My Mind-Bending Experiments with Ayahuasca


My Mind-Bending Experiments with Ayahuasca

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Ididn’t know what to expect at my first ayahuasca retreat just outside of Mumbai. Certainly not a crowd of over 25 people waiting to ride into the stratosphere, no questions asked.

I had no such easy eagerness. For the uninitiated, ayahuasca is fondly called “the Mother”. This isn’t just the label given to the psychedelic brew by imbibers from here to South America where the vines of the source plant grow. It is indeed the Mother of all psychedelics, a drug that only a few junkies fuck around with.

Think of it like this. Beer is like a wheelchair, while pot is like a bicycle. For getting from point A to B, a fairly short distance, either will do the trick. Acid or mushrooms are like a motorbike or a car. They are faster, take you farther and are generally considered safe so long as you are not overspeeding. Ayahuasca is like a jet pack strapped on to your back. It does’t go from A to B. It only goes from A to Z.

I have vivid memories of that cold December evening. I had travelled in a local, and then by auto to the rickety old farmhouse where the congregation and the old shaman were camping. Shamans are the designated guardians of the ayahuasca drink, and are responsible for ensuring that the evil spirits are at bay when you are at your most vulnerable. My shaman even played kickass icaros on his Charango.

The place, was full of pretty, young people; surprisingly, mostly from the media. Art directors, brand managers, the like. And of course, the bohemian crowd whose family wealth was enough to take them through a week or so of unemployment. Apart from a neurosurgeon friend that I made in the camp, none of these people admitted to experiencing any other psychedelic aside from the Mother.

This was odd to me, especially because I had read up on exhaustive research into the effects of ayahuasca and had several apprehensions about the experience. For starters, the active ingredient in ayahuasca is dimethyltryptophan (DMT), the chemical that is produced in minute quantities in the brain to aid with dreaming. Some believe it is the dream director, the one drug that opens up countless pathways to paradise or highways to hell. If the set and setting are off by a few points, you could be lost for unimagined lengths of time in the universe of the drug. I hoped the farmhouse was the right stage for such a trip.

In the sprawling estate that we were in, very little seemed to grow. The area was fenced off from the creeping wilderness around it and pockets of light disturbed the splendour of the stars above. The shaman was inside his room, next to a large hall where we would be spending the rest of the night together.

Before the night’s emergent craziness, we all had to meet the shaman, J, alone to ask him questions or tell him our expectations of the trip. J was a middle-aged man: gaunt, tall, and sombre. Why most of the others told me that he was full of joy is still a mystery. But I discovered that he was quite a listener as I prattled on about how this was the next high and that how I wanted nothing more than to experience DMT.

After my dose, I began to get a strange feeling. I felt as if the drug was testing me out. Like every inch of my body was being scanned without actually giving me a trip.

At my answer, he smiled a bit, but returned to his sombre expression. “You’ll get what you want,” he told me, “but think hard about whether this is all you want from the experience.” He explained that the Mother explores your body, digs out your deepest and darkest fears, and makes you purge them. This can manifest itself physically in any form of excretion – sweating excessively, bowel movements, or the fan favourite, vomiting. This is seen as a good thing, and every participant is given their own bucket to purge into.

The hall was lined with comfy mattresses and blankets. Along with the plastic bath bucket, everyone was provided with two standard-issue fluffy pillows. I settled down next to a middle-aged American woman who launched into a long story about how ayahuasca cured her depression and other chronic illnesses in Latin America.

“Wow,” I remember thinking as J entered the room and dimmed the lights. He started with an introduction, and lit up a mapucho cigarette, a strong, beautifully scented South American variety of tobacco. After this, he gave us a tincture of tobacco in alcohol that we had to snort, to ensure that our senses were heightened. Almost on cue, the room came into sharp focus despite the low lights.

J then asked everyone to come toward him, sit on our knees in respect of the Mother, and drink one dose. This was mandatory. After a while, you could go back for a second or third swig. After everyone had had their dose, J began chanting and singing icaros while rhythmically brushing dried palm leaves together. It was static background music for whatever journey you were embarking on – through your personal heaven or hell.

After my dose, I began to get a strange feeling. I felt as if the drug was testing me out. Like every inch of my body was being scanned without actually giving me a trip. I felt as if a doctor was conducting a full-body check-up, figuring out which parts needed work, and then collating all that information in a report for the DMT multiverse. I felt very little beyond nausea, and I went for a second round.

This one sent me on a whole different phenomenal trip. I felt as if my body had suddenly been lifted and was transported into a universe of laval lamps and impossible structures. The songs in the background went into a hazy echo of an echo of an echo. The impressions I was getting were being blown away; frames twisting into more frames. I thought I saw an elf – the famous DMT elf – but I couldn’t be sure whether I was imagining a jester of some sort. And throughout it all, I was restless.

I was a stranger in a strange land and felt that the creepy anxiety of the trip would never end. That I was trapped forever in the heart of madness. That one day they would find me drooling in a psych ward somewhere and nobody would remember me. That everything would have been for nought.

I do not remember what I was doing and for how long I traversed in the alien landscape of my head. I was gasping for air, trying hard not to retch, when a huge, magnificent fractal door manifested in front of me. I stared not knowing whether it was a hallucination or something real. My brain just could not comprehend.

The door seemed to be placed there to guide me to a higher level of consciousness, or to some unfathomable goal that I was going to understand prior to opening the door. Something told me that it was the key to everything I held dear. I deliberated. But the door dissolved into the cool sounds of people coming out of a reverie.

We were woken by a little tobacco smoke prayer. I felt as if I was coming out of a trance – and returned to the real world a lot faster than I do from any other hallucinogen. Perhaps it was the music? Perhaps it was the “vibe”. Either way, I snapped out of it.

Outside, the 5 am air was crisp, and I was a little shaken from the experience of all that intensity. Most of the people around looked like they’d met God. The artsy-fartsy folk were feeling enormously chuffed, that they’d genuinely been purged by the Mother. Some of them mentioned “lightness” in their system which they attributed to their experience – and not the evacuation of their guts into that bucket of sick.

Everyone was hugging and there was a general sense of bonhomie. I could see smiling faces everywhere but I slunk off to my room to gather my thoughts. That’s where I found the neurosurgeon-in-training who was lighting up a joint. We ended up having a very long conversation about the entire experience.

I believe that psychedelics can work wonders on the brain in the right set and setting – that these trips can actually help people. The people around the farmhouse that night really seemed to believe that they had been saved. But maybe, all they were experiencing were the exaggerated after-effects of a powerful hallucinogen.

As for me, I can’t decide if ayahuasca managed to clean up my system. I’ve thought often about J’s enigmatic words and whether I allowed myself only a dip into my consciousness. Maybe I was too afraid of the chaos of my own mind. Some things, I suppose, we are just not meant to know.