Carina Cooper tried ayahuasca, the hallucinatory drink that several celebrities have taken, long before it hit the news in the UK. She tells us what it's like and how it changed her life
You’ve probably heard of ayahuasca, a hallucinatory drink from South America, since several popstars and other celebrities admitted taking it. You may even know someone who has, extending its reach as it has from the backpacking community to the the middle classes both here and in the States.
Ayahuasca is brewed from two Amazonian plants containing the active psychedelic compound DMT. It is taken under the guidance of a shaman and users say it gives them deep revelations and spiritual awakenings leading to positive changes in their life.
But for all those who say it has changed their life for the better, there are people having bad trips and fake shamans in south America tempting tourists with the drink and ripping them off and making sexual advances. There have been a few cases of death. It is illegal in the UK and the US.
I first came across ayahuasca during the 90s when my twin brother and his wife (who had lived with Osho, the famous Indian guru) would come to Europe and travel as helpers with a shaman from Brazil who was conducting Ayahuasca ceremonies.
The stories of this plant medicine that took you into mysterious deep and dark realms, revealing the shadow part of oneself – including purging and diarrhoea – seemed abhorrent to me, safe in my eyrie home in the media heartland of Notting Hill. This was not a place I could imagine I would visit any time soon.
A few years passed, my marriage broke down and I needed some answers, and I deeply desired a big quest into self-enquiry.
I first drank ayahuasca in the early 2000s with an experienced shaman and musician who is a good friend of my brother’s. We were lucky as there might only be five to a group, so they were intimate affairs and enabled one to journey really deeply.
My first time was a magical experiences. It was like being in the most exquisite, cosmic, carnival ride in the universe. I laughed with wonder, I cried with an open heart, I wanted to do more…
But that’s Mother ’huasca: she lures you in the first time and then quite often the second time you face yourself, as I did.
I had a vision of a drawer opening out from under my heart. In this drawer was a heart with all its tubes etc pulsating. An angelic voice said to me in a gentle whisper, “You are now going to feel all the pain you have shut away.” I sobbed for about five hours (ceremonies generally start around 8pm and can go on until dawn) deep guttural, physical sobs.
Aya is not for the faint hearted. If you genuinely have an interest to explore your inner landscape, she will find you and the right shaman will accompany her.
If you go to a circle (as ayahuasca ceremonies are sometimes referred to), honour the dietary requirements: there are certain foods that have to be avoided for five days beforehand.
Go in humbly and respectfully, and know that you can navigate yourself through the Astral realm up to more celestial realms. The ceremonies are often beautiful, with altars and in a lovely setting. These are just the smoke and mirrors, in my experience. From what I’ve seen over the past decade, the key to this work is the follow-through on the insights that are given to you by the plant.
It’s easy after a ceremony to feel loved-up and that you have gone on an epic hero’s journey. But if you don’t go and slay the dragons that have been highlighted to you in the following days or weeks, you can continue to attend circles and drink but she’ll slowly stop giving you the magical information.
She is an extraordinary teacher and if you honour her, she will elevate you to a higher level of consciousness.
I have drunk all over the world including South America. It doesn’t matter what location you are in, you just need to be absolutely sure that the shaman is reputable. And generally if the shaman is good, the brew will be too.
Different shamans have different provenances, depending on which country or tribe they are from. In some ceremonies, you are asked to wear white; some shamans give you up to three cups to drink; some shamans divide the men from the women.
If it’s your first time, don’t worry if you go alone, because you will make many new friends. Drinking ayahuasca with people is like spiritually sleeping with them. You see people bare their souls, and everyone comes together after the magic carpet ride that has transported everyone through the night.
One of the lovely aspects of ayahuasca is that it’s very music driven and attracts beautiful, talented musicians. Exquisite hymns known as ‘icaros’, which have been downloaded or received by the musicians during ceremony, are sung during the journeying.
Many people become more aware of their musical selves after drinking and they find their singing voices and take up playing instruments.
There’s a saying in the ayahuasca community that “Aya is for everyone but not everyone’s for Aya”. Go in with the innocence and openheartedness of a child, as any resistance might make you a member of The Never Again Club.
One shaman I know says “Pain is inevitable, suffering optional”. This is not a recreational, fun night, unless you like throwing up or running to the bathroom, or in my case being a wreck on the floor sobbing. But when the light of dawn appears, there is such renewed feeling of hope and optimism, you feel rebooted.
But this is a journey between you and Aya; it’s almost irrelevant to anything else that goes on. The shaman with his musicians is there to help navigate you on your journey. They hold a sacred and safe place for you to go deep and discover and heal yourself.
Ayahuasca has been an extraordinary, beneficial experience for me. It has shown me aspects of my higher self, and how to relate to others and the world with compassion, love and forgiveness for those I might have once blamed for my troubles.
I don’t drink it so much any more as I feel she has shown me the way, and it’s up to me now to follow up what I learned on a daily basis. I like what Ram Dass says: “When you get the message, hang up.”
I’m deeply grateful to ayahuasca as I’ve had some of the most profound, exquisite moments of my life with it. She has led me to be more in touch with nature and to lead a more simple life. As the shamans say to honour and thank her: Aho!’