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The Ayahuasca Experience: A Pilgrimage to the Spirit

The Ayahuasca experience transcends the chemical; it’s a pilgrimage into the realms of the self and the spirit.

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DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here. Editorially reviewed by Madison Margolin.

The ayahuasca experience carries a certain mystique within the minds of the general public. A lot of this has to do with the fact that many of us lack personal experience, or even a proper analogy, to understand its complexities. It is something that defies both our industrialized familiarities and the categories we use to create our meaning of our world. 

In this way, it would be easy to settle for a framework that exclusively focuses on the active ingredients in ayahuasca and the physical effects you can expect to feel after consuming; however, reducing the ayahuasca experience to a DMT trip fails to do justice to the robust nature of the experience. 

As well as providing an opportunity to consume psychedelic compounds, the ayahuasca experience is also defined by the ceremony that surrounds it. These ancient liturgies are designed to provide the set and setting of the ayahuasca experience. 

In other words, there are reasons why people are willing to travel the world in order to find an authentic ayahuasca experience. They travel because it matters who presides over the experience and how space is held by the community. 

Understanding the effects of this magical brew is just the beginning!

The Ayahuasca Experience

When people inquire about ayahuasca, they are usually most curious about the physical and psychedelic effects they will feel after partaking, and, while there is no guarantee what you will experience, there are several effects that seem to be more common than others. 

We’ll start with the basics: you can expect ayahuasca to take effect somewhere between twenty minutes and an hour after it is consumed, and you can expect the experience to last between six to eight hours. Similar to other entheogens, the strength and duration of the effects are dependent on the dosage that is consumed. 

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The Physical Effects of Ayahuasca

Next, let’s dive into some of the psychedelic’s common side effects—including some that can be quite uncomfortable. Although ayahuasca can inspire meaningful experiences, the effects of the brew are not always smooth sailing. Some of the more undesirable physical effects of ayahuasca include vomiting, diarrhea, anxiety, paranoia, and disorientation. These effects can be distressing under normal circumstances; however, they can feel overwhelming when you are also experiencing the strong psychedelic effects that also accompany ayahuasca

It is also important to note that ayahuasca does carry more serious health risks. For example, it can elevate your heart rate and blood pressure, which can lead to medical complications for those with heart conditions. It has also been reported that ayahuasca can worsen the symptoms associated with psychiatric disorders

ayahuasca vine
Banisteriopsis caapi in Iquitos, Perú | Flickr

Additionally, ayahuasca should never be taken alongside other medications. The combination of plants used to prepare ayahuasca utilizes MAO inhibition to activate the DMT and make it bioavailable. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is an enzyme naturally produced in the human body that catalyzes various neurotransmitters, including serotonin and DMT. Natural compounds in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine block the action of the MAO enzyme, allowing you to experience the effects of DMT. 

This quality can come with its fair share of risks, however. The natural compounds in the psychoacitve brew can cause serious interactions with prescribed medications as well as common medications you can get over the counter. The potential for drug interactions is also the reason why reputable ayahuasca facilitators will require you to detox from medications before you begin your ayahuasca experience. 

And while there have been documented instances where people have slipped into a coma and/or died after consuming ayahuasca, it is interesting to note that there have been zero cases of death in the clinical trials of ayahuasca. This leads researchers to believe that the deaths associated with ayahuasca are the result of improper preparation and drug interactions. 

So, if you plan on consuming ayahuasca, make sure you consult your doctor and that the facilitator of the experience knows what they are doing!

The Psychedelic Effects of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is not all purging and medical warnings. Many people report having immense feelings of euphoria, out-of-body experiences, and beautiful, perhaps immersive, hallucinations. There have also been a great deal of physical and mental health benefits associated with ayahuasca.

Like all psychedelics, the legal standing of ayahuasca (DMT) makes research slow and difficult, but the scientific community is beginning to show how ayahuasca can offer relief to those that suffer from things like PTSD and depression. Scientific research continues to add depth to the folk wisdom and anecdotal evidence that has already shown the life-altering benefits of ayahuasca. Let’s hope this trend continues!

Read: A Brief Heritage of Ayahuasca Art

Preparing for the Ayahuasca Ceremony

The intense physical and psychedelic effects of ayahuasca are definitely attention grabbing, but that is just one part of the ayahuasca experience. Set and setting play an important role in any psychedelic experience, and, considering the intense nature of ayahuasca, it makes sense that the ceremony that surrounds it would play a significant role in the experience. 

