The profound power of an Amazonian plant – and the respect it demands

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, December 2015

Last week’s killing by a Canadian during an ayahuasca ceremony at a Peruvian shamanic centre—an apparent act of self-defence—brought unwelcome but perhaps necessary attention to this Amazonian plant medicine. Ayahuasca tourism is increasingly popular with Westerners seeking healing from physical illness or mental anguish, or simply a sense of meaning amid the growing alienation in our culture.

Having experience with the plant, I understand both its appeal and the potential for its misuse.

As a Western-trained doctor, I have long been aware of modern medicine’s limitations in handling chronic conditions of mind and body. For all our astonishing achievements, there are a host of ailments whose ravages we physicians can at best alleviate. In our narrow pursuit of cure, we fail to comprehend the essence of healing. So set are we in our approach that we even ignore the latest findings of our own science. Thus we tend to see people’s illnesses as isolated, accidental and unfortunate events rather than as the outcomes of lives lived in a psychological and social context; as the body’s expressions of experiences, beliefs and lifelong patterns of relating to self and to the world.

Such a holistic understanding informs many aboriginal wisdom teachings. Like all plant-based indigenous practices around the world, the use of ayahuasca arises from a tradition where mind and body are seen as inseparable, in sickness and in health.

A woman I know was completely immobilized by an often-fatal autoimmune condition. Two years ago, in severe pain and yearning for assisted euthanasia, she began to work with ayahuasca.  She now moves about independently and with self-reliant authority. Another, having made over a dozen suicide attempts, is today animated by energy and hope. I have witnessed people overcome addictions to substances, sexual compulsion, and other self-harming behaviours. Some have found liberation from chronic shame or the mental fog of depression or anxiety. “I feel I am seeing the world with new eyes,” one person wrote after participating in ayahuasca ceremonies recently.

The plant is not a drug in the Western sense of a compound that attacks  pathogens, such as bacteria, or obliterates pathological tissue, such as malignancy. Nor is it a chemical that one takes chronically to alter the biology of a diseased nervous system, as do, say, anti-depressants.  And it is far from being a recreational psychedelic ingested for escapist purposes.

In its proper ceremonial setting, under compassionate and experienced guidance, the plant—or, as tradition has it, the spirit of the plant—puts people in touch with their repressed pain and trauma, the very factors that drive all dysfunctional behaviours. Consciously experiencing our primal pain loosens its hold on us. Thus may ayahuasca achieve in a few sittings what many years of psychotherapy can only aspire to. It may also allow people to re-experience inner qualities long been missing in action, such as wholeness, trust, love and a sense of possibility. People quite literally remember themselves.

The documented unity of mind and body means that such experiential transformation, if genuine, can powerfully affect the hormonal apparatus, the nervous and immune systems, and all organs such as the brain, the gut, and the heart. Hence the healing potential of the plant, seen through the lens of Western science.

It is not all good news. As with any modality, ayahuasca can be exploited for financial gain by unscrupulous practitioners or even for the sexual gratification of healers preying on vulnerable clients, most often young females. Such cases are notorious in the ayahuasca world.

Nor is the plant a panacea. Nothing works for everyone. Its very power to penetrate the psyche can awaken deeply repressed hostility and rage. Although ayahuasca-related violence is exceedingly rare, almost unheard of, something like that may have occurred in the recent Peruvian incident.

All the more reason, then, to approach ayahuasca with caution, profound respect, and only in the right context.

  • Alessia
    December 26, 2015 at 5:50 PM

    Dear professor Gabor Mate, I m very interesting on know ayahuasca. In the month of January I ll be travel on Peru, visiting also amazon area. I d really interesting to experiment ayahuasca here. Can you suggest me some place who is possible to do it? Thank you very much for your attention I expect your answer. .thanks by alessia

    • Patrice
      November 30, 2016 at 8:56 PM

      Dear Dr Mate: I’ve been working as a journalist and in international development for many years and am suffering from a combination of PTSD and anxiety. I’m interested in attending a retreat centre in Peru but have heard the horror stories you’ve mentioned above. I am a single female and am looking for a credible, safe environment in which to experience ayahuasca. Is it possible to recommend a centre either in Peru on on the West Coast of Canada where I currently reside.

      • Scott
        January 9, 2017 at 11:28 AM

        Hi Patrice.

        I’m not Dr Mate; but I’ve been researching treatments and found Amber Lyon’s information extremely helpful. I recommend you research her experiences and interview here —–> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzYJnDrA35c

  • Felix
    December 28, 2015 at 6:45 PM

    Simple, clear, and necessary. Thank you!

