After being virtually ignored by Western civilization for centuries, there has been a huge surge of interest in Ayahuasca recently. There is a growing belief that it is a kind of medicine for our times, giving hope to people with incurable diseases like cancer and HIV, drug addictions and inspiring answers to the big ecological problems of modern civilization.
Ayahuasca is not a drug, it is regarded as a gateway to another reality, a reality which co-exists with our physical world. From this reality an experience of the totality of inter-connectedness can be personally experienced. Ayahuasca is also known as La Purga (The Purge) due to its powerful physical clearing effect, but it is more than just physical clearing it is also an energetic clearing of personal history as well. It is never to be taken lightly and only under the supervision of a shaman who is well versed in the ways of the plant.
Spirituality is at the centre of the Ayahuasca experience. Purification and cleansing of body, mind, and spirit in a shamanic ceremony can be the beginning of a process of profound personal and spiritual discovery. This process can continue indefinitely even if one never drinks Ayahuasca again. One thing is sure, and that is that every person gets a unique experience. We believe that by seriously looking at the way Ayahuasca is used we can improve our life experience and benefit more from this medicine.
Ayahuasca is the jungle medicine of the upper Amazon. It is made from the ayahuasca vine ( Banisteriopsis Caapi) and the leaf of the Chacruna plant (Psychotria Viridis). The two make a potent medicine which opens the doors to experiencing the energetic world which underlies the world of everyday. The vine is an inhibitor which contains harmala and harmaline among other alkaloids, and the leaf contains vision inducing alkaloids. As with all natural medicines, it is a mixture of many alkaloids that makes their unique properties. For example, Peyote, the cactus used by the North Native Americans, is said to contain 32 active alkaloids, so when one of those alkaloids, mescaline (LSD) is synthesised in a laboratory, contrary to popular opinion, the result is not at all the same.
Ayahuasca is a name derived from two Quechua words: aya means spirit, ancestor, deceased person, and huasca means vine or rope, hence it is known as vine of the dead or vine of the soul. It is also known by many other local names including yaje, caapi, natema, pinde, daime, mihi, & dapa. It plays a central role in the spiritual, religious and cultural traditions of the Indigenous and Mestizo (mixed blood) poeples of the upper Amazon, Orinoco plains and the Pacific coast of Colombia and Equador.
The plants are collected from the rainforest in a sacred way and it is said that a shaman can find plentiful sources of the vine by listening for the ‘drumbeat’ that emanates from them. The mixture is prepared by cutting the vines to cookable lengths, scraping and cleaning them, pounding them into a pulp, and then adding the chacruna leaves. The mixture is then boiled about twelve hours until it is a thick brown liquid.
To understand ayahuasca in the local context, one cannot avoid taking a look at the ecological environment, such as the rainforest, cultural environment and indigenous cultures. This has structured the cultural content of ayahuasca.
One of the more romantic stories takes place amongst the Shipibo people who live up the river in the heart of the jungle in the Peruvian Amazon.
This tale is centered around women, more so than men, as they look after the children and their health, whilst the men are out hunting and fishing. Men are more interested in plants that aid their inner spirits when hunting , whilst women are more interested in plants that will allow their children to grow.
There was one particular woman who was very interested in plants, who liked to pick the leaves of different plants. She would then crush the leaves into a pot and soak them in water over night. She would then take a bath every morning before sunrise (the way to find out about various plants and their effects is to bathe in them). She bathed in them every morning until she had a dream. In her dream a woman came and said, why are you bathing every day? She answered I am doing this as I want you to teach me. The other woman said You must seek out my uncle, his name is Kamarampi. I will show you where to find him. The woman led the other woman to her uncle. The uncle showed her how to mix the leaves of the chacruna, which was a bush she had taken leaves from to bathe in. He showed her how to prepare the brew of Ayahuasca, he told her to go and tell the people the knowledge of how to use the brew.
One of the many mysteries surrounding Ayahuasca is how the vine became to be used with the Chacruna leaves as although they both come from the same soil but always grow apart otherwise the ayahuasca winds around the Chacruna and kills it. No one knows this but we get a clue from how the shamans interact with the plant. Javier Arevalo a shaman from the Peruvian Amazon told us that his grandfather and uncles used to sit around after taking ayahuasca and he said that ayahuasca was originally taken alone and in the visions they saw that chacruna was missing. Ayahuasca would say I am the doctor that gives the vision. His grandfather responded, how can we find this plant? The response in the vision was, you can find it by turning two corners. So they went around two corners and found a bush which attracted them which was chacruna i.e the ayahuasca showed them.
This is a fundamental principle, in the visions it is the spirit doctor of ayahuasca which tells them what is wrong with their patient, what medicine they need, or who has caused the illness or malaise.
Ayahuasca and the spirit of plants.
