***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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Be 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!!
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”.
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.
While engagement in these kinds of ways is necessary, I want to repeat: 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.
***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