This blogpost comes with a warning: it’s a long read, it’s about psychoactive plant medicine, and it isn’t for everyone. I’ve written this for a number of people who have asked me about my experience with ayahuasca, in the hope of trying it themselves one day. This post is for them. Chris’s account will come next …
It was me who first heard “the call” from Mother Ayahuasca. (That’s what those in-the-know claim: it’s a calling.) When I told Chris I wanted to travel to Latin America to attend a retreat in which I would partake in psychoactive plant medicine—a collective term under which ayahuasca falls—he wasn’t sure if I’d gone “bush” on him. I’d felt summoned, I told him, to not only deepen my understanding of the natural world, but to also deepen my understanding, and hopefully mend, the parts of me I hadn’t been able to reach through conventional healing modalities. While Chris, in his typical supportive way, affirmed my decision to travel halfway around the world, he made it clear from the outset I’d be flying solo.
Ayahuasca (eye-ya-WAH-ska), translated from the South American Quechua language as “soul vine” or “vine of the dead,” is an ancient transformative plant medicine, grown out of the primordial roots of indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest, which has developed a remarkable legacy of healing, storytelling, ritual, and song. It is made by combining two psychoactive plants: the vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and a species of leaf, Psychotria viridis. Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is the potent psychedelic derivation of ayahuasca, which is regarded by the Amazonians as a portal to the spirit world. While researching, I read that participants in ayahuasca ceremonies, regardless of background or beliefs, claimed they had, for the most part, long-lasting and profound physical, psychological, and spiritual healing.
The natural world has provided me succor for much of my life. I see the science and the spiritual in nature, probably with growing weight on the latter. The sun is my deity, the earth hallowed ground, the tree canopy a church, my meditative walks a sacrament. I’ve turned to gardening and foraging to overcome grief and loss; I’ve walked with the San Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert to expand my knowledge of sufficiency; and I’ve participated in a vision quest in the American West, all in the hope of deepening my connection to the natural world. Ayahuasca, in my mind, was not only a fast track to deepening it further, it was a fast track to deepening the connection to myself.
I was, as so often in my life, bewilderingly naïve.
As social psychologist, Keith Rozendal, wrote in an article I read after returning from Costa Rica, “… the trackless jungle once kept ayahuasca shamanism hidden from anyone other than indigenous Amazonians. The vision-inducing brew had shaped the jungle-dwellers’ worldview for centuries by the time Columbus stumbled upon the New World. … La purga raises a barrier that only the most driven seekers will cross. No ayahuasca drinker knows whether heaven or hell awaits them. Mother Ayahuasca may decide that they need to face demons many times before their own blissful breakthrough comes, if at all.” Had I known how literal this excerpt was beforehand, would I have done the retreat?
After Chris and I married, and I suggested turning my solo Costa Rican adventure into a honeymoon for both of us, he agreed under duress. Chris changed his mind after learning I’d booked myself into a health and wellness retreat called Rythmia, an all-inclusive, medically-licensed resort that “offered a safe and authentic Ayahuasca experience, supported by yoga, meditation, transformational breathwork, self-development classes, cleanses, massages, and wholesome, plant-based food.” Ayahuasca ceremonies weren’t mandatory, and as well, Rythmia happened to be a short distance from the ocean.
During the reservation process, when I told the sales representative my new husband was now joining me and that this was to be our honeymoon, he said we were the resort’s first newly-weds. When we found out later that before, during, and after taking ayahuasca, one is advised not to have sex or to drink alcohol, we understood why.
While at the outset I didn’t fully appreciate the sacred import brought to an ayahuasca ceremony by the shaman(s), I was really unaware of just how physically and mentally rigorous it could be. I had no idea that the first time I drank the “tea” it would induce gigantic, disembodied yawns amidst unspeakable nausea. I didn’t know that while succumbing to hallucinatory visions about “mother”—my own, Mother Earth, Mother Africa, Mother Ayahausca—they would transmute into a bottomless well of grief that prompted tears only the shaman could stem after the ceremony was over, sometime in the early hours of morning. I didn’t know that when I was called by the shaman and offered a cup of the “tea,” he would first blow a potent snuff called rapé high up into my nostrils, with a bamboo pipe, in the hope it would ground me and focus my mind. I never knew that we’d be shrouded in mapacho tobacco smoke to protect us, or that medicine songs called icaros would be sung to amplify the energy in the space, or that we’d be spat at with floral water and “feathered” with bird wings to help ease our purging. It turns out I knew very, very little, in spite of my research, and this was just as well.
