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Dispelling 10 Common Myths About Ayahuasca

With Ayahuasa and other South American plant medicines becoming more popular to people from Western Cultures, and with more people seeking healing and transformation from these medicines, a number of ideas and myths have evolved that can often lead to some disappointment and confusion when the medicines are consumed. Ceremony and retreat participants have often asked me about these topics, so here is some of the truth of what I've observed to be 10 of the biggest myths about Ayahuasca...

Myth # 1: Drinking Ayahuasca is a shortcut to 'enlightenment.'

There seems to be an idea, especially among people coming to Ayahuasca from the West who have been

following a spiritual path or tradition, that drinking Ayahuasca can lead a person to become 'enlightened' or to evolve spiritually much more quickly than they would have been able to do without it. Especially for those coming from a culture where the spiritual world has largely been forgotton or ignored, many people want to drink Ayahuasca to reconnect with the divine, to open themselves spiritually, and to understand life from a more spiritual perspective.

Ayahuasca can undoubtably open us up spiritually. As a powerful bridge to the spirit world, drinking Ayahuasca can faciliate a connection with spiritual beings and can bring us very real connections with the divine within ourselves and with the divine within nature. And this can lead to powerful spiritual insights and deep inner healing. And as a medicine which can help us to find a greater sense of balance within ourselves and our lives, for those coming from cultures and backgrounds where the spiritual aspect of life has been largely missing, spirituality can certainly be opened up and developed during Ayahuasca ceremonies.

But having a profound mystical or spiritual experience during ceremony does not make a person 'enlightened' and doesn't mean much at all if the person isn't able to use that experience in a meaningful way in their life – it's just an experience. The medicine can show us many things about ourselves and the greater Universe, but it is up to us to use that information to benefit our daily lives, and Ayahuasca is not going to do that for us. The medicine can help us to release whatever it is that is holding us back, can give us the tools and understanding that we need to grow spiritually and can guide us towards the most beneficial paths or practices for us, but Ayahuasca ceremonies alone will not 'enlighten' us – it is through the integration of our experiences into our daily lives that we can experience genuine spiritual growth.

Myth # 2: Ayahuasca Curanderos are enlightened.

Because of this connection with the spiritual world and with the divine, and because of the profound potential for healing that Ayahausca can facilitate, there is a common misconception that Ayahuasca Curanderos (healers), 'Shamans', or those serving Ayahuasca are 'enlightened' or are all-seeing, all-knowing, or have access to more knowledge about the ceremony participants than the participants have for themselves.

A good Amazonian Ayahuasca healer with many plant dietas is likely to receive a lot of information during an Ayahuasca ceremony about the participant's condition and about which plants or techniques have the greatest potential to heal that, and, especially with problems of an energetic or spiritual nature, a person, especially someone from a Western background, may not necessarily have the same degree of energetic understanding of their condition as the Curendero. But these healers are not so much 'enlightened' as skilled and experienced at using the plant medicines. They are able to work with the plant spirits, and with the other healing spirits that they work with, in the way that is going to be of the best benefit to the participant – but it certainly does not mean that they are 'enlightened' or that they posssess an extra special kind of knowledge about the person receiving the medicine – they are just seeing some things on a slightly different level, which is very useful for that person's healing. And along with being healers, Cuanderos are also humans, just like the rest of us. They have their own lives and their own life challenges, and may sometimes need to be forgiven for general harmless human traits like forgetfulness, misunderstandings in communication or not being 100% right about everything they perceive in a ceremony, 100% of the time.

Alongside the skilled healers, there are, unfortunately, also those people serving Ayahuasca who lack the knowledge and skill to serve it safely, and there are those who serve it with ill intention, whose ceremonies it can be potentially dangerous to attend and who are far from what any concept of 'enlightened' would look like

Where you are unlikely to find an 'enlightened' healer, it is important to search for skilled and experienced healers who can safely guide and assist you towards the healing you are looking for. Take care who you drink Ayahuasca with – look at who that person is and what their relationship with the medicine, and with their life, is like before you jump into a ceremony with them. Where they may not be an enlightened Buddha, look for someone who is calm, present, genuinely caring and who can tell you something about how they work, and about their experience with the medicine. And, most importantly, choose someone who inspires you and who you feel drawn to learning and receiving from, even though they are unlikely to be 'perfect.'

