Exploring Magical Worlds With Ayahuasca Drinkers

ayahuasca vine
The Banisteriopsis caapi, a vine found in the jungles of South America that is used to brew the psychedelic drink ayahuasca. Paul Hessell, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

"Hear of experiences both miraculous and terrifying, humorous and adventurous, humbling and revelatory, about Westerners drinking ayahuasca," promised an email I received, pitching an event to be held on Saturday called the "Ayahuasca Monologues."

"For centuries, shamans have drunk this powerful concoction," the note continued, "to heal illness, obtain mystical insights, contact spirit guides, and explore magical worlds."

Your loyal correspondent was intrigued, besides being a bit skeptical. Then again, his Saturday night plans consisted of watching the NCAA basketball tournament with friends, which is not exactly a unique experience. So he went, girlfriend in tow.

The line at the Santos Party House, a concert venue on the edge of New York City's Chinatown, stretched to the end of the block. Attendees were from all walks of life; there were clean-cut business-types, college liberal arts majors, designers and doctors. It didn't seem to differ much from the crowd one might observe at, say, an Arcade Fire show.

Except about half the audience, by a show of hands early on, had drank ayahuasca—an Amazonian brew that causes one to vomit and to have intense visions for hours, and which many say has incredible healing powers, leading to recovery from illnesses no other treatment touched, like depression, drug addiction and even psoriasis.

Lengths of pounded caapi vine are cooked for hours in a large pot along with a second ingredient such as Psychotria viridis to create the psychedelic ayahuasca brew. Chris Kilham

It must also be noted that the audience, through some sort of osmotic consciousness, had decided at the outset that they would be seated. All at once. But there were no seats—only a hard tile floor, dampened by leavings from a spring snowstorm. This proud journalist, and his protesting girlfriend, were compelled (by the communal nature of so many nonconformists, no less!) into sitting amidst the puddles.

Hamilton Morris, a writer and journalist with Vice, first to assume the stage, explained that ayahuasca is usually a mixture of two substances, made from the bark of a jungle vine called Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of shrub Psychotria viridis. The brew's psychoactive properties are thought to derive from the presence of a psychedelic compound called DMT. Typically when a person ingests DMT, it is broken down in the gut. But ayahuasca also contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (from the B. Caapi vine), which prevent DMT from being broken down.

The ayahuasca experience is intense, involving colorful vision and encounters with spirits. It can lead to great and profound joy, but also has its difficult moments, said Chris Kilham, author of a book called The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook: The Essential Guide to Ayahuasca Journeying.

"It's not a fun substance," Morris said. Performance artist Shelly Mars told a story about drinking ayahuasca in a room with many strangers outside New York City. Soon after, everybody drank their allotment of the foul-tasting brew, somebody started yelling, "I was raped!"

Drinking ayahuasca often leads to purging in the form of vomiting. These are not polite, quiet pukes, though, but rather booming, bellowing barfs. But this—and experiences like the trauma revisitation witnessed by Ms. Mars—can be part of the healing process, Kilham says. Drinking the brew causes people to confront their demons, so to speak, which can be dark and terrifying, but can ultimately lead to relief. As he told Newsweek in an interview in January, ayahuasca helped him conquer the crippling sadness caused by his mother's death.

After a brief intermission punctuated by a somewhat comical raffle of astrology lessons (and other offerings involving herbal medicine) and a surprisingly good musician who played tambourine and sang in Portuguese, the audience was encouraged to sit once more and indulge in a "gong meditation." This consisted of listening to a gong for about 20 minutes—and soaking up some more floor water.

Chris Kilham with leaf cuttings from the Chacruna plant, also known as Psychotria viridis. It is one of the ingredients traditionally used to brew ayahuasca. Zoe Helene

Next, noted anthropologist and ayahuasca researcher Luis Eduardo Luna emphasized the importance of the brew for understanding the human mind, and its sacredness for its ability to heal and change hearts. "Ayahuasca can help us save the world," he said.

Finally, John Sheldon, a musician and former lead guitarist with Van Morrison, gave a talk, of sorts. It was in the form of a song that explained how, many years ago, he had become depressed, and was prescribed Prozac. He felt a bit better but was uncomfortable relying on a medicine for the rest of his life. So, on a trip to the Peruvian Amazon, he decided to drink ayahuasca. He was overwhelmed with the beautiful sounds of the animals in the jungle around him, and was able to confront his depression, which took the form of a dragon who lived in his chest. The depression finally lifted when he decided to love his sadness, and the dragon flew away; both he and the beast each realized that they no longer needed each other, he said.

"And after that, I never took a pill again," he sang. The room erupted in applause.