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Ayahuasca - When Marketing Becomes the Motivator

Safah Roberts

For anyone who has been to Humbolt County in California (I hear you cheering) you are well aware of the industry that champions mother marijuana. If you pick up the local Savage Henry magazine and flip through the covers, it is astounding to see the glossy plethora of sexy, green paraphernalia for sale. It also details a slew ways to automate and maximize profits.

There is an entire culture to feel part of, finding your niche as a runner, hill-boss babe, crew leader or snipping hopeful. With legalization these roles still exist, but everyone is now handing a chunk to Uncle Sam and spending shorter stints on the declining beaches of Thailand. Marijuana has become a huge financial driver in North America.

North of the border, two major Canadian retailers reported over 10 million in profits within their first quarter of operations. Shortages due to overwhelming demand are expected to continue for another three years. It is safe to say that plants have been welcomed into the world of mainstream commerce.

So what is happening in the world of Ayahuasca?

Are we headed in the same direction?

As more and more people drink and experience epiphanies of consciousness, business savvy folk are bringing their skills to the fold. This means that more and more people are attempting to make a living by playing some part in bringing medicine to the masses. Ten years ago a center could run, relying on the fact that supply was not meeting the rapidly growing demand. Fast forward to 2019, and the opposite is now true. Now we are in a world that is increasingly consumer driven, each potential drinker scrolling through a list of centers all striving to remain viable.

To stay relevant, centers must stay on top of their SEO, invite instagram influencers, podcasters and documentary filmmakers to legitimize efforts. Although well intentioned, many of these people are in their first few years of drinking and the tough parts of the relationship have yet to be revealed. Thus leaving their audience with a rosy view and high expectations.

Others provide a high ratio of ceremonies or healers to patients to compete. Retreat schedules are packed with processing work, workshops, yoga and massages so that clients feel they are getting value for their money. Food that was traditionally served as compatible with ayahuasca opening, is being replaced with vegan fare and green smoothies. The days of the old wise man whipping the deserving student in the rain, are long long gone.

I am not saying that centers aren’t provided a safe and valuable service from the heart. They are, and they are full of hard working souls. However, it is crucial that consumers coming from a world of myriad options, be educated that this is a different paradigm. Thank goodness, because the one we have created is in unquestionable peril. If we attempt to cater to every desire, ayahuasca becomes like marijuana, becoming a tool to soothe resistance to existing regimes rather than one to wake us up and dismantle them. Women are losing reproductive rights, is this not a serious alarm? Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan buddhism stated that adversity is the practitioners true wealth. So can we be okay with less in order to learn?

Suddenly the culture many people came to the medicine to heal from has embedded itself into the entire process. Somehow if we can stay busy working on ourselves, the overwhelm and stress will heal itself in seven days. Right…?

I can’t tell you the amount of times I have had to dismantle the myth of the silver bullet. Although an immensely valuable life lesson, it’s disheartening for all parties to have to start each retreat from this place. It forced me to re-evaluate my place in the great wheel of the medicine world. I was pushed to leap from the nest and pedal the perks of boredom, starchy food and tough-love, self-reliance. If marketing an ‘experience’ becomes more important than honestly detailing the hard work, time, persistence and patience necessary to shift deeply embedded patterns and trauma, we are going in the wrong direction.

How many times do we have to be sold a dream?

Years ago, I met other souls who were part of the SLOW movement. Slow living, eating, working…being. Individuals deciding to extract less from life in order to realize the immense gift residing in the spaces between. Those whose heroes were Lao Tzu, silence and cedar trees. Those who weren’t afraid to let other people do the talking. Who set down clever quips and the need to appear intelligent/powerful and thus, important. All this came with me to the medicine work, and ayahuasca’s lessons, both subtle and lurid have only strengthened my conviction. In this too, we must slow down the pacing in order to realize the gems in the spaces. There is no short cut, and one should be wary of those who profess to have found one.

So now I seek to work and journey with souls who understand that crystallization is an infinite journey to no one place. That there will still be days when self-doubt suffocates. That forcing yourself to set down all the distractions, close your mouth and listen, is absolutely necessary to hear the quiet whisper of a soul calling. Those who understand the medicine in not going to do anything for them but point the way. Those who can trust in a tradition and set down western ‘improvements’ with childlike curiosity to see what can be learned.

Yes, there is a place for you.


Safah Roberts

We now live in a world in which the Millennial generation will spend about 45% of their income on housing by age 30. The baby boomers had almost another ten percent to play with. In China the new tag is ‘996’ which means working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week to be competitive in a country of over a billion.

This changing landscape leaves very little for the ‘frivolous’ extras like vacations for personal growth. With this amount of pressure it is no wonder that when one can save money and carve out time for transformational travel the stakes are high. Most people want to come, and work hard with yoga, meditation or medicines, so the return to the pressures of working life and family are more ease-full. Who doesn’t want to radiate serenity and dole out seraphic smiles in the face of chaos?

It is an incredible amount of pressure to put on oneself, and often is the very weight that blocks the whole thing from ever getting off the ground. It is great to say that one has no expectations, and people actually say this to me from time to time, but lets be honest. Who would fly across the world, suffer through nights of vomiting and tears and be completely neutral about the outcome?

Buddha? Jesus?

I would like to share a story from a few years back…

By the grace of Jesus’ friend Buddha, I was able to carve out three consecutive months of relative isolation to do some personal work in the Amazon. The conditions were rustic at best and one always had to be on viper watch, especially on the 3am trips to the spidery tarp toilet. Food in the last three weeks consisted of our remaining ration of white rice and the occasional plantain. Approaching the ripe age of forty, nutritional deficiencies started to play with my muscles, my energy and my mind. Yet there was this image in my head that at some point, beatific grace would pour forth and shine its light upon my ignorance. This image helped me through intense bouts of grief and rage that I purged, not in ceremony, but during each dreary and repetitive fifty-six hour day.

