I have often found it challenging to describe accurately, and in a way that conveys the true emotional impact, any experience of a deeply personal, life altering, nature. The internal geometry of each individual is unique. While we all seem to experience the same basic gamut of emotional states, we tend to ascribe very personal meaning to them, and to the circumstances, interactions, and events that provoke these sometimes profound states and their transformation or resolution. I have recently had a trancendant experience of this kind and will do my best to elucidate it here so that it may be helpful to others who are seeking personal change.
In September 2014, I flew to Costa Rica to embark on a psycho-spiritual journey under the influence of the powerful medicinal plant, iboga. Before making this trip, I was in desperate need of personal transformation. Guided through this process, and cared for by the tremendously empathetic and talented people who staff the retreat, I have come away from the experience fully transformed, and my life thankfully, will never be the same.
Riddled with doubt, fear, and an abusive inner monologue, I had attempted for years to extricate myself from negative emotional behavior patterns and choices. Health issues, chronic, severe insomnia, and several traumatic events, including childhood sexual abuse, had conspired to shape my outlook as hopeless. Years of psychotherapy, self help literature, and extremely well meaning conversations with close friends and loved ones had done nothing to change my position.
In early 2013, after I was robbed at gunpoint, I was diagnosed with PTSD and went through a long period in which I did not recognize myself internally. This was truly frightening. On the other side of the dark months that followed the mugging, I found myself more self abusive and angry then ever. I felt toxic. I held the secret belief that everyone around me could feel my negativity and that I could not prevent it from affecting them detrimentally.
I am legally blind from birth. Although I have never identified with the label handicapped, while interfacing with our visually oriented culture, I have struggled to achieve many accomplishments over the years. I felt tired, defeated. I could not see a way forward. The way in which I felt inside, and the way in which I was interacting with the world around me had become untenable. I had to change drastically. Thankfully, there is a mechanism for such change.
Iboga is a tree which grows indigenously in Gabon, Africa. A very long time ago, no one knows how long, the Buntu tribe discovered that the root bark of iboga is psychoactive. Quickly, these people realized that iboga is a powerful teacher. Under the influence of this psychedelic, an individual can gain access to a vast ecosystem of information that is supremely illuminating and entirely relevant to personal growth and transformation. Furthermore, iboga will do internal physical work on a body. It will expel parasites, herpes and yeast, and break up profound aggregations of emotional stress that have built up over years. The discovery, and subsequent regular use of iboga by the peoples of Gabon, gave rise to a tradition they call Bwiti or the study of life itself.
There are many misconceptions about the Bwiti tradition. For instance, there are those who erroneously characterize Bwiti as a religion. Although the Bwiti tradition is steeped in ceremony and ritual, these practices are analogous to many of our own Western secular ceremonies such as graduation from school or induction into a professional society. They are free from dogma, and are not tied to a specific religion or religious orientation. The providers at the retreat continue to study and train with a Shaman, or healer, from Gabon. This Shaman is clear that the tradition he ascribes to is aligned with the original Bwiti practices.
The philosophy of those who call themselves Bwiti is centered on self love, appreciation for life, and the management of the mind. The knowledge that life is the greatest gift is paramount in the Bwiti worldview. We are meant to live happily, and truthfully, making life as simple a joy as possible given all the many challenges we face as individuals and as a culture… The Bwiti believe that the mind is a powerful tool, but it is not the source of our experiences, nor the entire progenitor of our awareness. The Bwiti admonish that we should control the mind, allowing only thoughts that serve us and expelling forcefully those that do not. The Bwiti are action oriented. They look for and implement, as soon as they are identified, actions that will improve their lives in the present moment.
The Bwiti believe in the literal existence of the soul, or higher self. The soul is capable of traveling between the individual and a vast ecosystem of information and disembodied intelligences that the Bwiti refer to as the Spirit World. Life is acknowledged as the most powerful force in existence, and everything is teaming with life. All creatures, even the air, water and Earth have a spirit, and to some degree can be communicated with. Prior to my Iboga experience, I might have dismissed this worldview as metaphorical at best. Today, I too have experienced these realities directly and as truth.
I have been an open minded seeker for my entire life. I have studied many philosophies, read Joseph Campbell, and followed many of the psychedelic thinkers including McKenna, Watts, and Ram Dass. I first became aware of iboga listening to an interview in the late 1990s with author Daniel Pinchbeck who was discussing his book, Breaking Open The Head. About a year prior to my experience, I began looking into the use of psychedelics as treatment for trauma and discovered iboga to be a powerful tool in processing traumatic experience. There is sufficient scientific literature illustrating iboga’s ability to break addiction, and to transform negative emotional states.
