Ayahuasca in Rio Getting High for God?


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Ayahuasca in Rio

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.

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I was brought up in a religious family.

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I'm not practising,

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and I would say I don't necessarily believe in God.

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But I am curious to know if there is some kind of higher being.

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Is there something more to life?

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I've heard that some people are looking for answers

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through taking traditional medicines,

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basically powerful hallucinogenic drugs.

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I've been to the USA, where I met people using the drug peyote

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in their worship. HE CRIES OUT

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Now, I'm heading to Brazil

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to find out about the ancient drug of ayahuasca.

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And I've got to decide if it's something I want to try

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in my search for God.

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So, I'm going to knock on God's door,

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and let's see if he's there.

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Brazil, a country where 99% of the population

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believe in God or a higher spirit.

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It's home to 123 million Catholics,

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more than anywhere else in the world.

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Everywhere I turn, there's loads of religious iconography.

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Their biggest landmark is Mr Jesus himself.

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There's one of these on every other street

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and I feel like religion and faith is a big part of culture here,

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it's very much ingrained in daily life.

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To find out more about the power of religion,

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I headed to the Igreja da Penha church in Rio.

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Devotion here can be extreme.

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That guy over there, he's crawling all the way up

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to the church on his knees. It looks pretty painful.

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I mean, that's dedication. This is how much it means to people.

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THEY SING

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This is an annual ceremony where the worshippers have to carry

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the statue of the Virgin up 382 steps.

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He's done it, he's done it, the guy's at the top.

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He made it all the way on his knees.

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He deserves an award for that - that looked painful.

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But not everyone in this country is sold

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on this organised definition of faith.

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A growing number of people are turning

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to an entirely different form of religious sacrament.

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It's called ayahuasca.

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It's made by smashing the roots of two plants

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till it turns into a pulp that you can drink.

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Apparently, it tastes horrible,

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and you're meant to take it and it will change your life.

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I've heard it being referred to as the God molecule.

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Now, if that doesn't sound epic, I don't know what does.

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Hello? I'm Mawaan.

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Nice to meet you. 'I've come to a suburb of Rio

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'to meet two women who believe that ayahuasca

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'is the route to reaching God.'

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-What a place you live in.

-Yeah.

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Monkeys come to your front door - that's crazy.

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Come get it. Don't be afraid.

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You want it?

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He took it out of my hand!

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Oh, yeah! Happy birthday, man.

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He's loving it.

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You're welcome.

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Did you see that? He took it out my hand.

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I live in London and it's very different.

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Where does ayahuasca come from?

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Ayahuasca's active ingredient is called DMT,

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and that makes it an illegal class A drug in the UK.

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How do you feel about some people referring to it as a drug?

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Cos in Britain, where I live, it's a very naughty thing to do

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and you'd get in a lot of trouble.

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Why is it important to you to relate back to the ancient roots of it?

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For myself, I have deep, deep gratitude

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for these Amazonian tribes,

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and ayahuasca and all of these medicines from the forest

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makes you go even deeper and connects you to a deeper source.

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But now this ancient tribal drug

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has come from the forest into Brazil's booming cities

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with their mashup of religious beliefs.

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Faith here is like a little spiritual omelette.

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Look at this.

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This is like a real patchwork of all sorts of influences.

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You've got Christianity, Hinduism, a Buddha,

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you've got the hand of Fatima there,

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and that is quite an Islamic pattern -

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you see that in mosques a lot.

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I feel like in the UK it's kind of cool to be atheist,

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it's cool to be, like, "I don't believe in all that stuff.

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"That stuff ties me down."

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And here, actually maybe it's kind of trendy

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to be part of different things and have various religious influences.

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That's Princess Diana.

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That's a religion for some people, isn't it?

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Many of these religions use ayahuasca.

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In Brazil, it's been legal for use in religious ceremonies since 1992.

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Now it's thought that half a million people use it regularly.

