Journey of Living and Dying ~ Ryan Toft


It’s often said, that Ayahuasca chooses you or makes a path for you when you’re ready or able to receive its healing grace. It’s been twenty years since I first heard of Ayahuasca and I’m grateful I waited until this stage of my life to hear its message. My life has been accelerating towards this point as I’ve begun to integrate and honestly assess my where I’ve been and where I’m going. I’ve been voraciously consuming all of the reports and media covering Ayahuasca, and thought I had grasp of what the experience would be like. It was infinitely more profound than I could’ve ever imagined. The transformation and healing powers of Ayahuasca have left me in a perpetual state of awe. I’m bursting with gratitude and understanding on a level I could’ve never imagined. It’s been roughly a week since I’ve returned from the Peruvian Amazon and the gravity of the structure of my life has begun to crowd out the infinite expanse that I’d encountered. The integration of this experience is the real work. I can never forget and must remain ever present and vigilant to the grace I’ve witnessed. I can never go back. I can never take solace in anesthetized oblivion. This counts; this is it! What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years throughout the Amazon in South America. It’s the combination of the Ayahuasca vine (banisteriopsis caapi) and the chacruna leaves (psychotria virdis).The synergy of the two plants creates the experience or takes the subject into the bardos or the world of spirit. Chacruna contains a compound called dimethyltryptamine which is abundant in nature and present in thousands of plants. It’s recently been discovered in the human body and specifically the pineal gland or third eye we speak of in Yoga practice. DMT(dimethyltryptamine) is released in small amounts from the pineal gland during dreams, moments of extreme physical or emotional stress, and deep meditative states. It is believed that there is a large dump at the moment of death in which your divine spark or consciousness rides out on a molecule. DMT is not orally active and it is neutralized by an enzyme in the gut called MAO (monoamine oxidase). The Ayahuasca vine acts as a MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor), thus allowing the DMT to become orally active. The Ayahuasca vine (Banistriopsis caapi) was initially called telepathine for its ability by itself to induce telepathic phenomena. It’s truly remarkable that out of millions of species of plants, that the people of the Amazon were able to stumble on the combination of these two plants to induce communion with spirit. When the native cuanderos and cuanderas (medicine woman) are asked how they came to this knowledge; they replied, that the plants had told them. Their deep connection to nature and their astute observation leaves them open to interact with the grand intelligence of nature all around them. After ingesting Ayahuasca, it’s glaringly obvious to me that plants have consciousness, the Earth has consciousness, and this consciousness loves humanity and wants us to wake up before we destroy ourselves and the countless species of plants and animals co-evolving with us. I find it no mistake that Ayahuasca is leaving the Amazon and is gaining great attention in the scientific and medical community to heal an ailing society bereft in a materialistic haze and a loss of connection.

 I left for Puerto Maldonado Peru on October 2; my 40th Birthday with a vague sense of what to expect. After four years of Yoga practice, a lifetime of meditation, and overall sense of well being: I am ready. Every cell in my body is radiating gratitude as I pour out this experience. I’d promised the medicine that I’d never forget the lessons I’d received; the medicine seemed to know that the human condition was one of forgetting our divine nature and that I’d soon forget what I had seen, heard, and felt. I did three ceremonies and I will share them in the order in which they happened. The ceremonies were led by two cuanderas (female shaman) with 35 years of experience between them, and 6 participants from all over the world, whom I consider friends for eternity. The ceremonies took place in a maloka( a roomy circular structure with a high conical thatch roof). The ceremonies began at 8 pm and began with everyone holding hands in which we chanted three OMs. We then went around the circle to share our intention for the evening. My intention was to gain insight into the self destructive tendencies(alcoholism, anger, self esteem, doubt, regret, self centered, envy, shame) that I had in the first 35 years of my life and to see the blind spots that I currently have.

