The following is excerpted from Listening to Ayahuasca by Rachel Harris, PhD, published by New World Library.
Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew from the Amazon rainforest, is entering the Western lexicon through the popular media, the internet, and first-person reports. Considered a medicine by practitioners, the tea has great therapeutic potential that is just beginning to be studied. As a result of her own personal experience with ayahuasca, Dr. Rachel Harris was inspired to research how this medicine was being used in North America in the largest study of this kind to date. Listening to Ayahuasca describes her findings, including miracle cures of depression and addiction, therapeutic breakthroughs, spiritual revelations, and challenging trips.
When discussing this aspect of ayahuasca, I prefer to use the term spiritual experience rather than mystical experience because it’s more inclusive. In scholarly research, mystical experience is defined carefully and specifically, and it includes or requires the presence of unity, transcendence of time and space, sacredness, noetic quality, and ineffability. By using spiritual experience instead, I can avoid the academic debate about what constitutes an authentic mystical experience. Certainly, in my study, reports of ayahuasca experiences describe some of the same mystical territory, but they also include aspects not usually mentioned in scholarly circles, like entry into otherworldly realms and contact with spirit entities.
What’s important here is that people describe, both in my study and elsewhere, huge leaps in their personal psychospiritual journey. They experience psychological healing and sometimes physical healing as well. Their way of being in the world undergoes a seismic shift from how they take care of themselves to how they understand their place in the universe. They also open up to what’s referred to as nonhuman worlds, including plant spirits, spirit doctors, personal ancestors, past-life experiences, and sometimes entities from other dimensions or universes.
My best description of the impact of ayahuasca is that it’s a rocket boost to psychospiritual growth and unfolding, my professional specialty during my thirty-five years of private practice. This kind of transformation is called “quantum change” in the professional literature, which acknowledges that psychology knows very little about it. Religious epiphanies are similar and better understood, or at least they are better documented by religion scholars. However, they, too, remain mysterious, with speculations of epilepsy as a contributing factor.
Philosopher William James explained them with his theory of “discontinuous transformation,” meaning that the leap is not a gradual evolution marked by education or practice but, rather, is a sudden, inexplicable awakening. In the case of ayahuasca testimonies, the leap is not inexplicable but directly attributable to the medicine, or to the spirit of the medicine. Perhaps both the chemical impact of the brew and the esoteric power of Grandmother Ayahuasca are involved.
One of the more famous spiritual experiences marked by white light, ecstasy, ineffability, great peacefulness, and a sense of the presence of God was reported by Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. His spiritual experience has touched millions of people through the now-ubiquitous self-help program. It’s not widely known, however, that his experience occurred while he was in an alcoholism-treatment program, which used a mix of drugs that included belladonna, or datura, one of the frequent admixtures to the ayahuasca brew. It’s possible that Bill W.’s revelation, which led to his abstinence, was caused by a plant associated with this Amazonian medicine.
From my study, what we do know is that the spiritual experiences arising during ayahuasca ceremonies lead to great changes in people’s lives. The qualitative descriptions of what people experienced and how they changed are confirmed by hard or quantitative data from the questionnaire. The people who used ayahuasca scored high on the two factors related to spirituality, “Joy in Life” and “Relationship to the Sacred.” When both qualitative and quantitative data are in agreement, we can be pretty sure we’re getting an accurate picture.
My Ontological Crisis
From the very beginning of the research study, I felt the presence of Grandmother Ayahuasca both in and out of ceremony. As I’ve mentioned, Grandmother Ayahuasca specifically instructed me to involve Lee Gurel by name in the research project. I’d never received instructions from a plant teacher before, and looking back, I don’t understand how I never questioned my experience. With the same naïveté, it never occurred to me to ask other people about their relationship with Grandmother Ayahuasca.
As a researcher, however, I knew enough to seek expert help in the development of the questionnaire, and a white, female shaman suggested I ask about the relationship. The questionnaire asks: “Do you feel that you have a personal relationship with the spirit of ayahuasca? If so, please describe this relationship. How do you communicate? How does this relationship affect your life? How is this relationship unfolding?”
Ultimately, 75 percent of the eighty-one subjects reported an ongoing relationship with the spirit of ayahuasca. I was shocked by this finding, even though I was also, admittedly, receiving guidance from Grandmother Ayahuasca. I was hearing her voice and listening to her advice on data analysis, no less. The obvious contradiction here is not lost on me, and I can only marvel at the full extent of my lack of consciousness regarding this issue. What happened was that these findings sent me into an existential crisis from which I have not yet fully recovered.
