Ayahuasca: that South American drug everyone’s raving about

Noah Richler was warned ‘it’s like 30 years of psychoanalysis in one night’

Floris Leeuwenberg/TCS/KPA-ZUMA/KEYSTONE/ Jorge Vinueza G./Redux/ Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters

For a couple of years, I’d been noticing that a bunch of my forty- and fiftysomething middle-class friends were raving, sotto voce, about the transformative and even spiritual aspects of a South American drug called ayahuasca, the plant known in more disinterested circles as Banisteriopsis caapi. It was the Toronto filmmaker Richard Meech, whose documentary Vine of the Soul: Encounters with Ayahuasca is to be broadcast on VisionTV in November, who first brought the drug to my attention, but it was a musician friend who found a place for me at a ceremony that was to take place in a small lakeshore village, now more or less a suburb, an hour north of Toronto.

“For sure, you’ll meet the snake,” said my friend Deborah, an art critic whose curly black locks bring Medusa to mind, when I let slip my plans to try it on the weekend. “No matter your culture, or language, everyone meets the snake.”

“What snake?”

“Quetzalcoatl, the Meso-American vision serpent known to the Mayans as Kulkulcan. Kings and queens would sacrifice their blood through perforations in their tongue and penis and drip their blood onto paper that would then be burned and Quetzalcoatl would appear in the smoke to advise them.”

“They say it’s like 30 years of psychoanalysis in one night,” said Anne, a broadcasting executive who, with shorter black locks, appeared a gentler Medusa.

“What else?” I asked.

“You’ll purge.”

“Purge?”

“Vomit,” said Deborah. “You may have diarrhea, too.”

“It’s a cleansing,” said Anne, as if to soothe. “They say ayahuasca is very good if you have parasites.”

“But you’ll feel great afterwards,” said Deborah, grinning.

The next day I was the first of a dozen participants to arrive in the bucolic countryside and Philip, our shaman for the night, took me for a walk past the field where, a couple of months before, he’d led a ceremony in the open air. He explained that the separate parts of ayahuasca, a vine that grows in the wild mostly in Peru, are legal but become a Schedule III hallucinogen (i.e. not legal at all) when the stem and leaf are brewed together and put their trippy mischief into play. Mind you, ayahuasca being a controlled substance hasn’t stopped the Montreal branch of the Brazilian Santo Daime Church from wanting to import it as their own choice bit of eucharist, a Bronfman in the United States from trying to legalize it, and an entrepreneurial American, Loren Miller, making efforts to patent a variety. The use of the “medicine” was exploding, said Philip. He’d brought his own ayahuasca in from a farm in Hawaii, he said, because “a lot of bad things were going on in the camps in Peru” and this way he could monitor what was done to it.

At the vacant house where the ceremony was to take place, Philip set up an altar in the middle of an otherwise empty room, with bird feathers and musical instruments and totems of various sorts. “This is a good space,” he said.

Others drifted in and laid out yoga mats and blankets. My musician pal arrived and said, “You didn’t eat today, right?”

“Not much.”

“Best not to,” he said.

“What about the snake? Have you met the snake?”

“Huh?”

“You know, the vision serpent. Quetzalcoatl.”

“Relax. It’s a nice group. You’re not the only first-timer.”

Immediately I felt gauche, because the bucket I’d brought for purging was three times the size of anyone else’s. Philip replaced it with a yogourt pot. “Best to have a lid,” he said. A woman in her twenties took her sleeping bag into the garden to shake it out. “Playa dust,” she said, apologetically. “From Burning Man.” The bright-eyed blond woman sitting next to her, a student at a shamanic school, talked about hanging around the Fifth Gateway. “You’ve taken the medicine?” she asked a young man who said he’d taken it maybe 30 times but still he was spooked. “I know what you mean,” she said. “If you visit the house, you have to go through all the rooms.”