Myth # 3: You need to follow a very strict diet before drinking Ayahuasca.

The idea that a strict preparation diet needs to be followed before drinking Ayahuasca is likely to come from some confusion between the diet followed during an Amazonian plant dieta and Ayahuasca ceremonies that take place outside of plant dietas. During a plant dieta, a very strict diet is followed with the elimination of salt, oil, sugar, spices, processed foods and many other foods, in order to form a deep and clear connection with a plant for healing and/or to receive teachings or information. To drink Ayahuasca without participating in a dieta this level of dietary restriction isn't necessary and many Amazonian people do not follow any kind of pre-Ayahuasca diet at all.

It can be useful to make adjustments to the diet before attending a ceremony, especially if the usual diet is very heavy or contains a lot of processed foods, in order to detoxify the body beforehead so there are less diet-related toxins to eliminate in the ceremony, and it can also be benefical to make some sort of personal sacrifice before the ceremony, such as avoiding those foods that you love but that may not be so healthy for you, in order to demonstrate to the medicine your commitment to the process. Many people find it useful to avoid red meat, processed foods and sugar for a week or two beforehand, but it is certainly not essential. And it can sometimes happen that when too restricted a diet is followed before the ceremony, it ends up being to the detriment of the person. There have been cases of people eliminating salt for weeks or even months beforehand (completely unneccessary!) only to arrive in the humid jungle and find themselves weak, dehydrated and even fainting from lack of sodium, and at times unable to actually participate in the ceremonies until they have replenished themselves. Our Curanderos always stress the importance of feeling strong and energised enough to work with the medicine and not restricting the diet so much that it leads to weakness.

But where this information is based on our approach and experiences, there may also be Curanderos and traditions who have good reason for their restrictions beforehand, and, where this applies, their advice should be followed when working with their medicine and tradition.

Myth # 4: Drinking Ayahuasca will solve all your problems.

There is a 'wishful thinking' idea that drinking Ayahuasca will provide a guaranteed cure to any illness, or that it will effortlessly solve all of lifes problems, which, unfortunately, isn't true at all. Ayahuasca is a powerful medicine and can initiate healing for many conditions, and the insights gained in a ceremony can be life changing, but it certainly doesn't solve your life for you.

Following a ceremony, or several ceremonies, there can be a feeling of lightness, clarity and freedom following the release of old energy and the new perspectives that have been received, and the world can often seem magical and full of possibilities - this has sometimes been referred to as the 'post-Ayahuasca glow.' However, this can then be followed by the shock of returning home to find that nothing has actually changed – the same relationships, the same problems, all the same things that were bothering you before are still there and are still essentially the same as they always were. The medicine can't fix all of these external things for you, and returning back home to all of those same things is when the real work begins. But although the external world may not have changed, something inside you will have, and it can be surprising, especially over the weeks and months to follow, to acknowledge how much inside of you has changed – you may find yourself responding to something differently than you previously would have, or you may find yourself making better well-considered choices, and some things may also take some time and work to shift in the direction that you want them to. Where you won't return home to a miraculously perfect life, it is likely that the medicine will give you the tools and insights that you need to hugely improve your relationship with your life over time, and to continue to progress in your desired direction in a steady way.

Myth # 5: Ayahuasca ceremonies are essentially the same, regardless of the tradition or brew.

Ayahuasca is widely used in countless traditions throughout the Amazon, and each tradition, and indeed each healer, has its own qualities and intentions behind the ceremonies. Drinking Ayahuasca can lead to such a variety of experiences that consuming Ayahuasca in itself doesn't really mean anything specific. Ayahuasca can be used as a means to connect with plant spirits for healing, to connect with the spirit world to receive information and as a bridge to the divine for spiritual ceremonies and the structure of Ayahuasca ceremonies varies so widely that the participants experience will be hugely influenced by the tradition in which they drink it. In the Shipibo and other Peruvian traditions, the Curandero works with the spirits of many plants, along with ancestral spirits, all of which have their unique healing abilities, and the healing potential of the ceremony is greatly influenced by the plants and spirits called into the ceremony by the Curandero. And where the Ayahuasca brews usually contain a combination of the Ayahuasca vine and Chakruna leaves, it is also common for other plants to be added for a particular healing quality, or sometimes for another DMT containing leaf to be used alongside or instead of the Chakruna, and this will all also have an effect on the participant's experience.

