Business leaders’ new passion for mind-altering Amazonian retreats

Ayahuasca – a psychedelic brew used in Amazonian rituals – is attracting surprising new adherents from the business world. Kate Spicer traces their journey from the depths of the rainforest to the highs of professional enlightenment

The start of an ayahuasca ceremony at the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru
The start of an ayahuasca ceremony at the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru

Across the Amazonian regions of Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, indigenous peoples have long used a strong hallucinogenic decoction called ayahuasca as part of medico-spiritual practice. The plant-based drink, normally taken during a night-time group ceremony, is used in as many different ways as there are tribes – not just as sacrament or medicine but also in warfare or as a visionary plant, a way to see how to lead the tribe in the future. In the past decade or so, a new and surprising tribe has adopted ayahuasca. Curious and rigorous minds from business and finance are now turning to the “medicine” to find answers about their goals in life and evolve ideas around their work and careers.

This business-minded seeker is found in cities worldwide, from London to Los Angeles. Rather than drink ayahuasca illegally in their home countries, many head to South America and into the heart of the rainforest in those countries where ayahuasca is not only legal but also, as the Peruvian National Institute of Culture declared in 2008, “one of the fundamental pillars of the identity of Amazonian peoples”.

José, one of the Temple of Light’s traditional healers, using tobacco smoke to transmit intentions and prayers into the ayahuasca as it brews
José, one of the Temple of Light’s traditional healers, using tobacco smoke to transmit intentions and prayers into the ayahuasca as it brews

In recent years, comfortable, well-equipped retreats have opened using both traditional and western healing modalities to help their guests get the best from the experience. Rythmia is a medically licensed five-star “life advancement centre” in Costa Rica. The Temple of the Way of Light is a more traditional retreat set in the Peruvian rainforest, where the Shipibo tribe’s traditional healers, known as onanya, work alongside staff trained in wellness practices. The truly business-minded seeker can even apply for inclusion on a $22,500, 12-week business mastermind programme that travels to Peru’s Sacred Valley: the Amazon Ayahuasca Mastermind, from an organisation called Entrepreneurs Awakening in San Francisco, where participants stay in what its director, Michael Costuros, describes as a five-star B&B next to the practice centre of the shaman.

“I started reading about ayahuasca in 2005,” says international property entrepreneur Anton Bilton. “I’d had a fascinating insight into the unconscious mind under hypnotic regression and was keen to experience a similar state of understanding.” Bilton’s experience happened “in a very simple place up in the hills of Ecuador on the recommendation of a friend”. Nevertheless, he says, “I can honestly say that ayahuasca is up there in the top three experiences of my life, along with falling in love with my wife and the birth of my children. From an intellectual perspective, you feel connected to something other than self.”

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Bilton is executive deputy chairman at the Raven Property Group – the largest grade-A logistics landlord in Russia, with nearly 2,000,000sq m of commercial property space valued at $1.6bn – a company he founded the same year that he discovered ayahuasca. “The two things were unconnected, but this experience brought about some stark reversals in the way I approached work,” he says. “My first wife sadly left me because I was a workaholic. My ayahuasca experience helped to bring me balance – not just for me but all my employees. It taught me that the greatest results stem from a collective endeavour led from the front. Genuinely caring for your employees; it’s not simply about larger bonuses. People don’t just work for money, they want to be part of the creative process in making something bigger. The greatest challenge is to absolutely pursue that ideal while also making more money for your shareholders.”

Bilton has returned to ayahuasca and Ecuador regularly. While those who have taken ayahuasca say that it can facilitate profound insights about nature, existence and, in many cases, the divine, Bilton says that his professional interests are also something he has addressed while under its influence and in an altered state of consciousness. “Say you have someone who isn’t performing, and your instinct is to be upset and relatively critical. In an ayahuasca state you might feel the situation as the other person would have felt it. I often have realisations relating to the need to help, instruct, nurture, explain.”

