Thursday, April 20, 2017

Preparing for an Ayahuasca Retreat, Part 4: the Psychological Effects of Ayahuasca

I spent twelve days in the Amazon rainforest attending an Ayahuasca retreat where we drank the brew on seven nights. It was both the most difficult and the most therapeutic experience of my life. In part 1 of this blog series I discussed some preliminary considerations regarding Ayahuasca. In part 2 I discussed the preparatory diet. In part 3 I discussed dosages and the physical effects of Ayahuasca.

Here in part 4 I'll be discussing the psychological effects, broken up into four phases: the come-up, the plateau, the comedown, and the residual after-effects. (The video version of this post can be found here.)

Phase 1: the come-up (15 to 45 minutes long)
As most people do, I drank the brew on an empty stomach, allowing the effects to kick in quickly — generally 20 to 30 minutes after consumption. I already felt anxious before drinking, but soon after drinking I felt a second, distinct layer of anxiousness on top of the first. This new layer of anxiousness felt foreign, as if it originated outside of me. It didn't feel overtly negative nor positive — simply a strong feeling that something profound was about to happen.

With eyes open I saw only the black of night, but with eyes closed I started to see colorful kaleidoscope patters that slowly faded into focus and grew increasingly complex and intense. About halfway through the come-up, both layers of anxiousness melted away into relaxation and sometimes even mild euphoria. My own thoughts started to sound foreign to me, as if I were listening to someone else thinking. Mentally I began to drift away from my body and my surroundings, similar to the sensation of nodding off before sleep, except that I remained fully alert and aware of this drifting. The kaleidoscope patterns began to morph into recognizable objects — plants, animals, faces — and that's when the full effects began to hit.

Phase 2: the plateau of full intoxication (3 to 4 hours long)
I've experienced massively altered states of mind from a variety of substances, such as cannabis, psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA, but Ayahuasca intoxication struck me as fundamentally different. Other substances, even at large doses, felt like they altered my consciousness in a purely chemical manner. However, Ayahuasca felt alive, in the literal sense. The experience felt less like an intoxication and more like a possession, as if a conscious entity — something extremely intelligent — had taken control of my mind. I felt utterly powerless to shake it or regain control, but I also felt at peace with it, perhaps because I knew the futility in trying to resist.

To illustrate this difference, as an analogy let's say that my mind is a canvas, and that my thoughts and mentally imagery are whatever I paint on this canvas. During normal consciousness my tool set consists of a generic paintbrush and simple color palette — nothing fancy. During diminished consciousness such as alcohol intoxication, the colors on my palette smear together, my paintbrush dries up, my hand quivers, part of my canvas tears off, and I struggle to paint anything worthwhile. However, during enhanced consciousness such as a psychedelic experience, my palette expands to contain a huge assortment of colors, along with a variety of brushes, a palette knife, paint thinner, and many other tools. Now I'm able to paint dazzling mental imagery, and instead of a medium-sized canvas limiting my scope, I now have an enormous mural of a canvas. My hands go on autopilot and paint all sorts of things — creative, novel, insightful, sometimes frightening, but often mind-blowing. Though I don't always understand where the ideas come from, they originate from somewhere within me, and the basic premise of the analogy remains unchanged: it's just me, by myself, painting thoughts on the canvas of my mind.

Here's the major difference with Ayahuasca: standing in front of the canvas of my mind, I was not alone, and I was not the one conceiving my thoughts. It felt as if two invisible and immensely powerful arms wrapped around me from behind and gently grabbed a hold of my hands as I gripped the paintbrush and palette. I felt hopelessly overpowered, like a toddler in the grips of an adult, as this dominant force controlled my thoughts and dictated what gets painted on the canvas of my mind.

Preserving the Ayahuasca visions in my journal.
During the come-up and the beginning of the plateau, experiencing Ayahuasca visions somewhat resembled flipping through television stations. I passively watched various scenes unfold, some relating to my life, some bizarre and indecipherable. However, once peak intoxication fully took hold, I plunged into the visions such that I wasn't merely watching a show, I was in the show — fully immersed and engaged. As if I had stepped through a portal and into another world, the experience became interactive. I could see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, all with lifelike realism. At certain times it felt so real that it terrified me, and I had to question my sanity. It is no exaggeration to say that the immersive experience sometimes felt more realistic than everyday life.

That might sound impossible — that anything could be more realistic than "reality" — but our experience of the physical world is limited by our sensory organs. For example, the strength of my eyes will limit the vibrancy with which I see the world; the strength of my ears will limit the clarity with which I hear, and so forth. But the immersive Ayahuasca experience bypasses these limiting factors and arises directly inside the mind, undiluted, with perfect vibrancy, perfect clarity, and everything else.

