What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a brew prepared by boiling of several plants. The most important plants, typical for the Amazonian region, which are used to make Ayahuasca are Banisteriopsis Caapi and Psychotria Viridis. This brew is regarded as having both medical and sacred function at the same time, and it gets consumed during shamanic ceremonies. Most of the shamanic traditions of Amazon Basin use this brew as the central element of their ceremonies.
The word Ayahuasca derives from two Quechua words: “aya”, meaning “deceased” or “spirits”, and “huasca” which may signify “rope” or, referring to a rampant plant such as Banisteriopsis, it might be translated as “liane”. Therefore, the word Ayahuasca might be translated as “liana of the spirits”. The origin of this name is linked to the affirmation of indigenous peoples, which sustain to be able to communicate with the spirits of “teacher plants” through visions produced by Ayahuasca ingestion.
Which effects does Ayahuasca have?
On one hand, ingestion of Ayahuasca offers a visionary experience – usually loaded with emotional and spiritual meaning for the individual – while on the other hand it purges the organism through mechanisms of vomiting and diarrhea. As a result, the individual attains a complete mental and physical purification, which is often associated with a heightened sense of wellbeing.
The effects during the first sessions with this medicine might be completely absent, difficult to identify or to interpret, or they may be strong and uncontrollable. As one gets familiar with this experience, there is an increase in awareness and trust in process. One starts controlling the altered state of consciousness and learning how to use it beneficially. This process is defined by shamans as a real dialogue with the plant and with spirits.
It is through this very dialogue that learning, which is the ultimate aim of any work with Amazonian medicine, takes place. The learning can include botanical, medical and psychological areas, arriving to practical matters such as hunting, farming, architecture and art.
How is Ayahuasca absorbed by the organism?
This brew has a very special action. The two plants used to produce Ayahuasca are functional only synergically.
Banisteriopsis Caapi contains chemicals that inhibit the activity of the monoamine oxidase enzyme family. This enzyme, if not inhibited by Banisteriopsis Caapi, destroys dymetiltriptamin, a chemical with “psychedelic” properties which is found in Psychotria Viridis and which is responsible for the visionary effects of the brew. From a scientific point of view it is impossible to explain how did the indigenous people, lacking all advanced technology, manage to discover this mechanism of interaction between two plants out of 80,000 vegetal species found in Amazon forests – the sheer quantity of plant species excludes the possibility of trial-and-error approach.
This is the basic explanation of psychophysiological mechanism of Ayahuasca – a mechanism so complex as to constitute an interesting object of scientific studies, but also of any kind of philosophical and spiritual speculation.
Obviously, it would be erroneous to presume that the biochemical components of this brew are sole responsible for the experience in a ceremony. These components are only the keys that unlock the experience, allowing us to access a larger spiritual reality and to experience it directly.
What is Ayahuasca used for?
The persons using this plant for therapeutic and religious motives inherited this healing tradition from time immemorial. They are utilizing this medicine as a remedy for various illnesses, to alleviate or resolve them. These curanderos are perfectly familiar with many benefits of the brew, which at times they utilise not as a medicine, but as a diagnostic tool. Infact, through the application of these plants they manage to identify physical diseases or psychological conditions and to suggest the best therapy, prescribing a treatment which includes other medicinal plants from Amazonia. The efficiency of this medicine is beyond any doubt. Besides, an instrument which has continuously been used for millennia (passing therefore much more extensive validity tests than any Western medicine ever did) and which survived mass genocide attempted by conquistadors in the last five centuries, cannot have but positive effects, otherwise its usage would have been abandoned.
We should also keep in mind that an indigenous curandero never separates mental from physical plane. From this holistic point of view, curanderos wisely apply their good sense in resorting to concrete evidence. Having attested beyond any doubt that human being inhabits a single, integral body, they cannot make a difference between body and soul, between psychological and physiological dimension, between spiritual and material plane. These dimensions, which western culture normally perceives as separate, are actually the components of a single, indivisible dimension of human existence and therefore they are mutually dependable, a mirror to each other.
