Skip to content

Earth-Beings, Plant Spirits, Ayahuasca and Equivocations: Part One

I have not written here for a while: partly because I have been very busy with work at Alianza Arkana; partly because I have recently moved house in Pucallpa; and partly because I have been writing a 10,000 word paper called ‘Earth-Beings, Plant Spirits, Ayahuasca and Equivocations’ to present at the upcoming international conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA)  in Lima from April 28th to May 1st.

The paper is a synthesis of much of what I have been writing about on this blog, especially the different ways Westerners make meaning out of their experiences with ayahuasca and some more in-depth reflections on a very interesting book by Peruvian cultural anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena, which I wrote a previous post about here.

I thought I would also publish this paper here in three separate posts, which correspond to the three parts of the original paper. Given this is an academic paper, complete with references, its style is different from my usual posts.

What appears in this post is a summary of the paper, followed by Part One, called ‘Introduction: Origins, Globalization and Uses of Ayahuasca’. For regular readers of my blog, I imagine this might be familiar ground, though presented in a different way and with new material. For more recent readers, I hope that this first part serves as an overall introduction to the growing field of ayahuasca studies.

Summary

This paper will begin with a brief introduction about ayahuasca, its growing use across the world and its increasing interest as a subject of academic study. The second part of the paper will focus on the most used discourses into which the ayahuasca experience is typically located and argue that most of these discourses still exist within a dualist ontology (Escobar, 2010). It will then examine traditions within Western thought that have attempted to break out of the restrictions of these dualist ontologies.

The third and longest part of the paper will use Marisol De La Cadena’s book, ‘Earth Spirits: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds’ as a point of departure to examine the ontological status of earth beings and plant spirits and as a frame of reference for and comparison with the author’s experience of being apprenticed for five years to a Shipibo Maestro (teacher), working with ayahuasca and other plant spirits.

1. Part One: Introduction: Origins, Globalization and Uses of Ayahuasca

In conventional Western terms, ayahuasca is a powerful ‘hallucinogen’ that has been used by many indigenous peoples in the Amazon since pre-Columbian times (McKenna 1999). The exact date from which ayahuasca use can be traced is disputed. Some anthropologists make the claim that its use originates from 5000 years BC. For example, anthropologists Ana María Llamazares and Carlos Martínez Sarasola (2004) write that the use of ayahuasca:

“Is so deep-rooted in the native philosophy and mythology that there is no doubt about its great antiquity, as a part of aboriginal life. Archaeological finds in Ecuador show that the indigenous Amazons have been using it for about 5000 years.”

Likewise, anthropologist Jeremy Narby (1998, p. 154) states that ayahuasca “belongs to the indigenous people of Western Amazonia, who hold the keys to a way of knowing that they have practiced without interruption for at least five thousand years.”

In an excellent, comprehensive on-line article, however, looking at the evidence for the claims that ayahuasca use has a 5000-year history, Stephan Beyer (2012) concludes that:

“And while it is true that the parenteral ingestion of DMT-containing plants is of considerable antiquity in South America, there is no corresponding archeological or documentary evidence prior to the eighteenth century for the combination of a DMT-containing plant with the ayahuasca vine for oral ingestion.”

For indigenous people, who appear to have no interest in trying to date the original use of ayahusaca in their cultures, apart from demonstrating to tourists that they are part of a millennial tradition (Brabec de Mori, 2014), ayahuasca is an important medicine, not a hallucinogen or drug, that can offer both healing and harm (through witchcraft) and provides contact with normally invisible worlds, including the worlds of plant and animal spirits, the world of the ancestors and the worlds of different universes.

Ayahuasca is traditionally made by a lengthy process of boiling together two plants, though many other plants can also be added to the brew. The two basic plants are the vine, ayahuasca itself, (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the shrub chacruna, (Psychotria viridis). The chacruna, like many plants, and even the human brain, contains N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (abbreviated N,N-DMT; also known as DMT), which is normally understood to be the principle psychoactive component of the brew.

