Healing doesn’t always come in ways we expect or even fully understand.
And it’s not always pretty. Especially with ayahuasca.
This sacred plant medicine is known to give you what you need, not what you want. And I knew that. I’d heard numerous accounts of friends’ challenging experiences with the medicine. And yet, sitting in the maloca on the night of my 4th ayahuasca ceremony, I was excited. A little nervous of course…but my previous ceremonies had been incredible, and I was sure tonight would be the same.
The History and Healing Power of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is an ancient entheogen and plant medicine that has been used for centuries by indigenous healers and shamans throughout the Amazon in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil.
In ceremonial settings, ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew or ‘tea’ most commonly derived from 2 plants found in the Amazon basin – the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the chacruna leaf (Psychotria viridis).
Both plants are collected from the jungle to create a potent mixture that offers access to the realm of spirits and an energetic world that we are typically unable to perceive. Dimethyltryptamine (DMT – known as the “death molecule”) is the powerful psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca. DMT also occurs naturally in the brain, and is associated with dreaming and the visions that accompany near-death experiences (NDEs).
As someone who has worked at an ayahuasca retreat center, I’ve seen firsthand the healing power of this medicine. It offers us a chance to treat the emotional, energetic, and spiritual roots of disease by opening channels of communication to our subconscious inner landscapes.
Ayahuasca has been used to heal all manner of physical, mental, and psycho-spiritual illnesses. A multitude of findings show that users of ayahuasca report:
- Improved psychological well-being, mindfulness, emotional regulation, and mood
- Elimination of depressive, anxious, and addictive symptoms
- Treatment of PTSD symptoms
- Higher social and emotional functioning
- Increased self-awareness, creativity, and empathy
- Spiritual insights
- Deeper connection to the self, other beings, nature, and the universe
My Journey With Ayahuasca
A few years into my spiritual journey, I felt the call to sit with ayahuasca. I traveled to Costa Rica for a 5 day retreat, intending to release what was holding me back and find greater self-love, connection, and healing.
The ceremonies were some of the most beautiful nights of my life. I experienced profound feelings of oneness, safety, connection, and love beyond anything I can express in words.
I left feeling completely transformed. My faith in the Universe was stronger than ever, and I couldn’t wait to sit with ayahuasca again.
My Journey into Hell
Exactly one year later, I am sitting in a maloka in Mexico at my second ayahuasca retreat, with the intention of bringing more clarity and purpose into my life. As the ceremony starts, I drink the first dose and return to my mattress to meditate, waiting to feel the effects of the medicine.
The first thing I notice is a shift in my breath. And as I go deeper, the visions begin and I can see inside of my own body. Transfixed, I watch unknown beings working within me. At this point, the experience is intense, but also fascinating. I am no longer in control, but I still feel safe. Mother Ayahuasca is leading the show, and I surrender.
I can’t say when, since there is no concept of time. But quite suddenly, everything shifts.
I have entered the most insidious, dark, disconnected place I’ve ever experienced. Beyond anything I thought possible.
Swallowed up by despair and loneliness, I gasp at the horror of my new reality. Colder than I’ve ever been in my life, I feel like I’m freezing to death. I sit up to grab another blanket, as soon as it’s within reach I’m thrown back down onto the mattress. Over and over again ayahuasca allows me to reach, to grasp for some form of comfort, only to throw me back and reaffirm my complete helplessness.
I’m surrounded by the sounds of groaning and purging, and as the chaos continues I am convinced something has gone wrong. We are trapped in the medicine. Stuck forever in the Hell of our own minds.
I give up. I can’t move, and I can’t speak.
I am stuck in a loop of sinister thoughts. Dark entities surround me and laugh at my suffering, telling me I’ve been tricked. That it’s true – I will be stuck in the medicine forever. I will never return to my life. Everything I have experienced until this moment was a lie. An illusion that was always going to lead me back to this moment. To this eternal nightmare.
I will never see anyone I love, ever again.
Nothing has ever really mattered.
I have no purpose.
There is no love. No connection.
There is nothing but darkness and despair.
This is my reality, for what feels like an eternity.
Over and over again, the loop continues. Every ounce of light or joy I once felt is gone.
No trace of hope remains.
A Second Chance at Life
Hours pass, and suddenly, I notice a small shift. I can’t say exactly what it is, but I recognize that something is changing.
The anguish and desperation begin to fade, and a sense of calm slowly settles over me. I can breathe, and it’s as if I’m breathing for the first time. As if I’m being reborn. I nearly sob at the realization that I am ALIVE.
Feelings of relief and gratitude unlike anything I’ve ever experienced wash over me.
I am grateful to be alive. To breathe. To feel warmth. To feel safe.
Over and over again, I whisper to myself.
I am alive.
I am safe.
I am free.
Lessons & Insights
I would be lying if I said I immediately recognized all the lessons and benefits of that night. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
The day after my ceremony, I felt like a zombie. Numb, I lacked my usual joy and positivity. It was as if a part of me had died, and I wasn’t sure it would ever return. A sense of fear washed over me. Would I ever feel like myself again?
I felt traumatized, and a deep sense of shame around the darkness of my journey. Why had I experienced that? What was its purpose? And how could that possibly help me heal?
It took months for me to fully process that night. In truth, it’s been a year and I think I’m still processing it.
I have no doubt that the lessons and messages will continue to show up in my life. But for now, here are the main insights I received from the ‘worst’ night of my life:
Hell is a creation of our own minds.
