I was skeptical about the supposedly beneficial powers of trendy hallucinogenic drugs such as ayahuasca, an ancient Amazonian brew, said writer Grayson Schaffer. Then the visions began.
Opening my mind to psychedelics
ARE YOU FEELING the plants?” Pluma Blanco whispered. It was nearly midnight, in the darkened great room of a mansion overlooking San Francisco. I was kneeling behind a makeshift altar arrayed with objects of spiritual significance set out by the 20 or so other houseguests lying prone on blankets on the floor. Beneath the entire slumber party stretched a large canvas drop cloth that was soiled with mahogany stains from the previous night’s bodily expulsions.
“No,” I told the shaman, feeling a little ashamed.
When the Uber driver dropped my girlfriend, Emma, and me off, it was a beautiful summer Saturday. The cars parked along the shady lane suggested a barbecue or dinner party. But inside the open door, we found an assemblage of alternative healers, PTSD sufferers, recovering opioid addicts, and wanderers padding quietly around the dimly lit spaces.
“There may be purging. Have you heard about the purging?” one of the shaman’s assistants asked. He showed us a stack of plastic painter’s buckets and what looked like an ordinary trash can.
But hours later, after prayers, meditation, snorting a sinus-clearing liquid tobacco called tsaank, and finally ingesting a strong cup of ayahuasca—the psychedelic brew at the center of this ceremony—I felt nothing. Around us the others were in the throes of vomiting or deep in psychotropic stupor.
The shaman wore a purple cast on his right arm. He’d broken it a couple of weeks earlier while mountain biking. He was stocky and well muscled, in his late 40s, with a close-cropped faux hawk. He’d been born to Midwestern Christian missionaries in the Darién jungles of Panama, where he’d lived for his first 15 years. After college he returned to Panama to study plant medicine among the same indigenous Embera healers who had given him his moniker at birth. But friends here still know Pluma Blanco by his one-syllable American name, which I’ve agreed not to use. That’s because dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the active ingredient in ayahuasca, is still an illegal Schedule I drug.
Ayahuasca is actually made from two plants, the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis shrub, both found across the jungles of Central and South America. The P. viridis leaf contains DMT, though if you ate it, your stomach acids would zap it before anything happened. The trick is in combining both the leaf and the vine. The odds of anybody randomly combining these two otherwise inert plants—out of all the millions in the jungle—into a stiff brew are nearly impossible, something that would require divine inspiration, which is how indigenous folklore describes ayahuasca’s discovery and ceremonial use throughout the Amazon basin since at least 1000 B.C.
Pluma came over and poured another ounce or two of the earthy liquid from a stainless-steel HydroFlask bottle on the altar. I put the cup to my lips and for a second time tasted the sweet, woody flavor. It went down like a comet and sat like a burning sphere in my chest. Still nothing. He poured another cup, then another. He lit tobacco, inhaled, and then exhaled onto my forehead. He sang lilting songs in Embera.
Behind my closed eyelids, I gradually became aware of an animated ball of light that was drifting off in the distance. I followed it, bringing it closer until it entered my body and then exploded in the form of projectile vomit.
“Good,” Pluma said soothingly
IF YOU’VE BEEN paying attention to pop culture, you may have noticed that America is in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance. Burning Man— the epicenter of loosely tolerated drug use—isn’t even edgy anymore. The buzz among Silicon Valley types is that microdosing on LSD boosts creativity. And instead of making pilgrimages to Peru, where backpackers have long sought out ayahuasca with indigenous shamans, tech bros are reaching enlightenment without even leaving their ZIP code.
Until the mid-1960s, mushrooms, LSD, and DMT were all legal. Then, in 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and psychedelics became politically toxic as a research topic. Now, however, they are once again finding acceptance in academia. Privately funded research sanctioned by the FDA and DEA has been underway at New York University and the University of Wisconsin, among others.
Scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have used moderately high doses of psilocybin to arrest major depression and existential anxiety among terminal cancer patients. At the University of California at San Francisco, a preliminary survey is currently looking at whether ayahuasca has therapeutic benefits for people who are struggling with PTSD.
At 38, I’d spent the better part of two decades attempting to outsmart adulthood. I’d been close to marriage and decided it wasn’t for me, owned a home and decided it was not a smart investment. I was averaging two beers a night because that’s what the people around me were doing. I wasn’t really depressed, but I also wasn’t using any force besides inertia to determine my daily routine, let alone larger goals. Life was starting to catch up, and I was trying to fend it off.
Pluma, a friend of a friend, was offering “a gentle and loving container for ecological and cosmological orientation and awareness.” I’ll be the first to admit that it sounded pretty fruity. My plan, like that of most magazine writers covering ayahuasca, was to rubberneck at the barfing and smirk at the cultish spectacle. Until it turned out that the drugs actually worked.