For a curious person without a specific purpose for drinking outside of general interest, the tradition chosen isn't necessarily going to be important – the most important thing is the safety of the ceremonies – and it can be an interesting experience to drink in different places and with different traditions to experience the differences. When there is a specific reason for drinking, such as an illness or a spiritual or energetic issue, it can be useful to research the ways that Ayahuasca is used in the different traditions to be able to make the most appropriate choice. And it is always advised to check the ingredients of the brew and to check the safety of, and the reason for adding, any additional plants. In the Amazon, it is common for toé to be added to ceremonies for Westerners in order to enhance the visual experience, but this plant can potentially be very dangerous and we recommend avoiding brews which it has been added to. Other medicinal plants like Bobinsana or a small amount of Tobacco, which are often added for their healing properties, aren't going to cause a problem.

Myth # 6: It's important to vomit after drinking Ayahuasca.

One of the most universally common experiences from drinking Ayahuasca is vomiting, or 'purging' after drinking it. This occurs so frequently that sometimes people worry if it hasn't happened, try to force a purge to come out, or worry that something is wrong or that the medicine isn't working properly. Vomiting with Ayahuasca is not essential and not everyone does it. It is a powerful means of cleansing on many levels and can often be an important part of the ceremony, but it doesn't always happen and some people never vomit with Ayahuasca. Each one of us is different and the medicine works with all of us differently, and vomiting isn't the only way that a person can purge. Purging also commonly happens through diarrhoea, crying, shaking, yawning, sighing and other big physical releases, and can be felt as more of an energetic feeling of release without an intense physical process. There's not really any science or importance behind how purging happens for any particular person, everyone gets the experience of release that the medicine gives them and it really doesn't matter!

Myth # 7: The spirit of Ayahuasca has or hasn't chosen to work with you.

One strange idea is that the spirit of Ayahuasca is selective with people and chooses to help certain people but rejects others. In the cases that I've heard of this, it has been brought up when someone has consumed Ayahuasca a number of times without feeling much happening during the ceremonies and has then been told that they didn't feel anything because the spirit doesn't want to work with them. This is not true and our Curanderos continually reinforce that the medicine is ready to work with and bring healing to everyone: there are no favourites or preferences! But the medicine does work differently with different people: some people experience a very strong connection very quickly, where for others it can take some time to really make a connection, and many people do not experience the visions or intense experiences that they were hoping for or expecting. The experience you have has nothing to do with if the spirit has 'chosen you' but is just the way that the medicine is choosing to work with you. And quite often, when it feels that not much is happening in the ceremony, the medicine is highlighting some self-beliefs around self-worth, acceptance and rejection, that can be best explored from that experience of 'nothing happening' (There is also another blog post about the experience of 'nothing happening' in Ayahuasca ceremonies here). And often the experience, whatever it is, is much better understood in hindsight, when the benefits have been integrated and understood into everyday life. And, in the same way, the experience during ceremony of being 'chosen' by the medicine, or being 'exceptionally special' is also often the medicine highlighting aspects of ones self-esteem and self-beliefs – no one is considered to be more special or important by the medicine than anyone else and the same depth of healing is available for everyone.

It is also true, however, that different plants and different medicines work best for different people, and for different condiditons and problems. Very often when a person does not feel so connected to the Ayahausca, they go on to drink San Pedro and find that it gives them exactly what they needed, or they may go on to benefit from a different system of medicine. There is also the concept in some traditions that the plant spirits form connections with our souls, and that some plants are better matches for our souls than others, so we all have some plants that are spiritual matches for us and others that are not so much. And each medicine also has its own way of working and the types of conditions and problems it works best for, so the appropriate medicine will be the best match for a specific condition. But this by no means means that if Ayahausca isn't your best match that she is rejecting you, just that it is possible that if you don't feel that you make a great connection that there is something else out there that can bring you more of what you need.

Myth # 8: Ayahuasca should only be consumed in the jungle.