In the final week, which should have seen me dancing like a sprite through sun-dappled leaves, I was escorted to hell. The ceremony consisted of me being so depleted, that any idea of sitting or singing was crushed within the first half hour. I lay face down whilst every demon this side of the equator told me I was too old, too lazy, too weak and too laughable to walk this path. After three months of agony, this was the ‘gift’.

I spent the next morning watching tears spill uncontrollably from my eyes because I could not jump on a boat and head home. One of the Shipibo grandmothers showed up on my tambo (jungle hut) with a new ‘kotón’ for me, which is the traditional shirt that the females wear. It was the kindest gesture, meant to welcome me into the family, yet inside I felt utterly undeserving. In my mind, I was already dreaming up new possible vocations that had nothing to do with snakes, purging and fumbling through local languages. She said with twinkling eyes, “you must wear this tonight in ceremony!”

The horror.

I cried all day in pity. The thought of going back one more time to face the black hole of defeat on an empty battery was too much to bear. How could three months of sacrifice yield this? As we are trained to do when the mind has become a black explosion, I grabbed my medicine pipe and packed it to the brim with tobacco. The icaro (healing song) came out in choked sobs and I could barely breath between each line, but I carried on. Suddenly, everything became very quiet and I heard a crystal clear voice in my head:

You have two choices. You can roll over and die, or you can get up and keep walking. I don’t really care either way.

That was it. The age old existential question of life or death. When you get nothing, will you wipe your tears, and pick yourself unaided off the ground or wait in mourning for the worms?

I started to laugh, as I saw how all of my expectation left no room to receive.

This journey hadn’t been about receiving anything, it had been about letting things go.

A dear friend and fellow long-time dieter came up with a mantra that we contemplated attaching to each structure at the center: ALWAYS A WHITE BELT. The best approach to each retreat no matter what the discipline, is to come in as if you know absolutely nothing about what to expect. To take everything you have ever read, heard or imagined and affix to it a detached, “maybe”.

Maybe I will eat today.

Maybe I will feel better.

Maybe I will be able to poop.

It is about learning to take what comes as it is, without having to score it from one to ten. This is the work. Trumpets from the sky that toot your new life direction in full clarity are an expectation. Pulling out each and every root from societal conditioning is an expectation. Wanting to look in the mirror and see a beautiful reflection instead of wrinkles and spots is an expectation.

A good retreat leader, sporting their own white belt, will help return you to this very lesson over and over. Can we sit together in silence and breathe and just be with what is here now? Even for these five minutes?

Yes we can.

Written in gratitude to my zen master white-belt coach.

Medicine Travel - Dismantling Disneyland

Safah Roberts

Peru has become the Shambala for earnest and not-so earnest pilgrims seeking to commune with plant medicines.

By visiting the both the physical and online boards in the Sacred Valley of Peru, I can easily find access to ceremonies for ayahuasca, huachuma, jurema, bufo alvarius, wilka, peyote, kambo and tobacco (in snuff or liquid) all in one place, all in one week. I am reminded of sitting in a restaurant in South Korea, choosing my meal based the symbols that looked the nicest. For some people it is literally like this. The best ad gets the click.

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with these medicines being served in a safe and contained way, as I too have been working with ayahuasca and guests for years. There are people in the valley that are working hard and doing a great job to educate travelers and keep them safe. There are also those passing through who don’t give two thoughts to assessing psychological/medical readiness.

My hope is to encourage travelers less familiar with this world, to reflect upon on the space given between working with various master teachers. Is there an adequate container around the ceremony to understand and integrate the lessons?

I have compassion for people traveling a great distance to heal. Most are traveling from countries in which the aforementioned medicines are considered criminal. Many are coming with in the middle of a life transition with little time and/or resources with which to make lasting change. Coming from a consumerist culture (not our fault), it is common to believe that more medicine, will obviously equal more cleaning and healing.

Unfortunately, I often see the opposite to be true.

Imagine coming to an ashram to seek a master. The first master gives you a list of instructions as to what is most important. You come across another teacher, who feels something else is really crucial and suggests you take their advice first. Then a third master comes along, adamant that both the previous teachers are full of hot air and they is the true master. A fourth teacher, looking older and even wiser than the others approaches, dragging the previous three in tow. The teachers argue their point so loud, no one is actually being heard. Welcome to the Disneyland buffet of plant medicines.

Each of these medicines alone are very powerful and increase our sensitivity to the world. When we come from abroad and start to partake in various ceremonies all at once, without a consistent guide, one hand does not know what the other is doing. What happens to the person who starts to exhibit signs of disassociation after a one-two punch of ayahusca/huachuma, who then lines up to be served bufo, a medicine purported to be four times stronger than ayahuasca? The one serving bufo will have no idea about the unsettling behavior from the previous ceremonies, and carry on as usual.

Suddenly healing can now turn into yet another traumatic event.

One-shot ceremonies tend to have less facilitation and on-going integration assistance. The person who samples the buffet without sufficient time in between for integration may blast right off the map, only to find themselves experiencing a hard landing with no-one to make sense of it all. Then they get back on the plane, experience gradually fading into hazy memory, wondering what the hell just happened.

After years of watching people pass through, I tend to see that the ones that commit to a specific medicine with a well-trained guide, tend to do better in the end because they feel more supported. Opening to our deeper-rooted issues takes time. Time for the specific plant and healer to understand you and gain the trust necessary to locate the key and get past the borders a lifetime of protection, doubt and disappointment have erected. Take the time to get to know one master, so they can deeply study you.

In the end, one quietly focused master is worth a hundred arguing over who is the second coming.