I felt a little apprehensive before the first Ayahuasca ceremony, and I could sense everybody else’s fears as well. But as I came out of a 2-hour trek through the Amazon, exhausted and dehydrated, I spotted a Blue Morpho butterfly. The Blue Morpho is a massive, bright, iridescent, blue butterfly, one of the most beautiful in existence, and the inspiration for the name of the Ayahuasca retreat center – preparing our larval consciousnesses for metamorphosis into beautiful butterflies. But I guess they were pretty rare around this time of year because I only saw a few the entire retreat; too elusive for me to get a photograph. It had been grey and cloudy on my trek, but the sun came out just as I emerged from the jungle, and the butterfly fluttered right in front of me. Beautiful, but fast. I tried to chase it down, but it darted behind a palm and disappeared, like a ghost.

But that’s ok – as soon as I stepped back onto the retreat center’s pool deck, several other butterflies fluttered around me in the warm sunshine. One yellow butterfly wouldn’t leave me alone. I had been visited by butterflies in the past, and remembered that they tend to symbolize joy, which was a comforting reminder as I began fasting for the night’s Ayahuasca ceremony. The experience doesn’t have to be scary, I thought. Change can be smooth and graceful. This is what I asked from Aya: to be gentle with me. And she was… sorta.

In the ceremony house were both chairs and mats, so you could choose your most comfortable setting. Each place setting was equipped with an array of helpful tools – a nice fuzzy blanket, a pillow, a roll of toilet paper, a puke bucket, and a tin cup of water (for rinsing awful tastes of Ayahuasca and vomit out of your mouth). The medicine is known to first elicit a “purging” process, the most common of which is vomiting. The toilet paper is to help with the mess of the vomit. But for whatever reason I didn’t vomit a single time the entire retreat. We all sat in nervous anticipation for what felt like forever. I would have been fine if we jumped straight into it, but the suspense was killing me. Finally, after darkness came, the shamans entered the ceremony house. They blessed the Ayahuasca we communally brewed earlier that day, blew tobacco smoke into it, and whistled pleasant icaros to it, coaxing its spirit to come out and play with us. Then it was time to drink! As we took turns drinking, I could feel the nervousness in the room from both the veterans and newbies. I drank third. “Muchas gracias y salud,” I cheersed to our master shaman. Down the hatch! The brown sludge tasted awful, causing an immediate gag reflex. But once the medicine was inside me, I felt rather pleasant. After everybody drank, they turned off the kerosene lanterns and we were left in total darkness. The jungle sounds were deafening. 

Almost as soon as I drank, I received a message: Aya needed me to help this group as a guide or protector, to bring stability and balance to the ceremony. Hmm, I thought. Was this my brain tripping on drugs, or was this really a message from elsewhere? I guess it didn’t matter – it resonated with me and I felt purpose. As I sat in the dark, listening to the shamans chant their icaros, waiting for the Aya to kick in, I affirmed to myself aloud, “I accept and I am so grateful, I accept and I am so grateful, I accept and I am so grateful…” And slowly I began to drift down a dark hole. My senses went to sleep, and so did my frontal lobe. I went deep inside my subconscious. I began to see the visions everybody speaks about – mostly psychedelic colors, shapes, patterns, moving and writhing, but nothing that could be explicitly interpreted as meaningful. It was intense! I completely lost control of myself. I withered away. I was no more. Nick Conedera no longer existed. I went someplace else – some would say to the spirit world. All my alert systems began flashing red, warning me, telling me I had been poisoned, I was going to die, I needed to get this stuff out of my body, my heart began to accelerate, I started to panic. My first thought was: “Why would anybody travel halfway around the world and pay $3000 for this?” But it was too late. I drank the stuff, I chose this experience, I had nobody to blame but myself. So I thanked my body systems for working correctly – I appreciate you so much body – and went along for the ride.

The purging began quickly. I could hear the sounds of moans, groans, screams, crying, vomiting, echoing through the Amazon and back at us, as if the forest was joining in on the group’s terror. It was too much for one patient who started yelling curses in Italian. The negativity spawned more negativity, and others started freaking out. Down the rabbit hole we went. Another patient started responding to the Italian cursing, “Yeah, we get it! It’s terrible, we know!” And this back and forth continued to escalate until something broke.

“Let it out!” the master shaman commanded. And a deafening scream came from the blackness, at the top of their lungs. Sounded like torture. Then clothes went flying, and one of the patients, Greg, was suddenly naked, humping various objects. A group of  apprentices came over to try to calm and control him. But Greg kept grabbing and hitting their legs, screaming, threatening, “I will fight you all!” I’m pretty sure he was serious – he’s a purple belt in Brazilan Jiu Jitsu. I actually feared for my safety for a minute. He got up and charged one of the staff members in the buff, and they tackled him to the ground. 

