Category Archives: ASC

Ayahuasca Visions: Ceremonies Two and Three

This is my third post on my experience with the medicinal brew ayahuasca in San Roque, Peru. In my two previous posts (Ayahuasca Visions: The First Experience, and Ayahuasca: “La Medicina”) I provided background information on ayahuasca and described my first experience in an ayahuasca ceremony. In this post I will relate my second and third experiences in the ayahuasca ceremonies and include information on the Quechua and Shipibo cultures who discovered ayahuasca and still practice ayahuasca shamanism.

WP_20160425_015My second ayahuasca ceremony was a celebration of my life. First I had visions of all my family and friends, past and present. These visions filled me with joy and I extended blessings and felt gratitude to each and every one. If a sad or otherwise negative thought started to creep in, it was immediately replaced with joy and gratitude. Next, I re-experienced moments of rapture in my life; everything from football plays, to moments in nature, to my son’s birth, to being accepted to graduate school. My whole life may have passed before my eyes. During this ceremony I felt as if I had more control of my body and it was easier to come down off of the medicine. Once again, both shamans were there, Antonio and Virginia, and there were also two other novices. Like the first time, I had diarrhea afterwards, but this time I did not vomit.

My third ceremony took place in the morning. Virginia was not there and it was me, Antonio, and the other two novices. This ceremony was a sensory trip. The music and icaros were especially vivid and I felt as though I could see and feel the sounds. At one point Antonio stood above me with a seed shaker and large bird feather and the sounds and motions were amazing. WP_20160427_008There was a butterfly which kept flying around me and landing on me and the movement of air from its wings felt like an enormous eagle was just above me. At one point I had a thought that the explosion of language which modern humans experienced was the result of trying to describe what one experienced in altered states of consciousness. After the ceremony I sat by the river singing songs, including my non-English language ayahuasca song. I laid down in the river for quite some time and it was a very powerful feeling. Then I walked up to the kitchen where Carmelita had a wonderful meal awaiting- I didn’t fell hungry, but it was a pleasure eating.

WP_20160427_006I am still amazed at the power of these two plants, neither one of which works its magic on its own. How did the Quechua and Shipibo figure out how to mix these two plants together? It is one of the great profound accomplishments of humankind.

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Antonio and Carmelita

The Shipibo are an indigenous people along the Ucayali River in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. Many of their traditions are still practiced, such as ayahuasca shamanism. Shamanistic visions have inspired artistic tradition and decorative designs found in their clothing, pottery, tools and textiles. Some of the urbanized people live around Pucallpa in the Yarina Cocha, an extensive indigenous zone. Most others live in scattered villages over a large area of jungle forest extending from Brazil to Ecuador. Shipibo women make beadwork and textiles, but are probably best known for their pottery, decorated with maze-like red and black geometric patterns. While these ceramics were traditionally made for use in the home, an expanding tourist market has provided many households with extra income through the sale of pots and other craft items. They also prepare chapo, a sweet plantain beverage. Their homeland has been affected by drought and flooding, having a detrimental effect on agriculture. The Shipibo are noted for a rich and complex cosmology, which is tied directly to the art and artifacts they produce. The Shipibo are threatened by severe pressure from outside influences such as Christian missionaries, oil speculation, logging, narco-trafficking, and conservation.

Shipibo friends
Shipibo friends

Quechua is the collective term for several indigenous ethnic groups in South America who speak the Quechua language. The speakers of Quechua, who total some 4.4 million people in Peru, have an only slight sense of common identity. The various Quechua dialects are in some cases so different that no mutual understanding is possible. Quechua was not only spoken by the Inkas (which is the Quechua spelling of Inca), but also by long-term enemies of the Inca Empire. These include the Huanca (Wanka is a Quechua dialect spoken today in the Huancayo area) and the Chanka (the Chanca dialect of Ayacucho) of Peru, and the Kañari (Cañar) in Ecuador. Quechua was spoken by some of these people, for example, the Wanka, before the Inkas of Cusco, while other people, especially in Bolivia but also in Ecuador, adopted Quechua only in Inka times or afterward. Quechua became Peru’s second official language in 1969 under the military regime of Juan Velasco Alvarado. Despite their ethnic diversity and linguistic distinctions, the various Quechua ethnic groups have numerous cultural characteristics in common.

