Reflections on Ayahuasca.
In December of 2013 I visited the Peruvian jungle with two of my best friends. Spending time away from modern civilization, deep in the rainforest, was a healing and beautiful experience on one hand, but also an eye-opening and disturbing one on the other hand. It’s the fourth time I’ve been to Peru. The previous visit was in 2007. The ponerization of society has reached even the most remote corners of the planet, where the virus of “modern progress” has infected the everyday lives of indigenous cultures.
Many people have this romantic view of exotic places like the Amazon and the natives who live there. The issue is not only the pathology of the modern world with its globalization, greed, and capitalism, but that many natives themselves actually seek out that lifestyle in so many ways. It’s a bit ironic — some of us are trying to escape the modern world, and the people living in what we see as “paradise” yearn for what we are trying to get away from… but it’s a clash, and it doesn’t fit.
It’s not a black and white issue, and there is much we can learn from these cultures and their traditions. I’ve certainly learned a lot, and the insights I’ve gained from working with ayahuasca, the “grandmother”, have been revealing and healing in many ways, but we need to get over this romanticizing that surrounds the culture itself. I see this occurring a lot in the yoga community as well, with people drawn to Eastern practices and philosophies which have become very distorted over time, romanticizing India and that whole guru culture. Many people don’t question any of the underlying programs associated with these traditions.
Luckily, we were prepared for our journey, traveling with the right intentions and lots of self-work under our belt already, working with an experienced curandero (shaman) who lives deep in the jungle with his family. We traveled for 8 hours on a banana boat south of Pucallpa on the Rio Ucayali to get to the village. Thanks to my long-time Peruvian friend who came with us — and who is very discerning and careful who to work with, based on his own experiences — this trip was very well planned. However, the fact that ayahuasca has become so popular over the years, with thousands of people traveling to Peru to have “the experience”, has taken a toll on the culture and the people living there. We saw that as well. Ayahuasca tourism has risen exponentially, and along with it, many pseudo shamans who have become greedy for the almighty dollar.
There are even more disturbing things happening there, some of it relating to sorcery and “wars” between curanderos who are greedy and envious of each another. All of this is well-known in the jungle, and ayahuasca has been used in black magic rituals for a long time. Our curandero told us how ayahuasca is being used by some shamans for mind control in order to have power over others by making them ill and psychotic.
During our stay in the jungle we witnessed that he was under a psychic attack from a curandero of a neighboring village (about 20 miles away) who was envious of him because of his success as a shamanic healer, with many people seeking him out. He was able to fight it off with the help of another shaman during one of the ceremonies. It’s like hyperdimensional warfare. Luckily, we weren’t subjected to these attacks, and he held a safe space for us during the sessions.
Ayahuasca is mostly being seen as this beautiful spiritual magic drink that — other than some purging and emotional/physical discomfort — has supposedly only positive effects. This is not entirely true. In the modern world, there have been cases of sexual abuse during ceremonies, and people have died during ceremonies as well. Last year, a British tourist, 19, was found dead on a remote Colombian road after an ayahuasca ceremony gone wrong.
While its “home” is in Peru, here on the west coast of the USA “aya” has become a lucrative “business”. I know of some “shamans” who charge $250 per person, with 50–70 people in a ceremony… (you do the math)… without ever having gone through the long and tedious training and initiation to become an ayahuascero. Ayahuasca is becoming more and more popular — nowadays you can even order it on Amazon (virtual “Amazon”). 12 years ago I remember hardly anyone knew about it, now I get invitations to participate in ceremonies on a regular basis where I live, but something doesn’t feel right about many of these ceremonies, with too many red flags attached to the groups involved.
Unfortunately, there are many people who desperately want to try this brew because of the hype, so their critical thinking goes out the window, along with their intuition. The projections and expectations kick in, and the curanderos are looked at like gurus, being put on a pedestal — with all the transference issues that come along with that. Some shamans take advantage of this naiveté, similar to the Indian Guru pathology and the abuses based on that program… same story, different culture.
