Taking ayahuasca was one of the most transformative events of my life.  I don’t say that lightly.  Throughout the past decade I’ve read a library of books on personal growth, meditated for hundreds of hours, traveled the world, worked with therapists, attended personal growth workshops and the list goes on.  Amidst it all, an ayahuasca experience stands on a league of its own.  Don’t get me wrong, everything I just listed was crucial in my development, but the sheer volume of growth compacted within the week of my retreat can’t be compared to anything I’ve done previously.  I learned more about myself within 7 short days than I had the previous 7 years.

If you’re unfamiliar what Ayahuasca is all about, there’s plenty of resources online to learn more.  But here’s a quick description from reset.me:

Ayahuasca is a South American tea containing the potent psychedelic chemical N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a human neurotransmitter. The ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) is combined with the leaves from the shrub Psychotria viridis (or other DMT containing plants) to create the tea. Ayahuasca is the name given to the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and also the foul-tasting tea.

The word ‘ayahuasca’ translates to ‘vine of death’ or ‘vine of souls’. This powerful tea induces intense hallucinations and introspection. The entire ayahuasca experience lasts for approximately 8 hours, with the strongest effects lasting 1-3 hours. Vomiting and occasionally diarrhea, which the natives call ‘la purga’ (the purge), are considered part of the experience. This purging process is medically beneficial, as it clears the body of worms and other parasites.

Ayahuasca has exploded in popularity over the last few years, slowly making it’s way to the mainstream.  Here’s a graph of Google searches made throughout the world for the term “Ayahuasca” since 2004:

I first learned of Ayahuasca through the Joe Rogan podcast.  After watching this interview, I was hooked.  In it Rogan sits down with former CNN journalist Amber Lyon, who after working with Ayahuasca was able to cure her PTSD symptoms and make radical transformations in her life.  Days after listening to her story, I booked a ticket to Iquitos, Peru and signed up at the Kapitari Ayahuasca center.  To prepare myself for the adventure ahead, I blasted through any resource I could find on the mysterious brew.

Although I consumed a mountain of information, none of it could have prepared me for the experience itself.  In fact, there were a handful of things I felt weren’t stressed highly enough or failed to be mentioned at all.  Looking back, it would have been beneficial if someone told me what these were beforehand.  In this article, I’m going to dive into what these are to give you a better understanding about the plant medicine, and how it could potentially transform your life.

Before we begin, I’d like to stress I’m neither advocating nor condoning the use of Ayahuasca.  Make your own conclusions.  I’m only speaking from my experience, which could be completely different from your own.  No one person is the same, no one trip is the same.

I will say that an Ayahuasca Experience is serious stuff and not for everybody.  If you’re thinking about going on a retreat, do your homework.  This is especially true when choosing the right retreat center, as the growing Aya industry is leading to a slew of shady businesses out there.  At the bottom of this page, you’ll find a list of resources to educate yourself further.

1.  Ayahuasca May Lead To Radical Changes In Your Life

They say to avoid major life decisions prior to an Ayahuasca retreat as it could all be flipped on its head after the experience.  It’s completely true and not nearly stressed enough.  Many people have abruptly ended relationships, changed careers, moved cities, and made other radical shifts months following their retreats.  I’m no different.  Within weeks of flying back I made the decision to quit my job, travel long term, and dedicate my life to Warrior.

They call it “Vine of Death” for a reason, as near-death experiences aren’t uncommon.  In the peak of my most powerful trip, I had an intense vision of my own death.  That experience rattled me to my core and something I’m still trying to wrap my head around to this day.  As terrifying as this sounds, it was one of the most important events of my life.  Here’s why…

Life get’s fairly simple when we clear the noise.  If you’re unhappy in a relationship, then leave.  If you’re unfulfilled in your career, then quit.  If you’re around toxic people, then drop them.  Typically our hearts tell us exactly what we want, yet those whispers go unnoticed with the barrage of fears, self-doubt, and mental baggage blasting in our minds.  When you’ve had the slightest taste of death, the noise tends to silence leaving only what matters on the table.  Once this occurs, tough decisions you’ve struggled with for years suddenly becomes clear as day.  Chuck Palahniuk once wrote “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”  In his famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs talks about this further.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”

It’s one thing to read a quote like this.  It’s a complete other thing to have experienced it.  Ayahuasca allows you to have this in a relatively safe environment.  Once that happens, don’t be surprised if radical shifts start occurring in your life.

