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Ayahuasca as my teacher, in lessons

Maybe I was just lucky.

An Ayahuasca vine (Paul Hessel, @Flickr)

My personal experience was the opposite of the following statement :

In the psychedelic space, real learning is so rare it is nothing short of miraculous. Most of the time, psychedelic experiences are no more transformative than a day trip to Disneyland.

Perhaps my age at the time (61-64) helped. And my beginner´s mind.

About Ayahuasca experiences

The following is a list of my various experiences with the entheogen Ayahuasca, and what I (hopefully!) learned from them.

As I read a few years later, such writing can be a valuable type of integrating psychedelic experiences into one's life. The interpretation of what happened may change over time (Aixala 2021, in "Psychedelic Integration")

Each experience is annotated with references to science, psychology, some aspect of neuroscience and/or to meditation.

I am no expert in any of these - I was only brought to these through a single Ayahuasca experience described here.

Experiences, not traits

When I say "experience", this states what they were: subjective experiences that came and passed. I do not confuse them with "insights into the truth", or other wild claims to have seen the world "as it really is". One is not necessarily god when one imagines to be. They were states, not traits.

Set and Setting

I was aged 61 at the time of my first experience; I was one year before retirement. The experiences took place over a time of four years, from 2016 to 2019, and they distributed over four 3-day events, one event per year.

This corresponds to 12 Ayahuasca ceremonies of ca. 8 hours each. This, all in all, I have 96 hours of an altered state with this entheogen. That is comparatively litte: there are people who have hundreds of ceremonies, for example Dennis McKenna, or Benny Shannon.

They all happened, legal at the time, in a large repurposed barn in the Netherlands, in groups of 30-70 people. I never visited the South American jungle. This way, I may have missed out on the jungle-typical snake- and jaguar-visualisations. Instead, I heard a cock crawing very mystically, as if he was announcing a very important global message :-) But I missed out on nothing else.

The ceremonies were guided by an experienced Brazilian, with a helper team of 6-10 people. He died from Covid in 2021 (showing that Ayahuasca is not a safe protection).

What is an Ayahuasca experience

An experience with the psychedelic / entheogen Ayahuasca isn´t like an everyday experience. All experiences with Ayahuasca play in an expanded inner space that has a completely different feeling-tone to ordinary experience.

It is a miraculous world of unknown emotions, thoughts, perceptions, visions, sensations, love, insights, encounters, reversals, surprises, bliss, sadness, terror, extreme sensory sensitivity, schizophrenia, and deep sexuality, and timelessness. An Ayahuasca experience is always suffused with numinosity, mysteriousness, eternity, sacredness and unfathomable significance/ salience of every experienced second. At the same time, it appears more real than everyday reality, it seems to be a revelation of the true reality that had been hidden so far.

The possible breadth of experiences, their phenomenology and types is described in a thick 490-page book by the Israeli cognitive scientist Benny Shannon ("The Antipodes of the Mind"). It was published in 2002, long before the current wave, by Oxford University Press. A very reputable academic publishing house.

While that book is relatively dry and analytical reading at times, it is also utterly fascinating, and it is highly accurate if I compare it to my experiences. The author has participated in hundreds of ceremonies, thus his experiential base is much broader than mine. My experiences are a small but representative subset of his.

The following quote is Shannon's view:

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew consumed throughout the entire Amazon region. The term is a compound word meaning "vine of the dead spirits"... Typically, Ayahuasca introduces powerful visions well as hallucinations in all other perceptual modalities. Pronounce non perceptual cognitive effects are also manifest. These include personal insights, intellectual ideation, affective reactions, and profound spiritual and mystical experiences. Moreover, Ayahuasca introduces as those who partake of it to what are as other realities. Those who consume the group may feel that they are gaining access to new sources of knowledge and that the mysteries and ultimate truths of the universe are being revealed to them. All this is often coupled with what drinkers describe as an encounter with the Divine. (Shanon, 2003, p. 13)
As attested to by all who have had any significant exposure to a Ayahuasca the effects of this brew can be stupefying to the utmost. Both in the literature and reports of people have interviewed and I have found Ayahuasca visions to be characterised as exhibiting a beauty that is beyond imagination. Invariably the visions impress the viewers as marvellous and when powerful, they introduce drinkers to what seem to be enchanted realities that fill them with wonder and awe. The affective and spiritual impact that the Ayahuasca experience may have on people can be very profound. Often people say that their exposure to Ayahuasca has radically changed their lives; many say that after this exposure they were no longer the same person, but even when it does not have radical ramifications on people's lives at large the Ayahuasca integration is a wondrous experience that those who have been subject to it almost invariably describe as nothing they had experienced before. "(Shanon, 2003, p. 17)

Another great collection of experiences that manage very well to transmit the feeling-tone of Ayahuasca is the book "The Ayahuasca Experience" by Ralph Metzner.

An Ayahuasca experience is something that cannot be properly described but, as they say in letting agencies, "must be experienced to be appreciated" . The great researcher and practitioner Stanislav Grof experienced Ayahuasca to be one of the most potent therapeutic of all psychedelic compounds/substances. In particular, as opposed to LSD, for him and for me, encountering Ayahuasca is like meeting a living being. With LSD, there is no "encounter" with what seems like another organic living entity that is wise and infinitely compassionate and a "teacher". It must be noted though, that psilocybin has the same effect for many.

An example is Sam Harris, reporting in his "Sam´s Mushroom Trip" that it felt "like something other than an encounter with my own mind". I have no primary experience with anything else than Ayahuasca in high dose.

