At 74, venture capitalist George Sarlo might not have seemed an obvious candidate for an ayahuasca experience. Sarlo, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1956, has had great professional success as the co-founder of Walden Venture Capital. He lives in an upscale San Francisco neighbourhood, in a large house with an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
And yet something was always lacking. Sarlo's father had disappeared from their Budapest home in 1942. He had been drafted in a forced labour battalion, an experience he did not survive. At age 4, George had told himself that it was because he was "a bad boy" that his father had left that day, early in the morning, without saying goodbye. He believes that he never recovered from that early loss.
Sarlo's close friend, a doctor, told him about ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, native to the Amazon. Used for centuries in sacred healing traditions throughout Central and South America, ayahuasca is now gaining popularity around the world, featured in recent headlines about the habits of Silicon Valley, though N, N-Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, the active ingredient in an ayahuasca trip, is mostly illegal in the United States (there are a couple of exceptions, under religious exemption). Ayahuasca tourism is thriving, with more and more people happy to fly thousands of miles to take part in weeklong ceremonies in Peruvian jungles, or to seek out more luxurious contexts, like a four-star resort that comes complete with masseuses, pools and state-of-the-art fitness centers. And, notably, ayahuasca's increasing popularity knows no age limits: Many of those now showing interest are squarely in Sarlo's own demographic.
Sarlo himself was initially skeptical. Taking ayahuasca would entail a potentially distressing night of hallucinations, and excretions of all kinds, especially vomiting. One of the most notorious aspects of an ayahuasca journey is the violent purging involved. But he still decided to head to Yelapa, a small village in Mexico, and swallow down the bitter brew.
That night, he saw a series of "old-fashioned photographs of soldiers in Hungarian uniforms," he said, and black-and-white movie footage. But he was scared, and sick, and swore that if he managed to come out of the hallucination, he would never go back in. The next day, exhausted and uncomprehending, he told the shaman that he was disappointed he hadn't found his father. The shaman told him he should try again the next night: on the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Sarlo decided it was worth one more try. He drank again. Very quickly, he saw a forest covered with snow. "There were dead bodies all over the place," he said. "There was one skeleton sticking out of the snow. And somehow I knew that was my father.
"I don't know exactly how we communicated because I didn't see anyone alive but I heard his voice. He came to me and I asked him a very important question, which was: 'Why didn't you say goodbye?' He said, he thought he could get out of it, and be back the same day, so why wake up little George?
"I asked a second question: 'Did you love me?; He pointed at the skeleton sticking out of the snow." The skeleton's mouth hung open. "He said: Look at me. That's my last breath. And with my last breath, I blessed you and I promised to guard you all your life."
Sarlo said that afterward, something shifted. He realised that his life had been "absolutely full of miracles," he said. "It changed my life completely."
Granny Takes a Trip
His story is a testament to one strain of thinking about psychedelics: that, as Michael Pollan put it, "psychedelics might be wasted on the young." Pollan, author of the recent bestseller "How To Change Your Mind," a history of psychedelics and a chronicle of his own experiences trying them, said in an interview, "It's not that young people don't have valuable experiences; they do. It's that what psychedelics seem to be particularly good for is jogging us out of our grooves of habit and allowing us to acquire a fresh perspective on familiar things. And as you get older, you get mired in habits."
Their islands are being eroded. So are their human rights, they say
Indeed, Pollan, who is 64 (and has written for the Times), said he was surprised by the number of people he encountered when writing his book in their 70s and 80s expressing interest in trying psychedelics. Though perhaps he shouldn't have been: As he himself has written, one of the reasons to come to psychedelics later in life is to tangle with one's own mortality. "This is a taboo topic in our culture; nobody talks about death," he said. "And with ayahuasca in particular, which can sponsor some pretty dark journeys, people often come back with insights about death."
Scientific data on older people using ayahuasca is elusive but anecdotal evidence is growing.
At Rythmia, a high-end retreat which offers ayahuasca ceremonies in Costa Rica, Gerry Powell, the owner, carefully tracks all the guests who come for a week of plant medicine. Since opening in 2016, Mr. Powell said that about 6,000 people had stayed at Rythmia; of that number, more than 15 percent have been 65 or older. Every week, he said, there is at least one person in their late 70s partaking of ayahuasca, if not their 80s.
Mr. Powell said the motivation for trying ayahuasca differs, as one may expect, according to age. It's the younger guests, 35 to 55, who tend to come because of problems they're having, strained relationships, blocked careers. But for the 65-plus demographic, the question is often closer to "What is my purpose?"
"There was a time when you would retire at 63 and be dead at 65," Mr. Powell said. "But because people are living so much longer, you have more time to do things with your life. People want to feel purposeful."
Wendy Portnuff, 75, who has attended Rythmia, first went to Costa Rica three years ago with her husband, Tom Lorch, 82. Ms. Portnuff, who lives in San Francisco, is a former manager at IBM who heard about ayahuasca from a friend who is a naturopath. She was intrigued, having been unhappy with her relationship to food for decades. "I had worked on it for so long. I needed to get out of me to complete the process."
