If you discount the countless times I used to get stoned, I was 26 years old when I took my first fully conscious inhalation and meditated for the first time.
The stoner’s path just wasn’t an option for me. After being completely hooked I had finally given up a couple years earlier—it had stopped being fun and its function had become to make me feel normal, which seemed pretty pointless. As when I’d given up anti-depressants a few years earlier, I knew I had to discover who I was without all that.
I was on a mission to find ecstasy, or at least some peace of mind. The non-drug route was now appealing, if only because getting off my head had provided just fleeting respite from ‘me’ so far. After extensive immersion in losing my mind I had to concede that there were still as many downs as ups and I still hated myself.
Could meditation really offer relief from the depression and anxiety that wrecked each day? As the Buddha had observed, life was suffering, and I needed a way out.
So I started meditating.
I wondered exactly how I would find the time to meditate in a day that was already too short. There seemed only one way to do it. With a rare display of conviction I set my alarm clock 40 minutes earlier than normal. This was how it would be.
I remember the first time I meditated. I was hungover. I listened to a guided meditation on a CD. As I cycled to work later that morning, the colours and textures of the world were different. Richer, more detailed, more real. Maybe I was still pissed. Whatever, it was enough for me to figure that perhaps there could be something in this after all.
In those early days I was shocked at the sheer volume of shit that my mind insisted on spewing forth. It was a continuous tidal wave of mental and emotional sewage. I was amazed. Is this really what is happening whilst I attempt to go about my daily life? No wonder I’m screwed. The thought that peace of mind was an actual attainable thing seemed ridiculous as I cowered under this mental bombardment.
While frustrating, I had glimpses of what could be. Though hard to stomach, the notion that we can choose how to respond to our thoughts had been planted like a seed in my mind.
I recognised how this could be a remedy for the victim status I occupied in relation to my own mental activity. I dared to envision a day when this was no longer the case. I trusted what I had heard in regard to this being possible, and gambled that waking up 40 minutes earlier for the rest of my life was a price worth paying for that freedom.
The time I invested started to pay off. Sitting on that cushion I learnt not to judge the quality of my thoughts, but to simply experience them, recognise them for what they were, allow them to be, and let them go. In time, the intensity and imposition of these thoughts would slowly begin to subside.
With more time, I started to recognise how thoughts emerge from nothingness, that they appear for a while in awareness, and then dissolve back into the same void from which they came. I realised their transitory and illusory nature.
I spotted their cunning plan: to hijack my emotions, to fool me into believing they had substance and they were real, to trick me into thinking my thoughts and feelings were ‘me’, that my brain vomit should affect my mental state.
As much as I could, I stayed present. I learned how to feel but not respond to the sensations, emotions and thoughts that came.
I wasn’t blocking anything out. It wasn’t about trying to control the contents of my mind, but to let whatever it was just be, without invoking an emotional response. And if there was an emotional response, I tried to just hold that in my awareness without judgement too.
I was able to nurture a space between the arrival of a thought and how I responded in relation to it. In time that space made it’s way from my cushion to other parts of my life, and it continues to grow. Not smoothly though. Fuck no. Sometimes it feels like nine years of meditation was for nothing. But these downers pass, like everything else.
Sometimes I experience astonishing things. Waves of ecstasy. Compassion. Love. A strange and intense spinning sensation. Clarity. Insight. Focus. Having thousands of arms like a Buddhist deity. Often it’s the best half hour of my day.
I’m convinced that the activity of our mind that causes us so much trouble is like clouds in the sky. When we meditate it’s like sitting in a plane that’s taking off. As that rising plane pierces the clouds that shield the sun, we pierce the veil that keeps us from experiencing the clear blue sky of our untainted minds.
At other times I feel tired, frustrated, sleepy and blunt.
I learnt that actually none of this matters. What is important is to just do the practice. Witness the contents of awareness and let it be. Meditation is not about achieving anything, it’s the process of observing and letting go.
Ok it’s about time somebody said it. There is way too much stupid, weird and wishy-washy language banded about in spiritual circles. So much in fact that I don’t like to use the term ‘spirituality’ at all. Its useless to me. Wasted. Irrelevant.
It’s so easily associated with so much stuff that is lacking in critical thinking, removed from reality and alienating to people not participating in the ‘spiritual’ arena, what ever the hell that is.
Yet, at the same time, we also understand the term ‘spiritual’ to indicate the highest of human qualities. It implies wisdom, depth, and compassion. A commitment to something larger than oneself. The great men and women of our time are often said to have these qualities.
I lament the fact that the word ‘spiritual’ has so many uses and meanings. I’m sure many people who would benefit from engaging with practical teachings about the mind and how to live a meaningful life are put off by a weird world of tarot, angels, mediums and astral realms.
Walk in to a bookshop and go to the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s not to say that some of these things might have some value, and could be really interesting to explore but can’t we just use another name for them please? ‘Spiritual’ language, while perhaps sometimes inspiring, often just isn’t applicable to the reality of our daily lives, and frankly it’s often embarrassing to use the ‘S’ word.
Frequently its vocabulary serves to reinforce a framework and perspective of the world that is akin to religion: long on preaching, short on relevance, and all too often requiring belief in something that may or may not exist.
Of course spirituality in its broadest sense is about many things, and many interpretations of these many things. For me though, what I wish the core of spirituality came down to is this: developing compassion for ourselves and others through gaining insight into the nature of our minds.
I think it is important to define spirituality in these terms because in doing so we get down to what is most universally applicable and important. We make it secular in nature and more relevant to those who might benefit from its insights but have no time or interest in fluff. We strip away all the indulgent and seductive aspects of spirit and make it human again. Apposite and of use, right now.
What greater ideal could there be than to be at peace with our experience of the world? And what is it that filters our experience of the world and determines the quality of our mood and perception of ourselves and the world? Mind. So it strikes me that if what we truly want is to be content and live well, we have to start with our mind.
This definition of spirituality is essentially an enquiry in to the nature of who we are and how we work at the most practical level. It’s a secular definition that should alienate less people and could apply to everyone.
It brings us together, ‘spiritual’ and ‘not spiritual’ folk alike, demonstrating that these definitions do not really exist: we all want to make the best of our minds and our experience of reality.
It’s all spirit and no fluff. It requires no belief in anything you can’t see or can’t prove and it’s concerned with our real lives, right now.
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.
The author and philosopher Alain de Botton once said ‘Whatever one does, the inner shmuck never quite goes away’. I’m afraid I have to agree. While we all have moments or perhaps even extended periods where we feel good and life flows, we can be sure it is only time that separates us from a reunion with the dragon inside.
It is hard to overestimate the strength of the conditioning of our early lives, and the capacity of our monkey minds to make miserable what should be merry. Indeed, many of us spend years, or perhaps even lives, working on ways to cleanse that inner shmuck.
That’s not to say that type of work is not necessary, admirable or indeed a worthy cause, but that there is a valuable lesson in acknowledging it may never be complete.
Realising the inner shmuck ‘never quite goes away’ need not depress us, though it may. Rather, it is an opportunity, a prompt to come up with strategies to mitigate the damage when the shmuck returns and to accept a fundamental tenet of life in this earthly realm.
Mindfulness practice and particularly meditation are such strategies, and regular practice of each, in time, develops our ability to observe the shmuck rather than react to and fall victim to it. Observing but not reacting denies negative thoughts the fuel they need to burn and consequently their fire recedes more quickly.
Knowing the inner shmuck never quite goes away teaches us to live with our foibles, and to have tolerance for the foibles of others. At times it may depress the shit out of us, but realising this universal truth of human nature is a key step on the path to accepting who we are and what we have become.