Ayahuasca Moms

As psychedelics gain scientific traction for their healing properties, enthusiasts are diving into enlightenment at weekend retreats by the beach. Sophie Griffin, a young writer, ran into tripping tourism on her spring break, and she had a few questions.

 

They sprawled on the beach, vomit-buckets and patterned pillows surrounding their sunburnt bodies. They were from the United States, Canada, Europe. Clad in Lululemon and surf apparel, they sat in groups and talked, their anticipation palpable in the humid air. It was just past sunset, a sandwich board outside a storefront proffered services: yoga, meditation, and “guided spiritual journeys.” That last one piqued my interest, and it was what the people sitting out on the beach that night were doing. This was over my spring break in Mexico, and the tourists were going on an ayahuasca journey — just one of the many ways that consumers today can pay-to-play the enlightenment game. 

The next day, my traveling companion and I attended a guided meditation at a retreat down the beach. Across the street was a large, multicolored mural that said simply Be Here Now. Frequented by hippies, the center sold detox juices with names like Enlighten and Center. We listened to the waves crash, and were told to focus on our breathing, on our bodies, on our thoughts and their processes. Options later in the day included a cacao ceremony, vinyasa yoga, ear acupuncture, and full-body massages — a spiritual potpourri indeed. 

A new New Age mysticism has been on the rise all across the world in recent years. Its causes are no doubt broad and varied: there’s our dominant culture’s emergent — and alienating — focus on algorithms and cold, hard data (Ben Shapiro’s “the facts don’t care about your feelings” mantra encapsulates this well) rather than warm-and-fuzzy people power; there’s the political instability in both our divided nation and abroad; there’s the century-long downward slide of attendance at some traditional churches, and, of course, a general grasping for any life raft as we come to mental grips with apocalyptic climate-change forecasts. Many of us, it seems, are seeking a guiding narrative around which to structure our lives and give us a sense of meaning. 

Enter capitalism into this void, and you get culturally appropriated shamanism. 

As a pocket of extreme wealth as well as flashpoint of cultural pressures — environmental activists bouncing off hedge-fund managers at fund-raisers, the 1 percent packed into a small geographic area with new immigrants and the poor — the East End has witnessed this phenomenon in a pronounced way. 

Examples of the branch of spirituality that requires a platinum card are everywhere. I have a friend whose mom is trained in Reiki, fills her house with crystals, and participates in arcane rituals involving fire, chanting, and newly ordained shamans that make her kids’ friends a bit nervous; she wears Lilly Pulitzer and goes to country clubs in Florida, and her mystical views don’t seem to fit her preppy, upper-crust exterior. Another friend’s mother buys shrooms from Colorado, and the two go on mother-daughter plant-medicine excursions; they say these journeys bring them clarity about their inner demons and their lives. My own mom has acquaintances who have flown to the Southwest for multi-week shamanic training. 

I’m a teenager, and, naturally, all of the above provokes major cynicism. Soccer Moms are ancient news; I grew up among Ayahuasca Moms.

But even cynics cannot discount the ancient tradition in various pre-modern cultures of using hallucinogens to provoke religious experiences and profound insights about the nature of being. When psychedelics are used in a traditional religious or spiritual practice, they’re referred to as entheogens. Ayahuasca, specifically, is made with the vine of the Banisteriopsis caapi plant, among other ingredients; recipe variations are all over the internet. Its active ingredient is DMT, or N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, a psychedelic compound that provides what was called a “businessman’s trip” in the 1960s due to its rapid onset and short trip duration. 

Ayahuasca is traditionally brewed by peoples in the Amazon, where it goes by different names depending on the tribe using it. The most common spelling comes from a Latinized Quecha word, where aya means spirit, soul, or corpse, and waska means rope or woody vine. According to National Geographic, the first documented use of ayahuasca apparently dates back to around the year 1000, in a cave in southwestern Bolivia. When conquering Spainards witnessed ayahuasca ceremonies, they described them as the devil’s work. In the 1950s, while traveling through South America, William S. Burroughs — as he wrote in his fictionalized Yage Letters — tried ayahuasca in an attempt to relieve his heroin addiction. The writing of others, including the McKenna brothers, brought ayahuasca more popularity outside of the Amazon, and its popularity seems to only grow and grow. 

