As the use of ayahuasca expands across the globe, so the number of articles about it grows. It’s interesting to see, too, the proliferation and variety of discourses used to decribe the medicine – new age, scientific (notably neuroscientific), psychological, healing, ecological and political.
The following are the best and/or most interesting articles on ayahuasca that I have seen in the last few months.
This excellent article is from reset.me, which describes itself as “a community for independent consciousness journalism”, and has a number of good articles about ayahuasca and other plant medicines.
I particularly like this article because, although primarily about the value of the medicine in treating PTSD, it includes an ecological and indigenous perspective, which are sadly lacking in many articles about ayahuasca. The article concludes:
“We have adopted a development model that is unsustainable,” says Riccardo. “We are stressing the ecosystem. Indigenous people are on the front line of extractive economy. They see their forests and rivers dying because of unscrupulous, aggressive mining, logging, oil perforations, flooding, droughts, cattle ranching or mono-crop cultivations of eucalyptus, soya, and African palm.
“Concerned about these environmental catastrophes, indigenous spokespeople are proposing an alternative development model based on their millenarian experience, their philosophy, their cosmology, and their spirituality. We should listen and incorporate this vision into all development models.”
This article appeared in the September 12th 2016 edition of the New Yorker. The title, ‘The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale’, gives some idea of what is in store by immediately referencing ayahuasca as a drug, rather than a medicine.
I include this article mainly in contrast to the previous one. It is interesting because it shows how ayahuasca is being assimilated into the highly individualistic, entreprenuerial, hedonistic culture of parts of the USA. The article, to give some idea of the growing use of ayahuasca, says that:
“Leanna Standish, a researcher at the University of Washington School of Medicine, estimated that “on any given night in Manhattan, there are a hundred ayahuasca ‘circles’ going on.” ”
The last part of the article about a ceremony in Williamsburg is amusing in a sardonic way. Somewhere there is a great comic novel about ayahuasca just waiting to be written. I’d nominate Tom Wolfe for the job. Perhaps the best line is from a couple who make a living growing and serving ayahuasca:
“We manifest abundance wherever we go,” she told me. Her boyfriend added, “Consciousness is its own economy.”
I wonder what the Shipibo and other indigenous peoples would make of that.
This article by Tanya Mate from the Naturopathic News & Review, dated June 11 2016, gives a very balanced, non-sensationalistic and well-written overview of the possible aplications of ayahuasca for conditions such as: anxiety and depression; addictions; PTSD – as well as for general well-being.
This article, as the title suggests, is a particularly good resource for people thinking about drinking ayahuasca for the first time.
5. Scientific articles on ayahuasca
There is also a growing number of scientific articles about ayahuasca. In these, the medicine is generally assimilated into a traditional, rationalist, quantative, scientific discourse. For an example, see this article, entitled ‘Acute Biphasic Effects of Ayahuasca’. To give you some idea of the approach embodied here, see this quote below:
No significant changes were found in the delta and theta bands. A cluster at left parieto-occipital electrodes (P7, PO7, O1 and O2) had significant decreases in alpha power (p = 0.0398, partial η2 = 0.1531, Fig 3A). Post-hoc analysis revealed this effect to be significant specifically after 50 min from ayahuasca ingestion (p = 0.0420 Fig 3B). A significant cluster was also found for the beta band, at left fronto-temporal electrodes (FT9, AF7, F7, FT7 and T7, p = 0.0260, partial η2 = 0.1946, Fig 4A). However, this effect did not survive statistical thresholds after post-hoc analysis (Fig 4B). In the slow-gamma band three different clusters were found in the right frontal (Fp2, AF4 and F2, p = 0.0046, partial η2 = 0.3067), left fronto-temporal (FT9, AF7, F7, FT7, T7 and C5, p = 0.0026, partial η2 = 0.2214) and left centro-parieto-occipital (C3,CP3, P5, P3, P1, PO7 and O1, p = 0.0152, partial η2 = 0.2555) (Fig 5A). Slow-gamma power in these three clusters increased specifically after 100 minutes from ingestion of ayahuasca, with exception of the left fronto-temporal cluster where the increase was also significant at 75 and 125 min post-ingestion (all ps <0.05, Fig 5B, 5C and 5D, respectively). In the fast-gamma range four different clusters were identified. These were located at right-frontal (Fp2, AF4, F2 and F6, p = 0.0016, partial η2 = 0.3076), right parieto-occipital (P4, PO4, O2 and PO8, p = 0.0088, partial η2 = 0.2850), left fronto-temporal (FT9, F7, FT7, FC5 and T7, p = 0.0098, partial η2 = 0.2506) and left centro-parieto-occipital region (C3, CP3, CP1, P5, P3, PO7 and O1, p = 0.0132, partial η2 = 0.2870) (Fig 6A). Post-hoc analysis revealed these increase to be significant at 75, 100 and 125 min post-ayahuasca ingestion, with the exception of the left centro-parieto-occipital cluster where it was significant only after 75 min (all ps < 0.05, Fig 6B, 6C, 6D and 6E).