If DMT is orally consumed alone, an enzyme (monoamine oxidase A) in the stomach quickly breaks it down, thus preventing it reaching the brain and having any psychoactive effect. Western pharmacology has discovered (Dos Santos, 2010), however that, if plants and other substances containing DMT are drunk together with the vine ayahuasca, compounds in the vine collectively known as beta-harmalines (harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline) block the chemical decomposition of the DMT and it is carried to the brain through the bloodstream.

This raises the question for Western investigators as to how the indigenous people learned to mix and cook together these two particular plants, as they do not naturally grow together, and a process of trial and error boiling different combinations of plants together would be impossibly time-consuming given the huge diversity and number of plants existing in the Amazon. The indigenous peoples have a very simple answer to this question, which indicates the profound difference between the indigenous and the Western worldview: the plants themselves told them.

Beginning in the 1990’s, the use of ayahuasca has grown hugely throughout the world and become a ‘diaspora’, to use the words of Beatriz Labate et al. (2017) in their recent book, despite the illegality of the ayahuasca brew in most nations as DMT is classified as an illicit drug outside Amazonian countries. An article in the New Yorker (Levy, 2016) about the ayahuasca boom in New York and Silicon Valley cited a researcher at the University of Washington School of medicine saying that at any given night in Manhattan there are around one hundred ayahuasca ceremonies or ‘circles’ taking place.

Additionally, there are estimated to be at least 100 ayahuasca centers in Iquitos, Peru, alone, now colloquially known as the ‘ayahuasca capital’ or ‘Ayahuasca Disneyland’ of the world. This expansion of use, catered for by largely Western-run centers, has ushered in the phenomenon of ‘ayahuasca tourism’, with all its controversies (Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill, 2008), as increasing numbers of Westerners, in search of healing and spiritual experience (Fotiou, 2010) come to Peru and other Amazonian countries to experience drinking ayahuasca.

With the spread of ayahausca around the world, its therapeutic benefits are being increasingly recognized in many fields (Labate & Cavnar, 2014). These include the treatment of a wide range of illnesses, both physical and mental. For example, the highly prestigious scientific journal ‘Nature’ published a news article (Frood, 2015) about the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca for treating depression. Ayahuasca is additionally being shown to be potentially very effective (Feilding, 2017) in the treatment of addictions and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Other authors have investigated the use of ayahuasca in broader areas of human potential such as creativity (Shanon, 2000) and spiritual development (Trichter, 2006).

Ayahuasca, especially in countries such as Brazil where it is not illegal, has been the subject of serious academic pharmacological and neuroscientific research (Domínguez Clavé et al, 2016). A good comprehensive review by Dennis McKenna et al, written in 2008, can be found of past and current research on ayahuasca and, since then, academic and scientific research has expanded hugely.

As research on ayahuasca becomes legitimized, even in countries where its use is not legal, a growing ayahuasca academic community or industry is forming, composed of psychologists, psychotherapists, anthropologists, pharmocologists, ethno-botanists and neuroscientists, amongst others. There have been two world conferences on ayahuasca, in 2014 in Ibiza, Spain and in 2016 in Rio Branco, Brazil. Ayahuasca, and other plant medicines, are also becoming an increasingly important thread of the biannual MAPS (Multi-disciplinary Association of Pyschedelic Studies) conference held in San Francisco.

The second part of the paper will focus on the most used discourses into which the ayahuasca experience is typically assimilated by Westerners.

 

References

Beyer, Stephan V. (2012) On the Origins of Ayahuasca. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at http://www.singingtotheplants.com/2012/04/on-origins-of-ayahuasca/

Brabec de Mori, Bernd. (2014) From the Native’s Point of View Chapter 9 in Labate, Biatriz Caiuby, and Clancy Cavnar (eds.) (2014) Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond. Oxford University Press

Dos Santos R.G. (2010) The Pharmacology of Ayahuasca: a review. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/216385567_The_pharmacology_of_ayahuasca_a_review

De La Cadena, Marisol. (2015) Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds’. Duke University Press

Dobkin De Rios, Marlene and Roger Rumrrill (2008) A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca use in the Amazon and the United States. Praeger.

