Death and transcendence are not familiar territory for most people. Nor is soaring through the universe on an infinite ray of light. But for brave and curious seekers of illumination, there is ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew made from an Amazonian vine and used in tribal ceremonies.
There is a long history of journalists putting themselves in anthropological situations in order to write about them. Typically, North Americans or Europeans go deep in to the Amazon seeking authenticity. But in recent years, ayahuasca has made its way to cities, including Buenos Aires.
Through a friend, I had heard about an urban ayahuasca ceremony administered by Nagendra, an Argentine trained in neo-shamanism. He lives in Brazil but travels periodically to Argentina to facilitate the medicinal circle. Curious, and feeling brave, I decided to try it out.
To begin, I contacted Nagendra and expressed my interest in participating. He paired me with a driver who was heading out from Palermo. He also sent a list of dietary restrictions: no avocado, bananas, meat, oranges, alcohol, or nuts.
“They interact badly with the plant,” he said. Nagendra’s medicinal circle is a roving operation, but usually takes place at a retreat outside of Buenos Aires.
We arrived early. The room was cavernous with walls of windows, and I set up a mat and sleeping bag on the wooden floor. The men were placed on one side and the women on the other. Nagendra gave instructions and a woman led stretching and breathing exercises. The lights went out, candles were lit, and one by one, everybody went to the centre of the room, drinking the ayahuasca out of a small glass that Nagendra filled from a pitcher.
After the first shot, I laid back and enjoyed the tribal and Brazilian music – African djembes, didgeridoo, acoustic guitar – played by Nagendra and a small cast of musicians. The effect, to that point, was minimal. There were mild hallucinations of snakes, abstract shapes resembling cages, gentle vapours like snow, and brilliant colours, all in constant movement.
About an hour later, there was another round of the beverage. I settled once again in my terrestrial coordinates, but my mind blasted in to outer space. I left my body and looked back, watched my flesh blow away like dust, my bare ribs jutting towards the sky, my corpse a shrivelled husk of bones. I travelled to the end of the universe and touched its velvety edge. I spiralled through galaxies with animals of the jungle and teeth-bearing reptiles and ancient tribes of people I had never seen before, but they were mine. I had a euphoric feeling of unity with everything throughout space and time, an acute appreciation and awareness of existence – of the beauty of breathing and being and nature.
The auditory aspect guided my journey. The crescendos of the music intensified my feelings. There were moments of deep introspection.
Back on earth, in research for this article, I learned that ayahuasca causes different effects in everyone, although there are wide similarities in the visions produced – similarities that reflect my experience and correspond with Carl Jung’s archetype symbolism of the mind, according to author Peter Stafford.
Stafford, in his book ‘Psychedelics Encyclopedia’, writes of ayahuasca: “Ayahuasqueros describe long sequences of dream-like imagery; geometrical patterns; manifestations of spirit helpers, demons and deities; and tigers, birds and reptiles. They see dark-skinned men and women. They experience sensations of flying and of their own death; they see events at a great distance.”
My research also taught me there is a darker side to ayahuasca, which I would soon find out first hand. In The Yagé Letters, a book by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg about their experiments with ayahuasca, Ginsberg writes that he felt “like a snake vomiting out the universe”. And Marlene Dobkin de Rios, in her book ‘Visionary Vine’, points out that in some places, natives refer to ayahuasca as “the vine of death” because it causes one to “die”, and then be “born anew”.
Several months later, I went back for round two. But this time, it was a trying ordeal. I arrived late, there were no stretching or breathing exercises, and I had been feeling feverish in previous days.
After the first drink, I began to see terrible nightmarish visions, and I began to resist, which compounded the effect. The experience devolved into gruesomeness, and the purgative effects of ayahuasca kicked in: I began heaving into a bucket at the end of my mat. I felt like I was vomiting my nervous system into a bucket for everyone to see. With the beating of the drums came visions of tribal symbols and people, and I felt like my very existence was being retched out of me from the centre of my self. Then there was a long and agonizing period of nothingness where the universe had once been, which could only have been death.