We chatted until dusk, and then in the soft darkness Philip sang a prayer and invited the participants, one by one, to imbibe from the couple of bottles of ayahuasca that he’d prepared, drawing from a pipe and then blowing smoke over the rim of the small shooter glass of chocolate brown liquid. It tasted of burnt raisins and had the muddy texture of  leftover Turkish coffee. “You may not feel it immediately if this is your first time,” said Philip, “but soon it will kick in.”

And then, on cue, a few people started to hork and wretch and the couple next to me, Pilates instructors without an ounce of fat on their identical androgynous bodies, started to go through the paces. She moaned and groaned and he launched himself into what turned out to be hours of mounting physical histrionics. As if in insurmountable grief, he would sit upright and rub his eyes before suddenly launching himself forward and on all fours before bolting upright again—all the time, wailing and bucking his slender body. And yet, like Ronaldo’s football game, there was an unconvincing and solipsistic quality to whatever were his agonies that seemed rife with narcissism and the knowledge of just how beautiful his body was.

My observation pleased me, imbued as it was with uncharacteristic charity, even sympathy, before Philip came over and puffed smoke my way. Then he poked at me repeatedly with a bird wing, surely to keep the snake of my conceit at bay.

Through the window, the branches of a catalpa tree shook in the gathering wind but, no, I couldn’t claim that they looked like the serpent, though my left arm, clenching the right in its fist, was beginning to resemble one. That was exciting for the first few minutes of a long night in which more and more I felt like I’d shacked up with a bunch of loonies in lotus land, sleep enticingly around the corner until Philip would come around again to blow more smoke at me or thump my chest with rocks in what felt, for a moment, like an admonishment. Get with the program, man.

And then he was off to tend to someone else living through a nasty childhood or who, having forgotten to visit all the rooms, was barred from the Sixth Gateway—or, as happened at 3 a.m., decided in his joy to stand up and play the trumpet over the whole spasmodic bunch. Now, I said to myself, what with the neighbouring houses being alarmingly close, how are we going to explain this to cops about to burst through the door in their zealous preparations for the following week’s G20 assignment, bicycles and riot gear and all expenses paid?

This dour but astute assessment I took to be my cue for perhaps taking more of the drug. I’d yet to purge at either end; the evening, now halfway done, had been disappointingly short of life-altering revelations, and when the Burning Man woman came over to give me a hug, my first thought was still an old-fashioned, “Hold on, lady, you’re not my wife.” But all I could think about were the tomatoes and the strawberries I’d bought and how each of my colleagues’ bodies finally lapsing into slumber were stations marking the road to my eventual sleep.

Come 6 a.m., the lot was snoozing and, as in that moment before the movie credits on a long transatlantic flight, I saw an opportunity to use the loo first and get out of a room that smelled, by then, like a dirty sock. All I wanted was a hot breakfast and the morning paper and to watch a World Cup football game.

Which is what I did. An hour later I was back at the house and the participants were eating fruit and sitting about in a circle. “I had a lot of clarity about the agreements we make,” said one. “It helped me to see what is important with my life,” said the spooked kid in the corner who, truth be told, looked like he was still a couple of revelations short of equilibrium. “I purged,” said the bright-eyed blond woman. “For the first time!” I felt like a spoiler as I reported that I actually felt remarkably sound. Like a steadying anchor, I said. And maybe that was the revelation. No snake. No purging. I wrote my cheque for $175 and got out of there.




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Ayahuasca: that South American drug everyone’s raving about

  1. Correction: The leaf comes from another plant, psychotria viridis – chacruna – not from the ayahuasca.

    The leaf contains DMT. There is NO DMT IN AYAHUASCA, only harmine and harmaline, which prevent the DMT from being digested, thus allowing its psychotropic effects to occur.

    • The Caapi vine contains MAOI's which make the DMT in Ayahuasca orally active. Which is essentially what you said… kinda.

      • Jim, can you please reply to revmeganoconnor@gmail.com. Did you spend time in Key West Florida about 6 years ago?

