Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety

Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety

by Rachel Harris


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608684021
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 03/15/2017
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 229,817
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Psychologist Rachel Harris, PhD, has been in private practice for thirty-five years. She has received a National Institutes of Health New Investigator’s Award, published more than forty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals, and worked as a psychological consultant to Fortune 500 companies. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine and in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an Excerpt

Listening to Ayahuasca

New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety

By Rachel Harris

New World Library

Copyright © 2017 Rachel Harris, PhD
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-402-1


The Mission

* * *

It was 1970, and I was sitting in the office of Dr. Kurland, the medical director at the Maryland Psychiatric Hospital, the epicenter of leading-edge psychedelic research. I was twenty-four years old, armed with only a bachelor's degree in psychology and my own psychedelic experiences. My years at the Esalen Institute ( as a residential fellow and staff member had given me the connection to Stanislav Grof, who arranged the job interview. Dr. Kurland was very kind to see me. Although he had no intention of hiring me, he did give me some fatherly advice: "Go to graduate school."

I eventually followed his advice, but by then the federal government had passed the Controlled Substances Act, which essentially outlawed research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs, including marijuana. These substances were deemed to be both dangerous and without medical benefit despite hundreds of research articles that explored how psychedelics could facilitate the therapeutic progress of psychiatric patients, alcoholics, and terminal cancer patients. The US government under President Nixon, in a reaction to the cultural revolution of the sixties, declared a "war on drugs" that was not consistent with the available research findings. This decision stopped all further scientific exploration.

I gave up my dream of doing psychedelic research. I completed my PhD and pursued a more conventional research career, receiving a prestigious New Investigator Award from the National Institutes of Health. But in 1982 when the NIH called to ask for my next grant application, I had to tell them, "I'm pregnant, and I'm going to stay home with the baby." The conversation ended immediately. I left my research career a few weeks before my daughter was born and changed the course of my professional life from research to private practice.

I saw clients for thirty-five years, specializing in well-educated, high-functioning people who wanted to clear up unresolved issues from childhood or to work on personal relationships. These people were essentially the same kind of people who went to Esalen workshops. They had some sense of a spiritual path or interest in their psychospiritual development. I also led workshops at both Esalen and the Omega Institute, and as a result, I had the opportunity to see how people integrated psychological insights from intensive workshop experiences into weekly psychotherapy and then how they translated their learnings into daily life.

Although I loved doing psychotherapy and leading workshops, I continued to mourn the loss of my research career. That is, until I heard the voice of Grandmother Ayahuasca: Do the research, she told me.

But I get ahead of myself. How I found ayahuasca, or how the spirit of ayahuasca found me, I will never fully understand. I hadn't been searching for the medicine; I'd never even heard of it. It was February 2005, and I was living in New Jersey, innocently searching for a tropical beach vacation, which is certainly a very sane endeavor. A friend told me of a retreat center nestled between the rain forest and the Pacific Ocean on the remote coast of Costa Rica. I registered immediately for a retreat with only a glance at the lectures and program offered for that week.

Needless to say, I was surprised when the woman organizing the travel arrangements called to ask me about my intentions. I didn't know what she was talking about. She explained that the retreat included two ayahuasca ceremonies. I told her I'd get back to her with my intentions, and I immediately turned to a book about ayahuasca that I'd bought years ago but never read: Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, edited by Ralph Metzner. I'd had spiritual experiences with psychedelics when I was in my twenties, and now that my daughter was grown, I felt free to renew my interest, especially with an opportunity like this falling directly into my lap.

I knew immediately what my intentions would be. Six years before, when my father was dying, I brought him to my home with hospice care. The sound of his death rattle filled the house, shaking me to my bones. The slow rhythm of his breathing echoed inside me, hollowing me out as I wondered which breath would be his last.

During one of those moments, as I was waiting for his next inhalation, the universe exploded inside me. I felt the space within me expand outward in all directions at once. I saw sparks of multicolored lights in the shape of a tunnel through space, dark space all the way out to the ends of the universe.

All of a sudden, I was rushing through this tunnel, pulled from my body, and launched into space. I quickly realized that I was out of my body, traveling fast. I was scared. With a jolt, I brought myself back down into my heart-pounding body and looked around the room through new eyes, as if seeing for the first time. I could almost feel myself in my brain, behind my eyes, where the seeing actually occurs.

I calmed down with slow breaths, but I had no idea what had just happened. My brain kicked in and scanned for similar experiences. Years ago, during an earthquake in San Francisco, the walls of the hotel ballroom had buckled and waved like ribbons in the wind, but this wasn't an earthquake. Nor was it a psychedelic experience. I wasn't on anything. Shaky and pale, I found my way to a chair, as if sitting down would increase my connection to the earth.

After my dad's death, I tried to figure out what this experience was all about, wondering what had happened to me. I described the experience again and again to my wide network of spiritual friends — Buddhists, psychologists, teachers of Transcendental Meditation, shamanic practitioners, spiritual directors, Jungians. No one had a clue.

