In the past couple of years I've seen a lot of new articles written about Ayahuasca. In general they usually begin with an introduction to the chemical compounds of the two main ingredients most commonly used to create the brew, the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna leaf. I won't go into that here because if you're reading this you've probably already read it at least a dozen times. Instead I want to focus on some of the different approaches folks might take with this sacred medicine and where I've seen that it tends to lead people who choose to work with it in one way or another.
I think it's important to look at the way in which a person might first be introduced to Ayahuasca and how that might affect their decisions and their approach going forward on their spiritual path. Nowadays it's very easy to go to a Facebook group or an online forum with a question ranging from how to find a good shaman, to how to prepare a home-brew, or how to purchase pre-made medicine online, or even how to, yes folks, lead a ceremony. Now, the Internet as you may know is filled with the opinions of all kinds of unique individuals each with their own experiences and energies.
Energies? Yes, energies. Everybody carries with them all kinds of different energies based on the spiritual hygiene of their daily lives. What I mean by that is every space that we move through, every substance we consume, the type of work that we do, the ways in which we congregate - these all have an effect upon our personal energetic blueprint. If, for example, a person regularly congregates in a bar to socialize and also finds themselves regularly inebriated they will be opening themselves up to other energies that will attach to them and influence their decisions, their opinions, their actions and so on. On the other hand, say a person has a little more experience with the spiritual path, they've gone through some training, they've purified through rites of initiation guided by an elder with an intact lineage, and they have a regular practice of yoga, meditation, smudging, plant diets and the like - they are more likely to have a clearer vessel and thus less outside energies influencing their actions. The work conducted in an ayahuasca ceremony is often concerned with removing and transmuting energies from where they don't belong and realigning the energetic blueprint of a participant. I'll discuss different kinds of energies and energy-work in a future article.
So how does a newbie discern up from down while considering whom to seek guidance from? It's your right to ask about a person's medicine credentials, if you will. Ayahuasca is a path, just like Yoga or Chinese medicine. If you have a serious injury from an automobile accident would you ask your friend who has taken a couple yoga classes to lead you into a regular practice? If you had a chronic health issue that might find some relief through acupuncture would you let someone stick needles in you who just ordered a package online along with an introductory book on the nadis? I'd hope not. Your life is not an experiment. Ayahuasca has it's own school, just like Yoga and Chinese medicine, but with master plants that are some of the teachers, along with initiated human teachers too. Look for those who have real experience with training and initiation to help you to answer your questions. It could make worlds, and I mean worlds, of difference on the path ahead.
So what are some of the other ways one might be introduced to this medicine? There are social circles, some of which might be related to churches, there are retreats all over the world actively recruiting new participants, there are private ceremonies for those in the know or who might need deeper work, and for the daring, there is always the option of jumping right into a tradition by going straight to the root (which I don't necessarily recommend right off the bat).
Let's talk about social circles or large group ceremonies. These types of ceremonies have a wide range of styles depending on the container of the tradition or lack thereof. This is where the more superficial work with Ayahuasca is done, because deeper work requires closer attention to the individual. That is not to say that a large group ceremony cannot be healing or illuminating but again it all goes back to training, initiation and lineage of the people leading the work. The function of large group ceremonies tends to be community oriented because as one person learns or evolves so too does the rest of the group.
Be wary, however, of newly formed ayahuasca churches that claim to have legal protection to work in the United States. If it's not Santo Daime or UDV they are not legal. But if legality is not your concern then again, always check the leaders' medicine credentials. How long did they train? Where? With whom? Were they initiated to carry and serve this medicine? By who? Do they know how to heal with it or do they just sing medicine songs? Can they sing ikaros? Do they have a lineage that will vouch for their abilities? Just like in the jungle, there are plenty of opportunists taking advantage of newcomers who happen to have just a little bit more knowledge than you. One of my teachers used to say, beware of the person who knows a little bit - they are the most dangerous.
