As for what it's about, there's no real universal answer to that. Everyone's every experience of aya is different; it's what happens when that individual drinks that dose on that night. There are commonalties and themes you start to see and be able to work with, given enough experience, but there are very few absolutes.
But you know what? Those are the exceptions. I've taken ayahuasca dozens of times, and am booked for another trip to Peru next month. I've been fortunate only to work with reputable people, and have consistently only met others in my travels that have also worked with reputable people.
Please don't judge a tradition that's thousands of years old, and actually remarkably safe — with a few caveats, that the reputable folks will screen for — on the basis of a couple of cretins who look at the plants and the gringo tourists and just see dollar signs.
I've never done it, but I have a strong sense that pharmahuasca would be cold, sterile, and missing some of the je ne sais quoi that the "shaman piss"  experience offers. I'm sure it would still be a valuable experience, and one I'd be open to exploring, but drinking trees works well enough for me, thanks.
I mean, sure you can puke (I often do, sometimes several times in the course of a night), and it tastes horrible, and your sweat smells like tree bark at the end of the night — let alone the end of the week. That's just the process, though, and "optimizing" it out would probably also remove many of the things that are actually among the most valuable (for me, and everyone else who does this more than once with whom I've spoken) aspects.
EDIT: footnote added.
 Interestingly, in one of the earliest-documented shamanic traditions, tribes on the Siberian steppe would use amanita muscaria mushrooms, which are visionary, but also mildly toxic. The shaman would take a shaman-sized dose, and journey, then collect his urine (which still contains threshold doses of psychoactive metabolites), and serve that to his "patients".
I agree about set and setting. The "clinics" I picture are probably not what that word normally conjures up.
I'd be fascinated to know then if certain underlying themes and insights would remain similar or not. So far the western experience with psychedelics does show some commonality with that of indigenous peoples-- it's common for people to report a kind of cosmic oneness experience, insights about their character, etc. But there are also unique cultural twists. Ours have a flavor reminiscent of Greek and Roman Dionysian and Bacchanalian ceremonies, and then there is stuff like:
Somewhat off topic question but I'd like to ask anyway - How exactly do you know its thousands of years old ?
I'm not saying it isn't, but how do you know for sure ?
The MAOI has a prolonging and intensifying effect, and has psychedelic effects of it's own. Smoking DMT isn't the same as eating pharmahuasca, which isn't the same as drinking ayahuaska.
That said, it is very, very rare for anyone to have a reaction. The quality tours have trained medics in the village, and the villages are jammed deep in the forest like some of the hippy tours.
Smoking DMT is a very clean experience. It is intensely visual in nature and completely cerebral.
Pharma/Ayahuaska is a heavy body load as you drift in and out of the altered state often called "hyperspace".
I don't really recommend the MAOIs because of the complications they can cause, and you can have just as spiritual of an experience without drinking their "jungle juice". haha ;)
Somehow I don't derive much reassurance from that. :\ I guess some people are just more comfortable rolling the dice with their brains than I am...
I feel the same way with people who take pharmaceutical anti-depressants.
If you live in a major urban area, and hang around in the right circles, it's very likely you can find a local party with which to partake, and thus get to take advantage of top-notch medical care in case of emergency (if that's your worry).
I strongly suspect that with psychedelics, the context in which they are taken is far more influential on the kind of experience you have than the actual neurochemical effects. A sugar pill given to you by a man in a white coat and a soothing bedside manner is going to have a bigger effect than the same pill given to you by your next-door neighbor the handyman.
The service these fake shamans are providing can be of value even though the shamans are fake.
With proper research and preparation, the 'jungle juice' is remarkably safe to consume.
Why appeal to the age of an authority? If there's anything measurably beneficial about Ayahuasca I'm certain it can be extracted into a precisely dosed pharmaceutical.
The danger of your opinion is that it precludes research into things like drumming and chanting. Humans have been using rhythm to build a sense of community for thousands of years. Could there be something here for science? Could we learn how to help therapists and patients bond much faster?
I don't know these answers. Do you?
The shaman by him/herself won't do anything. Neither would the Ayahuasca on it's own. It's having the right combination of both (setting), and your intention (set) that leads to an amazing experience.
The funny thing is, the experience itself is not the most important thing.. it's what you do after the ceremony with your life, and how you change your lifestyle to make you happy.
Obviously, if the shaman isn't giving you the real tea, mixes stuff in, doesn't take care of you, and such, I'd call it a straight up scam.
