Ayahuasca and the Near-Death Experience

Drinking ayahuasca, the ancient shamanic plant medicine, has often been compared to a near-death experience.

People who take a journey through an ayahuasca ceremony are likely to experience violent vomiting, intense physical discomfort, and the feeling of imminent doom. 

Following this, they may be presented with amazing revelations about their purpose in life. They may encounter mystical beings, and gain spiritual insight into themselves and the world.

It can be a truly life-changing experience, and it’s no surprise that people who drink ayahuasca sometimes liken it to a brush with death. 

This similarities could tell us some important things about the ayahuasca experience, and could even help us learn to become less afraid of death…

What is the Near-Death Experience?

There are many ways that a person might encounter a near-death experience, and the quality of the experience can be highly varied.

In general, the near-death experience is brought on by a life-threatening situation, involving physical injury or illness. People enter into a unique form of awareness, sometimes involving the feeling of leaving the body or travelling to mystical realms. 

Often, near-death experiences can be joyous, or involve a letting go of life’s burdens:

“I found myself looking down at this sick body, and started to laugh. Soon this body would end. The thought of letting go was pleasurable, as releasing all the entanglements of this life neared. This body was so dense, cold and heavy. It was good to let this go. My consciousness opened like a lotus flower, everything became vast beyond the size of this universe. Every part of the universe was part of me and every part of me was part of the universe. There was complete inclusion and acceptance.” Source.

Although the physical trigger for a near-death experience can be traumatic and painful, it can give way to profound peace and tranquility:

“I went limp in the cold darkness of the water, and suddenly I could no longer feel the burning and ache of the water in my lungs. The darkness around me grew completely white, and I felt like I was rushing at light speed through a tunnel. I felt warm as the pain left me, at peace with myself and the environment around me. Unconditional, pure love radiated all around me, and into me. LOVE covered me like a warm blanket from an unknown source.” Source.

It’s not necessarily all peace and love though – there can also be harsh lessons, or uncompromising life reviews:

“The next thing I knew I was being shown flashes of all the bad things I had ever done, and I was being put into other peoples’ shoes as I was doing bad things to them. I could see how insensitive I was to people and didn’t even know it. It was excruciating and overwhelming to relive things that I had forgotten about, or just didn’t care about. I was made to feel they way I made others feel.” Source.

Some people emerge from a near-death experience with severe PTSD. This can either be due to the traumatic events that led to the near-death experience, or the near-death experience itself being distressing and hellish.

Near-death experiences can arise from fatal situations, but they can also be triggered in a number of spiritual contexts where physical safety is not an issue. People who drink ayahuasca, or take other psychedelic substances, often describe mystical experiences that can sound a lot like these accounts. 

New research from Imperial College London has suggested that ayahuasca can potentially elicit very similar emotions and visions compared to people who have had near-death experiences…

Research on the Similarities Between Ayahuasca and the Near-Death Experience

In one recent study, researchers gave DMT to 13 people, and afterwards got them to fill out a questionnaire called the Near-Death Experience Scale, which is often used to measure the intensity of near-death experiences.

Although ayahuasca and DMT are different (not all ayahuasca brews contain DMT, and the ones that do contain many additional substances), research into the effects of DMT can be considered a decent estimation of what ayahuasca is capable of.

The experimenters found that across several measures, the DMT experience was similar to near-death experiences. Both evoked feelings including the sense of an unearthly environment, heightened awareness, a feeling of peace and harmony, encounters with mystical beings, and an unusual perception of time.

There were also some differences. Near-death experiences were more likely to involve encountering dead relatives, more likely to produce a sense of deep understanding, more likely to include the feeling of reaching a point of no return, more likely to involve visions of the future, and more likely to have a personal life retrospective, compared to DMT trips.

This research shows that ayahuasca may have the potential to produce a state with many similarities to the near-death experience, while perhaps not being quite as specific. 

We also know that there’s a chance DMT is involved in the near-death experience too; one study shows that when rats are made to have heart attacks, their brains release large quantities of DMT. Although we don’t know for sure if the same thing would happen in humans who are approaching physical death, it’s certainly possible.

