Ayahuasca: ¨The Antidote?¨ — how our fetish for a quick-fix affects the Ayahuasca process

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I can’t remember now how I heard about it. Online somewhere I suppose, probably in my perusal of websites made for people like me who were seeking to transcend the suffocating weight of a Saturday morning by inserting a canister of nutmeg into their anus.

Ayahuasca. Normally taken in liquid form, orally, that was good to know. Heals cancer, depression, PTSD, addictions, obesity, impotence, auto-immune disorders and schizophrenia. Website seems trustworthy. Dennis McKenna is a sponsor. Says it’s the real deal. Three-toothed native shaman shuffles about in hut, smokes pipe, says it’s the real deal. Guy with schizophrenia – one week in – grins like a newborn child, like this was a deal that went beyond the horny disassociation of a nutmeg attack… and into the main-line of the real: a substantive antidote to the condition of being human.

An antidote, I breathed, unconsciously. Some lost thing inside me cried out.

Like anyone else, I lived in a big city, its neon signs bulging excitedly with solutions


to modern living. There was George Clooney’s visage on bus stop posters selling watches that looked like they would last forever

                           NOSE JOB

and recently an icecream store with three hundred and sixty five flavours opened up in my neighbourhood which


was convenient because I often felt empty.

Of course I knew, with my conscious mind that knows knowable things, that the city’s fixes were superficial and that perhaps I had a chemical imbalance going on. I read a study proving that Ayahuasca increased serotonin in drinkers by 25%. They have also been saying that it “resets your limbic brain system”. Now we’re talking: science… you know, chemicals, cells, biology, algebra and the stuff inside a computer; penicillin, Viagra, shampoo… and doctors give you pills for sleeping and you sleep; and pills for headaches and the headaches vanish; and injections that prevent rabies and polio, and since those injections I never once got rabies or polio.

And yet I also knew that because I was especially doomed, and more so than anyone else, perhaps something … magical … was required to change me. Here we are, someone who knows: SpiritUser 679 on the forum (who has 9804 posts to her name) says that you must be willing to give yourself to ‘grandmother’ Ayahuasca. But she is a fierce grandmother who demands respect … and if you pray, offer up your soul to her spirits for cleaning, she will show you what you need to be shown and then make you vomit up the horrors into a bucket. The efficiency of this grandmother at once terrified me and electrified a little half-dead body of hope inside. Truthfully I was becoming hooked on grandma even before I had rationally concluded that grandma was for me. Be smart, I told myself, do more research.

So the real name of the vine is BCaapi, that’s got the MAOIs; the DMT is in the psychotri verido leaves… resourceful teenagers make it themselves — youtube pop-up > ‘85 year-old retired accountant trips nut-sack in backyard’:


“First you shit on yourself.
Then you go to hell and see the future and
at the end it’s like 25 years of psychotherapy.
And I had sex with aliens. They fixed my prostate.
It’s all in my new book”

(Dennis McKenna is on the back, says it’s the real deal).

And Lindsay Lohan uses the visions for creativity and direction in life, her weekend “jungle fix” — pop-up visionary art collage > baby butterfly serpents and demonic frogs making love to divine emptiness inside a human skull; Sting softly, convincingly agrees that the whole scene is “out of this world, actually”, and the woman from National Geographic was healed of depression in one ceremony, full stop, end of story,

                                      does any of this feel familiar?

and the website says it’s important not to have expectations so I won’t have any.

There is a deeply-rooted tendency that I have observed in the belief frameworks of many people who come to drink Ayahuasca. It is our desire to be rescued, for a quick-fix, short-cut or antidote to the symptoms of our problems, to be lifted from pain into pleasure. It exists even if one superficially repeats the mantra “Ayahuasca is not a magic bullet”. Until the truth of those words is actually internalised, our fetish for an antidote can substantially influence the way we work with Ayahuasca – both during and after the ceremony – and can be an obstacle to true healing and evolution. It is a kind of spell, and I have slumbered beneath its imaginary wing for a long time.

If there is one message I would humbly fire through clenched teeth into those moist and receptive pink bits of your intelligence, it would be: try to break the spell, wake up. There is no antidote. Neither Ayahuasca nor any other plant or spirit or chemical by itself will teleport you from suffering to enlightenment, or even guarantee more awareness over the long term. In fact, if you rely on her blindly as a quick-fix, she can make you more blind.

antidote pic


She can, however, be a deep and powerful catalyst for growth, a potent ally or tool, if used with intention, awareness and emotional honesty. But it is up to you to relate honestly and respectfully during your relationship with her, and to put her wisdom into practice in your daily life (where it counts).

Relate to her with awareness, as one tool among many, ideally within or as a complement to an established framework of personal growth (which includes daily practices, such as meditation or emotional introspection).

But lasting change will take time. And it is sometimes intensely uncomfortable. Satisfaction, fulfilment, wholeness, peace, love, growth… are not the same things as feeling good (though feeling good frequently occurs as a side effect of those things). Lasting change is a process that will take time. After the extra-terrestrial orgy — the laundry. Then for the rest of your life: the glorious laundry.

And still, there are true stories of people using Ayahuasca to instantly change or evolve themselves once-and-for-all in profound ways or heal a physical illness or imbalance, seemingly without much effort during or after the experience; these shifts and healings do happen. They have happened to me. But they are not common, and our enchantment with these stories re-entrenches our tendency to want to ignore (rather than relate to) our pain and to cling desperately to grandma’s feel-good rainbow peaks. And if that sentence makes you uncomfortable it is because it is true. We then remain blind to the reality that the spiritual journey home is whatever it needs to be: long, sometimes very painful, sometimes very subtle or utterly ordinary, sometimes ecstatic; and that this journey requires commitment, patience, self-honesty and, fundamentally,

a shift in the way we relate to our pain and darkness.

The personal, the emotional, the spiritual… is the global. At least part of the reason we are heading towards extinction is that many of us have lost touch with our capacity to relate to pain and darkness in a healthy way. The antidote fantasy is a manifestation of our dysfunctional relationship with our pain and darkness, and my hope is that the gradual dissolution of this fantasy will lead to a more respectful, harmonious and intelligent relationship with plant teachers such as Ayahuasca, with ourselves, and ultimately with all beings in our environment.

So I see this discussion as part of a larger movement towards more productive ways of relating. Again, let me be clear: I know that there are people still getting significant, sometimes life-changing benefits from Ayahuasca even if they are relating to her like an antidote on some level. And I also know that others are using Ayahuasca (among other plants) to bury themselves deeper in delusion. In any case I think that it is important to continue to find ways of relating to our plant teachers and ourselves that lead to the greatest positive transformations over the long term. That is evolution.

In the following posts, I want to explore the nature of the antidote fantasy, how it looks when this fantasy infects the way we work with Ayahuasca, and whether there are more helpful ways of relating to Ayahuasca than treating her like a quick-fix.

In writing this stuff, I have in mind at least the following three categories of audience:

1. the people who are very much under the illusion that Ayahuasca is a drug / genie that will take away their problems and overtly relate to her as a cure-all antidote;

2. the people who intellectually acknowledge that Ayahuasca is not a magic bullet, yet secretly relate to her like one. These are typically the people who experience disappointment when, three months after returning home: a) they begin to fall into their old emotional patterns, b) they are at a loss as to what to do because c) they have not bothered to apply what Ayahuasca has taught them, or change anything in their environment and d) they lack any complementary personal growth framework to support them;

3. people who are open to asking questions in order to go deeper in their relationship with Ayahuasca and themselves, even if they are already relating in a way that is working for them.

I will add more content to this when I get time in between retreats and diets.[1]

***Note: this post forms part of a series which explores how our quick-fix fantasy affects the Ayahuasca process. This post is part 1.

Here is part 2: Humping the Antidote — drug-takers and light-chasers

And part 3: Grandma take me home: responsibility: relating to Ayahuasca

[1] Note: these posts do not deal with the influence of the shaman on the participant’s experience; to begin with I have chosen to focus on what a participant does with their mental / emotional resources because this always bears on what that person achieves with the help of Ayahuasca and a shaman.


