As icons of the difference between nature and culture, there is arguably nothing more opposite than plant life and computers. Such is common sense and is based upon key philosophies that underpin modern societies. Yet there are various fringe cultural movements in Western societies that do not necessarily perceive such radical differences between the domains of the digital and the ecological, the mental and the physical, or the human and the nonhuman. In recent decades, the uses of the indigenous Amazonian psychoactive or psychedelic plants ayahuasca have been re-imagined by Western neoshamanic ayahuasca drinkers in ways that challenge modern conceptions of nature and culture. While natural or organic themes dominate the cosmologies and “visions” of ayahuasca neoshamanism, aspects of visual and telecommunication technology have become key tropes and metaphors by which Australian ayahuasca drinkers understand their trance-experiences and the natural world. Ayahuasca has been described by indigenous Amazonian shamans as the “cinema of the jungle” and it has been used by Amazonian ritual specialists to make sense of media technologies. This blog entry explores some key characterisations of the organic and the inorganic in ayahuasca use in Australia and in indigenous Amazonia and also in the thoughts of influential 20th century American psychedelic philosophers. The sensorially dramatic practice of drinking ayahuasca is shown to involve culturally specific ways in which people are re-thinking and re-embodying their relationships with their environments (ecological, urban, and digital) and with each other. The piece finishes by exploring some of the similarities and differences between media technologies and ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca, Gaia, and the vegetal Internet
Most people if it’s a good strong brew will experience visions. Although I have noticed that some people are more kinesthetic or more auditory or just feel energies… but generally you’ll have 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 rather 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, insect world. You can travel into those worlds… You learn about yourself and your environment. ~ Darpan, an Australian ayahuasca ritual specialist, 2012
In North America, Europe, Australia and elsewhere, neoshamanic ayahuasca drinkers tend to refer to the plants of the ayahuasca brew, and to similar psychoactive substances, as sentient ‘plant teachers’ and ‘chemical allies’ (Tramacchi 2006:92). They describe drinking ayahuasca and perceiving and coming into contact with intelligent and healing plant spirits. Australia has a vibrant and large network of ayahuasca drinkers that are linked in style and philosophy with global currents of ayahuasca neoshamanism.
Seemingly tied to a lineage of 19th century European romanticism and nature worship (Stuckrad 2002), neoshamanic ayahuasca drinkers have creatively reinvented or summoned the Ancient Greek nature goddess Gaia. The Gaia of contemporary ayahuasca neoshamanism embodies qualities that relate to popular depictions of Mother Nature, certain New Age formulations (see Hanegraaff 1998:156) and that draw from, and elaborate upon, the scientific theories of James Lovelock (1975). The earth goddess Gaia and the maternal plant-spirit Ayahuasca unite neoshamanic ayahuasca drinkers with each other and with nature. This is both a sociological fact or function on the level in which ayahuasca drinkers collectively ascribe to the nature goddess, and on the level of cosmology where Gaia is conceived as, what Hanegraaff terms, an ‘organicistic holism’ (1998:155) that unifies existence from the perspective of the natural world.
Drinkers describe that ayahuasca can heal a myriad of illnesses and diseases, and at the foundation of these maladies, they explain, is a toxic separation between the individual and the natural world. For example, Fred, a regular ayahuasca drinker explained to me that “the root cause of all sickness is simply separation from nature and the natural order… ayahuasca heals this separation at a very fundamental level” (2012). Darpan, an Australian ayahuasca ritual specialist, explained, “the main illness I’ve been working with, specifically, is the split in the Western psyche, the individual, between themselves and nature” (2012).
Illustration by Anderson Debernardi
While Gaia is generally associated with organic life forms and the natural world, Australian ayahuasca drinkers also employ a lexicon of digital (or ‘synthetic’) metaphors in describing trance-experiences. The notion of ‘downloading’ healing and wisdom from ayahuasca plant spirits is a key trope in the Australian context and it is accompanied by other computer-based terminology. Popular Australian author and ayahuasca spokesperson, Rak Razam described receiving a ‘mega-download from the Gaian networks’ (2009:53) during an ayahuasca trance.
