What Ayahuasca Taught Me About Mindfulness

The multiple ways mind-altering drugs and meditation overlap to amplify results.

What Ayahuasca Taught Me About Mindfulness
Image by Mohamed Hassan from PixaBay

The multiple ways mind-altering drugs and meditation overlap to amplify results.

Several years ago in Peru, deep into an ayahuasca ceremony, I opened my eyes. The light of a full moon streamed in through a skylight, illuminating my mat. It was completely silent — a rare moment of nobody muttering to themselves or struggling to vomit into their plastic bucket. The shaman was taking a break, smoking tobacco. My visions had stopped, but as I considered another cup, it was clear I was still heavily under the influence of medicine.

I knew because I could sense the space and people around me with a presence so powerful it was almost as overwhelming as the visions. Psychedelic experience has been described as "more real than real," even when in a highly altered state. And at that moment, I could relate because I was immersed in a level of lucidity I'd never experienced before.

I have been into mindfulness for over a decade and have completed a handful of retreats. I'm no master, but I've been blessed with moments of intense awareness before. Yet, when I am lucky enough to drop into the moment, the results feel fragile and be fleeting. My typical reaction is for my mind to get excited and interrupt the moments of clarity.

On ayahuasca, I sat effortlessly. I was immersed inside the moment for hours. I no longer needed or wanted to close my eyes for visions. I sat up straight and was simply a witness for the rest of the night. I was calm. Clear. Excited thoughts like "what does this mean" or "will this stay" floated around, but unlike in meditation practice, my whizzing mind couldn't bring me out of the moment.

Even as the visions returned in full force, I sat, as they say in the books, "thoughts floating by like clouds, but you are the sky."

I couldn't quite wrap my head around mindfulness and psychedelics being related at first.

Psychedelics I associated with powerful life lessons from mushroom metaphors or mysterious visions brought on by shamans in the jungle. Meditation was austere monks in minimalist temples sitting firmly in reality.

To me, psychedelics got me "out there" and rapidly reworked my perspective, a special and rare experience.

My meditation practice is rooted in real life. Mindfulness felt like the opposite of unpredictable and symbolic psychedelic journeys. A daily routine, "being here," day after day, an endless practice that helps me accept things as they are.

Sure, I'd had experiences during meditation retreats that could be described as altered states of consciousness. But, this has happened very few times in years of practice, and I would never have compared my trippiest mediation session to ayahuasca.

Finding Answers

But, I dug around looking for an understanding of my ayahuasca ceremony and began to read about other people's meditation experiences like "there is no "I "…there is just the universe" or "I was swimming in the sea, and the sea was me." This sounded a lot like high doses of psychedelics.

It is well established that mindfulness meditation can trigger powerful mystical experiences. These "ego death" or "peak experiences" are sought after by people taking psychedelics, as they are associated with deep insight leading to sustained changes in people's lives. However, meditation purists suggest that these states are easier understood and navigated after the years of practice required to achieve them.

Years of practice seems like a good filter for something as intense as ego death. Except, with psychedelics gaining acceptance, they will likely be available to a large new demographic of people in the next few years. Indeed, millions already utilize psychedelics with "no formal training" to navigate such states.

However, it is important to note, just like meditation, psychedelics don't always trigger ego death. Far from it, actually. Like meditation, psychedelics often keep us very much in reality and force us to accept what is going on inside ourselves. A challenging psychedelic trip can be very similar to sitting down and trying to meditate, only to find some annoying thought that just won't go away.

Getting Higher With Meditation

After these reflections, I started to see connections. And then, I found published research suggesting that meditation's ability to help us enter altered states of consciousness can help prepare people for and better integrate the effects of psychedelics.

Very few of us will reach the visionary egoless states quoted earlier with mindfulness meditation. But psychedelics reliably will take people there and with no practice at all. This makes preparation for psychedelics is problematic because it is challenging to set expectations for what it is like to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness.

Altered states aren't easily described with words or often comparable to anything in our everyday lives. Meditation can be helpful to prepare for psychedelics because it can serve as an introduction to aspects of the psychedelic experience. If you have at least sat with your thoughts or felt the effect of deep meditation when a more intense manifestation of this begins on psychedelics, the mind is at least a little ready.

