“deixa-me encantar/ com tudo teu e revelar/ o que vai acontecer /nesta noite de esplendor”

It’s been a while since I’ve written in here about ayahuasca.

This is partly because the work I’ve been doing there, in Brazil, has been so deeply personal that I haven’t felt it appropriate to share. But I have continued to visit Silvia and teach and participate in workshops, once or twice a year for the last four years.

My experiences there this September were so profound and wide-reaching that I had a very strong urge during one of the visions to share more completely. This came about for all sorts of reasons which will probably come out in the telling.

I might have to do it in installments…

Firstly I need to go back to 2006.

Ayahuasca is a sacred Amazonian plant which engenders altered states in which enormous insight and psychological healing can arise. It’s been used for millenia by the tribes of the Brazilian rain forest and more recently by sycretic Christian groups like Santo Daime. The Argentinian psychologist Silvia Polivoy has developed and built a magnificent centre in Bahia, NE Brazil, to promote a new path: the mix of the Plant’s magic with western psychological insight. To that end participants drink in comfort and in a group, there is a lot of support and workshops to explore the Inner Child work in which she specializes.

My first drink was in 2004 and was totally revelatory. It showed me – in essence – that the Universe was profoundly OK and that indeed I was profoundly OK and the choking coils of self-conscious doubt and anxiety were unnecessary. It was a completely transformative experience. When I came back my family and friends were witness to a very abrupt lifting of my, till then rather withdrawn and disconnected, personality.

Subsequent sessions with the Plant have been much more therapeutic, digging deep into the memory store and unrooting toxic thougts and memories that had conditioned my life. This can be quite disturbing but ultimately massively healing. Like invasive surgery, it is sore but excises the things that are killing us.

For me this came to a head (or perhaps a commencement) in a particularly turbulent session in April 2006.

Ayahuasca sessions take place at night and in a group. If the brew is strong and the participants are struggling, the 4 or 5 hours of peak experience can be quite noisy. People purging, strange emanations bubbling up from their unsettled psyches.

On this particular evening, everything kicked off. People were roaring and jumping around, there was a lot of noise and I became utterly terrified of one female participant who was lying next to me.

I have never experience a terror like this. It felt utterly alien and eviscerating and left me curled up in a foetal ball out on the grass, hands over my ears. It lasted at full strength until the dawn.

The following day I could not make any sense of it at all. All my other experiences on Aya had been deep and unusual, but nothing like this. And there seemed to be no relief. In fact, the woman in question, rather ominously took me aside and told me I had not begun to experience my true fear and it would completely destroy my life.

That statement was much to do with her particular journey but in retrospect, and in a totally upside-down way, she was completely right because the next session, one day later, showed me the most incredible insight into my life and did indeed completely destroy an old way of living that had hobbled me since childhood.

I saw, gently and insistently, that at the age of 6 I had made a decision as a child that had completely programmed my life from then on. Silvia does a lot of work on this, taking you back to a traumatic moment in your childhood (and the trauma can be slight) where you made a decision as a child that then filtered unconsciously through every subsequent adult moment of life. It becomes the root of your complex.

For me, aged 6, I made a decision to deal with the singular fact of my sexuality. Knowing that I was gay and my desire was contrary to everyone else around me, I made a decision that I would have to survive in the world on my own. I remember telling myself: everyone in the world, including my parents, are trying to kill me and the only way I can stop them is by pre-guessing their method; that will protect me.

The sadness of this stance that a little boy of six assumed – always alone, always under threat, and only the most extrememe fearful self-consciousness will protect him – made me sob uncontrollably for several hours. The release and healing of those tears was indescribable.

I saw, with the singular clarity that the ayahuasca state brings, how that paranoid thought (“It’s me, alone, against the world, for ever”) ran like a scarlet thread through my entire life, colouring every stage of my teenage, adult years. Obviously, at some point, I let go of it as a literal belief but – because it remained unconscious and unquestioned – that sense of fear and distrust and that extreme, paralysing self-consciousness become the fundamental building block of my personality. It totally pre-programmed my relationships to failure, of course, and as Silvia insightfully pointed out, it also perversely led me to chose a career which was about constantly putting myself on an exposed, impersonal pedestal and daring people to shoot me down. How exhausting.

In the communal sharing that follows every group ayahuasca session, I told my story and sobbed again. Deep, cavernous, snotty sobs that seemed to come from below me, outside of me and were the most cathartic beautiful things I have ever experienced. The sense of peace and relief, the enormous outpouring of compassion for myself was indescribably wonderful and has percolated into my life ever since.

I can’t begin to detail the ramifications of that healing on my day-to-day psyche. But it definitely began one strand of liberationary thinking that has led me to recently change profession from a presenter to a therapist; to gradually fade out the one (which served my psyche in its turn) and then move to something new and ultimately more in line with my natural bent, rather than echoing and re-living a fateful decision I made in incomprehending fear, aged 6.


  1. Paul - Portland, Maine USA

    October 13, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    Alistair, Your blog entry of October 10 really brought back the memory of a very similar time many years ago when I determined that I would be on my own for my whole life. I have feared, for the last several years, that I may have actually caused this to happen! I cannot remember why I came to that conclusion so many years ago, but it may have been a similar circumstance. I know that your process is indeed a very private one, but I will keep an eye open to see if you reveal more insight on how you may have re-aligned your life focus. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Farrell

    October 18, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Alistair, your journey and willingness to face your
    unconscious self is inspiring. Your journey touches me
    personally through your words– your countence on
    BBC America led me to your Blog because I sensed your
    journey of personal understanding and your skill as a
    teacher. I am a medical doctor and so much of the pain
    and suffering of my patients I believe are due to unconscious
    truths, suppressed until physical symptoms are the only
    option. Your choice to be a therapist may help many find
    an inner peace and healthful living. I

  3. Chris

    February 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    I was so struck by your description of the 6 year od you I sobbed. I sobbed for me. I could have been that child and until I read this posting I didn’t know it. You could have
    written it for me. Therapy by proxy? I don’t know. What I do know is this has sparked something that will help me on the rest of my own emotional journey.

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