From the Amazon to Australia: A Dumontian analysis of ayahuasca healing

shipibo

The psychoactive beverage ayahuasca is used differently in Australia compared to in its homeland of indigenous Amazonia. The simplicity of this statement is haunted by an immense complexity. The types of uses of ayahuasca are by no means unified in the Amazon. Although anthropologists have noted that different indigenous peoples in the Amazon use ayahuasca for very different reasons, the Shipibo-Conibo people of the Ucayali region have become the central image of indigenous ayahuasca shamanism in the eyes of Australian ayahuasca drinkers and popular media around the world. Shipibo art is imported to Australia in the form of tapestry, clothing (see image above), tattoos, ritual paraphernalia, and various adornments and it provides a key aesthetic medium by which Australian ayahuasca drinkers establish identity and hone their ritual practice. This blog entry explores cosmologically loaded forms of social organisation that are imbedded in practices of Australian ayahuasca healing by comparing the practices with logics of healing in Shipibo ayahuasca practice. The former ethnographic material comes from fieldwork I undertook in 2012 and 2013 on the east coast of Australia, and the latter from the ethnographic works of Bernd Brabec de Mori (2009; 2011; 2012; 2013). The key difference between ayahuasca healing in Australian and Shipibo contexts, I argue, is in relation to the practice of sorcery. Concepts and practices of assault sorcery do not typically exist in the Australian context yet they are central to Shipibo ayahuasca healing. Through analysing understandings of healing and cosmology in Shipibo and Australian ayahuasca use certain themes emerge that are somewhat anticipated by Louis Dumont’s notions of ‘holism’ and ‘individualism’ (1970a; 1970b). The lack of sorcery in the Australian context is linked to a lack of relationality and the primacy of the individual as bounded and autonomous.

There has been some debate among anthropologists over the cultural importance of ayahuasca for indigenous Amazonian peoples. While Michael Harner, Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Jeremy Narby emphasise the significance of the use of ayahuasca for indigenous Amazonian communities, Bernd Brabec de Mori argues that ‘ayahuasca is not so important to indigenous Amazonians outside of its key function in attracting tourists, researchers and development projects’ (Brabec 2013). The recent expansion of ayahuasca tourism on the edge of the Amazon is marked by complex intercultural encounters that have been associated with rises in sorcery and inequality (Foutio 2012; Brabec 2013), a lucrative and global alternative healing and religious market that includes commercial images of indigenous ayahuasca shamanism (Comaroffs 2009), and various indigenous-focused cultural revival and conservationist movements. The authenticity and skills of Australian ayahuasca ritual specialists are typically predicated on training and initiation undertaken with indigenous Amazonian or vegetalismo ayahuasca specialists.

 

Shipibo, healing case study

The Shipibo-Conibo people of the Ucayali region practice a variety of different forms of ayahuasca shamanism. There are two main types of ritual specialists in Shipibo culture. The first are the recently emergent chamans who attend to ‘shamanic tourists’ and, according to Brabec, are controversial figures in Shipibo communities given their lucrative businesses of ‘providing tourists with spectacular [ayahuasca] experiences’ (2013). In contrast, the much more pervasive variety of Shipibo ayahuasca ritual specialists consists of the yobé and meraya, (also known in Spanish as medicos) who attend to illness, disease, malaise, misfortune, and various other issues specifically in Shipibo communities (Brabec 2012).

Notions and practices of curing in Shipibo communities are typically not limited to parameters of health defined by Western or modern healthcare perspectives. ‘Curing’ in Shipibo healing may refer to, or target, illnesses and diseases such as depression, madness, chronic diarrhoea, fever, malaria, and cancer, yet it may also refer to or target issues such as poor hunting and fishing skills, poor weaving and painting skills, incorrect ecological relations, and anti-social behaviour such as selfishness, jealousy, anger and hatred (Brabec 2009; 2012). These issues of social behaviour, work ethics, skills, ecological relations, and mental and physical sickness, are situated in notions and practices of ‘curing’ insofar as they are perceived as being the result of sorcery attacks committed by human and nonhuman persons, such as malevolent shamans, kin, animals, plants, and nonmaterial beings (Brabec 2009; 2011; 2013).

