I went looking for an answer to my own life-long questions and what I found is that there is no answer to just my questions, the answer is for all of us, whether we know about it, accept it, like it, or not.  Let’s start at the beginning.  On my last birthday, I took stock of the things I’ve accomplished, the things I’ve learned, how I’ve raised my children, you know, all the things you tend to think about when you reach the 2/3 point in your life.  All in all, I was happy with where my life was and thankful for what I’ve had the opportunity to experience, along with the accompanying regrets and sad memories that come with being a human being.  There were some questions, however, that have haunted me my whole life: Why are we here? Where did we come from? Is there an intent to all of it, a purpose?  These questions are most definitely not unique to me, in fact, I would venture to guess that we’ve all asked those questions or a version of them at some point in our lives.  For some, religion and faith provide the only answers they’ll ever need.  I completely respect and maybe even envy those for whom the answers are so clear, but for me, the answers lay elsewhere. I also envy those people that are able to decide that these are questions we’ll never really know the answers to and then let move on.  Again, that just hasn’t worked for me.  

Since I could not find my answers through religion and I could not simply just move on, I looked to science for those answers.  I looked to evolutionary biology, quantum theory – the science of the ultra-small, astrophysics – the science of the ultra-big, mathematics- the language of the universe, anything and everything that promised to provide at least a partial answer to the questions I had.  Technology has made huge advances in the past ten years.  Scientists at the pinnacle of their disciplines are getting closer than ever to answering questions that they’ve only been able to hypothesize about, sometimes, answers to questions they hadn’t thought to ask.  But not too much closer to the ultimate questions I had.  I’m sure one day technology will bring the answers to those questions, but I think that day is far, far off in the future and I simply do not have the time to wait.  So I decided I had to find a shortcut to those answers, which meant I had to look for answers in places I’d never thought of before, mystical places.  Having been so heavily grounded in science for so long, the thought of pursuing answers through mysticism and shamanism was not an easy one to entertain.  Still, if I was going to find answers I needed to open myself to everything, I needed to believe anything is possible.  Once I’d made the decision to look at mysticism for the answers, I had to decide how exactly I would accomplish that.  I took a very unscientific path.  I’m Hispanic, so I looked back at the cultures of the Americas of 2000 years ago, my ancestors, cultures for whom mysticism was as much a part of life as breathing.  These are incredibly rich cultures, each with their own traditions and beliefs, but there was one element that seemed to be a part of all of them in some form, an ancient brew that the Incas and other Amazonian cultures used during their ceremonies.  That brew was ayahuasca.  The more I read about it and its properties, its uses, and accounts from those who’ve tried it, the more I believed this was the way to my answers.  I decided I was going to take part in an ayahuasca ceremony led by a shaman.  Before I could do that, however, I needed to do some research.

What is ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a brew that is made from the ayahausca vine Banisteriopsis caapi and leaves (typically Charcruna (Psychotria viridis) or Chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana). How the shamans of 2000 years ago knew which of the more than 280,000 species of plants to use to make ayahuasca, is still a mystery. The leaves produce the active ingredient in ayahuasca, dimethyltryptamine or DMT.  The fascinating thing about DMT is that it is secreted in our brains.  Actually, it is a part of all living things.  We metabolize it so efficiently that we never feel anything.  It’s believed that spikes in DMT in our brain account for mystical or near-death experiences.  The thing about DMT is that we metabolize it so efficiently, that it never causes any sort of vision or mystical experience, it goes right through us.  In order for DMT to trigger mystical experiences, it has to remain in our bodies long enough to break the blood/brain barrier, about 30-45 minutes.  That’s why many over the counter meds take 30-45 minutes to start working.  Helping the DMT to stay in our bodies long enough is what the vines in the recipe do, they produce a monoamine oxidase inhibitor or MAOI, which allows the DMT in ayahuasca to stay in our body long enough to break the blood/brain barrier when consumed orally.  It’s also believed that practitioners of meditation, hypnotism, and mysticism can elevate their level of DMT and thus trigger a transcendental experience.  The MAOI in ayahuasca can interact with a lot of things, particularly medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, heart medicines, SSRIs and other antidepressants, the interactions can be very dangerous, so definitely read up on that before you go.

Where, when, how 

New Life

Now that I knew what it was, I needed to think about logistics, where, when, how was I going to do this.  The first thing I did was to conduct significant research (a Google search) into the places that might offer what I was looking for, and what I found blew me away.  I was expecting to have to go native to be able to experience ayahuasca, ride one of those long flimsy canoes up the Amazon, machete by my side, but what I discovered is that there is a veritable cottage industry for ayahuasca retreats.  Oh, you can still go native if you’d like, but you don’t have to and being a confirmed addict of creature comforts, I was very glad I wouldn’t have to be avoiding crocodiles and snakes as I made my way deep into the Amazon.  You can go to an ayahuasca retreat where someone will meet you in Iquitos, Grand Central for ayahuasca travelers, then take you to any number of places where you can participate in ceremony and that’s it, the rest is up to you.  That would be the economy version, but you can also go to any number of retreats in Mexico where they will treat you like you were in a spa, where you will swim in infinity pools and have attendants and eat gourmet foods.  That will set you back $3500-$8000 for a 7 day stay.  I did not want to do the former and I could not afford the latter, not only that, but somehow having an infinity pool and all the other comforts seemed to be counter to what I wanted my experience with ayahuasca to be about.  

