Ayahuasca and the Cinema
I have always liked going to the cinema. Since drinking ayahuasca regularly the past five years, I notice that my experience in the cinema (alongside the rest of my life experiences) has changed subtly.
Now, when I go the cinema, I find myself more immersed in the film and more able to let myself be carried along into the world that the movie is opening up. This actually means that I have to be more careful about the films I go to see.
For example, recently, I went to see ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ – largely because in Pucallpa, where I live in the Peruvian Amazon, despite having three multiplexes (that all show more or less the same mainly Hollywood-based movies), this appeared to be the best of a bad offering.
I thought ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was a dreadful film and, worse, not just mind-numbingly mediocre but plain boring. Any potential subversive message from the unconventional relationship portrayed in the film was subsumed to the glossy, consumerist lifestyle that the film embodied.
The point, though, is that now I find myself more carried into the cinematic worlds of each movie that I see, and therefore more effected, for better or worse.
This has got me thinking about the nature of the cinematic experience and the ayahuasca experience – what they have in common and what are their differences.
It seems to me that they are both ways of changing consciousness. As is everything we do, eat and breathe for that matter. The notion that there is some kind of natural, unmediated consciousness, independent of body, culture and context, that conveniently contrasts with the so-called illusions and hallucinations of drug-based experiences – which is the conventional way of understanding psychedelic experiences – is clearly an illusion itself.
As Dennis McKenna, the leading ethnopharmocologist researching ayahuasca, writes:
“Everything is a drug experience. We’re all on drugs, all the time. That’s largely because we’re MADE of drugs.”
We need to shift our view of ourselves inherited from what is an increasingly antiquated set of cultural suppositions that we exist as some kind of essential individualistic, disembodied, egoistic personality set apart from the nature and culture that surrounds us, to a view of ourselves as an ecological self, constantly shaping and being shaped by the natural and cultural environments that form and are formed by us.
In this sense, there is no natural or ground-zero consciousness. Everything effects everything, including the kinds of movies we go to see. Of course, much has been written about the role of Hollywood and conventional cinema all over the world in perpetuating the kind of consciousness and worldview that supports the dominant neo-liberal globalculture or the Matrix programing – according to how far you want to go with this analysis and what you think may lie on the other side of the veil that shrouds consensus-based reality.
But there is definitely something especially compelling about cinema in its ability to get into our minds. I remember many years ago, when I was a participant in a mens’ workshop using film to explore images of masculinity, someone commented that we only needed to watch a small excerpt from a film to be immediately carried into its world. Such is the power of film.
Many thoughtful people, ranging from James Hillman to Rudolf Steiner, have noted that we need to be especially careful about what kinds of images we let into our minds and beings. This is because they see the imaginative capacity of our psyche as being its primary ground of being – despite what rationalism would like us to believe. Underneath all that relentless logic and linearity, there is a seething sea of endless, constantly shape-shifting images.
The problem, I think, is that in our culture, this creative sea of images has been largely colonized and contaminated by the images we are constantly exposed to in film, television, the computer screen and street advertising.
At first, I was berating myself for the low quality of my subconscious until I realized that these images were culturally as well as personally determined. I saw this particularly clearly once having returned to Peru after a few weeks in California. My whole subconscious was like a bad Hollywood B-movie.
As an aside, I recently mentioned to my Shipibo Maestro that I often had these kind of meaningless, random visions at the onset of mareación. He listened carefully, made very little comment, as he often does, but said he would deal with it in the next ceremony. In the next ceremony he sung to me, he said, in order to ‘clean my visions’.
Since then, I no longer pass through this initial stage of the mareación, which in some almost perverse way now disorients me as I had always used this bizarre imagery as a means of orienting myself to the world of Madre Ayahuasca. But apart from this disorientation, what strikes me as extraordinary and what my rational mind can’t get a hold on (Thank God!) is: How did he do that? How did he manage to ‘clean’ my visions? As you might imagine, if healers have the power to clean your visions, less scrupulous but skilled shamans (or ‘brujos’ – to call them for what some of them are) have the ability to manipulate those visions for their own ends.
Anyway, the related themes of sorcery and healing are not the obvious subject of this blog, though it is tempting to see cinema as a potential form of both. Look at the difference between seeing a film like ‘Birdman’ which I thought was brilliant compared to any one of many contemporary movies which feed on and promote what some people would call low vibrational energy – fear, guilt, envy, lust, aggression.
But to try to get closer to what I want to examine here – what is the nature of the cinematic and the ayahuasca experience and how do they compare?
One approach to this would be to look at the brain under the influence of both watching a movie and drinking ayahuasca. Part of the renaissance of scientific research on the effect of psychedelic substances has been using techniques like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to investigate the effects of Ayahuasca on the brain. (For a good recent example of this click here.)
