Iboga: Serious Business
I recently had the opportunity to try what is simultaneously one of the most positively transformative drugs there is, and one of the least fun. It’s totally legal in Canada, but normally a session with it would cost upwards of $10,000, and good luck finding it on your own — there isn’t much of a street market (although if you scroll down to the comments section you’ll see some entrepreneurs who’ve figured out this article would be a good place to advertise). Things have a way of finding their way to me, however, and so on the morning of Saturday, July 2, 2011, a shaman I’d only met twice previously came to my house with a small bag of dried iboga root bark, coated in mud from the jungle floor in Gabon.
What is Iboga?
Tabernanthe iboga is a very, very special tree. It’s the only well known African psychedelic, and it’s totally different from the various LSD or DMT-like substances you’re more likely to have encountered. Used mainly as part of the Bwiti religion, whose founders claim to have gotten it from Pygmy shamans, its pharmacology is not well understood. The most studied active constituent, ibogaine, is annoyingly difficult to synthesize, and its effects are sublimely complicated, seeming to work simultaneously through a number of different neurotransmitter systems. Of interest to drug connoisseurs is its kappa-opiod affinity, a trait which it shares with Salvia divinorum, and there are some distinctive features which bear that out: the visions are distinctly vocal, utterly unconnected to external stimuli, and very repetitive. However, sharing a few features with Salvia does not make the two drugs similar; iboga is fundamentally different from every other drug I have ever experienced. That its visions have more in common with those of Salvia than those of conventional psychedelics is less important than the orders of magnitude of difference in the durations of the two drugs, or the fact that you can still be perfectly aware of the world around you while deep into it on iboga.
Though we lack rigorous understanding of how exactly it works, iboga seems to have a three part effect. First, it seems to activate a REM cycle during the waking state, which leads to the curious situation in which you can literally watch yourself dream. Second, it gives an amphetamine-like stimulation: the heart pounds and the mind races (it is, therefore, contraindicated for anyone with heart problems — take this seriously, as there have been deaths). Third, it completely obliterates your sense of balance, meaning that if you try to move around you’ll become nauseated. In combination, this all means that you can’t really do anything except lie back and go into the powerful, introspective visions that come. When I ate my 5 grams of dried root bark, the mind-blowingly intense visions lasted for about 12 hours, followed by a 12 hour comedown. In Gabon, they supposedly eat 30-40 grams of wet root and it lasts for three days.
A major reason why iboga has received attention in North America in recent years is that it’s been conclusively proven to cure addictions. LSD, ketamine and other drugs are also known to help with addictions, but this is different… heroin addicts who take iboga not only have the epiphany that they shouldn’t use anymore (LSD is great for that), but it actually eradicates the physiological addiction as well. Something about its complex neurochemistry returns the brain’s homeostasis to non-addiction levels, which means that not only will it inspire you to not want to use, it’ll also make it so that you won’t have any withdrawal whatsoever (note that there’s a danger here: if a heroin user takes iboga, and then takes hir normal dose of heroin, sie may overdose. What is being reset is tolerance, of which withdrawal is a function). This has been confirmed in rat studies, and shown to not be exclusive to heroin: it also gets rats off of alcohol and nicotine, and interrupts non-pharmacological compulsions of all sorts in humans. This is a drug that literally frees your mind — and not simply from the dictates of a society intent on controlling your behaviour, which is the sense in which we usually mean that psychedelics free your mind. Iboga frees your mind from itself.
What’s it like?
It’s basically like watching yourself dream, but more intensely. Scenes from your memory and imagination play themselves out, but you have a certain distance from them and won’t necessarily identify with them directly, which means that even though it might show you all the worst things you’ve ever done, you’re likely to experience it as “huh, I shouldn’t do that stuff in the future” rather than “oh god I’m an awful person I deserve to die.” For many people the visions focus particularly on social network relations. Who are you connected to and in what ways? Who have you hurt or disappointed? How can you be a better person?
It’s even rumoured to demonstrate the objectivity of moral principles, and to affirm the reality of the spiritual beliefs of the tribe. Because of this, it’s well-suited for an initiation ritual, but even outside of its traditional shamanic context it has a distinctly moral character, visions more normative than transcendental. Whereas LSD reveals how amazingly rich and awesome the world is, and whereas DMT demonstrates that there’s way more going on than the physical world we can normally perceive, iboga teaches what it means to be a good person.
My trip report
I dosed at around 9:30 in the morning. 1 gram mixed into yoghurt, wait 45 minutes in case of allergic reaction (it can cause respiratory failure, and I have asthma and am allergic to some trees. Caution is prudent), 4 more grams mixed into yoghurt. The 4 grams I found to be particularly foul tasting, but with the addition of some honey and salt it went down okay. I retreated to my trip space and made a few notes as it slowly came on — once it was fully on, writing was not remotely appealing.
At first the visions were strange and sometimes silly, with very direct semiotic content: symbols, numbers, words. Subtitles and surtitles scrolled past my vision constantly, words overlapping other words, and I couldn’t make sense of nearly any of it. A soundtrack of fast paced, complicated music emerged: by far the most complex auditory hallucinations I’ve ever experienced.
A giant cobra appeared in front of me and opened its mouth, and the phrase “some day, you will die” repeated five times while I was swallowed. This didn’t alarm me in the slightest, and I found it stereotypical and largely irrelevant, but yet it persisted. Many strange patterns would coalesce briefly, combined with sounds or phrases, often entirely ridiculous material that I intellectually rejected — stupid in-jokes, content repeating across several visions. The more nonsensical and annoying to my rational mind, the more likely to show up over and over and over. Anticipating its 24 hour duration, it was in no rush, and didn’t mind mucking around a little — plenty of time for serious content later.
