Please Note: This post has been altered to protect the writers identity. Sadly, the writer has been threatened by someone on an “anti-drug” crusade.
Update: Ayahuasca has been declared a national heritage in Peru.
If you’ve ever read Carlos Castaneda, then you may find this interesting. The ancient Ayahuasca ritual used to give insight into the depths of one’s soul is explained in some detail here:
Learning from Expanded States of Consciousness
My spiritual path reached a whole new level upon the discovery of the Teacher Plants that are an integral part of South American tradition and spirituality.
Since childhood, I have been fascinated by the ancient annual sacred initiatory event – The Mysteries of Eleusis, which took place in ancient Athens. Because the participants were sworn to secrecy, no-one really knows what happened in its hallowed initiation hall. What is known is that all acolytes were totally transformed by the experience, and never dared speak of what they went through. A few aspects of the Eleusinian initiations have, however, been surmised: firstly, participants were believed to have had a firsthand experience of the gods in the mythological drama of death and rebirth represented by the abduction of Persephone by Hades; secondly, initiates drank a sacred broth that contained certain flowers and mushrooms, which must clearly have had some hallucinogenic effect…
Before discovering Ayahuasca in 2006, I deeply regretted that such ancient wisdom and sacred interaction had been lost. As I soon learned, however, the Peruvian teacher plant tradition is still very much alive, with a growing following all over the world.
Ayahuasca – Vine of the Dead
Ayahuasca literally means “the vine of the dead” and shamans of various different Indian cultures of the Amazon have used it to enable the flight of their spirit into godly realms, or to descend into the Underworld where the sources of illness may be found. The plant is mainly seen as a teacher, and participants always gain some sort of insight or teaching from the plant – usually about healing, the correct path to pursue in life, or concerning philosophical questions. Although an Ayahuasca journey is usually profound, it is not necessarily pleasant.
An Ayahuasca brew is made from two “teacher plants”, and is said to have been used by several tribes of the Amazon, especially in Peru, for 5,000 years in shamanic rituals. The vine Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) grows throughout Amazonia – from Columbia to Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Guyana – and is respected by all indigenous peoples as a healing or teaching plant. It is boiled together with the leaves of a shrub called “Chacruna” (Psychotria viridis), resulting in the brew. According to tradition, Chacruna “paints the visions” whereas the Ayahuasca plant brings teachings beyond the visions.
The psychoactive effects of Ayahuasca can be attributed to Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a substance that is produced by our own body and which causes the dream state. Interestingly, DMT is produced naturally in the brain, but if introduced to the body in large quantities, is rapidly metabolised. Monoamine-oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors) present in Banisteriopsis caapi prevent this process, allowing the intense Ayahuasca visions (The reason why Ayahuasca and certain antidepressants do not mix well is because the latter also contain MAO inhibitors). It is a fascinating fact that Amazonian tribes discovered and perfected this blend. One can only speculate that in the ‘dream time’ of ancient humanity – when animals and plants spoke to people – the teacher plants directly taught the combinations and correct use… Otherwise, intense experimentation must have taken place.
“Santo Daime”and “União de Vegetal” (UDV) are new legally recognised Brazilian religions based on the ingestion of ‘hoasca’. Both religions are syncretic in nature – blending Roman Catholic, Spiritist and Umbanda (African religions) elements. Both movements were founded by rubber tappers who came into contact with Ayahuasca in the deep Amazon during the rubber boom around the turn of the 20th century. Both religions have become particularly popular in the main cities, having a middle class following. Santo Daime and UDV communities are closely-knit and have regular meetings, as well as working to uplift disadvantaged communities. Affiliated churches have spread to the USA, Spain, Japan, and even South Africa.
Some people may wonder whether Ayahuasca isn’t ‘just another drug’. Although there may be some who use teacher plants as a “spiritually-correct “ excuse to get high, there are several differences between the effects of Ayahuasca and recreational drugs.
