Note this was written late December 2022
I’ve been thinking about doing Ayahuasca since 2015. I know several people who have done it, and their descriptions are brief but always include “life-changing.” There are many discussions about how Ayahuasca addresses trauma, life realizations, life directions, and other emotional aspects of our complicated lives. For many years I wanted to do Ayahuasca with people I knew and trusted. Over time that desire faded – this was my journey and my timeline – not someone else’s.
In February 2022, I was at a hostel in San Juan del Cruz, Nicaragua. During a group dinner, the discussion shifted to Ayahuasca. One of the women told us all about a retreat center in Costa Rica – Florestal. I didn’t have to hear more – for some reason, that retreat center called me – she was there to deliver the message to me. I couldn’t participate earlier due to my father’s illness and death in 2022, and the retreat center doesn’t have ceremonies during Costa Rica’s rainy season. The ceremonies I participated in December 2022 were the first of the new season.
There are many preparations before arriving at the retreat center and doing Ayahuasca. Eliminating sex, alcohol, meat of all kinds, fermented foods, etc., is a part of preparations. These are necessary to reduce negative impacts of Ayahuasca while also placing the mind in the right place. Many prescriptions and recreational drugs need elimination (some are quite dangerous), though I don’t take any prescriptions and rarely do recreational drugs, so those were a non-issue.
The two founders are Nicole Netaya and Vismay. They are married and have been practicing for almost 20 years. With the increased exposure to Ayahuasca over the past few years, many new “shamans” and locations have emerged. I am delighted I chose very experienced people.
Nicole was the primary leader through the experiences, partially due to Vismay taking a primary parenting role with their teenage kids and Hanukkah (they are initially from Israel). Nicole had endless energy and a timeless look to her. She could have been 40 years old or 300 – I don’t know (I told her this on our last day). She had timeless wisdom and very refined power. Netaya is an immortal warrior goddess.
I will describe Vismay’s power later as he participated in the second ceremony.
Style of Ceremony
A session with Ayahuasca is called a ceremony. A celebration of life, healing, strength, mother earth, Ayahuasca, and the universe. There are different styles of ceremonies with Ayahuasca. The classic Peruvian style is led by a shaman in the dark, where the Shaman provides music. People typically sit on the floor or on a chair during those ceremonies.
The ceremonies at this retreat center are very different. The ceremony is held in an open-air temple with lots of candles, providing beautiful light. All participants are encouraged to join in the singing and playing of instruments. Each person has a small mattress – large enough to lay down on, along with pillows. We are arranged in a series of circles around an altar in the middle of the room. The temple is organized with men on one side and women on the other. I also brought blankets and additional pillows. A fire is available outside the temple, referred to as Grandfather Fire. Everyone wears white or light-colored clothing (I wore a light beige shirt and light grey yoga pants).
Primary alter for Ayahuasca ceremony Secondary alter for Ayahuasca ceremony Ayahuasca Altar – we drink the ayahuasca at this altar
With the style of ceremony, music is a tremendous part of the experience. All songs are from a specific songbook, with several songs written by Netaya and Vismay. The topics of the song include love, strength, mother earth, wind, fire, water, Ayahuasca, helping each other, humility, the list goes on but with specific purposes. Some are subtle and soft. Others can be taken to high volumes and rapid paces (I will get into that more with the 2nd ceremony). Musical instruments are guitars, bongos, and shakers. The languages of the songs include English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Hebrew. Some songs were repeated during the ceremony.
This music was a substantial part of the entire week. outside the ceremonies. All formal occasions included music. Occasionally random events of guitar playing and singing emerged.
For those who haven’t been exposed to plant-based hallucinogenics like Ayahuasca, they are referred to as “medicine.” Other plant-based drugs, such as peyote, DMT, mushrooms, etc., are also called medicines.
It is expected that physical purges occur with Ayahuasca. Almost everyone vomits, while a few get diarrhea, both of which are called purges. Netaya told us that the vomiting is due to intellectual matters while the diarrhea is from emotional/body matters.
Levels of the High
For me, I found 6 stages of the Ayahuasca high. Other than Activation, these are my words. Others may describe with greater precision.