Ayahuasca: Love, light and the dark journey to relationship

Demonizing the Cry for Help


Marooned on the floor of a cramped Thai bathroom, huddled in on myself, vomiting through the nose: alcohol, sleeping pills, curry. It was a good night out. There was dancing. I rose above. Now it is the end of the night and the dancing is finished. I wheeze, spit into the toilet, and slump against the wall like a puppet abandoned by its human god. This is a very intimate moment, when I slump like this. I can almost feel the night slumping with me, sighing because nothing remains of her but darkness, pure and true.

And this darkness undresses me, undoes the clamp on my jaw and croons; and what pours forth are the demons; the silenced, unfelt, disallowed, disowned multitudes within; aloneness, rage, shame, despair and so many others huddled and nameless, confused and violent refugees of the self, in thirsty hoards they overflow.

I do what I’ve always done: disown, turn away, go to war – howl the unsaid poison at the world, at my girlfriend, words with broken fuck-teeth gnashing, ones I can’t take back and won’t remember; down the demons take me feeding, thrashing headless and rattling sickly the bottle of painkillers, some of them spilling, around the hotel room I zombie-saunter, lurching this way the old way the bad way out along the plank where citizens end where signals die where lines go silent.

Somehow I stumble my way back to the bathroom, fall on my side and shit on the floor a little bit, staining the tiles. I raise a fist triumphantly. All and every molecule is hollow now and there is nothing left in this place but the sound of my girlfriend crying as she devours left-over pizza. I close my eyes, slip beneath myself finally, pulling over my head this blanket of cosy oblivion. Now I remember why I drink.

The next morning, well, this is a sorry ritual for us all, waking up denatured in hot skin like rat meat in a snake’s belly. There is a sense that something has gone wrong, is going wrong, has always been wrong. Go to the mirror – I shave, want to start over, to not remember. But before I do… I pause, blinking at my haggard façade:

What am I doing on this fucking planet?

I shiver. How many times will this question be asked. There in the reflection – haunting evidence – you see candy bar wrappers, pill bottles, greasy chicken bones, dirty footprints. And, of course, the little brown stain on the tiles. I stare at it, as I might stare at an asteroid fragment in a museum. It looks back, accusingly. I turn away, closing the door.

dr jekyll

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”
–– (Samuel Johnson)

This was my story 10 years ago now. It is a true story, this cycle of suffering, this drama of Jekyll and Hyde. Stories like this dwell in every human heart raised in civilization, bred to be civilized. They are the stories of our darkness and the violence we use to ignore it — they reveal our lifestyle of dissociation and separation from the parts of ourselves which are too frightening to look at, too heavy to hold, how we turn away from their cries and call them our demons. And the shadows we cast in doing so become the destructive lostness of our age.

The journey home is the journey from separation to relationship. I will explain this more clearly later, but for now it is enough to say:


to some extent all of us are compelled in one direction or another by homesickness.  Maybe you know what I mean already. In my story, it was a pervasive sense of alienation, separateness and despair that first drew me, heavy-hearted and hopeful, to ‘grandmother’ Ayahuasca.

When I arrived in Peru, grandmother treated me kindly. For many nights I was turned inside out and trampled by an infinity of wonder; paradox creatures of pure light paraded endlessly through my pineal gland’s tea-party land; I remembered divine love, wept in ecstatic bliss at the perfection of existence and had sex with unconditionally-loving aliens in a chrome jacuzzi. I remember walking around gleeful, haggard, reeking of serotonin, my bright eyes swollen with the energy of hidden worlds, with the fury of one who knows… and when people asked me about Ayahuasca, in shrill tones I would declare “yes, this is the work: more tea, more aliens, grandmother is a pimp; life is perfect, this is why we drink”.

I wasn’t the only one. There were others on board my merry vessel, beards unkempt and bristling with magic, jester-like and shooting off spiritual utterances in the half-dark. Some wrote books, turned vegetarian, built strange totem pyramids on the riverbank. We left our darkness in the bucket. And sailed over the orgasmic waters of new life to be reborn as shiny lights. I think that every single creature deserves to receive these divine transmissions, to rush into the sunshine of their own being, to have experiences of absolute love and connection. To be reborn, god knows I needed to feel like that, and beyond the immediate relief of transcendent perspective, these experiences started to catalyse other reactions of unfoldment in me that I cannot measure or put into words.

But after a time, the pulsing of those supernatural night-lights began to fade, slow like a heartbeat returning to rest. And out in the stark wind-swept stage of my life, old emotional patterns began to exert their invisible pressure like an atmosphere, and darkness fell again, as it does after each new day no matter how perfect.

So down it took me, down to a familiar place of waiting and of war, where I held my breath for the treatment that would make me less heavy, and did what I thought would effect a cure — turned away, said to hell with that, drank and drank again the high-frequency songs of grandma’s rainbow fog-machine, losing myself in its hypnotic jiggling, its heavenly upward motion – for love and light and to get out the badness, for throwing up my stones, overboard, into the bucket. In this way, I did not feel the weight of separation like I did before, did not feel so lost.



“The greatest stranger is this one in the heart”
–– (Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee)

But neither did I feel home. And through the years of working with this medicine and facilitating experiences for many other people, I have grown so tired that I wonder:

what is it, really, this little weight that we carry with us into the ceremony hut — the weight that weighs more than the troubles of the world; that we spend all of our energy trying to get rid of;

that we light on fire and throw at reality, hoping for the best.

I have grown so tired of pushing this weight and of watching others drinking Ayahuasca pushing this weight like old Sisyphus up the hill — tired enough to return to the mirror and ask for the truth about the weight of separation and how to cure it:

if we drink Ayahuasca to destroy this weight, to cleanse ourselves of darkness, to throw our demons overboard, will the drama of our suffering change?

Ayahuasca can help guide a lost traveller through the darkness, into a world with natural light. But what does this journey really demand of us who have carried the stones of separation for so long?

And how do we relate to the demons — those skinless strangers who call us by name — what are they to us —?

those dark, skinless, stone people that we carry

in our bag behind us

In dreams sometimes they come for us (when we’re out on flood waters drifting away to who-knows-where…)

— what are they to us,

those little hands,

the black voices of the stone strangers —

And if we turn away to reach for love, turn only towards the play of light,

will the currents beneath carry us home or deeper into the dark?

I wish I had seriously asked these questions when I first started working with plant teachers like Ayahuasca.

Demon-slaying and light-chasing

Purging and demon-slaying are vital aspects of the medicinal use of Ayahuasca. So are divine love-and-light transmission experiences. Each of these topics warrants its own late-night meandering discussion, and I do not wish to simplify either of them.

But allow me — just for now — to throw up this one chunk. It is an elementary chunk. It is little, and for many people this chunk will be obvious… but it is a pointy chunk. Pointy indeed and I entreat you to chew it over:

—- you know that floaty glowing feeling you get after a stupendous purge / vomit / series of vomits over weeks-months-years of drinking medicine? —-

—- you know that spacious energetic positivity you get after you remember divine love and sing mantras and have sex with aliens over weeks-months-years of drinking medicine? —-

—- that’s not it.

It is neither growth nor is it the way home. It can be useful and sometimes is a symptom of deep shifts occurring, but don’t tell yourself a story about it and don’t try to repeat it.

I’ve known people who became trapped in their vomit bucket for years, ‘getting out the demons’. It’s a cramped place to dwell. I’ve known others who became addicted to love-and-light sing-along sessions because they didn’t know what else to do and, well, it just feels really really good.

I’m talking about people using Ayahuasca as an anti-depressant crutch. I don’t mean to say this is a wrong thing per se. There are people who need to work with the medicine in this way, and some of them have absolutely sane reasons for doing so. One example might be that a person lacks a framework to relate to various parts of themselves, or the capacity to stay with their emotional experience. Or they may lack a supportive environment in which to integrate their experiences. Or they may be highly traumatised and too overwhelmed to meet their trauma, so they need to ease into the process over a long period of time. Or they are physically ill and must purge psychic and physical density before even thinking of addressing complex emotional material. Or they may have energetic entities to deal with. Or they wish to celebrate and enjoy themselves, and it is true that love-and-light singalongs can be medicine for the soul also.