Domínguez Clavé E. et al, 2016 Ayahuasca: Pharmacology, neuroscience and therapeutic potential. In Brain Research Bulletin March 2016 Aceessed on 15th March 2017 at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297891050_Ayahuasca_Pharmacology_neuroscience_and_therapeutic_potential

Escobar, Arturo (2010) ‘Latin America at a Crossroads’, Cultural Studies, 24: 1, 1 — 65

Escobar, A. (2014) Feel-thinking with the Earth. Medellin, Colombia: Ediciones Unaula

Feilding, Amanda. (2017) Ayahuasca in the Age of Neuroscience. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at: http://chacruna.net/ayahuasca-age-neuroscience/

Fotiou, E. (2010) From Medicine Men to Day-trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru.  PhD Dissertation accessed on 12th February 2017 at: http://www.neip.info/downloads/Fotiou_Ayahuasca_2010.pdf

Frood, A. (2015) ‘Ayahuasca psychedelic tested for depression’. Accessed on 8th February 2017 at http://www.nature.com/news/ayahuasca-psychedelic-tested-for-depression-1.17252.

Labate, Biatriz Caiuby and Clancy Cavnar and Alex K. Gearin (eds.) (2017) The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies Routledge.

Labate, Biatriz Caiuby and Clancy Cavnar (eds.) (2014) The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Levy, A. New Yorker Magazine 2016. ‘The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale.’ Accessed at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/12/the-ayahuasca-boom-in-the-u-s on 8th February 2017.

Llamazares, A. M., & Martínez Sarasola, C. (2004). Principales plantas sagradas de Sudamérica. In A. M. Llamazares & C. Martínez Sarasola (Eds.), El lenguaje de los dioses (pp. 259-285). Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos. Retrieved April 12, 2012, from the Fundación desde América Web site, http://www.desdeamerica.org.ar/pdf/PrincipalesPlantasTexto_.pdf

McKenna, Dennis J. (1999) ’Ayahuasca: an ethnopharmacologic history‘, in R. Metzner (ed) Ayahuasca: hallucinogens, consciousness, and the spirit of nature, New York: Thunder‘s Mouth Press, 187-213.

McKenna, Dennis J. et al (2008) The Scientific Investigation of Ayahuasca – A Review of Past and Current Research. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at: http://www.ayahuasca.com/science/the-scientific-investigation-of-ayahuasca-a-review-of-past-and-current-research/

Narby, Jeremy. (1998). The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the origins of knowledge. New York, NY: Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam.

Narby, Jeremy. (October 9th 2011) Awakening the Cosmic Serpent: an Evolver Intensive Interview by Jeremy Narby. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at: http://www.singingtotheplants.com/interviews/

Shanon, B. (2000) Ayahuasca and Creativity. 18 m a p s • v o l u m e X n u m b e r 3 • c r e a t i v i t y 2 0 0 0 Accessed 12th February 2017 at: http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v10n3/10318sha.pdf

Trichter, S.M. (2006) Changes in Spirituality Among Ayahuasca Ceremony Novice Participants PhD Dissertation Acessed on 12th February 2017 at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stanley_Krippner/publication/26765766_Changes_in_Spirituality_Among_Ayahuasca_Ceremony_Novice_Participants/links/00b4952128c3cd5a86000000.pdf

Cynthia Bourgeault: ‘Seeing With The Eyes Of The Heart’

Finally, I have created the time to write the blog post I have been intending to write for a while.

I have been very busy in the last few months with the work of the nonprofit, Alianza Arkana, I help lead here in Pucallpa, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.

As always, the work has been challenging, complex, intense, absorbing and satisfying.

