Ayahuasca goes Global
Judging from recent magazine and newspaper articles, ayahuasca seems to be entering mainstream society as growing numbers of people are taking it.
On 13th November, 2013, an article appeared on an LA weekly blog entitled “Ten Celebrity Ayahuasca Users”. This article is tagged under the heading “Have you Ever Tried Drugs”, which immediately locates it in the drugs category. We are also told that the use of ayahuasca is “exceedingly trendy these days”. There is really not much of note in this article unless you want to know the names of the ten celebrity users.
This blog references a previous blog from May 13th 2013, (also in the “Have you ever tried drugs” category of the LA Weekly), called “What is Ayahuasca and Why is Everyone Singing about it”. This article basically name checks all the musicians whose work references their experiences with ayahuasca. Its a little more informative and at least acknowledges the therapeutic and spiritual aspects of La Madre Ayahuasca whilst still emphasizing its trendiness.
One phrase struck me from this article for its use of language: “Ayahuasca is often referred to as “the work,” as the ceremonial experience often includes a good deal of emotional heavy lifting.”
On Wednesday November 20th 2013, an article appeared in the Minneapolis City Pages website called “How Ayahuasca can Revolutionise Psychotherapy”. The article does a good job in referencing key figures such as Dr Gabor Mate involved in the use of ayahausca for the treatment of addictions, and also majors on the only major long-term research study on the biomedical effects of ayahuasca – carried out in 1993 with participants in the Brazilian UDV church by a multi-disciplinary group of researchers including Dennis McKenna and Dr Charles Grob.
This article illustrates the growing use of ayahausca in three ways.
i) It makes the claim that: “One ayahuasca expert estimates that on any given night, between 50 and 100 ayahuasca groups are in session in New York City alone.”
ii) It also quotes Joshua Wickerham, the founder of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council, as saying:
“The people in the ayahuasca community were talking about all of these issues, as ayahuasca is becoming this global phenomenon……….There were so many people from so many walks of life saying, ‘There is so much good happening here, but there are also real problems.””
iii) It also refers to the term ‘ayahuasca tourism’ describing the increasing number of people visiting sites in the Amazon, especially the jungle city of Iquitos in Peru to drink ayahuasca. Iquitos was on the Lonely Planet list of top ten destinations for 2013.
“In 2012, 250,000 visitors traveled through the once-sleepy inland port. One of the main draws: ayahuasca tourism.”
November 2013 seems to have been a big month for La Madre in the USA as she was also featured in an article written by Arianne Cohen for the magazine Elle (circulation over one million one hundred thousand), entitled “Walking on Sunshine”.
Seeing the glossy picture accompanying the article of a fancy, expensively-dressed attractive young white woman striding along confidently did not give me much confidence about the article but it is actually a good personal account of the author’s experience of seven ayahuasca ceremonies, which show their profound healing effect.
The most recent article I have seen was on 18th February 2014 in the online version of the women’s magazine Marie Claire (circulation in the USA around 970,000) entitled: “The New Power Trip Inside the World of Ayahuasca.”
The introduction to this article is as follows: “In our culture of downward-facing dogs, juice fasts and silent meditation retreats, a hard-core hallucinogen from the Amazon is fast becoming the next therapeutic fad.” (In case you did not cotton on, as I did not until I looked it up on Google, ‘down-facing dog’ is a yoga posture).
After that terrible introduction, once again defining La Madre as a hallucinogenic (i.e. a drug and not a medicine), the article does improve and contains some useful information. It says that ceremonies in the Los Angeles area tend to cost between $200 and $250 USD.
When I attended the Multi-disciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) conference in Oakland in April last year, I also heard that the typical price for an ayahuasca ceremony in the USA was around $250 USD, and that there were people running ceremonies for 40 or more people per night, for three consecutive nights in cities along the West Coast of the USA. If you do the maths, that is $30,000 (I would imagine tax-free) for a weekend’s work. Good business!
Hot on the heels of these articles comes news of the 2014 World Ayahuasca Conference to be held in Ibiza 25-27 September 2014. The information I received on the event says: “Ibiza played a historical role in the introduction of ayahuasca into Europe, and is in itself an interesting hub of alternative expressions in the planet.”
I can’t help thinking this is an awful choice for a venue. My association with Ibiza is of a huge party town. To me it would have been more respectful of La Madre to have held the event in her home territory, the Amazon. Perhaps I am being unfair – they do say that ICEERS, the organizing group of this conference is based in Europe – but it helps create the impression this will be another conference junket and that academics would rather go to Ibiza than brave the Amazon.
So what are we to make of this sudden efflorescence of interest in and articles about la Madre Ayahuasca, which clearly reflect its growing use if not in mainstream society then at least in its artistic, therapeutic and hip-professional subcultures?
One positive view is that the vine is on the move – leaving its home in the Amazon, where it has been the bedrock of many indigenous rainforest cultures, to be cultivated in other tropical climates such as Hawaii and the Australian rainforest and drunk across the world. In a situation of impending ecological catastrophe, the vine is on a mission to wake up humanity – though it is noteworthy that none of the articles quoted here discuss the ecological perspective and the need for the healing of the earth not just the individual psyche. The emphasis in these articles is very much on individual salvation.
A more negative view is that these articles reflect the growing commercialization of ayahuasca – expressed both in ‘ayahuasca tourism’ in Iquitos and other parts of the Amazon, and in highly profitable business activity in the USA. From this viewpoint, the sacred character of the plant is being destroyed, as she gets assimilated into the dominant culture, and at its worst becomes just another hedonistic high or the latest fashion it-girl statement.
Inevitably, mainstream Western culture will attempt to assimilate experiences of the ‘other’ within its own terms. It is interesting to note what kinds of discourses are used to frame the encounter with La Madre Ayahuasca. Especially in the USA, these encounters get assimilated within a very individualistic spiritual and personal growth psychological framework (or discourse) and, in practice, within an entrepreneurial business model – as is also happening with cannabis.
On this theme, I recently read an excerpt from Paul Devereux’s book ‘The Long Trip’ , which I like so much that I’m going to quote it at length here. He is discussing the writing of Andy Letcher:
“He uses Foucauldian discourse analysis to critique the models, the ‘discourses’ employed by the West in dealing with the content of altered mind states. These include pathological, prohibition, psychological, recreational, psychedelic, entheogenic discourses. Each has its own imposed boundaries; they are cognitive constructs.
Letcher notes that some of these discourses or approaches to hallucinogenic substances ignore the subjective experience of the altered mind states involved, or else place it within an inner, psychological framework rather than it being a case of simply seeing more, of being in a wider frame of consciousness. He critiques even the entheogenic discourse as relying on a “God within” model, divine revelation that does not by any means occur in all altered states. However diverse they might be, all these discourses can be used within the norms of Western culture.
Only one discourse crosses that “fundamental societal boundary,” what Letcher refers to as the animistic discourse – the belief that the taking of, say, hallucinogenic mushrooms occasions actual “encounters with discarnate spirit entities.” Because of the deep-rooted modern Western assumption that consciousness cannot occur in any other guise than human (the ultimate hubris of our species, perhaps) discussion of a conscious plant kingdom, or of that providing a portal through which contact with other, ontologically independent beings or intelligences can occur, is simply not possible within the mainstream culture.”
I completely agree that it is this experience of other forms of consciousness, of normally unseen dimensions, of the world as alive and ensouled, that is precisely the most profound challenge that La Madre offers to our normal Western worldview and which has been one of the constant themes of the writing on this blog.