Moral Inversions: Junkies, dope fiends, pill poppers, and ayahuasca drinkers


Charles Taylor defines moral orientation as:

our sense of respect for and obligations to others… our understandings of what makes a full life … [and] the range of notions concerned with dignity … [i.e.] the characteristics by which we think of ourselves as commanding (or failing to command) the respect of those around us. (1989,15)

I have been studying moral qualities and the moral system of ayahuasca use in Australia, and here I contemplate where it sits, and how it sits, in relation to broader social understandings and ideologies of drug use. There is a minimal amount of poly-drug use among people that drink ayahuasca in Australia. Drinkers do not refer to ayahuasca as a drug but as a ‘plant medicine’ and a ‘plant spirit’ and they tend to understand their use of ayahuasca in a way that involves a direct inversion of wider public perceptions of drug use. While medical institutions and the general public typically perceive heroin, ecstasy, and cocaine as offering pleasurable experiences with subsequent detrimental effects to health and moral character (i.e. addiction and dilapidated bodies & criminality and desperation), those who drink ayahuasca in Australia describe ayahuasca as occasioning often unpleasurable immediate experiences (vomiting, disturbing visions, and emotional turmoil) with subsequent positive effects to wellbeing and moral character. In the formalised ‘sharing round’ circles that happen in the morning after each ayahuasca ceremony, drinkers reflect on their ‘visions’ or revelations and publicly articulate meaning about the experiences in an attempt to ‘integrate’, ‘download’, or ‘ground’ types of healing and wisdom into their everyday lives. As detailed in these articulations, people drink ayahuasca for a large variety of reasons. Themes include, though not exclusively, seeking healing and wisdom in relation to distress associated with family, friend, or workplace spheres, and the seeking of artistic inspiration and entrepreneurial insight. People may drink ayahuasca and reflect on ways to better parent their children, overcome various forms of trauma and personal difficulties, implement a new vision for their business, and as a means of reconnecting with nature and the heart of existence. Ayahuasca revelations provide a source of moral empowerment and evaluative judgment that becomes pronounced in public oral performances that are typically characterised by an economy of expressive wellbeing and visionary poetics.

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