Her husband wasn't interested in drinking ayahuasca, but came to Costa Rica to support her. When they arrived, he became curious about the experience, but wasn't able to participate because of heart problems. (At Rythmia all guests are screened in a medical intake both before and upon arrival.) As it happened, both husband and wife wound up having profound experiences that week. Ms. Portnuff, taking part in the nightly ayahuasca ceremonies, had an insight on the very first night that, as she said, "I had been denying my soul. And my soul was trying to speak to me. It was trying to say: 'I'm okay.'"
Her husband went to a breath-work workshop and had a transformation: years of anger and dissatisfaction with the world melting away. The two say their marriage of 49 years changed dramatically that week. Three years later, they are still on their "second honeymoon." "I've gotten a new lease on life, "Ms. Portnuff said. "I was thinking that my life is winding down — and it's not. It's speeding up. I'm excited every day."
"There is hope for us old people," her husband added. Ms. Portnuff has returned to Rythmia two more times to continue her ayahuasca explorations.
People might startle at the image of someone old enough to be their grandparents willingly embarking on a night of hallucinations and vomiting. But Sophia Rokhlin, co-author of the new book on ayahuasca, "When Plants Dream," said when it comes to the tradition of drinking ayahuasca, nothing could be more natural. In countries like Ecuador, for example, among tribes who practice healing traditions with ayahuasca (more often referred to there as yagé), the dynamic Ms. Rokhlin has more often observed is this: the elders are increasingly the only ones drinking. "The use of ayahuasca and plant medicines is actually quite stigmatised and looked down upon by communities who are really trying to get a leg up in the capitalist economy," she said. Younger members of communities who partake in ayahuasca ceremonies, she said, are more intent on building materially successful lives in a global economy than they are preserving their local rituals.
But in the United States, Ms. Rokhlin sees the growth of interest among the 70-and-up set as inevitable, for two main reasons: first,more and more scientific studies are being published showing that psychedelic agents have potential in treating persistent mental distress. In one small study of 17 adults, ayahuasca helped relieve recurrent depression. She said that scientifically backed research matters more to this older demographic than trippy "kaleidoscopic articles in Vice" extolling the ayahuasca experience. But as well, she said, for those "closer to the end than the beginning," there is also an increasing sense that "there's nothing left to lose."
And some of these older users are baby boomers, after all, turning again to the kind of mind-expanding substances they remember, at least culturally, from their youth.
This isn't to say there aren't risks associated. Heart problems can be disqualifying. So can many prescription medications. Rick Doblin, the founder of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (or MAPS), notes that for this older age group, a smaller dose of any psychedelic often suffices, as we can become more sensitive to drugs as we age.
Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, who has been researching psychedelics since the 1980s, said: "With elderly people, there should be some emphasis on being aware that higher doses may have a level of risk that would not be present with younger individuals. Particularly for cardiovascular problems," such as arrhythmia. "There needs to be more research." Dr. Grob advises older people to get a full cardiac work-up before using psychedelics.
Dr. Dan Engle, a psychiatrist in Boulder, Colo., warns that another risk for people in their 70s and 80s is the number of pharmaceutical drugs that are contraindicated for ayahuasca, including the most common form of anti-depressants, Selective Serontonin Reuptake Inhibitors (S.S.R.I.s). "But all of that said, ayahuasca is a visionary medicine and it can heal core psychological wounds," Dr. Engle said. "At that stage in their life, in their 70s and 80s, ayahuasca can help people become present and have more acceptance."
None of the medical caveats deterred James Kilkenny, 70. Mr. Kilkenny, a construction manager who lives in Manhattan's West Village, began experimenting with ayahuasca over the last few years, after hearing about it from a friend who teaches yoga. He said that at this point, he's done about 25 ayahuasca ceremonies.
He's certainly not in it for pleasure-seeking. "Ayahuasca journeys for me are not fun," he said. "They're painful as hell. They can give you diarrhea and vomiting, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both at the same time." Beyond the physical, there's the unpredictable emotions: At times he has felt trapped, fearful and isolated. "And you can't think your way out of it."
Yet Mr. Kilkenny said he has gained extraordinary insight. During one ceremony in Peru, he said he was transported back to the earliest sense he had as a kid. "I knew that my childhood, while it wasn't abusive, was very very cold. It had very little approval or affection in it. What I saw that night was: picture an upside-down pyramid. That point of the pyramid was the first thought. The first thought was loneliness and need for affection and approval. And the pyramid going up from that was my whole life. So my whole life was based on that one moment, seeking affection and approval."
For Mr. Kilkenny, what the ayahuasca journeys have provided him with is profound "information." Now, in the moments when he recognises his own need for validation, he is less inclined to act on it. This has meant that certain relationships have become untenable, like a longstanding romantic involvement that had a lot to do with "neediness." The relationship's dissolution made him sad, but did not crush him.
"My life is a lot quieter and it's a lot more peaceful," he said. "Less seeking, less grasping, less needing. Less fear."
Written by: Casey Schwartz
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES