When I finally puked on the fourth night, I felt an odd sense of pride.
Inside the loud, stuffy ceremony room, people were laughing, crying, chanting, gyrating, and, yes, vomiting, around me. When my time finally comes, I think: Just aim for the bucket and keep your ass above your head like the shaman told you.
I try to wipe my face but can’t grab the tissue paper because it melts every time I reach for it. Nearby, a man starts to scream. I can’t make out what he’s saying on account of the shaman singing beautiful Colombian songs in the other room.
I finish vomiting and start crying and laughing and smiling all at once. Something has been lifted in this “purge,” something dark and deep I was carrying around for years. Relief washes over me, and I slowly make my way back to my mattress on the floor.
For four consecutive nights, a group of 78 of us here at a retreat center in Costa Rica have been drinking a foul-tasting, molasses-like tea containing ayahuasca, a plant concoction that contains the natural hallucinogen known as DMT.
We’re part of a wave of Westerners seeking out ayahuasca as a tool for psychological healing, personal growth, or expanding consciousness.
I flew to Costa Rica hoping to explode my ego. And I was not prepared for what happened. Ayahuasca turned my life upside down, dissolving the wall between my self and the world. I also stared into what I can only describe as the world’s most honest mirror. It was a Clockwork Orange-like horror show, and it was impossible to look away. But I saw what I needed to see when I was ready to see it.
Ayahuasca exposes the gap between who you think you are and who you actually are. In my case, the gap was immense, and the pain of seeing it for the first time was practically unbearable.
An ayahuasca boom
Ayahuasca remains a fringe psychological medicine, but it’s slowly working its way into the mainstream. Until fairly recently, you had to travel to South America if you wanted to experiment with the plant, but now ayahuasca ceremonies are popping up in the United States and Europe.
Indigenous people in countries like Colombia and Peru have been brewing the concoction for thousands of years, mostly for religious or spiritual purposes. It’s considered a medicine, a way to heal internal wounds and reconnect with nature.
It wasn’t until 1908 that Western scientists acknowledged its existence; British botanist Richard Spruce was the first to study it and write about the “purging” it invokes. He was mainly interested in classifying the vines and leaves that made up the magic brew, and in understanding its role in Amazonian culture.
Ayahuasca emerged again in the early 1960s with the counterculture movement. Beat writers like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac all described their experiences with ayahuasca, most famously in Burroughs’s book The Yage Letters. Scientist-hippies like Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary then went to South America to research and experience the drug firsthand. All of this helped bring ayahuasca into Western culture, but it was never truly popularized.
Today, the tea is having a bit of a moment.
Celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and Chelsea Handler have spoken about their experiences with it. “I had all these beautiful images of my childhood and me and my sister laughing on a kayak, and all these beautiful things with me and my sister,” Handler told the New York Post after her first ayahuasca trip. “It was very much about opening my mind to loving my sister, and not being so hard on her.”
Handler’s experience appears to be common. The scientific evidence on ayahuasca is limited, but it is known to activate repressed memories in ways that allow people to come to a new understanding of their past. In some cases, it helps people work through memories of traumatic events, which is why neuroscientists are beginning to study ayahuasca as a treatment for depression and PTSD. (There are physical and psychological risks to taking it as well — it can interfere with medication and exacerbate existing psychiatric conditions.)
What I was looking for
My interest in ayahuasca was specific: I wanted to cut through the illusion of selfhood. Psychedelics have a way of tearing down our emotional barriers. You feel plugged into something bigger than yourself, and — for a moment, at least — the sensation of separation melts away.
Buddhists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers have all made persuasive arguments that there is nothing like a “fixed self,” no thinker behind our thoughts, no doer behind our deeds. There is only consciousness and immediate experience; everything else is the result of the mind projecting into the past or the future.
But this is a difficult truth to grasp in everyday life. Because you’re conscious, because it’s like something to be you, it’s very easy to believe that a wall exists between your mind and the world. If you’re experiencing something, then there must be a “you” doing the experiencing. But the “you” in this case is just an abstraction; it’s in your mind, not out there in the world.
I spent about five years as a philosophy graduate student and another few as a teacher. I understood these arguments in intellectual terms but not in experiential terms. I’ve tried meditating, and I’m terrible at it. My mind is a parade of discordant thoughts, and as a result, I’m rarely present — in conversations, during meditation, in daily life.