Beginning with the colonial era and intensifying after the South American states had gained their independence, large landowners appropriated all or most of the land and forced the native population into bondage. Harsh conditions of exploitation repeatedly led to revolts by the indigenous farmers, which were forcibly suppressed. The largest of these revolts occurred 1780-1781 under the leadership of José Gabriel Kunturkanki. Some indigenous farmers re-occupied their ancestors’ lands and expelled the hacienados during the takeover of governments by reform-minded juntas in the middle of the 20th century, such as in 1952 in Bolivia (Víctor Paz Estenssoro) and 1968 in Peru (Juan Velasco Alvarado). The agrarian reforms included the expropriation of large landowners. Quechuas continue to be victims of political conflicts and ethnic persecution. In the Peruvian civil war of the 1980s between the government and Sendero Luminoso about three quarters of the estimated 70,000 death toll were Quechuas. The forced sterilization policy under Alberto Fujimori affected almost exclusively Quechua and Aymara women, a total exceeding 200,000.WP_20160428_024

Quechua ethnic groups share traditional religions with other Andean peoples, particularly belief in Mother Earth (Pachamama), who grants fertility and to whom burnt offerings and libations are regularly made. Also important are the mountain spirits (apu) as well as lesser local deities (wak’a), who are still venerated especially in southern Peru. The Quechua and Shipibo both make and use ayahuasca and it plays an integral role in their healing practices.

 

Ayahuasca Visions: The First Experience

Long ago there was a Quechua man hunting in the forest. He can across a jaguar and was preparing to shoot it with his bow and arrow when he saw the beast beginning to chew on a vine wrapping itself around a tree. He thought this was strange and instead of shooting stood silently and watched the jaguar. Next, the animal began to chew on a leafy, green plant that was nearby. The jaguar then lay on the ground without moving. The hunter came close and saw that the beast’s eyes were open even though it appeared to be sleeping. The hunter came forward and nudged the jaguar with his foot. The animal did not respond. “How strange, that the beast will not attack me even though I can tell it is not dead and its eyes are open!” thought the hunter. The hunter realized this must have something to do with the plants the animal had eaten, and he collected some of the two plants and brought them to his village. He told the people what he had saw and they were curious, so they ate some of the two plants- nothing happened. The shaman of the village decided to cook the two plants together, which shamans often do. He then gave the tea to the villagers and they entered a state of wonder and saw many visions and experienced profound revelations about life. The shaman and the people realized this was a strong, spiritual medicine and it was cherished and valued among the people.

Quechua myth concerning the discovery of ayahuasca

More than once I was fascinated by the discovery of mixing these two plants together. I had heard that shamans state that the plants sing to them. On one level I can accept this, on another level I cannot. One morning I was talking with Antonio, who was my shaman for my three ayahuasca ceremonies, and he related this story the Quechua tell of the hunter in the forest and the jaguar. This remains one of the great mysteries of anthropology.

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My Casita

My previous post gave some background information on ayahuasca; in this post I would like to relate my experience with the brew on April 23, 25, and 27 of 2016. I had met two backpackers while conducting research in the Bribrí community of Yorkín, and they told me of the amazing experience they had taking ayahuasca in Peru. I had been interested in the healing powers of ayahuasca (and indeed other psychoactive plants) for quite some time and decided to make a reservation, take a much needed break from fieldwork and grant writing, and head to Peru where ayahuasca is legal. I arrived at the lodge I would be staying at above the small community of San Roque, in the mountains above Tarapoto and was informed I could participate in a ceremony with the shaman Antonio Bracero and his teacher, a Shipibo indian named Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo. I was to be the only other person at the ceremony. I had a meeting with Antonio, who speaks English as well as Spanish, about what I could expect to experience and what my intentions were. He suggested that I remain open to whatever happens, as the medicine works in different ways with different people and different ways at different times.