- Awareness. Almost immediately after consuming Ayahuasca, I could feel it. It starts as basic Awareness and grows slowly. The brain and body observe the Awareness, but there isn’t a material change in brain and body state.
- Activation. When Ayahuasca Activates, it is felt immediately. I will describe these later as each ceremony was different. The impact of Ayahuasca starts at this stage.
- Stepped Ascent. After Activation, the sensations escalate. As our journey takes us into the Astral, I chose the word Ascent. The Stepped Ascent is fascinating as it seems to increase the sensations in large steps, not a gradual climb. Both with my experience and watching others, my mind and body respond to these steps with a large “Whoa!!”. There are several steps – each with an increasing “Whoa!!”
- Event Horizon. The Event Horizon is the apex and most intense part of the Ayahuasca experience. As described below, these included visual hallucinations and intense physical sensations. The Event Horizon lasts for a period of time, which also varied each ceremony and described below.
- Slow Descent. After the intense Event Horizon, the experience starts to decrease. The Slow Descent takes a couple hours. Until the Descent drops to a certain level, the intensity of the Ayahuasca is still powerful, just without the Event Horizon’s visual and physical sensations.
- Final Landing. While the high is not gone, it has dissipated sufficiently to feelings of relative normalcy.
Like many spiritual practices, each person enters the Ayahuasca experience with an intention. Except for Yoga Nidra and one breathwork experience, my intention during other spiritual practices didn’t dramatically influence that experience. With Ayahuasca, the intention severely impacts the experience itself. That wasn’t just for me, as the group later discussed how it impacted everyone’s experience.
Each session included helpers. The helpers typically take a smaller dose of Ayahuasca, though the impact of those smaller doses still takes them through all stages of Ayahuasca. During Ceremony 2, I named the women helpers Angels and the male helpers Guardians.
Netaya and Vismay also took Ayahuasca during the ceremonies. I am uncertain of their doses, but everyone at the ceremony participates. Netaya also maintained a strong awareness of the group and could direct the helpers toward people.
Ceremony Time: 630PM to ~Midnight
Date: December 20
Netaya led our first night. The ceremony included the 15 retreat participants, retreat volunteers, and 4 Angels and Guardians. I was slightly anxious entering the first night though I was determined. We start with some music and publicly announce our intention. Before I took the cup, I felt like Alice in Wonderland about to fall through the rabbit hole. I took the medicine, sized similarly to a double shot, and quickly entered the state of Awareness. The flavor is not good for some, even those who take Ayahuasca regularly. While I didn’t like the flavor, it didn’t bother me as I have had many bitter cocktails that tasted far worse. There was also an unexpected flavor of dark cherry.
Next, we start by singing songs from the retreat songbook. I could feel the Awareness increase as we sang. The group then performed light dancing (elementary dance steps). The moment of Activation is strong – my entire body suddenly felt a material increase in temperature. It wasn’t like a fever – just heat. It hit me hard, so I sat down before the dancing was complete. I guessed it was 25 minutes after taking the Ayahuasca.
The dancing concluded, and everyone sat down, though the music was just getting warmed up. I could see most everyone was Activated, and I was very impressed by those playing instruments that they could play while Activated (even more so later when everyone had entered the Event Horizon).
As the Ayahuasca Ascended, I laid down. I don’t do a lot of drugs, and when I feel super high, I prefer lying down and relaxing. Shortly thereafter, I entered the Event Horizon, as body sensations affected me. I closed my eyes. Behind my closed eyes, the hallucinations began. My best description is a classic Pink Floyd laser light show at the planetarium from my teenage years. The light motions were slower with more vivid colors. I also had physical sensations throughout my face and sometimes in my hands. The best way I could describe these sensations is vibrations under the skin at various degrees of speed and intensity. At one time, it felt like my face was getting crushed – and the sensation was far more fascinating than concerning. I learned that if I opened my eyes, the hallucinogenic scene on my eyelids would immediately disappear, just like ending a dream. Looking at all the other people, most were sitting and singing or playing an instrument. Some, especially the first-timers, were lying down like me. I could close my eyes, and the laser light show inside my eyelids would start up again, sometimes with vibrations under my skin.
