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New Business Fad: Tripping on Ayahuasca

First you puke. Then you hallucinate. Then you… climb the corporate ladder?! That’s the claim of an entrepreneur-turned-shaman to the boardroom set.

03.28.17 5:00 AM ET

Some American searchers are cutting their way through thick Amazonian wildlife to reach a remote location in Peru where they can consume a gritty cocktail that will send their brain on a psychedelic journey. Soon, their minds will bend and unfold in ways they’ve never fathomed. They’re seeking a hallucinogen called ayahuasca, which they’re hoping will give them clarity and a new perspective. However, these Americans are not doing it simply to alter their psyche; they’re doing it to be better in the boardroom.

Ayahuasca is a gut-wrenching brew made of roots, Banisteriopsis caapi vines, and leaves of the chacruna bush that are found in the Amazon. Drinking it sends you into a deep psychedelic trip. The trip is typically guided by a trained shaman, and Peruvians and other cultures have been consuming ayahuasca for centuries. Many users vomit during the experience, but the end result when it’s all over is often said to be a sense of clarity and a more substantial grasp on the roadblocks preventing you from reaching happiness or personal success.

“The Machu Picchu Ayahuasca Mastermind program reconnects participants with their true self. Or rather, removes the shit that is preventing them from experiencing their true self,” Michael Costuros, founder of Entrepreneurs Awakening, told The Daily Beast. Entrepreneurs Awakening is a group that takes members of the startup community to Peru to partake in a 10-day ayahuasca experience where participants hope to recalibrate themselves so they can increase their success in the business world and be more at ease.

Chris Hunter, co-founder of the company that makes Four Lokos, said in an interview last year that going on a trip with Entrepreneurs Awakening was an intense experience that changed his view of who he was. “There were visions,” he said. “I literally saw the world through other people’s eyes—my wife, my dad, my mom—and that crossed over into business aspects. At one point, I felt myself step into a leadership role that had almost been waiting there for me.”

Costuros explained how ayahuasca felt for him. “It’s difficult to see yourself clearly if you are looking into a very dirty mirror. Ayahuasca cleans the schmutz off of the mirror, enabling you to see yourself clearly, free of distortion,” Costuros said. “The business mastermind aspect of the program generates enough trust between participants that they are inspired to contribute to the success of each other’s ventures in any way possible. This usually takes the form of advising, introductions, or cash investments that propel the business forward.”

Costuros became interested in ayahuasca during his fourth year at a San Francisco-based tech startup called Livebooks around 2008. He said he was burnt out on his work, and his wife convinced him to try going on an ayahuasca retreat. He said the results were “nothing short of miraculous.”

“I returned to my company having left all my frustrations and resentments in the bottom of a puke bucket,” Costuros said. “The best way to describe my state of being at work upon return is inspired, detached engagement. I was just as passionate, committed, and engaged as always, but I was not emotionally attached.”

Costuros then started Entrepreneurs Awakening in 2012 and has been taking other business-minded people on retreats ever since. He said the results have been promising, which you can see some evidence of from the testimonials on the group’s website. However, he does recognize that not all ayahuasca experiences and programs are created equal.

Costuros said some shamans who lead people on ayahuasca retreats in places like Peru are not properly trained, and some people who participate in ceremonies are not there for the right reasons or do not adequately prepare for the ceremony. Participants are supposed to follow a specific diet before the ceremony and must avoid certain prescription drugs. He said some people end up having mediocre experiences because they don’t do things right, or they can even end up having “a total nightmare experience and leave traumatized.”

This issue is one reason people like Dr. Gabor Maté, a co-founder of a nonprofit that addresses addiction issues called Compassion for Addiction and a physician who is well known for his expertise around psychedelics, are concerned about Westerners going to foreign countries for ayahuasca ceremonies.

“People are looking for some deeper experience of life and of themselves. Ayahuasca is certainly one avenue to that,” Maté said. “My concern is that it’s not a substance to be taken lightly. It comes from a tradition: There’s guidance, there’s a ceremony, there’s a culture around it. My concern is that people should partake in it in the context of that culture, with proper guidance.”

Maté said ayahuasca “can bring up very deep material for people that sometimes is bewildering. It needs a proper integration.” He worries that something like ayahuasca can be fetishized, and people won’t actually understand what it’s all about and won’t get the right experience. He said he’s even heard of women being sexually exploited when they partake in ayahuasca at the wrong venue or with the wrong guide.

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Maté also warned against people looking at ayahuasca as a quick fix for serious mental disturbances. He said he’s seen ayahuasca treat everything from suicidal depression to addiction, but it’s still a process—it’s not simple. “It can be transformational, it’s true, but it’s not transformational like you take this and you get a quick fix,” he said. “You have these experiences, but those experiences and insights have to be integrated into your life. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

Costuros and Maté both noted that the growing acceptance of ayahuasca seems to be part of a general burgeoning interest in using psychedelics for medical purposes in the United States. Everything from MDMA to psilocybin to LSD are being studied as possible treatments for serious medical issues, and people are taking them more seriously than in decades past. More and more tech startups in Silicon Valley have also been embracing practices like meditation and mindfulness training in recent years.

“I hope that in less than 10 years Americans will no longer have to go to Peru or Mexico to get access to the treatments that they feel is best for them. After all, America is all about freedom to choose, right?” Costuros said.

“Western pharmaceuticals in general do not get at the heart of people’s malaise,” Maté said “They can be very helpful to regulate certain dysfunctions and behaviors and symptoms. I’m not against them. I’ve used them and prescribed them, but there’s no healing in them.” He said many Americans are seeing that alternatives like psychedelics do bring them to a place of actual healing.

With proper guidance and an understanding of the tradition, folks like Maté and Costuros believe ayahuasca ceremonies can be powerful experiences for those looking for a deeper understanding of themselves or even those specifically looking to be more prepared for the business world. However, they see that it is not a one-size-fits-all cure for everything, and people need to be careful with how they approach participating in such a tradition. Don’t be some wide-eyed American tourist, Maté and Costuros counsel, who’s just looking to get fucked up in the jungle.