Ayahuasca, the Scientific Paradigm, and Shamanic Healing – Stephan Beyer

What I would like to do is just share
some thoughts with you about ayahuasca, and the ways in which it is
viewed and the ways in which I think the scientific paradigm
may be getting it wrong. So there’s a lot of talk at this conference
about what the sacred plants can do for us, heal our wounds, cure our addictions expand our minds. We’ve been taught to think that
the sacred plants as useful, pre-packaged collocations
of active molecules. But in indigenous cultures shamans
heal because they are in a personal and mutual relationship
with the healing spirits. When we use the sacred plants, our encounters with the world at the
spirits or not visits to the therapist. Rather they create a relationship
that entails obligations as well. In this field the sacred
plants are autonomous others, who are not means to our ends but
rather are ends in themselves. Like vision fasts or
dreams or talking circles. Using these plants is a
sacred shamanic ceremony, which has its own often
unforeseen purposes and lessons to teach us that
we might not be expecting. So it’s clear what we expect
from the sacred plants. But in the midst of this
conference we might pause briefly and ask the
the Shamanic question. What do the sacred plants expect from us? At the start every ayahuasca ceremony my maestro ayahuasquero
Don Roberto Acho goes around the room putting on Agua de Florida cologne in crossed patterns on
the forehead, chest, and back of each participant. As he does this, he blows smoke from
the powerful tobacco called mapacho into the crown of the head and over the
entire body each participant, and he whistles a special song
of protection called an arcana. The song has no particular
name it is just arcana, and no words, it is a brethy whistle. And no words. It is intention abstracted from human
language the wordless whistling approximates instead to puro sonido, pure sound,
which is the language of the plants. The goal is to cleanse and protect
the song calls the protective qilios the thorny palm
trees the fierce animals, the predatory hawks and owls
that are used in sorcery, and thus best protect against it. The strong sweet smells
of Cologne and tobacco attract the protective
and the healing spirits, seal the body against attack, and avert the pathogenic projectiles, the darts, scorpions,
monkey teeth, razor blades of the envious
and the resentful. The goal as Don Roberto puts it
is to erect a wall a thousand feet high and a thousand feet below
the earth to protect himself, his students and all who are in attendance. But why? Are there such protections
such precautions at a ceremony that is after
all intended for healing? Part of the answer is rooted in what I have
called the tragic cosmovision of upper Amazonian shamanism where there are no
bright lines between healing and sorcery, life-and-death, good and evil, predation and renewal. In this tragic cosmo-vision
the dark and the light, killing and curing, predator and prey are at once
antagonistic and complimentary. The price we pay for life is death and
out of death comes healing and life. The same plant and
animal spirits the same tools are used both to
protect and to destroy. The shaman who knows how to heal is at the
same time a sorcerer who knows how to kill. Once you drink ayahuasca
I was told when you start to learn the plant
teachers with your body, the world becomes a more dangerous place. Sorcerers resentful of your presumption will
shoot magical pathogenic darts into your body or send fierce animals to attack you or fill
your body with scorpions and razor blades. Especially while you are still a beginner
before you gain your full powers. Peruvian poet C├ęsar Calvo Soriano says the
drinking ayahuasca makes one into a crystal exposed to all the spirits to the evil ones
and the true ones that inhabit the air. Such transparency is perilous. But again in the upper
Amazon there is no bright line between the evil
and the true spirits. Some of the most powerful of the plants
such as catahua and pucalupuna want to deal only with the strongest
and most self-controlled of humans. Those willing to undertake long periods of
solitude and fasting in the wilderness. Other humans they kill. Now we do not need ourselves to be embedded
in the ambiguous and perilous shamanic culture up the upper Amazon to recognize
the power of these beliefs as metaphor. What the protective
ceremony is saying is this. You cannot be a tourist among the spirits. Shamans in the upper Amazon have
established a relationship of trust and love with the healing and
protective spirits of the plants. To win their love to learn to sing to
them in there own language shamans must first show that they are strong
and faithful worthy of trust. To do this they have to
go into the wilderness away from other people
and follow la dieta, the restricted diet. No salt, no sugar, no sex. And ingest the sacred plant
that is the body of the spirit. That is the way the shaman learns the
plant its uses its preparation its song. By taking the plant inside the
body letting the plant teach its mysteries giving the self
over to the power of the plant. Their is a complex reciprocal
interpersonal relationship between shaman and other
than human person. Fear, awe, passion, surrender, friendship, love. Opening the door to the magical
