Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is Ayahuasca?
Avery Sapoznikow: Ayahuasca is an ancient tea originating from the Amazon Basin of South America. It’s an admixture of, at a minimum, two different plants, one being a source of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a potent psychedelic compound, and the other being a source of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs; drugs that prevent stomach enzymes from destroying DMT post-ingestion). Traditionally, Ayahuasca is made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridisshrub (DMT source) and the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine (MAOI source). Generally Ayahuasca has been reported to cause intense distortions to normal perception, usually in the form of hallucinations or visionary experiences.. People also tend to be affected emotionally in terms of empathy and openness. Individuals have also reported interactions with what they referred to as “divine beings” or in many cases a strong female or motherly presence (often named “Mother Ayahuasca”).
Jacobsen: How has the substance been used in the past?
Sapoznikow: Ayahuasca has been used in several ways in the past. Firstly, there are formalized Ayahuasca religions such as the Santo Daime and União do Vegetal where they use Ayahuasca as religious sacrament. Secondly, Ayahuasca was used as a medicine to treat various ancient maladies and psychopathologies. Finally, Ayahuasca has simply been used to have personal visionary or spiritual experiences.
Jacobsen: How has the substance been used in Canada? Why is it used?
Sapoznikow: Use of Ayahuasca in Canada has been very limited due to the locations where the plants needed to brew the tea naturally occur. Further, DMT is a schedule I drug in both Canada and the United States so possession of the DMT is technically breaking the law. Fortunately, Canada and some US states have recognized certain Ayahuasca religions and allow them to practice and drink the tea as sacrament for religious purposes; similar to indigenous use of the peyote plant. Other than religious use, sometimes you can find shamans living in Canada who have brought some of their own materials to brew the tea themselves with them from the Amazon. These shamans host their own Ayahuasca rituals or retreats where individuals may ingest ayahuasca many times over the course of several days, for the purpose of spiritual, physiological, and psychological healing. The only other forms of use of ayahuasca would be individuals. As for why it is used, other than as religious sacrament, individuals tend to drink Ayahuasca in Canada for healing experiences as well as to experience one of the most powerful psychedelic experiences one can have.
Jacobsen: What are some of the experiences that users report? Although, the reported experience is more difficult to translate the direct experience; however, this can give an indication at a minimum.
Sapoznikow: What users experience has a lot to do with the set and setting of the experience and the individuals ingesting. What I mean by this, is that an individual’s set – their mindset, temperament, emotional state – and setting – the physical space of the experience and the other individuals present – play a huge role in how the experience unfolds. If someone is in a very dark place mentally when they use ayahuasca, the experience will likely be extremely unpleasant. They may be forced to face these issues in a state when they feel most vulnerable. This could be a healing experience or an extremely scary experience, it all depends on the individual. The shaman or ayahuasca guide also plays an important role when drinking ayahuasca as they are said to be able to somewhat direct where the experience will go with music and chants (icaros).
On the topic of translating experience into words, a year ago I conducted an archival research study on a collection of over 150 ayahuasca experience reports where individuals detailed what they experienced after ingesting ayahuasca in various contexts (i.e. with shamans, alone, in a group, etc.). For the study I had to read and edit all of these reports so I’ve a pretty solid idea of what occurs. That being said, one cannot truly understand what the experience was like unless they experienced it themselves.
Some fairly common descriptions that came up were visual hallucinations of some otherworldly “beings”, often relaying important information to the individual. There also tended to be almost entire loss of connection to reality when the dose of ayahuasca is strong enough. Conversely, there were other reports of little to no effect after drinking ayahuasca. This variance could be due to the quality of the prepared brew, the dosage of the brew, and/or the weight/size of the individual. An extremely common physiological effect of drinking ayahuasca is nausea and a reflexive vomiting sensation, which more often than not leads to actual vomiting. This is generally seen as a cleansing or purge of an individual’s being.
Jacobsen: Have you used it?
Sapoznikow: I personally have not used ayahuasca.
Jacobsen: What is the process of using it in terms of dosing, intake, and making a spiritual practice in one’s own life?
Sapoznikow: As I mentioned earlier, ayahuasca is traditionally used in a group or ceremonial context with a guide to the experience. If one wishes to use ayahuasca for any purpose, I would strongly recommend following tradition and go to an ayahuasca ceremony being run by a trained and well-experienced shaman. You’ll likely be given a cup (relative measurement, not an actual cup full of ayahuasca) of ayahuasca to drink and after 20-30 minutes if there are no effects, the shaman may deem another dose necessary. For making use of ayahuasca for spiritual exploration and practice, participating in these well-known ceremonies will surely provide an individual with a spiritual experience, given they are in the right right set and setting.
Jacobsen: What are the short-term effects on the psyche?
Sapoznikow: Some of the diverse short-term effects of ayahuasca on the psyche that have been reported include: increased happiness, feelings of inner peace, love, and empathy, and feelings of connectedness with the earth and other people. On the other end of the spectrum, people can also feel very disconnected from the world, and may experience unwanted or undesirable feelings. Again, these effects have a lot to do with the set and setting of the individual and experience and resulting outcomes.
Jacobsen: What are the long-term effects of it on the psyche?
Sapoznikow: While under the influence of ayahuasca, individuals may have had intense revelations about reality or a divine/spiritual experience where they feel as if they have spoken to or reached a higher power. This could result in profound life-changing effects in terms of behavior and personality. Few studies have been completed surrounding ayahuasca relative to other psychoactive drugs, however some studies have show associations between the ingestion of ayahuasca and reductions in substance abuse and other maladaptive behaviors. Of course, there is always the potential for negative long-term effects such as loss of sanity and exacerbation of current or initiation of underlying mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, in those vulnerable if the proper precautions aren’t taken. Ayahuasca isn’t just the next psychedelic for people seeking a fun experience, it likely will not be “fun”, but moreso exploratory and mentally taxing. However, if it is exploration of the psyche, the potential to change views and beliefs, or to heal oneself spiritually and potentially even psychologically or physiologically, ayahuasca may be something for one to look into. I would recommend to be sure to do your own research and try to gain as much knowledge about the brew as possible before trying it, it isn’t something to take lightly.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Avery.