No one ever knows what Mother Ayahuasca will bring you … whether heaven or hell awaits them. About an hour into our first ceremony—aboard the “flight deck,” as the large ceremonial hall was named, lying on single mattresses with pillows, plastic buckets in which to vomit, and rolls of loo paper—as I began laboring with my “mother” visions, Chris started to yawn and quiver and vomit and writhe and dance, slowly. He cried and grimaced and giggled and spoke, quietly. I lay on a mattress next to him worrying, especially when he started to remove all his clothes. In our introductory class about what to expect in an ayahuasca ceremony, we’d been warned not to interfere with anyone else’s “journey;” that their actions on the outside might not reflect what was going on inside. Chris later told me that he was visited by spider, snake and cat power, followed by some of the signs of the zodiac.
In that earlier class, led by Rythmia’s founder Gerry Powell, he told us there were four types of “journeys” – the Body, the Pinta, the Consulta, and the Nada. We could experience all or any number of them in one journey, or none at all. Chris received them all in one night, and was told by Mother Ayahuasca he was done. In other words, he was given the green ticket to kick back and enjoy his honeymoon. Chris’s breakthrough was fast, profound, and life-changing for him. I remember at one point during the night thinking I’d lose him after he became a holy man who would disappear into the Himalayas never to be seen again. The thought induced a firm rebuke and the first word to me from Mother Ayahuasca: “TRUST!” it said, written just like that, in large, stark letters with an exclamation mark at the end. I would have to go through three more nights of journeying before I arrived at the same place as Chris.
It was Pinta, or visions, that came to me my first night, and I never vomited once. I endured the low drone of queasiness as sacred geometric patterns morphed into moving pictures and scenes before my eyes, and I listened to a voice tell me all about “Mother.” I watched a metaphoric impending death, and conversed with relatives and friends who had passed, but only female ones. Hardly any men came to me on my journeys. Mother Ayahuasca was forging in me a deeper connection to the feminine. To love. To kindness. To safety, in spite of making me weep buckets and feel as sick as a dog in the process.
It’s crucial you set specific intentions—to know why you felt called and to know what it is you seek—at the outset of your journey. Every story I’d read documenting other experiences said as much. Mother Ayahuasca responds and reacts, and will heal by priority. That means her priority, not ours. What you “see” in your visions is what you’re meant to see, good or bad.
For me, I was eager to unearth and overcome a seat-wetting fear I’d carried in me since I was young, induced by any form of physical or emotional violence. With age, these bursts of irrational anxiety were becoming ever more frequent and debilitating. In our introductory class it was suggested by Gerry, who had partaken in dozens of ceremonies, to start out by asking Mother Ayahuasca to: show me who I’ve become; to merge me back with my soul; and to heal my heart. Gerry was told these were the three intentions that produced the optimal results for healing.
The principals of Rythmia, a team of leaders from the mental, spiritual, and physical health fields, have set up a customizable curriculum developed to assist participants handle and mitigate the rigors of ayahausca. That their resort is the only medically-licensed facility in the world was a reassuring and decisive factor in me deciding to do plant medicine.
On arrival at Rythmia we were assured that our ayahuasca experience would occur “in the safest, most comfortable, and attentive environment possible.” And it did. Everything offered on campus eased our way into the demands of the nighttime journeying. The resort staff, without exception, were supportive, kind and helpful; the shamans and their assistants loving, protective, wise, and otherworldly.
In my second ayahuasca ceremony, this time overseen by two female shamans, I experienced a Nada. Nothing. A Nada, we were told in class, was a blessing: Mother Ayahuasca had chosen to heal without the recipient’s involvement, fixing something within so deep and painful it was too traumatic to deal with on a conscious level.
In all our ceremonies we each were offered two cups of the gritty, brown brew to drink, sometimes three if you requested it, which we downed in one go because of its unpalatable bitterness. The night of my Nada I never even heard the call for the second cup. Mother Ayahuasca administered an anesthetic from which I only awoke when the ceremony was over. It was a sleep so deep, I might have died for all I knew. Whereas after my first ceremony I’d felt enervated and dehydrated the next day, following my Nada I felt light and high and filled with positivity. The contrast between the two journeys was conspicuous.
While preparing for my third ceremony in the late afternoon hours, I was overcome by anxiety and fear. Not having Chris by my side didn’t help, but it was never knowing what the medicine would bring up that I found so frightening. No two journeys were ever the same. Whilst we sat waiting outside to be called into the ceremony hall, a luminous rainbow suddenly arched itself right over us. A second one then formed underneath it, even brighter than the first, which reassured us all.
That night, after taking my first cup, I lay down and wrapped myself in the double rainbow I’d seen earlier. Before long, my mattress was surrounded by what-looked-like angels—dressed in white and surrounded by light—holding hands in a circle of protection. A tall, luminous Chris was part of the circle and towered above the rest. I knew then that all was well, and I embraced the medicine with renewed vigor. Before the shaman even called us up for the second cup, I’d asked for another. I was told it wasn’t time yet but when it was, I was at the front of the line.
