Aya Maintains her Global Presence
As I wrote a few months back, La Madre is now fully moving into a global scenario. The vine is rapidly spreading worldwide. Even the Sunday Styles (!) Section of the New York Times on June 13th carried a reasonably well-written article by Bob Morris about her growing use in the largely white professional classes of New York.
This was followed up four days later in a blog article in the Huffington Post by a Licensed Psychotherapist and Counselor (presumably the License gives authority). The article, entitled “Ten Things you Should Know Before Your First Ayahuasca Ceremony”, begins:
“Hats off to Bob Morris for his ruthlessly whitebread, antiseptic article in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times! Glamorizing ayahuasca with celebrity quotes and citing the LA Weekly in calling it “exceedingly trendy” is irresponsible on so many levels!”
Overall, nine of the ten points he lists are sound. But the third point where he claims that if you do a good pre-ceremony diet (i.e. the typical diet of no caffeine, salt, sugar, red meat, dairy products, alcohol, chemicals and other toxins (he forgets to mention no sex), you will then have nothing to purge, is just plain wrong and seriously misleading. It shows he does not really know what he is writing about nor has he researched it adequately. Perhaps then it is no surprise to read later that:
“Personally, I have never tried a hallucinogenic and doubt I ever will; to me there is something uniquely unappealing – from what I have been told – about hallucinating – it seems like a wasteful and potentially dangerous distraction”
He thereby displays the common, fundamental misunderstanding that psychoactive substances like La Madre are ‘hallucinogenics’ rather than potentially showing us other realms of being denied and denigrated by the ‘normal’ consensual Western worldview .
Increasing globalization and popularization of La Madre, however, brings risks (in addition to misinformation) as well as benefits.
Some see her movement into the cultural mainstream as positive and a necessary part of the process to wake people up to what is happening politically, culturally and environmentally in the world as we systematically destroy the ecosystems on which all life depends.
Others see the growing use of ayahuasca in the West as a continuing part of the long process of colonization and exploitation that began with the arrival of the Spaniards and Portuguese in the Americas in the sixteenth century.
As a Shipibo colleague once said to me:
“Non-indigenous people have taken our land, massacred us through guns and diseases, tried to enslave us, appropriated our natural resources through logging and overfishing, destroyed our habitat through large-scale extractive industries such as mining and oil/gas exploration and production, and now they are stealing our knowledge.”
I recently came across an articulate expression of this view in an article on Reality Sandwich entitled “Ayahuasca and the Godhead: an interview with Wahid Azal of the Fatimaya Sufi Order.” This is a very interesting, thought provoking, wide-ranging article.
One of the most unexpected and welcome themes in the interview is the news that one of the most eminent and highest ranking religious leaders of the orthodox Islamic Shi’i tradition, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Sadeq Hussaini Rohani, based in the holy Iranian city of Qom, recently issued a declaration regarding the use of psychoactives.
In the interview, Wahid Azal says:
“In mid-March 2014, via email, the Grand Ayatollah issued a formal legal ruling (that is, a fatwa) determining the use of entheogens and psychoactive substances to be licit and thus permissible (ḥalāl) for Shi’i Muslims provided it be under the direction and supervision of qualified experts (ahl al-ikhtiṣāṣ), and that, moreover, such plant substances as a rule do not impair the mind. In the final missive before the decision, the questioner specifically underscored the issue of the visionary component of these plants, where people have reported visions of paradise and hell, and Grand Ayatollah Rohani’s fatwa finds no objections here either.”
Wahid Azul makes the point that, as you can imagine in such a significant matter, this was not an impulsive, arbitrary ruling but based on careful, in-depth interpretation of holy writings as well as reviewing all the available, largely Western-based evidence regarding the use of entheogens. Wahid Azal says:
“It is also the very first instance that I am aware of that a senior exoteric and orthodox religious figure of any major Tradition or religious establishment anywhere in the world has addressed this topic directly and found in its favor. The equivalent to Grand Ayatollah Rohani’s ruling in an analogous Western context would be for the Vatican to make a similar finding for Roman Catholics. Indeed this is how big this is, and so, as a singular development, it should not be taken lightly or underestimated by anyone.”
(So much for our common prejudice about the narrow-mindedness of Islam and the ignorant tendency to lump all the different streams of thought and practice of Islam into one convenient reactionary label.)
Wahid Azal also has some trenchant comments to make about the growing use of ayahuasca. Not pulling any punches, he says:
“Let me be frank about this and say, that we are in fact dealing with an industry in every sense of that word: an industry that on the level of finance and investment, infrastructure as well as commercialization, is thoroughly dominated by white middle-class Anglo-Europeans and their overall weltanschauung and interests.
I would say that the Amerindian natives as the well as the Mestizo communities, even the Ayahuasca itself, in some cases, have to some extent come to be overshadowed by this ongoing, massive cultural appropriation of the spirituality, the plants and the traditional medicine of an indigenous civilization by the West.