“Grab the board!” somebody yelled and over came a wooden stretcher with velcro straps. A few guys sat on top of him while they unstrapped the velcro and threw blankets over him. By this time, everybody’s healing experience was momentarily interrupted to witness the mayhem that was taking place. They managed to subdue him and get him on to the board, but he kept wiggling his arms out of the velcro straps. “We’re going to need like 6 guys to help carry him out,” the master shaman said. And I immediately got up to volunteer. It was one of those moments when your true colors shine. When in a frightening or dangerous situation like this, what would you do? He was ruining my experience, and I’m sure everybody else’s. I didn’t feel safe. So I decided to do something about it. It was a simple decision. I remembered Aya calling for my help tonight. And here was my opportunity.

Greg kept getting out of the restraints, so they had to readjust the straps. I sat and waited for them to secure him. I had a front row seat to the insanity and watched as he kept banging the back of his head against the wood board. They had to put a pillow down to keep him from cracking his skull. It was terrifying but fascinating. What is happening inside this man that would cause him to lose complete control and want to hurt everybody around him? I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to experience being tied down by shamans who I paid to help heal me… while I was in the middle of the most intense hallucinogenic trip of my life. It was terrifying enough just watching it happen while I was tripping. But it was for his safety as well as the safety of others. His pupils were so dilated, there was no white in his eyes whatsoever. He looked like a demon. He continued to utter demonic gibberish as they finally secured the straps. “On 3 – 1, 2 , 3,” and we all lifted him up and carefully maneuvered him through the sea of vomiting patients to the main house outside. Good team work.

“Is he going to be okay here?” I asked. They left a few staff members with him to babysit. He continued screaming into the night throughout the rest of our ceremony. On the way back to the ceremony house, I looked up and saw the clearest image of the Milky Way I’ve ever seen in my life. The air is incredibly clear out there in the middle of the Amazon. It made me feel so small and yet so connected. We are the Milky Way. We are astral beings, literally made of stardust. The matter in our bodies is billions of years old just like those stars! WHOA! My mind was blown. I saw everything so differently.

The ceremony continued late into the night and a few other people lost their marbles. One had a full-blown exorcism, her body contorting, convulsing, animal noises coming out of her, then she vomited violently for about half an hour. Another had to be boarded later that night after he got naked and tried to hug everybody. It was hell. I went to bed quickly and put on headphones, just to avoid the sounds of hell. Screaming continued late into the night. I swore I kept hearing explosions. I thought they might be fireworks, but they were shotgun blasts – the locals like to go hunting at night. Then the ground began to shake – a small aftershock from a 7.5 magnitude earthquake that had hit a couple hours outside Iquitos the night before we left for the retreat center. The night of that earthquake, I was having trouble sleeping in my hotel room so I was already awake when my bed began to shake – maybe a big truck coming by, I thought, but I heard no truck engine roar. Then the whole room started to sway back and forth. Dogs barking. Horns honking outside. Fortunately, the epicenter was a couple hours outside Iquitos (very close to the retreat center actually), 70 miles underneath the surface, so no major damage occurred anywhere in Peru. Growing up in So Cal, I’ve experienced my fair share of earthquakes, but this one lasted an unusually long time – about 60 seconds. I couldn’t help but relate the experience to the earthquake happening in my consciousness. It was a harbinger of what was to come.

My mariacion kept coming in waves – like the earthquake aftershocks – as I tried to sleep. I had nightmares about Greg jumping through people’s sheet walls completely naked, slitting throats, killing the master shaman. I imagined him going mad, covered in blood, running into the jungle and being eaten by a jaguar. I was so sure somebody was going to die that night. The next day, I spoke to an apprentice about it – it shook me to my core, I feared for my safety, and I’m sure others did as well. He assured me that Greg would not be drinking in the next ceremony, but he asked me to try to examine why the experience may have been so hard for me. I knew immediately it was because of my fear of conflict. I experienced enough of it as a kid, I didn’t need anymore conflict for the rest of my life, though I know it is inevitable. I actually had a lot of respect for Greg being a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter. I would never have the guts to fight like that – I would much rather love everybody. The apprentice suggested I use that fear as a teacher. So I imagined hugging Greg, cuddling with him, giving him love, and the fear was instantly transformed. And now I have a new tool in my toolbox. In times of conflict, rather than getting angry and aggressive (which I usually don’t accept and instead oppress) I can choose to love my opponent and make him/her into an ally. What a valuable lesson that I can use for the rest of my life.

My experience with Ayahuasca changed me. It healed me. It made me more conscious, a more loving person, a cleaner and healthier person, more open, with more clarity, more compassion, more intuition, more understanding, more wisdom, better perspective on life. From then on, I was a different person.