Jolane Abrams provides a powerful presentation of the shadow side of ayahuasca tourism:
I’ve managed to free myself from the romanticism blinders which I carried when I first travelled to Peru eight years ago. Much of what Jolane has said I can see in Peru now as well, and it’s not a pretty picture – in fact, it’s gotten worse over the years. However, I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. There is much beauty down there, with amazing healers who live in the jungle or the Andes who possess incredible knowledge.
Our group experienced an amazing time, with healing and insightful ceremonies in a small intimate setting. But it’s not easy work by any means, and certainly not for everyone. It’s also not a magic drink, as Jolane said, and the work never stops — with or without ayahuasca. It’s just another tool, and like any tool it can be used for good or to harm… and most harm happens out of ignorance and wishful thinking.
Dark Shamanism is a topic that is virtually unacknowledged in the neo-shamanism revival movement within Western culture. Many spiritual teachings have been corrupted and watered-down into sellable, easy-to-swallow pop-spirituality these days. Shamanism has also become greatly distorted, omitting many issues most people are not even aware of.
Prof. Neil Whitehead, who was the victim of a Kanaima, or dark shaman attack in Guyana, South America, addresses the dark side of Shamanism in this interview:
The topic of shamanism and “plant medicine” inevitably leads into a discussion of other hallucinogens. My personal experience with psychedelics, in general, is two-fold (I have worked with ayahuasca, san pedro, psilocybin mushrooms, and DMT): on one hand, they have provided incredible insight into myself and reality, and helped me in my personal healing process; but on the other hand, it has also been very confusing and disturbing at times. My introduction to psychedelics happened with psilocybin mushrooms in 1996, which I used for a number of years while on the path of self-exploration and healing.
These experiences have also led me to bodywork, yoga, and Qi Gong, which I’ve been practicing ever since. However, many young kids use these drugs at parties, without any proper preparation or intentions. That’s how I got introduced to them as well, but I stopped taking these substances recreationally after a couple of disturbing experiences, and after that point only worked with them on my own (or with close friends in nature) with the intention of confronting and healing issues within me, not just to “trip out” and enjoy some visual fireworks.
These were also emotional heavy times for me which involved confronting the shadow, with periods of depression, shame, despair, and anger as my shadow was coming to light. Most of this dark side consisted of suppressed emotional states from past experiences, primarily during childhood. However, looking back, I also didn’t have the context and knowledge to integrate these experiences, especially from a psychological perspective. Too much came up for me to handle. I stopped doing any psychedelics for many years, and focused more on integrating what had come up through deeper “sober” self-work, learning about psychology, integrating psychotherapy and using bodywork, yoga, dance, breath-work and Qi Gong to get in touch with my emotional body through these body-mind modalities.
Ayahuasca and other medicine plants can help many people (especially with regards to addiction and trauma) but it is important to combine it with psychotherapeutic work. Dr. Gabor Maté, author of “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction“, talks about his view of the healing potential of ayahuasca:
At the same time, these substances can open up doors in the psyche, bringing suppressed trauma to consciousness, which can make things even worse, and it can be too much for the individual to handle. It is a potential ‘healing support mechanism’ that can paradoxically be detrimental for some people. That’s why psycho-spiritual therapy should be part of it, in my opinion. Many times, that alone is often enough for creating deep and lasting transformation, without having to take any substance, if one is sincere and sticks to the psycho-spiritual healing process.
Healing trauma, addiction, and childhood wounds, which we all have and are all dealing with to varying degrees, takes its own time, and trying to speed it up with psychedelic substances can sometimes make things worse than better. It’s also a symptom of our fast-food and instant gratification culture, wanting to be fixed as quickly as possible with the least amount of effort and work, and for many people this is what attracts them to psychedelics and ayahuasca.
Often times, using these substances becomes another buffer and avoidance strategy. Looking back at my experiences, I had to acknowledge that I was over-estimating myself and lying to myself about my healing process on some level. Just like many other people, I got hooked on the “peak experience” and avoided deeper psychotherapeutic and sincere self-work without the use of these substances. This also ties into the phenomenon of “spiritual bypassing” as I wrote about in “Spiritual Bypassing, Relationships and the Shadow”.