Psychedelics of all kinds are having a moment. Culturally and scientifically, a renaissance of sorts is taking place. Substances that were once seen by most Americans as taboo, even dangerous, are being explored by mainstream science for their potential medicinal benefits, whether through “microdosing” or in other doctor-supervised regimens. 

Michael Pollan’s recent book How to Change Your Mind details the benefits — spiritual, psychological, existential — of hallucinogens and is a must-read for anyone curious about experimentation. While researching it, he tried out four of the most common hallucinogens — magic mushrooms, LSD, MDMA, and ayahuasca — and discusses his experiences at length. In and of itself, the fact that this book is a best-seller is a signal that tripping, once a hallmark of fringe culture, is stepping into center stage. 

DMT, the main psychoactive substance in ayahuasca, is a Schedule I drug in the U.S., the same classification as heroin, and has been illegal since it was first isolated in the 1970s. More recently, however, the Food and Drug Administration has approved it for use in certain clinical trials, because some neuroscientists believe it may have therapeutic potential. 

Indeed, preliminary studies suggest that ayahuasca administered in a controlled setting can yield powerful results, mainly connected to the stimulation of brain signal diversity (indicative of altered consciousness) during the trip. Magnetic-resonance imaging and electroencephalogram (EEG) scans of subjects’ brains while taking ayahuasca suggest that it stimulates the thalamus, a walnut-size mass deep in the center of the brain that is involved in awareness and consciousness. Françoise Bourzat’s just-released book Consciousness Medicine: Indigenous Wisdom, Entheogens, and Expanded States of Consciousness gives an authoritative overview of the benefits of such psychedelic therapy.

Interestingly, the difference in the brain after the trip is over mimics changes recorded after years of meditation practice — echoing claims of some ayahuasca enthusiasts, who describe the trip as a shortcut to spiritual and emotional wisdom. Some say one experience can be equivalent to 10 years of traditional talk therapy or meditation. 

 

The fact that Michael Pollan's how to change your mind (for which he took shroom, LSD, MDMA, and ayahuasca) has become a best seller is a signal that tripping, once a hallmark of fringe culture, is stepping into center stage. 

 

Are you googling “Ayahuasca near me” yet? You wouldn’t have to look far for a source. In recent years, the East End has become a hotbed of psychedelic experimentation, with practitioners leading week- and weekend-long retreats in Sag Harbor, Montauk, and elsewhere. Slide into a booth at Provisions on a Saturday around lunchtime, and you might overhear folks at the next table gushing about a recent full-moon psilocybin ceremony at Ditch Plain or discussing plans for an upcoming ayahuasca pilgrimage to South America. 

One woman of our acquaintance — let’s call her Brittany — took just such a trip to Peru in 2012 to take part in a multiday ayahuasca ceremony with a few close friends. They did their research and traveled with an organization they had connected with through the East End yoga community. Before leaving, the participants were advised to follow a strict diet in which they abstained from alcohol, sugar, processed foods, and salt for six weeks in order to ready their bodies for detoxification.

 “We went deep into the jungle. It took forever to get there — a plane, a boat, a canoe, a donkey, and a fair bit of walking through thick forest led us to the remote retreat site,” Brittany says. She and her friends spent four days in the jungle with very little electricity, taking ayahuasca every night. 

Still, despite Brittany’s care, her experience wasn’t all butterflies and kaleidoscopic colors. “The first time was really intense. My whole body became briefly paralyzed,” she recalls. “It felt, frankly, like something was trying to kill me.” But, she says, that feeling eventually passed and gave way to something truly remarkable: “a really beautiful, peak experience where I was laughing out loud and experiencing profound joy.” The after effects, she remembers, lasted for days. “You can tune into the energy of everyone around you. You’re super psychic.”

This summer, a shaman is leading retreats in Montauk in which, for a fee ranging from $2,100 to $2,700, participants are invited to spend a weekend partaking of a number of different empathogens, including something reputed to be kambo, a toxin secreted by the green tree frog, Phyllomedusa bicolor, native to the Amazon basin. The substance is typically administered in a ceremony during which a shaman will burn small circles into the participants’ skin and then rub the kambo into the blister. This delivers the secretion into the bloodstream, inducing, we’re told by participants, strong hallucinations and vomiting. Proponents of kambo ceremonies also claim its effects are akin to ayahausca’s — that is, they can lead to deep, life-changing emotional healing. 

