Ayahuasca Shamanism In The Amazon

The origins of the shamanic use of ayahuasca, as well as other hallucinogenic plants, go back hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. One cannot really be sure, since we are dealing with cultures that did not keep written records. The anthropologist Geraldo Reichel-Dolmatoff, who spent a lifetime among the indigenous people of Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia, recorded several stories in which the discovery of yage or ayahuasca is bound up with the origin myth of the people. The Tukano people of the Vaupes region of Columbia say that the first people came from the sky in a serpent canoe, and Father Sun had promised them a magical drink that would connect them with the radiant powers of the heavens. While the men were in the "House of the Waters," attempting to make this drink, the first woman went into the forest to give birth. She came back with a boy radiating golden light, whose body she rubbed with leaves. This luminous boy-child was the vine, and each of the men cut off a piece of this living being that became his piece of the vine lineage. In a variation of this myth from the Desana, the serpent canoe came from the Milky Way, bringing a man, a woman, and three plants for the people—cassava, coca, and caapi. They also regarded it as a gift from the Sun, a kind of container for the yellow-gold light of the Sun, that provided for the first people the rules on how to live and how to speak (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1972).

These origin myths tell us that from the beginning this plant medicine was associated with origins of language, culture, and the beginnings of humankind. Humans are said to have come from the cosmos, and the vine of the soul was given to them as a way of staying in touch with cosmic and solar creative energies. Reichel-Dolmatoff writes for the Indians, "the purpose of taking yage is to return to the uterus, to the fons et origo of all things, where the individual 'sees' the tribal divinities, the creation of the universe and humanity, the first human couple, the creation of the animals, and the establishment of the social order" (102). In conjunction with the cosmic visionary aspects, the yage mythology and experience among the Indians is saturated with sexual and birth imagery, as well as the shamanic theme of dismemberment. In the Tukano story, the yage woman who gives birth to the vine-child (which is dismembered) first comes into the house (uterus) and asks the men who the father of the child is. "For the Indian the hallucinatory experience is essentially a sexual one. To make it sublime, to pass from the erotic, the sensual, to a mystical union with the mythic era, the intrauterine state, is the ultimate goal . . . coveted by all" (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1972, 104).

Western explorers in the Amazon region have made sporadic observations of the use of intoxicating plant preparations by the native Indians in the centuries since the conquest. The Catholic priests in the seventeenth century were predictably horrified and condemnatory, as they were of the sacred mushroom cults in Mexico. On the other hand, there were explorers like the German naturalist Baron Alexander von Humboldt in the eighteenth century, and the English botanist Richard Spruce in the nineteenth century, who gave more humanistic and dispassionate accounts of their observations. In the twentieth century, it is above all the work of the eminent botanist Richard Evans Schultes, long-time director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard University, that is responsible for determining the complex ethnobotany of ayahuasca and many other South American psychoactive and medicinal plants. R. E. Schultes's remarkable long life of ethnobotanical explorations and discoveries in the Amazon is the subject of a brilliant and profoundly empathic biography by Wade Davis called One River (Davis 1996). The complicated and fascinating history of how ayahuasca was finally correctly botanically identified and its pharmacology analyzed is given in the chapter in this book by Dennis McKenna, who himself contributed crucial pieces of information to the solution of this ethnobotanical puzzle.

In the second half of the twentieth century, increasing numbers of students and researchers in anthropology and ethnobotany were inspired to explore the roots of humankind's involvement with psychoactive plants in shamanism. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, this cross-cultural research occurred simultaneously with the discovery of psychedelic drugs and their introduction into Western psychology and psychiatry, to be discussed below. These works ranged from R. Gordon Wasson's rediscovery of the pre-Columbian magic mushroom cult and Michael Harner's early work on the role of hallucinogens in European witchcraft-shamanism to the work of sober researchers like Weston LaBarre, Richard Evans Schultes, Claudio Naranjo, and Peter Furst, as well as the more fantastic and imaginative writings of Carlos Castaneda and Terence McKenna.

