Ayahuasca as a Cure For Depression
I happen to know for a fact that ayahuasca can help with depression, because it helped me. I had suffered from depression since I was fifteen, being suicidal for seven of those years. Thirty years later, after a quite a variety of therapies, medications, self-help books, workshops, spiritual practices, and eventually dedicating to a healthy diet and regular exercise (don’t underestimate the impact of those two factors), my life had become… okay. Depressive episodes had pretty much disappeared, but my experience of life was flat, joyless. Not much excited me and very little held any real interest, but I was highly functional professionally, developed friends, and no longer thought of dying on a regular basis. I now suspect I would have scored as depressed on any of the standard psychological tests, but it was such an improvement for me that I told people I was no longer depressed. Yet I still envied the joy and zest for life I saw in many other people.
One day doing some research on the internet I stumbled upon an article about ayahuasca. It was intriguing for many reasons, and a bit of exploration soon revealed the conventional wisdom that it could help with depression. Given the lingering flatness of my experience of life, I decided to give it a try. In short, it worked. After my time in Peru drinking ayahuasca, I felt happy, got excited about doing things, laughed easily and found joy in many simple things in life. As long as I took good care or myself (eating well, exercise, nurturing my spiritual life, etc.), the flatness would not return. New acquaintances were surprised when they learned I had spent 30 years of my life depressed.
Much can be found on the internet about ayahuasca helping people who suffer from depression, in the form of both anecdotal personal accounts and research papers. Of the research papers I have read, all have had the interpretation of their results severely restricted by limitations of their sample base or study methodology. The sample size for the study may have been small, or the demographics of its participants narrow in scope. It may have been limited to participants who had drunk ayahuasca in the past, or ayahuasca’s efficacy with depression may simply have been an indication revealed in the scope of a broader study. All these accounts and studies have left me disappointed in my search for some definite, incontrovertible evidence that ayahuasca is in fact effective for helping people suffering from depression.
Now, I don’t believe that my personal account will add much to the body of evidence supporting the use of ayahuasca as a treatment for depression, but perhaps what I have learned over the past two years and seen first-hand will add some weight to the argument.
In addition to finally clearing my depression, ayahuasca touched me deeply in several other ways. I knew I would be coming back to learn more about the medicine. When I first came to Peru three years ago I had been working as a software engineer for 15 years. I have now lived in Iquitos, Peru for the past year and a half and have been doing dietas [a student of ayahuasca diets the plants in order to learn their properties] and learning the medicine with a teacher for close to a year. Currently, I am the owner of the Hummingbird Ayahuasca Retreat and Healing Center in Iquitos, http://www.ayahuascaRetreats.org. I have drank ayahuasca with 35 ayahuasqueros in Peru and Ecuador, and participated in over 500 ceremonies. Needless to say, my life has changed dramatically.
The Hummingbird Ayahuasca Retreat and Healing center is primarily a healing center. We offer a packaged 12 day retreat similar to many other retreat centers in the area, but our emphasis is on personal retreats where people come to be healed from some affliction. Though we have successfully treated a variety of conditions, a significant percentage of our clients come to address issues with depression and anxiety. Over the past four years we have had sixty such clients. Their length of stay varied from two to four weeks, and included one or two diets with medicinal plants recommended by our healers. Their ages ranged from twenty three to fifty nice. Upon leaving the center, 7 clients reported minimal positive change in their subjective experience of life, but some of these did report having more tools to deal with her depression and anxiety, along with deeper insights into their root causes. The others were astounded at the amount of positive change they experienced in such a short period of time, and reported feeling “transformed”, “reborn”, “finally able to live”, “free to be myself”. Additionally, all reported a positive self-image and liking themselves, some for the first time in their lives.
