I Went to an Ayahuasca Divorce Ceremony
Sometimes plant medicine is just what you need to consciously uncouple.
Photo: Paul Hessell/Flickr
At the beginning of this fall, a friend texted me that a powerful Brazilian ayahuasquero would be coming to New York to perform a ceremony. She wanted me to experience his work for myself. My husband John and I were more than happy to oblige.
John and I married two years ago, at 24, too young for a pair of Greeks from Greece. Our romance was partly built on a common belief that certain substances can help us evolve as humans, as they make us more intelligent, aware, and compassionate.
I was the one who always spoke to John about trying ayahuasca, while he, a weed votary, dithered, but eventually he found his way to the to plant. At this point, we were both participating in ceremonies once a month.
We filled our car with blankets, pillows, and a change of clothes, and set out for the woodsy enclave where the ceremony would take place.
A typical ayahuasca ceremony lasts six to seven hours. At first, the plant works its way physically into the body, and often induces purging in the form of sweat, vomit, diarrhea, tears and even sebaceous excretions from the pores. However, the sense is nothing like throwing up after too much alcohol or food poisoning. (The word "beautiful" is quite bizarre to characterize diarrhea, but the whole process is immensely relieving and cathartic.)
Once the ayahuasca fully sets in, the world literally looks different. Colors are more vibrant. Sounds are amplified. Once, I could hear the steps of a spider that crossed over a twig, and suddenly, my lifetime arachnophobia was gone.
The sensations induced by ayahuasca can range from peaceful to excruciating, but by the end of the ceremony, participants often cry of happiness and dissolve into hugging each other.
When we arrived at the ceremonial site, John and I were greeted by the scent of firewood smoke in a fresh, crisp forest. A few men were putting branches together to build a sweat lodge as a happy Chihuahua scampered out to meet the guests.
To properly cleanse before the ceremony, we would stay for an hour inside the sweat lodge made by the ayahuasquero's helpers. We sat tightly next to each other, our arms and knees colliding, women on the outer circle, men in the inner. Four times the ayahuasquero opened the door. Each time a helper shoveled in red hot rocks that he had just removed from the fire, and threw them inside a hole in the ground in the middle of the sweat lodge. After the door closed the ayahuasquero threw water on the rocks that sizzled and produced a thick steam that penetrated our nostrils. Each time the door opened he asked whether anyone would like to get out. I felt my head was on fire and I was about to faint from the humid heat and the intensity in the lodge, and everyone around me didn't seem more comfortable than I was, but no one moved.
I heard the ayahuasquero's sweet voice discreetly calling those who wished to participate in the divorce ceremony to approach the fire
The actual ceremony would take place inside an old army fortress, tucked inside the forest. We settled in a huge, dancing hall-like room, under two gargantuan crystal chandeliers. A fireplace, large enough to comfortably fit five people, lit up the whole room.
The ayahuasquero had the smooth, smiley face of a five-year-old on the body of a man in his late 50s. He lifted his colorful sarong and sat on a platform in the middle of the room, locking eyes with each one of us.
He had brought with him five sacraments from the Amazonian jungle: ayahuasca, sacred tobacco, rapé, sananga, and sacred marijuana. After he explained their uses, he also informed us that we were going to perform a divorce ceremony.
I had never heard of a divorce ceremony within an ayahuasca ceremony. I grew up distrusting symbolic rituals, so I was a bit skeptical. I also knew that going through a difficult time can make the ayahuasca experience extremely tough.
At the same time, it made sense that some might want to use the plant to deal with emotional trauma. I started wondering how it would work since only one partner from each couple was present.
Three hours into the ceremony, cozily covered by my blanket, I was traveling ecstatically into the arms of the primordial mother and observing the patterns of her snakes and flowers.The ayahuasquero and his helpers used instruments they had brought from the jungle to imitate animal sounds and enhance the effect of the trip.
Suddenly the music stopped. I heard the ayahuasquero's sweet voice discreetly calling those who wished to participate in the divorce ceremony to approach the fire.
John and I didn't move. I extended my hand to caress him, and felt his body shift at my touch. We were journeying together. Why would we ever want to approach that fire?
However, we could both feel that a new intensity had crept into the room. To our surprise, the all-encompassing happiness we felt did not apply to everyone. Now, one part of the room was filled with people in pain.
I stuck my head out of my blanket and saw their shadows waver on the wooden floor. Although their backs were turned I could visualize the weight they carried as they waited in line to take their turn in the divorce ceremony. They looked like hunchbacks. Their humps were the people they wanted to let go.
The ayahuasquero asked participants to say out loud the name of the person they were divorcing, and then: "I, ______, admit that I was the cause of your pain."
"When I stepped into the divorce circle I had already purged a lot and I was empty," said Sol, a 29-year-old chemical engineer that participated in the divorce ceremony. (Names have been changed.) "Then I started receiving all this information about my ex husband, how he's still mentally and emotionally attached to me, and how we're connected."
