Many modern seekers have had experience with psychedelics. Whether in a recreational party atmosphere, a more intentional exploratory manner, or another context, each experience has its own tone that lends itself to a certain kind of learning or depth. Participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony, on the other hand, is probably unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
We asked Carlos Tanner, the founder of the Peru-based Ayahuasca Foundation, to explain what he sees to be the key elements that differentiate an Ayahuasca ceremony from any other psychedelic experience.
“I’d say the main difference would be the ‘focus’”, Carlos said. “The ceremony is very focus-oriented. There’s no lights on, there’s nothing for you to look at. You’re not motivated to look around you because it’s so dark. So, there’s this setting that encourages the focus to be within. If you want to look at something, look at yourself and look at what’s going on inside.” Working with a curandero, the ceremony is generally not a social experience at all. It is intentionally structured to guide each participant to look inside and connect deeply with the spirit of the medicine, surrendering to trust the container of the ritual.
“That to me is what the ceremony does: if you know that nobody can see you and you can’t see them, then you’re not putting on your normal face, you’re not playing your normal game, you’re not projecting your normal image anymore and it’s just ok to be who you are. If you’re scared, it’s ok, and if you’re sad, it’s ok, and you can just crack it open and let it all hang out. And that’s what the ceremony space provides you, this welcoming space to actually shed the armor and be vulnerable and yet know that it’s safe, free from judgment and that you’ll be held and supported in that space.”
The structure of each ceremony can vary depending on the curandero, but there is at least this general consensus: “Through the various practices and rituals of the ayahuasca ceremony itself, there’s a common standard that you should state your intention when you’re about to drink it, which acts as a communication. From the spiritual side of things you’re beginning a communion and connection with the ayahuasca spirit, and then from the personal side of things you’re putting your desires or goals at the forefront of your consciousness at the moment of drinking it.” Coming to the medicine with honor and intention is the first ingredient to building a relationship with Her. Humbly asking for help, stating a desire, or offering an intention can serve to ground a seeker and provide a focus for the work. Because every work is more potent when it has a focus.
“Basically,” Carlos says, “you don’t have anywhere to go except you, and that can be really great. But if you have taken psychedelics before in a social setting, usually you have some ‘outs’, a way out of having to deal with some shit, because dealing with your shit is often perceived as something that you don’t want to do.” Working with Ayahuasca is certainly not all sunshine and rainbows, but Carlos invites a reframing of difficulty in the ceremony.
“For example, with psychedelics in a social setting, if you have a bunch of shit going on, that’s called a ‘bad trip.’ If you end up curled up in a fetal position crying then, that’s not good, that wasn’t supposed to happen, that’s when your friends get worried about you, etc. Whereas with Ayahuasca, that’s almost the goal - not to have a bad trip - but to have a breakdown/breakthrough experience that creates the vulnerability needed to work through some heavy shit.” This is where the ‘structure’ of the ceremony becomes a little more varied.
“And then there’s the singing,” Carlos says. “And the singing is such an incredibly important role.” As the music does its work in union with the medicine, the armor begins to crack and each person has a more unique and personal experience of what opening means for them. “The singing is the direct communication with those spirits that are literally there unscrewing the armor. They’re making that space for you to be able to have that breakdown and not freak out about it.” Of course, it doesn’t have to be a breakdown, it can be a tear filled rejoice of remembering and regaining your true identity. It can be an overwhelming realization of how much love you have inside. It can be a reinterpretation of self perception or the powerful events that shaped your life. It can be a relaxing soak in the truth of your being. “The singing is how the work is done in the ceremonies, and while the work is guided by the curandero and carried out by the spirits, the most powerful participant in the process is you. That’s what I love most about this tradition.”
From there, the night unfolds as the curandero sees the participants through their healing work. And, Carlos remarks, that can be pure bliss: “You don’t hear a lot of people talking about how fun Ayahuasca ceremonies are. I’ve had some incredibly joyous and wonderful experiences on Ayahuasca, that’s without a doubt, but also some of the most challenging and difficult struggles, sometimes wondering if I’m going to survive, a few ‘am I going to lose my mind?’ experiences. And if I were to say which ones were the most valuable, it would definitely be the most challenging ones. I’m all for joy and laughter and smiles. I just feel that the experiences that made me reach down deep inside to find out what I am truly made of were the most powerful moments in my own journey to know myself and understand my life.”
How the process manifests is the magic that happens inside the ceremony and inside you.
Carlos Tanner founded the Ayahuasca Foundation in 2008. The Foundation supports the preservation of indigenous wisdom and culture, supports the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, and strives to raise awareness about environmental relationships and sustainability. Visit the Ayahuasca Foundation's Retreat Guru center page or their website here.