Lisa Pallandino, a Doctoral candidate at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, recently made her dissertation available online. It is titled “VINE OF THE SOUL: A Phenomenological Study of Ayahuasca and its Effect on Depression”. The full text of the dissertation may be downloaded here: http://www.newstudiesonshamanism.com/2010/11/23/ayahuasca-and-depression/. Reading this dissertation I was struck by the parallels between the experience and outcomes of her study’s participants, and those of our clients. It is my hope that in articulating these parallels, some value may be added to the discussion of whether ayahuasca actually IS a valid tool for addressing problems with depression. I would also like to describe a bit of the process our clients went through, so those considering trying ayahuasca to address this problem will have a bit more information for making a decision. Be forewarned – it is not easy work. Without exception, all our clients said it was the most difficult thing they have ever done in their lives.
I will begin with an excerpt from the dissertation about existing research on the subject:
“An extensive review of the literature about the topic of ayahuasca combined with the research findings regarding ayahuasca’s impact on symptoms of depression revealed that experiences with ayahuasca allow access to realms of the human psyche difficult to access otherwise. The benefit of this access is the possible recognition of stored beliefs or traumas which, when reflected upon provide for cathartic, healing responses to follow. The self-insight then begets new, alternate reactions to surroundings and impacts one’s relationship to others and the environment within which one is operating. Often, the experience has a numinous quality that challenges the person to engage in a new awareness-accepting the wholeness of life, healing from past wounds, and living life with greater purpose.”
The above description correlates perfectly with the experience of our clients at the Hummingbird Center. All were able to identify hidden beliefs that influenced their lives, and/or connected to traumas, most commonly from early childhood. Time and again our clients report gaining new, crystal clear insights into how past events created their beliefs, and how these beliefs have affected their perception of reality. Most importantly, they report a new inner certainty that these beliefs and subsequent perceptions have been false, in a very real sense just a story they created. With this insight, new avenues of perception open to them, and they are able to see themselves and life in very different ways. All have reported a setting aside of self-judgment, and of finally being able to let go of the guilt and remorse they have carried as a result of living a depressed life.
The study used a phenomenological approach, detailed in the dissertation. It identified “essential constituents” of the participant’s experience, group into three categories.
- Experience of depression
- Ayahuasca experience
- Outcome of the experience
I will forego describing the experience of depression, but below are the findings for the other two categories. The study had six participants, and the findings are listed for each. The dissertation contains a table of supporting quotations from each participant, for each essential characteristic. It is worth perusing to get a clearer idea of the subject’s experiences, especially of the variety of experience.
The dissertation contains a section titled “Review of Themes That Emerged”. The author states it “is provided as a means of illuminating the common themes that were expressed, but also to demonstrate individual experiences arriving at a similar conclusion in a variety of manner”. In the following section I provide a quote from that section for each of the characteristics which captures the essence of the theme discussed. Please note that these themes correlate very well with the experience of our ten clients at the Hummingbird Center. I highly recommend reading that section of the paper in its entirety to gain a deeper understanding of what is possible with ayahuasca.
Experienced depression just prior to taking ayahuasca – “Four participants reported that depression was an issue in the days prior to taking ayahuasca. The pertinence of this theme is that depression was still present and relevant….”
Ayahuasca gave clear messages on life issues – “Out of the six participants, four stated that messages, which were direct and even blunt, were provided by ayahuasca. […] participants were clear on messages being lucid.”
Realized new levels of self-understanding in experience – “Four participants described a breakthrough in self-understanding. This was further clarified to mean a different appreciation of essence of self.”
Felt a wiser part of themselves was speaking to them – “S2 and S6 referred to the feeling that there was a more knowing voice, which was identified as perhaps a wiser, internal voice that was part of one’s self.”
Emotionally difficult in anticipation and in actual experience – “Four participants reported it was emotionally difficult to anticipate the experience of ayahuasca and the experience itself was challenging. Going through life’s painful challenges may require a descent into the unknown. […] A journey through suffering may be an integral part of the journey.”
Experienced the numinous – “All six participants felt they had met the nuomenal realm. The nuomenal was beheld as just as real as anything manifested within the phenomenal world.”