Certain techniques of ‘curing’ are public knowledge and potentially practiced by everyone. These include techniques of applying different plant-concoctions or plant-spirits to the skin in order to boost working skills or social temperament (Brabec 2009). For more serious and chronic issues, ritual specialists (yobé, meraya, and medico) are consulted given their abilities of communicating and negotiating with spiritual beings and forces (Brabec 2009). These abilities are predicated upon a number of ritual practices that may or may not include the consumption of ayahuasca. However, when ayahuasca is used it is typically only drunk by the healer and not the patient (Brabec 2011). The healer drinks ayahuasca to access the spirit realm in order to perceive the cause of the issue (health or otherwise). He finds pathogenic sorcery objects (for example, ‘poisonous magic darts’) in the patient’s body and sends them back to an accused sorcerer or malevolent spirit. Similarly, the ritual specialist may transform into various beings of the cosmos in order to negotiate the health of a patient with spirit beings (Brabec 2012). This common practice of counter-sorcery and spiritual negotiation as a means of healing involves a complex political universe in which healers inevitably become sorcerers and engage social disputes relative to the alleged cause of a sickness or issue.

The disputed causes of illnesses, or the illness etiologies, become vacuums of a wide variety of community struggles surrounding issues such as work ethics and skills, ecological relations, kinship and convivial ties, emotional temperaments, and various other moralised tensions. This complex immersion of practices and perceptions of illness and healing with a plethora of non-health related issues represents a radical departure from notions of biomedical naturalism in the sense that the ‘objectivity’ of the latter works to ‘banish discourse on oppression and social issues by naturalising disease as “how” and not “why”’ (Taussig 1980:7). The Shipibo practice of using ayahuasca as a means of healing-sorcery clairvoyance reflects certain pan-Amazonian practices and perceptions of illness, malady, and healing. In contrast to the objectifying ideals of biomedical naturalism, Amazonian shamanism has been characterised as involving subjectifying ideals that position agency (human and nonhuman) at the centre. Viveiros de Castro (2005:43) articulates this ideal and its perspectival quality:

Far from trying to reduce ‘surrounding intentionality’ to zero in order to attain an absolute objective representation of the world, [perspectivism takes the] opposite decision: true knowledge aims at the revelation of a maximum of intentionality, by way of a process of systematic and deliberate “abduction of agency”… a good shamanic interpretation succeeds in seeing each event as being in reality an action, an expression of internal states of intentional predicates of some agent.

The emphasis on, and role of, spiritual agency in the framework of Amazonian shamanism grounds the practices in social and environmental issues. The occurrence of illness, disease, and malady for Shipibo peoples is encompassed by these shamanic logics and it becomes a site in which social tensions are expressed, negotiated, and potentially resolved.

 

Ayahuasca healing in Australia

People primarily drink ayahuasca in Australia in order to heal themselves. Ritual specialists in Australia typically do not purport to embody powers necessary to heal people. In local parlance, they are ‘facilitators’ that ‘hold-space’ for individuals to drink ayahuasca and explore or undergo personalised forms of healing. Ayahuasca drinkers in Australia systematically and formally share narrative accounts of ayahuasca healing and trance-experiences during a ‘sharing round’ ritual that occurs in the morning after each ceremony. The accounts of trance typically include poetic renderings of a dominant cosmological framework that is characterised by an ideological rupture between society and nature. Illness and malaise are described as resulting from a spiritual disconnection between the individual and nature or between the person and the natural world. This disconnection of life-force may be linked to a myriad of different issues by different Australian ayahuasca drinkers. Issues include distress related to family, friends, and work contexts, and to certain qualities of modern and urban living.

The etiology or cause of illness and malaise in Australian ayahuasca circles is typically ‘anchored in the individual’ (Dobkin de Rios 2008) and not attributed to the evil-willing of the ayahuasca drinker’s family, friends, rivals or of nature spirits. Unlike in the context of Shipibo healing, sorcery and counter-sorcery are not present in Australia; responsibility is placed more upon the individual and the way in which he perceives the effects of his social and urban environment upon his psyche. In comparison to the heated and multivocal disputes that surround sorcery and counter-sorcery accusations in the Amazon, healing in Australian ayahuasca circles is somewhat politically neutral and the social or relational aspects of healing are approached in ways in which the individual’s self-perceptions, self-development, and self-authorisation are respected, foregrounded, and given primacy.

