Is Ayahuasca a Drug?

Is ayahuasca a drug?

The following is a recent correspondence with a reader of Love Unbroken:

Reader:  Hi Susan, greetings from Madrid, Spain. I was reading “love unbroken” and I have left the book in chapter 19. From one side, it is a moving history, sure. But there something I cannot understand. The book is about the drama of addiction and you spend the whole book recommending the drink of ayahuasca which is another kind of addiction. Yes, I know it is a sacred plant, but in the end, depending on ayahuasca to have a spiritual high is addiction. You give your power to the plant. Most of occidentals find in ayahuasca a way to escape from reality. In the words of your daughter: “I need drugs and I could care less what I put in my body if it alters my mind in any way” I don’t understand Susan. You are a mature practionner of Pathwork. You know we should not depend on nothing to contact the god
within. To be honest, I would prefer not to have read this book. I
loved the Susan of “the undefended self”.   Now I’m confused.

Kind regards, Luis

[Susan’s note:  “The Undefended Self” is my first book, which is a summary of the teachings of the Pathwork, which I taught for over thirty years.]

Susan replies:

Dear Luis,

I note that you have not finished the book Love Unbroken.  The final third of the book hardly mentions ayahuasca, so I don’t think it is fair to say the book “recommends ayahuasca.”  I invite you to read the “Disclaimer” at the end of the book which specifically states why I do NOT recommend ayahuasca to anyone.

Nonetheless, I appreciate very much your writing your concern about Love Unbroken. You have given me an opportunity to address a concern which I expect many people share.

Your confusion about ayahuasca and drugs is very understandable. Many people think the way you do – that all mind-altering substances are the same and are all bad, especially for people on a spiritual path. However, the subject is much more complex than that.  As the Pathwork Guide and all spiritual paths teach, life is not dualistic, with things being simply good, or simply bad.

I would advise that, before you believe the culture’s ideas on the subject of drugs, you investigate a little more deeply.  You might begin with the book that a well-respected American physician, Dr. Andrew Weil, wrote many years ago called From Morphine to Chocolate.  He points out that many substances—from morphine to chocolate and including alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine—have mind-altering properties.  It’s just that some of these substances have become so ingrained in the conventions of our society now that we don’t think of them as “bad” the way we do the “illegal” mind-expanding drugs.

Dr. Weil also reminds us that many indigenous cultures used mind-altering substances in the service of contacting the spiritual realms.  He writes about how the universal impulse for contact with something “larger” than oneself has been perverted in modern times into a drug culture where pill-popping is common and drug addiction rampant.  Some drugs guarantee addiction: heroin, cocaine, meth-amphetamine, and alcohol taken in excess.  Some drugs cannot readily be abused in this way:  ayahuasca, peyote, and ibogaine are among them.  Often abuse is a matter of context and intent: some psychedelics can produce very positive results (see the research at but, if taken without adequate direction and positive intent, can be very destructive.  The study of what is a “good” use of mind-altering drugs and what is a “bad” use is complex, and depends on intent and context.  Research into this area is required so as not to simply reflect the prejudices of contemporary culture.

Remember that looking through the telescope was considered really bad, heretical even, in medieval Europe because it was believed that humans had no business looking at the heavens. People were killed as heretics for doing this. Some psychedelics, if used with proper intent, allow you to look more deeply at the structure of reality, a reality that is taken for granted by the conventional culture. To see beyond the conventional reality is threatening to a culture. We don’t kill heretics any more, but we do try to make them “wrong.”

And so, the US and most Western European governments codify conventional thinking by labeling all mind-altering or psychedelic drugs as VERY BAD, with no medicinal uses. And yet some governments, even in the United States (and of course in Brazil), recognize that some substances that might be “bad” if used carelessly, may indeed be “good” if used as a sacrament in a religious context. The US Supreme Court voted unanimously to approve the use of the ayahuasca sacrament in the context of a legitimate Brazilian church.

My husband and I came to feel that, in the case of ayahuasca, taken ceremonially in the context of a legal Brazilian religion, it could be part of the “solution” to the problem of drug addiction, not part of the “problem.”

More personally….

I did not choose to use ayahuasca casually. My life situation was dire, and the Pathwork alone offered no solutions. The Pathwork does not deal with addiction, spirit possession or serious mental illness. Other avenues were needed. I was desperate for something that could break through my daughter’s despair and my anxiety. I had gone as deep as possible with the Pathwork. I lived “the undefended life.” I still do. But when “the undefended self” encountered the multiple challenges of addiction, spirit possession, and serious mental illness, I had to go outside the boundaries of conventional Pathwork for help.