Once again waves of sapping stomach pains set in, which I correlated to being in labor. Bent double on my bed, I repeated over and over, “I surrender to the medicine.” I thanked Mother Ayahuasca and the discomfort I was feeling because I knew, in the protection of that light circle, I was being prepared for a healing. Sometime during this process, I heard a clear, strong voice tell me that “we are preparing you for childbirth.” I’ve never had a child before, so this was a revelation. Shortly after, a shaman called Mitre, who I hadn’t met but I knew was facilitating our final ceremony the next night, came to me in a vision. He told me that he would “help me heal.” Never once through the night did my “angels” leave me. They kept dark energies out, allowing only those connected to my highest good inside the circle. People who had caused me pain in my past stood on the outside, facing away, shrouded in dark, obdurate energy. I lay there in deep physical discomfort, yet was sustained through it all by the magnificence of the beatific love I felt in my heart.
The following morning, before our final ceremony with Mitre, we were told to prepare ourselves “for the big one,” as Gerry said. Mitre used yagé, a much stronger brew than the ayahuasca we’d drunk the previous three nights. Whereas our previous ceremonies had run from sunset to early morning, this one would go from eight-to-eight the next day. Our group was advised not to eat after 2pm, as we’d been told all week, but for this ceremony we were also asked to stop drinking liquid after 4pm, in the hope of managing our inevitable purging.
(Shamans believe that vomiting is purging emotional toxins, while diarrhea is a way of purging physical toxins. I was lucky not to vomit once through the whole week. Rather, during that last night, I rushed to the loo with diarrhea well over thirty times.)
We were, each one of us, reflective and apprehensive at the start of our last ceremony with Mitre. Though he had a loving, almost childlike, aura, he exuded power and resoluteness. An Israeli who had spent years working under one of Columbia’s most gifted “taitas,” Mitre embodied, in my mind, the command of a warrior healer. He’d trained some of the shamans who had led us through the previous ceremonies, and on this night he called on them all to assist him through this one.
About an hour into our ceremony, when all of us were succumbing to the yagé, a fellow participant called Michael (whose permission I sought to recount this story), who had subconsciously resisted the medicine in the previous ceremonies, began screaming obscenities outside by the ceremonial fire. While waiting in line after being called for the second cup, Michael suddenly rampaged through the hall in a frenzied madness provoking in me the exact terror from which I was seeking salvation. I broke ranks and ran panicked and crying to Mitre. I begged for his help just as he postponed the second cup in order to assist with pacifying Michael. I recall how his shaman’s feathers engaged with the charged and fraught energy all around me, and him urging me not to allow someone else’s journey to negatively impact mine. I lay down again on my mattress, shaking and crying uncontrollably, and only when Scott, one of Mitre’s assistants to whom I’d connected in previous ceremonies, came over to reassure me that I was safe—we’ve got you, Annabel, we’ve got you—did I start to calm down. “Reach for the light,” he reminded me, “reach for the light.”
When I closed my eyes to look for the light, I’d a sudden sensation I was being locked into an impenetrable capsule. I could see out the top of it, but the bottom was solid. I remember my hands placed over my chest, while my mouth felt as if it was half-open, corpse-like. A buzzing electrical current of energy vibrated through my heart and head, just as a voice told me that “this is your safe zone.” I was lucid but hallucinating. “This is where you come whenever you feel unsafe.” I looked out of my capsule, my safety zone, and heard Mother Ayahuasca tell me I would never, ever have to feel unsafe again. “This is my gift to you. You shall be safe now, forever.”
She instructed me to start a body scan, pausing at each part to find out if I felt safe. “If you do,” she said, “say you feel really, really safe.” From the top of my head, to my forehead, to my eyes, ears, mouth, and onward, I was asked if I felt safe. “I feel really, really safe,” I answered. As I made my way down my body, reaching my lower back and hips, I was asked to stop. “Don’t move,” Mother Ayahuasca said, at exactly the same time I heard Mitre call the group up for another attempt at a second cup after the episode with Michael. “Don’t move!” she repeated, this time more firmly. “You don’t need any more to drink. You’re with me right now. Don’t move!”
I never moved. Mother Ayahuasca asked me again and again to scan the area around my hips and lower back, and not to go any further. Each time she asked me if I felt safe. Each time I responded with, “I feel really, really safe.” Then she asked if I felt safe enough to give birth? No sooner had I affirmed that I did, I watched an abstract black shape slowly emerge from between my legs. There was no pain. As it started to rise before me, I was asked again if I felt safe? “I feel really, really safe,” I responded, a mantra I continued to repeat over and over because I truly felt really, really safe. With each repetition, I watched how the black shape I’d birthed began transmuting into a sleeping infant girl with golden hair. She moved into my arms, swaddled close to my heart. “This is my divine gift to you, and to Chris,” Mother Ayahuasca said softly. “In celebration of your marriage, I give you this child to nurture together.” I began to cry, this time happy, exultant tears. “This child is you,” she went on, “this is your rebirth. You and Chris will look after and nurture her together now and forever, into eternity.”