A key Australian ritual specialist echoed these individualist dynamics while describing to me the difference between his ayahuasca practice and Amazonian ayahuasca practice. Furthermore, the following account illustrates the above mentioned society-nature logics of illness and healing, and the ways in which this healing rests upon the notion that the individual must ‘take responsibility’ for his perceptions of his social life and environment.

I’ve never tried to copy what they do in the jungle because a long time ago the medicine [ayahuasca] told me ‘You are here to work with the Western psyche’ and the Western psyche has a whole different symbology and iconography compared to the jungle. There are different needs and conditioning in the jungle where there is this whole world of magic, black and white, everything as influences from other realms, and illness as unbalance, and in that cosmology it absolutely works and its real. But the Western psyche is different… The main illness I’ve been working with, specifically, is the split in the Western psyche, the individual, between themselves and nature. Even our mythological roots tell us we were kicked out of the garden of Eden (Cs 2012).

The ayahuasca experience varies from person to person because ayahuasca has a very innate way of relating to people so it knows exactly for each individual how to interface with them… I give it to twenty different people and get twenty different reports… Most people, if it’s a good strong brew, will experience visions. With this visionary content there is a lot of download of personal information. It can be very illuminating and educational in many respects because ayahuasca can operate in many modalities. She can be a healer or a teacher or she can open you up into intimate knowledge of all of the realms of Gaia, like the telluric, the mineral world, the plant world or the animal world, and insect world. You can travel into those worlds… You learn about yourself and your environment… It depends on where you’re at how she’s going to open up to you…But ayahuasca is a tertiary path. Not everyone is ready for it. Those who have done some work on themselves and realized that they create their own reality and are not constant victims thinking the world is doing all these bad things to them, then they are ready for ayahuasca (Cs 2012).

A lot of people in the New Age are like, ‘ohh la la, the light the light, and ewww the dark, that’s not me’… and it’s classic denial of their own being, which is stopping wholeness happening… people need to take full responsibility for their totality, their being. Aphrodite and Kali are one and the same goddess just different faces…  All the great masters have said be a light unto yourself, be here now, in this moment, then you become responsible of all the bad and good shit, that’s when you close the gates and malevolent entities can’t find a way in, you are totally grabbing it by the balls. You are all of it, the victim, the lover, the hater. And I think that’s what ayahuasca is here to teach, that everything is an extrapolation of your own consciousness, in this world and the astral worlds… Ayahuasca has come out of the jungle into the Western psyche to invite the Western psyche back into the garden. Come back into Gaia, back into Eden, back into oneness, back into connectivity and symbiosis and synergy with the plants, with mother earth (Cs 2012).

The cosmology of Australian ayahuasca use involves an inversion of nature-society axiologies typically associated with modern societies. It positions nature and the plant-spirit ayahuasca as a (or the) psychic medicine for society and the individual. Not overcoming modern Cartesianism, the practice reproduces the famous binary of Western cosmology yet in ways that produce a form of radical resistance to it. Furthermore, the inversion becomes the medium by which the individual learns about and heals his ‘inner realms’. The act of healing does not involve acts of retaliation towards a perceived attack from other persons. The ayahuasca drinker is concerned with clearing the ‘blocked’ psychic parts of the body that have manifested from afflictive perceptions that may characterise the drinker’s perspective. Through purging with ayahuasca, the Australian drinker takes responsibility for his reality and his actions. The reception of wisdom in the form of ecstatic ayahuasca revelations or ‘visions’ in Australia is characterised by this same cosmological plateau of inner self-healing and responsibility.

 

Opposite sides of the universe?

Through analysing healing and cosmology in Shipibo and Australian ayahuasca practices certain themes emerge that are somewhat anticipated by Louis Dumont’s notions of ‘holism’ and ‘individualism’ (1970a, 1970b). Dumont’s approach has been in vogue in recent years given the way in which it overcomes certain limitations of ahistoricity in Levi-Straussian structuralism by accommodating cultural change and human agency and practice in flexible and nonessentialist terms (Parkins 2003, Bubandt and Otta 2010, Kapferer 2010).

