In my fourteen years spent working with Ayahuasca and Huachuma, both as a guide and as a coach, one of the most common, primal fears I witness people have is this: Can plant medicine make us go crazy?
The intrinsic challenge with this question is the definition of “crazy” is not concrete, and therefore difficult to answer. But if your standard understanding of insanity involves erratic behavior, facing the most horrifying internal demons, and/or pushed to the very edge of what you think you can handle; then yes, yes indeed – Ayahuasca can facilitate a legitimate trip to crazy town.
Yet there is a deeper story, a much more expansive and thrilling unraveling, that more wholly reflects the wisdom and love the medicine offers us. It requires us to approach plant medicine with radical responsibility, and a deeper understanding of what it is to go crazy; in a temporary state. So let’s examine, as best we can, the experience of dancing in an edgeless pool, and why on earth a night of utter madness could in fact be The Best Thing That Ever Happened.
Let’s discover why Ayahuasca’s utmost gift and empowerment to us often involves a journey into hellish, chaotic, deliciously psychotic states of consciousness.
Cue the scary music. And away we go.
Experiencing Insanity in An Altered Space: Here’s What It’s Like
I’ll speak from personal experience, as best I can explain the unexplainable.
My most maddening dances with Aya have involved the following floods of emotions and sensations, in the most dramatic, intense and completely uncontrollable waves:
· Feeling every conceivable emotion all at once, without the ability to focus on any one vibration
· Utterly paralyzing fear, complete with pounding heartbeat, acidic nausea and intense stomach pains, spinning head sensations and profuse sweating
· Assaulting visuals that include sacred geometric spirals, an endless sea of staring eyeballs (beings from the other side, innocently witnessing my multi-dimensional journey), an alien crew of surgeons (affectionally called the “doctorsitas” in the tradition), and sometimes horrific showcases of blood, decay, violence, and death (scenes I have yet to make peace with). These visions are present with eyes closed, and opened. I cannot control them. I cannot make them go away.
· The feeling that I am absolutely, unequivocally, going to combust. That there is absolutely no way I’m going to survive this, that I can’t take another minute. This usually involves processing the suffering of the entire multiverse, with visions of children being abused, animals tortured, and psych-ward imprisoned beings trapped inside the system, and their minds.
· That death would be a very sincere blessing
· And, of course, the tangibly real fear that I will never be “normal” again, that I’m lost in the centrifuge of madness forever, that the damn plant brew I gulped down has now officially done me in and crazy town is my permanent zip code.
It truly doesn’t matter how many times you’ve ventured into altered dimensions; when it’s your turn for an ego death, or a straight up humbling journey, Ayahuasca knows your exact recipe for complete and total breakdown. She’s in cahoots with your soul, after all, so your mind has absolutely no defense. When it’s time, you’re going into the darkness. And if you think you have no recipe to lure you into the feeling of insanity, then yours is going to be a particularly wild ride.
What is the Actual Definition of Crazy?
There is a wonderful expression that the answer to the question always lies in the nature of the question itself. So, if we’re going to decide whether or not Ayahuasca has the power to create psychological damage (if that is indeed the definition), we need to first define what we mean.
So what is it, really, to be “crazy”?
I can only offer my understanding, gifted first by being labeled as such (diagnosed Bi-Polar, which is perceived as very erratic and unstable) and also all my years as a shamanic guide. Mostly, however, the wisdom has come from being an observer of consciousness; from over 1,300 doses of powerful plant medicine.
Crazy, to me, equals delusion. You know how they say you’re not crazy if you’re questioning if you’re crazy? I not only find that to be oh-so true, but equally comforting. When my mind is turning on itself and questioning insanity, I can gently remind her that if she has the awareness to ponder crazy-town, she’s only on the outskirts, not a full-fledged resident.
To go further, periods where someone acts crazy simply means they are believing their own lies. When someone reaches a state where they insist their perception of reality is THE reality — that is, they no longer have the ability to be objective or fluid enough to consider other possible truths — they exhibit signs of an unhealthy mind. Whatever is rigid must eventually be broken down. Just ask rock formations about a little thing called erosion. Consciousness has no limitations, so when a fragile mind insists it knows the answers to, well, anything, without the ability to be malleable, illness will result in one way or another.
We also define insanity by perceiving instability. This is a tough one because, as psychologists well know, there is no rock-solid way to determine this. We say things like someone is not of “sound mind”, but again, each person’s definition of what this means can differ. If someone is acting out in a violent way (to themselves or others), that’s a pretty obvious sign something is clearly amiss. But most of us don’t resort to obvious destruction, and so the definitions are very fuzzy and negotiable.