Similarities between Ayahuasca and lucid dreaming
I've experienced the same type of hyper-realism during lucid dreams, which likewise bypass the sensory organs and arise directly inside the mind, and I've also noticed other similarities between Ayahuasca and lucid dreaming. For example, it is only during these two states of mind that I have heard, on a number of occasions, a distinct and unforgettable roaring hum, heavy with bass that rattled me as it oscillated from high to low, as if run through a phaser.

Both Ayahuasca and lucid dreaming produce an immersive experience that is hyper-realistic, but from which I can snap back into the physical world at any time: in the case of lucid dreaming, simply by waking up; in the case of Ayahuasca, simply by opening my eyes. It's also possible to quickly return to those immersive worlds, though this is much harder with lucid dreaming. With Ayahuasca, I simply had to close my eyes.

Even though both experiences take place entirely within the mind, the body reacts to them as if they were experienced in the physical world. For example, my body reacts to an intense lucid dream (or even just a nightmare) the same way it reacts to stress in the physical world: adrenaline, intensified breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, and so forth. So too with Ayahuasca, intense visions can trigger physical reactions, and I think this is where vomiting comes into play.

Vomiting and "bad trips"
As I mentioned in part 3, I think vomiting from Ayahuasca might be a psychological reaction more so than a physical reaction. It probably has only a little bit to do with the contents of your stomach, and much more to do with the contents of your mind. To illustrate this point, let's say in the physical world I'm walking down the street and I witness a horrible car crash. The sudden sight of a dismembered or mangled body might cause me to throw up, not because of what's in my stomach, but because what I'm seeing is so disturbing. Likewise with Ayahuasca, if in my past I had some serious trauma or hardships that suddenly rushed to the forefront of my mind or got smooshed in my face in a hyper-realistic immersive experience, that might cause me to throw up. Even if I don't have serious trauma from the past but I simply see or feel something extremely unpleasant, my body's reaction might be to vomit.

Prospective Ayahuasca drinkers shouldn't fear vomiting, though. Many people report that, intense and agonizing as it might be at the time, Ayahuasca-induced vomiting can be quite therapeutic in itself, both physically and psychologically.

Aside from vomiting, the fear of a "bad trip" might prevent people from drinking Ayahuasca. I won't try to convince anyone that they should drink Ayahuasca, but I think the fear of a difficult experience totally misses the point. In order to resolve personal issues, participants generally want the difficult stuff to surface.

I realize that thus far I probably haven't painted an enticing picture of the Ayahuasca experience. For certain, I struggled through a large portion of it. Many parts were difficult, and some were grueling, but they were all lessons through which I learned something or bettered myself. And to be fair, it wasn't all a struggle. Some parts fascinated me, other parts were wildly entertaining or intellectually stimulating, and a few parts felt euphoric unlike anything I've ever experienced.

But here's the key thing to remember: the experience itself is not what makes Ayahuasca worthwhile; the incredible value comes from how much better you feel afterward, not just short-term, but long-term — potentially for the rest of your life.

The therapeutic value of Ayahuasca
In my experience, Ayahuasca proved extremely therapeutic because of two main effects. Firstly, Ayahuasca forced many of my unresolved issues to the surface. Some were issues that I had intentionally suppressed; some were issues that I didn't even know existed. For example, at the time I still carried heavy emotional baggage from a past relationship, so I was not surprised when that topic repeatedly arose during my Ayahuasca experiences. However, I was surprised to find that, unbeknownst to me at the time, I also harbored a strong fear of death, and a strong fear of intimacy. Those topics likewise arose several times.

All by itself, this first effect — unresolved issues bubbling to the surface, reliving bad experiences, etc. — probably wouldn't be very therapeutic. But the second major effect — dissolution of my ego — perfectly complimented the first. Ayahuasca washed away my stubbornness, by defensiveness, my preconceived notions about myself, my usual excuses and rationalizations, and so forth. The absence of all of those hindrances allowed me to analyze myself objectively, often times from a third-person perspective. Sometimes I relived interactions from the past, but from the other person's point of view.