I could somehow accept that Grandmother Ayahuasca was talking to me, but if she was also talking to others, then I felt she must be real. With this, my whole belief system and worldview crumbled. Coming from a family of confirmed agnostics, I didn’t believe I had a belief system. I didn’t realize agnosticism was a belief system, just as most people don’t realize that their belief system is just one way of looking at the world.
Anthropologist Jeremy Narby related the story of a man who thought drinking ayahuasca would be comparable to smoking a joint. He was not pleased with his experience: “My way of looking at the world was completely altered and no one warned me!” Narby said the man was quite bad off for a few years and facetiously remarked that ayahuasca should come with a warning label: “Beware. This could be dangerous to your worldview.”
Of course, a warning label wouldn’t have stopped me from trying ayahuasca, and ever since, I’ve struggled with my particular ontological crisis: “Are spirits real?”
Only one man from the study had a similar problem. He called it a “radical ontological difference,” and he wrote: “The notable aspect of the worlds of possibility that ayahuasca opens up is this: These realms are occupied. This is shocking. There are others. Lacking any inherited, assumed, or borrowed belief structure with which to explain or interpret this, I am struggling.” A man after my own heart.
I still have trouble believing my own data. I cannot sustain my Western concept of reality and accept that I, like so many others, am in direct communication with the spirit of ayahuasca. My Western belief system shatters in the face of my experiences, but then, like a cartoon resurrection, pieces itself back together after each ceremony.
I had the opportunity to talk with Huston Smith about my finding when I acted as his personal assistant for an Esalen workshop in 2012. “What is this voice I hear?” I asked him. He spoke slowly and thoughtfully, as is his way. “We don’t know.” Silence. Even you don’t know? I thought, then I must be hopeless. Undaunted, I asked someone from the next generation of eminent religion professors, my friend Robert K. C. Forman. Without knowing what Huston said, Bob gave me the very same answer, “We don’t know.” Still undaunted or perhaps desperate for understanding, I asked my friend Tom Cheetham, an expert on Henry Corbin’s imaginal realm and Jung’s theories of archetypes.10 Perhaps these two metaphysical approaches to reality and alternate worlds would include the concept of plant teachers. I thought surely Tom would have a philosophical explanation, and he was more philosophical, at least in dodging my question “Are spirits real?” But I’m nothing if not persistent, and after one of our visits, I asked my eternal question again, and he yelled from the driveway as I pulled my car away, “Yes, they’re real. Spirits are real.”
Did that resolve my question? No. I cannot escape my Western worldview, my way of understanding reality. When I share my struggle with friends whom I think must share the same questions, I’m surprised to learn that they don’t. They seemingly have no conflict with hearing from the spirit world. In fact, a physicist friend of mine told me to “just get over it,” which was surprisingly helpful. Still, I marvel at the myriad ways people describe their personal relationships with the spirit of ayahuasca.
Relationship with the Spirit of Ayahuasca
In the study, people said they communicated with the spirit of ayahuasca via dreams, intuition, meditation or prayer, feelings, and visions. Some described a kind of psychic or telepathic style of communication. A few, like myself, reported hearing her voice as clear as in any normal conversation. One person wrote that the relationship has become “a core part and a consistent presence in my life.” Another said, “The relationship guides and conducts everything I do and all that happens to me. I am more and more seeing how I am supported and loved by her.” One man said, pure and simple, “I am in love with the spirit of the vine.”
“She’s guiding me to open my heart more and more. She shows me images and tells me things that give me a lot of clarity to realize what’s stopping me in my life. I never feel ‘alone’ anymore. It’s a beautiful relationship. I feel that I am connected to her, and she calls me when I need to experience a ceremony,” wrote a twenty-three-year-old female trainer. A thirty-four-year-old female jewelry designer reported a similar kind of relationship after only two ceremonies: “She shows me more and more, whatever I am ready for. I’m like a flower slowly blossoming, and she knows exactly what is right for me to see.”
A thirty-one-year-old male accountant said, “She helps me to do beneficial things for myself, like showing me how to forgive myself, how and why I should live healthier.” A fifty-seven-year-old retired teacher wrote, “My own soul seems to be more real and more connected to higher spiritual dimensions….The relationship provides more of a calm certainty that my life has purpose. I feel I am being guided and encouraged to love more freely and find ways to help the planet.”