2.  It’s Not a Vacation, But Real Work

If you’ve mustered the courage to step into the fire, don’t expect it to be a day at the beach.  It’s real work.  Before we get into the challenges of an Ayahuasca experience, let’s put the experience in proper context.

Chances are you’ll be under-slept while there.  You’re hurling yourself into the most intense experiences of your life and because of this, you may find it difficult to settle your mind for a proper night’s rest.  Many of us were lucky to get 4 hours each night.

You might be plagued with hunger. In my retreat we were served two simple meals a day – breakfast and lunch absent of salt, sugar, pork and a laundry list of other Ayahuasca no-no’s.  By the last day, half our conversations had nothing to do with Ayahuasca, but all the glorious foods we were going to sink our teeth into once we got back to the city.

Ayahuasca Experience - MeditationThe group mentally preparing for the night’s adventure

And now the experience itself.  Many of the stories I’ve read paint it as as this blissful journey whisking you off to lands of love and compassion, as the doors of enlightenment are opened before you.  Sure that could be the case.  But it also couldn’t.  First and foremost, ayahuasca is a medicine.  Like any other medicine, it removes gunk inside you that shouldn’t be there.  Enter La Purga.

Half my trips were spent in intense nausea, drenched in sweat, hovered over my puke bucket.  To my right, a girl sobbing uncontrollably.  To my left, a guy lying in fetal position in excruciating pain.  Across the room you’d hear violent vomits from one person, giggles from another, all the while the Shaman sings his Icaroos.  This is all happening in complete darkness.  As beads of sweat poured down my face, puke down my mouth, I’d think to myself “What the hell did I sign up for?”

Many describe Ayahuasca as a mother.  Like most mothers, sometimes she gives tough love.  She could test you in more ways than you can imagine.  Physically, mentally, emotionally, she has the power to break you.  I’d hear stories how intense this was before the retreat, but in all honesty it’s was even more intense than advertised.  It was more taxing, challenging, frightening than I would have thought.  But again, it was also the most transformative experience of my life and the obstacles you face are worth it in the end.

3.  Ayahuasca Is Incredibly Unpredictable

They say to drop expectations coming into an Ayahuasca experience.  Set your intention beforehand, but once the cup is sipped, let go.  Your job is to simply allow the night to unfold as it’s going to unfold.  You’re just a passenger, and you soon realize that Mother Ayahuasca is in the driver’s seat.  Where she takes you is number one) outside your direct control and number two) incredibly unpredictable.

During my retreat I took part in four ayahuasca ceremonies, each one being radically different from the next.  The first was spent in utter nausea, purging in a mental state I can only describe as mixture between a haunted house and a mad house.  The second was the most transformative event of my life, as I was taken on the most beautiful journey of enlightenment I could have asked for.  The third session I was brought back to the gates of hell, purging for six straight hours.  By the fourth ceremony, a portion of the group didn’t even make it as we were absolutely shattered by this point.  I forced myself to drink, but to my surprise, nothing happened.  I might have well sipped milk that night as I laid on my mat dead sober.

Ayahuasca gives you what you need, not necessarily what you want.  And what you need may be something you would have never predicted.  Our facilitators shared how certain people have four sessions of pure bliss – no purging, all beauty.  Others have four sessions filled with violent purges, battling fierce demons buried deep within themselves.  Others will go through utter randomness that makes no sense at all.  A girl on my retreat had a vision inside a disco club, dancing the night away.

You never know what the night entails.  Drop your expectations, let go, and let the chips fall where they’re going to fall.  Don’t resist a thing.  You’ll have a much richer experience when this is the case.

4.  You May Come Away With More Confusion Than Clarity… This Is a Good Thing

I was fortunate in that everyone in my retreat took the work seriously.  We all came with specific problems to be solved, and questions to be answered.  Some struggled with physical & mental health issues, deaths of close friends & family, or general confusion with the direction of their life.  Although it helped solve those issues, many came away with more confusion than clarity.

To preface why this is true, I’d like to quote Aldous Huxley’s description of the psychedelic experience from his cult classic Doors of Perception:

“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”

An Ayahuasca experience gives you perspective.  It’s as though we’ve been sitting in a theater swept away in the most engaging movie of our lives.  The storylines, dramas, and characters played before us are so captivating, we forget we’re even in the theater.  Ayahuasca simply taps you on the shoulder to remind you where you are.

When this occurs, you realize your life’s problems are just a part of the movie’s storyline.  They’re relatively real, not absolutely real, and not nearly as big of a deal as you once thought.  Moreover, you come away with the bigger realization that all the workings of your mind (opinions, beliefs, assumptions, memories, future projections) are simply part of the movie as well. None of it is absolute.

Coming to this conclusion can humble you.  You realize you don’t know nearly as much as you thought you did about how life works.  In the words of Dennis McKenna, “You don’t know shit.”

This is a good thing.  Socrates, arguably the wisest philosopher of history was famous for saying “I know that I know nothing.”  It’s only when you realize you don’t know, where real learning begins, where possibilities about the world open up, where wisdom stems from.  As Shunru Suzuki famously wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”  An Ayahuasca experience instills this beginner’s mind within yourself.

5.  Ayahuasca Alone Doesn’t Make The Experience

As powerful as my stay was in Peru, Ayahuasca alone didn’t make the experience.

Chances are you’re going to meet some incredible individuals during your stay.  The fact that they’re even there stands them out from most people you’ll ever come across.  There’s a certain degree of courage, of open-mindedness, of adventurousness needed to fly to the middle of the jungle and try something as intense as Ayahuasca.  Everyone in my retreat embodied these qualities and I grew tremendously being around them.

Although we came from all walks of life and had our own unique issues, we quickly became a family.  When you’re plunged into the fire together, there’s a special “brother-in-arms” bond formed only you and your peers will understand.  That’s why there was such mutual respect, support, and care given towards one another.  This is especially true during our group session’s the morning after our trips.  You’d hear other’s stories, share your own, and get the necessary support from those around you.

10514214_10152245335356436_4256039263107350127_o The group hanging out on our last night of the retreat

If you’ve chosen the right center, chances are the facilitators will also be incredible.  The care and support we received from ours were second to none.  In the midst of your trip, you’re a hand wave away from them helping you head to the bathroom, calm your nerves, or simply sit alongside you.  As wild as the night could get, you feel safe with them around.  And just like your peers, chances are they are going to be really, really interesting people.  You’ll grow just being around them and hearing their stories.

One thing you may come away from your retreat is a heightened awareness of energy (energy in your body, aura in certain environments, in others.)  The reason this is true is when you’re in the midst of an Ayahuasca experience, it could feel as if the volume knob of energy inside yourself gets cranked up and becomes highly sensitive to your environment.

This is where the Shaman comes into play.  If the group is the symphony, the Shaman is the conductor.  They’re able to manage the energy in yourself, in your peers, and in the room itself all in real time.  This is why picking the right Shaman is so important.  You’re placing a certain degree of your well being in their hands.  If you’ve chosen the right one, you’ll witness some incredible things.  They’ll help navigate the group throughout the eye of Ayahuasca’s storm.

So it’s not just Ayahuasca that makes the experience.  It’s Ayahuasca, alongside your peers, your facilitators, your Shaman, and being in the heart of the jungle that makes the experience so special.  Something if you have the courage to try out, could transform your life.

Resources About DMT / Ayahuasca

Books
DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman
The Yage Letters by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg
Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna
Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
The Psychedelic Experience by Ralph Metzner, Timothy Leary, and Ram Dass

Movies
Enter The Void

Documentaries
DMT: The Spirit Molecule
Ayahuasca Vine of the Soul
Stepping Into the Fire
Metamorphosis

Vidoes Online
Banned TED Talk by Graham Hancock
NeuroSoup – YouTube Channel on Psychedelics
Graham Hancock, Amber Lyon, Aubrey Marcus, Dennis McKenna, Alex Grey – Joe Rogan Podcasts Describe Guest’s Ayahuasca Experience / DMT

Sites / Resources
reset.me
erowid.org
ayaadvisors.org
maps.org
kahpi.net

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Founder of warrior.do. Creator. Digital Nomad.
tonyb.com
  • Eric

    I have done it 8times in Iquitos 4 times in Ecuador and 4 times at a secret spot in the states. Our son who is 25 just finished a retreat He was so happy it changed his whole perception.
    I just wanted to say you write very well and appreciate what you have said. I could never find a way to explain it that thoroughly to any one.
    Thank you for the read
    Eric

    • Thanks for the kind words Eric. What an incredible gift you’ve given your son encouraging him to head to the jungle. I hope it was as transformative time as it was for me.

  • Great article, Tony! Thank you for putting this together! For anyone who is seeking help before or after the journey, please check out: http://www.theaftercareproject.org. You can also feel free to email me for guidance: rray@citadel.edu Harm reduction for Benefit maximization #KnowBeforeYouGo <3

  • Cazador

    Great article, Tony! You’re the only other person besides me that I’ve seen place such a big emphasis on the peers who do the journey alongside you. I’ve learned almost as much from my experiences as from what my friends have shared of theirs. It is a communal experience.

  • Miranda Sutton-Wood

    This article is very well written and eloquent in describing the unforeseeable adventure of a lifetime! Before relocating to the Cape two weeks ago (a decision borne of the amazing transformation I too experienced) I opened my previous property to two exceptionally talented and dedicated Shaman facilitators . I had the privilege of joining in some 20 separate weekend retreats and witnessed incredible transformations in everyone attending, forged amazing new friendships with incredible souls, and purged a lifetime of unnecessary baggage from my cells and psyche. Every single journey is different as so eloquently described by Tony. I can only highly recommend this form of spiritual cleansing/healing to anyone brave enough to look for answers and transformation within themselves. It is lifechanging. Period.
    I too do natural healing and have helped many people before and after ceremony to clear issues and physical challenges that were clearly shown . If anyone would like further info on the journeying available that I personally experienced in RSA or other physical or emotional health challenges, pls feel free to contact me. http://Www.radianthealth-ness.com, or radianthealthness@gmail.com.ankyou again Tony for writing such a great description.
    In gratitude
    Miranda

  • EcoHustler

    Hi there – you might find this interesting:

    My Amazonian ayahuasca adventure;

    http://www.ecohustler.co.uk/2014/03/01/healing-jungle-amazonian-miracle-medicine-mind-body-soul/

  • Christine Elizabeth

    Great article thanks for sending it to me! We are sharing it on our facebook for shamanicvida. We do retreats in a similar style and price range of Kapitari in a lesser known, but amazingly biodiverse area known as the city of palms and entrance to Amazon – Tarapoto. Retreats with us cost $100 dollars a day to work with real peruvian shamans (I am the only “gringo” in the community) with comfortable accommodations. We teach meditation along with the retreats as a tool our travellers can bring back to their countries. http://www.shamanicvida.com

  • OneManMelee

    Hey there, great article. Good insights.

    So, after a couple of months of research, I’ve booked a week at Kapitari, in about 3 weeks. But I’m slightly freaking out about health concerns. I know people say the medicine is safe as long as done in good hands et al, but just a bit worried about how far this center is from any kind of hospital were it needed. What if there is a bad reaction to the medicine, or just any other kind of medical situation, hell even a snake bite or something?

    Did you feel safe when you were there? Does the center have any kind of medical person on site, or do they have basic medicines if needed? I mean, I know they won’t have Western pharmaceuticals or anything, but I’m just trying to get a feel for safety precautions.

    I chose Kapitari over other centers because it seems to have a great reputation, Don Lucho’s name pops up all over ayahuasca searches with great renown, and it is clearly not a cheap McDonalized Western hipster version of a retreat. Aka, I settled on it cus it’s the real deal. But I am having some nerves about being truly in the middle of nowhere, and thinking maybe I’d have been more comfortable at a center that might be pricier and slightly westernized, but has a medic on site.

    What do you think? Am I just being nervous for no real reason?

  • Tony, a great article about a much-discussed but little-understood topic. Thanks for your insights. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the potential dangers of ayahuasca tourism, for both locals and visitors?

    For example, with the influx of spiritual tourists there is surely more demand than qualified shamans, and unscrupulous people can — and have — taken advantage of those looking for genuine spiritual connection. Glad you had a great experience, was there anything in particular you did to secure a trustworthy shaman?

  • Aurora

    I would add that people miss out on the understanding that Aya is quite sacred, a divine gift, and not to be taken lightly. In one respect, many traditional shamans stress the absurdity and disrespect to the plants that the current industry sprung around aya has brought.. that traditionally they don’t take money for medicine. They also traditionally don’t hold ceremony after ceremony for weeks on end (but isn’t that a great way to make more money from it?).

    Usually 1 or 2 ceremonies max, within a moon cycle, aimed at figuring out where the person needs healing. The month is recommended for the individual to integrate the experience… And the healing doesn’t necessarily come from Aya, while it helps there is usually much introspection and hard work to be done by the individual afterwards. So while it can be a tool, its not the key to enlightenment. And if you do Aya consistently, for fun, for something to do, yet just go back to your crazy western society, yet don’t make any real changes in your life, then what exactly is the point? That is where the disrespect to the plants comes in.

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  • Kassi McCready

    What retreat did you go to?

    • I went to kapitari.org. Highly recommend it!

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