Every now and again, a meditation student of mine will ask me what I think about ayahuasca.
For those who don’t know, ayahuasca is a non-addictive plant medicine that you drink in a controlled environment (ideally with an expertly-trained shaman present). Over the course of several hours, typically overnight, ayahuasca can cause you to have intense visions, psycho-emotional releases and physical purging.
Reported benefits include clarity about your life choices and physical detoxification. Some are even calling it "the new juice cleanse."
On the westside of Los Angeles where I live, invitations to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies come almost as frequently as movie invites. Many of my close friends have tried it, including my girlfriend. But no one has ever tried to push it on me. It’s one of those experiences they say that “you have to be ready for,” and only you'll know it when the time is right.
Just so we're clear, I don’t have a problem with anyone who participates in “ayahuasca journeys,” as they are often called. And after researching it some more for this article, ayahuasca seems to have a strong historical precedent as a legitimate method of communing with the master teacher — Mother Nature herself — and gaining valuable insight, as noted in The New York Times as "10 years of therapy in one night."
I still don't have any interest in trying ayahuasca because I feel that I receive all of the reported benefits (and more) from my daily meditation practice, but without any of the common side effects, which I’ll discuss below.
Here are the four main reasons why I abstain from the popular plant medicine:
1. You’re out of your mind (and I'd rather stay in mine).
Ayahuasca has been known to cause temporary moments of emotional or psychological distress, where you’re literally not yourself. This could reportedly last for hours.
For instance, there was the time I was on a yoga retreat in Hawaii and a good friend of mine participated in an ayahuasca ceremony one night. I wasn’t there, but the next morning I heard the story of how he saw a vision that caused him to dart out of the house in the middle of the night, and began running around erratically near a steep drop-off to the ocean.
He ultimately had to be crash-tackled by the shaman before potentially falling off the cliff. Maybe that was a one-off occurrence, but if there’s even the slightest possibility of harming myself from using plant medicine, I think I’ll pass.
2. I prefer to protect my consciousness.
My preference is to engage in activities that expand consciousness of my body and mind, as opposed to temporary loss of awareness of my surroundings, which can sometimes happen with ayahuasca. I also don’t drink alcohol or use hallucinogens for that same reason. If insight comes at the expense of dimming my awareness of my surroundings, then in my opinion, it’s too high of a cost.
I understand this is why you should only do ayahuasca in a controlled environment with a shaman, but as with the previous example of my friend running into the night, following protocol doesn’t always insure safety.
With meditation, I feel a real-time expansion of consciousness — not just of myself, but also everything that surrounds me. Every single time I come out of meditation, I feel clearer than I did before going into meditation, and there's no hangover, come-down, or decompression period. In my opinion, meditation is the most sustainable tool for gaining long-term insights and epiphanies about how best to grow and evolve in your life.
3. The "pendulum effect" ... I prefer to keep my life in balance.
With ayahuasca, there are often reports of dramatic visualizations which can influence stark changes in lifestyle, such as being called to change occupations, quit “bad” behaviors.
These are all valuable benefits, and I believe that it’s never a bad thing to gain clarity (whether overnight or gradually). But one of the things I appreciate about my history with meditation is how — even though I’ve wanted to get more clarity or feel the effects of my meditation practice immediately — everything unfolded in its own sweet time.
I believe that a slow unfolding of awareness reduces the potential for "the pendulum effect," the tendency to swing back into your old habits and behaviors, due to taking on too much change too quickly.
I've found that downloading snippets of better possibilities and more sustainable behaviors from daily meditation, allows for more gradual lifestyle adjustments that can survive the forces of change.
4. The purging ... and other undesirable side-effects.
It’s recommended that you adhere to a clean diet prior to your ayahuasca journey to reduce the amount of violent purging. But it’s still not uncommon to experience bouts of vomiting, diarrhea, hot and cold flashes, or "the shakes" during the ceremony. This is said to be the result of necessary physical or emotional detoxing.
But for me, any voluntary activity that requires me to hold a bucket in anticipation of intense release from the various orifices of my body, will always rank low on my priority list.
Furthermore, with the more gradual lifestyle changes that occur through meditation, you begin to minimizing the amount of toxins you put into your body in the first place. Meditation also gives your nervous system an outlet for releasing the build-up of emotional stress gradually, as you build your daily practice.
The bottom line: While I’m all for a good detox, I don’t have to detox everything out in one night.
Final thoughts ...
I’m sure some people out there have had miraculous, life-changing experiences by using ayahuasca and other forms of plant medicine. And I don’t mean to imply that meditation has to be an alternative to ayahuasca ... you can certainly do both.
Perhaps I may appear close-minded about ayahuasca because I enjoy and appreciate all the benefits of my meditation practice, and that's enough for me. I have very little desire to do anything else that claims to deliver similar benefits at the expense of my safety, comfort, and consciousness.
But I know of committed meditators who regularly participate in ayahuasca journeys, and totally swear by it. I also apologize in advance if I inadvertently misrepresented ayahuasca as reckless or unproductive. That wasn’t my point. I’m simply offering my personal reasons for not trying it.
And for the record, I also haven’t tried skydiving — but not because I believe that there’s something wrong with it. I just don’t feel a strong desire to hurl myself out of an airplane at 13,000 feet in the name of having fun and excitement. My life is pretty fun just as it is.
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