Michelle Lhooq is a journalist, event producer, and consultant based in los angeles and new york

We tried VR ayahuas­ca so you don’t have to (The Face)

We tried VR ayahuas­ca so you don’t have to (The Face)

Ear­li­er this month, I was hang­ing out at a bar in Athens when I told my friend Ivan that I would soon be fly­ing to New York to try a new vir­tu­al real­i­ty expe­ri­ence about ayahuas­ca for The Face. 

He burst out laugh­ing. “Ooh, are you gonna get fucked up on VR ayahuas­ca? What’s next – VR crack?” he teased between drags of his cig­a­rette. The idea of vir­tu­al­ly trip­ping on one of the planet’s strongest psy­che­delics sound­ed as for­eign as the CBD sound­baths, DMT vapes, and oth­er Amer­i­can drug odd­i­ties I’d been telling my Greek friends about. 

“I’ll let you know!” I laughed. 

To be hon­est, I’ve been “aya-curi­ous” for years – but too scared (and broke) to ven­ture into the Ama­zon­ian jun­gle to try it. For now, VR was the clos­est shot to the real deal that I had. 

Ayahuas­ca is a tra­di­tion­al psy­che­del­ic brew used as spir­i­tu­al med­i­cine by indige­nous peo­ple in South Amer­i­ca. One of the things that freaks me out is that it often trig­gers vio­lent­ly phys­i­cal purg­ing at the start of the trip, and I’m not real­ly into vom­it­ing and shit­ting my pants. This is fol­lowed by hours of pow­er­ful, hal­lu­cino­genic visions; many peo­ple report com­muning with ancient spir­its and ances­tors, and emerge with new per­spec­tives on their deep­est trau­mas. In oth­er words, ayahuas­ca is a (some­times) painful and (often) heal­ing expe­ri­ence that isn’t real­ly some­thing you’d do flip­pant­ly on a Fri­day night for fun. 

Despite its white-knuck­le inten­si­ty, ayahuas­ca has been explod­ing in main­stream pop­u­lar­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly amongst New Age-y well­ness devo­tees and the Sil­i­con Val­ley crowd. In the tech scene espe­cial­ly, drink­ing the brew has become a sta­tus sym­bol, right up there next to going to Burn­ing Man and dri­ving a Tes­la. Ayahuasca’s steady infil­tra­tion into the main­stream over the past few years – as well as the media hype around vir­tu­al real­i­ty – is prob­a­bly why Ayahuas­ca, Kos­mik Jour­ney, a 13-minute VR film by Paris-based direc­tor Jan Kounen, has been get­ting so much buzz since it pre­miered at Tribeca Film Fest in New York ear­li­er this sum­mer. The unholy mar­riage of VR and ayahuas­ca was just born to go viral. 

So, on a radi­ant Mon­day after­noon in July, I slipped on my hip­pie best (trib­al print pants, san­dals, and a lace-up tunic) and head­ed to VR World, a two-floor vir­tu­al real­i­ty empo­ri­um near the Empire State Build­ing where Ayahuas­ca, Kos­mik Jour­ney was play­ing. The Mid­town streets were swarm­ing with tourists and suit­ed work­ers, and I scur­ried past sev­er­al glossy office build­ings to arrive at the space – an enor­mous arcade full of blink­ing lights, video screens, and yelp­ing kids lung­ing awk­ward­ly in VR head­sets. Walk­ing in, my first thought was: this is the last place I would want to do ayahuas­ca. I was quick­ly ush­ered upstairs, to a more dim­ly-lit room dec­o­rat­ed with fake vines and a floor car­pet sprin­kled with plas­tic flow­ers and can­dles. The whole set-up felt fit­ting­ly arti­fi­cial, like an amuse­ment park ver­sion of an ayahuas­ca cer­e­mo­ny. Still, there was a vibe, and when I sat down on a cush­ion on the floor and an employ­ee lit some palo san­to, I could feel my body relaxing. 

Anoth­er friend­ly atten­dant slipped the VR head­set on me, while say­ing some­thing sooth­ing like, “This will be very peace­ful and aligned with your ener­gy.” Then she asked, “Are you afraid of snakes or bugs?” 

“Yes!” I squeaked. The atten­dant warned that a scene in the film would fea­ture both; appar­ent­ly, some­one with an intense snake-pho­bia had freaked out once before. But if it got too intense, she assured me, we could stop the video. “Oh, don’t wor­ry – that won’t be nec­es­sary,” I gig­gled, feel­ing a lit­tle sil­ly. “I’m only afraid of… real snakes.” 

The black screen I was gaz­ing into flick­ered to life. Look­ing around, I found myself in a dim­ly-lit jun­gle in the Ama­zon, sit­ting on a wood­en plat­form across from a hunched shaman in flow­ing robes. Through the headset’s speak­ers, I heard a sym­pho­ny of chirp­ing birds and insects, and swiv­el­ling my head, I saw plas­tic bot­tles filled with green liq­uid (pre­sum­ably the brew) next to me, and tow­er­ing trees all around. A man’s voice that I assumed was my inner mono­logue came on, talk­ing about how he hoped the ayahuas­ca jour­ney would heal him. Then the visions started.

For the next ten min­utes, I drift­ed through var­i­ous hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry land­scapes while the shaman’s whis­pery chants filled my ears. If you’ve seen Enter the Void or oth­er cult psy­cho­naut movies, you’re prob­a­bly famil­iar with these types of trip­py visu­als of swirling geo­met­ric frac­tals, streaks of ghost­ly light trails, tech­ni­col­or tex­tures. Here they were ren­dered in painstak­ing detail, and the com­plex pat­terns glowed in crisp HD. Some­times, the visu­als seemed vague­ly organ­ic, like a school of kalei­do­scop­ic jel­ly­fish. Oth­er times, they looked like high-tech alien spaceships.

I’m a suck­er for psy­che­del­ic visu­als, so Ayahuas­ca, Kos­mik Jour­ney was enthralling at first. But after a few scenes, the aes­thet­i­cal­ly-dri­ven adven­ture start­ed to get dull – with­out much of a nar­ra­tive to latch on to, I began to feel like I was watch­ing the world’s most elab­o­rate screensaver.

Each scene mor­phed into the next, as if I was trav­el­ing through worm­holes – at one point, I float­ed into the mouth of a snake and emerged into a cathe­dral lit up in stained glass. Final­ly, I found myself back in the jun­gle, except this time, two oth­er­world­ly enti­ties were float­ing behind the shaman, silent­ly gaz­ing at me. After a clos­ing scene star­ring lots of shim­mer­ing, iri­des­cent lizards, the film fad­ed to black.

There is some­thing to be said about how the trans­portive and com­plete­ly immer­sive qual­i­ties of VR par­al­lels the out-of-body expe­ri­ence of ayahuas­ca, where your con­scious­ness projects out of your body into the astral plane. But psy­che­delics are an inef­fa­ble spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence, and attempts to cap­ture them with images and words tend to be as futile as try­ing to tell some­one about a dream. I have no doubt that if I’d smoked a joint or tak­en a micro­dose of acid, this would have great­ly enhanced my expe­ri­ence – maybe my mind would have been blown! But the cold irony is that I was just too sober for VR ayahuas­ca, and it end­ed up being a lit­tle boring. 

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