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you only get

what you need

by sandra damota

It’s not surprising that I know a fair amount of people who have participated in this experience, and I’m always grateful for those who feel comfortable sharing their journeys with me. But it’s not something that can easily be spoken openly about. Ayahuasca, like many other ancient plant medicines, is not widely accepted in the western world. A world where we value chemicals over nature, money over health. Ayahuasca still lives in an underworld of legalities and judgement.

Ayahuasca has grown into a massive tourist trap, attracting individuals from all the world to the deep jungles of the Amazon. We celebrate those that are willing to travel for these experiences; we praise them for their sense of adventure and their fearlessness.

A jungle.  

Plant-based medicine.


A spiritual experience.


A Shaman.

How exotic of you!  

We have yet to create a safe and open space in several other countries to discuss this freely and without fear, Canada included. And so, we hold those less-privileged back from an experience that could be life-changing. From a medicine that has been shown to relieve symptoms of long-term mental health illnesses, depression, and various other ailments.  For now, anyway. I believe it’s only a matter of time before they find a way to market it, profit greatly from it, and push it further from the hands of those that need it most.


Although with the state of the world as it is now, I would argue that everyone needs it most.  

But you know what I mean.  

For years a friend of mine had shared some of his experiences with me about Ayahuasca and encouraged me to experience it for myself. A curious being by nature, I asked a million follow-up questions and got very little in return. He knew what I didn’t know then: it wouldn’t have mattered what he told me about his experiences, as I wouldn’t have understood it anyway, and anything he did say, would likely only scare me further from walking into it with open arms, ready to receive what was waiting for me. We both knew during those conversations that I would do it. 


The question was when. 

I had been trying to make the trip work with my schedule for almost a year. Between my (more than) full-time career, my contributions to my international part-time work, my duties to my three beautiful (and demanding) children, life and social events, much-needed travel breaks, sports tournaments, family illness, death, and all the other wonderful ways that life challenges your sense of time, it just wasn’t fitting in. Naturally, I hit spiritual self-care mode and reminded myself that in order to make time, I would have to make it a priority. Still, it wasn’t working, and I wasn’t upset. The real beauty of Ayahuasca is that you don’t get what you want out of it; you get only what you need, and the timing is always perfect, even if you struggle to make it there.


Perfect timing arrived in the form of a text message from my friend: there was a special weekend ceremony coming up in a couple months. I quickly checked my calendar, mostly expecting it to result in disappointment, but this time it didn’t! No children, no emergency work commitments, no parties, no play-dates, nothing at all. It really fit! I booked the trip immediately and blocked it off in my calendar under the heading “perfect timing.” It was finally here. 


In the weeks leading up to my ceremony, my friend would excitedly message me regularly to ask how I was and to make sure I was preparing for it. I had been so busy with life that I barely thought about it after I booked the date. The messages were both terrifying reminders of the unknown I was about to experience and pleasant reminders that someone was looking out for me, even if I was about to surrender complete control of my mind, body, soul, and whatever else would decide to surface and expose itself.  

This control, or lack of, was one of the two major deterrents from my wanting to participate in the ceremony sooner.  While I accept that I do not have control of most things in my world, there is an exceptional level of vulnerability that comes with sharing an unfamiliar space with strangers and not knowing how I would react to this new medicine. The other deterrent, and likely the one that keeps most people from wanting to experience this, was the purging that I knew would come, the emotional, mental, and spiritual purge I was both prepared to accept and excited to welcome. However, through all my research, I learned that the experience is incredibly physical, and that the purge involves a high probability of vomiting and diarrhea. Combine the two deterrents—strangers in a shared space with vomiting and diarrhea—and you pretty much get my nightmare. 


“Sandra, the purge is an important part of the process. You will only get what you need.”

I can’t imagine ever needing vomiting and diarrhea, but my friend’s words echoed in my mind as I inched closer to the date of the ceremony.


“How are your preparations coming along?”