On occasion, time altered. My mind would get bombarded with images and thoughts. It felt like 10 minutes passed, but then my awareness shifted back to the music. Using a song as a metric, only 30 or so seconds passed.
Though impossible to know, I would guess the Event Horizon lasted about an hour. The Slow Descent started, and I focused heavily on my body. The high during the Slow Descent is still very intense – it just lacked the images and physical sensations of the Event Horizon. I could not sit up – I had a small amount of will but no capacity. Most of the people sat much of the night, which was quite impressive as I remained lying down.
I never felt like I would purge except when I changed my position on the mattress. When I shifted, I would get a slight and quick sensation of nausea, but it subsided quickly. I was more concerned about diarrhea as I had some body awareness, but it wasn’t imminent. I really didn’t want to go through the motions of sitting up or attempting to walk. Eventually, I found the will to sit up, stand up, and walk to the toilet. I didn’t have diarrhea – just some massive farts. While sitting there, I got nauseous from the movement and purged. It was 95% a dry heave and very violent – I would not have been shocked to see my entire digestive system come flying out of my mouth or immediate death from an aneurysm.
Slowly I went proceeded back to my mattress and lay down.
Not too long after, a second cup was offered. As I had proceeded down several layers of the Slow Descent, I decided to take a half cup. The half cup mostly settled me into a calm state but did elevate the high, though not back into the Event Horizon. I did have one remaining hallucination. One of the Angels, Naïade, a gorgeous tall thin woman originally from Lebanon, checked in on me. I blinked my eyes, and her eyebrows were lined with small red lights. She also had other lights on her face – I just cannot remember where – and along her arms. It was my only hallucination during the three ceremonies with my eyes open.
For the rest of the night, I laid down primarily with my eyes closed, though occasionally I would look at the group. For most of the night, the music and singing continued. There would be rest breaks (more on that later) from the music. I drifted in and out of various stages of consciousness, from fully awake, to lucid dreaming, and complete sleep.
Sometime near midnight, the ceremony came to a close. I remained on my side while others sang the final songs. Netaya closed the ceremony with some prayers. I was awake and aware during the ceremony close – I still didn’t have the capacity to sit up. I remained on my mattress until around 3AM before proceeding to bed.
Mother Ayahuasca did not speak to me on night 1. She did satisfy my intention – curiosity.
Time: 7PM to 7AM
Date: December 21 – Winter Solstice
There are many differences between ceremonies 1 and 2. First, it is the winter solstice – to use the language of the participants and leaders – and the portal is open. Second, the group is much larger as many people outside the retreat joined as it is an open night. Third, the addition of Vismay – a dynamic that I will describe later. Lastly is the duration of the experience – 12 hours.
Like the first night, we start with music and publicly announce our intention. Tonight, I choose “Surrender.” As I take my cup, I am immediately tested. Mother Ayahuasca asks me “Are you sure?” as I am on the verge of purging right away. I’ll add that Mother Ayahuasca speaks in our own voice in our own language. What she really said to me was, “Surrender, huh? Are you ready to surrender BITCH???” I confirmed I am ready to surrender, and nausea immediately subsided.
The ceremony’s format is the same as ceremony 1, with singing followed by dancing. Only my path was elsewhere. I reached Activation in less than 5 minutes with immediate Ascent. Instead of the heat from ceremony 1, tonight I feel very cold. Mother Ayahuasca tells me “SIT DOWN,” which I do only after a couple songs. Within just a few more minutes, I am entering the Event Horizon – just as everyone else is starting to dance. I am already on my side, curled up in a ball covered in a blanket while everyone else dances. The images and sensations are similar – just more intense. Using ceremony 1 as an intensity baseline of 10, ceremony 2 reaches a 13-14. The visuals behind my eyelids are more vivid, more precise, and have deeper three-dimensional levels. The vibrations under my skin are faster and with greater potency. At times I see a grid of lights that get closer and closer to me – followed by vibrations inside my skin that aligns with the gridlines. Other times a single light will get closer to me – touching me – starting a cascading set of sensations across my face. Just like the night before, if I wanted to change the scene, I just opened my eyes to clear the screen, close my eyes, and new images and sensations would immediately manifest.
Surrounding me is the music. With the greater numbers, the addition of Vismay, and the greater intensity of tonight’s Ayahuasca (I confirmed others felt the increased intensity the next day), the music’s dynamic reaches a whole new level. With many songs, Vismay sings the first verse or first line, followed by the group responding. At times, the volume of the music is like standing by the front-row speaker at a rock concert. Vismay has chaotic energy – he often adds another chorus at a faster pace and higher volume. My mind is mesmerized by the sounds – and the quality of the musicians and singers. Even with the intensity of the Ayahuasca, their quality is tremendous. All the while, I am watching the lunatics’s laser light show behind my eyelids and feeling the rapid and dynamic vibrations under my skin. Overall, the Event Horizon lasted in the 2-hour range – about double the first night.
While lying on my mat, my thoughts go into Vismay’s chaotic male energy alongside Netaya’s refined earthly energy. For me, Netaya summoned the motherly Ayahuasca energy while Vismay reached into the sky, prompting Zeus to strike everyone with lightning. The lightning created an electrical current that I had never felt, and it created a thunderous ovation. A thunderous ovation to the earth, to the sky, to the solstice, to everyone in the ceremony. Later in the night, other people took lead playing music. They were all struck with lightning as their quality increased dramatically compared to earlier in the retreat. They were unleashed with energy that increased their volume and deepened their depth and quality. I know I was very high through all of this, but many of us discussed it the next day.
After a couple of hours, the music took a break. Without the music, the energy shifts as people look internally at the sensations of Ayahuasca. I can best describe the energy as a low burn. Today the low burn is deeper and more robust than the first ceremony – maybe from the electricity of Zeus and the night’s Ayahuasca potency, but who knows. I am at the early stages of the Slow Descent at this point. I am totally high af – continuing to surrender.
After a while, a second cup is offered. I do the same as the first with a half cup. Same as the first, it settles me, and my night proceeds through the continued Slow Descent and the various stages of consciousness. I sleep through the 3rd cup offering. I do wake up around sunrise in Final Landing. I am able to participate fully in the ceremony close. I didn’t purge during the ceremony, so I had the full effects of Ayahuasca for the entire night. I also have a theory that I hope to test during ceremony 3.
With ceremony 2 over and reaching Final Landing, the surrender is complete. We have 2 recovery days before the final ceremony.
Time: 3PM to Midnight
Date: December 24
Ceremony 3 only includes retreat members and volunteers, so a much smaller community compared to ceremony 2. Netaya is our single leader once again. We start during daylight by the nearby river, adding earthy elements as another dimension. As before, we sang a couple of songs and shared our intention, followed by a small glass of Ayahuasca. After a few songs, we returned to the temple and served another cup. I intend to participate in the songs and dancing while sitting up most of the night rather than lying on my side the whole night. I make two choices. First, I chose a location in the temple where I could put my mattress next to a pole I could lean on. Second, I drink ¾ of a cup.
Those decisions (Awareness) paid off. I sang all the songs while standing, participated in all the dancing, and sat upright for the music after the dancing. Activation took longer, and the Stepped Ascent was slower. I was able to watch the Activation and Ascent of the other people. I saw the “whoa” in their eyes.
After about 45 minutes, the Event Horizon finally arrived. I tried maintaining my seat, but my vision turned uncomfortably blurry, and closing my eyes while sitting wasn’t as comfortable. I laid down into the experience. The images were less intense, and the vibrations were minimal. After a while, I realized Mother Ayahuasca was with me. I searched my mind for her intention – her message. I thought how Ceremony 1 and 2 were so overwhelming for me as I felt disabled to participate in the music, singing, and fire. Finally, a question came to mind. “Did you bring me here to kick my ass?” Her answer was as clear as anything I have ever experienced – “Yes.” “Why?” I asked. “You needed your ass kicked, you arrogant little prick.” I absorbed her message for several minutes (maybe – time is difficult to measure). “What can I do?” I asked. Her response was immediate in a hushed voice – “be humble.” A sense of calm washed over me – the message I sought finally manifested. I finally earned the message I needed to hear.
My mind remained active as I assessed her message and identified several clues throughout the ceremonies. The most significant clue was a song played throughout the retreat. It always caught my ear no matter which stage of Ayahuasca I was experiencing. Tonight, it was the song that played when I entered the Event Horizon. Before I lay down, I sang the song’s title lyric and no other. The song is titled “Humble.” I also think about ceremony 2 and my intention. “Surrender” is only part – the whole phrase is “Surrender to your ass-kicking.”
After these thoughts, the Event Horizon completed – after only about 15 minutes.
Shortly after, I sat up, built awareness of those around me, and sang the songs. The sense of peace continued though my thoughts took me towards analyzing Humble.
Shortly after, the group moved to the fire in the continuing theme of the earthy elements. I sat in a chair, like most people. A small number of mats were available on the ground. As the fire was lit, more music. Above, the stars shined brightly (during an off night, I spent a long time observing the stars – they were some of the brightest I’ve ever seen due to the lack of light pollution. I wish I had my good camera for star photos). A second cup was offered. I was thinking about ¾ cup, but my body responded with nausea. My head changed to ½ cup, and the nausea faded. I took the ½ cup and quickly returned to the Event Horizon. This time I had nowhere to lie down as I didn’t want to invade anyone’s space on the mats. Also, the guy next to me was struggling, and I thought he might lose control and purge on me if I laid down where my chair sat. As before, my vision blurred uncomfortably. Closed eyes while sitting weren’t comfortable, either. My theory from ceremony 2 is my laying down allowed me to process all the Ayahuasca without purging. While not confirmed, I think there is truth, as I did purge shortly after. I escaped from the fire and found a good place. The purge was not violent; Mother Ayahuasca was with me with a caring voice. Shortly after, I returned to my seat by the fire.
After a while, the music stopped for a break, and most of us returned to the temple. Most everyone laid down for the slow burn and the Slow Descent. I laid down for a while but eventually found the capacity and desire to return to the fire. While there, I was offered the 3rd cup. Initially, I thought, “no – I am good.” Shortly after, I changed my mind as I didn’t know if/when I would ever do Ayahuasca again. I took only ¼ cup. A few minutes later, I got one of the worst headaches of my life, and my head felt like it weighed 100 pounds. Mother Ayahuasca had one more lesson – I must work on my big head. I laid down for the remainder of the ceremony and slept much of the time. I nearly missed the closing prayers. That headache lasted until shortly after the ceremony’s conclusion when I had a snack.
Final landing for Ceremony 3 complete – Awareness.
The Day After
The day after ceremony 3, we did a 4-door Temazcal sweat lodge while taking peyote. I did a temazcal in Mexico in 2021, so I was familiar with the ritual. The heat levels and peyote made this ceremony far more intense. After, we jumped into the nearby river to cleanse our bodies and minds. Overall, the temazcal and peyote were grounding and earthy. That night was a celebration of the completion of all the ceremonies. Peyote lasted in my system for quite some time and provided a stimulant level that kept me awake for several hours after going to bed (I have a gift for falling asleep quickly, so it was unusual for me).
Today is December 28, three days after the temazcal experience. I am on my second day of writing this lengthy description. Yesterday I was incredibly raw. I repeatedly listened to the song “Humble” with tears streaming down my cheeks. I wasn’t motivated to do much else. I have so much work on Humble – I am daunted, but I know I will find the way. Today I am less raw but still feel the depth of emotional impacts and the ass-kicking I needed to receive. I also live in tremendous gratitude for the entire experience, Netaya and Vismay, the Angels and Guardians, the volunteers, the powerful music, and my fellow retreat participants. I am also grateful to myself for doing the Ayahuasca, taking the medicine, taking the beating, and listening to Mother Ayahuasca. I do plan on returning to the same retreat center and listening to Mother Ayahuasca again – I just hope at I do not need another ass-kicking at that time.
As I type this final line, once again I have tears flowing from my eyes – open and aware eyes.
December 28, 2022