So it is fine and sometimes it is perfect. Just know that these medicines are non-specific amplifiers. They amplify the party lights as well as the creatures in your basement (hint: everything is god). The risk of using psychedelics as a crutch over the long term is that you re-entrench your darkness ( deeply-held blind spots / emotional and mental wounds / unconscious patterns ).

This can lead to the curious, dangerous and darkly hilarious phenomenon of ‘false-awakening’. This is where the plants run awakened energy through our circuits, but because we’ve been turning away from ourself for years, we spin these experiences into grandiose stories to reinforce our spiritual identity. Some of my favourites are:

  1. ‘me, myself and my enlightenment’
  2. ‘Ayahuasca told me all I gotta do is build the pyramid on the riverbank and the aliens will take care of the rest’
  3. ‘I’m awakened, and you are pretty and happen to be in the same room, therefore we’re meant to be together forever’.

Over the long term this just fattens up our shadows and makes us dependent on grandma’s feel-good transmissions. I have seen it lead to a ‘dumbing-down’ of so-called spirituality, and I have seen it lead to madness and delusion. But somehow the thing that breaks my heart is how our demon-slaying and light-chasing (when it is compulsive) can just lead to stagnation —- just ‘experience-for-its-own-sake’, like any other thrilling thing we consume, throw away and forget about in the hypnosis of a million shopping malls strung out from cradle to grave.

There is another way of working with psychedelics within the medicine paradigm. It is the way of relationship. I want to be clear that this is not a substitute for purging/demon-slaying, energetic work, love-and-light, divine transmissions, etc. All of these ways — when they are not compulsive — are totally valid and have their place. But in my experience there is not enough emphasis on relating to dark experience. This is no accident. ‘Turning away’ is wired into us by nature, culture and god-damned marketing (see my previous article The Antidote).

The dark is fertile and fruitful. The gifts of ‘turning towards’ are invaluable, and may just change your life, as they did mine.

Meeting the strangers ––
the gift of shame

One of the greatest gifts Ayahuasca gave me was to reveal a profound sense of shame coiled in the depths of my DNA. ‘Reveal’ is a nice word. It was not precisely a nice process. It was primordially terrifying to meet. I had never experienced such aloneness and hell. Each time it came up, it was endless. But a part of me knew that to run from this shame was to be possessed by it, to be controlled and motivated by it — as I had been for so much of my life. And to repeat this cycle was to turn away from my own life force.

So I began to relate to it. To meet and to feel, to listen, understand its needs and give it space to be… to creatively express, metabolize, cathart, tango-with, and, at times, to be overwhelmed by. This is an ongoing relationship. Probably for the rest of my life. Maybe it will never leave, I don’t know, and the good news is I don’t know if I need it to anymore. And no, I don’t feel like I’m ‘home’ or I’ve ‘arrived’. I’m starting to understand there is no place to arrive to. I only feel this is the right direction. For the most part it is an everyday, ordinary thing. It is of the earth, and it feels real.

Since beginning this relationship in earnest, many more parts which comprise ‘the self’ have made themselves known. They keep me as honest as I have the strength to be. This, I feel, has helped me

to inhabit my life more fully.

The life I actually have (as distinct from the one I try to escape to on the run from myself, the life which never arrives).

And sometimes the world pulls me out of my busy day and tells me — with an intimacy I have not known before — how I belong to her like everything else does. From this, too, more of a heartfelt concern for Earth has arisen naturally (though how to be socially active while often feeling overwhelmed or hopeless or time-poor or energy-poor — or all of these things at once… is a question I grapple with all the time).

I’ve also understood that this relationship has made fertile the multidimensional soil of the soul, allowing seeds of deeper awakening experiences to take root. The ones which are the end of you and allow more life to wake up to itself. I believe some of these experiences would have happened anyway. But some would not, or would not have been able to integrate.

Or would have stripped the brain of its good cheer and left me twitching on insanity rocks forever devoured by insects and pissing on myself.

Phew. Flashback. no need to go back there now ok anyway what I want to say is:

–– Listening to the dark makes consciousness flexible and resilient. It is essential to becoming a human being. Be always prepared to ask this question whenever darkness arises:

is this a real threat or a cry for help?

May the answer surprise you as it did me. I share my experience in the hope that it will contribute to a paradigm shift that is happening in the attitude we take towards darkness and light and psychedelics and the spiritual path because

the journey home is the journey from separation to relationship.

Relationship ––
self-fragmentation / war

In terms of techniques, there are things which have helped me and which I am happy to share, such as mindfulness meditation, fasting, plant dietas, inner child / inner council work (propounded by Eric Berne, Stephen Buhner), Feeding Your Demons (by Tsultrim Allione), Radical Self-Acceptance (by Tara Brach).

But more than anything, it is a sustained shift in attitude based in experience, from

‘curing’ / rising above / by-passing / getting out the demons



— relating not for the sake of curing, but as a path to a deeper belonging to this world, and inhabiting the life you actually have.

For me it is about listening, especially to emotional currents, instincts, senses and dreams. Being kind to my ‘selves’. Relating to my body more as friend rather than enemy or work-horse. It involves, fundamentally, the practices of

awareness and feeling and belonging and meaning-making.

And failing. And time. A lot of it.

It is about the conscious co-existence of different (unfamiliar, and sometimes contradictory) patterns of meaning. It involves giving space to the strange, unsolved currents in life — giving them space to be as they are and, where possible, allowing them to deepen me. It is about learning how to tolerate contradictions.

I believe this is one kind of orientation towards an ensouled life; it encourages the faculties, habits, causes and conditions to help us become who we are supposed to become.

So for me, this learning to relate to the strangers which comprise ‘my self’ has been good medicine, thank you grandma. It has provided a kind of dynamic foundation from which I feel the sphere of relationship is gradually being widened — to others (human and non-human) and ultimately to the world. Because I feel the drive to relate in this way is the drive to return ‘home’ to our true self — our identity as melodious nothings in the ineffable song of everything (or, as deep ecologist Joanna Macy says, ‘world-as-self’).

Love is a verb.

To know and experience love and light is one thing; to be loving is another. Real love has the will to sit with a demon, to hold a stone, to listen to a stranger. Real love sees clearly the difference between a threat and a cry for help. This love is attentive, chooses to care for the fragile child whose legs ache from standing guard for so many years at the invisible gate between separation and all of the gorgeous slithering dark ecstatic living forces of nature

which you are.

At an absolute level, separation is an illusion and the potential of the human heart is unlimited. The wonderful thing about psychedelics is that they can give us an experiential understanding of these truths. But there is a profound difference between having a psychedelic experience, and living psychedelically. Love is a verb. And if our relationships with plant teachers like Ayahuasca do not encourage us to meet the strangers in our heart, the immense potential of these teachers to help us relate more deeply to the mystery of life over the long-term may fade, as just another night lost to cosy oblivion.




Perhaps everything terrible in us is, in its deepest being, something helpless needing our help
–– (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Ayahuasca: Black magic, demons and seeing clearly in the dark

Full of demons

(a true story on the meaning of darkness)

Why didn’t you tell me,” said the shaman, puffing solemnly on his pipe, “that you were full of demons.” I shrugged my shoulders, staring at the dusty floor: “I didn’t really know what was going on”. In that moment I was glad we were hidden by night, and he couldn’t see how I was wrung out as a dirty rag ready for burning because the mess it dealt with was too terrible.

Before I took the cup of Ayahuasca, I did suspect that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to drink this evening, that some bad business was waiting for me in the dark. But if I listened to this kind of thinking every time it imposed itself on me, I’d probably never leave the house. So I drank and hoped for the best, believing, as I always do, that because I’m basically a good and reasonable man, darkness will not intrude on my civilised living; and that my narrative is too special to just be swallowed up, to end without warning, out here alone in the jungle.

