vey Happy blessed NewYear! Nameste Eileen
Thank you for this very important writing. I feel that this subject should be part of Shamanic discussion in training programs. Your presentation would provide an excellent handout to students.
Excellent article. Covers all the basics. After half a dozen times I am still terrified when I lift the glass to my lips!!! I expect my medicine days may come to an end as I age, but with all the difficulty of the experience there is no doubt about the very deep (dna deep) change it can bring. Advice: trust your instincts and psychic ability concerning an ayahuasquero or your own inner readiness. I rarely regret listening to my guides/inner voices when I decide to pass up a ceremony.
Thank you, Jose. In January, I traveled to Pucallpa to receive healing for my back. I have traveled to Peru every year and have taken small groups, but not to the rainforest or just for my own healing. I was never drawn to use ayahuasca. Twice before I traveled, ayahuasca came up in the background and one of those times was your article. I look for synchrony in my life and omens, and so I determined to remain open to my trusted healer, Alberto, and whatever he determined was best for my good.
Sure enough, ayahuasca was on the menu. I opened to three beautiful journeys and significant healing. I so appreciate your recommendations–Alberto was the perfect practitioner according to your article, and I trusted him from the beginning as a result. I followed every suggestion you made of what to do and what not to do, and it made such a difference in my experience.
I now have a relationship now with the vine’s spirit that is a gentle friendship that has, and will continue perhaps without even ingesting it again. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and practical article.
Thank you very much for this article! You wrote evrything i think about this medicine! Thank you for sharing in such clear and honest way!!