This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Here in Vancouver, you can't throw a brick without hitting someone who's participated in an ayahuasca ceremony. Like when yoga swept the city about a decade ago, I think it's fair to assume this is a good thing—because how could more people being into mindfulness, meditation, and self-transformation be bad? (Terrible fashion, notwithstanding.)
There are a range of reasons people participate in these ceremonies. Lifelong struggles with mental health and addiction is one, a quest for deeper spiritual connection is another. Some are just looking to escape boring life, others say one night is worth ten years of therapy. Researchers are also grappling with how to study and understand what is really going on in the body and the mind during and after these profound experiences.
For many people, ayahuasca is a one-time life-changing thing—a weekend of circle rituals and healing. But for a select subset of humanity it's something that has become a part of their everyday existence and they participate many, many times a year. VICE spoke to people about why they've chosen to make ayahuasca a regular part of their lives. Here's what they told us.
Scottie Colin, 40
I've done around 20 ceremonies this year. Five have been bigger, two-day ceremonies.
I do a ceremony a month, and those ones are quite mild. You drink less, you drink it for one night only. It's more of like a meditation ceremony. It doesn't bring the same heaviness. It doesn't bring the puking. It keeps me spiritually in tune.
People hear about the puking and the crying, all the negative effects. But for me, I'm like bring it on. I'm a heroin addict. You wanna talk about pain? I've felt like I was going to die. Because with heroin, it doesn't matter if you do it and you OD. You're going to do it again. And do it again. It's suffering and it's suffering.
I've been clean like two and half years now, maybe a little over that. I initially cleaned up by going into AA, doing the 12 steps. AA gives you a lot of self awareness, helps you understand your behaviors, how we manifest all our own problems, and how we affect other people and that we by nature are very self-centered. But they really live in sickness. They stay with the problem. They tell the same story over and over and over again. I'm determined to move away from that, and to heal.
I relapsed after one year of staying clean. Relapsed for four months. I cleaned up for the final time, July 10, over two-and-half years ago.
I still had some things I was struggling with, I didn't have a spiritual connection. I knew there was something more out there. I knew something needed to shift, and I had the opportunity to do ayahuasca, which I'd heard about for a long time. It took a lot for me to stand up to my sponsor and say, "I'm going to do this." Because they are all about complete abstinence. They were like "You're relapsing. You're relapsing."
When I first had my awakening, things completely shifted 180 degrees. I felt very safe, I felt very liberated, free for the first time in my life. My whole life made sense. It made me realize that my intuition brought me there to that place at that time. I started searching for support groups on the internet. I had experienced something so meaningful and so profound that I needed to connect with people that had discovered the same thing.
For me it's been about focusing on something that's holding me together and stopping all these obsessive compulsive areas of my life. And to me, ayahuasca is not the solution. It is only a vehicle to the solution. The solution is actually being in touch with this divine force. And so that's why even if it's not available to me anymore I know that I'll be OK because I know that this force exists. Ayahuasca just makes it very profound and very real.
Amy Manusov, 29
I learned of it over five years ago—it was very hard to track down a community that I could try it with. I'm a yoga teacher and have been interested in a variety of eastern philosophies and things on the fringe of whatever is mainstream and I've always been a recreational drug user. This year I've done eight ceremonies.
Looking back it appealed to me because I had always struggled with issues around depression and anxiety. This is something that I've struggled with since I was a teenager—feeling very alone.
I have done cognitive behavioral therapy, in group therapy over a period of six months at a hospital out-patient program. Also psychotherapy. I've tried a few different avenues that were mildly to moderately successful, but... didn't really address what I felt were the core of my issues which seemed to be more existential in their nature. Although I'm reluctant to say that I was looking for a spiritual component to therapy, that definitely was the missing piece—it's just I wasn't really aware of it at that time. I just knew that conventional therapy was helpful but was not the solution for me.
I don't think I'll be doing it eight times a year every year for the rest of my life. But I actually would rather do ayahuasca eight times a year than be on antidepressants everyday for the rest of my life. I think it's actually a pretty reasonable substitution to make. And it did enable me to go off of antidepressants.
Gerald Thomas, 52
I've participated in a total of 11 ceremonies since February 2011. So just over two per year average. You have experiences in these events that you don't have any grounding for. I mean, the first time I did ayahuasca I was talking to God. Within 15 to 20 minutes of the full effects... it was full on. Any question I asked, there was an answer. It was intense.
We're told that everything is one, and physics takes us into some funny places, but when you actually experience that with your consciousness it takes on a whole new meaning. And the new meaning is "I cannot look at the world the same." Because the assumptions I had going into that experience have been ...or you know, the colloquialisms going in "we are all one." I know that now—you could never convince me otherwise.
My spiritual mentor says to me: The problem with you western folks is you run out and do it again. He says: we teach our people to walk the lesson down to your feet. Don't go out looking for another two-by-four to whack you upside the head until you really integrated. As he said, "walk it down to your feet." Ground what you've learned in your day-to-day life before you go and find that next piece of wisdom or transcendental experience. That's a lesson I take pretty seriously.
I would love to make what goes on before and what goes on after just as important in people's minds. 'Cause this is what we're doing. We're taking a technology approach [to a therapy] that is born from the jungle, for goodness sake—a different culture, different setting. All of that. And we're parachuting it into our world and hoping for the best, and I think we can do better than that.
I can tell you that every time I've done ayahuasca—every single time—there's potentially months of work [afterwards]. In thinking about what I learned, how I shifted. So I've made a commitment to myself that I'm not going to do it unless I have the time ahead and the time after to really work. With my crazy life, it's going to be a while. Basically I have to schedule holidays around it.
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