I never had a drug phase beyond experimenting with pot briefly in high school. It wasn’t until I was 36 and had ended a long relationship that I met Emma, who’s spent much of the past decade going to festivals like Burning Man. Emma is into glitter and horses, and when given the choice between wearing clothes and not wearing clothes will generally choose the latter. She’s also working on a master’s degree in environmental management at Harvard. On a clear weekend last summer, we went to the mountains to scout elk for a fall archery hunt.
Emma brought a thermos of magic mushrooms ground into peppermint tea, and after dinner I got over my Nancy Reagan anxiety and we drank—about 1.75 grams each. I’d always been led to believe that shrooms were things college kids did to see pretty colors and that eating them was basically like poisoning yourself. More than a few friends have since told me that they tried them in college but had bad experiences.
At first nothing happened. My expectations were low. “These don’t work on me,” I said.
Maybe 40 minutes later, there was a shift. My five senses melted together and I started absorbing the world directly instead of perceiving individual sensations. This gave way to rotating mandalas in the most highdef imagery I’d ever seen. Fractal cuboid designs superimposed over everything; a suspicion that the artists of Eastern religion weren’t imagining patterns but copying them; the Gaia hypothesis; the burning bush; whatever it was that Picasso saw in people’s faces; and a feeling that I’d been let in on an old joke that had been told for years by people who were smarter than me.
Time stopped and started. Spaces grew and shrank. But most important, the universe emerged in pulsating outlines between the stars of the Milky Way. Along with it came a feeling of interconnectedness and the sense that many of the things I’d spent time worrying about were frivolous compared with health, friendship, and purpose.
Having taken ayahuasca on three occasions now, and psilocybin a few more, it’s hard to say exactly what the effects of psychedelics have been on me. Many people will quickly call them an excuse to get high cloaked in the guise of cosmic enlightenment. Maybe. (And perhaps this is a good time to confess that I’ve grown a man bun.) But over the past year, I’ve gradually lost interest in alcohol. One of the latent effects of ayahuasca has been a heightened sense of the present moment. Alcohol tends to numb that.
Last October, I joined a CrossFit gym— yeah, another cliché midlife move. I’d never belonged to a gym before and had certainly never been disciplined enough to make organized fitness part of my routine. But after a year, I’m still going three days a week. My abs have re-emerged after a decade-long hiatus.
I’ve also become less snarky, though I still have flare-ups. Small slights and petty aggressions seem fleeting now compared with existential questions and actual gratitude for how much has gone right.
MY TOWN OF Santa Fe turns out to be a hub of American plant medicine. Emma and I signed up for a two-night ceremony with one of the city’s many shamanic practitioners. As before, the demographic ranged—from slightly hippieish to housewives to therapists. Also as before, our leader was a Caucasian who’d spent a significant amount of time in the jungle learning his trade.
Thirty people were arrayed around the room on camping mats, each with the now obligatory painter’s bucket. The leader said prayers, whistled and sang to the medicine, then poured it into small paper cups. We drank the strong liquid and turned out the lights, and the singing began.
I spent the next hour in a semilucid stupor, racing around sky-based freeways of a futuristic city in hovering spaceships. The ships gave me motion sickness, and I threw up into my bucket. Alternately, I was shown scenes of humans with jaguar faces. I’ve had no experience with jaguars or space- ships, which makes me wonder whether pre-Columbian tribesmen might have seen figments of cultures that weren’t theirs, either. The more you try to think about it, the more you realize that there’s nothing in your logic tool kit that can explain what you’re seeing.
When I came to, Emma was annoyed. The medicine hadn’t worked for her at all. But on night two, it finally clicked. Half an hour after drinking, she sat up, purged, and then lay back. “This is awesome!” she said, her eyes closed.
I waited and waited, drank a second cup, and went up for a healing with a woman who told me I’d been an apprentice to a powerful shaman in a previous life (bonus!) but had my powers curtailed because I hadn’t used them responsibly (dammit!). Convinced that I needed to purge, I went back to my mat and willed the room to spin. Nothing. And then, when I gave up, this incredible weight lifted from me, and my breathing became clear, focused, and circular. It was like reaching a warp level in meditation.
Then the vibe in the room went from a solemn ceremony to something like an acoustic rave. A woman in her early 20s who’d been road-tripping across Colorado took a guitar down from the wall and launched fiercely into a familiar-sounding song.
“The theme song to Pocahontas,” finished Emma. Twenty-nine tripping adults sat glued to their camping mats, barf buckets at the ready, right through the very last chorus of “paint with all the colors of the wind.” Somewhere near the end, I noticed that the room, just as Pluma Blanco had promised my first time, seemed like a gentle and loving container.
Will I keep going back to ayahuasca? It’s hard to say. One thing other people tell me is that the experience produces more questions than answers. It’s not a truth serum so much as a way to shake up the snow globe. To friends I’ve described the effects of DMT as like having my brain deposited into Roger Federer’s body to play a few sets of tennis.
When the experience was over, I still couldn’t play like him. But I did have an understanding of the level of mindful focus that’s possible. And having seen that changes the way you play the game.
Or it could just be frying my brain. Drugs are bad, right?
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Outside magazine. Reprinted with permission. ■