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.
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.
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.”
Research 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, experienced 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.
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.