What Is Ayahuasca?
A Shaman’s Guide to this Sacred Plant
Ayahuasca always speaks the truth 40% of the time, and 30% of the time it does not.
Prominent evidence indicates that people have always sought out substances to alter their consciousness throughout history, as well as prehistory. In that sense, ayahuasca could be seen as just another one of these substances that is currently enjoying a certain vogue cache.
If you are unfamiliar with ayahuasca, it’s tea brewed from two particular South American plants, theBanisteriopsis caapivine and thePsychotria viridisleaf. Neither plant has an effect separately, but when combined, they generate a powerful psychoactive brew. When ingested, it takes one on a powerful journey to inner worlds with an intense amplification of spiritual immersion.
There are tens of thousands of plant species in the Amazon. The statistical odds of experimenting among the possible combinations of plants to achieve such a recipe are beyond staggering, one in tens of millions of possibilities—a feat that giant pharmaceutical labs cannot imagine attempting. When the indigenous tribes are asked how they ever arrived at knowing which plants to select, they say the plant spirits told them which ones to use.
A History of Ayahuasca Use
Ayahuasca has been in use by native peoples in the Amazon for as long as their mythology goes back. For these indigenous people, it’s a living, sacred thing, a spirit that their shamans, or “ayahuasqueros,” sing to during ceremonial sessions. These songs are calledicarosand are learned from spirits or elder shamans and are used to offer protection and summon healing energy.
Ayahuasca Shaman in the Amazon
While anthropologists and ethnobotanists first brought information of this practice to the western world, it was Terence McKenna and his brother, Dennis, who are credited for having the most influence in spreading its use and popularity. Terence, who embodied the termpsychonaut, was dedicated, arguably obsessed, with discovering pathways to the wisdom realms of expanded consciousness so often revered in traditional tribal cultures around the world. It was through the McKenna brothers’ books and Terence’s extraordinary gift as a spell-weaving orator that so many were drawn to explore ayahuasca and adapt it into their spiritual pharmacopeia.
Not a Party Drug
Ayahuasca is often referred to as anentheogen, a substance that can potentiate the direct experience of the divine. This psycho-spiritual term is often employed to distinguish thisplant medicinefrom recreational drugs. Those who partake of ayahuasca, hopefully in a setting with an experienced shaman, may be seeking a connection with Spirit, healing for their bodies or relationships, a fuller vision for their lives, or healing from addiction. All of these potentialities and myriad others are based on the individual.
The Psycho-spiritual Experience
Some first-timers are simply wanting to discover what it’s like, what they may experience. That’s understandable enough, but ayahuasca is not a substance to “party” on. Doing ayahuasca requires a serious intention, be that asking for guidance, healing, or a plethora of reasons. Ayahuasca is a teacher, sometimes a harsh one. And here is where the waters can get murky sometimes. It can crack open one’s psyche and dismiss the gatekeepers of the unconscious that protect us from confronting the uncomfortable shadows that we all carry. Ultimately, this is where the work is.
It can also be a very Earth-centered experience, generating a lasting relationship to Deep Ecology. People often state how the experience changed their lives, their worldview, and their relationship to the Earth. More specifically, that it created a direct engagement with Gaia, the great mother of all Earth’s life. This awakening to the interconnectedness of all things and the sacredness of life is why many find ayahuasca so meaningful and profound.
Ayahuasca and Deep Ecology
A Wealth of Data to Process
But ayahuasca does more than this. It’s a full-tilt boogie for the soul, an amplification of emotion, thought, and attitude under a flow of information that streams in from places both familiar and unknown. All this leaves the experiencer with a wealth of data to process, both in and, more importantly, after the session. This is why having an experienced guide/shaman/sitter present is so critical. The session can infuse the journeyer with what at the time seems to be the penultimate truth of all truths.
It can be daunting to process it all. Some balancing is necessary to stay in balance. As an ayahuasquero once said to me, “Ayahuasca always speaks the truth 40% of the time, and 30% of the time it does not.” Those words of wisdom have always served me well when reflecting on information which came through during a session. Take your time with this stuff.
Ayahuasca’s utility is how one takes the experience back into the everyday world. How can these seminal teachings make a shift for the better, for the greater good and such? If anything, ayahuasca will teach humility, never a bad place to begin.
When Ayahuasca became Hip
Ayahuasca is presently finding its way into more mainstream culture with gradual acceptance, coupled with the usual reactions from the drug war crusade based on ignorance, greed, and government agencies who often rely on misinformation campaigns to justify their existence. Yet the increased use of ayahuasca has fostered a tourist industry in the Amazon region and an explosion in the population of shamans, which unto itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
It’s become a hip, cool thing to do among celebrities and Silicon Valley scions—a moniker that proclaims that one has been to the outer edges of consciousness and engaged with other realms of reality, an endeavor that can be both terrifying and ecstatic. It’s become a subject to be dropped into conversation at dinner parties and coffee shops, often with the panache that one has done it or is considering giving it a try.
When Ayahuasca became hip
Today there are dozens of books on ayahuasca and other psychedelics. Workshops and medicine circles have become nearly omnipresent in much of the western world. The common theme of these gatherings is not to get high but to have an expanded, spiritual engagement.
I’m not advocating for ayahuasca, but if you do wish to experience it, find someone who’s authentic about this work. Be open, let the ayahuasca guide you. Yet it won’t hurt to remember that line fromAlice in Wonderlandso craftily lifted into Jefferson Airplane’sWhite Rabbit: “Keep your head….”
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