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  • Mags Houston

A lesson in psychedelic responsibility: my experience at a legal European ayahuasca retreat

These are ‘in-between’ times

We’re living through a historic era for psychedelics - caught in a fog of legalisation and criminalisation, of mounting education and research fighting off decades of stigma - a crucial period in which the parameters of psychedelic therapy are being established for the first time. It’s ridiculously exciting - the transformational potential for our healthcare system, the way we diagnose mental health disorders and how our doctors prescribe for psychiatric conditions. But this huge potential comes with an equally monumental responsibility and delicate balancing act for the pro-psychedelic community to manage in the years ahead. As the Western fascination in psychedelic research has revved back into gear over the last decade or so, we have seen a clinicalised version of ancient, indigenous healing practices grow and develop their own frameworks and structures.

‘The Age of Psychedelic Retreats’, an event I curated and hosted for the UK Psychedelic Society in March 2021, highlighted just how varied and impressionable a psychedelic experience actually is. “Set and setting” is now part of the common vernacular, it’s importance well-established and considered a vital part of any clinical trial protocol with psychedelics. There are now experts in this field who have delved into aspects of set and setting, making them the focus of their attention. For example, Dr Mendel Kaelan, who I interviewed last year, explained his journey from curating playlists for the Imperial College London research trials to launching his company, Wavepaths, which is at the forefront of psychedelic healing with music and sound. Music is a good example of how a small ‘tweak’ one way or another can greatly impact someone’s psychedelic experience, helping to steer a journey in a particular direction or to prolong a thought in order to deepen a realisation. So if we consider the scope of a retreat for crafting an experience, we reveal the extent of its potential and the enormity of its responsibility.

When you attend a psychedelic retreat, you place yourself into the care of a team of strangers - you trust that they will facilitate and guide the best experience for you and your needs. Choosing the right retreat is not a task to be taken lightly, and in these ‘in-between’ times, regulations are not yet in place to vet which organisations truly have the best interests of their participants at heart. A polished website does not necessarily equate to an adequate understanding and respect for the psychedelic medicine being administered. This is not the same as trusting in an unknown team of doctors and nurses in an unfamiliar hospital - our Western healthcare system is highly regulated and built on hierarchies that reflect years of training and qualifications before these medical professionals are deemed eligible to care for us. The same cannot be said for psychedelic therapy and healing spaces. In this largely unregulated space, where much psychedelic therapy is practised ‘underground’ in Western countries, there is little to prevent someone calling themselves a shaman and launching their own psychedelic retreat although they may have minimal or no qualifications. Even in countries like Peru, from where many of these medicine traditions originate, there are now many dubious retreat experiences on offer, as people begin to realise there is money to be made from the growing Western interest in psychedelics.

Nevertheless, I honestly feel that psychedelic medicine affords us an opportunity to avoid the pitfalls Western medicine has encountered. We have the chance to do things differently, to learn from the indigenous cultures that have practised psychedelic medicine for millennia and carve out new structures to allow people to heal and grow. University qualifications and white coats do not necessarily equal safety, lead to the highest quality of care or the most therapeutic experience. When it comes to psychedelic therapy, we must reassess the way in which we decide what makes someone suitably qualified.

Discovering the ‘mother’ of psychedelics

Exactly a year has passed since I first met with Keith Abraham, CEO of Heroic Hearts UK, to ask if there was a space for me on the team to help with marketing and project management. I had heard Keith speak on the Drug Science podcast a few months earlier, and despite having no military background myself, was immediately drawn to Heroic Hearts’ mission to provide psychedelic therapy to ex-war veterans. I believed deep down, and still do today, that this strategy could help shift stigma and convince the more conservative thought-leaders in our society of psychedelics’ healing potential. My own psychedelic experiences and the majority of my own reading had been around psilocybin and LSD at this stage. Ayahuasca always seemed out of reach, thousands of miles away in South American countries, at an enormous cost, both in terms of travel expense and extended time off work.

