Ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic plant used in healing ceremonies by indigenous Amazonians, may offer more than just powerful visions. Matt Mellen heads into the jungle and discovers that it might also have a radical role to play in nature conservation
Ayahuasca, a sacred medicine system used for millennia by Amazonian tribes, is increasingly being imbibed by westerners seeking help with intractable physical and psychological ailments. I visited the Temple of the Way of Light, a highly regarded healing centre near Iquitos, Peru, to find out why, and to learn of the potential benefits of Ayahuasca.
I was excited to discover that the burgeoning community there are motivated by more than just individual wellness. They believe a powerful new means of protecting the Amazon, and potentially resetting human civilisation’s maladjusted relationship with the natural world, is emerging from the symbiotic relationship between plants and humans.
Ayahuasca is a powerful hallucinatory brew of a combination of different plants. It has been used for centuries by indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest both for divinatory and healing purposes. For them, Mother Ayahuasca is sacred, and opens channels between plant spirits – each with their own icaros, or song – and the human body and mind. According to the indigenous people, these spirits want to clean and heal the human body and, once invited in, they purge toxic dark energy or ‘demons’, usually by inducing vomiting.
The experience is complex, unpredictable and often terrifying. Bruce Parry famously took ayahuasca while his crew filmed the TV series Bruce Parry’s Amazon, and then lay in agony on the floor, wrestling with his ego. One’s identity can be literally torn apart.
And yet, everyone I spoke to who had drunk the tea urged me to partake. Many ayahuasca users report positive transformational experiences, and return from the Amazon with tales of being transported to parallel supernatural dimensions where they interact with intelligent beings that help them to understand themselves, their lives and their purpose.
The hallucinatory nature of the medicine means that it has been made illegal in the countries with the most advanced scientific research institutes. Conventional wisdom and standard psychological advice has been that hallucinogens are risky and can destabilise the rational mind.
However, ayahuasca’s anecdotally shared success at treating ailments ranging from depression, anxiety and addiction, through to chronic health issues as diverse as backache, gout and Parkinson’s disease, have encouraged an unconventional minority of afflicted persons to give it a try.
Their gambit may prove to have been sound: researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, recently analysed drug survey data from more than 130,000 Americans to examine the effects of hallucinogens on mental health. The results, published in the academic journal PLOS One in August 2013, indicate that there are no significant associations between the use of psychedelics and mental illness. Writing in the paper, the scientists add: “In several cases psychedelic use was associated with lower rate of mental health problems.”
However, they admit that the study is not without limitations: it may be that healthier people are more likely to experiment with psychedelic drug use than those with pre-existing mental health problems, therefore biasing the results. The paper also can’t account for additional risk factors such as family history of mental illness, and quantity and frequency of the dose ingested. Commenting on the study in an interview for NPR.org, a United States public radio organisation, psychologist Matthew Johnson from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said: “This should not be taken to state that there are never individual cases of harm. We know that there are. It’s a question of how frequent they are and under what circumstances they happen.”
Nonetheless, the Temple’s founder, Englishman Matthew Watherston, had his life transformed after using the plant to treat depression and cannabis addiction in 2007. Since then, more than 2,000 people have been treated at the Centre.
“The western world’s surging interest in ayahuasca might have a role to play in healing our relationship with the natural world”
Tragically however, the surrounding jungle is itself still under threat. Impoverished locals are forced to eke out a living through slash-and-burn agriculture that damages the landscape, while oil companies leave a devastating trail of destruction, pollution and disease in their wake.
The community living around the Temple was compelled to respond, and today two new organisations work from the growing campus. The Chaikuni Institute promotes ecological solutions, and Alianza Arkana is fighting to protect indigenous interests.
Wisely managed, a small area of thriving rainforest is crammed full of superfoods, medicines and resources that offer myriad livelihood opportunities to local people, if sustainably harvested. I was able to pick up tinctures of reishi mushrooms, large bags of maka powder and fantastic traditional garments inexpensively and directly from the people making them. Health treatments are literally growing on the trees. But the challenge remains to demonstrate that much greater dividends are available by using the forest as a living resource, rather than just cutting it down.
