To Oz and Back: Journeying with the Jungle Medicine Ayahuasca

Most of us have experienced something we can’t quite explain. Call it synchronicity, déjà vu, or even an honest to goodness extra-sensory phenomenon—we all know That Feeling, that moment when we realize we’re not in Kansas anymore and that the meaning of life is little more than a giant freaking mystery, evenespecially when we’re caught up in the daily distractions. Seeking to separate from the surplus of modernity’s veiled illusions and experience the power of a wildcrafted Amazonian medicine reportedly capable of great healing and insight led me on a South American journey. The medicine is called Ayahuasca.

Scores of Westerners have journeyed deep into the rainforest to sit in muggy, buggy jungles where the most potent entheogen on the planet gives them powerful visions and deep healings. I first heard of Ayahuasca nearly ten years ago, but it wasn’t until this year that I felt the call to drink the medicine myself. In many ways 2011 has been the worst and best year of my life: My beloved 11-year old Husky, Sita, became terminally ill and died, leaving me with a cataclysmic grief that lasted months; I made major reckonings with my career; fell in love; marveled at the birth of exciting new times as Occupations gathered all across the country; and, I’m facing an unspeakable milestone birthday in just two months time…yes, of course now is the perfect time to drink Ayahuasca. But what is it exactly? And what will happen once it’s inside of me?

Ayahuasca is made from a vine called Banisteriopsis and the leaves of several different plants including Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana. The brew varies by region and has been revered by many South American cultures for centuries, if not longer. (Daniel Pinchbeck wrote extensively about it in his definitive book Breaking Open the Head.) Ayahuasca (or Yajé’ as it’s called in Colombia) contains copious amounts of DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), a powerful chemical found abundantly in nature and also inside the human brain and spinal fluid. In the form of Ayahuasca, it causes 2-6 hours of visions and hallucinations often spiritual in nature. The plant brew is also a very strong purgative, which is why people with serious illnesses seek it out. One rarely drinks Ayahausca without vomiting, diarrhea or both occurring. It’s within these purging episodes (along with the visions) that healing occurs—be it physiological, emotional, mental or spiritual. Some would say any one of those couldn’t happen without the others being healed as well, which is perhaps why the myopic treat-symptoms-instead-of-systems oriented Western medicine has come to fail us so miserably and why interest in Ayahuasca and other alternative medicines has peaked in recent years.

Setting my intention for working with the medicine took some time. I’m not dealing with any major physical illness (and wanting to be taller is not a condition any doctor I’ve met is willing to officially diagnose). And despite the indescribable loss of my dog, the pain had shifted on its own recently, leaving me almost back to normal. If anything, my deepest desire in working with this sacred jungle sacrament was to connect not just with myself, but with the world around me so as to better understand and relate to this planet I’m bound to. That may seem grandiose or even cliché, but since I was young I’ve tried my best to emulate Dr. Doolittle and converse with the natural world. Long before understanding the connection between McNuggets and the chickens they once were, I couldn’t stomach most animal products. I have always been drawn to nature, natural food and a holistic approach to life; and even though I navigate Digitalia daily, the naked earth is never far from my thoughts, but, the conversations and lessons are often hazed over by a plethora of 21st century distractions.

The shamans guided us through three ceremonies over nine days. The first night we were given a mild dose of the thick-purplish-green-tastes-worse-than-anything-ever liquid. I felt a “presence” and saw imagery I recalled from other medicine journeys and LSD trips. Fears I had about grief over my dog re-emerging seemed trite after the fact. Even the dreaded purging I’d heard horror stories about was unlike other vomiting experiences. It actually felt pretty good, save for the taste of that vile liquid reappearing.

Night two was a completely different experience. The forest surrounding me became electrified in rainbow colors, spinning, glowing, alive and aware of its every part. Soon, I too was indistinguishable from its current and swept into a place I can only describe as The Place where everything and nothing exist in infinitely small and massive proportions simultaneously. Rather than the commonly reported images seen on the medicine (jaguars, snakes, birds, Oz like palaces), I was overwhelmed by a strong sensation, a beautiful feeling that to experience fully, I had to agree to let go of this world, of myself. (This phenomenon is referred to as “ego death,” and one does not necessarily need to ingest Ayahuasca to experiences a transpersonal rather than linear perspective on life.) Had it not been for the shamans, I might have stayed in this state. But through their cleansing, songs and guidance, this material world became an undeniable truth, as did the reality that Ayahuasca is indeed a medicine with powers beyond the limiting confines of these words.

The final ceremony was a night of great healing. The group purged significantly more than on the other nights. I did not journey back to the place I’d gone on night two, but still felt the strong connection to everyone and everything around me. Simply put, what I saw saw me too—be it human, tree or wall—there was an awareness and aliveness all around. My heart felt pried open by it all, and this is what I was able to heal. Purging and shamanic cleansings offered a deep release. It wasn’t about my dog or creeping closer to midlife (and I’m still not taller). But it was as much a total healing for myself as it was for my entire family, and my planet, that pushed through me and then disappeared.

The shamans asked us after the final ceremony what our takeaway from the medicine work was, and I was unable to answer then. But now, a few weeks later, I am aware still of the great connection. To leave Oz, all Dorothy ever had to do was remember that there really is no place like home. And like being swallowed up by the forest showed me, the greatest healing I could have received in these important times is knowing that I’m never separate from anyone or anything, least of all myself.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Top Image: Pablo Amaringo, artist, courtesy of

Additional images: Jill Ettinger & Baza Novic