THE POWERFUL THERAPEUTIC POTENTIAL OF AYAHUASCA
The good news about the benefits of this Amazonian plant spreads
Originally from the Amazon jungle, the Quechuas called it “the rope of the dead.” Without it being a drug, some therapists have started using this plant mix to treat traumas, addictions, disorders and acute depressions, with amazing results.
It has the aura of a magic potion. Whoever drinks it can be transported to cosmic paradises, but can also feel that they are dragged into chilling underworlds. It emerged from the depths of the Amazon rainforest and the inhabitants of this region gave it diverse names. Some of them claimed that this infusion allowed them to connect with the world of spirits, as if it were a bond extended to the after-life. That’s why they decided to call it “the rope of the dead.” “Ayahuasca”, in its Quechua language.
Today, this thousand-year-old brew ceases to be exclusively used by the original communities of the western Amazon and has come under the microscope of doctors and psychiatrists, psychologists and anthropologists. The verdict that has united all of them, after decades of numerous tests and studies, is that ayahuasca carries powerful therapeutic potential. Heavy addictions, acute depressions, obsessive disorders, emotional injuries due to loss of loved ones, anxiety, severe stress are some of the most repeated pathologies in this new history of the plant, used as part of an alternative therapy.
Monica is a systemic psychologist, she lost her mother when she was a child and at age 25, and while coping with a separation, she had to face the death of her father. She decided to start psycho-analytical therapy that lasted for eight years. A co-worker, also a psychologist, told her about ayahuasca sessions and suggested she try it. “The first time I participated in an ayahuasca ceremony I felt that those eight years of analysis were summarised there, in that moment. I had been dragging along the pain of the death of my parents and believed that that I had worked on this issue with therapy. For me it was like an insight (inward), a realisation of many things. I discovered that I had not worked everything out as much as I thought I had. Somehow I had become used to that pain, but it was still there. At the ceremony I felt that I could finally let go of my parents.”
Shortly after her encounter with ayahuasca, Monica discovered that she had been cured of a chronic intestinal disease: “In a moment, a phrase echoed in my head: “Stop crying out of fear ” and that was what made me laugh at my fears, my insecurities. As of that time I had no more irritable colon. But a few months after having done the ceremony with the plant, I had to go through the most distressing situation: my brother was killed. And then, yes, I collapsed.”
Miguel R. is 55 years old and has been coordinating ayahuasca ceremonies for more than 20 years. With an academic knowledge in the different branches of psychology, today he is not even comfortable with the label of “therapist”. It is enough for him to present himself as “a guide or an experience coordinator”. Neither does he agree with the idea of exposing himself publicly, especially as ayahuasca slips between the thin line of lawful permission and prohibition in Argentine law. For these reasons, Miguel is not his real name and he will not give coordinates with respect to the place where he celebrates ayahuasca sessions. “What the plant makes you see is that everything that you think is, in a certain way, relative,” says Miguel. It gives you the possibility to see things in greater perspective. Notice that almost all the testimonials of those who have taken ayahuasca are similar: the re-evaluation of life, acceptance of oneself, getting closer to the things that are really worthwhile. And, above all, looser movement, without being so self-demanding. This new perspective that the plant gives you triggers that infamous realisation.”
With the death of her only brother, Monica felt that she had lost all connection with the world of the living: “I was in a vegetable state… lying on the couch. I didn’t eat, I stopped smiling, I only drank tea and I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t care about my work anymore, I didn’t care about anything. In the days before the tragedy, I had bought a trip to Peru to participate in a retreat where ayahuasca sessions would be held.” Pushed more by an inertia than by a real interest, Monica made her trip and participated in four sessions drinking the plant. “In that retreat I understood many things about death. I understood that, in reality, you do not lose anything. With the death of my brother, something of mine died forever, but in turn I felt a rebirth in myself. I feel that the plant arrived at the right time, because if it hadn’t, I don’t know what would have happened to my life.”
