The Vine of Life: Ayahuasca, Costa Rica and the journey of a lifetime

When I sit down to write about my experiences in the jungle, I can’t help but conjure memories of reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While the clear exoticism of "the other" sullies Conrad’s depiction of jungle travails, I have to say that he is correct to assert one, lingering aspect: that the jungle is the mysterious, dark, wild beating heart of all things.

The natural, mountainous landscape of Costa Rica bends to the power fire and earth, as its shape has been forged by a history of volcanic activity. Sharp mountains and misty hillsides enclose lush, rocky valleys below filled with butterflies of every color, flowers so red and vibrant that you will wonder how you never saw such a red before, and sounds and smells so primal, you’ll swear they were there at the moment of your birth. The damp, green valleys contain rivers, streams and seemingly sacred crevices which hum to the reverberation of cicada cries. It’s as though you’re living in a science fiction story that was written millions of years ago before the first man set foot in such a place of wonder and beauty. But it doesn’t feel so “far out”—instead, it feels like coming home.

Nestled in one of these sacred valleys is Florestral, an intentional living community that hosts spiritual retreats and extends a lifestyle rooted in service to others. I was blessed to accompany an incredible group of individuals, mostly hailing from Toronto. Many thanks to the organizers, Sofia and Dane from Vital Ki Wellness Center in Toronto, Ontario, and many thanks to Vismay and Nicole from Florestral for hosting us and guiding us upon our amazing plant medicine ceremony journey.

There are words created for moments in life like these, when people of like minds join together to create something truly wonderful. We say things like “it was fate or destiny or divine intervention. Indeed, fate, destiny and divine intervention took over for us upon this journey, as we adventured through this world and worlds beyond throughout our time together with a divine presence tagging along at our hip like a faithful companion.

If I could tell you about my experience—each moment in its glittering, glistening detail—I would. And maybe, someday, I will. But for now, I’ll tell you about the experience as best I can and with respect to the great journey that beheld us all in its unfolding splendor. To be honest, the story I will tell you may not make sense to some, and it may not resonate with you and your beliefs. You may think I’ve completely lost my mind or that I’ve become an absolute flake. You may think that I’m going down the rabbit hole, never to return again to this “sane” side of reality. No matter what you think, however, doesn’t matter. Here is what I know to be true—for me.

original photograph by Dani Behnod
Ayahuasca in Costa Rica, Florestral
I’m not an expert on the sacred plant medicine called ayahuasca, but I can tell you a few things about it. First, it’s vine-like in nature and grows like a woody umbilical cord stretching up to the heavens, twisting upon itself as if to suggest that the roots, shoot and vines are all one and are all stronger, together. Ayahuasca, on its own, produces a substance called DMT or Dimethyltryptamine. DMT is a psychoactive chemical that is already naturally produced in the brain and is said to be the chemical released by the body upon the time of death. It is no coincidence, then, that the meaning of ayahuasca is “the vine of the spirit.” When consumed along with chacruna or chaliponga leaves that produce MAOIs, the DMT is better absorbed by the body and it produces the psychedelic affect.

I know, from an outsider’s perspective, that all of this sounds like I’m clamoring for a repeat of 1960s era sex, love and drugs—oh, and rock and roll. But the truth of the matter is that ayahuasca is not a brew to be taken recreationally or without sacred intention. Instead, it is ingested in a sacred ceremony, surrounded by trained “helpers,” guided by well-seasoned shamans or medicine healers and also done with well-considered intentions by each and every person who prepares to drink the brew. For me, I chose to strictly follow dieta, a diet that prepares the body for safe and effective ingestion of aya spirit. This diet limits salts, animal fats/products or byproducts, garlic, onion, sugars, processed foods, MAOI medicines, specific fruits and vegetables and several other foods. From a cursory view, it’s a limited diet, but to be honest? I really enjoyed it!

To me, dieta was a fantastic way to show myself self-discipline and intention to treat the spirit of the medicine with respect. I found myself appreciating the pure taste of vegetables that I hadn’t included in my diet for quite some time. I learned how creative I can be in the kitchen. I understood, finally, how sacred each food product was when you had to manually prepare it yourself. I grasped the concept of putting “love” into the things you eat. For me, preparing for aya was just as essential as the experience itself with her.

You see, ayahuasca isn’t just a plant medicine; she’s a plant spirit who works through the physical substance of the medicine to heal you both physically and spiritually. I’m not exaggerating in the least. Again, I know this sounds wild, but when you ingest her, you are literally taking her into you. Best put by Nicole, one of the shamans whom we worked with, you are offering your body to ayahuasca. You are making the greatest sacrifice already when you decide to take her into you and let her see you for your human and divine selfhood.

