Sometimes it takes a near death experience to bring you back to life. That was the mantra of sorts that was running through my head during last night’s ayahuasca ceremony, my second in 3 days. My ayahuasca experiences, like many others, were full of physical pain and emotional torment, with minimal peace and elation, yet I am in awe of how powerfully effective the medicine and ceremony are. Both experiences were completely different from each other, and different lessons were learned.
How It Started
Funny enough, this was my first time visiting Las Vegas, and ayahuasca made sure it would be a time not soon forgotten. My first few days were spent on the Strip with my mom, getting the typical tourist Vegas experience. While I was intrigued by the architecture and overall energy of Vegas, it certainly isn’t a place where I felt called to frequent on a regular basis. Having already anticipated this reaction, I decided to extend my stay in Vegas by a few days after my mom left. I left the luxury of staying in a hotel and stayed with a Couchsurfer in an apartment just behind the MGM Grand Casino. Lucky for me, I chose the perfect Couchsurfing host to fit my journey.
Originally from Australia, Nick is a holistic life coach who operates under the business Inner Instinct. He found himself in Vegas for a period of time during his trip throughout the United States, and my visit happened during a time when a 4 day ayahuasca ceremony was happening in the Vegas suburbs. Nick messaged me prior to my arrival, asking if I would be interested in attending, and I naively accepted, even after doing some bare bones research and having a slight realization that this would be unlike anything I could ever expect.The night of my arrival on Nick’s couch was the night of the ceremony. We prepared by eating a simple vegetarian dish hours before the ceremony, having been warned to not consume red meat or heavy foods, since purging in the form of vomiting was pretty much a guaranteed effect.
The Ayahuasca Ceremony
The ceremony was held about a 15 minute drive outside of the main Las Vegas strip, and we were lucky to hitch a ride with another Couchsurfer, Ray, who had been through nine ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru. During our drive, we quizzed him more about what to expect, and fears began to set in. The ceremony occurred in the backyard of a large house in a quiet neighborhood. The house itself was full of character; it was meticulously decorated with artifacts from around the world including life-size nutcrackers greeting you at door, glaring chinese dragons perched on the bathroom windowsills, and shiny Mardi Gras masks adorning the walls, to name a few. While we walked through the house to reach the toilets, the ceremony was confined to the outside backyard, which was a large oasis of soft green grass, sweeping trees, and a cascading man-made waterfall, all surrounding a fire pit that kept burning all night long. Upon arrival, we set up camp in a circle around the fire, and were given a large empty bucket, bottles of water, a full Kleenex box, and handful of paper towels. These were all materials for the purging that is commonly associated with ayahuasca experiences.
What is ayahuasca, you might ask? Kira Salak beautifully sums it up in the below description:
“Ayahuasca,” a Quechua word meaning “vine of the soul,” is shorthand for a concoction of Amazonian plants that shamans have boiled down for centuries to use for healing purposes. Though some call the mixture a drug, indigenous peoples regard such a description as derogatory. To them it is a medicine that has been used by the tribes of the Amazon Basin for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, demanding respect and right intention. The main chemical in the brew, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), accounts for ayahuasca’s illegality in the United States; DMT, though chemically distant from LSD, has hallucinogenic properties. But it is ayahuasca’s many plant ingredients cooperating ingeniously to allow DMT to circulate freely in the body that produce the unique ayahuasca experience.
The appeal of ayahuasca is the ability to “come back with images, messages, even communications,” says Charles Grob of UCLA’s School of Medicine. “You’re learning about yourself, reconceptualizing prior experiences. Having had a profound psycho-spiritual epiphany, you’re not the same person you were before.” Fantastic, you might exclaim. Why doesn’t everyone do this? Says Salak:
But the curious should take heed: The unconscious mind holds many things you don’t want to look at. All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced—literally—to face his or her demons.