6. Comic Relief: ‘Ayahuasca Shaman dreading another week of guiding Tech CEO’s to spiritual oneness’
This piece from the Onion is one of the best humorous articles on ayahuasca. Part of the reason it is funny is that it is not so exaggerated. See here for the real life account of $10,000 USD retreats called ‘Entreprenuers Awakening’, promising benefits such as “a new level of innovative thinking” and “increased tactical clarity.”
This short article, by Adbi Assadi, dated 21st October 2016, is good in warning of the pitfalls of repeated ayahuasca use. He concludes:
“The medicine used in ceremonies is not addictive but feeling of oneness that the medicine can foster certainly is. And that is where the danger lies. We can get hooked on that feeling and keep wanting to repeat it. We need to pay attention to such things.”
I see his point, which is similar to others writing about the dangers of ‘spiritual bypassing’ but of the many things to be addicted to, a feeling of oneness seems least damaging.
Recently, following the recommendation of a friend, I watched the movie, ‘The Sound of my Voice’. The low budget (only $135,000) movie was a hit at the Sundance Independent Film Festival in 2011.
The movie is the story of two wanna-be investigative reporters, a couple in their twenties, who infiltrate a cult in los Angeles, with a view to exposing the leader – an attractive, blond women, dressed in flowing white robes, memorably described in one review of the movie as looking like “the Pilates instructor on the Starship Enterprise”. She claims to be from the future, specifically the year 2054. She says she has returned to the present to warn people of the impending civil war and disasters that are due to happen, and prepare people for this.
As the movie unfolds, we start to see the tensions between and the complexities of the motivations of the two people investigating the cult. Furthermore, as they become more involved with the cult, their role as detached investigators, looking for the truth in order to expose it, becomes more problematic.
The movie ends leaving the viewer in doubt about the central question of the film. Could this woman really be from the future? Or is she a charismatic fraud, using new-age language and dubious therapeutic techniques to emotionally manipulate her followers?
The movie is very cleverly constructed to suggest the possibility of multiple interpretations of what might be going on – not just in relation to the central question in the paragraph above but in many other scenes too. In an interview with Wired magazine, Brit Marling, the actress who plays the cult leader, and who also co-wrote the script says:
“I think that we tried to — and I hope this worked — we tried to have everything offer or inspire multiple interpretations. We tried to craft it so that each seed could be interpreted multiple ways and that you’re constantly, as the audience, with Peter, sort of pushed back and forth between whether or not she is or isn’t extraordinary.”
I found the movie eerie and unsettling. Beyond the central question as to whether the cult leader really is from the future or not, the movie confronts us with what do we believe in and why? And, if what we believe in is just an effect of our family and cultural conditioning, what, if anything, might lie beyond this? Like other films, which play with this theme, such as ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Trueman Show’, ‘Trance’, ‘Dark City’, the result can be disturbing, though potentially liberating.
On a related theme, I read recently that a number of high-tech billionaires from Silicon Valley, convinced we are living in a computer simulation of reality are now secretly funding research to help break us out of it.
There is a very good article here from BBC Earth with leading cosmologists, physicists and technology entrepreneurs arguing for this possibility.
In a profoundly more powerful way than watching a movie, our experiences with La Madre Ayahuasca also call into question our beliefs and conditioning and blow apart the limited rationality that our culture generally uses to settle questions of belief. The veil is lifted. But what do we make of beyond the veil? Or what credence do we give to the visions and experiences brought to us by the Madre?
This is important in a culture, like ours, where most of us grow up and are educated into having empirical, sense-based evidence for what we hold to be true. Once Madre Ayahuasca throws that out of the window, especially in a culture whose rationalist, materialist worldview now seems exhausted, there is a huge vacuum for all kinds of half-baked fantasies to rush in. Just look, for example, at some of the ayahuasca sites on Facebook. Returning to the theme of the film, this is fertile breeding ground for cults.
This is particularly pertinent to me at the moment. Madre Ayahuasca can show us many worlds. I have experienced alien worlds and reptilian beings, which stretch my imagination (in the best sense of the word) to the upmost and (afterwards) can activate my skepticism – did I see all those reptiles in that ceremony because I had been reading David Icke the day before?