Returned to originally traumatizing life experience – “Three participants returned to an original experience felt to be a source of trauma. […] S2 and S5 also claimed revisiting past experiences, which made them aware of the way a family dynamic shaped them.”
Outcome of the Experience
Take things less personally – “Four of the six participants reported that this was a new perspective. Taking things less personally allows for an increase in personal contact, which is one important aspect in reducing isolation and thereby also reducing the risk of depression.”
Greater self-awareness and personal responsibility – “Three participants expressed increased self-awareness and a new awakening to personal responsibility. They perceived that challenges were opportunities to correct misguided notions of powerlessness.”
Greater awareness of own capabilities, self-efficacy, that difficulties can be managed – “Four co-researchers felt more aware of their own ability to handle difficulties or painful past life events.”
Feeling of greater self-acceptance – “Four of the six felt greater self-acceptance. S said he was not as ‘broken’. S2 … said that ayahuasca was a tool, which allowed him to mindfully discover more of himself and not hide from it.”
Change in how one relates to others, thus impacting mood – “Three participants reported that relationships changed, which also created changes in mood.”
Depression diminished but cautious that this will not last after the first interview – “Following the first interview, four participants cautiously expressed that depression had diminished but they wanted to reserve making conclusions about ayahuasca having cured the depression permanently. It seemed important to them to have these changes actually tested by life’s triggering events.”
Depression has not returned base on second interview – “Five participants stated that depression had lifted by the second interview. “
Grateful feelings toward ayahuasca – “All participants stated that they felt grateful towards ayahuasca. This indicated that although there was emotional difficulty in anticipation and also during some of the ayahuasca experiences themselves, ultimately the majority of participants sensed it was a beneficial pursuit.”
As I stated before, the above illumination of themes is representative of the experience or our clients. None of the Hummingbird clients referenced in this article had taken ayahuasca before. All said the onset of depression was in their teen years or earlier. Two could not remember the onset of depression, simply stating they had always been that way.
For the Hummingbird clients, I will present the essential characteristics as a percentage of those who indicated Significant (S), Moderately Significant (MS) or Not Significant (NS).
** All clients reported a new ease being around other people, and the ability to be more spontaneous, more naturally themselves without first thinking about how others may respond to them.
These findings are inferred from our case notes and our memories of the client’s transformations while at the Hummingbird Center. Though admittedly error prone and almost certainly biased toward the positive, nevertheless, my partner and I believe it is at worst a reasonably accurate depiction of their experience of these essential characteristics, and most likely a very good one. The reports of our clients are clearly weighted toward “Significant in your experience” when compared to those of the study in both the Ayahuasca Experience and Outcome of the Experience categories. Compared to the study, our group of clients had a greater commonality of the experience of ayahuasca itself, and in the outcomes of their healing process. I would like to propose some possible explanations for this difference, primarily focused on possible differences of set and setting.
The paper indicated that no report of setting was alike for its participants. “Settings included a context of the religious and community, a shamanic circle or in the Santo Daime church, as well as more isolated settings, a self-made bonfire and an apartment in San Francisco. In the former, a more experienced guide was present and in the latter, participants were primarily alone in their encounters.” The paper provides no description of the supporting environment in which ayahuasca ceremonies were held. As such, no comparisons can be made between the supporting environment at the Hummingbird Center, and those of the study’s participants. Yet I would like to list some environmental and contextual factors we believe are important contributors to the success we have had at the Hummingbird Center.
1) Our clients were all at the same center, working with the same healers, with similar programs of treatment, and drank ayahuasca made by the same ayahuasquero.
2) The supporting environment, specifically conversations about how the medicine works to heal and the types of experiences one may expect to have under the influence of ayahuasca were consistent across the client base.
3) We hold a circle meeting the morning following each ceremony in which participants are encouraged to share their experience and how they believe it relates to their healing process. In listening to others, they invariably discover they are not so different. They quickly bond with others in the group, and are able to relax and be themselves without fear of being judged.
