Is everybody drinking ayahuasca now? In Episode 6 of the Netflix series Russian Doll, Nadia, the character played by the show’s co-creator Natasha Lyonne, does make a passing reference to the dark psychedelic brew that’s sweeping — or not, hold tight on that front — through such cities as Portland, Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Note: If you’re looking for a pop-culture read on the series, let me disabuse you now: I’m not your guy. A few years after Avatar had become the most (financially) successful movie in history, I knew so little about it that I could not communicate a single identifying detail about the film in a game of charades.
But even I can recognize a truly meaningful cultural phenomenon when I see one. And Russian Doll can be read as an eerily precise crystallization of the ayahuasca experience: A hallucinatory, extreme and often challenging perspective-taking on one’s life story, both lived and ancestral. Everyone’s experience of ayahuasca — or yagé, or aya, or la medicina — is different, of course, and as variable as is everyone’s personal experience. But there are common threads, and Russian Doll picks up several of them.
For starters, there’s the notion that our recurring experiences — what some call the spiral — is a subtle but deeply powerful form of spiritual teaching.
There is a recognition that death may not be the final and terrifying cessation of life itself, but merely a portal into a new phase, into new opportunities for healing and learning.
And most impactfully, there is the recognition that none of us traverses this life alone; that we are interdependent not only with other humans but with the vast (and vastly challenged) ecosystem of the planet; and that reaching out to other humans is a core element of our own healing, especially for those of us who feel separated, traumatized, and cut off from this life.
Ayahuasca: A Primer
Ayahuasca may not — or may — be a household name. But if you’ve any interest in self-directed spirituality, in psychedelics, or in the absorption of plant medicines into daily life (CBD shot in your coffee, anyone?) you’ve likely at least heard of it.
Ayahuasca is a beverage brewed from two Amazonian plants, a vine called caapi or ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Ingesting either by itself is not psychoactive; how humans discovered the method of accessing the drug’s properties is a story in and of itself, and one unknown, at least to Westerners. The standard answer, according to the shamans who prepare and dispense the brew, is: “The plant told us.”
The ayahuasca experience — or ceremony — is a roughly 5 to 7-hour journey, often conducted over consecutive nights. While there are hallucinogenic components, the drug might more correctly be called an entheogen, in that it fosters — or merely reveals — a deep connection to spirit (or life-force, or God, or Pachamama, or source).
For those primarily interested in an inwards journey — say, the intense visuals and spectral travel associated with DMT in isolate, or psilocybin or other psychedelics — ayahuasca will challenge our notions of aloneness, of separation from this world and from one another.
For those of us who feel cut off from life, as does the cynical and self-sufficient Nadia in Russian Doll, it’s often a deeply uncomfortable revelation. We have everything we could possibly need, say the hardened and spiritually bereft. And yet no amount of diversions, whether they be the video games, plastic clamshells of chocolate cake, recreational drugs or casual sex that give the world of Russian Doll its inflection, seem to make us feel whole.
The notion that we’re reliving the same experiences over and over is hardly unique to ayahuasca devotees. But aya imbues the notion that there’s a purpose to this repetition with a particular poignancy. When we feel trapped in a never-ending loop, as do Nadia and her equally baffled fellow-traveler Alan, it’s tempting to believe that our past experiences define our future ones, that we have learned nothing from our failures, and that we are doomed to a sort of waking purgatory.
As those who have undergone the ayahuasca ceremony well know, the drug is nothing if not deeply suggestive of patterns. After sitting ceremony, you may find surprising resonances in daily life, for instance in the precise yet unreplicable veining of a single leaf or the characteristic folk art of Peru, some of which has a nearly digital intensity. By reminding us that all life is dependent on patterns, whether they be celestial, terrestrial or emotional, ayahuasca invites us to revisit these repeating motifs and also to spot their dissonances.
Even when it seems we’re making the same “mistakes” over and over — as can feel so damning in our romantic lives — we are not in the same place we were, and we are not the same person we were. This is the spiral, the helical track returning us to the same point but observed from a different elevation. Most seem to describe the movement as descending, as in digging deeper, but for whatever reason I characterize it as ascending, as in attaining a more global perspective.
The recognition that we are in fact changing and learning is essential to our spiritual growth, even when we despair that it can’t come fast enough. Though Nadia and Alan find themselves reincarnated again and again (in the same bathrooms, cleverly enough), they are never the same people they were. They have learned something from their past experiences, and even when they despair that they’re trapped in an inescapable loop, they are moving — slowly, for this is often how it comes — towards freedom.
Death Is Not the End
For many of us, the concept of dying is so terrifying that we separate it from life, never recognizing that death’s certainty is in large part what gives our lives definition and dimensionality.
The recurring deaths of Russian Doll are often gruesome, deeply uncomfortable to anticipate and to observe. As the series progresses, though, they sometimes become quotidian, even comical. In short, they’re a lot like our real deaths.
For many ayahuasca drinkers, the desire to confront their fear of dying is a primary driver to seek out the drug in the first place. And by and large they won’t be disappointed; as I’ve written elsewhere, if avoiding “the bad trip” is the primary concern for the casual psychedelic thrill-seeker, then in some regards ayahuasca IS the bad trip: An invitation to get close and personal with our darkest and most primal fears, wounds and insecurities. And death must surely top them all.