    • For the past century or so years people have developed an increasingly hyper-rational outlook on life. In many respects the application of reason ceased to be a tool, and has become a goal. I don't think humans are programmed to operate that way – we need an ounce of irrationality because that is where goals and values come from. I have my doubts that secular humanism can provide that for people, but luckily most secular humanists are de facto religious. There is a tinge of earth worship in say, contemporary environmentalists.

      At a societal level too, individual reason can be problematic because we are all actors in a much larger machine than what we perceive ourselves (be it the universe, society, the global marketplace or whatever). Society is a complex web of institutions and values, often held together by anachronisms that appear, in themselves, irrational. As we experience the unintended consequences of applied reason there is a natural counter-movement to build up new strands to reforge society anew.

      • I disagree. For the past century people have increasingly abandoned reason in favour of emotion. "If it feels good do it", man. The educational system, pop culture, political dialogue, and even the law all increasingly place less emphasis on critical thinking and facts and more on empathy and self-expression.

        You and I also have a different view of religion. I don't view it (at least in its proper form) as irrational. If I did view it that way I would abandon it in short order. I consider the 20th century's move away from religion to be the culmination of a move away from dispassionate reason that began in the 16th century.

        I do agree with you in this though: humans are not programmed to operate without religion. Thus when religion that stands in accordance with reason is abandoned, superstition (i.e. spirituality with little rational basis) replaces it.

        One final point: it's my belief that in reality there are only two kinds of spirituality, that from God, and that not from God. The first is necessarily rational. Thus when people engage in irrational spirituality they are not just wasting their time, they are also freely consenting to any spiritual influences that aren't from God. Not smart.

  2. Gaunilon: Christianity is superstition. Ayahuasca is direct experience. Dont judge what you havent experienced!

    • I'm pretty sure the same could be said about Draino or starvation-induced hallucination. I think most hallucinogens should be legal (they are not addictive, at the very least), but I think the idea of hallucinogens as a means of self-exploration is a crock.

      • I'm highly suspicious of something that makes you vomit if you have just a little too much of it (or any of it!). It's almost as if your body is trying to tell you something…

        • @saskboy yea, its cleaning out all the toxins you eat and breathe in daily while in your suburban concrete jungle. All the pesticides in your food. People are so misinformed. You can purge on mushrooms as well if you have the gonads to eat enough. Guarantee you'll feel 100% after but I also guarantee you don't have the courage to eat 5 dried grams. Weigh it out, you'll see 5 dried grams is far more then just 5 stems/caps. All the Phalaris plants in Saskatchewan contain DMT. It is the highest concentration of DMT in the world, bet you didn't know that either?
          @hosertohoosier: Of course they can be used for self-exploration. You are just someone that has never experienced that because you probably abuse them for social purposes. Wait til you grow up and understand. I can bet you didn't even read this article.

          • The "toxin" that ends up getting purged this this crappy (pun intended) drug. If you vomit, it only "purges" what you've eaten recently. There's up to 3 days of food in the intestines that are not ejected through vomiting. And food that you ate more than 3 days ago is already passed or absorbed, it's not purged by adding bowel movements either! Its' pretty basic biology.

            The self you explore while you are high, is only an unnaturally modified person with a modified brain. If you want to explore your true self, you need to do that without any special drugs, and on a well balanced and hydrated diet.

          • Yeah but that's a western scientific view supported by Big Pharma. I'd rather let the local witch doctor tell me how the body works, preferably with voodoo dolls as props.

          • So making your body violently ill "purges" the toxins from your system. And Hosertohoosier lacks maturity (you told him to wait until he is "grown up enough") because he is suspicious of these substances.

            Whatever the benefits of hallucinogens, it appears they do not contribute to clarity of thought.

      • Hosertohoosier,

        Ayahuasca isn't merely a vehicle for hallucinogenic experience of the 'I-see-pink-elephants' variety. It is a vehicle to transcend 3D consensual reality and see what's really going on beyond our limited awareness and consciousness.

        I suggest you actually try it with a reputable and experienced shamanic practitioner before you declare it a crock. It is an extraordinary substance, a sacrament and a medicine, a vehicle for healing and transcendence. I work with it extensively and it is truly humbling in its effects and teachings, and its capacity to transform how one understands the self, others and the world around.