The ceremony began at around 8pm and lasted until the sun rose the next morning. At the most peak times that the ayahuasca hit, however, it felt like an eternity was passing. The ceremony opens with the shaman going through his rituals, and then dispensing medicine in the form of consuming a brew of ayahuasca. Consumption of the brew makes for a bitter and unpleasant flavor, but it generally has no immediate side effects. The second round of medicine consists of yopo, a fine peppery powder that is blown up the nose. This has an immediate effect, as the powder infiltrates your senses, making it difficult to breathe and see. The third component is receiving drops of peyote into the eyes, which scald and burn your eyes for several seconds, before the physical effect wears off and the mental imagery sets in. Dizziness, body aches, and purging in the form of vomiting or diarrhea are expected side effects. Shamans actually say that the more we purge, the better, as this waste is a reflection of dark energy and toxins being purged from the body.
Ayahuasca Part I
Before the ceremony even began, my left shoulder had a sharp pain from a chronic overuse that had flared up on my second day in Las Vegas, when it became so bad, I could not twist my neck for several days. Going into my first ceremony, my intent was to heal this pain, and to receive clarity of my life’s purpose. I received all this and more, but in a way I never expected.
My ethereal experience was set aflame after the yopo was blown up my nose. Immediately, a stinging and sneezing frenzy was unleashed by the yopo and dizziness set in as the fire pit’s flames before me warbled and fuzzed in multi-dimensions. Lying down and closing my eyes helped only momentarily, as I saw intense waves of geometric patterns and shapes swirling high above my head like lightweight butterflies. Not long after they appeared, these brightly colored and seemingly harmless patterns soon intensified, like a flock of angry birds descending upon my soul. My heart began to race with panic and fear as the visions crashed upon me like waves. My breathing became shallow as I began to feel as if I was about to drown, suffocating under the immense weight of the swirling shapes and patterns. I felt like I was going to die. Feeling the frailty of life caused my mind to cry out for the two people I felt could possibly save and comfort me. It broke my heart to realize they were so far away from me and could not humanly be present in my most desperate time of need. I was about to leave this world, and I would never see these two people ever again. My eyes welled with tears as I realized the last time I had seen them, our goodbyes had been quick and relatively emotionless, at least on my part. Talk about extreme regret, intensified ten-fold in this particular instance. I was wracked with the most overwhelming feelings of regret, sadness, and loneliness I had ever experienced, and inexplicable pain shot through my shoulder and back. I cried tears I never even knew I had.
Suddenly, in all of the darkness, I heard booming drums and low incantations. Each drum beat reverberated through my soul, and I began to twitch with the vibrations that cascaded from my toes all the way up to my head. Moving parts of my body brought me back to reality in slips of consciousness, and my eyes would flutter open to gaze at the shaman, my healer. I still did not feel completely at peace. As the drumming intensified, so did the vibrations that flooded my body, shook my soul, made my already tense shoulder muscles feel as though they were being ripped to shreds. My stomach began to turn; I felt sick. All I wanted was escape from the nausea and darkness; it was like a roller coaster ride that would not end. Where could I find peace to stop it all?
At the most extreme point of it all, when I was sure my life was permanently over, the music suddenly changed. The drumming stopped, and soothing guitar notes sweetly filled my ears. “Calma, calma, calma corazón,” sang the shaman. Amazingly, my heart listened, and it slowed its pounding. My breathing subsided, and I began to draw in long, slow breathes that filled and calmed my body. “Everything is my family, my family, everything,” sang the shaman. True, my brain rationalized, everything is my family. The shapes and patterns are reflections of nature. There is no need to be afraid of nature. Why do I try to run from my own mind? The peace I look for needn’t been found elsewhere; it has been within my all along. As I rationalized my fear, my mind was subdued and comforted. But that wasn’t the end of my suffering.