Individualism, Dumont argued, emerged from a long process of European and Christian history and a complex cultural revolution characterized by ‘a displacement of the main value stress from society as a whole (holism) to the human individual taken as an embodiment of humanity at large (individualism)’ (1970a:32). This historical transvaluation found its completion, he argued, with the advent of modern institutions and in particular with the distinction of economics from the state. These institutions, he suggested, act as extensions of this value insofar as they work to serve the individual as bounded, abstract, and self-interested with inalienable private rights. Dumont stressed that in contrast to this socially instituted emphasis on the individual, ‘nonmodern societies’ are characterized by political structures that place the individual hierarchically below, or as being superseded by, the collective or social group and thus place utmost value on the relational or social whole.

In the context of Shipibo ayahuasca healing, the noted ‘curing’ of poor hunting, fishing, weaving, and painting skills, and ‘curing’ afflictive social behaviour such as selfishness, jealousy, hatred and anger, represent a relational ethos in which sociality is healed of its own decay. People are linked by the psychic flow of sorcery and healing objects and powers. The often disguised nature of Amazonian spirits and shamans, or their ability to morph into other beings, along with embodying dual powers to both heal and harm or kill, has created what is often labelled the ‘moral ambiguity complex’ (Whitehead and Wright 2004) of Amazonian shamanism. This uncertainty or ambivalence embedded in the practice of indigenous ayahuasca healing is reflected in the heated political disputes that surround sorcery and counter-sorcery accusations. Sociality is haunted by the fear of spiritual attack in these social contexts representing an inverted pole of holism in which relationality is still given primacy, though in a negative sense. A social web of interpenetrating and changing relations characterise the practice of curing.

While spirits in the Amazon are ambiguous figures, potentially morphing and curing or harming, La Madre Ayahuasca in Australia is a purely benevolent being who bestows healing upon those who drink and consult her. The apotheosis of indigenous ayahuasca healing is characterised by shamans transforming or metamorphosing into different beings in order to negotiate spiritual alliances in ways that engage relational disputes of communities and their environments. In contrast, the apotheosis of healing in Australian ayahuasca spirituality is characterised by purification and purging, and a kind of individualist mystical union in which the patient may metamorph or become nature and the whole cosmos. This type of individualist mystical union resembles, to some extent, the Christian doctrine of union with God that Dumont argues is at the origins of modern individualism (1970a). Origin claims aside, the Australian ayahuasca healing approach phenomenologically resonates with an individualist axiology in the way in which the individual embodies the all—the human and nonhuman all—in a sacred and inner ‘journey’ or disclosure.

In contrast to practices of Shipibo ayahuasca healing, Australian ayahuasca circles are characterised by a kind of liberal access to the cosmos, an absence of sorcery and related political disputes, and by the individual’s personally enacted purification and mystical union with nature and beyond as the apotheosis of healing. These qualities and characteristics place a greater emphasis and value on the individual as bounded and self-authorising with inalienable private rights over the cosmos. In this social context, notions of illness, malady, and healing are predicated on the individual’s perceptions of his or her relations with the world. While the central values of ayahuasca healing in Australia include an ecstatic kind of opposition to modernity—particularly in regards to the inversion of Cartesian-based nature and society axiologies—this opposition is encompassed by the pervasive modern value of individualism as detailed in the noted healing ideologies of purging and revelation.

References

Brabec de Mori, B. 2013 ‘From the Native’s Point of View: How Shipibo-Konibo experience and interpret ayahuasca drinking with “Gringos”’ in Labate & Cavner Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond. Oxford Press, Oxford

—————– 2012, ‘About magical singing, sonic perspectives, ambient multinaturals, and the conscious experience’. Indiana. Vol. 29

—————– 2011, ‘Tracing hallucinations: Contributing to a critical ethnohistory of ayahuasca usage in the Peruvian Amazon’. In B. C. Labate & H. Jungaberle (Eds.), The Internationalization of Ayahuasca (pp. 23-47). Zürich: Lit Verlag.

