Sociocultural & Biochemical Pedigree
The traditional Amazonian pharmacopoeia has been gaining notoriety in modern psychotropic circles due to the rising fame of Ayahuasca, known for its emetic, cathartic, visionary, therapeutic, and at times, divinatory effects. Both the favored beverage of well-travelled psychonauts as well as one the sacred plant of the Gods, Ayahuasca has been deified as the communion rite of many South American churches as well as the subject of countless books, blogs, online forums and articles. If this wasn’t enough paparazzi for a plant medicine to contend with, Ayahuasca has been listed as a narcotic drug in the same category as heroin and cocaine, due to the presence of the alkaloid Dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT. Easily, Ayahuasca could be considered one of the most influential entheogens of the post Richard Evans Schultes age of ethnobotany, humanity’s latest chapter of its ongoing relationship with the plant world.
Unlike many current Western regimes’ iron hand policy in regards to its plebeians’ use of plant medicine, Ayahuasca has been used for millennia without restriction in a shamanic context throughout the Amazonian basin to which it is endemic. Despite its extensive use cross-culturally by various indigenous societies from the Kofan in Colombia to the Shuar in Ecuador and the Shipibo in the lower Peruvian Amazon, it has been the focus of relatively few anthropological and biochemical investigations in the last century, which appealed to only a small circle of specialists. However, at the time of this writing there is an overwhelming plethora of books, articles and experiential testimonials found in online forums on the subject, which are as easily available to the public as typing a keyword into Google. Many of these works are similarly themed, portraying Ayahuasca as a mystical planetary panacea for healing society’s collective emotional and spiritual baggage. Despite its vast and varied notoriety, we are far from penetrating the mysteries of this decoction and understanding the psychoactive dance of its two main botanical participants: the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaf of the Psychotria viridis tree.
In spite of the overwhelming amount of subjective information currently available on the topic, the origin of how so many diverse indigenous tribes, separated ethnographically by different languages and geographically by large impenetrable tracts of forest, came to understand how two very different plants which do not necessarily grow in the same proximity could be combined in a specific way, eliciting a particular set of biochemical exchanges on the human body and dramatically modifying consciousness, remains shrouded in mystery. DMT, the active constituent in the Psychotria viridis leaf, combines with a certain ratio of harmine and harmaline, alkaloids present in the ayahuasca vine, when cooked together. This complimentary admixture is what modern pharmacology deems responsible for the psychotropic effects of the brew. Yet, a molecular equation does not provide us with a complete explanation into what exactly produces the visionary and transcendent states experienced by the countless imbibing this aboriginal tonic.
A Path to Consciousness Expansion
The capacity of Ayahuasca to expand consciousness is easily misunderstood to the common Western mind-set, which has lost its innate connection to entheogenic ritual, humanity’s original birthright to commune with plant intelligence. A common theme among testimonials from Westerner’s personal encounters with the brew demonstrates a tendency to extrapolate on the main objective of the Ayahuasca experience. Too often there seems to be an awful lot of onus put on the supposed healing power of the shamanic practitioner who is offering the beverage and conspicuously lacking in addressing an undeniable but more obtrusive reality, which is what is really behind Ayahuasca’s ability to open latent pathways within human consciousness, allowing participants to experience a transcendence of socio-cultural programming and to perceive reality freed from these imposed constraints in a more objective, non-personal way. What can be referred to as the system override mechanism of Ayahuasca is by no means a unique quality inherent to this plant medicine but can be identified in other esoteric traditions and rituals practiced throughout time and place in human history.
Many would agree that imbibing this beverage opens a broad and variegated range of altered states of consciousness, which miraculously allow an individual to tap into a collective pool of experiences. Commonalties to participants’ experiences abound, including but not limited to: tapping into ancestral memories that may assist one to recognize familial behavioural conditioning, a profound feeling of interconnectivity with all living things, experiential metamorphosis: self-identification to specific plant or animal life forms, acute awareness regarding the ecological plight of the earth and our environment, visions of the supra-sensitive world, telepathy, clairvoyance and the perception of a new version of oneself; wild, radically empowered and liberated from the constraints of the above mentioned conditioning. Some may even penetrate deeper levels to experience a type of death, just as “real” as any physical demise. This death actually represents the cessation of out-dated belief programs and may result, depending on the level of awareness of the initiate, in a rebirth into the primordial Presence of eternal, unfettered consciousness.