Another important fact is that Ayahuasca – known also as Yajè, Oni Xuma, Natem, Jurema – is still being used, in different styles and modes, by almost all native peoples of Amazon Basin. For all of them Ayahuasca represents a key to opening of a spiritual communication channel, which is necessary for understanding of one’s own inner universe, but which also serves as a guide for resolving personal psycho-physical issues.
Which are the necessities that historically contributed to usage of sacred plants?
Throughout the whole duration of human history and in all latitudes of the world, there have always been those that contemplated on meaning of existence and reasons of life. It could be said that the beginning of civilisation and appearance of a spiritual conscience coincided with the appearance of similar questions. These questions are at the basis of fundamental interrogatives on which cults and philosophies of every period of history were devised. The capacity to adequately respond to such questions was frequently decisive for the psychophysical health of people who felt and still continue to feel burdened by these interrogatives. Determined to find the answers to their questions, these people searched for the keys that opened the doors of communication towards the spiritual plane of existence.
Some traditions explored the meditation techniques, others explored those connected to dancing, to sensorial depravation, to fasting, to sensorial overstimulation, to sexuality, to physical exercise.
And then there were those traditions that orientated their search towards plants, discovering vegetal species which contained the biochemical keys perfectly attuned to our nervous system.
Such traditions are mostly concentrated in the American continent and have incorporated in their rituals the use of psychoactive plants which are found in that vast geographical area: mushrooms, san pedro, peyote and ayahuasca, to name the few of the most famous.
These plants have very different effects, which depend both on chemical composition of the plant itself, as well as the way the plant gets used. In effect, there are different types of ceremonies and each ceremony has a precise purpose. There are medicinal ceremonies, divination ceremonies and ceremonies aimed at social cohesion. Historically, Ayahuasca was used for very practical reasons, often pertinent to hunting activities, agriculture or war. Using the plant, shamans consulted with spirits to find out where animals were to be tracked, where village was to be relocated, where crops were to be grown, where water was to be found. Otherwise, they used Ayahuasca to gain blessings and fortune before military campaign or to find lost individuals or objects.
As centuries passed and social fabric of Amazonian tribes was being torn and destroyed, the use of Ayahuasca evolved. It got diffused in urban settings and the role of shaman changed. A shaman is no longer seen as a spiritual guide of his community, but – at least in Peruvian context – as a person that, just like Western medics, operates independently and gets consulted when needed. So, it is the medicinal usage of Ayahuasca that mostly survived in today’s world, but also, unfortunately, all those activities related to witchcraft. It is therefore absolutely necessary to be well informed about the person administering Ayahuasca.
Can Ayahuasca change my life?
Taking the first steps in Ayahuasca treatment in most cases represents a starting point on a broader spiritual path which may conduct to radical changes in one’s life. This change may occur on multiple levels. Ayahuasca can offer outstanding insights which can alter nutrition, working habits, social and relationship patterns. It can modify our way of perceiving and evaluating ourselves, our life and our perspective. At times, Ayahuasca offers answers to existential and spiritual doubts, and at others it solves physical, emotional and psychological problems. It can generally be said that Ayahuasca hastens the speed of change – it is a useful guide towards a more responsible and efficient life.
Is there a way to get prepared for drinking of Ayahuasca?
Given its physiological level of activity, drinking Ayahuasca should be preceded by a diet regulation and some rules of conduct at least one week before retreat begins. The more these indications are observed, the faster one moves into the process of healing and therefore the retreat gets more efficient.
In addition to nutritional indications, there are also some medicines that cannot be taken during an Ayahuasca retreat. These medicines should be suspended at least one month before the beginning of retreat. These medicines all belong to class of SSRI, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors. Anyone who is currently in therapy and using psychotropic drugs should obviously carefully consider whether to participate to a retreat. Ayahuasca ceremony is a strong, transformative and therapeutic experience, and we must be prepared to accept it in our lives.
Furthermore, it is advisable to abide by the rule of abstinence from sexual activities and assumption of any kind of drugs and supplements.
The higher the level of purity with which you arrive to a retreat, the greater will be the results.
How were the sacred plants used once and how are they used today?
