How Ayahuasca Taught Me to Purge

Plant medicine helped me release everything that does not serve me

Maura McNamara
Jan 11 · 11 min read
Photo: Eric Chan/Flickr

I’I’ve been a walking fist lately. I’m struggling to really feel much of anything at all and then resisting what I can feel because it’s so unpleasant. It’s creating an untenable level of discord inside me, the sensation of being burned alive from within and seeping out as insufferable petulance toward the people around me. A few nights ago, I picked up a Sharpie in desperation and started to draw, which often seems to be what my body knows how to do when under duress. And as if in direct answer to my existential call for help, these talismans of purging appeared.

Illustrations courtesy of the author.

Purging came into my world about six years ago when immediately after getting off a boat in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, a medicine woman lined up 20 of us Western journeyers, handed us each a bucket of water and a cup, and instructed us to chug as much as we could as fast as we could until it all came up. That was followed by seven nights of an ayahuasca ceremony, many hours of which I spent curled over a barf bucket in the darkness. Several times a night, I would crawl on my hands and knees across the ceremony hut to the outhouse for expulsion from the other end, too mareada (seasick) from the medicine to walk.

There was the night that I fumbled in the darkness, probably taking off or putting on my socks for the 800th time as I rode the waves of my hot flashes, and accidentally spilled the contents of my barf bucket into my lap. One morning my friend, who labored in the medicine across the circle where I couldn’t see her, told me she’d spent most of the previous night convinced she’d pooped her pants, paralyzed by the horror and shame of it, lost in the timeless infinity of the medicine and caked in her own lukewarm shit, only to discover in the morning that it had all been a dream of the medicine.

Most of us carry negative associations with throwing up. It is usually a bodily sign of illness and distress: an alarm bell. Vomiting makes us extraordinarily vulnerable — dehydrated and weak at the very least, on the edge of life at the worst. So it begs the question, who would willingly sign up for ritual purging? Sounds like some kind of nightmare or “bad trip,” right?

The thing is, it was those shaky nights in the jungle when I stopped being afraid of purging and began to embrace it as a much-needed release of that which does not serve me, whether it’s literal pathogens or pent up energetic garbage.

Vomiting and diarrhea are actually signs of the body’s caretaking. It is a tangible expulsion of toxins, our biological cleaning service taking out the trash. And the purging incited by psychedelic medicine has the ability to shake free our deepest, most limiting belief systems and send them out to the cosmic recycling center. The medicine targets the demons with their talons clenched so deeply into our psyche that we have completely forgotten they are invaders, built from our conditioning and our survival mechanisms, aggressively guarding our tender human hearts but cutting us off from the sustenance of real connection to the creator within and all around us.

This is because ayahuasca, like all entheogens, has the ability to present us with our own minds when used conscientiously in a safe, intentional setting. The term “psychedelic,” first coined in the 1950s, is derived from ancient Greek, meaning “mind-revealing.” Psychedelic experiences can give us access to the subconscious programming that underlies our conscious thoughts, actions, and behaviors. Like bandleader and songwriter George Clinton says in “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts”:

“Every thought felt as true / Or allowed to be accepted as true by your conscious mind / Takes root in your subconscious / Blossoms sooner or later into an act / And bears its own fruit.”

In almost every psychedelic experience, I enter a period that I think of as a tour of my relationships: The medicine shines a spotlight on the fault lines where I’m leaving gaps and shows me without blame or judgment where more love is asked of me. More forgiveness. More patience. It invites me into this review in relationship to myself as well and to see with kindness and clarity the experiences that have seeded my current operational standards. When I discover fear-based storytelling that I have taken for objective truth, it invites me to eject the bullshit that I excavate and plant seeds of trust and abundance in its place.

And there is a particular humility that perhaps can only be conferred by sitting for hours in the cooled effluence of one’s animal body ejecta, whether real or imagined. It is a bold confrontation with the biological machinery that controls so much of our daily emotional experience. It reveals the many ways that modern technology allows us to ignore and even deny the existence of our own viscera, whisking away our excreta, dumping it in someone else’s waterway, on someone else’s garbage mountain. These systems allow us to navigate the world as disembodied heads incidentally mounted on eating-pooping machines without ever reckoning with the cost of our consumption on the greater network of life.

In this regard, ayahuasca is particularly strong medicine. She is relentless in her pursuit of truth and healing. When the medicine first begins to come on, about 20 minutes after shooting a small cup of the thick brown brew, I experience her undeniably sentient presence entering from my crown. She investigates every part of my physical being, sussing out the darkness where her work awaits. As the medicine continues to bloom inside me, these nooks can open into canyons, exposing entire universes of experience and memory that I may not have visited since they happened to me, so strong is my body’s will to shelve unpleasant experiences in neat tomes of ancient history.

As my conscious mind travels at lightning speed through the history of the universe and I work to simply keep breathing in this vortex of light and sound, a crescendo of nauseating carousel music begins to build behind it. Visions of decaying corpses, balls of spiders, and masses of writhing eels begin to coalesce in relentless, churning patterns.

Sitting with this feeling can be torturous. My many hours alone in the dark with these visions have taught me profound patience and forced me to make a home in discomfort. Learning to observe these unpleasant sensations until my body is ready to expel them has also shown me that these nauseating patterns are running in the background of my day-to-day life even when I don’t consciously observe them. Fears that I am bad or lazy or incapable or not what I should be — that I am ultimately unlovable — take up enormous space in my subconscious if I allow them to. Just because I ignore them, does not mean they are not running the show.