I was deeply afraid to undergo a journey, or two, under the influence of an extremely powerful psychedelic, however, my situation had become so untenable as to warrant trying almost anything. So I made the decision to go to Costa Rica. Iboga is a schedule 1 substance in the United States, as are most hallucinogens, and therefore illegal. Iboga treatment centers are legal in other parts of the world, however, and it is rapidly becoming an accepted modality for treatment of addiction, PTSD, and various other psychological maladies.
My first point of contact with the retreat was with the guest services coordinator and a cofounder of the center itself. She was extremely knowledgeable, gracious, and truly helpful person. She was responsive to all of my questions, made sure I was prepared logistically for my trip, and helped to ease my mind about the ordeal I was to experience. Without her, I would not have made this trip. I am eternally grateful to her.
Upon landing in Costa Rica, I was met at the airport by two team members who had both been seriously addicted to opiates. Through the use of iboga they have fully recovered from addiction and have dedicated their lives to helping others. I immediately felt at ease with one in particular, who I felt was a kindred spirit. It was comforting to have that sense of recognition early on the trip. He was instrumental in guiding me through this process, and was exceptionally direct and very gifted in facilitating the kind of miraculous and often difficult change that the iboga journey will foster.
I, along with six others, was taken on a 20 minute drive to the retreat… On the first evening, Monday, we were given an orientation. A facilitator explained the itinerary for the next 8 days, described in some detail the iboga experience, and answered any and all questions.
The retreat had a doctor on staff 24/7, who screens every guest. He inquires about their reasons for wanting to take iboga, helps to clarify the process of treatment, and checks the vitals of each guest prior to the actual ingestion of iboga. During the long nights of journeying, he is present to make sure that there are no complications, and to provide reassurance.
When attending the retreat for a psycho-spiritual journey, the experience is divided into two iboga sessions. The first, which takes place on the second evening of the week, is classified as a detox. An iboga trip lasts for approximately 24 hours. Along with being a powerful hallucinogen, iboga is also a very strong stimulant. Therefore, one will not sleep during the entirety of an iboga trip. It is observed that during a detox trip, iboga will rifle through, and reorganize the contents of the mind. This experience is often of a highly personal nature and may include visions, auditory hallucinations, deep realizations, profound emotional states, or all of the above. Iboga will also work on the physical body. If one has opiates in the system, it can flush these out and rewire the receptors in the brain, providing both relief from withdrawal and an opportunity for the former addict to change behavior patterns that led to the addiction in the first place. Iboga can also break up many years of emotional tension that has coalesced in the body, sometimes causing pain and heaviness, the proverbial weight of the world.
As preparation for the first journey, we were instructed to consider questions we may have about our lives, existence, past events or current situations. These we would write down, and during one of our two iboga experiences, we would be guided by a provider to ask these questions while journeying, and to retrieve the answers. As I contemplated my questions that afternoon, I sketched a vignette in my notebook: the rim of the world in the middle distance with a large stylized sun face rising over the horizon. Directly beneath this, a sundial illustrating the four cardinal points with an iboga tree growing from its center. I often doodle stylized suns and moons, and have ever since I was a child. This image was to take on a much deeper meaning for me in short order.
The evening ceremony began around 9:30 PM. We all gathered outside on the lowest level of the house and sat in a circle around a fire pit. The night was calm and clear, and the air was humid and warm. Crickets and other exotic insects chirped in the near by foliage, and there was a strong sense of anticipation hanging in the air between us all. The two facilitators began the ceremony by welcoming us, and congratulating us on taking a monumental step in our individual personal growth. They espoused the belief that our choice to engage in the iboga experience would literally make the world a better place. Today, I too am convinced of this.
The ceremony progressed as one of the facilitators told us of his background and struggles with opiates. How he had come to hear about iboga. He told us of his transformation from opiate addict… and spoke of the Bwiti traditions. The focus of the Bwiti philosophy is squarely on self love, truth, acceptance, and action. He concluded his talk with an admonishment. He said that the fire has a powerful spirit. If you properly introduce yourself to the fire, you can give to it anything which you no longer need, or have use for. If you truly want rid of it, the fire can take it and burn it away. Somehow, I strongly resonated with this, and when he lit the fire, I gave it my fear.
