An article penned by Dr. Gabor Maté, MD, a medical doctor and author, who is widely-recognized for his research and insights into addiction, stress, and childhood development, is found below. He has a gift for compassionate writing with clarity and insight, and I believe it to be well-worth a read for everyone regardless of our experience with the medicine.
Keep in mind, this article (Psychedelics in Unlocking the Unconscious: From Cancer to Addiction) was written more than 7 years ago. To the best of my knowledge, he has continued to associate in ceremony with experienced curanderos who have long history of traditional training (plant dietas) in the Shipibo tradition. I think it is safe to assume that his understanding of the ayahuasca tradition and the unique needs of the Western participant, has likely developed further since the original writing of this piece.
Until 5 years ago—I write this in 2013—I knew nothing about ayahuasca, having only vaguely heard about it. As a practitioner trained in the orthodox Western allopathic model, I have long been aware not only of the astonishing achievements of modern medicine, but also of its limitations.
What we, as medical doctors, cannot cut out, poison or burn, we can only alleviate, at best. We are mesmerized by cure and know nothing about healing. We can mend broken bones, transplant hearts and livers, but can do little for fractured souls or help transform traumatized minds. Above all, we do not get that people’s illnesses, mental or physical, are not isolated, accidental, and unfortunate events, but manifestations of lives in a psychological and social context, the results of experiences and beliefs and lifelong patterns of relating to the world. Hence, we can suppress manifestations but rarely get at causes. We separate the mind from the body and the individual from the environment. And we are arrogant, not in the sense that we think we know everything, but in our conviction that what we do not know is not worth knowing; what we have not studied is not worth investigating, that frameworks of awareness parallel to ours have no validity, are not worth exploring.
I have worked in family practice, palliative care with the terminally ill, and with addictions in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, notorious as North America’s most concentrated area of drug use. Both from personal observation and from the study of the new science of psychoneuroimmunology, I knew that cancer, and most chronic illness, represented lifelong emotional patterns of self-suppression, based on early childhood emotional loss or suffering. Too, I saw that addiction—whether to drugs or to any ultimately self-harming habit, be it sexual roving, gambling, compulsive working, internet surfing, or shopping—is always an attempt to escape pain, to shed, if only temporarily, an unbearable unease with the self. It was after my book on addiction was published, in which is demonstrated the relationship between childhood trauma and adult substance dependency, that I began to receive inquiries about what I knew regarding ayahuasca and the healing of addiction.
I knew nothing, and after a while found the inquiries importunate and bothersome. Keen as I was to investigate ways of healing beyond the narrow medical model, I, too, did not want to have to learn about something new. I could not imagine how a psychedelic substance would help anyone overcome addiction or help heal PTSD or ingrained patterns of self-neglect that contribute to illness. The universe had other ideas.
I have since worked with ayahuasca, and such work, while a small part of what I do, has become the most exciting among my healing activities, the one in which I see the most transformative potential.
In the healing retreats we have conducted (we: my friends, ayahuasqueros—more about them below—and I), we have worked with people struggling with drug use and sexual addiction, people facing cancer and degenerative neurological illness, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and chronic fatigue, and just people seeking wholeness, meaning, an experience of their true selves rather than their ingrained but inauthentic habitual patterns. We have worked with people looking for themselves, for their parents, for love, for God, for truth, for their child selves, for community, for nature. I cannot say that everyone found everything they were looking for, far from it. I can say that most people took major steps forward on their path toward authenticity and found significant liberation from stultifying, limiting mind patterns, and behaviors. Some have transformed their lives. Some are no longer addicted. Many are no longer content to be other than who they are.
‘Since the end of February, my first ayahuasca experience, I am daily experiencing a shift in my consciousness, my presence within and with others including animals. I see everything I’ve done from a completely new perspective and live it. Daily.’
I am able to see the difference I make to ease pain in others, help them see themselves in a different light and give them a bit of brilliance and sparkle even as they are rolled out in ambulances, while both of us are aware that we will not see each other anymore in this form.
