Category: Words

Selected thoughts, essays, and poems.

Is Ayahuasca Right for You?

Chris-Kilham-Palo-santo-Jef jpg

January 9, 2015 – Book review of The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook by Chris Kilham, a backpack guide to the healing powers of the sacred Amazonian plant brew. Includes an interview with the author. 

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with ayahuasca was through William S. Burroughs. That is to say, several years ago I read The Yage Letters, which was Burroughs’ collected correspondence with poet Allen Ginsberg as he traveled to the Amazon in search of the elusive “final fix.”

Since then, I’ve learned a great deal more about the powerful and mysterious plant-derived brew that goes by many different names. And while all accounts verify that you will, indeed, find the high that Burroughs was looking for through ayahuasca, others suggest there’s much more to glean from the experience; that the plant offers one enhanced self-awareness and even spiritual enlightenment.

Chris Kilham is a medical plant expert, author, and educator who has participated in more than 80 ayahuasca ceremonies over the past eight years. Over that span, he has become one of the foremost advocates for the healing benefits of the ayahuasca space, and has recently compiled a comprehensive introduction to the experience in The Ayahuasca Test Pilot’s Handbook. Kilham approaches ayahuasca from a perspective of ultimate respect, and often refers to the plant brew by its most reverential and descriptive name, La Medicina. For Kilham and many others, ayahuasca has been so positively life-changing, that he felt compelled to write the backpack guide so that others may also safely and effectively wade into the healing waters of the ayahuasca experience.

Kilham’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. Though knowledge of ayahuasca and its use as part of the South American shamanic tradition has been well-known in select circles for many years, it’s been a relatively recent development that the Sacred Vine has found a much wider and receptive audience. As public awareness grows, so has the ayahuasca tourism industry in places like Iquitos, Peru, and experienced ayahuasca journeyers like Kilham feel a responsibility to make sure that people know what they’re getting into. In the event that this is the first time you’ve read about ayahuasca, a recent Newsweek Q&A with Kilham is a good primer to what goes into the brew and what you might encounter—both physically and otherwise—when you enter the ayahuasca space.

Known as The Medicine Hunter, Kilham has made a career out of traveling the world investigating the medicinal qualities of plants. As he describes in the Handbook, Kilham has been familiar with ayahuasca since reading about it in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he drank his first cup after realizing that he was having a difficult time overcoming the grief related to the passing of his mother. The first set of ceremonies helped him not only overcome that grief, but replenished his emotional energy and allowed him to reconnect with himself and loved ones. More than 80 ceremonies later, Kilham approaches ayahuasca as a way to stay balanced, and now incorporates meditation into the ceremony, which he says has helped him navigate the unpredictable psychedelic waters of the ayahuasca space as well as gain him even deeper access to the consciousness-expanding qualities of the plant.

Kilham’s extensive first-hand experience and his affable nature make him the ideal spokesperson for ayahuasca. As he describes it, the topic compels people to talk and ask a lot of questions, and his many conversations over the years revealed some common questions that weren’t being answered by the literature on ayahuasca up to that point. While there have been plenty of great books written on the topic, Kilham couldn’t find any that presented the information people were looking for in an accessible format, and he recognized a need for the Handbook.

Taking readers step-by-step through the process of ceremony, from the botanical basics of the brew to an orientation of the ceremonial space to sharing some of his most memorable journeys, Kilham’s book offers everything short of the experience itself. He also offers invaluable advice on how to differentiate between good shamans and bad shamans, and—most importantly—the medical risks one should be aware of before embarking on a journey. As he notes, the negative stories surrounding ayahuasca often involve either shady shamans or journeyers who don’t fully disclose what medications they might already be taking. In this regard, Kilham demystifies the less understood aspects of ayahuasca, and his book serves as an antidote to some of the ignorance associated with the plant and its purpose. Kilham is also quick to point out that while he fully endorses the safe and reverent use of ayahuasca, anyone considering drinking it in the United States should be aware that the brew is currently classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. In addition to being illegal, Kilham emphasizes in the book that setting (specifically, in the Amazon under the guidance of a trained shaman) is a major factor in determining whether or not one has a beneficial experience. While he acknowledges that it is possible to reap the emotionally-cleansing benefits of ayahuasca without being in the Amazon, the brew seems to be its most effective when paired with the natural setting and traditional rituals of the shamanic ayahuasca ceremony.

