Ayahuasca Visions in the Peruvian Amazon

As a psychological anthropologist interested in alternative healing options, I recently traveled to Peru to experience ayahuasca with a shaman I had been corresponding with for some time. Ayahuasca is being used to help treat war veterans and others suffering from PTSD and depression. Its use as a treatment option for addicts has also become widespread. For thrill seeking millennials ayahuasca tourism has become a trendy activity.

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Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca was first described outside of indigenous communities in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. When sending his advisee, Wade Davis, to the Amazon he told him not to come back without trying it. The word “ayahuasca” comes from the Quechua who have used it for thousands of years. Ayahuasca is made by combining Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana, with Psychotria viridis, a perennial shrub. P. viridis contains about 0.10-0.66% alkaloids, approximately 99% of that is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of psilocybin. DMT is not activated when ingested unless a MAOI is added. B. caapi contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, all of which are both MAOIs and beta-carboline harmala alkaloids. People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, and gaining insights into their lives. Individuals also report connection to “spiritual” dimensions and contacting spiritual or extra-dimensional guides and healers.

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Virginia

Feeling the need for a break from a year of fieldwork in the Costa Rican jungle, I decided it was time to satisfy my academic curiosity and experience ayahuasca. I traveled to Peru where it is legal and where shaman Antonio Bracero and his teacher, a Shipibo woman named Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo, were to meet me. There was also a local woman, Carmela, who cooked for me. That night we continued the discussions we had started through email about my interests and desires concerning the ayahuasca ceremony. We decided I would participate in three ceremonies over a one week period, beginning the following evening.

The ceremonies began with cleansings and prayers before the ayahuasca was administered. Each time I was a little scared- as Tim Plowman told Wade Davis “(it) is many things, but pleasant isn’t one of them.” However, for me, after the initial uneasiness passed I found the experiences not only enjoyable, but blissful. I experienced profound altered states of consciousness and gained novel insights concerning my life goals and existence. Each ceremony was unique- my mind focusing on different domains of my life each time.

From my journal following the first ceremony:

 I soon began to see black and white geometric patterns. Antonio began singing an icaro. Then Virginia sang- her icaro sounded Japanese; I had the impression it was very ancient, like from the dawn of human consciousness. Soon my sense of self began to dissolve and all I could do was breathe and listen to the icaros- which they alternately sang, accompanied by various shakers and rattles- at one point Antonio played the guitar. I could see and feel the music. I had the sense that other people were there with us, as the sounds seemed to be coming from all around me. Sometimes I felt people standing over me- all with positive and healing intent.

The ceremony lasted from 7:00 pm to 1:00 in the morning. Some of the few thoughts I remember are “wonder” and “wonderment” and later “gratitude.” When I came down from the high I felt a little melancholy (if that is the right word- it was more like the Japanese term “mono no aware”) and I still feel a little like that today- but at peace. Last night I told Antonio how intense, but how ecstatic, joyful, and caring the medicine was. He said, “The medicine is just a reflection of yourself, it was a real good first ceremony.”

gb-3Research suggests ceremonial use of ayahuasca can provide mental health benefits. Da Silveria and colleagues conducted a comparative study of adolescents subscribing to an indigenous Amazonian belief system that sacramentally used ayahuasca and their urban Brazilian counterparts. They measured frequencies of substance abuse disorders, anxiety, depression, body image disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As compared to the control group, ayahuasca-using adolescents scored on average seven times less likely to experience these problems. Harris and Gurel surveyed individuals who had used ayahuasca at least once in North America. They found similar spiritual experiences amongst the ayahuasca users and a comparison group of worshipers who had attended a Catholic spiritual retreat. They also found that the ayahuasca users had made life changes after their experience with ayahuasca- they had reduced their alcohol intake, ate healthier diets, gb-4experienced greater self-acceptance and improved mood as well as reporting an increase in the experience of love and compassion in their relationships. They also stated that they received ongoing guidance and support from the spirit of the ayahuasca.

There are, however, problems concerning the booming ayahuasca tourism business. With the influx of money, there are now people providing it who have poor training or bad intent. There have been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and/or inept shamans. In the past few years alone, a young woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her and two people died while staying at ayahuasca lodges. Stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people experiencing difficulties after being given overly potent doses.

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Antonio and Carmela

As anthropologists know, the set and setting of healing rituals involving altered states of consciousness are of vital importance. My experience took place in an aesthetically pleasing location with shamans who were attentive and nurturing. To protect people who seek out this ancient medicine as a healing modality, regulation may be necessary. Anthropological, psychological, and botanical research can aid in defining how best to regulate the booming ayahuasca business, creating a safe option for those desiring alternative mental health treatment.