Furthermore, over the seven years I have been drinking ayahuasca, I have had three profound visions connected more to my personal life than the possibility of other worlds co-existing with ours. At the time, these visions seemed more real than real and were completely compelling and convincing.
I have responded differently to each of these visions. The first, I pursued doggedly for two years before giving up. The second I chose to not act upon and the third, most recent one, is still an open book. So were these visions ‘true’, given that, so far, none have come to pass? Recently, a friend told me that during a number of ceremonies, she had seen visions of herself being raped and stabbed in the neighborhood where she lives, which is potentially threatening and dangerous. Should she give credence to these visions and move?
One way it makes sense to me to think about this is to see the visions as possible realities that may or may not be enacted – rather like ideas of parallel universes in quantum theory or many roads less travelled. Even if we do everything we can to enact them, as I did in the example of the first vision I experienced (and maybe like first love, our first vision is always going to be special) there is no guarantee they will happen.
All this brings me to the question of faith. If everything is relative, as certain versions of post-modern philosophy argue, and capable of multiple interpretations as the movie shows, and there is no absolute truth, where do we find our ground? What do we believe and have faith in, at a time where all our cultural and political institutions seem bankrupt?
Faith, as is said, can move mountains. It can also organize crusades and slaughter thousands.
I am reading a delightful book at the moment called ‘Sastun’, by Rosita Arvigo, about her apprenticeship to Don Elijio, a Mayan healer in Belize in the 1980’s. At one point in the book, Don Elijio says that whilst it is clearly important to have knowledge of the plants, what is most important to use them well is to have faith in them. He indicates that this might be something that a person has as a gift, not something that can be taught.
So it could be that we can connect faith to a sense of inner destiny, to discover our inner calling, what it is that we are in service to. Being in service to just our individual self, as our current economic system emphasizes, is ultimately empty.
This blog entry continues a sequence of writing about books I have read whilst in dieta. Recent posts have included commentaries on Henri Corbin’s book ‘Alone with the Alone’ about visionary experience and Thomas Moore’s book ‘The Planets Within’ about the Renaissance astrologer and psychologist of the soul, Marcilio Ficino.
As I have commented before, reading books whilst doing a plant dieta, is different from normal reading. Because of the intense receptive state a dieta creates, which is why it is important to monitor one’s contact with different energies – traditionally for the Shipibo dietas were done in isolation in the jungle – one absorbs the energy of a book. Ideas, as James Hillman pointed out, are living entities and they have their effects on our psyches.
Whilst on a recent short eight-day dieta with the sacred tree Noya Rao, I read ‘Earth beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds’ by the Peruvian anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena. This book is not an easy read.
It is a very scholarly and multi-levelled account of the author’s contact over ten years with two men, Mariano and Nazario Turpo, father and son, who were both well-known as yachaq – a Quechua word that translates as ‘knower’ – in the mountain community of Pacchanta, more than 4000 meters above sea level, east of Cuzco and close to the mountain of Ausengate.
The book is framed as a collection of stories. And the book constantly interrogates the assumptions on which stories, and even words, are constructed. For example, Cadena points out that the term ‘Andean shaman’, by which Nazario Turpo came to be known, and who developed an international following by his work with tourists (like an increasing number of Shipibo healers), is a relatively recent construction “created by the convergence of local anthropology, tourism and New age practices.”
Part of Marisol de la Cadena’s initial intention in getting to know Mariano Turpo was to retell the story of how he became an important peasant leader in the struggles over land ownership in Peru, which led to the important agrarian reform of 1969. Mariano Turpo was keen to collaborate because he felt that his role in overthrowing the extreme exploitation of the local hacienda, which had involved considerable risks to his life and threats to his family, was no longer recognized in the community he was part of.
As Marisol de la Cadena engaged him in conversation about this, and was given access to an important ‘archive’ of documents related to this struggle, she took seriously Mariano’s practices as a yachaq and the role of the earth beings to whom Mariano made offerings, notably the mountain Ausangate, in the political struggle. Mariano was recognized by his community as very skilled in doing this, which was an important reason why he was chosen to lead the struggle.
The great endeavor in this book is, from the perspective of an anthropologist trained in Western forms of thinking, to take seriously and attempt to understand, as far as possible in their own terms, indigenous forms of knowing and practice. These have typically either been dismissed as native superstition in colonial anthropology, which either consciously or implicitly assumes the superiority of Western thought, or interpreted and subjugated in post-colonial anthropological thinking simply as forms of belief.