One way to escape this trap, I hope, is to get the hell out of my head.
There are many ways to reach the truth of non-selfhood. Think of it as a mountain peak, with meditators and certain spiritual traditions ascending different sides. Psychedelic drugs offer a kind of shortcut; you get a glimpse of this higher truth without all those years of serious, disciplined practice.
That shortcut is what I was after.
Night 1: dread
The approach at this retreat center, called Rythmia, is all-encompassing. During the day they pamper you with all the luxuries of a wellness retreat — massages, volcanic mud baths, organic food, yoga classes, colonic cleanses. Then at night, you drink ayahuasca and put yourself through emotional and physical hell.
One of the first things I was told is that I had to enter the ayahuasca ceremony with a clear goal or question in mind: What do you want to learn about yourself?
The trained facilitators who led the ceremonies recommend that you begin with a simple request: Show me who I’ve become.
The question implies that at some point you lost yourself, that when you were a child, your soul was pure, open, uncorrupted by culture. As you enter society, you lose that childlike love for the world. You start to judge yourself by external standards. You compare yourself to friends, neighbors, and peers. You develop an ego, an identity, and your well-being becomes bound up with these constructs.
There’s nothing new about these ideas, but they strike me as true all the same. So I decide to focus on self-discovery.
It’s now 5:15 pm, and the first ceremony starts in 15 minutes. I’m terrified. “Do I really want to see what I’ve become?” I keep asking. I’m pretty sure I won’t like the answer — almost no one does, it seems.
The doors open, and all 78 of us here for this week-long session pour into the ceremony room, called the “flight deck.” The room is big, divided into three sections, and there are two bathrooms on each side. It’s dimly lit, and mattresses are lined up on the floor against the walls. The beds are only a few inches apart. At the foot of each mattress is a roll of toilet paper and a blue or red bucket.
I pounce on the first mattress I see; it’s near the door and just a few feet from the bathroom. I feel safe here. To my right is Chad, a photographer from Ontario who looks as nervous as I am but somehow seems more prepared for this. To my left is a giant window that opens to a view of the courtyard.
There’s a nervous collective energy. Almost everyone here is doing ayahuasca for the first time, and we’re all scared shitless. They announce the first call to drink, and I make my way to the front of the line. One by one, we take our cups, silently reflect on the intention for the evening, and then drink.
It’s my turn to drink. The stuff is nasty, like a cup of motor oil diluted with a splash of water. I throw it back like a shot of cheap bourbon.
We’re instructed to sit up and lean against the wall after the first cup. The tea takes at least 30 minutes to work its way through the body. I sit quietly for 45 minutes, maybe an hour, and then I lie down on my mattress and wait.
Nothing happens. I feel a little dizzy but nothing overwhelming. I go outside, walk around a bit, feel my feet in the grass. Then they announce a call for the second drink. I remember the mantra here: “Drink, don’t think.” If you can hear the call, if you can move your body, you drink. So I awkwardly drag myself out of bed and head to the front for a second cup.
About 30 minutes pass, and I start to feel … strange. I can see colors, shapes, and shifting shadows on the wall. I’m nervous that something is about to happen, so I go outside and gather myself. I settle in one of the hammocks and stare at the stars.
Suddenly the stars start to spin in a clockwise direction. Then a little faster. Then, for reasons that escape me, I start yelling at the moon. So it goes, for what feels like an hour or two. I keep hurling those two questions at the heavens but get no answers, no insights, just silence and spinning.
I walk back inside and collapse in my bed. For the rest of the night, I see sporadic visions of geometric figures, a few flashes of light, but that’s about it. Then one of the assistants starts to ring a gentle bell.
It’s 2 am, and it’s time to close the ceremony.
Night 2: “Don’t fight the medicine”
The next day I realize why I had no great revelations on the first night. I couldn’t let go. I thought I was prepared for the trip, but anxiety got the better of me. As soon as I thought something — anything — was about to happen, I tried to think myself out of the experience.
Tonight will be different. I’m going to stay in the moment, stay with my breath, and see what happens.
The facilitator is Brad, a kind, aggressively tanned guy from Indianapolis who was trained in ayahuasca by a tribe in Peru. The facilitators play an important role each night, even though there isn’t much one-on-one interaction. They set the tone, guide the ceremony, explain where the medicine came from and how it works, and they assist the people who need it throughout the night.
