Psilocybin mushrooms

Common names: shrooms, magic mushrooms, mush

Plant source: 190 species of psilocybin mushrooms, primarily of the genus Psilocybe

Legal status in Canada:

  • Psilocybin-containing mushrooms – illegal, Schedule III controlled substance
  • Psilocybin – illegal, Schedule III controlled substance
  • Psilocin – illegal, Schedule III controlled substance

 Price: $20-40 per 1/8oz. dried mushrooms


Before heading home for a break in my journey, I’m making one last stop in the Amazon basin of South America to meet with one more group of indigenous people practicing their traditional spirituality: the Mazatecs.

The subject of my explorations will be psilocybin mushrooms, which is a fungi I know well from my experiences watching over friends who experimented with them in my teenage years. Visions of Alice in Wonderland danced through my head as I suffered through yet another long plane ride and wondered whether these dried bits of chitin were going to live up to their reputation.

The Mazatecs, as I would learn, have been using psilocybin mushrooms for millenia as tools for spiritual exploration, long before their entry into popular culture and hippy explorations into psychedelic experience.

Geographic origins

Psilocybin mushrooms are native to many parts of the world, primarily located near the equator and in the southern hemisphere(see map).  They have been used traditionally by many cultures for spiritual purposes, and studies have focused in particular on those indigenous cultures residing in the Amazonian area of South America such as the Aztecs.

Botanical aspects and preparation

Psilocybin mushrooms grow in moist, warmer environments in the greatest abundance. The entire fruiting body of the fungus is consumed in dried form to produce hallucinogenic effects .

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of these mushrooms is caused by psilocybin and psilocin. These substances are alkaloids that exert their effects as agonists of the serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortext. Unlike LSD, these substances do not act on dopamine receptors. There is a low risk of addiction and abuse due to the build up of short term tolerance, requiring longer periods to pass between uses to experience consistent effects.


I was a little wary of trying these mushrooms, since I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about hallucinating for up to 8 hours. I had also heard that the perception of time is altered when on mushrooms, causing what is actually only a few hours to seem as if it’s lasting forever! Nevertheless, I was determined to receive what these mushrooms had to teach me.

The Mazatec woman who administered the mushrooms to me first prayed for me to both ancestors and Christian deities. She warned me that this was an important part of the process of ingesting these mushrooms: if taken in a negative environment, undesirable feelings and experiences could occur. In other words, I could have a “bad trip”. She assured my through the translator that she would be with me for support throughout the experience.

I ate approximately two grams of dried mushrooms – a beginners dose. I was no longer surprised that they were not very tasty – I had learned from my journey thus far that these entheogens were teachers, not something intended to be taken lightly. It suited them well that they didn’t taste very appealing, driving home their serious nature.

I sat for about half an hour, trying to relax. Slowly my visual perception began to change. Colours (of which there were many in the shrines and adornments of the Mazatec woman’s ceremony room) appeared more vivid and more pure. The objects in the room and my guide looked almost cartoonish in their exaggerated forms. Objects seemed to come alive and breathe. I looked out the window at a vine and it seemed to move, snake-like, but in a non-threatening way. I was told gently to close my eyes, and I was treated to a truly psychedelic display of three dimensional shapes, fireworks, and an impossible array of colours on the inside of my eyelids. It might have been the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. A sense of euphoria came over me. It felt like a reward for the work I had done in the past month. I had come a long way from the churning demons of ayahuasca. I felt them exorcised, if only for that moment.

Grateful for the beauty I had witnessed on my last day of the first half of my trip, I packed by bags the next morning and mentally prepared myself to return to my old reality. My friends and loved ones would be a welcome sight. I figured maybe I’d even talk someone into coming with me for the next leg of the journey. These past months have been many things, and nothing was ever quite what I expected. But it has certainly been the most authentic experience of my life.


Common names: Iboga; Black bugbane; le bois sacre (sacred wood)

Plant source: Tabernanthe iboga (perennial shrub with orange fruit)

Legal status in Canada:

  • Tabernanthe iboga – legal, unscheduled
  • ibogaine – legal, unscheduled


Being welcomed into the lives of the Yanomamo people has been surreal, but I have worried deeply about my presence influencing their culture, and I am ready to move on to the next phase of my journey. This time I feel ready to try another substance as well.

