The World Ayahuasca Diaspora. Reinventions and controversies, Forword. Ayahuasca in the twenty-first century : having it both ways, Glenn H. Shepard Jr., 2017

The World Ayahuasca Diaspora. Reinventions and controversies

Forword. Ayahuasca in the twenty-first century : having it both ways

Glenn H. Shepard Jr.
Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi

Edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate,
Clancy Cavnar, and Alex K. Gearin

janvier 2017


The genie is out of the bottle, tweeting about the next shamanic bodywork leadership seminar, and the bottle; well, check and see if it isn’t in the back of your fridge by the vegan TV dinner.

Who would have ever imagined that ayahuasca, the enigmatic jungle potion William S. Burroughs once referred to as “the secret” (Burroughs & Ginsberg, 2006 [1963]) and whose very botanical identity was a matter of debate through the mid-twentieth century (Schultes, 1957) would, within a matter of decades, become a household (or at least, yoga-mat) word; the subject of hundreds of scientific, anthropological, and medical studies; a magnet for international tourism; the motor behind a global religious diaspora; and the victorious plaintiff in absentia of an historic Supreme Court case?

The rhyme “herbal brew”/“bamboo” in Paul Simon’s 1990 ayahuasca-inspired song “Spirit Voices” already rings of kitsch, but there is still something, if not fresh, then at least compelling about Sting (2005, p. 18), in his biography Broken Music, revealing that “ayahuasca has brought me close to something, something fearful and profound and deadly serious.” But by the time Lindsay Lohan confides to a reality TV host in April of 2015 that ayahuasca helped her “let go of past things . . . it was intense” (Morris, 2014), Burroughs’s “final fix” has finally entered the realm of cliché. How did this happen? What is the special appeal of this bitter Amazonian brew in the post-post-modern global village toolbox of self-realization?

How has it fared in the bustling marketplace of New Age spiritual entrepreneurism and on the battleground of the War on Drugs? And what does it all mean for the multiple, religiously and socially diverse, communities and individuals who consume ayahuasca, as well as various ayahuasca-like analogs, around the world?

We can think of the global ayahuasca expansion of the past two decades as a kind of second wave to the psychedelic revolution, following upon that other, “fantastic universal . . . inevitable . . . high and beautiful wave,” Hunter S. Thompson describes as cresting in the mid-1960s only to crash so quickly, and so disappointingly: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the highwater mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. “(Thompson, 1998 [1971], p. 68)

Many of those who sought out ayahuasca in the Amazonian rainforests in the 1970s and 1980s were indeed spiritual orphans, in some sense, of this failed revolution that, though inspired by natural psychoactive substances and indigenous medico-religious rituals of the Americas, relied heavily on synthetic substances like LSD and mescaline, often consumed in informal or recreational, rather than ritual, settings. In its initial expansion, beginning in the 1980s, ayahuasca came, first, to non-Amazonian urban centers in tropical countries, and later, to dozens of countries across the globe, in much the same form as it was consumed in its place of origin. Traditional practitioners and religious groups still export ayahuasca, brewed from the rainforest vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing shrub Psychotria viridis and related species, to adepts in many world countries, who risk and sometimes face prosecution under international controlled substance laws. Freelance enthusiasts operating at the fringes of legality may also obtain raw ingredients and make their own preparations.

But, due to chronic problems of supply, transport, and storage, not to mention legal restrictions, a growing number of people have experimented with various ayahuasca analogs, using alternative plants or pure pharmacological substances (“pharmahuasca”) with essentially the same chemical constituents, to produce brews that have similar experiential effects, at least according to some enthusiasts. And yet, by all indications – and despite the myriad contexts of international use, from commercially adapted indigenous rituals in ecotourism lodges in the Amazon to weekend workshops at yoga academies around the world – the ayahuasca diaspora seems to have resisted what Thompson and others saw as the recreational denouement, hedonistic failure, and political marginalization of the 1960s psychedelic revolution. Instead, wherever it is used, imported, or reinvented, ayahuasca seems to quickly, almost automatically, elaborate around itself a protective cloak of ritual and social control, from the Christian-influenced doctrines of Brazilian ayahuasca religions to the idiosyncratic neoshamanic ceremonies emerging in North America, Europe, and Australia. Whether this is due to a changing social milieu of use, or something about the ayahuasca experience itself, remains to be seen.

Setting aside the hype, and respecting the cultural and individual variability inherent in such powerful subjective states, one constant element of the ayahuasca experience, attested across different cultures, spiritual traditions, and personal backgrounds, is its ability to propitiate encounters with radical otherness. Speaking myriad languages, through dozens of religious and spiritual idioms and within infinite possibilities of individual variation, ayahuasca drinkers across the globe have described visions of celestial landscapes beyond comprehension and encounters with awe-inspiring, alien intelligence that alternately tantalizes and terrorizes them with healing and bodily degradation, spiritual salvation and ego disintegration, ecological wisdom and universal apocalypse.