But as plenty of anecdotal evidence — not to mention some pilot studies — demonstrate, integrating the revelations of psychedelics is one of the most effective and direct methods yet found to confront and accept our fear of dying.
For those facing their own deaths, these inward journeys can greatly ease their preparations for their bodies’ final ones. And for those still in good health, touching on the fear of an untimely death tends to have a liberating effect, deepening their appreciation and ties to their loved ones, and inviting an exploration and acceptance of their eventual end.
Getting intimate with death, it turns out, leads to greater intimacy with life.
Personal Healing is Spiritual Healing
Especially in the developed world, many of us actively shun the manifestation or demonstration of a spiritual life, certainly when wrapped in the container of an organized religion, most of which are in active decline. Here in the United States, religiosity peaked in the late ’50s, and the following decades have largely been characterized by a growing dedication to individual liberties, the embrace of identity politics, and an identification with consumer goods over spiritual ones.
So it can come as a shock to those exploring psychedelics for personal healing that, inevitably, it entails an embrace of humankind and an awareness of our indivisibility from the earth as a whole. Ayahuasca’s entheogenic orientation engenders deep emotional and empathic connections with other beings, often all of them at once.
For a therapeutic culture focused on the self and one’s personal traumas, undergoing the experience of drinking aya can feel vast and bewildering. But those who undergo it are often surprised to find a new capacity for love and compassion, not only for the figures in their own lives but for complete strangers as well.
This turn towards compassion is the central theme of Russian Doll, and it’s one handled with subtlety and grace. Rather than attempting the impossible — a cinematic depiction of the psychedelic experience — the show focuses instead on the protagonists as they begin to see the possibility of a life outside their own stories of pain and failure. If the show skimps on the trippiness, in other words, it delivers a nugget of pure wisdom: That without loving our flawed selves and fellows, there is no escape from never-ending death. If it’s not the literal ones depicted in the show — falling down flights of stairs, drowning, crushed under falling air conditioners et al — then it’s a symbolic (but no less impactful) one: The excruciating pain of a life lived without love.
Other Ways, Other Voices
There are many ways to slice this cake, of course. The writer, musician and Torah teacher Alicia Jo Rabins, for one, writes movingly and expertly about Russian Doll as seen through the lens of Jewish scripture. And especially in its final episodes, the show touches on the need for us to return our attention to our bodies, to the province of feeling as opposed to thinking about feeling, for so many of us the realm from which we feel exiled by trauma, by sadness, by the unbearable-seeming weight of navigating this challenging environment called life.
This last part can’t be undersold. For the cerebral and the self-questioning, ayahuasca is a bracing — and oftentimes bruising — rejection of intellect as the master of our experience, as the definition and sum total of who we actually are. Perhaps more than anything, the entheogenic experience is an opportunity to see who we really are, outside the stories we tell — and, just as importantly, have been told — about ourselves.
This usually entails revisiting the roles our parents played in our earthly self-conception, and it’s an invitation into deep love and acceptance, both of ourselves and those who came before us.
As Russian Doll races towards its conclusion, Nadia is forced to reckon with both her troubled (and deeply troubling) mother, and also with her younger self, a girl forced far too young into the role of parenting a childish, unsafe parent. Again, without resorting to the trappings of psychedelia, the show captures her reintegration with this younger self with poignancy and grace.
The Universal Cure?
How many of us are actually drinking ayahuasca? Because it remains a Schedule I controlled substance here in the United States, that’s exceedingly difficult to say. Ariel Levy’s thoughtful and well-reported piece from 2016 in the New Yorker suggested it may already have been widespread in some urban areas then. Unfortunately, the scene that ends her piece — a description of a chaotic and exceptionally poorly managed gathering — suggests that, by and large, the expertise to successfully facilitate ceremonies lags behind the spread of the actual medicine.
Should it be more widely available? Despite its profound potential, I have deep skepticism that ayahuasca is a universal cure-all. Powerful though it is, its efficacy depends in great part both upon the journeyer’s intentions and the discernment of the shaman — or pseudo-shaman, or some less appropriative term — actually leading the ceremony. If he or she lacks the spiritual and emotional maturity to cordon off his or her ego and desires from the proceedings, it can introduce a destabilizing, even terrifying aspect into the experience. (Of course, this can be said of any doctor or healer; there’s a reason clinicians are subject to the oaths of their legal and professional guilds.)
The psychedelic journey engenders a deeply vulnerable and suggestible state, and the potential for deep healing is counterbalanced by the potential for deep harm.
Nor is ayahuasca a curative medicine in the traditional sense. It alone will not heal you, and if it is bitter, it is by no means a pill. Ayahuasca is interactive, inducing a dynamic healing state, and it demands much of its partner. Even more than the experience itself, it is in the integration of the revelations and perspective it offers that its true gifts become apparent. And as lifetimes of fad diets and treatments for neuroses have shown, not everyone is willing or able to follow through.
But given the recent approval by the FDA of MDMA as a “breakthrough therapy” for PTSD, I have hopes that ayahuasca — or at least some of the more palatable hallucinogens and entheogens — will in our lifetimes become first-line treatments for the many emotional and psychic maladies of our era. As many of the sureties upon which our parents and grandparents depended appear to crumble away, perhaps it’s high time to reinvestigate the medicines of our great-great-grandparents instead.