So, I settled for the perfect medium.  I found a place called New Life Ayahuasca, it is in a property that overlooks the rainforest in Costa Rica.  It’s nice, comfortable and clean, with individual rooms for guests, but it is not another Sandals, which would defeat the purpose.  It’s run by two Americans, Jeanae White and Matt Mormello, both people who conquered their own significant demons through ayahuasca years ago and decided to help others to do the same.  They are your hosts for either a 5-day or a 7-day stay, a stay where you will participate in 2 or 3 ceremonies.  The 7-day stay costs $1500 and It’s all-inclusive, all meals are prepared at the property.  The cool thing about New Life, aside from the amazing views of massive birds of prey floating right over your head almost close enough to touch and the view of the rainforest in the mist, is that you have a lot of time to really think about your intentions, why you’re there, what answers you’re looking for.  It also gives you the opportunity to talk to your fellow psychonauts and learn about others’ reasons for being there and, perhaps more importantly, to speak with Matt and Jeanae who have deep insights on the medicina and what it can bring, the ceremony and what to expect and to learn a bit about their own journey from being stuck in a negative, destructive cycle to now helping people profoundly.  For me, it was a time of reflection and of learning about hallucinogens in general.  Of the six guests there during my stay, I was the only one who had never tried any sort of hallucinogen, not acid, not mushrooms, not peyote or anything else.  I’ve also never injected anything in my body.  I am no saint, like many of you I had a wild youth, but mine was mainly fueled by drinking on the weekends, trying pot a few times (never liked the feeling) and perhaps a couple of other illicit pharmaceuticals of the Colombian variety.  Everyone else there had deep experience with all of these and their initial reaction to finding out this was my first foray into hallucinogens was a bit concerning at the time.  When someone who had done acid multiple times tells you ‘damn, you chose to dive right into the deep end’ it does give you pause.  Still, I’d read accounts of many first timers and I believed I’d be okay.  In the end, I was very much okay, but I also definitely understood his comment.  You also get to hike into the rainforest down into a creek if you’d like and to visit a waterfall, also in the rainforest.

The Ceremony

For the weeks before you drink ayahuasca, you are asked to do a dieta or abstain from certain foods.  It’s a dieta, not a diet, the purpose isn’t for you to lose weight. Primarily anything canned, fermented, red meats and sugars.  You can adhere to this as much as you’d like, but you don’t have to be perfect.  Lots of fresh fruits and veggies, fresh grilled chicken or fish, pau darko or cat’s claw tea, all meant to cleanse your body before ceremony.  While there, the food Jeanae prepared for us was delicious and absolutely fresh each day.  So I felt ready.  The day of ceremony you might want to eat a light breakfast and lunch.  Part of the ceremony has to do with purging, mostly through vomiting.  It’s perfectly normal, but still not pleasant so the fresher and least amount of food, the better.  All six of us filed into what looks like a small martial arts or yoga studio with a small altar at one end.  The alter contained all the instruments and other artifacts the shaman would use during ceremony, including a big gong.  We sat down on think sleeping mats with our backs against the wall, three to each side facing each other.  Each of us armed with our own little blue bucket.  We were told that each of us would come up individually, take our dose of ayahuasca and go back to our mats.  We were also told that if we were not feeling anything by the time the shaman himself purged, we should come up for a second dose.  He knows, to the minute, exactly when he’s going to purge and the time by which you would be feeling something.  When it was my turn I went up, drank my dose, a shot-sized glass with a very bitter tasting brew and went back to my pad.  The rest did the same.  And then we waited.  We’d started the ceremony at roughly 7 PM and by the time the last of us drank, the sunlight was almost entirely gone, so we were all seating in a dark room waiting for our journey to begin.  