The shamanic lore of ayahuasca entered most strongly into Western culture initially through the Yage Letters of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, published in 1963; and then through the biography of

Manuel Cordova de Rios, by Bruce Lamb, published in 1971 as Wizard of the Upper Amazon. Cordova was abducted as a teenager by a tribe of Indians and initiated into healing knowledge through a lengthy series of ayahuasca sessions in which he got to know the flora and fauna of the rainforest through precise and verifiable visions.

In the Amazon region meanwhile, the shamanic use of ayahuasca, as well as other plants such as tobacco, which is considered one of the most powerful psychoactive and healing plants, moved out of the purely Indian context and into the urban centers with their mestizo populations. The mestizo shamanism involving ayahuasca is known as vegetalismo and its practicioners as vegetalistas. These healers will use ayahuasca in their curing ceremonies but often know and work with other more straightforward medicinal herbs as well. The gastrointestinal purging reaction is considered essential to the curing, and the yagé brew is therefore often referred to as la purga. A book by Luis Eduardo Luna (1986), an anthropologist who has made a special study of vegetalismo, describes the essential features of this shamanic practice.

The traditional shamanic ceremonial form involving hallucinogenic plants is a loosely structured experience, in which a small group of people come together with respectful, spiritual attitude to share a profound inner journey of healing and transformation facilitated by these powerful catalysts. The initiatory training of a healer, as well as certain special healing sessions, may only involve one or two persons besides the elder ayahuasquero. A "journey" is the preferred metaphor in shamanistic societies for what psychologists call an altered state of consciousness, or anthropologists nonordinary reality. It is a period of time in which the individual may feel psychically that they are traveling, even flying, or they may feel immersed in strange and sometimes terrifying perceptions that are far from their ordinary experience—all the while the physical body is lying or sitting on the ground with the other participants in the ceremony.

There is a paradox in the terminology often used here to describe these substances. The word "hallucinogen" has been generally rejected by Western psychedelic researchers as being an inappropriate appellation, since they do not induce one to see "hallucinations" in the sense of illusory or nonreal perceptions. But the derivation of hallucination is from the Latin alucinar, "to wander in the mind," in other words, an altered state journey. So, I actually prefer to use the term hallucinogen, if it is understood in the sense of "inducing journeys in the mind."

One significant element of virtually all shamanic curing ceremonies involving ayahuasca, and other psychoactive plants and mushrooms as well, is the shaman's singing, which is invariably considered essential to the success of the healing or divinatory process. The singing typical in entheogenic rituals usually has a fairly rapid beat, similar to the rhythmic pulse in shamanic drumming journeys (widespread in shamanistic societies of the northern hemisphere in Asia, Europe, and America). Psychically, the rhythmic chanting, like the drum pulse, seems to give support for moving through the flow of visions and minimizes the likelihood of getting stuck in frightening or seductive experiences. The songs the ayahuasqueros sing are called icaros and often have a kind of soft, soothing, almost lilting quality. The songs are learned by the healers in their apprenticeship and are said to be the songs of the spirits that have become the allies of that particular healer. So here is a radically alternative healing system from the accepted Western theory of "magic bullet" drug therapy: the doctor takes the medicine and sings songs, which invoke spirits, who do the healing on the patient.

Another distinctive feature of traditional hallucinogenic ceremonies is that they are almost always done in darkness or low light. This seems to facilitate the emergence of visions, which come with eyes closed from the interior worlds of consciousness, as do dreams. It makes sense that if the visual stimuli of the exterior world are very intense, it would be difficult to pay attention to subtler visual phenomena coming up from within. The exception among psychoactive healing rituals is the peyote ceremony, which is usually done around a fire at night; here participants may see visions as they stare into the fire.