So writes a man his 30s, himself with a history of trauma, who works with traumatized people in British Columbia, Canada.
A similar chord is stuck by a man from the opposite shore of North America and with a different life path, a real estate broker from New York: ‘‘In my day-to-day capitalistic pursuits I often meditate on ways that I might help other people in a deeper way.’’ And, from a woman whose life had been blighted by chronic pain and addiction, the template for which had been a history of childhood sexual abuse:
Today I stand in awe of life’s blessings and the sacred and precious nature of life. No wonder it is a miracle. I never understood until now that life continues in its miraculous nature from the point of conception until we draw our last breath.
Anyone who has worked with the ayahuasca as a facilitator, healer, guide, or shaman will be familiar with such testimonials to the power of the plant and the potential blessings it confers. But wherein resides that power, and what in the experience with it grants such benefits? And what might be some the risks?
My own first experience with the plant was in a ceremony led by a Peruvian shaman, in Canada. There were a few words of introduction, some silent meditation, but little else by way of preparation. We drank, about forty of us in a large tent, and sat in silence. And then the music began, and some icaros in native Peruvian languages, but mostly Spanish-sung cantos and some songs in English, to the accompaniment of guitars and percussion. I do not recall after what period of time, but I found tears flowing from my eyes, tears of joy, tears of love, and tears of gratitude. Love for whom? Love. Gratitude toward what or for what? Gratitude.
And I saw and felt how I had myself fled from love so much of my life, failed to recognize it, feared to embrace it, betrayed it. I understood how so many—all—of my habits, including my addictive behaviors, were an escape from pain I had not wanted to feel, from a deep fear I had not wanted to experience. And with the presence of love I also knew that there was nothing to escape from, no reason to run.
I was able to grasp why so many people had written to me suggesting ayahuasca as a modality in the treatment of addiction: If we can allow ourselves to experience the pain, we don’t need to run away from it, we do not need to seek oblivion in the temporary release substances or behaviors can grant us. And, of course, if we touch the core of love, we see there is nothing to run from any more. There never was, if we but knew it.
I experienced the plant twice more within a week, and by that week’s end I was committed to incorporating it, somehow, into my work. The opportunity arose almost immediately, as I met Canadian ayahuasqueros who had studied in Peru under the guidance of a Shipibo shaman. [Note: He is referring to Ronin Niwe, or “Dave”, a Canadian who apprenticed with Francois Demange, then later with Shipibo onaya Guillermo Arevalo. To the best of my knowledge, ties to Guillermo Arevalo have been severed after multiple accusations of sexual abuse (and witchcraft) have been leveled against Guillermo Arevalo] They were humble and dedicated servants of the plant. They had participated in many ceremonies, some held in isolated jungle venues, in solitude, alone for days, following diets (dietas) without many of the condiments and comforts of ‘‘Western’’ food: Not for the faint hearted.
In the Amazon Basin, where they had learned and honed their craft, the ceremonies are led by traditional shamans in villages where the culture supports and holds the experience; where the community provides the ongoing context for the learning, healing, and transformation that may result. Our dilemma was: how to adapt the work in the urbanized, fragmented, materialistic society of North America? And, further, how to provide a healing experience for people with complex psychological patterns engendered by an alienated, denatured, nonspiritual culture that celebrates individualism but discourages individuality, that promotes conformism without offering real community? How to create a safe, supportive environment for this work? Our first thought was that in the North American setting the challenge is to provide a context that somehow approximates, or at least substitutes for, the original environment in which the plant has been used, even if only transiently. Having a group of strangers gather for a ceremony one evening and disperse in morning would not suffice. We have to create a temporary village, bring together a group of people who are committed to their own and to one another’s growth, and we have to keep them together long enough for the process to unfold. Second, the event needed to occur away from the noise- and activity-pollution of the city, close to nature, enfolded by the sounds and sights, and smells of nature. Hence, the concept of a week-long retreat in a rural setting where people would live together, if only for a few days, share meals, and get to know one another very intimately in a short space of time.