It took about one hour for the warning to arrive. It began in my stomach, the preternatural swell of dark matter, then shattered into a thousand nightmarish shades, vivid as daylight, shaking, shrieking. All I could do was writhe around on the floor and pray. And my mind, fragmented and doomed like an old computer left in the street, flickered and spun round the loop of its final, failed directive:

threat analysis: black shit / badness / wrong horror gone evil / gone attacking / tryin to get me with its germs and poison breath and dirty nails / and multiple immortal heads which gnash the hair the bone the eye / flapping like you can’t imagine how it flaps in magical blackness

“Black magic. Demons.” That was the diagnosis. Perhaps it came from someone who was envious of me, or who was envious of the shaman. “The sorcerers down here, los brujos, use magic from books and evil chants to attack good people like us; they work with dead animals, dead people.” Perhaps I had picked up demons from people I supported during ceremonies. Disturbed spirits can see my light and feed on it. “Perhaps that is why you are full of demons.” I had to agree – he saw exactly what I experienced – and there was nothing more to say.

I went to bed like a condemned man,

afraid to dream.









Snake eyes: seeing clearly for safety and growth

Black magic, demons and darkness exist. They are part of the human experience. They may test us, teach us in ways no other teachers can, deepen us – or ruin us. These forces are not merely obstacles on the spiritual path; they are central to its definition, and learning how to relate to them is at the heart of any worthwhile relationship with a plant teacher like Ayahuasca.

Black magic, demons and darkness exist. And if we want to go some place meaningful, we need to acquaint ourselves with their myriad forms, to know and to understand them with eyes open. If we do not, they simply possess us; one way or another, they corrupt us.

But if we take one step in this direction, a question arises for honest contemplation:

Who of us sees clearly in the dark?

One may have lived in the same house for twenty years, yet when the lights go out he finds himself stranded in the living room, unable to recognise his own furniture. For it is the dark that in a sense allows us to become strangers to ourselves. As soon as darkness enters our experience, things are usually not what they appear to be. A kind of blinding has occurred.

safety: our survival instinct is to fight or flee dark experience

And as we become blind – as our normal, familiar way of seeing the world begins to fade – we may feel threatened, afraid and confused. The darkness can bring this up in us sometimes, can’t it, like when you’re standing there at night in your underwear and the dogs begin barking at something unknown … and the winds hiss and this old house rattles, and even though you know it is safe here, part of you conjures from the atmosphere a snake in the undergrowth, a man in a black coat just outside waiting for things to go quiet. Blind, afraid and confused, we call on our imagination to keep out unwelcome visitors. So as night comes on, the imagination swings loose, floods into active form, and becomes our lunar lens.


Of course this protective, threat-detecting behaviour is necessary, because darkness in a literal sense can in fact conceal danger: snakes can be deadly, men in black coats exist and occasionally visit houses for midnight purposes. In order to survive, human beings have had to obey the instinct towards protection and safety. Separation keeps us alive in the short-term. This is life from the point of view of our immune and sympathetic nervous systems: threat or friend? Good or bad? Me, not-me. Black, white.

but why are people drawn to the cosmic serpent?
Growth: the dark connects, evolves us

But to be alive in any meaningful sense of the word — and to evolve — it is not enough that we are safe, that threats are identified and kept at bay. To the contrary, dwelling only in the safe and knowable will suffocate us into sterile simulations of living and, ultimately, into pathology. Where would the butterfly be if it did not embrace the cocoon? In order to thrive we must honor our instinct towards growth, the magnetic core in each of us that longs for expansion, for experience, for union. Although darkness may lead to danger, it is also essential for life and growth and connection. Think of soil, its innate fertility. Think of the womb. In sleep, the dark restores us; our dreams need it to hatch. All of our friends were once strangers, potential threats. And for the human heart to feel less alone, it must learn how to befriend the dark strangers who dwell on the other side of its walls… to reconcile opposing or contradictory forces inside the self… to imagine worlds beyond the boundaries of the known.

To distinguish the threatening dark from the fertile dark — the capacity to see clearly — is critical for our safety as well as for our growth. But this is not easy to do because not only do we instinctively prioritise safety over growth, but we are masters at self-fragmentation and mental projection.

we are wired not to trust strangers:
“safety first”– growth second.

After all, who of us sees clearly in the dark. Naturally we have favoured our safety over our growth; survival is primary, growth secondary. Without immediate safety there can be no growth. This is why we are wired not to trust strangers. It is not a bad thing, it is only something to come to terms with when in the darkness of the ceremony space you become a stranger in a strange land — the same way you do when you dream each night.

we are masters at projection:
— interpreting the dreamspace of Ayahuasca

The human mind is wired for projection. Perhaps the clearest example is to consider what happens each night when — in darkness — we dream. The old way of seeing fades, rattles, falls away… and we become strangers to ourselves… in those colourful realms of our unconscious making. Each night, we practice so masterfully the magical trance of being lost in dream – fragmenting the sense of self, projecting the contents of our inner worlds into the imaginal realm and then losing ourselves utterly in our projections. It is a sort of disappearing act. But one could just as easily describe it as a possession.

Either way, the dream-show is so good that we lose ourselves in it. The better the magic, the deeper we go. And the best magic is intense, heavy with primordial symbolism, of sex and jealousy and annihilation and getting sawn in half, that echoes along the length of our terrified homo sapiens bones. In this regard, the dreams that draw us into the deepest trance are the ones in which evil chases us.





The day after my demon attack, I awoke in my jungle hut afraid and confused. The shaman had prepared a vapour bath for me, a traditional treatment for black magic and demonic possession. But I was feeling weak and slightly faint, so I decided not to do the bath that day, and instead went into the local town to shop at the market. It was there that I developed an extremely high fever and almost collapsed in the street. After checking myself into the emergency room at a hospital, I received the diagnosis that began to rattle my black-and-white concepts of Ayahuasca and shamanism:

I had malaria.

And once the malaria was cured, the demons vanished. What remained was the nascent understanding that

none of us sees clearly in the dark.

Darkness is never a ‘thing’ to begin with, a noun. We do not know a stranger directly. We do not see them as they are. Actually we can never know them as they are, but only who they are to us. To do this, we engage in a process of interpretation, of guess-work.

Imagine a soldier. To his family, he is a loving presence, a warm center. Other people call him: ‘friend’. Yet when I am at war, I call that same soldier: ‘enemy’. Darkness is a process of interpretation, a verb, it is something we do. It is an expression of our relationship with a strange other who we decide is ‘threatening’. After my experience I wondered what one malaria cell would look like inside the Ayahuasca dream-space from the point of view of another malaria cell.

On an intellectual level, of course, this is obvious stuff. But many people who drink Ayahusaca experience something very different on a gut/emotional/experiential level. On this more primal, mammalian plane, shit is real and scary; nature has taught us to take what we see literally. We believe we clearly see what is going on. If darkness appears, we believe — primate senses trembling with the anticipation of snake-bite — that the eye who sees, sees directly into the nature of an external other. We do not understand darkness as a relational act, an interpretive process necessary for our survival, but prone to presumption and prejudice.

Darkness shows us what is “threatening”

(it keeps our body “safe”)

That is the nature of darkness. In the imaginal realm – whether in a dream or Ayahuasca vision – darkness is an expression of what seems THREATENING.

The point I want to make here is not that all dark experiences are ‘hallucinations’ of the nervous system, but just that our tendency to ‘darkify’ what seems threatening is incredibly deep. It is deep because it has its roots in our physical survival systems. It is there for a very good reason and it functions all the time.

So darkness is an expression of what seems threatening. Threatening to what? What am I trying to protect by interpreting phenomena as dark enemies I need to defend against?

The obvious answer is: my body, the physical self. No body, no life. So must protect. Hence my malaria demons. Slay the baddies. Hence if you drink Ayahuasca while badly dehydrated, the threat felt by the nervous system can manifest as dark entities, utterly menacing the Jesus out of your visions. Or food poisoning – same story – nightmare on underdone Indian fish street.

(and it keeps our sense of self / existing software “safe”)

Yet inextricably bound to my physical self is another, deeper reality of the human being: my emotional/mental/psychic self. Actually there are many selves, many modules of consciousness. There is, to begin with, the fundamental ‘self-and-other’ program. Around this, a constellation of maps and images coalesce. These are the maps and images of reality, of identity, through which I make meaning, understand the world and my place in it. All of this is software. Whatever you believe about an immortal soul, our identity software still dominates our reality.

For good reason. Without the mental, emotional and psychic structures that comprise my sense(s) of self, I would shiver, adrift and naked in a terrifying sea of information known (by the sane) as the universe, and — while doing so — there’s a good chance I’d get hit by a bus and die.

