The Science of Ayahuasca: Inside the ICEERS Study at the Temple of the Way of Light

Image courtesy the Temple of the Way of Light
Image courtesy of the Temple of the Way of Light

After his first trip to the Amazon in 2007, Matthew Watherson founded the Temple of the Way of Light as an ayahuasca healing and retreat center, and since then he has dedicated his life to learning and sharing the gifts of this immensely powerful plant medicine. To truly understand ayahuasca takes a multifaceted approach that includes both cultural traditions and practices as well as scientific observation, and, while Amazonian curanderos have generations of experience and wisdom to draw on, Western science is only now taking its first baby steps towards understanding what exactly ayahuasca is and its power to miraculously change peoples’ lives in deep and meaningful ways.

In an effort to close the gap in our scientific understanding of ayahuasca, Matthew and the Temple of the Way of Light agreed to host an independent research study with leading psychedelic research institution ICEERS (International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research & Service) and the Beckley Foundation to study the observational effects of ayahuasca treatment. Once published, it will likely be the most important ayahuasca study ever conducted. Psychedelic Times spoke with Matthew this summer about the ICEERS research project and the unique challenges that come with studying the long-term benefits of psychedelic therapy.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Matthew. Can you talk about the research at the Temple being done with ICEERS? Any exciting findings to share?

Ben de Loenen, the founder and director of ICEERS, came to the Temple in 2014 and saw that due to the high volume of guests we receive each year in our three separate centers, and because approximately 75% of our guests are first-time ayahuasca users, the Temple provides a remarkable research context from which to overcome the scientific limitations of past research.

ICEERS, in partnership with the Beckley Foundation, therefore proposed to carry out a three-year observational research study that holds the potential to be a landmark inquiry that could significantly advance the scientific and academic understanding of ayahuasca. If the majority of the participants who visit the Temple over the next year take part in this study, the final outcome will be the single largest research project ever carried out on ayahuasca.

Thanks to the study and ICEERS, a psychopathology profiling questionnaire was also added to our already comprehensive medical screening process. The Temple and our guests now benefit from an exhaustive screening process further ensuring the safety of our guests. While there is always a small margin of error, we almost certainly have the most thorough screening process in the Amazon. The study is now two-thirds of the way through, and we have heard from ICEERS that the preliminary results look very positive. More than 400 have opted into the study so far, which is clearly indicating that this is a landmark study on ayahuasca.

That is great to hear! Can you describe how you follow up with participants in the study after they leave the Temple, and what you do with all the data you collect?

It is a long and complicated process. Once each participant has attended a retreat at the Temple, all participants are asked to respond to an online set of internationally validated questionnaires (sent immediately after retreat, then at 3, 6 and 12 month intervals) measuring quality of life and well-being. Subgroups with emotional issues (depression, PTSD, grief, and anxiety) also receive specific questionnaires measuring these aspects. The results will be compared with a wait-list control group.

Once this data is collected, it will then take another 6 to 12 months to analyze the data and to write the publications. The objective of ICEERS and the Beckley Foundation is then to highlight both any risks related to ayahuasca in Western users and the long-term benefits of ayahuasca on [the] personal and spiritual well-being of Western users, as well as potential therapeutic efficacy in emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety, grief, and PTSD. The results will then be published in two peer-reviewed scientific journals as well as disseminated in articles in magazines, blogs, social networks, and other forms of media to announce the findings of the study to the general public.

The expected benefits of the study include the advancement of scientific knowledge on the effects, risks, and benefits of ayahuasca, generating a solid response towards claims from the International Narcotics Control Board regarding ayahuasca, and exploring the potential of classifying ayahuasca as traditional medicine by the World Health Organization.

We are also exploring other research possibilities with a research organization and some academic institutions in the U.S. who are interested in sending graduates to carry out qualitative studies as well as establish internships at the Temple. Our primary focus, however, for these past two years has been the study with ICEERS. If we asked our guests to be carrying out more than one study at a time, it could be detrimental to their healing process and their privacy.

Integration plays a critical role after intense psychedelic therapy such as the ayahuasca journeys that the Temple provides. How do you approach the integration process?

Yes, my only concern regarding the study is understanding that the Temple can manage only one of the three important stages of the healing journey. Successful ayahuasca healing work requires the right conditions and effort in three key phases: preparation, receiving healing, and integration. While we provide optimal conditions to facilitate the healing process whilst guests are attending retreats, we cannot completely oversee how thoroughly guests prepare for the retreat (for example, following dietary restrictions or setting intentions), nor how seriously they attend to the integration process.

Integration in particular is crucial to long-lasting positive healing outcomes: here the responsibility lies on the seeker to ground and sustain the treatment and to continue to work with whatever material comes up post-retreat. Over the past year, our focus at the Temple has been on developing a three-month “Continuing Care Program” to truly motivate, educate and inspire our guests on all aspects of integration.

Partly this has been motivated by our perception that some people are not committed to the integration process post-retreat, and that, therefore, the potential of the healing to filter into their daily life is diminished or lost. If one is not willing to continue personal work after a retreat, then the healing opportunity is limited. Ayahuasca will not completely rescue you. It will lift the lid if you are stuck in a dark hole in your life, shine a light from above, throw you a rope—but you need to climb up it yourself. It will not completely pull you up without you putting in any effort. If you really want transformational healing, you must be willing to pull yourself up. The most significant change comes when you become aware of and have the courage to face, not run from or bypass, all aspects of your shadow. By doing so, you rewire your ways of thinking, relating, and being.

We learn by working with the medicine that ultimately no one and no thing is to ‘blame’ for how we feel. Our perspective of triggers from the outside begins to shift into revealing opportunities and messages that show us the areas that we need to work on within ourselves. Emotional charges, uncomfortable feelings, and judgments of our self or others are all incredibly opportunistic treasures that we can either harness or cast aside (typically blaming others for our feelings). The rudder and the sail to navigate one’s way through the healing journey is through recognizing, accepting, and mastering one’s emotions and quieting one’s mind. If you are not willing to develop these skills, then my advice is, do not drink ayahuasca!

Ayahuasca is both a doctor and a teacher. The teachings that come are received most clearly in ceremony and then more subtly post-ceremony. The medicine shines a light into your unconscious, helping you become aware of self-destructive patterns, conditions, and programs buried in your subconscious. The symptoms of these patterns are difficult emotions, which in the integration process you are then encouraged to face, rather than to suppress, control, or sedate. In facing these emotions, you develop emotional mastery, becoming more and more able to transmute the underlying patterns and energies into life-affirming, positive life force. This long process after a retreat is the key to genuine spiritual awakening.

 

It is a very exciting time to be alive in many ways, and watching the marriage of Western science and traditional entheogens is one of those wonderful ways.  We are very grateful to Matthew, the Temple of the Way of Light, ICEERS, and the many other psychedelic pioneers who have made it their life’s work to bring these ancient healing practices into the modern world with a holistic appreciation for both the cultural traditions they emerged from and the discerning lens of science.  Stay tuned to ICEERS, the Beckley Foundation and the Temple of the Way of Light on social media to hear about the results of these studies as they become available.
 

Psychotherapists and other experts are harnessing the transcendent power of psychedelics to treat mood disorders, substance addiction, and much more. The staff at Psychedelic Times is here to provide guidance and support through the processes of psychedelic integration and recovery coaching. Contact us with your questions about psychedelic therapy―the journey starts today.

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Wesley Thoricatha

Wesley Thoricatha is a writer, visionary artist, permaculture designer, and committed advocate for psychedelic therapy as a means to a more meaningful and harmonious world.

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