But the deeper problem is rooted in the very nature of the ayahuasca experience itself. The plant teaches what we need to learn, but not always in a language immediately accessible to us. In a culture whose symbols are largely artificial, would the symbols conjured by the plant be understood by participants? Often they are not. The visions the plant brings to people can be beautiful, magnificent, and inspiring and engender the purest joy and gratitude; they can also be threatening, incomprehensible to the mind, and arouse terror. The emotions evoked can be gentle and soothing and suffused with peace and happiness; they can also be excruciatingly painful, frightful, and induce experiences of profound loss. The felt sense can be of ineffable freedom or of dark imprisonment. People can see and be their divine selves or be identified with the most diabolical elements of their personalities. Without preparation, processing and integration, the ayahuasca experience can be confusing and, for many, incomplete.
It has long been understood that the transaction between the plant and the human is never just one of a chemical effect. According to my ayahuasquero friends, the plant has a spirit; is a spirit. As a scientifically trained physician, I have no idea what they are talking about. Yet, on some level, I know they are right. It is certainly not a matter of ‘‘here, drink this tea and call me in the morning.’’ The ceremony, the setting, the chanting, the relationship of shaman, and guide to participant are at least as important as the brew. That is why I was so amused to read a well-known Canadian writer publicly explain that he drank the tea in some friend’s living room, without any ceremonial support, and experienced ‘‘nothing.’’ He was fortunate, I think.
For reasons discussed above, in the North American, or more generally, in the Northern hemispheric setting, even the ceremony may not be enough. It is, for some, but may leave others bewildered. The deep psychological and spiritual dynamics potentially brought to our awareness during ceremony require guidance, both before and after, for their full integration. Even participants who have lovely experiences may not derive the complete benefit without some guidance and help with interpretation.
As one who offers such guidance, I am unconcerned with the subjective nature of a person’s process, whether or not he saw beauty or monstrosity, whether or not she felt relief or intense discomfort, joyousness or horror. What matters is the teaching in each person’s experience, and that teaching arises from their lives, their formative influences, their present situation, and their present needs.
‘‘We ordinarily believe that we know who we are, what we are, what we are going to do, what life is about, what should happen,’’ writes the great spiritual master A. H. Almaas. “Inquiry means challenging all these things. Do we really know?’’ Almaas was teaching about inquiry in a different context, but whether or not he would endorse such a view, I see the ayahuasca experience as primarily one of inquiry. Everything that occurs, or does not occur, is the subject of curiosity, of exploration. The question is simply, what is the meaning of the experience I am having? How does it relate to where I have been and to where I may be going? Who is having the experience, or whom do I believe is having the experience? From such a perspective it really does not matter that this person visualized beauty while another beheld trauma. We are not seeking this or that experience; we are seeking the truth in any experience. There are no ‘‘bad trips,’’ only opportunities to learn. It is never the painful or frightening visions or emotional states that make an ayahuasca journey bewildering or disturbing—only the lack of meaning a person may be left with, for lack of proper guidance and support. Ayahuasca, in the right setting, helps to reveal meaning.
That addictions or illnesses like cancer or rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis are related to trauma is a novel idea to doctors trained in the biological and genetic determinism characterizing modern medical practice, but it is hardly news to anyone who has interviewed addicted human beings or who is familiar with the research literature on the relationship between childhood adversity and adult disease.
Childhood trauma—either the direct trauma of abuse or the indirect trauma of emotional loss—engenders addiction for three main reasons. First, it ingrains profound pain in the mind and body of the child, pain that the person will later seek to escape. In my 12 years of work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, for example, I did not meet a single female client who had not been sexually abused as a child; not a single person, male or female, who had not experienced some form of trauma, neglect or abandonment. The question in addiction, my mantra is, is not why the addiction, but why the pain. And that, of course, is what the research shows: For each adverse childhood experience, the risk of addiction increases exponentially. Second, traumatic experiences shape the neurological circuits of the developing child in such ways as to potentiate the appeal of substances. In short, the microarchitecture and neurochemistry of the brain reflect our formative influences, and chief among these are our relationships with our caregiving environment. Third, our self-view and our view of the world are also created by our early interactions. As the Buddha taught, we create the world with our minds. What modern psychology has contributed is the understanding that before we create the world with our minds, the world creates our minds.