Michael Costuros is director of Entrepreneurs Awakening, which offers an eight-day stay with a shaman, including ayahuasca experiences, followed by a four-day cruise on the Amazon
Michael Costuros is director of Entrepreneurs Awakening, which offers an eight-day stay with a shaman, including ayahuasca experiences, followed by a four-day cruise on the Amazon

Ayahuasca is no recreational high. Despite its popularity in Silicon Valley often being linked to that sector’s love of the Burning Man festival, most of those who have taken it report that nothing about the experience is a party. “You do occasionally meet people who enjoy it, but for 90 per cent it’s very tough. It causes you to vomit, hallucinate and feel deathly ill for around four hours that seem an eternity at the time,” says Entrepreneurs Awakening’s Costuros.

In the indigenous Peruvian Quechua language, ayahuasca means “the vine of the spirits”. Chemically, it makes an unusually high concentration of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) available to the human body through a chemical composite in liquid form. The foul-tasting brew is concocted from two plants: the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, which is most commonly boiled together with Psychotria viridis leaves. Beta-carboline alkaloids (harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline) in the vine prevent the liver from breaking down the DMT in the leaves, which would normally dissipate before it could affect the central nervous system.

Anton Bilton, founder of the Raven Property Group and the Tyringham Initiative, a consciousness think tank
Anton Bilton, founder of the Raven Property Group and the Tyringham Initiative, a consciousness think tank

The Entrepreneurs Awakening group of 14 (which Costuros hand-picks from about 90 qualified applicants a year) experience up to four psychedelic trips (some with ayahuasca, or a less gruelling plant called San Pedro) during their eight-day stay with a shaman. The second week wraps up with four days on a luxurious Amazon river cruise. But the experience begins four weeks before, with a mix of solo coaching sessions and group video calls during which goals and metrics are set and best practice decided for the desired changes in participants’ professional and personal lives. After the trip there are six weeks of integration coaching. “This is when the participants benefit from business mastermind exercises and group support to move their careers forward.”

Without this kind of groundwork and the follow-up sessions, Costuros believes that many of the potential benefits experienced under the influence of “the medicine” can be lost. “As with any major awakening experience, be it climbing a mountain or the birth of a child, people come out going, ‘I’m a new man/woman!’ and then, two weeks later, often they’re not.” His methods, he claims, “mean 50 per cent of the value in the experience is on either side”.

Temple of the Way of Light healer Rogelia places ayahuasca into a guest’s hands, to connect her with its energy
Temple of the Way of Light healer Rogelia places ayahuasca into a guest’s hands, to connect her with its energy

Away from the course, Costuros is an executive coach specialising in venture-backed Silicon Valley startups. “Most of my clients don’t know that I do this programme,” he says. One of his past candidates was the deputy of an eastern European bank, though most come from startups or tech.

Henrik Zillmer, founder and CEO of Y Combinator-backed AirHelp, an app used to claim compensation for flight delays and cancellations, joined the programme in 2016. He recently told Costuros in a podcast that he was so moved by what he learnt that afterwards he went back to work and took over the running of the HR department so that he could implement positive changes within the company. “Clients often come with issues surrounding micro-management – and can end up understanding the limitations of that old command-and-control military leadership style,” says Costuros. “They’re stuck in patterns that do not serve them or their businesses, and in my experience ayahuasca can change that far quicker than executive coaching alone.”

The Temple is set in the midst of the rainforest
The Temple is set in the midst of the rainforest

Silicon Valley and Californian entrepreneurs are perhaps a more obvious fit for embracing the psychedelic. Tech has previous form with hallucinogens. Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson: “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it.” Such high-profile endorsements arguably lead to more acceptance of unconventional business coaching methods in this sector. Costuros says that five years ago his tech clients used to get him to sign NDAs; now, less so, though the same does not hold true for financiers: “For them, privacy is absolutely critical.”