MUST READ: Does the pineal gland really produce DMT?

Accounts from people who have experienced an ayahuasca ceremony also are very reminiscent of the kind of reports collected from near-death experiences…

The Ayahuasca Death Experience

Ayahuasca seems to have a unique capacity to make people feel as if they are dying.

The physical unpleasantness of the ayahuasca come-up can produce feelings of panic, due to intense discomfort. Drinking ayahuasca can have a number of physical effects, including a rising heart rate, temperature fluctuations, and of course the vomiting and diarrhea known as “the purge.”

Especially if a drinker is new to ayahuasca, this combination can be terrifying and can feel like a brutal rite of passage. It’s no surprise that many people’s trip reports from their first ayahuasca ceremony sound very much like a near-death experience.

People can find themselves facing the prospect of their own death; and sometimes feel they have no choice but to let go and travel to somewhere scary and unknown:

“The intense and continuous sickness that ayahuasca was condemning me to was draining any drop of energy out of my body. My solar plexus was like a sponge from which any remaining of life force was being squeezed out. But there was nothing I could do to stop the process. I was in hell and I had to walk all the way through. The sense of an impending death was more and more intense. I now clearly knew that a part of me HAD to die in the process; there was no way out, nothing I could do to prevent it. Hopelessness and self-pity overtook me and I started to sob as I, or a part of me (I did not know how dominant) was to die.” Source.

The physical feeling of approaching death eventually transitions into the profound spiritual revelations that ayahuasca is famous for. Often trippers will feel they are passing into or through supernatural or afterlife realms, receiving messages and lessons from places beyond our immediate awareness of life.

After the initial trials of ayahuasca, the spiritual depths can be beautiful and healing:

“All the people who I had seen suffering and dying before my eyes were all of a sudden up and dancing. As though possessed by the ambient music, they no longer were struggling with their demons. They had risen from the dead and were now radiating light from their eyes and chests. The man who I had seen toppled over his bucket screaming in tongues was now dancing around with his hands raised towards the sky. Rejoicing in his rise from death.” Source.

The theme of rebirth is frequent in ayahuasca experience reports, with people returning to earth after a night of intense mystical journeying feeling as if they have been to hell and brought back something unique:

“I can only [describe it as] the death of my mind-based identity and the rebirth of my true self, the re-emergence of the unconditioned, unlabelled, unbiased sparkle of consciousness that is prior and beyond any concept, judgement or category. I became disengaged with my old concepts about myself (in fact, about everything) to which I had been clinging. A sense of absolute freedom entered me. I was that freedom, and the joy it brings about; I was the innocent child reborn anew, in a very real sense.” Source.

Similar to what can often happen in near-death experiences, during an ayahuasca rebirth people might feel as if they are given a choice about returning to the everyday world: 

“Something came to my mind, like a realization: If I wanted to, on that very moment, by willing so, I would die. I just had to will it. A mix of sadness, fear and detachment washed over me, and I argued that I had yet much to do, many good things to do for the world before dying.” Source.

The death experience during an ayahuasca ceremony feels most similar to near-death experiences, however, because of the amazing out-of-body revelations that it can provide. The temporary death of the ayahuasca drinker’s mundane body and mind can take them to places we are only just beginning to understand:

“Life and death as a starting and an end lost their meaning: it wasn’t a start or an end, just a continuous movement. I couldn’t perceive death with a finality to it, nor being born as a start: a circle has no beginning. I felt very detached, and observed myself and meditated on my breath, the only thing that factually could tell me that I was still alive, for in some deep corner of my mind I still hadn’t let go. Slowly, I started feeling happy: I was in a place that I liked a lot, surrounded by people I care for and love, which are my family. I felt like in some kind of reality, like Vrindavana of the Vaishnavas, this would keep on going forever, always, a moment of eternity. I felt very happy at that thought, satisfied in a sense, that this moment was preserved somewhere outside space and time.” Source.

