Ayahuasca is taking the world by storm. The psychedelic brew that has been used for millennia by Amazon rainforest cultures is now being successfully utilized to treat many chronic and persistent modern maladies, including depression and PTSD.
Some claim that ayahausca has even helped heal physical illnesses like cancer and diabetes. Both personal anecdote and traditional usage back up the view that the highly hallucinogenic and strongly purgative tea, made by combining a rainforest vine and N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing leaves, can connect one to intelligence far greater than their individual conscious, where profound insights are discovered.
But there is also some confusion about how “the medicine,” as it is now called by many, actually heals. Ayahuasca is often touted as a “magic bullet” or “cure all” that needs simply to be consumed in order to heal by those who profit from ayahuasca ceremonies and retreats. This view can lead not only to a kind of misunderstanding that limits the true healing potential of the medicine, but abuse and other unsafe conditions in the ceremony and surrounding environment.
To get some clarity on the issue and to provide more information for those who are considering trying ayahuasca or working with it more, Reset contacted Benjamin De Loenen, founder and director of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service (iceers.org), a non-profit organization with offices in Spain, Holland and Uruguay. ICEERS is dedicated to providing resources, education and support to those interested in ayahuasca and other traditional plant medicines that have the potential to play a major role in global healing.
“It’s about maximizing the efficacy,” De Loenen says. “Very often you have realizations about life, but with that insight, things don’t really resolve. You have to put it in practice. It’s about taking that new information down to earth level.”
Traditional Integration Practices
In traditional contexts, the integration of the ayahuasca experience is just as important as the ceremony itself. In fact the ayahuasca dieta, which is not to be confused with the special diets that are often recommended before the ayahuasca ceremony, is very similar to a Vipassana style silent Buddhist meditation retreat or a Native American style vision quest. The participant often spends time in complete solitude away from all distractions in order to devote as much time as possible to introspection after a ceremony.
“A lot of these dietas are this process of being buried symbolically” De Loenen explains, “Letting the old die and giving birth to the new. It’s like a rite of passage.”
It is this “rite of passage” that changes the perspective and behaviors of the individual. And it is these life changes that actually are responsible for true healing.
“The ayahuasca is not going to cure your depression,” says De Loenen. “It is you that is going to solve it. But the ayahuasca is going to provide and facilitate this eagle’s eye view that gives you new information about where it comes from, where you are situated in life. And that’s what’s going to give you the tools and insights to later on integrate that and make steps and improvement in daily life.”
Ayahuasca does not fix the problem, it shines the light on it, and it is still up to each individual to make the changes in their own life. This is why, although many people have “life changing” experiences during ceremony, too few really see lasting effects or deep healing.
“I have seen people right after the session, and they really are amazed at the really profound experience. They consider it sometimes [to be] the most important spiritual or transformative experience in their life,” explains Loenen. “But if you come back six months later, the benefit can seem much lower. And that’s where the integration makes the difference.”
Integration In A Modern Setting
ICEERS provides information and resources on both preparation and integration for those who are partaking in an ayahuasca ceremony outside of a traditional context where the dieta would be part of the process. The organization has psychologists within their team who are there to help people that have had difficult experiences to properly integrate them. They also produce downloadable documents, like the Guide to Good Practices, which can be used by participants and those organizing ceremonies.
“What we are trying to do is make some practical information available for seekers,” De Loenen told us. “Because if you look on the internet there is quite a bit of information that is not very honest about both the benefits and the risks involved.”
Counseling, meditation, spending time in nature, and even just talking with close friends, are all powerful ways to integrate an ayahuasca ceremony into modern life as they allow you to spend time really exploring the issues and insights that came up.
“If you work on Wall Street, for example, you should take a couple days or a week off after a ceremony to properly integrate it before returning to work,” De Loenen advises. “The work, the stress, the things we face in the city are very different from what we find in the Amazon. Nature is automatically a setting of integration.”
Since preparation is also an important element of the overall ayahuasca experience and its healing potential, ICEERS offers advice and guidelines for those interested in trying the medicine as well as scientific information and studies about its effects.
Shamans And Charlatans
The visions and physical sensations involved in ayahausca sessions are often more powerful or intense than what was expected, making both preparation and integration vital. While a good shaman or provider knows this and makes them an important part of the experience, others may neglect preparation and aftercare completely.
“People are not always aware of the effects and the intensity of this type of session,” De Loenen warns. “So when the providers are not honest about that and they say, ‘No, this is going to be a great experience and we are going to heal all your things’ people can go and have frightening experiences and things can get really challenging.”
“Sometimes you go back to a peri-natal state, sometimes into processes of dying and being reborn and I think people should be really prepared for that,” says De Loenen. “The combination of a good preparation, a good setting, and good integration is a day and night difference from just taking ayahuasca.”
Unfortunately, misinformation about ayahuasca is widespread, especially among those that charge large amounts of money for ceremonies and make promises and claims that portray the medicine as something other than what it is. These “charlatans” should be avoided by those who want to truly benefit from working with ayahuasca.
“I think that sometimes the mentality of those that work with Ayahuasca and say that it is going to cure your issues — that it’s that simple — I think they are potentiating this vision that you are powerless and you need external things to do this healing,” De Loenen explains.
When looking for a power outside of yourself to heal or help you, you are opening yourself up to age-old con games where unscrupulous shamans pretend to have magic powers in order to part you from your money, or worse. Also, you are missing the heart of the healing power of ayahuasca, which is that you are able to change yourself and therefore self-heal.
“They can understand ayahuasca and other similar plants in the wrong way,” De Loenen continues. “People seek to cure whatever it is, but ayahuasca is really this catalyst that helps you to be in power.”
Integration And Deep Healing
Even very intense negative experiences with ayahuasca can be turned into powerful healing experiences with proper integration and aftercare, which is why the dieta process (which often includes a longer post-dieta period of behavioral restrictions) is so important in traditional ayahuasca use.
“People sometimes come out of very deep ceremonies not even being able to give meaning to the experience, saying things like ‘this is horrible’ — sometimes quite in shock. But then, through guidance or therapy, all of a sudden they start to understand the meaning of the experience and start to relate that to who they are,” De Loenen says.
“In daily life they start changing their behavior, and with that change, people start changing the way they relate to them,” he continues. ”All of a sudden, there is a jump in their growth process from something that initially might have been looked at as a horrible and difficult experience.”
For those dealing with a particularly intense experience, ICEERS provides a free support service, which offers initial assistance and helps people locate local therapists who understand the processes ayahuasca can induce, if needed. Far from being a sign that something went wrong, a deep and even frightening ayahuasca experience can actually be the entry way into a process of introspection that results in a healing of epic proportions.
“I think we are in a real crucial moment as well, because ayahuasca is becoming so popular and also because it attracts opportunism and unethical practices.” De Loenen reiterates, “I hope that it goes into people accepting more and understanding more the benefits and potency of these plants, using tools like psychotherapy for preparation, learning about how to deal with difficult experiences during the ceremony through things like breathing techniques, and then afterwards having access to therapists, bodywork and other resources that can help them integrate the experience so that many people can experience the healing that these plants can facilitate.”
Ocean Malandra is a journalist that divides his time between Northern California and South America. His articles have appeared in everything from Alternet to USA Today and his short story, The Pusanga, was just published in the anthology Love Alters. Follow him at @OceanMalandra.
This article has been updated to better reflect the services ICEERS offers.