Meditation is also helpful during a psychedelic experience. Accepting what is inside your head or even just focusing on breathing through racing thoughts is huge.

Mindfulness meditation practitioners have been studied and experience higher ratings of bliss and unity while using psychedelics, along with having less anxiety about ego-dissolution during intense parts of their trip. It seems meditation can get you "out there," too.

After the Journey

A lot of buzz surrounding psychedelics has been the power of "peak experiences" to have long-lasting effects on people's lives. But one powerful experience changing your life forever is not how psychedelics work for most of us.

Not every study finds that a few big trips change people forever. The fact is the effects of psychedelics often decline over time. Integrating psychedelics is a big challenge, and mindfulness acts as "a bridge between psychedelic experience and every day."

Psychedelic researchers suggest that psychedelics can initiate and motivate new behavior. But mindfulness integrates, deepens, and maintains new perspectives gained from a psychedelic experience.

Researchers have described psychedelics as a compass that gives direction and mindfulness practice as the vehicle to realize the new revelations.

No Shortcuts to Enlightenment

The presence I felt on ayahuasca did go away. I'm back to being an ADHD writer in an information age. I'm far from enlightened. But in the days after my ayahuasca-induced presence, I felt like I had been shown what was possible with meditation and mindfulness.

The ayahuasca-induced awareness still serves as a goal to strive for, a kind of waypoint, but I was not given a shortcut. Instead, the lesson was more to the tune of "look how powerful presence is," as I could calmly observe racing thoughts or ayahuasca visions from a solid center.

When researching this article, I discovered what I experienced after ayahuasca has a name — "mindful state recognition."

Researchers suggest this experience could be useful for learning meditation, as psychedelics appear to overlap with mindfulness, not only with described effects and how they affect the brain. The idea is that psychedelics might be an excellent way to jump-start a meditation practice by being "shown" the path towards states not easily described.

The researchers pointed out that even when receiving instruction on meditation, we have to rely on our own subjective experience to gauge if we are achieving the effects we are told exist. Studying meditation isn't like learning to ride a bike — you can't just watch someone do it and imitate. There is no way to know precisely what you're supposed to feel until you feel it.

However, this point seems tricky. Trying to imitate a psychedelic trip when meditating is not the point. For example, psychedelics might show us something useful for mindfulness. But understanding psychedelic experiences can be far more confusing than following meditation instructions. Mindfulness training with real teachers is still the best surefire way to learn meditation.

Which Road to Take?

The final point for me was driven home by another study where a group taking ayahuasca was compared with a separate group taking an 8-week mindfulness course.

The most striking result was the ayahuasca group reporting increased acceptance, a classic meditation teaching of observing experience without judgment. The afterglow persisted for several weeks after the ayahuasca sessions, and none of the group has anticipated increased mindfulness.

The results suggest that traditional practice isn't the only way to become more mindful. I related deeply but found the mindfulness group's results hit home harder for me- those who did no psychedelics and studied mindfulness in the usual way scored significantly higher on tests of acceptance and non-judgment.

That good instruction and practice were more effective than several ayahuasca sessions wasn't what the study authors were excited about. Yet, for me seeing in writing how helpful regular mindfulness practice is, was a good reminder. Psychedelics are exciting and intense. That has big appeal, but while psychedelics have their place and are a powerful tool, they can never replace the long-term dedication to mindfulness that gets me through daily life.

Developing a solid meditation practice to use both before and after psychedelic work could potentially prepare you for lessons and even solidify them afterward.

Mindfulness exercises can help navigate the rocky sections of a psychedelic journey and might even take you to places few get to experience. Mindfulness can also bring back to yourself if you drift too far out.

Psychedelics reputation as a "reset" offers an opportunity, but for me, the power of daily meditation and mindfulness practice is the most beneficial habit I have ever developed. Permanently rewiring my brain with psychedelics is not a guarantee. What is, is the present moment, with mindfulness always available to pull me back in.