Ceremony 1: Nothing can prepare you for this! One by one we were called up to Reyna(the Shaman) she poured ¾ of a cup(quite a bit); she the blessed it and passed the cup to me: this is happening. I had heard a lot up to this point about the horrid taste of Ayahuasca. I was excited to finally taste this highly venerated brew: it was very complex; earthy, cacao, black licorice, energetically powerful. It went down very warm, like bourbon. At this point it’s worth noting that the Ayahuasca experience is known as La Purga or the purge. Meaning vomiting or should I say the most cathartic violent vomiting you can imagine or can handle. It’s said that you are purging all the trauma, pain and negativity stored for eons within the body that have had their heavy dull energy draining us of our inherent light and peace. The effects began to become noticeable after 25 minutes; by now the maloka was pitch black. I began to see the most complex and intense moving geometric patterns which soon became thousands of snakes all moving, undulating, and gyrating in complex colorful geometric patterns. Intense heat was building in my body and soon my white ceremonial clothes were soaked and I wanted to begin to strip all my clothes off: I tell myself to relax, breathe, just witness, and let it happen. I began to let go of the fear, the medicine had fused with my body it was breathing me I felt the presence of this entity, it was getting to know me and I was getting to know it; we were sharing my body. We began to powerfully experience all of the emotions I’d spoken of in my intention, and then the medicine began to show me where I was now in my life and that how all of that negativity and pain was needed to purify my Karmic debts and that I was now presently in a state of balance and that I could now freely choose between Love and fear and that ultimately my present actions were creating my future and that I wasn’t tied to my past. It just didn’t exist; it was pure folly to reflect on it, to be beholden to it. I hear the people in the room moving around on their mats uncomfortably and I begin to hear people violently vomiting into their provided buckets. I’m surprisingly unfazed by all this chaos around me.  I soon began to feel like I had died: fear set in, I can’t die here! Just surrender Ryan let go. Death happened I’ve just died, oh wow, I’ve been here before, and this is so familiar. The medicine began to show me in a way that transcends language, the vibrations of fear, envy, jealousy, regret, and shame; and how they were creating the physical world I lived in and knew;  and how my environment was reflecting back the shadow element within my subconscious. I realized how absurd it was to look to other people or outside myself for how I should feel. It doesn’t matter! None of it matters! I found myself shaking my head up and down in a knowing that I felt in my deepest soul. YOU CHOOSE! It’s the unconscious patterns, the unexamined fear that had been leading me around. Reyna and Mariya began to sing Icaros( songs that help to move the soul through the bardos and into the higher vibrations of peace, love and surrender). The icaros were beautiful and I could feel the sound vibrations in my body, I began to feel an unparalleled joy and ecstasy and I saw the majesty and blessing in being a human being. The medicine continued to remind me to never forget. I then moved back into fear, fear that I have for my family, the pain that I feel for their suffering. I was reminded again to choose a calm abiding presence, be mindful of thoughts and to abide in equanimity in this moment. Mariya asked if anyone would like a second cup. “ You’d have to out of your mind to take this any deeper”. I hear more vomiting and writhing as my fellow maloka mates meet themselves. Another 20 minutes go by and I decide to go up for another cup. The second cup didn’t quite taste as good as the first, perhaps because I knew what was coming! I was oscillating between moments of rapturous ecstasy and suffering fear, clarity and confusion, I had lived a lifetime in these several hours. Out of nowhere I began to vomit from the depths of my being a ringing peristalsis of no longer needed fear, control, and numbness. I collapsed into the fetal position regaining my strength to sit up. I sit up after about five minutes; I’m filled with joy and light. The icaros continue for a couple more hours as I choose peace in every moment. We’re invited to sing along to the icaros. The singing is amazing and is coming from the body as the vibrations are carrying a message far greater than the words. One by one we are called up to Reyna who does some body work on the energy nexus points (chakras)on the body before she sings an icaro into the tops of our crown chakra which you can feel in every cell. In closing the ceremony Reyna used a rich Peruvian tobacco (nicotina rustica) which is a powerful plant medicine in its own right, the smoke was blown over the body and more body work was done at which point the mapacho(rolled cigarette) was handed to me. I gladly smoked it to begin to land completely in the reality I was accustomed to. It was 2 am. I walked a friend back who hadn’t quite landed yet to his tree house. I went back to my tree house where I stayed up till day break entertaining the fluid insights that were still pouring forth. I drifted off to sleep for an hour, when I opened my eyes I seen very clearly a parking lot filled with hundreds of cars and an apartment building in the middle of this pristine virgin rain forest. One more lesson from Mother Ayahuasca about the devastation of the lungs of the Earth through Human sprawl. Thank God I get a day off before the next ceremony!