It seems to me that within the limits of Western thinking, Cadena goes as far as she can to acknowledge the existential and ontological reality of the very different worlds that are almost excluded to non-indigenous people by our very ways of thinking about them. In so doing, she begins to break down some of the divisions between nature and culture, subject and object, signifier and signified that have been the hallmark of Western thought since the sixteenth century.
Interestingly, to me, Cadena does all this within the terms of very sophisticated theoretical thought. It is clear that she is very affected by her relationships with the father and the son who are the two main protagonists of the different stories she tells, but she never reveals anything of her own experience of the ‘earth beings‘, which she sees as having played a significant, yet unacknowledged, role in the political struggles of the local area. She gives them ontological status through her writing yet never refers to them in terms of her own direct experience. I wonder if that is because she is concerned about being disaccredited within the academic world.
From a relatively limited knowledge of the field, I see Cadena’s work as part of a new tradition in anthropology, which looks to break down the traditional nature-culture divide upon which much anthropological thought has been founded. Cadena uses the work of Bruno Latour to track down the origins of this divide and the way it then created the ‘modern constitution’ and the ways that politics have come to be constructed.
Commenting on Latour’s work, she says that the ‘modern constitution’ was inaugurated by “the invention of the ontological distinction between humans and nonhumans, and the practices that allowed for both their mixture and their separation….the modern constitution was foundational to the agreement that founded the world as we know it, and that set the confines within which disagreements could be effected without undoing modern politics.
Together these divides – between humanity and nature and between allegedly superior and inferior humans – organized the agreement according to which worlds that do not abide by the divide are not. They do not even “count as not counting” “
In this sense, these worlds are invisible to the dominant cosmovisions.
This ‘new-wave’ of anthropology includes the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro in his work with Amazonian peoples. For Viveiros de Castro, Amerindians live in and enact worlds in which all human and nonhuman beings share culture but inhabit different bodies – their experience will vary according to their bodies i.e. their different natures. This dismantling of the conceptual barrier between culture and nature, sometimes called neo-animism, is also evident in Eduardo Kohn’s book with the intriguing and wonderful title, ‘How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the human.’
There is clearly much more that could be said about this new tradition in anthropology. I want, though, to go in a different direction, as I have in other blog entries, and connect my understanding of this book with my experience of La Madre Ayahuasca.
What did I take from this book that seemed important and helped me make sense of my ongoing work with plant spirits in dietas with my Shipibo Maestro?
Cadena throughout the book constantly refers to processes of translation between cultures and the inevitability of what Vivieros de Castro refers to as ‘equivocation’ – that terms from one culture will inevitably be misunderstood by the other culture in a way that often leads the difference in the terms to be lost. This made me think a lot about my relationship with my Shipibo Maestro. Often, I find him impenetrable. He communicates little in words and rarely offers explanations. Until I become more fluent in Shipibo, we each communicate in our non-native tongue. He prefers that his work does the talking for him.
One example of equivocation particularly stood out for me in this recent dieta. We had reached the end of a ceremony, which had been marked by constant music and drunken shouting from a recently opened bar. I had been thinking about how the young people in the community were gravitating towards alcohol, reggaeton music, and other Western influences. I began to talk to my Maestro about this and asked him how old the people were who had been at the bar. He did not seem to understand my question. When I repeated it, he answered it in terms of the names of the young people who he thought had been present and who, in the community, they were the sons of.
I did not think this reply was because he had not understood my Spanish. He heard me asking about these young people and instead of answering in quantitative terms about their age, he answered me in terms of their relationships to the community.
2. Being in-ayllu
Cadena, in referring to her two main protagonists, writes repeatedly about the importance to them of being ‘in-ayllu’ and the obligations that follow from this. Cadena quotes a bilingual Quechua-Spanish teacher explaining this term to her as follows:
“Ayllu is like a weaving, and all the beings in this world – people, animals, mountains, plants etc. – are like the threads, we are part of the design. The beings in this world are not alone, just as by itself a thread is not a weaving, and as weavings are with threads, a runa [person] is always in-ayllu with other beings.”
The individual does not therefore exist as an isolated unit, but is defined through their relationships with all the beings, human and nonhuman, that make up the ayllu. In the language of chaos theory, the individual is a fractal of the whole. The whole is embedded in each being and each being expresses the whole.
As Cadena goes on to say:
“Rather than speaking for the ayllu, personeros like Mariano spoke from it. They were not only personeros, they were also the collective of which they were part, and which was part of them. As persons with relations integrally implied, in-ayllu personeros are not the individual subjects that the state (or any modern institution of politics) assumes they are and requires them to be.”
