Ayahuasca #1: Living without expectations

Incan terraces

It was back in college when I first heard about ayahuasca from a housemate of mine. She told me about a psychedelic medicine from the Amazon capable of incredible personal transformation and healing. People taking the medicine often reported recovery from deep depression, addiction, and anxiety. They reported incredible experiences of traveling through the galaxy and different dimensions. They reported speaking with dead loved ones and ancient ancestors.

Yet, they also often reported intensely terrifying, nightmarish experiences. People in the grips of the medicine were known to see demons all around them or black snakes bursting out of their chests. It was as if to transcend their biggest fears and anxieties, they first had to confront them head-on.

I was hooked immediately.

Preparing

But it was several years later, after a decent amount of daydreaming and waiting, that I actually found myself in Peru for a conference. I knew that my opportunity to try ayahuasca had come.

In the weeks and days leading up to the ceremony, I took great aims to prepare myself. I knew the medicine was something to take seriously and I wanted to approach my experience with the utmost respect and attention.

I knew that a big part of the experience was purging – vomiting, dry heaving, even shitting out whatever inside me needs to come out. I knew that this was often deeply uncomfortable, even painful. I knew that very likely I’d experience both incredible highs and incredible lows as well as extreme experiences that didn’t fit cleanly under “good” or “bad.” Of course, I hoped that I would have an all-positive, cosmic adventure of an experience. But I readied myself for an incredibly trying and scary experience. I was ready for either extreme. I would welcome whatever experience came to me as a lesson and a gift, I told myself.

Waiting

I held that intention as I took my first gulp of the sludgy, green potion. Sitting in ceremony at night in a circle of a dozen or so others, I felt the tingle of fear and excitement all around my body, pulsing with anticipation. I waited for what would certainly be one of the most unique and powerful experiences of my life.

I sat there patiently. Typically, it takes about 45 minutes before the ayahuasca medicine comes on, I had learned. Is it working? Was this normal? Am I doing it right?

Sure enough, 45 minutes or so later, the ache in my gut started coming on. It got worse and worse and worse and worse and worse, until I finally, mercifully, vomited it out.

Relief.

I sat and waited. More than an hour on, no visions. No galaxies or snakes or jaguars. No intense insight into myself. Just me sitting in a room, watching others as they fell deeper and deeper into their trance, some clearly in bliss, some clearly working through something much more difficult.

The shaman came to me and knelt down beside me. He asked if I’d like some more. I gulped it down, determined.



I again sat and waited patiently. But nothing. No visions. No insight. No nothing.

An hour later, another gulp. I had now had far more medicine than anyone else in the room.

But still, another hour later, nothing. No visions. No radical, far-out experiences. No mystical jaguars or Earth goddesses or cosmic sages, as I had imagined. No intense insight or epiphanies into myself or the nature of reality. Just me in a room, for hours and hours, watching others as they all went on their journeys.

Waiting again

When the ceremony finally closed, on the surface, I told myself how mature it’d be to not be disappointed, to say “I had no expectations.” But the truth was I couldn’t help but feel sadness and disappointment, even shame. All that preparing. All that anticipating. All that puking my guts out. And then nothing. What did it mean? Did I do it wrong? Was there something wrong about me? Maybe I wasn’t “spiritual” enough to “get” it?

I went back to my room in a nearby lodge and spent the night awake, curled around my toilet, alone, constipated. I alternated between trying to vomit and trying to shit for hours, to no avail. It was awful. It felt like an eternity. I was still in pain, circled around the toilet, as the Sun came up.

Expectations

In the days, weeks, and years leading up to my ayahuasca experience, I believed I had imagined all possible outcomes and experiences I might have when I finally tried ayahuasca. I imagined the most terrifying lows and the most transformative, mind-bending highs. I imagined what I’d tell myself if I got into a really dark situation. I imagined what I’d say if I had an experience of seeing my dead father. I made peace with every scenario I could imagine.

But the one scenario I had not prepared myself for is exactly what happened: nothing. This maybe has been the most profound, and annoying, cosmic joke of a lesson that I could have had.

Even when I’m actively trying not to create expectations, as I had done that night, even when I’m actively telling myself I have no expectations, I still hold small, silent, hidden expectations about what will happen and what should happen without knowing.

These expectations are a prison that I lock myself into every morning. I expect life to be something profound, something “real”, something incredible, something different than it actually is. I expect myself to be profound, interesting, something more shiny than what I actually am. Yet, somehow, the more I expect and need something, I am learning, the less likely it is to come to fruition, the less likely the universe is to provide. The more I let life just happen, the more able I am to see it as incredible and profound as it is.

I’ll remember this experience as the night I started really growing up. I expected, almost demanded on some level, that the universe offer me deep insight and transformation. Instead, it looked me in the eyes and laughed, saying “Not yet. You have to have to do your own work first.”

 


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Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his partner Sara, child Owen, and cat Winnie.

    11 Comments

  1. Jesse Gurley
    October 18, 2017
    Reply

    It sounds like you may have been taken on a false shamanic experience. It is not uncommon in Peru to find huckster shamans who bring in tourist and give them all the trappings but none of the actual ayahuasca. Real ayahuasca is a very powerful combination of two plants that contain high amounts of DMT (N-Dimethyltryptamine). Upon consuming DMT there is absolutely zero chance you will not feel it. I recommend reading three books to prepare if you are still interested in the experience:

    Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism by Daniel Pinchbeck
    From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind-Altering Drugs by Andrew Weil M.D.
    DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences by Rick Strassman M.D.

