Mawaan Rizwan travels to Rio, Brazil, to join the congregation that uses the ancient Amazonian hallucinogenic substance Ayahuasca in their Church services.
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My name is Mawaan Rizwan.
I was brought up in a religious family.
I'm not practising,
and I would say I don't necessarily believe in God.
But I am curious to know if there is some kind of higher being.
Is there something more to life?
I've heard that some people are looking for answers
through taking traditional medicines,
basically powerful hallucinogenic drugs.
I've been to the USA, where I met people using the drug peyote
in their worship. HE CRIES OUT
Now, I'm heading to Brazil
to find out about the ancient drug of ayahuasca.
And I've got to decide if it's something I want to try
in my search for God.
So, I'm going to knock on God's door,
and let's see if he's there.
Brazil, a country where 99% of the population
believe in God or a higher spirit.
It's home to 123 million Catholics,
more than anywhere else in the world.
Everywhere I turn, there's loads of religious iconography.
Their biggest landmark is Mr Jesus himself.
There's one of these on every other street
and I feel like religion and faith is a big part of culture here,
it's very much ingrained in daily life.
To find out more about the power of religion,
I headed to the Igreja da Penha church in Rio.
Devotion here can be extreme.
That guy over there, he's crawling all the way up
to the church on his knees. It looks pretty painful.
I mean, that's dedication. This is how much it means to people.
This is an annual ceremony where the worshippers have to carry
the statue of the Virgin up 382 steps.
He's done it, he's done it, the guy's at the top.
He made it all the way on his knees.
He deserves an award for that - that looked painful.
But not everyone in this country is sold
on this organised definition of faith.
A growing number of people are turning
to an entirely different form of religious sacrament.
It's called ayahuasca.
It's made by smashing the roots of two plants
till it turns into a pulp that you can drink.
Apparently, it tastes horrible,
and you're meant to take it and it will change your life.
I've heard it being referred to as the God molecule.
Now, if that doesn't sound epic, I don't know what does.
Hello? I'm Mawaan.
Nice to meet you. 'I've come to a suburb of Rio
'to meet two women who believe that ayahuasca
'is the route to reaching God.'
-What a place you live in.
Monkeys come to your front door - that's crazy.
Come get it. Don't be afraid.
You want it?
He took it out of my hand!
Oh, yeah! Happy birthday, man.
He's loving it.
Did you see that? He took it out my hand.
I live in London and it's very different.
Where does ayahuasca come from?
Ayahuasca's active ingredient is called DMT,
and that makes it an illegal class A drug in the UK.
How do you feel about some people referring to it as a drug?
Cos in Britain, where I live, it's a very naughty thing to do
and you'd get in a lot of trouble.
Why is it important to you to relate back to the ancient roots of it?
For myself, I have deep, deep gratitude
for these Amazonian tribes,
and ayahuasca and all of these medicines from the forest
makes you go even deeper and connects you to a deeper source.
But now this ancient tribal drug
has come from the forest into Brazil's booming cities
with their mashup of religious beliefs.
Faith here is like a little spiritual omelette.
Look at this.
This is like a real patchwork of all sorts of influences.
You've got Christianity, Hinduism, a Buddha,
you've got the hand of Fatima there,
and that is quite an Islamic pattern -
you see that in mosques a lot.
I feel like in the UK it's kind of cool to be atheist,
it's cool to be, like, "I don't believe in all that stuff.
"That stuff ties me down."
And here, actually maybe it's kind of trendy
to be part of different things and have various religious influences.
That's Princess Diana.
That's a religion for some people, isn't it?
Many of these religions use ayahuasca.
In Brazil, it's been legal for use in religious ceremonies since 1992.
Now it's thought that half a million people use it regularly.
This is like a trip in itself - it's very colourful and psychedelic.
I think if any country is going to legalise
stuff for religious purposes, it might as well be here.
I grew up in a fairly religious family
and there were bits of it I really liked
and bits of it I dismissed completely.
And I guess that's what's happening here, but in a more liberal way.
People are taking what they want from it,
and things like ayahuasca are involved,
which are quite ancient traditions,
but people are customising it to what suits them.
And it feels like people here
feel liberated enough to experiment with religion.
It's not so rigid.
I've never felt like I've had the choice
to experiment with religion before.
For me, this is a new way of looking at things,
and that feels quite comfortable.
And maybe I do have a shot at finding something spiritual.
Could ayahuasca help me do that?
I needed to talk to someone who regularly takes it.
29-year-old artist Gill is part of a church that uses the drug.
So, I've heard a lot about ayahuasca.
And I've got friends of friends of friends who told me stories,
but have you done ayahuasca before? You've done a ceremony?
Yeah, I've been doing it for two years.
How many ceremonies have you done?
-Once a month for two years.
