As a physician trained in the orthodox Western model, I’ve long been aware of the astonishing achievements of modern medicine, as well as its limitations. What we, as medical doctors, can’t cut out, poison, or burn, we can only alleviate, at best. Mesmerized by cure, we know virtually nothing about healing. We can mend broken bones, transplant hearts and livers, but can do little for fractured souls and traumatized minds. Above all, we don’t seem to understand that people’s illnesses, mental or physical, are not isolated, accidental events, but the results of experiences and beliefs and lifelong patterns of relating to the world. In the face of all the evidence, medical practice separates the mind from the body and the individual from the environment. And we’re arrogant, not in the sense that we think we know everything, but in our conviction that realms of knowledge outside our awareness are not worth investigating.
I have worked in family practice, in palliative care with the terminally ill, and with addictions in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, notorious as North America’s most concentrated area of drug use. From both personal observation and the study of the new science of psychoneuroimmunology, I came to understand that often cancers, autoimmune diseases, and chronic illnesses are manifestations of lifelong emotional patterns of dissociation or repression. In turn, these patterns originate in coping mechanisms in response to early childhood emotional suffering. I also came to see that addiction—whether to drugs or to any self-harming habit, be it sexual roving, gambling, compulsive working, internet surfing, or shopping—is always an attempt to escape pain, to shed, if only temporarily, an unbearable unease with the self. My book exploring the relationship of childhood trauma to addictive behaviors of all kinds, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, was published in 2008. It was then that I began to receive inquiries about what I knew regarding the use of ayahuasca in the healing of addiction.
At the time, the answer was “nothing.” Although it has been the focus of indigenous medicinal practices in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador for centuries, I had only vaguely heard about ayahuasca. This shamanic tea, brewed of two plants that grow in the forests of the Amazon basin, is by convention named after its woody ayahuasca ingredient, a vine that coils itself around the trees of the jungle. In the past several decades, the brew has gained popularity in North America, though government regulations that have yet to catch up with science and rationality make its use illicit on this continent. Every year, tens of thousands of North Americans and Europeans travel to participate in ceremonies in Latin American countries where the use of these and other plants is either fully legal or tacitly tolerated.
Keen as I was to investigate ways of healing beyond the narrow medical model, I initially found these inquiries bothersome. In my own arrogance, I didn’t want to learn about anything strange and new. Nor could I imagine how a psychedelic substance would help anyone overcome addiction or help heal PTSD or the ingrained patterns of self-suppression that contribute to illness. Since then, however, I have developed deep respect for the collaborative power of shamanic medicine allied with the insights and practice of depth psychology. Respect may be too mild a word—awe hits closer to the mark.
My work with ayahuasca, while a small part of what I do, has become in some ways the most exciting of my various healing activities, the one in which I see the most rapidly transformative potential. In the healing retreats my friends—ayahuasqueros—and I have conducted, we have worked with people struggling with drug use and sex addiction, people facing cancer, degenerative neurological illness, depression, PTSD, anxiety, and chronic fatigue, as well as those seeking wholeness, meaning, and an experience of their true selves. In all cases, people have sought liberation from ingrained, habitual, constrictive patterns.
We’ve worked with people looking for their vulnerable and fully alive child selves, for their parents, for love, for God, for truth, for community, for nature. I can’t say that everyone found everything they were looking for, far from it. I can say that most people took major steps forward on their path toward authenticity and found significant liberation from stultifying, limiting mind patterns and behaviors. Some have transformed their lives. Many are no longer addicted, or no longer ill. Even more are no longer content to be other than who they are. I have witnessed healing from suicidal depression and from autoimmune disease.
One man in his 30s, a first responder in British Columbia, Canada, with a history of trauma himself, wrote to me, “Since my first ayahuasca experience several months ago, I have been experiencing that shift in my consciousness daily. My presence within myself and with others, including animals, is different. I see everything I’ve done from a completely new perspective and live it. I am able to see the difference I make to ease pain in others, and to help them see themselves in a different light.” A real estate broker from New York struck a similar chord: “In my day-to-day capitalistic pursuits, I often meditate now on ways that I might help other people in a deeper way.” And a woman whose life had been blighted by chronic pain and addiction, the template for which had been a history of childhood sexual abuse, wrote, “Today I stand in awe of life’s blessings and the sacred and precious nature of life. I never understood it until now.”
Anyone who has worked with ayahuasca as a facilitator, healer, guide, or shaman will be familiar with such testimonials to the power of the plant and the potential blessings it confers. But wherein resides that power? What about the experience with it grants such benefits? And what might be some of the risks?
New Contexts and Settings
My first personal experience with ayahuasca was during a ceremony led by a Peruvian shaman in Canada. There were a few words of introduction and some silent meditation, but little else by way of preparation. We drank the brew, about 40 of us in a large tent, and sat in silence. And then the music began—icaros (sacred songs) in native Peruvian languages, many Spanish cantos, and some songs in English, all to the accompaniment of guitars and percussion. I don’t recall how long it was, but after a while I found tears flowing from my eyes: tears of joy, tears of love, tears of gratitude.
Love for whom? Gratitude for what? Strangely, these feelings went beyond specifics, although I could direct them that way. What I experienced for the first time in my life were love and gratitude as pure qualities, aspects of myself I hadn’t consciously known before. And I saw and felt how I’d fled from love for so much of my life, failing to recognize it, fearing to embrace it, even betraying it. I understood how so many, indeed all, of my habits, including my addictive behaviors, were an escape from a pain I hadn’t wanted to feel, a deep fear I hadn’t wanted to confront. Experiencing the presence of love in this new way showed me there was nothing to escape from, no reason to run.
I was able to grasp why so many people had contacted me suggesting ayahuasca as a modality in the treatment of addiction. If we can allow ourselves to experience the pain, we don’t need to run away from it, to seek oblivion in the temporary release substances or behaviors can grant us. And, of course, if we touch the core of love, we see there is nothing to run from anymore. There never was, had we but known that. ... [Continued]
Gabor Maté, MD, a family practitioner for over three decades, is the author of four bestselling books, including When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. His upcoming books are The Myth of Normal: Illness and Health in an Insane Culture and Hello Again: A Fresh Start for Adult Children and Their Parents.
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