For Miguel, the plant is neutral, but it opens you to the symbolic world, where it is possible to relive traumatic experiences and work on them: “The ayahuasca amplifies everything. In other words, what you want to avoid is amplified so much that it often becomes unbearable. But what is happening with the ingestion of the plant is that it increasingly activates symbolic thought, which is metaphorical thought. There you can see facets of your life, understand them and also resolve them. I remember the case of a guy who came to have the experience. His 12-year-old son was walking on the pavement and was crushed by the load of a truck that killed him on the spot. Notice how this metaphorical world is where it takes you; During the drinking of the plant, he was able to communicate with his son. These are internal subjective instances, but it is such an emotional force that many times it frees you from that pain that prevents you from living in your daily life. ”
Monica says that to be able to work on all those instances where the plant takes you, it is essential to frame them within a therapeutic context: “when the time comes to digest everything that the plant showed you, a therapist must be there to accompany that process. It’s such a strong experience that the question that always comes up is: did I go crazy?” One of the things that Monica takes from her experience with the plant was that of not being stuck in suffering and of having learned to let go of her family that is no longer with her: “Even today, it’s still work, but now I’m more whole. In some way, I feel more complete. When you are under the effects of the plant you are in a state of amorousness that allows you to see beyond the ego. And then you go moving it into your own life, no longer needing to take the plant. That peace, that harmony that the plant transmitted to me, continues to this day.” DEATH AS A COUNSELOR
“I do not use drugs” was the first thing Flora told her therapist when he suggested that she try an ayahuasca session as part of the treatment he had been doing. Soon after, during a medical check-up that she had attended due to a kidney problem, she learned that she had cancer. “The news de-stabilised me completely. At that time I had two small children and the mere idea that I was going to die completely undid me.” However, after tests and more tests, it was found to have been a misdiagnosis. But the erroneous opinion had already made a dent in Flora’s emotional health. “I was scared of my own reaction. I didn’t know that I could become so unbalanced. And that’s when my therapist once again mentioned the ayahuasca session. It’s time, he told me.”
The plant not only works on the psychic plane, but also in the physical. One of its most relevant characteristics is the purgative effect it exerts on the body. Vomiting, diarrhoea, unstoppable crying attacks, are the usual channels of its effect. The result not only provides a huge sense of relief, once the session is finished, everyone reports an unequalled feeling of well-being and strength.
The Spanish anthropologist and psychotherapist José Fericgla, a pioneer in research on entheogens for therapeutic purposes, summarised in one of his many writings what the incidence of the plant in our brain is: “With ayahuasca, biological circuits and mechanisms are awakened that allow us to create new connections in our brain. What do we get from these new connections? A lot, they are the structural basis of our existence. It can be said that they function as the operating system that governs our behaviour, [the ayahuasca] acts as a powerful tool that allows us to reprogramme our being to a state of calm and inner strength”.
Miguel asserts that ayahuasca leads to an instance of such extreme confrontation with oneself that the possibility of sustaining what is called the word “identity” is practically nil: “There is an alteration of your schemes. You have a mental map that recognises you as such, it makes you feel who you are and there is a structure that accompanies that mould. What happens if that starts to change? That alteration that occurs in your psyche, obviously, will have an impact on your entire body.”
One of the major objections that conventional medicine purports about the uses of ayahuasca is precisely this shock effect that it provokes in the psyche and that could have unpredictable consequences. Some specialists from psychiatry and psycho-analysis argue that this succession of mental images that unfold during the taking of the plant can be so overwhelming and distressing that it leads to trigger an emotional collapse and, in some cases, a psychotic outbreak. “These are extreme situations,” says Miguel. And where it is likely that the person already comes with a pre-psychotic state. The experience should not be had when faced with such severe psychic symptoms.”
For Flora, the major illness she suffered was not her kidney problem, but rather her obsession with control. “I was always very organised. I had to take care of my parents since I was a girl, because they were very old.” The role she played in life, Flora says, was of being responsible, obedient, fulfilling. “During a ceremony I went through what was for me the hardest trance of all. I felt that I was dying. But it was such a vivid sensation, so real, that I truly felt that I was dying. But that panic I had for death was my terror of being out of control, of something getting out of hand. And I experienced that, to the extent that finally there is no possible control that is worthwhile. I remember it as something terrible, but at the same time as one of my best experiences with ayahuasca.”
Hernán is Flora’s partner and also been participating with with her in ayahuasca ceremonies for seven years. He decided to accompany her in this experience, he says, when he observed the remarkable changes that the plant had produced in Flora: “As soon as she arrived home that first time she’d done a session, I felt a very vital, powerful energy displayed in the embrace she gave me. I felt we had to share it to deepen our core.” The positive turn that the plant gave her partner made Hernán also overcome certain prejudices he had towards ayahuasca: “I felt that this belonged to another context, which was typical of the Amazon communities. Something very foreign to me. Today I feel that if these plants are coming from there it is because they have something very important to teach us “.
The ceremonial framework in which the taking of ayahuasca occurs is a fundamental factor to be able to cope with its effects, which usually last around six hours. The icaros or songs that occur throughout the whole experience play a vital role in the containment that the guide must develop during the session: “The song will work in such a way that it will make the plant vibrate inside you and at the same time calm you down,” explains Miguel. Through singing the person is influenced so that they feel protected, accompanied, cared for and loved in that trance”. Miguel adds that those who should not take ayahuasca are those who suffer from a severe psychiatric condition, such as schizophrenia, or those who are hypertensive or suffer from heart problems. That is why it is essential that the guide has a prior information of the people who will participate in the ceremony. “You ask them about their life, what situations are going on, what they want to do, what they expect. And it gives them tools so that they can go through that trance. And a tool is to tell them: do not believe what your head tells you. Because your thoughts will start to amplify so much that you will feel that they are drilling you inside. Listen to the songs, go back to your breathing.”
