Ayahuasca ceremonies: Meet the Irish people who've tried the 'key to the universe'
From gap year bucket-list must-do to Silicon Valley game-changer and fast-track spiritual healer, the ayahuasca plant, otherwise known as the 'key to the universe', is many things to many people. Emily Hourican talks to Irish people who have tried it, to find out why they did and what they discovered
There is a particular kind of poignancy to the notion of near-death revelations - this idea of a final understanding that comes upon us only at the point of death. A kind of going-away bag from the party of life, full of all the things we so badly wanted to know while we lived; why are we here? What is the universe? Is there a God? Who am I?
As such, the story goes, we catch a brief, bright glimpse before the light goes out forever.
So what if you could get that revelation long before death and incorporate it into your living?
Is that going to be a good thing? Or bad? Is it even possible?
This is where ayahuasca comes in. A brew made from Amazonian plants, containing the psychoactive substance dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ayahuasca, roughly translated, means 'vine of the dead' or 'vine of the soul', and is otherwise known as 'the key to the universe'.
It has been around forever as a traditional spiritual and healing medicine among South American tribes, and has had plenty of celebrity endorsement. Paul McCartney took it and "saw God"; Paul Simon, Sting, Tori Amos and Lindsay Lohan have all said they've done it, with Lohan saying, "I saw my whole life in front of me and I had to let go of the past things that I was trying to hold on to that were dark in my life." Recently however, ayahuasca has had a more mainstream, and troubled, kind of visibility.
In August, the results of an autopsy on a British teenager, 19-year-old Henry Miller, who died in Colombia in 2014, were released. He became ill after drinking ayahuasca as part of a ceremony in a remote corner of the rainforest. Two of the tribe he had been visiting tried to get him to hospital on a motorbike, but Miller died on the way and they left his body by the side of a road.
The actual cause of death was an adverse reaction to something called scopolamine, extracted from plants belonging to the nightshade family, which was mixed with the ayahuasca. But really, that is a minor detail in the storm of focus on the plant and its effects.
Since gap years went mainstream in the 1980s, ayahuasca has been something that belonged to a bucket list for adventurous Western kids. It was part of a set of site-specific must dos - go to Ibiza, do E; go to the Amazon, take part in an ayahuasca ceremony. Expand consciousness, alter mind, go home, job done. It became a kind of niche trophy experience to brag about as you went through university and then settled into a predictable existence: "Did I ever tell you about the time..?"
Alongside that, there have long been those with serious addiction issues who felt they had run out of options and were willing to try something left-field in order to effect a 'cure'. Ayahuasca, anecdotally anyway, had a reasonable success rate.
But in recent years, ayahuasca has been creeping towards the mainstream in several different ways. There's a lifestyle element, a kind of 'be the best that you can be' notion, led by the early adopters in Silicon Valley, who are in it for the promise of enhanced creativity and greater work ability. But there is also a therapeutic side, among the many looking for alternative therapies for a growing range of psychological and mental health issues.
The interest in ayahuasca (and other psychedelics) mirrors the rise in disillusionment with what mainstream medicine can do for depression and anxiety - the ills of modern society that are increasing in all of us, and that don't seem to be readily treated any more with prescription drugs or talking therapies.
As such, ayahuasca is part of the rise in DIY-everything - individually-curated diets, lifestyles and general approaches that have seen us all become 'expert' on our own conditions, convinced we know as much, if not more, than any qualified practitioner.
Increasingly, we do our own research into diet, exercise, supplements; prescribing and rationing the things we eat and do in order to achieve particular mental and physical goals. We self-diagnose - with wheat intolerances, magnesium deficiencies, candida, attachment disorders - and set off on our own individual quests to find the cure.
And for a growing number, ayahuasca now has a part to play in all this, usually taken with specific therapeutic and spiritual intentions, anything from, 'I want to let go of anger,' to 'I want to understand the world and my place in it.'
Ayhuasca doesn't have the image problem of cocaine (sociopaths), heroin (losers), weed (slackers) or pills (airheads). Neither does it suffer from the bad karma vibe of propping up vicious organised crime empires and arriving to your door at a cost of human misery.
