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

Last week’s death 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.

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

Update: Please submit questions regarding ayahuasca retreats via the contact page of this website.

  • 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.

    • Michelle
      December 22, 2017 at 4:49 PM

      Dear Dr. Mate: I’m looking for info on how I can take part in an ayahuasca healing ceremony. I’m in Nova Scotia. I have had PTSD since I was 4 years old due to CSA and have been in therapy on and off for the last 20 years. I’m 59, female.
      I’ve had repressed memories and flashbacks and understand the reasons why, but knowing why still isn’t enough to heal. I believe this would be. Can you please provide any information? Thanks.

  • 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.

    • Erik
      November 24, 2018 at 3:23 PM

      Hello Dr.Mate. I Aldo would like to know IF its possible to participate in a ceremony under your supervision?

  • 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.

  • Holyy Browne
    May 20, 2017 at 3:16 PM

    hello.
    its really awesome.
    When planning a vacation to Peru accede demography a Lima vacation to acquaintance addition acidity of this mystical land.

  • Kristy
    September 3, 2017 at 1:32 AM

    Hi Dr Mate,
    I have three years of sobriety but am depressed and still struggle greatly with other forms of acting out. I am visiting Vancouver and Salt Spring island October 13-31 this year and wonder if there is any place to do an ahyuasca ceremony safely while I am there. Alternatively I’d love to know any recommendations of locations that you can suggest and can travel for them. Thanks for all your talks they’ve been so helpful to me.

  • Diana
    October 12, 2017 at 3:26 PM

    Dear Dr. Mate,
    I just wanted to appreciate your advocating on the behalf of people who are using Ayahausca as a plant medicine. I am very grateful for any guidance and advocacy you can provide to the “establishment” as people are in such need of the healing this provides. Thank you for your work. Diana, Massachusetts

  • Pamela
    October 26, 2017 at 4:18 AM

    Dr. Mate,
    I just experienced some synchronicity over the past two days. Having never encountered your work or name in my 54 years, your name came up three times in varied environments. I have had major depression for years, seemingly related to being in a caregiver role in childhood and again for my late husband, a haemophiliac who died from complications from the HIV and HepC he received in Canadian blood products. I too am very interested in finding some healing for myself and my daughter (impacted deeply as a child by our experience with AIDS). We are on Vancouver Island. Thank you for your work.

  • Amy
    November 2, 2017 at 12:20 AM

    Hi. I recently did ayahuasca for three nights with the intention of working through some sexual trauma from my early 20’s. It’s been about 4 days but I feel like I just opened the flood gates all over again. Does that get easier after time of doing it or should I just not do it again? Also, I had an image that seemed untrue and upset me about someone in my life. Is it possible to have visions that aren’t completely true?

  • Scott Korek
    November 16, 2017 at 1:07 AM

    I am wondering whether ayahuasca would be beneficial in treating chronic muscle spasms and pain from an unknown etiology. I am situationally depressed and need to become my old self prior to the pain tearing my life apart.

  • Sue R
    December 19, 2017 at 6:38 PM

    I live in Vancouver, BC and have a 23 year old son who is stuck in what I believe to be unprocessed childhood trauma. He drinks heavily (often alone), takes Kratom to control his anxiety/depression, can’t focus, has poor sleep, is distant from family, etc. I feel like he is losing hope that his life will ever change as he is less and less receptive to trying. Do you have any suggestions on where to go from here or who we might see? I am open to anything. As a family, we need better support for him and for us. Our last round with a counsellor wasn’t particularly helpful to my son, even though I think she was on the right track (focussing on trauma / utilizing EMDR + Satir to better understand family patterns – I don’t think he was ready to open up to her/ I found it quite helpful for me. We need to find a better fit/avenue for him)

  • Bobby
    February 22, 2018 at 12:06 PM

    When and where will your next Ayahuasca ceremony and follow up integration be held?

  • Mark
    March 4, 2018 at 12:26 PM

    Dear Dr Maté,

    My wife and I, both haunted by the ghosts of our pasts, and I, also affected physically, emotionally and mentally by a dramatic motorcycle accident in my 20’s (am now 50 years old) are on a global quest for peace, harmony and presence. We are open to all possibilities, and though our budget is tight, we will go anywhere and do anything it takes to move closer to these goals.
    We have followed your writings, talks and interviews with great enthusiasm and respect for your clarity, wisdom and insight. We are very interested in ayahuasca. We would love to know if you offered any form of clinic or retreat yourself. If not, any shaman, physician, clinic, or modality you could suggest would be of great interest and greatly appreciated.

    Thank you so much for your time, we look forward to hearing from you,

  • Walt
    March 14, 2018 at 7:25 PM

    Dear Dr,
    Life has brought me to a place of not only great pain and mental torment but a time of personal transformation, compassion and hope.

    Can you please inform me as to any Shaman-supervised Ayahuasca retreats in the Vancouver area please?

    Also very much looking forward to reading in The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts I just learned of today.

    Many thanks Dr. and blessings to all.

  • GLEN
    March 18, 2018 at 4:44 AM

    I have recently diagnosed with ALS and was considering ayahuasca as a treatment. Do you know where or suggest a trusted avenue for me to pursue this option?

    • Dania
      May 7, 2018 at 2:49 PM

      Hi Glen, I was wondering if you got any of the information that you were requesting. My friend also has ALS and was interested in optional treatments etc. Here is my email address:
      daniaartworks@gmail.com
      Wishing you all the best in your journey. Dania

  • Brandi
    March 25, 2018 at 1:34 PM

    Dr. Mate,
    I have been seeking information regarding the MAOI component of ayahausca, and safety concerns around this – but have been overwhelmed by the amount of conflicting information.
    Can you share any guiding reliable resources you use?

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences, and thank you for the profound work you do.

  • Frances
    April 17, 2018 at 9:33 PM

    Hello Dr. Mate. I have heard in a video of yours, use of Ayahusca to assist in recovery from addiction . I have a 36 year old drug addict son who needs help can you please inform me as to any Ayahuasca retreats in the Vancouver area please? I am looking forward hearing from you.
    Many Thanks.

  • Loida
    June 6, 2018 at 7:00 PM

    Hello Doctor Mate
    My name is Loida I had a severe trauma in childhood, and my ptsd is coming up frecuently
    and I feel so lonely with it, part of my additive pattern is isolation, my family lives in Spain.

    I live in London, do you have any retreats over here, or are you coming to London?

    Your work brings tears to my eyes, your dedication for us who struggle to live”

    Bless you

  • Amy Sadler
    October 9, 2018 at 2:11 AM

    I am very interested in participating in one of your ayahuasca healing ceremonies, having suffered for many years from CFIDS. Please let me know if this is possible and what steps I need to take. Thank you!

  • João Ferro
    November 15, 2018 at 9:43 AM

    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

  • Kasia
    November 19, 2018 at 9:54 AM

    Dear Dr Mate, I would like to attend the Ayahusca retreat you lead early next year. Would you please let me know where and how I can book please?
    Thank you in advance,
    Kasia

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