Alongside all the peace and love is always a shadow, however. As with near-death experiences, ayahuasca ceremonies can also be deeply traumatic and distressing. Some people emerge from ayahuasca experiences with PTSD or compounded mental health problems. The risk of this can be somewhat mitigated by choosing an experienced and responsible facilitator.

MUST READ: Choosing an ideal ayahuasca shaman and retreat.

How Near-Death Experiences are Different from Ayahuasca Trips

Although ayahuasca and near-death experiences have a lot in common, there are some considerable differences. These differences reflect the fact that an ayahuasca ceremony allows for people to have a transient encounter with mystical realms without being in any physical danger; while near-death experiences usually involve severe physical injury or peril.

Although the initial trigger of a near-death experience may be highly traumatic, the actual experience itself is most commonly a gentle journey through heavenly or mystical realms. Unlike ayahuasca trips, the “reincarnation” or “rebirth” part of a near-death experience can be highly unpleasant; maybe even the worst part:

“Then, suddenly, the fierce grip of fear engulfed me. It felt suffocating, sticky, addictive, desirable, all-consuming and compelling. The fear started pulling me into reincarnation and away from all the inclusion and expansive awareness.” Source.

While some people are offered the choice to reincarnate during a near-death experience, some describe feelings of being forcibly dragged away from a utopia:

“Words could not express the sorrow I felt to have to leave that place. I cried and begged for [my angel] to let me stay. He said, ‘When it is time, I will come for you. But now-‘ And with that, he wrestled my spirit back into my earthly body, with so much force that I was popped clear of the rocky hole that I was trapped in under the water. All the water I inhaled came flying out of my lungs, as I gasped and took a panicked breath of air. I became aware of the pain almost immediately in my chest, and the hand of a rescuer grabbing me by the back of my life vest.” Source.

Additionally, as we’ve seen in the research comparing the DMT experience to near-death experiences, there are some factors that are more likely to happen in a near-death experience than an ayahuasca ceremony; such as a sense of cosmic understanding, reaching a barrier or point of no return, and seeing a recap of your life.

What the Ayahuasca Experience can Teach Us About Death

The simple fact is that many people return from an ayahuasca ceremony feeling as if they have died and come back to life, with fresh insight and understanding. 

Similarly, people who have nearly died have often brought back new perspectives with them. It’s possible that DMT is involved in this process, too.

Although DMT gives us a clue that both ayahuasca and the near-death experience are similar, there is a risk in getting too focused on the chemical perspective.

It might be more useful to focus instead on the experience itself, and the context of the experience.

The ayahuasca experience does not bring us as close to death as most other near-death experiences do. But it can give a powerful glimpse of the other side, while leaving our bodies intact. 

The most important lesson that ayahuasca can give us about death is probably by helping us to prepare for it. Similarly to how magic mushrooms can reduce death anxiety in people suffering from life-threatening illness, ayahuasca has the potential to help us come to terms with our own mortality.

The acceptance of death can help us live more meaningful and compassionate lives, in many ways. Without as much fear of death, we are more free to act with positive intentions rather than out of a desire for self-preservation.

Hopefully, one of the roles that ayahuasca ceremonies can play in our society is by helping us develop a healthy perspective about our place in the world, reminding us of the inevitability of our deaths, and clarifying the work we can do to make our short lives more beautiful and loving.

In the words of the monk Paramahansa Yogananda:

“Don’t depend on death to liberate you from your imperfections. You are exactly the same after death as you were before. Nothing changes; you only give up the body. If you are a thief or a liar or a cheater before death, you don’t become an angel merely by dying. […] Whatever you have made of yourself thus far, so will you be hereafter. And when you reincarnate, you will bring that same nature with you. To change, you have to make the effort. This world is the place to do it.” 

About Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a biologist and writer who has been working in the psychedelic community for several years. Twitter: @rjpatricksmith

1 Comment

  1. poledaisydenver@gmail.com' Lauren Cooper on July 28, 2020 at 1:45 am

    This is a beautifully written piece, and a fascinating comparison between ayahuasca and near-death experiences. I would agree that ayahuasca can help us to be less afraid of death, and that is a gift to hold onto while living.

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