Participating in an ayahuasca ceremony is an opportunity for deep healing and personal development. There is potential for healing of the body, mind and spirit, reconciliation with oneself and others, revelatory spiritual experiences, and much more.1 Fortunately, there are preparatory and in-ceremony practices that can help maximize the experience and related benefits. There are also habits that seem to hinder and narrow this work, which can be avoided. What follows here are suggestions to optimize your experience.
Ayahuasca is a powerful entheogen, and should be approached with an attitude of respect, humility and reverence. The ceremonial use of ayahuasca can vary, but, in modern indigenous practices, it typically involves advance preparation with a diet2 and ingestion of ayahuasca in the context of a shaman-guided ceremony. Individuals participating in this type of ceremony are encouraged to prepare by following several dietary and behavioral restrictions (e.g., no alcohol, red meats, dairy, salt, sugar, sexual activity) several days prior to the ceremony.3 Commitment to preparatory practices can also be a testament to one’s devotion, discipline, and integrity: the best mindset for approaching this work.
Set Your Intentions
Some individuals set an intention to define what it is they plan to learn or resolve through the experience. Setting intentions can be powerful and grounding.4 In the days leading up to ceremony, carve out the time to reflect on why you feel called to drink ayahuasca, and have made the time, travel, and financial arrangements to do so. Why now? What’s bothering you? What do you seek to learn, to understand? The answers to these questions can be used to create intentions most relevant to you, keeping in mind that it is possible that your ceremony may or may not reflect your intention. Create the in-ceremony ritual of drinking the brew, returning to your seat, and mentally setting your intention. Be specific and communicate why you are seeking guidance from this plant spirit. If you struggle through the night, you can use your intention to remain present and to find purpose and gratitude in doing so.
By now, you may have heard or read about other people’s life-changing revelations and visual shows in ceremony. Our minds love to attach to these stories and, for this reason, we tend to approach ceremony full of expectations, especially when we’re new to this work. Do yourself a favor and release your expectations of what you think will happen and want to have happen. You will get what you need, not what you want.
“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” – Alexander Pope
No two people’s experiences will be the same. A person who drinks ayahuasca hundreds of times will have a unique experience each time. Not every ceremony will involve breathtaking geometric visions and reverential experiences of oneness.5 Some ceremonies will even feel boring, as though “nothing” is happening. You may even feel disappointed during and following these ceremonies. If this happens, remind yourself that there is actually no such thing as “nothing.” Never in our history has there ever been an instance where nothing was happening. Trust that this experience is happening by no mistake, and that there are powerful teachings and healing potential in your feeling this way. When you feel bored or that “nothing” is happening, notice your mental judgments. Do you feel left out? Resentful? Like you’re messing up? Once tuned into your emotional state, get curious and ask questions. How do these same feelings and judgments show up in your life? Are they old, familiar feelings? Embrace these feelings as you would any other experience encountered during the work.
Presence is the Antidote to Resistance
Ceremony experiences take on many forms. Some have described ceremonies involving cleansing, learning, feeling, and non-ordinary states of consciousness. Ceremonies can be focused on one or involve all four, or even other types.
Ayahuasca can “cleanse” the body of physiological, mental, emotional, and spiritual impurities or blockages through: vomiting, urinating, defecating, crying, watering eyes, yawning, sighing, stretching, posturing, shaking, and changes in body temperature. Know and trust that these are productive and healing parts of the process. Although cleansing can be uncomfortable, try to connect to your gratitude for the opportunity to release what you’ve carried for so long.
Ayahuasca can teach you about yourself, others, relationships, life, the planet, spirituality, and transcendence.6 This may challenge the belief systems you developed long ago. These belief systems are what birthed and shaped your ego, or personality, and way of relating to life. The ego prefers to remain in control of your thoughts and behaviors. Facing your ego and coping mechanisms can be uncomfortable. Surrender, openness, and gratitude will see you through this process. This can be an opportunity to relate to yourself, others, and the world in new and improved ways.
Ayahuasca can also elicit emotional experiences that require completion. You can feel guilt, fear, shame, and anger in association with memories, or even with little context. Our egos, addictions, and other coping mechanisms developed, in part, out of our resistance towards feeling these painful emotions in the first place, and they were consequently repressed. It has been theorized that, over time, this process creates physical, mental, and emotional ailments and disease.7 When strong emotional states occur, remain present. Breathe. Feel into it. Unlike the context where this feeling originated, you’re now in a context where it’s safe to fully experience it. Dr. Gabor Maté calls this “noble suffering”: suffering in the service of healing, transformation, and movement towards wholeness.
Non-ordinary States of Consciousness
You may or may not experience new mental, emotional, spiritual, or transcendent states. A Brazilian study of first-time ayahuasca drinkers found that these new states ranged from visual phenomena (e.g., patterned lights, geometric forms, animals), deep peace and bliss, profound understanding and insights, and feelings of oneness, to “numinousness,” which the researchers defined as “a feeling of both terror and fascination from the sense of a superior and powerful presence”. 8 If this happens, remain present and open to the feelings and teachings, and avoid getting caught up in your analytical mind. If you do not experience a non-ordinary state, know that the plant is, instead, teaching and healing you in a different manner.
Be aware that your mind or ego can interfere with your experience and process; especially, if you really want something to happen in ceremony. Your mind can also influence your insights and visions, which can narrow your process. Messages can be true or they can be a way to elicit emotion that needs transformation in order for you to move towards personal wholeness. Messages can also be a part of a learning process that spans over more than one ceremony and that is subject to change. One thing you can be sure of is that emotional states are valid 100% of the time. When you find yourself caught up in thinking, interpretation, and analysis, know that you’re in a cognitive or egoic state, and, instead, drop into the associated emotional state. Ask yourself, “what am I feeling?” Every emotional state also has a bodily felt sense,9 and this somatic connection is the vehicle to drop into, explore, and remain present with what’s happening for you. Here are some other practical tips for working with ayahuasca: 1. Try to lean toward the messages, visions, emotions, and physical sensations, even if they:
- are very uncomfortable
- are very frightening
- don’t make sense
2. When you are struggling, use your mind to:
- recall your intention as a grounding tool
- focus on your breath; breathe deeply into the space where the discomfort lies
- use the mantra: “Breathe, Feel, Heal”
- move from the content (the vision, the message) and instead focus on the underlying emotion, emotional state, or bodily felt sense it elicits
- connect with authentic gratitude for the experience
- remind yourself that this is medicine and that you are in a process of healing
- lean in with curiosity, ask questions
- ask Ayahuasca for help or to receive the teaching in another way
- pray to God/Creator/Source
- call on support staff for help moving through the experience
Develop a Relationship with Ayahuasca
People typically describe ayahuasca as a feminine, maternal, and highly conscious and intelligent plant spirit. Develop a relationship with Ayahuasca, the same way you would develop a relationship with another human. Have conversations. Share with her, ask questions, and express gratitude. Finally, this document is intended to serve as a tool, and is not meant to overwhelm. If this information is too much for you to take in at this time, let it go and connect with your instincts. Trust that you will get to where you need to go, and that there are many paths to get there.