In the age of psychedelic prohibition, in can be incredibly difficult to research a safe and qualified ayahuasca facilitator, shaman, or retreat center, especially in locales where plant medicine ceremony circles are underground. However there are certain precautions that you can take, that will help you suss out a shady shaman, and increase your chances of connecting a well-run ceremony or retreat center.
The more time you invest in your own research, the higher the likelihood of connecting with a legitimate ayahuasca retreat center, facilitator or shaman. The more lead time you give yourself to research anything you need to know about plant medicine and safety, as well as connect with people who have been service by the person or center.
It will also allow you more observation time to see how a particular medicine facilitator might be “showing up” online, how they handle public discourse about their methods (for example, they are perpetually in the center of social media flame wars), as well as other negative news.
Step 1: Start With Thorough Online Research
Not only will you want to do as much research as possible on how to prepare for the ayahuasca journey, you’ll also need to understand the risks and any medical contraindications. This will allow you a solid basis of knowledge that will help you in the vetting process, when you speak to the provider directly. You will also want to perform these searches:
- Google the name of the shaman, facilitator, or retreat center with keywords like “fraud”, “scam”, “negative review”, “sex”, “scandal”, “complaint”, “death”, and “suicide”. Be sure to look past the first 5 pages for any negative reviews or press. This is because web researchers rarely look past the first 2 pages of Google, and savvy marketers know how to leverage online reputation management techniques to bury negative search results. It is a lot more work and expense to push negative results past the first page of Google.
- Join online forums and Facebook groups related to the plant medicine and search the discussion using these same keyword queries.
- Ask the group if anyone experienced that provider’s ceremonies or retreat, and how it was for them.
- Check out the review sites that list ayahuasca shamans and retreat centers, like Aya Advisors, Retreat Guru, and Open Mind Trips.
Also, a good place to identify reputable plant medicine retreat centers is to look at the sponsors list of the World Ayahuasca Conference. ICEERS (the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Support), the host of the World Ayahuasca Conference, has published a best practices guide for retreat centers and facilitators offering ayahuasca. While there are many other ethics criteria that are not indicated in the best practices document, the organization has high standards around the organizations they partner with.
NOTE: While Internet research is an important first step, it’s important to not bypass the next 2 steps, which involve speaking to actual humans in your research process. Here’s why:
Some of the marketing savvy centers and facilitators have flooded the internet with positive reviews, skillfully leveraging the same mass marketing techniques, and even bribes, to bury or remove negative reviews. Any seeker doing Internet research would see pages and pages of positive endorsements, and have no idea that the same center or facilitator has been publicly denounced by leading associations for unethical, even dangerous, practices.
Step 2: Talk to Past Participants
If you ask the plant medicine provider for references, they will obviously give you their strongest references and best clients. So try to connect with people who have experience of that provider who you meet in online communities.
- Try to talk to past participants directly, directly over the phone, Zoom, WhatsApp or Skype versus email or messenger.
- When talking to the person, inquire how experienced they are with the medicine. This will help you gage the depth of perspective they have to offer.
- Ask what the plant medicine provider does well. Ask what they do not do well.
- Ask this bonus question. “If roles were reversed, and you were me, is there any question you would ask, knowing what you know, that I ought to be asking you?” This will help you reveal any important blind spots in your research
Step 3: Interview the Plant Medicine Provider Directly
Do not overlook this very important step. You will be placing your physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual safety into the hands of a person who will administer a powerful psychoactive medicine to you. Therefore, make sure contact the plant medicine provider and arrange for a call to discuss their services directly.
You’ll want to compile a list of questions to ask the ayahuasca facilitator or retreat center, anything that you need to know in order to determine whether the plant medicine provider is a fit for you needs. It’s best to ask these questions directly over the phone, Zoom, Skype or WhatsApp, rather than by email or Messenger. This is because the person’s energy will be as important, if not more, than what they answer, in assessing whether the provider is right for you. Ayahuasca is a shamanic medicine after all, and you will be entering into an experience that is profoundly opening and consciousness shifting. The energetic feel of the person and center will have a strong impact on your ayahuasca experience.
Art by Sahaj Kaliman