In the week leading up to the ceremony, I barely had a moment to breathe. With all of the changes coming up at work, I knew I was going to have to work up to the day I departed for my adventure. 


Preparations, ugh.

What were those again?

I ate light and non-processed meals leading up to the ceremony—that part was easy. I’ve been vegan for about a year and a half now, so most of my meals don’t include the things you need to eliminate from your diet in order to prepare.

Mentally and emotionally, I had been preparing for a long time.

“Sandra, think about what your intentions will be.”

My intentions? I ask for examples. I can barely think.

In the end, I land with a simple and open intention to focus on, one that came to me (finally) while on the way to the ceremony.

Release whatever pain is inside me so that I can receive love. 

Well, in theory, it seems simple. Anyone who has been on a journey of healing will know that the simple intentions are often the most complicated. This is no different.


You don’t get what you want, you only get what you need.

I could write a book on all the things I think I need right now, but I guess that would be more about the things I want. Do any of us really know what we need? I try to eliminate whatever expectations I have of the ceremony as I get closer to the location.


Holy shit, is it too late to change my mind?


Just let go.  

Open arms.  


I arrive late at night when I should be sleeping. I was able to manage a quick nap and I hope that it will give me whatever energy I need to get through this. An Ayahuasca ceremony is not a relaxing vacation; it’s a process that you must actively participate in. It’s not something that you can sleep through; it’s something you must work through. 

Sleep is easy.

This is not.  

I remind myself that the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term discomfort, but all I really know right now is that I know absolutely nothing. 


Not everyone is a hugger, but everyone hugs here. I immediately get the feeling that this is not done in a strange invasion-of-space type of way, but more in a shared-energy type of way. I go with it and push back whatever judgement I have. 

Open arms, Sandra, open arms.


Walking into the room where we will all spend the night, everything becomes more real. Aside from our Shaman and his wife, there are nine of us here tonight: a perfect balance of three first-timers, three second-timers, and three veterans, the veterans being the biggest huggers of all.


As we set up our spaces for the night with mats, sleeping bags, and whatever comfort items we chose to bring with us, I notice the pile of little plastic bins lined with compostable green bags in the corner.


Open arms Sandra, open arms.  

Reality sets in as I take in my environment. The room is a large yet intimate, an open space minimally decorated and beautifully simple. It’s comfortable and I feel as safe as I can feel given the circumstances. I memorize the faces and names of everyone in the room. I pay attention to their voices, their mannerisms, their level of comfort, and what items they chose to bring with them. I mark every exit and possible escape route; there are some things that just can’t be shut off no matter how hard you try. Now that I’ve identified possible hazards, I laugh and force myself to let it all go . . . Unless, of course, I need it later.

One of the veterans begins to hand out the boxes of Kleenex with the message Cry a lot. Have fun with it. She smiled as she said it, and I know that she meant it.

Open arms, Sandra, open arms.


I choose a red bucket for my dreaded purge. There is no deeper meaning in the color choice, I just like red better than the other options. I place it next to my space, and I stare at it. I start to imagine what emotions I might need to expel. My little red bucket sits there ready to catch the parts of me that no longer serve me. I imagine there is a lot to rid myself of, but only time will tell.

Open arms, Sandra, open arms.


My comfort item is simple: a water bottle. I haven’t eaten since 11:00 a.m., which was both intentional and related to the general chaos of the day. I was trying to minimize the amount of food in my stomach in hopes that the purging wouldn’t be so intense. I have consumed a lot of water though, and my inner nineteen-year-old remembers that liquid coming up can be just as violent. I fill up my bottle for the ceremony but choose not to have any more water until we start.

South American music fills the background as we sit in (mostly) silence and watch the Shaman prepare his materials for the ceremony. I take it in and focus, as much as I can, on my intentions.

Release whatever pain is inside me so that I can receive love.


The Shaman hands us each a portion of Caapi to chew, smokey bark-like bits that are not entirely horrible tasting but still force me to wash the flavor down with more water. 