I don’t know of any comparable studies that use similar techniques to study the effects on the brain of watching movies, but maybe they exist. Then it would be interesting to compare the studies to examine if there are similar parts of the brain being activated by drinking ayahuasca and watching movies.
The other way to approach this is through the metaphor of a journey, which is a common metaphor for the experience with La Madre Ayahuasca. All over the ceremonial world the traditional American concluding phrase, “Have a good day”, is being turned into “Have a good (or beautiful) journey”.
As I commented earlier, my experiences in the cinema are increasingly like journeys – but to where and for what purpose? – which are also good questions to ask yourself about why you are drinking ayahuasca.
I think the best films, like Madre Ayahuasca, but to a much lesser extent, involve us in the creation of this journey – that is to say they activate our imaginative capacity and invite us to participate in the co-creation of the film’s meaning.
The even better films – and this is why I like directors like Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky so much – create a sense of mystery in their films that cannot be easily explained away. The worst films, however, provide us with an already predetermined meaning and manipulate us through a journey whose destination and every point of passage are already known.
The final comment I want to make comparing ayahausca and the cinema comes from a remarkable documentary I had the good fortune to see recently called ‘The Shaman’s Apprentice’.
This was made by the anthropologist Graham Townsley in 1989 about his experiences with the Yaminahua tribe in Southern Peru.
It is by far the best documentary I have seen on indigenous people and ayahuasca.
Unfortunately, the film is not easily available on YouTube or any other channel. (It can be purchased here which gives three years streaming access for $199 USD. If you have access to a university’s media resources you may be able to watch it there. An article with many of the ideas expressed in the documentary can be downloaded here but the film is so much more entrancing.)
There is a very interesting part of the film when the shaman and his apprentice accompany the anthropologist to the nearest large city, about one hour away by airplane. The apprentice has never been to the city before and his teacher is keen that he see and observe the ways of the white people or the ‘egret people’ as he calls us.
At one point, the anthropologist takes the shaman and his apprentice to the cinema. Neither have been before. It looks like they saw a Bruce Lee movie. The documentary is particularly brilliant at this point as it helps us see this experience from an indigenous point of view – that the cinema is a mode of white people’s shamanic experience because it enables us to have visions. But as the shaman, José, says:
“It’s not as good as strong Shori [trans. ayahuasca]. No. Shori visions like this are no good. This is all jumbled up.“
Later, in an ayahuasca ceremony, José and his apprentice, Curaka, have a conversation about their experience in the cinema. José starts spontaneously to convert his experience into a healing song. The next day, with the anthropologist, he listens to a recording of this new song he invented .
This is the dialogue from this part of the documentary both sung and spoken.
José [singing]: There they are. Inside the earth hill. Making their noises in there. Making their noises. They are crowded in there. Which spirits are these? Here I am singing.
[Talking] I’m studying it, I’ve seen it well… Listen! Cinema is like sick people’s visions when they think they’re dying. Bad dreams that won’t stop.
Curaka: Yes, when I almost died of fever my visions were like that film.
José: That’s it! Your spirit can get trapped. It’s like dreaming of dying, being stuck in there with white people.
José: Now I’ve got it. You start your cinema song in its house – “the clay hill”.
[Singing] Clay hunting-hide People go inside it. They have gone in there.
So, people of the clay hill. They’ve made a house of red earth.
Inside their clay hunting-hide Sky chief macaw people.
José [talking whilst listening to a recording of his song the following day]: So, people are crowded on the screen like flocks of parrots and macaws… …all mixed up together when they’re feeding. That sounds just like people talking in films. That’s how I saw it.
José [singing on the recording]: Egret people standing up there. There in the clay hill. All crowded together.
José [talking in relation to hearing the recording]: All mixed together… one comes up there… another there. It means – one here, another there. Like this. You’ve seen how it is in films. One rushes in here, another there they’re all racing about.
These people, they’ve made this thing.
So, they themselves have made this. Films don’t grow by themselves – white people make them. Just like I make my shamanic songs.
Anthropologist: How will you be using the cinema song? Can you cure with it?
José: Yes! Because the cinema is really bad. You’ve seen how it is, it’s not outside. It’s inside. Your spirit can get lost in there never come out and you die.
Anthropologist: So could you cure with that song?
José [demonstrating with highly expressive body movements how he would do this]: Any time you like! My spirit goes into that cinema. Looking for that sick person. “There he is!” Everybody watches as I grab him. So then the person gets better. He doesn’t die. He’s alright.
Watching this for the second time in order to record the dialogue, it is an exceptional piece of film-making. It’s also one of the best critiques of the medium of cinema that I have come across.
ADDENDUM: Whilst writing this I came across the following link to 11 essential Native American films that can be watched on-line.