The ayahuasca experience defies ordinary notions of causality, space, time, and logic. Indeed, in its intensity and fundamental strangeness, the ayahuasca experience can feel like the cognitive equivalent of the far side of a black hole, spewing out new space-time tunnels and parallel universes with utter disregard for the laws of cognition, if not of physics itself. It is perhaps the very intensity of the cognitive, bodily, and spiritual disassociation produced by ayahuasca that calls so desperately to the structuring powers of ritual, ideology, and social control to impose order, provide meaning, and even extract advantage from the boiling foam of ecstasy.

Trance associated with altered consciousness of all kinds is characterized by symbolic visual imagery and nonlinear thought processes that can result in revelatory insights or intuitions about self, others, nature, and the cosmos (Winkelman, 1986). Gregory Bateson’s (1972) cybernetic theory of mind sheds light on the adaptive functions of trance and altered states. In his reformulation of Freud, Bateson suggests that, for reasons of sheer economy, mental processes that are repetitive or that surpass the boundaries of the individual self become “sunk” into the subconscious. Bateson (1972) views art and certain kinds of religious beliefs as serving a corrective function, allowing integration of the narrow, individual consciousness with larger circuits of mental process, including collective and environmental “ecologies of mind.” In the light of Bateson’s theories, psychoactive plants like ayahuasca can be seen as tools for loosening up mental processes, blurring ego boundaries between individuals and their larger social and ecological context (Shepard, 2005). By amplifying the unexpected, nonlinear associations of the subconscious, this “ecstatic mode” of consciousness allows for the perception of new patterns and relations among things, experiences, and events.

Although trance states emerge for the individual through specific alterations in brain function, these personal experiences become framed and imbued with meaning by the social group, often in a ritual context. Victor Turner’s (1974) classic writings on ritual, structure, antistructure, and the countercultural movement of the 1960s provide a framework for understanding what several authors call the “re-traditionalization” of ayahuasca (Labate & Cavnar, 2014). For Turner, people participating in rituals occupy a liminal or transitional social state, clearly distinguished in space and time from ordinary social life. During ritual, social structure is temporarily suspended and replaced by an undifferentiated comunitas of equal individuals who share a mutual sense of identity and belonging. The social distinctiveness of ritual is accompanied by a distinctive cognitive state in which ordinary logic is suspended and replaced by the nonlinear, inductive, combinatorial logic of symbols. Thus, ritual itself represents a kind of altered state of consciousness that, when amplified through trance techniques or the use of psychoactive substances, only reinforces the social, spatial, and temporal distinctiveness of the ritual state (Shepard, 2005).

Though he began his work studying rites of passage in a Zambian village, Turner realized that these concepts could also be used to understand the social upheavals of the 1960s. Although serving to maintain the functional stability of “institutionalized and preordained” social structures, liminality and communitas can also emerge in moments of “radical structural change” (Turner, 1974, p. 248). The difference, for Turner, is that institutionalized rituals, when they conclude, facilitate the orderly return of individuals from liminality and comunitas back into the social order, whereas revolutionary and countercultural movements attempt to create permanent liminality: not a passage, but rather a constant state (1974).

Perhaps ayahuasca is the contemporary world’s way of having it both ways; of being both traditional and modern, ecstatic and scientific, heterodox yet messianic, transgressive but safe and (eventually) legal, altruistic and selfish. It is precisely around this set of contradictions – or dialectics, or challenges – that the current volume is organized. Moving beyond the ethnological purists’ snubbing of neo-ayahuasca practices as mere drug tourism, and yet also avoiding the intellectual pitfalls of naïve enthusiasm, the authors in this volume apply the classic tools of critical sociocultural analysis to the universe of the global ayahuasca diaspora. The chapters present a multitude of voices, from “Aussie-huasca” (a native Australian analog) enthusiasts hoping to save the planet from the evils of capitalism, to indigenous Amazonian communities torn apart by rivalries and economic disparities brought on by the “ayahuasca boom.” Though sympathetic to this diversity of experiences and opinions, the authors take an unblinking look at the legal and social conflicts and ideological contradictions produced as indigenous shamans and Brazilian ayahuasca churches have entered the global marketplace of New Age spiritualism. Contributions discuss troublesome emergent issues, including the commodification of ayahuasca practices, the reconfiguration of shamanic worldviews to attend to the modern self-as-project, health and safety concerns (drug interactions, ayahuasca-related accidents, sexual harassment), legal disputes, the “bureaucratization of enchantment” in ayahuasca religions, and the sanitization of darker aspects of traditional Amazonian shamanism, such as witchcraft and attack sorcery.

Will the “re-traditionalization” of global neo-ayahuasca ceremonies provide adequate social controls and ideological coherence to ensure that this “second wave” psychedelic revolution doesn’t crash and dissipate somewhere between the headwaters of the Amazon and the Great Barrier Reef? Will the contradictions of the modern self and the temptations of capitalism undercut the radical vision of individual and planetary healing that some neo-ayahuasca enthusiasts prophecy? Will ayahuasca become another battlefield casualty in the global War on Drugs, or will legislation evolve to protect ayahuasca as a religious sacrament, as a medicine, as a tool of experiential freedom? We don’t yet have all the answers to these questions, but the authors of this book are on the crest of the wave, and if anyone can see ahead to the far shore, it is they.