Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew from the Amazon rainforest, is entering the Western lexicon through the popular media, the internet, and first-person reports. Considered a medicine by practitioners, the tea has great therapeutic potential that is just beginning to be studied. As a result of her own personal experience with ayahuasca, Dr. Rachel Harris was inspired to research how this medicine was being used in North America in the largest study of this kind to date. Listening to Ayahuasca describes her findings, including miracle cures of depression and addiction, therapeutic breakthroughs, spiritual revelations, and challenging trips.
Beyond Physical Healing
Working with ayahuasca is a process, not an event. Each encounter with the medicine is unique, unpredictable, and frankly, uncontrollable. Traveling this path requires faith in the medicine and the mysterious process that unfolds over time. Mystical experiences might or might not occur. Psychological healing happens both within and beyond ceremonies. It’s possible that more healing happens outside of ceremonies than within the dark dreaming night.
In the sharing circle after one ceremony, Laura, a very experienced, 50-something nurse, reported that nothing happened even after drinking a second cup of ayahuasca. “And I mean nothing.” Two months later, Laura told me that as she was driving home from the “nothing” ceremony, she entered into a “conversation with myself, out loud, alone in the car. It was like a therapy session, but I played both sides — me and the therapist. It was all about the problems I was having with my sister.”
Laura had never talked to herself this way before. At one point she had to pull off the road so she could cry. When she finished crying, she continued to drive home. “After that I felt like I’d worked through my issues with my sister. Now when we talk, I’m calm and surprisingly unflappable.”
Neither of us could understand how this happened, how ayahuasca worked in this way. Like other psychedelic medicines, ayahuasca acts as a nonspecific catalyst, both reducing defenses and amplifying unconscious material so access becomes more available or, perhaps, unavoidable. It’s commonly accepted that while you don’t always get what you want in a ceremony, you do get what you need, as the Rolling Stones put it.
If I were to describe how I’ve changed since drinking ayahuasca, I would write, “The central change is that my sense of inner space has been expanded.” Notice the passive tense — I don’t feel like I accomplished this but that a way was opened for me. I can describe my experience, but I’m only beginning to understand what it means. It’s not that my ego has shrunk; it’s that the rest of the space has expanded so my personal self occupies a smaller percentage of psychic real estate within my Self. I feel more spacious.
Ayahuasca gives us the opportunity to reorganize our psychic architecture, the very structure of our self-identity, in new ways. Our worldview is shattered. Terms like recalibrate, restructure, reset, reprogram, reorganize, and reconfigure have been used to describe this transformation.
People say they feel different inside, and the world looks different outside. In current jargon, “transformation is a reboot of our operating system with at least some new programming and sometimes even a change from system 1.0 to 2.0.”
Without a therapist who knows how to explore such a dramatic transformation, we might respond with fear or even a panic attack. We’re limited by our psychic architecture, the ways we’ve constructed our personalities in order to survive. Our reaction might be to tie our psychic knots tighter, become more rigid, and reinforce our limited ways of being.
Our neurotic complexes are our first responders to any perceived threat; in fact, these structures determine what we perceive as threat. The way our architecture is organized defines our world and energizes our automatic reactions to the world. We are trapped in the selves we’ve created for ourselves, mostly out of fear.
The ayahuasca ceremonies deconstruct us, but it is the conscious work we do in the weeks and months that follow, the process of integration, that creates a new template, a new way of being in the world. Albert Hofmann, the father of LSD, reflected on such transformative experiences during LSD sessions. He said that they can serve as “a starting point for restructuring” the person’s personality in psychotherapy.
As a psychologist, I agree with Hofmann that psychotherapy is needed, especially if the person is unable to sustain the new behaviors. Psychotherapy can help us integrate, sustain and nurture such a transformative reorganization. Ongoing therapy can work through issues, explore new perspectives, and consolidate behavioral changes. The combination of ayahuasca ceremonies and psychotherapy can stabilize and extend new ways of being into all aspects of life.