Ayahuasca encounters

The notion of spiritual enlightenment is one that has been continually reinvented. No longer the realm of the alternative beatniks of the 1960s, transcendental experiences are now sought far and wide, by CEO's, entrepreneurs, and the like.

Of late, one soul-searching instrument of choice has been Ayahuasca – a tea brewed from a vine indigenous to the Amazon that is said to hold profound physical and spiritual healing properties. The use of Ayahuasca is deeply ingrained in shamanic traditions across Brazil and Peru, though in recent years, its popularity has spread on a global scale.

Criticisms over the growing use of Ayahuasca have arisen, as well as more pressing concerns over its administration; incorrectly administered doses have result in harm and, in some instances, fatalities.

Growing stigma, mystique, and romanticisation in different circles have left curious souls questioning the notion of Ayahuasca tourism, and whether it is a phenomenon they can partake in without altering its essence.

I speak with Chris, a South American travel-insider who has taken Ayahuasca – ‘the little death’, as it is commonly known – more times than he can count. Chris tells me that he will have an Ayahuasca experience between three and four times a year. We engage in a lengthy discussion of the psychotropic substance – its application, purpose, and whether the air of authenticity that shrouds it is being polluted by a growing interest from around the globe.

“From a cynical perspective, people have always been attracted to mind-altering substances in order to expand their consciousness.  Ayahuasca is the ‘new’ thing”, he tells me.

With each passing trend, a new drug-du-jour is glamourised, though it does still seem paradoxical for Ayahuasca to have its moment in the sun, given the inherently odious physical effects that manifest. An experience is incomplete without enduring hours of pain, nausea, and vomiting as the body processes Ayahuaasca’s active ingredient, dimethyltryptamine, and the hallucinogenic effects begin to take shape.

Enigmatic though it may be, the physicality of the experience has done little to detract spiritual seekers, who continue to flock to Iquitos in their thousands. But what is it that they chase?

“My first experience was in 1999 just outside a village in Acre, the westernmost state of the Brazilian Amazon”, Chris explains.  “At first, I felt like I was being hugged by the Universe and the immense starlit sky above.  The sounds of the forest and my ability to see, even in the pitch dark, were incredibly enhanced. At a later stage, many very significant events of my life, from early childhood until today appeared in front of me, and I had the incredible opportunity to revisit them under a new light, asking foregiveness from people to whom I had done wrong.”

In the final stage of the ritual experience, volatility settles and the unsettling emotions subside. “I understood how little we know about the Universe. It was like having millions of TV channels sending radio waves across the skies, but our brains (the TV sets in this instance) do not have the capacity to tune these in under normal circumstances.” Chris ascended from a deep position of negativity and strife, and into a stage of enlightenment – one that he says endures after the experience is complete, and can continue to influence your outlook on life.

Looking at Chris and hearing him speak of his experiences, it’s hard to keep the criticisms in mind; his conviction that his life has changed for the better is communicable. This feeling of contentment and gratuity is what people travel far and wide in search of. 

Key influencers in popular culture have been sharing their own Ayahuasca encounters. In a televised interview, Sting described his experience as “the only genuine religious experience I have ever had,”. Parallels drawn to a religious awakening are seemingly common. Chris recalls a very similar experience.  “I don’t believe in any dogmas or organised systems of belief that are normally associated with religions. However, [Ayahuasca] is the only religious experience I have ever had in the sense that it put me, for the first time, in contact with a sacred, spiritual vision of the universe.”

Despite such strong sentiments, I find myself wrestling with the notion of an unmitigated good. I share this concern with Chris, who surprises me when he makes no attempt to quell these doubts.  He tells me Ayahuasca is not a one-size-fits-all solution to life’s woes, and should never be seen as such. While it has been hailed as a treatment for depression and addiction, young adults and people struggling with psychological illness should stay clear. He also delivers a stern warning to anybody seeking a recreational drug high. This includes not just the thrill seekers, but the trend chasers too; “Anything taken out of context is always a much less significant experience”.

You need not be from a place to understand its rituals, but they must be practiced within a respectful context in order to be of benefit. Herein lies the question every Ayahuasca seeker must wrestle with before embarking on their journey. Is this experience being mass-produced and pre-packaged? How can Ayahuasca seekers safeguard the authenticity of their experience?

It’s a problem Chris refuses to be a part of; he will not intertwine his professional role within the tourism industry and his personal affiliation for any price. “An Ayahuasca experience is something of a completely different nature, and it’s impossible to predict the effects it will have on anyone”, he explains. “I do not condemn anyone who engages in responsible Ayahuasca tourism, but I prefer to leave my professional life and my personal spiritual quest in different places.”

* Chris’ name has been changed in this feature to comply with his request for anonymity.