Looking back on my personal journey, I was never actually crazy. I was only trying to process a combination of mindblowing sensitivities and substantial traumas, without any tools in my tool kit. No one ever taught me that it was safe to feel my emotions, and how to do so in a constructive way. And so I did anything to avoid that feeling space, which created erratic behaviors and moodiness. I suspect that’s a fairly common prognosis.
In many indigenous cultures, a mental crisis is considered a spiritual awakening; people are nurtured and cared for as they move through what we would deem a frightening case of instability, because these are sacred moments to connect with wisdom outside the mind. When the mind is erratic and unreliable, the heart can often gain a stronger foothold, given the support and opportunity. And while most brains are well-aware that real wisdom lives in the heart (which is the mode of communication that the soul uses), those same brains typically don’t have a clue around how to connect with anything but itself. This is why a bout with madness can be the most healing experience we can have.
Unfortunately, our Western culture doesn’t typically hold breakdowns in this way. And our mental health (or lack thereof) reflects this disconnect. We hide people in these states away, and heavily medicate them, because as a culture, we’re bloody terrified of emotions, and of any force stronger than our egos. The result is that we are made to feel broken, when in fact we are simply nearing a breakthrough in understanding who we are, and the energy that created us.
I try not to use language like “crazy” to describe anyone, because what I accept to be true or real is certainly not absolute. There is an insanely (pun intended) fine line between being in the flow of mystical magic — connecting to intangible energies like life force and synchronicity — and delusional grandeur. One person’s crazy is another person’s paradise.
How do we know, then, if we’ve gone crazy?
The point is, we don’t. And my question is – why does it matter? Our obsession with labels is a reflection of our obsession with egos and minds. All states of being are part of consciousness. Eventually – in this life or the next – we will expand enough to become more aware, and many of these experiences will come with periods of what we define as “feeling crazy”. Labeling our experiences only serves to create the false perception of structure and control.
That we have the notion that we can control consciousness at all – now that’s crazy.
Why Ayahuasca is the Ultimate Brain Medicine
Terrence McKenna had a badass expression that altered states don’t make us insane, they create the feeling of being “unsane”. If mass consciousness equals sanity, who in their right minds aims to be that blinded and miserable? Therefore, altered states can undo – or rather, expand – this more narrowly focused and not-so-malleable default perspective.
I especially love this definition because the process of becoming unsane feels no less traumatic and terrifying. Many of the great spiritual teachers talk about the incredibly destructive quality of awakening; it’s true that to expand our ways of being, we have to first destroy the old patterns and foundations. Working with plant medicines is one of many fast-tracks to expansion, but they follow this protocol in that we must breakdown to breakthrough.
As such, a dose of Ayahuasca can indeed make you feel bat shit crazy--if you’re lucky, if your soul deems that you are ready, Aya can single-handedly dismantle a million limiting views, throw you into the black hole of destruction, make you question your survival and/or sanity, and then spit you out as a fresh new being, with a massive operating system level-up.
There are even studies that show Ayahuasca can access the part of the brain that holds our earliest childhood memories. She can literally rewire those infancy experiences so that we relate to them in a wholly positive and less-traumatic way. But to do so, she often creates an environment so intense and so unfamiliar that we literally fear we will never be the same.
The mind that fears its survival under the influence of this medicine is 100% correct. You therefore cannot tell your ego that he/she is safe in this space; ego deaths are a supreme blessing. And they feel utterly crazy. But the end result…if in a setting that holds a safe container, and with support in integration…is a newly reformed consciousness with an ego that just might understand there is no burden of control, there is no need to fear the world, and instead, you might actually feel…free. Joyous.
Anything but crazy.
But Yes, It’s Possible to To Be Psychologically Harmed in an Ayahuasca Ceremony. Kind Of.
It’s a question I hear more frequently than most from would-be sitters:
Can Ayahuasca mess me up?
Yes. You can of course be traumatized in an Aya ceremony, and come out worse off than when you entered. But it isn’t the plant’s fault.
Let me explain.
The first core reason a ceremony could cause trauma lies in the set, setting, and facilitator. If you sit with someone who is not well trained, and who has not done the work of learning to make peace with their own shadow and ego, it’s only a matter of time before that foundation falls apart. And if you’re one of the souls present, in a deeply altered and vulnerable space, when the facilitator loses control of the experience, it could indeed be very traumatic.
Examples of what happens all too often with people either not qualified or not in the right space to do this work include: Sexual passes, rudeness and judgment when what you need is kindness and support, black magic, no available help when you need it – and many more possibilities. You are extremely, ridiculously vulnerable when you’re under the influence of this medicine, so sitting with someone who has not done The Work (and is humble enough to continue to do so) is extremely dangerous.