Against this type of experience, with all respect to a great researcher, the idea of Roland Griffiths, stated in a recent interview with Jordan Peterson, that one-day electrode stimulation might achieve this, as an improved solution, sounds preposterous. With all respect - I cannot imagine that Griffiths had any Ayahuasca exposure.

What follows is a short version of my experiences. For each experience, I try to point to an essential general idea, scientific insight or research area behind it.

After the experiences

Of course, after such experiences, one should actively integrate them into one's mindstream and life, be they emotional, mystic, psychological, or intellectual experiences. The experience by itself can vanish in memory and emotional impact. This probably explains the sceptical statement at the beginning of this post. The experience needs to be anchored in real life through reflection and behavior. I began to meditate.

Integration of these experiences can be a lifelong process.

Is Ayahuasca addictive? No. I have currently, after nearly 3 years of pause, no need to make further such experiences. I am still saturated with its richness, and the changes resulting from the inner unfolding.

A catalogue of experiences

The experiences show the enormous bandwidth and richness of the Ayahuasca phenomena for which I am eternally grateful. Some examples:

The experiences

Experiencing flowers dance

During the onset of my very first ceremony, I suddenly realised that the flowers in the vase of the little altar were subtly and alluringly performing a wavy erotic dance. Dancing flowers or moving walls etc are one of the first surprises that everybody encounters with psychedelics, so there is nothing special here.

This immediately burned into me the insight that my life experience until now had been a construct, an illusion of stability, a fabrication upheld by the mind.

Such surprising sensory experience can be much more convincing of the fact of change and impermanence (a core Buddhist tenet) than the abstract thought that we are all going to die one day.

Also, it shows how our experience is anchored to priors or assumptions: these are unquestioned top-down rules by which we construct our perception of reality. Examples of priors are: "flowers do not move dance-like", "walls don't breathe". Even these fundamental perceptual priors can be unhooked in psychedelic experiences. This un-hooking of priors is well described in Chandaria (2022) as effect of psychedelics and of meditation.

My conclusion was therefore the same as that of the philosopher Bernardo Kastrup: everything we see is an illusion. This prepared my later intuitive understanding of Tibetan Buddhism and its concept of "mind-only" and emptiness.

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Experiencing intense sounds

Outside, while walking on the wet grass of a field nearby the ceremony hall, I heard something fall to the ground in a quiet silvery sound in a circle of ca 2-3 meters around me every time I made a step on the grass. At first, I could not believe it, but then I tested it consciously. It was true. I could hear individual small dew droplets fall.

This showed me, how little we normally use of our sensory abilities. We can physiologically be highly sensitive antennas, but we are shielded from sensory overwhelm.

It gave me an insight into what Aldous Huxley called the power of "The Doors of Perception" after his experiments with mescaline and later, LSD.

This insight was repeated in the following experience.

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Experiencing intense smell

I smelled the perfume and skin aroma of a lady a few meters away from me, like a dense cloud into which I could enter.

I got an idea, although a weak one, what it means to live as dog. Of course, it was probably still the experience of a severely handicapped dog, by what I know about dogs' incredible olfactory abilities.

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Experiencing flow-state dancing

It is well known that Ayahuasca improves and liberates artistic impression.

At the end of one ceremony, I suddenly was transformed into a completely uninhibited free dancer, moving with the sounds of the drums that were played live. Later, several people spoke appreciatingly to me about what they had seen me do. I never lost this freedom of movement.

I learned from this, that we use only a fraction of our creative potential.

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Experiencing piano improvisation

A further example of enhanced creativity through Ayahuasca was my sudden unexpected jump in the ability to improvise on the piano.

Below, you can listen to one of the first pieces that I played after 5 years pause. I had never experienced myself playing like this. The piece just created itself out of nowhere, without that I had a melody in my head, and without that I had practiced for it. I just sat down, "it played" itself and I would be totally incapable to replay it. The melodic developments, the phrasing, technique and rhythms were way above my pay-grade, even if a professional musician will find many musical, rhythmical etc issues with it. I was lucky to have recorded it.

This piano experience reflects exactly what Benny Shannon, the Israeli cognitive scientist reports about his sudden ability to improvise as amateur musician. I quote his text because it accurately describes and validates my own experience. The only difference to me: I had started to improvise some years before, but at low level.

I have played only classical music, always from the score, never improvising, and very seldom with an audience. Once during a private Ayahuasca session, I saw the piano in front of me and decided to play. A score of a Bach prelude was there. I played the piece repeatedly and felt I was entering a trance. I left the score aside and began to improvise. I played for more than an hour, and the manner of my playing was different from anything I had ever experienced. It was executed in one unaltering flow, constituting an ongoing narration that was composed as it was being executed. It appeared that my fingers just knew where to go. Throughout this act, my technical performance astounded me. I felt that a force was upon me and that I was performing at its command. No, it was not that I was an automation, nor was I enslaved by any external agency, rather the playing was an expression of a woundrous cooperation between me, my very self, and forces that were superior to me (page 22.f).

The "force" that was above me and brought me into this flow state was the sudden felt presence in me of the late jazz pianist McCoy Tyner.

Many years before I had had the accidental privilege to talk this this revered pianist. I had listened to him since I was a teenager. Our encounter occured during one of his last stays at the piano festival at La Roque d' Anteron . He stayed in the same hotel as me, and I had approached him with goosebumps on the hotel veranda on a sunny Sunday morning.

We got into a deep conversation about death, gratitude and relations. He shared his soul deeply with a complete stranger. He had just recovered temporarily from cancer from which he eventually died It must have been around the years of this recording - this is how I saw him.