Typically, a lengthy process of self-experimentation is necessary to transcend the visionary, changing and anecdotal themes characteristic of the ecstatic trance state that Ayahuasca is capable of producing, into a steady flow of unadulterated, non-visionary, unabated consciousness. This subtle, underlying tapestry of impersonal awareness which is our natural state of being, is usually neglected, misunderstood or unattainable to the majority of neophytes and shamanic apprentices who generally are captivated by the explosion of neuronal fireworks that DMT generates. Perhaps this psychedelic visionary sideshow is but a distraction, a slight-of-hand maneuver, created by our own consciousness as a protection mechanism to shield itself from that which it is not ready to experience nor cannot digest. However, once a certain threshold to the process is attained, an unswerving core conviction arises that the anecdotal and visionary effects of the plant are simply a release of the psyche’s pent-up personal and collective projections and what lies beyond that horizon is the living, vibratory field of consciousness from which all life is created and from which matter is a mere reflection.
This state is the result of a subtle and gradual extrication from the way we have been entrained by society to perceive ourselves, and the world around us. We are drawn ever closer to a drastic paradigm shift from the personal to the impersonal. With astonishing and increasing acuity, our recalibrated attention begins to take note that the observer and the observed meld irrepressibly together. Our individual consciousness begins to lose interest in identification to one’s body, especially to external minutiae such as fancy altarpieces, feathered earrings, white ceremonial clothes or any of the fashionable, spiritual accoutrements of today’s Western Neo-shamanic practitioner. There is a shift away from the personal story and egoic attachments that we inherit from our socio-cultural and religious programming towards an ontogenetic, morphogenetic or anthropomorphic way of being, primal and pantheistic in nature.
We may realize that this is a process of self-initiation leading to a rebirth, beyond handed-down beliefs and unsubstantiated convictions that conditioned and distorted our originally unencumbered perception. Without our essential awareness activated, we have been elaborating a map of illusory reality. It may dawn on us, as shocking as the very first time the rays of the sun cast down upon our faces, that we’ve learned to handle all of our physical and cognitive experiences from that fictional reality, without ever pausing to doubt its relevance and authenticity. Insidiously, we’ve become accustomed to favour certain interpretations and value judgements deemed inherently acceptable by the ruling society, thereby losing discernment of the evidence of the Real, as it is.
In the Eye of the Storm
An analogy to familiarize us with the strange yet familiar sensations that accompany the altered states of consciousness that Ayahuasca can produce is to imagine oneself suddenly caught in the whipping winds of a spiraling tornado. If by chance or misfortune, one is dragged into the tornado, they will quickly find that literal or speculative information won’t be of any use in this situation and may in fact, be an impairment. Preconceived notions, as relevant or transcendent as they may appear be, could become the sudarium of your own arrogance and impermanence, the loose thread of your own psychic and spiritual unravelling. In the constant swirling intensity of the tornado, mental processes accelerate until we are unable to overcome the flow of our own thoughts.
Citing this particular stage in the experience, many testimonials make a big fuss over the emotional catharsis and excavation of traumas encysted in our cellular memories. Their conscientization can be beneficial yet it is important to avoid over-identifying with or pitying oneself about these personal dramas. The journey is far from over! We can venture further, diving deeper beyond the personal story. Let the centripetal force of the eye of the tornado attract you and pull you into it. As the attraction to this wild, relentless spiraling force increases, simultaneously arises the sensation of feeling wrung out, as if you were put through the spin cycle in a washer. At this point, we’ve inadvertently entered into merciless hand-to-hand combat of epic proportions for our physical, psychic and spiritual wellbeing. In many cases, our collective misconceptions regarding the ontogenetic perception of a human being consumes us and creates resistance in the face of this overwhelming attraction towards the mysterious and unfathomable eye of the storm.
From this experiential perspective, we may better understand the propitiatory rituals and ascesis, the implementation of self-discipline practices such as sexual abstinence, dietary restrictions, purges, seclusions and “dietas” with which the Amazonian shaman surrounds himself with as a protective cloak, before to engage in the “winds” of the Ayahuasca experience. Though these practices by no means insure the avoidance of necessary confrontation.
Typically, shamans are not inclined to speak of this slippery slope, perhaps because due to the collective influence of clannish superstitions or to not scare off their flock or simply because they have never personally reached this point of no return. Anthropologists on the other hand, do not readily venture to broach this subtle topic either as this field is purely experiential and far beyond the scope of intellectual understanding.
The typical tools of the Amazonian shaman, such as blowing smoke, using perfume, chanting or shaking a leaf fan has proven to be a comforting prescription to many Westerners who consider this formula to be a tell-tale sign that a practitioner is legitimate or traditional. These methods can be quite effective when imbibers stay in the shallow end of the Ayahuasca pool, away from the deconstructing effects of the tornado. However, once a participant’s drunken boat has been drawn into the swirling field of the Impersonal, there is nothing including the tools of the shaman that can guarantee the boat will stay its course. Cast adrift in unchartered waters, without familiar landmarks, weakened by the powerful swells of the sheer intensity of the experience, the curve of the whirlwind bends tighter and faster as the boat approaches the centre. The rudder cannot hold the course. This is the point of no return. The key is to breathe deeply and relinquish any thought of controlling the situation. The methods of the shaking of leaves and the chanting, blowing of smoke and casting out of negative energies become a pious but ineffectual plea when faced with the pure intensity of the experience.