But why? What the heck happened inside me? Why did this plant medicine work so well? Why doesn’t the whole world use this incredible plant? Once I was introduced to the medicine, I had to understand more. 

Blessing Ayahuasca vine with mapacho tobacco smoke.

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is the hallucinogenic compound in the Ayahuasca brew. It is actually already within us all. There is a massive amount of DMT contained in the pineal gland in your brain. It secretes small amounts of it when you sleep, which is what causes you to dream, and also explains why dreams can be trippy, lucid, weird, interpretive, or illogical. But there are a couple times in your life when your pineal gland releases all of it’s DMT into your brain at once, causing one huge hallucinogenic trip. When does this happen? First when you’re born, then when you die. This is why it’s considered “the spirit drug” – it is the chemical compound that escorts you into this world and out. 

Chacruna leaves containing DMT.

DMT can also be found in most other plants. So why don’t we trip balls when we eat a salad? Because we have enzymes in our gut that break it down before it can be absorbed. When ingested orally, DMT is made available by the use of several alkaloids that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) that suppress the enzymes in your gut so you can absorb the DMT without breaking it down. The MAOIs are found in the ayahuasca vine, which grows all over the Amazon rainforest. The DMT is found in the Chacruna leaves which also grows in the Amazon. So the hallucinogenic experience is made possible by brewing the two plants together. Every shaman has their own brew – at Blue Morpho in Peru, they make a brew with about a dozen different trees, each of which serves a specific purpose for balance, grounding, medicine, healing, protection, calling spirits, clearing toxins, etc. When ingested alongside shamanic rituals in complete darkness, interesting things tend to happen because you don’t have any input to trip on, so you’re forced to go into your own mind and trip on yourself. That’s when the barrier between the conscious and subconscious dissolves and all sorts of insights, visions, and intuitions come up from the subconscious. This can be very helpful and powerfully healing.

I saw the spirit of a tree with a face of white light scanning my organs.
I spoke to Aya herself (the spirit of Ayahuasca).
I saw angels circling overhead.
I met my spirit guide and spirit animal.
I saw my future.
I received instructions.
I met my true self.
I healed traumas.
I manifested my intentions.
I met Mel Gibson. 
I purged toxins. 
I healed sickness.
I fell in love with myself finally.

I even saw the plants healing me. I saw myself stretched out on a surgery table. My head was cut open for one surgeon who was rewiring stuff in my brain, and my chest was ripped open for another surgeon who was fixing stuff in my heart, while a Peruvian child held my hand. It was so much. Too much to put into words. I finished nearly an entire journal just to process what I experienced. I downloaded so much information.

Before going to the retreat center, we had a couple days in Iquitos to hang out and explore. We boated the Amazon river. We went to a butterfly farm. We fed alligators and piranha. We held sloths & anacondas. We talked to monkeys. The Amazon is so wise and so alive! So much life! Too much life at times… Somewhere along the way I picked up some kind of flu, so I was tired and quiet, but still very excited. But that bug was gone within a couple days of drinking Aya. It even came to me in a vision – it looked like a buggy octopus with an exoskeleton and red X on its black face, with many long sharp tentacles. I talked to it, made friends with it, loved it, then kicked its ass, and it was gone the next day. What a powerful medicine. 

After Greg got boarded, I had a vision that night. I was visited by a black Jaguar in the jungle. I was frightened at first, but then I petted him and tickled his chin. He purred. He said that he saw me in the jungle when I was on my trek. I remembered back to earlier that day when I got stuck on my jungle trek and had to circle back because one of the trails was blocked by 6ft of water. That’s when I felt something. My body alerted me to the presence of danger – somehow I smelled or sensed a predator nearby, and my alert systems told me to flee immediately. But fortunately, jaguars are nocturnal, and they generally don’t like the taste of human flesh. The jaguar had much respect for me. It took a lot of guts to go into the jungle alone. And even more guts to step up and help when Greg got boarded. So from then on, he was going to be there for me, to protect me, to watch over me. Anything I needed, he’d provide. I learned that meant I had a new animal guide: The JAGUAR! What a cool spirit ally. I dig it. I felt like I won. This was my prize for my courage.

The next morning at breakfast, Greg apologized publicly for ruining the experience and broke down crying, so embarrassed. Everybody surrounded him as he cried in a group hug. I hugged him, too. I needed it. HEALING. We became good friends, and we spoke about his experience at length. Apparently, he was abused as a child, experienced 2 tours of Afghanistan, and is now an E.R. nurse around death all the time. I guess that’s why somebody goes to those dark places: purging so much pain and trauma. That experience of reliving the trauma is always painful and difficult, but that’s what healing feels like. People come from all over the world to experience this healing from Ayahuasca. You can’t get that from years of talk therapy or prescription medication. Only from nature.