  2nd ceremony  Hoka Hey(it’s a good day to die). On a scale of 1 to 10, the first ceremony was a gentle 1. The second ceremony was a shattering 10. My intention was the big questions; what’s this life all about, what’s it all for? I drank a large cup and settled into lotus with heart open and head high. The geometric patterns and infinite snake visions came on strong almost like passing through a gate or veil. I felt the Ayahuasca fuse with my body as it began to breathe me. It’s worth mentioning that words will only scratch the surface of what was to ensue. The theme for the evening was duality on an eternal scale and the ultimate realization of pure consciousness, Christ consciousness, or Buddha nature, Brahmin, Nirvana, etc.. The medicine seemed to enjoy human emotion, I sensed eternity and time didn’t exist it was all happening simultaneously. I was in what appeared as a hallway; the hallway of my past lives. One of the participants began to vomit and became very agitated my intuition and encounters with this individual led me to believe he had a lot suppressed pain and suffering in his life. He was in such pain and began to scream no, over and over again.  He was being pulled into his own private hell , he began to scream at the top of his lungs in horror. At which point the Ayahuasca began to suck me into this same hell where I felt my chest get heavy, black and cold my posture became slumped over with my head bowed seeking mercy. I felt eternal damnation and the horrors wretched anguish of every human being ever born. “RYAN…BREATHE… CHOOSE…CHOOSE… I began to lift my spine erect. I drew on my yoga practice and my breath to pull out. I was back in the hall, at which point I began to sense the eternal march I’ve been on throughout countless lives and I began to quickly move through them as I could feel what it was like to be in different bodies. I began to feel that I could do or see anything. I began to think of all the people I’ve loved who’ve died. I began to see a bright light like the one you hear of in a near death experience the light was golden and filled with an infinitely loving embrace. I seen all of the people I’ve lost. My whole body was light and tears were streaming down my face in ecstasy as I felt a love that is indescribable coming from them and a love that was coming from me that I had never felt before. I got to hug my grandparents and tell them I loved them. It was the most intense rapturous love that transcends all language. There was a knowing, I mean a KNOWING that there is no separation, they’re always right there, I’m always right there! LOVE IS ALL THERE IS! I had always got this on an intellectual level, but my God to FEEL IT. It creates! The screaming and primal utterances by my maloka mate at this point were continuing while the shamans worked there magic to assist this person through what he needed to see. I began to get pulled back into darkness, and I moved back and forth from the negative shadow to exalted light. I began to see clearly the duality at play here; the lesson couldn’t be clearer; high and low were dependant on one another. How do I get out of this chutes and ladder charade. These thoughts are Maya or an illusion; nothing more than distractions meant to continue forever spinning on the wheel of duality. A mantra presented itself to me: “I choose peace in my heart”. No thoughts were entertained except this mantra; Ayahuasca was patient and waited me and my patterns out; soon my thoughts would start to move into feelings of joy and beauty and the attachment  and sure enough,  I would be plunged back into fear and despair: the dance continued. Return to the mantra ; equanimity. I’m reminded of a poem by Rumi: “Out there beyond wrong doing and right doing, there’s a field, I will meet you there”. The thought of action and service began to be hammered by Ayahuasca. This life is precious; being a Human being is a blessing and all action should be to reach enlightenment and get off the wheel of samsara(cycle of birth and death tied to karma). Ayahuasca told me to study Tibetan Buddhism and the Gnostic gospels to further understand what I’d seen. It bears repeating, I’m only scratching the surface of this night, and more is coming out in my meditations every day. This life counts. I can never forget! This information is useless if there’s no action! It was 2am when we stopped I stayed in the maloka to watch after the participant who had a rough time. I didn’t sleep till 10 am the next day. I’ll never be the same!

3rd ceremony. Tie it together.

There were only 3 of us in this ceremony as some decided to sit this one out. I decided to just take a tablespoonful of the Ayahuasca and focus on meditation in this ceremony. The ceremony was beautiful as I just sat and absorbed the vibrations of the icaros in a semi lucid state. It was a very spacious time where I felt a calm abiding on the periphery of both worlds. One of my good friends who’d yet to have a really powerful experience spent 4 hours on the floor where he died and had entities or beings work on his neck which he’d been having severe pain and tightness from years of smoking cigarettes. After the ceremony he felt lightness in his throat and he subsequently quit a 20 year habit to tobacco. He also felt a renewed sense of purpose and calm which was evident. I spoke with him yesterday and he still has no desire to smoke. I also witnessed a woman who had a lump in her breast only to awake the following day having it completely gone. The gentleman who had the rough time in the second ceremony felt great the following day, and it was evident by his eyes and body language, that something had shifted inside him.

Ayahuasca has been compared to 10 years of therapy in a single night. It was more than I could ever imagine or would have liked to imagine. It meets you at your soul and shows you without any filters what this is all about in often brutal honesty. It is a very personal experience and will give you what you need, not what you want! I bought the book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche when I got back to the hostel in Puerto Maldonado Peru off amazon. I was shocked when I read it; it encapsulated my experience, two completely different cultures speaking the same truth.

             Now when the bardo of this life is drawing upon me,
              I will abandon laziness, for which life has no time,
             Enter, undistracted, the path of listening and hearing, reflection
               And contemplation, and meditation,
          Making perceptions and mind the path, and realize the “three
             Kayas”: the enlightened mind;
        Now that I have once attained a human body,
      There is no time on the path for the mind to wander.

The real work begins now as I move to integrate this gift of grace into action. I often think of how the gravity and momentum of my habitual tendencies are too great to ever fully transcend. I feel I no longer have the luxury to ever retreat. I can never forget the lesson of this precious Human birth and the opportunity I’ve been afforded. I’m truly blessed to have had Yoga as a framework for this experience and asana, meditation, and inquiry have brought me to the foundation of knowing the path and the brevity of this opportunity. One pointedness.

In Gratitude







Ryan Toft