In a way, this is the quickest of quick fixes. One devotee told me that "one trip took me further than nine years of therapy". On the other hand, it is part of a 'slow drugs' movement. You generally have to travel to try ayahuasca, as DMT is illegal in Ireland and the UK. You have to put yourself out, make an effort, commit. You also have to put yourself in the hands of a shaman, who may, or may not, be the real thing, but who you will need to believe in, and invest with the spiritual power to guide you through your trip.
After all, "if you approach ayahuasca without being scared, you shouldn't be doing it," is the wisdom of someone who has, so far, tried it 12 times.
So who takes it? What are they looking for? Do they find it? And - perhaps the million-dollar question - what then?
There are as many reasons for taking ayahuasca as there are people who take it. There's 'Mike', for whom the motivation was largely creative. "I would have tried a variety of different drugs, including acid, and when I heard about the creative potential of ayahuasca I was curious," Mike says. He took part in a ceremony in the US. "It was the most intense trip I've had," says Mike, "and far more emotional than LSD or magic mushrooms. Did it open up new forms of creativity for me? I think so. It gave me the ability to look deeper into myself and come up with what I believe are more original ideas in the creative work I do."
Then there's a man I'll call Simon; a 40-something father and a successful businessman, who had pretty much never taken drugs of any kind before trying ayahuasca. "I never smoked, I drink very little, I tried E once, when I was about 23, and I'd never tried any psychedelics," he says. So what drove him? "I have a son with autism who is non-verbal. I came across a podcast about DMT and ayahuasca, and heard that people with autism have higher levels of DMT in their brains than so-called 'neurotypical' people. I wanted to understand my son better. As a society, we seem to be always trying to make those with autism more like us; my question was whether I could meet my child in his world?"
A year ago, and after an intensive period of research, Simon went to Amsterdam, although he found options available to him in Ireland. "My thinking was, 'If taking ayahuasca means standing at the precipice of death, well, what if you fall over?' I didn't want to be a million miles away in the South American jungle. But neither did I want to be down the road in the midlands of Ireland. I reckoned Amsterdam was a good place to go on the basis that if anything went wrong, they'd know what to do."
He booked a private ceremony, with his partner, whom I'm calling Alice. "We drank the tea, which tastes vile. Like filling an ashtray with water," he says, and after half an hour or so, he began daydreaming. At the time, Simon says, "I was going through a challenging time in my life, around my business, and I felt very let down by some people around me. The trip brought me back to different times in my life, as a child when I had similar feelings, and showed me links between these things and how I react. It gave me a clarity and a perception I hadn't had. I felt good after it, as if a layer had been removed, and I left thinking, I want to know more."
And what of Alice? This might be where it gets hard for some of us to understand. Alice, Simon's partner, the mother of his son, "cried for five hours. She couldn't say what she was crying for, and she is someone who never cries." And yet, he insists, "she felt amazing afterwards."
In comparison with later experiences, that first trip was very mild, but it was enough to persuade Simon he wanted to know more. Since then, he has taken part in 11 ceremonies, some in Ireland, others in Holland, some private, some involving groups. He has vomited - there is a physical 'purging' aspect to ayahuasca that causes vomiting and diarrhoea - and seen visions. At one stage he was "told" to "go to" his son "through music," which he later did, communicating more effectively through sound than he ever had through words or gesture.
Another trip put Simon, as he felt it, into the body of his son, so that he manifested many of the same physical expressions: "I was rocking back and forth the way he does," he explains. "I felt my face, and it was his face. I was doing things he would do, like clapping hands, and I felt I could understand why he did that. That was a very visual experience and I was overwhelmed by the lights and colours around me so that I had to find a blank, white spot on the wall to look at because it was too much stimulus."
Since then, Simon and Alice have created a place without colour in their house, a white chair in a white corner, for their son. "After that, I felt I could understand my son better," Simon says. "I don't know if that was the universe intervening or if it was my subconscious." And perhaps it doesn't matter.