At around 40 minutes, out of nowhere, I felt/saw a flash of pure white lite formed into a perfect square appear right in front of me.  It was amazing, I’d never felt anything like it.  After that multiple geometric shapes appeared in front of me, changing each time the gong sounded.  I didn’t really hear the gong, I felt it.  Shortly after that, the first wave of nausea hit and I began my purge.  I did notice that each of us began our purge in the exact order we’d taken ayahuasca.  Then the journey for me began. Behind the geometric shapes, I saw a pair of what looked to me like huge big cat eyes, maybe a lion or a panther but one that weighed maybe 1000 pounds.  They were looking at me with no menace, just keen interest and a sense of peace.  I felt no fear, what I felt and thought was ‘I know you, we’ll commune, the two of us’.  That was the last grounded thought for me because the rest of my journey began in earnest.  Each person’s journey is intensely personal.  I don’t feel this venue is an appropriate one to share my own.  I think a venue such as this one would probably be no way for anyone to share that personal experience, but I can share some things with you.  I can share that I was shown, not told, shown in vivid detail, just how infinitesimally small our own individual journey, life, existence is when you compare it to what is the history of the universe, the history before the universe, the journeys of everyone who has ever lived here and elsewhere.  It brought it home to me with such power and absolute clarity that the immediate and all-encompassing feeling for me was absolute humility.  I was completely humbled before it.  All the things I’d found so important, so life-and-death, were now put into perspective.  Following immediately after, came a look at my life, everything, good, bad, recent, old, everything.  And with that came an all-encompassing sense of the deepest gratitude I have ever felt, before or since.  Gratitude for everything I’d been allowed to experience, good, bad, good decisions, bad decisions, my kids, everything.  I think that’s as far as I want to go into my own journey.  Those feelings, however, were echoed by everyone else as we sat in the bonfire that was waiting for us when we finished our journey.  Everyone had this shocked, but peaceful expression and I felt, down to my core, that what each of us shared during that bonfire came from a place of absolute truth and absolute love.  The next few days were spent trying to reconcile everything I saw and experienced.  It’s a process that would take weeks, that’s still taking place.

The aftermath and why you need to get ready

After all was said and done, when I thought back to the original questions I’d gone in search of answers for, I needed to once again put everything into perspective.  I’d gone in for answers to some pretty transcendental questions, questions we all have, but, which if we were to be honest about, we are not sure there are actual answers for.  What I found wasn’t the answer to the questions, what I’d found is far, far more important.  I’d found out that there are, in fact, answers to these questions, not answers that rely on absolute blind faith, but which rely on an absolute objective and thoughtful analysis to get to the final answer.  This didn’t require me to blindly trust in what shamans or thousands of writings said about where the answers could be found, it required me to rely on my own humanity, my own way of thinking and an openness to approach it without any preconceived notions.  What I found was that the answers are held within each or our individual experiences, experiences that we can access and walk through with ayahuasca, and that no one, not one person, could or should tell us what is science, what is true, and what isn’t.  

So here is what I learned:

1) My ayahuasca experience was the first in what I know now will be a lifetime of ceremonies to getting that ultimate answer.  I was shown glimpses of it, but I want to see all of it.

2) Somewhere along the line, humanity decided there was a divide between science and everything it entailed and shamanism/mysticism and what it entailed.  But the reality, whichever side you come at it from, is that when it comes to ayahuasca there is no distinction, what we now called science was, thousands of years ago, also called science, it’s still called science and it is perhaps the truest science of all.

3) Although we think of it now as a method, as a process to determine whether something is scientifically sound or not, our ancestors thought of it as science because they were told, shown really, by the plants that it was precisely that, science.  It’s as true for them, as true as it should be for all of us, as gravity.

4) The connection between ayahusaca, plant medicine and mysticism to the science of DNA is incontrovertible and the basis for why ayahuasca is so effective in treating PTSD, addiction, depression and a variety of other chronic psychological and emotional issues we all suffer from.  You only need to see paintings of ayahuasqueros from years ago, from before DNA was discovered, to see the connection.

5) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in an era where those who are searching for transcendental answers to transcendental questions, an era where we rely most on the latest advancements in science and technology and how far they are able to take us down the path to the answers to those universal questions we all have, it isn’t the next super hadron collider, or study on as yet to be found molecules, that will lead us to the answers.  It will be our ability to look back at where we came from, our openness to have the answer come from where it came thousands of years ago, from the plants, from ayahuasca and from our ability to hold its hand and walk the path to whatever our ultimate answer may be. 

In the end I can share with you that my life was changed in a profound and transcendental way.  I now see everything through a completely new lens, a cleaner lens if that makes sense.  I have a new perspective when I’m faced with challenges, one that allows me to let go of things I don’t need in my life completely.  Ayahuasca is now coming into the mainstream, it’s been found incredibly effective for PTSD, depression and a variety of other emotional and psychological conditions.  And it’s the healthcare providers who are suggesting it to their patients, while means that men of science are willing to see mysticism and ayahuasca as science.  Perhaps a time is coming where mysticism and science take their place next to each other, working jointly to help those in need.  For me, that would be answer enough.

*If you’re interested in the connection between ayahuasca and DNA I suggest you read the Cosmic Serpent.  If you want to reach out to New Life Ayahuasca you can visit newlifeayahuasca.com.