world is not a day trip. Every approach we make to the spirits
entails reciprocal obligations. The risks and dangers of the vision fast. What those obligations are is a
matter between each of us and the spirits but at the very least they
require gratitude and humility. A willingness to be courageous and
vulnerable to speak honestly from our hearts and listen devoutly with our hearts to
tell the spirits our truest stories. Any encounter with the spirits
is like a vision fast. How many people here have
been on a vision fast? Wonderful. During a vision fast we leave
our ordinary life and comforts behind, we stay in solitude in the wilderness for
four days and four nights without a tent, without food, without a fire. In this way we express
not only our willingness to undergo hardship for
the sake of the spirits, but also our separation from our
normal social relationships. The voluntary privations are part
of our newly liminal condition in which we encounter the dangerous
unknown in order to bring back a gift, a song, a ceremony. Our own unguessed talents not
for ourselves but for our people. You cannot be a tourist on a vision fast. The same is true in any
encounter with the spirits. The encounter is risky and meaningful. We have to be willing to
undertake the dangerous opening of our hearts
to tell our stories, to the spirits with open-hearted
honesty and to listen devoutly with our hearts to what the
spirits tell us in return, often through the merest signs. The inchoate movements of our hearts
the silent singing of the plants. Any encounter with the spirit
is like a talking circle. How many people here been
in a talking circle? We had kind of a talking circle
last night which was wonderful because people spoke open
heartedly and courageously. In a talking circle people sit in a circle. Pass around the talking stick. Whoever holds the talking stick gets
to speak and everybody else listens. There are no interruptions no questions
no challenges people speak one at a time, in turn, honestly from their hearts
and they listen devoutly with their hearts to
each person who speaks. The effect for those of you who have
participated can be miraculous. In many ways the talking circle is
the paradigmatic healing ceremony. The talking circle makes demands on us. That we have a listening heart. That we have what Saint Francis called
a transformed and undefended heart. The talking circle demands
that we put aside ego, speak our truth with humility, and open ourselves to the unspoken
motions at the human heart. You cannot be a tourist
in a talking circle. When people speak honestly and listen devoutly
when they tell their stories when they sing their songs to each other
healing occurs miraculously and spontaneously. Speaking our truths with
humility in a circle touches upon something that is
deeply and profoundly human. Communities become strong and
relationships go deeper on the basis that the songs and stories
we sing and tell to each other, and by our willingness
to be transparent and vulnerable and accountable
to each other. In a talking circle we
don’t ask or demand that others in the circle help
us or heal us or change us. We speak honestly from our hearts, we express our fears
and hopes and regrets and we listen to the songs and stories of the others, opening up our hearts becoming
in a mysterious and sacred process better people. Sitting in circle with others
is itself the healing. Any encounter with the
spirits is like a dream. How many people here have had a dream? We’re always strangers in
the underworld of dreams. We are talked to in a
language we do not speak. We are surprised every turn by the exotic
goods unloaded in the marketplace. The jokes we don’t understand. The sudden kindness or treachery
of our dream companions, our own capacity for
compassion, terror and rage. And perhaps like our own journeys,
like our encounters with the spirits, like our vision fasts. Dreams have a purpose to make
us richer and more human. To that end dreams are willing
perhaps like our own journeys to teach us things that we
do not always want to learn. You cannot be the a tourist in your dreams. Any encounter with the spirits
is mediated through the body. We tend to forget this. Throughout the upper Amazon a shaman’s power, the
power both to heal and to harm is conceptualized as a slimy or sticky substance, sometimes corrosive,
which is kept in the shaman’s chest or belly. Mestizo shamans call this
substance simply la flema, phlegm or llausa, the
ordinary Quechua term for phlegm or yachay, the
Quechua word for knowledge, especially ritual or religious knowledge. It’s in this phlegm that the shaman,
whether a healer or a sorcerer stores the magic darts that are
used for both attack and defense. In the phlegm of the
sorcerer are also toads, scorpions, snakes,
insects, monkey teeth, razor blades, the biting, the stinging and the venomous. What is striking about
this is that shamanic power is a physical
object inside the body, capable of storage,
projection and transmission. Only five minutes? The virtually universal method… I’m just having so much fun
it just went by so quickly. I’m trying and I lost my place. The virtually universal method of
inflicting magical harm in the upper Amazon is to project the substance
