We cried in bitter anguish, we cried in utter bliss. We felt the devils anger, and the sweetness of a kiss. We meditated for so many years. Had therapists and many tears. We got drunk on beer and wine and whiskey and vodka and life. We got high, and we got low. We felt the heat and the ice.
We got sober. We ran away. We found the fields and the jungle and mountains and the cave. We drank the wicked brew and saw our lives break open. We travelled the world across land and ocean. We learned to be mindful, we learned to be still. We learned to forgive, just a little.
We did so much. And how we tried. And how we cried. We cut. We loved. We fucked. We sunk in to the ocean. We danced among the stars. We lied and we cheated, we collected many scars.
We tried to make things right. We tried to be good. We tried to live up to the expectations of others the best we could. We tried not to care. We tried to conform. We tried to be free. We tried to just be.
We tried to find the answers but we didn’t know the questions. We tried to find our way but we didn’t have directions. We sought protection from the world but we had no protection from ourselves. We were our worst enemies, not anybody else.
We tried to find god or spirit or love or nature or ecstasy or something. Anything, bigger and greater than ourselves and our parents and our education and our politicians and our culture and our society. Something to hold on to. Just something we could cherish and belong to. Something worth living for.
We never stopped searching. We kept on believing tomorrow might just be worth living an extra day for. But tomorrow never came. It’s still always today. And I’m still me and you’re still you. And we still want to change but we don’t know what to do. We still wish we were someone else. We’re still waiting to be saved.
When will this stop? When will this end? When will we get there? Does ’there’ even exist?
After all these years we’re still broken. Perhaps it’s unspoken, perhaps it’s not quite so much as before, but we’re still, frustratingly, achingly sore.
We still hate ourselves. We still feel weak. We still lack power when we speak. We still dream big, but our doubt is bigger. Too scared to try to actualise dreams, still scarred by painful memories of previous failures. Too self aware. Too hurt to care. Too clever but not quite clever enough. Too intimate with our minds and our flaws. Still unable to open doors.
Still unable to love. Still jealous. Still children, still seeking approval. We try and fail to be grown up. Trying and failing to be a success. Confused as ever about what we want from life, and still no clearer what any of this is for.
But there is no ‘off’ button, and we will go on. Learning, sharing, hoping, daring. Giving up, trying again, holding on, letting go. Finding ourselves, while getting lost.
A lot has been written about the therapeutic efficacy and transformative power of the visionary Amazonian brew ayahuasca. I myself have enthusiastically espoused the benefits of the vile tasting drink online and to those I feel able to talk openly with. Ayahuasca has attained cult-like status among those with an interest in entheogens, spirituality and self development.
Its use has been increasing every year and what was once the sole pursuit of shamans and the indigenous peoples of the Amazonian region has now become a large-scale industry, attracting many ‘ayahuasca tourists’ from all over the world to countries such as Peru, Equador, Colombia and Brazil. Use of the brew has also become prevalent far from the land of its origin, through Santo Daime churches around the world and with other groups and individuals practising ayahuasca healing works inside and outside of a traditional framework.
In the summer of 2008 I nervously entered a village hall in the south of England to attend my first ayahuasca ceremony. It was the culmination of an unlikely and remarkable set of circumstances, and my life was never to be the same again. Since then I have partaken of ayahuasca on and off for a number of years, having drunk it a total of about thirty times both in the UK and in Peru. Given the reputation ayahusaca sometimes seems to have—so often being spoken of in revered terms and considered by some to be the ultimate of all self development and healing tools—I think it’s interesting to take a step back and consider as objectively as possible what changes regular use of ayahuasca really can invoke. I am not concerned here with describing the experience itself in detail but rather in discussing the impact that regular participation in the ayahuasca experience can have on an individual’s life.
Of course all my views have been filtered through my own perceptions and interpretations and therefore you could say they might not be more generally representative, though having discussed my experiences with others I’m confident what follows is expressive of the experience for many people. I’m not claiming to be some ayahuasca guru, I’m just a dude who’s drunk ayahuasca a bunch of times reflecting on my experience.