I returned to consciousness as the ayahuasca wore off, and the shaman called out, asking if anyone wanted more medicine. Before I knew it, I was on my knees before the shaman, asking him for more ayahuasca. The second serving of medicine made my stomach churn. I said no to more yopo, but accepted the peyote. After the burning peyote scalded my eyeballs for a second time, my brain went into overdrive and I felt my thoughts taking over my consciousness. I remembered what the shaman told us before the ceremony: “clear your mind and be open to receiving.” My racing thoughts were doing the human thing of trying to comfort the rest of my body by rationalizing everything I was experiencing, but that was not the purpose of this trip. In fact, my mind was impeding me from receiving, resisting the urge to purge, which was a sign of weakness in that I was avoiding confronting my feelings by repression. I turned my thought flow off, and waited. After a brief moment of silence and the peace I had been so desperately searching for, my stomach suddenly lurched, and the ayahuasca I had consumed earlier left my body the same way it had entered. When the nausea and burning in my throat finally subsided, my mind, body, and soul glowed with a comforting warmth. The swirling patterns returned, but in a dreamy, ethereal sense that made my lips curl into a smile. I had found my peace at last.
The Day After Ayahuasca Part I
When I awoke the next morning, my entire left shoulder and neck felt broken with pain. It hurt to sit up, and to twist my body in any positions. I was certain I would need to see a doctor to be able to move normally again. When I expressed my pain to one of the shaman’s assistants, she did two things that cured me almost instantly: she applied arnica to my neck and told me to focus on sending the healing effects of the medicine down from my neck into my upper back, and she encouraged me to open up my shoulder and stretch. The latter request seemed nearly impossible to achieve in my state at the time; the thought of stretching that area seemed like it would do permanent damage. After a few minutes of unbearable pain in my shoulder, the pain began to fade. I was amazed, yet this experience in a way summed up what had happened the night before: in the case of extreme pain, embrace it and you will be healed.
Additional day after effects were mostly on my vision, which felt clouded and hazy. While I could see perfectly fine by physical standards, everything I looked at illuminated with intensified colors and auras I had never seen before. Interestingly, the folks I was with decided to visit the Age of Chivalry Renaissance Fair about 30 minutes outside of downtown Las Vegas, followed by photographing a rave in downtown Las Vegas later that night. These made for an interesting spectacles as I was still reeling from experiences the night before.
Ayahuasca Part II
After my first ayahuasca trip, my takeaways had been that I had a large quantity of dark energy that needed to be released, and that I was largely unbalanced in my life, evidenced most by my one-sided shoulder affliction. I had made up my mind that I had fully embraced the dark energy that had radiated through my soul, and that I shouldn’t do ayahuasca again until I was in a state of more balanced energy. Somehow, in my day off from ayahuasca, my mind decided that a second trip was not only appealing, but necessary. I needed to see if I could go into the ceremony with purer intent and zero expectations, and see if my journey could turn out differently. It sure as hell did.
The second ayahuasca ceremony was smaller and more intimate, with only five of us rather than the twenty plus people from Saturday night’s ceremony. I went into this ceremony with the intent of having an open mind and receiving with no expectations, the effect of which made me immediately more aware of my special surroundings. Unlike the last time, I not only saw the waterfall, fire, and plant life, but I heard their sounds and drew more significance from their presence. Water, fire, and nature; I was privileged to experience ayahuasca in such a unique, natural environment.
After the ceremony opened, I found myself in front of the shaman, who asked me how much medicine I wanted. Without thinking, I responded, “a lot.” The shaman nodded, poured me a serving, and looked into my eyes, asking, “you are ready to go deeper?” I firmly nodded and said, “Yes.” His eyes aglow, the shaman said words that haunted me for the rest of the night, “make sure you come back this time; we will be waiting for you.”
The rest of the ceremony progressed much faster than the last time, likely because our circle was significantly smaller. Before I knew it, the shaman was sending the burning yopo through my nose, followed by drops of searing peyote into my eyes. This time, with my mind turned off, the effects were immediate. The yopo made my head burn, and my nose spewed blood. I saw fewer patterns and shapes; instead, my inner vision was expanding. It was like having a panoramic view of my surroundings, even with my eyes closed. My sixth chakra, or third eye, was on fire as I began to connect with another dimension. I felt not as if a wave was descending upon me, but rather like I was the wave rolling around in a forest, rolling away from the fire towards the raging waterfall.
