A personal account of taking Ayahuasca and a critique of so-called 'Shamanic Medicine'
Guest article by Amber
Foreword by Occult Mysteries
We warmly welcome Amber as a new contributor to our website. Her forthright account of her personal participation in no less than four Ayahuasca ceremonies is both profoundly moving and highly educational. After all, what better guide can there be than someone who has 'been there and done that' as the saying has it? Amber's experiences closely echo those we related to you in our afterword to Bombast and Flitterflop's sixth Astral Conversation — Tripping out with Shamans. Her conclusions confirm all the things we said in that article and more. If you haven't read it, please do so before you read about her own experience with Ayahuasca. Don't be put off by the humorous undercurrent that infuses these Astral Conversations. Bombast and Flitterflop may be rather silly names but the individuals behind them are real people, well known to us. Neither of them are in any doubt that Ayahuasca and Shamanism pose grave dangers for the health of body, mind and spirit. We do not know if Amber has been harmed by her involvement with Shamanic Medicine, and it wouldn't be fair of us to probe, but it cannot have left her completely unscathed.
Her article could not be more timely. The Internet is now awash with Ayahuasca 'healings', 'retreats', 'treatments', and ceremonies. Among the glowing testimonials and slick advertising there is barely a cautious word or a voice meekly questioning the almost universal approbation with which Shamanic Medicine is regarded. Good as our own article on this subject is it cannot substitute for personal experience. Amber, on her own admission is not a troubled teen, dysfunctional millennial or a disenchanted and disenfranchised young woman, but a mother with a husband, loving family and successful career. It is for this reason as well as others that we are publishing her moving story. We could not ask for a more convincing warning that even the best, most balanced and happy of individuals can be led astray by the compelling claims made for Shamanic Medicine. As she herself says towards the end of her eloquent article: "So, dear reader, please don't do it. Instead, if you are looking for peace or ecstasy, find the place that is referred to by all sages: the Heart." We agree and cannot think of any better advice for those readers who may be tempted to take Ayahuasca.
Amber's experiences confirm what we said in our afterword to Bombast and Flitterflop's investigation of Shamanism, namely that "Nature has provided us with a natural barrier against negative influences in the form of the aura, or astral shield which surrounds every human being." By freeing the mind from the body drugs like Ayahuasca breach this shield. Unlike the trained Shamans of the Amazon or the initiates of old, the modern individual in search of 'healing' and 'enlightenment' has no prior experience of the Astral World. In most cases, he or she knows nothing of the occult constitution of man and less than nothing about the invisible entities which surround us on all sides at all times, but which the aura keeps at bay. Nor does the average modern seeker have the bedrock of religious faith to sustain and comfort them during the terrifying visions an Ayahuasca session can and does expose them to. We feel sure that Amber will agree with us when we say that taking part in an Ayahuasca ceremony is akin to climbing blindly into a snake-infested pit. The only thing the reckless and hasty explorer can possibly gain from their descent, always assuming they survive the experience, is not to repeat it, yet so many do! We are reminded of the wise words of the great physicist Albert Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
We have said some very harsh and unpleasant things in this foreword, but they must be said if the fascination with Shamanic Medicine is to be broken and Ayahuasca exposed as the dangerous drug that it is. Ayahuasca, botanical name Banisteriopsis caapi, is also known as yagé and colloquially as the 'Vine of the Dead'. Perhaps the name provides a clue to it's effect?
In her afterword Amber briefly reviews the history, usage and dangers of psychedelic drugs as well as the claims made for Ayahuasca 'healing'. We find it particularly worrying that her research showed how hard it is to find any articles on the Internet critical of the use of Ayahuasca. Is this censorship? We wouldn't like to say, but it looks suspiciously like it. Money talks, for as the author also learnt, Shamanic Medicine is now a "billion-dollar trade." Her research also sheds light on the many good reasons why, in the words of Bombast the wise man or woman should steer clear of this insidious poison, "knowing intuitively that illumination comes from within, not without. It is to be sought in the pure waters of the great spiritual teachings of all times, in the beauties of Nature and in the smile of an innocent child, fresh from its Heavenly Home, not in the bottom of a gourd filled with the aptly-named fruits of the 'Vine of the Dead."
Gustave Doré — The Spirit of Farinata degli Uberti — engraving on copper, 1827.
Illustration for Dante's Inferno.