    Notable additional reading:
    Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution by Terrance McKenna
    The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

    • Peter Schulte
      October 18, 2017

      Hi Jesse,

      That may be so. Hard to say for certain. I can say that there were another 10 people around me who all reported experiencing the effects. And I also happen to trust the shaman very much. My interpretation of what happened is that the medicine was working on a physical level more than mental/emotional. I had been going through quite a bit of intestinal issues in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. Afterward, they seemed to go away completely. One way or another, I got the lesson I feel I needed.

      Thanks for commenting!
      Peter

  2. Kali
    January 19, 2018
    Reply

    Hi Peter
    Thank you for your honor words. To say “nada vision” when everyone around declares “WOW, I have seen…” is a kind of braveness, you know.
    I have just returned from my one month stay in Peru, having ceremonies with 2 different shamans – in Pucallpa and near Iquitos.
    I have had nada visions too.
    8 ceremonies and nothing like shiny pictures, snakes, jeopards and so on and so further.
    Only one very live and precise picture of something in my family story that had happened maybe 50 years before my own birth. No – 70. And noone knew about it, noone to ask too. Only rummors. But had traumatised whole my life.
    Reading about DMT will not help you much, if you have NO previous experience with psyphedelics. Aya is NOT a psychedellic trip, it’s a soul-healing medicine! I have no drugs experience and it seams to me that people talking about too colorfull visions….well…their brains maybe reacted to something they knew from before, but not to Aya herself.
    Anyways…
    Read more about “nada visions”- some shamans consider them as a blessing, in a way – you were too clean to be cleanced by Aya.
    And also – don’t expect to be like the others, maybe you are just special and Aya talks to you personally.
    Keep your head high and pay attention to what’s happening in your daily life – the smallest details. Maybe you will see the difference and the smile of Aya there.
    Kali, Sofia, Bulgaria

    • Peter Schulte
      January 19, 2018

      Thank you for your kind words Kali! I have had several experiences since then and they have all been unique and powerful, even if they didn’t match my expectations or others’ experiences. They turned out to be exactly what I needed. What a wonderful medicine!

  3. Kali
    January 19, 2018
    Reply

    Love to read this, Peter! Exactly what I meant and expected!
    Aya loves you and has decided to be kind to you and to work gently and silently within you – that’s all. Nothing to be shown, nothing to talk about, just pure intimate experience, personally for you. You are one of the few chosen and keep on be the one. Let the others have their colourful visions. You will have your plentiful and colourful LIFE!

    PS DMT doesn’t come from Aya. It comes from Chakruna. In your case (and in mine also) Aya has won over Chakruna and the healing of your inner word has won over the nice colourful visions. In my case I’m highly grateful about it!
    Kali

  4. Tim
    January 31, 2018
    Reply

    Thank for sharing such a vulnerable experience. Your experience reminds me of the song ” Nothing Arrived” by Villagers – you should find it

  5. May 1, 2018
    Reply

    Um, I wanted to read Ayahuasca #2. So I searched the site by clicking the ayahuasca “tag” and then went to “essays.”

    Both links were bad and brought me to a 404 error message page.

    Also, the green pulldown KINDLING heading keeps getting in the way of the page and reading/finding what I was looking for. Have you ever considered having a few friends do a “usability test” for the site? If you did, they would find these errors within minutes and scream their frustrations.

    Made me forget that I actually came here to read something.

    Oh, by the way, why on earth would I have to leave a website name just to post a comment?? Weird. Obv giving a spam email too.

    • Peter Schulte
      May 2, 2018

      Hi Sara,

      Thanks for your help! So the quick answer is that Ayahuasca #2 isn’t published yet. With that said, I don’t get 404 pages when I click on the ayahuasca tag or the Essays page. Strange! Can you confirm, when you click “Essays” in the Discover menu, you get a 404?

      As for the green pulldown Kindling, is this on desktop or on mobile? I’m not totally sure what you’re referring to. Is it the header the stays at the top of the screen as you scroll down?

      And good point, re: website name. That’s the default setting, but I agree with you that that doesn’t make sense. It should be removed now.

      And yes, usability test would be great. I’ve been planning on doing this, but other priorities keep coming up. I definitely want to make the site as user-friendly as possible, so I’ll start doing this on a regular basis.

      Thanks!
      Peter

  6. Poluvex Tripplex
    August 24, 2018
    Reply

    My question is – had you had absolutely no effects – as in you just felt completely normal mentally like or you Feld some effects but simply had no specific vision. If the latter – some ppl can be “immune” to psychedelics – as in they guts and liver simply brake active ingredients down more efficiently than normal and hence it doesn’t produce desired effect. also some medication can have either similar effect (braking down active ingredient before they get to your brain) or can simply block action of active ingredients all together (like SSRI antidepressants – which block all psychedelic substances) – that effect can still be there up to 2 months after taking last pill.

  7. Sarah Zemunski
    April 9, 2019
    Reply

    Hi Peter – I just got back from an aya retreat and I had nadas in ALL 4 ceremonies! I, like you, watched others around me having profound experiences while I sat there sober or slept through most of it. Reading your article gives me hope that there was a deeper lesson aya was trying to give me. I also had lots of expectations and often feel let down in life because something doesn’t turn out to be as profound as I thought it would be.
    Maybe you are right about letting life unfold as it is and letting go.
    Thanks so much for your essay.
    Sarah

    • Peter Schulte
      April 10, 2019

      Hi Sarah,

      Your story sounds familiar! In my experience, we usually get the exact experiences we need, even if it takes months or even years to fully understand and integrate them. Perhaps your experience was an invitation to better understand the role feeling “let down” plays in your life?

      Thanks for sharing your experience!
      Peter

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