The sacred plants were always used in front of a guide, a man or a woman trained to know the risks and benefits of their use. Every tribe had a person which was skilled in use of these plants and was chosen for this role according to his or hers characteristics. These were usually sensitive, wise persons, with a natural inclination towards leadership and mediation positions, with extremely developed empathy and an inborn aptitude to assist. Such characteristics allowed them to become not only spiritual leaders, but they often assumed positions of social and political relevance within their communities.
These leaders were called by many a name during thousands of years, but there is one name that scattered worldwide, becoming universal – shaman. By now this word, deriving from Siberian tradition, is used in every corner of the world to describe this mysterious and fascinating profession. There are many other words defining this role: medicine wo/man, curandero/a, tayta, iwishin, wichasha wakan.
As the social background of Ayahuasca evolved, the role of curandero (or shaman, as he’s usually named in the Peruvian Amazon) changed, but his influence remained the same. With the exception of shamans still working within communities of their origin, nowadays the majority of shamans operate individually and they get consulted by individuals looking for physical or psychological healing. Whether he lives in a community or not, the shaman must make available a protected space where he can heal or instruct his patients and, in my opinion, he must be trustworthy.
What exactly is the “shamanism”?
Shamanism is a disarrayed set of a number of magical-religious practices, which all differ among themselves, but which share the same objective: to improve the wellbeing of individuals and of the community. This is the fundamental difference between shamanism and witchcraft, whose goal is causing damage, or satisfying the lowest desires towards property, power, envy, jealousy and hate. Both types of practices, whether shamanism or witchcraft, can be found throughout all latitudes and in all times.
Europe, too, had its magical-religious traditions; some of them used “magical” plants, such as Atropa Belladonna or certain types of mushrooms, such as Psilocybe Semilanceata or Agaricus muscarius, while other traditions used other “non-vegetable” forms of contact with divine. These traditions of high divergence – from Scandinavian indigenous Sami people to fairy traditions of Ireland – were wiped out by technological progress that brought distance between human beings and their natural ambient. Their disappearance made road for monotheistic religions and forsaking of community lifestyle that housed shamanic traditions.
But what kept up was the natural inclination of human beings to believe in existence of paranormal phenomena, be they of religious, parapsychological or extraterrestrial kind. Many people living today in technological Western civilisation believe in things that science is unable to explain. The superstition is widespread, as are religious practices (which assume belief in supernatural and omnipotent beings). Yet we are wary of natives’ practices and we often belittle them, denoting certain arrogance, insufficient willingness to listen up, scarce humility and poor aptitude for learning.
The Conquistadores, arriving to Americas in 1492, had similar reactions to indigenous people of their time – reactions that often resulted in the most brutal violence. What they encountered was a constellation of tribal societies, whose customs and practices we can only imagine through writings of the very conquistadores. These tribes still preserved their customs in everyday life, in that vital, transformative process which makes shamanic traditions fluid, always changing and open to unknown – spontaneously humble because aware of transience of all things. Such characteristics underscore a remarkable difference from western religions, fossilised in a dogma rich with meanings that, however, no one is able to truly interpret, understand and explain.
When conquistadors went ashore of the “New World”, they brought about an extended operation of physical and cultural genocide. Perhaps this genocide was motivated by anti-initiation reaction of dark souls, unprepared for collision with the blinding light of a new and unknown possibility of life.
This genocide attempt, however brutal, didn’t succeed in total annihilation of spiritual and medical traditions that were based on the use of teacher plants. Somehow, hiding and camouflaging, these traditions have survived up to present day, due to the courage, the strength and the spiritual protection that was bestowed upon their guardians – the medicine men and women.
The totality of their knowledge was never a mere sterile ritual manifestation, deriving from religious beliefs that had lost their meaning. Their knowledge was the key to the very spiritual world which had taught them a way of life based on respect, humility and balance. It never prevented them from making wars or seeing empires arise to domineer and to plunder. It never made them faultless, but it did make and keep humane those who had learned and practiced it. The knowledge of the traditions helped them to discover the immensity of emotional potential hidden in every human being.
Due to rediscovery of this potential, it is possible to initiate quite profound processes of self-knowing. These processes are completely new, having by now been forgotten in the West, and they allow us to relaunch automatic mechanisms of regulation that are already present in our memory and in our DNA. In time, they help us find our lost equilibrium, our happiness, health and joy of life.