Yet, for me, ayahuasca has felt like the ultimate ‘mother’ of psychedelics since I first met Dr Rosalind Watts a few years ago, who at that time was a Clinical Psychologist working alongside Dr Robin Carhart-Harris at the Centre of Psychedelic Research, Imperial College London. It was at the end of her talk that I jumped at the opportunity to speak to Ros about my best friend, who had hit rock-bottom with depression and anxiety. Ros revealed that her own best friend had also suffered from crippling depression, and had travelled to Peru to attend an ayahuasca retreat from which she had returned “cured” of her depression. Ros went on to say that her friend’s experience was pivotal in inspiring her to make the move into working with psychedelics. She has gone on to become one of the leading thinkers in the psychedelic space, taking up a post in 2019 as Clinical Director at The Synthesis Institute which runs psilocybin retreats in the Netherlands.

As my network of contacts in the psychedelic space has expanded over recent years, I have gained an awareness of the underground psychedelic groups and retreats operating in the UK. Some are long-established and well-run outfits, mostly marketed and shared through word-of-mouth and email, rather than having websites or any social media presence - for obvious reasons. Full disclosure - a while back I decided, on the recommendation of a friend, to attend an underground 3-day ayahuasca retreat near London. I mention this because I feel it is important to name my first experience with the medicine since it enables a comparison with the retreat that forms the focus of this article. For the London-based experience, I was one of 30 retreat participants, and the ceremonies were facilitated by a small European team who showed a great deal of respect for the Amazonian tribal tradition accompanying the medicine.

My experience raised several questions, namely: is a ‘plant medicine practitioner’ the same as a shaman? How can one be sure these practitioners really know what they’re doing? Can a group of 30 people be looked after properly by a small team? Drinking ayahuasca, in a country in which it is illegal, a great deal of faith must be placed in the person (or people) who are in charge of the experience, because there’s nowhere to turn if it all goes wrong, apart from possibly a handful of integration circle groups. The stakes are high, but the potential rewards to be reaped as a participant are great - as anyone who has read about healing experiences or watched documentaries about ayahuasca will know. I won’t divulge too much about this experience here, but I will mention that it taught me two valuable lessons about the ‘mother medicine’: firstly, that drinking a larger quantity of ayahuasca does not necessarily mean you will have a more powerful experience, indeed, often the opposite can be true (ie. less can be more); secondly, that the same batch of the medicine can result in a completely different experience from one ceremony to the next. These are both learnings that would be demonstrated time and again during my next ayahuasca experience.

The invitation to drink ayahuasca legally

It was in July of this year that Keith asked if I would be interested in attending a legal ayahuasca retreat in Spain following an invitation he had received from a friend who had worked with Heroic Hearts US. I was already aware that Spain was a central hub for ayahuasca retreats in Europe, but I hadn’t appreciated that many of these retreats were operating “above board”! To be given the opportunity to experience a legal ayahuasca retreat in Europe, without having to journey to South America, was an absolute dream come true, so I immediately made sure I was available. This was the ideal way for me to experience ‘mother’ medicine in the safest possible environment and understand, first-hand, what it might be like for one of our veterans to attend such a retreat.

The generous offer of a place on an upcoming 8-day September retreat came from Amanda, an ex-military pilot, originally from the USA, and now successful entrepreneur. She is one of the partners at APL Journeys, an organisation running European retreats at a beautiful villa in the mountains near Marbella, in addition to retreats in Peru. Amanda's personal healing journey fascinated me, and I felt truly privileged to speak with her on a number of occasions during the week of the retreat. Despite not being in good health herself during my visit, Amanda's unquestionable commitment to ensuring the best care was given to participants was inspiring to witness. I already knew I was in safe hands, as my taxi drove through the gates at 10pm on the first night and a member of the team was already waiting outside the house to greet me.

