Ayahuasca is a sacred visionary brew that has been used for centuries in healing ceremonies by various indigenous cultures in the Amazon basin. The beverage is a decoction of two key plants, the ayahuasca vine itself, scientifically known as Banisteriopsis caapi, and the vision-inducing, DMT-containing leaves of the chacruna plant, also known as Psychotria viridis. The two plants work together in an amazing synergy: chemical compounds in B. caapi, the beta-carbolines, inhibit the enzyme monoamine oxidase in our bodies, which would otherwise prevent DMT found in the chacruna leaves from being orally active. Among the billions of possible combinations of plants in the Amazon rainforest, the fateful marriage of these two plants yields one of the most powerful psychoactive substances on earth. The circumstances of this incredible discovery remain shrouded in mystery.
An incredible, potentially life-changing journey begins when one has decided to work with ayahuasca. As the curandero who I work with often says, the journey doesn’t end after your first ayahuasca experience, but rather has only just begun. The insights into one’s self and the nature of this mysterious life we live as gleaned from even a single ayahuasca experience can be wholly transformative. Psychological belief structures, which underly detrimental behavior patterns, may come crumbling down in the light of higher awareness engendered by ayahuasca. This sacred medicine can bring one into direct contact with one’s higher self, or spirit, which consequently facilitates the deep healing often encountered by ayahuasca users. It is as if the medicine allows for one’s habitual mental state and tendencies to be temporarily suspended so that a more profound state of being not normally accessible in our day-to-day lives can be accessed.
Neurobiological studies of long-term ayahuasca users support this notion, as distinct areas of the brain involved in high level constructs such as the ego or self are known to physically change with prolonged use of ayahuasca. Furthermore, other investigations have shown that ayahuasca “hyperactivates the entire brain region where we store and process emotional memory, often uncovering long-forgotten memories.” This hyper activation overrides previously deep-seated emotional patterns, thereby permitting the creation of new neural connections.
In the last 30 years, ayahuasca has gained global notoriety and extended its reach to pull at the hearts of thousands of foreigners who make their way to the Amazon to participate in healing ceremonies. These ayahuasca pilgrims travel across the globe for reasons such as healing from trauma, drug addiction, anxiety, depression, and even cancer. Others simply seek to deepen their spiritual connection to themselves and to something greater. Scientific studies have dutifully traveled alongside the upsurge of interest in ayahuasca. There are now a total of 145 studies in PudMed that appear under a search for the term “ayahuasca” — 140 of which have been published since 2001.
A couple studies (here and here) have shown that a single dose of ayahuasca is sufficient to break major depressive episodes in patients who suffered from treatment-resistant depression and that these effects were sustained for at least 21 days. However, due to limitations in how these studies were conducted, it was not possible to unequivocally conclude that ayahuasca was fully responsible for the antidepressant effects observed in the patients. Furthermore, and more importantly, the patients were only followed for three weeks after their ayahuasca experience. Thus, the truly long-term persistence of the anti-depressive effects observed in these patients, all of whom suffered from recurrent episodes of major depressive disorder, remain to be seen.
Despite the growing body of evidence in support of ayahuasca and its potential treatment of major depression, caution is duly warranted: unmitigated hope in ayahuasca alone as a cure for depression may leave one both depressed and disappointed. There are several anecdotal reports found on social networks or websites that attest to this reality: several people suffering from depression who have taken ayahuasca, even a handful of times, did not find sustainable relief from their depression.
Thus, it is undeniable that something more is needed in this process of healing rather than the singular reliance upon this sacred medicine. I propose that this “something more” is a dedicated spiritual practice, critically important in supporting one in daily life, in between or even irrespective of ayahuasca sessions. Ayahuasca may show us the way, but it is up to us to walk the path and materialize the insights received outside of ceremony. A spiritual practice can provide the context and supportive background necessary to integrate one’s ceremonial experience, and like a mirror, can also reflect and inform one’s future ceremonial experiences.
Jack Kornfield, a notable American Buddhist author and teacher says, “Like our salivary glands whose job it is to secrete saliva, our minds continually secrete thoughts. It’s just what it does.” These thoughts can be trivial or traumatizing. Without a spiritual practice of some kind (and even with a spiritual practice), it is all too easy to habitually grasp onto thoughts that lead us down a path of self-victimization, fear, anxiety, and judgement; thoughts that keep us locked down and trapped in the limiting stories we create for ourselves.
While an ayahuasca session may elicit a profound experience for some that allows them to completely break free of certain negative thought patterns and traumas for good, for others the experience may only offer a temporary reprieve. This is why the cultivation of a spiritual practice is of paramount importance. After all, ayahuasca connects us to our spirits, the source of our being that is often, and unfortunately, ignored. Without a spiritual practice of some kind, integration of our ceremonial experiences becomes more difficult and we become prone to the habitual tendencies of our minds, which are often destructive and self-limiting.
