Competitive Spirituality: Experienced Ayahuasca Drinkers vs Newbies!

By Nathan Falkoff

Before I first tried ayahuasca, I remember sitting in the van en route to the retreat, listening to a veteran drinker regale us with tales of the jungle, dark shamans, and intense trips. I was instantly turned off. Suffering from a long term illness, terrified and out of my comfort zone, completely unfamiliar with shamanism, and sitting on a trove of repressed emotions, I felt insecure and resentful.

If this guy had drank so much ayahuasca, why did he make it sound so macho and sensational? Why was he bragging about war stories to an audience of newbies? Wasn’t ayahuasca supposed to lessen the ego, not heighten it? And why was I taking this all so personally?

Two years and a dozen ceremonies later, I have had the chance to interact with many first time drinkers. I am much more sympathetic to that veteran who initially turned me off. After all, we are all human, and we all like being an expert. It’s nice to have an audience listen to you with rapt attention.

However, when I feel that side of me that is inclined to brag or be the center of attention, I also remember the tremendous fear of the unknown I felt the first time, alone in a foreign country with a bunch of strangers, about to drink an ancient medicine and tap into my deepest self. Two years ago, riddled with fear and beginners insecurity, listening to that veteran made me feel excluded from the frightening new world of plant medicine—but it doesn’t have to be that way.

To compare, let’s say you are learning to play the guitar. Do you want a teacher whose first lesson is playing a guitar solo in your face? Or do you want someone who meets you at your level and gently shows you how to place your fingers and strum a chord?

Even now that I am comfortable and familiar with the world of plant medicine, I still feel echoes of that original insecurity. The world of shamanism and consciousness goes ever deeper, and there are vision quests and sun-dances and different traditions to experience. There are all the books you should have heard of, the meditations you should be doing, the yoga, the chakra balancing, the past life analysis, and have you tried ant whisperering?

As seekers interested in spirituality and self improvement, we often discuss these things flippantly over dinner. I sometimes feel a competitive aspect to these conversations, like there is a contest to who can be the most spiritual.

When I feel that competitive tendency, I remind myself that competition with others always comes from competition with yourself, a feeling that you need to do more, be better, be different. Don’t I wish I were the kind of person who could fast for seven days on top of a mountain, or drink nineteen cups of medicine and meet God, or realize just how much of a beautiful dream it all is, or subsist only on sunlight and love?

Sure! Sounds great!

Those examples are hyperbolic, but I notice myself and many people struggle with those same feelings in more routine ways. I should be doing more, I should be going deeper, I should have had another cup, why am I still working on this same issue two years later, why is everyone else having more profound experiences then me, why am I struggling when everyone else is having fun, why do I feel disconnected/sullen/low….

You don’t need ayahuasca to tell you that comparing yourself to others is a waste of energy. But sometimes it helps to have ayahuasca remind you that you are okay exactly as you are. That doesn’t mean that you are perfect and should stay static and stop growing. God forbid. Far from it, it means you are growing exactly at the rate you should be, and that your life is an unfolding process that can’t be rushed, and feeling disconnected/sullen/low is part of that.

That to me is the paradox of ayahuasca, spirituality, life. We all want to be better people, and yet to change, we have to fully accept who we are now. There is no fast forward. Change happens one day at a time, one moment at a time. All of the spiritual teachings are simple. But the journey is less about finding the right message then about being ready to hear it, and everyone is ready at a different time.

Competition and insecurity are often indicators of things we still need to work on. It can also just be human nature. Rather then getting caught up in a sense of spiritual competition, I try to remind myself that if an experience or lesson is something I need, then it will come to me in my own time. Conversely, as I’ve grown and matured and left some things behind, I try to remember the journey it took to get there. Usually it involved doing all the wrong things and learning the hard way. Later, from a new vantage point, it’s tempting to impart your hard earned wisdom to the younger and inexperienced so they avoid your mistakes. As any parent can attest, that ain’t going to work.

Not to say that sharing advice and experiences can’t be incredibly beneficial. But when you do share, remember what kind of teacher a younger you would have wanted. Remember not to guitar solo in anyone’s face.