A few weeks ago I sat through perhaps the most outrageous ayahuasca ceremony I’ve ever attended, a chaotic display of anarchy that was a true shitshow. Yes, chaos is a fundamental attribute of ayahuasca, and sometimes pure chaos is exhilarating. And my own experience that night was okay, even beautiful at times. But what I witnessed unraveling in slow time in that room, the impact and effect on the people in the circle, was disturbing. It made me think about what it takes to lead an ayahuasca ceremony, and the real meaning of terms like “holding space.”
The man holding the ceremony has perhaps five or six years experience. He’s European, if that matters (it typically doesn’t to me). I’d heard good things about him from several friends, one of whom asked me to check him out.
Ayahuasca can be intensely, superbly chthonic. And this chaos needs to unfold within the boundaries of an intentional time and protected place.
Ten of us have gathered for the ayahuasca ceremony, including four first-timers. The leader’s basic perspective, I’ve gleaned, is just let things flow. Whatever you need to express, do that, he tells us. There are just a few rules: don’t talk, don’t touch each other, and don’t leave the property. Sounds good.
We start. Ten minutes in, one of the first-timers is violently purging and moaning. Soon he’s writhing on the floor, knocking over buckets, shrieking with what sounds like labor pains. Cool. At this point, most places would remove him from the group and work on him privately in a separate room. But this is an understaffed and let-it-all-hang-out kinda place, an “experiment” in which we’re “learning to surf the waves of chaos.” Double cool, let’s roll with it.
The leader works with Shrieking Guy, not too effectively from the sounds of it, singing and drumming over his screams. The single assistant frantically scrabbles at the laptop to play a calming music track, but it takes him several tries, as he keeps being called over to help restrain the guy. The rest of us are sucked into the drama that’s unfolding in the middle of the room.
It’s compelling: the leader and assistant frantically shining their lights on the man, telling him to open his eyes, calling him back, over and over. Every bit of the leader’s energy is going into this heroic rescue effort. The rest of us are on our own. I can feel the rising anxiety in the group. The man next to me is feebly muttering, “It’s okay, it’s all gonna be okay,” in an unconvinced tone.
And now the shitshow really begins: a nervous group member starts to babble, loudly voicing every random thought that comes into his mind. “Wooooow, this is really strong stuff!! This is a super-strong experience, guys!! I can feel it in my brrrrain! Can you feeeeel it? But it’s sacred space, yes??? It’s a therapeutic process!! Sooooo therapeutic! Woooow, incredible!!!” And on and on.
The facilitator continues to focus on Shrieking Guy in the center. He’s abdicated responsibility for the rest of the circle. Babbling Guy has been sucked into the energetic vortex of Shrieking Guy. The two of them are synched in some disturbing fashion, and we are all simply jetsam bobbing in the wake of their joint performance. “Let’s get high, guys! Let’s step outside and smoke some weed! Anybody wanna?”
Shrieking Guy’s travails gradually lessen, but Babbling Guy’s monologue, which gradually escalates in tone from friendly discussion to full-on rant, goes on for nearly three hours. I hear my neighbor mutter “Shut up” once, but everyone else is politely quiet, enduring the invasion of Babbling Guy’s epically shallow mind. Unlike Shrieking Guy’s display of pure energy, which is alarming but somehow also possible to work alongside, his words hook us. Like the paradoxical command ‘Don’t Think About a Pink Elephant,’ it’s impossible for them not to evoke images (“Oooh, I can feel the shit coming out of my butt!” he yells from the toilet.)
There are occasional giggles on the part of the captive audience. His rant is ridiculously comical at times, but mostly it’s pathetic and degrading. Eventually I retreat outside to continue my work. Returning maybe an hour later, I see Babbling Guy still babbling, lying naked on the floor atop Shrieking Guy, the two of them surrounded by pools of vomit, the “shaman” feebly drumming, people huddled in shock on the benches, the energetic web of ceremony in tatters. It feels like a bomb went off in the room. At which point I leave for good.