        • How, pray tell, does one not "consent" to a 3-dimensional reality?

      • Hosertohoosier,

        Ayahuasca isn't merely a vehicle for hallucinogenic experience of the 'I-see-pink-elephants' variety. It is a vehicle to transcend 3D consensual reality and see what's really going on beyond our limited awareness and consciousness.

        I suggest you actually try it with a reputable and experienced shamanic practitioner before you declare it a crock. It is an extraordinary substance, a sacrament and a medicine, a vehicle for healing and transcendence. I work with it extensively and it is truly humbling in its effects and teachings, and its capacity to transform how one understands the self, others and the world around.

  3. A friend of mine once relayed his night in Peru on this concoction– he purged and tripped mightily– and it sounded great, but I still think I'd stick with shroomies thanks.

    • Wow, minus two. I guess people are partisan about their choice of psychotropics!

  4. hey Gaunilon: Your cultural bias is showing. Dont be such an ethnoccentric jerk!

    • In a kind of meta-sense aren't accusations of cultural bias also a pretty western thing too?

    • So we must abandon entirely our own hopelessly antiquated western beliefs, and accept uncritically the beliefs of other more progressive cultures. Anything less makes us guilty of cultural bias and ethnocentrism. I'll get to work on that right now. Got any shrooms?

  5. I can't believe you published such dribble from someone who clearly doesn't 'get it.' Next time, try for an informed view not that of a journo desperate for a new story, any story. Plus, so many of the facts are incorrect, no one should take any morsel of this self-indulgent column seriously. Tsk tsk.

    • Please enlighten us with your advanced understanding of this substance.

      However, I'd prefer it were explained to me from a western medical standpoint, as opposed to using some "traditional knowledge" gobbledygook. I'm sure you understand.

  6. The ancients of the West (and elsewhere, too) had cultures developed around such practices (Delphic cult) but abandoned them when presented with a superior innovation.

    The practices profiled in the article do not constitute a superior innovation, but mearly the accidental appearence of some cultural flotstam from a our backed up sewers.

    But, hey, at least there is something new in the supermarket.

    • …merely the accidental appearence of some cultural flotstam from our backed up sewers.

      Couldn't have said it better myself. (I took the liberty of correcting a spelling mistake and removing a misplaced preposition – hope that's OK.) :)

      • Are you praising me with faint damnation?

        • No. I simply quoted you and corrected two small errors. And I do agree. Of course my agreement will get me labeled as a "cultural imperialist" or even a racist by others, but that's standard fare nowadays.

          • I was attempting a play on words. Sorry you mis-understood. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Mr. Richler's response to the "Burning Man woman" when she goes to give him a hug: "an old-fashioned, “Hold on, lady, you're not my wife.”" His inability to return a simple, friendly hug demonstrates Richler as an uptight, controlled, closed, and yes, "old-fashioned" man. Quite likely, 'closed' is how Richler entered the experience, just as this is how he obviously left the experience. What a spoil sport! I feel sorry for this man.

    I vote him most unlikely to welcome a "free hug" from anyone, or, most unlikely to receive an ethnographic spiritual experience outside of his ontological experience at all. Richler is today's lurker. He's the type who'll join Facebook or Twitter, but only so he can watch what other people say and do. He's not a participant, he's simply an observer too afraid to stretch the limits of his imagination and experience. A curmudgeon with a name that opens doors not for perception or even introspection, but, sadly, for pandering to the basic instincts of the populace and the press.

    • spot on.

      I raged so hard when I read the article but after reading your comment, I feel I can go on with life once again.

  8. Mr. Richler definitely comes across as a very armored individual. Did he have the permission from the people he did ceremony with to write about it? Isn't this a violation of confidentiality?

  9. Ayahuasca experience hugely depends on what you bring with you to the circle… and from the tone of the article, especially the venomous comments about the others, it is obvious that Mr. Richler came with some deeply rooted negative emotions that Quetzalcoatl was not in a mood to smell. They say for some ‘it's like 30 years of psychoanalysis in one night'… so what's next on your agenda Mr Richler? any other plans to violate people privacy during very intimate and sacred times?… and for what reason exactly?