All this points to the importance of place and all the beings, humans and nonhumans, material and nonmaterial – like the earth beings of mountains and the plant spirits – that form a place. In the Western world, we have largely and tragically severed this connection with place. I have seen the importance of place with my Maestro. It seems to me he does his best work in the family situation and community within which he is embedded. Outside of this, he is like a fish out of water.
3. The signifier is the signified.
We are used to thinking that the word, which signifies something, for example ‘Ausangate’, is different from that which is signified, the mountain Ausangate. Cadena shows us that for the yachaq in her book, there is, at times, no difference. She refers to two different epistemic regimes:
“In the first one, words and things are indivisible. Without distinction between signifier and signified, words do not exist independently of the thing they name; rather their utterance is the thing they pronounce (Foucault, 1994).”
When I read this, I understood icaros in a new way. They are not simply songs, which can be learned. Their singing, in order to be effective, has to evoke what is being sung. The icaros do this by making manifest in their expression, the plant spirits from whom they come. These plant spirits are the healers not the person singing the icaro. We are simply a channel. A number of people have commented to me about the experience, which I occasionally have, of where the icaro sings you rather than vice-versa.
It also explained to me why, a number of years ago, when I played my Maestro a number of icaros I had helped record on a disc, using high quality sound recording and doing everything we could to make them as authentic as possible, that he said to me: “No son icaros. Son canciones bonitas pero no son icaros. (They are not icaros. They are beautiful songs but they are not icaros).” For him, I think, the process of recording them and producing them on a disc had turned them into representations of icaros.
Cadena points out that one reason the earth beings are seen to have played no part in the local political struggle by historians is because they cannot be validated by usual historical methods. They exist outside history. They are ahistorical. I guess this is another way of saying that our more profound experiences in the realm of La Madre Ayahusca do not happen in normal space-time dimensions. But calling them ahistorical gave me a further understanding. I have often wondered, in the face of my desire to re-live some of my most profound experiences with La Madre, why these experiences never reoccur. I suspect there are a number of reasons for that, and perhaps they do for other people, but one is because these experiences, unlike those of normal life, do not unfold historically. They exist in another, possibly eternal, realm.
Many thanks to Susan Street and Laura Dev for reading a preliminary draft of this blog entry and offering suggestions and edits.
For a number of weeks now, I have felt burdened by the responsibilities I have assumed in the collective leadership of Alianza Arkana – the nonprofit I work with here in the Peruvian Amazon. I can see there are practical reasons why I might feel burdened – a number of talented and committed long-term volunteers have recently left, who shared the responsibilities of leading a non-hierarchical organization.
Furthermore, a good friend and fellow co-founder of the nonprofit has gone away for a year to study for a Masters in Indigenous languages in the USA – his major project will be to create the first Shipibo/Spanish/English dictionary, which honors the Shipibo culture and is free of the evangelistic bias that the current and only Shipibo/Spanish dictionary has that was created by missionaries from the Instituto Verano Linguistico (in English, the Summer Institute of Linguistics) – essentially to enable them to translate the Bible into Shipibo.
I have been struggling with this sense of being burdened and at times feeling resentful that I have no time to pursue my own interests, outside of but also related to work, such as dedicating more time to learning Shipibo, finding time to read and write, and even watching Series V of ‘Game of Thrones’, which I have had downloaded on my computer for weeks now. (Incidentally, perhaps it’s debatable whether ‘Game of Thrones’ is work-related but it’s a brilliant analysis of strategic maneuverings and also interesting to see how magic is re-entering the mainstream culture)
Like many with a background in psychology and therapy, I reflect on the process of the struggle. Is the problem my attitude to the situation? Can I change my attitude to what I have to do so that it is not a struggle? Can I make the cup half-full instead of half empty? Is this a long-standing pattern I have of feeling overly responsible? Is it because I am a Capricorn? Is it because my mother suffered from depression and I felt responsible? ……… all the explanatory stories and endless fantasizing the mind likes to tell itself.
Eight days ago, a friend arrived with a group of people, to do a ten day Noyarao dieta here with a Maestra I like and greatly respect. I had first planned to just do a few ceremonies with them, especially as I thought that dieting with another healer might offend my Maestro and I did not want to risk that.
When the group arrived, however, and I had my first meeting with them, and discovered that most of them had not drunk ayahuasca before and that noone spoke Spanish well, I found myself stepping into facilitating the dieta and participating fully in it.
