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

May 7, 2017

This is the second part of a paper that I presented at the recent Latin American Studies Association (LASA) conference in Lima.

The first part of the paper, called called ‘Introduction: Origins, Globalization and Uses of Ayahuasca’  can be read here.

The second part of the paper, reproduced below, looks at the typical sense-making discourses Western people use to understand their ayahuasca experiences and argues that they are all located in an overall paradigm that reproduces the dualistic splits between subject and object and nature and culture, which have been a feature of mainstream Western thought for the last four hundred years, that, ironically, the ayahuasca experience profoundly challenges. This part of the paper ends with looking at three thinkers – Jung, Hillman and Corbin – whose work, by giving primacy to the imagination, offers a different perspective on the experience of drinking ayahuasca.

Part Two

i) Making sense of the experience of drinking Ayahuasca: five common discourses.

Many people, on drinking ayahuasca, experience a profound change in their consciousness, often accompanied by a simultaneous recognition that their normal, everyday consciousness is a tiny part of a much vaster field of consciousness. This echoes the words of Jung, who said, according to his follower Robert Johnson (2009), that: “Ego consciousness is like a cork bobbing on a vast ocean of unconsciousness.”

Benny Shanon, a Professor of Psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, (2002) astutely comments that, (p. 39): “Ayahuasca brings us to the boundaries not only of science but also of the entire Western world-view and its philosophies.” Jeremy Narby makes a similar observation in a podcast (2011) that: “Drinking ayahuasca is a profound challenge to the Western materialist and rational paradigm.”

Given this deep unsettling, subverting, dissolving and expanding of normal ways of experiencing the world, the question arises as to how Westerners make sense of their experiences with ayahuasca. These experiences, as already noted, carry Westerners way beyond the boundaries of their usual cultural paradigms. Furthermore, Westerners do not share the language, culture and cosmovision of indigenous peoples, developed over at least centuries, which provide a rich and sophisticated set of resources for people to understand their ayahuasca experiences.

Foucault’s idea of discourse (Foucault, 1980) offers an opening into understanding the different ways that individuals and societies make sense of their experiences, create meaning out of them and, in so doing, reproduce relations of power.

For Foucault, discourse refers to:

“Ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them. Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the ‘nature’ of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern (Weedon, 1987, p. 108).

“… a form of power that circulates in the social field and can attach to strategies of domination as well as those of resistance” (Diamond and Quinby, 1988, p. 185).

Foucault’s body of work, as these quotes show, does much to show the complete entanglement of power and knowledge. Knowledge exists, is produced within, and recreates a system of power relations. This perspective profoundly challenges the notion of ‘objectivity’, that knowledge can exist independently outside a set of socially and politically structured relationships. The creation of objectivity as the only criterion for valid knowledge lays the foundation for scientific thinking.

Reading through the academic literature and personal accounts of ayahuasca experiences, five main discourses can be detected, which help people, and researchers, make sense of their and others experiences. They are each organized around central themes and are overlapping rather than distinct discourses.  Following Foucault, each of these discourses is set within and creates and or recreates a set of power relations.

First, as has been noted in the introduction, there is the scientific discourse, especially proceeding from the disciplines of neuroscience, biochemistry, biomedicine and pharmacology. One of the current leading ideas in current neuroscientific studies of ayahuasca and other psychoactive substances, seen from observing the effect on the brain of drinking ayahuasca using fMRI techniques, is that ayahuasca reduces the effect of what is called the ‘default mode network’ (Palhano-Fontes F, Andrade KC, Tofoli LF, Santos AC, Crippa JAS, et al., 2015).

Some neuroscientists (Carhart-Harris RL, Friston KJ, 2010) have hypothesized that the default mode mechanism is the seat of Freud’s psychological ‘ego’. Without having to buy completely into the idea of the Freudian ego, it does seem that neurological studies are making a good case for showing how ayahuasca decenters ego functioning (Feilding, 2017).