Below is my word for word account of my first ceremony taken from my journal which was written the next day:

Rio Cumbaza

I am sitting by the river (Cumbaza); I just soaked for a while- it was colder than I expected- I am feeling pretty shaky- only slept a couple of hours- took a shower, ate some food, laid around listening to the Dead. Last night was fucking intense, I was lucky, as Antonio’s teacher, a Shipibo indian named Virginia was here and it was only me and them at the ceremony. I walked down the hill to the ceremony lodge, a thatch-roofed open-walled structure where Antonio lives upstairs. He gave me some pointers- focus on my breath if I start to freak out, try to remain quiet, ask for more if I want it (there will be a “last call”), keep my purge bucket handy, keep my body “open”, and if things get hard- know that it will pass.

When I arrived, Virginia was massaging Antonio with some oil and blowing mapacho (local pure tobacco) smoke over him. Antonio then purified the space with mapacho and called me to him to give me a shot glass of ayahuasca. I actually did not mind the taste- kinda sweet and bitter at the same time. I went and sat on my mat- before long I could start to feel it starting to take effect and I laid down flat on my back. I soon began to see black and white geometric patterns. Antonio then began to sing an icaro (song). Then Virginia sang- her icaro sounded almost Japanese; I had the impression it was very ancient, like from the dawn of human consciousness.

Ayahuasca visions
Ayahuasca visions

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 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. I could barely move my hands to wipe sweat from my brow and eyes.

At some point Antonio asked me if I wanted more, I could barely answer “no”. I had no sense of time- sometimes it felt as if minutes went by between each breath. I sometimes perceived myself as being like one inch big- then in the next instant massive- then completely flat- then round- then no longer there. Then Antonio asked me if I wanted to sing, it took me a while to register what he said- but then I started to sing- I do not know how- I do not know the words or if they were words- it wasn’t English- I just kept going until Antonio exhaled loudly and my singing automatically stopped.

He then came to me and asked me to sit up and move forward on my mat. – It was a real struggle. He said he was going to purge the medicine from me and sang an icaro while he was tapping me with his feather bundle (shacapa).

Shacapa
Shacapa

They both then sang another icaro and I told him I was going to go to the bathroom. I started to crawl and he helped me stand up and I staggered to the outhouse and released diarrhea for a short time. I came back to the lodge and sat on my mat, then threw up just a little bit- they both began to sing another icaro. Then Virginia came over and rubbed me with oil- it felt very loving and nurturing.

Shamanka Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo
Shamanka Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo

After a bit I stood up and felt like I wanted to head back to my casita. Antonio suggested I sit with them a bit longer- I am glad because I started to feel more grounded. Virginia commented that I was now more “abajo” (low) and had been very “arriba” (high). I then gathered my stuff and slowly, shakily, walked up the hill to my casita, stopping once at the bathroom by the communal kitchen to have some more diarrhea.

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. I am now going to head back up the hill and get something to eat.

p.s. – Last night I told Antonio how intense, but how ecstatic, joyful, and caring the medicine was and he said, “The medicine is just a reflection of yourself, it was a real good first ceremony.” I replied that makes me feel good about myself.

It just occurred to me that today I have been in a “liminal stage”- halfway between the physical and spiritual worlds. End quote from journal.

So, that was my first experience with the medicine. Looking back I see that the first experience was all about the wonder of being alive and the power of the medicine. I also felt gratitude at being a human and being able to experience such wonder. My next two ceremonies would prove to be similar, but also different in what I was thinking, feeling and the revelations which occurred to me. Read about them in my next post.

