Ayahuasca has proven to be incredibly effective at healing past and present trauma, purifying the physical and subtle energetic bodies, dissolving illusions, teaching on both the conscious and subconscious levels, and providing revolutionary experiences of Divine Truth. Having said that, working with Ayahuasca is not appropriate for everyone, and it is not a golden bullet, cure-all solution to every problem. While the medical prerequisites such as being clean of all anti-depressants and other contraindicated substances have been repeatedly documented, there is less information on the importance of psychological preparation before entering into this type of work. There is even less conversation on the potential pitfalls and glass ceilings that one may encounter even after completing hundreds of ceremonies.
Although there are many strategies for catalyzing one’s growth when working with Ayahuasca, the essentials for making any degree of progress can be boiled down to courage, trust, and most importantly, humility.
To show up to a retreat having no idea what is in store for you takes courage. To be ruthlessly honest with yourself and vulnerable in a group setting takes courage. To relive traumas and express previously repressed emotions takes courage. To release old coping strategies and strongly held beliefs with no knowledge of what will replace them takes courage. To go through an intensive night of physical/energetic/emotional/mental purging and then return for another ceremony takes courage. To potentially experience the dissolution of everything you think you know takes courage. To commit to this type of work knowing that you are going to be pushed far beyond your comfort zone takes courage.
The only way you can expand your comfort zone (your acceptance zone) is to step beyond your current boundaries. By doing this, you become able to see all phenomena within a newly heightened sense of relativity, and consequently, relate to each event with a deeper maturity. Working with Ayahuasca can be very uncomfortable and scary at times, but when these difficult situations are met with a courageous and investigative attitude they can turn out to be the most educational experiences of all. To learn from these difficult nights it is necessary to bravely investigate the experience, as opposed to just blindly resisting the discomfort . When this type of contemplation is sincerely carried out, it is possible to uncover and release the deepest sources of suffering. One might discover that all suffering comes from one’s fundamental attachments to illusory beliefs and a resistance to the transient nature of form. One might also discover that suffering can be enticing and addictive due to the subtle underlying egoic payoffs attached to identifying as a victim. We tend to hold onto these resistance strategies out of ignorance and the belief that they are somehow improving our lives. To let these roots go and step into the unknown takes courage. Trusting those who have already done so makes this complicated process easier.
Suppose that you decide to go on a backpacking adventure in a foreign land. Initially you might think you know how to navigate the unknown territory, but eventually you lose focus and become disoriented along the way to your desired destination. You start panicking as you begin to retrace your steps, explore different roads, and eventually come to realize that you are completely lost. At this point the sensible person would stop, ask a local for directions, and trust in the native’s experiential knowledge of the terrain. To ask for directions and then ignore guidance from the one who currently lives there would be considered lunacy.
Many come to Ayahuasca because they are generally feeling lost and uninspired, or are deeply sick and have previously tried other medicinal routes with little to no progress. Having heard stories of the gravity of this work, many wisely seek out a shaman to help guide them through the experience. From experience, it is clear that Ayahuasca herself, always has the seeker’s best interest in mind. The seeker will always be given what they need to evolve, even if that does not align with what they want. The sooner one can accept this truth and trust in the sacrament’s intrinsic wisdom, the easier the entire process becomes.
Conversely, it is clear that not all shamans have the purest of intentions. For this reason, it is crucial that you are selective with the shamans you choose to work with. The best way to go about this is to get a direct referral from a friend, read testimonials, research the shaman’s organization, and if possible, look into the lifestyle, philosophy, and goals of the shaman. It is paramount to also find out the degree of experience the shaman has. This should not be crudely measured in the amount of years they may claim to have practiced medicine work. For example one might say they have been working with Ayahuasca for 10 years, but have truly only participated in a handful of ceremonies each year. It is better to investigate how much of each year the person has committed to this work, who they have studied with, how many plant dietas they have done, the quality of their dietas, what spirits they actively work with, how often they orchestrate ceremonies, what other healing techniques they have studied besides plant medicine, etc.
This type of work is all about letting go. If you can not relax and release, and are unwilling to trust the guidance of your shaman and the sacrament, the amount of healing that can take place is significantly diminished.
The classic Zen story of Nan-in and the professor is a short and sweet example of this necessity.
Once there was a professor of Buddhist studies that went to meet with the Zen master Nan-in. After bowing, the professor asked the master to teach him about Zen, but quickly started rambling on about his own extensive studies while the master patiently listened. Nan-in suggested they continue talking over some tea and poured himself a cup. He then started pouring tea into the professor’s cup and continued to pour even after the cup began to overflow. Eventually the professor cried out, “Stop, you are spilling tea everywhere! Can’t you see the cup is full!” The master smiled and said, “You are like this cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back when your mind is empty.”
To learn, you have to admit you don’t know. If you are still experiencing suffering, there is room for improvement. The great spiritual teachers have proscribed a variety of methodologies to liberating oneself from this suffering, but before embarking on any of these paths one first has to admit that they are suffering and are in need of change. From there one can start weeding out the personal patterns that are causing the pain and eventually come into a deep knowing of the true nature of Reality. As every spiritual master has made clear, if you are actively suffering and resisting the present, you have misunderstood Truth. Connecting with the sacrament only yields to spiritual growth when coupled with a heaping dose of humility. This vital quality is a necessity regardless of one’s amount of experience with Ayahuasca or any other plant medicine. Sooner or later the initiate’s personal progress will come to a halt if they lose their sense of humility.
Ayahuasca is one of the many sacred maps to unconditional love and peace. To reach the destination you must have courage to overcome the many obstacles along the path, a deep trust that the map is accurate, and enough humility to admit that you need directions in the first place.