I have been interested in some of the ongoing research into the clinical use of plant-based and other hallucinogens for the relief and treatment of psychological symptoms and addiction disorders. Probably at the forefront of my mind is the compelling evidence that the substance MDMA (associated with the “club drug” Ecstasy), has more or less proven to be an effective treatment for PTSD. There are also long-term studies at Johns Hopkins University pertaining to the psychotropic benefits of substances like psilocybin, iboga, and DMT – all derived from plants that have been used in traditional ceremonies for thousands of years to increase spiritual awareness and promote mystical experiences.
Coincidentally, I recently ran into an acquaintance, which had said he had attended what was termed a “Grandmother Meditation”. This is a variation of an Amazonian ceremony designed to facilitate spiritual and psychic transformation through the use of ayahuasca tea.
This substance is a brew of vine leaves and other indigenous plants, and its active ingredient is the aforementioned DMT. It’s effect on the psyche can vary, but in general it is said to increase self-awareness and connection to the spirit world through the “Voice of the Plant” which is characterized as feminine – as a grandmother that can be nurturing or remonstrating, but always ultimately benevolent.
I asked him to tell me about the experience and whether the ritual was useful to him, and he kindly obliged me. I write about it this variation of his report, which he has allowed me to publish anonymously:
“We were directed to bring bedding for the night, and other items necessary to spending the night in an open group space. During the period leading up to the ceremony, we were to refrain from any psychotropic and recreational drugs. If applicable, people could not take their anti-depressants, if they were on them, and had to sign a waiver stating that they had been off them for a few weeks. Three young people, (who turned out to be talented and versatile musicians, and who would be playing throughout the night) facilitated the ceremony. They were wearing clothing that resembled the garb of the traditional Central and South American shamans who presided over this of this type of ritual.
“The ceremony began with a dedication of a central square altar on the floor. The altar was decorated with candles, flowers, plants, and a variety of familiar religious images (Buddha, Jesus, Shiva etc. ), and the four sides of the altar were associated with the four elements. Each element would mark a part of the night-long ceremony, which would honor the element – Air, Fire, Water, and Earth – which was to go through the night, leaving time to integrate the experience in the early to mid hours of the morning. At the beginning of each part of the ceremony, we would be given a cup of ‘medicine’, the ayahuasca mixture, and, being encouraged to sit up as much as possible, enter our psyche under its influence. The shamans would enhance and guide our experience with music and various sensory stimuli throughout the night.
“Each element coincided with the progression of the experience, and each segment of the experience was approximately 2 hours long and would be preceded by a new dose of the ‘medicine’. During the initial segment, Air, we were asked to open our psyche to its affects without resistance. Fire would be the transformative segment, in which we would take the experiences and allow them to burn off that of our psyche, which required change. Water would be integrating this change with flow and non-resistance. In the wee hours of the morning, Earth would not be accompanied by medicine, but would the segment in which we took the experience of the night and brought it back to solid ground
“Throughout the night, any chance of drifting off into sleep was prevented by music, noises of various indigenous instruments, wafting incense, and occasional fanning with dried leaf or feather fans doused with scented water, and some sub-rituals involving a strong tobacco. Occasionally the facilitators would gently touch our bodies with these items. This for me was the most challenging aspect of the exercise as, being a natural introvert; I could feel myself wanting to be alone with my experience and to dissolve into reverie; to be with my psyche alone. While these stimuli were calming on their own, I found increasing impatience and irritation with their persistence. Although I much enjoyed the feeling of the ayahuasca, (the effect of which I liken to very strong marijuana) I did not have a hallucinatory or mystical experience, and I found that the substance wore off quickly, leaving me exhausted and ready to leave the confines of the ceremony and its activity and to find a nice bed.
“However, several people seemed to be having significant experiences. Some laughed, some danced, some groaned. One older man, in particular, who had never used any hallucinogenic substance of any sort, was besieged by what seemed to be an out-of-body experience and other troubling intrusions of his psyche. He approached the facilitators frequently, anxiously whispering his concerns in hopes of guidance and calming. They seemed to accommodate him as much as he needed, which impressed me, as did their energy to keep up with the activities of the ceremony and their ongoing musical performance. The next morning during what they termed, ‘integration’ (reports and assessments of the experience), he seemed to feel profoundly changed and grateful for what had occurred during that fitful and alarming night.
“I had written my intentions in a little book at the beginning of the ceremony: to decrease my tendency to judge and to react negatively in a thoughtless manner, to stop living in the past and future, whilst paying little attention to the present, to be less self-conscious and self-critical, and most of all, to develop my capacity for patience and to move more slowly, rather than run slipshod through tasks and chores in order to draw them to quick conclusions. I found that throughout the experience, all these vices were actually laid bare and I experienced a heightened sense of this all, as I found myself judging, reacting, wishing it was over, and being very resentful that I was not allowed to sleep”
“I believe, however, my insight came later…probably beginning a day after the ceremony and now ongoing. As I reflected on the way the substance affected me, and how, while pleasant, was more instrumental in heightening my awareness of the negative to the point where these vices were exposed for me to examine tangibly. Now that I have the memory of this exposition, I feel more sensitive to when these arise and are able to catch them more quickly and remember that they can be dispelled to some extent by employing my initial mindful intention.
“I remember one of the facilitators indicating that particularly physically challenging ceremonies, such as the sweat lodge, had a way of enhancing spiritual transformation after the act of enduring such a hardship. Possibly for me, this might be the case. I found the night exhausting, over-stimulating, and uncomfortable, as the room was sauna-warm. However, I now wonder if the lack of physical comfort and quiet, which I seem to always seem to default toward, might have not enhanced my ability to reflect by necessitating my ongoing psychic engagement.
“Now, looking back over the experience, I see the potential for an increased capacity to be patient, I am moving more slowly and being more careful during the execution and completion of tasks. This increased patience seems to be resulting in a decrease of reactive judgment against others and against myself. So, I guess my conclusion is, while the experience was not the instant spiritual transformation for which I was hoping, the results are assisting me to fulfill my original intentions.”
I have recently written about Gabor Mate, who advocates the use of ayahuasca to assist with the self-exploration necessary to connect with authenticity. He very clearly indicates that the ceremony itself is critical. While my friend did not seem to have reacted to the ceremony as planned, I will venture to say that even this unplanned reaction seems to point in a positive direction for ongoing consideration of ancient rituals and medicines in a time when we need options to treatment as usual. Those being heavily reliant on the idea of “evidence-based” interventions and heavily advertised pharmeceuticals. It would seem from my friend’s report, that these ceremonies and “medicines” may work on the unconscious in surprising and healing ways.