This blog post grew out of the proddings of a good friend who has been regularly sending me material related to what can be called the Christian Wisdom tradition, as exemplified in the work of Teilhard de Chardin and Dr Cynthia Bourgeault. A few weeks ago, I watched the video on YouTube with Cynthia Bourgeault being interviewed by Renate McNay, on the Conscious TV channel.

I can’t recommend this video highly enough. You need 55 minutes of quiet time to watch and absorb it, and another ten minutes to do the suggested meditation at the end.

The video is packed with insights. Although Cynthia Bourgeault is talking about her own spiritual path within the Christian Wisdom tradition, which encompasses Quakerism, being ordained as one of the first women Espiscopal priests in 1979, ten years of study within the Gurdjieff tradition, and regularly spending three months a year in solitude, what she says is extraordinarily relevant for those of us who have chosen the medicine path. Watching the video, too, and hearing Cynthia B. talk about embodiment, it is clear that she is a beautifully embodied example of what she is talking about. Her integrity, wisdom and faith shine through.

For me, particularly, what she says at the beginning of the interview about her spiritual choices being limited in a childhood spent in the 1950’s in Pennsylvania with Christian Scientist parents resonates strongly with my own experience of growing up in suburban London with agnostic parents in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

I was blindly searching for something that I could not find in the local Baptist Church that I attended as a child, nor, in my adolescence, with the charismatic Anglican vicar that many of my school friends turned to. But, as Cynthia Bourgeault says in the interview, we are born into a time and destiny that shapes and restricts us. Also, if we accept ideas of reincarnation, we choose the times and family we are born into. Listening to her helps me recover and revalue this early religious experience.

For the remainder of the post, I want to pick out a number of themes from the interview that especially resonate with my experience of La Madre Ayahuasca.

1. Awakening

For many of us drinking ayahuasca, the experience is an awakening. (I have touched on this before).

This awakening can be at many levels. At a personal level, similar to undergoing therapy, where we realise how our personality and the psychological issues we face have been shaped by our upbringing. At a spiritual level, where we are graced with profound experiences of other realms that can encompass the full range of different spiritual traditions – in Jungian terms, we gain access to the vast repository of the collective unconscious. And, at an ecological and even political level, where we experience the interconnectedness of life, the ways that the fabric of life on the planet is being degraded, and, hopefully, a desire to do something about this. La Madre also shows us that these are not separate but deeply intertwined levels.

Cynthia Bourgeault refers to how her ten year study within the Gurdjieff tradition, and the practice of the body movements that Gurdjieff recommended, followed by the practice of  ‘centering prayer’ she learnt from her teacher, the trappist monk Thomas Keating, led to her own awakening and liberating from what she describes as: “the vast maze of automatic, programmed behaviors that keep us chained at a lower level, which does not represent real human freedom.”

Later in the interview, she has some very interesting things to say about the process of freeing oneself from these automatic, conditioned patterns. The first step is awareness of them.  But, as one hundred plus years of pyschology have shown, just attaining awareness does not necessarily lead to change, though it is probably an indispensable step on the path to change. Then follows the difficult, uncomfortable stage of  living in the gap created of being aware of the ways we habitually respond but being unable to free oneself of these limiting patterns.

She talks about the need to patiently live in this gap and bear it and eloquently describes this process as “painfully bearing the crucifixion of inner honesty”. I’m sure this process will be familiar to those of us who have dieted Noyarao, which is described as the ‘camino de la verdad’ (the path of truth). This process can often referred to as “a difficult ceremony” 🙂

As we become more capable of living in this gap, we slowly – and the point is that it is a slow process – we start to identify with and potentiate a greater self rather than the smaller ‘ego’ self. She refers to the slow realization of the greater self as the accumulation of being. In a later part of the interview, she beautifully describes ‘being’ as “the expanded capacity for restful presence in the larger field of the now”. This reminds me of the state of being I can sometimes achieve for short periods towards the end of a ceremony.

freedom-in-christ1

2. Freedom and Enlightenment

Cynthia Bourgeaut sees freedom as essentially being freedom from this false, socially programmed self. She approvingly quotes A.H. Almaas – and this quote seems especially relevant now with the kind of freedom being advocated by Donald Trump – that:

“Freedom to be your ego is not freedom. That is slavery. You are just being pulled around a bullring with a ring in your nose.”

