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Surf, Drink, Transcend

The call of Mother Ayahuasca in the Amazon

Doesn’t Mother Aya look alluring? Did you expect her to be so young? Was this manifestation due to the 2-week enforced celibacy dieta? She was speaking to me, but in the buzzing language of insects, in which I was now fluent. Welcome to an Ayahuasca retreat in the Peruvian Amazon.

This the first of a series of stories about my experience of doing Ayahuasca in Peru in November 2019, when I had a retreat at the Temple of the Way of Light. Read on if you are curious and are considering doing it. Perhaps you are — like me — looking for purpose in life and wanting fast answers from a magic plant. I did five ceremonies over the course of nine days. I will go deeper into my experience in the next article of the series, but first let me set out the why.

Where was my head at before I decided to go? My job was pissing me off, I didn’t find it meaningful and working from home was driving me nuts. I wasn’t doing the things I wanted to do: learning, writing, creating, fitness. Instead, I was engaging in hedonistic escapism or retreating to the noise- cancelling warmth of Audible. I oscillated between hangovers and lethargy or hyper-stimulated mania, like a hand-crafted bipolar disorder.

We all know the Cherokee parable about the two wolves, and Jung referred to the True and False Self. Basically, living in London away from the grounding influence of family and old friends, I was constantly feeding the bad wolf and being my False Self. It had been fun, but for some reason the music stopped, and I felt an emptiness. It might have been that the opposing forces of growing older but still wanting to be Peter Pan were causing me existential pain, but something was wrong. I was clinging onto the past, and it was causing me dissatisfaction in life.

If I were actually still, my mind would fill with negative thoughts. Things my CBT therapist labelled as downward comparisons (why don’t I have a £12 million house in Hampstead like Ricky Gervais?), unrelenting standards (go to the gym and wonder why I didn’t look like Arnie in his prime?) or all-or-nothing thinking (how do I quit my job and be the next Elon Musk?). These limiting beliefs seemed to knock the fight out of me, and I didn’t have the strength to push through the discomfort of changing my situation. I just kept busy, mostly with superficial social engagement. I was starting to spiral slowly downwards.

I tried to identify the problems I was feeling. The first one seemed to be my job. Working from home doing something I had grown to hate five days a week meant I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I didn’t have the answer as to what to do next but I knew I needed to stop the job. It took me too long to say this to my business partner and to muster the strength to negotiate an exit package from the business. But I did eventually, and it was a huge moment of relief and the start of my journey.

I read that one of the best cures for burnout or depression or whatever I was feeling was the combination of therapy and antidepressants. I found a psychodynamic therapist a friend recommended. It turned out to be Freudian — asking about my childhood and not giving any answers. As I was paying for it each week, it used to piss me off that I was getting no new insights, just some old bat listening to me. As I am a very open person, I can get that for free down the pub, so what I was paying for, I have no idea. She was also very professional with a clear demarcation between our professional relationship and her private life, so I couldn’t connect to her as a human.

In fairness, I also didn’t help myself with my ego getting in the way. I would have a good week, and she’d be proud of me. I liked being told I was a good boy. Then I’d fall off the wagon and go on a 72-hour bender, do none of the healthy things, and feel shame and guilt by the time our session came around. But I didn’t want to disappoint the shrink so I’d lie and tell her I’d just done a 3-day juice cleanse. It helped that our calls were over Skype, so she couldn’t smell the stale booze. I’d bask in her approval for a while but then feel guilty again so I’d shovel further hatred onto her for not being able to see the lies. I mean if psychologists aren’t clairvoyant then what is the point? If I am paying there is an onus on the medical professional to give me at least one golden nugget of information per session. Or call me on my bullshit. But I felt I needed some training wheels on the bike that was my path into the unknown so I kept at it.

Antidepressants, on the other hand, were great, like delicious happy candy. If you are ever in a negative headspace, these little babies certainly do the trick. If you love quick fixes like me, there is nothing better than popping a pill. Well — a quick-ish fix. They take 2–4 weeks to kick in, which sucks, especially when you are in a bad place. Worse, they actually decrease your serotonin initially, so if you are feeling near rock bottom they may tip you over into thinking now is the perfect time to try and stop a commuter train with your face. Luckily GPs put you on suicide watch and check up on you for the first week so you aren’t alone, but maybe don’t go for a stroll on a high bridge in week one.