All this could perhaps be worth it, if some good came from it. But the experience didn’t seem to benefit the ceremony participants who were the stunned onlookers of this zoo—certainly not the fragmented and lonely soul I met drifting outside later that night or my poor neighbor, who ended up writhing on the floor, banging his head against the wall in complete disintegration. The overall vibe I got was of shock and damage. It’s not an art to evoke these energies. Psychosis does the same.
Maybe it was valuable for the main actors, Shrieking Guy and Babbling Guy? I doubt it. They weren’t present for the rampage happening through their nervous systems; in fact, they were completely gone. Disconnected energetic releases yield nothing of benefit.
The healing power of catharsis is a long-debunked myth from the ‘70s. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the past 20 years of research, it’s that trauma healing takes sustained, steady, carefully calibratedeffort, not disconnected, explosive discharges that simply blow out the system. Staying conscious in the release, connected to your body and its energies, is what’s key. And nobody was conscious in that pool of puke, or that torrent of inanities—or in that room, by the time I left.
Container, Alembic, Vessel
To do deep work of any kind—emotional, psychological, spiritual, magical, psychedelic—you need solid grounding and a coherent container. Here in Peru, I sometimes hear people speak resentfully about “rules” and “control” in ceremony. “What gives him the right to tell me what to do?” is the general complaint.
Here’s the thing: Guidance does not always equal control. Container does not mean restriction. These things are sometimes confused with oppression, but they’re not. They just provide a safe place to work, stable ground upon which the dance can unfold.
The dance that arises can be chaotic, yes, absolutely. Ayahuasca can be intensely, superbly chthonic. And this chaos needs to unfold within the boundaries of an intentional time and protected place. This is the famed “setting” of psychedelic lore. This is why ayahuasca is customarily drunk in ceremony—in some kind of formal ritual enactment, not an anarchic shitstorm.
Ceremony is the transformational crucible. In alchemy this is called the alembic, the sacred container in which the process of transmutation occurs. Alchemy in essence deals with psychological processes rather than chemical ones, and the alembic is an indispensible holding space. Without a container, genuine transformation does not occur, only random chaos and slop.
Think of the everyday magic of transformation: how seeds grow from within the earth, and soup needs a pot to cook in; the way spirits are born from a still, and metal worked within a forge. Transformation’s need for containment is organic, and extends, especially, to humans. Babies grow in the womb, and infants need to be held and swaddled. Children need consistent, reliable boundaries to mature into their own being: “Yes to this,” and “No to that”; and the ongoing, wordless message, “I’m consistently present for you. I care about you.”
How does this relate to ceremony? Ayahuasca can evoke very young states. We all have the capacity to regress in ceremony, to fall into the unbounded chaos of our infant or even prenatal selves. This is not an error or mistake; it can be a crucial part of the work.
In this vulnerable state, we need a modicum of order, grounding, and the reassurance that someone competent is in charge and knows WTF is happening, even if we don’t. This is the role of the person holding the ayahuasca ceremony. S/he delivers this wordless message through energy, attention, prayer, icaros, music, the skillful use of conscious silence, and clear boundaries.
What I saw was that the leader wasn’t strong enough to truly hold the space. He disdained authority to the extent that he neglected his own power and mastery. Ensnared in his own unconscious ego trip of rejecting an authority he considered “ego-based,” he neglected the primary responsibility of any leader: to create a safe container. He set rules (“No talking,” “No touching,”) but didn’t apply them. He invited explosive energies, then scrambled to defuse them when they turned out to be more than he’d bargained for. He focused on one participant to the exclusion of the rest of us. I felt no direction, no energetic guidance. We were all left adrift, to make our way through the chaos as best we could.
What It Takes to Hold a Ceremony
So here’s my opinion, informed by a fair amount of personal experience.