As stated above, cancer, autoimmune conditions of the joints or the intestines, and neurodegenerative diseases may also be traced to negative early experiences. The latter can trigger lifelong a tendency towards inflammation, undermine the immune system, and impair or excessively activate the body’s stress response mechanisms. Further, they result in the child’s adapting coping mechanisms of emotional self-suppression that can significantly disable the immune system. Many studies have shown the relationship between emotional repression and disease. A recent Canadian study found that people abused in childhood have a nearly 50 % risk of having cancer as adults.
Ayahuasca can evoke direct but long-suppressed memories of trauma. It can also trigger emotional states and visions of horror and pain that are not direct recollections, but emotional imprints of trauma. There is nothing wrong with that—so long as the person can stay present to their experience, and can accompany themselves through the pain and grief and fear that may arise. As Peter Levine teaches us, trauma is not simply in what happens; it is in our inability or lack of opportunity to move through the process of trauma. For a child to move through his or her painful experience, he or she needs the presence of a supportive adult. Children become traumatized not only because terrible things happen to them, but also because they must endure that terror alone, without support. In fact, they must suppress even their conscious awareness of what occurs to them, simply in order to survive. Suppressed, deeply ingrained, sublimated, diverted, and compensated for in many completely inauthentic ways, the trauma becomes the source of addictive patterns and of coping mechanisms that lead to many illnesses of body and mind. The healing capacity of the ayahuasca experience resides significantly in the plant’s ability to evoke the painful experiences of childhood self while having those experiences witnessed by the empathic curiosity of the adult self. ‘‘I went to all the sad places of my childhood,’’ one participant shared, ‘‘but I accompanied myself there with understanding and love.’’
The ayahuasca ceremony can take us beneath the false world-view we developed and have lived since childhood, and can reveal the pain underneath the coping mechanisms of the false self. It is when that pain emerges that we see clearly what we have been running and hiding from, either by means of addictions or by other means that have protected us from feeling the hurt: being ‘‘nice,’’ for example, taking on the needs of others while ignoring our own, manipulating our environment, and seeking approval or success or the acceptance of our peers or of our families. It is that pain that can manifest in disturbing visions or feelings during ceremony.
We may experience love and gratitude, as I was fortunate to during my first ayahuasca journey. Or, as many have, we may be visited by spirit healers in human, divine, or animal form. We may see jungle creatures and jungle plants, and these may talk to us, invite us, and guide us (I have never had such visions, though many I have worked with have). These experiences of love or guidance is our experience of truth, of the universal love that underlies all experience but is often, in our mundane lives, clouded and obscured by experience. This is how we learn that there is no reason to run.
Our retreat begins on the evening of arrival with introductions and with people sharing their goals for the retreat: what problem they wish to resolve, what they wish to learn, where they perceive the need for completion in their lives. There is no agenda other than what each individual brings. Our goal, the goal of the team leading the retreat, is to assist each person to find their truth. We trust that truth. We believe, as Jesus said, ‘‘You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’’ The first day is spent in group process. People are assisted to explore their issues, their emotions, their beliefs, to relate all that to their formative experiences, to see how their past influences and, in many cases, rules their present. The ultimate intent is to enter and experience the present moment, to be free of beliefs and coping patterns that represent the past. The first ceremony occurs that night. Beforehand, intentions are set—not as fixed and limiting goals, but as points of inquiry, as anchors to help people stay grounded in their purpose during ceremony. ‘‘I intend to experience my childhood,’’ someone will say. Or, ‘‘I want to see what keeps me from love,’’ or ‘‘I want to see my fear,’’ or ‘‘my power,’’ or ‘‘my clarity.’’