Since then, Simon has had trips that have shown him aspects of his past life and behaviour towards others in a new light, he has seen something of the connections of the world around him, and even a profound reliving of the death of his mother. Each of these has brought him new understanding.
"I think each experience changed me," Simon says. "I saw so many of the things I have done, differently. It was," he says, "like Dickens' Christmas Carol. I was shown my life, and how to make amends for parts of it. Sometimes I would think, 'Stop, I've seen enough, let me leave,' only to realise that no, I had to stay and see more."
As well as vomiting, he has been left "trembling, shaking and crying," by these experiences, and yet, he says, "I felt amazing afterwards."
"Things are different about me," Simon explains, "and so things are different around me. I am happier, more relaxed. Before trying this, my worry was that I could end up a burned-out hippie; instead I am more productive, happier in my work, and ultimately, more financially successful because I'm less afraid of risk. I would have had a strong fear of death. Now, I have far less fear - of death, and of everything else."
He has no intention of stopping just yet. "I feel I would not have got this opportunity to see my life, except at the moment of my death. To get the chance to see, and, like Scrooge, be able to go back and make amends - what a blessing that has been."
For 'Dave' (no, not real either), who works in the visual-art industry, interest in ayahuasca came from a different place. Three years ago, he felt "very, very stuck. I had struggled with depression and addiction, and I had done a lot of therapy. For a time I took anti-depressants, but they numbed me out and I knew that wasn't going to help. I knew I couldn't keep going as I was, I felt numb to everything."
He had previously tried ayahuasca "in Bolivia, over 10 years ago. I didn't really connect with it then, but it came back into my consciousness at this time." He spent a year or so researching, and decided: "I have to try this."
He found a place in Northern Peru, owned by an English guy, The Temple Of The Way of Life, and went over in August two years ago. "I did seven ceremonies in 12 days," he says. "This isn't something you take once and all your questions are answered. It's a process. And it is really intense. It opens you up."
After his two weeks holiday, Dave came back to Ireland, but found, "I couldn't settle back into my life here. I had been feeling so connected to nature, to the environment, there. Going back into a sterile work environment was too hard. So I decided to go back out there and figure things out." He went back and got a job at the temple for a year, where he watched the comings and goings of other visitors.
Stuck in life
"Mainly North Americans and Canadians," he says. "Mainly young men in their 20s and 30s. There were a couple of Irish people."
What were they looking for? "Healing and personal development. Some were very depressed, others were stuck in their lives and looking for answers. Some were just curious, but that wasn't the norm."
You go in, Dave explains, "with an intention, for example, to love myself more, and the medicine helps you to achieve that." That said, he says, "once you drink it, anything can happen. It can be scary, or it can be the most beautiful thing ever. The nature of it is that it will often bring up things you would rather not deal with. I've had very difficult times on it, but those were probably the most beneficial. Yes, people can totally lose it, but in a way, that's the point. And the vast majority of them, the next day, they're fine."
In the year he was at the temple, Dave took part in ceremonies, "once a week or every 10 days." He left because, "I realised it was time to come home. The jungle is a challenging environment, I got malaria three times, I was in a relationship there that was coming to an end. I knew it was time to go."
Those experiences, he says, "definitely changed me for the better. Ayahuasca gives you revelations, and it's up to you then how you use them. "
Are there downsides? Of course. Vomiting and diarrhoea, common side effects, are hardly pleasant, even if the shaman claims they are part of a desirable spiritual purge. There are plenty of stories of 'ayahuasca casualties', bad trips that can leave people with flashbacks and psychological disturbance. Anecdotally, it seems as if the brew has been concentrated and intensified for Western tastes recently, so that you are likely to get something stronger than would have been used in traditional ceremonies.
Ayahuasca also has cardiovascular effects, moderately increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and, of course, you don't know what other herbs or plants have been included in the brew that may have their own physical effects. Basically, all the usual caveats apply.
But as long as ayahuasca is believed to offer answers, or at least insight, in a world of ever-more-anguished questions - 'Why?' 'What?' 'How?' 'Why?' again - there are going to be those amongst us, the brave, the curious, the desperate, willing to take the risk.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine