Table Of Contents
So this is it.
You’ve heard about ayahuasca everywhere. You just listened to your brother’s friend’s aunt talk about her life-changing ayahuasca experience. She’s calm, centered, and has this radiant glow. After melting her ego and hurling her through the far-reaching realms of distant galaxies, she had the epiphany that everything is energy vibrating at different frequencies, and she is not fundamentally separate from all living beings on the planet.
Your interest has officially peaked.
You’re now feeling the call to sit in your first ayahuasca ceremony, but you’re not sure where to go.
This scenario is becoming all-too-common, not just for ayahuasca but for people looking to experience the full range of psychedelic ceremonies coming onto the scene. You can now easily find circles for LSD and psilocybin, 5Meo-DMT, MDMA, ketamine, Kombo, peyote, and San Pedro, not to mention more people seeking out iboga.
Whatever psychedelic or sacred plant medicine you’re interested in journeying with, it’s absolutely crucial to know who the shaman, guide, or lead facilitator will be; they will be primarily responsible for your safety, health, and wellbeing.
The importance of “vetting your shaman” is becoming increasingly pertinent.
There has been an enormous spike of interest in psychedelics growing over the past 10 years. This is partly due to the shift in tone the media has taken in reporting on psychedelics. This is due to the recent wave of psychedelic research showing that these potent substances have a wide range of therapeutic effects, including being an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.
Highlighting this research in his book “How to Change Your Mind,” Michael Pollan played an influential role in shifting the cultural narrative around psychedelics into a more positive light.
This explosion of interest has far-reaching consequences, and although this latest psychedelic renaissance has been incredibly positive, it also comes with a shadow side.
Some of these shadows include far-too-many people claiming to be experienced shamans or facilitators, while having minimal experience themselves.
Whenever there’s a demand for something, there’s always going to be people who exploit the situation to profit from it, regardless of their underlying intentions or experience.
It’s no surprise that ayahuasca ceremonies are turning into big business with the average ceremony costing anywhere from $200 to $800 per night.
This level of unprecedented interest has led to the explosion of “ayahuasca tourism” in several central and south American countries, including Peru, where locals exploit demand and pretend to be shamans. Millions of people go to these countries seeking an “authentic” ayahuasca experience, yet have no idea how to do their proper due diligence. As a result, many people have traumatic, psychologically-damaging experiences.
You probably wouldn’t believe the insane stories I’ve directly heard from the people who went through these horrible experiences.
I know more than a few women who have been sexually abused in an ayahuasca ceremony, and these kinds of stories are becoming all-too-common.
I know someone (who’s smart, grounded, and rational) who got scammed out of almost ten thousand dollars from the shaman they went to work with in Peru. They trusted this shaman, and they were taken advantage of during a time they were energetically open, easily influenced, and vulnerable. This story is also, unfortunately, becoming commonplace.
I also know of a shaman who tested a variety of chemicals on participants in his ayahuasca ceremonies for many years. He would ask them to verbalize their experience so he could better understand what these chemicals did to people’s consciousness. This was all done without their consent. Totally insane! It can honestly be hard to wrap your mind around what some people are capable of.
More and more people are leading retreats that offer psychedelic experiences and ayahuasca ceremonies. It is especially important to do your due diligence and ask how much experience the facilitators who are leading the retreat have. Even if they aren’t serving the medicine and directly guiding the ceremonies, and have other people to do that, they are still organizing the retreat. If you are paying them for the retreat, they are responsible for your health and safety.
Recently, a company invited me to attend and teach at their “world-class” ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica. Their company and team were responsible for over twenty participants – many drinking ayahuasca for their first time. The people leading the retreat didn’t do their proper due diligence, and they neglected to vet the shaman they invited to hold space. They also neglected to think through many of the necessary safety protocols. None of them had ever directly sat with this shaman, and they blindly trusted him because someone recommended him (and likely also because he was Peruvian and looked the part.) We only found out that he had minimal experience because I pressed the issue.
Shit happens in ceremonies and safety protocols do matter. I know a friend who will forever have paraplegia because he fell off the edge of a balcony in the middle of an ayahuasca ceremony that had no railing and wasn’t intentionally blocked off. This person has a wife and children.
I’m not telling you these stories to scare you. I’m telling you so that you feel motivated to take your due diligence seriously. These unfortunate stories are what give plant medicines and psychedelics a lousy name.
I wholeheartedly believe in the transformational benefits of psychedelics and sacred plant medicines. I have enormous trust in their inherent capacity to heal. Yet, I don’t wholeheartedly trust that every single shaman or guide out there has the purest of intentions or the necessary experience.
So why wouldn’t you want to vet your shaman? Wouldn’t you want to know the qualifications of a doctor who’s about to operate on you? That may seem like an extreme comparison, but it’s a lot more accurate than you might think. It’s your right to ask whatever questions you deem appropriate to feel safe.
If you are feeling the call to embark on this journey, I genuinely want you to have the safest, most transformational experience with professional, responsible shamans, guides or facilitators, who hold your safety as their highest priority.
There is an incredibly wide range of experiences being served up out there. Do your homework. This guide will help steer you in the right direction so you can sit with authentic and qualified people and help minimize your risk.
Keep in mind this content is for educational purposes only. Please read my disclaimer and official stance on psychedelics here.
When it comes to vetting your shaman, here’s a list of 41 questions you may want to consider exploring with them, so you can get a better read on their character and qualifications.
Knowing how much experience your facilitator has is a great place to start.
One of the most common scenarios is that people start facilitating ceremonies after they’ve had very few psychedelic experiences themselves.
With people now able to take “certified” shamanic training over a weekend, the situation is much scarier than you might think. Thousands of highly unqualified, inexperienced people are holding space for other people. This is soooooo not ok, and you would be amazed at how often this happens.
