Depression, drug addiction, anxiety: some of the most common challenges facing modern-day America.
But a right turn down an unassuming street in West Palm Beach will lead you to the solution, says a young local shaman from Puerto Rico. (He asked not to be named because of the legal ambiguity around the practice.) Twice a week he leads a group of explorers through the ayahuasca ceremony, which transports people spiritually with plant-based medicine.
A group of seven lounge outside on the porch when the shaman, wearing nontraditional cargo shorts and a Totoro t-shirt, steps outside — catching me off guard, because no one told him I had arrived.
“Welcome to your home,” he tells me.
It’s still two hours until the ceremony, and preparations have clearly begun. A slew of candles representing orishas (Yoruban gods) line a center table, including oils and sacred totems. Sleeping bags have been set up in the backyard. The whole space is at peace, ready for the medicine.
Although people use the word ayahuasca to sum up the entire practice, the word actually refers to a traditional spiritual brew made with vines and leaves from the Amazon containing the hallucinogenic DMT. It’s these leaves that have landed the sacred medicine in ambiguous legal territory. Ayahuasca itself is not a scheduled drug and is legal when ingested in a spiritual setting, but the DMT in it is illegal. As a result, there’s still a lot of confusion and suspicion surrounding the practice.
In the last year, ayahuasca popularity has increased and legal churches have been popping up all over the country.
What’s the deal with Ayahuasca?
The ayahuasca brew has been used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon as a form of spiritual cleansing and healing for centuries. It’s drunk in a 12 to 14 hour ceremony that first occurred in the Amazon, but has since traveled to the US. Jack travels to Brazil to bring back the sacred ingredient. Today many South Floridian practitioners brew their medicine here in our backyard.
Ayahuasca triggers physical and psychological shifts that practitioners report have cured drug addictions, trauma, and depression. As a living plant, its energy works in tandem with the person who consumes it — cleansing and helping them purge their negativity.
“People forget what makes them happy, they really do,” the shaman says.
Answering her call
The young shaman began his own healing journey with ayahuasca about a year ago, on a search for his own “truth.” He was frustrated with everything he says he was fed and socially conditioned to value and was looking for more. He began learning in Winter Springs, a couple hours north of here, but it wasn’t easy.
“At first learning was scary because you can’t think you’re a master,” he says. “You can’t think you’re the best, that’s not how it works. I was getting through my own stuff and I realized, this is what I have to do. I’m still young and I have many years to come.”
Since then, he’s lost count of how many ceremonies he’s partaken in, and travels from West Palm to Orlando to Minnesota and California to host ceremonies. Though he has only been hosting for a year, his colleagues have praised his natural gifts, opening up opportunities far from home.
“It’s the people who call me and say ‘thank you, you saved my marriage, I haven’t picked up drugs,’ that’s what keeps me doing it,” he says.
But there’s been some abuse of the practice. According to the shaman, some practitioners will water down the brew so that it cures you just enough to need to come back for more.
The idea is to reduce reliance on modern medicine.
“It comes down to money,” he says. “If you go to a hospital and you say you have depression and I give you xanax and Percocet, it’s more money. But four days of [ayahuasca] and you’re transformed.”
He likens ceremony to cleaning a greasy stove: You may feel clean but you can still tell there’s something left after the first pass. The dosage depends on the person, but he recommends at least two days.
Before ceremony, guests are told to eat fruits, vegetables, and drink water. There should be no drug use or sex for at least three days. Since you’re exchanging energy with another being, you need to seal your energy, he explains.
“The plants can acknowledge that you’re making a sacrifice,” he says. “But, it isn’t really a sacrifice, plants, fruits and vegetables…those are good things.”