This was not something I had planned to do – it just happened. On the one hand, I told myself this was crazy. How could I do and help others do a dieta now, drinking ayahuasca every other night for ten days, and also including a four hour boat trip downriver and back again to Pucallpa for two days as part of the dieta, at a time when I had so many other demands claiming my time?
On the other hand, I liked the people I met. Four of them had come a long way from Australia with message sticks from the aboriginal people there that they wanted to deliver to my Maestro downriver, and they seemed serious and committed to work with the medicine.
So I entered into the dieta with them. This was the first time that I had facilitated a dieta. It involved buying the medicine and mixing it with some I already had from my Maestro that I knew was good. I found myself enjoying and taking seriously the process of mixing the medicine by cooking it carefully and gently on my stove and singing the few icaros I know into it.
The Maestra asked me to serve the medicine at the first ceremony. This was the first time I had done this, and I felt comfortable doing this. In fact the whole process of facilitating the dieta showed me how much I had learned from my Shipibo Maestro and a good friend here who is Canadian by origin but has learned from and worked with good Shipibo teachers for many years.
Interestingly, in the first ceremony I did not feel the mareación (the effects of the medicine), until about an hour and a half into the ceremony – although I drank a significant amount and it turned out to be very good, strong medicine. The mareación came when I saw that people were in the medicine, that it was good medicine, and it was working well for them. Its an obvious point but it was not so clear to me beforehand that if I was to be partly responsible for the people there, I could not be lost in my own process and unavailable to others. Without consciously thinking of this, the medicine took care of it for me – another example of the subtlety and intelligence of Madre Ayahuasca.
For much of the following ceremonies, I was attentive to and focused on what was happening for other people. I had a fantasy that maybe I would experience in a more visionary way what the Maestra was doing by seeing the patterns of energy she was working with, but this was not the case. The people on the dieta had extraordinary and intense experiences. There is a great satisfaction in being in service to this.
At the same time, outside ceremony, I was needing to work hard, answer countless emails, attend meetings, put together the annual report for 2015 and think how to deal with the situation where I seemed to be holding the weight of responsibility for the NGO on my shoulders – all with a few hours or no sleep.
However, I experienced again what I have written about before on dieting and working at the same time – that the medicine was very helpful in enabling me to get the work I needed to do done. The days after ceremonies seemed remarkably productive. I could focus well and seemed intuitively to know what needed to be said or written. I started, in my mind, to develop a strategic plan for the organization based on conversations I had with people about my predicament. The feeling of being burdened, though, never went away completely.
Then, on the evening after the fourth ceremony, (where I had not slept at all), after a productive, flowing day I saw something on Facebook of all places (almost enough to restore one’s faith in spending time on Facebook) that took my breath away.
The quote on Facebook was from the end of an article by the Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations.
“Know that you yourself are essential to this world. Understand both the blessing and the burden of that. You yourself are desperately needed to save the soul of this world. Did you think you were put here for something less? In a Sacred Hoop of Life, there is no beginning and no ending.”
This phrase “Understand both the blessing and the burden of that” succinctly, uncannily and powerfully contained everything I had been thinking about and feeling before and during the dieta. I have seen in myself and many friends who work regularly with the medicine, that La Madre Ayahuasca demands a lot of us – and the more we are able to fulfill her demands, the more she asks of us.
The more we become aware of the depth of the interrelated economic, social, environmental and spiritual crises about what is happening in the world at this time, the more we are asked to feel, and hopefully stand, the burden of that. And it is a burden. As I once heard the writer and environmentalist Paul Hawken say: “If you are aware of what is going on in the world and you are not depressed then you are in denial”. Being alive, conscious and aware now means opening yourself up to this burden and working out how to carry it. Or, alternatively, numbing yourself with alcohol, prescription drugs and television or many of the other ways late-capitalism offers us to stay asleep.
Yet at the same time as more is demanded of me, and the burden intensifies, I have never felt so blessed in my life, to be doing the work I want to do and to be privileged to work with the Shipibo and a number of their healers possessing great knowledge, skill and integrity.
(I’m not sure, though, that this process of increasing awareness of the predicament of the soul of the world inevitably happens to everyone with the medicine. I came across a recently published article in the New Yorker caustically titled ‘The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale’, which ends with a funny yet terrible account of an ayahuasca ceremony in Williamsburg, New York that shows some of the worst aspects of the appropriation of ayahuasca as it gets assimilated into a hedonistic, fashion-conscious and psuedo-spiritual culture.)