After what seemed like hours, I came back: I was on my knees, forehead touching the floor, arms stretched out before me, weeping.
I suffered like I had never suffered before in my life – I was sure I had experienced death – and I left in a state of shock. But it wasn’t any less illuminating than the first time. I felt I had passed through a “before” and “after” moment, and that my life would never be the same. I asked Nagendra about the extreme differences in my two experiences.
“Those are the extremes of our being – beauty and suffering – and the ayahuasca makes us traverse them. But it’s not suffering without sense. When the ayahuasca shows us difficult facets of our existence, that’s when we have the best chance to evolve,” he told me.
Nagendra’s training in neo-shamanism involved three years of working with an anthropologist, a psychologist, and indigenous shamans from Peru. He then moved to Brazil to further his practice with different groups and communities that take ayahuasca ritually, such as the Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal.
Stunned and inspired by my experiences, I sought more information on this mystical plant. I learned that medical research has shown the plant has potential therapeutic effects that could help in the treatment of psychological diseases, perhaps explaining why it has been central in mestizo and indigenous medicine for centuries.
Ayahuasca is made by boiling or soaking the bark of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca) together with an admixture containing DMT, a psychoactive drug found in many plants. DMT, not active by itself when taken orally, is inhibited by the potent alkaloids found in Banisteriopsis caapi, accounting for the psychotropic effects of the ayahuasca concoction.
In 1993, Dr. Charles Grob, of the University of California Los Angeles, launched the Hoasca Project, the first to investigate the physical and mental health of ayahuasca drinkers. Among the project’s important findings were that ayahuasca causes higher density (up-regulation) of serotonin transporters in blood platelets. (Serotonin is a mood-regulating chemical.)
Further research on ayahuasca in the US is unlikely because DMT is a schedule 1 drug, making for a difficult approval process, according to Grob.
“The U.S. medical system has a strong bias against working with “plant medicine”, preferring to utilize isolated active alkaloids, but also in this case it is a mix of two separate plants, which makes getting approval even more challenging,” he said.
Bia Labate, a Brazilian anthropologist at Heidelberg University in Germany and author of several books on ayahuasca, said she perceives increasing scientific interest in the plant. At a recent conference sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), in San Jose, California, there was a separate track devoted to ayahuasca with 22 different presentations.
“No doubt this is evidence of the increasing interest in the use of this plant throughout the world,” she said.
Rafael Guimarães dos Santos, a doctoral candidate in pharmacology at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, Spain, and researcher for the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (NEIP) in Brazil, also sees a future for ayahuasca and psychedelics in the medical field.
“There are studies being done about distinct substances that note their potential therapeutic use in the future,” he said. “With these publications, it’s possible that the opinion of scientists and the community in general will change.”
Ayahuasca has been approved for ritual purposes in Brazil, Peru, the US, Spain, Italy, and Holland, but remains illegal in Argentina. Eduardo Jorge Pesquero, a representative of the Santo Daime church in Argentina, said they are currently petitioning the Secretariat of Worship for recognition, which would make it one of 2,800 recognised religious organisations in the country.
“Prohibiting the use of sacred plants cuts off humans’ relationship to planet earth,” said Pesquero. “In our faith, we use the plant as a transcendental medium for self-knowledge, so for us it’s about freedom of religion. The Argentine constitution guarantees the right to freely express your faith, and we’re hopeful that the ruling by the Secreriat will be favourable to religious freedom.”
Nagendra, for his part, does not profess a specific faith in his practice, and has seen many positive transformations in the people who participate in his circle:
“The infinite number of changes I’ve seen in people over the years encourages me to continue with the medicinal circle, without any doubt that we’re bringing peace and light to the electrified labyrinth that is the city these days,” he said.