I remembered what my shaman had said about it being great at answering questions, so I asked it what I should do in the coming weeks. Series of numbers and equations which I couldn’t understand appeared, and after a couple minutes of this, the phrase: “learn math.” Damn this stuff is straight-forward.
Then… it actually kicked in.
A sequence of small brown cells emerged. Each would say the word “do” (both spoken and written on it) and become inert, and then another would appear to the right. do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do do… columns and rows emerging, rapidly increasing. A mountain of brown forming. Soil, the inevitable end result of life. Self perpetuation. Permutations upon permutations. Complex forms arising, mistakes being made. Cellular reproduction errors, disgusting deformities, horrible disfigurements. Apocalypse.
I have no way of describing my visions in any sensible narrative, but this motif of intent — life’s simple desire to do, as opposed to not-do — continued for a long time. I saw complex portrayals of the many varieties of life, all tying back to an ever increasing mass of brown. I remembered how the roots I’d taken were coated in soil from the jungle in Gabon.
The visions covered many different topics and I can’t remember the vast majority of them. A lot had to do with Africa: how people there live, the many different species, something to do with the spirit of the land. It was distinctly conversational, and I felt that the continent itself was speaking to me. Oddly, it was not black people in Sub-Saharan Africa I was seeing for the most part, but Arabs in Morocco, probably Agadir. Go figure.
At one point I saw my mother surrounded by celestial beings with serpent-like tentacle wings. Her eyes were radiant. Many hours later when the visions came to an end, the first thing I did was to call her and tell her that I love her.
A huge proportion of the visions were extremely ugly. In the first half of the trip, the prevailing theme was organic diversity, mutation and adaptation, and the majority of that consisted of horrible deformities, twisted, malformed bodies, useless organs, and things like the cellular development of twins. I understood it as an exploration of the different ways in which life, trying simply to persist and reproduce itself, can end up doing something rather different, and how for the most part that only produces suffering, but occasionally leads to adaptation and the emergence of new stable forms. In the second half of the trip, I had many visions of the destruction of my body, the prevailing theme being too personal to explain here. All pretty messed up stuff. An interesting thing about iboga though is how it gives you distance from what you’re seeing, so for the most part it didn’t really bother me that I was seeing deformed and disfigured bodies. They simply were, and I did not judge them.
As I started to sober up, I was filled with an intense and very specific urge to share an erotic video I’d seen weeks earlier with an Egyptian friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while. I did, and she loved it. So specific. So strange.
The physical experience
I became nauseated around six or seven hours in, and began vomiting water whenever I drank it. Thanks to a successful fast, there was no taste to my vomit, so it wasn’t too bad, but I was certainly dehydrated and unable to move around. The trip lasted for an enormous amount of time, and was extremely exhausting… I’d turned off my cell phone and had no way of knowing what time it was, but I definitely spent a number of hours in disbelief that the visions were still taking place, already having experienced far more than I could remember or integrate, and just wanting to rest. In the evening I began to sweat, and the physical discomfort added to the overwhelming nature of the visions, leaving me in a prolonged delirium. The intense visions finally stopped around 10 PM, but I was still extremely introspective and needing to process a lot of very heavy, highly personal material that’d emerged in the second half. I listened to the song Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa, posted the phrase as a Facebook comment, and lay down to think. At 8 AM I still hadn’t slept, was still nauseated, and was still seeing tracers and flashes of light around the room. I was eventually able to stomach a bowl of porridge in the early afternoon, and went to a yoga class at 6:30 PM, during which I sweat more than I’ve ever sweat in my life. That night I had trouble sleeping, but while the fast left me with low energy for the next day or so, at no point did I feel sleep deprived. Artificially induced REM is good for that.
Before taking iboga, I wasn’t addicted to any drugs, but I did have my share of compulsions. I also have ADHD, experienced partly as a constant excess chatter in my mind combined with a vague anxiety and restlessness, and to calm this I’ve self medicated many times with alcohol and cannabis. After taking iboga, I had absolutely no desire to drink alcohol or smoke. On Monday I had dinner with a friend and she wanted a beer, so I got one too, but could only bring myself to drink half of it. It absolutely did not interest me, and still does not, nor does cannabis. The most surprising thing is that my ADHD seems to have significantly improved. I was not expecting that, and maybe it won’t last, but after a week the excess chatter and restlessness are still far less than they were before my trip. My focus is enormously better, and I’ve had an unusually productive several days. Could iboga be a treatment for ADHD? This truly is an amazing medicine…
Update two months later: Most of these effects were not permanent. Iboga seems to interrupt compulsions, freeing you for at least a few days, but unless you make significant changes in your life during that time, your bad habits will probably creep back in.
Iboga is serious business. It tastes disgusting, it feels horrible, it lasts for an entire day, it’s almost impossible to acquire, and some of the visions it gave me were truly disturbing. It’s not fun in any way, shape or form. The experience was very difficult and a lot of work.
But it was also deeply rewarding. It didn’t teach me anything about morality or my social relations which I didn’t already know (though apparently it often does for others), but it brought to the surface and forced me to process some deep-rooted psychological difficulties, and has left me with substantially improved mental health. I don’t think I’ll take it again any time soon, but I’m very glad to have been through it. Almost the only reason I don’t recommend that nearly everyone try this stuff is that I’m worried about overharvesting; the jungle in Gabon is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I’d hate to see its ecosystem messed up by massive demand for a tree which only grows there.
Anyone got access to a greenhouse?
The Healing Journey by Claudio Naranjo: http://www.ibogaine.desk.nl/naranjo.html