What this quote from Chief Arvol Looking Horse brought home to me is that, especially in these times we live in, the blessing and the burden irrevocably go together – unlike in the forms of new age spirituality I encounter in some people who come to drink ayahuasca here where they only want to experience and see the blessing. I also often revert to the childlike and naïve idea that I just want the blessing. But stepping into the role of elder means being better able to carry the burden without being brought down by it.
All this reminds me of a poem called ‘All the Fruit is Ripe’ by Friedrich Holderlin that I have always liked and which comforted me in some of my darker days. I’ll end with this poem as translated by Robert Bly.
All the fruit is ripe, plunged in fire, cooked,
And they have passed their test on earth, and one law is this:
That everything curls inward, like snakes,
Prophetic, dreaming on
The hills of heaven. And many things
Have to stay on the shoulders like a load
of failure. However the roads
Are bad. For the chained elements,
Like horses, are going off to the side,
And the old
Laws of the earth. And a longing
For disintegration constantly comes. Many things however
Have to stay on the shoulders. Steadiness is essential.
Forwards, however, or backwards we will
Not look. Let us learn to live swaying
As in a rocking boat on the sea.
Whilst on my recent 14 day dieta with Don Ayahuma, I read the second 100 pages of Henri Corbin‘s book ‘Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi’. I previously wrote about the first 100 pages of this book here. In this earlier blog, I wanted to show that Corbin has much to offer in providing a detailed phenemonology of the visionary realm.
If Thomas Moore’s book ‘The Planets Within’, which was the other book I read on the dieta, (and which I wrote about in my last blog post), is subtle and complex, Corbin’s book is even more demanding on the reader. This is because Corbin is exploring, with great erudition, traditions within mystical Islam that have had relatively or little no impact within mainstream Western thought and are therefore unfamiliar to us.
Additionally, whilst the book is highly scholarly, (and full of terms such as christology, angelology, theophany etc., which are unfamiliar to the average reader but which have a precise meaning for Corbin), it is profoundly esoteric, which mirrors the tradition he is elucidating. You will not find a simple self-improvement manual here nor a seven-step path to achieving ecstatic union with the Godhead, which would be anathema to Corbin. In fact, his whole philosophy is arguing against a rational, wilful approach to spiritual experience.
As I commented in the previous blog, I reckon I again understood less than half of what I read, but what I could understand – and it was helpful to have time to read the book slowly – left me entranced and deeply reflective.
There is no way I could attempt a summary of the 100 pages I read, but I would like to offer some comments on particular themes that help contribute illuminating perspectives on my experience with La Madre Ayahuasca, which is the central theme of my writing – how do I as a highly (in conventional terms) educated, white, privileged, white Western man, from an agnostic family background, come to understand my experiences with La Madre Ayahuasca.
Some people, I would suspect, would argue that it is neither important nor necessary to understand these experiences – and perhaps it is not with everyone, as the medicine works with each of us in unique ways according to our aptitude and styles of being. I agree, too, that it is vital not to over-analyze and dissect these experiences in a classic left-brained manner.
I see the purpose of understanding our experiences as more akin to interpreting dreams. Here, I want to follow Hillman’s lead by refusing to interpret dreams in a narrow, literalistic way that ‘shrinks’ the dream to a reductive explanation – be it classical Freudian wish-fulfilment theory or some overly simplistic Jungian schools in which each dream symbol has its pre-given meaning. Rather, we need to let the images from our dreams speak for themselves and, in so doing, allow them to deepen. Likewise, we need to contemplate the visions Madre Ayahuasca offers us by approaching them with imagination rather than analysis.
So what does Corbin offer us?
1. First of all, Corbin lays stress on a dialogical relationship between the Creator and the Created, the Worshipped and the Worshipper, the Beloved and the Lover. This last coupling is especially found within the Sufi tradition, notably Rumi and Ibn ‘Arabi, where it can take the form of a mystical, ecstatic union, which I understand is not inconceivable within Christianity, but certainly not within the Protestant Christianity I was exposed to as a child.
I have found this reciprocity in my experience with La Madre Ayahuasca and other plant spirits. As Leonard Cohen sang:
“I forget to pray for the angels. And then the angels forget to pray for us.”
Corbin frequently quotes the Sufi text in which God says: “I was a hidden Treasure and yearned to be known”. Likewise, I think the plant spirits want to be known to themselves through us.
I hope this does not sound sacrilegious. I do not want to equate plant spirits with God, though, in more fanciful moments, I see them akin to the Catholic saints, offering us pathways to God, and mediating our relationship with the Creator God or, in the language of native American traditions, Great Spirit.
