The world is in mourning. There are 6 million deaths from Covid alone (655 thousand of them in Brazil) – or 18 million in all, as estimated by research on underreporting (a probable total of more than 800 thousand here). Psychedelic scientists want to know if ayahuasca can bring medicine to this pandemic of sadness and helplessness.
At the head of the study is the Spanish psychologist Débora González, in partnership with the Beckley Foundation of Amanda Feilding. It intends to recruit 216 volunteers who have lost a close person in the previous 12 months and will be randomly assigned to three groups of 72 participants.
In the first group, participants will receive nine sessions of grief-focused therapy. In parallel, they will attend two ayahuasca ceremonies with their fellow students.
People in the second, control group will only participate in therapy sessions. After the nine weeks of follow-up and measurements of the intensity of grief, using standardized scales, then they will have the chance to be in an ayahuasca ritual and drink tea, if they wish.
Finally, in the third group, there will only be application of questionnaires and scales before and after nine weeks, without psychotherapy. These volunteers will also have the opportunity to witness tea ceremonies after data collection.
The proposal stems from preliminary studies carried out by González, with a small number of patients with the so-called prolonged grief disorder (like this one from 2020). About 10% of people who lose loved ones are unable to come to a good resolution of the suffering brought on by the imminent death and have their mental balance profoundly affected.
Débora González, in her biographical summary, says that she went through something like this after the suicide of a close friend. She found ways to overcome the excruciating experience also with the help of ayahuasca, with which she lived intensely in Céu do Mapiá, a community of the Santo Daime religion in the state of Amazonas.
The benefit brought by ayahuasca, according to González, stems from the fact that the death of a close person inevitably confronts us with philosophical and existential questions that are difficult to answer.
“Ayahuasca helps us delve deeply into our memories and our collective imagination, allowing us to assimilate information that is inaccessible during our usual waking state”, explains the researcher in the presentation of the project on grief by Beckley. The new information processed in therapy, she believes, facilitates the reconstruction of meaning in a life turned upside down.
Anyone who has ever drank ayahuasca understands this potential well. Participating in certain rituals, but also after using psilocybin, I would often fondly remember or feel in the presence (albeit without having visions) of my mother and father, long dead, 25 years ago and 14 years ago respectively.
For someone who is in the throes of grief, then, it seems plausible that the experience is indeed regenerating. In a talk at the 2019 World Ayahuasca Conference, González cited a man’s testimony about the effect of tea after his wife’s death. According to the description, she appeared in his mind, and his own body was turned downwards, as if the earth were calling to him:
“Then I began to feel that she was approaching, as if she came from far beneath the earth. […]. I felt his presence, his energy, just below me. It was like we were very close, facing each other.”
Finally, acceptance: “I didn’t hear words or see her image, but I could feel that she was saying she was fine, that she had come to say goodbye to me. I cried a lot, kissed the floor, said I loved her very much and let her go. From that experience I began to accept her departure and to understand that she is now in another dimension.”
In addition to being moving, the testimony is also interesting because it exemplifies a common derivation when trying to put into words or explain the marked emotional effect of psychedelic substances such as ayahuasca: one passes quickly and easily from the feelings experienced (acceptance of absence) to the mystical domain or supernatural (“another dimension”).
It would not be the case to make amends when a specific person, even less when in mourning, resorts to this type of explanation to explain what he lived under the influence of ayahuasca. When it comes to proposing and promoting its therapeutic use, however, at least two problems arise:
1. To admit in the objective sphere of science things that cannot be measured or evidenced;
2. Keep away from the potential benefit of psychedelics people who suffer, but are refractory to this type of explanation, such as skeptics, agnostics and atheists.
González seems to see such difficulties as a limitation of the science itself, not of the mystique that surrounds ayahuasca. For her, by refusing any kind of belief, the materialist and empirical Western mentality crushes the imagination and leaves no room to prove the existence of “sacred spaces” that can receive us after death.
“As Western civilization rejects this belief, it assumes another belief: that when we die, there is nothing, that when the body dies, consciousness dissolves or disappears into nothingness,” he said in the 2019 lecture.
“If we are guided by the scientific method, honestly, we will have to admit that, as long as we don’t know the origin of consciousness, death will be one of the great mysteries that we have to face, sooner or later.”
“Ayahuasca helps us to move through the mystery. Not imposing a dogma, or cosmovision, but a unique and authentic personal experience. Ayahuasca allows the mystery to present itself in us, with total creative freedom, and every inch of our guts and bodies knows how to transit through the multiple territories of the soul, where everything is alive, the mountains breathe and the dead comfort the living.”
To learn more about the history and new developments of science in this area, including in Brazil, look for my book “Psiconautas – Travels with Brazilian Psychedelic Science”