Ayahuasca: “La Medicina”

Ayahuasca was first described outside of Indigenous communities in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had originally worked with the Kiowa in the U.S., participating in peyote ceremonies. Schultes was famous for ingesting all types of plants and their derivatives while traveling throughout the amazon. He was Wade Davis’ advisor, and sent Davis to the amazon to study coca. Ayahuasca is the Hispanicized style spelling of a word in the Quechua languages, which are spoken in the Andean states of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Speakers of Quechua languages or of the Aymara language may prefer the spelling “ayawaska.” This word refers both to the liana Banisteriopsis caapi, and to the brew prepared from it. In the Quechua languages, aya means “spirit, soul”, “corpse, dead body”, and waska means “rope” and “woody vine”, “liana”. It is often referred to as “La Medicina”- the medicine.ayahuasca

People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, as well as attaining insights into their lives. Individuals also sometimes report connection to “spiritual” dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who act as guides or healers. In my experience, I did not sense other beings, but instead experienced aspects of my own mind which were very different from normal waking consciousness. I experienced profound emotional joy and bliss and insights into my life goals and behaviors. I will describe my three experiences (all somewhat different) in upcoming posts.

Ayahuasca is made by mixing Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana of the family Malpighiaceae, with Psychotria viridis, a leafy plant, and cooking it down to create a dark, bitter tasting liquid. Banisteriopsis caapi contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, all of which are both beta-carboline harmala alkaloids and MAOIs. The MAOIs in B. caapi allow the primary psychoactive compound, DMT (which is introduced from the other primary ingredient in ayahuasca, the Psychotria viridis plant), to be orally active. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are chemicals which inhibit the activity of the monoamine oxidase enzyme family. MAOIs have been found to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder with agoraphobia, social phobia, atypical depression or mixed anxiety and depression, bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. MAOIs appear to be particularly effective in the management of bipolar depression.Banisteriopsis caapicaapi

Psychotria viridis is a perennial shrub of the Rubiaceae family. In the Quechua languages it is called chacruna. It contains about 0.10–0.66% alkaloids, approximately 99% of that is dimethyltryptamine (DMT). N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT). DMT-containing plants (such as Psychotria viridis) remain inactive when drunk as a brew without a source of monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as B. caapi. DMT can produce powerful psychedelic experiences including intense visuals, euphoria and hallucinations.psychotria viridis

DMT is naturally occurring in small amounts in rat brain, human cerebrospinal fluid, and other tissues of humans and other mammals. A biochemical mechanism for this was proposed by the medical researcher J. C. Callaway, who suggested in 1988 that DMT might be connected with visual dream phenomena. A role of endogenous hallucinogens including DMT in higher level sensory processing and awareness was proposed by J. V. Wallach based on a hypothetical role of DMT as a neurotransmitter. Neurobiologist Andrew R. Gallimore suggests that while DMT might not have a modern neural function, it may have been an ancestral neuromodulator once secreted in psychedelic concentrations during REM sleep – a function now lost. The dependence potential of oral DMT and the risk of sustained psychological disturbance are minimal (Gable 2007).psychotria viridis 2

People often report profound positive life changes subsequent to consuming ayahuasca. Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion; this purging is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be an essential part of the experience, as it represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life. Others report purging in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and hot/cold flashes. The first time I used the medicine I had diarrhea after the ceremony and vomited a little bit, the second time I had diarrhea only, and the third time had neither.

The ingestion of ayahuasca can also cause significant, but temporary, emotional and psychological distress. Long-term negative effects are not known. A few deaths due to participation in the consumption of ayahuasca have been reported. The deaths may be due to preexisting heart conditions, as ayahuasca may increase pulse rates and blood pressure, or interaction with other medicines taken, such as antidepressants, and in some cases possibly a result of the addition of toé in the brew. I made sure that this plant was not included in the mixture I was going to consume beforehand, as I had read is it dangerous to ingest it orally. The mixture I ingested only contained the caapi and Psychotria. MAO-A inhibition reduces the breakdown of primarily serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Agents that act on serotonin if taken with another serotonin-enhancing agent may result in a potentially fatal interaction called serotonin syndrome. Therefore, persons using prescription drugs for bipolar disorder or depression should discontinue use before using ayahuasca. However, persons using dopamine blockers, often used for some forms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may not be under the same risk, but in my opinion should also discontinue use to avoid potential interactions.