2. This brings me to my second theme, what Corbin calls ‘Divine Names’. He follows his beloved Sheikh, Ibn ‘Arabi, in outlining an idea – though clearly for him it is less an abstract idea than a lived reality – that each being has a divine name, bestowed upon it by the creator.
Since reading this book, I have realized that the idea of divine names is not so far from our own Western traditions. At a recent Thanksgiving Service for my grandson, one line of the prayers offered to God said:
“We thank you that we are known to you by name and loved by you from all eternity.”
Additionally, this idea of hidden names of people and objects, whose discovery can confer magical power, surfaces in the fantasy literature of Ursula le Guin in her ‘Earthsea’ novels and also in Patrick Rothfuss’ ‘The Name of the Wind’ – in which the most mysterious and feared teacher at the University is ‘The Namer.’
For Corbin, God brings the divine names into being through his breath, more specifically through a sigh. This is originated by God’s sadness, what Corbin calls pathos, his/her yearning to be known. Each of these divine names further manifests itself as a concrete being in material reality. However, this is not a linear sequence nor a one-off event, like the big bang. It is constantly recurring.
So, we have a God who suffers, who is lonely and years to be known, is sad, and who brings the world into being through compassion and love. What a different conception to the Christian God I distantly encountered as a child and later rejected, which, to caricature him somewhat, bellowed instructions from on high and seemed invested in making me feel guilty.
As far as I can see, and I may be wrong about this, the divine names would be similar to Platonic ideal forms, or even Jungian archetypes. I suspect this is a very crude comparison, though it helps me grasp what Corbin is pointing towards. The key point, however we conceptualize it, is that there is a hidden, invisible world beyond material reality, which is its manifest form. I would think nearly all people with a more than limited acquaintance with La Madre Ayahuasca, would concur with this.
“The fundamental idea is this: visible, apparent, outward states, in short, phenomena, can never be the causes of other phenomena. The agent is the invisible, the immaterial. Compassion acts and determines, it cause things to be and to become like itself, becuse it is a spiritual state, and its mode of action has nothing to do with what we call physical causality; rather, as its very name indicates, its mode of action is sympatheia.”
Elsewhere in the book, Corbin puts out that the notion of causality he is grappling with is similar to Jung’s idea of synchronicity – an acausal connecting principle.
Corbin indicates that these divine names allow each being to praise and participate in their divine nature, and through that their creator, in their specific, individual way. He gives the beautiful example of the lotus, quoting from Proclus, the Greek Neoplatonist:
“The lotus manifests its affinity and sympathy with the sun. Before the appearance of the sun’s rays, its blossom is closed; it opens slowly at sunrise, unfolds as the sun rises to the zenith, and folds again and closes as the sun descends. What difference is there between the human manner of praising the sun by moving its mouth and lips, and that of the lotus which unfolds its petals? They are its lips and this is its natural hymn…………we should be aware that it is a hymn to its king, such as it is within the power of a plant to sing”
What a different poetic and imaginative way of describing the opening and closing of the lotus than the typical scientific explanation! And, importantly, no less valid!
Reading this book and contemplating its contents, I had some small epiphanic moments on my dieta. Once, I attentively watched the flapping of a butterfly’s wings when it was at reast on a wooden beam in the roof of the small traditional house (tambo) in which I was living. It did not seem too exaggerated to see this as form of prayer. Likewise, at a stretch, I could look at plants and see them, too, in their growth, as a way of glorifying both their own being and that of their creator.
About one month ago, I returned from a 14 day ayahuma dieta with my Shipibo Maestro. A strict contract of confidentiality with Don Ayahuma prevents me saying much about this dieta. Suffice it to say, that my impressions were re-confirmed that this is a powerful shamanic tree and should not be treated lightly or disrespectfully (as indeed nor should any plant/tree dieta) – which means focussing on and observing the conditions of the dieta.
Whilst on this dieta, I read Thomas Moore’s book ‘The Planets Within’. As I have commented before, you have to be careful what you read when doing dietas, as you diet the book as well, especially given that there is little other external stimulation coming into your mind – bland food, no TV, no computer, no phone, ideally, very limited social contact. So, reading any book in these conditions of heightened sensitivity and openness, makes a big impression. Read more…
At first sight, this might seem like a strange title to appear on a blog mostly devoted to la Madre Ayahausca. However, after six and a half years now of working with the medicine, what follows has been a growing realization and arises from the experiences I have had with La Madre.
She not only wants us to cure ourselves but to heal the planet. Actually she shows us that healing the planet is healing ourselves. We are not separate.