Many people choose to get acquainted with La Madre in a retreat setting. These can range from a three-day weekend to three months or longer. I definitely recommend that whether you're brand new to the medicine or you've been sitting with her for 20 years that you work in a process at least two nights in a row. Often times we don't get the whole story in one night and we need to check in again - look a little deeper on evening two. A retreat is a great way to introduce yourself to the medicine because it allows for a sort of detox from the cultural conditioning of our day to day lives. If you're going to go this route I suggest you go accompanied with someone with more experience than you or that you really do your research ahead of time. Are you working with traditional people? Find someone who has worked with them. Are there any stories about abuse of any kind? If so, avoid them. If you choose to work with someone leading a retreat who is not indigenous don't be afraid to ask them everything I've already pointed out and then some. Don't be fooled by a beautiful center either. Just because the retreat is expensive and the housing is gorgeous doesn't mean it will be high quality in terms of healing.
If you know someone who knows someone you might find yourself an opportunity to do one on one personalized work. This can be one of the most transformational and illuminating types of ceremonies to experience if again your shaman, guide, or facilitator has the medicine credentials to back her work up. Personalized work is focused completely on you. So it's deep and the more you do, the deeper you go, the more you heal and evolve. In some traditions, ancestrally this was how a ceremony was done - except only the shaman drank the medicine. My Shipibo teacher Maestro Sina still works this way with locals.
It takes a little while to learn how to discern in the world of Ayahuasca. This is why I don't recommend jumping straight into dieta work in the Amazon right off the bat. It's easy for a newcomer to become enchanted by an indigenous person projecting any kinds of sounds be they ikaros or a sorry impression of them under the maraeción of Ayahuasca. Plant diets are no joke. They require serious dedication and discipline, with the ability to follow instructions and abstain from indulgences including sex, salt, sugar, spice and in some cases all social contact for anywhere from one week to two years. Save this type of work for when you are sure you are ready to make the sacrifices being asked of you by Ayahuasca. But don't jump into leading your own ceremonies unless you are prepared to do this type of work and until after it has been given to you with permission from an elder to do so. If you drink and you think you got the call, then great! The world needs more real healers! But, that just means it's time for you to prepare for school. You'll need to fill out your application by applying yourself in your spiritual hygiene and discipline. Then you'll need to keep your prayers clear and direct. The spirit of Ayahuasca will be watching you after all.
The spirit of Ayahuasca? Maybe you've heard that ayahuasca was just a vehicle for orally active DMT and that an ayahuasca ceremony is basically a DMT concert or dance party. Unfortunately, there are many who seem to be approaching this spiritual medicine this way. I've heard stories of people who serve really strong medicine to a group of 30 participants, sit back and put on a kundalini playlist and call it a night. If you're paying 150 bucks for that my friends, and you're reading this I urge you to never go back. This is dangerous for many reasons, the main being, you guessed it - medicine credentials and the lack thereof.
Ayahuasca like all things has a spirit. The way that a spirit works with a person is all about relationship. But spiritual medicines like ayahuasca open doors to other dimensions and to a space of pure force. This pure force is neither good nor bad, light nor dark. It just is. So the way in which this force is approached is what truly matters. Now one might think that their intentions are pure and believe it to be so but remember what I wrote about spiritual hygiene? If a person approaches this force without purifying their energetic blueprint it is highly likely they are carrying with them quite a few energies that they picked up through habits, addictions, relationships, and distressed environments. These energies tend to influence their decisions, their desires, their actions and so on. One's intent might be pure but it might also be very cloudy in this case. Someone who picks up the medicine and starts serving it to others without purification and at least 6-10 years of training and initiation is likely to be influenced by predatory or parasitic spirits, whether they're aware of it or not.
Rites of initiation and rituals of purification take a long time, especially for Westerners. These are not things that can be accomplished with a couple of retreats to the Temple of the Way of Light or sitting in four sweatlodges. It can't be done by reading all of the books written by white men on Ayahuasca or Peyote. It can only be done by going through it - by doing the actual work and making the real sacrifice. Working with these medicines is more than just holding sacred space or mimicking what you thought you saw in the six ceremonies you attended. It is in fact a way of life - a completely transformed and culturally different life.
If you're looking for a mind-blowing experience and nothing more maybe sticking with experimenting with research chemicals is the way to go. I wouldn't recommend it. If you're looking for community and/or you love to sing and dance in unison then try finding a grounded social circle connected to an ayahuasca lineage or a long-established church. If you're looking for an experience to help you to get through the blockages than a retreat might be right for you. If deeper healing is what you need seek out someone with extensive training who works in small groups or one on one. And when you're ready to go super deep, find someone who you trust with a lot of experience to recommend a teacher or a community in the Amazon. But always remember - medicine credentials, guys... Check em.