When describing an ayahuasca ceremony, I find pilgrimage to be a helpful analogy. With pilgrimage, it’s less about any particular set of beliefs or practices and more about the expectations that lead you into the space and how that space is held by the participants and community. 

ayahuasca altar
Ayahuasca altar in Iquitos, Perú | Flickr

An ayahuasca ceremony, like a pilgrimage, is intended to feel different than your day-to-day life. It is a sacred time, set aside for reflection and reorientation. It utilizes music, singing, and ritualized liturgy to help guide participants through their internal and external environment, and it is facilitated by spiritual leaders and a community that infuses the experience with meaning.

In short, there is a lot of thought and effort behind the structure of an ayahuasca ceremony, and, as a participant, it is important to match that effort in your preparations. You want to make sure you are putting yourself in a position to receive the gifts that make themselves available to you during this experience.

Thankfully, it is common for ceremony facilitators (shamans) to offer practices that can help prepare you for your ayahuasca experience. This can include things like adhering to a specific diet or detoxing from specific substances, but there is also room for unique preparations that speak to the expectations you are bringing to the ceremony.

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So be sure to give yourself ample time to consider the journey you are about to undertake, and bring a posture of intentionality to your preparations. Consult with your doctor and/or a spiritual director. It will make all the difference in the world!

What To Expect from an Ayahuasca Ceremony

Ayahuasca has been used by Amazonian tribes for centuries for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Ayahuasca ceremonies are traditionally presided over by a shaman—who is responsible for preparing the ayahuasca, blessing the space, distributing the brew, and directing the ceremony. 

Ayahuasca ceremonies typically happen in the evening, and the participants often take part in several ceremonies over the course of a few nights. Sometimes the ayahuasca is given once during a ceremony, and other times, it is distributed over several doses. Offering multiple doses gives the shaman the ability to read how the participant is handling the ayahuasca, and provides an opportunity for the shaman to ask the participant if they would like more. 

Directing the ceremony involves making sure people that require medical attention receive it, but the primary purpose of the shaman is to be sensitive to the spiritual flow of the ceremony. Similar to sacraments from other religious traditions, shamans believe that their sacrament embodies a spirit, and it is their job to facilitate a space for people to encounter that spirit. 

In other words, there is a belief that there is more happening than just a human interacting with a specific plant or chemical compound. During the ceremony, participants are interacting with the spirit of the plant (Mother Ayahuasca), and it is common for the spirit to manifest itself during the psychedelic peaks of the ceremony. 

Ayahuasca brewing in Iquitos Perú | Flickr

Whether or not you believe in the spiritual aspect of the ayahuasca ceremony, it is interesting to note the similarities found within the visions of participants. For example, many people have reported encountering a snake, jaguar, or jungle plant.

Some people choose to interpret this as evidence of a spirit, and others choose to interpret this as the power of set and setting. Whatever your belief, the goal remains the same—to bring meaning to these powerful images. 

Within the shamanic traditions, there exists archetypal images that carry meaning within the ayahuasca experience. These give depth to your experience by offering a jumping off point for the final part of the ayahuasca experience—integration.

How to Integrate the Ayahuasca Experience 

As you may have noticed, I spent very little time talking about the specifics of the trip. This was intentional because, while you might experience common physical effects, emotions, or visions during your experience, the impact and meaning of those experiences are unique to each participant. 

In fact, even from an individualistic perspective, every time you take ayahuasca, your experience is going to be different. In other words, the only guarantee in an ayahuasca ceremony is that each experience will be unique.

It is said that ayahuasca gives you what you need, not necessarily what you want. In this way, there is no such thing as a “good trip” and a “bad trip”—just experiences from which we can learn. Courage and curiosity is required to sit with these experiences and uncover the meaning behind them.  

Read: Best Ayahuasca Retreats

Just like someone traveling on a pilgrimage, there are a lot of unknowns on the journey. They may have a general sense of what they can expect, but part of the experience is stepping out into the unknown and allowing it to (in)form you. 

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People often forget that the end of the pilgrimage is the place you started. The goal of any pilgrimage is to leave in order to find something, bring it back, and integrate it into your life and the life of your community. 

The changes that occur in the individual and the gifts that were received on the journey are intended to be brought back and shared. The goal is not to escape, but to integrate the lessons you have learned in the sacred spaces into your day-to-day experience. 

This is not easy work, and is often a forgotten step for pilgrims and ayahuasca ceremony participants; however, it might just be the most important step in getting the benefits you want from your ayahuasca experience. 

Integration work comes in different forms. It might look like seeing a mental health professional—someone to help work through the experience and bring language to something that very well might be ineffable. Part of preparing for your ayahuasca experience involves making sure that you have something in place to work through it. Only you can know what it looks and feels like. 

The ayahuasca experience can reveal a lot, and it can take some time to wrap your head around it. Make sure you give yourself time to create meaning and integrate it into your life. It could be the most important part of your experience.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for support. If you’re looking for peer support during or after a psychedelic experience, contact Fireside Project by calling or texting 6-2FIRESIDE.
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