She goes on to say that true freedom consists in beng able to follow “the homing beacon of your inner calling”. Paradoxically, only in obedience and perfect service to this deeper calling can we achieve real freedom. She points out that the roots of the word ‘obedience’ actually mean to listen deeply.

I have found in my medicine path that after many years of sturm and drang, the fireworks of visions, and wandering the endless labyrynth of my psyche, I am now being asked to concentrate, to observe and to listen. For a while, I have been told to wait in the gap and my most recent teachings – where I have been given some very direct, concrete specific instructions – have been about the need for patience.

There is a saying in Peru that: “Con paciencia se gana la gloria”. I now understand that on a much deeper level than before. In one ceremony, I was shown all the ways that my impatience limits me and makes me much less intelligent and effective, as well as a much less compassionate human being.  To close this particular phase of teachings, I was also told that I would very soon be encountering some major tests of my patience. That has indeed been proved to be the case.

Image of Freedom?

3. ‘We are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.’ William Blake

The last part of the interview was music to my ears as it resonates so strongly with the work of my intellectual mentor and hero, James Hillman. Cynthia B. points out that we need to move beyond individualistic ideas of spiritual development (such as the lone goldfish in the image above)  – not my enlightenment, nor my self realization.

As I heard James Hillman memorably and provocatively say in a series of lectures about alchemy to a live audience: “Who gives a fuck about your soul?” For Hillman, what was more important was the soul of the world, the anima mundi, which does not exclude our individual souls but also includes the souls of animals, birds, insects, reptiles, plants, trees as well as supposedly inanimate objects like rocks and even plastic cups.

Cynthia B. states that as we become more capable of entering realms of greater being and deeper compassion, we enter a more collective, transpersonal realm. We realise that the force of love is what holds together the fabric of the world, and that, in her terms, this ‘heart-space’, where we may be graced with an encounter with divine love, is a communal not an individual form.

It really seems that this is the challenge we have now facing us a species – to be able to manifest divine love, including being able to bear the pain, sorrow and suffering of God and the planet – not solely for our own enlightenment but for the collective soul of the world, which includes the non-human as well as the human world.

As Michael Meade wrote in conclusion to his brilliant short essay on the day of Trump’s inauguration:

“The fact that love is greater than hate is all that tips the balance of the world towards life. But only if enough people, young and old, find the love and courage in their hearts to truly change the world. This is the time for older people to act like elders and for younger people to stand for the dream of the earth and the beauty of the world.

This is no time for cynicism or giving in to despair; this is the time we have come to life to live, the time to work for what we truly love. As the African proverb insists, “what you love is the cure.” What we love is the cure for what ails us and what brings healing to the human heart also helps heal the world.”

ADDENDUM. Cynthia Bourgeault is offering two online courses related to her work. More details here.

 

 

 

Seven Recent Interesting Articles on Ayahuasca

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. Read more…

‘The Sound of my Voice’: Faith, Belief and Rationality

sound-of-my-voice-movie-poster

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. Read more…

Earth Beings and Plant Spirits

Anonymous, Virgen-Cerro, c. 1730. Museo de la Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí. The painting represents an Earth-being that is also a mountain, occupied by the Virgin and guarded by the Church, from where the Devil might have been expelled.

Anonymous, Virgen-Cerro, c. 1730. Museo de la Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí. The painting represents an Earth-being that is also a mountain, occupied by the Virgin and guarded by the Church, from where the Devil might have been expelled. Found at: http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/authors/marisol-de-la-cadena/

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. Read more…

The Blessing and the Burden

photo-for-blog-found-at

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. Read more…

‘Alone with the Alone’: Henry Corbin and Visionary Experience – Part Two

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. Read more…