How stealing ayahuasca made me stop stealing
Photo credit: Apollo via Wikimedia Commons
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Growing up in an upper middle class household, I had the privilege of lacking a concept of money. When I was seven, my dad asked me how much I thought our house cost, and I answered, “$100?” I spent my college years equally oblivious, overdrawing my bank account through a monthly donation to sponsor a cat.
Then, the summer before my last year of college, my dad had a talk with me. “You need to think about how you spend your money,” he said, suggesting I hang out with friends at home instead of going out to eat. I took his message to heart. After all, he frequently judged people based on how they spent their money. He’d go on rants about his disrespect for those who lived off inheritances. I didn’t want to be among the people he looked down on.
So, after graduating college, I got more careful with my finances. I grocery shopped instead of eating out. I booked train tickets in advance before prices went up. Practical stuff. But over several years, my saving habits escalated to the point of obsession. I wore boots with holes in them. I neglected annual checkups to avoid the copay. I tried to convince my roommate not to buy internet because we could mooch off the shoddy Starbucks WiFi downstairs. When she insisted on buying it, I asked if I could dodge paying half if I stuck to Starbucks’s WiFi, though I came around because it really was shoddy.
That situation illustrated a fact I’d come to understand all too well: there’s a fine line between compulsive saving and stealing. I crossed that line multiple times. I “forgot” to pay friends back after they covered meals and rarely got the next round. During family vacations, when my parents asked if I was low on cash, I’d lie and say “yes” and then stash it away. I exited several cafes without paying. Once, as I left a friend’s housewarming party drunk, I snatched grapes and an avocado from an unattended fruit and vegetable stand. I couldn't stand the thought of spending five dollars on produce when I could save that money.
In the summer of 2016 when I met my boyfriend, things started to look up. I was so happy to be dating him, I didn’t mind covering half our meals when we ate out. But as I got more secure in the relationship, I slipped back into old habits. He paid for almost all our trips and meals despite making less than me. When he leant me $150 after my debit card got lost, I didn’t pay him back. I fantasized about buying him expensive gifts and dinners once I overcame this compulsion.
With that vision in mind, among other goals, I signed up for a retreat in Mexico that included nine days of therapy and three ayahuasca ceremonies, where I’d ingest a hallucinogenic brew of plants known to help people arrive at realizations and surmount psychological blockages. I’d read about ayahuasca’s potential to help people overcome eating disorders, drug addiction, and more, so I arrived hopeful that it could help heal my relationship with money.
Then, just as I was eagerly awaiting the first ceremony, one of the therapists approached me to say she wanted to limit my dose because I seemed to have trouble sitting still, and a safe ayahuasca trip requires you to focus. That night, I had a small dose and felt nothing. Everyone was offered seconds, but when I came up to get more, the shaman told me to go back to my seat and focus on the chants instead.
The next two days, I threw myself into proving I could sit still. I meditated and did breathing exercises when we weren’t in group therapy. Then, before the second ceremony, I asked one of the group leaders if I’d proven myself capable of taking a higher dose. She replied that she and the shamans had to go by their intuition, which was to keep me at the same dose. Once again, I felt nothing.
During the third and final ceremony, after getting another small dose I couldn’t feel, I came up with a plan. Since it was too dark to see people’s faces, the shamans would ask, “who is this?” when people came up for seconds. I decided that if the woman next to me didn’t get up, I’d go up and say her name.
I did, and it worked. I had an awakening. My body filled with energy, and I become aware of my open, loving nature. I saw all the ways this nature had been squashed over the years and who I’d be if I recovered it: writing affectionate emails to loved ones, lighting up rooms with my smile, giving without fearing I’d lose too much.
What I didn’t know was that the woman next to me had gotten up for seconds — after me. Since I’d been complaining all week about not getting enough ayahuasca, the shaman knew it was me. News of my little scheme was spreading through the 26-person group, and the therapists called a meeting to talk about it. They warned me that people were angry and said I could stay in my room with a therapist there to comfort me. But curiosity got the best of me. Maybe analyzing my ayahuasca thievery would help me understand my stealing in other contexts.
The meeting taught me that my actions had a bigger impact than anticipated. The woman I pretended to be was initially turned down for seconds, and she had to argue with the shaman. Others were suspected of pretending to be her, which interrupted their ceremonies. The shamans were scared someone had overdosed.
“It’s not just lying. It’s stealing,” one person said. Another suggested that I had stolen a ring belonging to one of the participants that had gone missing. Although I hadn’t, it’s funny how ayahuasca calls attention to your demons even when you’re not on it.
After people aired their concerns, the therapists invited anyone willing to support me into a smaller circle and told them to say something nice as I stood in the middle, looking from person to person. “You are not your behaviour,” one said. Another told me: “Remember to remember who you are.”
I wish I could say I did. But it didn’t take me long to forget. Two months later, while getting an early start on taxes, I left out a chunk of my income. I spent the following month in fear of getting caught.
Maybe another ayahuasca ceremony could push me to change, I thought. After all, I’d only felt the substance once. Craving a second night of enlightenment, I signed up for a retreat taking place several weeks later in Amsterdam.
What I didn’t get during my first ayahuasca retreat, I more than made up for in my next. During the first of the two ceremonies, I not only went up for seconds but also requested a third glass. That trip ended up being fairly mild, and my money issues didn’t come up.
Then, right before the second ceremony, the retreat’s leader picked a card from a deck of “angel cards." Each card had a different theme. This one that was picked was about making peace with money. It explained that it’s the human mind that creates negative associations with money, when spiritually, it’s an infinite resource.
As the ayahuasca kicked in, I contemplated what was standing in the way of me loving myself. I went through all the past mistakes I still felt ashamed of, from rolling my eyes at a teacher to yelling at my parents, deciding they were all forgivable. But there was one thing I could not forgive: my lack of generosity.
Part of self-love is forgiving yourself for your past mistakes, I realized. The other part is to stop doing what you can’t forgive yourself for.
I didn’t need to make a big announcement or give everyone in my life an apology. I just had to act differently from now on. And not even that differently. I’d probably lose a few thousand dollars a year, if not less, by practicing more integrity with money — a small price to pay for self-esteem.
Ironically, it was low self-esteem that got me into this situation. Hoarding money at all costs was a strategy to feel better about myself. Ironically, it made me feel worse.
I’d thought so lowly of myself, I didn’t view stealing as above me. And by stealing, I fuelled this self-image, so I felt I’d might as well keep stealing. More than anything, I was stealing from myself. I was depriving myself of the joys of giving. But ayahuasca showed me that at my core, I was better than that. If I wasn’t already better, I could become better. The memories of my first retreat came back to me, and I remembered to remember who I was. It wasn’t my behaviour.
The following week, I told my accountant I’d forgotten some things on my taxes, and went back and added in everything I'd left out. I slept straight through the night for the first time in months. When my boyfriend and I went grocery shopping, I offered to pay. And on a date night, I told him I wanted to make sure he didn’t worry about money more than he needed to, since he was about to quit his job and start his own company. Toward that end, I covered the dinner. It was exactly $100.
I’m now old enough to understand that $100 can’t buy me a home. But it has made my home a much more loving, peaceful place. The one thing I was right about was that money can buy happiness. But only when I’m spending it on somebody else.