Sol and her husband weren't married long, just a year and a half. She found out about his cocaine addiction after they got married. They haven't seen each other in years, and she's in a different relationship now. "He doesn't know I'm here," she said. "And I thought it wouldn't make an actual difference. But when I stepped into the circle and started reciting the words, everything changed."
I asked Sol how it felt to take the sole responsibility for the dissolution of her marriage, which seemed unfair.
"At some point, I entered his mind. I was him. And then, I saw how much I hurt him and how much he loved me," she said. "I took responsibility for both me and him and our actions. Also, the words I was asked to recite were accurate, I was the cause of his pain. It doesn't matter if he hurt me as well. One of the things the medicine teaches you is that in order to grow you can't focus on the other person, just on yourself."
The experience was cathartic. "I let go of more than I thought. I used to think that my meeting and marriage to him was the worst experience of my life," she said. "Now I see how much he loved me, and how nothing was personal."
Smit, 39, also reported becoming his wife. "Suddenly, she was inside my body and we had a conversation about how to break our attachment," he said. "Physically, it felt as if she got channeled within me and turned into a chemical reaction in my head. It wasn't a monologue, it was definitely a dialogue, her energy was inside my brain. She told me she cares for me, loves me, is very attached to me and has a hard time letting go. And I was present as well. I took my own responsibility, saw clearly what my role was in this partnership."
Before the ceremony, Smit's wife hadn't wanted to get a divorce. "As she was inside me I was in touch with a particular pain. I felt I was now her, and this person is aching," he said. "I could feel exactly how she was experiencing our separation." Two weeks later, his wife agreed to the divorce.
As a society, we have systems to help us deal with legal and financial aspects of divorce. But when all is signed and filed, we are left alone to deal with the emotions.
"Most separating spouses are so caught up in the financial, legal and logistical aspects of divorce that time and resources to meaningfully deal with the emotional aspects are not there," said Eric Letts, a Canadian divorce lawyer.
Plant medicine, which tends to help people allow themselves to release grudges and other negative emotions, seems like it could be a good way to cope with this pain that so often goes unaddressed. There have been multiple studies that examine the physiological effects that ayahuasca has on the brain and how it can help to deal with grief, trauma and disease. Its distant chemical cousins (LSD, MDMA) have for years been used in psychotherapy, Western mental health professionals hesitate to include ayahuasca as a treatment.
"Having the other person removed off your body—and remember, there's nobody physically there—felt like tearing bloody stitches. But as soon as she was off me, I felt whole again."
Not everyone agrees, however. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist, author, and couples therapist, has tried ayahuasca in the Amazon jungle. In her books and talks, she suggests that divorcees work with a psychologist to recover from the emotional trauma of separation.
"I would not recommend ayahuasca for people going through the emotional aspects of divorce because they are too fragile to handle the distortions that ayahuasca can bring about," she said.
"Americans do not deal with divorce well. They are too quick to get a divorce, rather than working on their problems, even when they have children who will be scarred by the divorce. The divorce and custody battles are vicious and the bitterness doesn't end when the court orders are in place. Usually the spouse who is most heartbroken takes revenge on the other spouse, such as by trying to keep the children from them.
"It is awful for the whole family, but ayahuasca is not the answer."
At one point in the ceremony, I thought I heard a large wounded animal howling. It was a man who was crying and yelling, "Please, forgive me."
It was Matthew, 32. He later described the process as physically ripping apart two bodies that are trying to frantically hold on.
"Having the other person removed off your body—and remember, there's nobody physically there—felt like tearing bloody stitches," he said. "For a mere second I thought I'd die from the pain. But as soon as she was off me, I felt whole again. I went from extreme suffering to absolute bliss in seconds."
Ernesto, a 41-year-old musician, described his divorce as legally and financially easy, but emotionally harrowing. "I was married for six years, divorced for three," he said. "With time it got less painful, but the presence of the emotional attachment was always there. The guilt involved was the hardest part."
His ex-wife, miles away, had no idea he took part in an ayahuasca divorce ceremony. And until he did it, he wasn't aware of how much he needed it. "You think you're over something, but there are thoughts still lurking," he told me while we sat in his kitchen. "I wanted to let everything go and start from scratch."
Couples going through a separation could greatly benefit from plant medicine, he said. "Communication is one of the hardest parts of a divorce. People often misunderstand each other. One of the effects of the medicine is to break down the barriers of truth to yourself. It breaks every single attachment you may have. Attachments that prevent you from taking new steps, that keep you in your comfort zone. The medicine helps you navigate this confusion."
When I asked him how he felt after the ceremony he said, "Relieved. I feel like I was sick and finally became healthy again. A big load of all this confused and negative energy was off my back. I wished for this person to be in a healthy state of mind, high consciousness, happiness. I wished for her to have all the best in her life."
"I think she felt it too," said Ernesto. "We didn't speak but the same night I got an email from her. She asked me if finally all was done with the divorce."
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