One woman, who works for a large European investment bank and wished to remain anonymous, says, “If my participation got out, I would lose my job immediately.” She and her husband, also in finance, joined a small group of friends in the UK’s West Country at an illegal ceremony hosted by a visiting shaman from overseas. She says she took part because “I am a generally curious person”, but also because she had some questions about her life. “When Lehman went bust in 2008, we lost everything. I wanted the experience to give me some kind of inspiration, something between a psychic and a business coach, and provide hope and direction. When the medicine first kicked in, I saw all these psychedelics – a kaleidoscope of colours and visions, and a lot of snakes, which scared the hell out of me. Then for about an hour my dead grandmother, who had worked hard all her life, came to me. We talked, had fun together and towards the end she told me to look after my health, to find a work-life balance, or I would be dead of cancer like her at 65. My schedule is crazy – it’s work or it’s kids, and that’s it. Banking has put something in my head that if I’m not being productive all the time, I feel guilty.” She does not disregard the sagacity of the message she took from the drug, but “I don’t know if I would do ayahuasca again”, she continues. “You go in with one idea and it hits you with another. You need to be ready to deal with that. I had a significant wake-up call.”

The temple at Nihue Rao retreat centre in Iquitos, Peru, where the ayahuasca experiences take place on Entrepreneurs Awakening’s 12-week Amazon Ayahuasca Mastermind Program
The temple at Nihue Rao retreat centre in Iquitos, Peru, where the ayahuasca experiences take place on Entrepreneurs Awakening’s 12-week Amazon Ayahuasca Mastermind Program | Image: Tracey Eller

Her husband, however, believes the ayahuasca experience is counterintuitive to work in the markets. “A good professional is focused on externalities, whereas ayahuasca is all about internalities. Maybe it makes for a greater artist, but it does not make for a greater professional. You’re better off studying economics, waking up early and working hard.”

“That’s quite possibly true,” says Payton Nyquvest, VP and head of retail sales at Mackie Research Capital, one of Canada’s biggest brokerage firms, but “what ayahuasca can help access is a far deeper level of knowledge and truth about yourself – and an inquiring mind can use that to figure out the answers to a lot of questions.” Other than that, he notes, her husband is right, “there’s nothing in it to make you a better financier.” Nyquvest describes it as “not a magic pill or panacea, but a powerful life advancer. An extra club in your golf bag.”

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He first took ayahuasca in May 2017 at Rythmia in Costa Rica (where ayahuasca has no indigenous tradition) in four ceremonies over one week; the centre offers four ritual approaches from different traditions in Brazil, Peru and Colombia. Rythmia is a retreat that resembles a luxury wellness resort, with an organic farm‑to-fork restaurant and a spa with Dead Sea cleanses. The healing aspect of the ayahuasca was not just about personal awakening for Nyquvest; he claims it also fixed a long-term stomach complaint that doctors had been unable to cure. He is currently lobbying Canadian regulators and government to license ayahuasca for therapeutic use – and hopes to open a treatment centre in Vancouver.

Anton Bilton, meanwhile, has started the Tyringham Initiative, a think tank “where renowned academics and scientists meet to discuss the latest theories in consciousness research and investigate these extraordinary experiences that appear to marry science and spirituality”. But at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, professor of neuroscience Dráulio Barros de Araújo says ayahuasca is different from other psychedelics currently being trialled in psychiatry in that it has a greater impact on the body. “Its pharmacology has a broad spectrum of effects that we still don’t quite understand. It has challenging effects on the body.”

“The excitement about cognitive enhancement is ahead of the science, which moves very slowly,” says Brad Burge, director of communication at MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a non-profit organisation that supports research into psychedelics. “We still have so much to learn about this compound, which is classed as a Schedule 1 [or Class A] drug in most countries outside South America. People who think ‘it’s just a plant’ often don’t realise that it’s contraindicated in many cases.”

Remi Olajoyegbe, who had an 11-year career in equity capital markets, including nine years as co-head of the European equity syndicate at Goldman Sachs in London, visited South America several times to question the direction of both her personal life and career. She “drank” with several indigenous tribes and regularly visited Peru’s Temple of the Way of Light, which, she says, “combines taking the plant medicine with other healing modalities, including meditation, yoga and self-inquiry”. The result was a career change – she is now an executive and life coach. “I wish people in the UK had access to retreat centres offering these blended modes of healing. City people have high levels of endurance; we’re expected to have a standard of self-management at a high-functioning level – but that can leave little room to deal with emotion. We are expected to keep a lid on things.” She admits a certain caution about discussing her interest in ayahuasca, but says, “We know this medicine is credible and potent. It’s time to stand up and be counted.” 

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