What Is the Ayahuasca Experience?

Gain insight into the ayahuasca experience through scientific findings and through firsthand accounts from the likes of Allen Ginsberg.

Foliage in a rain forest

Snakes, jaguars and other predatory animals of the rain forest are reported to appear often in the ayahuasca-induced visions of aboriginal peoples of the South American tropical rain forests.

Photo by Fotolia/kalypso0

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Widely recognized by anthropologists as the most powerful and widespread shamanic hallucinogen, ayahuasca has been used by native Indian and mestizo shamans in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador for healing and divination for thousands of years. In The Ayahuasca Experience (Park Street Press, 2014), Ralph Metzner, Ph.D. provides a comprehensive exploration of the chemical, biological, psychological and experiential dimensions of this Amazonian hallucinogen. He includes more than 20 firsthand accounts from people who have participated in ayahuasca rituals and experienced major life changes as a result. The excerpt below comes from chapter 2, “The Psychology of Ayahuasca,” and is written by Charles S. Grob, M.D.

As is the case with all hallucinogens, the ayahuasca experience is profoundly affected by the extrapharmacological factors of set and setting. Intention, preparation, and structure of the session are all integral to the content and outcome of any encounter with hallucinogens, a clear distinction from virtually all other psychotropic agents. The diligent attention to these factors are known to be integral to the shamanic model of altered states of consciousness, minimizing risks and enhancing the likelihood of salutary results. The failure to adequately comprehend and adhere to the wisdom behind these time-tested safeguards, on the other hand, often leads to the unfortunate consequences frequently observed within the context of contemporary recreational drug use and abuse.

Altered states of consciousness, including those induced by hallucinogens, possess a variety of common elements. Before examining those features more closely identified with the ayahuasca experience, these shared properties merit review.

10 Common Elements of Altered States of Consciousness

The ten general characteristics understood to be virtually universal to such an altered state experience include:

1. Alterations in Thinking. To varying degrees, subjective changes in concentration, attention, memory, and judgment may be induced in the acute state, along with a possible diminution or expansion of reflective awareness.

2. Altered Time Sense. The sense of time and chronology may become altered, inducing a subjective feeling of timelessness, or the experience of time either accelerating or decelerating. Time may be experienced as infinite, or infinitesimal in duration.

3. Fear of Loss of Control. An individual may experience a fear of losing his hold on reality or his sense of self-control. In reaction, increased resistance to the experience may occur, causing an amplification of underlying anxiety. If there is a positive cultural conditioning and understanding of the experience, mystical and positive transcendent states may ensue.

4. Changes in Emotional Expression. Along with reduction in volitional or conscious control, intense emotional reactivity may occur, ranging from ecstasy to despair.

5. Changes in Body Image. Alterations in body image are frequently reported, often associated with dissolution of boundaries between self and others and states of depersonalization and derealization where the usual sense of one’s own reality is temporarily lost or changed. Such experiences may be regarded as strange and frightening, or as mystical, oceanic states of cosmic unity, particularly when sustained within the context of belief systems conditioned for spiritual emergent encounters.

6. Perceptual Alterations. Increased visual imagery, hyperacuteness of perceptions and overt hallucinations may occur. The content of these perceptual alterations are influenced by cultural expectations, group influences, and individual wish-fulfillment fantasies. They may reflect the psychodynamic expression of underlying fears or conflicts, or simple neurophysiologic mechanisms inducing geometric patterns and alterations of light, colors, and shapes. Synesthesias, the transformation of one form of sensory experience into another, such as seeing auditory stimuli, may be experienced.

7. Changes in Meaning or Significance. While in a powerful altered state of consciousness, some individuals manifest a propensity to attach special meaning or significance to their subjective experiences, ideas, or perceptions. An experience of great insight or profound sense of meaning may occur, their significance ranging from genuine wisdom to self-imposed delusion.

