“I want to be brave”. That was my focus as I drank the ayahuasca tea, a South American brew made from the psychotria viridis shrub and anisteriopsis caapi vine, which, when drunk, can cause hallucinogenic visions, vomiting and emotional release.
I was in Peru, in 2013, part way through a trip around the world. I’d left my job and flat in London because I’d been feeling overwhelmed by a sense of inertia; nothing was changing in my life, and the choices I was making weren’t leading to happiness. I was sitting in my comfort zone which felt small, contained and safe, and I wanted to get out of it.
When I arrived at the Peruvian city of Cusco, I’d heard about other people’s experiences of ayahuasca, but they were horror stories really; mostly featuring tourists who’d tried it in the wrong places, or even died. Ayahuasca is banned in the U.S. and the U.K. because it’s natural components contain the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT). My first instinct was that I would certainly not be taking hallucinogens for the first time in a foreign country, let alone at a jungle retreat amongst strangers.
A few days later, I became friends with a fellow traveller who had spent a week at an ayahuasca retreat. He explained that the experience had been life changing and as he talked, I became more curious. As I explored the local area, more people I befriended went to ayahuasca ceremonies and came back glowing.
The vomiting and crying my friends experienced didn’t appeal, but one described it as a release. Privately, I could relate to feeling a weight inside of me that I couldn’t describe but wanted to let go of. After a lot of research into the ceremonies, finding a well-respected venue, and being joined by a curious friend, I had booked my spot at an overnight ceremony.
At 8pm on a Friday in Cusco, we took a local bus to Maho Templo in Pisac, about 40mins from Cusco, and stopped at a beautiful stone building surrounded by fields. Because it was a full moon, the ceremony was busier than usual; there were about 50 other people there wearing white to celebrate the full moon. The atmosphere was one of warmth and anticipation and we were guided through what to do and where to sit by the facilitators. I remember feeling some trepidation and remaining fairly quiet, taking in the hum of pre-ceremony chatter around us.
I was advised that when taking ayahuasca you should set an intention; a focus or a goal for the ceremony. After a lot of consideration, mine became simple: I wanted to be brave. I felt like I’d been hiding so much of myself for so long, that parts of me were completely cut off from the world.
We queued up to drink the tea; an unpleasant, viscous, liquid that manages to be both overly sweet and bitter before taking our seats on mats on the floor, backs against the wooden wall. After about half an hour, my hands started to vibrate. My fingers felt enormous, and as I glanced upwards, the ceiling appeared to be pulsing in and out. I was terrified. My brain felt as if it was a helium balloon trying to drift away and I was desperate to cling onto it. The more I felt the effects of the brew washing over me, the more I railed against them.
Suddenly, I heard my inner voice speaking clearly: “You can stop here, or you can be brave and let go. But you have to make the choice to be brave.” Some people would say this was the voice of Mother Ayahuasca, or the spirit of the vines. To me, it was the voice of my own intuition reminding me why I was there. I took a deep breath, filled my lungs with air and let go.
What passed in the hours that followed were intense visions that I believe took me on a journey through my past. With the voices of the guides I gently was encouraged to look at the issues I had faced in my past, from unresolved traumas to bullies from my childhood and a broken heart. I also had a vision that I was told was a manifestation of my own spirit; a white she-wolf. My guides explained she was protecting me from what might hurt me.
It was as if I were being shown my life from a greater distance. The ceremony gave me clarity. At some points I even sobbed; deep, body racking sobs that I don’t think I’d cried since I was a child. I also vomited heavily. As I did, I had a physical sense of relief; as if emotion that had been stuck deep inside me had been expelled.
After the ceremony ended I felt utterly exhausted, yet lighter and full of positivity. I was certain something fundamental had changed. I wasn’t a different person, but I did feel like a more authentic version of myself.
Over the following weeks and months I noticed that my emotions were more easily accessible, I was more open and honest. Making friends and being vulnerable felt easier. I arrived in Australia on my working holiday visa in December of 2013 and after six months I decided to stay. I lived there for four years, something I am certain wouldn’t have happened prior to the ayahuasca ceremony.
When I got to Australia, I decided—after some debate and to the surprise of my friends— to move to Sydney and not Melbourne. I had lots of friends in Melbourne, and it would have been easy to settle there and quickly create a comfortable life. However, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself and take the braver option of moving to Sydney, something I definitely wouldn’t have done previously.
I also started considering my relationships and what was important. I realised I had people in my life that I was giving energy to who weren’t returning it to me, or valuing me in the way I deserved. I had the courage to put some distance between us; emotional as well as physical. I realized I was worth more than what I had been accepting for myself, and my new choices reflected that shift within.
Explaining the ceremony its subsequent impact to my family went better than I had expected, considering I was essentially confessing to taking hallucinogens in a jungle. However, my family were all very supportive of my experience as well as fascinated, and have all commented on the changes they’ve seen in me since.
In the years since, I’ve continued to honour my bravery. I returned to the U.K. and, after a while, began to feel like I wasn’t feeling happy or fulfilled, so I chose to leave my six-figure role to retrain as a coach.
It’s easy to be sceptical about something like this. Drinking a hallucinogenic tea in Peru changed your life? Really? The truth is it did. It gave me the opportunity to understand what being brave meant to me. Ayahuasca isn’t for everybody and I would certainly recommend researching the effects and side effects before you ever consider it. It wasn’t a magic pill that suddenly changed everything, instead, I came away able to see myself more clearly. But for me, choosing to embrace the ceremony was the first step to a different life.
Lauren Paton is a coach and EFT practitioner and founder of Unleashed Coaching. She helps ambitious women reprogram impostor syndrome, resolve their confidence blocks and get the clarity they need to feel like they belong in every room they walk into.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.