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.
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—————– 2012, ‘About magical singing, sonic perspectives, ambient multinaturals, and the conscious experience’. Indiana. Vol. 29
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—————– 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
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Fashion design at the top by Onanya