Finally, I talked to Carol Hegedus, a friend who had worked for the Fetzer Institute and brought Bill Moyers's Healing and the Mind program to television. She'd been studying Rudolf Steiner and intuitively knew what had happened to me. "You went with your dad as he was leaving this world," Carol explained in a simple, matter-of-fact way. "You went partway with him." Something inside me became quiet and still. No wonder I had been so frightened — I was afraid that if I didn't come back to my body, I would die along with my father. This explanation made sense to me, reaching deep into my bones with a knowing certainty.

My dad had been in a coma, in the final stage of dying. Without consciously choosing or even being aware, I joined him as he was leaving. Almost like a gift, I caught a glimpse of the classic near-death experience — the tunnel, the whoosh sensation of traveling fast out of my body, the emotional intensity filled with personal and spiritual meaning.

I felt unfinished with this experience. I wondered for years what would've happened had I not become frightened and returned to my body. Would I actually have died? Would I have been sent back? Would I have seen where my father was going? I always wondered, and now my intention for the ayahuasca ceremony was to continue this journey.

Some would say I was called to that first meeting with Grandmother Ayahuasca. Certainly, the serendipity factor was ridiculously high. But I was the one who had to say yes to the retreat center, yes to the ceremonies, and ultimately, yes to the research. In saying yes, I opened myself to one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Flash forward to Costa Rica: Like a snake working its way through my intestines, the ayahuasca tea moved deep inside my body. I realized this tea was far more powerful than any psychedelic I'd done before, and here I sat between the Pacific Ocean and the rain forest, no telephone or even internet contact available, no cars, literally no exit. The person in charge was an indigenous shaman, decorated with ritual ochre and feathers, who didn't speak English. He did, however, clear the ceremonial space to protect us from unwanted spirits, although this was not a great reassurance. It was from his hands that I received the foul-tasting, murky brown liquid — he looked me in the eye through the candlelit shadows and whistled into the tea, a shamanic prescription for my energy. I downed the cup.

After thirty minutes or so of trying to remain calm and confident, I lifted off. Without warning, I zoomed through space, traveling way beyond the speed of light through a tunnel whose walls were lined with multicolored points of light that became streams of color as I flew past. In a cosmic whoosh, I broke through into the blackness of space filled with stars and eternity. I was gone in so many ways — out of my mind, out of my body, and out of this world. No longer an "I." Only nothingness with unending silence, no fear or perhaps no "I" to be afraid.

In my visionary journey, I was back with my father during his last conscious days. I relived my last words with him, "I love you, Dad." He responded with the same uncharacteristically emotional words that he had said on his deathbed: "I've always loved you." After floating in space a while longer, I settled back down to earth and into my body. I felt as though a veil had been lifted, that I was bathed in love.

During the ceremony, I was more open than I was at the stressful time of my father's dying, better able to fully receive my father's final message. His words reached back into my childhood, subtly changing childhood memories so that my perspective shifted. I felt more loved, better able to recognize and receive the love that was "always" there but not always felt. Tears warmed my cheeks. Gratitude flooded my heart. I was grateful to relive this last moment with my dad, to feel the full impact of his words. I knew this experience had shifted my personal history in an essential way that somehow allowed my heart to be more open.

Questions about Ayahuasca

I began asking research questions the very next morning, when I knew without a doubt that I'd had a profound and deeply personal healing, far beyond anything I'd experienced with other entheogens — the term for psychedelics taken for spiritual purposes to catalyze an inner experience of the Divine. As a psychologist, I couldn't help but ask: How does ayahuasca, a psychospiritual medicine, work? Who is the spirit of ayahuasca, which indigenous cultures respectfully call "Grandmother"? And, really, what does that mean? Is she a real spirit? Does she help everyone? How could this medicine so precisely fulfill my intentions? Almost as if she knew me, or rather, like the National Security Agency, had access to my operating system?

I prevailed upon the translator to convey my questions to the shamans, two Secoya elders from Ecuador. I wanted to know about the process of drinking ayahuasca: Are there stages people pass through as they become experienced drinkers? Do people see the same visions regardless of cultural beliefs or locations? How do the shamans' songs affect the visions and healing? How were the shamans trained? Do shamans agree on what they see? Heaven help me — I was asking about what's called inter-rater reliability, or the degree to which the two shamans saw the same things.

A few years later I learned that this was not such a crazy idea; some shamans are also interested in inter-rater reliability. A Western shaman, who grew up in an indigenous village and was trained by his godfather, a traditional shaman, told me about one of his initiations. He was presented with a variety of patients in front of a panel of three experienced shamans, and they all had to agree on the diagnoses and treatments. Even with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a common reference, Western psychotherapists often disagree about diagnoses, and even more frequently they disagree about treatment plans. This young shaman faced a very high bar to pass, but pass he did.

The most difficult question I asked was: How does the medicine work? It's almost an unfair question, since we don't really know how psychotherapy works, although we have plenty of theories. We only recently figured out how aspirin works. In itself, the question is culture bound in a Western psychotherapeutic framework. There was no way the shamans could understand my questions, much less speak to them.