I went on 20mg Citalopram, which is an antidepressant known as a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI), which increases the levels of serotonin in the brain by blocking its reabsorption. Serotonin is the happy hormone. If you think of your mood as a normally distributted bell curve, SSRIs essentially cut off the lower and upper tails. So you won’t feel really bad and neither will you feel really good. You just hang around in the feeling alright zone. If you are spending a lot of time wallowing in depression or getting panic attacks, then this is a pretty good trade off. Not a long term solution, but it can give you the head space to sort yourself out.

Three things then coalesced to draw me to the Temple. First was Sam Harris’ podcast and meditation app. I had been listening to Sam for a while and he was always rabbiting on about the power of meditation, how psychedelics can turbo charge your meditation practice, and how it is meditation that is the key to a calm mind. I had been sporadically trying meditation for ages via the Headspace app but had never managed to get into the routine of a regular practice. Sam offered his meditation app for free for those who couldn’t afford to pay (I felt this was justified as I had no income), so I got a year for nothing. The app was basic compared to Headspace as he was just rolling it out, but I preferred him to the Headspace narrator, and it had a 50- day introductory course with a 10-minute meditation every day that built up over nearly two months. I wrangled my friend Helena to do it with me to keep me accountable, and I did it every morning first thing for 50 days without fail.

Second was my book club’s monthly book in July 2019, which was Michael Pollan’s book “How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics”. This book was mind blowing. Pollan is a great investigative journalist and also a great story teller. He went through the history, his experience trying various psychedelics, and the current state of scientific research. I was sold on trying a heroic dose of some psychedelic. But which one?

The third and final thing that clicked into place was when I was talking about this book to my experienced entheogenist friend Lola, who is about 10 years ahead of me on this journey. She had been to many different ceremonies all over the world from psilocybin to LSD to iboga, and she suggested Ayahuasca. She thought the Temple of the Way of Light was the perfect place for me as they are strict, professional and scientific. She had been there a number of years earlier.

So I checked it out, and they had a retreat starting a few months later. A plan started to form in my mind.

When I signed up to the Temple they said don’t do too much research, as it will colour your experience. I was worried about resisting the medicine as I’m a control freak and triggering a bad trip, so I found a lady in Europe who offered a guided psilocybin trip, as Michael Pollan had done. I didn’t go for a mystical dose, just a normal one to see how it would affect me. This woman turned out to also be a talented sound healer and shaman. She used crystal bowls and played Amazonian music throughout the experience. I had a beautiful afternoon with her, experienced synesthesia with her music, and saw ineffable oceanic boundless profundity.

OK stop. As you can see, it’s hard to talk about psychedelic experiences without going all woo-woo and mushy. Rest assured, I will try to explain what follows later as best I can for the cynics.

Before I went to South America I did have a few things to sort out. Firstly, the Amazon in Northern Peru does have plenty of mosquitos and malaria risk, so I went to my GP to get a shot. They normally prescribe Lariam but combining this with Ayahuasca can lead to neuropsychiatric effects such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. None of these were on my enlightenment bucket list. Instead, I was advised to take Malarone. The doctor laughed, saying the only side effect was potential hallucinations but “that shouldn’t be an issue with the trip you are going on”.

Secondly, there was an issue with my beloved SSRIs. Serotonin syndrome is typically caused by combining two serotonergic medicines such as SSRIs and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Symptoms include fever, agitation, tremor, dilated pupils, diarrhea, seizures and potentially extensive muscle breakdown. I was never going to be Arnie if the few muscles I had disintegrated.

And what does Ayahuasca contain? Yup, MAOI!!

MAOIs are enzymes in the body and brain that break down monoamines like dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, etc. This allows all the psychedelic goodness of Ayahuasca to whizz straight up to the brain but not if on SSRIs.

So to experience Ayahuasca, I had to come off SSRIs. It was time to say goodbye to my pharmacological comfort blanket and say hello to the variance of the real world. Well temporarily, until I straddle the DMT rocket into the stratosphere.

As anyone who has tried to come off SSRIs knows, they should not be abruptly discontinued and should be tapered over several weeks so you don’t suffer discontinuation symptoms which include weird stuff like electric shock-like sensations, insomnia and paresthesias. I was on 20mg per day so I tapered over a month down to 10mg, 5mg and then zero. No issues, and I didn’t notice any difference in mood. Now, this could be because during this period I was meandering towards Peru, climbing volcanoes in Guatemala, and surfing in Costa Rica. It’s hard to feel hopelessness having come out of the Pacific at sunset drinking fresh coconut water under an iridescent rainbow. Either way, I was feeling great on the way to Peru.

However, Mother Aya had a mischievous plan for me.

Next article: Shadow Forewarning

Written during Writers’ Hour. Join me on the next one.

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