A thirty-four-year-old male therapist described a very specific experience: “The spirit looked me in the eyes, and I felt my body was being worked on to reorganize its microbiology.” The man explained that he communicated with images, eye contact, and telepathy. I can only imagine how this experience has changed his style of doing psychotherapy. He also said he had “increased feelings of love for people, a renewed spirituality,” and that his “spiritual journey is getting to know and love the world.”
The image of the plant working at the deepest levels of the body is a common one. A sixty-three-year-old woman with a high school education said, “The Spirit of Ayahuasca is in my DNA. She heals me, deprograms me, removes negativities.” Another person described a similar point of view: “She’s in me forever. She still guides me but on a more subtle level, yet a most profound and influential one.”
“I feel the relationship with ayahuasca in the fiber of my being. It’s like a doorway or channel to the spirit world, to truth. I feel it in my bones,” wrote a thirty-two-year-old female restaurant manager. “I am very grateful for what the medicine has brought me. With each ceremony, our spirits grow closer.” A fifty-five-year-old woman said, “She guides me, answers my questions. I sense her presence and intuitively sense her answers. It’s comforting and supportive. When I’m falling asleep, I feel her presence subtly.”
A forty-four-year-old woman said her relationship with the spirit of ayahuasca “transforms everything in my life….I ask questions, the answer arrives immediately, never the way I want, always the way it is truly.” A number of people described their relationship as unfolding “slowly, surely, softly, lovingly” and that they felt guided, cared for, and protected. One young man said his relationship was unfolding “rapidly” and that it felt like a “parental bond” and he “felt loved.” One woman said, “She is my mother, my teacher.”
A few people described a more intimate relationship with the spirit of ayahuasca. A forty-two-year-old female healer wrote, “She seduced me from the very beginning, said, ‘I WANT YOU!!!’ Many things happen in my life that are always completed and cared for by her. I cannot explain more than this. It [the relationship] continues to grow, change, and feed me so much love and health in my life. I am working with Her more and more, and I grow more and more humble.” The woman capitalized “Her” in her written statement. This small, intentional grammatical decision begs the question of who this spirit represents. Does this woman think the spirit of ayahuasca is God? I don’t know.
A thirty-year-old male editor wrote, “I feel like I confronted a spiritual entity which had been ‘stalking’ me or lurking around me.” A thirty-two-year-old female teacher said, “There are definitely spirit entities that have their own distinct consciousness. In dreams, a serpentine spirit is guiding me.” A fifty-four-year-old religion professor said so much communication with the spirit of ayahuasca seemed to happen in dreams that he referred to his dreams as “night school.”
A thirty-two-year-old male high school English teacher wrote, “The first time I took it in Brazil, I felt a presence behind me that kind of embraced me and took me on a voyage of my mind. There was a snake-like hissing in my ear, and then the spirit entered me, and I could feel it move into my body, and there was what I can only describe as a kind of lovemaking but without the typical signs of arousal. If at any point during the ceremonies my mind wandered to think about females I was attracted to, I would all of a sudden feel like I was being constricted by a boa in a jealous and playful sort of way.” I particularly like his description of being constricted by a jealous boa as playful. He said his relationship with her was unfolding “wonderfully, she shows up from time to time when she’s happy with me — to let me know I’m on the right path and that she’s always around.”
A twenty-nine-year-old male graduate student was so connected with the spirit of ayahuasca that he had familiar-sounding relationship problems: “Currently, I feel she’s mad at me for not following through on the initial gifts she gave me. I don’t communicate with her, and maybe that’s the problem! I don’t know what to do about it! Right now, my relationship with her feels stuck, but every once in a while I feel her love…actually as I’m writing this right now!” All the exclamation marks belong to the writer and illustrate the intensity of his experience.
One man wrote, “She heals me, sometimes gently and sometimes fiercely. We communicate telepathically — she speaks to me in my mind, and I speak back. Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s her or me talking — maybe she’s just helping me relate to myself.” This is the central question I also ask: Is this an outside entity or one’s own inner voice talking? No one has a definite answer, but this man offered me something of a resolution: If the voice is me talking to myself, then the spirit of ayahuasca is helping me do that. For those of us with ontological problems regarding communications with a plant teacher, this is one approach to resolving the conflict. The same man said that he has learned to notice when he’s resisting communicating with the spirit of ayahuasca and to love his resistance. Another interesting solution.