Both Flora and Hernán feel that ayahuasca enriched the family bond. Parents of two pre-adolescent children, after each ceremony they perform, they share the experience talking with them. “We never concealed that we were drinking ayahuasca from our children,” says Hernán. From the first moment we told them that we were going to participate in a ceremony where you drank the tea of a plant that had certain characteristics and with such effects. We told them the truth. In addition to that they themselves observed how throughout all this time our family ties were strengthened, making us more tolerant, more understanding”.
NEUROTIC OR INTEGRAL
“I started to drink heavily when I was 17 and I was only able to stop last year. Now I am 26. I was an ugly drinker, I would get violent. I was very crazy, I could never enjoy alcohol. I was always drinking until dawn. Once, completely drunk, I broke my head open and they gave me four stitches. I don’t even remember what happened. I was very complicated.” Juan recreates postcards of his recent past, but instantly clarifies that he never sought ayahuasca to cure himself of his alcohol addiction. The plant, he says, simply crossed his path.
At the request of a friend who had already taken ayahuasca, he approached a therapeutic centre where they held ceremonial meetings with the plant. “I did the required diet, I ate light and I resisted the desire to drink.” Pushed more by curiosity than by a need to ask for help, he decided to try.
“When we talk about addictions to certain substances, first of all we should say that our culture is completely addicted,” says Miguel. Addicted to desire, to consumption, to thoughts, to books. And that addiction lies in that old existential vacuum that seeks to be filled as it is: with things, with behaviours and with drugs too. What I observed is that ayahuasca cuts obsessiveness. The plant enters you, leaves an imprint and retreats, there is nothing else. It does not leave any residue, but the imprint stays with you and depending on how you work on it, it will serve you.”
After the first encounter that Juan had with the plant, he continued with the consumption of alcohol, but for the first time during the session, he had the perception of what it was like to feel truly clean: “That feeling of being clean was very strong. What struck me most was feeling a kind of shine on the whole body, something very palpable. And I also discovered that afterwards, with the first glass of beer I was drinking, that shine was dulled. I was like this for a few months, on and off the drink, until finally I decided not to have any more.”
In this process that has been little more than a year, Juan also had to face dark areas that emerged during some ceremonies. But it is something he is also grateful for: “It’s like ayahuasca carries out a complete scan of you” says Juan – You leave the ceremony being conscious of what goes on inside your body. I had very precise images of what was happening to my liver when I consumed alcohol, how it was degraded. It is also a training that allows you to learn to see that darkness, because the plant creates a simulation; you’re never really in hell, they’re just sensations.”
For Miguel, the greatest pathology that exists and which, according to him, we all suffer from, is neurosis. Almost all psychic illnesses, he says, come from being trapped between the poles of desire and anxiety, extreme instances that lead us to always live fragmented. “In addition, there is a lot of social pressure for these mechanisms to unfold within you,” he adds. Perhaps that is why the word that resonates most in those who have had their ayahuasca experience is integrity. “In short, we are always talking about how to heal ourselves,” Miguel says, “and the plant is a huge help so that your sense of integrity grows, springs up and releases you from the blockages you have in your body and so you can expel it out, all that shit that suffocates you. ”
WHY IT IS NOT CONSIDERED A DRUG
It is known that the first compound of ayahuasca, DMT, is an endogenous substance of the human body that is produced by our own organism. That is why it does not generate dependency, since there have been no reports of addiction or compulsive use. For this reason, ayahuasca should not be considered a “drug”, in the sense that is given to other types of substance that do generate addictive behaviours. On the contrary, today ayahuasca is used in treatments for the cure of addictions to heavy drugs such as heroin, cocaine and alcohol. The most renowned rehabilitation centre in this area is the Takiwasi, Peru, run by Jacques Mabit, one of the founders of Medicine sans Frontiers.
During the 1990s, interest in studying the effects of this millenary concoction on human health spread to several countries, both in America and Europe. The work carried out by the American psychiatrist Charles Grob in Brazil, that carried out by the anthropologist José Fericgla in Ecuador and the scientific congress promoted by the psychologist Ralph Metzner in the United States during the 1990s had their corollary at the first World Conference of Ayahuasca which was held in Spain, in 2014, and brought together scientists, psychologists, anthropologists and jurists from around the world.
By: Juan Mendoza
ORIGINAL ARTICLE OF THE LA NACIÓN NEWSPAPER: