It wasn’t until I was vomiting neon snakes — again — in the middle of my second ceremony that I started to have real doubts about taking ayahuasca.
The evening before had been a mixed affair. I had lost control of reality almost immediately, spent an eternity staring into the abyss of my bucket, and then experienced my own death in terrifying detail. However, the extreme euphoria of finding, on my return, that I was alive was a high I had never encountered before. A score draw then.
Ayahuasca is a traditional spiritual medicine that has been used for centuries and possibly millennia by the indigenous people of the Amazon basin. Translations can vary from the ominous “the rope of death” to the slightly less ominous “the vine of the soul.” To take ayahuasca, you drink a brew made from two plants with the main ingredient being the hallucinogenic drug DMT.
It did briefly occur to me that perhaps all I had needed was a holiday, rather than the world’s most powerful psychedelic.
You may be surprised to hear that DMT is found naturally in many plants and animals. The science is far from concrete, but it’s believed that humans may produce it in the pineal gland and that it may flood our brains just before we die. The more extreme view held by some suggests that ayahuasca is a gift from a higher power which, when taken, opens up portals to other dimensions. Spanish and Portuguese missionaries thought similarly in the 16th century and declared it “the work of the devil.” Although I’m sure the pious bores said the same when first encountering chocolate and potatoes.
DMT is by all accounts safe in that you can’t overdose and it’s not addictive. It has been known to trigger schizophrenia, but only in those who were predisposed to it. The rare deaths associated with DMT tend to involve tobacco poisoning as part of a separate cleansing ritual. It should be noted that you can’t mix it with certain antidepressants or you will most likely die from a serotonin supernova. People have now found a way to extract and smoke DMT, to provide a quick and intense ten-minute trip. I’ve only read recounts, but DMT seems akin to watching a trailer for a summer blockbuster whilst ayahuasca is like an eight hour space opera in which you need to play every role.
If you’re cynically assuming that ayahuasca ceremonies are simply just westerners meditating in a hut, then you are quite correct. However, the demographic is not who you might find at a backpacker hostel, rather who you might find at a retreat for the long-term emotionally damaged. Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug and it’s certainly not a fun or cheap high. It’s probably best described as a journey of spiritual healing. I knew very little about it until friends proposed the idea. Before doing some research, we were initially quite flippant. It’s fair to say that I was still embarrassingly cocksure beforehand.
That’s not to say I wasn’t one of the long-term emotionally damaged. It’s just that the others had prepared themselves. Some had childhood trauma. Some had addictions. Some had family issues. Some had depression. I didn’t have any of those. (Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve most likely had mild depression since puberty, but like most Scottish men my age, I tend to just get on with life and hope it doesn’t one day engulf me.)
The real problem I had developed in the past year, though, was an overwhelming nihilism. It’s funny that I lived through those nu-metal vain pain years only to succumb, as a grown man, to such a shameful patter of negativity. Nevertheless, the past winter I walked about with an existential dread that left me not so much sad as just completely empty inside. There is a certain type of physical pain that comes with a bad bout of depression, but nihilism is a flavourless and sterile despair. It felt like a light bulb inside of me had blown and I struggled to replace it. How many nihilists does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn’t matter. I did once search how to meditate and, moments in, my laptop charger exploded. A fitting metaphor for my mental health.
It was therefore a welcome coincidence that I found myself lined up to take ayahuasca at the time I needed it most. I was told by someone that it was the medicine calling me. I wondered if it only contacted those who could afford a ticket to South America. Indeed, we had opted for a retreat near the historic and beautiful city of Cusco in Peru. The staff took safety very seriously; nurses, a doctor, and a psychiatrist were on site. We stayed in an old house with stunning mountain views and friendly dogs. It was very relaxing. It did briefly occur to me that perhaps all I had needed was a holiday, rather than the world’s most powerful psychedelic.
The First Trip
The ceremony took place in a circular hut called a maloca. Each participant had their own spot inside the hut, complete with blankets, pillows, and the famous purge bucket. It’s this “organic” reaction that makes ayahuasca distinct. The reaction can occur in many forms, but mostly takes the form of vomit. After a few nervous minutes, I was handed a calculated measure of a viscous and lumpy brown mixture. The shaman had blown wild tobacco called mapacho into the cup in order to protect it from bad spirits. This addition made me feel even more like I was drinking the contents of an ashtray that had been left out in the summer rain.
We drank in unison and sat quietly as a single flame was lit in the centre of our circle. I was excited, but even in the darkness I could read the apprehensive faces of the others. This made me panic, at the worst possible moment, suddenly worried that I hadn’t properly prepared myself. I tried to think of a focused goal as the shaman began chanting the first of his songs called an icaro that help guide the ceremony. It was too late now. I was strapped in. I shamed myself by settling on “be happy” — the sort of mass produced IKEA nonsense mantra people have on their bedroom wall.
Thankfully, after about 15–20 minutes, the medicine began to kick in. I was sitting between two of my friends and they both became sick quite quickly. I felt concerned for them, but soon noticed that my vision was changing as the floor and wall slowly merged together. A throbbing distortion started to grow from inside my ears. I looked at my hands and they began to shimmer and leave a trail in the air as I turned them over.
What generally happens next to most people is the casual introduction of some playful colourful fractals. These are referred to as the sacred geometry. You would probably recognise them as generic Aztec or Inca art. They’re believed to show the complex vibrational make-up of the universe. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope, except the kaleidoscope is looking through you. That description still sounds pleasant; really what happened next to my own audiovisual experience is what I imagine it’s like to be in a disintegrating spaceship as it hurtles into the fucking sun.
Many have tried their hand at explaining a trip, although each experience is unique for the individual tripping. Unfortunately, explanations feel similar to a colleague describing a dream they had about making pottery with David Bowie — an intriguing premise at first, but ultimately a truly mundane endeavour. The more spiritual narrators often assert that Mother Earth — or, more accurately, Pachamama — guided them through their journey. My own journey was quite traumatic, but then I suppose some mothers abandon their children in hot cars.
The next thing I remember is that I couldn’t remember. I had forgotten that I was in Peru and that I had taken anything. I knew I was in a room, but I couldn’t see or comprehend anything past my own mat. I was kneeling over the bucket in the position we had been instructed. I could feel that I had been sick, but I had no recollection. I became aware that I was hyperventilating. I then felt a hand rub my back which immediately calmed me down. This was not a hallucination, but instead was a wonderfully kind nurse who I was later told sat with me for close to an hour.
Eventually, I managed to pull it together for brief moments of clarity. The nurse insisted that I drink water in order to continue the purge. I was surprised at how strong it had hit me. It reminded me of the time a goalkeeper missed the ball and punched me in back of the head. (The Scottish treatment for a concussion in the 90s was to run it off, in case you’re wondering.)
Ayahuasca really does work its way through you. The most common imagery is that of a snake, often associated with the ayahuasca vine itself, as it twists and turns inside. I must agree with the comparison; I could feel it actively wriggling deep down as well as connecting with my mind. The medicine shows you a reflection of your inner self in a broken mirror and begins to examine every crack.
My emotional barriers started to come down and I began apologising profusely for needing help and worrying that my vomiting was ruining it for everyone else. This transformed into a wandering need for confirmation that I was doing good. I was then surprised to find myself recognising within myself a need for approval or validation from others, a trait I wouldn’t have soberly self-analysed. While I acknowledged it comes from a desire to make everyone content, I felt that need to be a negative characteristic. I realised that in my life it had led to unnecessary stress and to self-hatred. I was pleased to find such instant therapy, and in exchange for only a few vomits.
The nurse told me that I was purging the darkness in me and I truly believed her. My cynical core had gone and I felt overwhelming compassion and love from her. I thought things were going to be alright, but then the shaman cranked up the icaro speed and reality began to slip away once again. The nurse rubbed my back once more and told me that I was stronger than the medicine, but by then the first round of neon snakes had appeared and I wasn’t so sure.
I found myself caught in a terrifying purge loop that felt like it lasted for an eternity. I say that with sincerity as my concept of time itself began to vanish. The nurse would force me to drink as much water as I could. I visualised the liquid as a glowing serpent going deep into where the vine was twisting. It would then collect the darkness and I’d expel both. I was panicking at being stuck in such a predicament, but tried to embrace each vomit as best as I could. At times I thought it would never stop. It felt like this was now my life — that this was the way it had always been and always would be. It did come to an end, though, because I died.
It’s difficult to remember and almost impossible to explain. This is because I didn’t exist anymore. There was no “I” remaining to try and process what was happening. I had what was called an ego death. It’s a term I find to be both underwhelming and melodramatic. People mostly associate the ego with self-esteem or self-importance. However, in psychoanalysis it’s described by Carl Jung as the feelings of identity, comprised of thoughts, emotions, and memories. It’s basically what makes us human and what makes you an individual.
There are four stages of ego death. The first is basic confusion and lack of focus. The second is a near total collapse of short-term memory. The third is when the long-term memory begins to fail, indicating the beginning of the fragmentation of the self. The person experiencing ego death may by the third stage be unable to recall loved ones, details of themselves, and even language. The fourth and highest stage is when it all really kicks off: complete loss of both short and long-term memory. Basically, your ego vanishes and therefore so do you.
To find trauma companions, I’ve since read hundreds of accounts of psychedelic trips. A full-blown ego death appears to be somewhat rare. It’s amusing that so many people seem desperate to achieve one. I didn’t want it at all. I was told the post-purge was meant to be a nice flashback of my life. I was promised the generic clip-show episode of a waning sitcom, but instead got the equivalent of Apocalypse Now. Dubbed in Dutch. On VHS. Being rewound.
It came in waves, each one increasing in intensity. Occasionally, in a trough I would have a glimpse of reality, but only for long enough to reflect on the utter horror of the situation. The concept of time had long gone by this stage. Seconds. Hours. Past. Present. Forward. Back. It meant nothing. I was just there. I had always been there. I wasn’t in the hut. I wasn’t in Peru. I was there. I felt a degree of comfort with my bucket. It was acting as an anchor, but eventually even that started to go. I bent my head down and instinctively bit the plastic rim.
The nurse told me that I was purging the darkness in me and I truly believed her.
I was now losing the war of attrition with my mind. The real panic and fear began to set in as my ego was being stripped down further and further with each wave. I was experiencing the constant disintegration of my memory. I could feel the increasing pulsation and vibration as each layer of my self was blown away in the wind. At small intervals it almost felt liberating, as all worries, regrets, and anxiety dissolved. I felt like I was a lump of sodium reacting in water. A ferocious struggle immediately followed by a deathly tranquillity.
My body had gone and with it my animalistic grip on the bucket. I could just about sense my core self, whatever that meant. I was in absolute terror at this stage. I tried to recall my situation, but each question was met with a rebounding question. I tried to think of anything to help me, but words lost meaning and soon the concept of language itself meant nothing. There was little of me left. There were no memories or thoughts. All that remained was the briefest concept of life or existence.
I began to accept that I was dying. Ego death is truly traumatic. You are dying. It isn’t some playtime drug tricking your brain. You are dying. At some stage there comes an acceptance. You are stripped down completely. There is nothing. It feels only logical to surrender and embrace it.
What follows can barely be put into words. The umbilical cord of self-identity and reality had been cut. All I can really say is that you become the universe. You become aware of the unity and of how everything is connected. It was devastating and yet so calm. It all made perfect sense. I understood everything. It was where I belonged, but I didn’t exist. I wasn’t me. I was a part of it. I was it. I was everything that had ever been.
I can’t say for sure what else I fully experienced or for how long it lasted. As I came back to life, the intensity slowly seemed to edge off in the same way it came on. I dipped in and out of the pure awareness of the universe, coming to to the realisation that I was alive and erratically shivering. The nurse soon covered me in blankets. It felt as though a shell had been put on to protect me. The distortion in my ears had quietened down to an almost peaceful humming. I was still sitting up and clutching my beloved bucket.
As I got my bearings, fear was replaced with a sense of love and warmth. I was still hallucinating, but the visions had changed to a slideshow of life experiences. I had the standard highlights package of family and friends, but I also participated in some obscure memories. I found myself doing “Thriller” by Michael Jackson in a shady Osaka karaoke bar after being gently coerced by self-proclaimed yakuza types. I was then in a Melbourne suburb buying an R2-D2 suitcase off the pothead son of a woman who had won it at bingo. The wheel spun again and I was once more being forced by my primary school teacher to do the call to prayer for the whole school in made-up Arabic and wearing my grandpa’s flat cap as a costume.
It felt like I was being reminded of the joy and humour I used to find in the ridiculousness of life, a joy that had somehow become corrupted. I began laughing into my bucket, but soon gave way to tears of pain and sadness. The two sensations alternated without much distinction. I ended on laughter when I realized that the last time I had cried was when Paul Gascoigne scored for England against Scotland in Euro 1996.
I couldn’t physically move so I had to be laid down and tucked in. It was sheer bliss. It felt like every perfect morning in bed condensed into one. I had never felt so comfortable. It was a feeling of being home and loved. I rode this euphoric wave out with thoughts of the importance of being good and that I was too harsh on myself. I felt great empathy and compassion for those in the hut and for humanity in general. I thought that everyone on the planet had to go on this journey.
The ceremony had begun at seven p.m. and I was one of the last to leave at two a.m. I was escorted outside by the coordinator, who was effortlessly cool and had beautifully strong Amerindian features. The trees, mountains, and sky pulsated and flashed. I sat down and asked for one of her mapacho cigarettes. It burned my lungs horrifically, but it made me feel alive. I then went to the dining area where I had the best bowl of soup in my life. A bald man from Toronto called Sebastian was also there. We exchanged a stunned glance as we struggled to find words.
I went to sleep surprisingly easily. The next morning, as we shared stories, I found my friends had good trips; one enjoyed a beautiful encounter with God set in the aesthetics of an 80s Atari game. I was slightly concerned to find that while a few people had difficult times, nobody other than me had died and become space itself. The shaman told me that I had passed a test, but the euphoria of the first trip had worn off and I was apprehensive of doing it again. I think I partly did it again just to avoid the boredom of fasting alone in an empty house. I also wanted to meet an 8-bit God. I had been put through the wringer and it was now time to collect my reward.
The Second Trip
Essentially the exact same experience happened all over again. I was absolutely raging.
The Waiting Room
The purge of the second trip was just as brutal, but I was able to focus quicker. Of course, the nature of an ego death meant that as I was experiencing it again, I soon completely forgot about the night before. I was lucky to undergo the trauma all over again with fresh eyes.
The slightly better tether to reality allowed me to experience some of the more famous trademarks of DMT: the dramatic launch through hyperspace into different worlds of colourful geometric patterns and aliens. You can view recreations of this online, but they just look like all the screensavers from Windows 95 merged together.
I found myself stuck in what I’ve since discovered is called the “waiting room.” It’s your standard psychedelic cosmic chamber full of various entities. I was incredibly nonchalant about being in the room and felt a connection to all entities present. However, much like the predawn remnants of a flat party, I eventually felt I had been there too long and wanted to leave immediately. I started to panic that I had permanently damaged myself and my mind. Again, much like the predawn remnants of a flat party.
It was at this arduous moment that the shaman saved me. He grabbed my head and shook it around like a sugared-up child would with a Magic 8-Ball. He then started chanting right at me and I could physically feel my mind erupting upwards toward the roof of the maloca. There was an aurora of incredibly vibrant colours surrounding him as I settled down and became aware of another shaman spitting ceremonial fragrance all over me.
The chanting was genuinely so useful and integral to the ceremony. I’ve heard it described as the oars of a canoe on the journey. My interpretation of the icaro was that of the “Rainbow Road” level in Mario Kart. You might keep falling off, but eventually you’ll be back on it. I suppose I got my retro video game vision after all.
I struggled to sleep that night and spent the next morning in the garden staring in wonder at the plants. I could sense how everything in nature was connected. I only stopped staring when I caught the concerned eye of the retreat cleaner. By this stage, I was feeling quite emotionally and physically knackered. My friends had also had a rough time the second night and we greeted new guests that morning with the confidence of shell-shocked jugglers. All three of us were adamant we would never do it again. Ever.
The Third Trip
I’ve never been so nervous in my entire life. The shaman had again praised my efforts and promised me a reduced measure. He lied. I tried swirling it in the cup in the vain hope that some of the thick space juice would stick to the sides. As it happens, my last trip was about as far removed from the first two as possible. I wasn’t sick at all and was fully aware of being in the hut. I watched the birth of life from the ocean floors to the mountain tops. I felt the bond of everything from atoms and strings all the way through the atmosphere into space. I understood that life and death were not merely the beginning and end. To be honest, this trip was actually a bit boring in comparison to the first two.
The next morning, a nice English woman who had been in our original group asked me to join her for breakfast. She explained that I had appeared in her vision and had helped her through it. I was quite taken aback and approached her admission with care, but was also secretly wondering whether the retreat leaders would ask me to become a shaman, given my apparent spiritual powers.