4) Most of our clients showed up with a willingness to do whatever it took to heal. Several stated this was their last hope, and as such, were willing to undergo, if necessary, a “descent into hell” in order to be relieved of their depression.
5) Our clients came on personal healing retreats specifically to be cured from depression. This is different than “ayahuasca workshops” or “ayahuasca tours” in which large groups of people (15-25) participate in ceremony. Though we also offer workshop of similar style, ours are limited to 16 people. The pertinence of this is our clients get a great deal of personal attention by the shaman during ceremonies. The stays of the clients on personal retreats frequently overlap the workshop, but the small group size ensures they continue to get the attention they need.
6) After being examined in ceremony by our shaman, a personalized program is developed for each client, depending on causal issues identified by the shaman. This program always includes a dieta of at least one medicinal plant.
7) Clients on personal healing retreats are housed in a private tambo, set in isolation in the jungle. This provides a peaceful place for meditation and reflection on their experiences in ceremony.
8) I personally have suffered from, and been cured of, long term depression. Having a background in a variety of spiritual practices and extensive experience working with ayahuasca allows us to be skilled guides through the process of working with ayahuasca, helping our clients understand their experience, and assist in alleviating the fear and emotional distress that invariably arises.
9) We spend a lot of one on one time with our clients, frequently several hours a day. This is in the form of both casual conversations in our common areas, and also in private sessions with Tracie who is a licensed counselor specializing drug and addiction therapy. This extensive time with our clients is the reason we are confident that the ratings assigned to the essential characteristics of experience are accurate.
10) Most of our clients arrived willing to do whatever it takes to be healed. This is very important, because it helps eliminate resistance to the frequently unpleasant experiences that arise under the influence of ayahuasca. Allowing the medicine to do what it wants is an important factor in being healed.
11) While at the center, we keep the focus on the client’s healing process. They are encouraged to fully feel what arises, and to articulate those feelings. Having been through it ourselves, we are able to create a safe environment for people to experience painful or unfamiliar emotions.
12) Our clients typically come for an extended period of time. Two weeks is the minimum length of time we accept for a personal healing retreat. Most have stayed for at least three weeks, and a few for four.
We believe all of the above are important factors in the success we have enjoyed treating people with depression. With this type of work in particular, the importance of a willingness to do whatever it takes cannot be overstated. In our experience, people who suffer from depression often have extremely difficult and terrifying experiences with ayahuasca. While these types of experiences can happen with anyone, they are clearly more frequent and more severe for those suffering from depression. It is not rare in our experience, after the first few ceremonies, for someone to say they never want to take ayahuasca again, however when they persevere they find their experience improves.
Ayahuasca works on people in a very individualized way. Though there may be similarities, no two people’s experiences are the same. Additionally, no one person’s experience is the same from one ceremony to the next. It is highly personal, which is not surprising when you consider ayahuasca provides access to hidden regions of one’s mind. Nobody can predict what another will experience when they take ayahuasca. Nevertheless, we have noticed a pattern in the healing process of many of our clients. This pattern may be summarized simply as “you may feel worse before you feel better”.
Several of our clients have experienced an intensification of their symptoms after the first few ceremonies. The second in particular seems to be a crisis point. They report feeling more anxious, lethargic, depressed and confused. Much of this is brought on by what they are shown by ayahuasca. It is very common for people to revisit traumatic events of their childhood, to be shown aspects of themselves they do not like, or experience a lot of dark imagery. Some feel their primary depressive symptoms at a level of intensity far greater than they have ever experienced in normal life. My personal experience in my third ceremony was of the deepest, darkest depression I had ever known. I was certain it would never change, that my situation was completely and irrevocably hopeless, and all I wanted was to die. We have had a few clients see in their visions that ayahuasca was an evil force out to destroy the world, and that it was going to cause them to go insane.
