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Ayahuasca is a potent plant medicine that is known to instill life-changing insights in those who drink it.
The brew has been revered by Amazonian indigenous tribes, and similar to how native Americans use Peyote (San Pedro), Peruvian Ayahuasca shamans have been using the brew to reach higher states of awareness and consciousness. Over time, the word has spread, and with thousands of Ayahuasca tourists looking to embark on their own transformative healing journey, multiple Ayahuasca retreats have been popping up from Costa Rica to Peru*.
Ayahuasca tourism’s lure can be explained by all kinds of reasons. This sacred plant medicine has incredibly revelatory and purging (vomiting) effects and some may hold hopes of engendering a spiritual awakening. Others may wish to sit in a ceremony to learn how to cope with trauma and depression, while others strive to be healed of addictions and serious physical and mental illnesses.
Even though one’s motivating reasons and subsequent visions and encounters are deeply personal, there is one striking parallel in many people’s experiences: the presence of a divine entity in the form of a motherly teaching figure -- Mother Ayahuasca.
Who is she and why does she appear to so many different Ayahuasca drinkers?
*Iquitos and Pucallpa are popular Peruvian destinations in South America.
Ayahuasca is generally made by mixing two components: the Banisteriopsis caapi vine (or ‘Ayahuasca vine’) and the Psychotria viridis leaves (or ‘chacruna leaves’).
B. caapi vines are medicinal plants that have been used in South American shamanism for many years. They contain monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, which are needed for the brew’s other component to have an effect: the DMT-containing P. viridis leaf.
Dubbed ‘the Spirit Molecule’, DMT is one of the most potent entheogens on this planet. It is a naturally occurring compound that can be found in a multitude of plants, animals, and human beings. It comes in more than one form, and besides ingesting it, we can also simulate DMT-like psychedelic experiences through other spiritual healing modalities such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.
The compound acts on specific subtypes of serotonin receptors by strongly activating them*. And while scientists generally categorize it as a hallucinogen, the journeys it evokes are quite different compared to those of other psychedelic substances/psychedelic drugs.
DMT generally puts users in a trance-like state and induces a deeply spiritual journey filled with vivid hallucinations, emotions, and insights.
In addition to gaining spiritual wisdom through these revelatory insights and incredible displays of visionary art, many users describe being transported to a distant realm where they meet seemingly autonomous entities. These otherworldly beings shine a light on our (un)conscious selves. And while the meanings of Ayahuasca visions are extremely personal, the same entities tend to appear to different people. So, the question remains: who or what are they?
*As activating serotonin networks is a commonly used strategy for treating major depression, many modern antidepressants contain drugs with similar effects. This is why Ayahuasca should never be consumed while using antidepressants.
The words we use have meaning and they often reveal our attitudes and perceptions of things around us. The name one chooses to give to Ayahuasca, is no exception.
For example, “the medicine” is an often-used naturalistic metaphor, while “entheogen” suggests that the brew allows one to experience the divine directly.
The words “Mother Ayahuasca,” on the other hand, are usually associated with a wise entity that possesses selfless and loving traits. This recurring maternal entity is particularly concerned with a drinker’s well-being, and it often shows itself in a comforting female presence that can take numerous shapes.
While Mother Ayahuasca’s presence may initially come as a surprise to many Westerners, indigenous people have long viewed her as an Amazonian goddess who is to be worshipped.
Below are some online reports of people who describe their experience meeting Mama Aya during one of their journeys:
“She sat across from me and had a feminine motherly feel to her. During the trip, my own inner voice was mixed with hers, like my thoughts belonged to both of us. She appeared to tell me that I wasn't ready to break through yet, that I wasn't ready to let go. Even though she was holding me back from the tunnel, she still showed a gentle and firm affection towards me. It was like she was the spirit of the DMT molecule.”
“The Ayahuasca spirit came to me in that space. She held me lovingly with my head against her chest as my soul wept like it never had before. I asked her what she had to teach me. She said to stop using drugs. There was a kind of fury in her message, but immense love as well […] I was frustrated, I knew I needed to stop. I asked her again and again what she had to teach me. She only ever said to stop doing drugs, more sternly each time. I finally stopped asking. Her anger instilled in me a hint of fear. Once I was silent she held me for a few moments without saying anything. I felt such peace as I never have before or since. She engulfed me in one last ephemeral embrace of pure light and love before disappearing, leaving me alone and sober in the darkness of my room.”
“The peak brought me to the Source of Being. The face of a female deity, large and hovering, made of swirling geometric patterns and neon pinks, greens and blue, welcomed me home. […]”
“Then I felt a presence, as if I was surrounded by dozens of people. They were there to comfort me, to calm me down, and I began to feel wonderful. I heard, or possibly felt, a woman assure me that everything was going to be ok, and she beckoned me to come with her into the spirit world. She felt very motherly, which evokes images of “mother earth”, “mother nature”, or “Pachamama.”
As you can see, terms such as ‘boundless love’, ‘benevolent teacher’, and ‘welcoming presence’ seem to be commonly used to describe Mama Ayahuasca’s attributes. But what can explain the parallels in these experiences?
As the words that are used to describe mama Ayahuasca also share a lot of commonalities with how we generally view mother figures in everyday life, some have suggested that these Mother Ayahuasca images may perhaps be projections of our own consciousness.
Many of the insights that are granted during an Ayahuasca session are not entirely new. More often than not, they already existed within us but simply needed to be rediscovered by unearthing the layers of conditioning and trauma that had been covering them.
Take the second report, for example, in which someone shares how grandmother Ayahuasca helped them come to terms with the fact that they had to stop their drug intake. Whether this person was consuming magic mushrooms (shrooms), marihuana, or cocaine, does not matter much. What is interesting, however, is that the insight was something that they themselves already knew deep down, but perhaps did not want to accept (just yet).
The seemingly contradicting benevolent sternness with which the motherly figure shines a light on all that is no longer serving us, is also an often-reported anecdote during Ayahuasca sessions. And it is a quality that you would expect from any loving mother.
In this way, this common image of a strict yet gentle mother figure may be based on concepts that have been shaped by our individual developmental experiences and/or our shared cultural beliefs. This may explain both the individual and shared characteristics of one’s encounter with this maternal deity.
Another possibility to consider is that people actually do encounter foreign worlds and mystical entities, such as Mother Ayahuasca, during their experiences. This is in line with many people’s reports that these entities not only seem to be entirely separate from themselves but that they also carry such vividness and autonomy that it is hard to imagine that they could have created them with their own minds.
In addition, as the reports above indicate, people appear to not only see and feel Mother Ayahuasca’s presence, but they also communicate with her and learn about her teachings.
The belief that Mother Ayahuasca exists as a real entity is not only present during the Ayahuasca experience, but can also occur long after the psychoactive effects have worn off. This may be true even for those who were skeptical of her existence before participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony. As the anthropologist Christine Holman notes in her interview with Science Notes: “Some people come away from drinking Ayahuasca thinking it is a very real, living entity. [...] The people that believe in her believe that very strongly. They call her Mother Ayahuasca.”
Many people believe that Ayahuasca gives those who drink it a glimpse of the nature of reality. What kind of reality this may be, is, of course, subjective. The eminent psychonaut, Terence McKenna, for example, believes that what we see could in fact be a peek into life after death, a parallel spirit realm in which otherworldly beings reign supreme.
Whether or not you believe Mother Ayahuasca is a real entity, one thing is certain: her benevolent and wise presence can evoke transformational insights and engender long-lasting and much-needed changes in one’s life.
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