I have arrived in the Republic of the Congo in Africa to learn from those who practice Bwiti spirituality.

The Bwiti use Iboga heavily for ceremonies, as well as in small doses for less significant rituals and dances. It is also used as a stimulant to support hunting.

In the Western world, ibogaine, the main psychoactive substance present in iboga, is undergoing research for detoxification and cessation of addiction to other substances. It is legal in Canada, but as it’s a controlled substance in the United States research efforts have been slow to make progress. In addition to its perceived physical effects in counteracting chemical addiction, ibogaine users experience spiritual growth and positive psychological exploration, further contributing to psychological change necessary to prolong the discontinuation of an addiction.

Geographic origins

Tabernanthe iboga is native to the rainforests of western Central Africa, and has been used traditionally by adherents of Bwiti spirituality.

Botanical aspects and preparation

Tabernanthe iboga is a shrub that can grow into a small tree with pink or white flowers and distinctive orange fruits. The bark of the roots is consumed to produce hallucinogenic effects and it is usually eaten or chewed in shredded form.

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of iboga is caused by ibogaine it contains. Ibogaine is an indole alkaloid that exerts its effects on many different neurotransmitters. It is a stimulant at low doses, while higher doses will produce hallucinations and dissociation.


After spending some time in the Congo staying in the home of a kind Bwiti follower, who seemed like a happy, healthy soul, I felt truly ready for a new journey into an alternate plane of consciousness. With no other tourists partaking of the iboga alongside me, I felt reassured by the ease and comfort with which the adherents of Bwiti spirituality talked about their experiences (at least, the translator made it seem as if they were all very at ease).

I would not have the privilege of participating in a true ceremony, but the friends I had made agreed to share some iboga with me and support me in my experience. We gathered in the early evening, and after settling in I was handed an unappetizingly large pile of shredded root bark. As I chewed it, I felt my mouth going numb, and was assured that this was a normal part of the process. It tasted earthy and bitter. I’m still waiting for one of these plant medicines to taste good!

We sat together quietly waiting for the visions to begin, and we waited so long (at least an hour) that I nearly feel asleep. Before I dozed off I began to feel heavy in my body, alternating with an odd feeling of being weightless. High pitched noises came and went, which I perceived to be auditory hallucinations. My visual hallucinations were somewhat indistinct. The objects in the room flickered, and cracks seemed to form in my field of vision. I sat peacefully observing my new environment for what seemed like a couple of hours. At this point a beautiful feeling came over me. It was a pure lucidity, a oneness with the world and an acceptance of myself as I was. It was as if I had died and decided to forgive myself, and I looked back on my life and explored the edges of my soul as a non-judgmental being.

The feelings and the hallucinations made for a state that was peaceful and comfortable to maintain for the 6 hours the effects lasted until peaking and subsiding. Happy tears fell from my eyes as I embraced the Bwiti people who had accepted me and shared this beautiful gift.



Common names: Yopo, Jopo, Cohoba, Mopo, Nopo, Parica, Calcium Tree

Plant source: Anadenanthera peragrina (perennial tree with a thorny bark and white or yellow flowers)

Legal status in Canada:

  • Anadenanthera peragrina – legal, unscheduled
  • DMT – Schedule III controlled substance


After the cushy stay in a hotel and all the modern conveniences of Westernized life I had access to during my stay in Seattle, I was ready to get out of the country. It was in good spirits and with a rested mind that I set off for Brazil to seek out those who use yopo, a DMT-containing snuff of the Anandenanthera peragrina plant.

I was in for a truly unique experience: I would be spending time with the Yanomamo indigenous people, who are believed to be the most ancient intact culture, representing centuries past and a hunter-gatherer means of existence, in the world.

Radiocarbon dating of smoking pipes in Peru have placed the origins of yopo use as a hallucinogen to nearly 4000 years ago. The modern (and I use that term loosely) Yanomamo people do not smoke yopo. Instead, they grind the beans into a snuff, which is blown into the nostrils of the user by another person through a long hollow tube of bamboo or bone. It is used primarily for spiritual healing, similar to the way Ayahuasca is used, and in fact the effects of yopo are very similar to those of ayahuasca thanks to sharing the psychotropic compound DMT.