Add to this the fact that virtually all the current, self-appointed ideological gatekeepers of this industry are also predominantly represented by white middle-class Anglo-Europeans (whether in the Ivory Tower as academic specialists or on its peripheries in various alternative medias appealing to popular Western mainstream audiences, whether online or in the real world), and any honest reflection upon the situation proves this to be the case.”
It’s worth continuing to quote him at length:
“That massive corruption has crept into the tourism side of things, which in a few instances has been causing more and more fatalities with increasing frequency of late, is only the outcome and consequence of this escalating colonization of traditional Ayahuasca culture and it spiritual noosphere which is more and more sending the whole thing in South America off the rails; because once the cultural integrity of a given spiritual civilization is compromised and taken over by other forces, especially on the level of the noosphere (which seems to be the case with much of the popular Ayahuasca culture today), the first things to go are usually all the due diligent safeguards traditionally in place: safeguards that would, for instance, never allow either charlatans or amateurs with little to no long term training or experience to take over as curandero shamans.
Here money – and gringo money, specifically – has become the dominator, the wheel and thrust driving the corruption on the ground, and this to me is unambiguous evidence of a multifaceted colonial brujeria at work that must be tackled and undone in order to restore this spiritual culture’s core integrity.”
(The word ‘brujeria’ in the last sentence means ‘witchcraft’ – the use of this word is particularly apt as it re-frames the rational, materialist colonization project within an indigenous cosmovision)
Furthermore, Azal does not spare NGO’s from his withering analysis. He says:
“Likewise the NGOs and oil companies both are merely different facets of the same wrecking ball, with the NGOs as the Trojan Horses behind enemy lines (i.e. ‘soft power’) to the outright assaulting armies that are the oil companies breaking down the traditional walls. Both of these especially are the nefarious, front-line legions of Empire and need to be pushed back – and altogether out.“
I want to identify four important themes from these passages and explore them a little further. They are: ayahuasca tourism; the role of NGO’s; money; and cultural integrity. The themes are all complex, difficult, sensitive, and interrelated and I will only touch on some points here.
1. Ayahuasca tourism.
As someone on the ground in the Peruvian Amazon, I am constantly witness to the negative effects of ‘ayahuasca tourism’. I’ve taken recently to saying that the locally-based curanderos, (i.e. those shamans who are not mainly working in largely Western-run healing centers), I can wholeheartedly recommend can be counted on the figures of one hand.
2. The role of NGO’s
I work with an NGO so I am, of course, reluctant to endorse completely the view that they are all part of the ongoing process of colonization. If I really believed that, I would either enter a monastery or join the armed struggle, but unfortunately that latter option has also been shown not to work elsewhere, with the possible exception of Cuba, and certainly not as it manifested in Peru in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Nor do I think NGO’s should be naive about the effect of our work. I touched on this theme before when I wrote about the clash between Western methods of project planning with their emphasis on linear, rational thinking and indigenous cultural reality. Part of the background to writing this was my concern that the very tools and methods that NGO’s are using help to undermine the cosmovision they want to support. But thankfully, as I wrote before, and learned from my previous existence as an organizational change consultant, cultural reality is always a stronger force than mere methods and tools. For this reason, many NGO’s flounder in the face of this other reality.
I’ve come increasingly to think of money as a deeply corrosive influence on traditional cultures. The more the Shipibo are drawn into the Western global market economy the more it seems to me their cultural integrity, as Azal puts it, risks being destroyed.
It could not be stored as it would quickly rot, so it made sense to share it with family and neighbors. It further set up a reciprocity – when others next caught a fish it would also be shared.
But, as the fish decline, through industrial overfishing and pollution of the rivers and lakes, and fishermen have to go ever further afield to catch fish (for which they need gasoline and therefore money), and, as the Shipibo are drawn more into eating crappy, health-damaging Western products for which money is also needed, and as they want their children to go to school for which they have to buy all the basic materials such as notebooks and pens, then money becomes increasingly important. And money, unlike fish, can be saved. In Western culture, money is highly individualistic. It is my money. I don’t think people used to think of the fish as my fish.
4. Cultural Integrity.
Yet the rising tide of globalization is impossible to stop. We cannot freeze Shipibo culture in the past. Nor do the Shipibo, especially the young people, want that.
The best it seems to me that I can do, as one of the white, male, middle-class, Anglo-Europeans that Azal rails against, working in an educational role in an NGO, is to facilitate projects that strengthen and root people in their indigenous cultural identity whilst simultaneously helping traditional people develop the skills to navigate the Western economic, political and cultural reality that is the increasingly dominant force in today’s world. And this work involves constant reflection on our personal and organizational motives for doing what we do and for clearly seeing its consequences.
For which purposes, La Madre Ayahausaca is a stupendous ally.