I once wrote that ‘letting go is the critical ability for navigating psychedelic drugs’ and this is true on many levels. At a Treadwell’s workshop on altered states and at the fabulous Berlin psychedelics conference Altered, people have spoken with me about the challenge of ‘letting go’ in relation to psychedelic sacraments. In both cases my interlocutors were considering taking ayahuasca for the first time. In both cases they’d come to me for reassurance about that whole ‘being sick’ thing.
Ayahuasca can provide an opportunity for spiritual exploration, for self-discovery, for healing, problem solving and much more. As experiences go it can be dazzlingly beautiful and illuminating, and it is true that it can also make you feel nauseous.
People have heard that taking ayahuasca involves vomiting. I too had these concerns before I took this medicine. In addition I was afraid that peyote would also make me vomit. I was worried that MDMA would make me overheat and die, I was worried that LSD would make me psychotic and that smoking cannabis would turn me into a hippie…
Joking aside, all these fears do have some basis in reality. Ayahuasca can make you want to vomit, LSD taken in unwise circumstances can scramble one’s brain and toking weed may indeed encourage the consumption of vegan food.
In the case of ayahuasca (or peyote or many other psychedelics) the fear of vomiting is emblematic of the normal human fear of losing control; what looks like fear of being sick is actually about letting go in a much bigger sense. But take heart! Not everyone throws up on the magical Amazonian medicine. I’ve taken the brew many times, sometimes at a high dose, and I’ve not yet vomited on ayahuasca. I put this this down to having spent many years using other psychedelic drugs where I would register nausea as body load caused by both adrenaline and the stimulation of serotonin receptors in my gut. I’d simply take my attention elsewhere to combat the nausea and it would go away.
Ever the scientist, I once tried eating a chicken tikka baguette not long before an ayahuasca session to see if that might bring on la purga (and turned down my instinctive process to disregard nausea). No luck. I might of course be sick in the future on this or another psychedelic medicine, then again maybe I won’t. When I spoken to a friend, who is much more familiar with ayahuasca than me, he said this wasn’t that unusual and that accords with my experience. Certainly in most of the ayahuasca sessions I’ve attended the majority of those present didn’t vomit. I have however cried copious tears in the company of The Queen of the Forest; tears of both sadness and joy (sometimes at the same time). Crying for me is a thing, it’s my physiological catharsis. I cry at the movies, so maybe the ayahuasca spirit uses that channel rather than my gut.
The point is that we all fear losing control: our position in society, our face, our well-being. We don’t want to be the gringo covered in his own faeces looking like a J.P. Sears reject, we certainly don’t want our transgressive al-chemical adventures to harm us, or indeed others.
We are right to be thoughtful, mindful, when we approach psychedelic drugs. Sure there will always (I trust) be high spirited, youthful scrapes but, especially as adults, when considering taking a jungle brew (and more so in the case of obscure or new substances) we are wise to be cautious. Accidents, rare reactions and other difficulties can and do happen. However these are very, very rare with the ‘classic’ psychedelics. We know ayahuasca is basically safe because we’ve been testing it on humans for many thousands of years, likewise peyote. Even peyote’s modern daughter MDMA , though a new kid on the block, is known to be a very safe drug. The numbers prove it. Allowing for the problems of unknown dose, composition and other issues caused by prohibition, illegal MDMA is reported to have killed 63 people in the UK in 2016 (this is from government data which also lists 24 deaths as being due to ‘cannabis’, so it may be worth taking these figures with a pinch of salt). This total, whilst still significant and tragic, is very small when considered in the light of the 492,000 people that took one or more doses of this powerful unregulated drug (meaning, zero quality control or any accurate dosage information available at point of sale) in 2015/16. (MDMA use in the UK may be as high as 125 million doses per annum, on the basis of a hefty 200mg per dose of the estimated 25,000kg of Ecstasy consumed in Britain each year.)