Brad tells us to let go and give in. “Don’t fight the medicine,” he says. “Just listen.”
It’s cooler tonight, but there’s a warm breeze rolling through the room. Most of the people around me are scribbling last-minute notes in their journals; others are sitting stoically waiting for the first call.
I take my first drink around 7:30 pm, though I can’t know for sure because phones and electronics are shut down as soon as you enter the flight deck. My intention is the same as it was the first night: Show me who I’ve become.
I can tell quickly that this will be different. It’s 30 or 40 minutes after the first drink, and already my senses are overwhelmed. Every time I open my eyes, the space around me starts to fold, kind of like what Einstein describes in his theory of relativity. But it also looks like a tightly woven spider web, and when I move my hand it starts to bend.
Before I know it, they make the call for a second drink. “Don’t think, drink,” I keep telling myself. So I stumble to the front and drink another cup. Then things get weird.
I roll onto my right side and see Andrea, a woman from Toronto, struggling to vomit. Brad, the facilitator, had said the Peruvian and Columbian tribes that use ayahuasca see purging — vomiting, diarrhea, crying, laughing, and yawning — as a vital part of the healing the drug brings. When you purge, you’re expelling all the nastiness — the stress, the anxieties, the fears, the regrets, the hatred, the self-loathing.
All of a sudden, Andrea has 40 or 50 yellow snakes gushing out of her mouth and into mine. And then I’m immediately racked with the worst nausea I’ve ever experienced. First I curl up in the fetal position and then I spring onto all fours and try to puke. But I can’t get it out. I stay on my knees for another five or 10 minutes waiting for something to happen. Nothing.
Then I lie back down, roll onto my left shoulder, and am flooded with a resounding message for the rest of the night: It’s not about you! Andrea’s pain and suffering — the snakes — had passed into me, and that was the whole point.
For the rest of the night, maybe another three hours or so, I lie there thinking about how selfish I often am, and about the symbolism of the snakes. The feeling was so powerful that I started to cry. (Side note: people cry a lot on ayahuasca.)
The next day, Andrea tells me that she never managed to purge but that her nausea suddenly disappeared, after which she drifted into a peaceful half-sleep. I don’t know if that occurred around the time I saw those snakes, but the thought of it kept me up that night.
I’m not bothered by the thought of taking on her pain; it’s the whole wild scene — the snakes, the nausea, the visions. I can’t explain any of it and yet it was unshakably authentic.
Night 3: making love to my wife for the first time — again
I’m halfway through this thing, and so far it’s not at all what I expected. I still haven’t had to confront my past in the way I anticipated I would.
The third ceremony is led by two women. The facilitator is Abby, a young, quietly authoritative woman from Cincinnati who’s assisted by Kat from Montana. Both trained in Peru.
Abby begins by telling us that tonight is about the feminine spirit. “It’s a celebration of creation,” she says, “of birth and renewal.” The idea is calming.
I strike up a conversation with the guy next to me. His name is Brad and he’s another Canadian, a publisher from Toronto. This is his second trip to Rythmia, and he tells me that he plans to sell his business after this. “My whole identity is tied up in that,” he says, and “I don’t want that anymore.”
Before I can respond, there’s the first call to drink. The brew is thicker tonight, and it tastes like wax and vinegar. It hits hard and fast. I am hallucinating within 20 or 30 minutes.
I see myself floating in my mother’s womb, suspended in fluids and flesh. And then I see her life — it’s not quite like a movie; it’s more like a series of flashing visions that are just clear enough to resonate. I see her pain, her confusion. I see how hard it was for her to have me at 20 years old, and how little I’d thought about that.
I see her and my father, in a college apartment, wondering what the hell they’re going to do next. I realize how fucking terrified I would have been in that spot at that age. A wave of compassion washes over me; whatever resentments I was holding on to drop away.
Then the call for a second drink comes. I drink, walk outside, and then go right back to bed.
The scene shifts and I’m floating in what I assume is a kind of primordial soup. I think I’m a vibrating particle now, and string theory suddenly makes sense in a way I could never explain (I suck at math).
Abby starts to sing songs called icaros, which are performed in ayahuasca ceremonies throughout the Amazon. I sink deeper into a trance. My mind is speeding, and my body is frozen stiff. But a calm takes over me, and I start to smile and laugh.