In this moment, the shaman may continue to fan you with his shacapa, taking a big swig of camphor water and spewing the air towards the four directions as a protective measure against bad spirits. He may spit some agua de florida perfume above your head while furiously chanting icaros, or choose to insufflate some mapacho smoke to reduce the effects of the mareacion. Despite the efforts, this process of inebriation and deprogramming will continue to run its course, the synapses gyrating their wild dance until personal will is surrendered, all melting completely into the eye of the tornado. When this portal is finally breached, the swirling ceases instantaneously. The overwhelming intensity is replaced by a profound calm. There is only complete stillness and the realization that nothing is separate, inside nor out. There is no more shaman and no participant. There is no spirit of the ayahuasca, no god, no devil, no more fear, no more hope, only the understanding that they previously existed as polarized points on the same line. In this instance a distinct laugh may arise from deep within. This laughter eradicates fear. The same fear that exterminates the spirit. Stand naked, clothed in nothing but wild, primordial wisdom in the epicentre of the colossal cosmic spiral of Universal Consciousness.
The calm at the centre of the tornado is akin to the paradoxical state of serenity that can be attained within the midst of hallucinatory turmoil. This haven of peace can only be enjoyed when mental chatter: our confusion, projections and ancestral fears have been transcended. This represents an initiatory process of a symbolic death followed by a rebirth into higher levels of consciousness. Like the hunter tracking the prey, if one wishes to know something that is subtler than oneself, one must become quieter than that which one wishes to perceive.
The Inexplicable Mystery
Touching the eye of the tornado can perhaps be better understood through contemplating the Latin expression, Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which roughly translates to “the Mystery before which one both trembles and is fascinated, is both repelled and attracted.” It is simultaneously both strange yet familiar. Throughout history, initiates have used different esoteric means; rituals, practices, sacrifices and sacraments to access higher states of consciousness. Pythagoras, an initiate of the Pagan Mysteries first revealed the Egyptian rites of Isis and Osiris. These rites took on different forms in different contexts, places and cultures. In the Mediterranean region, it blossomed as the mysteries of Orpheus-Dionysus, where initiates re-enacted the allegorical death-rebirth of the god. This movement in the classical world reached its peak in the Greek mysteries of Eleusis, where emperors, political higher-ups and various scholars and philosophers were initiated through the use of entheogenic sacraments up until the 4th century C.E. when the Roman church took it upon itself to eradicate any trace of pagan heresy from the very depths of Western culture.
Eastern non-dualistic traditions such as Dzogchen or Bonpo, the early predecessor of Tibetan Buddhism, Shivaïsm of Kashmir or Advaita Vedanta are a few of the systems that sought to explore the nature of the unspeakable Mysteries through self-experimentation. Remarkably, Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Sadeq Hussaini Rohani (a Muslim religious status that can be compared to the Pope,) issued a fatwa (formal judicial decision) last March in Qom, Iran, sanctioning the supervised use of entheogens and psychoactive substances like ayahuasca, as legal for Shiite Muslims seeking to understand the deeper mysteries and nature of consciousness.
Accessing the mysteries through the Ayahuasca experience is not necessarily guaranteed with the price of admission. As many participants may attest, drinking the beverage does not always yield a visionary, transcendental experience. At times, there are no perceptible effects. Perhaps there is more to understand that the mere measuring of active ingredients. Beyond the symbiotic phyto-orchestration of alkaloids and other unidentified biochemical substances, perhaps we need to consider something far more elusive at play: the dance between human and plant intelligences.
It is common for Peruvian shamans, especially those exposed to the barrage of ceremony-seeking tourists, to add other potent psychotropic plants to their ayahuasca admixture, such as tobacco, San Pedro, datura, chaliponga and others, to insure that they will be able to meet the expectations of participants looking for an explosive trip or a life-changing experience in just one session. In order to access the all-seeing eye of the tornado through the ayahuasca experience, it is necessary for us to move beyond the confines of our consumer conditioning that create unhealthy expectations. Like many esoteric rituals of the ancient world, consistent practice and discipline over a period of time will yield the greatest impact. Ultimately, the mysteries of Ayahuasca are inextricably linked to understanding the numinous, paradoxical nature of our own consciousness.
About Dionisio Santos & Aubrey Bamdad
Dionisio Santos and Aubrey Bamdad are contemporary vegetalistas and the founders and stewards of Yacumaman Ethnobotanical center for Shamanic and Vedic Studies in the upper Peruvian Amazon. They are the creative force behind Qori Inti Amazonian Herbals and facilitate retreats at their center and throughout the world designed to transcend the limited aspects of our collective socio-cultural understandings and examine what lies at the heart of our essential nature while embracing a quality of life more in alignment with our ultimate potential.