Geographic origins

Anadenanthera peregrina is native to the Caribbean and South America.

Botanical aspects and preparation

Anandenanthera peregrina is a perennial tree with thorny bark and small, pale flowers. The beans of the tree are used to make snuff for consumption.

To create the snuff, the beans are roasted until they pop open, breaking the outer shell. The inner bean is removed and ground into a powder, which is then mixed with lime or ashes. This powder is dampened and made into a ball, and then the ball is allowed to dry out for a period of several hours to several days before being crumbled up and used.

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of yopo is caused by the DMT and bufotenin it contains. Both bufotenin and DMT stimulate the serotonin-2 receptors, leading to hallucinations.


Since I had such an intense ayahuasca experience not long ago, I decided to learn from the Yanomamo without actually trying yopo, since it was described to me as having very similar effects. I honour my experience with ayahuasca and would not trade it for the world, but at that point I couldn’t say that I was emotionally ready yet to try it again.

I learned from my hosts that yopo often causes nausea and pain in the nostrils after inhaling. After the initial unpleasantness, visual hallucinations in the form of colours, shapes, and images begin to appear. Like ayahuasca, the imagery can be very dramatic and dark, leading to both negative emotions and spiritual revelations.



Common names: Belladonna, Devil’s berries, death cherries, Deadly Nightshade

Plant source: Atropa belladonna (leafy plant with black berries)

Legal status in Canada:

  • Atropa belladonna – legal, unscheduled
  • tropane alkaloids (atropine, racemic hyoscayamine)– legal, unscheduled

Impact of use: Belladonna is extremely toxic and not often used recreationally.


After all my international wanderings and the inner journeys down strange roads I have experienced thus far, a trip to Seattle to meet with a coven of modern Wiccans seemed a little tame. While the locale is certainly a far cry from the rainforest or the desert, I can tell you that my experiences with these women have been anything but dull. I’m here to learn about Belladonna, also known as Deadly Night Shade. This is another plant that I will definitely not be feeling the need to experiment with, taking into consideration its high levels of toxins.

Belladonna is not often used recreationally in Canada for precisely this reason, although it is sometimes prescribed as a homeopathic medicine for conditions including headache, premenstrual syndrome, and motion sickness. My interest in the plant as an entheogen lies in the nearly mythical connection it has to medieval witchcraft.

Have you ever heard of flying ointment? Neither had I until I began my research into the uses of plants as entheogens around the world. According to folklore, flying ointment was a concoction witches created to help them fly to meet other witches. A less literal interpretation of the use of flying ointment points to the hallucinogenic properties of many flying ointment ingredients, including belladonna, as the true purpose of these ointments. The “flying” that occurs from this sort of use would be purely in a visionary sense in the induction of trances and spiritual hallucinations.

Geographic origins

Atropa belladonna is native to Europe (where the connection to witchcraft emerged), as well as North Africa and Western Asia.

Botanical aspects and preparation

Atropa belladonna is a leafy perennial plant that bears shiny black berries.

To create a flying ointment the belladonna leaves would be heated in a lipid base to create a salve. When applied to the skin, the essential oils of the belladonna would be absorbed more slowly than if it were ingested.

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of atropa belladonna is caused by the tropane alkaloids it contains. These alkaloids cause hallucinations and delerium by inhibiting acetylcholine. Death can result from belladonna’s effects on the parasympathetic nervous system, where it causes a reduction in regulation of breathing and heart rate.


The Wiccan women I have been learning from do not generally use belladonna as a hallucinogen, but they do carry knowledge passed down to them from previous generations of witches of its effects.

The hallucinations produced by belladonna are often dark and unpleasant. Belladonna also disrupts the retrieval of memory, leading to confusion.

For more info

The Wikipedia article on flying ointment provides some interesting insight into the history of its use for ritual purposes.

Salvia divinorum

Common names: Ska Pastora; Diviner’s Sage, Seer’s Sage, Shepherdess’s Herb; Ska Maria Pastora; yerba de Maria; Sally-D

Plant source: Salvia divinorum (leafy plant with purple flowers)

Legal status in Canada:

  • Salvia divinorum – currently legal and unscheduled, but under review
  • salvinorin A – legal, unscheduled

Price: $50-100 per ounce

Impact of use: Salvia is not known to be addictive, and does not produce withdrawal effects.


