A painting of a visionary experience with Ayahuasca.

Anthropology: Ayahuasca, an Amazon Plant Medicine Believed to Confer Psycho-Spiritual Powers

Ayahuasca, also known as yage, hoasca, or caapi, is a plant medicine used for thousands of years by the indigenous people of the Amazon. From the Quechua language of the Incas, the word ayahuasca means “the vine of the dead” or “the vine of the soul”. It is believed that this plant has the power to open other spiritual and supernatural dimensions to those who drink its brew. Very often, people see their deceased ones.

Ayahuasca has become increasingly popular in the west, which has spurred a phenomenon called drug tourism. Several westerners travel to the Amazon, home of the ayahuasca plant, to experience this supernatural and spiritual experience. Besides, and perhaps more significant, this plant medicine gained a reputation for being an intense antidepressant with long-term effects. Indeed, many cases reported being cured of serious depression and anxiety states, as well as eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, addictions, and other mind-related issues. It sounds fascinating that the plant medicine of the Amazon can practice such miraculous cures. But is it that simple? What are the exact components of ayahuasca? What effects can it have on people? Are there any risks? These are the questions this article intends to approach.

Ayahuasca Tea Components and the Ceremony

The Ayahuasca tea or brew is composed of two plants that are boiled in water for several hours before the ceremony: the leaves from the Psychotria Viridis bush, which contains Itryptamie (DMIT), and hallucinogen; and the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis Cappi, which has a monoaminoxidase (MAO) inhibitor. This inhibitor is the cause of the psychoactive nature of the tea. Without it, no psychoactive effect would occur.

An Ayahuasca ceremony involves drinking the tea composed by these two plants in a maloca for a whole night, under the guidance of a Shaman. It can take five to six hours, maybe more. The researcher and psychologist Rachel Harris, in her book “Listening to Ayahuasca”, presents the results of her research and intertwines them with her own experience of Ayahuasca ceremonies. Harris tells us that the Shuar Shamans spend all day preparing the maloca, while the participants are told to stay outside and not disturb. When she, finally, entered the maloca, she saw string hammocks suspended from the ceiling and mattresses on the floor filling the walls.

Ayahuasca Tea.
Image Source: Superinteressante. Ayahuasca tea.

The Ceremony’s rituals

Harris explains in her work that ayahuasca can open “portals to other worlds”. Some Ayahuasca users claim to have seen spirits, ghosts, and even suffer from what is called a “negative entity attachment”. Accordingly, the shamans spent a whole hour in the hut before the participants get in, because they must clear all the energy of the maloca. They need to make sure it is a safe space for people to drink the tea without dangerous consequences. Besides, during the ceremony, Icaros are sung. Icaros are healing songs. Some are sung to call on “allies and plant spirits to be present”. Others are believed to “calm the energy, leading the participants into beautiful visionary realms”. Icaros are the soundtrack of the whole experience. They guide the ceremony of the group and each of the participants individually.

An example of a maloca.
Image Source: Kahpi. A maloca.

Dr. Rachel Harris’ study on Ayahuasca

Rachel Harris developed a research plan on Ayahuasca a few years ago. It is a renowned and interesting study that focuses on how western culture explored this plant medicine. Her research’s participants were people who tried Ayahuasca in North America at least once. Many of them also tried it in South America, but Harris was especially focused on the west use of the Amazon plant, and what psychospiritual framework was behind it.

Why do people try Ayahuasca?

What did they learn from their experience, and how did it change their lives? Interestingly, Harris started her research after an Ayahuasca ceremony where she heard the voice of Grandmother Ayahuasca telling her to conduct the research! It is highly common to listen to the alleged voice of the plant during the ceremony. For instance, one of the participants heard her voice telling him to clean his room and cut his hair. Others have received helpful tips for their professional life or loving relationships. The tone of Grandmother Ayahuasca’s voice varies according to the people she is talking to, but it is always a female voice from the outside who speaks, the alleged spirit of the plant.

Francisco Shuña mural for Eden Project, in Cornwall. Ayahuasca inspired.
Image Source: The Arts Society. Francisco Shuña mural for Eden Project, in Cornwall. Ayahuasca inspired.

Why do people try Ayahuasca tea?

