Excerpt: Listening to Ayahuasca

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Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew from the Amazon rainforest, is entering the Western lexicon through the popular media, the internet, and first-person reports. Considered a medicine by practitioners, the tea has great therapeutic potential that is just beginning to be studied. As a result of her own personal experience with ayahuasca, Dr. Rachel Harris was inspired to research how this medicine was being used in North America in the largest study of this kind to date. Listening to Ayahuasca describes her findings, including miracle cures of depression and addiction, therapeutic breakthroughs, spiritual revelations, and challenging trips. We hope you’ll enjoy this short excerpt from the book.

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As ayahuasca emerges from the underground and becomes more popular in Western cultures, how will the ceremonies change? Will ritual approaches continue, or will the use of ayahuasca degrade similar to what happened in the denouement of the 60’s psychedelic revolution?

One instance of degradation and ensuing self-regulation in the ayahuasca underground community occurred in response to a 2005 YouTube video of college students in a dorm room drinking alcohol and ayahuasca together as a lark. Mature, experienced users somehow managed to contact the kids to educate them about the sacred nature of the medicine and to convince them to remove the video, which has long since disappeared.

Ayahuasca, with its attendant intestinal challenges, doesn’t lend itself to being a party drug. I have heard of only one example involving a community of young people who drank it to destress and socialize on Friday nights after work. I can only imagine that they were using a very light dose.

Degradation of the ritual use of the medicine is more likely to happen from within the underground community, especially for the shamanic-based ceremonies. There is no system to evaluate or certify shamans or leaders of ceremonies. It is truly a buyer-beware market, both in terms of leadership and the medicine itself, with the only option being to rely on personal recommendations. Even that doesn’t always work out well. I heard of one ceremony, run by a Western shaman who supposedly had a great reputation, in which the medicine was particularly strong, and there weren’t enough helpers. One of the participants left the ceremony unnoticed and was later found a few miles away walking in the middle of the road. I’ve heard similar stories. Even though participants promise to remain within the ceremonial setting, if there aren’t enough helpers, problems may arise.

There’s less risk with the ayahuasca church ceremonies, as they’ve established systems for training leaders with accompanying supervision and accountability. Jeffrey Bronfman, the leader of the União do Vegetal Church in New Mexico, estimated that it takes about a decade of training to be ready to serve as a leader for church works. Also the potency of the tea is far more standardized in the churches than in shamanic settings. Still, though the churches offer a safer situation in terms of both leadership and medicine, not everyone is comfortable in that setting.

There are more subtle risks as well for both shamanic and church settings. I’ve interviewed people who were totally enamored of their visionary experiences during ceremonies, so that these experiences became yet another version of spiritual materialism. It’s as if people believed that these experiences denoted spiritual development, and the telling and retelling of their fantastical visions became one more way to feed their ego. In interviews I conducted for the study, I frequently redirected people to focus on what happened after the ceremony: how did your life change? The focus on integration is not as dramatic and often requires hard work on a daily basis. It’s not nearly as exciting as vibrant, mythic visions.

Another version of spiritual materialism focuses on quantity. People like to compare, as in: How many cups of ayahuasca did you drink? How many ceremonies have you attended? The assumption is that more is always better. I was in a group at a professional conference where the organizers divided people into groups according to how many ceremonies they’d attended, in which the group who’d done more was regarded as the better one. Admittedly, it’s far more difficult to differentiate people according to qualitative questions: How has your life changed? How have you grown from your experiences? But those are the real questions.

To further complicate matters, I’ve seen people behaving quite badly even after countless ayahuasca ceremonies. I don’t have an explanation for this. My assumption is that the medicine would heal such blatant problems. But then again, countless spiritual teachers and clergy behave badly around the usual issues of sex, money, and power. Spiritual experience does not imply integrity or maturity, as the very concept of spiritual materialism makes clear. Even very grand spiritual experiences can be used to reinforce a narcissistic ego.

The responses to ayahuasca appear to be extremely individualized, independent of the amount of tea consumed and unrelated to the number of ceremonies attended. Some people drink large quantities of the tea and have very little response, while others consume a fraction of that amount and experience a large response. Similarly, some people report almost miraculous healing after just one or a few ceremonies, while others seem to require regular exposure to ayahuasca. This doesn’t make sense if we assume, as Western medicine dictates, that ayahuasca’s antidepressant effect is based on raising serotonin levels. How could some people find long-term relief from depression when they haven’t used ayahuasca for years?

I accepted early on that I would not be able to understand how shamans do what they do during ayahuasca ceremonies. The cultural gap is too broad to bridge. Now I also have to accept that I don’t understand how the medicine yields such a wide range of results in people or how it’s therapeutic for such a varied array of psychological issues without any negative, long-lasting side effects. Certainly, there’s no Western medicine that manages to impact self-esteem, relationship issues, weight loss, trauma, depression, or anxiety without side effects over time or addictive concerns.

There are many mysteries surrounding the use of ayahuasca, not the least of which is the finding in my study that three-quarters of the medicine group described a personal, ongoing relationship with the spirit of ayahuasca. How could so many well-educated Westerners report a relationship with a plant spirit? How could their sense of reality and worldview change so quickly and extensively, and with seemingly so little conflict?

Excerpted from the book Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety. Copyright © 2017 by Rachel Harris. Printed with permission from New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com .

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About Author

Rachel Harris, PhD is the author of "Listening to Ayahuasca." She received a National Institutes of Health New Investigator’s Award, has published more than 40 scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals, and has worked as a psychological consultant to Fortune 500 companies and the United Nations. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine. Visit her online at www.ListeningToAyahuasca.com .

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