In the West there are lots of stories like Jack and the Beanstalk reminding us that plants have spirit power, Alice in Wonderland explored this world too. There is a large body of knowledge of power plants even if the form has been adapted to fairy tales and domesticated, not to under rate the richness of Grimms tales.
All the plants used in medicine today were known by our ancestors. McKenna suggested that the evolution from primates to humans was achieved when we left the tropical rain forest to inhabit the savannah regions. We learned to stand on two legs and consumed psychotropic mushrooms. Interaction of plant and animal, change of diet meant a change of consciousness. Goats have a habit of eating all kinds of herbs which is why in the Andes, you are not supposed to eat goats milk or meat if you are having mental problems. In Lapland the reindeer eat the hallucinogenic mushrooms and the shamans drink their urine which has been processed.
When a person drinks Ayahuasca, especially with a trusted shaman, there is a chance to learn and trust the plant. You discover that it works in its own way. It is a great moment getting to this point. Then there is the question of whether the plant trusts us, because it can be abused and used for getting the wrong kind of personal power. Without intention, vision, preparation, and a shaman, it is a drug not a healing medicine.
In the Amazonian world Ayahuasca, as indeed all plants, has a spirit which is angelic but also has human emotions projected like jealousy, vengefulness, wroth etc. When it is being prepared, the shaman has to watch over it at all the time to prevent bad spirits being introduced. The fire needs tending regularly throughout the 10 hours concoction and the shaman should diet during this time. It is said that the spirit of Ayahuasca is very jealous and that if the rules of its preparation are not respected it is resentful. We wonder if this is a cultural thing or would it happen to us Westerners as well. During our interviews we constantly found that the general rules about the working of Ayahuasca did not always match up with our own experiences. For example the addition of toe (bella dona) and tobacco to induce vomiting is supposed to make you have a clear head the next morning but we found sometimes it was the other way round. We found it hard to pin down which were the decisive factors.
Sexual abstinence is another thing which is emphasised yet this seems to be a very individual thing. It would seem though, on reflection, that the purpose and intentions of the shaman are among the more important factors, that he follows the diet during preparation and for the session. At all times he is placing his energy where the Ayahuasca is. This also means that not anyone can be present to watch the brewing process, their quality as people as well as whether they had dieted, practised abstinence or had a period, all have an influence. When we watched the shaman Javier Arevalo preparing, his wife would do the washing and shredding of the Ayahuasca. After it had boiled for a while, Javier lit a large mapacho (hand rolled jungle tobacco) and blew smoke over the top of the concoction. The two of us were invited to do this as well. When this is done you can feel a blast from the boiling Ayahuasca in your face. Later in the session, the shaman or the person who has blown the smoke, feels the return of this blast and passes it on to his clients.
It is also important that none of the clients watch the process of preparation. In particular, a woman passing by who was having her period, could leave a bad energy with the medicine. This is a vexed question, the origins of which seem to be traceable to Christian, Amazonian and countless other traditions.
Anthropologists call it taboo for want of a rational explanation, but as with all things of the primordial world, there are reasons inherited from ancestral times, which may have been forgotten. At the dawn of time, realities were very different from what they are today. Mythology may shed some light on the matter, but one thing is sure we dont really know! However its reasonable to make the assumption that our ancestors were not frivolous.
We worked extensively with Javier Arevalo and we had many discussions on the role of the Amazonian shaman and the use of ayahuasca. Javier comes from Nuevo Progreso, a community of 50 families on the Rio Napo, Department of Loreto, Peru. Several generations of his family before him have been shamans and already at the age of 17, he knew this would be his future. However it was not until he was 20 when his father died from a virote (a poisoned dart in the spiritual world) sent by a jealous brujo, (sorcerer) that he felt compelled to follow the arduous five-year apprenticeship to be a shaman.
Javier, what is the role of a shaman?
He learns everything about the rain forest and uses that knowledge to heal his people since they do not have money for Western style doctors. He uses Ayahuasca to discover in his visions, which plants will be effective for which illnesses.
How do you perceive this?
The sprits or plant doctors tell us. As they are pure, they are made happy when we are too, so we must diet in order to attract them. That means we should not eat salt, sugar or alcohol, and abstain from sex. The spirits come and say, for example they will cure in two months if the patient takes a particular plant. Then the shaman goes out to look for the plant.
It is said that every environments has the necessary plants to heal the people?
Yes, every plant has a spirit, the shaman goes into the forest as part of his apprenticeship and spends two years taking plants and roots. He takes Ayahuasca too and the spirit tells him what it cures. Then the shaman tries another plant, each time remembering which ailment is cured by what.
Does each shaman have to find it all out for himself or is there a body of knowledge handed down?