A short flight has brought me to Oaxaca, Mexico, where I’ll be working with Mazatec shamans to learn more about the hallucinogen salvia divinorum. For the first time since I began my journey, I’m a little more familiar with the effects of the entheogen I’ll be studying. Salvia is legal in Canada and can be purchased by adults over the age of 19 in many head shops. I haven’t personally partaken of this plant before, but in my teenage years I did sit with friends who were enticed to try salvia thanks to its legality and low risk of addiction or development of tolerance. The effects are also short lived, and likely a preferable experiment for those who might not want to check out of reality for most of a day, as is the case with many other hallucinogens.

The shamans I am learning from do not view the salvia experience as something recreational or experimental. For them, salvia is a bringer of visions during spiritual healing ceremonies. The Mazatec see salvia as an incarnation of the Virgin Mary (from which you can discern that aspects of Christianity have been combined with the traditional spirituality of the area).

Salvia is also used here as a treatment for minor ailments such as headaches, diarrhea, and as a diuretic.

Geographic origins

Salvia is native to the Sierra Mazateca region of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The date of onset of traditional, ceremonial use of salvia is currently not defined.

Botanical aspects and preparation

Salvia divinorum plants prefer shady, moist locations. To prepare salvia for consumption, leaves are usually dried and consumed by smoke inhalation. The fresh leaves can also be chewed.

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of salvia divinorum is caused by salvinorin A, which is a trans-neoclerodane diterpenoid. Unlike most hallucinogens that affect the opioid receptors, salvia is not an alkaloid, and it is the only diterpene hallucinogen currently documented. Salvinorin A exerts its effects as an agonist for opioid and dopamine-2 receptors.


Many first time users of salvia find the experience to be dramatic and frightening. A quick glance through some videos depicting salvia use on Youtube provides convincing evidence of this. Nevertheless, I wanted to experience the spiritual visions described by the shamans teaching me. I was also comforted by the fact that the most intense effects only last between 5-15 minutes, followed by a period of lower intensity for approximately 20-40 minutes.

I was offered some leaves, which I was instructed to chew. They were bitter, and I felt some initial nausea. Almost instantly, maybe a minute after I had started to chew the leaves, I was no longer myself. It was as if my body and ego had dissolved into my surroundings. Time seemed at once to be at a standstill and rushing quickly, or perhaps it was entirely non-existent and meaningless. I couldn’t speak, and felt as if I couldn’t move, and perhaps would never move again.

Everything was a dream, or a nightmare. I felt like I was floating in water, and the people sitting with me were floating too, and then they became people from my past and I experienced some very personal memories, twisted out of recognition. As I came back into the world, I didn’t believe it to be real. I asked again and again for those sitting with me to confirm that this moment was not a dream.

For more info

To read interesting accounts of personal experiences with salvia, try the Experiences page on the website.


Amanita mushroom, mushroom detail, and Siberian indigenous shaman

Common names: Fly Agaric; Beni Tengutake

Plant source: Amanita muscaria(Red and white mushrooms)

Legal status in Canada:

  • ·         Amanita muscaria – legal, unscheduled
  • ·         muscimol – legal, unscheduled
  • ·         ibotenic acid – legal, unscheduled

Risk of death: Mushrooms in the genus Amanita account for approximately 95% of mushroom poisoning fatalities, but suprisingly few deaths are attributed to the species Amanita muscaria.


Well I’m positively giddy: today I have had the pleasure of meeting a celebrity. A short character, and not much of a talker, but what a looker! Ok, I’m joking with you a little, but the aminita muscaria mushroom is arguably the biggest celebrity of all the fungi.

All you gamers out there will recognize the colouring of this ubiquitous ‘shroom from a certain game where a certain pair of brothers with a penchant for plumbing venture to save a certain princess. If you see one of these in the woods you might want to think twice before eating it – you won’t grow any taller and you certainly won’t gain an extra life. There’s a real risk you could end up losing one instead.

Ameritas mushrooms have also featured prominently in folklore explaining the origins of many Christmas traditions. According to ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson, they may even be the Soma described in the ancient Rig Veda texts of India

All pop culture references aside, I’ve made it to Siberia, where I’m learning about these sacred fungi from the shamans of the indigenous Siberian people. I’ve decided to give my body and mind a break here, and won’t be ingesting these particular mushrooms. Instead, I’ll be learning about the traditions of the shamans and will share some information with you about the traditional use of the mushrooms.