8. Sense of the Ineffable. Because of the uniqueness of the subjective experience associated with these states and their divergence from ordinary states of consciousness, individuals often have great difficulty communicating the essence of their experience to those who have never had such an encounter.

9. Feelings of Rejuvenation. Many individuals emerging from a profoundly altered state of consciousness report a new sense of hope, rejuvenation, and rebirth. Such transformed states may be short-term or, conversely, may lead to sustained positive adjustments in mood and outlook.

10. Hypersuggestibility. While in the throes of altered state experience, individuals experience an enhanced susceptibility to accept or respond uncritically to specific statements. Nonspecific cues, reflecting cultural belief systems or group expectation, may similarly assume directives of weighty importance. The position of shaman, or session facilitator, particularly within the context of hallucinogen use, consequently becomes a role with great vested responsibility, as individual participants are highly susceptible to verbal and nonverbal input directed toward them. The content and outcome of such altered states experiences are often directly attributable to the integrity and skill of the leader.

The 3 Stages of the Ayahuasca Experience

Reports of specific ayahuasca effects vary greatly depending upon the cultural context, which may range from traditional native Amazonian ritual, to mestizo healing ceremony, to syncretic religious structure, to inquisitive Euro-American psychonautic exploration. The Tukano tribe of the Columbian Amazonia separate the ayahuasca experience into three stages. The first stage, which may begin within minutes of ingestion, induces the characteristic gastrointestinal reaction of nausea, emesis, and diarrhea, along with sweating, a sense of “flying,” and the visual perception of vivid, kaleidoscopic array of brightly colored lights and geometric patterns. During the second phase of ayahuasca intoxication for the Tukano, the perception of brightly colored geometric patterns start to fade, while the sensation of flight into deep internal space intensifies along with an envisioning of three-dimensional forms of mythological and “monstrous” animals. The third and final stage involves the deepening of hallucinations, along with a progression into calmer and more peaceful visions and thought associations.

5 Shared Ayahuasca Experiences Among Diverse Aboriginal Groups

Commonalities of the ayahuasca visionary experience among diverse aboriginal groups of the tropical rain forests of South America have been described. Shared elements include:

1. The perception of the separation of the soul from the physical body associated with the sensation of flying. This astral voyage persists for the duration of the effects of the ayahuasca, after which the soul reenters the body. With some tribal people, the soul leaves the body in the form of a bird, which flies to some predetermined destination. A sensation of vertigo, or spinning, is often experienced.

2. Visions of snakes and jaguars, along with other predatory animals of the rain forest. Snakes and giant anacondas in particular populate the visions of native people. On some occasions, the ayahuasca voyager perceives himself to be attacked and consumed by these reptilian marauders, whereas at other times it is the snakes that are ingested. Confrontations with such rain forest predators may be empowering to the traveler, allowing him to forge an alliance with them as powerful shamanic spirit animals that may assist him in his journeys and battles in the supernatural realm.

3. The sense of contact with supernatural realms. Visions are experienced of deities and/or demons, consistent with the shamanic belief systems of native voyagers. For native Indians influenced by the entreaties of missionary Christianity, yet who have maintained their traditions of ritual ayahuasca use, visitations to heaven and the realms of hell are reported.

4. Visions of distant persons, cities, and landscapes, which are understood by native Indians as a clairvoyant experience. Such sensations of “seeing” events and locations far removed in place and time are utilized for purposes ranging from identifying where in the forest plentiful game may be available for the hunt, to inquiring about the health and well-being of relatives or friends, to practicing the many forms of sorcery that exist among aboriginal Amazonian tribes.

5. The sensation of “seeing” the detailed reenactment of recent unsolved crimes, or of identifying through visions the shaman responsible for bewitching a sick or dying person. Among many tribal groups, illness is understood to be caused by the actions of bewitchment, whereas the healing process relies upon the identification of the shaman responsible for the condition. Ayahuasca divination may address such tasks as identifying the perpetrators of recent homicides or thefts, discovering the plans of enemy attacks, predicting the imminent arrival of strangers, the adjudication of quarrels or disputes, and the investigation of whether spouses are faithful.