Greg Batchelder studied counseling psychology at Colorado Mesa University, psychological anthropology at Colorado State University, and is currently conducting doctoral research among the indigenous Bribrí in the Costa Rican rain forest of Talamanca.

 

 

 

 

Advancing Critical Food Systems Education through Service Learning

David Meek, Author

David Meek, Author

In anthropology departments across the country, food systems courses are becoming increasingly prevalent. Their rapid growth makes sense, because there is significant overlap between the study of food systems and traditional areas of anthropological inquiry, such as food security, the anthropology of nutrition, and ethnobotany. Yet, despite anthropologists’ attention to cultural politics, food systems education is still open to the same long-standing critiques of the alternative food movement. As critical food scholars point out, the alternative food movement is characterized by an “unbearable whiteness,” where its agrarian ideals, such as the importance of “getting your hands dirty,” reflect whitened cultural histories and ultimately produce racialized spaces of social exclusion.  Anthropologists are increasingly seeking to address these apprehensions by integrating critical perspectives into their food system pedagogies. In this commentary, I discuss an alternate pedagogical framework, known as critical food systems education (CFSE), through which anthropologists can potentially redress these concerns.

CFSE is at once a theoretical perspective, set of pedagogies, and vision for policy (Meek and Tarlau 2015, 2016). By drawing upon this perspective, we are called to critically reflect on what kind of community projects our courses are supporting. Are these projects similar to many in the alternative food movement that are motivated by an honest desire to “bring good food to others,” but end up reproducing racialized conceptions of communities of color as defined by poor food choices? Or do they seek to help develop students who have the mobilizing skills and critical consciousness needed to transform the food system? In redesigning my own courses, I’m striving to connect classroom pedagogy with the actual movements that are attempting to transform the food system.

The first time I taught a course I developed called “The Politics of Food Sovereignty and Society” in a traditional setting, it was at times disappointing. The discussions were lively, but student evaluations highlighted their desire to get out into the community and connect critical theory with praxis. I committed to transforming this course and applied to the University of Alabama Faculty Fellows in Service Learning Program to gain specialized training and for a Learning in Action grant to carry out this change. In redesigning the course around CFSE, I started with what community members identified as the pressing needs of marginalized groups. I developed a partnership with the Sand Mountain Seed Bank (SMSB) in Albertville, Alabama, which is trying to preserve heirloom seed varieties throughout the Southeast. The SMSB was just beginning the process of creating a digital inventory of its seed stock. My students spent approximately fifty hours entering seed records into the online database, helping the SMSB move towards its goal of making the seed library publicly accessible.

One of critical food systems education distinguishing features is that it seeks to advance food sovereignty. As part of the 2007 Declaration of Nyéléni, La Via Campesina, an international federation of rural social movements, defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Throughout the course, my students struggled to connect with the idea of food sovereignty. For many, it seemed like a concept from a different reality—one from the Global South, from countries where people still identify as peasants and where access to land is key to survival.

Through the service-learning project, students gained a first-hand understanding of food sovereignty. They first watched the documentary film Eating Alabama and learned about the complex dynamics of agrarian change in the state—from the loss of family farms to Monsanto’s litigation against farmers who save seed. They then came upon a critical realization while digitally entering the seed records into the online database—many of the seeds had not been grown in approximately ten years, the period after which the seeds may be unviable. Their work creating a digital inventory of the seeds might be worthless if no one grew the seeds before the ten-year period passed.

We reflected on this realization as a class and collectively decided that we could move our class project beyond simple data entry and towards creative action. We organized a seed swap as a way to generate awareness about the SMSB situation and get area farmers, gardeners, and horticultural enthusiasts to help grow and preserve the seeds. On Saturday, April 23rd, my students and I hosted the first West Alabama Seed Swap at the Tuscaloosa River Market. The event included speakers on food sovereignty and food ways, as well as the dissemination of seeds from the SMSB to the interested public. Following the seed swap, Charlotte Haygood, one of the driving forces behind the SMSB, described the event to me as a widely successful, because “many folks came up, made connections, exchanged information, and took home seeds.”

I found teaching a course grounded in critical food systems education to be an incredible learning experience. As part of a collective course evaluation at the end of the semester, students highlighted how valuable it would be in the future to experience first-hand competing forms of productions—such as a large-scale agroindustrial monocrop operations and small-scale organic farms. Similar to Guthman’s experiences, I also recognized that many of my students truly struggled with understanding the intersection of their white privilege with the food system. As I move forward in educating for food sovereignty, I will increasingly attune my pedagogy to the complicated terrain of racial and class-based identities and the structural relations between the local and global food system.


Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

David Meek is an assistant professor in the department who conducts research on food sovereignty in Brazil, India, and the U.S.