The shaman began to beat intensely on his drum, and every organ and nerve in my body felt the vibrations. I felt 110% awake not only mentally, but physically, and the effect was immensely overwhelming. My heart raced dangerously fast, and my mind spun, unable to comprehend what was happening. I wanted to cry out in pain for help, but every time I stirred, I caught glimpses of reality where my subconscious realized that all of this was in my mind. As much as I wanted to hold on to reality and sanity, I felt my mask of sanity slipping from my reach. There was absolutely no peace to be found; I was in complete despair. I remember thinking to myself, this must be what it feels like to be utterly crazy and out of your mind.
Nausea quickly set in, and unlike the last time when I spent the entire time fighting the urge to purge, I openly embraced it, narrowly making it to the toilet before my stomach fluids surfaced. This time, I had consumed very little food prior to the ceremony, to the point where my stomach was rumbling with hunger, and yet I could not stop purging fluid. That night, I visited the toilet on more occasions than I can even remember, at several points finding myself lying on the bathroom floor, embracing the silence, darkness, and dim flickering of the candles. Still, I managed to shakily walk myself back to the shaman’s circle, and lie on my bed where I internally wrestled with myself and walked the very fine line of sanity and insanity for what felt like an eternity. It was an excruciating internal battle like experiencing all of the world’s feelings, both high and low, at the exact same time. All the while, as my mind would occasionally awaken and scream, “please stop this madness,” the shaman’s words echoed through my head, “make sure you come back this time; we will be waiting for you.”
After what felt like a never-ending spiral of pain, the intensity subsided, and the trip gradually wore off. This time around, there was little to no point of elation or ecstasy experienced; this trip had been purely overwhelming in a way I still do not have the proper words to describe. No second dosage of medicine was needed this night; I spent the remainder of the time meditating soberly, experiencing the world with my mind turned off and seeing visions that didn’t compare to those brought on by the ayahuasca, but were potent enough in their own rights. The main thing I remember was being blown away by the effects of the sound of the raging waterfall and the shaman’s flowing music. The sounds penetrated my innermost being, and made me feel alive from every part of my body. I awoke the next morning feeling pleasantly refreshed, at peace, and full of life. My shoulder and back, amazingly enough didn’t reflect any pain throughout the entire night. There were no traces of the previous night’s near death experience haunting my consciousness.
My biggest lessons came to me after the ayahuasca wore off, when I was settled peacefully and soberly, watching my mind from afar. As I pondered the effects of the ceremonies together as a whole, I felt more assured in my current life path (intent #1 fulfilled–clarity of life’s purpose). I realized from the first ceremony that my life was very much unbalanced and full of dark energy, something I’d been aware of in the past few months, and only recently had the guts to take action on when I somewhat spontaneously left my full-time job to concentrate more on healing myself. The ayahuasca ceremony, in the wake of all the pain and near-death experiences, reaffirmed that this is indeed what I need to be doing with my life right now–taking care of my health and relationships, and getting my priorities back in order, a sentiment further reinforced by the below video I found directly after the last ceremony. After all, if I hadn’t taken that first step of leaving my job, I never would have taken the trip to Las Vegas and had the opportunity to experience ayahuasca.
Would I do ayahuasca again? Absolutely, but the next time I do it will be at its original source in Peru. Do I encourage everyone to experience ayahuasca? No, I don’t. Only those who have clear intentions and are ready to face pain and suffering should do this. Ayahuasca isn’t just a drug trip full of elation and ecstasy. True, everyone’s ayahuasca experience is different, but speaking as someone who faced some of the darkest depths of it, I can attest that you should absolutely only do it with a shaman present–I would never attempt to do ayahuasca alone or without a spiritual guide present.
For those of you who have experienced ayahuasca, I would love to hear how your journey went. Shoot me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment below.
*If you are interested in reading another official account of the ayahuasca experience, I encourage you to read National Geographic writer Kira Salak’s account of her ayahuasca journey .
Life is meant to be felt, not figured out.