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By Albert Samaha
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Just before dusk, 18 strangers entered a yurt on a Midwestern homestead. Peruvian tapestries decorated the walls of the large, round structure, and rattles stood poised for ceremony.
The participants — professional men and women ages 35 to 65 — put on comfortable clothing and set up sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets. Everyone got a plastic bucket, cheerfully colored in green, red, or blue.
"It looks like a big pajama party," joked the host, Kim.
The shaman, a North American who had trained in South America for more than a dozen years, took a seat at the front and led the group through a conversation about what to expect.
Stay with your breath, he advised. There's no talking, no touching. Purging in any direction is a distinct possibility. The bucket is your friend.
He dimmed the lights, and after intoning a prayer, poured a foul-smelling brown liquid into a series of cups. One by one, all 18 visitors brought it to their lips and drank.
For 40 minutes, the yurt fell silent. Then the shaman began to sing.
Around the same time, the drink took effect. Some who consumed it cried, others belched, several fled for the outhouse. Many reached for their buckets and vomited.
For the next four to five hours, those in the room did what many call "the work." Some took trips back into their childhood memories. Others had visions: of nature, of healers, of fireworks. Afterward, they would say that the tea offered an opportunity to look at their problems in a new light.
"It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life," says Fred, a kind-eyed, gray-bearded man in his 50s.
Kim and her husband, Josh, have organized about 50 of these gatherings since the summer of 2010. In that time, they've seen hundreds of people have an experience like Fred's.
All three asked that their real names not be used out of fear of the law. Though no one in the United States' underground network has yet been prosecuted, the liquid falls into the category of Schedule I controlled substances.
The risks scare her, but the way Kim sees it, she doesn't have a choice.
"My life is not my own anymore," Kim says. "If that were to mean standing up in the face of legal action, I'd do it.... After seeing how much this helps people — truly heals people — I'd do anything."
The psychoactive brew goes by many names. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg called it Yage. In Brazil, it's known as Hoasca. Other aliases include the Spirit Vine, the Vine of the Soul, and the Vine of the Dead.
Its most common name is ayahuasca. The indigenous cultures of the Amazon have brewed the plant concoction, and its naturally occurring dose of the hallucinogen DMT, for centuries.
In recent years, the West has caught on. The tea cropped up in the Jennifer Aniston flick Wanderlust and the Showtime series Weeds; proponents include everyone from Sting to The Howard Stern Show's Robin Quivers. One ayahuasca expert estimates that on any given night, between 50 and 100 ayahuasca groups are in session in New York City alone.
Some of the same doctors and researchers who have, in recent years, gotten FDA approval for breakthrough studies involving MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms are now turning their attention to ayahuasca. Preliminary work suggests the brew could help treat depression, chronic addiction, and fears of mortality.
People with less-defined diagnoses, but a hunger for something missing, say ayahuasca offers something ineffable: compassion, connectedness, spirituality.
"Ayahuasca is penetrating American society, and its highly successful people, way more than any other psychedelic," says Rick Doblin, the head of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research association based in Santa Cruz, California. "The number of people who have had incredible experiences with ayahuasca, if they could all surface in the public sphere at the same time, it would be absolutely astonishing."
In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna walks past the cacao (chocolate) and the Punica (pomegranate), and strides straight to the back corner, where the vines of the plant Banisteriopsis have twisted around each other — and nearby electrical cords — to reach the room's rafters.
McKenna, a white-bearded professor wearing wire glasses and a denim shirt tucked into his jeans, points at one of the younger vines, a supple green stem the width of a pencil.
"This is nothing," he says, explaining that mature plants can reach 1,500 feet and weigh several tons. "Usually, the part you use is the thickness of a finger."
McKenna would know: He has drunk ayahuasca several hundred times since 1981. An ethnobotanist and ethnopharmacologist by trade, McKenna first tangled with psychedelics as a teen coming of age in the '60s. He tried everything from LSD to jimson weed, but never ayahuasca: There was none.
"It was this rare, legendary thing," McKenna remembers.
The first record of ayahuasca arrived in the West in 1908, thanks to the British botanist Richard Spruce, who mostly described lots of vomiting. Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes followed up a half-century later with the first academic account. Around the same time, Beat author William Burroughs wrote letters depicting his quest for the tea to Allen Ginsberg, collected in 1963 as The Yage Letters. But in the Western literature, there wasn't much more than that.