Recall also that we have evolved as tribal creatures. Without functional maps and images of self I wouldn’t know what shirts to wear, how to stand out or be invisible, how to be the ape tolerated by the tribe. This could be disastrous. Our child self has known this for a very long time. We need functional images of self in order to be accepted by the ones who matter, or if we cannot be accepted, how to deal with the emotional reality of this and carry on.

So, sense of self, identity software: need it for acceptance, for stability, need it to live, must protect: how? Identify threats. Threats bad, threats dark. So darkness in dreams and in ceremony can also be an expression of what our self identity – our idea of who we are – deems threatening.

Now there is a distinction of brain-curdling gravity to be made here. The distinction between two kinds of threats. Can we tell these two apart,

a threat to the stability of your mental-emotional software programs


a threat to physical (or spiritual or mental) safety?

Where the snake can take you

(homeward bound or deeper into the dark?)

Now the Ayahuasca experience is, in many respects, very much like a dream. And a dream — in symbolic snake tongue — will reflect the dimensions of self with pristine, uncompromising honesty. It will totally lay bare the relationships you have with various parts of yourself. This is fertile ground. In meeting the lonely reflections that roam here unhinged, and learning how to relate to them again, there is immense potential for growth. This open-eyed meeting is one of the primary ways we grow and give substance to the soul.

But the process can only happen if one can look deeply into the dark, has the will to see clearly, to deal with complexity, to challenge black-and-white ideas and beliefs, to tolerate contradictions, to feel… and to somehow hold steady under the mirror as she reflects to you the horrifying beauty of our world. This, I feel, is the holy venom Ayahuasca tries to transmit when she takes the form of a snake and compassionately advances.

The thing is, nobody likes snakes. Spaced-out primates least of all. The dreams that draw us into the deepest trance are the ones in which evil chases us. But as it happens, most of the time we are not afraid because we are being chased by monsters; monsters chase us because we are afraid. If this is so, can we cease the flight from ourselves long enough to listen? Or are we more interested in keeping safe and fattening up our shadows?

Here is the issue: most of us have defined who we are and how we see the world by ‘turning away’ from our pain and darkness, and this is the elephant we sneak with us into the ceremony room. We show up as life-long experts at self-fragmentation, specialists in separating ourselves from our darkness and projecting it outwards. Because this dualistic tendency has its roots in our survival machinery, no one is immune to its blinding. Not ‘spiritual people’, not shamans or those who have drunk Ayahuasca thousands of times.

Where would the butterfly be if it did not embrace the cocoon? In a mental asylum. Because when your depression appears as a demon; when your self-hatred becomes an evil entity ‘out there’ trying to get you; when the black magic of sexual abuse or life-long shame threatens your idea of who you think you are: do you fight it or do you try to relate to it? The answer to this question can define the path you walk with this medicine. By this I mean: one path leads to growth, the other leads deeper into the dark.


An ape in a neural thunderstorm

(blindness defines the human mind)

Darkness, demons and black magic exist. It is true, there are many different species which I will discuss in the next article. But before we begin slaying the enemy, we need to admit our non-rational origins as

— an ape in a neural thunderstorm —

quaking in blindness,
wired for duality and self-fragmentation and projection — a cosmic ape,
a dreaming ape, a loveable ape — but an ape we remain, especially on Ayahuasca.

If nothing else, remember this.






















And if you are also willing to see, even if it feels uncomfortable, then we can talk some more about the fertile dark and about

what lies beyond the living room.


Humping the Antidote

***Note: this post forms part of a series which explores how our quick-fix fantasy affects the Ayahuasca process. This is part 2. Click here for part 1: The Antidote – an introduction.

There is no question that many of us have been imprinted with the psychological barcodes of corporate marketing, scientific materialism (including its medical profession), New Age spiritualism and religion. We have inherited from these systems habits of thought that subtly [ subconsciously ] pervade every aspect of our experience. These systems are so popular — and can so easily hook us — because they exploit three deeply-rooted human tendencies:

  1. to avoid pain, discomfort and darkness
  2. to chase and attach to the pleasurable, ‘feel-good’ or light aspects of life
  3. to make life meaningful.

In other words: being human is hard, painful and confusing and we want to make it easy, painless and comprehensible. So we manufacture and buy into this fantasy that there is a quick-fix, an angelic portal, an antidote to the condition of being human, to pain, darkness, boredom, emptiness, meaninglessness; and when we find something that seems to work, we cling to it, seek to repeat it until the merciless tendrils of reality coil again around our bony ankles and… down we sink, itching for the next fix.

Drug-takers and light-chasers

faceless dr

Our quick-fix / antidote fantasy has taken the form of (and is reinforced by) the age of awe-inspiring drugs which travel from the market place to your bloodstream at the speed of advertising and tweak instantly almost any parameter of being human… with unquestioned legitimacy, they sling-shot you into other dimensions, short-circuit a psychotic episode, deliver you from flesh-eating bacteria and get your dick hard under any circumstances… maybe even all in one weekend… and here are the dealers who vouch for the supply, and here are the doctors with mystifying combinations of letters after their names — FrOOt SaCK — wielding prescriptions of tiny bleached bottles neatly inscribed with unutterable contraindications…

and George Clooney is there in your peripheral selling those watches that seem more substantial than your life ever did…

and thousands of hypnotic channels impose on you from everywhere, and as you look into them they look into you with the unanimous spell-binding implication:


— “you clooney facecan tune out what is uncomfortable by tuning in to consume what we suggest will make you feel good; feeling good is the same thing as being fulfilled in life; feeling pleasure is the same thing as being satisfied, whole and connected; feeling good is healing, feeling good is meaningful” —

… and all of this is taken for granted and seems to make as much sense as your first name.

So some of the “truths” I have learned (without realizing I learned them) are:

  • chemicals rule; behaviour can be predicted by a study of chemical components; transformative experiences are the effects of chemical reactions;
  • illness is caused by chemical malfunctions or pathogens and can be undone with the right chemical cocktail;
  • drugs act quickly;
  • the patient is a passive recipient and has no responsibility for their own healing;
  • a drug is working when it causes desired effects (feeling good, a “good trip”) or rids the patient of undesired symptoms / suffering;
  • undesired outcomes (suffering, feeling bad, a “bad trip”) are accidental “side effects”, unfortunate incidents of trying to get where you want to go;
  • happiness, wellbeing, real satisfaction and health mean: “feeling good”. We should try to feel good as much as possible;
  • there is a drug / fix for every condition.

You can probably already begin to imagine how these assumptions shape the way one relates to Ayahuasca. People with a history of taking mind-altering drugs (psychedelics included, nutmeg included) can be particularly susceptible to this paradigm because it has been apparently confirmed by their experience time and again: you take the drug, you get high; when the trip goes wrong, eat lasagne and sleep it off. Perhaps they have even cooked up a batch of Ayahuasca themselves (or have seen grandpa tripping in the backyard) and apparently “the shit is working, must be the betacarboline alkaloids, serotonergic agonism and the DMT, yo”.

Everything in this world can be described as having chemical components to it (although I have never seen a chemical myself), and it is perfectly interesting to try to understand nature (and Ayahuasca) from this point of view. But one cannot understand completely and meaningfully the experience of listening to a piece of music by analysing the physical components of an instrument; the song is neither in the instrument nor the sheet music. Similarly, to conduct your romantic relationship based on ideas of a relationship as merely a prolonged exchange of bodily fluids or the electrically-induced excitement of neurotransmitters would result in spectacular meltdowns or aloneness, and certainly not in a deep and lasting experience of love (although this frame re love may be more useful than the shameful lies I inherited from Disney movies). Here this kind of thinking totally misses the point.


Dopamine (mine and George Clooney`s favourite)

Metaphor, theory and our own experience are all we have to understand the infinite dimensions of natural phenomena. Chemicals are metaphor, but the metaphor is limited when we want to understand certain aspects of subjective experience, particularly life’s spiritual or non-physical dimensions and how people change.

