As an ancient tradition experiencing a contemporary renaissance, ayahuasca spirituality has recently been recognized by the Parliament of World Religions—a gathering of 10,000 people of 200 faiths—which until 2018, had never had indigenous Amazonians in attendance. As such, a few groups do have protection, including the Brazil-based Santo Daime and União de Vegetal (“union of the plant”) churches (with outposts in Portland, Ashland, Bend, Los Angeles, Seattle, and western Massachusetts) which enjoy religious exemption to consume the brew as a sacrament.
To become a shaman, you need to have a deep and intimate relationship with the medicine, and to have experienced all realms of the mind on account of it, says Pelger. “A good shaman has gone through those experiences and can hold space for others doing it. There are so many lousy shamans operating to take advantage of people in places like New York, San Francisco, or Seattle.”
With an estimated 16.2 million American adults, or 6.7 percent of the population, suffering from depression, the need for healing extends beyond bearers of the counterculture. Apart from all the testimonies that have created such a buzz about ayahuasca, there is a growing body of evidence to show it has potential in treating addiction and PTSD.
Very few people within America actually have this kind of legal protection to use ayahuasca and so therefore cannot advertise openly without putting themselves at risk. Yet despite its illegality and lack of clinical back-up, ayahuasca is a psychoactive medicine that is gaining traction, as people hunt out new ways, away from the mainstream, to tackle what is a mounting global problem with mental and spiritual distress.
Ayahuasca’s different components can be shipped or smuggled into the US, sometimes in the form of powders, or are labelled as other substances like aloe vera. In other cases, they’re grown in remote, tropical corners within the country itself. Then they’re brewed locally before a ceremony.
Though classified as a psychedelic, ayahuasca offers a much different experience than popping a tab of acid. To call it “fun” would be oversimplified, if not at times altogether misleading. Those who take the medicine do so in small “ceremonies” led by a shaman. To lead a ceremony, “a shaman needs years of training, and must be supervised by an older shaman, as well as direct inspiration from the plants,” says Bia Labate, executive director at the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. Many descend from a legacy of shamans, such as families like the Shipibo or Quechua from Peru, Brazil, and so forth.
Globally, thousands of people have embraced the traditional medicine as an alternative to western psychological or psychiatric solutions, turning to ayahuasca to heal from trauma, depression, anxious tendencies, and as a tool for general wellness. In the region surrounding Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, up to 100 centers offer ayahuasca ceremony services catering to locals, and now drawing in visitors from around the world.
“Every major city in the country has some kind of scene, it’s really been an explosion over the last couple years in places like New York, San Francisco, and LA. There’s absolutely ayahuasca being poured every night in some apartment or yoga studio everywhere,” says drug writer Lex Pelger, who focuses on biochemistry and sociology. “All the states have people quietly doing this in the underground.”
Follow shaman Steve Hupp in “Kentucky Ayahuasca,” playing now on VICELAND.
The psychoactive Amazonian brew is gaining traction among a widening group of people.
Tobacco was such a profound teacher, and I have had a historically difficult relationship with tobacco. I grew up with a parent who smoked, and I was a smoker for many years. A decade or more after changing my relationship with tobacco I found myself in this context having this relationship, and my experience was as a grandfather, very similar to the way the Huichol relate to Peyote.
But through those experiences, I’ve seen how Ayahuasca in the Shipibo tradition, or Peyote in the Huichol tradition, are considered absolutely integral component of the entire cultural fabric. It’s an essential. It’s like a deity, the plant spirit.
With her wealth of information in traditional medicine, healing, and visionary practices, I was fortunate enough to talk with her about the nature of plant consciousness and how recognizing the innate intelligence of psychoactive substances might shift our relationship with the experiences found in consuming them.
It is mildly hallucinogenic, and there’s another plant that they use with it. And this is not a recommendation to make tea out of tobacco, because it’s actually potentially toxic and can be fatale. You know, the maestros do it, we don’t do it. But there’s another plant that they mix with tobacco, called Piñon Colorado, it’s a little shrub. The teacher I spent time with in Peru is a botanist, he has a compound and grows a lot of plants, so I was able to see how he cultivates Ayahuasca, how he cultivates tobacco, how he cultivates Piñon Colorado, how he cultivates Achunisananga. All of these mildly hallucinogenic plants. So Piñon Colorado’s one that opens your intuition, opens your knowing, is one of the ways they refer to it.
Diana: I definitely think that the essential nature of considering plant consciousness and plant intelligence — in terms of having a different relationship with the plant medicine that one might be ingesting — changes the dynamic and also changes the experience. It becomes a relationship. I think it can be intuitive, people who have experienced plant medicine don’t see it as “chemicals in my body.” There’s that piece, but also culturally, shifting the way we relate to plants, and other sentient life, as having innate personhood changes the dynamic completely from an extractive exploitative relationship, to one where we are actually inclined to treat nature like our sibling. Clearly the time is long overdue to shift our thinking in that direction.
D: Like you said, no judgement on the enjoyment, or the joyfulness of the experience. That’s important too. We need to lighten up sometimes.
I just want to emphasize that everyone interested in neurognostics (enhancing the neurological capacity to experience the metaphysical background) they’re interested in psilocybin or peyote or ayahuasca. It’s exciting and sexy to talk about these, but for example Rhodiola is an herbal adaptogen, can be bought in a health food store, and acts on the serotonin receptors, the same 5-HT2A receptors that most of the psychoactive medicines act on. Obviously it’s not hallucinogenic, but it shifts your psyche and opens your awareness and enhances your neurogenesis in similar ways.
E: So what are some of the more common plant teachers as anyone interested in the field of psychedelics might be aware of, and how do you define their medicinal value in this context?
Stephen Herrod Buhner, an herbalist and thought-leader who has published a lot of botanical and ethno-botanical books, talks about it as being like the metaphysical background of our existence. Materialistic and reductionistic world views would have us break it down into the smallest parts, these mechanical nuts and bolts, but that’s so contrary to what we actually experience.
Articles Plant Consciousness in Plant Medicine Diana Quinn Inlak’ech ND is a licensed naturopathic physician and curandera (Spanish for healer of traditional indigenous methods) who has