In 1993 an international consortium of scientists from Brazil, the United States, and Finland conducted a study within the Brazilian UDV community, called the ‘Hoasca Project’. Members who had been participating in the ritual consumption of Ayahuasca for more than 10 years were questioned and all showed remarkable changes in lifestyle. Many had had histories of alcohol abuse and relationship problems, all of which changed given the conscious work with Ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca has no negative effects (except if combined with certain antidepressants). Scientific research concerning the physiological effect of Ayahuasca on the human body has shown that there is no hepato-toxicity present in this vegetable compound. The consumption of Ayahuasca within a controlled context shows no side-effects, it is not addictive and it does not produce any withdrawal syndrome – that is, no symptom of abstinence when stopping consumption.
Despite DMT being illegal in Europe and the USA, the Ayahuasca ‘tea’ is legal in Brazil when associated with spiritual practice and recreational use is condemned. (Recent attempts to hold an ‘Ayahuasca Rave’ – basically, a recreational dance experience under the effects of the plant – were condemned by Brazilian spiritual groups and the government alike, and refused was permission.) Ayahuasca is not simply a hallucinogenic substance that brings on a set of experiences. It is traditionally only ever used within a ritual or healing context. It has always been seen as a medicine from the gods in Peru; a medicine which is to be treated with due respect. An Ayahuasca ritual expands consciousness as well as allowing cleansing, diagnosis of illness and prophecy. The plants are believed to reveal the true world – of spirit, love and wisdom – while the everyday world is seen as illusory.
The Ayahuasca Ritual
Although practices may differ in style from ayahuasquero to ayahuasquero, the basic elements of the ceremony are the same. The most important structure within the ritual is the Icaro or sacred chant. Most are sung either in Quechua, Shipibo or other indigenous languages of the Amazon; otherwise in Spanish. Icaros guide the experience of Ayahuasca, taking participants to the desired places. They could be compared to invocations, incantations or sung affirmations, maintaining a certain frequency of energy. I have experienced them as a weave of sound waves that hold a certain intention in place – usually for protection, healing or calling down the divine. Their structure is very simple, often repetitive, but they are very beautiful and evocative.
Although some modern practitioners do not include healing as part of their ceremony, it is traditionally an essential part of the experience. Even if the ayahuasquero does not specifically do healing work during the session, healing always takes place, since Ayahuasca is a medicine – possibly the closest thing to a Panacea – that works on physical or psychological imbalance wherever it is needed. The medicine may involve simple purging; whereby participants vomit or have diarrhoea, although this need not necessarily always happen. One of the physical effects of Ayahuasca is ‘sinchi’, which is like a wringing of the insides, to expel toxins.
Two other traditional medicines used during the Ayahuasca ceremony include Agua Florida (flower-perfumed water) and Mapacho (sacred tobacco), which are blown into the energy body of the participant by the ayahuasquero. Agua Florida is a very beautiful smelling perfume, which is sprayed into the energy body at certain points; it is used to cleanse the aura and help the participant through difficult patches. Later on during the ceremony, Mapacho smoke is blown onto each person in the same way, thus creating a protective shield for ongoing healing, as well as giving strength. Mapacho is also used as a teaching plant in its own right, and may be administered as a juice, to induce purging and create energetic protection.
A ceremony lasts between 5 and 7 hours, and is usually an introspective experience. As intense as the process may be, one never loses full consciousness or even control of the body (if the optimal dose it taken). Although participants return to normal consciousness within hours of the ceremony ending, the Ayahuasca continues to work physically and psychologically for many days after. Usually the Ayahuasca visions offer an impersonal mirror of one’s character – a warts-and-all look at self, free of denial and self-justifications. It brings insight into the personal hell of our psychological complexities. It also shows us the simple truths: visions of our potential and the correct paths to pursue, as well as an experience of love, hope and courage to be our true selves… In my experience, the hallucinations and visions are side-effects of the deeper healing process, where the medicine is detoxifying the body, mind and emotions and opening doors to new possibilities.
Is Ayahuasca too much of a shortcut along the spiritual path? Some would argue accordingly. But how can any path that offers healing, integration and vision arising from personal realisations – and not those derived from the dogmas of others – ever be too quick? We are on this planet to learn, and knowledge based in personal truth is woefully lacking in our world, especially given the global crises we currently face.
…..will be running workshops with Peruvian ayahuasquero ….. in South Africa in April and May 2009.
The choice to take part in an Ayahuasca Ritual is not one taken lightly. I am saddened that someone has used this platform; created to spread knowledge and encourage a community spirit among us, to threaten any person or their work.