-You do the math.
I mean, it's not every month but mostly.
What about traditional religion wasn't working for you
for you to turn to this?
Well, I was born in a Catholic family and I have issues with...
..with Catholics since when I was a teenager.
I was like, "This isn't for me, this has...
"..problems, logical problems there."
I was reading a lot of Richard Dawkins at the time,
and I was like, "This is not for me."
What made you want to try this thing called ayahuasca?
I don't know, just the experiences people tell me about it.
I'm searching for, you know, myself.
One thing I heard, yeah,
is that people throw up and sometimes even poo their pants.
I mean, that in itself is quite a vulnerable place to be,
let alone anything else.
Yeah, they call this the cleansing.
It's when the ayahuasca is operating and they...
It needs to clean your body
and clear it from toxins and stuff that you consume every day.
And the vomit is...
I've experienced it. The vomit, it's not just the physical vomit,
it's, like, you're vomiting emotions,
stuff you're carrying in your life,
and after you vomit, you feel so much...
You feel amazing.
-So, yeah, I like when I vomit.
There's been ceremonies where I vomited and pooed at the same time.
-It was once.
I can't wait for that. Thanks for the pep talk.
But the result of taking ayahuasca can be even more extreme.
People coming to South America looking for enlightenment
or just a good time have even died.
It's a powerful and sometimes dangerous drug.
Peruvian police are led to a spot in the Amazon where a shaman,
or a tribal medicine man,
says he buried the body of an 18-year-old American
who he claims died after drinking extracts of psychedelic plants
at a psychedelic retreat.
Now, DMT is the active ingredient in ayahuasca.
And even taking it during a controlled, religious ceremony
can give you a bad trip.
Oh, she's just collapsed.
I mean, she looks
like she's just died.
It doesn't look nice.
It doesn't look like a pleasant experience.
She's having a horrible time.
I think the idea of losing control scares me, because...
You know, maybe what you get out of it is fulfilling in some way,
but the actual going through this all just seems a bit extreme.
Surely there's easier ways.
The day before I left London, I really panicked a bit.
And I almost didn't want to do this.
Because I was scared that a lot of dark stuff would come up,
and I didn't know if I wanted people to see that
and for a camera to be there.
It looks like The Exorcist.
I don't know, maybe YouTube is the wrong place to do your research
before taking these things, cos this is making me not want to do it.
Oh, my God!
Before I made my mind up about whether I wanted to throw myself
into such an intense experience,
I was keen to know more about the drug's positive spiritual effects.
Gill, who I met the other day, has invited me round for dinner
so that I can meet some of his friends
and have a deeper chat about it all.
I've come empty-handed, so I guess I'll have to do the dishes later,
but I'm going to go now.
Guys, this is Mawaan.
-Nice to meet you.
'This lot are right trendy Rio urbanites,
'and they regularly go to ayahuasca ceremonies in the city.'
This is nice, innit? It's like the Last Supper.
So, Gill was telling me about his ayahuasca experience
and how it changed your life, right?
What is it like for you guys?
Are you involved in ayahuasca?
It was one of those moments in your life
when many things start to make sense.
Do you think you've experienced God?
God, it's a complicated word. God is...
That's why I ask. THEY LAUGH
I want to get to the bottom of this whole God thing.
God is a word full of cultural background.
I'm not entirely comfortable with using it.
Maybe for myself it's fine,
but will I declare to people that believe that God is something else
that I experience that? I didn't experience what you believe,
I experienced what I believed.
But, yes, I experienced something that I can guarantee.
As much as I'm learning, I'm really hungry, so shall we get some food?
Can I help you with anything?
Absolutely. Get the rice, please.
I gather we are all trying to make meaning of our lives, right?
It's nice to have something to believe in
and I feel like that is missing for me
cos I'm full of distractions in London,
and actually I want to know the meaning of life,
like, I want to feel like I have a deeper understanding of things.
Right. The answers that you are looking for everywhere else,
they're really there.
And again going back to ayahuasca,
ayahuasca gives you the opportunity to kind of see all of that...
So, ayahuasca is one way of finding something godly within yourself?
Do you think you're getting high for God?
It's not getting high.
First of all, it's not getting high.
This expression, "getting high", it comes from another context,
and, all right, it's a context full of substances,
but do people get high in hospital?
This is not even...
People don't even think about that - it's just nonsense.
It's the same feeling that we have when we ask that.
Are we getting high in the name of God?
We're not working with God, we're not working with getting high.
Why is this question even being asked?
I feel like I've been seeing it maybe in the wrong perspective,
cos getting high insinuates being in party situations
and, like, you know?
Drugs, and whoo!
And feeling rubbish the next day.
Actually, these guys, this is not that for them.
And they are making a really active,
conscious choice to delve deeper into something,
and this substance that they're taking
just happens to be part of that journey.