Choosing to facilitate is a massive responsibility and should not be taken lightly. You want to work with someone who has a deep well of experience to draw upon through the full spectrum of challenging situations that might arise in a supportive and effective manner.
Nothing beats experience (and integrity) when facing the full spectrum of challenging situations (like someone who won’t stop screaming at the top of their lungs and risks waking up the neighbors) to medical emergencies (someone falling off a balcony or having a full-on psychotic break.)
These first five questions are the best place to start and are absolutely essential to vetting your shaman or facilitator. These questions will give you some pretty big indications and insight about the person who will be guiding your psychedelic experience.
Questions to ask of your guide/shaman/facilitator about their personal experience:
You can get a pretty good sense of someone after talking to them for just 30 minutes. Get to know them and their story. Additional questions you may want to ask about their experience:
What you’re looking for here is authenticity, humility, and awareness that facilitating is a huge responsibility. Any responses that don’t give that impression could be considered a red flag. Trust your intuition.
It’s always good to know what you will be consuming, especially for ayahuasca ceremonies, but also for other psychedelic circles as well.
One of the lead facilitators of the ayahuasca retreat I mentioned earlier reprimanded me for asking the shaman what he put in his ayahuasca brew because he thought it was disrespectful to him.
No one should be operating on this kind of blind faith and trust.
The main reason people die in ceremonies is because of unknown plant add-mixtures, like Tohé or tobacco added to the brew. These add-mixtures also have medical contraindications, and everyone should be informed about what they are consuming before they consume it.
This isn’t just for ayahuasca. Different psilocybin strains have different effects, and some LSD is cleaner than others. Synthetic 5Meo from China is different from the 5Meo you can smoke that comes from Bufo frogs from the Sonoran desert.
Be informed about what you are consuming.
Just having a conversation about what medicine this facilitator works with will allow you to get to know them better and how knowledgeable they are. You’re not explicitly asking who they buy it from, since it doesn’t matter, and they are unlikely to tell you, but you can ask:
Questions 24 through 27 are questions related to the ceremony itself. These questions can give you a good idea of what to expect, and how loose or strict their ceremonial “container” is.
The questions surrounding safety protocols are especially important. Since psychedelics and sacred plant medicines like ayahuasca are still illegal in many parts of the world, lead facilitators might be afraid to call for the necessary help because of the legal ramifications.
Even where ayahuasca is legal, you want to make sure that the center you are drinking medicine at also has safety and medical protocols in place.
There was a shaman in Peru who buried a man who died in his ceremony without telling anyone because he didn’t want to be held accountable. And although this is an extreme example, you do want to make sure whoever is guiding you through your journey will absolutely prioritize your safety above all else.
I once sat with shamans who discouraged drinking any water until they did a water blessing at the end of the ceremony. I was experiencing severe dehydration from overdoing it in the sun earlier that day, and their assistant refused to help me get water. I was on the verge of passing out, and the assistant stood her ground, risking my personal safety and wellbeing. This is just not ok.
Whether you are thinking about attending an ayahuasca or psilocybin retreat in another country, or a weekend ceremony in California, you might want to ask:
Not having adequate support to prepare for your journey, or the support to help integrate your psychedelic experience can undoubtedly qualify as red flags. Again, these questions will give you a good sense of how qualified this facilitator is to support you through this potentially life-changing process.
When you ask all of these questions to vet your shaman, use your intuition and gut feeling around the integrity and professionalism of this person’s character.
Do you feel like you can trust this shaman or facilitator, and would you feel safe with them?
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to go all-in for your first ceremony or psychedelic journey. You can ask to start with a smaller dose and just get your feet wet to ease into the psychedelic, mind-altering experience. This can allow you to become familiar with their facilitation style and help you establish a relationship of trust before going back for a deeper dive.
If you commit to a ceremony or any psychedelic journey for that matter but don’t feel safe or feel like something is off when you show up, it’s your right to choose not to participate.
Listen to your internal guidance system.
If someone is not willing to take 15 to 30 minutes of their time to answer your questions before you commit to sitting with them in a ceremony, this is a significant reason to be concerned. Shamans are people too. They should be down to earth and personable enough to have a heartfelt conversation with you and address any of the questions or concerns you might have.
I use to make the recommendation that you should first and foremost sit with someone who comes highly recommended by someone you know and trust. But things have changed. Although that might be better than going off of an online review, considering how many people are new to this work now, the person who made the recommendation might not have enough experience to know that the shaman they sat with is unqualified. They also might not have anything else to compare their experience with.
Just because you receive a recommendation from someone you know, doesn’t mean you should cast your intuition aside and skip your own due diligence.
The questions I’ve offered in this comprehensive guide to vetting your shaman (guide or facilitator) are simply suggestions and a good place to start. Some of them may not be applicable, and I’ve likely missed others that are more pertinent to your unique and individual situation. While speaking with the facilitator, other questions are likely to arise naturally through your conversation. Use your intuitive discretion and best judgment.
Please read my disclaimer here for my official stance on the use of psychedelics and sacred plant medicines.
Do your research and know the risks.
If you are considering journeying with psychedelics in the comfort of your own home, read this 11 step guide to having a safe psychedelic journey at home.
Please consult with a medical doctor before embarking on your first psychedelic trip, especially if you are taking antidepressants or have a known heart condition. It is especially unsafe to mix ayahuasca with SSRI medications.
May all your psychedelic journeys and sacred plant medicine ceremonies be safely held and open up doorways of healing and transformation for you in your life. May each of your journies be held by people who genuinely care about this work, and who hold you in loving grace.
For aspiring Bodhisattva’s on the plant medicine path.