Da Silveria et al. (2005) conducted a comparative study of adolescents subscribing to an indigenous Amazonian belief system that sacramentally used ayahuasca and their urban Brazilian counterparts. Da Silveria et al. measured psychological functioning on participants who used ayahuasca in a culturally specific manner twice per month and started doing so just at the onset of adolescence. These included 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.

MAOIs can also be used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by targeting MAO-B in particular (therefore affecting dopaminergic neurons), as well as providing an alternative for migraine prophylaxis. MAOIs appear to be particularly indicated for outpatients with dysthymia complicated by panic disorder or hysteroid dysphoria, which involves repeated episodes of depressed mood in response to feeling rejected.

The legal status in the United States of DMT-containing plants is somewhat questionable. Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal, as they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, brews made using DMT containing plants are illegal since DMT is a Schedule I drug. Some groups are challenging this, using arguments similar to those used by peyotist religious sects, such as the Native American Church. A Supreme Court decision allowed the União do Vegetal Church to import and use the tea for religious purposes in the United States pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a similar case the Santo Daime church sued for their right to import and consume ayahuasca tea. In March 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Panner ruled in favor of the Santo Daime, acknowledging its protection from prosecution under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I went to Peru to use the tea legally; On June 24, 2008 the Peruvian National Institute of Culture declared that ritual ayahuasca ceremonies are part of the national cultural heritage of Peru and are to be protected.WP_20160427_001

All this sounds great, however there are problems concerning the booming ayahuasca tourism business. With the influx of money, there are now people providing the tea who have poor training or bad intent. There have been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and inept shamans, if they really are shamans. In the past few years alone, a young German woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her, two French citizens died while staying at ayahuasca lodges, and stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people experiencing difficulties after being given overly potent doses. I would like to warn people who want to experience the medicine to only use it under the supervision of someone they know they can trust. I got the name of my shaman from friends who had worked with him and had positive experiences. I would be more than happy to connect people with this shaman at their request.

Stay tuned for a post about my personal experiences with ayahuasca.

Below are some references for further reading. I would also suggest Wade Davis’ “The River.”

Ayahuasca visions
Ayahuasca visions

Barbosa, PC; Cazorla, IM; Giglio, JS; Strassman, R (September 2009). “A six-month prospective evaluation of personality traits, psychiatric symptoms and quality of life in ayahuasca-naïve subjects.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 41 (3): 205–12.

Strassman R.J. (1996). “Human psychopharmacology of N,N-dimethyltryptamine” (PDF). Behavioural Brain Research 73 (1–2): 121–4.

Rick Strassman (2001). Dmt: the Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of near-Death and Mystical Experiences.

Schultes R.E., Raffauf R.F. (1960). “Prestonia: An Amazon narcotic or not?”. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 19 (5): 109–122.

Robert S. Gable (2007). “Risk assessment of ritual use of oral dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmala alkaloids”. Addiction 102 (1): 24–34

Ayahuasca: Soldiers Seeking Healing

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.

Marijuana: Drug of Abuse?

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.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Four states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Alaska and Oregon will become the next states after Colorado and Washington where recreational marijuana is legal after voters approved cannabis ballot measures set to become effective in 2015. District of Columbia voters also recently approved a ballot initiative legalizing recreational use of marijuana that will be subject to Congressional review.