Most people from the study sought healing, spiritual or psychological, such as childhood traumas, emotional wounds, mental disorders, addictions. Others wanted to improve their self-knowledge, contact their higher selves, the Divine, and other alleged spiritual dimensions, to broaden their sense of self. Or enlighten it. There were also people seeking physical medical help for Parkinson’s disease and cancer. Some fewer participants only sought the experience for curiosity. These intentions clearly express the reputation Ayahuasca has gained as a long-term antidepressant.

A well-known case is Kira Salak’s, mentioned in Harris’ book. Kira, an author of the National Geographic Adventure, commented the following after participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony: “There were no more morbid, incessant desires to die. Gone was the ‘suicidal ideation’ that had made joy seem impossible for me, and made my life feel like some kind of punishment.” Kira’s case represents the complexity, and sometimes ambiguity, around Ayahuasca’s effects since Harris had met a woman who went to the same retreat center and was seriously damaged by the experience, particularly because of the Shaman’s manipulative energy. In sum, Ayahuasca does not have the same effects on everyone. There are many variants, some of which are not under the participant’s control.

Pablo Amaringo's Ayahuasca-inspired painting.
Image Source: Sagrada Familia. Pablo Amaringo Ayahuasca-inspired painting.

The Positive Effects of Ayahuasca

One ceremony is better than ten years of therapy. This is a common saying around Ayahuasca and a very hopeful one. Perhaps too hopeful for its complex and unpredictable effects.

Psychological Effects

In Rachel Harris’ study, there were fascinating, somewhat startling, reports. One of them was about a guy who, during the ceremony, saw three spirit doctors in white coats who told him to start a healing practice. They also told him they would show up at each session to help him heal his patients. Eventually, this man became a Reiki practitioner. Even though Dr. Harris was skeptical about these three spirit doctors. She could not find any sign of delusion in any other aspect of this participant’s life.

Overall, people in Harris’ study reported feeling more accepting, loving, and compassionate towards themselves and others close to them, after drinking ayahuasca tea. Their relationships improved, and the unhealthy ones were left behind. A 52-year-old businessman claimed to have solved his sex addiction! Another participant, Ben, who had been on antidepressants since he was young, reported the following: “Depression is gone. I now have a feeling of self-worth. I’m slower to anger and quicker to smile”. Harris alerts us to the fact that miraculous cures, although realistic, do not always happen.

“There are no guarantees”, she states. However, there are, indeed, a high number of people who report a significant improvement in their mental states, better emotional intelligence, and increased confidence after drinking ayahuasca. Usually, people change their diets, stop drinking alcohol, smoking and start taking care of their bodies more. One person said: “Less darkness, more light”.

A Visionary Painting by Amanda Sage
Image Source: Amanda Sage Collection. A Visionary Painting.

Spiritual Awakening

Many participants undergo intense spiritual experiences that give them a sense of a Divine Force and a spiritual presence invisible to our eyes, but it is always present. A woman who participated in the study wrote the following: “I totally trust that a Divine Force is working for us, that all is connected, and that life is a gift”.This sort of spiritual awakening is a strong and extraordinary experience for those who are lucky to live it, one that increases their sense of belonging in the world and, therefore, connects them to life in profound ways.

Claims like the following: “There is an infinite spiritual presence in the universe and that there are many more dimensions than our conventional mainstream one”; “I see light and opportunity to learn and grow in everything. I walk around in perfect awe and wonder at the world. I feel like I’ve found heaven on earth, and it’s a state of being”; and “I am impressed by the mystery and feel okay not knowing. I feel safe, even in death. Life is right here, right now, and that’s a gift!”. They all express a healthier relationship not only with life, characterized by increased gratitude towards being alive, but also with death, a primal fear for the majority of us.

Amanda Sage Visionary Painting.
Image Source: Amanda Sage. A Visionary Painting.

The Risks of Taking Ayahuasca

Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that Ayahuasca brew is cooked in quite diverse ways depending on the Shamans who controls the ceremony. The brew is cooked differently by different shamans. For example, some shamans add different plants to the mix. In short, there is no means to know what the brew’s potency is. Besides, according to indigenous beliefs, the quality and intensity of the tea can be influenced by the time of the day the vine is cut, the phase of the moon, and the songs that are sung during the preparation. During the ceremony, the shaman is supposed to know the amount of brew that suits each participant, but, once again, there is no way to be sure whether the shaman knows it for sure. Ultimately, it is a matter of trust. Secondly, there are terrible physical symptoms such as nausea, intense vomiting, and diarrhea. Harris affirms that “the possibilities are endless”.