Fear doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It helps keep us safe. It is perhaps what we should feel approaching a transformative experience such as can happen when you drink ayahuasca (or take MDMA). Let’s listen to what Terence McKenna (peace be upon him) says about fear and psychedelics:
“One of the interesting characteristics of DMT is that it sometimes inspires fear – this marks the experience as existentially authentic. One of the interesting approaches to evaluating such a compound is to see how eager people are to do it a second time. A touch of terror gives the stamp of validity to the experience because it means, “This is real.” We are in the balance. We read the literature, we know the maximum doses, the LD-50, and so on. But nevertheless, so great is one’s faith in the mind that when one is out in it one comes to feel that the rules of pharmacology do not really apply and that control of existence on that plane is really a matter of focus of will and good luck.”
Psychedelic drugs require us to abandon ourselves to the experience, in the same way that in possession states we (that is; our usual way of thinking) must get out of the way. The Loa enter the ecstatic dancer, temporarily driving out their day-to-day self, as their body becomes a horse ridden by the gods.
Psychedelic drugs are antithetical to systems of control in a variety of senses. At a raw biological level that’s how they work. The fact that the world looks weird when we are high on ayahuasca is because the control systems in our neurology are being disrupted. Edge detection, motion and colour detection bits of the brain become cross-wired. The ability of your mind to smooth out the visual world into a seamless film (which isn’t how your biology takes in the scene at all, see Nikki’s article for more of this) is compromised by the weird chemistry of the vine and the leaf. Then the visions come; of vertically symmetrical faces, with eyes, mouths and tentacles (visual cues our biology is optimized to notice). What’s going on is that the control systems of our minds are so weakened that content floods between brain regions, creating cognitive chimera and marvellous mental mashups. Out of this creative chaos arise visually perceived sub-personalities or the archetypal programs of our unconscious mind (…or however one likes to think of these things). The spirits enter our imaginations just as they enter the body of the ecstatic Voudou raver. We let go of control, becoming a vessel for the teaching of the medicine, and in losing ourselves, find ourselves reborn.
Let’s reconsider that basic form of control which preserves our adult decorum; what if the ayahuasca strips away our digestive competence and we make a fool of ourselves?
Any good ayahuasca season takes account of the fears, and indeed in many styles of practice this purging is seen not as a problem but as an opportunity for healing and cathartic release. Small plastic buckets and plenty of tissues are usually provided and, however it is managed, the fact that participants may need to vomit is planned for. By re-imaging this vomiting as ‘getting well’ or ‘la purga’ the experience, while not necessarily pleasant, can be a positive transformative part of the trip. Peyote can have a similar nauseating effect, and again good rituals will take this into account.
Within the design of the Native American Church peyote ceremony the central crescent altar is made from local soil. This soil is dug from a pit to make what is sometimes called a ‘Getting Well Hole’. Any vomit is disposed of into this hole. The soil from the crescent altar is used to fill it in the end of the rite. Flowers from the ceremony may be left on the replaced turfs covering the pit. Thus the process of ‘getting well’ isn’t just an annoying side effect of the drugs but is deeply incorporated into the ceremonial process.
More extreme loss of biological control (really needing to poo) usually only happens at high doses of psychedelics, and even then is usually within manageable bounds. Higher doses of any substance means more body load. A very high dose of anything will make you shit yourself as the body deploys one of its basic defensive (control) mechanisms. I’m reminded of a tale told to me by David Luke of some people he is researching who took far, far, far too much LSD (>20,000μg each). As soon as they drank the liquid (in which was dissolved more acid than they bargained for) they all immediately shat themselves, projectile vomited, and then spent a very, very, very long time tripping (one of them is still seeing strange things many years later).
Lots of things at high dose can make us throw up. I’ve seen people throw up on rapé snuff, 4-AcO-DMT, ketamine, cannabis, peyote, ayahuasca and MDMA but (even as someone who rarely goes to pubs) I’ve seen many more people throw up through drinking too much alcohol. In cultures like mine, where alcohol is a protected species of psychoactive and therefore commonly available, most people will have likely seen and possibly experienced vomiting from excessive drinking. Yet the fact that booze can potentially make us spew does not seem to be a major reason for people not trying alcohol.
