What Is the Ayahuasca Experience?

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

| July 2014

  • 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
  • “The Ayahuasca Experience,” edited by Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., explores the chemical, biological, psychological and experiential aspects of the hallucinogenic drug.
    Cover courtesy Park Street Press

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.

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