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a frequency illusion in which you start to notice everywhere a recently acquired piece of knowledge. This phenomenon has, since doing ayahuasca, plagued me. I spot references to it and to psychedelics all the time, but the headline that really made me stop in my tracks involved a bald man from Toronto called Sebastian. He was brutally lynched in rural Peru after supposedly shooting dead a revered shaman. It turned out not to be the same man from my retreat. However, it brought ayahuasca into the mainstream news briefly and not in a good light. I never intended to write about my experience, but I felt the need to give an honest account from a fairly grounded and cynical perspective.
I believe that there is huge potential in these plants to fix mental-health problems across the world. There are ongoing successful trials in which mushrooms are being used to treat depression and addiction. The basic science is that they can reset the default-mode network in the brain as well as stimulate serotonin receptors. Ayahuasca in particular seems to have a significant response on the limbic system. This is the emotional core of the brain largely responsible for the formation of memories. This would help explain why many people describe their encounter with the rope of death as “ten years of therapy in a single night.”
I do believe we’re on the cusp of a change in attitudes toward such drugs. This belief was hammered home recently when I watched the author Michael Pollan speak on the Colbert Report. He is well-known for writing about agriculture, but he was on the show to promote his book about psychedelics, which he suggests can help people overcome a fear of death. One of my first coherent thoughts, as I returned to earth, was that I couldn’t believe the hippies were right. They’re also slightly to blame for the lost decades of research. For example, LSD in the 1950s had no stigma and was seen as a potential cure for alcoholism. However, the carefree abuse of the drug by professionals along with the growing counterculture movement scared the establishment. By 1971 the UN had classified psychedelics as Schedule I drugs which are described as “a serious risk to public health.”
I can’t help but feel that the western world has a distorted view on what should be regarded as medicine. I read an article on this very site that said “millennials are now taking LSD and mushrooms as casually as someone popping an Adderall.” Adderall is basically meth in a prescribed tablet, but because it has a patented name and comes in a box it’s accepted. We have been too long detached from nature. I don’t know how much of that is (ironically) rooted in our colonial superiority. The Amazon basin is treated like a capitalist’s picnic. We patronise traditional cultures and their way of life as we destroy the lungs of our shared planet.
I would have called myself an atheist before Peru. I had occasionally contemplated a higher power whilst enjoying a good coffee on a sunny morning, but I’m very much an agnostic now. There is something so ineffable about the experience I had, I can’t quite shake it off or denounce it. You can have all the debates about what is the result of a misfiring brain and what is another dimension, but the end result is the same. I lived through it all. I died and I was born again. Twice.
The broader historical significance of these plants can barely be covered. I would say there are good grounds to believe that every major religion has origins in psychedelics, take for example “the tree of life” in the Middle-East. This also expands into my interest in the theory behind the monomyth or the hero’s journey, believed to be the common template for every tale told from the dawn of time. The carbon-copy similarity between a monomyth and an ego death, and what this may reveal about our human core, fascinates me. If you wish to escape the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon then I suggest you don’t read up on it, unless you want every film ruined for you.
Ayahuasca is legal in Peru as part of a supervised ceremony. I really have nothing but praise for everyone involved at my retreat. I would, however, advise caution in your selection as the influx of foreigners such as myself seeking their own “spiritual journey” is bringing the coarseness of capitalism to many indigenous areas. This is a concern for the lands, but also a concern for vulnerable participants at the hands of chancers. I’d say this extends to underground retreats in North America and in Europe, too, as there might be some western wolves in alpaca clothing.
The Amazon basin is treated like a capitalist’s picnic.
The experience of an ayahuasca retreat has definitely had a lasting and quite profound impact on me. In particular, my perspective of life has greatly shifted. I don’t really feel afraid of death, but at the same time I want to live as much as possible. I recently spotted a draft tweet from last year in which I had stated that if life is a gift then I’d like to see the receipt. I smiled when I reread it, but also felt a bit jarred. I was previously always burdened by melancholy and nostalgia; now I seem more able to appreciate the present. The daily grind is still there, but whereas it used to feel like trying to ride a bike with no wheels, now the tires are merely flat some days.
I work professionally with mental-health experts and recently watched a conference that was critical of the effectiveness for many people of both antidepressants and cognitive behavioural therapy. I’ve never wanted to use either, and perhaps I’m not alone in this. I’ll say this bluntly, in the wake of recent high profile suicides: the people who promote reaching out and talking mean well, but it all feels like empty rhetoric. The trips brutally taught me that having good people around you is essential, but that, ultimately, you’re on your own in this world. You need to help yourself as much as you can.