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This is like a trip in itself - it's very colourful and psychedelic.

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I think if any country is going to legalise

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stuff for religious purposes, it might as well be here.

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I grew up in a fairly religious family

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and there were bits of it I really liked

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and bits of it I dismissed completely.

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And I guess that's what's happening here, but in a more liberal way.

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People are taking what they want from it,

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and things like ayahuasca are involved,

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which are quite ancient traditions,

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but people are customising it to what suits them.

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And it feels like people here

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feel liberated enough to experiment with religion.

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It's not so rigid.

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I've never felt like I've had the choice

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to experiment with religion before.

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For me, this is a new way of looking at things,

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and that feels quite comfortable.

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And maybe I do have a shot at finding something spiritual.

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Could ayahuasca help me do that?

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I needed to talk to someone who regularly takes it.

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29-year-old artist Gill is part of a church that uses the drug.

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So, I've heard a lot about ayahuasca.

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And I've got friends of friends of friends who told me stories,

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but have you done ayahuasca before? You've done a ceremony?

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Yeah, I've been doing it for two years.

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How many ceremonies have you done?

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-Once a month for two years.

-Really?

-You do the math.

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I mean, it's not every month but mostly.

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What about traditional religion wasn't working for you

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for you to turn to this?

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Well, I was born in a Catholic family and I have issues with...

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..with Catholics since when I was a teenager.

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I was like, "This isn't for me, this has...

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"..problems, logical problems there."

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I was reading a lot of Richard Dawkins at the time,

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and I was like, "This is not for me."

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What made you want to try this thing called ayahuasca?

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I don't know, just the experiences people tell me about it.

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I'm searching for, you know, myself.

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One thing I heard, yeah,

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is that people throw up and sometimes even poo their pants.

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I mean, that in itself is quite a vulnerable place to be,

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let alone anything else.

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Yeah, they call this the cleansing.

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It's when the ayahuasca is operating and they...

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It needs to clean your body

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and clear it from toxins and stuff that you consume every day.

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And the vomit is...

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I've experienced it. The vomit, it's not just the physical vomit,

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it's, like, you're vomiting emotions,

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stuff you're carrying in your life,

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and after you vomit, you feel so much...

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You feel amazing.

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-Really?

-So, yeah, I like when I vomit.

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There's been ceremonies where I vomited and pooed at the same time.

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-Wow.

-It was once.

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I can't wait for that. Thanks for the pep talk.

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But the result of taking ayahuasca can be even more extreme.

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People coming to South America looking for enlightenment

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or just a good time have even died.

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It's a powerful and sometimes dangerous drug.

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Peruvian police are led to a spot in the Amazon where a shaman,

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or a tribal medicine man,

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says he buried the body of an 18-year-old American

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who he claims died after drinking extracts of psychedelic plants

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at a psychedelic retreat.

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Now, DMT is the active ingredient in ayahuasca.

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And even taking it during a controlled, religious ceremony

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can give you a bad trip.

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Oh, she's just collapsed.

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I mean, she looks

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like she's just died.

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It doesn't look nice.

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It doesn't look like a pleasant experience.

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She's having a horrible time.

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SHE SCREAMS

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No!

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I think the idea of losing control scares me, because...

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You know, maybe what you get out of it is fulfilling in some way,

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but the actual going through this all just seems a bit extreme.

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Surely there's easier ways.

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The day before I left London, I really panicked a bit.

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And I almost didn't want to do this.

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Because I was scared that a lot of dark stuff would come up,

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and I didn't know if I wanted people to see that

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and for a camera to be there.

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It looks like The Exorcist.

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I don't know, maybe YouTube is the wrong place to do your research

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before taking these things, cos this is making me not want to do it.

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Oh, my God!

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SHE LAUGHS

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Before I made my mind up about whether I wanted to throw myself

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into such an intense experience,

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I was keen to know more about the drug's positive spiritual effects.