 

Hiring a shaman, adopting special diets, taking time off from jobs, MAYBE jetting to a different continent and hiring a guide, paying in for the ceremony itself — becoming one with the universe can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. 

 

To skeptics, the language used to describe these psychedelics — and the cottage industry of imported (or appropriated, depending on your viewpoint) ceremonies — can sound pretty woo-woo. While the emerging science seems to support at least some of the claims, the trappings and the sales pitches do not always inspire confidence. 

Purported traditional medicines offered at one of this summer’s East End retreats include a mixture of “flowers, pollen, and plants” that “within five seconds of inhalation, allows you to be in full communion and complete harmony with yourself and Mother Earth in a state of ethereal bliss”; the plants and pollens are unnamed, so it is hard to know what initiates might be ingesting. Also on offer is a “blend of pulverized tobacco and Palo Santo roots” that is “infused with herbs of the Amazon” to “realign your chakras.” The shaman is also offering an eyedrop tincture made from the shredded root of an unnamed Amazonian shrub that, it is claimed, has the power to treat and cure serious medical conditions like glaucoma and even blindness. Blindness?

While every participant we spoke to was clearly being sincere — extraordinarily so, wanting to share their experiences — when we heard them describe these ceremonies, we felt the question had to be asked: Have some of them been sold snake oil?

Meanwhile, tourists who travel even farther out of their comfort zone to become one of the initiated sometimes find themselves in unsafe conditions. Over the last five years, reports of ayahuasca seekers abroad being robbed and sexually assaulted have become increasingly common. In 2014, a British teenager died during a ceremony in Colombia. His “shaman” dumped his body on the side of a highway. 

There are also concerns that the rising wave of psychedelic tourism could make it harder for indigenous peoples to access and use the drug that has such important cultural significance to them. 

Still, despite the risks, ayahuasca-related tourism is at an all-time high. “At the airport in Peru, everywhere you look there are signs advertising ceremonies,” Brittany says, “It’s really become an industry.” 

Part of this surge in popularity may be linked to ayahuasca’s mystique as a cure-all for a wide assortment of psychic torments. We are deep within the Age of Wellness, and to those who are serious about alternative medicines and therapies, ayahuasca, or kambo,  usage is a sign of spiritual rigor. In this culture, the psychedelic voyage has in some circles become a rite of passage: How deep into the jungle did you go? How long did you fast? 

Meanwhile, where we live, here on the East End, the psychedelic-journey culture has implications that are not just spiritual but class-coded: This ego-destroying self-knowledge is mostly available only to the well-heeled. Hiring a shaman, adopting special diets, taking time off from jobs, maybe jetting to a different continent, hiring a guide, paying in for the ceremony itself. . . .  Becoming one with the universe can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. 

Outside of certain Native American communities, most North American participants encounter ayahuasca or kambo via a commercial transaction; how does this impact its spiritual element? Is it okay for North Americans to dip in and out of endangered indigenous cultures — some of which are on the brink of extinction — or is it another form of colonialist exploitation?

For those of us who remain on the outside, among the uninitiated, it is all too easy to mock the weekend spiritual warrior who swallows no-one-knows-what herb during a five-figure weekend in the Hamptons. 

Still, I might be skeptical — it is only common sense to be skeptical — but my intention is not to mock. It would be ignorant to mock.

I wasn’t alive in the 1960s and 1970s, but I’d guess that yoga culture might have been irritating or even laughable to cynical people who didn’t practice it then: This is some other ethnic group’s spiritual practice, and these goofballs are chanting Sanskrit words they didn’t even understand? My editor tells me she can recall the mom of a friend, back in the ’70s, who went on a strict diet before she went on her annual yoga-ashram retreats in India. The editor was just a kid but she thought the whole thing sounded ridiculous: a wealthy white lady who diets so she can look just right while she jet-sets off for spiritual enlightenment in a country where many people went hungry? 

But fast-forward to 2019, and the medical, physical, and psychological benefits of yoga have been proven so conclusively it’s not even an argument anymore.

Give ayahuasca, or kambo, or psilocybin, another decade or so, and maybe the snake oil and the silliness that color the hippie-tourism end of the commericialized spectrum will drop away, and their use will be integrated into our society in a more equitable manner, with more checks and balances for quality and safety. We might just be on the first upsweep of the learning curve of psychedelic healing. •

 

Sophie Griffin