Ayahuasca Could Revolutionize Psychotherapy, but Only if We’re Willing to Do “the Work”

Just before dusk, 18 strangers entered a yurt on a Midwestern homestead. Peruvian tapestries decorated the walls of the large, round structure, and rattles stood poised for ceremony.

The participants — professional men and women ages 35 to 65 — put on comfortable clothing and set up sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets. Everyone got a plastic bucket, cheerfully colored in green, red, or blue.

"It looks like a big pajama party," joked the host, Kim.

In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna tends to one of two key plants used to prepare ayahuasca.
Emile Utne
In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna tends to one of two key plants used to prepare ayahuasca.
The leaves of the Banisteriopsis vine.
Emily Utne
The leaves of the Banisteriopsis vine.

The shaman, a North American who had trained in South America for more than a dozen years, took a seat at the front and led the group through a conversation about what to expect.

Stay with your breath, he advised. There's no talking, no touching. Purging in any direction is a distinct possibility. The bucket is your friend.

He dimmed the lights, and after intoning a prayer, poured a foul-smelling brown liquid into a series of cups. One by one, all 18 visitors brought it to their lips and drank.

For 40 minutes, the yurt fell silent. Then the shaman began to sing.

Around the same time, the drink took effect. Some who consumed it cried, others belched, several fled for the outhouse. Many reached for their buckets and vomited.

For the next four to five hours, those in the room did what many call "the work." Some took trips back into their childhood memories. Others had visions: of nature, of healers, of fireworks. Afterward, they would say that the tea offered an opportunity to look at their problems in a new light.

"It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life," says Fred, a kind-eyed, gray-bearded man in his 50s.

Kim and her husband, Josh, have organized about 50 of these gatherings since the summer of 2010. In that time, they've seen hundreds of people have an experience like Fred's.

All three asked that their real names not be used out of fear of the law. Though no one in the United States' underground network has yet been prosecuted, the liquid falls into the category of Schedule I controlled substances.

The risks scare her, but the way Kim sees it, she doesn't have a choice.

"My life is not my own anymore," Kim says. "If that were to mean standing up in the face of legal action, I'd do it . . . After seeing how much this helps people — truly heals people — I'd do anything."

The psychoactive brew goes by many names. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg called it Yage. In Brazil, it's known as Hoasca. Other aliases include the Spirit Vine, the Vine of the Soul, and the Vine of the Dead.

Its most common name is ayahuasca. The indigenous cultures of the Amazon have brewed the plant concoction, and its naturally occurring dose of the hallucinogen DMT, for centuries.

In recent years, the West has caught on. The tea cropped up in the Jennifer Aniston flick Wanderlust and the Showtime series Weeds; proponents include everyone from Sting to The Howard Stern Show's Robin Quivers. One ayahuasca expert estimates that on any given night, between 50 and 100 ayahuasca groups are in session in New York City alone.

Some of the same doctors and researchers who have, in recent years, gotten FDA approval for breakthrough studies involving MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms are now turning their attention to ayahuasca. Preliminary work suggests the brew could help treat depression, chronic addiction, and fears of mortality.

People with less-defined diagnoses, but a hunger for something missing, say ayahuasca offers something ineffable: compassion, connectedness, spirituality.

"Ayahuasca is penetrating American society, and its highly successful people, way more than any other psychedelic," says Rick Doblin, the head of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research association based in Santa Cruz, California. "The number of people who have had incredible experiences with ayahuasca, if they could all surface in the public sphere at the same time, it would be absolutely astonishing."

In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna walks past the cacao (chocolate) and the Punica (pomegranate), and strides straight to the back corner, where the vines of the plant Banisteriopsis have twisted around each other — and nearby electrical cords — to reach the room's rafters.

McKenna, a white-bearded professor wearing wire glasses and a denim shirt tucked into his jeans, points at one of the younger vines, a supple green stem the width of a pencil.

"This is nothing," he says, explaining that mature plants can reach 1,500 feet and weigh several tons. "Usually, the part you use is the thickness of a finger."

McKenna would know: He has drunk ayahuasca several hundred times since 1981. An ethnobotanist and ethnopharmacologist by trade, McKenna first tangled with psychedelics as a teen coming of age in the '60s. He tried everything from LSD to jimson weed, but never ayahuasca: There was none.

"It was this rare, legendary thing," McKenna remembers.

The first record of ayahuasca arrived in the West in 1908, thanks to the British botanist Richard Spruce, who mostly described lots of vomiting. Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes followed up a half-century later with the first academic account. Around the same time, Beat author William Burroughs wrote letters depicting his quest for the tea to Allen Ginsberg, collected in 1963 as The Yage Letters. But in the Western literature, there wasn't much more than that.

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My Voice Nation Help

WRONG on "we don't have options" beyond the 12-step movement.

There's a number of "secular" support groups like Liifering Secular Recovery.

There's drugs like naltrexone that may reduce cravings for alcohol, with experimental work on refining and improving them.

Halluncinogens? Speaking of 12-step groups, Bill Wilson came up with the nuttery of  using LSD for alcoholism 50 years ago. 

As for PTSD? I see much more promise in modern pharamaceuticals that, delivered quickly ehough, prevent severely adverse memories from "consolidating." They're probably more likely to prove effective on long-ago event memories, too.

Richard Garrison
Richard Garrison

Did the Dark Side and Animals too! Also discovered the most awesome mind expanding album ever! Brian Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets" with Robert Fripp and his Friptronics! Was on a sailboat off the coast of San Diego just floating on the waves with those three cassettes!

Scott Bowersock
Scott Bowersock

That's a group I want to be a card carrier of......I had one of my own at the time and Dark Side of the Moon was religious to us.

Richard Garrison
Richard Garrison

We would go to Pizza Hut and put fresh shrooms on the Pizza's.

Richard Garrison
Richard Garrison

Been there done that, but the naturally occurring ones were pretty awesome! And yes it does help to have a guide! We had a group that experimented together, about 5 of us. Listening to all of Hendrix's music the entire night, and many bootlegs.

Scott Bowersock
Scott Bowersock

I ruined chocolate shakes forever by blending in some. Vomit, hurl,...hallucinate....remember the taste forever......whoa.....was that a pink duck?

Scott Bowersock
Scott Bowersock

answer is no, never....unless you are retired, experienced and uncaring in your later years like me. F em and let them know how you feel about being watched and controlled about what you do at home with your own mind

Scott Bowersock
Scott Bowersock

One needs an experienced guide. I was one in the old days of orange barrel and window pane. I can be scary without one.

Nick A Thomas
Nick A Thomas

Yes this is all know but cannabis had to separate from it because it was to hard to pass to the general masses because of the stigma associated with the word DEA DRUG are bad real bad, but pharmaceuticals are okay. Florida oxy cotton epidemic DEA is hot on their ass over it.

G Paul Hudak
G Paul Hudak

Yeah, facebook, have you taken drugs? Answer the nice newspaper - in a public forum please

shadeaux14 topcommenter

If you aren't smart enough to set up a fake FB acct so you can retain your privacy when posting on these sites, you deserve having the whole world see your ass.