The drive from Malaga airport to the retreat centre had taken longer than expected (1.5 hours). I had managed to confuse my arrival time and consequently had to make the trip to the villa on my own - the cost of which I was dreading! However, I received a message via the Telegram app (which all participants were asked to use for communication with the organisation team) to say that they were so "truly inspired" by the previous group (who attended the retreat the week before us), that the APL team were happy to cover my taxi fare . This unexpected act of kindness set the tone for the week: this was not an organisation driven by money, but a team of dedicated individuals motivated by helping people.

The retreat environment and schedule

My first opportunity to meet my ‘new family’ for the week came the next morning at breakfast. The diet, which accompanies any ayahuasca journey is a strict one, yet the retreat's chef, Angeles, with her ever-present smile and enviable boho style, managed to create a creative masterpiece with every meal! In addition to the more obvious no-goes such as sugar, alcohol and red meat, we weren't allowed to eat any onion, garlic, dairy, or even salt and pepper! The group of us had been following this strict diet for a minimum of 5 days prior to the retreat, with the intention to physically cleanse our bodies in preparation for the medicine, as well as to prepare us mentally for the journey we were about to embark on. Dieting is as much an act of respect to the Mother as it is respecting ourselves in the lead up to the ceremonies.

We were served breakfast at 10am and lunch at 3pm every day, plus the extra treat of a midweek evening dinner on the one day without a scheduled ceremony. These inventive, colourful meals - full of fresh fruit and vegetables - would be occasions we all looked forward to. The group sat round a large wooden table on the covered outdoor terrace, as conversation came in soft waves with plenty of space for mindful silences in between. Being someone who typically must fill every silence, I remarked on this to the group, saying that it was so wonderful to be able to enjoy these silences and that, surprisingly, they didn’t feel strange or awkward. Here, the usual social rulebook had been thrown out: rather, we were free to express ourselves without judgement, to connect with the nature around us, to meditate and be quiet.

Nature surrounded us in every direction. The villa was nestled in the hills of the town, Estepona. Due to the wildfires that had broken out in the region (caused by the exceptionally hot temperatures), the tips of the hills were lit up at night time, blazing lines of orange drawn across the landscape making it look like something out of an apocalyptic film. This spectacle would add to the magic of our walk back from the ceremony hall to our bedrooms in the small hours. Thankfully, most of the fires were extinguished by the rain that arrived midweek. Shortly before, we had prayed for rain during one of our yoga sessions, primarily because the teacher's own house was dangerously close to the encroaching fire. The sounds of donkeys, bells (from around the necks of livestock), barking dogs and insects, such as the buzz of a bee hive discreetly hidden in a nearby tree, provided the perfect organic soundtrack for the week.

Wildfires on the Spanish hills during my visit at the retreat

There were four ceremonies held over the 8 days of the retreat in a large hall located down a path at the bottom of the villa garden. The hall was kept very clean and had its own toilets - which would prove invaluable when it came to ceremony time! Each participant was given an airbed, blanket, pillow and, of course, a bucket for the inevitable purging. Initially, I felt quite fearful about the purging process. In my day-to-day life, I struggle to relinquish control, and bodily functions are a classic example of how we (sub)consciously hold onto control. Letting go of these most primal modes of control would be part of ‘mother’ ayahuasca's teaching over the course of the week - for all of us. A kambo ceremony - held in the morning of the third ceremony day (day 5) - would also prove to be a useful lesson in overcoming the fear of vomiting.

During the morning of our first full day together, importantly, time was set aside for introductions and talks from the core team comprising of Boris, Sasha and Amanda, (minus the shaman). And, since there is information about the team and friendly bitesize YouTube videos on the APL Journeys website, I felt I already knew the team before I had even arrived. This is exactly the approach any nervous participant would hope for from an organisation when making the potentially life-changing decision to join such a retreat.