    • Somewhat like Magick, eh? It only works if you already believe?

      Sounds like confirmation bias to me.

      • If you spell it with a 'k' it's Crowley's, and he warned pretty seriously against belief!

  10. Noah Richler seems to have missed the point of why ayahuasca has been held as one of the most important medicines in traditional Amazonian healing practices, and why it is the central religious sacrament of several Brazilian syncretic churches. It sounds like Richler did not drink enough to get the full effects of the medicine (or was too closed-minded to allow its effects), because after experiencing these, there is no way for someone to be so casually dismissive.

    It's sad that Maclean's commissioned such ill-informed, gonzo-style journalism on this topic, as ayahuasca deserves so much more respect than Richler seems willing to give it. Because of the politically-motivated chill on academic research on psychedelics for the past 40 years, doctors and scientists haven't been able to follow up on the 1950s and early 1960s claims of the medical and other benefits of such substances, and research on ayahuasca is still in its infancy. However, in the coming years there will undoubtedly be scientific corroboration of the traditional indigenous claims of ayahuasca's therapeutic value, and Richler's ignorant nay-saying will be revealed for the tripe that it is.

    • At last, someone with a clear view and grasp of the subject matter! Would that you had written the piece for Macleans. I really wonder what the magazine was thinking when they commissioned Richler's column. Presumably, these are some of the brightest journalistic minds in the country but apparently not. Seems as though no one read the piece before it was published. And whatever happened to fact checking? Knee-jerk reactions and childish allusions have no place in what should have been an article with some insight, and information. I feel sorry for Richler because, just when he had a chance to show that he is an enlightened man, he presents himself for what he is: a soccer-loving buffoon who wouldn't know an insight if he tripped over it. Let alone how to write about it.

  11. Spectator. Judgement. Closed-mind. Unfortunate. All words that come to mind after reading this poor article by Richler. What started out as an exciting read quickly turned to a disappointing and empty account of someone who clearly went in to the experience with the wrong motivations. However, thanks to all the enlightened commentary that followed, the article served to open up a conversation about something that has a place in our society; the quest for transcendance and meaning. I may not be ready for "30 years of psychoanalysis in one night" yet, but it is good to know that these spaces exist, and locally. But, shame on you, Mr Richler, for invading the privacy of this sacred space and casting judgement over something that is beyond your understanding.

  12. Wrong headed, misinformed ( has anyone ever heard the term Banisteria Caapi in 'disinterested' conversations about Ayhuasca? Has anyone heard or read the term Banisteria Caapi at all, except in Burrough's Yage journals? ) In some places it just plain squeamishly uptight and weird.

    This author seems more concerned with casting aspersion on his fellow participants in the ritual ( accusing the kid next to him of narcissism, hello?) rather than focusing on what the experience is to impart. Liking everyone at a ritual is not the point of Ayhuasca, anymore than liking everyone you go to mass with. In fact, many regular participants I know are not entirely comfortable with the ultra organic hippy ethos that can be found at these gatherings, either. None of that matters, however, since Ayhuasca is about you. It is also a medicinal traidition that goes back over two thousand years of Indigenous Peruvian cultural tradition. Not to be taken lightly.

  13. For me, it was an incredibly powerful visionary experience that I have yet to sort out. Minds greater than mind would agree.

    As for an enlightened Western opnion, Just ask Benny Shannon, professor emeritus of comparative religion at the University of Jerusalem. He's a noted Judaic scholar and he's done Ayahuasca about eighty times, and wrote a book published by Oxford University press entitled The Antipodes of The Mind: charting the phenomenology of the Ayahuasca experience. Oxford University Press is of course a noted publisher of fringe conspiracy gobbledygook.

    To say Ayahuasca is bunkum because you and the person's around you did it badly is to dismiss Bach because the Jr. high-school band from Brainerd butchered Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring.