If you like, you can think of it as a kind of placebo effect. Which, you may be able to imagine, can get really strong under the influence of psychedelics.
Disclaimer: I've never used Ayahuasca, but I did organise a few shroom trips, where I paid a lot of attention to the "set & setting". Compared to other times, it makes a lot of difference.
Also see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Set_and_setting
The first article is not about ayahuasca, but provides some excellent advice for spiritual seekers. The second is the best article. The third is CNN, but it is likely the incident the OP is talking about.
Ayahuasca and salvia both completely scare me. They are not meant to be administered recreationally, and they can both bring about some states that can lead to dangerous behaviours or permanent mental illness. However, if administered correctly by a well trained shaman, each have therapeutic qualities.
The problem is too many people with western dollars read Carlos Castaneda and embark in search of a shaman. And, there are many unscrupulous people who will say anything to make a buck.
Reminds me of Shpongle's album Tales of the inexpressible--for me, I feel like they managed to capture the experience in music with an accuracy that verges on brilliance. Especially the text "people laugh, and cry at the same time, they get horny and holy at the same time, have you seen it?" hits right home to me (the crying bit reminds me of a particular strain of shrooms that just makes your eyes and nose very leaky at some point during the start of the trip, about the same time you also tend to giggle a lot--though I'm not sure if that's what Shpongle are referring to intentionally).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBQRkl7_K4M (btw just want to note that TwistedUK has all the tracks published on their own channel as well, but this link's the whole album)
But if you've never experienced a trip, I doubt this album will help you much in that regard :) But it's also absolutely beautiful music on its own.
Before my first trip I read loads of trip reports and stories, didn't tell me much about the real thing. But afterwards, I agree those stories were about as accurate as one can get with words. It's nothing paranormal, but it is really inexpressible :)
Maybe it's a personal thing if your personal things line up, I personally am glad he wrote it, and am thankful for the state of mind that would cause him to share in that manner.
A picture of the part of the article I meant:
The way I often explain tryptamines to people who've never tried them is that it's a bit like rooting your phone. It's great and important to learn in more depth how the machine works. And yeah, you can sideload some sweet apps, but you can also brick the thing.
Your description of how he changed seems objectively neutral; but disappointing for you because you can no longer identify with him.
>he’s probably happier, but at the cost of transplanting himself to an entirely new friend group and lifestyle
Honestly I don't get how you can perceive that he's happier, but still see him as having changed "for the worse".
Is it is "for the better" for someone to be happy and ignorant/naive/delusional or to be of sound mind and unhappy? Not that this applies to the OP's post, but I've known people that have changed (by drugs or otherwise) where they've become happier, but also less mentally stable.
Well, from his perspective it's a worse change in personality, but from his friend's perspective he could be happier. So he's recognizing that his friend seems happier despite the change in personality he perceives to be bad.
“I am the throne dragon holding your eternal death inside a citrine cristal, threatening to break the crystal open so that it engulfs you back into the shroud of darkness.”
Your friend has lost the plot as you suggest, or at least he didn't have the mental framework at the time in order to process what he was shown, there's still potential for that to change in the future.
If your friend acts up again, ask him what he learned from his ayahuasca experience. Give him time to tell you his answer. There is something he's almost bound to have either missed or misunderstood. I like the way Oliver Sacks puts it... “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”
Enlightenment is realising your own part in the world you know, that the two are inseparable. By seeking truth you create a falsehood. You cannot obtain enlightenment by looking for it. The truth we can experience is shaped by the observer, our knowledge is born from our senses. The purpose of introspection is not to pinpoint 'the one truth' but instead understand truth from a broader perspective.
Perhaps that'll help, perhaps not, it's up to your friend to be receptive, and it's not something to worry yourself about anyway, but even so, best of luck.
Not only was I able to recover some of my traumatic memories when I was a toddler, it's revealed so many things about myself that I've repressed, like sexuality, and didn't know.. and taught me how the universe may work. It's given me a direction in life, and my attitude towards others have significantly improved compared to before the experiences.
Scraping and analyzing a few million reviews on tripadvisor a few months ago left me at a place where I don't trust any review site anymore. I've been thinking about solutions to this problem ever since and can't come up with anything that would reliably fix that problem.
Society is sick, and I don't think the internet is helping. Information overload distracts us from looking into the experiences around and within us; is addictive and keeps us from sleeping or thinking when bored, affecting mood and energy; encourages perpetually increasing productivity without even providing a reason to be productive in the first place (beyond arbitrary societal rules); keeps many of us inside and away from sunlight or fresh air; makes it too easy to jump between shallow interests rather than sticking with one deep interest; and hides us from other people while causing us to see them as phones or handles rather than faces and behaviors. That has been my experience, anyway. There are plenty of other problems caused by misuse of technology but they're well known on this forum.
