What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a tea that’s made from two plants found in the Amazon rainforest. What’s remarkable about these two plants is that when used together they allow the psychedelic DMT (dimethyltriptamine) to be absorbed.
How did indigenous people learn to combine these two plants out of all the plants in the jungle?
They say, “The plants told them.”
How is ayahuasca used in South America?
Indigenous people use it for a variety of purposes. Primarily it’s a medicine for health problems which are considered to be spiritual in origin. It’s also used to improve luck in love or to locate good hunting sites. And, important for living in the jungle, it also removes parasites. The word, ayahuasca, means vine of the dead – ayahuasca opens up portals so people can communicate with the dead.
Practitioners call ayahuasca a medicine. Why?
Ayahuasca is considered a sacred plant medicine. In the West, it’s used mostly for healing both psychologically and spiritually within a ritual or shamanic context. It’s called a medicine to clarify that it’s not just another psychedelic drug that can be used recreationally.
Ayahuasca is also considered a religious sacrament in the Santo Daime and Uniao de Vegetal churches. These churches originate from Brazil and they’re expanding into the West. They use ayahuasca in their services strictly for spiritual purposes.
How can this medicine help with depression, addictions, PTSD and anxiety?
My research study asked, “How did you change as a result of your ayahuasca experience?” 81 people completed an in-depth questionnaire and I interviewed another 50. A few people had what I call miraculous cures.
“Depression is GONE. I now have a feeling of self-worth. I’m slower to anger and quicker to smile.”
“I can hardly drink now.” “Alcohol is not appealing any more.” “I used to drink too much alcohol. I do not enjoy it since meeting Grandmother Ayahuasca.” “I have more awareness around abuse of alcohol, so I drink less.” “No desire for alcohol.”
Not everyone has an immediate miraculous experience. Some people described more of a process of incremental growth and unfolding.
“I’m more socially outgoing, more attentive to others, and less self-absorbed; more open, spontaneous, and expressive. I’m less self-critical, more accepting with a better understanding of who I am as opposed to who I thought I was. I feel much less sadness, less anxiety and gloomy thoughts. I have flashes of joy and hope, the possibility of being alive. I’m aware of the pos- sibility of transcendence. I want to live before I die.”
Is there research indicating these therapeutic benefits?
Yes, such research is just beginning and more is needed because ayahuasca is showing great therapeutic potential for a variety of diagnoses. Ayahuasca is the most difficult of all the psychedelics to study since it’s impossible to control the dose or potency of the medicine. Shamans claim the intensity of the medicine depends upon what time of day the plants are harvested, what prayers are said over the plants. Spanish researchers are using freeze dried ayahuasca to control for these factors but when an American study asked shamans to work with the freeze dried medicine, they refused saying, “The spirit of the medicine is not there.”
Ayahuasca is similar to other psychedelics so in the book I drew on current on psilocybin and LSD research, especially the studies using fMRI data. Research in England is exploring how psychedelics can lead to dramatic changes in worldview and sense of self. Studies at Johns Hopkins show enduring change after a mystical experience with psilocybin. At NYU and UCLA they’re finding reduced anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
What’s the experience of drinking ayahuasca?
The tea, itself, is like drinking mud – it’s disgusting. And it leads to purging, both vomiting and diarrhea. So it’s not likely to be used recreationally. The purge is important to the healing process – there’s a letting go and a cleansing.
Ayahuasca is a visionary medicine – some people see elaborate displays of fireworks, others see scenes from their lives unfolding in front of their eyes like a movie, and others are actually in the scene, reliving the events from their past which can be from childhood or trauma. Some describe encounters with animals, people who have died, and ancestors. People can experience a wide range of emotions during ayahuasca ceremonies – from ecstasy to profound sorrow. They can also have incredibly therapeutic experiences where they feel deeply loved in a way that changes them forever.
Is ayahuasca dangerous?
No, you can’t overdose because you’d just vomit if you drank too much. But there are warnings not to drink ayahuasca if you’re on antidepressants, specifically SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or MAOIs (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors). The most conservative advice is to be off these meds for at least five weeks.
You do have to be careful that the setting is safe and that the people in charge are legitimate and have enough helpers to watch over everyone. There are an increasing number of stories of rape and death in South America so be very careful choosing where you go. This is all word of mouth and that’s not always 100% reliable. Ayahuasca is illegal here in the states so the ceremonies are held discreetly. The only exception are the churches in NM and OR that have the right to use it as a spiritual sacrament.
What inspired you to research ayahuasca?
In my first ceremony I re-experienced my father’s death – he died at my home. I traveled with him as he left his body and dissolved into the universe. This was such a profound experience – It was healing and also it prepared me for my own death journey
From that first ceremony, I’ve been amazed at the therapeutic value of this medicine. As a therapist, I’ve had lots of my own personal therapy, and my experiences with ayahausca have been the most healing. But I’m not just talking about the ceremony, itself. The therapeutic effect continues far beyond the ceremony and my research has focused on how people change after the ceremony. My book describes how therapy can help people integrate those changes into their daily lives.