When you first swallow ayahuasca, it is like drinking an elixir of life—she’s sweet, bitter, acrid and has a slight taste of (not gonna lie) what I imagine snake venom to taste like. She is, in thick, molasses-like liquid form, the wild heartbeat of the forest. When you drink her, you let her beat that wild heart within you and then your hearts beat as one.

I wish that I could write about each and every sensation, but I simply cannot accomplish that task in one blog post. If I do feel called to write more, trust that I will. When taking-in aya, you should understand a few things: first, it is a sacred plant medicine. It is administered to you with love and loving intentions, and as a participant in the sacred circle, you enter it with your own intentions and surrender. You surrender to the wisdom of the plant medicine, knowing that if your intention is to explore the depths of your spirit, your immortal soul, she will show you exactly what you ask for—but, perhaps, not as you expect it. There is a phrase that many people shared with me, and it rings true: “Don’t have any expectations.” Indeed, all you need is a pure intention to seek greater truths about yourself, your connectedness to the universe. That’s really it! If you are present in the journey, open yourself up and surrender, you will experience something that could ultimately be life-changing. It was for me.

My sacred intentions were to discover my Self, explore my past lives and my connectedness to others. And that was exactly what I discovered—well, a bit more about those aspects of consciousness. There are infinite layers of knowledge that the universe holds within its gentle, luminous, lustrous embrace and I was invited to learn more about it and its infinite beauty. For starters, I felt connected to everything, my senses were heightened, and I was completely “aware” of my surroundings yet I wasn’t “attached” to them. So often, we operate in our own bubbles of socialization or consciousness, constantly worrying if what we say or do is the right thing to say or do. We worry about what others think about us. We worry we aren’t pretty enough or aren’t strong enough. We worry about others see when they look at us. Yet, in the sacred circle in the care of ayahuasca and each person there, you begin to see each person as a beloved friend, a soul, an embodiment of love. You no longer give two shits about what you look like or how others perceive you. All you see is love—everywhere.

But it is precisely at the beginning where I need to start, for I began my journey with ayahuasca with this exact dilemma of self consciousness. My first glass went down rather easily and it simply made me feel euphoric and hyper-aware of my surroundings. I felt a burst of unconditional love for others and a deep appreciation for the sound of voices and song that rang into the sweetly perfumed jungle night. The second glass, however, was a little different.

Allow me to introduce the part of the process known as la purga. La purga is a process of “purging” negative energies like sadness, illness or pain. At the onset of the second glass, I felt its effects almost immediately. My mind started to open up like peeling an orange at the point where you’ve peeled off the skin and begin to separate each juicy wedge. Aya began to move through my body, focusing mainly on the parts of my body that had been aching for the last 2 days. You see, I had a terrible headache that was probably due to being tired from traveling and adjusting to the altitude. I felt her coil her spirit around my insides, slowly snaking her way up to my neck muscles and then “saw” her embodiment as a reptilian-like creature who began to reach into me with her claws to remove any pain or toxins from my body. (I told you that you may not be able to handle what I’m saying, didn’t I?!) As she continued to remove that which was making me feel gross for the past, few days, I suddenly felt as though I needed to vomit. And la purga began. 

Before you begin to think "oh god, that sounds awful," allow me to assure you that it is not as awful as it seems. La purga is actually a process which, to me, feels relieving. It feels like a sacred dance of cooperation between you, aya spirit and your physical vessel or body. When you purge your pain or your sadness, you symbolically relieve yourself from those physical and emotional ailments. You give them up. You give them away. You surrender them. You offer them. You expel them from you so that you can make room for more love and healing. That's the best way I can describe it other than "I vomited."

But I vomited. Oh, lord. I vomited. I felt better with each purge attempt, but at one point, it got pretty ugly. Then, suddenly, Nicole—one of the shaman healers—came over to me in a cloud of the most sweet smelling incense I had ever inhaled. She held out a piece of tissue to me, which also had an oil scent on it that I think helps with nausea (I can't remember the name of it!). As she knelt down next to me, I closed my eyes and she became a Hindu goddess, all in pink with cherry blossoms falling all around her. It was breath-taking. When I finally opened my eyes and “came to,” she simply whispered in her South African lilt “blow your nose.” I had to laugh at myself because I wasn’t certain why she was beside me at first, other than to cleanse me with the smoke. Yet, the practical, diminutive demonstration of love in that simple phrase was enough to pull me back towards my journey. After she left my side, I proceeded to vomit once more—this time, so hard that I thought I had pooped my pants. Yep. I said it. I totes thought I shit myself.

