With the explosion of interest around the world in psychoactive plant medicines like ayahuasca, huachuma, iboga, psilocybin mushrooms, truffles, and shamanic medicines like kambô and bufo, all kinds of facilitators and retreat centers are popping up around the world to fulfill this growing, and lucrative demand. Some shamanic services are created by people with decades of experience knowledge and commitment to healing. Others are more profiteering ventures, with facilitators who have little formal training that claim authority to serve ancestral medicines because “the medicine told me it was time for me to serve”.
For this reason it’s important to do thorough research well in advance of joining an ayahuasca ceremony or retreat. Furthermore, 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.
Why You Do Need to Talk to the Ayahuasca Provider Directly
Unfortunately, in the age of psychedelic prohibition, the onus of research and discerning trust is entirely on you, because there are no reliable, 3rd party trust mechanisms. In the world of ayahuasca, there are no accreditation systems or practitioner certification programs or better ayahuasca business bureau regulating safe and ethical ayahuasca ceremony practices. Furthermore, the question of putting ancestral medicines like ayahuasca (which are an integral part of the cultural identity of many indigenous tribes) through Western operated certification process provokes outrage. This is a deep discussion that’s beyond the scope of this article.
So it’s important that, in addition to conducting your own, behind the scenes research, you must contact the plant medicine provider and talk to them directly.
So it’s a good idea to come up with your own list of questions you need to have answered in order to determine if the provider is a good fit for you. The list of questions you can ask to vet your plant medicine provider can be as long as you need it to be. However, these 3 questions are questions that are rarely asked, and will go a long way in helping you discover how legitimate the facilitator is, based on how they answer.
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1. What Is In the Medicine and Who Made It?
Some plant medicines, like peyote or huachuma, are typically offered on their own, or mixed with water. However, ayahuasca can have different plant admixtures in it. While it’s not necessary for you to understand the intricacies and art of brewing ayahuasca. But it is important to pay attention to how the person responds and what information they do provide. You want to receive one of two appropriate responses:
“I made the medicine myself and here’s what’s in it.”
Now, this is incredibly important for ayahuasca because the ayahuasca brew can contain multiple plants. So a traditional ayahuasca brew will contain the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub. So, caapi and tricona is a traditional ayahuasca blend. You might also come across a blend that is caapi, chacruna and brugmansia. Brugmansia is also known as toé. This plant is highly visionary and can also be toxic if too much of it is put in the brew. Some people have died from it.
“I didn’t make the medicine, but the people who made this medicine, I have known them for years.
We have made medicine together. I have drunk their medicine, we have a spiritual relationship, we have prayed together, we have made medicine together and I know and trust them.” This is often the scenario where you have a retreat center, or let’s say you have a traveling indigenous pajé, and the facilitator or shaman simply doesn’t have the capacity to provide medicine for large numbers of people, especially if you’re looking at attending an indigenous festival where ayahuasca is being served to hundreds of people. The indigenous villages do not have the capacity and they will often source their medicine from one of the churches that have a set up for larger scale production. So, you wanna know that the person who’s providing medicine is providing that medicine from a trusted source whose quality they can personally vouch for.
2. How Many Years Have You Been Serving Ayahuasca?
The answer will how you assess how experienced they may be leading ceremonies. If they are new to facilitation, this opens up the doorway for the person to tell you how many years they served as a guardian or helper, as well as how many times over what span of years they’ve taken this medicine.
This is important because this will give you a sense of how experienced the person is with this medicine, and experience can be assessed in a number of different ways. Here are 3 aspects of experience that are important to assess:
- The number of times they have drunk ayahuasca. Depth of experience with ayahuasca can be assessed by the number of journeys the person has taken. However, the sheer number of journeys is just one facet of experience. Many people rack up hundreds if not thousands of journeys within the context of one spiritual container, such as the Santo Daime church, or with the retreat center they work for. Just because a person has logged thousands of journeys working at a retreat center, or pouring medicine in underground ceremonies as a self-initiated neo-shaman, does not mean they are actually knowledgeable about the medicine they are serving or have any formal lineage training.
- The number of years they have been working with ayahuasca. Length of time regularly consuming ayahuasca would be another facet of experience. You will want to know if the facilitator has been consuming the plant medicine for a very long time, ideally over years and decades. This is because length of time consuming ayahuasca influences the length of time the person has to integrate ayahuasca experiences. Integration is the most important part of ayahuasca ceremony. When it comes to psychedelics, people get addicted to peak experiences. Someone who goes to ceremony often, doesn’t necessarily have enough space between works to unpack what they discovered, and actually do the work to change negative patterns, behaviors and beliefs. The longer the length of time, the more opportunity the person would have had to learn and grow through their work with the medicine.
