To enter an ayahuasca ceremony, you have to know someone. And you probably do, even if you didn’t realize you run with those kinds of people. At a recent ceremony in the Santa Monica Mountains, I met a pilot, a barber, some people in the entertainment industry, and a single mother who turned to ayahuasca because she was struggling to co-parent with her ex. Some people even showed up with their parents.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drug associate with Amazon indigenous spiritual practices, and it’s catching on in Southern California in a big way. Over the last decade or so, all sorts of psychedelics have been renowned as a wellness tool. Some cities have decriminalized them, starting in 2019 with Denver, Colo.and now the whole state of Oregon is preparing for legal magic mushrooms in 2023.
However, it’s not Los Angeles, so this ayahuasca ceremony is low-key. You ask, get a referral from a friend, pay a couple hundred bucks, and you’re in. At least, that’s what worked for me.
A couple of weeks before the ceremony, I receive these instructions:
“Disclose any medication.” That’s because ayahuasca can pose a serious risk if you’re taking certain medications.
“Bring toilet paper, pillows and blankets.” Check, check, check, I got them.
”Wear comfortable clothes, preferably white.” Why white? Well, I’m not sure, but the friend who referred me said that the first time he tried ayahuasca, he made the mistake of wearing a starched collared shirt, like he was dressing for a job interview, so I opted for colorful sportswear. clear. instead. You have to be comfortable throwing up your guts.
Because all I know for sure is that I’m probably going to throw up my guts. Ayahuasca is famous for purging.
When night finally comes, I drive deep into the mountains, excited and nervous. I feel like I might throw up just walking through the door.
Our fellow seekers tonight, about 20 of them, are not drug addicts or exhausted. Most ayahuasca users do not consider it a drug, they call it medicine. They are professionals and hard workers, some with traumas to heal, others simply open to the experience. There are many more gray hairs than I expected. After sharing our intentions, we each go upstairs for a small cup and then drink together.
It’s disgusting. Ayahuasca tastes like motor oil and dirt, with a harsh, bitter sweetness that reminds me of what coolant smells like.
For the first 10 minutes, it’s silent. Then someone throws up, the first of many purges to come. And purging isn’t just vomiting, it comes in many forms. Slowly, a cacophony of bodily noises builds, and suddenly our pupils dilate and we’re high.
The music kicks in. Some of it is live, some of it is recorded, some of it is the purest open mic with the most talented musicians. It is, after all, Los Angeles.
There is definitely an interplay between music, medicine and intentions. “The music is directing the ceremony and telling you where to go. It’s taking people on a journey,” says Tony Moss, who runs a local group called I.AM.LIFE that performs ayahuasca-inspired ceremonies without ayahuasca because, in the Southern California, ayahuasca is only legal in certain contexts.
A search partner using his initial “A” agrees that music is a powerful part of the experience. “You’re on the same wavelength because the music is playing all the time. That’s your beat. That’s the beat of the whole room,” he says. “You start having thoughts, but you don’t know if your thoughts are coming from you or from the music. I felt like the music was responding to my thoughts and other people in the room. And I think it’s the other way around. I think the music dictates what which it is, and people respond to that emotionally. And medicine allows you to do that.”
So everyone is on the same wavelength: a beautiful, connected feeling. But this unity, vulnerability, and openness that ayahuasca users commonly seek is exactly where things can start to go off the rails.
Not all sunshine and rainbows
“When you walk into these spaces, there’s so much exuberance, so much excitement and such a shared sense of community,” says Dave Nickles, producer and co-host of the New York Magazine podcast. Cover Story: Power Trip. He and his co-host dove into the dark side of ayahuasca, and yes, there is definitely a dark side.
“When you’re involved in boundary-dissolving drugs, how could you not sometimes feel at one with your comrades, confidants, and friends who sit in a circle with you every few weeks or months? And you know, these are the people that you show this part of you that no one else can see,” Nickels continues. “And yet that exuberance, I think, often overrides whispers and murmurs and worries, like that gut feeling that maybe it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. ”
Has been allegations of rape, sexual abuse and other misconduct. such chargesincluding misconduct by group leaders during psychedelic therapy, have undermined some of the research and institutions at the forefront of this so-called renaissance. Worse yet, many people who seek this treatment are already vulnerable because they are trying to heal sexual trauma, depression, PTSD, and other complex psychological issues.
There’s also a culture of hostility toward anyone who points out problems, says Dr. Lily Kay Ross, co-host of the New York Magazine podcast with Nickles.
Dr. Ross told me, “The idea is: We want to protect the movement, we want to protect the renaissance. We want psychedelics to have the most beautiful, shiny, seductive image possible because we’re fighting criminalization and we’re trying to legalize these drugs, but The consequence of all that is that here we are on the verge of legalization, this could expand to millions and millions of people in the next few years, and there are all these really important discussions that have not happened.
Important discussions such as: What is and is not ethical for the leader of a psychedelic group to do? And what is really a safe dose? There are studies showing that ayahuasca and other psychedelics can help heal sexual trauma and addiction, but some of those studies have been debunked.
Ayahuasca has also been promoted as a balm for depression.. Dr. Jeff McNairy, medical director of Rhythmia, a luxury spiritual resort in Costa Rica that offers ayahuasca retreats, says he gets good feedback from clients who suffer from depression. But the problem of ayahuasca as a remedy for depression is that he has to stop his SSRI medications for 30 days before and after a ceremony, which could be dangerous for people struggling with their mental health.
Fortunately for me, tonight in the Santa Monica Mountains is much more about communing with my ancestors and feeling one with the world than it is about a negative or dangerous experience. After 12 hours and at least as many purges, I drive home from my ayahuasca journey feeling more connected than I have in a long time, and open to trying again.
Sound design: Michael Castañeda
Musicians: Nestor Colmenares, William Cordero, and Steffen Hoffman