The role of the guide, curandero, or healer is always described as central and essential. This must be a person with extensive personal experience in the use of these medicines who agrees to provide an initiatory experience to a seeker or training to an apprentice. In virtually all entheogenic rituals, the guide or shaman does much or all of the singing, and this singing profoundly shapes the quality and content of the experience.

Banisteriopsis caapi vine Psychotria viridis in Hawaiian rain forest

(photo by Jack Coddington) (photo by Ralph Metzner)

Banisteriopsis caapi vine Psychotria viridis in Hawaiian rain forest

(photo by Jack Coddington) (photo by Ralph Metzner)

The experience can be healing, on physical, psychic, and spiritual levels, although traditional shamanic healers do not make such analytic distinctions. Shamanic healing experiences, with entheogens or other means, have three main variations: the first is the extraction of a toxin that may have been implanted by means of sorcery; the second is the retrieval of a split-off psychic fragment or soul; and the third is the experience of being dismembered or destroyed, and then reconstituted with a healthier, stronger "body."

The experience can provide access to hidden knowledge; this is the aspect of divination, "seeing," prophecy, intuition, or visioning. If the intention or context is healing, then the divination would be equivalent to what Western medicine calls diagnosis—i.e., from where and from whom did the particular toxic implant come, where has the soul-fragment been "lost," what particular herbs should be used for the person's illness, etc. It is said that there is an intelligence associated with the plant medicine, an intelligence that communicates in an interior way to the person who ingests the medicine. Indigenous healers refer to the entheogenic plants as "plant teachers."

Preparation of ayahuasca: pieces of the vine are crushed (to release the chemicals in them) and cooked in a pot of water, in alternating layers with the leaves of P. viridis. (photo by Ralph Metzner)

There is a feeling and perception of access to metaphysical realms or worlds, as well as traveling by nonordinary means in this world. In the shamanic traditions, with or without hallucinogens, these realms are called "upper world" and "lower world," as well as "middle world," or more generally "spirit world." In Western esoteric and magical traditions these realms have been referred to as "inner world," "subtle planes," "faerie world," or "otherworld." Some anthropologists, including Michael Harner, refer to them as "nonordinary reality." The access to these otherworlds may come through a kind of journey to that world; perhaps on the back of an animal or carried by a large bird. Alternatively, one may feel that one can see into the spirit world without moving while still aware of the ordinary present world of time-space as well. Scenery and beings of the other world may appear in our world. In any event, the usual boundaries between the worlds seem to become more permeable during such experiences.

The experience may involve the perception of nonmaterial, nor-

The ayahuasca tea being boiled (photo by Ralph Metzner)

mally invisible, spirit beings or entities. Such spirits are recognized as being associated with particular animals (e.g., serpent, jaguar), certain plants, trees or fungi, certain places (e.g., river, rain forest), deceased ancestors, and other nonordinary entities (e.g., extraterrestrials, elves). It can include the experiences of actually becoming or identifying with that spirit (e.g., the experience of becoming a jaguar or a serpent). The healing and divination is experienced as being done by or with the assistance of such spirits, also referred to as "allies," "power animals," "guardians," or "helpers." In some healing rituals, there may also be contact with bad or malevolent spirits that need to be exorcised or neutralized in some way.

The two elements in the shamanic traditions that pose the most direct and radical challenge to the accepted Western worldview are the existence of multiple worlds or realms of consciousness, and the reality of spirit beings. Such conceptions are considered completely beyond the pale of both reason and science within the mindset of the modern world. However, for the many thousands of explorers from North America and

Europe who have used hallucinogenic plants, including ayahuasca, as a shamanic tool for serious consciousness exploration, including those whose experiences are recounted in this book, the recognition of multiple worlds and the reality of spirit beings is becoming quite common.

Reiki 101

Reiki 101

Looked upon as a mysterious practice, reiki originated from Japan, around 1922. Started by a Japanese Buddhist, this practice of purported healing basically uses the palm of an individual to emit positive healing energy unto the patient. Sometimes reiki is referred to as oriental style treatment by professional medical bodies.

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