The aftermath of the ayahuasca experience is glorious: I feel lighter, clearer, like a hard drive that’s been defragged and all my pathways are re-linked up to each other, whole, and able to express joy once again. This is what it fees like to be healed. My whole body radiates from the inside-out. (Razam 2009)
John, a neophyte thirty-two year old Australian ayahuasca drinker described to me that the ayahuasca trance “feels like a defrag of my spiritual identity. It clears away debris” (2012). Ayahuasca drinkers use digital and electronic metaphors to refer to trance-experiences and also to refer to everyday processes of learning and to the accumulation of knowledge from ‘ordinary channels’ of reality such as film, news media, and scientific articles. For example, Pete, a sports coach and regular ayahuasca drinker, explained to me that:
There are codes in the new movies coming out, like Prometheus. I get downloads through the stories. Remember this reality is only a hologram. We need to unlock pieces of the puzzle to then unlock the self. (2012)
Digital and Internet metaphors may also be used by Australian ayahuasca drinkers to describe interpersonal interactions and exchanges. Darpan hosted an American ethnopharmacologist that was visiting Australia giving a series of talks in major cities, and he described to me that he was driving along the highway talking with the scientist and receiving ‘downloads on the Gaian matrix’ from him. Thus the Internet trope of ‘downloading’ indicates ways in which neoshamanic ayahuasca drinkers relate to their trance-experiences and to more ordinary or mundane experiences in similar ways.
While digital and Internet tropes are popular in descriptions of ayahuasca visions, in some senses they are unique in relation to the broader cosmology of ayahuasca neoshamanism. There is typically a strong rejection of artificial or “non-natural” things for Australian ayahuasca drinkers. Non-organic foods, water treated with chlorine and fluoride, synthetic pharmaceutical drugs, synthetic psychedelic drugs, wi-fi technologies, artificial light, urban city-scapes, and other artefacts are associated by Australian ayahuasca drinkers with illness, disease, toxicity, and spiritual malaise. Ayahuasca ceremonies are held almost exclusively outside cities and in nature or “the bush”, and drinkers warn of the dangerous “energies” that may enter a ceremony conducted in city or urban settings. As noted, central to conceptions of the causes of illness, malaise, and spiritual poverty for Australian ayahuasca drinkers is a rift between society and nature; an alienation of the individual from the interconnected and life giving forces of Gaia and the natural world. The noted association of synthetic or man-made substances with illness, disease, and afflictive conditions is balanced by views of organic foods, natural environments, and plant-spirits as repositories of wellbeing and spiritual fulfilment.
Although there are quite sharp valuations of the organic and the natural over the synthetic and the urban, there is hardly a complete rejection of human-made or modern things for Australian ayahuasca drinkers. Some ayahuasca ceremonies in Australia include up to $30, 000 worth of electronic musical equipment, and the popular use of digital metaphors in descriptions of ayahuasca trance-experiences cannot be separated from the fact that the Internet is a key social medium of information and exchange by which drinkers come to learn about ayahuasca, share stories about ayahuasca trance-experiences, and be informed about future ayahuasca retreats.
Conceptions of the organic “Gaian earth” and notions of the Internet or digital web trafficking information at the speed of light come together in, and are drawn from, the visionary content of neoshamanic ayahuasca trance-experiences. Ayahuasca visions are often described as including complex patterns, codes, designs, and aesthetics that appear to lend themselves to representations of digital information exchange. Relaxing in natural surroundings and feeling a deep sense of communion with the natural world on a morning after drinking ayahuasca, Rak Razam commented, ‘There’s nothing to do but bask in the Gaian code, or to update the old Leary mantra “Log on, tune in, and vege out” on the plant broadband’ (2009:241). The holistic nature goddess Gaia and the digital Internet coalesce seamlessly linked by the central trope of ‘connection’ or interconnection. The ‘vegetal internet’ of Gaia (Razam 2014) unites ayahuasca drinkers with each other and with the natural world.
Indigenous Amazonia, the Internet, and visual technologies
Conceiving similarities between the experience of using electronic technologies and ayahuasca ecstatic trance is not confined to neoshamanic ayahuasca drinkers. Indigenous peoples of western Amazonia commonly describe ayahuasca as the cinema of the jungle (Townsley 1993; Brabec de Mori 2009; Saez 2014). Like all peoples, indigenous Amazonians understand and make sense of alien or novel cultures and technologies from the perspective of their own cultural backgrounds. Outboard boat motors, radios, sun-glasses, syringes, shot-guns, and mobile phones, have been described by indigenous ayahuasca shamans as spirits, as containing spiritual essences, or as being controlled by spirit persons that dwell in extrasensory dimensions (Townsley 1993; Chaumil 1992; Brabec 2009). These artefacts or ‘modern things’ have been grouped into linguistic and cosmological categories that may include nonhuman persons such as jaguars, anacondas, tapirs, and rivers, and thus exist in similar domains of being and personhood to natural entities.
Rikbaktsa men taking photos on their phones
There is a certain kind of similarity between indigenous Amazonian cosmologies and the Internet that has enabled an easy integration of the two. Anthropologist Stephanie Alemán (2012:147) explains that Waiwai indigenous Amazonians were not so shocked when introduced to the Internet given the ways in which their cosmology resembles the Internet with ideas of disembodied realms where shamans send invisible messages to people, and given the similarities between Amerindian shapeshifting and Internet ‘avatars’ in regards to the potential embodiment of multiple identities. In this sense, Amazonian cosmologies appear to anticipate or neatly accommodate the Internet and its telecommunication technologies.