The idea that Ayahusaca should only be consumed in the jungle, where it grows, comes from the concept that medicinal plants grow in areas where their properties can treat the conditions that most often arise for people living in that place. And there is a lot of truth to this. It is always good to look to local plants to find the best medicines for the conditions that tend to happen there. However, the puritanical idea that Ayahuasca should only be consumed in the jungle has no more truth to it than the idea that we should never use any plant that doesn't grow in our local environment – which would make our daily lives incredibly different.

Drinking Ayhauasca in the jungle is certainly a different experience to drinking it in the mountains, or in any other location, and every place has it's own unique spirits and energy, but where there will be differences, the location doesn't stop the medicine from working. From the Peruvian mountains, at least, one doesn't have to travel that far to arrive into a climate where Ayhuasca does grow, and it would certainly have been possible for the ancestors to collect Ayahuasca from the jungle and bring it back to the mountains. Many of the foods, medicines and other plant products used here are sourced from much further away.

I did wonder about this when I started offering Ayahuasca ceremonies in the mountains, but when our Curandero Raul arrived here he came with a very different perspective. Raul says that his ancestors are the Incas, that the medicine was passed down to him through his lineage from the Incas, and that the home of the Incas was here in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. He was very happy to be drinking Ayahuasca here and said the medicine would be even more powerful here due to it being the medicine's ancestral home.

And, in the end, where it is always interesting and useful to learn what is native to an area, and how to use local medicines, in the bigger picture of the world today, and with all of the considerations that should be made to drink Ayahuasca safely, where it's being consumed certainly isn't the most important factor and there are many other things in our lives that I would prioritise keeping local before Ayahausca.

Myth # 9: Everyone should drink Ayahausca.

After some profound insights, healing and deep experiences, it is very common for ceremony participants to say that they feel like everyone should drink Ayahuasca, or that certain people they know need to drink it. But Ayahuasca really isn't the best medicine for everyone! There are many illnesses and health conditions for which consuming Ayahausca is not safe or beneficial, and there are some medications which, when combined with Ayahuasca, can be fatal. Ayahuasca ceremonies can also be extremely intense, uncomfortable and confronting, and for some people this isn't going be the most healing type of experience. It is often said that a person feels 'the call' to drink Ayahuasca – if they're not feeling the need or desire to do it, it might not be the right thing for them at that time. Deep insights and experiences that a person isn't ready for can potentially disrupt someone's life in an unhelpful way or can lead to more confusion than it resolves. So where Ayahuasca can be extremely useful for those who feel called to drink it, it is certainly not the best thing for everyone, and is certainly not something that everyone needs.

Myth # 10: All information received during an Ayahuasca ceremony is factual and correct.

An Ayahuasca ceremony can potentially be filled with insights, revelations, messages and information, and new perspectives can be gained on one's life and future direction. But to take all of the messages and happenings in ceremony literally can often lead to disappointment and confusion. There are many things that happen with Ayahuasca: the medicine amplifies what's inside you, showing you beliefs, patterns and tendencies that may need to be shifted or healed, as well as showing you your potential, opening up your creative mind, inviting you to explore possibilities and connecting you to the spirit world; and it takes some time and practice to learn to discern the genuine messages from the amplification of your own thoughts, the 'lessons' and a creative exploration of potential. The medicine also works through symbolism and metaphors which can take some time to decipher: not everything that happens in a ceremony is to be taken literally! We always recommend allowing some time before making any dramatic changes in your life, to give yourself the space and time to gain some true insight into what your ceremonies were about and to take responsibility for carefully making your own decisions. And if the medicine is ever giving you a message to do something that you don't want to to do – don't do it! In the end, the consequences of your actions are always going to fall on you, despite what you may have been told, or thought you were being told, by the medicine. Deciphering the symbolism from a ceremony can be interesting and fun and it usually begins to make a lot more sense as time progresses. It is also not uncommon for messages and premonitions from ceremonies to genuinely come true and happen in life, and for things to unfold in a way that the ceremony showed – a useful approach with this is to enjoy the unfoldings as they come but not to be become attached to any potential outcome, and to always take responsible, well considered actions, trusting that if something is truly meant to be, it is going to be.

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