Ayahuasca not exactly your cup of tea

Ayahuasca is made by brewing the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with leaves from the Psychotria viridis containing DMT. Photo from Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons.
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An illegal jungle brew is being used as a sacred medicine. Nicolas Rivet reports.

When 25-year-old Mae Marzan first heard about the Amazonian brew ayahuasca, she never imagined it would send her on a spiritual journey like no other.

Less than a year later, she found herself crying and convulsing in a tipi with seven other strangers, all of whom had surrendered themselves to a similar state of consciousness.

For Marzan, the experience changed her entire outlook on life – a result that many hope to achieve by participating in an ayahuasca ceremony.

Ayahuasca is a thick hallucinogenic tea that combines parts of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with leaves from the Psychotria viridis plant containing dimethyltryptamine or DMT – a powerful psychedelic compound.

The most recent study conducted by the Global Drug Survey revealed that 3.7 per cent of the general population had experimented with DMT at least once in their lifetime and that the main motivations behind its use were curiosity, mind-expansion and self-discovery.

In Australia, DMT is categorised as a Schedule 9 substance by the Australian Department of Health, meaning the manufacture, possession, sale or use of the substance is prohibited.

With a number of deaths being linked to the use of ayahuasca overseas, there is a great deal of uncertainty in regard to its safety.

As a result, a team of international academics and researchers is currently working to better understand the potential risks involved with what is still a relatively unfamiliar practice.

Still, ayahuasca ceremonies continue to operate with discretion, and though it’s considered a dangerous drug by many, the brew itself is admired for its psychoactive properties and treated as a sacred medicine for the mind, body and spirit.

“It really changed me,” says Marzan. “It helped me with my self-awareness and taught me how to trust my intuition. At the end of the day, that constructs everything around me. How I view myself is how I’ll view the world.”

It was Marzan’s cousin who initially sparked her interest in ayahuasca after recounting what she described as an “incredible healing experience”, so when a work colleague invited Marzan to a participate in a ceremony months later, she agreed without hesitation.

“I saw it as an opportunity,” says Marzan. “I kept hearing about it again and again because my subconscious became accustomed to it. I feel like it was calling out to me.”

Mae thanks ayahuasca for her new outlook on life. Photo by Nicolas Rivet.

Transformation coach and healing practitioner Jana Klintoukh says this “calling” is all part of the journey.

“Mother ayahuasca is an incredible friend and she’s ready to connect with anyone who is open enough to have a conversation with her.”

Klintoukh organises a yearly retreat for a small group of Australians to the Amazon rainforest where the use of ayahuasca is legal.

There, visitors learn how to prepare the brew and partake in several ceremonies. Selecting its participants, however, is a process Klintoukh approaches with a great deal of thought.

“It’s not for recreational use,” says Klintoukh. “They have to have the right reasons to want to do it.

“Sometimes they want to heal within themselves because of a toxic relationship or past trauma. Other times they want to discover who they are or what the world is made up of … People are searching for a deeper meaning that goes beyond just the physical world.”

For some, however, ayahuasca ceremonies have proven to be fatal.

One highly reported incident resulted in the mysterious death of a New Zealand tourist who suffered a cardiac arrest during a retreat.

Since then, there have been five deaths reported in Peru associated with the use of ayahuasca.

But for Marzan, who was in the midst of losing her job, had just separated from her abusive boyfriend and had a history of sexual assault as a child, ayahuasca was her only hope.

“I was stripped of everything,” says Marzan. “I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wanted to find clarity and give myself a sense of purpose. I was ready for release.”

On the night of the ceremony, Marzan and her work colleague were greeted by a Peruvian shaman and led to a large, remote tipi where they were introduced to the other participants.

“We were asked to write down our reasons for being there on a piece of paper, but we were warned not to write down anything we didn’t want to be shown.”

As the shaman and her volunteers chanted, the participants were asked to place their affirmations into a fire pit before lining up to receive the ayahuasca.

“It was a thick, dirty slush that tasted like blueberries, trees and dirt … We were encouraged to drink every last drop.”

Marzan lay down on a mattress that had been set up for her as a “healing space” where she soon began to notice ayahuasca’s effects taking place.

“My body felt like lead. The top of the tipi had turned to black and I started seeing aztec-like patterns in hyper-colour fly across my visual range. It was like a laser show.

“It wasn’t until I closed my eyes that I fell back into my mind … I saw my ex-boyfriend turn to stone and crumble right in front of me. I saw myself as a child screaming out to me as an adult. They were flashes of images from traumas in my life that I had suppressed and they were being projected from my brain.”

Marzan transcribed the messages she received from what she describes as an “entity from within”.

“There was a voice talking to me. I would ask it questions and it would respond. The answers were never one hundred per cent clear, but it was enough to push me in the right direction. It made sense because it was in relation to what I had put in the fire.”

Though there are similarities, Klintoukh says the brew affects everyone differently.

“The experience solely depends on where the person is at in their life, their past, their intention and what’s most important to them … At times it can be very physical and involve a lot of purging or release.”

The “purging” Klintoukh refers to often involves an excessive amount of vomiting, but diarrhoea, crying, screaming, shaking and sweating are also very common for participants.

Julian Palmer, who defines himself as an ayahuasca facilitator, runs small ceremonies across the country and has had plenty of practice comforting those who experience these effects.

Unlike a shaman, Palmer does not offer any spiritual guidance but rather a sense of security for his participants.

“The intelligence is in the medicine of the plants, not me,” says Palmer. “They are the psychiatrists. They are the surgeons. I’m just there as a safety net.

“The medicine affects people very profoundly. They may feel like they’re going to go crazy … I encourage people to take responsibility for their own state of consciousness.”

Dr. Violeta Schubert from the University of Melbourne says the subject is a “fascinating yet complex” one.

“There is clearly anecdotal evidence that it’s on the increase, but it isn’t simply about whether or not it is,” says Schubert. “We need to recognise how and why it’s being used and in what way it poses potential benefits and risks.”

Schubert is a principal investigator for the multidisciplinary Global Ayahuasca Project which aims to increase the understanding of drinking ayahuasca in different contexts around the globe.

Though well under way, Schubert says it’s too soon to draw any conclusions – especially in regard to ayahuasca’s legality.

“It will have to come up as a policy issue at some point. I can’t predict when and I don’t know if that will lead to legalisation or not … If you look at medicinal cannabis, look how long that took. This is extremely early stages and there are way too many variables at this stage that don’t seem to be clear.”

Palmer, who claims that the majority of ceremonies gather its participants through word of mouth, is convinced that ayahuasca is needed in society.

“I consider it to be a bit of a legal grey area. No government is saying ‘This is a real problem, we need to crack down on this.’ No one is benefiting from prohibiting it.”

Klintoukh agrees that ayahuasca should be legalised, so long as the brew is of good quality and the ceremony is conducted in a safe environment.

“As humans, our frequency is shifting,” says Klintoukh. “More and more people are realising that ayahuasca is a spirit we can choose to work with.”

And though it may be some time before the law is amended, Marzan, who credits ayahuasca for her new and improved self, says she’s eager to participate in another ceremony.

“I wanted healing and that was definitely fulfilled. I was able to become so intimate with myself that I couldn’t have asked for anything more … I’m better now than I ever have been.”