In an effort to supply a greater sense of meaning and explain these more human dimensions of life, religions and New Age[1] spirituality have offered people different metaphors and theories. Some of these involve GOD, heaven, hell, saints, sinners, crystals, chakras, angels, demons, aliens, energy and spirits. And these may be perfectly valid metaphors in themselves.

But what has happened? Our use of these spiritualized metaphors is also, in many cases, influenced or infected by the antidote fantasy. What we are not aware of controls us. So we may rely on these metaphors to short-cut or by-pass the dark and the difficult parts of our experience, to anesthetize the symptoms of our problems and suppress awareness of their causes. It is not the use of these metaphors themselves that is troubling, but the impulse that sometimes lurks beneath their use — the antidote fantasy.


You might imagine what assumptions you have inherited from these systems of thought that are motivated by the antidote fantasy, and how they influence your Ayahuasca experience. Even if we have not consciously subscribed to such a meaning system, we may have nevertheless been imprinted with its signature subconsciously. For my part, I can say that I have been taught at least the following:

  • negativity and darkness are things we need to clean out of us, release and let go;
  • life is about filling up our energy with love and positivity;
  • if darkness threatens me, reach for the light, pray, ask the angels or god to take it away;
  • if you feel negativity, it might not be yours; it might be dark energies or spirits you picked up from other people or places;
  • your soul is eternal, so you should not worry about death;
  • happiness, healing, wellbeing, real satisfaction and health mean: “feeling good”. We should try to feel good as much as possible, to be “high vibrational”.

Whether we believe in machines and chemicals or spirits and chakras (or, as I do, a combination of these kinds of metaphors), something inside of us still longs for an antidote. It is nothing to be ashamed of; life is confusing, scary and painful, and we are all just trying to get by and live a life with meaning. And these systems of thought help us depending on who we are and where we are in our lives.

And of course I am not saying that each of us is irretrievably controlled by the antidote fantasy and we are all incapable of maturely processing the contradictions and darkness of life. I am just saying that we should be honest with ourselves and admit that we have been conditioned to want and believe in a quick-fix to the symptoms of our problems; this tendency exists and its consequences should be acknowledged. What we are not aware of controls us.

Unfortunately the media and marketing hype around Ayahuasca is slithering with the antidote fantasy, for obvious reasons. There are even well-known authors publishing apparently authoritative accounts of the Ayahuasca experience who give the impression that “although Ayahuasca is not a magic bullet, maybe for you it can be a magic bullet”. While I agree that Ayahuasca is a wonderful tool, and I am continuously astounded at its usefulness, I would not want to suggest to a [desperate, depressed] person that it can offer salvation in a single ceremony, full stop, end of story, or that they should drink Ayahuasca without awareness of their environment, a realistic treatment plan, integration, or other tools and support.

So what does it look like when the antidote fantasy infects the way we work with Ayahuasca, and are there more helpful ways of relating to the experience?

The next post in this series is: Grandma take me home: responsibility: relating to Ayahuasca

[1] I use this term very loosely.

Expectations Test

This is a test scientifically designed to determine whether you have expectations about something. It works particularly well in relation to the Ayahuasca process. There is one question:

1. Are you feeling disappointed, frustrated, irritated, impatient
or like your process should be anything other than what it is right now?

If the answer to question 1 above is “yes”, then you have expectations.

The nature of emotions

What is an emotion? Merely an unfortunate by-product of being human? A chemical malfunction of a dysfunctional citizen? The luxury of weepy failures and wet-toast hippies with too much time on their hands that drink psychedelic tea in midnight fits?

In her book The Molecules of Emotion, the scientist Candace Pert conceptualizes the human being as an information network, in which body, mind and emotions are inextricably linked with each other. In her view, our emotions are the subjective experience of our physiological processes, which themselves also cause changes in those processes; emotions form part of a sophisticated feedback system by allowing the network to become conscious of its regulatory signals and direct their flow healthily; in this way, emotions let us know whether information is flowing freely, whether the system is out of balance or threatened, and therefore what actions need to be taken (usually at the subconscious, biochemical level) to deal with the imbalance or threat.

This accords with what some neuroscientists say about the evolution of our ‘limbic brain’ system — a group of regions in our brain responsible for much of our emotional processing — that this system evolved as a kind of ‘internal/external’ monitor: “is this person a threat? am I in danger? what should I do (biochemically, automatically) about this lion coming towards me? now can I relax and digest food? should I be aroused?

Now, because our emotional processing mechanisms (including the molecules of emotion) evolved as a communication system, it makes sense that they – like serotonin receptor sites – would be hooked up to just about every part of us that touches the external world and bears on our survival: brain, enteric (digestive) system, sexual / reproductive system, endocrine (hormonal) system, immune system. We have receptor sites for the molecules of emotion throughout our entire body, down to the smallest kind of immune cell (called a monocyte). This gives emotions the wide-ranging ability to influence the expression of our biochemistry (and cells) in each of the systems in which they act. In addition, the relatively new sciences of psycho-immuno-endocrinology and epigenetics explain how emotional states can actually influence the expression of cells at a genetic level (for example, an inherited gene predisposing one to cancer can be “switched on” / “upregulated” by environmental factors which include emotions).

Candace Pert suggests that for the information network to be healthy, information must flow naturally, the feedback loop must be tight; since emotions here represent information flows, if you allow emotions to flow in a healthy way and seek to resolve emotional darkness and stagnation or shut-down (blockages in the network), information in the network will flow in a life-affirming current. And this leads to ‘adaptive’ behavioural responses to your environment, that is, more magic, more connectedness, a life more in tune with who you really are, better decisions, less emptiness, less voracious consumption of the earth. The opposite (ignoring / denying / suppressing / projecting the feedback signals of emotions) can, over time, lead to emotional dysfunction and, potentially, physical illness.

“Fuck you, I love emotions. Like peace, love and MDMA. But the others ones are for losers who don’t have their shit together”

What does pain and darkness mean to you? What is your relationship to pain and darkness? What strategies do you use to deal with emotional or physical pain? The way you relate to this pain will have implications for your relationship with Ayahuasca.


“Grandma take me home” >>> relating to Ayahuasca

"I promise, by the time you finish that cookie..."

“I promise, by the time you finish that cookie…”

***Note: this post forms part of a series which explores how our quick-fix fantasy affects the Ayahuasca process. This post is part 3.

Here is part 1: The Antidote – an introduction

And part 2: Humping the Antidote

Some people reduce Ayahuasca to a bundle of chemicals, a wonder medicine that resolves imbalances in the psycho-physical information system known as a human being. Others regard Ayahuasca as a wise, divine discarnate grandmother spirit who operates independently of your will but has your best interests at heart. Either way, if these metaphors / theories are driven by the antidote fantasy (our desire for a quick-fix to the symptoms of our problems), we believe the drug or ‘grandmother’ either acts on the passive recipient, or it/she does not. The patient has little or no responsibility for their experience both during and after the ceremony. This can substantially affect your relationship with Ayahuasca and limit your potential for meaningful long-term transformation.

— “Grandma, take me home. Show me what I need to be shown. Take me out of my suffering. I know they say you are not a magic bullet, but maybe for me you can be?” —

We have had people with depression who (after a single ceremony) complain that Ayahuasca isn’t working because their prayer to “heal the depression” [through by-passing their emotions] was not answered:

— “I tried asking Ayahuasca to heal my depression, but I just got really angry and couldn’t focus because of the fucking singing and I didn’t have visions. And now it’s the next day and I still feel angry. I think the Ayahuasca is weak.” —

Initially this kind of patient may have had a strong intention to heal, yet when they arrive at the retreat, they secretly believe that Ayahuasca would do the work for them, and that either it (the drug/genie) is going to work or it is not. So they do nothing to strengthen their intention or prayer for change during the retreat and secretly brood in distrust of the process (which contributes to them being more closed).

Now their (apparent) lack of progress could be explained by a physical blockage, or the drug not being strong enough, or because the grandmother has not yet heard the patient’s cry for help, or the shaman is incompetent, or bad spirits or black magic are blocking the process. Each of these interpretations seeks to explain the same thing from a different point of view, and there may be truth to each one, but the problem is that, if any of these theories is relied upon exclusively, the patient is reduced to a passive spectator in the healing process and ultimately this can be unhelpful (especially for long-term healing outcomes).

