Medical And Psychological Applications Of Ayahuasca

In the context of Amazonian traditional healing practice, the drinking of ayahuasca is something like a master cure for all illness. Not that the medicine itself is a panacea, but that it functions as a guide or teacher for the human healer, pointing him or her to other herbs that might be needed, allowing him to beat back sorcerous attacks or extract poisonous infections or infestations. These kinds of practices presume a completely different understanding of illness and medicine than what we are accustomed to in the West.

But even from the point of view of Western medicine and psychotherapy it is clear from the literature and from the stories recounted in this volume, that remarkable physical healings and resolutions of psychological difficulties can occur with this medicine. Early in the twentieth century an extract of the vine was used successfully in the treatment of Parkinson's Disease, a possible application that has not to date been followed up. There have been ancedotal accounts of the complete remission of some cancers after one or two sessions with ayahuasca. Since these occurred with ayahuasca in the context of traditional healing ceremonies, it is impossible to separate out the pharmacological effect from the psychosocial and shamanic elements. Further study of such cases and cures is surely warranted.

On the psychological level also, there is intriguing evidence of positive therapeutic changes being induced by the ritualistic ingestion of ayahuasca. The research by Grob, McKenna, Callaway, and their associates with the Brazilian hoasca church known as UDV showed that there were significant differences on several personality trait measures between the long-term users of hoasca and a nonusing control group. Psychiatric interviews also confirmed these differences in that the subjects reported making positive changes in their behavior (less drinking and drug use, more responsibility and confidence) as a result of their participation in the hoasca ceremonies. As the researchers emphasize, this was not a before-and-after evaluation, following the subjects over time, so the findings are not definitive, but suggestive. The differences could also be due primarily to the psychosocial effect of belonging to the church community, with its rules and discipline.

The most unusual and unexpected of their findings however is the difference in neuropsychological functions. The hoasca users performed better than controls on short-term verbal learning tasks—capabilities that usually decline with age. This difference is unlikely to be a psychosocial effect and may mean that ayahuasca falls in the category of substances now referred to as "cognition enhancers" or "nootropics."

Certainly many of the stories recounted in this book and elsewhere in the literature support the notion that under the influence of ayahuasca people are able to see and understand themselves better, to think more clearly about their relationships, the nature of the cosmos, and their own place in it.

From the stories related in this volume, one cannot help but be impressed by the remarkable health-enhancing effects attributed to the purging action of the vine. People describe the liberating, lightening, color-enhancing, strengthening after-effect of la purga in near-rapturous tones. The purging gives people the feeling and bodily experience of strength, called mariri by some of the ayahuasqueros; and this is not muscular, weight-lifting strength so much as a kind of intestinal fortitude, a relaxed, warm feeling of being at ease in the deep instinctual roots of one's physical nature. Many first-time ayahuasca users have to overcome an initial inhibition to vomiting, because of its usual associations as a symptom of sickness. Once this is done, they find that the purging is easy and effortless and not at all accompanied by nausea or queasiness. Only where there is the presence of toxicity in the body, can the vomiting discharge become debilitatingly intense. This is also one of the reasons the ayahuasqueros emphasize being on a diet low on spices, sugars, and fats. The two most violent purging reactions I have personally observed were with a man who was a heavy smoker, and a woman who had just ended a two-week course of antibiotics.

There is an interesting convergence that often happens between physical purging and psychic purging—what seems to be a kind of discharge of negatively toned psychic contents. People who do not have any appreciable physical toxicity in their system may yet find themselves throwing up and thereby releasing the toxic residues of past emotional entanglements, the guilt and shame loads of traumatic abuse, or the self-limiting, self-defeating thought-patterns of addictions, compulsions, and other neurotic behaviors. Sometimes people might even find that what they are discharging through the vomiting is not so much their personal "stuff," but some portion of the collective consciousness-bands of humanity. I recall an individual who reported that at first he was exploring the flow of personal visions, without purging, but then he came to think about and have visions of the genocidal wars and oppression in Central America (that he had no personal experience of); he abruptly threw up.

This combination of physical and psychic purging that occurs quite regularly with ayahuasca leads me to suggest that potentially the most useful application of this medicine in Western society may be in the treatment of addiction and alcoholism. The Brazilian hoasca project with long-term members of the UDV reported a marked decline in alcoholism and drug addiction among church members—although the drug effect can't be completely separated from the effect of belonging to a structured community. Similarly, among members of the peyote-using Native American Church in the United States, it has regularly been reported there is a significant decline in the alcoholism that is otherwise so devastating to the Native American population. Here too, the return to a traditional way of life associated with participation in the NAC rituals may be equally as important as the plant hallucinogen. Looking back at the history of Western research with psychedelic drugs, the most widespread therapeutic application of LSD was found in the treatment of alcoholism. At one point during the late 1960s, there were about five or six hospitals in North America with an LSD alcoholism treatment program; the efficacy rate was, on average, about comparable to other forms of treatment.

Since the psychedelic (entheogenic, hallucinogenic) drugs and plants are expanding consciousness, heightening awareness, and providing self-insight, they are the logical and natural antidotes to the conscious-ness-contracting, fixating, narcotizing effect of the addictive drugs. And because of the purging effect (found in peyote and ayahuasca), there is reason to believe that such combined emetic-hallucinogens may be even more effective in treating alcoholism and addiction than LSD. The addict needs to purge, not only the toxic residues of alcohol and other drugs from their system, but also the mental, emotional, and perceptual reaction-patterns and habits. One case of self-treatment of a fifteen-year heroin addiction with ayahuasca has been reported: the woman locked herself in a room and took ayahuasca every day for two week.,, purging constantly, until she was free. The Takiwasi program initiated by Dr. Jacques Mabit in Peru treats cocaine addicts in a residential setting involving counseling, ayahuasca sessions, and physical labor in the garden. Ideally, there should always be some kind of community group for recovering addicts and alcoholics, to provide similar ongoing support after the intensive treatment phase as is provided by the UDV and the NAC.

I believe there is a strong probability that an alcoholism and addiction treatment program using ayahuasca in the context of a holistic approach that also uses nutrition, physical labor, exercise, and psycho-spiritual practices can be established some time in the next ten years; if not in the United States, then perhaps in Mexico or Canada, where antidrug political hysteria is less intense.

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