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Gill, who I met the other day, has invited me round for dinner

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so that I can meet some of his friends

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and have a deeper chat about it all.

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I've come empty-handed, so I guess I'll have to do the dishes later,

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but I'm going to go now.

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-Hey!

-Hey, Gill.

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Guys, this is Mawaan.

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-Hey, Mawaan.

-Nice to meet you.

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'This lot are right trendy Rio urbanites,

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'and they regularly go to ayahuasca ceremonies in the city.'

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This is nice, innit? It's like the Last Supper.

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Very appropriate.

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So, Gill was telling me about his ayahuasca experience

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and how it changed your life, right?

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What is it like for you guys?

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Are you involved in ayahuasca?

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It was one of those moments in your life

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when many things start to make sense.

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Do you think you've experienced God?

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God, it's a complicated word. God is...

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That's why I ask. THEY LAUGH

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I want to get to the bottom of this whole God thing.

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God is a word full of cultural background.

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I'm not entirely comfortable with using it.

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Maybe for myself it's fine,

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but will I declare to people that believe that God is something else

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that I experience that? I didn't experience what you believe,

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I experienced what I believed.

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But, yes, I experienced something that I can guarantee.

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As much as I'm learning, I'm really hungry, so shall we get some food?

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All right.

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Can I help you with anything?

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Absolutely. Get the rice, please.

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I gather we are all trying to make meaning of our lives, right?

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It's nice to have something to believe in

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and I feel like that is missing for me

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cos I'm full of distractions in London,

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and actually I want to know the meaning of life,

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like, I want to feel like I have a deeper understanding of things.

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Right. The answers that you are looking for everywhere else,

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they're really there.

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And again going back to ayahuasca,

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ayahuasca gives you the opportunity to kind of see all of that...

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..within yourself.

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So, ayahuasca is one way of finding something godly within yourself?

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Yes, definitely.

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Do you think you're getting high for God?

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No.

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It's not getting high.

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First of all, it's not getting high.

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This expression, "getting high", it comes from another context,

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and, all right, it's a context full of substances,

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but do people get high in hospital?

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This is not even...

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People don't even think about that - it's just nonsense.

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It's the same feeling that we have when we ask that.

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Are we getting high in the name of God?

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We're not working with God, we're not working with getting high.

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Why is this question even being asked?

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I feel like I've been seeing it maybe in the wrong perspective,

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cos getting high insinuates being in party situations

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and, like, you know?

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Drugs, and whoo!

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And feeling rubbish the next day.

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Actually, these guys, this is not that for them.

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And they are making a really active,

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conscious choice to delve deeper into something,

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and this substance that they're taking

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just happens to be part of that journey.

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But they're not doing it

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just so they're going to get a bit of mind alteration.

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That's not the main goal.

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The main goal is for them to understand themselves

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and the world a bit better

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and navigate through that and make sense of it.

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And maybe that's what God means to them.

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The moment has finally come.

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I've got to decide if I want to take ayahuasca.

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We've found a reputable church who have said that I can join them

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at their ceremony tonight.

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I'm about to take ayahuasca.

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I'm about to do that thing everyone talks about that changes their life.

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And I don't...I don't know how I feel about it.

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I'm lining my stomach up with grapes.

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I mean, it's all going to come back up anyway, but I'll do what I can.

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OK, this is it. I'm here, I'm literally round the corner

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from where the ceremony is going to happen and...

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and I'm absolutely bricking it.

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This is so real now. It's happening.

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And from what I've heard, things are going to come up,

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and it's going to be intense, and I'm going to face demons,

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whatever that means.

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I'm going to have to look my demons in the eye

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and connect with God and find an answer to the issues that come up.

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So, I'm going to suck it up and knock on God's door.

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And let's see if he's there.

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Do I knock?

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The Ark of the Blue Mountain Church

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is based in a house in a suburb of Rio.