- The number of times and years they have been assisting as a guardian. Typically, a facilitator who has received good, lineage-based training, in addition to successfully completing their years of studies, would have been expected to put in the time assisting in ceremony, before their maestro graduates them as an ayahuasquero. A qualified facilitator would not be someone who suddenly went from attending dozens or hundreds of ceremonies, to now pouring for dozens or hundreds of people – because they decided they wanted to (and the “medicine told them they were ready”). The only people that do this are self-initiated facilitators. So you have to decide if this is OK for you.
- The number of years they have been leading ayahuasca ceremony. The most important aspect of experience to explore is how long they’ve actually been leading ceremony themselves. Because leading a ceremony is actually a skill set. Granted every facilitator is going to start somewhere, and so perhaps they are fairly young in serving groups of people but they’ve had many, many years of consuming the medicine in ceremony with their community as well as assisting in ceremonies. So these are things to really look at.
- The number of years they have been making their own medicine. Brewing is a whole different alchemical skill set. Like wine-making, there are preparation techniques that affect the strength, taste, and effects of the brew. And then there is the alchemical art of infusing intention and prayer into the tea as well, during the preparation and cooking process. Many facilitators do not make their own medicine, because they do not have access to plant materials. Even if they can order plant materials online, they may not have the capacity to brew up the quantities of medicine needed to serve ceremony and retreat attendees. If a person has many years of experience making ayahuasca and furthermore, makes the very tea they pour, that’s something to consider.
3. Who Did You Apprentice With and What Training Did You Receive?
Now, this is really important because in the psychedelic renaissance there are many plant medicine providers that are self-initiating. That is to say that they’ve been consuming sacred plant medicines and at a certain point this sacred plant medicine told them that they were ready to be offering this plant medicine to other people. Many self-initiated facilitators rely on channeled wisdom as their source of knowledge and authority, but this is just one facet of knowledge. Channeled knowledge is knowledge that is self-professed, and not transferred by the a living lineage. While that is one basis of knowledge and wisdom, there is so much more to be able to work with these sacred plant medicines in a good way. Many of these cultures have tools and techniques and specific ways of working with spirits and energies that a self-initiated facilitator isn’t learning because they do not have the training and the blessing of an unbroken lineage.
Now if you look towards the living cultures that hold these plant medicines sacred, there is a formal process that an apprentice needs to go through before that person’s even considered to be qualified to be offering a powerful visionary ancestral medicine. This may look like a series of initiations in front of the community. This may look like specific levels of graduation that they receive from their maestro. It may look like receiving the blessing to carry forward the lineage. In some cultures require that you administer the medicine within the proper cultural context. For example, it would not be appropriate to serve Daime for a Shipibo-style work with icaros, ayahuasca is the appropriate medicine for that kind of ceremony.
When do you want to ask these questions?
The best time to ask these questions is well in advance, before you’ve made the investment to travel to the person or paid for the retreat. Don’t be afraid to ask the same questions again, to see if the answer you get is different. If the person is uncomfortable or caught off guard, or doesn’t have a good answer – take note of this. And reflect on whether or not you indeed feel comfortable being served their medicine. If not, do not be afraid to leave. Your safety is so much more important than losing the money you may have paid.
What About Asking an Indigenous Ayahuasca Shaman These Questions?
The short answer is “Yes”, because doing this due diligence shouldn’t depend on whether the plant medicine provider is North American or indigenous. Furthermore, it encourages transparency, honesty and responsibility among indigenous plant medicine providers as well, by showing them that this information is important to the people they are serving.
It can be more sensitive to pose these questions to an indigenous pajé, who is used to being an unquestioned spiritual leader of their community. It can also be awkward, because there are a number of indigenous shamans traveling around serving Daime provided by a Santo Daime church, because:
- Many indigenous shamans do not have the capacity to produce large quantities of ayahuasca in their home villages for large groups
- Importing large quantities of ayahuasca for underground ceremonial tours in North America or Europe is risky for indigenous shamans.
- Some of these tribes only recently reclaimed their ancestral traditions, and had to be taught how to make ayahuasca by tribes that preserved their culture during 500 years of persecution. The churches have gotten Daime brewing down to an art form. It may be that the churches make better brew for the high-paying North American and European markets the shamans are serving.
For these reasons, you may notice some evasiveness if you ask these questions of a traveling indigenous shaman. So it may be more gracious to inquire from a tone of respect, curiosity and interest in their culture and practices, rather than from a “I’m vetting how legit you really are” standpoint.