With many psychedelics my view is that going-in slowly is a wise and polite approach to the spirit of a medicine. I agree that an initial Big Experience can be valuable, sometimes high doses are definitely what is indicated. But for many substances respecting the medicine can simply mean starting off gently. Drink less – booze or ayahuasca – and you’ll probably feel less like vomiting.
Some styles of medicine worker like to make a big impression and strongly encourage the ‘heroic dose’ approach. Recently I’ve had a couple of people talk to me about shamans giving what they felt was too high a dose of a medicine, certainly too high for the recipients comfort. When I suggested asking the shaman for less they indicated that this would probably be met with a refusal. ‘Shaman knows best’ it would seem, an approach which ignores the feedback of the client. If you want less, particularly of a powerful substance such as 5-MeO-DMT, that’s what you should get. However wise the medicine person thinks their approach is, it is also wise to remain open to information from the client. For some medicines it’s not even an issues of having to take one big hit. 5-MeO-DMT for instance (the primary active ingredient of the psychedelic venom of the toad Bufo alvarius) can be taken in several bursts during a session, gradually increasing (or decreasing) the dosage as appropriate. There is no significant tolerance built up in a single session, and indeed subsequent inhalations of smoke can enhance the intensity of the trip while using less material. This approach is particularly helpful for people with less experience of psychedelic drugs. It also makes good sense in terms of testing for those rare but not unknown idiosyncratic reactions to a new medicine.
The wisdom is this: it is always possible to add more, but difficult to take away too much.
A good psychedelic facilitator works to create a set and setting that is supportive and transformative. For those who are new to this territory, with all their fears of losing control of bowel and brain, it’s important for the wise shaman to create an environment where the substance component of the ritual is used intelligently. We want this space to feel safe because it’s important in my view that lots of people have access to the psychedelic experience. This means not just backpacking, adventurous hippie types but many others too. These folks may come from backgrounds where they have been told that drugs are bad, will send you mad and potentially kill you. Unlocking this control can be a powerful journey. Sometimes blowing open closed minds can work wonders. But let us also cultivate a circumspect form of practice that gently leads people into the psychedelic waters rather than throwing them in at the deep end.
Care and attention are the skills needed to create the best set and setting within which to address our fear of losing control. We care for the vomiting ayahuasca traveller by providing buckets and toilet rolls. We care for panicked festival psychonauts by creating supportive spaces (like this and this) where they can be helped to ride the dragon of a challenging trip.
For my part, when people express their concerns to me about vomiting on ayahuasca I tell them the truth. Yes you can be sick, but you can be sick on beer too, or from a dodgy kebab. Maybe if you are very concerned ask for a smaller dose (and be thoughtful of practitioners who do not listen to your concerns about these matters). If you are sick think of it as ‘getting well’, acknowledge that this is a simple human activity, without shame and easily dealt with. Use the facilities provided, just like you would on a boat or airplane. You will not die (yet), you’re just throwing up.
So the message folks is that these concerns about taking ayahuasca makes sense. Be sensible about what you take and with whom, but don’t fear the vomit. Let go of your worries about losing control (you never had it really anyhow), embrace the experience. By and large these psychedelic substances are safe, healing, fun, wonderful and good for us. (Though if possible I recommend going somewhere where prohibition does not impose on the set and setting of your explorations, like here)
Prepare your bucket (which you may not need anyhow). Relax and let it happen, this is good medicine.
Here’s a brief update on some of the events and projects that we are involved with in early 2018.
Julian is running a one day workshop at Treadwell’s Books in London on Working Magic in the Landscape: Psychogeography on 13th January 2018 11:00 am – 5:30pm.
Nikki and Julian are running a retreat in The Netherlands on Altered States & Magic. This promises to be a magical weekend which runs from 9–11th February 2018.
If you’re interested in finding out more about our 2018 programme of retreats (we’re really excited to have an amazing new venue at St Nectan’s Glen in Cornwall and some great guest facilitators joining us). Please drop us a line here and we can keep you informed by email of the latest events, publications and more.
The amazing Psychedelic Press UK has just released issue 22 of their journal, check it out and subscribe.
NW & JV