Appropriate preparation and integration is still lacking in the global shamanic medicine and entheogenic culture. This is largely because we’re still in our infancy when it comes to understanding and navigating the vast potential for these sacraments, tools, allies, and teachers.
More and more seekers are looking beyond the medical and cultural models of the West because, the models have failed many in their attempts to enhance health and spiritual connection. People have become eager to fulfill a calling to explore the psychedelic experience, hoping for rapid healing and personal growth.
It’s simple enough to book a ticket, jump on a plane, and drink ayahuasca in the middle of the jungle. But the piece of the puzzle lacking for many is resourceful and adequate preparation and integration. And I don’t just mean just following the standard guidelines on diet, abstinence from sex, and avoiding pharmaceutical medications.
There is a vast landscape within the ayahuasca experience. It includes:
- clarifying intentions and reasons why we’re coming to this plant;
- reflecting on our internal and external environment – where we’re at and where we’d like to be;
- being prepared to step into the unknown;
- having the right tools, skills, and strategies not just for psychedelic navigation, but to navigate the mental and emotional states of being that might surface during and after.
These are all important elements to consider when it comes to effective, long-lasting growth and change.
There are many layers to this, and a one-size-fits-all model is hard to implement when so many people are seeking a variety of things from ayahuasca. Without conscious preparation or integration, one can still attain profound healing on their path of self-discovery. They can reframe unhealthy beliefs or deeply held emotional trauma which can lead to physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual realignment.
But when it comes to making a smooth transition back into daily life and navigating the inevitable potholes and pitfalls, preparing and integrating with more knowledge, understanding, guidance, and structure, can be extremely beneficial.
The Belief to Behavior Framework
Part of the preparation process includes clarifying our intentions, which can extend to reflecting on any mental patterns and programs that might stem from limiting beliefs. In The Cognitive Rampage: A Scientific Approach to Self Discovery, Change and Life Optimization, Adam Lowery outlines a simple progression of how we show up in the world. He calls it the belief to behavior framework.
We all have our beliefs that we hold about ourselves, others, and the world. These beliefs that we have will give rise to our thoughts. The thoughts that we think, largely give rise to our feelings and emotions. And then the feelings we have, will influence our behaviors.
If we want to create change in our life, often times we have to get to the core of our beliefs to do some recalibration work.
He suggests we behave the way we do largely because of our feelings, which arise due to our thoughts, which come from our beliefs, which make up our perception of reality. So if we want to create change in our life, often times we have to get to the core of our beliefs to do some recalibration work.
And how do we access the core of our beliefs, you ask? Through the subconscious mind. And how do we access our subconscious mind? Well, there are various modalities and methods, and as you might have guessed it, ayahuasca is one of the most profound and powerful.
Research shows that during the psychedelic experience, we’re essentially handing over the keys to our pre-frontal cortex and shutting down the parts of the brain responsible for our sense of self and personality. This neurological change allows our still-functioning-awareness to observe the workings of the subconscious mind. In turn, this allows us a much greater capacity to learn things from within that we cannot ordinarily access during our normal waking state. It leads to the possibilities for processing past emotional trauma and reframing past experiences and dysfunctional beliefs in healthy, functional ways.
Beliefs, Epigenetics, and Cellular Health
When we’re talking about our beliefs and the subconscious mind, it pays to touch on the new science of epigenetics and how this relates to our work with ayahuasca and other entheogens. In The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton explores cutting-edge scientific research to conclude that every single cell in the human body is affected by the thoughts that we think, which stem from our beliefs.
Through the field of epigenetics, we now know that a cell and its functions are not defined by its genetic code, but primarily by its interaction with the environment. Environment is paramount when it comes to genetic expression. This includes how certain genes are either turned on or off, and how this gives rise to the way a cell functions, leading to health or disease.
As human beings, we take in and process information, from our environment. The way we perceive and process this information directly influences the arising energy from our minds and thoughts. And these thoughts, which stem from our beliefs, directly influence how the physical brain helps control the body’s physiology.
If we’re perceiving and processing this information in an unhealthy, dysfunctional manner, this will directly affect our physiology at a cellular level. Lipton puts it like this:
The conclusion is simple: positive perceptions of the mind enhance health by engaging immune functions, while inhibition of immune activities by negative perceptions can precipitate dis-ease. Those negative perceptions can also create debilitating, chronic psychological stress that has a profound and negative impact on gene function.
So to live an optimal life of health and wellness, whether physically, mentally, emotionally, energetically, or spiritually, we want to make sure we hold functional, healthy beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world!
Now, as mentioned, ayahuasca can certainly help with this by gaining access to the subconscious level of the mind. But what if we could initiate the process beforehand, leading to greater potential for change and transformation in combination with plant medicine?
