So you are about to attend a sacred plant medicine ceremony, or you were just in one….how do you know if what you experienced was legit, or well run, so that you can go back or recommend it to others?
With the explosion of interest around the world in sacred plant medicines like ayahuasca, huachuma and iboga, all kinds of facilitators and retreat centers are popping up around the world to fulfill this demand. Some are created by people with decades of experience knowledge and commitment, others are more profiteering ventures.
Now, it’s one thing to take a personal risk and take full responsibility for your ayahuasca ceremony or retreat experience, regardless of how it turns out. It’s another thing to send someone to a soul-shifting psychedelic experience, because on a certain level, you are responsible for their well-being.
Why Listen to Me?
I’ve had somewhere between 100-150 ayahuasca journeys, and a broad spectrum of experiences. This includes 7 years of solo journeys with 100 year old vine made by a Peruvian maestro, to dieta-focused retreats, to indigenous festivals and village ceremonies in Brazil, to all kinds of church works with numerous Santo Daime churches (I even lived in Mapia), to various underground ceremonies in North America and Europe, as well as experience sitting with indigenous elders and pajes, mestizo maestros, North American & European facilitators with wide-ranging backgrounds. While there are many who have drunk ayahuasca 100s, if not thousands of time, most people rack up ceremonies within the container of just one church or lineage, and they don’t know what anything else is like. It’s my sincere hope that my broad and varied perspective adds value to the conversation.
Watch the Video
6 Signs of a “Professional” Ayahuasca Ceremony
I use the world “professional” in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. The indigenous have been drinking ayahuasca for hundreds, if not thousands of years, however their way of working with this medicine is so much a part of daily life, that ceremonies can be really loose, organic, and fluid. You will not see a guardian for every 5-10 ceremony attendees or spanking clean bathrooms.
For those of us from the industrialized, economically wealthy countries of the global North, who pay for plant medicine experiences, be it $100-$200 for an underground ceremony, or a few thousand dollars for a plant medicine yoga and wellness retreat, we have, shall we say, “consumer expectations”.
So with the gringo spiritual consumer in mind, here are my 6 signs of solid, well-run, professionally held plant medicine ceremony or retreat center.
1. Medical screening and intake process.
Many sacred plant medicines like ayahuasca and iboga have serious drug and medical contraindications that can result in death. With so many pharmaceutical prescriptions being handed out in industrialized countries, it’s important that ceremony facilitators screen participants to reduce risk and harm. This phenomenon is entirely new to traditional Amazonian healing, so chances are, you won’t be asked by your indigenous or mestizo ayahuasquero or paje. So it will be on the participant to take responsibility for their own physical safety. One powerful action you can take is to inquire about their medical screening process and how they know if a participant isn’t right for ayahuasca. This way, you as a ayahuasca community member can influence accountability and best practices.
2. Clear Orientation.
Was information about the ceremony, what to bring, what to expect, the style of work, dress code, etc sent to participants in advance of the ceremony or retreat? Are participants being oriented to the retreat program and the day to day retreat schedule? Are they being educated about the ceremony process, how they expect the ceremony to unfold, so they are not confused about what is happening while in an altered state? Are participants oriented to the lay of the land, where the bathrooms are, what not to do (like go back to your room, leave the venue, or talk during the work) at the start of the ceremony? Are there instructions on how to relate to the sacred fire? Does the facilitator talk about the medicine, what is it, how it was made, how to work with it if it feels difficult? Does the facilitator share about particular the lineage the are a part of or the cultural style of the work?
3. Support Team is On It.
Does the facilitation team look like they are in good communication with each other, every person is clear about their roles, and they are on top of their tasks? Are helpers paying attention to who is leaving the ceremony to purge, and lightly checking in on the person with an offer of tissue paper? Are people in need of deeper support being attended to appropriately, whether it’s being taken to a separate healing room, being offered a shamanic healing, or even medical services? Are they keeping the bathrooms clean? Because it’s nice to not have to throw up a second time in a full bucket!
4. Skilled Facilitation.
Is the shaman, medicine man or women or ceremony facilitator in command of the dynamics of the space? Can they hold the space and songs or chants without missing a beat, if there is a disturbance happening in the room? Can they move energy, raising the vibration when it’s needed, clearing and balancing the energy of the room when it is needed, through the power of intention, sound and prayer. Has the work been opened with a strong and clear opening prayer and closed with a strong and clear closing prayer that invites the participation of all in the ceremony. It’s a shamanic work after all – you want to open spiritual container that keeps negative energies out while the divine comes in, and close that portal firmly when the work is over.
5. Post-Ceremony Integration.
Is there an integration process? Sharing circle after the ceremony is closed? Integration after people have had a chance to go to sleep, wake up and then eat? Any integration follow up in the days or weeks after the ceremony? This will vary between cultures. In the countries where aya is protected and a part of community life, there is less formal integration, because the spiritual community may be large and vibrant, and the sharing of medicine is fabric of their entire social lives. Where the medicine is not native, formal integration is necessary, because there is no supporting local community that participants go home to.
6. A Grounded, Positive, Loving, Humble Vibe.
Is the overall vibe, positive, loving, joyful, and grounded? Things that can easily come through in the ceremonial space – money issues, tension in the team, sexual interest of the shaman or facilitator towards a participant, unbalanced overstimulated exhilaration. These are all things to pay attention to.
If your ayahuasca ceremony, work, or retreat doesn’t do these things well, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are not legit, or that they are doing a bad job. The ayahuasca world is vast, there are many lineages, many ways of working with this medicine, many gifted facilitators. However, with the globalization of ayahuasca and increased cross-cultural exchange, what I am seeing is a general convergence of best practices, across the board.
And at the end of the day, it does start with you, as the plant medicine seeker and consumer. You can play a part in upleveling standards of safety and care in the ayahuasca community by expecting and demanding that standards be met. Either through direct request, or choosing with your wallet. Poorly run ceremony circles have a tendency to loose participants to ceremony leaders who offer a much better experience. Even in underground circles, word gets out for a reason.
Finally, I’d love to ask you, how often have you been to a ceremony where you were asked to go through a medical screening? Now that you know this piece is important, how would you feel about asking the ceremony or retreat organizer about their medical screening process?
Feel free to share in the comments below.
If you are called to work with sacred plant medicines and wish to have a safe, positive experience, I’d love to invite you to my free Master Class called:
How to Have a Safe & Profoundly Healing Plant Medicine Ceremony in Complete Surrender to the Divine, without getting messed up or molested by unscrupulous shamans or unqualified facilitators.
Art by Anderson Debernardi