  • marc
    January 21, 2016 at 11:54 PM

    Hello Dr. Mate. I have heard in a Youtube video of yours that you do ayahuasca retreats, yet haven’t been able to find information at the website. Could you please provide some information on it? I am interested. Thanks

  • Thomas Dodd
    February 1, 2016 at 5:24 PM

    Where and how can a ceremonial process be arranged?

  • Valentina
    February 18, 2016 at 8:22 AM

    I am not yet thirty but have been suffering from depression since I was a young girl. I’ve worked with many doctors, tried numerous “diets”, lifestyles, antidepressants, you name it – I’ve tried it. N’importe quoi…

    I have been considering taking part in this ritual for quite some time but I want to make sure I will be safe and with the right healer.

    I would greatly appreciate your professional advice; it’s difficult fighting this war but I fancy myself a champion (in the end)

  • Sandra Seth
    February 22, 2016 at 11:33 PM

    Where would one be able to participate in a genuine, safe Ayahuasca ceremony in Vancouver?

  • David Lucke
    April 20, 2016 at 8:20 AM

    Dear Dr. Mate,
    I am 57 year old male suffering depression, anxiety, PTSD nightmares and flashbacks from childhood trauma, sexual and physical. Losing faith in traditional healing to survive. How could I attend a safe Ayahuasca ceremony in Canada asap? Thank you.

  • Catherine
    May 24, 2016 at 11:37 AM

    I too am looking for info on your Amazonian retreats. My son is recently diagnosed with schizophrenia and we are looking for support outside the traditional pharmaceutical treatment protocol required before receiving living assistance.

  • Emze
    July 11, 2016 at 3:49 PM

    I would love to know where it is possible to discover Ayausca under your care please.

  • Bill
    July 15, 2016 at 10:08 PM

    I am also interested in Ayahuasca. If there are workshops in the lower mainland or elsewhere I would be interested.I have MCS and chronic burning neuropathic pain. After 32 years of sobriety in AA and even a career as a counsellor,I have relapsed into periodic alcohol use just to get away from the pain.I would try anything to heal these afflictions. Thanks for your good work Dr.Mate’.

  • B
    August 4, 2016 at 11:37 AM

    I am seeking this medicine and currently living in Ottawa – is anyone aware of circles nearby? Any info would be very much appreciated

  • brian
    August 14, 2016 at 12:18 AM

    am 54 year old suffering from chronic pain depression, anxiety, A.D.D. childhood trauma, emotional and physical trauma. . How could I attend a safe Ayahuasca ceremony? are there any in usa

  • Emma
    August 27, 2016 at 11:15 PM

    Dear Gabor, like many of the comments above I am very keen on attempting use of Ayahusca to assist in recovery from addiction but also in attaining answers and insight and validating the unknown pain from my past. I am a 36 year old drug addict and also sent you a rather long email in the contact section as Canada Post has announced its strike. Hoping you or someone may be able to contact me with further advice and or direction in locating a facility that offers Ayahuasca. The one treatment location in Peru only offers its residential recovery to men at it is illegal to live with women. Hope to hear from you and thank you.

  • Isabella Mosca
    September 23, 2016 at 11:26 PM

    Dear Dr. Mate. I am looking for a safe environment for a ayahuasca retreat for myself. I live in Australia happy to travel if necessary haven’t been able to find information on the website. Could you please provide some information on it? I am interested.
    Is there an alternative healing session /therapy instead of a retreat with taking ayahuasca

  • April
    October 11, 2016 at 5:39 PM

    Hello, I am interested in learning more about your retreats as well. I’ve received several signs that you are the guide I’ve been seeking for this journey

  • Ell
    November 26, 2016 at 1:12 PM

    To many of the commenters, I can and do recommend the Kapitari Centre in Iquitos, Peru.

  • Marilu
    November 29, 2016 at 12:33 AM

    i need the help of ayahuasca ; im planning a retreat soon , is there any seriouse one in canada ( im from Quebec)

  • Laura
    December 7, 2016 at 7:59 PM

    Hi Dr. Mate. Brilliant work.
    Hugely relevant for human development as a whole.
    I’m interested in approaching ayahuasca as a way to remember myself. I would appreciate any hints.
    Best.

  • Paulo
    January 12, 2017 at 10:32 AM

    How can we find out how to participate in a cerimony lead by Dr. Gabor Mate?

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