My good friend, and fellow Patch writer, Maria Grusauskas recently loaned me a copy of the November issue of Elle magazine, which featured a fascinating and surprisingly accurate article about the author’s experience with ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is the sacred visionary/hallucinogenic jungle juice, that has been used by indigenous Amazonian shamans in healing ceremonies for at least 4,000 years.
Recently, “ayahuasca retreats”--where Westerners can sample the psychedelic beverage--have become popular tourist destinations in Peru, where ayahuasca is legal.
It seems that sacred pilgrimages to the Amazon are to current generations of spiritual seekers in the West what journeys to the East, to India or Tibet, were to previous generations.
Outside of the Amazon, for most people elsewhere in the world, ayahuasca is illegal to consume, due to its “dimethyltryptamine” (DMT) content.
Despite the fact that DMT is found naturally in the human brain, in the United States the endogenous molecule is classified as a dangerous “Schedule 1” drug, along with heroin (and just about every other psychedelic drug).
This means that, according to the dubiously-qualified medical experts on Capital Hill, it has no accepted medical use, and supposedly has such a high potential for abuse that it can’t even be safely administered under qualified medical supervision.
In fact, they say, it’s so dangerous that people should be imprisoned for merely possessing it!
This is unfortunate, considering the sacred tea’s scientifically well-established safety, and it’s long tradition of use, for its healing and spiritual benefits, among the indigenous people of the Amazon.
Although not an easy experience to endure--drinking ayahuasca can be quite physically and psychologically challenging--many people claim life-changing transformations and profound healings from their experiences with it.
I found the Elle magazine article intriguing, as I have been both astonished and delighted that the ancient shamanic healing rituals with ayahuasca are becoming a part of mainstream America.
Just 15 years ago, hardly anyone outside of the Amazon, and a small group of anthropologists and psychedelic enthusiasts, were even aware of the existence of ayahuasca. Now its influence can be seen throughout popular culture.
In the television show Weeds, Nancy Botwin takes part in an ayahuasca ceremony, musicians like Sting and Tori Amos have praised its benefits, and in the Hollywood film Wanderlust even actress Jennifer Aniston drinks what the Peruvians refer to as the “vine of souls.”
Although Aniston’s ayahuasca experience in Wanderlust was grossly misportrayed in the film, I think that the fact that the sacred visionary tea was in the film at all is significant.
A much more accurate portrayal of the effects of ayahuasca can be seen in Jan Kounen’s film Renegade. However, what’s important to recognize is that ayahuasca use is seeping its way into Western culture.
Many people suspect that in James Cameron’s popular film Avatar, the Na’vi’s “Tree of Souls.” was symbolic of ayahuasca. (See Erik Davis’ thought-provoking essay about this: http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v22n1/v22n1_12-13.pdf)
When I interviewed botanist Dennis McKenna he discussed the thought-provoking possibility that the widespread use of psychedelic plants and fungi around the world today could be the biosphere’s decisive response to human patterns of ecological destruction.
McKenna suggested that an intelligence in nature may be utilizing psychedelic plants as catalysts to increase human ecological awareness, hopefully, before it’s too late.
There’s interesting evidence to support this commonly-encountered idea in the psychedelic community.
Many people in the West–including numerous environmental leaders (such as the late Arne Naess)–-credit their increased sense of ecological awareness to their use of psychedelics, such as LSD, magic mushrooms, and ayahuasca.
Additionally, indigenous cultures in Central Mexico and South America that integrate psychedelic plants into their lives appear to live in greater harmony with their environment.
According to mycologist Paul Stamets, psilocybin-containing fungi---i.e. “magic mushrooms”--tend to grow in areas that are disturbed by ecological upheavals, such as where roads are cut into a forest, the grounds around a construction site, and landslides.
They seem to especially proliferate in areas where there has been a lot of human activity, almost as if they are a reaction to our use of the Earth.
It almost appears as though psilocybin mushrooms are a response by the biosphere, like a chemical signaling system within the body, to help teach the wayward human species how to become more symbiotic with its environment.
Can it really be a mere coincidence that a fungus reported to increase ecological awareness specifically proliferates in those areas that are ecologically damaged?
Once restricted to very narrow ecosystems–-thanks to human activity–-these mind-expanding mushrooms now flourish all over the globe.
Psilocybin mushroom munchers and ayahuasca-using cultures, also once restricted to a few areas in central Mexico and South America, are also now spreading all over the Earth, like a growing mycelium network.
There are now hundreds of ayahuasca churches established throughout the world, and the U.S. Supreme Court even allows one of them to operate legally within U.S. borders.
According to anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna, studies done in Brazil suggest that, like magic mushrooms, ayahuasca use tends to make people more sensitive toward ecological issues.
Fieldwork among members of the syncretic churches, for example, reveal that many of them decided after participation in ayahuasca rituals to change their professions so that they could work with natural products or environmental issues.
In a recent MAPS Bulletin that I edited, environmental sustainability consultant Shena Turlington reports on several additional scientific studies that shed light on this important connection between psychedelics and increased environmental awareness.
To read Turlington’s reports see: http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v19n1/v19n1-pg53.pdf
I realize that there isn’t much time left to rescue our endangered biosphere from serious damage, and that things look pretty grim here from an ecological perspective, but I’ve personally witnessed just how quickly psychedelics can psychologically transform people and open up their eyes.
I agree with Dennis McKenna, that the planetary mind, the Gaian matrix that we’re immeshed in, is far more intelligent than we are, and this intuition helps motivate me to harmonize with it.
I like reflecting upon a message that McKenna brought back with him from one of his shamanic encounters with ayahuasca, “You monkeys only think that you’re running the show.”
I believe that psychedelic plants can help us heal the damage that we’ve done to ourselves, and to the Earth. There isn’t much time left before our biosphere starts to unravel, and we may only have a small window of opportunity to save our fragile world.
It is my hope that psychedelic drugs and plants can not only help to increase ecological harmony on the planet, but they may also open up a doorway to untold and unimagined new worlds of possibility.
This coming July, from the 21st to the 27th, in Iquitos, Peru, I’ll be speaking about how psychedelic plants can help to increase ecological awareness at the 9th Annual International Shamanism Conference.
There will be a wealth of information presented at the conference about ayahuasca by experts in various fields. To find out more information see: http://www.soga-del-alma.org/2013/
If you register for the conference, please be sure to mention that you heard about it through me. Once there, you will have the opportunity to legally and safely try ayahuasca, if you wish.
I’ll also be co-teaching two workshops at the conference about “navigating altered states” with psychotherapist Meriana Dinkova. Hope to see you there!
To learn more about the relationship between psychedelics and ecology, see the MAPS Bulletin that I edited on the subject: www.maps.org/media/bulletin/special_edition_psychedelics_and_ecology/
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