Geographic origins

A. muscaria mushrooms are native to temperate and boreal regions of the northern hemisphere.

The traditional, ceremonial use of these mushrooms can be traced back 3000-6000 years ago. It is centralized to the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and especially northeastern Siberia.

Botanical aspects and preparation

A. muscaria mushrooms form symbiotic relationships with trees including coniferous such as pine, spruce, and fir, and deciduous trees such as birch, and can be found growing near the roots of these trees. When mature, the caps are dried and then eaten, or sometimes smoked.

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of amanita muscaria mushrooms is due to the muscimol and ibotenic acid they contain. These chemicals are agonists for GABA and NMDA glutamate receptors.


Although I am not consuming these myself, the shamans who are tutoring me have passed on the following knowledge of how those using a. muscaria as a medicine usually experience the effects.

Among the people of Siberia, the mushroom is used primarily to acheive a trance state for religious purposes. Other effects include nausea, drowsiness, euphoria, relaxation, and visual and auditory hallucinations. Overdose causes more severe hallucinations and central nervous system depression, which can lead to death.

The psychoactive chemicals in the mushrooms are not destroyed by the body, and the urine of those who have ingested the mushrooms is consumed by others so that they may also experience the effects.

For more info

If you are interested in learning more about the amanita muscaria mushroom and its traditional use, there is an interesting article on the Sacred Earth website.


Common names: Peyote; Buttons; Mescalito

Plant source: Lophophora williamsii (Peyote cactus)

Legal status in Canada:

  • Peyote cactus – legal, due to a specific exemption for religious use
  • Mescaline – Schedule III controlled substance

Price: $20 / button

Long term negative neuropsychological effects: none, according to a study of a population of Native Americans who use peyote for religious purposes (see Peyote Bends But Doesn’t Alter Minds)


“In consciousness dwells the wondrous,
with it man attains the realm beyond the material,
and the Peyote tells us,
where to find it.”
Antonin Artaud, The Tarahumars (1947)

According to radio carbon dating of ancient peyote buttons, peyote has been used by the indigenous peoples of what is now Mexico and Texas (USA) for medicinal purposes for at least five and a half thousand years. To me, this seems like a pretty good indicator of its efficacy.

After many hours on three separate planes, I have finally made it to Texas to experience the teachings of peyote with a member of the Navajo people. After my experience with ayahuasca, I have to admit that I think I might have found some benefit in starting small, but it’s too late to ponder that now and I must prepare myself for the next phase of my inner journey.

I’m staying at a retreat with an unusual collection of other visitors. In contrast with the group I met in Peru, these characters range from 20-something new age hippies, to local Native American people of all ages, to middle aged suits seeking enlightenment, and even a grandmother who brought three suitcases of designer clothes. My guess is that the locale is a little more inviting to those who might not be ready for the extremes of the jungle.

Geographic origins

The peyote cactus is native to Mexico and southwestern Texas.

The traditional, ceremonial use of peyote is centralized to the indigenous peoples of these areas, and especially the Huichol.

Botanical aspects and preparation

The peyote cactus grows wild and can also be cultivated indoors. The psychotropic effects of peyote are primarily due to the mescaline contained in the cacti buttons. When mature, peyote buttons are usually dried and then eaten or made into a tea. A single button can take 5-15 years to mature, and so peyote is not widely available in Canada.

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of peyote depends on mescaline, which binds to and activates serotonin-2 receptors, likely leading to excitation of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. It also stimulates dopamine receptors.

My experience

I gathered in the evening with my fellow travelers and our guides who were members of the Native American Church. We were each given a cup of peyote tea to drink: a bitter, unpleasant liquid. Then we all sat for about half an hour listening to songs and the beat of a drum.