Secondly, there is the psychotherapeutic discourse. It has almost become a cliché in the ayahuasca community that ‘one night of taking ayahuasca is equivalent to ten years of therapy’. The psychotherapeutic discourse stresses the importance of themes such as: the decentering of the ego; expanded awareness; the ability to relive, bear and therefore resolve traumatic experiences without being thrown further into trauma; and the psychological integration of the experiences afterwards. The emphasis here, like in nearly all psychotherapy (Hillman, 1992), tends to be very much on the individual self and individual healing.

Thirdly, there is what can be broadly called a ‘New Age’ discourse, which majors on spiritual themes. The Merriam Webster dictionary (2017) defines ‘New Age’ as:

“An eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health.”

Alongside the New Age discourse go all sorts of practices added to ceremonies, such as the use of crystals, playing musical instruments and singing certain songs, which do not feature in traditional indigenous ceremonies.

Fourthly, there is a socio-political discourse, which emphasizes the liberating effects of ayahuasca and, through its use, being able to see through consensus, socially conditioned reality. A key reference often used here is the film ‘The Matrix’. In this discourse, ayahuasca shows us the ways we are being programmed and manipulated by ruling elites.

These elites can be understood in Marxist terms as the ruling classes and/or governing elites or, in less conventional terms, as other-dimensional beings such as the illuminati or aliens or other entities that have gained possession of people and are guiding their actions. David Icke (2007) is perhaps the person who has most popularized these ideas. These ideas can seem very far-fetched but it’s worth remembering that they are not so far from early Gnostic Christian ideas about the archons who were beings from another dimension that had the power to intervene in earthly life and whose purpose was to keep people in ignorance of their spiritual birthright (King, 2005).

The fifth discourse available is the ecological discourse. This is closely related to the spiritual discourse as the basis of each is the interconnection of everything. The spiritual discourse approaches this interconnectivity through notions that we are all one in a non-dualistic dimension whilst the ecological discourse approaches this interconnectedness through ideas from the study of living systems such as systems theory (Capra, 2014), chaotic non-linear systems (Gleick, 1987) and the sciences of complexity (Waldrop, 1992: Lewin, 1992).

My questioning of all these discourses, however, is that they still tend to locate and assimilate the ayahuasca experience within dominant Western paradigms, which remain primarily individualist, rationalist, reductionist and materialist. It might be objected here that the new age discourse offers an alternative to Western materialism. Yet, this discourse is highly individualistic. As Glendinning and Bruce (2006) comment:

“New Age spirituality would seem to be a strong candidate for the future of religion because its individualistic consumeristic ethos fits well with the spirit of the age.”

 Some of the people working within these discourses are acutely aware of their limitations and contradictions. For example, a recent on-line article entitled ‘Is Psychiatry ready for the Psychedelic Paradigm’ (Sloshower, 2017) asks:

How do we study and utilize a medicine with multiple active ingredients that works in a complex, multidimensional, and idiosyncratic way when modern science is inherently reductionist, looking for single molecules that have specific biological mechanisms of action to explain their therapeutic effects on disease processes that can be seen, known, and measured? How can science account for the interaction between the physical properties of a medicine like ayahuasca and the metaphysical healing components that are complementary to its use, such as music, dieting, praying, and other aspects of shamanism?

Furthermore, all these discourses tend to create dualisms between nature and culture, subject and object, individual and community, which locate the discourses firmly within the roots of modernity in the philosophy of Descartes and the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ushered in by Bacon, Galileo and Newton (Tarnas, 1991). The division between nature and culture that Western thought typically creates is is an important thread that runs through this paper and will be returned to later in discussing Marisol de la Cadena’s book “Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds”. (I previously wrote a blog entitled ‘Earth Beings and Plant Sprits’ about this book here)

ii) Alternative perspectives challenging modernity.

