This piece explores some of the embodied, disembodied, and gut-wrenching themes of ayahuasca ceremonies in Australia. In addition, key motivations for drinking ayahuasca are explored in relation to required ascetic practices that precede ceremonies and strengthen the motivations. It is an excerpt taken from a PhD chapter I am writing on ritual.
Ayahuasca drinkers in Australia approach their practice as a means of gaining ‘healing’ and ‘wisdom’. I use quotation marks around these notions not to disregard or criticize participant motivations but to allude to the mercurial limits of interpretation that the practice entails for participants and invites for anthropologists. Grounded in trance experiences, these forms of ‘healing’ and ‘wisdom’ extend beyond biological and psychological parameters of health and link ayahuasca practice to a variety of dimensions of society and culture.
There are twenty-five of us wearing white, seated low to the ground in a circle. I look around the room but the darkness is blinding. Some people are swaying gently to the music. Some are sitting motionless like statues with symmetrical posture and others are lying down. It has been one hour since the group drank ayahuasca. Matt, seated closely next to me begins to breathe heavily, softly moaning on each out breath. Ritual attendees each have a small bucket placed strategically at arms-reach and Matt suddenly grabs his. He roars face down vomiting into the bucket. The gurgling liquid is violently expelled from his body. We have all been fasting since at least the middle of the day (some people for several days or a week), and Matt’s purging climaxes with tight heaving, coughing, and spitting as his stomach and neck muscles clench to find any remaining substance to expel. Jim, the ritual specialist, who also has consumed ayahuasca is singing a loud ballad on his guitar with therapeutic and didactic lyrics — “What you do and you say comes back to you, hey, hey” — that surround us through a quadrophonic sound-system.
Ayahuasca purging is unpredictable, surprises the individual, and typically coincides with a sharp rise in psychoactive effects that include emotion dilation, radical auditory and visual alterations along with the saturation of other sensory faculties. The sound of Matt’s purging fills the room competing with the volume of the song and like a sensorial sympathetic contagion other drinkers uncontrollably imbue the sounds with associated visuals, smells, and feelings, onto the ‘visionary canvas’ of the darkness, to then erupt into forms of purging themselves. Sensory experience becomes acutely porous to surrounding sounds and smells and couples with imaginative properties from which, in this specific case, purging begets purging, or, as one ritual specialist explained to me, ‘energy and spirits jump between drinkers’ (Cs. 2012). The experience of vomiting under the effects of ayahuasca tends to be understood by drinkers as initiating types of spiritual and emotional purification or ‘unblocking’. Purging may include not only vomiting but yawning, burping, sighing, crying, sweating, laughing, and defecating or in some extreme cases all of the above. These acts do not appear willed or consciously performed and attendees attest to the unpredictable and involuntary nature of the purging.
Experienced and novice drinkers at times report mild reactions to the substance yet most participants fluctuate during each ceremony through various qualitative intensities of terror, agony, and purging and bliss, lucidity, and ecstatic revelation. During ceremonies the individual’s re-territorialisation of sensory perception may solidify into interactive and aesthetically complex revelations populated by ‘intelligent spirit beings’, significant others, geometric designs, jewelled landscapes and temples, and encounters with past and future events. These experiences are codified in the spirituality circles using the terms ‘visions’ and ‘journeys’ and represent what are typically labelled ‘hallucinations’ in biomedicine. The visions of ayahuasca trance embody significant and real meanings for ritual attendees, and insofar as ‘hallucination’ implies delusion and fancifulness the term disfigures key perceptions and forms of reasoning internal to the practice of ayahuasca spirituality. It is mid-night and Jim offers a second cup of ayahuasca. A few people laugh awkwardly, signalling that they have had enough of the psychoactive beverage. Approximately half the group drinks another cup.
Pushing The Reset Button ~ Dennis Konstantin
Six hours earlier I was driving along a highway leading out of an Australian metropolis when the traffic suddenly comes to a standstill as I realise the time and inevitable congestion of Friday afternoon rush hour traffic. From across eastern Australia and as far as New Zealand twenty-six people and myself are making their way to John’s opulent and secluded retreat centre to participate in the illicit form of spirituality and alternative healing. More than half of the ritual attendees have travelled directly from work and most will stay at the retreat for the two evening ceremonies and leave on Sunday afternoon. While the social gathering and ceremonial practice is typically restricted to the weekend retreat, ayahuasca drinkers describe the period shortly before and after the weekend as equally important to the ceremonies in regards to maximising the reception of healing and learning from ayahuasca. The period of three days prior and three days after the ceremonies is typically conceived as being central to the practice and it involves strict dietary regimes and other forms of asceticism that inform this centrality.
The majority of ayahuasca groups invite participants to events using email. Participants are typically asked to not forward the email to people outside the email-list. If they know someone who would like to join the circle then they are asked to send the organisers the person’s email address. Some groups call the prospective person and ask a series of questions about the individual’s mental health and his or her reasons for wanting to drink ayahuasca. People with acute mental illness are refused… In terms of the preparation requirements for drinkers, each group tends to have a standardised information document that they email prior to the weekend ceremonies. The documents outline the overall purpose of the ceremonies and entail a request that drinkers abstain from sexual activities, certain foods, and drugs and alcohol in the three-day period before the weekend. Some drinkers extend these parameters to one week either side of the rituals.
