Enter the Void

A spiritual ass-kicking, courtesy of Ayahuasca

What is ayahuasca?

There’s the thing itself, a brew made out of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, mimosa hostilis root bark and other ingredients. You can look at the chemistry, the way the DMT in the vine is activated by the monoamine oxidase inhibitors in the bark, allowing the DMT to be orally active. There’s its history, practiced by indigenous Amazonian shamans for 5,000+ years. There’s its current reputation, the “magic pill” for the western ailment; depression, lack of purpose, disassociation with the value of money and things over all else. Then there’s the subjective accounts from those who have tried it (no shortage on YouTube). Life-changing comes up a lot.

All these thoughts were swirling about in my brain as I boarded my plane to Ecuador a couple months ago. I left Calgary on a cold winter day in early February. Twenty hours later I was stepping out of a taxi into an ayahuasca retreat in the mountains near Cuenca, Ecuador, meeting strangers from around the world who, despite their best efforts, appeared to be as tired and anxious as I.

No small talk, no bullshit

One of the most striking things became clear before taking any medicine: the atmosphere of openness and vulnerability that saturated Gaia Sagrada, the name of the retreat centre. No small talk, no bullshit. It was common to shake someone’s hand I hadn’t met yet, ask their name, and launch into a discussion about the darkest shades of their soul and why they’ve travelled 20+ hours to a foreign country to ingest a strange drug with the hopes that it will sort them out. It sounds a bit daunting, but it’s instantly refreshing, a far cry from idle chat about the weather. Tomorrow’s weather is looking like a complete disintegration of my ego. Followed by a chance of showers.

This sharing plays a central role in the retreat. My fellow travellers became my “family” for the week, which sounds a bit presumptuous but makes a lot of sense after the first ceremony. This means we had to expose ourselves completely. For some, that’s more difficult than taking the actual Ayahuasca. It’s pretty crazy hearing the stories of abuse, addiction and mistreatment from people who a few hours ago I had pegged as happy, healthy individuals. How many more are walking around in a similar disguise, I can only guess at (it might be as many as 1 in 4). A good case for being gentler and more empathetic to people.

Like almost every experience worth having, the lead up is apprehensive and frightening, the experience itself is nothing like you expect and the feeling afterwards is a mix of elation, reflection and fruitless attempts to fit the whole thing into your head without losing pieces along the way. I’m going to leave out some of the more personal details of my experience and speak a bit more generally about the retreat as a whole. Ayahuasca may have opened me up, but I still like wearing my skin.

The ceremony

The ceremony centres around the shaman and the fire. They’re the conductors of everything that happens. We sit around them, arranged in a circle on padded mats, wrapped in blankets with our “purging” buckets nearby. This is the point where nervousness jumps up in frequency to a new jittery-excited wavelength. A quick gaze around reveals a similar look arriving on many of the circle-dweller’s faces. Cross-legged, wrapped up and ready to go. We take our doses one by one. The chanting and the flames ease you into the medicine, and then whether you want it or not, it begins.

Into the void

Ayahuasca isn’t something that translates well out of the realm you enter and into this one. Language starts to feel weak and flimsy when you try. Art and music can do a better job, but they too only scratch the surface. I blundered through enough attempts at explanation over the past few months to know that any effort at direct translation leaves me unsatisfied and my interlocutor in polite confusion. But I’m going to do my best. If you want to see what the visuals are like, Pablo Amaringo does an admirable job of translating them.

Everyone had a vastly different experience, but if I could distill all the stories I heard into a theme, I would say that Ayahuasca reveals to you the pieces of your psychic makeup that are holding you back. The parts you’ve hidden from yourself, bits of old code that are no longer useful to your program. They might be buried in your unconscious or under a pile of excuses and explanations, like your best shirt hidden in a pile of dirty clothes on your bedroom floor.

For me, the revelation was about softness, caring, vulnerability. I felt (saw? heard? experienced?) the power of the feminine standing over me. It was intense beyond the usual volume of the word. It’s something I’ve neglected in my relationship to myself and others, and according to Ayahuasca, that just won’t do.

The revelation of these hidden bits, the epiphany, is overwhelming, made so clear and obvious that denying it feels equivalent to denying your own existence. What I was shown wasn’t a matter for debate or questioning. It was like the comfort of arriving home after a long trip accompanied by a slap across the face.

Those who quickly disregard Ayahuasca experiences as merely subjective hallucinations only need to try it once. This goes far beyond the mushroom / acid effect of oneness with nature, staring intently at the patterns of the leaves and playing in the dirt. It’s more like a stiff backhand from God, who knows you can do better, if you just sort some things out, for fuck’s sake.

