I am a traditionalist. Not blindly; not slavishly. But I am inclined to respect the customs and forms of those who have followed a particular path long before I came across it. In my Tae Kwon Do practice I always address my instructors as "Sir" and "Ma'am", and I wouldn't dream of stepping onto the mat without bowing to the flags first. When I was a kid in the Episcopal church I took a lot of pride in being an acolyte and carrying the banners in the procession to the front of the church. When I learned carpentry I deliberately sought out skilled, old-fashioned journeymen who taught me the right way to do things. The way their grandfathers did it.
I feel the same instinct in my ayahuasca journey. To begin with, I don't think it's an accident that I was called by these two plants - they knew me before I ever met them. I was not called by ketamine, or MDMA, or LSD-25, or pure DMT. I believe it was Graham Hancock who gave a marvelous description of smoking DMT. Forgive my paraphrasing, but he likened it to being in a bright shiny new building with no one else in it. Its spiritual and metaphysical space is very recent in human history - it is not well-explored or well-known. The same is true of all of these synthetic compounds.
They hold no interest for me whatsoever.
I mean no disrespect towards those who are called by these substances. I firmly believe that one of the pillars of the entheogenic revolution must be respect for all demonstrably productive and healing paths towards God. If your path was first synthesized in a laboratory 100 years ago, so be it.
Mine has grown in the rainforest for millions of years, and has been brewed and drunk by human beings for millennia.
I like that.
When I enter the ayahuasca space I feel the warmth and love and wisdom of all of those shamans and curanderos and sufferers just like me who have sought its instruction and healing for thousands of years. It feels safe and well-defined and reassuring.
Nothing less could possibly work for me. One of the defining features of my abusive childhood was its endemic chaos: the palpable sense that any godawful, crazy thing could happen at any moment. When I was an adolescent it left me with a need to leave my body as frequently and thoroughly as possible. Now it leaves me with a need for gentleness and structure in my spiritual path.
I had a real revelation after one of my first ceremonies down in Peru. It was given to me by a friend, a lovely Australian man who had already done several dozen ceremonies before our workshop. It had to be: one of the peculiarities of my own experience with ayahuasca is that I never experience visions, in the sense of seeing things from other dimensions with my eyes. Strange but true.
My friend does not experience ayahuasca in that way. One morning after a ceremony the night before, he revealed to me how he saw Jorge, the lead shaman and an absolute mountain of a man, casting a spell over our space at the beginning of the ceremony. He saw him spinning a web of protection over the entire maloka. He said it looked like a translucent seal, comprised of patterned blocks, spiraling out from the center of the room.
In that moment I gained a much greater understanding of the gravity of our undertaking. I came to understand that the shamans who guided us on our journey were the guarantors of our safety.
In drinking ayahuasca we are using an incredibly powerful tool. Like a table saw, or a firearm, or a bulldozer. Use a table saw improperly - chop a few fingers off. Use a firearm improperly - kill yourself or someone else. Use a bulldozer improperly - knock your house down.
The potential results of using ayahuasca improperly are easily as grave as these. A glance at the Iquitos Times last May informed me that about a dozen suicides in the region had been linked to ayahuasca over the preceding year. I have no trouble imagining why. I have seen enough instances of [controlled] mediumship at this point to know that spiritual entities certainly can enter us under its influence. With proper guidance, they leave before the ceremony is over. Without it is anyone's guess. For a description of my own experience with psychedelics and possession by a two-dimensional intelligence, see here.
It takes an incredibly powerful and experienced shaman to maintain medicine space. I have had the good fortune to work with a number of them at this point. I know just enough about their craft to know that I have tremendous respect for it. I also know that, at this point in my journey, I wouldn't dare attempt to use the medicine by myself.
In drinking ayahuasca we journey to another world. It is a beautiful, strange, mysterious place. It is filled with the possibility of healing and transformation. It is filled with instruction. It is also filled with danger.
Here be monsters.
To enter this world without sufficient preparation and guidance is incredibly foolish. I wouldn't journey to another planet without a guide. For a Westerner like me, entering medicine space is just as foreign. For me, having a trusted and experienced practitioner showing me the way is mandatory.
As with a number of other issues, I must disagree with Terence McKenna on this point. He strongly recommended ingesting entheogens alone, so as to be free of the constricting effects of culture. Perhaps it sounds like a good idea: with the proper set and setting, simply dose sufficiently to open up the direct connection to source, making sure that no outside influences can interfere with the communication.
I have my questions about its usefulness in practice. Well, in my practice, at least. Forgive me if I overstep my bounds. Perhaps his advice is perfect for you.
The trouble is, you may not know until it's too late.
God bless you, whoever you are.