into the body on the victim, either the substance itself
or the pathogenic projectiles the shaman
keeps embedded within it. In the same way to learn
the secrets of the plant, what sicknesses is it can heal, what song will summon it, what
medicines it enters into, how it should be prepared the shaman undergoes undergoes la dieta living in
solitude in the jungle without salt or sugar or sex, ingesting the plant, taking the plant
into the body learning its songs and secrets from within and
creating an intimate relationship. Amazonian shamans conceptualize this
process as learning with the body. And in mestizo shamanism, where the
patient as well as the shaman drinks ayahuasca the effect is entirely
mediated through a profound physicality. There is vomiting, there is the vile taste of ayahuasca. There is diarrhea. From the first taste of ayahuasca
in the ceremony our relationship with the body
is brought into sharp focus. We deliberately ingest something vile. We forcefully eject the
contents of our bodies. The body is turned inside out. Its boundary is transgressed. We give up control of our bodies, hand ourselves over to
the plant and experience our embodiment in its
most primal form. Our body becomes in the word of literary
theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, grotesque. Fully embodied porous and protuberant, part of the earth,
exuberant and fecund. You cannot be a tourist in your own body. All this makes us Westerners nervous. Two minutes. We distrust our bodies. We find vomiting wretched and miserable. We struggle to maintain
our body boundaries. Above all we seek ways to
evade the ferocious physicality the
ayahuasca experience. We focus on visions, insights, transformative experiences. We seek in the words of psychologist
James Hillman an “imageless white liberation” a flight from
the reality of human embodiment. We secretly believe in what Bakhtin
called the bodily canon, the belief that human beings somehow exist
outside the hierarchy of the cosmos. What I think we are dealing with now has
less to do with conceptual perceptions, has less to do with epitomes
and has more to do with what Aristotle called
eleos and phobos, pity and terror. And this we should not
be surprised to learn links to the word in Greek
catharsis or purging. The shaman works through
the moral themes of healing discourse not
linearly but in performance. The grotesque body which is
revealed in the ayahuasca ceremony in fact celebrates
the victory of life. Its renewal and regeneration, true fearlessness in the face of our ineluctably human condition. Thank you. And I did that all in 20 minutes. Thank you very much Stephan. If you have any questions please
come up to the microphone. After listening to your talk I’m wondering if we
should be looking forward to a future and where we go to clinics and sit down with psychiatrists and medical
doctors and have them introduce us to ayahuasca. Or do you have some different
vision like perhaps shamans should be
involved in such thing. I guess I’m not quite clear
on what you’re asking. Well.. There’s certain people who would like
us to move in the direction of clinics. Right. Here with a psychoactive drugs. Right. And to bring our money
and lay it down and have treatment that involves
physicians and psychiatrists. But you present a different possibility. Perhaps a one where you
could go to a group where its run perhaps like they
do down in in Brazil, with a shaman. And I would wonder do
you see any way that we could push for that
rather than the other. I’m not sure I would
take a position that would recommend a one
solution for everybody. Fine. I think there are some people who would
flourish in a group in the jungle. There are some people who would
flourish under other circumstances. I think the point I’m trying to make here
is that when I think that scientists, neuropsychologists, psychopharmacologists who are working with ayahuasca
and other psychoactive substances need to be aware of the ways in which in its indigenous ceremony
or context it works in terms of relationality, mutuality and physicality. And I think that we as a culture spend a lot
of time trying to move away from that. And to try to have
ayahuasca experiences that are induced by
single active molecules, without the profound physical effects. Where people purchase a cure, without the demands of mutuality and reciprocity
that the indigenous culture envisions for these kinds of healings and I think
that without taking these into effect, we may be creating something
like a cargo cult. Where in fact the molecular
effects are being abstracted from a larger context and for that
reason may be less effective, or may in fact produce
unanticipated effects that are different from the ones
that are being sought. So as I said this is a set of suggestions that I am
I’m putting out there. Yeah. Do you think ayahuasca
will be taken in the future 5-10 years like a medicine, like a pill? In the near future or
you know you’re always people trying to market
ayahuasca pills? I think it’s possible. I cannot
predict whether they will indeed be continuing interest
ayahuasca in 10 years. All I know about Americans is that
they have very short attention spans. I’m old enough to remember when Zen
Buddhism was going to save the world. I remember when LSD was