Before we entertain ideas about the strength of the Ayahuasca or black magic, etc, we have to realize that what the participant does with their focus and internal resources during the ceremony will always bear on their experience (even if other factors are at play, eg, negative energies). In this example, the participant did not realize that this was the way that Ayahuasca was trying to relate to him about his depression, that the anger was a defence that he used in his life to avoid feeling afraid, weak, vulnerable, ashamed, etc. But he was not taking responsibility for his healing by engaging with Ayahuasca. So she was encouraging him to be vulnerable, to open to what his anger had to teach him, but because he was treating Ayahuasca like a drug or a genie that would take away his pain, he was not listening to her, failed to understand her language, had no patience and couldn’t trust in her intelligence.

If he had continued to ignore this anger, he might have purged a lot of tension associated with it in subsequent ceremonies, and perhaps he would feel wonderful (temporarily), but he would be unlikely to change his relationship to his thoughts and emotions long-term. He may even become attached to this good feeling and return to drink Ayahuasca to “get it back”. But feeling good is not the same thing as being healed. So this habit pattern of his – to disconnect or become angry when faced with an emotion, then reach for a drug to feel better – could have co-opted the Ayahuasca process in its service. This happens more than you may think.

In addition, this kind of person would be unlikely to integrate any wisdom he did receive from Ayahuasca because “either the drug / genie has worked, or it has not”. As long as he relates to Ayahuasca like some antidote to the symptoms of his problems, he will not respect and trust her intelligence, take responsibility for his process, listen to her subtle communications with him, be vulnerable enough to face his darkness, or sufficiently committed to integrate his experiences over the long-term.

There is a metaphor for the Ayahuasca experience that reconciles both the existence of chemicals and the subjective perception of spirits while still allowing for responsibility of the patient, and that is


— a relationship, a spiritual communion guided by the heart —

Ayahuasca is a chemical brew, but she is also the grandmother, just as Geronimo is Geronimo, but he is also a bundle of chemicals exchanging excited electrical impulses and a constellation of funky fluids with Gladys and Cecil. In either case, if we are interested in evolution, we should realize we are in a relationship.

Now I must confess something: I have occasionally thought of Ayahuasca as being like the Oracle from the Matrix movies. She is composed of information-carrying molecules but she is also a being, and you would be unlikely to gain her favour if you consistently treated her like a lifeless hologram. And of course, as anyone who has related to her enough will know, she sometimes tells you what you need to hear for the growth of your spirit, even if it is not the literal or absolute truth.

Such a relationship requires engagement, or participation by the patient. Below are just a few ideas for positive or healthy ways to engage in any relationship which I have seen people apply to Ayahuasca, often automatically. This is not intended to be some exhaustive manual for how to relate to Ayahuasca, a fixed set of concepts to grasp and try to “do”. For many people who work intelligently with Ayahuasca much of this will be a description of what they naturally do without thinking about it at all. This is only meant to disarm unhelpful ways of relating, and stimulate the parts of you already relating healthily to go deeper in that direction.



1. Respect

2. Responsibility

3. Listening

4. Vulnerability

5. Sense of humour

6. Trust, surrender, acceptance

7. Commitment

*** a word on over-fiddling…

*** Expectations Test


1. Respect

Respect is the basis of any healthy relationship and many other harmonious and productive ways of relating naturally flow from the energy of respect.

Of course respect is something that must be earned. I would say that, if you were to take anything away from the miraculous healing stories surrounding Ayahuasca, it could be that Ayahuasca is at least worthy of respect; her willingness and power to help people help themselves should be enough for us to pause and consider relating to her respectfully. How might you relate to an extra-terrestrial psychotherapist who was famous for helping many people, who knows you better than you know yourself, but who uses radical methods in her practice?

It might be interesting to think about what kinds of ways of relating would follow from you feeling respect for the intelligence of Ayahuasca. For me, respectfully relating means at least trying:

  • to trust her intelligence, even if I don’t understand how she works with me consciously;
  • to drop my expectations and be present;
  • to listen, be receptive to all of the ways she communicates with me, without trying to impose my ideas or desires over the things she is trying to show me;
  • to accept / surrender to her wisdom, to honour what she presents me with;
  • to put into practice each day the things she shows me;
  • to be patient with her;
  • to be completely honest with myself and my feelings and share this with her, ie, to be vulnerable with her;
  • to notice and be grateful for the ways she helps me instead of continually focusing on what she has not yet helped me with;
  • not to rely on her as an emotional crutch or using her in an abusive or dependent manner;
  • to understand and respect her traditions of use;
  • not to compare my relationship with her to the relationship she has with another person;
  • not to treat her like a lifeless antidote drug that will air-lift me from pain to pleasure;
  • not to treat her like a magical antidote grandma genie that will air-lift me from pain to pleasure;
  • taking responsibility for my healing process before, during and after the ceremony.

Of course these ways of relating will be unique to each person. Perhaps respect to you means something different. The point is not to have some conceptual list of appropriate relationship characteristics, but to feel in your heart what naturally follows from having respect for Ayahuasca.

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2. Responsibility

Take responsibility for your healing before, during and after the ceremony. This is the same as any relationship you are involved in: each person needs to do their best to take responsibility for their half, or the thing falls apart and you find yourself stoned and drunk and screaming into your Vietnamese noodle box at 3am “I DON’T LIKE who I am when I’m with YOU anymore!!”

Before the ceremony, this may mean turning your mind toward preparing yourself psychologically and physically by, for instance, following a diet, meditating, praying / setting strong intentions, emotional processing.

During the ceremony, taking responsibility for your process means not wanting to be rescued from your issues, “air-lifted to safety” by Ayahuasca. It involves the recognition that Ayahuasca is here to help you, but ultimately you are the one who will be doing the work, you are the one who will be healing yourself by the strength of your intention, willingness to feel, openness to new realities, ability to forgive, etc – even if it feels at times as if Ayahuasca is doing the work for you, you are allowing that to happen with your openness and readiness to transform. And even if other factors will influence your experience (such as external energies and the shaman’s guidance), this frame places responsibility on the participant to engage with what is happening (which may involve connecting to energy, setting energetic boundaries, or circulating energy). In any case, my view is that Ayahuasca never “gives” you anything; rather she helps you to connect with a wholeness and perfection that exists as the core of who you already are.

After the ceremony, responsibility means taking seriously the integration of your Ayahuasca experiences into your daily life (this is discussed in more detail under commitment below).

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3. Listening
(be open to all the ways she communicates with you)

Ayahuasca is always trying to communicate with you. There is always a language being spoken. It may come through visions, through auditory channels, through feelings or thoughts or knowings, or a combination of these experiences. Don’t get caught up in trying to have a visionary experience if you are not having one; be with what is actually here.

Listen. Listening means engaging your senses (especially the feeling sense if you are working on emotional issues) so that you are receptive to the messages contained in the language Ayahuasca is speaking to you, the way a flower is receptive to the ceaseless stream of information it receives from its environment (eg, fluctuations in temperature, moisture, bacteria, insects, curious human children).

Listen with your heart to everything that Ayahuasca presents you, as you would listen to someone who is telling you the truth as they die: present, not expecting or wanting them to say anything other than what they are saying, not waiting for your turn to speak, just quietly open with your heart receptive and still.

Also take time to listen to your own heart in this same way (before, during, after the ceremony), because that is just as important. If you are ignoring your own feelings, how can you be present for your partner in the relationship? This means feeling, being present and feeling. Anything further that you need to “do” with your awareness or attention will be found through this kind of heart listening.

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4. Vulnerability

For me, the willingness to admit and feel the truth of my emotional experience, to be vulnerable, is a critical part of my relationship with Ayahuasca. This also encompasses a willingness to ask: “how have I been bullshitting myself?” or “what have I been hiding from myself?”

— and admitting that you may be wrong —
— about —
— everything —

Of course in order to be vulnerable, you have to recognise the validity of your emotions as a kind of guidance system, rather than unfortunate incidents of being human, to be by-passed or ignored.