The Internet and its ability to make present those who are physically absent or to “be” in terms of an intellectual or mindful presence in a place that one is not physically present seem shamanic. This immateriality of cyberspace, which might intimidate those grounded in an imperative of physicality, does not confound them [Waiwai]; in their thinking, one is never really sure of the reality of any living being, because every being may in fact be wearing the disguise of another. Therefore, accessing and entering virtual worlds created by the “communicative programming”… is comparatively easy for them. Because creating identities in a different space is a recognized activity, the possibility of existing in a space without a body is completely real for them in ways that it is not necessarily for someone like you or me.
For them, humans may not be totally human and may be composed, and probably are composed, of inhuman elements — hence the idea that an animal encounter is really an encounter with toto, or “someone,” or that a person is capable of manipulating energies against or within another person without being physically present. They have been sending such virtual messages and causations long before the advent of e-mail. Thus, they have little anxiety about the concept of constructing formless presence, especially in online situations and spaces. In this sense, they are not re-creating humanness but are perhaps engaging in a form and comprehension of humanness that has long existed in their own ontologies. (Alemán 2012:153)
After visiting a cinema for the first time and watching a Bruce Lee film, the Amazonian Yaminahua shaman José returned to his village in the jungle and privately drank ayahuasca that night to learn and know about the city. The next morning he informed his family and community that the cinema was “not as good as strong shori [ayahuasca]” and that it “is like sick people’s visions when they think they’re dying. Bad dreams that won’t stop”.
In the cinema… I saw huge people on the screen. It was as dark as night in there, I couldn’t see a thing. And they were shouting on the screen. Yes, I was a bit frightened. It was like a dream, like spirits in a dream. I’d never seen such big people as on that screen inside that big house. (Townsley 1989)
Ayahuasca occasions vivid and clear “visions” and other extracorporeal sensory experiences, and at this basic level, the use of ayahuasca parallels the uses of visual technologies such as personal computers, television, and cinema. The imagery or media of ayahuasca visions and electronic screens are framed by indigenous Amazonains in terms of shamanic idioms that include ideas of social life in which humans, and also nonhumans, are linked across time and space. The organic and the inorganic conflate and are encompassed by these holistic cosmologies.
Psychedelics, cyberdelics, and electronic technologies
Famous American psychedelic philosophers of the mid to late 20th century drew similarities between experiences of consuming LSD, psilocybe “magic” mushrooms, and ayahuasca and those of using computers and communication technologies. Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary proclaimed that the ‘PC is the LSD of the 1990s’ (Leary et al 1994). Physician and psychoanalyst John Lilly argued that LSD can be used to ‘metaprogram’ your person ‘human biocomputer’ (1987). Leary and Lilly were both major proponents of a ‘cyberdelic’ techno-utopia that included ideas on computers and technology taken from cybernetics, with philosophies and ideas drawn from psychedelic trance practices. Similarly, the philosopher Terence McKenna (1989; 1993) developed a technical eschatological treatise that brings together topics on psychedelic substances, technology, biology, shamanism, and social evolution.
Through a busy career of touring the world and giving lectures during the 1980s and 1990s (many of which are now some of the most popular Internet videos on the topic of psychedelic substances), McKenna’s influence on contemporary global psychedelic culture is unprecedented. In the following excerpt taken from a lecture titled New Maps of Hyperspace, McKenna describes space travel, and an “experiment” that he and his brother undertook using the “shamanic technology” ayahuasca. His ideas rest upon a conception of the world where organic and inorganic life are not completely separate but are radically integrated domains.
The coral-reef-like animal called Man that has extruded technology over the surface of the earth will be freed from the constraints of anything but the imagination and the limitations of materials. It has been suggested that the earliest space colonies include efforts to duplicate the idyllic ecosystem of Hawaii as an ideal… We will make our world – all of our worlds – and the world we came from will be maintained as a garden. What Eliade discussed as metaphors of self-transforming flight will be realized shortly in the technology of space colonization…
A technology that would internalize the body and exteriorize the soul will develop parallel to the move to space. The Invisible Landscape, a book by my brother and myself, made an effort to short-circuit that chronology and, in a certain sense, to force the issue… my brother formulated an idea that involved using harmine and harmaline, compounds that occur in Banisteriopsis caapi, the woody vine that is the basis for ayahuasca. We undertook an effort to use harmine in conjunction with the human voice in what we called “the experiment at La Chorrera”. It was an effort to use sound to charge the molecular structure of harmine molecules metabolizing in the body in such a way that they would bind preferentially and permanently with endogenous molecular structures. Our candidate at the time was neural DNA… the pharmacology involves binding with a molecular site where information is stored, and this information is then broadcast in such a way that one begins to get a mental readout on the structure of the soul. Our experiment was an effort to use a kind of shamanic technology to bell the cat, if you will, to hang a superconducting, telemetric device on the Overmind so that there would be a continuous readout of information from that dimension. The success or failure of this attempt may be judged for oneself. (McKenna 1989)
In McKenna’s influential philosophies, nature, on the level of molecular life, is described with language taken from telecommunication technologies. However, similar to the indigenous Amazonian cosmologies noted above, McKenna’s descriptions of psychedelic trance-experiences incorporate biological and technological domains not as tropes of each other but as an integrated ontology. The digital and the biological consist of processes of information exchange that may be perceived and transformed by using their respective technologies: computers and plants.
