The rise of the Ayahuasca enthusiast

Elio Guesa

Elio Guesa

August 9, 2017

Creating A Safer Space In Plant Medicine

The 2014 film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, While We’re Young, is the story of a middle aged childless couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. Stiller and Watts come to befriend a younger couple in their 20s, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Grief stricken by the realisation that they’re not getting any younger, Watts and Stiller set out to rediscover the zest and vitality they recall from their youth by channelling the ‘carpe diem’ attitude of their new friends. Stiller and Watts attend hip hop dance classes, warehouse film screenings, ditch their cars for bikes, start to dress more on trend and most memorably, they attend an Ayahuasca ceremony in a sprawling mansion in the New York suburbs.

The 2014 film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, While We’re Young, is the story of a middle aged childless couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. Stiller and Watts come to befriend a younger couple in their 20s, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Grief stricken by the realisation that they’re not getting any younger, Watts and Stiller set out to rediscover the zest and vitality they recall from their youth by channelling the ‘carpe diem’ attitude of their new friends. Stiller and Watts attend hip hop dance classes, warehouse film screenings, ditch their cars for bikes, start to dress more on trend and most memorably, they learn what an Ayahuasca ceremony is, in a sprawling mansion in the New York suburbs.

In a phone conversation one of Watts’ middle age friends asks quizzically, “what’s an Ayahuasca ceremony?” Watt’s responds with, “well, there’s a shaman and you wear white and drink this sludgy liquid from Peru and vomit up your demons.” These ceremonies are often associated with out of body experiences.

After each participant takes a sip of the brew, the shaman plays The Blade Runner sound track from his iPhone and leaves the participants to vomit into massive pre-placed bin buckets and stumble drunkenly around the house until dawn. Watts flirts with the vacuous shaman who is depicted as a middle aged ‘womaniser’ and is noticeably impressed by his confession of running a marathon the day after taking Ayahuasca. The morning after the ceremony, Watts and Stiller are sitting on the porch of the house talking about their respective ‘realisations’ and as they sit there clad in white, blankets wrapped around their shoulders they watch the shaman ride away with a young, blonde female participant on his red Vespa scooter.

While the scene depicted in Baumbach’s film is hilarious, it represents a much larger trend in Western culture: a trend that often marginalises the traditional knowledge that has been cultivated for centuries by the native peoples of the Amazon for the purposes of healing, medical diagnosis, divination and communing with plant and inanimate spirits and replaces it with a Westernised approach to healing.

The indigenous healing traditions of the Amazon have been cultivated and refined over centuries through experimentation, observation and experience. Yet in many Western contexts, these ways of knowing, interpreting and understanding sacred medicine experiences have been replaced by a lens that, to re-quote Watts’ character, often reduce the experience of sacred plant medicine healing to a straightforward albeit uncomfortable process that involves “drinking this sludgy liquid from Peru and vomiting up your demons.”

It’s important to note before we continue that in critiquing the use of Ayahuasca in many Western contexts that readers be aware that the aim in doing so is not to diminish, minimise or negate the healing that many may have experienced under the guidance of what we have referred to here as an “Ayahuasca enthusiast.” That is, someone working outside of the traditional knowledge systems that have been cultivated by the people of Amazonia for the purposes of bringing about a safe and deep healing experience through plant medicine. The objective rather, is to bring reader’s attention to the need to exercise caution when choosing to ingest Ayahuasca or other plant medicines in ANY context, and to be cognisant of the historical origins of these ancient traditions so as we do not come to untoward harm, and colonise Ayahuasca in the same way we have the land of our indigenous ancestors.

The Popularisation Of Ayahusaca Is Not Without Implications

The growing popularity of Ayahuasca and other ancient sacred plant medicines in the West and the replacement of curanderos that have undergone gruelling formalised apprenticeships over many years to refine their skills, consciousness and connection with what they consider to be plant spirit allies with ‘Ayahuasca enthusiasts’ is not without implications.

Not only has the popularisation or globalisation of Ayahuasca lead to increasing confusion about where to obtain reliable, objective information about how to prepare for and where to go for a safe plant medicine experience grounded in the ancient traditions of the people of Amazonia, it has also led to an increase in harm incurred by participants. For example, in Australia, it has been shown that participants are often not ingesting Banisteriopsis caapi but a substitute plant that grows in the middle east and is known as Peganum harmala under the guidance of facilitators who have an inadequate understanding of the traditional ways of working with such medicines.

“We have separated ourselves from nature and we really need to re-understand that relationship. -Dennis McKenna”

A Path Of Responsibility

The path to become a curandero in the traditions of the Shipibo people of the Peruvian Amazon is generally rigorous, arduous and long. Apprenticeships can take many years. During that time, the apprentice will often be required to abstain from certain foods and sexual intercourse, participate in many Ayahuasca ceremonies and spend long periods of time in isolation fasting and communing with and forging lifelong relationships with what they recognise as plant spirits. Like any health professional, curanderos operate within an established framework for supporting their clients to get well. Sadly however, the growing popularity of Ayahuasca and other plant medicines in the West has led to inadequately trained Ayahuasca ‘enthusiasts’ administering Ayahuasca and offering guests ‘silver bullet’ solutions to various illnesses, emotional and mental predicaments whilst ignoring the culturally specific wisdom, beliefs and vital rituals that have been refined and cultivated over thousands of years for effectively and respectfully working with sacred plant medicines. While it’s true that tradition and culture do evolve over time, this cultivated wisdom shouldn’t be ignored by those in the West seeking to offer an Ayahuasca experience to vulnerable people in search of deep healing.

