January 3, 2016
Death is one of life’s most misunderstood fears. To a great extent, the healing necessary to be released from depression is about letting go of fears; death is often paramount among these fears. Ayahuasca, a psychedelic mixture derived from Amazonian plants, allows the individual to gain deep insights on dying, leading to greater freedom from this central fear.
Many people are using ayahuasca to gain a more nuanced view of death, allowing them to have fuller lives. To drink ayahuasca and undertake a vision quest with a shaman is a brave choice because the impact of the plant mixture can be terrifying. It can address the deepest fears and inadequacies of the participant. Death is the fear that is perhaps the most pervasive in the world. The connections between death and ayahuasca are deep, evidenced by the roots of the word. Jay Griffiths, who had a fascinating experience with ayahuasca in the jungles of South America, explains: “Aya means, in the Quechua language, spirit or ancestor or dead person, while huasca means vine or rope. It is thus sometimes known as the vine of the dead, because shamans say it puts you in touch with the ancestors, and through it they can communicate with the spirit world. (The name is perhaps influenced by the fact that drinking it can make you feel as if you are dying.)” (1)
Jay Griffiths chronicled her time spent with the Aguaruna, an Amazonian tribe that uses ayahuasca, in her book Wild: An Elemental Journey. The Aguaruna have an interesting understanding of fear gained through their use of ayahuasca. The fear of death, which is the most frightening aspect of life to many people, is not a major concern of the Aguaruna. They see death as “crossing to the other side.” This crossing to the mysterious side of existence, beyond life, is likened by the tribesmen to the act of crossing a river. Through experience with ayahuasca some of the mystery of death is removed, allowing the participants to gain a greater sense of what death means to life (2).
Several of the depressives I have known are petrified of death. Although one would expect that people living with profound sadness would seek a release from their morose perceptions of life and its torments, most do not want to face the truth of death. A few take the ultimate step of ending their own lives while most others suffer through the pain of chronic depression. Others seek cures through pharmaceuticals. Some seek relief from hallucinogenic cures like ayahuasca out of desperation, and many depressives who have tried the plant mixture to cure their illness have attained amazing results (3).
One of the most astonishing transformations was that of Kira Salak, a freelance journalist who documented how ayahuasca cured her of lifelong depression. After taking part in several ayahuasca ceremonies with a shaman, she wrote: “Physical and psychological ailments that had long burdened me—anxiety disorders, OCD, migraines, knee joint pain, PTSD, etc.—vanished one after the next and never resurfaced.” (4) She jubilantly describes her transformation in this passage:
“It was as if a water-logged wool overcoat had been removed from my shoulders. There was a tangible, visceral feeling of release. I noticed that the nature of my thoughts had completely changed. There were no more morbid, incessant desires to die. Gone was the ‘suicidal ideation’ that had made joy seem impossible for me, and made my life feel like some kind of punishment. I actually woke up in that hut in the jungle of Peru desiring only to live. Wanting to live. Feeling hope for the first time in my life. It was, without a doubt, miraculous.” (5)
Salak’s experience is amazing, but not without precedent. A trailblazing study on ayahuasca conducted in 1993 by Dr. Charles Grob, showed deep connections between the plant mixture and depression. Dr. Charles Grob, M.D. is a pioneering researcher on the psychological effects of ayahuasca. Dr. Grob is Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine and Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Before turning his attention to ayahuasca, Dr. Grob did the initial government-sanctioned study of MDMA in the United States (6).
For his seminal work on ayahuasca he studied the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), a Brazilian church that uses ayahuasca as part of their rituals. Significantly, numerous members of the UDV have found relief from depression by using ayahuasca. A large portion could cure their depression without having further issues. Dr. Grob found that these striking transformations were related to a proliferation of serotonin receptors on their nerve cells. This allowed the patients to gain a greater sensitivity to serotonin, a naturally occurring chemical that controls certain brain functions linked to mood. Generally, people who suffer from depression to the point that they need to be medicated are prescribed antidepressants. However, the study that Dr. Grob led in Brazil on the UDV gave him deeper insights to the upside of using ayahuasca to treat depression (7).
The findings of his study led Grob to conclude that “Ayahuasca is perhaps a far more sophisticated and effective way to treat depression than SSRIs [antidepressants].” After the study, he believed ayahuasca could be a viable solution for individuals battling with depression. This becomes even more fascinating when considering that ayahuasca, a brew made primarily from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, has dimethyltryptamine (DMT) as its main active hallucinogen (8).
DMT is considered, by some scientists, to reside in the human pineal gland and to be excreted shortly before death; however, this is an assertion that is highly controversial in the scientific community. Some hallucinogenic experts go as far as to consider DMT the foundation of all life because it is found in many mammals and certain plants. Although the science behind DMT is far from settled, there is evidence that it is a key component of life which is closely related to death.
Praise for a hallucinogenic plant that eases depression and soothes the fear of death may seem strange. Nonetheless many people, from war veterans with PTSD to morbidly depressed writers, have experienced its transformative powers. Why is it that this experience has allowed for a profound shift in people who believed that they could not lead fulfilling lives? Padmani, spiritual seeker and yogi, observes: “Ayahuasca and other plant medicines have the ability to reunite human consciousness with natural and supernatural rhythms. Taken with the correct intention, they can help catalyze a profound shift in our all-too-limited take on things. With the radical deepening and broadening of perspective comes a new brand of happiness—the real stuff that lasts.” (9)
Paradoxically, death is inextricably linked to life, yet we know so little about it. A willingness to explore meditation and the use of hallucinogens, specifically ayahuasca, may allow us to have greater insight into these “natural and supernatural rhythms,” which death is an integral part of. This insight permits the individual to gain a better grasp of seemingly unknowable themes such as eternity. Through these realizations, a solid acceptance of the inevitability of death positions us to be happier. Happiness and a deeper understanding of death are linked phenomena that offer a fuller existence. Ayahuasca can be a powerful aid for people seeking a release from depression through a deeper understanding of death (10).
1 Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey, (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006), 10
2 Ibid., 18.
3 Note: a portion of this has been taken from my book, so it is cited here: Loren Mayshark, Death, An Exploration: Learning to Embrace Life’s Most Feared Mystery, (New York: Red Scorpion Press, 2015), 17.
4 Kira Salak. Kira Salak, 2015, accessed November 6, 2015, http://www.kirasalak.com/.
6 Kira Salak. “Peru: Hell and Back.” National Geographic Adventure, March 2006.
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0603/features/peru.html. accessed on: 11/28/15.
9 Padmani, “Insects, Yoga, and Ayahuasca,” in Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age, eds. Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan, (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008), 112.
10 Ibid., 18-19.
Griffiths, Jay. Wild: An Elemental Journey. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006.
Mayshark, Loren. Death, An Exploration: Learning to Embrace Life’s Most Feared Mystery.
New York: Red Scorpion Press, 2015.
Padmani, “Insects, Yoga, and Ayahuasca” in Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age.
Eds. Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan, 110-113. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin,
Salak, Kira. “Peru: Hell and Back.” National Geographic Adventure, March 2006.
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0603/features/peru.html. accessed on:
Salak, Kira. “Ayahuasca Healing in Peru.” www.kirasalak.com,
http://kirasalak.com/Ayahuasca.html. accessed on: 11/28/15.