I used to wonder how people kept themselves from going insane from boredom in pre-agricultural societies. But I realized all the days where I have been most content involved taking in little information and just existing for a while, wandering around in the woods, napping, introspecting, being with friends and family I have deep relationships with, etc. I spent one summer in college almost entirely without the internet while living in a small, close, rustic community. The days seemed to last forever and I had never been so happy or felt so connected to others as an adult. Being in one place for a long time with few other people forced us to develop deeper bonds than we would have outside of a community like that.
I'm not a fan of capitalism, but I think it's a self-correcting problem. Eventually technology WILL automate all of life's difficulties and we will transition back to a simpler and more comfortable way of life as humans. It will be a while until AI gets us there though. Until then we have stimulants, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety pills to try to hammer in those aspects of humanity that make it hard to fit into contemporary society.
P.S. If you're looking for answers to "life's big questions", here they are: We and everything else are deterministic emergent patterns stemming from the laws of thermodynamics (or whatever fundamental laws exist) and an initial state (or some reference state) of the universe. That's the only solid foundation I have found for my personal philosophical and spiritual inquiries, but I spent a LONG time looking for it. You can easily answer all the big questions with an understanding of that foundation. I have finally been able to move on to smaller but more complex and practical questions without feeling like I'm missing something.
P.P.S Always read the word 'spiritual' as 'relating to the subconscious workings of the mind'. A lot of people use the word 'spiritual' in a vague mystical way, but you can adjust for that with this definition. They may not know how the brain works, but they still have brains and their spiritual experiences can still be fascinating and full of insight.
Like everything in life, there are pros and cons, and deciding how this technology fits into your life and community is important. Mindless adoption is the real problem.
I do wish modern society had more opportunities for close community though, especially for people who are non-religious or do not view their work as part of their identity.
(Of course it would be nice if crime never happened in the first place but that would require a major reorganization of society, probably comes with the AI overhaul. Also, if laws exist to regulate society they should be designed with that instead of moral values and regularly tested/verified to ensure they are working properly.)
Edit: And there are those who think free will and determinism can coexist . I haven't looked into those ideas yet, still trying to work it out myself.
And cheers for the link, it's given me some thinking material.
There is joy and life to be found in pretty much anything. If you're unhappy with your existence, there are other, more convenient ways of going about it than trying dangerous chemicals in dangerous environs.
Cannabis Sativa/Indica blends have been known to artificially satiate your needs hierarchy, as explained by maslow, pretty well (except sometimes for hunger), allowing one a temporary shortcut to self-actualization.
I've gained massive insights into myself through the use of psilocybin, and I'm not alone. it isn't uncommon to hear someone compare one night with a breakthrough dose of psilocybin to a few years of therapy. These insights, and the resulting lifting of depression, lasted upwards of 3 months the first time it happened to me.
is it better to get to a happy/enlightened state without them? absolutely. but make no mistake, there are shortcuts. like every shortcut, however, make sure you watch your step while you're going through them in order to avoid pitfalls.
IOW, there are some people having the ayahuasca/DMT experience who are able to communicate it back to the rest of us well enough that we can make modest changes in our behavior and end up much happier.
IME, it's been learning to treat myself better, love myself and be nicer to other people. Eventually, if you look enough for it, you start to realize that you can't actually treat yourself different from others... (you can't actually break the golden rule!) So if you get into the habit of complimenting people, soothing them when they're upset, you'll find your own mental state vastly improving, because you're judging yourself the same as you judge others. It's strange and I don't understand it, but it's been working for me. And it sounds like "empathy," but empathy is a side effect of this process that I could still choose to practice separately or not.
My experience resonates with the OP. A lot of the world doesn't really matter much unless it's been infused with love. This sounds corny b/c advertisers have the jump on such phrases, but it's pretty much true. Unless someone is physically defective, you can psychoanalyze them to death, describe their problems a million ways, but if they simply start being nicer to other people (and there are some specific ways to do this, not just making cakes for everyone), they begin to heal. It also has to do with reframing pain and some other ideas. If anyone's interested, I can share some yt links...
Someone successfully patented the plant at the core of ayahyasca (B. Caapi) in 1986. That's right, UPTO granted a trademark on a plant.