Such experiences do not motivate one to continue taking ayahuasca. Revisiting past traumas and being shown our shadow side clearly can help a person see themselves and past experiences from a different perspective. Finding benefit in the frightening visions is more difficult, and remains a bit of a mystery. Yet they seem to be an integral part of the healing process. Time and again we have seen people go through several extremely difficult ceremonies, and then something shifts in a subsequent ceremony. They have a breakthrough of self-understanding and of how events in their lives have shaped them. With this breakthrough, they are able to set aside negative thought patterns and beliefs, and participate in life in new, more positive and constructive ways.
Several of our clients were truly terrified at the thought of taking ayahuasca again, and sat through at least one ceremony without drinking. It took a lot of encouragement from myself and my partner Tracie, along with hearing first-hand accounts from other clients about the benefits they received, for these clients to decide to continue with the process. Having been through it ourselves and witnessed this process many times before, we were eventually able to persuade these individuals that their next ceremony was unlikely to be as terrifying, and that positive change would come. Yet, without a deep desire to heal, without the willingness to do whatever it takes to find relief from their suffering, it is unlikely they would have summoned the courage to continue.
One of our clients had been on medication for 20 years, and had been working with his current therapist for the past 10. Before coming to our center he consulted his therapist, and went off his medication, as many anti-depressant drugs are dangerous to take with ayahuasca. Upon returning, his therapist told him his time here had brought him to a place the therapist had been trying to get him to for the past ten years, and advised him to not resume his medication. Four months later, he remains off medication and has taken up a spiritual practice, meditating twice a day.
I asked a current client being treated for depression if he would provide a brief description of his experience I could use in this article. I gave him no information about the content of the study, or this article, just that it was about ayahuasca and depression. Here is what he wrote: “Ayahuasca pulled me out from the rut of self-destructive thought and behavior paths that were my depression. It opened up new paths for me to find and gave me the tractions of strength and determination to explore them.” If you return to the original quote I included from the study, I believe you will see a remarkable similarity to what this client wrote and the study author’s conclusions from a review of the existing literature.
Our experience at the Hummingbird Center leaves us convinced that ayahuasca can cure depression. The results of Lisa Palladino’s study reinforces that conviction. Additionally, it reinforced our own insights into how people experience the healing process, along with outcomes beyond the lifting of depression. I suspect that if the study were replicated with a larger sample size, it would yield similar results, and most of the same essential characteristics of experience. This supposition is informed by participant feedback from the 160 plus ceremonies in which I drank ayahuasca.
I am well aware that this article correlating the results of the Hummingbird Center with those of Lisa Palladino’s study does not prove ayahuasca cures depression. It is my hope it adds some support to the conventional wisdom that it does. More importantly, for those considering trying ayahuasca to get relief from their depression, I hope it has provided some good information that helps them make a more informed decision.
For those who do choose this healing path, I’d like to offer a few suggestions:
1) Find a center focused on healing as opposed to centers offering an ayahuasca experience to large groups of people. Though healing can and does occur in that setting, you are more likely to get positive results with an individualized treatment program.
2) Trust your instincts when choosing a center. There are many good ones available in the Amazonian region. Follow your heart.
3) TRUST the medicine. Accept what it brings you in ceremony and know it is for your healing.
4) Do not resist what happens in ceremony. Allow the medicine to do what it wants. If you resist, you will not receive the same degree of healing, and your experience will almost certainly be more challenging.
5) You do not have to like what happens, nor do you need to understand your ayahuasca experience in order to receive healing.
6) Come with a willingness to do whatever it takes to be healed.
Open your heart and mind to the unexpected. Find the courage to walk through your fears. Surrender to the mystery and magic of this ancient and sacred medicine. The worst that can happen is that you will lose your illusions and find your true self. And that can be terrifying indeed. As one participant described his experience, “It was horrible, and beautiful, and I am so grateful.”
Jim Davis and his wife Gina are owners of the Hummingbird Ayahuasca Retreat and Healing Center in Iquitos, Peru. Jim is currently on a learning path to become an ayahuasquero. More information about the Hummingbird Center may be found on their website, www.ayahuascaRetreats.org.