What is Important to Keep in Mind

Finally, as asserted by Harris, drinking Ayahuasca is not recommended for pregnant women, for people who have a history of psychosis or bipolar disorder, and for people with cardiovascular diseases. Besides, those who take antidepressants should not take the brew since the plant medicine increases serotonin levels. Mixing it with antidepressants can be very dangerous to the brain. Adding to this, even people who do not meet those criteria can still have terrifying experiences. After all, ingesting the brew can originate intense psychic experiences related to personal childhood, emotional wounds, relived trauma, ego death and rebirth, visionary experiences, and even prophetic revelations. Some people have encountered nonhuman entities (such as aliens), experienced cosmic travel, and contacted spirits and dead people.

Indeed, many people experienced long-term health problems, both physical and mental, after taking Ayahuasca. In short, even though there are several people who had amazing, inspiring, and fantastic experiences with this plant medicine, the truth is it is not safe for everyone, and there is not much one can do to control the outcome.

Ayahuasca Ceremony. A shaman and a participant in a black turtleneck sitting on a candlelit floor and holding a small cup with Ayahuasca.
Image Source: Llama Trip Peru Travel.

Cultural Significance of Ayahuasca in Anthropology

Mark Hay, in “The Colonization of the Ayahuasca Experience”, points out that “ayahuasca traditions were developed for people coming from specific backgrounds”. This means that westerners, lacking a complete understanding of the experience and its culture, might “expose themselves, through their misreading of context and content, to serious physical or mental dangers”. Besides, this “fetishization” of indigenous rituals is, very often, ignorant of the “complexity of indigenous peoples’ situations by erasing the injustices they have experienced and continue to experience”.

The Tourism Boom

This idealistic view of Ayahuasca tea has provoked an intense boom in tourism, with thousands of westerners every year visiting Peru and other places in South America that practice Ayahuasca ceremonies. This has had some negative impacts. As Harris points out, “the fertile acreage of the Amazon basin is shrinking”, and, therefore, Ayahuasca is being cultivated in other places around the world (even Siberia!). Also, Mark Hay mentions a 2019 report which indicated that Ayahuasca tourism “has boosted jaguar poaching and other environmentally destructive activities, as well”.This is due to the increased numbers of charlatans that try to mislead tourists into believing fake ideas such as that a “big cat’s tooth (…) is a traditional spiritual enhancer for their ceremonies”.

Catholicism and Ayahuasca

There was, already, an ‘appropriation’ of Ayahuasca by other traditions. The case of the Brazilian, twentieth-century Catholic Churches of Santo Daime, Barquina and União do Vegetal is well-known and has reached, according to Rachel Harris, “every industrialized nation”. These churches’ traditions embody a combination of Catholicism, Ayahuasca shamanic rituals, and spiritism. They differ from the indigenous Ayahuasca ones, existent for thousands of years, particularly in their views on spirits and mediumship. It is interesting how Ayahuasca’s powers have been enriching the world, enlightening different traditions, and, in some way, bringing them together. Ayahuasca is, indeed, a fascinating plant medicine. If used with deep understanding and awareness, and if supervised by the right people, it can provide meaningful experiences and contribute positively to people’s lives in unbelievable ways.

Ayahuasca ritual in a Catholic setting.
Image Source: Diario de Pernambuco. Ayahuasca ritual in a Brazilian Catholic setting.

Graham Hancock, Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind (New York: The Disinformation Company Ltd, 2007):

Anette Kjellgren; Anders Eriksson, Torsten Norlander, “Experiences of Encounters with Ayahuasca – «the Vine of the Soul»,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 41, nº 4 (December 2009): 309-315.

Rachel Harris, Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety (California: New World Library, 2017).

Ibid., and “What to Expect During An Ayahuasca Ceremony”, Spirituality, mbgmindfulness, February 20, 2020, https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-14913/what-to-expect-during-an-ayahuasca-ceremony.html

Harris, Listening to Ayahuasca.

“The Colonization of the Ayahuasca Experience”, Health, JSTOR Daily, November 4, 2020, https://daily.jstor.org/the-colonization-of-the-ayahuasca-experience/.

Harris, Listening to Ayahuasca.

“The Colonization of the Ayahuasca Experience”, Health, JSTOR Daily, November 4, 2020 https://daily.jstor.org/the-colonization-of-the-ayahuasca-experience/.

Harris, Listening to Ayahuasca.

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