Before the initial ceremony, all participants were asked to take part in a ceremonial flower bath, part of the Amazonian tradition of preparing the body for Mother Ayahuasca. The idea is that the smell of the flowers attracts good spirits, love and prosperity.

Luckily for us, it was a hot day, so having seven bowls of cold water poured over our heads was actually very welcome! You can imagine… having a pile of leaves piled on top of our wet heads and with our swimwear decorated in flower petals, we looked quite amusing, and it made an excellent photo opportunity! Now, looking back, this was just the light-hearted bonding activity the group needed as the sun set and the evening's ceremony drew nearer.

Anael pouring yet another bowl of flowers (and cold water) over my head!

Each ceremony followed the same format; in fact, so much so that by the time we had reached ceremony no. 3, I felt that comforting sense of "here we go again". The large hall was first lit up by candles. These were put out after everyone had taken their first cup - handed to each of us in turn by the shaman, Anael. Boris and Sasha first met Anael in Peru about a decade ago, when they initially encountered the medicine. After years of building up a trusting relationship, and proving their dedication to Amazonian tradition and Mother Ayahuasca, they earned the support and respect of Anael, enough for him to join them in their venture with APL Journeys. Our group could not have been in safer hands. Anael's presence throughout the ceremony was ‘angelic’ - like the Icaros he sang, during the ceremony, to protect us from evil spirits and provide the bridge to the ayahuasca world. His songs, chants and magical whistling noises would be our way to connect with the Mother and our anchor point to bring us back to ourselves and our normality. Anael was present with each and every one of us in that hall, and, like a conductor steers his orchestra to create a musical masterpiece, Anael was fully invested in helping each of us get the most out of our individual journeys with the medicine.

It quickly transpired, over conversations at breakfast and the subsequent sharing circle, that each of our journeys were truly unique and personal. It is important to understand that the intensity of these experiences was not driven by the dosage of the medicine - many of the most intense accounts of journeying came after drinking very small quantities of the medicine. It seemed that the ‘mother’ knew what each of us needed. For some, that would be to experience true bliss and euphoria, for others it might be to go to the depths of fear and emptiness in order to emerge from the other side. I was in awe of how easily and readily each participant shared their encounter with the medicine, revealing the extent to which this is lacking in our everyday connections. We were all connected by the medicine now, having journeyed together to her world.

In our free time, we would often rest, either by the swimming pool or in the communal area on the terrace, where the morning sharing circles were held. Books were available for us to read and beautiful oils to try and buy. Other activities taking place in the daytime included: gentle yoga (tailored to the needs of the group), massage therapy (given by two women with the most uplifting energy), and group therapy sessions with the retreat's Scottish psychotherapist, Ross, - whose sometimes brutal, but exceptionally honest and fast-paced method of working, was inspiring to witness. I had a personal breakthrough during one of his group sessions, which fed seamlessly into my intention for that evening's retreat. The daytime activities were all thoughtfully tailored to help inform and shape our journeys with the ayahuasca and, ultimately, our connection with ourselves, others, and the wider world - a crucial realisation when it comes to curating psychedelic experiences.

The importance of integration

Integration doesn't begin after the retreat but during, and it can take many forms since people respond differently to integration methods. Personally, I relied heavily on journaling before, during, and after the retreat in order to help make sense of my own experience and to ensure I would not forget the most important details. Anyone who has journeyed with ayahuasca can attest that words often don't feel adequate as a means of capturing such a psychedelic experience, but they can certainly help. I recall - during a previous psilocybin trip - joyfully exclaiming: "Words are silly!", as I experienced the inadequacy of human language to capture the profundity and wonder I was experiencing. In a similar way, the ayahuasca showed me the limitations of the human condition, and I took comfort in feeling the sense of something greater and wiser than ourselves, a "holy spirit" if you will.