Ayahuasca With Allen Ginsberg and Heinz Kusel

Modern observers have reported a range of experience reflective of their own cultural context, although rain forest motifs common to aboriginal peoples are often in evidence. Reports of predatory animals, particularly snakes, are described not only within the tropical setting of mestizo healing, but by sophisticated inhabitants of urban areas far removed from the forest as well. Depending upon the belief system of participants, both collective and individual, ayahuasca visionary experiences are shaped. Within the context of the Brazilian syncretic churches, for example, it is not uncommon for practitioners to encounter visions incorporating elements of their religious mythology, and to interpret these events according to church precept.

Although an element of unpredictability is inherent even with experienced users, the likelihood of being overwhelmed by frightening visions is enhanced when individuals venture into the realm of ayahuasca with neither adequate preparation nor a ritual structure designed to contain and channel the experience. In 1960, anticipating the psychonautic exploration of many of his countrymen several decades later, the American poet Allen Ginsberg ventured into the Peruvian Amazon town of Pucallpa in search of the legendary yagé experience. Accessing a concoction of ayahuasca from a local curandero, or mestizo healer, Ginsberg ingested the brew. Describing his experience the next day in a letter written to his friend William Burroughs, Ginsberg wrote:

“First I began to realize my worry about the mosquitoes or vomiting was silly as there was the great stake of life and Death—I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard on pallet and porch rolling back and forth and settling finally as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death—got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe. . . . I was frightened and simply lay there with wave after wave of death—fear, fright, rolling over me till I could hardly stand it, didn’t want to take refuge in rejecting it as illusion, for it was too real and too familiar—especially as if rehearsal of Last Minute Death my head rolling back and forth on the blanket and finally settling in last position of stillness and hopeless resignation to God knows what Fate—for my being—felt completely lost strayed soul—outside of contact with some Thing that seemed present—finally had a sense that I might face the Question there and then, and choose to die and understand—and leave my body to be found in the morning.”

As is the case with other hallucinogens, ayahuasca has the innate potential to plunge those who might sample its range of experience into the depths of hell or, conversely, into the exalted planes of the celestial realms. Contrasting with the terrifying existential nightmarish quality of Ginsberg’s experience is the report of Heinz Kusel, a trader living among the Ese Ejja (Chama) of northeast Peru during the late 1940s. After two unpleasant episodes following ingestion of ayahuasca, Kusel decided to undergo another attempt at achieving that level of experience he had heard about from local inhabitants. Describing the last of these three experiences taken under the supervision of Nolorbe, his native guide, Kusel would subsequently write that:

“the images were not casual, accidental or imperfect, but fully organized to the last detail of highly complex, consistent, yet forever changing designs. . . .I was very conscious at the time of an inexplicable sensation of intimacy with the visions. They were mine and concerned only me. I remember an Indian telling me that whenever he drank ayahuasca, he had such beautiful visions that he used to put his hands over his eyes for fear somebody might steal them. I felt the same way. . . .The color scheme became a harmony of dark browns and greens. Naked dancers appeared turning slowly in spiral movements. Spots of brassy lights played on their bodies which gave them the texture of polished stones. Their faces were inclined and hidden in deep shadows. Their coming into existence in the center of the vision coincided with the rhythm of Nolorbe’s song, and they advanced forward and to the sides, turning slowly. I longed to see their faces. At last the whole field of vision was taken up by a single dancer with inclined face covered by a raised arm. As my desire to see the face became unendurable, it appeared suddenly in full close-up with closed eyes. I know that when the extraordinary face opened them, I experienced a satisfaction of a kind I had never known. It was the visual solution of a personal riddle.”

Excerpted with permission from The Ayahuasca Experience: A Sourcebook on the Sacred Vine of Spirits edited by Ralph Metzer. Ph.D. and published by Park Street Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions International.