For those unfamiliar with the ingredients or experience of the brew, a brief outline follows; those already familiar are welcome to skip this paragraph. Ayahuasca is most commonly made by slowly brewing in water a combination of the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi with Chacruna leaves until a concentrated putrid brown liquid is achieved. Other ingredients may be also added. The leaves contain DMT (diemthyltriptamine) which is made orally active during the brewing process by the presence of an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) in the vine. This drink is typically consumed in amounts of around 25 to 100 ml, traditionally in a ceremonial setting. The DMT is the primary component responsible for the ‘psychedelic’ nature of the experience, during which the participant might experience strong visions or hallucinations; the experience of travelling to and seeing other worlds, dimensions, times and realms; encounters with entities that might be benevolent or threatening in nature; a strong sense of empathy, fear, love or other emotions; receiving information and teachings regarding their life, relationships, the nature of reality, and much more. I won’t concern myself further with the chemical composition of the brew or the phenomenological details of the experience but instead refer the interested reader to Erowid for more information.
Ayahuasca demands much from those who choose to drink it. It can be an uncomfortable or even terrifying experience and is almost certainly unlike anything an ayahuasca newbie will have experienced before, though experience with LSD, ketamine or psilocybin will provide some helpful reference points. While often invoking challenging experiences, it can also offer glimpses of blissful states of mind far beyond what is normally possible for most people.
One striking feature of the experience per se is that when you are ‘in it’ it often feels inherently and extremely valuable in nature, as though by merely participating you are engaging in something of fundamental importance, perhaps of even more importance than anything else you might ever have done – at least that’s how it can seem. In addition it is also often quite simply the most extraordinary thing you will have ever taken part in, often being ridiculously entertaining, humbling, shocking, completely ‘far out’, aesthetically and philosophically stimulating, profound and pregnant with meaning and value, and potentially overwhelming of the senses.
But what happens in the weeks and months after a ceremony? The unfolding of the experience over time is complex and can be influenced by many factors, but there are some recurrent themes. One of the most valuable of these is that using ayahuasca often bestows upon one an extraordinary ability to heal relationships with others. I know from first hand experience that breakthroughs can be made in relations with parents, lovers and people you have fallen out with, no matter how unlikely this might seem beforehand.
Part of the reason for this seems to be the extremely empathetic nature of the experience, enabling you to understand the perspective of the other and to make sense of their experience. In addition the experience provides what I would describe as an energetic release; the negative emotions associated with the relationship are no longer felt so strongly, as though purged from the felt emotional body. In their place can be found a desire for harmony, an ability to forgive and an acceptance of one’s own wrongdoings, alongside a willingness to admit them, at least to yourself. I have benefited profoundly from this aspect of ayahuasca.
Somehow drinking ayahuasca seems to cultivate in the user a greater affinity with nature and a deeper appreciation of our biological identity. As a result we feel both more ‘human’, and more embedded in nature. We become more aware that we are an expression of nature and evolution. The sense of separation from our natural origins dissolves and the natural world is re-experienced as home, sacred, of great importance, and essential to preserve. A distaste for overexposure to technology and hectic urban environments may also develop.
A related extension to this is awakening to a desire to consume more natural food and drink, and to eliminate unnatural products from the diet. I know many people who have transitioned to a vegetarian or raw food diet as a result of drinking ayahuasca. In addition, the preference for consuming alcohol and other drugs is often diminished or disappears. There is a greater perception of the body and mind of the individual as being something to be looked after and nourished.
Ayahuasca may provide the individual with a greater sense of meaning to their life, as though what once may have seemed senseless can now be seen to be part of a teleological path or life-long journey. Often the path involves goals such as healing oneself and relationships, or finding a way to live that has more meaning and makes a positive contribution to the world, or is a positive expression of the individual. Basically, it can turn you into a bit of a hippie.
Ayahuasca work is shadow work par excellence. Psychotherapists recognise the importance of integrating unhealthy, unacknowldged or repressed aspects of the self through bringing them into conscious awareness, and though there are many methods to do this there may be no greater tool than ayahuasca. The uncomfortable or even downright terrifying features of an ayahuasca experience are part of this process and seem to facilitate an acceptance of our darker or previously denied human traits. It is understood that these are equally valid parts of one’s whole being whose presence must be acknowledged and integrated for a healthy and balanced mind.