In addition to sharing circles, time was set aside in the afternoons for us to meet privately with the shaman. For non-Spanish speakers, like myself, our words and Anael's were translated by the multilingual yoga teacher, who was truly gifted at delivering an almost instant interpretation, enabling our conversation to flow easily. I had been hesitant to visit Anael after the first ceremony because I didn't have any obvious questions for him, but decided I could at least embrace the opportunity to thank him for his incredible work the previous night. In fact, I ended up speaking to him after every ceremony, as he consistently brought such wisdom to the occasion and, in the case of challenging experiences, much-needed words of reassurance. He would help us make sense of our experiences, craft our intentions and, more practically, advise on dosage based on our previous ceremonies.

Kindness and care of the team

Each member of the core team played a vital part in the handling of the ceremonies and, more generally, of the retreat. Amanda would kneel by our airbeds as we each settled down ready for the ceremony to start, checking in with how we were feeling and asking if we had a specific intention in mind. Sasha acted as Anael's right-hand man, assisting with ceremonial duties, whilst Boris was like a guardian angel, usually first to appear by the side of anyone in distress or going through a difficult time, both within or outside of the ceremony context. The level of kindness and care I felt from each of the team - a level I'm honestly tempted to label as "unconditional love" - was deeply moving. As Mother Ayahuasca cradled us in her arms, the APL team were on hand 24-7 to provide personal support and guidance, each member completely invested in ensuring the safety of the participants.

From left to right: Boris, me and Sasha

As the end of the week approached, I wondered whether other retreats could be as caring, supportive and expertly-curated as this one? Regrettably, I am not optimistic. What APL Journeys have developed is the culmination of years of personal experience in the Amazonian forest with the medicine. For me, the week was as much an education in ayahuasca history, culture and tradition as it was an opportunity to partake in its ceremony. As we said our goodbyes and exchanged final hugs, Anael invited us to join him in Peru next year to experience Mother Ayahuasca in her natural habitat. We had all gained a new ayahuasca family, one we knew we could return to in the future when we felt called to meet with the Mother again.

There's no cutting corners

Do I wish to meet with Mother Ayahuasca again some day? I could never say never, especially as we don't know what life events might, in the future, lead us to crave another such an experience of healing and guidance. But, for now, the important part is integration - that is integrating my experience and learnings from the ayahuasca into my day-to-day life. It can be a tricky thing to go back to ‘normality’ after 8 days connecting with the ayahuasca world in the Spanish hills - feeling a new sense of freedom, magic and awe. Following the retreat, APL Journeys offer online therapy sessions with Ross, the psychotherapist; and, in addition, should anyone need it, each member of the team is available via phone, email or the Telegram app to provide support and advice.

This is how it should always be with psychedelic experiences - when a facilitator is involved in someone's psychedelic experience, they also gain some responsibility for the participant's integration. This is the only fair and safe way of holding these spaces and experiences - preparation and integration support is not optional, it is necessary. The more that can be done to educate people, the greater the chance of ensuring that the successful retreats and psychedelic programmes (currently popping up around the globe) are those which honour the medicine and, in the case of ayahuasca in particular, respect its tradition by providing the optimal duty of care for all participants. This puts the onus on you. It requires careful homework, in order to fully understand the context and culture of the plant or substance, bringing in people like Anael, whose wisdom and connection with the medicine is unquestionable, having a wealth of personal experience under your belt, and not cutting corners when it comes to providing a safe, comfortable space for participants.

Admittedly, all this comes with a price tag, and this is where participants’ education becomes key, in order to understand what exactly it is you are getting for your money: it's not only the psychedelic substance, or even the ceremony, but everything that exists around it that holistically creates the impact. When all these elements have been taken into consideration, then your chance of being able to capitalise on your experience - and become a brighter, stronger, wiser, and more focused human than you were before - is greatly increased.

I wish to thank APL Journeys for inviting me to join their 8-day September retreat and for supporting me in the writing of this article.

If this touches you in some way, and you would like to learn more about APL Journeys, and what they have to offer, please visit their website:

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