—————– 2009 ‘Words can doom. Songs may heal: Ethnomusicology and indigenous explanations of song-induced transformative processes in Western Amazonia’ Curare: Journal of Medical Anthrooplogy. Vol. 32 p.123

Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J. 2009, Ethnicity Inc. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Dobkin de Rios, M. 2008, A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy. Westport Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

Dumont, L. 1970a, ‘Religion, Politics, and Society in the Individualistic Universe’. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Pp.31-41

Dumont, L. 1970b, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Fotiou, E. 2010, ‘Encounters with sorcery: an ethnographic account’ Anthropology and Humanism. Vol. 35 pp.192

Taussig, M. 1980, ‘Reification and the consciousness of the patient’. Social Science Medical Anthropology Vol. 1

Viveiros de Castro, V.  2005, ‘Perspectivism and Multinaturalism in Indigenous America’. in Surralles, A. & Hierro, G. P. The Land Within: Indigenous Territory and the Perception of Environment. Denmark: IWGIA

Whitehead, N. & Wright, R. (ed.) 2004, In Darkness and Secrecy: The anthropology of assault sorcery and witchcraft in Amazonia. Duke University Press, London

Fashion design at the top by Onanya

12 thoughts on “From the Amazon to Australia: A Dumontian analysis of ayahuasca healing

  1. Very eloquent and well researched, as are the rest of your posts.
    I am curious, however, from the perspective of an indigenous Australian living in a society founded on colonialism, where many of the values of colonialism are still influential, as to your thoughts on how much these colonialist values impact on the willingness of Westerners to negate the value of the millennia old narrative inherent in the ritualistic approach to these medicines, which is in and of itself a very sophisticated science, retained and refined over generations.
    It is common occurrence the world over for people engaging with such cultural practices as means to their own end to impose their own world view and beliefs in order to make things more convenient, whether for a doctorate or to avoid addressing the deeply ingrained arrogance and disrespect for the right way of doing things that has become endemic of the Western psyche, as suggested in the statement of your key Australian ritual specialist.
    Said specialist has no existing social frame of reference or verification for his claim, and while proponents of this kind of use of traditional medicines take the firm stance that the work is between them and the medicine, all I see is a further entrenching of dissociation and fragmentation of social relatedness, regardless of claims of coming “back into Gaia…into oneness”.
    I make mention of my indigenous Australian heritage because there is an incredibly ingrained oversight in the culture and psyche of modern Australia, where the abovementioned arrogance and disrespect abides and flourishes still to this day if any person should care to look hard enough, and of which there are despairingly few willing to do so.

  2. Dear Sam,
    Thank you for the questions and thoughts. Apologies for my tardy response. I am glad you have enjoyed the posts. You raise a lot of very important questions and I wish I could answer them fully but I am not sure if I have the knowledge-base to comment on these very politically hot topics.
    One thing I will say is that Amazonian shamans do, on occasion, come to Australia and conduct healing circles here. Many ayahuasca drinkers in Australia express a strong reverence towards indigenous cultures and indigenous knowledge, especially compared to how the Australian public tends to perceive indigenous peoples, and regardless of whether Australian ayahuasca drinker’s conceptions actually meet the realities indigenous Amazonia. The colonial hangover you speak of is by no means completely exorcised from ayahuasca culture in Australia but perhaps more so than other subcultures of Australia.
    You may be interested in the new text Labate & Cavner (2014) ‘Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond’, Oxford Press. It covers a lot of the questions you’ve posed, including examining the cultural, cosmological, and intellectual dissonances that exist between Western ayahuasca drinkers and Amazonian shamans, and the types of reinvention (on both sides) that is coming out of this ‘clash’. The power dynamics involved in the money that travels from the West to Amazonia through the tourism ayahuasca lodges cannot be omitted form the equation. But, in response to your question on Western neocolonialism, Oscar Saez, for instance, explains that ‘ayahuasca is now the motor of a missionary enterprise that indigenous Amazonians have directed toward the same societies that bombarded them with their own missionaries for centuries (p. xxiii in the Labate Cavner edition noted above).
    I hope this provides, if only very partially, some insights to your very important questions
    Many thanks,
    Alex

    • Thanks for your response, politically hot indeed! Though my main concern motivating these questions is that in the willingness to adapt or impose Western/ modernist structures over and around the use of these medicines, there is an inevitable dispelling of practises that have been maintained for very, very good reason, namely the safety of those present and undertaking use thereof. There is much in the datasphere regarding benefits of modern adaptations of these medicines, but very little caveat given of the inherent dangers ie. tangling with beings with capacity to gain manipulative control by means of obfuscation and seduction far beyond the comprehension of regular people.

      Will have a look at the texts mentioned, thank you, and would hope to see your doctorate piece, if made publicly available.