Turning that fear into friendship is now a valuable tool in my toolbox for my future relationships. My mind raced through past relationships that needed healing. I imagined apologizing to them, hugging them, sending them love. Extremely valuable.

Half a dozen attendees left before the end of the retreat just because it was too scary and intense. Though terrifying and unpleasant at times, my experience with Ayahuasca was overwhelmingly positive. I’ve never experienced growth inside my comfort zone. Growing pains are real. Just like the Jaguar, it was scary at first, but ultimately beneficial. And just like life itself, the fear experienced with Ayahuasca can be a valuable teacher if you let it. Looking back on all the most terrifying and uncertain times of my life, 99% of my fears never actually manifested. There truly is nothing to fear but fear itself. Grappling with this experience gave me over a dozen new tools in my toolbox: mind separation, thought management, emotional intelligence, spirit guides, breathing, cold showers, heart meditation, love, openness, acceptance, un-attachment, and many more. And I created new daily affirmations to make sure my new programming actually sticks.

“I am divine.” 
“The matter in my body is of the universe, billions of years old. Which means I am an astral being, literally made of stardust. I am divine architecture.”
“I am of the spirit, therefore I am spirit. And from this spirit comes all magic. I am magic.”
“I am limitless. I am infinite.” 
“I am not my thoughts, I am not my emotions, they’re just things that happen inside me.” 
“I will no longer chase happiness. Only I can make myself happy because happiness is a choice. All I need to be happy is control of my mind. So I choose to be happy with myself, with my life, with what I have.”
“I am love. I am enough. I will always be enough because I already have everything I need right here [in my heart]. My heart loves me. It has always beat for me, and always will, until the day I die. That’s unconditional love.” 

Imagine saying these affirmations aloud to yourself daily. What change might happen as a result of this new programming? I am excited to see what changes happen in my own life as I integrate back into my routine.

I’ve been witness to some extraordinary things, I’ve even manifested unexplainable synchronicities myself, but I never really believed in anything I couldn’t see… until now. I’ve witnessed magic. I’ve experienced spirit. I’ve been to other realms. I’ve been healed. 

There is so much more to the universe than can be seen by the naked eye. 
The planets orbiting the sun – that’s MAGIC!
Life spontaneously evolved on this planet – that’s MAGIC!
One species evolves into another – that’s MAGIC! 
Sperm and egg make a baby human – that’s MAGIC! 
A thought in my mind can become manifest with action – that’s MAGIC! 

So why not believe in woo woo things like astrology, astral travel, psychics, telekinesis, divine healings, past lives, spirits, angels, God, aliens, clairvoyance, etc. The universe is capable of much greater magic than this. There is magic that we see every single day, but we pass it off as simple “science.” I call it divine architecture. 

The very last night of the retreat, I finally had a major purge. I felt a big, heavy, black mass stuck in my head. Like a cube-shaped rock. The best way I can describe it is being super constipated, but in your brain instead of your butt. It was extremely uncomfortable. I found it hard to breathe, hard to see, hard to think. So I laid down right in front of the shamans to listen to their icaros, which we were told would help if at any point it became too intense. After a while, it became ever more uncomfortable, so I raised my hand and asked for help. Several people surrounded me, some shaking shakapas over me, others blowing mapacho smoke on me. And suddenly, my whole body involuntarily contracted, I curled up into a ball, all the muscles in my face flexed so hard that I got a cramp in my neck, as my body tried to push the black rock out through the top of my head. It was so intense of a push, that I grunted uncontrollably loud and long. Like sitting on a toilet, trying to pass a tough stool, but 100x more intense. Then everything went limp and I caught my breath, exhausted. Before they finished, a second major contraction came one last time, but this time even more intense. I grunted even louder and longer. I wasn’t fully conscious, but I could hear everybody in the ceremony house begin to moan and purge in response to me. The final purge had begun! Then everything went limp again, and I collapsed, utterly exhausted. I couldn’t move. I was KOed. Aya had won. Then the ceremony ended. 

I asked Aya what it was. The message I received was that it was a conglomeration of all my fears/anxieties/worries about reintegrating back into my life in the states. Earlier that day, I asked Aya for a smooth/graceful integration, so I guess she was giving me what I asked for. I took a cold shower – the best feeling in the world. I couldn’t contain moans of pleasure, which Greg later told me laughing that everybody could hear. Slowly, the feeling of the heavy cubic black mass dissolved into what felt like a giant cube-shaped hole in my head. My head was throbbing – something major had shifted. But I can honestly say I had no more anxiety about going back to the states. So I guess it worked. I was healed.