I went to 12-step programs for my own recovery from the family disease of addiction.  12-step programs deal effectively with addiction and, while they are “outside” the Pathwork, are certainly compatible with it.  As a young teenager, my daughter was not ready for the work of the 12-steps, and certainly not for the work of the Pathwork. We took our daughter to many therapists, psychiatrists, and even to a residential treatment center where she was “incarcerated” for two years. Nothing worked. No amount of therapy, nor this behavior-modification boarding school, touched her deeper issues.

And yet one experience of ayahuasca in the context of Santo Daime ceremonies in Brazil opened her up to the presence of God in a way that nothing else did. Once she had a palpable experience of the presence of God she knew that she was not hopeless. She and I believe that the Santo Daime saved her life by opening her up spiritually. Even though she still had to go through her addiction, until it was done, she would surely have been dead had she not carried in her heart the hope for liberation from addiction which the Daime visions gave to her. Later on Pam was ready for therapy and for 12-step work, but in the beginning of her descent into addiction, it was the Daime which gave her a glimpse of hope for a way out of her insanity.

For myself, no amount of probing and releasing childhood images, buried feelings, or past life experiences or calling in my higher self healed my chronic anxiety. My life was nonetheless perfectly manageable and I was successful as author, teacher, and Pathwork helper until the challenge of dealing with and finding help for my daughter presented itself. That challenge crumbled my idealized image as teacher and mother and catapulted me into a search for somewhere my soul could rest, a place beyond all ego ideas about who I thought I was.

That “resting place” came in the form of surrender to the archetype of the Divine Mother, completely resolving a “mother wound” that nothing else had been able to heal. I have never since felt any feeling of emotional deprivation or lack of love. The deep comfort that came from this surrender led me–once again through the “door of devastation”–to the discovery that “the Mother and I are One.” This shift in perception about who I thought I was then became foundational for a new way of being in the world. I am not a mother or a teacher or a writer. Instead, there is only this One unified field of love and this body-mind called Susan is, fundamentally, simply
an expression of That.

Without this spiritual opening on my part, I could not have gone the distance in helping my daughter.  Because of this shift in perception, I was enabled to sustain hope, to stand by her until she was ready for recovery. Something larger than my personal “higher self” had to come in, something beyond anything I found in the practice of Pathwork. That “something larger” came to me through the disciplined use of the sacrament of the Santo Daime.

Could my healing and Pam’s have come some other way—sure, theoretically. Maybe we could have been knocked to the ground like Saul of Tarsus and received directly from Jesus Christ the “blow” to our former selves that opened up the possibility of radical transformation. But in our case, that blow to the ego self and that opening to radical transformation included the use of a psychoactive substance.

It might have come another way, and I’ve often wished it had come another way. We have gotten a lot of negative response, in the U.S. and in Brazil, from Pathworkers who do not want to be associated with this path that we took. I have sympathy for that. The Pathwork is the Pathwork. The Santo Daime is the Santo Daime. They are different paths – each can work on the transpersonal level, but the methods are different. I have walked both paths.

The Pathwork is in my bones – I practice compassionate observation every day, embracing all that arises in consciousness. I am open to feelings and do my best to process all emotional reactions so that my expression comes from a genuine place, not a reactive place. I practice deep authentic honesty with others (when they are open to it). For these practices I thank Eva Pierrakos and the Pathwork Guide.

The connection to the Divine Mother is also in my bones. She is my mother, my teacher, my guru. And I am She. For this comfort and this awareness I thank the Santo Daime.

I no longer call myself a Pathwork teacher and I no longer drink Daime.  Both paths served me well, but I no longer identify with either path.  It feels like they have completed themselves for me. Instead, now the day-to-day practice of awareness and compassion and honesty and, above all, surrender to and trust in each moment just as it is, are all that are needed to guide me.  My “teacher” is my life. Actually life and teacher and “me” are just one stream of awareness and compassion unfolding flawlessly.

I hope this has been useful to you. I am happy to continue the dialogue. If you want to hold on to the “Susan of The Undefended Self” feel free to do so!  But if you want to know what it is like to meet a severe life challenge from the place of living from the undefended self, then read Love Unbroken. From this you may learn something about letting your heart be broken open and surrendering to the power of a love that is unbroken, unharmed, untouched by all our human dramas and heartbreaks. I can assure you that, sooner or later, awareness of this deeper love will come to everyone. How that unbroken love comes to you will be your path, not my path.  I can only write about how it came to me.

Blessings to you on your path!    Susan Thesenga


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