I tried a different approach, a phenomenological one that was less mired in a Western therapeutic context. I asked the shamans, "Can you see what I see during the ceremony?" One shaman smiled and nodded. I hesitated with my next question, not sure it was politically correct, but decided to seize the moment: "Can I see what you see during the ceremony?"

At first the shaman was taken aback by my impertinence, especially coming from a woman, but he recovered quickly with a hearty laugh, explaining that there is a hierarchy. He can see my visions, but I can't possibly see his. "Thank you," I replied, grateful that he was not offended.

I learned very early that the linguistic and cultural divide between me and the indigenous healers was way too wide for me to bridge. My psychological questions were meaningless to them. The shamans live in an ayahuasca-saturated world I can never fully understand, a world that is as real, or even more real to them, as this world.

Mission Accepted

In 2008, three years after my first ceremony and long after I'd given up trying to understand how the shamans do whatever it is they do, Grandmother Ayahuasca came to me during a ceremony and, in a no-nonsense way, told me to do a research study. I took her request as a mission — she, in all her wisdom, had chosen me (ME!) to do this work. Ego inflation barely describes my state of mind.

Yes, I heard a voice, and questions about this voice have bounced around in my head ever since. What was this voice? What does it mean that I heard a voice? I had no answers. You might think I would have ignored the voice's directive: Do this research. Instead, I never doubted. I accepted the mission and congratulated the spirit of ayahuasca for her wise decision to choose me.

I had a rare combination of experience: an academic research background and a psychotherapy practice along with personal experience with ayahuasca. I didn't question how Grandmother Ayahuasca could possibly have known this, or how she had evaluated my skills, resources, and determination to interview and collect data from people willing to admit to a perfect stranger intimate details of their experiences with an illegal substance. At this point in my career, I was in private psychotherapy practice, outside the academy, my research career abandoned long ago with the birth of my now thirty-something daughter. Given the illegal status of ayahuasca, it's possible this research could only have been done by someone outside the hallowed and federally funded halls of academia. Did Grandmother Ayahuasca know all this and take it into consideration in choosing me?

Well into the second year of the project, one of my expert consultants, a Western shaman, casually said to me, in reference to something else entirely, "Everyone thinks they've received a mission from ayahuasca. I don't believe two-thirds of what she says to me."

I couldn't believe it. "You mean she was just kidding? I didn't have to do this research study?"

In fact, as I've found, the feeling of being assigned a mission by Grandmother Ayahuasca is relatively common. Had I known this from the start, I might not have taken the whole project so seriously. I might have assumed that my sense of having been called was merely an artifact of the ayahuasca experience.

But I have no doubts that Grandmother Ayahuasca personally asked me to do this study. I heard her voice repeatedly along the way. I felt that she opened doors for me, making the whole project evolve smoothly without even a minor hassle, which is unusual in research. Something inevitably goes at least a little wonky.

During one ayahuasca ceremony, as I was just beginning to feel the effects of the medicine in my body, I had another conversation with the spirit of ayahuasca.

Involve Lee in the research, she said. Lee Gurel was the mentor of my own former research mentor. He's a nationally recognized psychologist with a lifelong career in prestigious research positions.

"I've already spoken with him," I replied, with the adolescent tone of having been there, done that. A part of me couldn't believe that I was talking to Grandmother Ayahuasca like a snotty sixteen-year-old.

Grandmother Ayahuasca was patient. She ignored my tone and simply added, Involve him more.

"Okay, okay," I said.

A few days later, I called Lee and told him, "Grandmother Ayahuasca told me I should involve you more in the research."

Slight pause. "Alright," he said, simply and, no doubt, with an impish grin, never once questioning my source.

Guided in the Research

As I developed the questionnaire for the study, I made an early decision to be totally transparent as a researcher, and I placed a personal statement on the questionnaire's front page (for the full questionnaire, see appendix A):

I am being guided in this research by my own personal experience of ayahuasca. I'm a psychologist who has worked in research and has had a private psychotherapy practice for over thirty-five years. My intention is to publish the research results. This research is being conducted via personal networks of kindred spirits.


Excerpted from Listening to Ayahuasca by Rachel Harris. Copyright © 2017 Rachel Harris, PhD. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Chapter 1 The Mission 1

Chapter 2 New Hope for Healing 31

Chapter 3 Transformational Medicine 65

Chapter 4 Magic and Mystery 91

Chapter 5 Church Sacrament 119

Chapter 6 The Shadow Side 145

Chapter 7 To Believe or Not to Believe 173

Chapter 8 Your Brain on Ayahuasca 203

Chapter 9 The Perennial Quest 239

Chapter 10 This Enchanted World 269

Appendix A Research Questionnaire 289

Appendix B After the Spiritual Experience Questionnaire 299

Acknowledgments 303

Endnotes 305

Index 337

About the Author 355

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