There is something in me that constantly searches. I want to become better, I want to grow and change. It’s a voice that whispers incessantly, “Further. Keep going.” There’s no turning it off or changing its tune. There is only ignoring it or listening to it, and I spend my life alternating between these approaches. It’s patient, this thing inside of me. It perches in my chest and waits for me to come back around. I always do.
As I walk this pilgrimage that is life, I find myself open to any tools, methods, or experiences that will help to push me further. To make me better. I might be painfully reserved in other aspects of my life, but in self-improvement I am fearless, relentless. I am a warrior. I tear through books and online articles and weekend workshops. I treat my life as a laboratory, experimenting with diets, daily regimens, esoteric practices. The books on my shelf get steadily stranger and stranger as I spelunk down the rabbit hole. In recent years I have taken a deep dive into meditation, yoga, reiki, qi gong, traditional Chinese medicine. And down, down, the path we go.
My first experience with ayahuasca was two years ago. I had heard of plant medicines before but they seemed like the type of thing for only a medicine woman or a madman lost in the desert. As the South American practice popped into my readings more and more I started to warm to the idea that this spiritual brew might be useful. It is not at all uncommon in Silicon Valley circles and plenty of famous visionaries have been known to explore the fringes of human consciousness (Steve Jobs was quite outspoken about the virtues of psychedelics, for example). When I discovered that Paul Simon used ayahuasca, I was sold. Besides, wasn’t I a madman lost in the desert?
One does not simply buy ayahuasca off the internet and drink it one night during reruns of The Office. This is a serious and sacred spiritual undertaking and requires weeks of physical and mental preparation. Meditation, fasting, and abstinence are all part of the regimen, and the dietary restrictions are severe. If undertaken sincerely, these practices inevitably cause emotional upheaval. After a week or two I’m usually ready to snap at anyone who looks at me funny and then go cry into my cereal. And really, maybe that’s the point — to get these raw emotions to the surface so the medicine can work on them. It’s a sacrifice, but no one promised that radical life changes would come easily.
The brew itself is a foul-tasting green concoction made from vines, leaves, and other natural substances. It is difficult to drink, as if to remind you that it is difficult to change. I always find myself both nervously dreading and eagerly anticipating a ceremony. What keeps me coming back to it is that I’m not sure what my alternative is…I can’t go on resenting my loved ones and wallowing in a stew of depression and anxiety. I just can’t. So I get off of my ass and I do the work. Exploring the depths of your inner life takes a courage and an honesty that are rare in today’s society. Only warriors need apply.
Once you gather your courage and get the pungent elixir down your throat, what follows is a six hour journey through what I call “the world behind the world”. Each time is different — you may see visions or hear music or visit other realms, but not always. It is common to weep. Or laugh. I bring a notebook and scratch away at it for hours in the dark. The only certainty is that you will be guided (either gently or otherwise) to confront the darkness inside of you that you have been running from for far too long. The shortcomings and mistakes that have been holding you back are laid bare and you have no choice but to regard them. This is why we do it: to finally draw a line in the sand, determined to look at ourselves with a fearless honesty.
This is not meant to be a solitary journey. When I partake of this odyssey I am surrounded by other pilgrims, searchers and warriors just like me. To my left and to my right are companions who are fighting alongside me and with me. The room is filled with music, both haunting and reassuring, to guide us along. We share our lives with each other and cry and laugh together in a rare space of unconditional love. Their stories are mine (and yours); strained relationships, broken families, staggering loss. We all come to the medicine for the same reason — not because we are whole, but because we wish to be.
Medicine — that’s the only word for it. Ayahuasca has been the catalyst of more growth in my life than hours upon hours of counseling. I awake after the experience with fresh eyes and the clear knowledge of what needs to change in my daily thoughts and actions. I leave with a list of relationships that need rekindling, tasks left too long undone, words that need to be spoken. I am a different man when I return, yet more myself than ever.
There is no such thing as a magic potion. There is no pill that can save you from your struggles. Ayahuasca does not make all of your problems magically disappear — they are all still right where you left them, waiting for you when you get home. But choosing to explore yourself and to be honest about what’s inside of you will bring you healing and peace and strength for the journey.