Brazilian Psychologist, Bruno Gnomes in a recent piece detailing his experience of using Ayahuasca and Ibogaine (a plant with psychedelic properties derived from the root bark of the African plant Iboga, or Tabernanthe iboga) to treat help a group of homeless crack cocaine addicts, notes that even when bringing the ancient wisdom of Amazonia into our hospitals to help patients struggling with debilitating addictions, the kinds of significant life changes that people desire will not occur without three things: a desire for the substance, an understanding of our own bodily dynamics and a profound integration effort or significant lifestyle change post treatment. He also notes that the kind of radical life changes patients come to him for, are supported within the context of a therapeutic relationship, be that with himself, a therapist, a doctor, a shaman or a group. 

 
“For him, Ayahuasca and Ibogaine are not ‘silver bullets’ and are not capable of alleviating pain in and of themselves, like aspirin, but rather require belief, trust and to be taken in contexts where due meaning is given to the experience.”

Where To Now: Finding Objective Information And Trustworthy Retreat Operators

The growing number of tour operators has made it difficult for individuals to source reliable, objective information about what to look for when seeking out a sacred medicine experience. The International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS) is dedicated to bridging this gap and dispelling many of the myths that have been and continue to be perpetuated by the popular media about what an Ayahuasca experience involves.

The ICEERS provide readers of their website with detailed information and decision making criteria that supports them in determining whether a sacred medicine experience is right for them. They also detail some of the risks associated with Ayahuasca including exclusion criteria, medicines and foods that should be avoided. The ICEERS discuss the benefits of participating in an authentic sacred medicine experience as well as outlining what to look for (and look out for) when seeking out a facilitator.

ICEERS also run the Ayahuasca Defence Fund, (ADF) whose primary aim is to help “shape a world in which Ayahuasca and other traditional psychoactive plants can be used legally and safely.” ADF offer legal defence and are increasingly concerned with the implications that we are now seeing arise from the globalisation of Ayahuasca, such as the criminal prosecution of those seeking deep healing through plant medicine.

The Ayahuasca Treatment Outcome Project (ATOP) is the first, global multidisciplinary study of its kind that is aiming to document the benefits of plant medicine for treating addiction and various mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. The project raised over $30,000 USD in their 2013 crowdfunding campaign to support a diverse team of scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, biomedical scientists, doctors and curanderos who will be contributing to the study. Research of this kind is vital and an important adjunct to the work of ADF in obtaining scientific evidence that can be used to justify and normalise the use of plant medicine for the healing of common mental health disorders.

As Ayahuasca continues to rise in popularity around the world, the danger is that Amazonian ways of knowing, understanding, interpreting and safely facilitating the Ayahuasca experience will be become increasingly diluted by reductionist Western viewpoints such as those of the ‘bucket list’ retreat operator. The work of ICEERS and ATOP is therefore vital in ensuring that individuals can source objective information, scientific data and decision making criteria. The hope is that such resources will help to reduce the harm incurred to participants who ingest the brew under inadequately trained Ayahuasca enthusiasts.

Dennis McKenna, who together with his now deceased brother Terrance McKenna are regarded as the forefathers of Ayahuasca in the West, commented in a recent interview in The Guardian (US) on how vital indigenous ways of knowing are for the future of the human species. It is worth quoting Dennis at length, to fully convey the gravitas of this view:

We have separated ourselves from nature and we really need to re-understand that relationship. As a species, we are simultaneously the most dangerous thing that has appeared in the course of evolutionary time and we’re also the most promising. Indigenous people have this perspective that [Ayahuasca and other plants] are teachers. They exist to give us guidance and wisdom. [Indigenous people] have been the stewards of the plants, the stewards of this knowledge, but I think that now things are getting desperate on a global scale in terms of the environmental catastrophes that are looming. I think there’s a sense in the community of species we’ve got to step up the game and these are their tools to contact human beings and basically say, “Pay attention because you need to re-understand your relationship to nature,” and once that’s understood then you have to start making changes. 

For McKenna, the time is ripe to rediscover the indigenous knowledge of Amazonia and the inherent intelligence of sacred plant medicines and to find out way back to nature. And so, we must go gently and remember that, in McKenna’s words, us “monkey’s only think that you’re running things.”

References:

Beyer, Stephan. Singing to the Plants: A Guide to the Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. New Mexico: The University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Gearin, Alex. “Whatever you want to Believe: Kaleidoscopic Individualism and Ayahuasca Healing in Australia.” Australian Journal of Anthropology, 26 no.3 (2015) 442-455.

Gomes, Bruno. “What I learned treating 400+ patients with Ibogaine and Ayahuasca.” Chacruna, March 13, 2017. http://chacruna.net/treating-patients-with-ibogaine-ayahuasca/

Hill, David. “Ayahuasca is changing global environmental consciousness,” The Guardian, July 30, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/andes-to-the-amazon/2016/jul/30/ayahuasca-changing-global-environmental-consciousness

While We’re Young, directed by Noah Baumbach (2014; Toronto International Film Festival: A24 Films).

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