But they're not doing it
just so they're going to get a bit of mind alteration.
That's not the main goal.
The main goal is for them to understand themselves
and the world a bit better
and navigate through that and make sense of it.
And maybe that's what God means to them.
The moment has finally come.
I've got to decide if I want to take ayahuasca.
We've found a reputable church who have said that I can join them
at their ceremony tonight.
I'm about to take ayahuasca.
I'm about to do that thing everyone talks about that changes their life.
And I don't...I don't know how I feel about it.
I'm lining my stomach up with grapes.
I mean, it's all going to come back up anyway, but I'll do what I can.
OK, this is it. I'm here, I'm literally round the corner
from where the ceremony is going to happen and...
and I'm absolutely bricking it.
This is so real now. It's happening.
And from what I've heard, things are going to come up,
and it's going to be intense, and I'm going to face demons,
whatever that means.
I'm going to have to look my demons in the eye
and connect with God and find an answer to the issues that come up.
So, I'm going to suck it up and knock on God's door.
And let's see if he's there.
Do I knock?
The Ark of the Blue Mountain Church
is based in a house in a suburb of Rio.
-For Philippe's ceremony?
Thank you. I'm Mawaan.
I've got to go to a formal meeting before I'm allowed in.
The guy in the trippy headband is Philippe Bandeira de Mello,
the church's spiritual leader,
who's practised with ayahuasca for nearly 40 years.
OK, here goes the job interview.
The church is strict.
We've all been asked to wear a uniform of white
to keep the bad spirits out.
Outside, you have bad energies
going to you.
The church welcomes people from any religion into their ceremonies.
My heart is beating really fast.
I have to go in cos they can't start until everyone's in there.
But...here we go.
This happens every week at Philippe's house.
About 90 people rock up and take ayahuasca.
The force of your guardian angel,
everything you need for your spiritual and material preparation.
May the ayahuasca guide you...
..protect you and bring you inspiration, connection,
everything you need,
everything you want for your illumination.
I'm feeling a bit sick.
It feels like I had a really bad steak or something.
That's what it tastes like - like gone-off meat.
The singing of ancient shamanic songs
is supposed to help guide me through my trip.
About 30 minutes in and I'm starting to feel something.
Where's the bucket to throw up?
I thought I was going to throw up, but I don't need to.
Everything feels really eventful.
Like, everything is a thing.
And I feel very open and vulnerable to things that could come in.
I have a vision of me as a child sitting in a really big cathedral.
It's really hard to put into words, because words really diminish the...
..just how big and expansive the feeling is.
You can't really put it into words.
Doing this, you interfere with the experience.
Let him sit and close his eyes.
It's better for him.
Back inside, the ceremony starts getting intense.
Dancing to the repetitive beats of music
is said to induce a trance-like state.
This is probably one of the most surreal raves I've ever been to.
I feel quite overwhelmed by it all.
I feel like there's no way of hiding
from all the emotions I usually ignore.
I'm starting to see religion as this open canvas
and I can totally personalise it with whatever I want.
Come up here. Come up here.
(What are you doing?)
This is ridiculous. I'm standing next to a crucifix...
..asking myself the question, "Have I found God?"
Yeah, maybe, maybe...
Yeah, maybe this is what God feels like.
HE SIGHS I can't express...
This is such a massive cliche, and I don't want to say this,
but I do feel the wonders.
I feel like I'm being hugged
by everything from my past and my future
and living and not living...is hugging me right now and saying...
The dancing goes on all night.
But after about six hours..
..I've reached my limit.
Today I'm feeling really shattered and tired
and it's a bit like a hangover, actually, but I feel really renewed
and I feel like I shed skin and I learnt some tough lessons.
And I feel like it was a lot deeper than I expected it to be.
I've spent all these years building an image of myself -
the way I see myself was completely shattered last night
and that was really liberating.
I had to see things that I didn't want to see
and parts of it were really dark and demonic.
I can imagine that in the wrong hands this stuff is quite dangerous,
and it's all about the context.
Within that context of religious, ritualistic -
those elements being there really made it what it was.
Without that, I could have had a terrible time
and not have known how to navigate
through this really powerful substance.
For me, it was the first time I felt something bigger than me
was guiding me and helping me make sense of my life.
And that's not really happened before.
And maybe that's what God feels like,
and that's a big deal for me to say,
because I'm a London boy who really felt quite cynical about faith,
but maybe that's the closest I'll come
to experiencing some sort of divinity.
Mawaan Rizwan travels to Rio, Brazil, to join the congregation that uses the ancient Amazonian hallucinogenic substance Ayahuasca in their Church services. He sees first hand if this ancient medicine – which has been linked to deaths when used unsupervised - can bring him closer to the Almighty.