Shortly before he drank ayahuasca for the first time, David Sauvage heard the shaman ask who in the room had done this before. It was early 2015, at a rented hillside house in Topanga Canyon, California, and of the dozen or so strangers accompanying him, six raised their hands. “I didn’t know too much about ayahuasca back then, other than that it was this tea you drank and that somehow it was supposed to heal you,” says Sauvage, 36, when we meet for (green) tea in Soho, London. “But everywhere I turned, people were talking about it. Anyone who had previously been interested in yoga or meditation was now also interested in this South American drink. Something just said: ‘It’s time.’”
The shaman, a muscular Israeli man who had trained as an ayahuasquero in Peru, then asked: “Who is nervous?” Sauvage was the only one who put his hand down. A film-maker and activist, he had been depressed for the best part of a decadeand in a state of “real bleakness” for three or four years. His psychologist had tried persuading him to see a psychiatrist who could prescribe him Prozac, Zoloft or a similar drug, but Sauvage hated the idea of becoming dependent on antidepressants. “I was looking for anything and everything that would help me that wasn’t conventional medication. I had taken psychedelics before, so I figured there’s nothing ayahuasca could do to my mind that I wasn’t ready for.”
Ayahuasca is a plant medicine from the Amazon that indigenous peoples in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia have drunk in sacred rituals for centuries. It’s a practice that’s considered crucial to the community, both healing illness and easing internal conflicts. Ayahuasca is a combination of two plants: Psychotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi. If you brew them right, you end up with a foul-tasting tea (“barky, earthy, groundy” or “pungent and slightly sweet”, I’m told) that contains the natural hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT). At a molecular level, DMT resembles serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘God molecule’, as it’s known to induce visions of the divine. Ordinarily, you have to smoke or inject DMT if you want anything transcendental to occur – if you eat it, your body breaks it down. But the caapi in ayahuasca contains chemicals that prevent this process, allowing the holy chemistry to do its thing.
“It’s amazing that people in the Amazon happened upon these two vines,” says Dr Will Lawn, a psychopharmacologist at University College London. “If they hadn’t mixed in the second vine, they would never have got high and we wouldn’t be talking about it today.”
First, though, you puke. This generally happens within a few minutes. At the classier ceremonies, other people will clear away the messy buckets for you. Diarrhoea is also common, and it is strongly advised that you fast beforehand. But this purging is all part of the ritual, as is the presence of the shaman (customarily South American, increasingly a Westerner), who sometimes sings traditional icaros, or ‘magic songs’. Then, within a couple of hours, the visions begin to take hold.
At the house in Topanga Canyon, everyone sat in a circle around an altar. Someone was playing a zither. The shaman called up each person by name to drink from the cup. After he had purged, Sauvage found his muscles beginning to spasm, as if someone was digging their fingers into his nerves. “I was perfectly sharp as far as my vision went. I could have driven a car. But it was excruciatingly painful [and] endless. I accepted this pain as part of my process. I was even grateful: something was happening, and that something was out of my control. It was a relief.”
Sauvage tells me he has taken ayahuasca about 40 times since, in LA, New York and Peru. He has supplemented this with about 25 San Pedro ceremonies (involving a hallucinogenic Meso-American cactus) and three or four iboga trips (using an African bark, whose effect a pharmacologist described to me as “a bit like being on LSD and ketamine for 20 hours”). Each time, Sauvage approaches ‘aya’ with a sense of dread. Sometimes there’s nausea, sometimes simple pain, sometimes trauma dredged up from what feels like the depths of his cells. But he is so moved by the process that he anthropomorphises the drug as a sentient female being.
“She [ayahuasca] knows what you can take but she has very little interest in what you think you can take. You might say, ‘I’ve had a good three hours of replaying this deep trauma. I’m ready to sleep now!’ And she’ll be, like, ‘No, you’re not!’” Still, Sauvage keeps coming back because he feels ayahuasca has made him comfortable in his own skin for the first time. “I went from heavy and depressed to a little heavy but not so depressed, to feeling OK, to getting to know myself and enjoying my life more often than not. It worked.”