Due to marijuana being classified as a Schedule 1 substance in the U.S., most research is being conducted in other countries, however, this seems to be changing as I was able to find a couple studies conducted in the U.S. One interesting study, (Chapkis 2007), interviewed medical marijuana (MMJ) patients in California. Chapkis found many of her respondents reported that they valued the consciousness altering properties of marijuana significantly more so than its other various reported therapeutic benefits (2007). These patients reported that the effects on mood and cognition were difficult to separate from its medical benefits. I theorize the consciousness altering properties allow patients to relax, dissociate, and ease the stress response from worrying over their pain or other conditions.

In research conducted by Vadhan et al. (2007) the complex cognitive functioning during marijuana intoxication under controlled laboratory conditions was examined on regular marijuana users. The subjects were given a controlled dosage of marijuana and were presented with various cognitive tasks and The Iowa Gambling Task, which is said to model real-life decision-making, forcing the participant to balance potential gains and losses. The researchers found that the participants required greater amounts of time to complete the tasks, but their primary performance on tasks of deductive reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and working memory were not altered during intoxication. In regards to the gambling task, the researchers found that marijuana did not disrupt advantageous card selection or money earned.

In Australia, Jones, Blagrove, and Parrott (2009) examined creative responses and self-perception of creativity in marijuana and ecstasy users while they were not under the influence of either drug. They found that marijuana users scored higher on “rare-creative” responses than a control group, but rated themselves as not more creative. Ecstasy users rated themselves as more creative, but rated lower on the creative responses test (Jones et al. 2009). This research begs the question, does marijuana actually lead to more creativity as many musicians and authors have suggested over the years? Perhaps it is the dissociative state which enables a person to remove himself from the immediate physical sensory stimulation and imagine novel ways of looking at things.

In research conducted by Ringen et al. (2009) effects of marijuana use on neurocognitive functioning was assessed in patients with Bipolar Disorder (BPD) and patients with schizophrenia. The researchers found that in the patients with BPD, marijuana use was associated with better cognitive functioning, while the opposite was the case for the patients with schizophrenia. This suggests two things; first, that there may be different neurocognitive mechanisms in play in BPD as opposed to schizophrenia, and second, that something about marijuana’s effect on neurochemistry benefits people with BPD.

Often marijuana is described as a “substance of abuse” and medicinal marijuana patients as “drug abusers.” What effect does the use of this language have on the self-perceptions of patients? Would it not be healthier for these patients to be thought of as people who are undergoing treatment for their various ailments? Does feeling like a patient and not an abuser lead to better health outcomes?

In the words of an acquaintance who has a prescription for medical marijuana in Colorado, “With marijuana you know what you get, you can track it back to the warehouse which is 20 miles away and you know exactly what’s in it. It has to be grown in state; it’s actually a local crop too. Everything a doctor prescribes you; they get a kickback from the prescription or insurance companies. With all the commercials and stuff it makes all these prescription painkillers socially acceptable when it’s just the exact same thing as taking heroin or something.”

I conclude that the cultural construction of meaning regarding the use of marijuana may finally be changing. This reflects the current issues in the U.S. concerning the rising abuse of prescription painkillers and increased recognition of the dangers of alcohol abuse. Hopefully this will open the doors to more scientific studies on the effects of marijuana use, allowing people to form opinions based on facts rather than propaganda.

Chapkis, Wendy (2007) Cannabis, Consciousness, and Healing. Contemporary Justice Review, 10(4):443-460.

Jones, Katy A., Blagrove, M., and A.C. Parrott (2009) Cannabis and Ecstasy/MDMA: Empirical measures of Creativity in Recreational Users. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 41(4):323-329.

Ringen, P.A., Vaskinn, A., Sundet, K., Engh, J.A., Jonsdottir, H., Simonsen, C., Friis, S., Opjordsmoen, S., Melle, I., and O.A.Andreassen. (2009)   Opposite Relationships between Cannabis Use and Neurocognitive Functioning in Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. Psychological Medicine, 40:1337-1347.

Vadhan, Nehal P., C.L. Hart, W.G. Van Gorp, E.W. Gunderson, M. Haney, and R.W. Foltin. (2007) Acute Effects of Smoked Marijuana on Decision Making, as Assessed by a Modified Gambling Task, in Experienced Marijuana Users. Journal of Clinical & Experimental Neuropsychology 29(4):357-364.