Next we were each given a cup of water, a plastic bucket in case the nausea brought on by iboga induced vomiting, and each of us were given one dry scoop of the ground root bark. The texture was like sawdust. Most people characterized the taste as very bitter and nasty. I did not mind it on that first evening.
As we waited for the effects of the iboga to kick in, the ceremony progressed as another of the skilled providers shared with us his past struggles, his experience with iboga, his transformation, and his take on the Bwiti traditions and philosophy. About 30 minutes after ingesting the iboga, most of us began noticing the effect. Auditory and visual perceptions were heightened and accompanied by mild hallucinatory distortions. Ataxia, difficulty in coordinating muscle movement, became noticeable and progressed as the evening wore on. Many of us around the fire laughed and joked about feeling more high than we had memory of throughout our entire lives. The profound difference with this high, even though you are truly “loaded” on the iboga, is that one maintains a perfect mental clarity and sense of self, with no ego dissolution.
We were administered a second scoop of the bark as another provider began to talk. He shared with us the deep concern that he had harbored for his son, who had been a hardcore opiate abuser, who he convinced to fly to Costa Rica with him and try iboga. The iboga not only broke the addiction, it completely alleviated the withdrawal symptoms. The provider was transformed by witnessing this and through his own experience with iboga, dedicated his life to shepherding others through the healing process.
At this point in the ceremony, I felt a palpable wave of love and pure compassion coming from all three of the iboga providers. They were 100 percent present and there for us to facilitate our journey. It was a staggering realization.
I have found it difficult to connect emotionally with others for much of my life. Here I was in a foreign country with veritable strangers and I could feel their compassion for me and everyone sitting around that fire. These people want the world to be a better place. They want for us to experience a freedom we may have never known. They know that the iboga experience is capable of unlocking that freedom, and they have dedicated their lives to giving access and guidance to anyone who seeks this experience. The intent was clear and powerful.
As we sat around the fire listening to the stories that our providers shared with us, I began to turn inward. In that moment, I was faced with profound fear and doubt. A very negative retrospective of my relationship with my wife began to play across my mind’s eye. I became convinced that I had made so many choices out of fear and not from a place of love. Little did I know of the massive surprise to come!
When I was sure that I was sufficiently feeling the effects of the iboga, I let the providers know that I was ready for phase two and was led me up the long steep stone staircase that ascended along one exterior wall of the house to a mezzanine. The climb was difficult due to the ataxia. At the top of the stairs was the entrance to a long room, roughly 10 by 20 feet, with open windows on the longer, exterior side facing North and overlooking the fire.
The temple, which resembles a small dance or yoga studio, contained several mattresses laid out along two of the walls, each with a pillow and sheet. Along the opposite wall from the entrance to the temple and the windows was a small altar containing several objects from Africa and various food offerings. This, we were told, was to attract protective spirits. At the West end of the room was a small bathroom, and a vanity with a sink and mirror. The interior walls had no windows. The room was dimly lit, and Bwiti music was playing on a portable music system and mingled with the sound of the crackling fire below, and the nocturnal insects singing along in the rainforest.
As I gazed around the room, the provider asked me which mat I would like to claim. I looked to the left and immediately caught sight of something that completely changed my internal fear state. There, hanging on the wall, was a blanket with a stylized smiling sun face and a crescent moon and stars emblazoned in it’s center. The sun was very similar to the sketch I had made earlier that day.
Two years previously, my wife had given me a blanket for my birthday with this exact sun and moon printed on it. It is still on our bed today. Needless to say I was shocked! My fear dropped away as I settled onto the mat in front of the massive sun face. I had the overwhelming sense that I belonged right where I was, and that I was in good hands. I clearly heard a voice tell me that I was always going to wind up laying on that mat, in that room, at that time. It was meant to be.
As I settled into the experience, I felt the sounds of the Bwiti music wash over me. The Bwiti claim that iboga gave them instructions on how to harvest the materials and assemble the instruments as well as the songs themselves that comprise the Bwiti journeying music. The music is polyrhythmic, virtuosic, and aids greatly in inducing a trance state that is ideal for allowing the iboga experience to unfold. Throughout the night, I would find myself engaging the Bwiti music, marveling at its beauty and feeling a sense of deep gratitude for the tradition of this music as it provided an anchor to my experience.