The maestro goes with the apprentice into the wilderness and gives him the different plants and it is like a test or trial to overcome. The maestro is usually a member of family. In my case both my grandfather and my uncle were maestros. You go off deep into the forest with your maestro and make a very simple shelter or tambo. A shaman must not live in a big house, its just for sleeping and dieting.
How long do you have to diet the plant?
Just one day to know its process, the next day you move onto another. This is if you do not return to the city, you can get through a lot of plants. This is different from dieting a plant for a month say.
So does every condition or illness have a particular plant to remedy it or is it a spirit energy which comes through the plant which can cure many things?
One plant may cure lots of ailments. A particular plant has a spirit which can either heal or kill. As for example with another shaman (who we worked with earlier) , who had not dieted Ayahuasca correctly and poom! it caused fever and people caught colds.
So why would a plant kill or cure?
Because an hechicero (sorcerer) also learns from the plants. He may for example learn from dieting a plant which has spines or phlegm which could be good for certain things. But if he is bad no one can stop him and in the night ffoooo he uses it for harm or to kill. These are the brujos who come back from the forest with eyes red like the huayruro (red beans with black spots). He is a bad shaman and we have to cure the people they harm.
Who would want to do such things?
There are some people who have a squabble with someone, and then they go off to see a brujo and say this Senora talks too much and has insulted me, kill her and Ill pay you. They pay them and they do harm.
But the shaman who made us ill did not do it intentionally.
No, of ignorance. It was a shaman from the city not from the forest. He went away and left us to mop up the ill effects. He may have had a good teacher but does not diet, he is very fat! (People in the jungle are rarely fat.)
In addition he probably eats the day of the session and that is why he threw up himself!
How does this affect Westerners?
It doesnt matter, they will probably throw up and not have any vision because when he blows he has condiments on his breath. However, it matters much less if the clients have eaten or not stuck rigorously to the diet. The important thing is that the shaman diets.
Note: There is much discrepancy between shamans concerning the question of vomiting. Some say it is necessary for the body to rid itself of what ever is necessary and that if they are not sick they might get ill. (Ayahusaca is often referred to as La Purga.) Others say if you vomit you will not have such good vision and on no account should a shaman vomit.
Why and how did you become a shaman?
I never thought of being a shaman. I took Ayahuasca from 14 years old just to clean my stomach. Later my father said I heard you chanting, you are going to be a shaman. I dont want to I said. Later when I was 20 my father died from sorcery so then I wanted to learn in order to take vengeance. During my apprenticeship I had a change of heart and understood that God knew best in such situations.
Why did the brujo want to kill your father?
Because he was a curandero who had cured someone who had been harmed by the brujo. It happens because we curanderos undo the work of the brujos and they get angry with us. This is the famous spiritual battle between the brujos. When you cure you send the bad magic back to where it comes from and the brujos get their own dirty medicine back. This is why there is a fight between the good and the bad.
Howard tells story of his battle with one of Javiers assistants 3 weeks earlier.
(Javier laughs a lot and explains.) Well because he was not really a shaman, he works as a guide, he drinks liquor. Then when he takes Ayahuasca and chants icaros he is not pure and his doctors dont take any notice of him. The spirits start bothering (molesting) the people participating in the session. That is what happened to Howard. When I take Ayahuasca I talk to the doctors who give visions, I ask them to cure, I have dominion over them because I diet. If I dont, they make you crazy or annoy you.
So if the shaman cannot control himself, then the spirits get out of hand?
If you cant dominate the spirits of the jungle you are nobody, instead of curing they run away or take no notice of you.
So the control of the spirits is fundamental?
Spirits are like angels. God withstood 40 days of hunger and temptation by the devil and was resurrected. Thats what we have to do too.
This is Christianity, but your (Javiers) people were practicing long before the missionaries came. Is it possible to separate the Christian from the wisdom of the jungle?
No, no, they work together. But it has nothing to do with going to a church. You learn all this in the wilderness. The spirits there are the angels of each plant to which you add your will to heal the client. This is the will of Christ.
Where does the power of the shaman end and the spirits begin?
The shaman receives the power from the jungle, he doesnt have any power of his own that he doesnt get from the forest.
When I look at you by day I see just a normal young man, when you wear your clothes and move into the ayahuasca space you become different, a different presence, you become larger
(Javier laughs!) The medicine is not in the body, the body can wear clothes for example, and you see that by day. But at night you dont see my body, you see my spirit which receives the medicine which transforms me through the vision. I have to be pure so as to be a receptacle of the spirit of the medicine. It is essential too for a shaman to be happy, the shaman laughs at everything, because a happy heart is what cures. He cant have a long face or fight with his wife and children.
You started off with a desire for revenge, what changed you into a shaman?
My grandfather saw that my heart was bitter and he told me that it would not get me anywhere. My heart was still hard and wanted to kill! Bit by bit through taking the very plants that I had intended to use for revenge, the spirits told me it was wrong to kill and my heart softened.