Holy Hallucinogens: Inside the rituals of a Colorado ayahuasca church
Deep in the forest of Colorado's Rocky Mountains is a break in the trees that forms a small campsite. In it sits 7 unassuming people, their eyes are focused contently on one another as they exchange feelings of resentment, obstruction and sorrow. They each take turns talking about desires to grow as people and for higher powers to show them the way to a better life.
I'm at an unofficial 'church' that meets here regularly. It's like a Christian church in many ways, where people gather, play music and speak about the positive changes everyone can make on the world. It's the same, except these people are going to take ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen that's highly illegal here in America.
The higher powers they speak of aren’t cosmic beings, either. To them, these are deities completely accessible. They can be experienced and heard by anyone willing to listen.
“We come here to improve ourselves, to learn from our mistakes and to evolve as people,” says Ryan, one of the participants in the ritual.
Before beginning, they each take turns ingesting an infused tea with the ayahuasca. Yet right now, none of them appear to be intoxicated beyond their comfort zone. In contrast, they appear sober, happy and excited.
Hallucinogens have been used by humans almost as long as they've been walking around Earth. All corners of the globe feature religions closely tied with hallucinogens. Hinduism enjoys Soma, the drink of the Gods. Indigenous American religions emphasize peyote and ayahuasca. And numerous others around the world speak of ancient rituals that use Amanita Mascaria.
But the modern, Western world has historically shunned these practices and their rituals, exiling them to fringe churches and labeling their medicine as dangerous chemicals.
“It’s horrible what they’ve done,” Ryan explained earlier while on our ride up to the forest. “If they’re taken in the right environment, and for the right reasons, psychedelics can have huge positive impacts in peoples’ lives."
The ritual we're at begins with prayer in the form of song, singing to ask the Queen of the Forest help them on their spiritual journey.
Churches like these have close ties to the forest and to 'Mother,' explains Jordan, the leader of the ceremony. “We are all born from this Earth and we pray to the Great Mother for guidance when we feel lost.”
The first song completes, and the members begin trading stories of obstacles they're facing in day-to-day lives. They ask each other for help overcoming these obstacles — things everyone faces in life — throughout their journey.
“We pray to you, Queen of the Forest, help your child learn their potential and break the bonds of illusion,” Jordan says repeatedly as he walks around the circle, handing each person there a drum.
The next hour is spent deep in meditation, the circle joined together in the rhythm of beating drums — eyes everywhere are calmly shut as the participants enter a deep trance.
One by one, Jordan asks them to communicate with the spirits for guidance, and to bring a rhythm from the heavens down to Earth. The campsite erupts with sound as loud drums echo through the forest. One participant, overcome with emotion, begins to cry. They dance. The tears fade quickly and give way to a smile.
Jordan then calls the circle back to the campsite, and asks for them to reflect in silence about the experience, encouraging them to continue asking the spirits for whatever it is they're asking.
The circle remains silent for well over an hour until everyone is asked to discuss their experiences with the group. There was both laughing and crying as they speak about the advice they received. One woman says the spirits reassured her that the mourning of her father's death was justified, but that his spirit lived on through her and through all those who knew him. She adds that they encouraged her to channel his love, and mix it with her own compassion as she continues with her journey.
The healing properties of their experiences appear genuine as smiles grow untethered. Each one takes their turn reflecting. One more, they begin singing hymns in praise of the spirits.
"We're just normal people trying to make sense of our own experiences," Jordan explains after the ritual comes to a close. "So many people look for answers in a book, but we seek a physical experience for our problems.
"We aren't junkies or drug addicts, we have strict no drug policy 72 hours before a ritual. We want to be clear minded when we look for our answers. This isn't about getting fucked up, it's about growing and learning how to be a better person."
In all, rituals like these take about 5 hours. Afterwards, everyone descends to the streets of Denver to hand out blankets to the local homeless they had collected previously.
Ayahuasca is still very illegal in America. It's currently classified as a Schedule I narcotic, and is only usable by a select number of churches in America. The church followed for this story is not one of them.
"We know what we are doing is illegal," Ryan says. "But that isn't going to stop us. The good that we create here outweighs any stigma the government puts on us."
The group is one of many in Colorado, confirms Jordan. He says the community here is quite large and there are many churches that use different types of rituals to achieve similar goals.
"We know that our ritual is not traditional when compared to the rituals performed in South America," adds Ryan. "But the goal here is similar, and we hope one day we wont have to practice in secret."
Understandably wary of the situation, the members were initially apprehensive about my sober participation in the group. They said that I was the first person to not take the drug and sit in on one of the ceremonies in many years of worship. Most of them admit they keep their worship a secret to families and close friends.
At the end of our time together, Jordan tells me to keep an open heart, and leaves by giving me blessing of good fortune before leaning in for a hug and sending me on my way.
Due to the legal nature of these events, names and places have been changed to protect those involved (cover photo: OpenMindTrips.com)