Ayahuasca Is My Therapist (Or Is It?)

Ayahuasca Is My Therapist (Or Is It?)

by Sean O'Carroll
Can Ayahuasca or other psychedelic medications aid or replace traditional psychotherapy, or is there a danger of "spiritual bypass"?
Filed Under: Transpersonal


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It was about 4am, and the ceremony had concluded. People were making their way from the jungle marquee towards the “temple” and kitchen where hot soup was waiting. Some walked in silence, while others began to talk of their experience. I sat in the circle longer than most, taking in the scene. I had drunk 4 times in total. Each drink taken in an effort to catalyze some sort of non-ordinary experience. The Peruvian curandero chuckling mischievously each time I returned, tapping his head and saying “stubborn, like a donkey,” before offering me another cup of the sacred brew. Despite my four cups, I had sat through the night fairly uneventfully, watching as people sat in silence, moaned, sang, cried, and laughed their way though 6 hours of “medicine” journey.

I wandered up the hill, trying to determine whether my perception was in any way changed, and concluding that the jungle bathed in full-moon light was special enough to account for the subtle sense of magic I was feeling. I arrived in the dimly lit kitchen, and fixed myself some pumpkin soup and bread. I sat on a little staircase and took in the scene around me. People in blankets and beanies, eyes twinkling. After a time a man approached and began to speak to me. I noticed in passing that his T-Shirt read, “Ayahuasca is my Therapist.” This man—let’s call him Fred—turned out to be something of a professional ayahuasca evangelist. He told me in his jovial British accent of his travels around the world spreading the word through medicine circle after medicine circle. He told me of skeptics who became believers: bankers, engineers, doctors, and drug addicts.

His stories were interesting, but I didn’t really feel like talking all that much. As I plotted my way to a sentence that might free me from Fred’s grasp I noticed that his poncho was taking on an odd texture.
I looked up at his face again only to find myself looking into the face of a large owl.
I looked up at his face again only to find myself looking into the face of a large owl. I squinted and closed my eyes. I opened them again. I was looking at a jaguar or some other big cat. I looked at the floor and stood, giving up on any hope of forming a polite sentence to excuse myself. What do you say to an owl anyway?

I made my way to a low couch and lay down as the voices in the room became cacophonous. I called out to a woman—let’s call her Jane—who I trusted and who I knew was nearby. She was one of the “midwives,” skilled in sitting with people as they “journeyed.” She came and I asked her to take me to the temple. It felt like someone had turned up the dial on all my senses, and in an effort to dull the world I had placed my blanket over my head. She gently took my arm and led me away from the others. We arrived at the temple, a beautifully crafted small space with high windows and a wooden floor. Thankfully it was empty. I sat there and moved quickly into my journey, which lasted some 2-3 hours. Jane sat by me the whole time, silently offering support and modeling a certain trust in the process.

That journey was profound for me, as have been the journeys I have taken with ayahuasca in the three years since. I learned that night that a little bit of food helps my body start to work with the ayahuasca, and since then I always take a small bag of nuts or a piece of bread. To some aficionados this is a “no go,” but hey, it works for me. I could write about my experiences with ayahuasca, all the lessons I think I’ve learned, the ways I’ve grown or changed, and the places I’ve been, and I think that’d make for some interesting reading. But this piece is about something else. And it comes back to the statement on Fred’s T-Shirt: “Ayahuasca is my Therapist.”

Or Is It?

I was a psychotherapist when I met Fred, and I am still a psychotherapist. I am also regularly in therapy myself. It’s often powerful, healing work, and an absolute privilege for the therapist. But it takes time, costs money, and—for many clients—is difficult. If there were a way to bypass the work of therapy, and achieve the same ends—or greater ends—more cheaply, more effectively, and perhaps even more beautifully, then I’d be first in line. Is ayahuasca an alternative to therapy? Or do these experiences relate to each other in some other way? It’s taken me a few years to gain clarity around this question.