going to save the world. I remember when rock and roll
was going to save the world. And the world isn’t saved yet. So I can’t make predictions
about what’s going to happen with ayahuasca
in the next 10 years. All I know is that right
now in the greater culture ayahuasca has become simply
a trope for the edgy, the transgressors,
the ultimately hip. And I think that whether that in
fact is going to be the way in which our culture consumes and
commodifies ayahuasca I don’t know. I see there three people with questions. We
have little time left maybe you could all three ask your question and then
we ask Stephan to answer them together. When looking at traditional healing modalities especially
those dealing with psychoactive plant medicines there seems to be this importance of familiar experience
with the healers personally and in trying to sort of readapt these medicines within the Western
clinical standpoint what is your stance on the importance of clinicians having experience
and understanding the experience themselves? I think that projects such as those at
New York University or Johns Hopkins or UCLA would benefit from having a
knowledgeable anthropologist on the team. And I think that there are lots of people who are knowledgeable
about indigenous use of healing plants and I think that input would be very helpful in trying to figure out the best
way to experiment and the best way to come up with a way of producing the most effective
possible medicines that will give you the
results you looking for. I’m interested in hearing if you have any
thoughts or ideas on how to produce or design or conduct a study into more mutualistic
relationship between the shaman and the person drinking the ayahuasca and also through like
dream interpretation or vision interpretation that the shaman and is there any possibility
to produce a measurement study of that effect. I have a bunch of ideas. I was just talking with Catherine
McLean this morning from Johns Hopkins. Wondering the extent to which if somebody
goes down to the Amazon and moves out of his or her comfort zone and encounters
an entirely different environment, because a lot of the people who
go down there have no wilderness experience and they never have been
in a developing country before. There’s a lot of things for them to
get used to and they may in fact even those who go down there for
eco-tourism without ayahuasca, may come back having had
certain kinds of important personal discoveries that they
had made about themselves, because they have pushed
the borders of their comfort zone in important
and significant ways. I would like to see an experiment where in fact you have
at least two groups one of which goes down and as a on a difficult and and ultimately successful survival training
in the jungle and some will go down in the jungle and drink ayahuasca into pre-test and post-test and see to
what extent we can tease out the actual effects of the ayahuasca experience from other kinds of experiences that
people may have in unfamiliar and challenging environments. Where where they feel they
have been able to overcome fear and achieve certain goals
of personal significance. I have more. I’d like to talk with you
further about this because I’m looking into trying
to produce some instance. Paradigms set by Timothy Leary
long ago the substance, the set and the setting was in relations to LSD
long ago. Do you suggests kinda different paradigm in relations to ayahuasca as my
focus on the set and setting then does LSD? I think so. I think expectation is a word that
I would use that has a profound effect on people’s reports of
their ayahuasca experiences. I think that the ayahuasca
community that is people here, people who attended the forum last night have set
up certain expectations about what ayahuasca experiences are supposed to be like and my understanding
for whatever it’s worth is that these are very culture-dammed and tied to our own culture and are
very very different from the understandings of what ayahuasca is what it does in nature of sickness
and the nature of healing in the upper Amazon. And is it a surprise that the
reports that gringos bring back are consistent not with the expectations
of the people who live in the jungle, but with the expectations of their push at their
circle of friends and that the ayahuasca community in which they are indebted on if you go down to the
Amazon and you spend a lot of money to go down there and go to some retreat center if you give up
your two week vacation which is very valuable to you to go down there and you are told that the
effect of ayahuasca is a transformative experience, an epiphany, they are you surprised
that people come back and report transformative
experiences and epiphanies? And yet in the Mestizo communities
at the upper Amazon very few people have any experiences of any value until they
have drunk ayahuasca a number of times. My own plant teacher I Dona Maria Twister on trying ayahuasca and she was
an experienced consumer of psychoactive substances drank ayahuasca three times before anything happened. There are stories of corunderos who
drank ayahuasca for months and did a diet for months and nothing happened. But Americans are in a hurry. Thank you very much Stephan.


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