I lay on my back on the mat. The warm night air felt comfortable as it touched my skin. I felt peaceful. The provider stood over me and asked if was doing alright. I told him that when I closed my eyes, I saw visions. He said, “That’s just iboga showing you stuff, just go with it.” He then offered me a blindfold to place over my eyes. I took him up on it and settled into the experience.
The visions were intense and glorious. Geometric patterns outlined in neon colors swirling in concentric spirals gave way to thousands of faces. These would scan past my mind’s eye at a ferocious pace and in brilliant detail; some rendered photographically, some appearing as intricate illustrations, as transcendent sculptures hewn from metal, stone, clay and plasticine. Other faces took the form of illustrious paintings on stone surfaces, and some would appear as if in a dream. Entire galaxies would unfold before me. It seems as though I witnessed the birth and death of stars, the formation of planets. I would descend into an image, only to realize a subtler level, as though I were experiencing the vision on the subatomic scale. Large ecosystems of three dimensional geometric objects would pass before me, each more amazing and intricate then the last. Cloudscapes, lush landscapes, dancing figures, laughing children, waves of pure energy all rushed past my mind’s eye in rapid succession and with breathtaking beauty. I could sense the vast intelligence of the plant. It welcomed me to the experience and conveyed to me that I would be alright. There was the palpable sense of being in the presence of another sovereign being who wanted to communicate with me and to help me heal.
I suddenly came to the inescapable realization, that the fears I had experienced sitting by the fire were erroneous. I was shown how wonderful and powerful my relationship with my wife is, and I felt a wave of joy descend on me. I was then struck by a sense of familiarity, as though I had experienced this altered state before. Iboga then told me, as though I were listening to the voice of any human being, that I was at that moment, simultaneously wide awake, as well as deep asleep and dreaming.
Iboga went on to say that dreaming is spirit travel. That we do this every night, and that it is meant to clear us out and provide us with realizations about ourselves and our lives that will help to make us happier. However, many of us are so filled with a lifetime of negative self talk and trauma, this endogenous mechanism for clearing the mind is not enough. People like me need something stronger: 20 years of psychotherapy, or one night of iboga.
More visions came, and with it, more realizations. I am a good person. Sure, I have made mistakes, but I have made many attempts to atone for most of them, and to learn from them. I am generally very kind to people and get along well with them. I show my wife love and respect. These are things I did not previously realize about myself. I felt the truth of them and realized that I had been viciously cruel to myself for years.
As these realizations took hold, a new vision materialized before me, and I found myself looking directly into the face of my soul. He was me, although me at three or four years old. He was wearing a yellow and blue striped shirt with a white collar and a pair of brown denim jeans. These are items of clothing that I am aware of having when I was a child, as I have seen photographs of myself dressed in these clothes. The younger me looked unhappy. I remarked out loud that I could see myself as a child. One of the facilitators came over to me and prompted me to talk with him, to ask him how he is doing today. The little boy refused to speak with me and receded into the kaleidoscopic visionscape before me.
Throughout the next several hours, amidst the fantastic visions racing before me, a profound realization unfolded. My soul was pissed at me. I had been ignoring it. I had been holding on to energies of old, destructive relationships. I had been talking to myself in a very abusive manner, making choices out of fear, and this was intolerable to the little boy inside of me. I felt a deep sorrow, and pledged to my soul that I would attempt to make things right.
While the visions and realizations were manifesting, iboga was working on my physical system. I first felt a tingling in my toes. The sensation very slowly spread upward through the body and all the way into my head, and then began to travel downward toward the feet at what seemed subjectively to be a deeper level in the body. These sensations persisted throughout the night and would come and go in waves of greater and greater intensity sometimes accompanied by a loud ringing in the ears. Sometimes the sensation was so uncomfortable as to be almost intolerable, and then it would let up, only to return a few minutes later. The end result of this work, I believe, was the alleviation of aggregate stress that had built up over years as severe tension in my body.
At one point in the night, I had a vision of a supernova-like explosion. This took place in the far distance off to the very right side of my inner visual field. Simultaneous to this, I felt a strong pop inside my head, at roughly the same spot as the explosive vision. I heard a loud voice say. “remember this”. The next day, I was told by the voice of iboga, that the “explosion” was to eradicate the very strong and destructive energies of a relationship I had held onto for decades. I deeply felt the truth of this, and felt a kind of emotional release and relief I had never known.