I’ve always been sensitive to strong flavors. While I recognize that a lot of it is psychological, I still wouldn’t be signing up for Fear Factor anytime soon. I start to think that I might need to keep my little red bucket closer, and we have only just begun.

Open arms, Sandra, open arms. 


Another set of rounds are made, this time to provide a blessing of sorts and to administer Curanga into our nostrils with a blowpipe. It’s a rather forceful breath; if I wasn’t awake before, I am now. This forces an almost immediate focusing of the mind as the minty tobacco burns through my nasal passage. It cleans out the mucous, bacteria, and any toxins in the nasal passage and makes room for body detoxification. Enter the Kleenex. I blow my nose and spit the excess mucous into my little red bucket. Curanga is also used to unlock and activate the pineal glands, or the “third eye”—a necessary step to tapping into your deepest states of intuition, intelligence, and spiritual enlightenment. 


This is followed by Copal, a cleansing with smoke.

I watch the Shaman continue his preparations. It’s almost hypnotic as he sings and does a Rezo: a blessing or prayer over the medicine.  

Time is a blur, and I have little concept of it in this moment. The room is dark, lit only by various sized and carefully placed battery powered candles. I feel slight physical changes, like the edge has been taken off and my senses are heightened. My body feels warm and relaxed. I sit with the clarity for a while and feel this overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I’ve seen this all before. This room. These people. This Shaman sitting at his table preparing the medicine we are about to ingest. All of it. It’s like I’m reliving this exact moment.


I hadn’t noticed before, but there are two wolves on the back of a veteran’s poncho: my spirit animal. The wolf represents intuition, intelligence, appetite for freedom and the importance of social connections, all characteristics that I have. As a spirit guide, it is meant to help guide and protect you on your journey, and seeing them now is a reminder to pay close attention to my instinct. She turns and there are two more on the front. I smile. I’m safe. I’m comfortable, and I’m right where I’m supposed to be. 


The Shaman makes his next set of rounds to give each participant some Ambil, a pure tobacco paste for ingestion.  Ambil is an exercise of patience meant to connect your heart and your mind. It requires patience because it’s a bitter, black tar-like paste placed on your tongue that you must dissolve slowly with your saliva. If you swallow it too quickly, you’ll likely throw it up. It’s absolutely disgusting, but my fear of vomiting forces me to temporarily overlook that. I’m told that if you allow yourself to feel the Ambil going through you, you can feel where it sits. This helps indicate which chakras are affected, which places you may need to work on. There are seven chakras in your body from the crown of your head to the base of your spine; they are energy circles that are connected to your nerves and organs and affect different parts of your life. It’s way more scientific than I understand, but the idea is that blocked chakras can affect your physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and the goal is to ensure they are open and aligned. The Ambil tells me my throat and heart need healing. Yes, I agree. The hurt and everything left unsaid will soon fill my red plastic bucket. 

Don’t cry. Not yet, Sandra. 


My mind becomes clearer, and I don’t know how long I’ve been here. There is a burning sensation in my stomach, and my skin is tingling. I’m warm, and I feel slightly nauseous as we are called up to drink our first cup of ayahuasca. 


I kneel and accept the medicine with open arms, an open mind, and an open heart.


Here goes nothing—or everything.  

The flavor isn’t completely unpleasant, but my stomach is already beginning to turn. I walk back to my space, lay down with my eyes closed, and focus on my intentions.

Release whatever pain is inside me so that I can receive love. 

It is seconds, minutes, or hours later when the visions begin, hundreds of them, like little movies playing on the screen of my inner eyelids. Each one is its own feature, its own length, its own genre. I don’t know who the characters are; I don’t recognize any of them. I’m not familiar with the plot of any of them. There is one after the other after the other, hundreds of images and stories of strangers.


What the hell is all this?