The Vine of the Dead
Sitting cross legged on my mattress, I study the people around me in the room. Some of the attendees are experienced 'drinkers', recognisable by their T-shirts decorated with the colourful patterns typical in Ayahuasca visions, and their all-knowing, solemn expressions. The first-timers are looking around, nervously smiling, full of expectation and a little anxiety. The young, Spanish speaking man sitting in the middle of the space smoking is introduced as a fifth-generation member of the Shipibo tribe from the Amazon. This Indian group is famous for maintaining certain Shamanic healing traditions of which the Ayahuasca ceremony is the most important. We, the participants, are the picky kind of clients. Some have travelled across Europe to join the 'real thing' with a 'real medicine man'. We don't trust the white, Western, self-proclaimed shamans who are supposedly initiated by so-and so Feather or so-and so Wolf.
The ceremony leader's assistants give us some last-minute instructions and assurances before switching off all lights and the ritual begins with us taking our portion of 'tea'. The Shaman starts singing the Ayahuasca songs, which he will continue doing for about six hours and for all of us individually. When the drug starts working, my first experiences are visual. I see extremely bright, colourful kaleidoscopic, imagery that constantly changes shape. It has octopus-like tentacles. First, I am in awe but after a while I am so overwhelmed and feel as if I am being consumed by it. I start noticing that it reacts to my thoughts and focus. When I focus on a single area, it immediately grows a hundred times in size and shows many new layers of geometry and colourful details. I can zoom in endlessly and get sucked in, endlessly. It is getting very claustrophobic and I almost panic. But I find that I can distance myself and step out of the experience by opening my eyes, moving my body, and shifting my attention to the room and other attendees. But this is hard and takes willpower. I feel sleepy and my body is numb. After a while I start seeing cartoonish figures who also react to my thoughts. They shape-shift into demonic creatures. Are they trying to scare me? When I ask the question one of them makes a funny disappointed face. I also see what thoughts look like when they are negative: literally like knives and lightening. I wonder, are these images products of my thoughts or are these visual representations of real material vibrations and semi-conscious or unconscious forces, some of them very demonic?
But what is the difference anyway? At one point I see demons like in Tolkien's stories. They walk in procession, excited and blood-thirsty (years later I will be convinced these are the 'legions of fearsome demons' described in Vision Two of The Golden Star by J Michaud PhD), and I look away quickly, fearing to 'feed' this phenomenon with my attention. Still, I am not frightened. Partly because of my trust in the Shaman who is guiding and protecting us, partly because there is no real personal interaction with these beings. I am just an observer. But then something happens that does frighten me: Fear itself comes over me suddenly, independently, with no warning and no images or thoughts that could be identified as the cause of it. I am overwhelmed by emotions I have never experienced in my life and have no vocabulary for — except one word — despair. In normal situations in life, when I am faced with a crisis, I rely on my ability to think fast and resolve fast. But this time when I start thinking, I experience a very clear danger of going mad. I realize thinking is the last thing to do.
The assistants are of no help at this point and the Shaman just keeps on singing. I feel that the act of thinking will suck me further into this storm of horrific feelings. Just before I almost panic, a strange foreknowledge comes to me. I suddenly know that there is only one way to survive this: firmly focus all my attention on my heart-centre, using my breath to concentrate. So, I sit, focused on my heart while breathing slowly in and out for a time that could be minutes or hours. At one point I lose consciousness and when I wake up, the effect of the drug is gone; the sun is rising and with it, feelings of immense relief and gratitude. I am awake, I have survived, I am sane!
The experience I have just described is a representative summary of four ceremonies I participated in. During all of them I had the experience of accessing 'mental spaces' that are normally shut off from our physical senses. This includes old, traumatic memories. I've had an unpleasant memory of almost drowning as a baby. But I cannot be sure if it is my own experience or whether I had somehow 'tapped in' to one of the endless thoughts, memories, and fantasies of our human existence. I was certainly not the only participant who saw and felt extremely dark, negative shapes, sensations, or beings. I remember how one woman got hysterical because she felt she was being approached by demons who tried to possess her. Another participant locked herself up in the bathroom, believing she had been kidnapped and was being held in the ceremony room. A male participant started experiencing violent, uncontrollable epileptic-like movements of his limbs. I remember one person that seemed to have an episode of Tourette's syndrome, with sudden outbursts of swearing in German.
I remember one girl, lying next to me, repeating the following sentences over and over again, all night long: "I knew he was not to be trusted, I am so stupid, I knew I should not have listened." I call this a thought-loop and I recognise it personally as a by-product of severe fever. When I tried to help her, she attacked me and scratched my face. During one Ayahuasca session I got stuck in a similar loop in which I was trying to find the way out from a nightmarish landscape that looked like a foggy version of my childhood neighbourhood. During the loop, I came back to the starting point repeatedly and heard a demonic voice saying "oops...here you are again," laughing hysterically. I only managed to get out of this loop because the person next to me in the room pinched my hand to see if I was all right.
Gustave Doré — Harpies in the Forest of Suicides — engraving on copper, 1824-7.
Illustration for Dante's Inferno.