In my experience, regular ayahuasca use (in my case as in a frequency of approximately once or twice every two to four months) enhances the ability to cope with the visicitudes of life. A greater capacity for handling adversity may be available and it may be possible to detect a sense of peace and that ultimately ‘things are okay’, even amongst the drama of a relationship ending or other upheavals common to the human experience. Perhaps most remarkably, I know of several instances where use of ayahuasca has healed serious long term depression and helped people in the most desperate of predicaments immeasurably. It is anecdotes like this that have lent ayahuasca it’s cult like status and reputation.
Well all this sounds pretty great, hey, what’s not to like? Well maybe, but it’s worth bearing a few things in mind, as, like with most things, it’s not quite that simple. Perhaps most obviously, drinking ayahuasca will not stop crappy things happening. This is life and shit happens. The journey is not smooth; hearts may be broken, dark spells may visit, jobs may be lost, depression may return. While ayahuasca may certainly offer an enhanced ability to deal with difficult times it will not stop them happening. Ayahuasca is not a ”cure all’. While it certainly seems to peel back and heal layers of our selves, new challenges will surface as new layers are encountered.
The development of more holistic values and a desire for a less conventional lifestyle may prompt greater dissatisfaction with one’s social circle, job, home city and the collective values and morals of society and culture at large. Ayahuasca often grants a vision of just how good things could be, if they weren’t so fucked up. Returning home after a ceremony and realising how far from this ideal the world is can be disheartening. A greater sense of alienation may also be experienced, as the ayahuasca initiate joins the small club of those who cannot see the world the way they did before. This could be harnessed as a catalyst for making positive changes but it must be acknowledged that the process is not guaranteed to be easy.
The deeper life journey that ayahuasca use seems to set people on can be said to be richer in some ways, but might still involve painful lessons that have to be endured along the way. At times great pain can seem so senseless, but at other perhaps fleeting or extended moments you can glimpse a purpose or a teaching in the way your heart or sense of self has been cracked so nakedly and wide open. Ayahusaca increases our insight in these areas. On the ayahuasca journey our sense of what is worthwhile engaging with might change, as conventional distractions such as addictions and involvement in popular culture cease to fulfill, and a more essential and authentic vision of oneself is birthed.
Ayahuasca can also be seductive, and new initiates may experience a period where the virtues of ayahuasca are elevated to a degree where it is not acknowledged that hard graft remains and life may still be tough. Ayahuasca may be seen as the ‘holy grail’ of self development and not as one of many tools available to us. In addition to this, strong visions or received information may be interpreted too literally, resulting in a distorted notion of reality and a warped sense of self. A lack of critical discrimination might result in the literal belief that beings or entities encountered in a vision are actually real, ignoring the possibility that they may be symbolic representations of aspects of the self or a personal issue. It would be easy to become over-attached to the story of ourselves that we gain so much insight into in ceremony, and talking too openly and evangelically about your literal belief in what you experienced in ceremony can annoy people and make you seem a bit crazy.
In my experience, Ayahuasca is no panacea. Ayahuasca does not automatically make you a nice person. Years of Ayahuasca use will not mean you no longer have to deal with problems or even really heavy, burdensome troubles. Drinking ayahuasca does not stop you making mistakes. Ayahuasca use will make you confront aspects of your self you don’t like. Ayahuasca could force you to make uncomfortable changes to your life. Drinking ayahuasca does not result in an ‘end point’ where everything is miraculously fixed.
And yet, Ayahuasca could also gift a deeply profound and divine experience of life. It may well heal your broken heart, your broken relationships, or the way you hate yourself. It could help you to discover or commit to something you’re passionate about, or imbue life with new meaning. It could heal your sadness. It really could be that new beginning.
The ayahuasca journey is complex; some aspects are of great benefit and other aspects present their own challenges, and what I’ve listed is by no means exhaustive. To conclude, and to try to answer the question posed in the title—can ayahuasca really make you happy?—I really want to say ‘yes’. It’s a yes with a caveat though – there is every chance, but it’s a bumpy road. But does it make life richer, and pave the way for a more profound engagement with our world and experience, whatever that may entail? On this we can emphatically confirm it does.