I don’t know what any of this means. There are stories of love. There are stories of fear. There is so much pain. Happiness. Anger. Regret. Sadness. Laughter. Truth. None of it is mine. I don’t know how long this lasts or how many movies I’ve just watched, but my stomach starts to tighten. A sense of calm rushes over me, and I open my eyes. I’m still laying down. I can hear every sound in the room. I can feel everyone around me. Suddenly everything feels warm and I sit up quickly. It’s an instant purge as I vomit violently into my little red bucket. I can’t see how much is there, and I don’t really care. I just need to get it all out. It’s quick, it’s powerful, and it’s over before I know it.


You don’t get what you want, you only get what you need.

The clarity is stronger now, and I start to wonder where in my consciousness all those visuals came from. I focus on my intentions.


Release whatever pain is inside me so that I can receive love. 

As I tie a knot in the bucket liner, I feel the heaviness of what was inside, not just the weight, but what that bag held. I could feel the release with the purge, but what exactly was I releasing? I carried the bag to the large container and walked up to get a new liner. I looked around for the first time since I had my medicine, and I could see everyone in a different state of their process. One was curled up silently in the fetal position. One was sitting with the Shaman as he accompanied her. One was sleeping soundly. One was crying—the kind of cry you would normally reserve for a very private setting, the kind of cry that carries a kind of pain that begs to be felt. I wanted to sit with her to see if she was okay, but I didn’t. This was her process, and I needed to focus on mine. Everyone had vomited by this point.  

I thought more about my visuals and what they meant. I thought about the overwhelming release and what it was. I thought about all the pain in this room and I felt it.  

It was time for the second cup of ayahuasca. 


I kneel and accept the medicine with open arms, an open mind, and an open heart.


Here goes nothing—or everything.


The flavor isn’t completely unpleasant, but my stomach is already beginning to turn. I walk back to my space, lay down with my eyes closed, and focus on my intentions.

Release whatever pain is inside me so that I can receive love. 


This time, everything makes sense: the images, the release, the feelings. A wave of clarity washes over me. Hundreds of stories, thousands of strangers, every experience being released was not mine. It was everything that I’ve held: stories upon stories that were never mine to carry. Hundreds of movies replaying my twenty years in the field of service. A lifetime of caring for others, hearing them, helping them heal. Memories that never belonged to me. They were all blocking my own ability to receive love, care, and healing.


Release whatever pain is inside me so that I can receive love. 

I vomit again. This time stronger. This time heavier. This time better.


You don’t get what you want, you only get what you need.


After releasing the first strange images, my own memories come up.


There are stories of love. There are stories of fear. There is so much pain. Happiness. Anger. Regret. Sadness. Laughter. Truth. All of them are mine this time. 


I feel it all and I smile, a smile of relief and nostalgia. Visuals of people and experiences I’ve long forgotten, many I had hoped to never again remember, but this was my process, and I was relieved. A different sense of calm washes over me as I settle into my own personal theater, unaware of how much longer I will have with these memories. I take them all in, one by one, visual by visual, movie by movie, memory by memory.

The woman next to me doesn’t appear physically well, not by our traditional standards anyway. I push away the urge to go to her and offer electrolytes. Help is not what she needs. This is her process, and I need to stay focused on mine. I’m reminded of all that I was holding that was not mine to carry, and I lay back down with a knowing smile. There is a freedom I feel in the decision to walk away, a response that is not typical of me.


Release whatever pain is inside me so that I can receive love. 


It is time to receive the Yopo medicine, also called the Spirit Animal medicine. This is an optional part of the ceremony, one that I choose to embrace with open arms, an open mind, and an open heart. I have no expectations, and there is a freedom in that too. I walk over to the Shaman, who prepares the medicine for me to administer. The Yopo is ingested by inhalation using a sniff pipe. I slowly inhale the medicine and sit back when I know it’s all inside me.  