 

Thoughts on Shamanism

Often I have marveled about the ubiquity of shamanic complexes throughout the world. In my opinion, variations of the shamanic paradigm were present in all hunter/gatherer/foraging groups. I have also wondered “why is this the case?” After reading work by Michael Winkelman, I have been moved to believe that within the shamanic paradigm aspects of behavior have served to integrate human minds more fully between notions of the individual and its relationship to the social world. Aspects of the shamanic complex can be seen as increasing the adaptability of humans. Winkelman suggests that, and I agree, that the shamanic complex grew out of ancient hominid ritual capacities and practices. There are even similarities between the shamanic ritual complex and activities of chimpanzees. These include community rituals focused on alpha male displays involving vocalizations, drumming, and bipedal charges. Similarities between shamanism and behavior of chimpanzees include: community bonding rituals that involve emotional vocalizations and drumming as social signaling and communication processes; altered states of consciousness (ASC) that involve the elicitation of an integrative mode of consciousness; and healing effects, including ritual effects in eliciting opioid responses and the ASC that provide physiological relaxation and integration (Winkelman 2009, Winkelman and Baker 2008). I was fascinated when I first heard of the accounts of chimpanzees performing a “rain dance” in which males hoot, run up and down a hill, and break branches while a storm is approaching. Winkelman suggests that these rituals reflect a biological basis. “Communal rituals elicit attachment bonds and related physiological mechanisms that reduce endogenous opiates (opioids), producing psychobiological synchrony and community cohesion within the group. Opioid release stimulates the immune system, producing a sense of euphoria, certainty, and belongingness, enhancing coping skills and maintenance of bodily homeostasis, and enhancing stress tolerance and environmental adaptation” (Winkelman 2009).

James McClenon suggests that the roots of shamanic healing may go as far back as controlled use of fire. Sitting around the fire may have enhanced trance states and other altered states of consciousness among early humans. During altered states of consciousness, humans are more open to suggestion and McClenon (1997) suggests that hypnotizability was hardwired into humans and was adaptive. This hypnotizability would increase the impact of shared experiences and knowledge among a group of people, indeed providing the shared knowledge which leads to cultural development. McClennon goes on to suggest that all hunter gatherer groups at some point probably practiced some form of shamanism, and the shamanic complex laid the groundwork for further religious beliefs and practices throughout the world (1997).

According to Lévi-Strauss (1963), the healing that the shaman performs occurs within a shamanic complex which depends on the shaman, the sick person, and the surrounding community to believe in the efficacy of the treatment. The shaman manipulates socially constructed and maintained beliefs and symbols to create a socially authorized translation of the problem causing sickness. Through this process, the shaman reorganizes the reality of the patient and his or her social network. As mentioned above, the performance of the shaman ultimately contributes to the belief in the healing ritual and produces what can be called a meaning effect which can be compared to the case of modern pharmacology in which patients improve even when they are receiving a placebo or sugar pill.

In my opinion, the shamanic paradigm was an important factor in contributing to the complexity of the workings of the human brain. The human brain must orient the individual self and its relationship to its environment and all the social relationships it can encounter. It is no surprise that many people seek out modern-day experiences with ritual and altered states of consciousness to treat drug addiction, chronic pain, and various psychological issues. Aspects of the shamanic complex provide opportunities for healing of the individual and social reintegration.

Levi-Strauss, Claude.   1963   The Sorcerer and His Magic. From Structural Anthropology. Basic Books.

McClenon, James.   1997   Shamanic Healing, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36(3):345-354.

Winkelman, Michael.   2009   Shamanism and the Origins of Spirituality and Ritual Healing. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 458-489.

Winkelman, M., and J. Baker.   2008    Supernatural as Natural: A Biological Theory of Religion (New Jersey: Prentice Hall).