In the medicine community there often seems to be a simplistic assumption that ayahuasca can have only a good impact on the individual or the collective, but my own experiences tell a different story, and perhaps a more nuanced one.
In the ayahuasca community I have encountered those who speak of therapists as though they prey on the weak, benefiting from their misery, while contributing to locking them into their stories of stuck-ness and separation. To some, this is an attractive conspiracy that has a certain resonance with other conspiracies of insidious power structures that inhibit the Great Awakening. Some of these same people see ayahuasca as a panacea—a cure-all—for the ills of contemporary society. In the medicine community there often seems to be a simplistic assumption that ayahuasca can have only a good impact on the individual or the collective, but my own experiences tell a different story, and perhaps a more nuanced one.

My emerging understanding of the place of ayahuasca in the journey towards human wholeness is informed by a number of things. Over the last five years I have worked with a growing number of clients who have come to me, in part, to talk about their experiences with ayahuasca. I also teach transpersonal psychology and encounter many—often young—students who are participating in medicine circles or are considering doing so. Finally, I have been to number of extended retreats where I have come to know the participants and facilitators, and something of their stories and personalities, and what ayahuasca means to them.

The Ayahuasca Experience

There are a great many things the ayahuasca experience does for people. In many instances the experience itself is quite radically different from a person’s everyday or ordinary waking experience. What is more, the experience usually takes place in the context of a supportive exploratory community. People report that experiences with ayahuasca include profound personal healing, intergenerational healing, deep psychological insight, a recognition of inter-being with others and with the earth, life-changing spiritual peak-experiences, insights into the nature of mind, liberation from ego, a sense of spiritual community, a shift from ego-centrism to eco-centrism, and an opportunity for exploration and adventure. This list could go on and on.

How does the individual integrate or understand these experiences? How do these experiences relate to and inform the individual's everyday existence? Are they always beneficial? If not, then in what ways can they be detrimental? For some people the integration is quite obvious and seamless. But my work with clients and students suggests that for some, repeated ayahuasca experiences do not necessarily lead to fuller, happier lives. As ayahuasca becomes more widely available I feel it would be good to see a more balanced discourse emerge around what we might call “best practice.” This discussion might include an exploration of the role of the facilitator and his/her ongoing responsibility, an outline of supportive or aligned mindfulness and health practices, and an understanding of social and psychological contraindications. But for now we might ask more simply,
“When is it not a good idea to drink more ayahuasca?”
“When is it not a good idea to drink more ayahuasca?”

Before proceeding here I want to re-emphasise that I do not seek to generate fear around the phenomenon of ayahuasca, nor to suggest that its use is inherently dangerous or misguided. On the whole I think its emergence is a blessing and an opportunity for humanity. Rather, I am seeking to introduce some discernment in the use of—and “pushing” of—ayahuasca, and also to explore the place of ayahuasca alongside something like regular psychotherapy. I do not feel that I have all the answers, but I do feel that I can ask some well informed questions.

Spiritual Bypassing

One of the phrases that I’ve come across in researching working with people and their experiences with plant medicines is “spiritual bypassing,” a term coined by author and therapist John Welwood. Spiritual bypassing is essentially the tendency to avoid, or bypass, certain aspects of our day-to-day existence through an escape to a more spiritual realm. Very often what is being “bypassed” are those more stubborn and abiding aspects of our psychologies relating to personal or emotional “unfinished business.” People particularly susceptible to spiritual bypassing are those who are struggling with what therapists might call “developmental tasks.”

A classic caricature of a person engaged in spiritual bypassing is the monk who returns from a year-long cave retreat to a lunch with his family, only to find himself emotionally charged and bickering with his parents. Closer to home, my own encounters with spiritual bypassing involve working with people from the medicine community who have difficulty in two key areas: 1) In getting the affairs of their life in order—family, work, money, and physical health or 2) Forming and maintaining nourishing relationships. Just as work and relationships alone may not fulfill our spiritual hunger, so it could be said that spiritual work alone cannot enable us to deal with the challenges of relationship and modern life. In medicine communities it is not uncommon to encounter individuals who struggle with forming satisfying relationships, or with life’s practical demands, returning again and again to ayahuasca as therapist. It was my witnessing of this phenomenon that first gave me cause for concern that the discourse around ayahuasca was overly simplistic and utopian.

The Therapeutic Relationship

So what might therapy offer that ayahuasca cannot? One of the most widespread conditions I encounter as a therapist is loneliness. This loneliness is generally born of an inability to successfully navigate intimacy and contact with other people. Many people in contemporary society spend their days surrounded by other people, but feel the absence of any genuine connection or intimacy. I suspect we all know something of this.

Therapy has something unique to offer in the domain of developing the capacity to form and sustain close interpersonal relationships. It provides a container in which client and therapist can explore that defining human tension between a need for emotional safety, and a craving for a genuinely intimate connection. Every one of us comes to adulthood with certain learned—and often intense—responses to various types of emotional contact. Taking the time to understand and unknot these reactions, so that we might respond with greater freedom and choice, is the very heart of the therapeutic encounter. This work is delicate, takes time, and is grounded in a process of two people relating in an ordinary waking state.

Abiding loneliness is a sad fate for a social being, and working through the correlated issues is difficult work that requires a great deal of courage and persistence. For this reason, it is exactly the type of experience that we are likely to seek to deal with via an escape to the realm of the spiritual. My encounters through therapy, teaching, and the medicine community suggest to me that ayahuasca is not the best way for an individual to address this issue, perhaps largely because the ayahuasca experience is primarily a "solitary" experience that does not support us at our human-to-human relational edge.

Ayahuasca as a regular practice can be detrimental to those who struggle with life’s demands or with personal relationships, especially when it becomes something of an escape, or a person’s primary source of meaning and connection.
Perhaps the simplest observation I can make from working with the medicine community as a therapist is that ayahuasca’s gifts can most readily be received and integrated when the journeyer launches from a solid foundation of sound life-skills and a capacity for relationship. In this context, ayahuasca can be a wonderful companion. Where these are lacking, more ayahuasca is not helpful. Somewhat contentiously perhaps, I would say that ayahuasca as a regular practice can be detrimental to those who struggle with life’s demands or with personal relationships, especially when it becomes something of an escape, or a person’s primary source of meaning and connection.

Cultural Context

It is worthwhile noting in passing that the practice of working with plant medicines traditionally takes place within a cultural context that offers fairly seamless integration with other social and psychological realities. In contrast, contemporary ayahuasca drinkers return from their ayahuasca experience to worlds, families, and workplaces that do not offer simple pathways for integration or understanding.

While this culturally decontextualised use of plant medicine no doubt has certain advantages, it might also place greater responsibility on people in positions of leadership within the medicine community to consider the need to nurture a more complex, nuanced, integrated, and supportive model of best practice.

Allies, Not Alternatives

In summary then, let’s return to Fred and his T-Shirt that reads, “Ayahuasca is my Therapist.” I believe that Fred was sincere in his work and in his belief that he was bettering the world by spreading the practice of sitting with the medicine. And for the most part I too think it is a great gift to human consciousness. But I wonder how many people, lured by the easy promise of bypassing the hard work involved in addressing real developmental or relational issues, return to the medicine only to drift further from a solid foothold in the everyday world. It is in the “everyday” world, after all, that we must ultimately find or create meaning through relationship and expression.

In so far as both therapy and ayahuasca enable us to become whole, to give and receive love more readily, and become more complete members of the earth community, I’d say they are aligned. But what each of these activities offer on the path to wholeness is quite different, and while there are clearly things that ayahuasca can offer us that therapy cannot, the same is true in reverse. It would be a mistake to think that ayahuasca replaces or makes redundant the work of therapy.

© 2015 Sean O'Carroll
Sean  O'Carroll Sean O'Carroll  is a therapist in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. He is also the director of Wild Mind, and lectures in transpersonal psychology.