    Try it again Rich.

  14. Of course, the shaman would only offer spirituality at $175/pop.

    "He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create …a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force —is tending That Light at the end of the tunnel." – Hunter S. Thompson

    • There are some people out there offering their services whose skill set is not commensurate with the prices they charge – agreed. However, in line with everything else in this world. they do offer a service that people are free to purchase or not.

      The question lies in whether they can deliver what they promise, and whether the customer is happy with what the service they bought. I hope though, you aren't denying the right of any individual medicine man/shaman to make a living. I used to ask myself why some services couldn't be cheaper? But then someone broke down for me their costs in flying in from Peru , their accommodation and living expenses which are much higher than in their own country, their limited time doing ceremonies – a couple of times a year does not constitute full-time employ, and the need to cover their costs and make a profit to take back home.

      Once I understood this breakdown, I appreciated the price point much more. Whether it's worth can only be answered by the customer, and if they're not happy market forces apply and they will vote with their wallet and not return.

  15. I can't wait until we're all enlightened. Meanwhile I'd like to buy the world a Coke.

    Quel canard.

  16. Just goes to show how easy it is to get $175 from people these days. All you need is the next big thing or some radical 'almost legal' thing. There is no cure for stupidity and I guess some people are best separated from their money.

    • See my comment above for my thoughts on value for money. There are some fads which will attract charlatans and the gullible, but this is not really sustainable in the long term: the market will ultimately shakedown those who are skilled and sincere from those who are otherwise. Please don't assume that it's all about the money or that it's fundamentally a scam in nature.

      There are plenty of greedy institutional and legal scams in existence such as the American medical/insurance industry which happily separate people from their hard-earned money, and a lot of it to boot, and most people just go along with it. Are they being punished for their stupidity or their temerity?

    • This coming from a realtor?!?!?!

  17. This story reminds me of how all the press and many in the medical establishment were raving about LSD back in the late 50's and early sixties. It was going to cure alchoholism, most mental illness and guide people to a 'higher conciousness'. Well a lot of those who experimented to find nirvana are now pushing shopping carts around in Vancouvers DTES and are on a permanent trip to a higher plane as they await their social assistant cheque.

  18. Could be that you, noah, have no issues -  how fortunate for you - i guess you have never been raped,  abused, or addicted?
    this medicine is not for hippie-dippies who are immune to weed, but to truly help those who have been profoundly effected by past horrors or wish to find clarity.
    A proper night with the medicine is one spent in prayer and dance and celebration - sadly it seems you crapped out with the wrong group.
    And, since it was harmless except for some narcissism, will you stand up for those who want it available legally?

  19. Wow! A bunch of people ingesting an hallucinogen so that
    they can discover themselves, find the truth, root out demons or whatever. These people
    sound exactly like the people I chilled with about forty years ago. We
    experimented with LSD, mescaline, peyote buttons,shrooms and whatever else there was. In reality, all of this
    crap is the same and we didn’t discover anything. These substances are all hallucinogens, plain and simple. Take enough of them and you will see the snake or God or your dead aunt or talking animals or
    whatever else your mind can dream up and you’ll probably end up throwing up too.

  20. typical neocon prick…

  21. Typical neo-con douche

  22. yea I resent this guy reducing thousands of years of my species culture to breakfast and the world cup. Not to say that breakfast and soccer aren’t awesome human creations, but lets face it, commercialized sports are pretty bogus. As for him clearly trying to make it seem like not a big deal, we have comparably no idea how the brain actually works in relation to complete understanding. This experiences introduces a new molecule, the brain is all molecules and impulses. It seems he clearly got ripped off, hasn’t had any appreciable drug experience other than alcohol, and is stupid enough to forgot that 500 years ago, our descendants burned their woman at stakes because they thought they were witches. Which were the historical actions of our now most common religious community. we could all keep debating what the bible means, and declare what we know nothing about illegal (which is weird because didn’t God create Earth?) or we could at least try these things with an open mind, knowing that no one knows.

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