As I looked into the night sky, lit by millions of stars, she asked me if I’d like to go and see them. My safety capsule allowed for space travel, as it turned out, and off we flew into the heavens. In amongst the brilliance of the milky way, I noticed a wispy, coral pink ball to my left. I was told this was Venus the Planet of Love, also connected to my star sign, Libra. The Mother asked me if I wanted to visit Venus, and I accepted without hesitation. As I emerged from the capsule on to the planet with my infant girl in my arms, it radiated gentle, feminine, soft love and safety all about us. From Venus I could see the Sun, my deity when earthbound, so when asked if I’d like to visit it, too, I thanked the Ayahuasca and set off in its direction.
It was the Sun who gave me my Consulta. As we drew near, he too reminded me how the baby was a divine gift to Chris and me, and that the safety zone would protect us into eternity. “Remember,” he said. “This is your and your baby’s safety zone. No one else’s. Chris has his own vessel in whose cover you can take refuge. But this is about you and your own healing. No one else is allowed into your safety zone.
“You will need to initiate a daily practice that you’ll continue for the rest of your life. Each day you will go into your safety zone in meditation. It will only take a few minutes. The safer you feel the quicker your reborn child will integrate into you.” This message was connected to the “merge me back with my soul” intention I’d set earlier in the week. There is a belief that as children we “split” from our core selves in order to cope with the life we are given. In my instance, my father died when I was four-months-old, leaving me bereft of a suitable male role model as I grew into childhood.
In class, it was also suggested that during a Consulta we ask if we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing in this lifetime. Chris was given a thumbs-up, as was I. The Sun, with a resonant voice like Mufasa in The Lion King, told me I should keep writing as it was through this medium that I could show others, and in particular women, how to feel safe; that the way Chris and I lived and worked within our community would help those around us do the same. I remember the Sun telling me that we lived in an increasingly unsafe world, “where more and more people would seek ways to feel safe.” When I asked about food, and if I should continue producing my bush gourmet cuisine here in the Zambezi Valley, the Sun answered, “What does a table of food represent to you? It represents safety at its most primary level, so yes, of course, you must keep doing it. Remember, you have an innate connection to Mother Earth; she will always help you with your food.”
The remarkable part of this is that I still have access to the Sun. If I’ve had any queries since “returning to earth,” I’ve turned to him for answers and been given them. Chris, since coming home to Zambia, sees Pinta often and has access to all sorts of assistance in his own meditations. Our two experiences could not have been more different, yet it’s like the ayahuasca has never left us.
After my Consulta it was as if a massive weight lifted off me. I came back into my body and felt filled with love and a deep happiness. I was wide awake and possessed of such clarity, in blatant contrast to the previous nights. I asked the Mother, then, if it was acceptable to return to Chris in our casita to consummate our honeymoon? “Hello,” she laughed, “but of course!” We were allowed to break the rules, at last. While I waited for our ceremony to come to an end, I sat outside on the ledge of the “flight deck” wrapped in glorious veneration as I watched dawn break all about me. This was why I was called to Costa Rica. I’d had my miracle.
A story I read recently reminded me how ayahuasca itself couldn’t solve one’s problems. “Only you have the ability to do that,” the author wrote. “What [the medicine] does is take you to a level of consciousness you’ve never reached before so that you can understand how to help yourself. It’s work.” I completely agree. That’s exactly what the Sun said to me. It’s ongoing work that helps you evolve into your best self.
An afterword: when Chris and I returned home, his brother Simon showed us something extraordinary. He’d placed a small camera into my office for the period we were traveling in order to keep an eye on all my possessions. On one wall I’ve hung two nudes. They are of me, rendered in charcoal by an artist friend in the mid-90s. The same night I was told I was “being prepared for childbirth” in Costa Rica, the camera captured a round white light scanning between the two nudes, finally settling on my face. The office curtains were drawn; its door locked. No one was around. Our only conclusion, including Simon’s, was that the light was connected to Mother Ayahuasca.
Below are some links I found helpful in my research on ayahuasca, and for this story:
About the origin: http://www.ayahuasca.com/amazon/botany-ecology/unraveling-the-mystery-of-the-origin-of-ayahuasca/
About the science: https://www.psymposia.com/magazine/molecules-minds-science-ayahuasca/
A personal experience: http://www.refinery29.uk/2017/08/165899/ayahuasca-experience-grief-effects
Ayahuasca as addiction treatment: www.rehabs.com/pro-talk-articles/a-journey-into-the-soul-sharing-my-personal-ayahuasca-experience/
About a Nat Geo story from its writer: http://kirasalak.com/Ayahuasca.html
About Rythmia: www.rythmia.com