Ayahuasca drinkers provide various rationalisations for undertaking the diet and sexual abstinence. Some rationalisations are more spiritual in orientation and include the perspective that the ayahuasca plant spirits are more receptive to a purified body subject to the diet. The other main rationalisation is scientific in basis and involves ideas about risks associated to the biochemical function of beta-carboline molecules present in the ayahuasca vine. These molecules are known to inhibit enzymes in the stomach that regulate the intake of serotonin and other neurotransmitters and they can open the subject to forms of poisoning if combined with various other substances that are typically benign (Brush et al 2004). Eating certain foods immediately prior to drinking ayahuasca can potentially cause hypertension, and certain anti-depressant medication may occasion serotonin syndrome (dos Santos 2013, 72). The list of restricted foods that ayahuasca groups ask participants to avoid for the three days prior to a ceremony may vary between groups. While uncommon, some ritual specialists claim that the diet is not important in regards to biological risk, and that it is good for spiritual and psychological reasons alone. However, typically, individuals are asked to avoid the following detailed list of foods for a variety of biological, psychological, and spiritual reasons that ritual specialists associate with drinking ayahuasca. The quote is taken from an email of a popular ayahuasca network:
“Please do not eat the following foods for at least three days prior: All fermented foods including vinegar (braggs is ok); soy milk and all fermented soy products, including tamari; aged cheese (cottage cheese and cream cheese are ok); cream and yoghurt; cocoa, coffee, chocolate, all caffeine; peanuts; avocados, bananas, pineapple, figs, raisins; all meats and meat products (fish is ok); beanpods (lima, fava beans, lentils, snowpeas, chickpeas, soy beans); pickled or heavily spiced food; yeast or yeast extracts; generally avoid sugar, oils, spices, salt… To be most beneficial your diet will consist of simple whole foods – fresh vegetables, salads, rice, eggs, sourdough breads, herbal teas, fruit”. (Ce, 2012)
Combined with the restrictions on sexual activity and drug and alcohol consumption, the period before ayahuasca ceremonies is subject to strict dietary regimes that intervene dramatically upon the typical everyday practices of the drinker.
Notions of spiritual and biological purification characterise the reasons that ayahuasca drinkers employ in relation to the purpose of dieting and undergoing sexual abstinence prior to ceremonies and this purpose is also imbedded in more idiosyncratic and personalised expressions that participants share about their reasons for drinking ayahuasca. Ceremonies begin with a ritual process in which participants individually orate to the group their personal ‘intentions for the journey’. This aspect of ayahuasca practice becomes socially pronounced in this period at the beginning of ceremonies, however, participants are asked to consider their own ‘intentions’ before coming to the event. In the same email noted above, drinkers are asked to bring an intention for the journey and told that:
“The aim of these ceremonies is for healing and transformation and the intent each individual brings is of utmost importance. Your intention may be to receive knowledge, expansion, insight, clarity, release, healing… The respect and focus you bring affects the whole, so we ask that you come prepared mentally, emotionally and physically”. (Ce, 2012)
The asceticism practiced in the period before ayahuasca ceremonies is understood by ayahuasca drinkers as providing a means of preparing them in ways that will maximise their ayahuasca experience. Part of this maximising is understood to come through the coalescing of the practice of asceticism with ceremony ‘intentions’. For example, John, a regular ayahuasca drinker replied to a question I asked regarding preparation, stating:
“When dieting I associate my intention with the dietary sacrifices in terms of using them as a reminder. As I reach for anything that is restricted and remember that ‘I can’t have that’, the immediate following thought is ‘remember your intention’. Then when confronted with the sudden and intense flavour of the medicine in ceremony my body takes it as the signal to go seeking the chosen intention actively during the session” (N,50)
Many drinkers describe the week before a ceremony as including a connection to the spirit or effects of ayahuasca that may include subtle changes in perceptions and feelings, dream content relating to their intentions, and in some cases acts of purging and revelatory insight. For example, Michael, a regular ayahuasca drinker, replied to my question on preparing for ceremony stating, ‘the journey usually starts up to three days before ceremony for me. Quite often I can be journeying beforehand, feeling sick, psychic purging, dealing with fear’ (N51). Another informant replied, ‘sometimes the journey spontaneously starts well before the ceremonies do. I can have unexplained outpourings of emotion, things that bubble to the surface then get processed during the actual journeys’. Similarly, another informant replied, ‘it is a great opportunity the days before, to stay centred, and focus, preparing yourself to receive the medicine and welcome her [ayahuasca] into your heart and wherever you are at’ (N26). Ayahuasca is typically understood by drinkers as providing forms of healing and wisdom, and the volitional intentions of the drinker in the period before the ceremony may imbue or inform the contents of visions and ceremonial experience through the medium of ascetic practices. Furthermore, the recollection and conceptualisation of past visions may be done in a fashion that supports or focuses the drinker’s ceremony ‘intentions’. For instance, Christina, a forty-three year old meditation instructor recalls an ayahuasca vision, stating ‘I saw the Hindu god Ganesh. I didn’t know anything about him but later read that he is the remover of obstacles which was relevant to my intention that night’ (G14). In the period after the weekend retreat drinkers work hard to ‘integrate’ and ‘download’ the visions and healing experiences in diverse ways, as discussed below, and this process is understood as being particularly potent in the week directly after a ceremony. However, drinkers tend to describe ‘integration’ as being ultimately a life-long affair. The boarders between the significance of visions and purging and everyday life blur while being punctuated by degrees of import in the period directly around the ceremony. ‘I can’t contain my journeys’, one ayahuasca drinker explained, ‘they are like a book unfolding in front of me’ (G17 2012)