Then there’s the purging. Nearly everyone does it, puke snot burp yawn cry into your bucket. It’s unbelievably satisfying, like showering off the dirt after a hard day of work. You empty out all the accumulated gunk of living. As my head was in my bucket, I could hear everyone around me doing the same, and I couldn’t help but smile and silently cheer them on. It becomes a strange sort of bonding, something that needs to be experienced to be believed.

As always, you sober up

The aha moment is perfect, brutal clarity, but it fades. We’re creatures of habit and it’s easy to slide back into old ones. Even as I write this, I feel hesitant to open up too much, to show too much vulnerability, something that wasn’t at all an issue during the retreat. I left the first ceremony with euphoria and a deep truth I could feel as if it were painted on my eyelids, but by the end of the retreat the edges were already beginning to blur. A magic pill this is not.

Whether or not the revelations are sufficient to create a real change in outlook and behaviour is yet to be seen. But I’ve no doubt in its truth, and that, at least, is worth the price of admission, and a target worthy of pursuit.

Now it’s time to overthink it

Before I left for the retreat I was reading a lot of Carl Jung, a contemporary of Freud’s. Jung was into the idea of the ego and the unconscious, and the two became fast friends, but eventually split. Jung went in a more metaphysical, dream-analysis direction, and Freud… well, Freud had the Oedipus complex.

I got particularly interested in Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, and the way it appears in our art, stories, beliefs, religious experiences, and all sorts of other cultural phenomenon.

So what is it? The collective unconscious is the foundation of every human’s mental life, our shared blueprint, developed through the tens of thousands of years we were evolving into the creative, intelligent, anxious animals we are today. It’s all the mental wiring that’s kept each of our ancestors alive while their competitors perished. It’s been slowly written, line by line, through the 10,000 or so generations of human life. It contains a sort of truth that goes beyond empirical evidence; it’s our mental marrow, the programming that shapes our species’ thinking, feeling, and ambition.

Jung also talks about the personal unconscious, which is built from our own experience. It contains the content of our mind not readily accessible. This might be repressed thoughts, traumatic experiences or memories hidden from our view.

Hidden in plain sight

We all experience moments where the collective or personal unconscious bubbles up to the surface, though it’s not immediately obvious. The hidden layers of our mind are not like consciousness: though they influence and alter our behaviour, they don’t translate to clear, rational thought nor can they be deconstructed by it.

Instead, what you get is a feeling, unexplainable but deeply meaningful. It’s the feeling of something true that you can’t explain, something so pervasive that it has no single point to grab hold of and convert into words. It’s the feeling of real meaning and importance, just beyond your grasp.

It happens to me when I hear certain lines from certain songs. From emotional moments in film. From conversations with friends when the choreography of our speech is just right. During a walk home late at night through a sleepy neighbourhood. It comes through music, paintings, stories and even dreams.

So where am I going with all this?

Ayahuasca illuminates this deeper layer, the unconscious. Not only that, it opens a channel of communication between “it” and yourself (your everyday consciousness). The result is shocking. It’s as if an alien race that you’ve so far been communicating with using rudimentary hand signals suddenly started speaking fluent English. Except the alien race isn’t alien at all, it’s the deepest parts of your own psyche, some of it forgotten, some of it truths that date back to the dawn of our species. Naturally, you would have some questions. Unfortunately, you’re not in the most able state to ask them. But mere proximity to them is enough to cause an incredible sense of encountering the Divine. I’ve no doubt that is what is meant by the word.

What I felt saw heard experienced wasn’t simply self-manufactured hallucinations, it was the revelation of a truth with echoes going back tens of thousands of years. I may not be able to prove that to you, but I know it for myself, and that’s good enough for me.

Back to the real world

The above didn’t occur to me as I was under the influence, it’s simply a structure applied afterwards to help me make some damn sense of this whole thing. The fact is that truth was revealed in simple, brutal clarity: that cosmic slap across the face. But in the weeks succeeding it the record-groove of my habitual mental programming settled back into its former slot, and the song goes on.

Ayahuasca doesn’t instantly disintegrate the ego and leave the glowing seed of an enlightened being in its wake. But it did smack me around, show me a truth in a way that’s impossible to deny, and tease me with the contents of worlds far removed and infinitely more fantastic than the one my narrow cone of attention permits me to experience. My one-week retreat was the drive-through, combo #1, eat-on-the-road experience. A more sincere dedication would certainly translate to longer-lasting, more meaningful results.

You’re next!

These retreats are not for everyone. As beautiful and strange as it was for me, I readily admit that. But if you perceive even the softest note of its calling, you should seriously consider taking the plunge. It’s far more frightening living the rest of your years in the darkness of self-denial (whatever your particular flavour) than it is to face and address your shadow; the parts of you hidden even from your own consciousness. It may not be easy, but it’s definitely worth it.


The above is a brief summary of my experience and some of the thoughts that have occurred since. I’d love to talk more (and I have plenty more to say) to whoever is interested. Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.