Personally, reading Kilham’s book made me even more interested in experiencing ayahuasca first-hand. While the Handbook answered pretty much every question I had about the experience, I still realized I was trying to answer the question, “Is ayahuasca right for me?” To help me figure that out, I spoke with Chris at length about his spiritual approach to the plant as well as the logistics of traveling to the Amazon and making sure you’re in safe hands. I found Chris’ responses to my questions so helpful that I thought they might help others, too, so I decided to turn the transcript of our conversation into the first episode of the Abstract Notions podcast, which you can listen to and download above.


Four Months Later

Four months later,
they sit surrounded by
legalistic redundancies
that line the walls
and wear starched shirts
stained with dinginess.

Mirrors to the guilty,
hot mics amplify
“yes’s,” “no’s” and “that’s correct;”
Each one another
scoop of soil
tossed onto love long dead.

Like big-city coroners,
two women toil desensitized;
Typing and filing away past lives
organized by case numbers
while one wonders how they smile
after tasks of such undertaking.

Presiding on high,
the commissioner:
“Your Honor” reduced
to non-judgmental echo
of time-wasting
paperwork mazes.

With a final query
and consequential affirmation,
“I do” digresses to “I did”
as the stenographer
drops a rose
with one last keystroke.

And outside,
two balloons
catch diverging updrafts
and float freely
having been released
from a debilitating tangle.

February, 2004

From a Leafless Perch

From a leafless perch
set back
on the bank
of a concrete stream,

it watches
with a graceful gaze
as rainbow blurs of steel
swim past
at 80 miles a second.

Lifting one
and then the other,
its talons clasp tight
atop the birch
as a cold clip blows:
Nor’easter off the lake.

Generations long since past
spent their days
from tree to tree
in a gray sky
sprinkled with snowflakes.

But today, it waits
with a priest’s patience
and casts its graceful gaze
to the wrong side of the stream
where another victim of the sprawl
laps at the dust of the bone-dry bed, then

And as two worlds collide,
it tightens its grip
letting go and lifting off

from a leafless perch
set back
on the bank
of a concrete stream.

January, 2004

An Experiential Theory on the Meaning of Life


What are we really trying to find out when we ask, “what is the meaning of life?” Does the answer ultimately matter? Does the sense of purpose make a life better lived? Or does the question actually expose an unnecessary desire to apply purpose to everything as a prerequisite for fulfillment?

If one considers the “purpose” of this life is to simply experience it, the journey becomes much more important than any destination. This is hard for us to grasp, though, because it suggests the journey should have no end, which confuses us as a goal-oriented species.

Perhaps the answer to the ultimate question is staring us in the face, only we can’t see it because it’s not the answer we’ve trained ourselves to look for. In other words, if we think of “what” as everything in this existence within our ability to experience, then a simple punctuation change reveals the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life.”

Daydream on a flight between Kansas City and Milwaukee, Dec. 26, 2014. I don’t think I broke any new philosophical ground here, but the exercise did help me better organize my thoughts on the matter. At any rate, it was a fun way to spend an hour-long flight.

Photo above is a shot I took at Halona Beach Cove, O’ahu, Hawaii on June 20, 2014. 


Everything in Moderation, Especially Facebook

In the month since we’ve been back she’s had little desire to log into Facebook. While I’ve noticed that she still pops in occasionally, she barely scrolls through her feed before quickly losing interest. A week away not only helped her realize how much of a daily distraction it had become, but also how unfulfilling a connection it is for keeping in touch with people.