The experiences analysed
All these incidents happened while under the supervision of this 'real' healer Shaman from a traditional medicine-family belonging to the Shipibo tribe in the jungle of Peru. I thought I was lucky to have found a serious, professional organisation with thorough expertise in and knowledge of Shamanic substances and rituals. This organization works only with indigenous people who are trained from childhood in the medicinal use of plants. None of us who took part in these sessions doubted or mistrusted the organisation or the people it employed. This is the common and most misleading fact in the spiritual industry: The leaders and organizers believe firmly in their methods and their intentions are usually sincere. We, the participants, were fully convinced this was a real, authentic medicine man opposed to all the fake, New Age charlatans.
The general idea about Ayahuasca is that negative experiences during the ceremony are a common, normal part of the 'healing process'. The organizers say "Ayahuasca gives you exactly what you need and what you can handle. You cannot control her, just surrender to her and you will receive exactly what you need." Although Ayahuasca tea is a mixture of several plant extracts, the final substance is believed to represent or invoke a female being, or goddess who is depicted as an archetypical symbol like the Hindu Goddess Kali, or as a snake. She is regarded as tough, taking us without concession to places we don't want to go, face things we don't want to face, to heal us from physical or mental traumas and ailments. Nobody questioned the healthiness of the rituals. The common agreement seemed to be that people who behaved in an extreme way during the ceremony were mentally fragile or showing symptoms that are normal when facing old traumas. It is supposed to be all part of the 'cleansing' process. One experienced participant told me he had suffered psychotic episodes after drinking Ayahuasca, and it had even cost him his job. But he was certain this had to do with the leader of the ritual, whom he said was not a "real Shaman." He went on to lecture me how to tell the 'real' from the 'fake' Shamanism. This man is still very active in the Shamanic healing field by the way. And he is friendly, quiet, and modest.
The incident that best illustrates the point I am trying to make happened six months after my last Ayahuasca ceremony. The organiser who I mentioned is a very experienced person who had visited and worked with this Shipibo medicine family for 15 years. He sent us all an email explaining that there had been an organisational change. The reason given was that one of the members of the family had been found guilty of the rape of a western tourist during a healing ceremony. So, he explained, the work would now continue with a new family.
It is statistically impossible that my personal experiences with Ayahuasca are unique. This is confirmed by Occult Mysteries' own investigation of Shamanism mentioned in their foreword to my article. The afterword to their investigation lists several well-authenticated cases of the serious dangers Ayahuasca poses to those who participate in these Shamanic ceremonies, including rape and death. Yet when I did my own research for this article, I was amazed to discover that most experience-based as well as (qualitative) scholarly articles on Shamanic drugs paint a wholly positive picture of their use. Although the authors acknowledge that the research is insufficient, and although they warn against the dangers for people who are mentally unstable or taking medicine for mental conditions, without exception they highlight the positive effect of Ayahuasca on people who suffer from addiction and depression.
I have some thoughts about these findings: Firstly, if a substance is dangerous for people with a mental condition, this means, according to my translation: "This substance is poisonous and can harm you, but if you are strong enough, you can handle the risk." Secondly, let's assume the research results exclude other factors that increase the wellbeing of participants who suffer from depression. Let's also assume that other factors like the Hawthorn effect, Choice-supportive bias, or Groupthink bias are not at work here. Then it might be true that Ayahuasca may be of some benefit in helping people suffering from depression or addiction. I should explain that these terms belong to the jargon of psychology and cognitive science. The 'Hawthorn effect' is named after research among workers who made electrical relays at the Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric plant in Cicero, Illinois, in the USA in the 1920's. It is a psychological term describing how individuals may modify an aspect of their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed. It is well-known that people who are severely depressed are in a very dark place. Could it be that realizing that there are even darker places and emotions, helps them to try to embrace normal life again? Or maybe it is even simpler than that. Perhaps the realization that there is more to life than the physical senses reveal, stirs something in them to become curious and explorative again. But what will it cost them in the long term? The occultist Paracelsus comes to my mind. He discovered that certain extremely dangerous, poisonous substances can have a healing effect in some very specific illnesses. But he would never advise a healthy person to experiment with them, would he? And finally, the themes in the works of Charles Dickens might also have some relevance. Some people, when faced with extreme loss, darkness, suffering or death, soften and become more compassionate. Does this mean we should deliberately expose ourselves to extreme negative conditions? A study of Dickens' work, especially his letters, will convince you this is not what he would advise. He was a devotee of the gospels of Christ (and he rejected the Old Testament) and a fierce opponent of the Church's dogmas.
