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The Possibilities and Risks of Ayahuasca as a Sacred Pilgrimage

by Ryan Hurd Nov 8, 2010
Ryan Hurd discovers that even for those who want to transform their spiritual life, ayahuasca can be dangerous territory.

While the most renowned psychedelic brew of South America is not legal in the US, the plants that make it psychoactive are not scheduled. The ingredients for ayahuasca sat in my colleague’s house for over a year, untouched.

Every so often he’d say, “Maybe this weekend is the time,” and I’d say, “No, doesn’t feel right.” I finally realized that ayahuasca scares the living shit out of me. I’m not a stranger to intense psycho-spiritual experiences, either; I’m a lucid dream researcher by trade and a big defender of cognitive liberty.

But something told me to hold off.

Finally respecting this fear as recognition of a worthy adversary, I decided that the only way I would ever try ayahuasca would be in its ecological setting, which is decidedly not my home office with its wall-to-wall carpet. Ayahuasca is the voice of the Amazon, and it connects people to a larger, unseen reality that is supported by centuries of accumulated tactics, myths, and lore.

So to educate myself further about the real ayahuasca experience beyond all the spiritual hype, I contacted several anthropologists who have specialized in Amazonian shamanism. Their thoughts reinforced my opinion that ayahuasca is no ordinary psychedelic trip, and definitely not just a crunchy alternative to downtown Amsterdam.

A few common experiences? Communicating with spirits, experiencing one’s own death, clairvoyance and out-of-body experiences. Also on the menu is just a complete and total transformation of the spiritual self. You know, no big deal.

The Basics of Ayauhasca

Composed of at least two active ingredients, and often many more, ayahuasca is a thick, noxious brew that contains the powerful hallucinogen DMT.

This substance is said to provoke visions that are more realistic and intense than LSD or psilocybin mushrooms.

The journey generally last two to six hours, with another eight hours of lingering effects.

The brew is also an emetic, which is a nice way of saying you’re guaranteed to barf your guts out. In the view of ceremonialists, this typical reaction is a physical metaphor for the spiritual cleansing that ayahuasca imparts. Transformation on this level, I’m told, is rarely graceful.

According to anthropologist Evgenia Fotiou, who wrote her PhD dissertation at University of Wisconsin-Madison on ayahuasca tourism, most would-be psychonauts are well aware of the powerful effects of ayahuasca and frame the experience as a spiritual pilgrimage, not an escape into debauchery.

The most common reason for Westerners to taking the brew is for self-healing and self-knowledge. Many report the ceremony to be one of the most transformative moments in their lives. Still, Fotiou warns that too many people think “ayahuasca is a panacea and can heal serious issues overnight.”

The Darker Side

As a powerful hallucinogen, ayahuasca can be psychologically destabilizing, and may cause more harm than good for those who are suffering through depression or other major life conflicts.

A related misconception, Fotiou told me, is that shamanism is a benevolent force for good: “Ayahuasca shamanism is perceived as ancient and representing a time when people lived in harmony with nature and each other. This romantic approach to shamanism has not been there from the beginning.”

What, my new-age belief in love and white light won’t protect me?

Actually, Fotiou explains, shamanic practitioners can perform rituals for harming others as well as healing ceremonies. Shamanism is ambivalent, and shamans are well-known for performing sorcery against their competitors. Fotiou continues:

While sorcery has been a part of traditional Amazonian shamanism, some of my consultants were concerned that shamanic warfare has increased because of tourism. Thus, even though shamanic tourism might bring much needed revenue to a historically impoverished area, it might also increase conflict.

On top of this, Fotiou notes that the increased demand for shamans has brought in practitioners who may not have the years of training they claim to have. Tales of mismanaged ceremonies, power abuses, and even sexual abuse, are widespread.

She adds that word of mouth from trusted sources, such as those who have gone through the process themselves, is still the safest way to find a legitimate guide. Most authentic ayahuasca guides, or ayahuasceros, don’t advertise on the Internet.

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