I don’t care how many times Madre Ayahuasca has suggested you’re a shaman, or how prettily you’ve decorated the space. I don’t care even how talented you are in guiding people through subtle realms and working with healing energies, although these are indeed important attributes.
In my view, you have no business holding an ayahuasca ceremony unless, bottom-line:
- You are 100% committed to showing up for the circle the entire night;
- You are capable of holding and working with the intense emotions and responses that can arise;
- You’ve made contingency plans for emergencies (“Here’s what we do if someone flips out/gets violent/falls unconscious/disappears”);
- You have competent support proportional to the size of your group.
These are not the only attributes a leader needs, but they are indispensable ones. Until last week, I didn’t even imagine what a ceremony would be like without them.
It’s true that most ceremonies unfold beautifully and tranquilly, in a seamless flow of protection and grace. The wild card each time is the psychological makeup of the people attending. It’s impossible to screen out all the difficult potentials, and indeed I don’t think avoiding problems is the point.
I rejoice in the chthonic nature of ayahuasca, and (at least after the fact) in the shitstorms I’ve experienced within my own being in ceremony. But I do my best to keep my work inside and not spread it onto others. Partly it’s my natural instinct of reticence; partly it’s knowing that the deepest work, the true transformational Magick, happens inside and is both sacred and secret, to be shared thoughtfully if at all, not spewed into the ears of everyone present.
Not everyone has the awareness or capacity to contain their process. That’s where the leader/shaman comes in. Most fundamentally, leading an ayahuasca ceremony is about your ability to hold space, to maintain your consciousness through the chaos, and bring us all through to the other side by the strength of your awareness and your deep, deep committed compassion. Your being sets the tone for the space that’s created, and it needs to be profoundly safe, conscious, and capable.
You don’t have to singlehandedly heal every person who freaks out—this is probably not possible, if you’re guiding the group—but you do need a solid plan and competent assistance to support them. These situations might not arise in your first ceremonies, but it’s just a matter of time before they do—especially with the messed-up, dissociated, confused (often chronically stoned and completely unresourced) people who come seeking not much more than excitement and a good story.
I’ve been fortunate to mainly sit in well-organized ceremonies with serious people. The consistent rule I’ve encountered in successful ongoing groups is that participants are asked to contain their process, to the best of their ability. You can vomit, cry, sob, even scream to an extent, but ongoing public emoting is not condoned, in part because it’s contagious, just as Shrieking Guy spawned Babbling Guy, who eventually triggered the head-banger.
Usually, but not always, if your process disturbs others for any length of time, you’ll be removed from the circle and worked with outside. This is not necessarily repression or punishment: it’s a way of containing the intense energies that can arise, for the benefit of all involved—the freaker-outer, the other group members, the leader, and all visiting spirits and entities.
It’s absolutely possible to work with chaotic individuals in the circle as well. This takes a tremendous amount of presence; the capacity to show up for Shrieking Guy, Babbling Guy and the entire circle simultaneously; and through your deep acceptance of and skill with chaos, to transmit the understanding that everything is indeed okay. This demands 100% acceptance, not control—but to a magnitude and depth that is rare, and generally takes years of experience to cultivate.
Because I left early the next morning, I didn’t get to check in again with the main actors. Shrieking Guy and Babbling Guy probably showed up giddy and glowing, laughing about the ‘crazy shit’ that happened last night. Ayahuasca’s morning-after high is difficult to quench.
For me, it was a sad and sorry mess that I sat through. My heart hurt for the waste of good intention and heartfelt effort and the travesty it became. But I also felt strangely happy, because the experience gifted me the clear seeing of a key element in leading ayahuasca ceremonies. It’s not just about good medicine and a cool playlist. It’s about having the guts and maturity to hold a clear, clean space for people willing to voyage to the murkiest depths of their souls in search of healing and wisdom, and the ability to truly support them in their work.
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