What do you mean by Grandmother Ayahuasca?
The biggest surprise from my research was that 75% of the 81 respondents described an on-going relationship with the Spirit of Ayahuasca. In many indigenous cultures, plants are considered to have spirit teachers associated with them and Grandmother Ayahuasca is one of these plant teachers.
I had my own relationship with Grandmother Ayahuasca but I didn’t realize that most everyone else was also hearing from her – sometimes actually hearing a voice like I did, sometimes an intuitive communication in dreams or meditation, both in and out of ceremony. In other words, whether under the influence and not.
I can’t explain what this voice is – it’s a continuing mystery to me. But I can say that listening to Grandmother Ayahuasca has changed my life – certainly it’s upset my worldview and added other dimensions to my life.
What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?
The book is intended to be a therapeutic container for your ayahuasca experience. It will help prepare you and it will help you to integrate afterward in the most therapeutic way possible. I use my own experiences and those of others to illustrate how you can work psychologically and spiritually with ayahuasca experiences. The book will also help guide therapists who are working with people attending ayahuasca ceremonies.
About the author:
Rachel Harris, PhD is the author of Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety. She received a National Institutes of Health New Investigator’s Award, has published more than forty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals, and has worked as a psychological consultant to Fortune 500 companies and the United Nations. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine. Visit her online at http://www.listeningtoayahuasca.com.
Jesse Ritvo MD will join the faculty of The American Meditation Institute (AMI) for its 8th annual mind/body medicine CME conference October 25-29, 2016 at the Cranwell Resort and Spa in Lenox, Massachusetts. Entitled “American Meditation: The Heart and Science of Yoga,” this 30 credit hour training is accredited through the Albany Medical College Office of Continuing Medical Education. In his upcoming lecture on “Alleviating Trauma, PTSD and Building Resilience,” Dr. Ritvo explains that, “The mantra meditation and easy-gentle yoga taught at the upcoming AMI physicians’ conference is an incomparable technology for calming the mind and relieving both physician and patient burnout. While alleviating the symptoms of trauma, PTSD and physicians’ burnout, these practices can build the kind of resilience we all need to live a more healthy, relaxed, and balanced life.”
Dr. Ritvo graduated from Harvard College and received his medical degree from the Brown-Dartmouth Medical Program. He is currently the assistant medical director of inpatient psychiatry at the University of Vermont Health Center-Central Vermont Medical Center, in addition to his position as assistant professor of medicine at UVM.
AMI’s 8th annual “Heart and Science of Yoga®” CME conference will provide easy-to-learn practices that work synergistically (within the intricate medium of the stress system) to reduce inflammation and burnout and allostatic load while working toward establishing homeostasis. With fewer than 75 physicians attending, the program is designed to encourage active participant interaction by combining engaging lectures, practicums, panel discussions and Q&A. Although recent studies have demonstrated that 75% of health care costs associated with chronic diseases could be prevented or reversed by lifestyle changes, many clinicians do not offer themselves, or their patients, strategies that encourage meaningful change.
The devotion, enthusiasm, and teaching methodology of the entire AMI faculty will combine to create a dynamic and interactive course for healthcare professionals. Each AMI faculty member is committed to the advancement and training of Yoga Science as holistic mind/body medicine. In addition to Dr. Ritvo’s lecture on “Alleviating Trauma, PTSD and Building Resilience,” presenters include program director Leonard Perlmutter, AMI founder, meditational therapist and award-winning author; Mark Pettus MD, Director of Medical Education and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems; Anthony Santilli MD, board-certified in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine; Prashant Kaushik MD, board-certified Rheumatologist; Sara Lazar PhD, instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and an Associate Researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital; Susan Lord MD, a private practice holistic physician focusing on prevention and treatment, and former course director for the The Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s “Food As Medicine” program in Washington, DC; Beth Netter MD MT, holistic physician and acupuncturist, Albany, NY; Jyothi Bhatt BAMS, Ayurvedic practitioner and faculty member of Kripalu School of Ayurveda and Physician’s Assistant at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center; and Jenness Cortez Perlmutter, faculty member of The American Meditation Institute.
According to conference faculty director Leonard Perlmutter, “Most of the obstacles to health and well being––including trauma and PTSD––reside in the mind. Meditators learn how to develop the tools that can change the software of the mind and therefore, the reality they experience. By incorporating the practices taught at this conference, physicians can sharpen the focus of their attention, enhance their creativity, and experience a sense of purpose and comfort to better serve themselves, their families, their patients and their medical practices.”
About the American Meditation Institute
The American Meditation Institute (AMI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization devoted to the teaching and practice of Yoga Science, meditation and its allied disciplines as mind/body medicine. In its holistic approach to wellness, AMI combines the healing arts of the East with the practicality of modern Western science. The American Meditation Institute offers a wide variety of classes, retreats, and teacher training programs. AMI also publishes Transformation, a quarterly journal of meditation as holistic mind/body medicine. Call 518.674.8714 for a postal or email subscription.