My experiences with Ayahausca: Part 1

This is a blog post from 2006 that I am re-posting as part of a series on Ayahuasca, the visionary plant medicine that had such a profound effect on me in my late thirties and forties. I don’t drink Aya any more but I recently stumbled across recordings of some of the music we listened to during our sessions and it felt important to post these as a set here. 


“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.

I had a very strong urge to share more completely

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.

Like surgery, it is sore but excises the things that are killing us.

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 When I came back my family and friends were witness to a very abrupt lifting of my, till then rather withdrawn and disconnected, personality.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.

I became utterly terrified of the woman lying next to me

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.

She was right: the next session completely destroyed something

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.

That paranoid thought ran like a scarlet thread through my entire life

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.

Ayahuasca made me change profession from presenter to therapist

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.

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  • I watched”The man who drank the universe” a while back. Thank goodness you noticed and corrected the link,Alistair, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this blog, for the world. The first part brought me to tears, feeling the pain and the thoughts of a solitary life of the 6 year old you. It reminded me of Aristotle’s famous quote: Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man, and I thought that you had turned this on its head, with the help of Silvia Polivoy, Aya and your own fortitude, but then I realised that you needed to take that boyhood journey or you may never have taken the path, in life, that you have, and we, your multitude of follows, would never have known about you. Although I may never meet you, in person, I’m so grateful that that little 6year old helped turn you into the caring, compassionate Alistair we know and love
    Blessings to you,as always, Alistair.
    Patti. X

  • Sorry, Alistair, In my previous comment, I made it sound like you would not have turned out to be caring and compassionate! That’s not what I intended. I meant that, had you not experienced those childhood misgivings you may have chosen a completely different career path, which might have meant that this world would not have benefited from your psychotherapy and meditational skills. An excellent reason, in my opinion, to love that little 6 year old you.

  • Felix says:

    Indeed, a personal insight which at some point defines our lives.
    I completely understand the feeling as I am still in the same situation since the same decision made almost at the same point in my life. Me against the world. But, I am still not out for so many reasons that the closet seems to be constantly shrinking. Outside fully functional professional inside barely coping, at times even screaming.
    I was very moved by the “man who drank the universe” when I first saw it in 2008/9 and we met at one of your weekend yoga sessions in the Summer of 2009 in London. Since then started meditation and it helps sometimes. Still looking for an opportunity to go to Brasil to one of the Sylvia’s retreats.

  • Jeanette Davidson says:

    Oh I can’t wait to read the other parts of this journey! I’m heading to see Sylvia at the retreat in Brazil next month. I’m nervous, excited, scared, all whilst being almost being desperate to remove what has always been holding me back. All the best! Jeanette xx

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Jeanette,

      Have a wonderful time with Silvia. It’s always a nerve-wracking but ultimately liberating experience. It’s her birthday tomorrow (8th) if you wanted to say cumpleaños.


  • Jeanette Davidson says:

    Thank you Alistair, I will!
    Jeanette x

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