Drinking Ayahuasca? : Discernment vs Fear
Article by Carolina Dowell
Over the last year I have, on several occasions, read Ayahuasca forum posts or articles by people who either seem to have very minimal experience with this sacred medicine, or haven't worked with very good people. Sometimes a real nerve has been struck in me, as I feel these voices are creating a lot of fear about the “dangers” of drinking
It’s important to consider both sides of the coin here. Ayahuasca is growing fast and spreading across the globe, with many people feeling a call to come and work with her. The medicine is being served in many different traditions, and now also in many forms that are quite far from her indigenous roots. The fear that may bubble up in someone when they read the catch phrase “the dark side of Ayahuasca,” or hear about one of the few, usually preventable deaths that may happen each year - these are strong reminders that it matters deeply who you drink with.
The challenge with these negative perceptions is that they instill fear that may prevent those researching this medicine from stepping onto a path that could potentially bring about life-changing healing: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Fear is one of the biggest things that holds us back in our lives. It is one of the major “sticky” energies that Ayahuasca helps us clean out, so we can truly begin to trust and connect with our highest potential. When one commits to working with Ayahuasca the journey has already began before you even take your first sip, and it is very common that shadows creep up to the surface in the form of anxiety, fear, depression, anger, etc.
These shadow energies can create all sorts of stories in your mind about why you shouldn't drink Ayahuasca. Usually, this happens in response to those very fears sensing that their number is up as the medicine prepares to clean them out. Given that this process already happens without any exposure to media or other people's horror stories, is it possible that blocks are forming and potentially preventing people from trusting the call they feel to experience and heal with Ayahuasca?
I feel we are at a time where there needs to be more awareness about safety, discernment, and what practitioners people choose to work with.
I would like to briefly share a few of my personal experiences. My path with Ayahuasca began in 2010. I first came to Peru to work with Shipibo healers in 2011 and I have lived here most of the time since, working closely with the medicine and dieting other master plants/trees. Over the years I have worked with many different Shipibo maestras and maestros (teachers) and, on a couple occasions, with practitioners from other traditions. During this time, I have witnessed countless times what some would describe as “miracles.” Like many others, I spent years trying to heal physical ailments with other modalities and felt like giving up on life until my prayers were answered by Ayahuasca.
Furthermore, I have personally observed how many of those who suffer every day with feelings of sadness, anxiety, depression, and grief have found true liberation thanks to this benevolent plant spirit. I could offer many in-depth case studies, but the point I am trying to draw attention to here is that the media is not going to report stories of how people have healed. They will, however, report anytime something goes wrong.
Caution vs Fear
As Ayahuasca continues to grow there will be more and more people feeling guided to serve the medicine. Many of them will start doing this after having one, two or three years worth of experience and at times much less. Some people claim to have worked with this medicine for over ten years for example, but when you follow up with them, you will learn that during this time they did not have many ceremonies and did not dedicate
themselves to consistently cultivating a close relationship with the medicine. In my opinion, this is something to be very cautious of.
I am increasingly hearing about people who want to just buy medicine and drink it alone for the first time. Some people feel they are their own Shaman, and they don't need or want the guidance from a trained practitioner. For a small percentage of people this might work out, and I don't feel I have the right to condemn this approach. However, I strongly believe that, overall, the way that Ayahuasca brings things to the surface for healing can be deeper than you could ever imagine, and this process truly benefits from the guidance and support of a trained healer. I have also seen that people who work with properly trained and trusted Curanderos/as, are getting to the core of their blockages, releasing them, and progressing on their path in a much different way than those who drink medicine without a Curandero/a.
In the Shipibo tradition for example, apprentices spend six to ten years (and sometimes many more), in a very dedicated apprenticeship. The healers we work with actually never stop apprenticing as they all still continue dieting with plants and learning from their spirits. In their ceremonies Shipibo practitioners sing Arkanas, which are protection songs that prevents negative forces from entering the space. They also do direct work on each person, singing ikaros to help remove and release the blockages they see in their patients. I offer you how this process works in detail, because this level of healing is very specialized and is administered by highly trained practitioners who have a very deep connection to the plants and the spirit world. The healers we work with have also carried this medicine in their lineage for hundreds of years.
It is worth pointing out that I don’t believe all Shipibo healers are good to work with, or that just because they are Shipibo (or any other indigenous tribe) you are guaranteed to receive a good healing. I also don't recommend going to the jungle and disappearing off into a remote village to work with someone, unless you know them or this person comes highly recommended from a friend who you trust and who has worked with this
practitioner on more than one occasion. Developing relationships with healers and their families takes time. And caution and discernment are essential in picking the right practitioner to work with.
It’s also important to remember that there are many cultural bridges to gap between the way we Westerners view things in comparison to how indigenous tribes see them, both morally, culturally and economically. This is where the bridge of facilitation by a highly experienced facilitator with good intentions, who organizes groups with a healer they know and trust, increases your chances of having a safe and powerful experience. Plus, it brings you great piece of mind to know that you will have support both inside and outside of ceremony from someone who speaks your language, and has a deep understanding of the precise nature of the work that you have come to do.
This is why I recommend that before you drink medicine with anyone, you should:
Ask these important questions:
Is the medicine you are going to drink only Ayahuasca and Chakruna? Are there other plants cooked into the brew?
There are some plants that are safe when added to Ayahuasca, but there are others that are potentially life-threatening depending on the person’s level of sensitivity and/or the concentrated amount of other plants that have been added to the brew. Many of our healers recommend that the safest way to drink is to stick to brews that are only Ayahuasca and Chakruna.
In these days of mass prescription medication, some pharmaceuticals are very dangerous when mixed with Ayahuasca so a thorough and up-to- date screening process is important. For this reason it's vital to remember that if you ever plan to attend a ceremony or retreat and you aren't screened about your current and previous medical conditions, or asked if you're taking medications that could also cause potentially life-threatening interactions, this is a clear red flag. If whoever is organizing this ceremony isn't asking these vital questions then it may not be safe, and you are well advised to reconsider drinking medicine with them.
If you are planning to go to a retreat, then listen to your gut feeling in the time leading up to it. If you don't feel cared for in your communication with the facilitators beforehand, there may be a chance that this same lack of care continues throughout the retreat.
Drinking ayahuasca and doing this kind of deep healing work puts you in a very vulnerable state, so I can't stress enough how important it is to feel trust for the people you choose to work with. It is a truly sacred and powerful medicine which should be approached with great respect from all involved.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that it’s beautiful that the spirit and knowledge of Ayahuasca reaches so many different people today. My intention in writing this contribution comes from a deep respect for the medicine, and my prayer is that those serving Ayahuasca work in their highest integrity to create the safest and most transformative experience for their patients. My path with Ayahuasca has made me the woman I am today, and the gratitude I hold for the healing I have received from the plants and my teachers runs deeper than words can express.