  3. Hi Sam,
    The challenges of cultural appropriation are very real when western culture meets indigenous cultures.

    I young navajo woman expressed to me recently the idea that western white culture was once indigenous, remaining connected to sacred sites and spirit through ceremony, until a great severence occurred. In europe, people who derived healthy and rightful personal power by ritually connecting with earth and spirit were ritually burned for up to four generations. White european culture was severed from nature and ceremony so long ago that western culture has forgotten that it was ever connected to earth and spirit in such a way.

    This severence then continued on to other places around the world including ‘the new world’ and more recently Australia. In these instances the wounds are more recent. I would argue that in the americas the wounds are only just starting to begin to heal and in Australia have barely had the chance to start to heal as much of the trauma is still occuring.

    I see examples of cultural exchange allowing indigenous groups to relearn similar ceremonies to those that have been lost from other tribes. This is in no way cultural appropriation as it is given with sacred permission.

    I also see white people recognising that they need to reconnect to earth and spirit and I feel much of the attraction to plant medicines is about people finding their own direct connection to earth and spirit by ingesting something from the earth that personally connects them to what was completely lost many many generations ago. For many indigenous peoples their culture of earth and spirit connection has been totally lost. For many more the connection was damaged but not totally lost. For white people the connection to ancient earth wisdom has been more completely lost than any other race.

    I personally feel that those who are still in suffering from the most recent wounds deserve the deepest compassion, so I am by no means placing white people above anyone else. In perhaps most cases the victims have become the perpetrators and this must be acknowledged.

    What I am saying however is that the wisest and most moving indigenous people I’ve spent time with can see that in order to achieve unity (in order to restore mother earth), this unity will need to include those most sick with the delusion of separation: the white race.

    I do not condone or endorse cultural appropriation in any way.

    There is something different about people working with plant medicines in western culture creating new ceremonies. The clear difference is that they may be inspired by other cultures but choose not to just directly copy and take on other cultures out of respect, as they do not want to offend by culturally appropriating.

    But here is the key point. They do not need to copy ceremony from indigenous tribes who learnt their ways from higher teachers – who are plants. They are able to learn ways directly from the plants, who are speaking directly on behalf of earth and spirit.

    In this sense I feel that plant medicines are allowing western culture and the white race to rediscover and recreate earth and spirit rituals and help their white brothers and sisters to reconnect to earth and spirit too.

    I acknowledge that there is often a syncretic combination of small elements picked up from many different cultures, but I have not witnessed many instances at all of white people taking on the dress, tools and ceremonies of another culture and claiming them as their own, or that they have rightful permission to do so, when they haven’t.

    I have seen people with a rattle from here and a drum from there and songs from all over the world in an attempt to perhaps come into alignment with the hopi prophecy of the people of the rainbow emerging to restore the earth – which is at least one indigenous myth that includes people from all races including white people.

    I can see that desire to syncreticly connect in a small way to all of the cultures of the earth comes from a deeper desire for unification and healing of the earth. I totally understand if this can appear to be theft of tradition and to a degree it’s true.

    It’s a culture that has lost all earth based tradition trying to gently borrow a little bit from everyone else who managed to keep some of their earth based tradition alive for long enough for the plants and the earth itself to help them remember or create their own.

    I admit that if each of those rattles, drums, songs etc were given by indigenous people instead of just bought in a shop this would be more aligned to tribal protocols and less offensive, but i trust that wise elders of indigenous people may see the intention from white people in this instance is to find connection again, and if the earth is going to heal, the sickness that is western white male dominated culture needs to heal.

    Jonathan Davis

  4. Hi Johnathan,

    You make many points, for which there is limited space for discussion here.

    I will make reference to an anecdote in reply to one point you raise however. It is regarding Maria Sabina, and her interaction with the early proponents of the hipster era counter-culture swarming wholesale down to central America to experience mushrooms. She and a number of other Mazatec shamans expressed the concern that after the influx of tourists, the mushrooms could no longer speak to them (the local shamans) in Mazatec, but could only speak inane gibberish, and consequently lost a good deal of their power.

    There is also another story of an anthropologist whose name currently escapes, who made his way into the Amazon in the early 1950’s and discovered ayahuasca with the Shuar. During one ceremony he encountered impressively powerful and (apparently) magnanimous beings in the form of dragons, who said to him “we are the masters of the Universe, give us your energy and we will make you strong”.
    In the morning he questioned the maestro on his engagement wight hess beings, at which the maestro chuckled and replied “oh them, they always say that…but really they’re just from the outer darknesses and want to steal energy”.