The essence of spiritual practice is simple, yet can easily take a lifetime to master: learning how to love, accept, and forgive one’s self.
Jack Kornfield writes in his book, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life:
“In truly listening to our most painful songs, we can learn the divine art of forgiveness. In this, we discover a remarkable truth: much of spiritual life is simply self-acceptance. Indeed, in accepting the songs of our life, the joyful and painful ones, we can begin to create for ourselves a much deeper and greater identity in which our heart holds all within a space of boundless compassion.”
The types of spiritual practices available are numerous, but they all share this simple essence of self-acceptance. As such, one’s spiritual practice is a highly personal yet ultimately universal process. The grand advantage of working with ayahuasca is that it can propel one forward in this process of self-acceptance and forgiveness, allowing one to progress and overcome years of accumulated sorrow, sometimes even in a single night. Profound awakenings of the heart can take place; we awaken from our spiritual slumber and remember the noble wholeness of the spirit. Connection to the spiritual heart is what will integrate the fragmented, separated self created by the mind. As the great Indian sage, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “The mind creates the abyss, but the heart crosses it.”
With a spiritual practice, we begin to view ourselves, our ayahuasca experiences, and our relationship to the world and all it contains in a different light. The people we cross paths with, the events, circumstances, and experiences of our daily lives become the fuel for our continual awakening and opening. Through a committed practice, one begins to let go of the pathological identification with the mind and its thoughts, allowing for the space necessary for healing to naturally arise in the heart.
One of the more obvious spiritual practices that one can engage in is some form of meditation. Recent research has shown that ayahuasca increases mindfulness-related capacities in long-term users, where mindfulness can be characterized by being in a state of present, open, and non-judgmental awareness. In fact, there are thousands of scientific studies on the efficacy of mindfulness in treating a host of clinical disorders such as anxiety, depression, drug-addiction, eating disorders, and chronic pain.
Aside from mindfulness-based practices arising from the Buddhist tradition, there are numerous spiritual paths that one can follow. Perhaps Native American spirituality rings more true to you. Or a Taoist approach. Maybe it is the Hindu Yoga tradition that makes more sense, or shamanism, or a combination of approaches. The possibilities are limitless; what matters is not the spiritual framework one choses, but only an incredible interest in choosing, exploring, and using the teachings we encounter in order to heal ourselves and reach our highest human potential. We can then become an inspiration for others.
Ayahuasca is a powerful healing medicine in its own right. A dedicated spiritual practice can sustain balance and promote healthy living. The combination of the two hold an immense potential for not only profound healing, but also expansion of human consciousness and evolution.
Surrender to the beauty and wisdom of your spirit daily. Let love flow through you always.
I leave you with a final quote from Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life:
“It is the power of the heart to encounter any difficult circumstance and turn it into gold and opportunity. This is the fruit of true practice. Such freedom and love is the fulfillment of spiritual life. It is true gold. The Buddha said, ‘Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so too, there is but one taste fundamental to all true teachings of the way, and that is the taste of freedom.’”
Suggested Resources For The Spiritual Path
MindPodNetwork.com — An incredible, indispensable, up-to-date, and totally free collection of spiritual podcasts and wisdom from notable teachers such as Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Lama Surya Das, and more.
A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield — A guide to reconciling Buddhist spirituality with the American way of life, which addresses the challenges of spiritual living in the modern world and offers guidance for bringing a sense of the sacred to everyday experience.
Be Love Now: The Path of the Heart by Ram Dass and Rameshwar Das — Ram Dass’s long-awaited Be Love Now is the transformational teaching of a forty year journey to the heart. The author of the two-million-copy classic Remember, Be Here Now and its influential sequel Still Here, Dass is joined once more by Rameshwar Das — a collaborator from the Love Serve Remember audio recordings — to offer this intimate and inspiring exploration of the human soul. Like Deepak Chopra’s Book of Secrets, the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness, and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses, Ram Dass’s Be Love Now will serve as a lodestar for anyone seeking to enhance their spiritual awareness and improve their capacity to serve — and love — the world around them.
Dancing the Dream: The Seven Sacred Paths Of Human Transformation by Jamie Sams — Widely recognized as one of the foremost teachers of Native American wisdom, Jamie Sams reveals the seven sacred paths of human spiritual development and explains how exploring each path leads to shifts in our personal relationships with the earth, our loved ones, friends and communities, and most important, our own spiritual selves. As part of a profound awakening process, these paths help us heal the past, shed fear of the future, and focus on being aware and fully present in our daily lives. Ultimately, we discover that we are indeed dancing the dream.
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein — From education and medicine to business and politics, we are in the midst of a great flowering of mindfulness. And with each new application we find for it, priceless benefits emerge. Yet the original purpose of mindfulness has remained throughout the centuries: spiritual awakening. With Mindfulness, Joseph Goldstein shares the wisdom of his four decades of teaching and practice in a book that will serve as a lifelong companion for anyone committed to mindful living and the realization of inner freedom.