There are, however, resources and traditions within Western cultural thought that are helpful in making sense of experiences with ayahuasca, which help to free those experiences from the straightjacket of the dominant Cartesian-Newtonian cultural paradigm and configure different relationships between nature and culture.

The first of these is the work of the psychologist C.J. Jung. Jung, as his autobiography (1962) and his extraordinary work ‘The Red Book’ (2009) show, took seriously the images he encountered in his dreams and those of his patients as well as the images and figures that came spontaneously to him at times. He put forward the idea that these images and figures, rather than solely expressing and being a projection of an individual psychological reality, had their own independent existence, and were, therefore, autonomous beings. This pointed the way to a broader area of psychic existence, beyond but connected to the individual, which Jung called the ‘collective unconsciousness’.

The second invaluable set of intellectual resources is the work of James Hillman. Hillman became Director of Studies at the Jung Institute whilst Jung was still alive, but, after Jung’s death, broke with the Jung Institute, which was taking Jung’s work in a more mainstream direction of ego-psychology, to develop the field of archetypal psychology. For Hillman, following Jung, the image has primacy in the psyche and is the bedrock of psychic activity. Images have their own autonomy and cannot be reduced to single explanations of their meaning without doing violence to them. Images are profoundly related to soul. Hillman has described his work as putting back the soul into psychology (Hillman, 1975a).

In a significant paper called ‘Anima Mundi’ (1998), Hillman made the important move of locating soul in, and returning it to, the world. Human beings are not the only possessors of soul. Hillman’s genius is that whilst working within the Western high cultural tradition – notably Greek, neo-Platonist and Renaissance writers like Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Dante, Ficino and Vico – he is able to put forward a rigorously argued standpoint, similar to indigenous worldviews, in which all beings in the world are en-souled, not just humans, but animals, plants, insects and objects – even plastic cups and shopping malls.

The following is a beautiful passage (p. 48) taken from Hillman’s essay on ‘The Thought of the Heart’ (1998), which serves as a critique of the five discourses mentioned in the earlier section:

“Here begins phenomenology: in a world of ensouled phenomena. Phenomena need not be saved by grace or faith or all-embracing theory, or by scientific objectivity or transcendental subjectivity. They are saved by the anima mundi, by their own souls and our simple gasping at this imaginal loveliness. The ahh of wonder, of recognition, or the Japanese shee-e through the teeth. The aesthetic response saves the phenomenon, the phenomenon which is the face of the world.”

The third important area of thought is the work of the French philosopher and Islamic scholar Henri Corbin. Corbin, as well as being an expert in Iranian and Sufi mystical thought, was also the first French translator of Heidegger, and moved in the same intellectual circles as Jung and Hillman. His work, especially his book ‘Alone with the Alone’ (1998) – though difficult for people unfamiliar with Islamic Shiite philosophy – represents a comprehensive phenomenology of visionary experience.

Corbin is one of the few Western intellectuals to take seriously the realm of visionary experience. Like Jung and Hillman, and the English romantic poets, he sees the primary activity of the psyche as imagination. He understands visionary experiences as happening through an internal organ of perception which he names the ‘creative imagination’. This occurs in an intermediate world between a spiritual world of pure forms and intellectual perceptions and our normal sense perception world, which he calls the ‘imaginal world’. He says this is (p.13):

“the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures of subtile substances, of ‘immaterial matter’…….where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual………..This intermediate world is the realm where the conflict which split the Occident, the conflict between theology and philosophy, between faith and knowledge, between symbol and history, is resolved.”

I cite these three people here – Jung, Hillman and Corbin – as they are all attempts from within Western cultural perspectives to take the ‘other’ in its own terms, rather than assimilating the ‘other’ to Western scientific or therapeutic or spiritual or political or ecological frameworks. They also all radically rethink the relationship between nature and culture by giving primacy to the imagination.



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  1. geoffmead permalink

    Excellent paper Paul. Thanks for sharing it. Geoff

  2. Agreed! Excellent as always Paul. Looking forward to part iii!

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