I did find some information online about the dangers of Shamanic substances. Most of these sources are in the field of drugs education, addiction, and mental health. The most interesting one is a website, created by a psychotherapist after seeing patients who have suffered mental illness after taking Ayahuasca. According to this physician, these clients started suffering permanent anxiety disorders months after drinking the tea. Patients, who were recovering from a disorder, got worse and even contemplated suicide. There are also news articles reporting incidents of violence after Ayahuasca or other Shamanic drug usage as I mentioned earlier in connection with Occult Mysteries' investigation of Shamanism — Tripping out with Shamans. Unfortunately, these negative views and even hard, incontrovertible evidence about the dangers of Shamanic drugs are lost in the overwhelming deluge of glowing advertisements promising instant enlightenment and healing.
My personal story
I would like to share with you what my motivation was to drink Ayahuasca. I think it is important for people to realise that it is no longer only rebellious hippies who live life off grid that experiment with Shamanic substances. Those days are long gone. Today, people just like me, a relatively intelligent woman with more than one academic title, a good career, in a loving and stable relationship with my husband, children and family, can and are being drawn to 'spiritual' drugs. I have little doubt that some readers will recognise parts of the story I will now relate. After 17 years of seeking and not finding answers to questions about Life, God, and so on, I became desperate. There is probably no famous spiritual teacher, school, tool, or ritual in the New Age business I have not tried. I had the money and means to access the best and most famous. From the more innocent Eastern meditation techniques like Kriya Yoga — in which I was initiated — to the not so innocent practices like Family Constellations and 'Shadow Work', I tried it all and even qualified as a 'certified coach' myself. I also had my share of adventures in the field of Wicca and Shamanism. I peered into crystal balls during the full moon, 'communicated' with real and spirit-animals, participated in a wide range of Chippewa- and Navaho tribal ceremonies, sweat lodges, elk dances and so on and so forth. I have attended retreats with great personal transformation gurus and even managed to get halfway through A Course in Miracles. For those readers who don't know what this is, A Course in Miracles, also referred to as 'ACIM' or just the 'Course', is a 1976 book by Helen Schucman. The thesis of the book is the idea that the greatest 'miracle' is the act of simply gaining a full "awareness of love's presence" in a person's life. Schucman claimed that the book had been dictated to her, word for word, via a process of "inner dictation" from Jesus Christ. Yes, I know...well, we were all naive and gullible once!
But the knowing in my Heart kept pointing out how something was off or even wrong in the practice or people involved. None of them represented the peaceful, humble characteristics of a truly wise person who works in service of Love and Light. I finally turned to Ayahuasca because no doctrine and no guru would be actively involved, only me, myself and my spiritual companions, or so I reasoned. I had never used any form of drugs before. But after reading many positive stories of life changing experiences and after talking to some experienced people I trusted, I changed my mind. I would finally truly connect to my spirit guide! And this, in a way, came true. In the most horrific heat of the moment, the Voice in my Heart called me back to sanity.
Looking back on my experiences, knowing what I know now, I believe the 'medicine' forcefully opens the natural shield or barrier that shuts out and protects us from the Astral World and the entities and conditions within it. Maybe there are plant-based practices used by trained aboriginals who enter these dimensions consciously to heal or see. But if they are truly wise, they will not expose, reveal, or propagate any of these methods to the ordinary man or woman who lacks their training, knowledge and experience of the other dimensions.
We live in the golden age of manipulation. We have the economic environment of capitalism, a human condition of selfishness, a great lack of moral leadership and a wealth of digital tools to anticipate the lack of independent, critical thinking. If you want to start a spiritual business and become a millionaire, now is the time!
I am firmly convinced that Ayahuasca and any other 'plant medicines' are dangerous. I am certain that the damage is in most instances not clearly or immediately visible. I believe that when we use substances, we allow our magnetic field or aura (the same thing) to weaken and let in dark thought-forms, energies and entities. If you doubt me, read Vision Five in The Golden Star which describes what really happened at a Spiritualistic séance. I believe that it was only possible to feel the frightening, horrific emotions I felt during one of my Ayahuasca journeys because of the lack of protection. The sensations, I think, are the kinaesthetic translation of a very dark energy that I had accessed or that had access to me, which amounts to the same thing. There is a good reason why we are shut off from the astral or mental planes surrounding us. I believe people can suffer psychosis or permanent schizophrenia after using psychedelics. So, dear reader, please don't do it. Instead, if you are looking for peace or ecstasy, find the place that is referred to by all sages: the Heart. In the sublime words of Dr Michaud which preface Vision Nine of The Golden Star:
And when the Heart of Man awakes,
The Heavens open wide.
The Veil is torn, the Mind is raised
And sails away on fervid Wings...
Or swoons in Ecstasy.
Article and Afterword © Amber. Foreword © Copyright occult-mysteries.org.
All worldwide rights reserved. Published 16 October 2022.