Some final thoughts
The tendency to relate ayahuasca experiences to digital and visual technologies, or to relate digital technologies to ayahuasca experiences, is not arbitrary and at the very least is based upon the sensory resemblances that exist between the two. Yet, there are significant differences between ayahuasca and media technologies that I do not wish to minimise. The fact that ayahuasca is approached and related-to as a sentient being that exists in extrasensory dimensions places her in a different ontological domain to data-mediated-visuals on electronic screens. But if we momentarily suspend these subject-object, or ‘person’-‘thing’, distinctions of the phenomenology of ayahuasca and the phenomenology of visual technologies, there are still significant differences. Ayahuasca, LSD, psilocybe “magic” mushrooms, and similar psychoactive material typically occasion deeply immersive sensory experiences in which participants may embody radical forms of synesthesia. This includes experiences of seeing sounds form into dynamic patterns and designs, feeling music and visions in a tactile sense, smelling visions, or any number of overlays, mixes, integrations, or translations of one sense to another. Participants experience a deeply embodied immersion and become “one” with media or data of the sensorium, such as in the LSD experience of this 1950s American ‘housewife’. Indigenous ayahuasca shamans use song and metaphoric language in lyrics to control the visionary content of ayahuasca trance-experiences and to invite the spirits (Townsley 1993). They sing ‘fragrant songs’ and ‘patterned songs’ (Classen 1990, Townsley 1993).
Few sensory experiences can match the furor and exaltation of the ayahuasca ritual of western Amazonian shamanism: the existentially bitter taste of the brew; the giddy alternating waves of nausea and euphoria; the showers of rainbow-colored fractals; the ethereal resonance of the shaman’s chantinga; a speechless sense of mystery and wonder; and the unshakeable sensation of being transported to a place beyond time, ordinary reason, and the laws of physics… Songs and other auditory cues play an important role in managing the content of collective trance. (Shepard 2004:257)
These immersive and synesthesic sensory experiences occasioned by psychoactive substances obviously differ considerably to experiences of viewing photography and cinema, or to interacting on the personal computer and Internet. Yet the sensory mimesis between media technologies and psychedelic trance-experiences is becoming more pronounced with contemporary engineering. Virtual reality hardware such as the Oculus Rift has been programmed to occasion types of synesthesia in which, for example, voice controls the visual data and patterns on the inner-screen of the virtual reality head-set, such as with the innovative SoundSelf.
Attempting to draw similarities between ayahuasca and media technologies may elicit outrage from some people due to popular definitions of technologies as profane, inanimate, and mechanical extensions of humans and society, and ayahuasca understood as a spirit entity or person and sacred art. However, this distinction between sacred and profane is not universal across all cultural understandings and practices and is rooted in European religious history and culture. In contemporary Western societies, the interpenetration of computer-based language and ideas with ayahuasca neoshamanic cosmology represents an example in which the profane domains of technology are imbued with implicit valuations that bring digital life into the realms of the sacred. Nature and the artificial, the imagination and the real, and the human and nonhuman, are problematised and integrated in the notions of “shamanic technologies”, “plant spirits”, and the “Gaian matrix” of nature. This disintegration of the nature-culture binary so important to modern thinking and ethics parallels, in a very basic sense, cosmologies of indigenous Amazonia. In perspectivist cosmologies of indigenous Amazonia, what to us humans is ‘nature’ may in fact be ‘culture’ to jaguars, anacondas, plants, and other nonhuman persons and societies (Viveiros de Castro 2004:471). Perspectives that challenge modern metaphysics of society-nature are not limited to indigenous Amazonians and fringe alternative religion practices but are also the hallmark of avant-garde science in radical ecology, conservation science, anarchist geography, bioengineering, biomimetics, and virtual reality, alongside various currents of 18th and 19th century romanticism that have persisted into the electronic age. There is arguably a lot to be said for the interdisciplinary potential of these seemingly disparate cultural projects. In the world of contemporary romanticism, for example, the digital-esque Mother Goddess of ayahuasca neoshamanism finds herself at home in the provocative imagination of American novelist and poet Richard Brautigan and his 1967 poem All watched over by machine of loving grace:
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
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