    My point is that if you want to engage with these realms and the multitudinous beings that inhabit them (for which things like us would be considered as little more than a food source), then you’d better have a good frame of reference, ceremonially, culturally and linguistically, in which to ground yourself.
    Contrary to your point on appropriation, I maintain the view through personal experience that there is most definitively a right way to practice these things, which has been refined over generations uncountable.
    If these things can be guaranteed to be safer, why not make use of them?
    I would say it is because of the arrogance of the so called “white-male dominated culture” you fastidiously make reference to, which in Australian counter-culture circles rides in very surreptitiously disguised on the back of the attitude that “our intention is right, so how we go about it doesn’t really matter”.

  5. *In perhaps most cases the victims have become the perpetrators and this must be acknowledged.

    What i mean here is that white people may have once been the victim but have as a culture become the perpetrator, and this isn’t acceptable and needs to be acknowledged.

    JD

  6. Hi Sam,

    it’s an interesting topic that I hope to see discussed more openly and publicly in the future.

    please be assured that your assertion, at least in what i have witnessed in many instances, “our intention is right, so how we go about it doesn’t really matter” is only half right.

    I would argue that how we go about it does really matter and that the majority of people i’ve encountered in the west either serving or receiving feel the same.

    I don’t agree with the actions that have caused the messages from the mushrooms to be diluted and I certainly don’t endorse people deciding to work with these medicines in a way that is not with the deepest levels of respect.

    What I am suggesting is a reconstruction of true ceremonial ways for white people.

    I am observing often that there are people who are approaching these medicines with a good frame of reference as you put it. Extensive study, long term trips into the originating cultures, learning what’s being done well by them and also, importantly what’s not.

    I observe a culture in Australia that is consciously choosing to leave attack sorcery, based on cultural concepts like envidia, almost completely out of the equasion. I observe a lot less problems with sexually innappropriate behaviour, among other aspects of amazonian shamanism that are being left behind for the benefit of people in the west.

    I do however feel real concern about the alarming number of people wanting to make their own tea and drink alone, often for the first time. In this I share your opinion that this is disrespectful, reckless and dangerous.

    There is a very big difference between a) approaching plant teachers with deep reverence and respect and studying with them, going through very literal initiations and tests before moving into any kind of role of responsibility; and b) having an attitude that “our intention is right, so how we go about it doesn’t really matter”.

    I concede that apprenticeship and initiation into a lineage is a very reliable path, gaining the benifit of countless generations. I simply maintain that there are many paths. Myomoto Musashi is renowned as the undefeated samurai master… who never had a master. The masterless master, the auto-didact is indeed a valid path also. Riskier I admit, but every lesson learned is learned from direct experience instead of a ritual copied and only partially understood, the depths only revealed over time. There is a passage in the hagakure that talks about when a samurai is living in a time [or perhaps in a place] when there are no masters, then one must construct a master out of the best attributes of those he can find.

    At some stage there were people working with these plants who had no masters other than the plants. Many existing masters send their apprentices into solitude with some guidance but ultimately tell them the plants will teach them.

    Then there is the issue of connection to country, as indigenous australians put it.
    Not just australians but indigenous people from many cultures speak of the importance of connecting to the land where you are. This is an important factor, for people studying with the plants to live with them. To work with and ingest the knowledge of plants that grow around where they and their community live.

    Ayahuasca is well known as an interface allowing communion with other plants while dieting.
    I am aware of people using it as an interface with plants growing naturally in their region outside the amazon. This culturally fits with amazonian tradition because there is a long history of people dieting stones, gunpowder, agua de florida, gasoline… all kinds of unusual things in order to study them. There is also history of people studying the plants in the area that they live.

    In order for this to occur as ayahuasca takes root in new continents, it requires new work to be done that has never been done before by any ayahuasca lineage. In these matters at least the ancient wisdom of a lineage is limited.

    In summary I’m suggesting that there is an opportunity for new traditions to emerge on each of the continents that ayahuasca has taken root, respectfully drawing from ancient knowledge and doing our best to discard distortion and interference that may exist in the present day, in the amazon. And when I say ancient knowledge I mean from both amazonian and local traditions.

    …and then there is the issue of what the spirit of Ayahuasca might want, and it may not be what either of us think.