The effects are sudden and intense; a feeling of immediate discomfort washes over me. I use my trusty little red bucket to spit out some foul tasting mucous as the Yopo hits the back of my throat with equal intensity. Just as quickly as I feel it, it’s gone. There is a brief period of serenity before I’m in complete sensory overload. With my eyes shut, millions of geometric shapes float on the back of my eyelids. Lines. Lines forming shapes that morph into more lines that form more shapes. I can feel the energy of everything and everyone in the room. I can hear every sound, smell every scent. I struggle to focus on the shapes as I can’t seem to ignore everything around me. There is so much pain in this room, and I feel helpless to it.  


Stop it, Sandra. This is your process.  



I try to make sense of the shapes, but I can’t. I can’t focus on them long enough for them to become something. I long to see anything right now, anything that might take my focus away from the crying I can hear in the background.








I hear the Shaman speaking to his wife now. “This is too perfect for her first time.”




This is perfect?


I wonder what they are seeing in me that I’m not.  


Suddenly, after what feels like hours but is more likely minutes, everything becomes still. It doesn’t stop, but it calms enough for me to focus where I want, or need, to focus. I can control my senses again. There is something in the lines now: a bird in the sky, a wolf on the ground. No more pain. 




I open my eyes and throw up quickly and forcefully into my little red bucket. Another violent release. Another load of heaviness I needed to expel.


I go back to my mat and lie down. Everything makes sense.


I don’t know how much time passes, but at some point, I fall asleep. No visuals. No dreams. No noise. No crying. No purging. Just silence. Peace.



I wake up to a beautiful breakfast spread of fresh fruit, nuts, carbohydrates, and coffee. I don’t feel like I’m ready to eat, but my body is telling me otherwise. I know I must replenish whatever energy was lost; it’s a long way home. I sit with the rest of the participants, feeling a closeness to them that cannot be explained. Strangers just yesterday, we have shared an incredibly personal journey together. We have exchanged energies and have participated, willingly and unknowingly, in one another’s healing. We are no longer strangers, yet I know I will never see most of them again.


For everyone outside of this home, their day is beginning. For everyone around this table, we are beginning a much larger journey. In true Sandra fashion, I am the first one out the door before the hugs can begin.


For years, a friend of mine had shared some of his experiences with me about Ayahuasca and encouraged me to experience it for myself. A curious being by nature, I asked a million follow up questions and got very little in return. He knew what I didn’t know then: it wouldn’t have mattered what he told me about his experiences, as I wouldn’t have understood it anyway, that anything he did say would likely only scare me further from walking into it with open arms, ready to receive what was waiting for me. We both knew during those conversations that I would do it.  


The question was when.  


Thinking back to those conversations now, he was right about a lot of things. Mainly, and perhaps most importantly, that the Ayahuasca healing ceremony would only be the beginning of a much larger process. It has been eight weeks since my ceremony, and I’ve been forced to challenge myself in ways I had never imagined. Having faced the reality of carrying a load that was never meant for me to carry, I have found a new freedom in putting my own needs before all else. It’s an ongoing and often difficult process, but it’s mine. 


You don’t get what you want, you get only what you need.

sandra damota


Sandra Damota is a storyteller, wanderer, mother, humanitarian, advocate, vegan food-lover whose journey began in Toronto, Canada.  Her time is carefully divided between her governmental work with marginalized populations and communities, her international humanitarian aid work responding to some of the largest humanitarian crises on record, mothering three wonderfully active sons, and whatever she is currently enjoying for her own self-care and personal fulfillment. Her journey has taken her to several corners of the world, where she has had the privilege of working in four continents and of speaking on various issues related to psychosocial operations, violence prevention, community development, humanitarian aid work, gender-based violence, and child protection.  Sandra continues to check items off of her own personal bucket list; she is currently working towards completing her first book.

Sandra Damota Picture.jpg

— william hayward

“Even before he had left, her body had been losing strength. Losing what made it a body. Even walking from one side of the house to the next left her breathless. Now her body just felt dead. 

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