I roll back onto my right side, and suddenly I see my wife’s face. I relive the first time we made love. We’re in college near a lake on campus. I can see our bikes behind us, the water in front of us, the blanket beneath us, and the grass all around us. I can smell the air. I relive this moment, understanding finally what made it so special.
There was no ego. I wasn’t an isolated “I,” a separate person with a separate consciousness. The feeling, I imagine, isn’t much different from what advanced meditators experience when their sense of self disappears. You simply have no awareness of anything but your body and the moment.
But then the vision turns dark.
I start to see every moment of our relationship in which she reached out to me and I missed it. I see her asking me to go to a meditation class, and I decline. I see her pause to ask me to connect at the peak of a mountain after a long hike in Boulder, Colorado, and I shrug it off. I see her ask me to go dancing at a show near our apartment, and I watch myself mindlessly decline.
I see myself stuck in my own head, my own thoughts, my own impulses. And I see the disappointment on her face. I see her see me miss an opportunity to reconnect.
Then I relive all those moments again, and this time I see myself do or say what I should have done or said. And I see the joy on her face. I see it so clearly that it hurts. I see how much time I wasted, how much love I withheld.
I’m crying again, this time even louder, and the smile on my face is so big that my jaw hurt the next day. And I think about how I’m going to look at my wife when I get back home, and how she’ll know I’m seeing her — really seeing her — for the first time all over again.
Then the bells start to ring, and it’s time to close the ceremony.
Night 4: the most honest mirror you’ll ever see
I knew the fourth night would be rough when I saw the ayahuasca brew (each night it’s a slightly different recipe from a different tribe or region or tradition). It was so thick and oily that you couldn’t drink it. Instead, you had to force it down like paste.
The shaman, an Israeli man named Mitra, tells us that it was a 5,000-year-old recipe taken from one of the oldest Amazonian tribes in Colombia, where Mitra was trained. He’s tall, with a shaved head and an assured demeanor. He looks like he could demystify the cosmos and dunk a basketball at the same time.
This final ceremony is longer than the rest. Normally, we gather around 5:30 pm and finish by 1 or 2 am. This time we meet around 7:30 pm and don’t finish until sunrise the next day.
Mitra hands me my first cup, and I fall back to my mattress. I think it’s maybe half an hour before I slip into what I can only describe as the most vivid lucid dream.
I watch my entire life unfold as though it were projected on a movie screen. But it wasn’t my whole life; it was every lie, every counterfeit pose, every missed opportunity to say or do something true, every false act and ingratiating gesture, every pathetic attempt to be seen in a certain light.
The highlight reel is way longer than I imagined.
I see myself as a child groveling for attention from the “popular kids.” I see my 12-year-old self throwing a tantrum in the mall because my dad wouldn’t buy me the Nautica shirt that all those popular kids were wearing. I see myself in high school pretending to be something I was not, and I see all the doubts piling up inside me. I see all the times I self-censored purely out of fear of judgment.
I see myself building my identity based on what I thought would impress other people. On it went — one trivial act after another building up an edifice of falsehood.
I should note how unpleasant it is to see yourself from outside yourself. Most of us aren’t honest with ourselves about who we are and why we do what we do. To see it so clearly for the first time is painful.
The movie rages on into college and adult life, with my self-consciousness expanding. I see myself not looking into the eyes of the person I’m talking to because I’m playing out all the ways they might be judging me. I see myself pretending like my hair wasn’t thinning years ago and all the times I tried to hide it. And every time, the reason for posing was the same: I cared too much about what other people thought.
The experience made me aware of how often we all do this. We do it at home, at work, at the grocery store, at the gym. Most interactions are either transactional or performative. No one wants to make eye contact, and most of the time people freak out if you really try. We’re too self-conscious to listen. We’re thinking about what we’ll say next or how we’re being perceived.
All the posturing destroys any chance for a genuine connection.
The movie ends, and I’m exhausted. The meaning of the previous two nights is clearer now. I needed to feel small and connected before I could appreciate the absurdity of self-involvement. I had to relive those fleeting moments of union to see what made them so transcendent. And I had to go straight through my shame and regret to get beyond it.
When the ceremony finally ended, I sat up in my bed and starting scribbling notes to myself. Before I could finish, Mitra walked up to me and asked how I was doing. I tried to explain what happened, but I couldn’t.
He just kneeled, put his hand on my head, and said, “Happy birthday.”
The day after
I leave the retreat center around 11 am on Saturday to board a shuttle to the airport. With me are three people from my group.
