Horror—the kind you might feel if you were standing in front of an oncoming tsunami—froze me in place as the ayahuasca hit. I was used to waiting about an hour for the special effects that signal the start of a psychedelic adventure. Instead, no more than 20 minutes after I’d taken the mystic jungle juice for the first time, galactic tremors were rattling the wall between this world and the next, and my vision was filling up with pixelated oil slicks made of neural electricity.
The spirit of ayahuasca had answered my call with outrageous speed. I pictured it as Lurch from The Addams Family, greeting me with a low, ominous “You rang?”
What I really wasn’t prepared for, though, was the sheer steamroller wallop of the brew’s first effects. For a few terrifying moments, as I sat under the stars in a location that shall go unnamed, the forest around me seemed to come alive and grow fangs. Then a gentle voice spoke four simple words:
I’m here to help.
The voice was deeply compassionate. Though I heard it with my mind rather than my ears, it felt distinctly “other,” as though a PA speaker within my temples were carrying the signal from elsewhere.
I wasn’t so deep in medicine trance as to forget what the word “hallucination” means. Yet it felt for all the world like this was Madre Ayahuasca herself letting me know she had no intention of harming me. In fact, she was offering love, healing, and intense beauty.
My shoulders receded, and a smile of relief and gratitude blossomed on my face.
Then She spoke again:
Watch the fire.
I was in no mood to argue. I fixed my eyes on the bonfire not far from where I sat. Its flames were hypnotic. They roped and darted, forming a crackling column of primal magic. Their sparks appeared to drift all the way up into space, where the stars absorbed them back into elemental light.
We had liftoff. My invisible guide had talked me down from the shortest bad trip ever, and what followed was one of the most profound, enriching experiences of my life.
That was nearly 20 years ago, but it still crosses my mind often. At the time all this was happening, I had no idea that this experience—the perception that the spirit of the vine is speaking directly to you in your native language—is a classic feature of the ayahuasca voyage.
The Voice of Ayahuasca?
“Yes, I hear a voice talking to me during ceremony,” psychologist and Listening to Ayahuasca author Rachel Harris, PhD told the Santa Barbara Independent. “I can’t tell you what that voice is, but I can tell you that virtually everyone who sits in ceremony hears it.”
While conducting a study of ayahuasca use in North America—which, by the way, she claims Aya herself advised her to undertake—Harris was stunned to discover just how common this experience is. At the 2019 World Ayahuasca Conference, she told her audience, “I have to say, in a true confession, I was hearing the voice of ayahuasca, but when I found out that three quarters of the other people were also hearing it, I went into ontological shock.”
Harris might be overstating by saying that virtually everyone who partakes of ayahuasca hears “the voice,” but there’s no shortage of tales from people who have had this experience. Journeyers often speak of the vine giving guidance, answering questions, imparting practical advice (for example, “Call your wife”), offering words of reassurance, delivering slightly cryptic messages like “You’re having twin boys,” or issuing warnings of a planet in peril.
Botanist Dennis McKenna tells of a visit with the vine that left him distressed about the destruction that humans are wreaking on the planet. Near the end of that experience, a soft voice consoled him by saying, “You monkeys only think you’re running the show.”
Do Plants Speak?
The shamanic narrative around this phenomenon is that it’s exactly what it seems: a direct dialogue between plant and human. Belief in plant entities that can communicate with humans is, in fact, the very foundation of ayahuasca shamanism.
The ayahuasqueros of the Amazon claim that their icaros—the songs they sing during ayahuasca ceremonies—were taught to them by plant spirits. They also say the plants themselves first told their ancestors that ayahuasca could be made by combining the leaves of the Psychotria virdis plant (which are rich in DMT) with the stems of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine (which contain the MAO inhibitor that stops digestive enzymes from breaking down the DMT before it can alter consciousness).
Considering that the Amazon rainforest is home to roughly 80,000 known leafy plant species, approximately 10,000 of which are vines, that explanation isn’t much more far-fetched than the idea that the first ayahuasqueros stumbled on this secret recipe by chance or through trial and error.
Can Humans Listen?
On the other hand, given ayahuasca’s incredible potency, it would be wise not to rule out the possibility that when one hears this voice, the call is coming from inside the house, so to speak. Perhaps by switching a few wires around, DMT can make the internal dialogue seem like it’s coming from somewhere or someone else. This might involve the language-processing areas of the brain that some scientists have linked to auditory hallucinations.
Ayahuasca is also known to diminish activity in the brain’s default mode network, which is thought to be the neurological home of one’s sense of self. It may be that when this activity is decreased, a resulting lack of differentiation between “self” and “other” creates the illusion that the spirit of the vine is speaking.
If this experience is a trick of the brain, it’s a fascinating one. More importantly, it often changes lives for the better.
As the curator of the YouTube page What Ayahuasca Told Me to Tell You says in the video Can You Talk to Ayahuasca?, “[Ayahuasca] has improved my life so much, I can’t even begin to put it into words. So, if you do get some good information out of this, and it helps you to access your joy, or your love for yourself, or forgiveness, or to find some peace in your life, then I’m good! It doesn’t really matter to me where that information is coming from.”
Damon Orion is a writer, journalist, musician, artist and teacher living in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California. More of his work can be found at DamonOrion.com.