I recently heard a great description of the willingness to be vulnerable as a willingness to cultivate the “soft spot”. We all have a soft spot, which is the part of us that is exposed to feeling emotional pain. When I am triggered by an emotional pattern, being vulnerable means honouring and “being with” the soft spot rather than hardening or giving in to automatic conditioned responses (of, for instance, fear, judgment or anger). Doing so can allow us to see the pattern in its entirety, understand the real reasons for the feelings, or otherwise disarm the destructive power of the pattern and its grip on us. New insights and behaviours then become possible. If you are interested in resolving trauma or changing emotional programming, you must learn to be vulnerable; in this sense, vulnerability is power.

Ayahuasca will often try to … encourage … us to admit the truth of our feelings to ourselves. Do your best to go with her on this one. Resistance is hell.

However, certain people (and especially those who regard Ayahuasca as a quick-fix) bring into the Ayahuasca space a deeply-ingrained tendency to harden over the soft spot, to react to emotional pain, to not admit how they are bullshitting themselves. If one is not willing to be honest and address this tendency, they can blind themselves even in an Ayahuasca ceremony. The Ayahuasca experience can then become a warzone of emotional projections in which unhelpful or destructive patterns are further entrenched. I have reserved a future blog post just for this topic.

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5. Sense of humour

Rosette nebula in the Unicorn constellationBe open to laughing at yourself. Our entire life drama is an infinitesimally small part of the holy everything, identity is a non-existent mirage, change is the rule and we have almost no control over anything that happens. Ayahuasca is well aware of this and sometimes there is nothing else to do but cackle at the fuck of it all!!

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6. Trust, surrender, acceptance

For me, trust and love go hand-in-hand. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t. The trust that Ayahuasca has encouraged me to have is not the trust that everything will turn out as I want or expect, ie, “outcome trust” or “expectation trust”. It is instead more like the Sufi trust of “this mysterious life may dissolve you in the twinkly lights of heaven or disembowel the fuck out of you; either way it’s all good, it’s what you need, either way you only have illusions to shed and infinity to gain.” Trust, somehow trust, that you are getting what you need, that this is the experience you are supposed to be having for your growth as a human being. You might call this “process trust”. To find a way to trust the process is important, but understandably this can be difficult for some people. Again, you may be able to gain confidence from the innumerable people who have passed through this sacred process with positive life-changing results.

A very closely-related activity is: surrender. For me this involves making a decision to turn towards everything that the moment presents, breathe, be with it and let it be. Letting it be as it is does not mean I have to like what is presented, only that I don’t struggle or fight against it. Give up the struggle against what is, relax and offer up to Ayahuasca the illusion that you ever had control over what happens in life. To surrender does not mean to submit your will and become overwhelmed by an experience. In fact in most cases of people freaking out that I have seen, it is resistance to what is happening – fighting against reality – that is the cause of overwhelm. And whenever I have been in a state of surrender… spirits, divine intelligence, love and all manner of gracious happenings have flowed in celebration through my open heart.

And letting things be exactly as they are, to accept them completely, I think this is a kind of love.

Of course if you are secretly treating Ayahuasca as an antidote — whether to you it is a sacred medicine or the grandmother genie spirit — you will be less inclined to trust, surrender and accept during your relationship with Ayahuasca. And even if a person is able to surrender and trust during their experience, if they are running the antidote program subconsciously, the surrender and trust is conditional and temporary: “cool, so I surrender and trust for 6 nights out of my entire life, and you will fix all my shit, and then I can return to my regular environment and go back to not surrendering and trusting 24 hours a day 7 days a week”. If you fall into this category, you may wish to take the Expectations Test.

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7. Commitment – Intention – Integration of experiences

Another characteristic of a healthy relationship that I have seen people apply to Ayahuasca is commitment, which bears on all aspects of the process and often determines how deeply one is able to relate to Ayahuasca.

Commitment in this context is really a commitment to yourself, and it means: a deep, heart-felt and unconditional intention to heal, learn, evolve, return home – whatever it is that brought you to Ayahuasca – to do and feel whatever is needed, for whatever length of time is necessary.

This kind of commitment is different from making an intellectual decision to do something. For instance, a person may have decided to do an Ayahuasca retreat, paid the money, come to Peru, drank in a few ceremonies, but that does not mean that they have made a commitment to their process. And if they are under the spell of the antidote fantasy (wanting a quick-fix to the symptoms of their problems), they are less likely to commit, to have a heart-felt intention that not only opens them deeply during the ceremony, but carries them through the integration challenges after the retreat.

The effect of this kind of commitment is to mobilize your subconscious resources in service of your intention, to align the fragmented parts of yourself toward a common goal. This is important for a number of reasons.

First, we are not a unitary personality; we are a collection of fragmented personalities or parts, which I regard metaphorically as children frozen at different times in our lives. These parts / children have different agendas; some are open to change, some are terrified of it and want things to stay the same. When someone makes a decision to change, both kinds of children will want to push their agendas, and there will always be some form of resistance. If the decision to change is strong and clear, ie, if a commitment has been made, there will be less resistance from the frightened children (or their resistance will be more easily overcome). Hence the person will be less likely to fall victim to self-sabotaging patterns while working with Ayahuasca.

Secondly, the parts of you that are open to change will rally, their cry for freedom will amplify, and you will be able to open more deeply with Ayahuasca.

But most importantly, a strong commitment to your process will help you integrate your Ayahuasca experiences into your daily life. Sometimes this integration will be a conscious process that you engage in; for example, you might take up a particular type of meditation practice or make it a habit to express yourself more honestly to others. But there is also a kind of subconscious integration that often takes place with people, even if they have had no subjective awareness of anything happening in their Ayahuasca ceremonies. If you have made a strong commitment to your process, this will magnetize the seeds of change that Ayahuasca has planted inside you to grow in life-affirming directions. And a strong commitment will also carry you beyond the Ayahuasca process itself of course, to branch out and look for other complementary practices to support your process.

Often what it takes to make this commitment is readiness. On many occasions I have spoken to people who express frustration about not being able to get where they want to go with Ayahuasca, and quietly I know that it is simply because they are not ready. They are not ready to give up lying to themselves, they are not ready to be vulnerable, they are not ready to put in the work, they are not ready to change something in their environment. And one of the main factors that creates readiness in a person is: that they have suffered enough. When someone has suffered enough, when the old way of being has become truly intolerable, they will be ready to give themselves, to open, to commit to their process. And these people, the ones who have suffered enough, are also willing to give up the fantasy of the antidote and take responsibility for their healing process (to continue the relationship) after the ceremony (honeymoon, fancy dress ball, alien orgy) is over. Because the truth is that the evolutionary journey home is in most cases a very long road… and that has to be ok.

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now a word on over-fiddling

dr who











While engagement in these kinds of ways is necessary, I want to repeat again: this is not supposed to be a manual of fixed protocols for relating to Ayahuasca that one should cling to and try to perform in ceremony. This is only meant to disarm unhelpful ways of relating, and stimulate the parts of you already relating healthily to go deeper in that direction.

It can be a huge trap to try to over-engage with the process; so many of us have control issues which can hijack the entire experience in the name of needing to “do it right”. Each person will have a unique relationship with Ayahuasca and it is up to you to listen with your heart to understand the optimum way of engaging with the experience.

Some people, however, are particularly lost in their mind and disconnected from their inner guidance system. They will read words like “surrender” and “trust” and “listen with your heart” but not have a clue what they mean, and will wrack their analytical brains trying to find the correct algorithm to execute, and despair because they aren’t “doing it right”. For these people it is useful to speak with a guide who has experience (and emotional awareness). Sometimes a person has been so in their head, judging obsessively each moment of their experience, that I have counselled them only to “turn towards” whatever is happening in the ceremony while breathing deeply. Sometimes there is just nothing to do except be with the experience, even if that is one of resistance. Sometimes just lying there, breathing deeply and saying ‘do your thing, lover, I am open, I am ready to give up “doing” and to be present to this experience”’ is the best thing you can “do”. I have myself spent many nights just “turning towards” what is happening, breathing, and allowing – nothing more.

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***Note: this post forms part of a series which explores how our quick-fix fantasy affects the Ayahuasca process. This post is part 3.

Here is part 1: The Antidote – an introduction

And part 2: Humping the Antidote