But perhaps most intriguing of all, is the possibility that ayahuasca itself may have a role to play in the conservation of its habitat. Under its influence, many users feel much closer to the web of life that perennially surrounds and nourishes us. More than that, in my group, many of us felt a deep sense of connection to the planet. What I experienced as ‘plant spirits’ seemed to communicate a powerful message that Mother Nature wants all humanity to change, and that this starts with personal healing. Some at the centre also felt that the western world’s surging interest in ayahuasca might have a role to play in healing our relationship with the natural world. A departure from reality may be a key to improving it.
Participants in the 12-day retreat are pampered and treated with immense care; many may be hurting, or distressed, when they arrive. Guests stay in simple huts on stilts, called tambols. Mealtimes, meetings and ceremonies are held in large thatched roof shelters, called malocas. Everywhere, hammocks swing between trees. At night residents huddle around lanterns and enjoy the company of friends, the jungle and the gloriously un-interfered-with night sky.
The retreat consists of seven nights of ayahuasca ceremonies, administered by shamans of the Shipibo tribe. Over this period our diet would be heavily restricted, we would sleep very little and, of course, experience intense hallucinations, often accompanied with vigorous purging.
Taking the medicine is a humbling experience because we open ourselves to a process out of our control. Many in my group found the ceremonies dark, painful (both physically and emotionally) and scary. Often, intense past memories are relived in vivid detail.
Clearly, in this sense, it is not for everyone and no one should enter into it lightly. The National Institute on Drug Abuse warns that “the effects of hallucinogens are highly variable and unreliable, producing different effects in different people at different times. Because of their unpredictable nature, the use of hallucinogens can be particularly dangerous.”
Drinking from the ayahuasca cup opens the door to the full gamut of repressed emotions and pain that may hide beneath our public personas. Those tentative first sips may toss a hand grenade into our personal narrative of who we are. If you are hiding something from yourself, this is one very intense way to find out.
Personally, my experience of ayahuasca, although deeply challenging, was very positive. In the first ceremony, I had been feeling nauseous for ages and was concerned the medicine might stay inside me. Suddenly I had a hot flush and knew my time had come. I knelt at the end of the mat, triumphantly grabbed my bowl and violently vomited. As I did I felt various internal torments fly out. I rolled back onto the mat feeling lighter and much improved. Now it seemed the floodgates had been opened, not for visions, but for profound insights. Whatever my mind rested on I found a resolution.
In subsequent ceremonies I felt I was given specific lessons: one on mindfulness, another on the limitations of language. Bright beings of light interacted with my consciousness and revealed things to me that, while hard to articulate, remain with me to this day. This was experiential learning from the inside out, and a doorway to what I perceived as alternative dimensions that I had never experienced before.
Meanwhile, outside the hut, nature’s orchestra ebbed and swelled. Hoots, tweets, clicks and honks were occasionally outdone by utterly weird alien noises that emerged from nowhere, and echoed inexplicably around the jungle. The sounds were an ever-present reminder that we are utterly immersed in the deep complexities of the living fabric that envelops the surface of planet Earth. I felt the jungle seep in around me, covering me in cobwebs and tentacles. My body dissolved into the biological matrix. It wasn’t scary; I was coming home.
Many of us didn’t feel that we had planned our trips, but that they had happened as a result of a series of synchronous events. A participant, Ben, put it a different way: “Tentacles are reaching out from the Amazon jungle, they seek brave and willing participants for transformational information flow. They want to help people work through their personal pains, many of which are linked to shared crises of the modern age. They want us to become empowered to ease the pains and traumas afflicting the biosphere.” The Amazon is calling; who will answer?
The Temple of the Way of Light offers a 12-day Ayahuasca Retreat; the price of £1,330 includes full-board accommodation, seven ayahuasca ceremonies, individual healing consultations and wellness treatments, jungle activities and transportation to and from the Temple. International flights not included. More information: www.templeofthewayoflight.org