After Ayahuasca (Part 1)

What I intended and hoped for

As I wrote [here]( before my recent Ayahuasca retreat, my personal growth has stalled a bit recently and I was ready for Ayahuasca to break me down, show me how unconscious defences/ coping-mechanisms limit me, and inform my personal development plan for the next 5-10 years.

For the first two Ayahuasca ceremonies I asked ‘Please show me what I need to see’. For the third, and for the San Pedro ceremony I asked ‘Please show me who I am beyond this ego’ (i.e. I asked for an ‘ego death’, which is arguably the most extreme experience you can ‘get’ when using these traditional psychedelics).

I went into each ceremony as open as I know how to be, hungry for new insight, free of skepticism, trusting an ancient healing process that has benefited hundreds of thousands of people across centuries. In my video diary before the first ceremony I expressed feeling calm and ‘so curious’. I also had high hopes for my five comrades, whom I liked a lot.

What actually happened

Nothing. Each of the three nights Ayahuasca had a similar initial effect on me: a degree of paralysis, nausea and vomiting. There were some minor auditory and visual distortions, but no visions nor visuals to speak of. No emotions beyond hope that gradually turned to disappointment. No sense of an altered state of consciousness, no encounters with spirit, no new insights.

It is said that vomiting, shitting, shaking etc are ways in which Ayahuasca ‘purges’ toxins and trauma from the body, and that people often sense this as it happens. To me it felt like I’d been poisoned and was simply purging the poison.

Each night as the worst of the physical effects subsided they were replaced either by a sense of well-being (relief?!) and peace or an urge to sleep.

During the first Ayahuasca ceremony I maintained a sort of (breath- and body-based) meditation until the early hours, in order to be present and ready to ‘lean in’ to whatever was - surely! - about to happen. Later I felt cozy, safe/cared-for (by the wonderful helpers) and joyful, especially about the sound of the river - I love rivers!

More experienced friends told me I shouldn’t have meditated, so during the second ceremony I just allowed my mind to wander. It didn’t wander anywhere interesting. Later I fought the urge to sleep for a while and then gave in.

During the third ceremony I took a larger dose and was consequently more paralysed. My hands felt locked into claw shapes so it was hard to pick up and hold my sick bucket, wipe my arse, etc. That night I knew I’d have to drink a second cup to have any hope of an altered state of consciousness, but when you’ve spent three nights drinking - and throwing up - poison, the notion of drinking any more of it is just inconceivable.

You take San Pedro in the morning and it lasts all day. This was a very different experience indeed! Again the effect was mostly physical: I was sick several times and also shook uncontrollably for at least 12 hours! In addition he knocked out my thinking brain; I either didn’t think at all or was exceedingly confused. I suspect I achieved some kind of regression state because I was unable to determine my own physical needs. Specifically I was convinced I had shat myself and subsequently confused as to whether I needed to shit! I spent two long periods sitting in the river partly for this reason, though I never actually did shit! I then lay in soaking wet clothes for ages unable to think what to do about it until someone helped me to change. I also cried quite deeply for a while - which felt good - though there were no associated thoughts that I can recall. When given some fruit to eat I thought the pineapple chunks were quite the most delicious and surprising thing.

What friends have observed

During the retreat I made a video diary, which some of my close people have watched via Facebook.

More experienced friends have said that my experience was not Nothing but Something and that I must be patient and trust that she (Mother Ayahuasca) works in abstract ways. I’m doing my best to stay open while grappling with a sense that something which seems to work like magic for many people proved to be the Emperor’s new clothes for me.

My brother was struck by how many different emotions I expressed in my videos. He suggested I make a list of the things I felt grateful for during the ceremonies/retreat, and another list of things I feel grateful for now, such as sufficient protein, not feeling sick, having my full faculties back.

Anne asked me if I dream but I seldom remember dreams. She said: ‘Your subconscious is hiding itself pretty well.’

Shama said: ‘Maybe you have seen everything you need to see. You’ve been exploring for a long time now. Maybe now is the time to look forward or be in the moment.’

Of course I have wondered if I did something wrong or impeded my own experience with the very defences I wanted help to break down. (Oh you’re four foot tall and you want some growth pills? They’re over there, on that six foot high shelf. What do you mean you can’t reach them?)

Uri said it's easy for advocates to imply it's your fault it didn’t work because you over-thought it or your expectations were unrealistic or whatever, and reminded me we have [experiences]( that prove I’m not incapable of benefiting from psychedelics. ‘Just trust yourself’, he said, adding 'You're still walking the plain between two mountains. There's plenty to love, cherish and enjoy'.

Kate said I’ve already done a ton of self-work so perhaps it would have taken a lot for me to feel ‘impressed’ by Ayahuasca. I’m grateful for all these friends’ engagement with my experience.

Where I’m at now

I went to the retreat hoping for a step-change in my personal growth. While profoundly disappointed, I’m determined to build on the motivation that sent me down to the Amazon, and to regard the retreat as the turning of a page. To this end I have made some resolutions, for which I’m giving Ayahuasca no credit because I wrote most of these down in a post to close friends the day before the retreat!

But what about the ‘steaming pile of shit I cannot see’?

Six years ago I had a relationship which was borderline abusive. My lover told me – amongst other charming things! – that I have ‘a steaming pile of shit I cannot see’. Of course I tried to get my therapist to tell me what the pile of shit is and of course she did not. During a conversation with my friend MJB they ventured that my ability to believe in the possibility of something so immense which only others can see might itself be the ‘pile of shit’. When I repeated this to my therapist she laughed heartily.

So maybe Shama is right, and there was never going to be some big reveal. Maybe I already have enough information to work with.

What I intend to do next

I have resumed my [daily sitting meditation practice]( This is the simplest and best way to get better at noticing everything (mindfulness) and a great way to cultivate compassion, love and gratitude.

I have set up bells on my phone for a simple daily practice:

Minutes 1-4: Arriving, how does my whole body feel?

5-8: Focus on breath

9-12: Focus on sounds

13-16: What thoughts and feelings are arising? Compassion for self

17-20: Focus on gratitude, love, compassion for others

This week here in Cuenca I went on a successful hunt for a t-shirt bearing the tourist board slogan AMA LA VIDA (LOVE LIFE). I do love life, but sometimes I forget to notice.

I will work through some practices for tuning into emotions, kindly given by my friends Sophie, MJB and Monica.

Though their lack of self-awareness still beggars belief, I have decided (as I believe it is possible to do) to draw a line under resenting my parents for all my shit. Instead I intend to cultivate compassion for their suffering, forgiveness, and gratitude.

In contrast with my rather wound-up, meh state of mind before the retreat I now feel lighter (not least physically; I’m 5-6 kilos lighter than I’ve ever been as an adult!) and more exuberant. I can’t wait to be among amazing landscapes as I pedal up and down Andes in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. I’m excited to spend time formulating intentions and plans for my return to Europe in 2020. Having - rightly, I think - given so much priority to my relationship with myself these past few years, I want to make more space for other love relationships of many kinds.

I will write Part 2 in a few months’ time.