You can’t move very far among a certain kind of American elite without hearing stories just like this. There’s the supermodel’s assistant who had to hold the purge bucket for her boss; the addict who got clean after a 12-day ayahuasca retreat at the Temple of the Way of the Light, a ‘plant medicine healing centre’ in Peru; the CEO who changed his whole business strategy after encountering the drug while on a ‘professional retreat programme’ called Entrepreneurs Awakening. Chris Hunter, co-founder of the alcoholic energy drink brand Four Loko (once known as ‘America’s most hated beer’), made just such a transition: “I literally saw the world through other people’s eyes – my wife, my dad, my mom – and that crossed over into business aspects,” he told California Sunday Magazine in 2016. He has since launched a line of plant-based protein drinks.
Increasingly, you can find these stories in Europe, too. Russell Brand has presented a podcast about ayahuasca. The comedian Simon Amstell once said that his ayahuasca experience in Peru was “the most real thing” that had happened to him. A friend of mine told me he’d attended a suburban ceremony in Enfield, north London, of all places, and also one in a Scout hut in the Netherlands. “There were Jungle Book pictures on the walls, so Baloo and Mowgli were staring at you. That was pretty strange.” The numbers are still relatively low: ayahuasca is legally dubious, expensive (about £200 per ceremony), and by no means for the faint-hearted. But like LSD in the mid-1960s or MDMA in the early 1990s, it’s a drug that’s beginning to capture the moment.
“What we can say,” Ben de Loenen, founder of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Science (ICEERS), tells me, “is that ayahuasca use has globalised and it is appearing more and more in the mainstream media, especially social media.” His organisation provides legal advice about its use: ayahuasca’s active ingredient, DMT, is a controlled substance in the UK. But this is far from a party drug. Studies in Brazil and Spain suggest that it has huge potential as a treatment for addiction, PTSD, depression and anxiety – as well as a more general 21st-century malaise. According to de Loenen, people take ayahuasca because: “They’re dealing with life challenges, or are unable to constructively handle situations at work or in their private lives. They may have lost a sense of purpose, and so on.”
It’s easy to be cynical about this sort of thing. There’s a droll Onion article about a Peruvian shaman who’s sick of all the Silicon Valley billionaires showing up in his rainforest. But people who have ‘done the work’, to use their parlance, are rarely doubtful. Alexandra Roxo, a personal coach from LA who has taken ayahuasca on numerous occasions, puts it like this: “You can do MDMA or even LSD at parties. It’s recreational. But with ayahuasca, it’s an eight-hour experience where you can barely move your body. [It’s] like 10 years of therapy in one sitting.”
David Fuller, a Hackney-based film-maker and co-founder of the Rebel Wisdom men’s group, was also attracted to the drug for its healing qualities. “I liked how there was this ceremony around it, a seriousness. People don’t go into it looking for a fun time; they go looking for illumination.” The best shamans, he says, are more like therapists than gurus (he adds the caveat that there are plenty of charlatans around). “I worked with a Peruvian shaman, and most of what he was saying was very grounded. It wasn’t to do with spirits or demons. It was much more psychological: ‘Do you see that this might be linked to your mother?’ And so on. It seems ayahuasca empowers the subconscious to give you information that may have been dormant.”
Myth And Measurement
I visit Dr Will Lawn in his broom cupboard of a lab in the psychopharmacology department of University College London. He oversaw a study correlating ayahuasca use with subjective wellbeing, based on data from the Global Drug Survey; he has also travelled to Brazil to observe the União do Vegetal, a church that treats alcoholics with ayahuasca. (The Brazilian government has begun trials of ayahuasca on violent criminals, with promising results.) “The whole field – ayahuasca, LSD, mushrooms, ketamine – has lots of potential,” he says. “For treating people with depression, they are possible alternatives to [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] like Prozac. A lot of it comes down to changing your perspective, injecting some positivity. That can be very powerful.”
At a molecular level, Lawn says, there’s little to distinguish ayahuasca from LSD or psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. “Ayahuasca does a lot of things that make you think it’s stronger. Viscerally, it has a greater effect: it makes you vomit, for instance. But psychologically, it will simply have a dose-response effect in the same way that any other drug will. If I gave you a small dose of ayahuasca, it would have a mild effect. If I gave you a large dose of LSD, it would have a greater effect. But there’s also the ceremony aspect. If everyone has told you that this drug is going to do something particular, maybe that’s what you go in expecting.”
