This story is part of a the Nob Hill Gazette’s feature, Perspectives on Beauty, in our March issue.
In the medieval science of alchemy, there are two methods for bringing about the transformation of the soul. The so-called dry path involves fasting, solitude, darkness, and other ascetic extremes to bring about a divine revelation of self and cosmos.
But at the proverbial fork in the road lies also the wet path, which may make use of magical stimulants to facilitate spiritual epiphanies. Ayahuasca, a psycho-active brew native to the Amazon basin, is experiencing rising popularity as a means of bringing about inner growth. For those who find the idea of an acid trip terrifying and don’t like the idea of ingesting hallucinogenic fungi, ayahuasca’s shaman-led mystical experience is an alluring alternative, offering the chance to see world and self in a whole new kaleidoscopic light.
Although ayahuasca is illegal in the United States (save for a few Native American church-es allowed to dispense it), users refer to it as “medicine” rather than a drug. Its primary active ingredient is DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which is produced naturally in the brain and is believed to produce the visions of tunnels, white lights, angels and other collective tropes reported by people who have undergone near-death experiences. Although the ayahuasca brew includes DMT, the two are sometimes confused, as DMT can be produced synthetically and smoked, providing a 10-minute trip that can be a good introduction for those who’ve never experienced a mind-altered state. Ayahuasca, however, is consumed in liquid form and provides an experience that lasts for hours. Some stretch it out for a week of intensive therapy, and there’s a veritable cottage industry of psychotropic tourism in which enlightenment-seeking pilgrims journey to Peru and spend a week doing ayahuasca the way normal people spend a week in Hawaii snorkeling.
For the archetypal experience, however, one should experience ayahuasca in the primordial jungle, says Dario Nardi, editor of the 2018 tome Facets of Ayahuasca: A Guide to Journeys of Healing, Insight and Growth. People who sign up for shaman-led ayahuasca excursions to Peru, he says, seek to escape their known environment, connect with nature and access the dark regions of their deepest self for a week’s holiday. This gut-wrenching process (regurgitating is part of the experience), is worth it when you consider what people are trying to cure: a suffocating sense of being buried by modern life, cut off from heart, soul, subconscious, nature, god — whatever any ayahuasca imbiber wants to call it. “People feel weighed down and disconnected in our very conflict-based society,” says Nardi, “and their needs are not being met through normal psycho-logical and spiritual channels.”
Although awareness of ayahuasca is growing through word of mouth and light media cover-age, the total number of human beings who have experienced the potion is only in the low tens of thousands, says Nardi. That’s a tiny fraction, for example, of the total number of humans who’ve been drunk since the invention of alcohol. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because its proponents — who are more often Gen Xers than baby boomers — are seeking to avoid the negative con-notations of the psychedelic generation. “There is a conscious desire to stay away from the stigma of the ’60s,” says Nardi. “Ayahuasca is also not a fun experience you do with friends to chill out. No one says they’re going to go do some psychotherapy for fun.”
The world’s wisdom traditions teach that the psyche (which is the unified conscious and unconscious mind) is our connection to the higher realities of the cosmos. The experience of ayahuasca is part doctor’s couch and part sacred temple. “It’s a bit like religion and a bit like psychotherapy,” says Nardi. “You come in with an intention or goal, and go through an interview.” Most shaman-led excursions in South America include a third preparatory part: bungee jumping. “So the whole thing is a very physical experience that can be terrifying and tremendously relieving at the same time.”
Unlike an overindulgence in alcohol, the experience of ayahuasca is remembered. The hope is that it will plant a seed in the subconscious that will slowly blossom and bring about the desired transformation. Scientific research has shown that ayahuasca promotes neurogenesis, Nardi says, or the creation of new brain cells that will fire and wire together based on the therapeutic experience, paving the way for new ways of think-ing and feeling. Whether it’s facing fears, dredging up childhood memories, or discovering the divine spark within, the experience of ayahuasca can create a lasting framework for life going forward. “The big thing at first is that it changes a person’s subjective experience of daily life,” says Nardi. And one of the most noticeable, he adds, is that people return from their ayahuasca vacation to find they no longer get so riled up by the news or drawn into pointless social media feuds that accomplish nothing. Now that’s worth traveling to the jungle for.