To portray these effects and give a concrete example of one of my experiences, below is an excerpt from my book Seven Nights with Ayahuasca. This takes place about midway through the first ceremony, when I'm at peak intoxication and fully immersed in the visions.
From a third-person perspective, with the clarity and immersive realism of the physical world, I saw myself standing face-to-face with my ex-girlfriend. From an arm's length away we looked into each other's eyes with a soft gaze that lacked any strong emotion, the same mellow gaze with which we had greeted each other upon waking each morning, still entangled and disheveled from the night before. 
Neither of us moved, or even blinked. Emotionless and without a word, still staring into her eyes, I suddenly clenched my right hand into a rock-solid fist, raised it to shoulder height and plunged it into her chest, smashing through her brittle rib cage. The force of the blow launched thick chunks of her bloody flesh into the air as my knuckles tore through her delicate body. Involuntary spasms contorted her face into a twitching grimace of shock and agony as I ground my fist deeper inside her chest, spread open my fingers and grabbed a hold of her heart. I felt its tough, muscular walls struggling against the tight grip of my stranglehold. She convulsed in excruciating pain as I yanked out her beating heart, her elastic arteries snapping like rubber bands, one by one in quick succession. I held up her heart at eye level, and showers of blood squirted out to the rhythm of her frantic heartbeat, splattering my face and hers. A steady stream of blood ran down my forearm and dripped off my elbow into a pool on the ground as we both stood there in silence, hers from speechlessness, mine from cold indifference.
Holding stern eye contact, I threw her convulsing heart at our feet, and it smashed into the ground with the squishy thud of a ripe tomato. The blood splatter of her beating heart painted our shoes red, matching her blood-soaked shirt, her mangled chest, and my bloodstained arm. Pools of blood coagulated into thick clumps of dark crimson mud at our feet. Making no attempt to wipe the splatters of blood from my face, I held my indifferent and unblinking gaze as she looked back at me with trembling eyes, soggy with tears and disbelief. I raised my right knee to waist height, and without even looking down to aim, I stomped her heart with all my strength, over and over, digging my heel into the sinewy mess of bloody tissue, twisting and grinding to wring out every last drop of blood.
Tears flowed from her devastated eyes and coalesced with the blood splatters on her face, drawing erratic streaks of pink down her cheeks. Her shattered ribs protruded from the gaping hole in her chest, which still sprayed profuse blood at me as I broke eye contact for the first time, turned my back, and walked away without a word. She stood frozen in place, blindsided and devastated, unmoving except for her sulking shoulders, which heaved up and down with sharp breaths of silent, uncontrollable sobbing. Petrified by hysteria, she couldn't even wipe the streaming tears from her face, and I disappeared into the darkness, never once looking back at her.
From the sidelines, my ego butted in with a vehement objection.
"OH, COME ON!! The breakup wasn't that bad! I did my best to let her down easy!"
I wholeheartedly believed the assertion to be true, that I had done my best to let her down easy, but the calm and rational voice of my conscience offered a counterargument.
"Maybe it wasn't that bad for you, but that's how it felt for her."
The irrefutable truth hit me in the chest like a sledgehammer, tearing into me with the same ruthless violence with which I had torn into her, and I winced in pain at the realization of my own abysmal selfishness and callousness. With the cloak of egocentrism lifted, I saw for the first time the obvious and awful emotional damage that I had inflicted on her, and it absolutely broke my heart that I had broken her heart.
Back in the physical world, tears welled up beneath my closed eyelids, filling the shallow reservoirs to the brim, and then spilling out from the corners of my eyes. I lost track of time as a steady flow trickled down my cheeks, but I came to see the heart-wrenching devastation within me as more than just fruitless suffering; I saw it as emotional manure that, unpleasant as it was, fertilized a flower of self-improvement, because the vision compelled me to shed my self-centeredness, to burst my inflated ego and fill the void with empathy, and to never hurt anyone like that again.
Phase 3: the comedown (30 to 90 minutes long)
The visions slowly reverted from an immersive experience back to non-interactive visions where I found myself watching but not actively participating. I felt a sensation of drifting back into my body as I became reacquainted with my physical surroundings. The feeling of possession — the mind control of Ayahuasca — gradually weakened. My train of thought continued barrelling at high speed, but my thoughts started to sound like my own once again. Occasional spikes of intensity flashed brief visions before my closed eyes, but overall the comedown felt smooth and steady.

Phase 4: the residual after-effects (up to 24 hours long)
Similar to when I've had too much caffeine, for the first hour or two after coming down I felt hyperactive and scatterbrained. A constant stream of disjointed thoughts raced through my mind and prevented me from sleeping, even though my exhausted body desperately wanted to. I felt lightheaded, groggy, and somewhat confused in general, which prohibited even basic, coherent conversations with other participants. Some of that lightheadedness and confusion persisted into the next day, but aside from that I felt no negative side-effects afterward. To the contrary, instead of experiencing anything like a hangover, the next day I radiated with a positive afterglow and felt completely refreshed, mentally and physically. For the first time in many years, I felt like a kid again — not a care in the world, just excited to be alive.

That's it for this blog series, but coming up next, I'll discuss three of the more mystical aspects of Ayahuasca — its discovery, the "intelligence" of Ayahuasca, and the concept of Mother Ayahuasca — but from a nonspiritual, down-to-earth standpoint.

My full-length book Seven Nights with Ayahuasca: A graphic account of heaven and hell, and the bizarre infinity in between is available from Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other retailers.

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