One of them is Alex, a garrulous guy from London. I think he’s in his mid-30s, though I can’t recall. He’s got this dazed look on this face, like he just saw God. His eyes are on fire with excitement, and he’s already planning his next visit.
“When are you coming back?” he asks me. “I don’t know,” I say. He doesn’t quite believe me. Everyone, he assumes, is coming back, either here or to some other place like this. I’m still processing what happened; the thought of the next “trip” hasn’t even occurred to me yet.
We reach the airport, say our goodbyes, and then part ways. I’m standing in line waiting to go through customs, and I’m surprised at how relaxed I am. The line is long and slow, and everyone around me is annoyed. But I’m moving along, passport in hand, smiling for no particular reason.
Typically, I am one inconvenience removed from rage. Today is different, though. When a loud man rolls his heavy suitcase over my open toe, I shrug it off. Brief encounters with strangers like that are pleasant; the awkwardness is gone.
I’m not in my head, and so things aren’t happening to me; they’re just happening. It’s probably too much to say that my ego was gone — I don’t think it works like that. But seeing myself from a different perspective offered a chance to reassert control over it.
People say that a single ayahuasca trip is like a decade of therapy packed into a night. That’s probably an overstatement, but it’s not altogether wrong. In four nights, I feel like I let go of a lifetime’s worth of anger and bitterness.
At the time of this writing, I’ve been home three weeks. The ecstasy I felt in the days immediately after the trip has worn off as I’ve slipped back into my regular life. A tension has emerged that I still don’t quite understand.
I’m happier and less irritable than I was when I left. The tedium of everyday life feels less oppressive. Part of the reason is that I’m less anxious, less solipsistic. I really do find it easier to see what’s in front of me.
But there’s something gnawing at me. I want to go back to Costa Rica, and not for the reasons you might expect. Forget about the ayahuasca, forget about the tropical vistas, forget about all that. This experience was possible because a group of people came together with a shared intention. That creates an emotional intensity that’s hard to find elsewhere. Every person looks right at you, and you look right back.
But real life isn’t like that. I ride the Metro to work every day, and lately I’ve tried talking to random people. It’s a lot harder than you think.
A man sat across from me the other day wearing a Tulane hat (from the university in New Orleans). I used to live in the area, so I looked at him until he looked back, assuming I’d strike up a conversation. But once we locked eyes, I could sense his agitation and we both turned our heads. Nothing weird or hostile — just clumsy.
I’ve spent years making an heroic effort to avoid awkward exchanges, so I get it. But I’m honestly worried that in a few weeks or months, I’ll be that guy again. And in retrospect, this whole journey will feel like a brief holiday of awareness.
I asked my wife the other day if I seem different to her after the trip. She said that she always felt like she had to force me to offer my attention, especially in those quiet, simple moments, and that now I give it freely. I do find it easier to listen since I returned, and it’s amazing what a difference that can make.
I keep thinking about this idea that a night of ayahuasca is like a decade of therapy. Do you pay a price for taking this kind of shortcut? Are the effects short-lived? Maybe.
I know it’s hard to be in the world without being of the world. And the world is a lonely place full of lonely people. You can’t change that, but you can change your orientation to it. In my case, psychedelics made that a little easier.
And what of the self and the ego? I believed these things to be illusions before I took ayahuasca, and now I’m certain that they are. But what does that actually mean in day-to-day life? Not as much as it should. The ego might be a fiction or a construct or whatever you want to call it, but the sensation of it is near impossible to shake.
Even after taking what is arguably the most powerful ego-dissolving medicine on the planet, I still live in a world that reinforces the story of me all the time. There’s no easy way around all that.
I don’t know what life will be like in six months or a year, but I think ayahuasca was the greatest thing that has happened to my marriage. It wasn’t about becoming a better person; it was about appreciating the role my wife — and other relationships — play in my life. I had to escape my head to see that.
Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’d say ayahuasca is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. I spent a week staring down all my bullshit and all my insecurities and it was totally liberating. But it was also terrifying and not something I want — or need — to see again.
A question worth asking: If you looked into the world’s most honest mirror, what would you see?
Editor’s note: this story was originally published on February 19, 2018.
Editor: Eliza Barclay
Photos: Kainaz Amaria
Photo illustrations: Javier Zarracina
Copy editor: Tim Ryan Williams