8 Suggestions to Minimize Dangers for Ayahuasca Journeyers.
I received a heartbreaking (and anger-provoking) email this week from a woman who was introduced to my work in the most painful of ways.
Her beloved brother committed suicide just before Christmas two years ago, leaving both a suicide note and a copy of my book Love it Forward beside it as a parting gift to her. I only wish something in that book had been able to save him.
As always, the reasons for suicide are complicated. In his case, he’d had a particularly difficult childhood, divorced after a lengthy marriage, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder some years before, and his mother had recently passed, igniting a whole wave of intense triggers and unresolved issues from childhood.
In his emotionally flooded and desperate state, he saw an advertisement for an ayahuasca retreat in Peru. The ad said, and I paraphrase, that “disease is caused by negative spirits,” and that shamans can heal you with “the medicine.” It also claimed that you would become “enlightened” if you went on the healing journey with them.
He was desperate for relief, and so he took the plunge, signing up for an expensive two-week retreat. No one inquired into his current emotional state.
Once there, they did seven intense ceremonies in two weeks. It is important to note that no talk or somatic psychotherapists were on staff. And that the participants had only one day between ceremonies to process and integrate the enormous amount of intensely dark material that emerged in the ceremonies.
When he returned from the Amazon, he at first appeared to be in a good place, according to his sister. He lost weight, his skin glowed, and he seemed lighter and happier. Kind of like someone who’d had a real good vacation. But then he began to share his inner experience with her, telling her about many disturbing visions of dark spirits that had flooded his consciousness during the ceremonies.
The shamans reassured him that the spirits were showing themselves to give him an essential message and would soon disappear. In fact, they didn’t disappear. They stayed with him. After a brief period back home, he soon became an angry person for the first time in his life. And he shed his relational nature, becoming a hermit.
When they did speak, all he could talk about was ayahuasca and the need to return to the Amazon to regain the “feel-good effects.”
So he went back six months later for another expensive series of ceremonies with “the medicine.” After this trip, he changed even more dramatically. He became closed off and inaccessible. He became depressed for the first time in his life. And then he killed himself soon after. In his note, he said that he could not fight off the negative energy anymore. Dark spirits surrounded him.
He couldn’t close his eyes for weeks because of the fear.
It is clear to his sister that his experiences with “the medicine” took his pre-existing grief state to the next level of intensity, one that took him over the edge. In his already depleted physical and energetic state, and without proper therapeutic support, he could not assimilate that level of shadow material.
She feels strongly that if he had not had these experiences, he would have eventually moved through the triggering that emerged after his mother’s loss without committing suicide. Yes, the ayahuasca gave him a momentary boost, but all the stuff that surfaced then cascaded into an unstoppable soul-nami of suffering.
I appreciate that many people have had healing, life-changing experiences with the plant. They have seen reality through a more expansive lens, shifted their addictions and unhealthy patterns, opened to more expansive ways of being.
They have not achieved “enlightenment”: a fallacious construct and marketing tool that preys on our desperate longing to evolve quickly, but they have certainly experienced spirals of awakening that have served their journey. No one can deny that.
And no one can deny that we sometimes need an extreme experience in order to shift us out of our habitual range of emotions and show us that a more expansive consciousness is available to us. I get that.
But it is also entirely clear that ayahuasca is absolutely not for everybody. Nothing is. And that it is profoundly dangerous for some people. Not merely re-traumatizing, which is often reported by those who have the experience, but actually quite deadly.
This is not the first time I have received an email from someone who lost a loved one to suicide after an ayahuasca retreat, and it won’t be the last. Quick fix, long suffering.
It is hard to strictly categorize who will, or will not, benefit from the plant. Generally, it is my view that ayahuasca is not for those trauma survivors who are so fragmented that they do not have a solid sense of self to return to. Without a strong energetic and egoic foundation, this plant can take you beyond the point of no return.
It is also not for those who already have a tendency to spiritually bypass, addicted to an experience of the oneness in an effort to rise above their unresolved issues. They will just float farther away from the grounded healing they desperately need. And it may not be for anyone who has not done a reasonable amount of psychotherapeutic prep work.
If you aren’t relatively worked through and well-acquainted with your inner world, this experience may well take you into perilously confusing terrain. There is groundwork that needs to be done first.
In addition, it is not for those who do not have the time or the support in their lives to integrate the experience. The plant ceremony continues long after it is over, and the material must be granted the space and the care that it needs to assimilate.
And even if we accept that the plant is a truth serum, as some suggest, it is surely not the case that everyone can embrace and integrate those truths, so intensely downloaded, in their human form, at this stage of their individual development.
This is particularly true for westerners, whose consciousness is organized differently, and who do not live anywhere close to a fluid, trance-ful Amazonian state of being. That’s a whole other world.
And remember that it’s not always suicide that kills ayahuasca journeyers. People also die during these retreats because of the physically rigorous nature of the journey. Not every body can handle the properties of the plant or the rigorous nature of the ceremony. That’s a whole lot of intensity.
In an effort to minimize the dangers, I have the following suggestions.
- All ayahuasca retreats should staff a psychotherapist who is well-trained in the somatized nature of trauma and in the way that these traumatic holdings can interface with the plant itself. And I am not talking about the yogi who organized the retreat.
- All ayahuasca retreats must leave more than one day between ceremonies, for the purposes of sustainable integration.
- All ayahuasca retreats should provide a list of conventional medications that are dangerously incompatible with the plant. This list should be clearly noted on the website of anyone who is marketing retreats.
- Journeyers should be encouraged to have their own personal therapeutic and/or emotional support in place to reach out to during, and after, the retreat. Someone who knows their material, and whom they deeply trust.
- An attempt should be made to co-create and enforce the use of a rigorous screening protocol that will weed out those applicants whose emotional and/or physical state/stage will put them in peril. Key: this protocol should not be constructed by those who will benefit economically from the retreats.
- Seekers should choose not to participate in those ayahuasca retreats that guarantee “enlightenment,” that are run by novices and/or ungrounded new cagers, or that charge utterly exorbitant prices for the experience. If they are doing it to make a fortune (rather than as a manifestation of their sacred purpose), they are probably less likely to hold your well-being safe.
- Spiritual activists should actively spread the word that this experience is not for everybody. I do not actually believe that the plant only brings up deep truths waiting to be seen and embraced. Depending on someone’s emotional state and physical constitution, it can also bring up dark lies that distort and destroy.
- We should stop calling ayahuasca “the medicine.” It’s not the medicine. It’s one medicine, and only a medicine for some. What is one person’s medicine is another person’s poison.
Be careful, dear friends. You are playing with fire when you venture down the ayahuasca trail. Yes, for some, it’s a holy, wondrous fire. For others, it’s the fire that takes their life.
A former criminal lawyer and psychotherapist, Jeff Brown is the author of five popular books — ‘Soulshaping: A Journey of Self-Creation’, ‘Ascending with Both Feet on the Ground’, ‘Love it Forward’, ‘An Uncommon Bond’, and ‘Spiritual Graffiti’. He is the producer and key journeyer in the award-winning spiritual documentary, Karmageddon, which also stars Ram Dass and Seane Corn. He is also the owner of Enrealment Press and an online school, Soulshaping Institute. A very popular presence in social media, Jeff lives in Toronto with his partner, poet Susan Frybort.