To repeat from my previous post: “This week in my Neuroanthropology class we are focused on tobacco use and the cultural context of addiction. This got me thinking about other mind altering substances, in particular marijuana and ayahuasca, which have both in the news recently. In the case of marijuana, the results of the midterm elections revealed that voters in three states have decided to join Colorado and Washington in legalizing various amounts of marijuana and its consumption on private property. In the case of ayahuasca, I recently watched an episode of “This is Life with Lisa Lee” in which war veterans were using ayahuasca in Peru as a method of relieving symptoms of PTSD. Being very interested in the topic of the therapeutic use of mind altering substances, I decided to catch up on my required reading and examined several articles on marijuana and ayahuasca.”
Amazonian shamans use a psychedelic compound called ayahuasca which is consumed as a ritual beverage. The word ayahuasca is believed to have originated in the Quechua language (Beyer 2009, Madera 2009). The word huasca is a Quechua term for various species of vines. The word aya refers to a soul or the spirit of a dead person. That is why ayahuasca is often referred to as the “vine of the soul” or the “vine of the dead.” Ayahuasca is made by combining the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with the leaves of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing species of shrubs from the genus Psychotria. The mestizo shamans have understood how these plants work together to create the psychedelic compound for thousands of years. Shamans are able to judge the strength of their ayahuasca brew and it has been found that the usual dose contains between 25 to 36 mg of DMT (Callaway 2005). DMT is listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the United Nations which bans not only the use, but also research on the drug. Brazil and Peru are the only United Nations members which allow the use of ayahuasca. In a rare study allowed within the United States, Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico conducted research on the effects of DMT on human volunteers. Participants in this study reported that they were aware of and interacted with human and nonhuman entities including animals, elves, and aliens while under the influence of the DMT (Strassman 1994). DMT is found in many trees and shrubs throughout the world. Interestingly, it is also found endogenously in mice, rats, and humans (Strassman 1994). Strassman also suggests that DMT is naturally released in the pineal gland during traumatic experiences such as birth and death. The pineal gland is the organ René Descartes considered the seat of the soul and the place where all our thoughts are created.
There are certain features which typify an ayahuasca experience. It is reported that ayahuasca does not affect the lucidity or clarity of thought processes. While under the influence of ayahuasca, time becomes dilated and ceremony participants report that time seems to pass much slower than the clock would indicate. People also report a sensory convergence of vision, sound, and smell. Auditory and visual hallucinations are common. As well as the DMT effects mentioned above in the Strassman research, ayahuasca ceremony participants also often report the presence of beings including spirits, elves, and aliens. These presences are described as being solid, three-dimensional, and very real (Beyer 2009, Madera 2009, White 2001).
It is thought that through use of the ayahuasca shamans can enter the spirit world and communicate with various spirit beings, including those of nature. It is suggested that the ayahuasca is good for the shamans’ health, that through it they can control energy (Beyer 2009 White 2001). The shamans also receive visions through the use of ayahuasca, which can be used in various ways including healing as well as psychological warfare against their enemies, which in the Amazon basin presently include oil companies. In this respect, shamans use ayahuasca to see where the enemy is and how to defeat them. The use of ayahuasca for spiritual growth and healing has also entered the academic field. Bonnie Glass- Coffin, A professor at Utah State, has conducted research on shamanism involving the use of ayahuasca and has written openly about her relationship with the practice as well as her experiences while under the influence of ayahuasca (Glass- Coffin 2010).
Harris and Gurel (2012) 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. The researchers found that they had reduced their alcohol intake, ate healthier diets, experienced greater self-acceptance and improve mood as well as reporting an increase in the experience of love and compassion related to their relationships. They also stated that they received ongoing guidance and support from the spirit of the ayahuasca.
Santo Daime was founded in the 1930s in Brazil by Raimundo Irineu. Santo Daime combines folk Catholicism, African animism, and South American shamanism with its use of ayahuasca in their ceremonies. The practice has become a worldwide movement and preaches the doctrine of harmony, love, truth, and justice (Langdon and Santana de Rose 2012). Ceremonies involve the consumption of ayahuasca while sitting in silent concentration, singing collectively, and or dancing in geometrical formations. Rituals usually last several hours, as long as ayahuasca is taking effect (Langdon and Santana de Rose 2012). The Santo Daime church maintains relationships with the Guarani, an indigenous Amazonian group, to ease the sense that this neo-shamanic group is simply involved with appropriating an indigenous healing complex. The church has recently been involved with and one several court battles in various countries concerning the legal use of ayahuasca in their ceremonies (Langdon and Santana de Rose 2012).
As with the case of marijuana, the cultural construction surrounding the use of ayahuasca seems to be changing in the United States. I was moved by the stories of war veterans who were dissatisfied with the psychological care and drugs they were receiving to treat their trauma. Perhaps with further research, those in the mental health professions will begin to treat the sufferers in a more holistic manner, providing a safe place for emotional catharsis and spiritual healing.
Beyer, Steven V. (2009) Singing to the Plants: a Guide to Mestizo Shamanism. University of New Mexico Press.
Glass-Coffin Bonnie (2010) Anthropology, Shamanism, and Alternate Ways of Knowing–Being in the World: One Anthropologist’s Journey of Discovery and Transformation. Anthropology and Humanism 35(2):204–217.
Harris, Rachel and Lee Gurel (2012) A Study of Ayahuasca Use in North America. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 44(3):209-215.
Langdon, Esther Jean and Isabel Santana de Rose (2012) (Neo)shamanic Dialogues: Encounters Between the Guarani and Ayahuasca. Nova Religio 15(4):36-59.
Madera, Lisa Maria (2009) Visions of Christ in the Amazon: The Gospel According to Ayahuasca and Santo Daime. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 3(1):66-98.
Strassman, Rick J. and Clifford R. Qualls (1994) Dose-Response Study of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine in Humans. Neuroendocrine, Autonomic, and Cardiovascular Effects. Archives of General Psychiatry 51(2):85-97.
White, Steven F. (2001) Shamanic Ayahuasca Narratives and the Production of Neo-Indigenista Literature. Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 17(2):111-123.