  7. Yes certainly room for new traditions to emerge, as one would expect with regards to country and the persons (physical and spiritual) held therein, as with Buddha-Dhamma as an example, the essence of the practice may be maintained while being embedded in the culture of the place.

    There are absolutely many paths, but also by your own admission many dangers, of which there is very little mention made in popular research (which was my main problem with the initial post, this blog, and many others like it).

    I would say from first-hand experience that attack sorcery and sexually inappropriate behaviour has not been left behind, but is in fact rampant in Australian ayahuasca culture. On the contrary there is a significant point of entry in the inability of many modern Western adherents to acknowledge the extent of cultural sickness with which they have been afflicted, as you mentioned above.

    “*In perhaps most cases the victims have become the perpetrators and this must be acknowledged.”

    Becoming the perpetrator is a sickness with which we are all afflicted, the treatment of which necessitates maintenance of the lineages and traditions that you argue have limited capacity for a geographical relocation. I made mention to Alex in my initial comment of my indigenous background to raise the conjecture that from my perspective, even people who say they have sympathies for indigenous cultures and issues (of which there are many in Australian New-Age and Counter-culture movements) are still afflicted with a sickness, and that racism, colonialism etc. are only overt manifestations of this sickness.

    I would say that however much we believe we can reconcile this deep-seated malaise, it can only ever be said to be so from the surface level of cognition.
    The source of the sickness lies much deeper in the bodies (physiologically, psychologically and more subtle still) of those afflicted. However much we try to act otherwise, such an oversight is still an open door to external manipulation, and will undermine any efforts to start a new tradition of practice. Hence the necessity of tradition.

    Acknowledgement of sickness of this extent takes a lot more time than the one generation or so that these medicines have been popular in the West, and many in the West must show a little more humility and respect, and perhaps start by acknowledging how small we really are so that we may get a more actualised sense of what we are able to achieve in the time we are granted.

    It is far easier to break something than to fix it, as it is also far easier to build and maintain a tradition on gratification and pleasure than to do things the right way.

    You are right in saying that the plants quite likely have their own intentions; it is simply my opinion that in much of the West this has been misinterpreted to suit the objectives of individuals who have a very limited view on things, who themselves are subject to the above mentioned sicknesses and afflictions.
    It seems to me that the actions of they and many like them are borne of ignorance and significant oversight with respect to this.

    I will at this stage withdraw from the argument, as such a debate (Particularly without face-to-face interaction!) can proliferate exponentially, with no resolution at all!
    I would encourage you however to reply if you wish, as not only are you entitled to your views and the expression thereof, you also write rather well!

    Has been an enjoyable discussion for me, and I will comment on here from time to time, as I also enjoy our hosts ability as a writer.

  8. “Unlike in the context of Shipibo healing, sorcery and counter-sorcery are not present in Australia”.

    “The main illness I’ve been working with, specifically, is the split in the Western psyche, the individual, between themselves and nature. Even our mythological roots tell us we were kicked out of the garden of Eden”

    From the quoted words, it sounds like western ayahuasca drinkers are clinging on to the last bit of Christianity that hasn’t been displaced by science, the Fall. The bible provides a whole range of encounters with spirit beings, and supernatural cures. The church provides ritual space for beseeching favours from god, or angels, and prayer fulfills multiple purposes including healing, contact with spirit, control of environment, and a kind of psychic warfare. Inasmuch as the mainstream religions still pray to save the souls of those they perceive as lost, like the ayahuasca drinkers, wouldn’t that be the place to look for sorcery and counter-sorcery ?

    The idea of healing a long- lost split with nature seems like it gives rise to similar questions about the nature of evil and the origins of the devil in Christianity. If God created the devil then isn’t God responsible for evil ? If man is a created by Gaia, why did nature create this split ? If God is all loving, why do we suffer ? If Gaia is the loving mother Earth, why did she create so many hostile forces and organisms ?

    (regarding Dumont In the history of Christianity, Islam and Judaism it’s not unknown for genuine mystics to be decidedly at odds with the clerical hierarchy and dogma, but they’re not alone in that. How would mysticism produce modern individualism, particularly if mystics have lost their sense of individality, unless it’s a reading of the contemplative path of sainthood which can be seen as an individual effort to some degree. But for such people all is god and nothing can ultimately be attributed to individual will.)

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