My role as guide/therapist effectively stops once the candles are extinguished and the brew is ingested, although I remain available to anyone who might need support. The ayahuasqueros chant—not generically, not to the group only, not according to some predetermined playlist, but sensitively to the unfolding group experience, mindful of the energies being generated and released, and responsive to the needs of individuals for their intervention. They work hands-on with people to
release energetic or emotional blockages, to identify and unlock resistances. And throughout, they chant, though we all hear it, to specific people at specific times. After sleep and meals, the next afternoon and the following day are full immersion and detailed processing of each person’s experience during ceremony.
Now the teaching deepens and power grows, the coming of insight accelerates, the bonds among participants are strengthened, the opening to inquiry widens. Two more ceremonies follow, preceded and followed by the group work already described, with some participants requesting or needing some individual attention or counseling throughout.
It is astonishing and gratifying to witness the power, wisdom, mutual support, and love inherent in each group, no matter what the specific problems or intentions or concerns the participants individually may bring. And, need I say, to witness the power of the plant to catalyze people’s growth, to empower their determination to be themselves, to experience their true selves, and to teach them the path they need to follow. We have successfully applied this model not just to middle-class participants well experienced in psychological work, but also in an aboriginal community in British Columbia, heavily traumatized by oppression and abuse. The results, here too, have been gratifying and we have been invited to return repeatedly.
Ayahuasca is not for everyone, and even for the ones it calls, it is, once more, no panacea. The egoic personality, supported and threatened and egged on by the materialistic culture we live in, will seek to assert itself even in the face of new knowledge and new insight. Today’s cathartic realization may, by next week, become just a vague memory. Unless ongoing work is done to integrate the learning, what the Buddha calls our ‘‘habit energies’’ soon re-establish their dominance. And the world, we may be sure, will—because it is largely unconscious—seek to invalidate and suppress our consciousness. We can go back to sleep. No matter how profound our insights, how lovely our connections to our fellow travellers, how fervent our intentions; we can continue to generate suffering for ourselves and for others in our lives. But the beauty of it is, we do not need to fall back asleep. We now have choice.
For some, the plant is contraindicated. People with a history of psychosis or mania are best to avoid it, and I would not accept them at a retreat; not for fear of what would emerge, but for the impossibility of providing long-term care and follow-up in a safe context. Nor can active drug users participate, as the issues of craving and withdrawal would vitiate their experience. But recent users, no longer in withdrawal, have benefited greatly, for reasons I hope I have explained above. People have overcome cocaine addiction, sex addiction, and alcoholism. Even when cure is not possible, healing happens. A man with late-stage ALS— amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known in North America as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in England as motor neuron disease—attended one of our retreats. After his first ayahuasca ceremony he said, ‘‘I came here because I wanted to live. Now I understand that wanting to live is not the same as living longer. It means being fully alive while my life lasts.’’ His last year was peaceful, full of much wisdom, joy, and shared bliss with his family and friends.
‘‘I have always believed no one wanted me here on this Earth,’’ one participant wrote a few months after her retreat: This has drastically colored most all of my experiences. However, during the ayahuasca ceremony, I listened to a voice saying ‘‘I don’t want you to go away, I don’t want you to go away,’’ over and over and over. Also during the ceremony, I cried and remembered the innumerable times in my life I had disappeared when I had listened to the voice that said no one wants me here. Now, providing that basic building block of attention to myself, I find that when I remember I want me here, I have a very different experience of myself and the world. I feel solid in a new way. I do exist. I am here. All of the times I was convinced that no one wanted me here, I was bringing that belief to the situation. It wasn’t actually happening anywhere except in my mind. I have always thought people didn’t like me. Now I know I’m loveable.
That connection to our true selves, hard to achieve or regain in the face of trauma or loss, is what is most precious in this life. Fundamentally, what the plant offers is no magic. It is only the reality and the love: our birthright. And that, I believe, sums up the science, theory, and practice of ayahuasca, as of all true healing modalities: reality and love.