In my opinion ayahuasca is an incredible tool for assisting with the overcoming of things that make our lives difficult, and for gaining meaning in a world that often makes no sense. There is a reason ayahuasca is known as ‘medicine’ and as a healer. Combined with a regular meditation practice and support from others who know the brew, it is even more effective, and anyone who feels called to explore this world and is ready for and accepting of challenge and change can be sure that there is potentially much to gain.
Alcohol. That most delicious, horrid, elixir, poison, potion of passion, liquid of love, brew of bliss and drink of depression. How to relate to this curious drug? It depends who you ask – I know some people extremely averse to drinking while others would say you’d be crazy not to, though I’m fairly sure the majority would be comprised of the latter. I’ve been thinking about drinking a lot of late. In fact for years I’ve been torn by my conflicting feelings towards alcohol, and the nagging feeling that I could make so much more of myself if I stopped drinking grows stronger by the week.
I won’t lie, I’ve drunk much more than I should have for many years. I’ve loved being drunk and have been completely smashed so many times I couldn’t even guess how many hundreds it is. Being drunk has bestowed upon me great times, new friends, one night stands, relationships, the feeling of being alive and a mountain of magical moments. If only I could remember the names, and what they all were… It has temporarily freed me from my usual shy and reserved, introverted and self-doubting tendencies, and enabled me to live a great social life which belies the inhibiting thought patterns I spend most of my time dealing with.
But it’s not that simple. Alcohol is unpredictable. When I drink I do not know who I will be that night. Will I be the charming, witty, sociable person I quite like, or the self loathing, lonely, depressed individual I despise, trapped inside the prison of my mind? And then there’s the next day… Doubtless I don’t need to describe this.
Of course you might rightly point out that I’m talking about extremes here, that I should just drink less, or stop after a couple and go home. But again it’s not that simple. The thing with alcohol is that after a drink or two, self autonomous choice seems to vanish. The alcohol starts to think for you. Just having a couple seems boring, and all of a sudden you’d be a spoil sport for leaving your companions.
Staying out for more booze presents the allure of ‘living in the moment’, making the most of life, being spontaneous and crazy. The bank account becomes irrelevant, tomorrow’s tasks can wait, and the friends you’re meeting for dinner won’t mind too much if you don’t show up. After all, we’ve all been there.
For those of us inspired by a healthy diet, mindful living or striving to improve ourselves, and particularly for those of us with a daily meditation practice, alcohol poses extra challenges. Meditation is defeated by the solace of a second snooze, being present is replaced by getting by, the potential inherent in every moment is vanquished, long term goals are slain by short term impulses. The mind is clouded, clarity lost, energy sapped. The body craves stimulants and junk food, anxiety increases and tiredness takes hold.
Of course to the regular drinker these symptoms might seem exaggerated, but I’m struck by how much of a poison alcohol seems to become after a period of abstention, time spent on a raw food diet, or sessions with a plant medicine like ayahuasca or psilocybin.
There is however a reason – and a good reason at that – why alcohol is so popular and why to contemplate giving up alcohol seems so bonkers to most people. Where would we get our fun? Alcohol so kindly gives us the escape we crave, the sweetness and elation that so often is missing from our monotonous and dissatisfying daily lives. For a few hours we can forget our shitty jobs, stresses at home, spiritually unfulfilling culture and how long we have to wait until our next holiday.
The ritual of cracking open a bottle, or sitting back on a comfortable pub chair and taking that first sweet gulp offers a moment of satisfaction, the chink of glasses while saluting your fellow revellers a second of gratification and connection. Of course it’s a distraction, but it’s a welcome distraction that greases the wheels of social interaction while creating a space in which life is good and problems can be shared.
So how to deal with the question of whether to continue drinking or not? At my best I sense the potential that could be unlocked with the extra clarity of mind that would be available, the extra time, the physical strength, the early mornings and the weekends regained. At my most inspired I feel how much more I could create and achieve and maybe even how much more stable my mind would be. In a country where the drinking culture is so ingrained this represents a huge challenge though, and there’s a lot I’d be turning my back on. I seem attached to the euphoria, sense of connection and carefree spirit of the good times, the letting go and the comfort of drinking with friends.