The visions continued throughout the night and all through the next day. A bird’s eye view of a stainless steel counter top. Then, from out of frame, hundreds of pieces of cutlery are poured in slow motion across the surface. Each knife, fork, and spoon unique in design and material composition: jeweled handles, stone prongs and blades, exotic woods and gleaming precious metals. Suddenly, one Japanese style steak knife separates from the dozens of other implements present. It floats above them, presenting itself assertively to my minds eye. Then, rapidly the utensil multiplies into dozens of Japanese steak knives, all a unique iteration. These blades, in turn transform into hundreds of disparate and fascinating sailing vessels. Ancient reed boats, modern windjammers, 18th century galleons, brightly colored catamarans, all pass before me in rapid succession and form a long ribbon of seafaring vehicles which then dissolve into outstanding geometric patterns, spirals of glowing particulate, waves and washes of color that express a definite artistic intent and vision, each unique, each masterful in its singular composition.
In the heat of this visionary state, I passed through dozens of architectural spaces, abstract realms, and indexes of familiar and unfamiliar iconography alike. Lavishly appointed rooms constructed of egregiously expensive hardwoods with skylights open to the sun or stars. Futuristic cityscapes, multidimensional, synesthetic representations of concepts such as time, or numerals. I saw renderings of devils, cathedrals, and hieroglyphs and alphabets of unknown origin. All of these images were wrought in excruciating detail, and remain the most beautiful visions I have ever witnessed.
One of the many realizations that unfolded for me during my first encounter with iboga was about the nature of dreaming. I had long considered a theory that as we dream, we experience many simultaneous streams of information. The waking mind, which tends towards wrapping a narrative around our subjective experience, will then pull various bits of this information that it deems important, and weave it into a story or pastiche. This narrative is what we remember upon waking.
My visionary experience illustrated that this is precisely what happens during one phase of dreaming. However, the information is not entirely emanating from within the physical brain. We are swimming in a sea of information, an environment that is akin to, and can only be fully accessed in a dream-like state of consciousness. Nevertheless, we do interact with this environment every single moment of our entire lives. We are steeped in it, and it informs our reality in a way that is very meaningful and indelible. There are numerous intelligences inhabiting this environment. Some of these are extremely benevolent, and desire for us to be truly happy.
This last realization has completely transformed my worldview. I used to consider myself a materialist. I have now experienced something that has proven to me the assertions I have made above. This profound change in me continues to unfold, and has been very beneficial. I feel much more confident in my day to day activities, and I no longer fear death.
The day following my initial iboga experience was spent recuperating and integrating. Lack of sleep causes the body and psyche to feel overwhelmed. When I would close my eyes, I would still experience visions. I chose to engage these often throughout the day. The rest of the time I spent in contemplation or in conversation with others in the group.
We would discuss at length our ongoing experience of the iboga. I believe we all felt this helped us process our very unique experiences. Many people had no visions. Almost everyone had profound realizations about their lives and current personal circumstances. Most of the group had an interaction with their soul on some level, some envisioning their soul as a small child like I did. Almost everyone came away with a deep sense of awe and reverence for the experience. We all agreed it was the most difficult process we had ever engaged.
By the end of the second day of my iboga journey, I began to experience a profound level of tranquility. I could see thoughts as they would enter my mind, and choose whether or not to engage them. I felt lighter, and in touch with a vast part of myself that has nothing to do with thought, or self-reflection. I felt liberated. This feeling continues today, and I am overawed by it. It is quite literally miraculous.
While attending the retreat, I underwent a second iboga journey. This subsequent experience was very different, and in many ways more powerful than the first. However, it would take a lot more paragraphs to fully articulate that experience and the personal ramifications for my life. I may one day write about it as it was truly astounding.
The personal connections that I made with the group and providers at the retreat were instrumental in helping me heal, grow and change so rapidly. I have left out many personal details and interactions to protect privacy. However, every one of the remarkable individuals I was fortunate to spend time with hold a prominent place in my heart. We are now a kind of family, and I have much love and respect for them all.
Iboga is powerful medicine. I feel that my experience at the retreat has given me the opportunity to heal in a way I honestly did not believe possible. I am very grateful for my experience and the wonderful friendships I have made. The realizations I have come to on my two journeys continue to inform my life in deep and meaningful ways. I no longer talk to myself in an abusive manner. I feel joyful, hopeful, and energized. I laugh easily, and take great pleasure in the people and environment around me. I miss my friends at the retreat, and I hope to see them again in the near future.
This article has been edited for typos and clarity, and to remove the names of specific people and places.