I don’t believe Hell is a physical place we go to when we die. I think that what we call ‘Hell’ is simply the pain and suffering we create in our own minds, from the stories we tell ourselves. My Hell was a loop of fear-based stories I continued to repeat, and that is what tormented me.
Thankfully, we can shift our stories. We can create our own Heaven or Hell right here, right now, based on how we choose to think and live our lives.
Like I said in the beginning, this is one of the most important ‘rules’ to follow before ayahuasca. But it’s also a valuable lesson for life in general.
Expectations provide a false sense of stability. When our expectations are met, we feel more secure, more in control. But the truth is, there will always be uncertainty, and we can’t predict how life will turn out. So our expectations, no matter how realistic, will always leave us vulnerable to disappointment.
The process of releasing expectations is a powerful exercise in letting go of control and certainty, and allows us to enter the world with a fresh perspective.
Be the witness
A few months later, I sat ayahuasca again. In this ceremony, she played off of my previous experience to deliver a lesson I will never forget.
I returned to the darkness, to my personal ‘Hell’...but this time, something was different.
I was the witness.
Rather than creating stories around what was happening, I simply observed.
And in that space, there was no fear.
I was able to observe without judgment, and avoid getting pulled into the fearful thoughts and emotions that created the suffering of my previous experience.
The Buddha taught that all suffering stems from the mind, and that through practices such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga, we can learn to relate differently to our thoughts and find freedom from suffering. We can choose to detach from our thoughts, drop out of our heads, and live courageously from our hearts.
Now, in my daily life, I do my best to be as mindful as possible. When I notice certain thoughts or feelings coming up, I remind myself to be the witness.
Embrace and integrate darkness.
Why do we fear the dark?
Why do we push down our own darkness, shunning the shadow parts of ourselves?
Our “dark side” – or shadow – is generally made up of the parts of ourselves we deem unworthy or unacceptable, and we have been largely taught to fear and reject that which is unknown.
But what if our darkness is actually a key to our liberation?
Darkness can be a powerful teacher – a portal to profound inner wisdom and transformation. From death and destruction comes new life, and our shadows hold the secret to our rebirth.
My ceremony forced me to see and acknowledge my deepest fears, emotions, shame and trauma head-on. Everything that I had buried. The darkest corners of my mind which, although hidden, were motivating and directing me without my conscious awareness.
The only way out is through. If our shadow is not acknowledged and embraced, we limit the depth of our spiritual, emotional and personal growth. Remaining unwilling to look at our darkness results in continuous self-rejection, and undermines the need to be received in totality by others.
So by facing my darkness, I was given an opportunity. I was given the chance to see, accept, and integrate my shadow so as to no longer be unconsciously ruled and driven by it. To shed light on my wounds and allow myself the opportunity for greater healing, understanding, and transformation.
For true wholeness means shadow and light, unified.
Along with the lessons, ayahuasca also gifted me with increased gratitude, strength, resilience, and empathy. Here’s how:
Nothing will reinforce your gratitude for life more than coming close to death, and that’s what I experienced that night. Things I had taken for granted – the ability to breathe, feelings of safety and comfort, warmth. Going without them and believing I would never feel them again made me realize how valuable they truly are. The worst night of my life renewed my sense of gratitude and appreciation for life itself.
Strength & Resilience
Towards the end of my ceremony, I clearly remember lying on my mattress and thinking to myself, “If I can make it through that, I can make it through anything.”
Resilience is generally defined as the ability of an individual to bend but not break, to bounce back, and “to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”.
Ever since my ayahuasca ceremony, when I experience moments of pain, stress, or suffering, I remind myself of that experience. I remember being in my own personal Hell, and I recognize that nothing could be worse than that. Experiencing the darkest night of my life made everything else feel a lot lighter, safer, and easier to handle.
Throughout my life, many of my closest friends and loved ones have experienced severe depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts and ideation.
And though I felt sympathy, I could never fully empathize. I had my own history with mental health disorders, but they presented in a different way.
A few weeks after my ceremony, I told one of my friends about the journey and what I had felt. I expressed, honestly, that for those few hours I had wanted to die. The level of suffering I was experiencing felt beyond my ability to handle. The fear, the emptiness, the lack of love or hope…I wanted it to end. I would have embraced death with open arms in a second, if given the chance.
“And that”, she replied, “is exactly how I felt in the depths of my anxiety”.
Because of my experience with ayahuasca, I was able to understand, to empathize, with those I loved in ways I never had before. And for that, I am grateful.
Was it Worth it?
If I’d been asked this question in the days following my ceremony, I would have said no. It was the scariest night of my life, and I still encounter moments of uncertainty and fear from that experience.
That being said, it was also one of the most transformative nights of my life, and helped me connect with and relate to guests who also had challenging experiences.
So yes…for me, it was worth it.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy. And I don’t believe it’s for everyone. When working with such a powerful plant medicine, it’s important to not only feel the call and have clear intentions, but also have resources to handle any physical, mental, or psychological effects.
I also highly recommend participating in a safe space, under the supervision of qualified shamans and trained professionals who provide integration support.
If you do feel the call to sit with ayahuasca, trust yourself. You will know when the time is right.
Danielle Rateau is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor, certified health coach, and global traveler. In 2022, she lived and worked at an ayahuasca retreat center in Peru. She is currently expanding her offerings through the study of trauma informed breathwork and sound healing.
Connect with Danielle on Instagram: @daniellerateau