Again as Funkadelic sings, “Be careful of the thought-seeds you plant in the garden of your mind / For seeds grow after their kind.”

In particularly challenging passages of these journeys, I have found myself in supplication, forehead pressed to my mat, exhausted physically and mentally beyond what I have ever known. “Please,” I beg of all that is greater and wiser than I am. “Take it. Take it all. I can’t hide anything from you. Whatever you are looking for. Please take it.” And it is usually someplace in this utter surrender that the wave breaks, and with profound relief, a purge surges through. Sometimes it comes in the form of vomit or diarrhea, other times as prolonged shaking, laughing, crying, or sighs that ripple through me from head to toe. But always, the physical expulsion is paired with tremendous emotional release.

Sometimes I don’t know exactly what it is that I’m letting go. I can only imagine that I have accumulated a fair amount of general toxicity over years of breathing city air and eating modern agriculture and factory-farmed meat. Sometimes I have the sense that I am letting go of ancestral burdens, inherited traumas that have played out in the behaviors of my parents and their parents up the line or else collective wounds inescapable for anyone living in late-capitalist, colonizer culture.

But often I do recognize what is coming out of me and am able to name it. Many times I have hung over my bucket as waves of body shame poured from me in neon sludge. I’ve laughed at myself, watching the same demons that taunted my 12-year-old self about putting on a bathing suit pass through me once again.

I’ve shat out maggots and larvae. I’ve choked up spider webs. In my first ceremony after leaving a toxic relationship, I struggled with the medicine all night, begging to be released from my agony but unable to let it go until finally, just before dawn, I ran outside and using every ounce of my will and muscular strength, coughed up a very small, very dense black slug from what felt like the depths of my soul. I beheld this glistening lump, visible only to me, in the palm of my hand, and knew at once that I was free from the manipulation and gaslighting that had colonized my spirit over the course of that relationship. When we talk about plant medicine being a kind of spiritual surgery, we are referring to exactly this kind of tumor extraction.

A great gift of the medicine has been learning to midwife my own purges, to recognize and relax my resistance more quickly, and to trust that I am held in the ultimate benevolence of the universe, safe to do such work. What magic is it that the universe, as embodied by these entheogenic plants, is willing to take our trash? Rather than leave us to fester in the anxiety and violence of our own making, they want to help. They want us to feel better. They want us to be our best selves, our best collaborators in the universe’s mycelial conspiracy of procreation and balance. That seems to me to be the very definition of love.

By the end of my time in the jungle, the incessant pace of purging had subsided, and in the negative space it created, there blossomed the most wondrous beauty. I spent the majority of my final ceremonies on my back, the songs of the medicine women falling upon me like lullabies rather than scalpels. I looked down upon myself with the reverence of one sitting on the side of a mountain and watching the moon rise over the land. Into my left arm, the tendril of a vine entered my vein like an IV. And from the rest of my body bloomed an incandescent garden humming with life. I was able to see myself as god embodied, creation and creator, with the power and responsibility to grow beautiful things with the gift of this lifetime.

I recognize that I have lost trust in this love of late. My inability to touch tenderness is a reflection of my deep fear that our world is on fire and all that I hold dear is just tinder awaiting the flame.

The massive scale of human suffering, the loss of animal species by the day, the poisoning of our water, and the burning of the earth are all signs of our current world’s death process. According to Hindu cosmology, we are living in the Kali Yuga, the last of four stages in a cycle of yugas described in the ancient Sanskrit scriptures. The Kali Yuga is a long cosmological period marked by strife, discord, unreasonable rulers, avarice, wrath, fake ideologies, socially accepted lust, extreme weather and frequent earthquakes, shortened human lifespan, mass migration, the degeneration of spirituality, and hardship for people with ideals and values.

From our human perspective, this is very scary. Relentless news of destruction is forcing us to live in persistent awareness of our tenuous hold on survival, and our culture has given us very few tools to accept this with agency or grace. Because we are taught to distract ourselves with television and the internet, social status, new clothes, new cars, and devotion to “work,” we are wildly unprepared when our mortality slams us in the face. We do not know that our culture’s values are making us unwell, that we have been denied access to our ancestors, and that we must grieve all this loss. And we forget that we are not alone in the breaking of our human hearts. “The infinite intelligence within you knows the answers,” says George Clinton.

Yet at the end of this period comes the Satya Yuga, a golden age lasting roughly four times longer than the Kali Yuga, when humanity is governed by gods and the physical world reflects pure ideals and intrinsic goodness. The chaos that we experience now is the chaos of the birth canal. Just as the baby experiences the obliteration of the world it has known for nine months and emerges into the sound and vision of our reality, we are in a vortex of transition. If we accept that the destruction we witness now is part of a mass purge making way for a new world order, one built on cooperation and life-sustaining practices, we must relinquish it all.

And so our work now is not to resist change, but to become its midwives. We must lay ourselves in supplication before the universe and say, “Please take this” and “thank you.” We must allow ourselves to die and be reborn in that trust. We must till the fertile soil of regeneration, water it with our tears of grief and rage, and tend a garden of good fruit:

“The oak sleeps in the acorn / The giant sequoia tree sleeps in its tiny seed / The bird waits in the egg / God waits for his unfoldment in man / Fly on, children / Play on.” — “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts” by Funkadelic