I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of violations and ceremonies gone wrong. Everything from the shaman losing their shit mid-ceremony (one ran up a tree and refused to come down, one collapsed and poo-ed/peed themselves, sobbing for hours, with no one at the helm), to facilitators literally leaving the space to go chill in their car, to the absolutely horrific – rape. Stolen money and valuables. Screaming and violence. Yes, it can get ugly. We are all human here, regardless of how much medicine we’ve consumed.
The other scenario where Aya can be the catalyst for a dive into darkness is more complex, and it involves our own psychology. This example happens in even the safest, most experienced circles, and it’s actually a sacred way the medicine helps us to heal. Sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.
Here’s an example of why Ayahuasca can sometimes make it seem like we’re worse off after a dance with her.
If someone comes to the medicine with a drinking problem, it’s very possible that they could leave no longer craving alcohol – gifted with a renewed sense of self-care and a desire to heal and be conscious. The thing is, it’s likely the drinking problem was masking a deeper personality or mood disorder, or was repressing deep trauma and emotions. If that’s the case, the individual could experience a lot of emotional pain, and could even be acting far more erratically post-ceremony.
Remember, Ayahuasca is not a healer – she’s a consciousness expander. If we’ve been running/hiding from our internal demons for years and years, she loves us enough to help us become aware of them. She doesn’t make them go away, she deepens our integrity around what’s really happening inside of us. For many, that means shit gets real. And when we emerge from ceremony, that could also mean we are in a very dark state, finally more conscious of what we were carrying all along.
Why is this a blessing? We can’t move through and heal something we are spending our lives avoiding. Aya knows that old saying “the truth shall set you free” is so goddamn true, it hurts sometimes. But if our soul knows it’s time to come to terms with our honest psychology, the core reasons we’ve been suffering for so long, than the medicine will do her best to peel back the layers.
This is why integration is literally the make or break aspect of doing this work. It hurts my heart when people emerge from ceremony blaming the medicine for making them feel worse, when in fact she’s just revealing what was there all along. She is never, ever the culprit – she never does anything to us, she only exposes us to who we really are. And we are complicated, messy, beautiful dualistic beings.
Finally, all this banter also bodes the question - can Ayahuasca physically harm our brains? After all, that’s the belief that comes in when you’re face first into the centrifuge, gasping for air, searching for something to hold on to; the notion that you’ve caused permanent damage. Could this be true?
In truth, I don’t know. I’m not a scientist nor a medical professional. What is true is this: I’ve drank hundreds and hundreds of times, and watched thousands more experience this process. And while I’ve witnessed many of us (myself included) be duped into thinking damage had been done out of fear and projections, I’ve never, ever seen anyone become tangibly harmed by this incredible medicine. Biochemically speaking, everything in the brew is not only friendly to our bodies, it’s indigenous to them (we all have DMT in our pineal glands, which is the core alkaloid in the medicine.)
This doesn’t mean harm is impossible; it just means the world at large supplies an exponentially long list of dangers of all kinds compared to Ayahuasca. She’s not safe, in that no journey into consciousness can promise such a thing to our mortal minds and bodies, but she does teach us that we are untouchable in our soul’s essence, and if the process of evolving is messy and complicated, so be it. So is death. And birth. That’s just the way life is.
The Final Word
I can’t emphasize enough how powerful Ayahuasca is as a medicine, and how crucial it is that you work with her in a safe, experienced, and loving environment. And, just as critically, that you reach out for help in the aftermath if she’s helped you become more conscious of your shadow. That’s why people like myself have become fully dedicated to integration assistance. Becoming more conscious is a very destructive, intensely difficult, and mindblowing journey – it’s likely that each and every one of us will need help grounding back in at some point. I know I have, many times, and I certainly will again.
But don’t dismiss the calling to work with her out of fear; if your heart says it’s time, trust that. Do your homework and find the perfect place to dive in. Have support at the ready. Trust the process. Enjoy the ride. Become more conscious. Each and every time you do, you help make the world a better place. That’s always worth a little shadow dancing.
And if you’re one of those people who feels worse off after a ceremony, please reach out. It is my honor to assist, or lead you to someone that can. You deserve the support. It works. The only way out is through, but the good news is, there is always, always a silver lining. Quite often, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel of your next awakening. So let’s go there. In the words of Winston Chruchill, “If you’re going through hell, just keep going.”
About the Author:
Tina “Kat” Courtney, The Afterlife Coach, has worked with Ayahuasca for 14 years, with a decade as a shamanic apprentice. She works as an Psychedelics and Ayahuasca Coach, guiding others through the integration and preparation process with all sacred plants and master plant dietas. She’s a transformational junkie with a major love of polarities, and she adores helping others love their darkness too.