Ayahuasca – Plant Spirit Medicine of the Amazon
We are not talking about passive agents of transformation, we are talking about an intelligence, a consciousness, an alive and other mind, a spirit, which of course we have no place in our society. Nature is alive and is talking to us. This is not a metaphor.
From earliest times it has been recognized that knowledge goes beyond sensory awareness or the rational way of understanding the world. Entering into a communion with the Plant consciousness or Spirit is a way that can take us directly to an experience that can show us that there is no such thing as an inanimate object. Everything in the universe is alive, possesses an awareness, and has a spirit.
It offers a significant challenge for the rational Western mind to come to terms with the plant spirit consciousness, and a leap of imagination is required to incorporate the otherness of the plant. The magical world to which we are transported by plants is not accessible through the verbal rational mind but through dream language or an expansion of the imagination. Thus dreams and the power of our imagination act like doorways and allow us to be in communion (in the true sense) with the plant spirit consciousness.
For many people, drinking ayahuasca is the beginning of a process of profound personal and spiritual discovery and transformation. 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.
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.
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 and transformation. 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 takes one into the visionary world. 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.
The oldest know object related to the use of ayahuasca is a ceremonial cup, hewn out of stone, with engraved ornamentation, which was found in the Pastaza culture of the Ecuadorian Amazon from 500 B.C. to 50 A.D. It is deposited in the collection of the Ethnological Museum of the Central University (Quito, Ecuador). This indicates that ayahuasca potions were known and used at least 2,500 years ago.
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) peoples of the upper Amazon, Orinoco plains and the Pacific coast of Colombia and Ecuador.
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. Meanwhile the Chacruna leaves and picked and cleaned.
So what, perhaps, is the advantage of ayahuasca over other disciplines? In the words of Padrino Alex Polari de Alverga of the Santo Daime Community in Brazil, “Daime (ayahuasca) is basically a shortcut, it’s as if we had been travelling down the same highway as the rest of humanity, but then, in order to arrive at our destination more quickly we took a side road. When taking such a shortcut, however, we must be very careful and clear-minded. It is a shortcut that leads us to truth, but only if we follow in the footsteps of the Masters who have preceded us.”
Medicines like ayahuasca can help us along our path but we still have to do the work ourselves. My experience is that these kinds of allies can help us open the doors of perception, but what we do when we get there is entirely our own challenge.
Integral to the ceremony are the chants that the shaman sings. These are known as Icaros, and the chant will direct the nature of the ceremony or visionary experience for the group and for individuals as the shaman during the ceremony will chant specific Icaros for that persons needs.
The words of the chants are symbolic stories telling of the ability of nature to heal itself. For example the crystalline waters from a stream wash the unwell person, while coloured flowers attract the hummingbirds whose delicate wings fan healing energies etc. You might see such things in your visions but the essence which cures you is perhaps more likely to be the understanding of what is happening in your life, allowing inner feelings to unblock so that bitterness and anger con change to ecstasy and love. To awaken from the illusion of being alive is to experience life itself.
There are several different kinds of Icaros, at the beginning of the session. Their purpose is to provoke the mareacion or effects, and, in the words of Javier Arevalo, to render the mind susceptible for visions to penetrate, then the curtains can open for the start of the theatre.
Other Icaros call the spirit of Ayahuasca to open visions as though exposing the optic nerve to light. Alternatively, if the visions are too strong, the same spirit can be made to fly away in order to bring the person back to normality.
There are Icaros for calling the doctors, or plant spirits, for healing, while other Icaros call animal spirits, which protect and rid patients of spells.
Preparation for the Ayahuasca Experience
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.
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.
A major difficulty for Westerners is the diet and the living conditions in the rainforest. There is also the care clients need afterwards, as one is extremely vulnerable after drinking Ayahuasca. Also some of our attitudes need to change, for example some people find vomiting unpleasant.
In the Ayahuasca ceremony purgative cleansing of the physical body is an essential preparation for the new level of emerging consciousness. Vomiting and occasionally brief diarrhoea are common effects during the initial sessions.
An integral element of this preparation is to undertake a diet intended to reduce excessive sugar, salt, oils, pork, fat, and spicy food in the body in preparation to be in communion with the spirit of Ayahuasca. Reduction of these should commence as soon as one commits to the experience.
Pork in particular is considered to be impure and is studiously avoided by Ayahuasca practitioners. Complete abstinence from pork and lard for at least two weeks prior to the first ceremony is recommended to participants to reduce the impact of the purge. It is also recommended that this abstinence continue for at least two weeks after the final ceremony.
In the initiatory diet for those seeking personal cleansing and healing, chicken, fish, wild game meat, fruits, and vegetables may be eaten but with little if any salt, sugar, oils or spices. The cleansing effect and strength of the visionary experience can be greatly enriched by one’s commitment to these preparations.
Sexual abstinence also forms part of the diet and is a traditional requirement of Ayahuasca cleansing and healing. We recommend abstinence from sexual activity for a few days prior to the ceremony, and to continue a day or two after the last ceremony.
FURTHER READING ON AYAHUASCA
The Cosmic Serpent, Jeremy Narby (Tarcher, 1999)
Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca, edited by Ralph Metzner (Park Street Press, 2006)
Ayahuasca: The Visionary and Healing Powers of the Vine of the Soul, Joan Parisi Wilcox (Park Street Press, 2005)
Wizard of the Upper Amazon: The Story of Manuel Cordova-Rios, Cordova-Rice Lamb (North Atlantic Books, 1986)
Plant Spirit Shamanism, H G. Charing, & R Heaven (Destiny Books USA, 2006)