The Power of Placebo and Ayahuasca
Joe Dispenza, in his book You Are The Placebo, explores the power of belief further. He discusses how both placebo and nocebo—the positive and negative thoughts, beliefs and expectations we hold towards a treatment or event outcome— hold profound potential when it comes not only to shaping our moment-to-moment experience, but also our future state of being.
He asks the simple question: “If your environment changes and you then signal new genes in new ways, is it possible to signal the new gene ahead of the changing of the actual environment?” And he answers it with a resounding yes.
The two main characteristics of this process involve thinking of a clearly defined healthy intention for a future event or possibility, paired with a heightened state of emotion, such as joy, gratitude, inspiration, or awe.
According to Dispenza:
This process involves making a decision with a high-enough level of energy that your thought about the new belief becomes an experience that carries a strong emotional signature, which alters you on some level in that moment.
In this new state of being, we’re essentially bathing our bodies in the neurochemistry that would be present if that future event were actually happening. This leads to actual embodiment, because we’re chemically instructing our bodies to understand emotionally what our minds understand intellectually.
Our brains and our bodies don’t know the difference between imagining a new state of being in the present moment and the actual event as if it had already happened. So by combining the power of thought and belief with clear intention, alongside heightened emotional states, we can begin to tap into our body’s innate ability to regulate its own health at a cellular level. This involves changing our biology by becoming our own placebo.
The experiences are often more emotionally potent than most instances of our everyday waking consciousness.
Psychedelics like ayahuasca are not only consciousness alterers, but also consciousness amplifiers. They can stimulate heightened states of emotional capacity. The experiences are often more emotionally potent than most instances of our everyday waking consciousness. In these heightened states, we also have access to our subconscious mind.
Pair this with a clearly defined positive intention for specific healing, and we could be expanding the possibility for optimal healthy gene expression through epigenetic change, influencing us on a mind-body-soul level. Tapping into this innate ability during the actual psychedelic experience itself and during both the preparation stages beforehand and the integration stages afterwards could lead to some very potent healing experiences.
Practices could include examining and reframing one’s thought patterns and beliefs through the use of journaling and self-talk and using powerful statements and positive affirmations to rewrite internal dialogue and amplify one’s emotional state. This could help lead to the potential for epigenetic change because you begin to take responsibility for your state of being, regardless of whether plant medicines are involved or not.
With the absence of clinical trials and research in its infancy, it’s still largely unknown why such a wide spectrum of disease and illness are sometimes miraculously healed when journeying with plant medicines such as ayahuasca. I suggest belief and placebo are contributing greatly to the process.
There’s likely a chemically-mediated healing potential through direct interaction between our own physiology and the molecules present in ayahuasca. In other words, ayahuasca may induce specific bodily healing mechanisms. But it’s entirely possible that we’re accessing our own innate capacity to shift our beliefs, the why, how, and what we think, becoming the placebo that induces such profound healing and transformation. The reality is probably a mixture of the two. The biological effects of ayahuasca support the mental, emotional, and spiritual realignment that a well-crafted ayahuasca path brings.
The Power of Environment and Ayahuasca Integration
Many studies are revealing just how influential, even critical, healthy relationships and supportive environments are to one’s psychological health. Clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and author of the New York Times bestseller Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human, Dr Dan Siegel, states that:
This is all incredibly important to consider during ayahuasca integration.
Your internal environment may undergo dramatic changes during an ayahuasca experience. However, without sound preparation of the many challenges that lay ahead, and without a supportive environment to embrace one’s change upon return, there lays potential for fading back into bad health. People can re-identify or activate their old state of being with the same external environment that they were once in.
This ties back into epigenetics. Cells function and respond accordingly to the information from their environment. If our environment is conducive to positive health and growth, and we perceive it to be so, it can lead to healthier cells. The opposite also applies. Unhealthy environment and unhealthy perceptions can lead to unhealthy diseased cells.
Gaining and using the appropriate tools, skills, and strategies pre- and post- ceremony, can help out immensely with integrating the ayahuasca experience insights.
Gaining and using the appropriate tools, skills, and strategies pre- and post- ceremony, can help out immensely when it comes to reframing dysfunctional thought patterns and beliefs, dealing with and processing emotional difficulties and trauma, as well as preparing and nourishing our environment for change (including our relationships and support network). This in turn greatly enhances our ability to ground in solid changes and progress in a healthy direction after our work with ayahuasca.
In Western culture we are not entirely set up to help people navigate and integrate plant medicine experiences. It’s important for us all to recognise and remember that plants like ayahuasca are not placebos. They are powerful potentiators and catalysts for change. To implement these powerful tools into our culture and society, we must take responsibility to work in conjunction with the lessons, insights, healings, and wisdom that these dynamic teachers have to offer.