Before I realized it, I was starting to feel the effects. At first it took the form of minor changes in perception and muscle tension, followed by a swiftly growing wave of nausea. I threw up, which I was told was an expected part of the process. After settling back into my spot on the floor I started to feel more comfortable. A sense of tranquility began to wash over me, and the flickering flames in the center of our gathering began to take on shapes, and faces peered out from the fire. I began to see halos of light and colour in the room, and upon closing my eyes the effects became especially vivid. I sat in this state for a five or six hours, and started to feel more contemplative and receptive as time wore on and the peyote effects wore off. This experience was quite a bit softer, or at least less dramatic than the one I had in the jungle with ayahuasca. From each plant teacher I learned a different lesson.

For more info

If you are interested in learning more about peyote and its traditional use, I would recommend the Peyote video on the National Geographic website.

Ayahuasca: Vine of the soul


Common names: Huasca; Yagé; Brew; Daime; The Tea; La Purga

Plant source: Banisteriopsis caapi (Ayahuasca vine), Psychotria viridis (Chakruna plant)

Legal status in Canada:

  • ayahuasca vine – legal, unscheduled
  • chakruna plant – legal, unscheduled
  • DMT – Schedule III controlled substance
  • Harmaline – Schedule III controlled substance

Price: $50 per dose on the underground market


The word ayahuasca comes from the Quechua language of the indigenous Amazonian people, which in direct translation means “vine of the soul”. In a spiritual context, this phrase carries the meaning “channel to the invisible world,” and it was into this invisible world that I hoped to venture when I landed in Lima, Peru, the first stop on my journey, to seek out a life altering experience with the plant medicine ayahuasca.

I spent one night in the modest comfort of a hotel room, savouring the Westernized conveniences I knew I would leave behind the next day. At dawn I began a three day trek by vehicle, boat, and foot deep into the Peruvian rainforest. It was there that I met those who would be my guides: the curandero’s, traditional healers and keepers of the ancient knowledge of the ceremonial use of ayahuasca.

The use of ayahuasca dates back to 2000 BCE, and continues to be used to this day for the purposes of healing, diagnosing illness, and as a spiritual tool to facilitate a connection to the supernatural.

Geographic origins

The traditional, ceremonial use of ayahuasca is centralized to the indigenous peoples of the Upper Amazon in South America. Ayahuasca users are most highly concentrated in the area of the map outlined in fuchsia. The majority of indigenous groups in the pink-outlined area also use ayahuasca traditionally, and groups in blue areas have adopted the use of ayahuasca in modern times.

For an extensive list of communities and ethnic groups on record as traditional users of ayahuasca, visit the website.

Botanical aspects and preparation

Since ancient times, the drug Ayahuasca has been prepared using two plants: Baanisteriopsis caapi, the Ayahuasca vine, and Psychotria viridis, the Chakruna plant. The psychotropic effects of the drug are due to the interaction of two substances. The first, Harmalina, comes from the Ayahuasca vine, and the second, dimetiltriptamina (DMT), comes from the Chakruna.

There are many methods for the preparation of Ayahuasca, varying from community to community, but a basic procedure is followed. The bark or stem of the ayahuasca vine is shredded or ground up and soaked with Psychotria viridis leaves in water. The resulting liquid is heated at a high temperature for half a day by a shaman, who enacts a ritual of chanting and blowing smoke over the liquid at various points in the cooking process. The product is a bitter tea, brown and cloudy in appearance.

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of ayahuasca depends on the interaction between the alkaloids in the two component plants. The bark of Banisteriopsis caapi, contains ß-carboline alkaloids, which are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). The leaves of Psychotria viridis contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The addition of an MAOI allows DMT to be activated orally. In the brain, DMT stimulates the serotonin-2 receptors.

My experience

The camp was basic but homey, if you ignored the frighteningly large bugs. My fellow spiritual tourists had also made the trek to this paradise from Westernized parts of the world: two men and one woman from Canada and the US, and two Europeans, one from England and one from Sweden. We spent the day together meditating and fasting, in preparation for the spiritual journey of the night ahead. In speaking with them, I learned their reasons for being here were similar to mine. They sought enlightenment, a novel experience, and an opportunity to transcend the dull little boxes of their working lives to touch the divine.

That evening, we had our first experience with the “vine of the soul”. After dark, we met in the main hut. After blessing the brew, the curanderos passed each person a cup with an individualized amount of ayahuasca. The taste was disgusting. After choking it down I sat in the dark to wait for my experience to start. Suddenly colourful, shapeless forms began to appear superimposed over the scene in front of me. More minutes passed and my vision slipped into darkness, and the colours were replaced with disturbing images of demons. I began to hope that the ceremony wouldn’t last the four or five hours I had been told it would take.