Maybe there is a middle ground to be found. If so it requires a clarity of intention and strength of mind. Maybe certain situations more prone to providing a slippery slope can be avoided while other more sedate occasions can be enjoyed. But again I come back to the intuition that this needs to be all or nothing. I’ve had a long relationship with drink and I know its lessons inside out. Maybe it’s time to try a new way of living. In contemplating this I come to the realisation that the alcohol is not the root problem. If I was happy with my work and in my life I wouldn’t feel this attachment. I need to change these things. But maybe it’s more even than this. The benefits we seemingly gain from drinking – feeling more relaxed in the environment we’re in, connecting better with others – point to a deeper problem.
To greater or lesser degrees we all feel a sense of separation from those around us, and an absence of connection with the world. In other words we lack a sense of belonging. The human condition seems to necessitate this situation, and fear based patterns of thinking learnt during tricky childhoods exacerbate it’s influence. There are many ways in which this manifests but one of them is a subtle or even profound sense of not being at ease in the world, and this is felt more acutely in certain more uncomfortable situations. Alcohol is often able to dissolve the boundaries that keep us from being able to feel connected with each other and with the world we inhabit, that keep us from feeling like we are truly supposed to be here in the world at large, or what ever scenario we are in. Drinking can therefore alleviate that most fundamental malaise.
Of course there are many reasons people drink, and there are doubtless many reasons I drink. But it does strike me that many of them can be attributed to this root cause – the pervasive sense of separation. To attain the middle ground and to have a healthy relationship with alcohol, one first has to heal the disconnection that is responsible for the inability to feel at ease. This is a significant task, and a life long one for some at that.
I’m not suggesting that we should all stop drinking, and in any case ceasing to drink on it’s own will only put an end to your hangovers, not your hang ups. And of course many people have a healthy relationship with alcohol, where it is not used to self medicate, and where drinking alcohol does not lead to the inability to stop drinking and the consequent desire to get completely smashed on more and more drink, culminating in a quest to find something even stronger to take the mind somewhere more extreme, and not stopping until the body gives up and falls into that sweet, dreamless comatosed slumber.
Those of us who drink might not all operate at this extreme, though I know so many who do, and it’s a tendency in myself that used to be very strong and still lies latently inside today. Despite the euphoria and apparently social bonding affect of getting wasted with friends or strangers, I currently find it difficult to continue to justify the physical damage, the lost weekends recovering, the anxiety that ensues after use, the dampening of dreams and absence of clarity about the future, not to mention the financial outlay that goes with alcohol consumption. I desire to see what I can make of myself with out these handicaps, to see whether I really can be more creative, see goals through to fufilment, be physically stronger, mentally more stable, spiritually more steadfast, and whether I can develop a healthier relationship with life. I can’t help but think that for me, after so many years, the game is up with booze.
I’m not suggesting it will be easy, or that it will even be successful, or that this is permanent. I also have no idea how I will approach invites to the pub, continuing to go to clubs to hear music I love, boozy weddings, dates, parties and after work socials. Such is the pervasiveness of drinking in society and my dis-ease with navigating these scenarios without being at least a little tipsy.
The path winds and is not straight. People and times change. What is appropriate now may not work in the future. Aside from those working with a strong addiction to alcohol there is no need to work with absolutes and impose on ourselves a lifetime ban on drinking. To err is to be human after all, and this only sets ourselves up for failure in any case. It does however feel healthy for those of us with a passion for mindful living to explore alternative modes of being including both drinking and not drinking, learning what there is to learn from each state. Remaining as present as we can, and through being as conscious and honest with ourselves as possible we can learn to observe the motivations and effects of our actions and discover what works and what causes us problems. Hopefully we can come to a healthy arrangment with alcohol, whatever that is. After all, the human story is one of trying stuff out and of learning from our successes and mistakes. I’ve been very successful at drinking a lot over the years so for now I’m going to try something else.