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.