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-Ola.

-Ola.

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-For Philippe's ceremony?

-Sim.

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Thank you. I'm Mawaan.

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I've got to go to a formal meeting before I'm allowed in.

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The guy in the trippy headband is Philippe Bandeira de Mello,

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the church's spiritual leader,

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who's practised with ayahuasca for nearly 40 years.

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OK, here goes the job interview.

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The church is strict.

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We've all been asked to wear a uniform of white

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to keep the bad spirits out.

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Outside, you have bad energies

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going to you.

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De nada.

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The church welcomes people from any religion into their ceremonies.

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My heart is beating really fast.

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I have to go in cos they can't start until everyone's in there.

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But...here we go.

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This happens every week at Philippe's house.

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About 90 people rock up and take ayahuasca.

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SINGING

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The force of your guardian angel,

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everything you need for your spiritual and material preparation.

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May the ayahuasca guide you...

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..protect you and bring you inspiration, connection,

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everything you need,

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everything you want for your illumination.

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Thank you.

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-Good journey.

-Thank you.

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I'm feeling a bit sick.

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It feels like I had a really bad steak or something.

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That's what it tastes like - like gone-off meat.

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The singing of ancient shamanic songs

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is supposed to help guide me through my trip.

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About 30 minutes in and I'm starting to feel something.

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Where's the bucket to throw up?

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OK. Obrigado.

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I thought I was going to throw up, but I don't need to.

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Everything feels really eventful.

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Like, everything is a thing.

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And I feel very open and vulnerable to things that could come in.

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I have a vision of me as a child sitting in a really big cathedral.

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Yeah.

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It's really hard to put into words, because words really diminish the...

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..just how big and expansive the feeling is.

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You can't really put it into words.

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Doing this, you interfere with the experience.

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Let him sit and close his eyes.

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It's better for him.

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Maybe...

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OK?

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Back inside, the ceremony starts getting intense.

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Dancing to the repetitive beats of music

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is said to induce a trance-like state.

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This is probably one of the most surreal raves I've ever been to.

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I feel quite overwhelmed by it all.

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I feel like there's no way of hiding

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from all the emotions I usually ignore.

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I'm starting to see religion as this open canvas

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and I can totally personalise it with whatever I want.

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HE LAUGHS

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Come up here. Come up here.

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(What are you doing?)

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This is ridiculous. I'm standing next to a crucifix...

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..asking myself the question, "Have I found God?"

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Yeah, maybe.

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Yeah, maybe, maybe...

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Yeah, maybe this is what God feels like.

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HE SIGHS I can't express...

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This is such a massive cliche, and I don't want to say this,

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but I do feel the wonders.

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I feel like I'm being hugged

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by everything from my past and my future

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and living and not living...is hugging me right now and saying...

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"..It's OK."

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The dancing goes on all night.

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But after about six hours..

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..I've reached my limit.

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Today I'm feeling really shattered and tired

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and it's a bit like a hangover, actually, but I feel really renewed

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and I feel like I shed skin and I learnt some tough lessons.

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And I feel like it was a lot deeper than I expected it to be.

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I've spent all these years building an image of myself -

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the way I see myself was completely shattered last night

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and that was really liberating.

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I had to see things that I didn't want to see

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and parts of it were really dark and demonic.

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I can imagine that in the wrong hands this stuff is quite dangerous,

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and it's all about the context.

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Within that context of religious, ritualistic -

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those elements being there really made it what it was.

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Without that, I could have had a terrible time

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and not have known how to navigate

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through this really powerful substance.

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For me, it was the first time I felt something bigger than me

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was guiding me and helping me make sense of my life.

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And that's not really happened before.

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And maybe that's what God feels like,

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and that's a big deal for me to say,

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because I'm a London boy who really felt quite cynical about faith,

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but maybe that's the closest I'll come

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to experiencing some sort of divinity.

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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.