Which problems afflict people in the West? How can Ayahuasca help?
In my viewing, the Westerners live their lives suffering from amnesia and total ignorance concerning their true identity and their true potentials. Their sensibility is reduced, as if they’re being continually sedated and drugged by treacherous substances, such as money, luxury, uselessness, erroneous eating habits, toxical relations they are obliged to have and all the habits that negatively characterize their lives, which they take for granted so much that they believe them to be indispensable.
The personal growth and the awareness of being in this condition are both blocked by negative emotions, such as guilt, judging, shame, lack of self-appreciation and self-confidence. This emotional burden is a thick heredity left over by a dark past dominated by religions and obscurantist forms of social and family organizations.
It was and still is useful for these social and religious systems to keep the individuals away from developing their own potentials, to keep them in a state of automatism and chronic depression that makes them function as a perfect machine in a gigantic factory. By preventing them to access the deepest and the most real parts of themselves, these systems keep them easily controllable. In this sense, the industrial structure and mass communication systems of Western world make an impression of a huge concentration camp, where the prisoners are so accustomed to their condition of slavery, that they no longer recognize the walls that limit their liberty.
The Westerners live confined within prisons of cement and iron, seated upon soft couches, fixating plastic and glass boxes that daily pollute their minds and their hearts with a scatterbrain reality, which is simply not real.
They experience the facts that take place across a distance of thousands of km as if they were real, allowing foreign people, objects and noises to break into their intimacy, to penetrate their undefended minds, to manipulate their ideas, opinions, emotions and moods. By not allowing themselves to have a sacred, protected space, there no longer exists a boundary to protect them from Chaos.
This uncritical acceptance of reality makes just any aberration suggested by society seem to be normal. In this way, any perverse habit that was instilled in them from the infancy is justified and accepted. Thus they become totally incapable of autonomous evaluation of potentially harmful factors, of distinguishing those things that, in the long run, might make them sick, insane, distressed and sad, from things that might make them happy, healthy, free and fulfilled.
They do not live their lives. They’ve never lived their lives – instead, they live the life that their parents might wish for them to live, or their employers, gurus or politicians in office, to whom they give their trust and control of their actions, of their days and their lives. They put out their brains and they let themselves be carried by the flow. In this delusion of unawareness, they no longer protect even their children, allowing them to be educated by public institutions, while they exchange for the money the time that should have been dedicated to their offspring.
They are slaves coming from dozens of generations of slaves and they have therefore forgot what liberty is. They have never known it – they have no memory of liberty. Accepting silently their slavish situation, they let themselves be tamed by mock promises of democracy and justice.
Today, Westerners are paradoxically feeling more secure and at ease in urban settings, rather than in natural contexts, where they feel threatened even in the absence of a real danger. This fact might help us reflect on the magnitude of memory loss where our natural origins are concerned, or our affinity and connection with Mother Earth.
This is the starting scenario; this system of life leads towards illness, physical and mental. The search for a solution to these problems often makes us instinctively turn inwards, towards our inner universe, setting us out for a therapeutical and spiritual path.
Such a path allows us to see the real dimension of our being and it makes us realize that it is us who set our own limits. It makes us understand that the personality with which we identify ourselves is a construct without any foundation. The raising of awareness can bring us to see cornerstones of our identity, of our ego, collapse. We might face fears of madness deriving from disaggregation of our rationality.
Yet, in time, a repeated practice teaches us to confront these fears for what they are – emotions, something entirely immaterial, something that we produce inside our nervous system through conditioned mechanisms. When we learn to use our brains and our bodies without being victimized by them, and when we learn to control our emotions, we begin observing these fears. The very act of observation makes them inoffensive, since it declares their total unrelatedness to our identity.
Once we understand that we are not our fears, we manage to get rid of them. This principle can be applied indiscriminately to toxic relations, to irregular alimentation or to any erroneous habit that we carry with us from the past and that we consider impossible to alter or eliminate.
What appeared initially to be a frightful darkness, now shows itself to be a bright sun, shining peace, harmony and beauty inside each one of us. And just by itself it can guide us towards happiness that every human being deserves. We were not born into this world to merely survive in a condition of chronic unhappiness and constant frustration, but to be joyful and to realise our potential: this is the task we were given.
By walking on these spiritual paths and by learning from arising difficulties, there may appear a small opening in our subconscious through which we can see our automatisms, our weaknesses, our traumas and our hidden sufferings. And this may allow us to reset our system and start anew. Clearly, to be able to make a fresh start, we need to de-program by unlearning almost everything that we have learned and with which we have identified for all of our lives.
Ayahuasca is a teacher plant that can guide us on this self-healing path.
Is Ayahuasca dangerous?
This is a common question, but in my opinion, it is intrinsically paradoxical. I wonder: a gun on its own is dangerous? Or is it the hand that fires it? A weapon can be used to hunt a prey or to feed one’s own family, too, and not necessarily only to kill indiscriminately. Ayahuasca is like a gun; it is a tool, a weapon whose specific characteristics derive from the hand using it. The intentions guiding those who offer the medicine are essential. The purity and the capacity to control and manage one’s own dark aspects, resistance to temptations of power, money and Ego seductions. This is why it is important to choose well one’s own curandero, to get advice and to trust instincts, always analysing thoroughly that which we are truly searching for. This is why it is important to have trust, because the trust is a strength. It is also important to know how to set limits, both spiritual and physical boundaries of the experience.
From a physiological point of view, please read the page dedicated to contraindications.
What is the best setting for Ayahuasca ingestion?
This is another question for which it is difficult to give an answer. I can say what is the best setting for myself, but I cannot know what is the best setting for everyone. Obviously, through work dedicated to creating the best setting according to my opinion, we can arrive to create a valid situation, where work can be done with honesty and love – two indispensable conditions for those offering help and treatment. In my opinion, the first approach to working with Ayahuasca should take place in a protected setting, free from excessive energetic contamination. The work should be personal and the curandero offering the medicine should have sufficient experience. Not necessarily the “native” settings are the best ones, since they are often insufficient. Having some knowledge about “Western” mind can sustain the work of curandero. Mutually shared values and language can help in developing a good relationship based on trust. This made me appreciate Peruvian, so-called “mestizo” crossbred shamanism, because it has absorbed some Western elements which can be helpful. This makes me cherish dearly my teacher Otilia, because I can feel her very closely even though she is so distant and different from me.
How can one be sure that it is a path suitable to one’s own conditions?
There is no way of being sure about it. The certainty does not belong to the world of power plants, to the world of shamanism. The desire for certainties often makes us victims; we get exploited by those who take advantage of this desire to convince us that the solutions they’re selling are positive. In undertaking a journey towards Amazon forests in search for a solution to a problem, be it physical or psychological, one should accept being put on the line and give up any desire for certainty. On the contrary, the Western medicine gives us many certainties: standardized therapies, given starting and ending point of medical protocols, known benefits and side effects of medications. In addition, the Western medicine often does not require of us to make a change in our lifestyle, in our nutrition, in our social relations or work. It simply offers a remedy that pledges to resolve the problem without making any change in our habits. This is a comfortable perspective, but it is often ineffective. It resolves a symptom, but not the cause.
In the moment when one takes such an important decision, the only thing that matters are the feelings. We feel inexplicably attracted to Ayahuasca. Another fundamental element is the trust we have in the process and in the people that accompany us through this experience. It can be seen as a sort of therapeutic alliance and it lays basis for the optimal therapy process.
If you are reading these pages, you are probably searching for something that can change your life – a solution to a problem that you have been trying to resolve for years and from thousand different viewpoints.
The decision to take a path with Amazonian medicine means ceasing to search for solutions that lay outside oneself and ascribing responsibility to the others. Assuming total responsibility for our own situation gives us full power to heal. If we are the direct or indirect cause of things that happened to us, we will also be able to be the solution. Obviously, we also need to be able not to burden this experience with any sort of expectations. We must always be aware that the healing process using Ayahuasca and Amazonian medicinal plants is a work that continues in our daily lives. The pace of change may be slow, but it must be respected. Often, the first thing to learn is to respect one’s own rhythm, one’s own necessities and needs, and to love oneself.
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