As any experienced psychonaut will tell you, ‘set and setting’ are crucial. If you take MDMA at 1am at a warehouse rave, it might make you dance a lot and hug your friends; if you take it in a treatment room in hospital, it could well have another effect. When it comes to ayahuasca, the drug and ritual clearly potentiate each other. As the psychologist José Carlos Bouso, a leading researcher of psychedelics, tells me: “The neuropharmacological explanation for ayahuasca’s effects is that it seems to enhance the connection of networks in the brain that are normally more disconnected. That change, in a ritual setting, enhances the feelings of belonging to a community.”
This is something that ayahuasca users frequently report – a feeling of connection. “I don’t think you can take ayahuasca a few times without coming away knowing that we are profoundly connected to each other,” says Sauvage. “It’s not knowing in the sense of reading it in an Instagram post. It’s knowing it in your body.”
Perhaps surprisingly, there is also a scientific basis for this, Lawn tells me. “To put it simply, psychedelics take you away from here-and-now tasks, such as concentrating on your immediate surroundings. If you take that far enough, you get to ‘ego dissolution’: they take the you out of yourself. You’re no longer you. You’re part of everything.”
Another commonly reported effect is that ayahuasca brings deep psychological wounds – often going back generations – to the surface. “It makes you look at what ancestral factors are still impacting you and stopping the cycle of family traumas and conditioning,” says Roxo. “Maybe it’s your relationship to alcohol. Maybe it’s something money-related. Everyone has something.” Sauvage says that he had never seriously considered his Jewish identity until he began to take ayahuasca. His father was born in hiding in France during the Second World War and his grandmother saw many members of her family sent to Auschwitz. “You read about this stuff in the history books and you’re, like, whatever. Ayahuasca is like: ‘No, this is not whatever. This is real.’” Many report similar insights; a number of users tell me that it’s simply too personal to go into.
This is the aspect of the drug that is probably most difficult for researchers to pinpoint. The ICEERS report cites evidence that ayahuasca activates areas in the brain associated with personal events, known as episodic memory. A recent study showed that the therapeutic potentials of ayahuasca might be related to its ability to increase something called ‘decentring’: our capacity to observe transitory thoughts without being trapped by them. If this holds true, ayahuasca could make automatic what years of meditative practice could only hope to achieve.
One thing we know for certain is that we don’t yet know enough. Lawn is sceptical of claims that ayahuasca (or any psychedelic) is a miracle cure for mental health conditions. But he does see promise. “One fact is that people don’t seem to go bonkers when they take it,” he says. “Another is that the psychological wellbeing of ayahuasca users in our study was better than that of the comparison groups.” (In this case, users of other hallucinogens.) Of course, correlation isn’t causation – it may be that it is psychologically healthy people who are taking it in the first place. “True. But ayahuasca isn’t making it worse. We’re at the stage where we need randomised control trials into what this drug can do. This could change people’s lives.”
So far, the cost and controversy of setting up double-blind randomised control trials (the gold standard of medical research) for mind-bending substances has proved a barrier. The required bespoke pharmaceuticals, dedicated hospital spaces, numerous doctors, sanctions – none of this is easy to procure.
Meanwhile, the effects of ayahuasca are seeping into the wider culture, just as those of LSD and MDMA did before. In tech circles especially, a certain aya-influenced world-view has melded with a digital-age mindset that, depending on your disposition, may fill you with either optimism or horror. “Oh my God, they love it!” says Sauvage. “There are probably more ceremonies going on in the Bay Area [Silicon Valley] than anywhere else in the world. I recently had dinner with someone high-up at one of the Big Four tech companies. We were talking about the mission of this company and how it was basically informed by our ayahuasca experiences. Facebook’s mission, for instance, is about connecting people and building community. Eventually they’re going to realise it’s about building empathy and understanding with others, too, so you see yourself in them and they see themselves in you. When Facebook has that revelation, the world could shift overnight.”
I ask him why he thinks ayahuasca speaks to so many people right now. “Why now? Because mankind has five, maybe 10, years to turn this ship around or we’ll end up in hell. We know it in our bones.” He laughs nervously. “Ayahuasca is a call from nature for human beings to remember that we are of nature. In order to be of service to the world, we need to connect to our deepest selves. So it’s not surprising that she has found her way into the cultural elite.”
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