Dark feelings of fear began to take hold and I started to panic, at which point a curandero came over to sit with me, singing to help me through my pain. After some time I vomited a colourful, foamy stream. Vomiting is a common side effect of taking ayahuasca.

What followed was a surreal journey through what I perceived to be my unconscious mind. Hours later, exhausted, I walked back to my tent and collapsed. I can’t say I’m looking forward to doing this again tomorrow.

For more info

If you are interested in learning more about Ayahuasca and its traditional use in a shamanic ceremonial context, I would highly recommend a fascinating documentary entitled Vine of the Soul.

For more photos demonstrating the steps involved in the preparation of ayahuasca for consumption, visit the photostream of Ayahuasca in San Francisco.

A single step

”I’ve made a decision,” I announced to the small crowd gathered in my living room. Wringing my icy hands and second guessing my resolve, I looked from one pair of inquiring eyes to the next. I had worried for weeks about their reaction: these people were those closest to me in the world and I had asked them to come in the hope that I could win their approval. That at least would be some reassurance that I hadn’t completely lost my mind.

“I’ve decided….I’ve decided to go on a trip. A very long trip. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’ve realized that I’m not getting any younger. I’ve realized that I don’t want the days of my life to bleed into one another with no definition…and…and…I’ve decided I don’t want to work in a grey cubicle day after day, staring at a screen.”

I took a deep breath.

” I’ve decided….to seek a spiritual awakening. I’m going to look for meaning in this life by seeking out those who seem to have found it already.”

A few eyebrows raised around the room. There was silence for a moment as people tried to guess whether I was serious. Or maybe they were guessing whether I’d gone nuts.

My mother, a staunch, no-nonsense atheist, broke the silence.

“Well that sounds very interesting dear, but what exactly do you mean? Where are you going? How do you intend to find this “spiritual awakening” you claim to seek?” She used her fingers to put “spiritual awakening” in mocking quotes.

“I…well, basically I’m going to travel around the world for a year. Everything’s booked, and I’m leaving Monday. I’ve planned stops in Peru, Mexico, Africa….my life’s savings are going into this trip. I’m meeting with shamans, healers, and spiritual leaders, all from indigenous cultures practicing traditional forms of spiritual enlightenment. And…well, basically I’m going to travel around the world to seek healing through entheogens.”

My parents exchanged worried looks.

“Entheogens eh? I can’t say I’m familiar with that term. What is that exactly?” My brother grinned as he asked this, knowing full well the answer and inquiring about it only to force me into describing out loud the ridiculous reality of my intentions.

“Ok, ok, here’s the whole truth. The word entheogen has Greek origins. It means ‘that which causes God (or godly inspiration) to be within a person’. Basically, I’m going to travel around the world to experiment with a bunch of drugs.”

The faces looking back at me displayed a comical range of emotions: primary among them was a kind of amused horror. My brother laughed. My mother looked ready to disown me.

“Ok, so that’s settled then. Who’d like a drink?”

And so it was that I put the life I had been building so carefully for thirty years on hold to embark on my journey. This journey, which I hope to share with you as I navigate my way around the globe and through the rocky terrain of my psyche, is one that I know many are seeking in an age of scientific realism, technology, and secular detachment from all things spiritual. I have grown up in this world, and have until this time subscribed to all of its practical rules and goals. I have worked the 9 to 5 job, I have achieved conventional success.  I have played along with the solid if slightly mundane tableau of life presented to me since birth. Most of all, I have faced the reality of my simple animal mortality and have not sought after anything more extraordinary.

But I’m not willing to accept what has been fed to me anymore, at least not unthinkingly and without question. I’m unplugging from the matrix; I’m leaving the herd. I’m going to find my own path! In the end, I think there’s a good chance we’re all just a bunch of monkeys wandering around without a true purpose for existence on big old space rock. There’s a very good chance that life and consciousness are just the physical products of a chemical body, and as that body passes out of being so to does that thing we call a soul. But if this is so, after this journey I am about to make is complete I will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I grasped at something more. I may not touch the divine or commune with my immortal soul, but at least I can say I tried.