It is at this moment that I believe my deeper journey began because my god, what if I just shit my pants? What if I’m just lying here in my own poop? What now? What happens? Did anyone see? Is this sweet smelling smoke for me? Do I stink? Thoughts of shame and humiliation ran through my mind and I tried, quite ardently, to dismiss the possibility of soiling myself. As my mind would unfold into beautiful patterns of flowers in colors that my eyes have yet to witness in physical form, I would be pulled back to fear and worry that I pooped my pants. One thing you should know is that even though you are experiencing the psychotropic effects of aya, you also are quite aware of what is happening at the same time. It’s like having to completely let go, yet also remember that you are empowered to work with ayahuasca to co-create an experience that you desire. And so, finally, I got myself to a place where I just thought: “okay, if I did poop my pants, I need to just take care of it and get over it.” Sparing the details, when I checked, I found that I did NOT poop my pants. To my utter relief, then, I completely let go. I let go and went on one of the most profound journeys of my entire life.

The fear of soiling oneself is something that, I imagine, we all face at one point or another—especially as adults. It is this fear that aya started with for me, and she showed me that there is nothing to be ashamed of in this embodiment should you find that you cannot control your body and its functions. Truth be told, I’ve been in many compromising situations in this lifetime already when it comes to my gastrointestinal health. I mean, how many people do you know who have survived having dysentery in their mid 20s? I’m one of them! I’ve also had the privilege of having uncontrollable bowels after a colonoscopy. Luckily, the nurses had a great sense of humor about it. So did I, as a matter of fact. Yet, in this moment, this innocuous concern, I had one of my greatest epiphanies. Aya told me that each of us goes through points in our life where we feel shameful for needing to ask for help, especially when we are adults who are supposed to take care of ourselves. But when we are babies and when we are old and dying, we need someone to love and care for us. So often we feel as though we are less of a human when we find ourselves in this distressed state of physical being. However, it’s not unhuman at all to need to be taken care of—it’s truly part of the beauty of life because, in these moments, you see the true beauty of others’ souls in the simple offering of tissue to blow your nose, a slight bend of the lips in a caretaker’s smile, a whisper of encouragement, the feeling of someone’s unbeckoned hand sliding into yours. Even in death, at the end of life when a body gives up, there is beauty there—even if we have to stretch our eyes and our hearts to perceive it.

After this lesson, the sensation of death and dying was something that I experienced most on the first night of ceremony. Aya started taking me to past lives, starting with my lifetime(s) as Native American. The lifetime we started with was me as a young Native American boy fishing with my father. All I know is that it’s a tribe that existed in the Pacific Northwest, and my intuition tells me somewhere in Washington state. I saw my father, felt the love for him, grew up into a man, watched my father die, felt the pain of losing him, saw myself grow older and then experienced my own death. I cannot describe to you the sensations and visions that came next because they are hard to describe in words for me at this time, but what I can say is that I then went on a journey through a myriad of past lives, one after the other, and endured each one of those lives’ deaths. In almost an instant, a single moment in time, I experienced death after death. Death from heartbreak. Death from illness. Death from injury in battle. Death from old age. Death in so many forms. It was painful. It was excruciating. It was heartbreaking. It was relieving. It was terrifying, and it was beautiful.

Through these deaths, I was shown how impermanent we are in this human embodiment. Yet, I was shown how sacred and meaningful each embodiment truly is and how much wisdom we retain from each lifetime. Look, I don’t know if you believe in reincarnation or not, and I think it’s up to each of us to determine what we truly believe in, but lemme tell you: there’s no way I could make any of this shit up in my mind. The sounds, sights, sensations I experienced? They were just as real as this computer that I’m using to type this blog. No matter what the “origin” of my experiences, all I know is that it is profound beyond comprehension and our human forms are woven by the fabric of the cosmos, the light in our hearts and the immortal song of our souls. There is truly no ending and no beginning to you and to me. We are all one.

This is just a teeny, tiny bit of what I learned and experienced from my journey with ayahuasca, and I have much more to say. Ultimately, I rose on the first morning with a new-found appreciation for life, for my body, for the people in my life who have shown me love, those who have nurtured me, those who are there guiding me in spirit as my guides and angels. I cried tears of pure joy for all of the love that I have witnessed and been blessed to receive in this lifetime. I rose, like the sun, to embrace the world in a beautiful, new light.

If I could give you a gift right now, it’d be the ability to understand, feel and see the things that ayahuasca let me see, smell, taste, touch and experience. It’d be the ability to see the light inside of each of us, to shed the pretentions of our human egos and live without fear of being judged or misunderstood. And thus, my sacred intention woven throughout this blog post is to leave you with a feeling of peace and unconditional love. May many blessings find you that exceed your expectations, for they are out there beyond to the smooth, rounded edges of your fingertips. Never stop believing in your ability to manifest the love you want and deserve in your life because love will never stop believing in you.

I look forward to sharing more about my experiences in future writings, so please stay tuned! Viva la medicine! Viva la musica! Viva la familia! Viva! 


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