The Ayahuasca Phenomenon
Jungle Pilgrims: North Americans Participating in Amazon Ayahuasca Ceremonies

Kim Kristensen


What is ayahuasca? What happens during an ayahuasca ceremony? What types of people from North America participate in ayahuasca ceremonies? Why do they do it, and what do they get out of it?

Introduction

It almost sounds hokey, but there I was in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. It was very dark, except for the faint glow of the shamans smoking their mapachos. I had been vomiting and dry heaving for over two hours, and had several bouts of projectile diarrhea. Lying down so the nausea was not as incapacitating, I could hear the chanting of the shaman’s singing their icaros along with various jungle sounds interrupted only by the other peoples’ occasional coughs and gurgling sounds as they threw up. Three hours ago I had swallowed a small cupful of a hideously repugnant tasting drink called ayahuasca (“eye – a – waska”), and for the last three hours I felt disoriented, dehydrated, and near death. Yet I was strangely alert and focused on the shaman’s chanting, and the visions in my head.

I wondered if I had been poisoned and would not survive the night. Fear mixed with anger and amazement as I tried to cope with the repeated bouts of nausea and fantastic visions. “Why did I do this?” I asked myself. Why did I pay over $3000.00 to go to the Peruvian Amazon and participate in this ayahuasca ceremony (and two more ceremonies after that one)? Why would anyone want to do this? And what type of person would do it? What do they get out of it?

In this paper, I will explain ayahuasca and the ayahuasca ceremony, and will attempt to describe the ineffable ayahuasca experience. Then, I will present data from a survey I conducted on a sampling of North American people who have traveled to the Amazon region of South America and participated in ayahuasca ceremonies. Finally, I will suggest answers to the above questions.

Ayahuasca: The brew

What is ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca refers to a psychotropic brew made by indigenous Indians of the Amazon jungle from a woody vine (Banisteriopsis caapi, B. inebrians, or B. quitensis) and the leaves of the chakruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Although the name ayahuasca is often used to describe the B. caapi vine, it also refers to the mixture of these two very different plants (DeKorne, 1994). Local medicine men, or shamans, prepare the mixture, sometimes substituting plants for chakruna (also known as sami ruca and amirucapanga), and adding different plants to the mixture depending on the nature of the ceremony (Ott, 1993). Ayahuasca is used by shamans to induce an altered state during which the shaman can look into the future, travel in spirit form, induce healing, remove spells, and cast spells on others.

The word ayahuasca comes from the Quechuan Indian words aya (“spirit,” “ancestor,” or “dead person”) and huasca (“vine”). Together these words refer to the “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead,” a vine that reportedly can free the soul or spirit (McKenna, 1992). Different Amazonian Indian tribes call the plant by names such as yage’ (pronounced “yah – hey”), yaje’, caapi, natem, pinde, karampi, dapa, mihi, kahi, and many other local names (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992).

Historical use of ayahuasca

Evidence from pre-Columbian rock drawings suggests hundreds of years of ayahuasca use in the Amazon, although Western scientists and explorers have only been exposed to the brew over the last 150 years. In 1851 British plant explorer, Richard Spruce, discovered the Tukanoan Indians in the upper Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon using a liana (vine) known as caapi to induce a state of intoxication. Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio first mentioned ayahuasca in 1858 while he was exploring the jungles of Ecuador. He described how the source of the drink was a vine used to foresee the future battle plans of enemies, diagnose illness, determine which spells were used and which to use, welcome foreign travelers, and insure the love of their womenfolk (Shultes, 1961). Villavicencio took the drink himself and described the experience of “flying” to marvelous places.

How ayahuasca works

Scientific analysis isolated the main chemicals responsible for the hallucinogenic properties of ayahuasca. In 1923, Fischer analyzed the B. caapi vine and isolated a compound he named telepathine (from the telepathic powers one reportedly gains when under the influence of ayahuasca). It was not until 1969 that a full chemical analysis was carried out (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992), and the compound was actually found contain three active molecules – harmine, harmiline, and d-1,2,3,4-tetrahydroharmine. Harmine and harmiline were shown to be the primary molecules of the B. caapi vine responsible for the altered state of the ayahuasca drinker; however, these chemicals alone could not account for the intense visions and experiences of ayahuasca.

The beta-carboline chemicals like harmine found in the B. caapi vine can be psychedelic, but only in toxic doses (McKenna, 1993). Further research revealed P. viridis (chakruna) as a common admixture to ayahuasca. Assays showed this plant to contain small but significant amounts of the potent hallucinogen DMT or N, N- dimethyltryptamine. However, DMT is rendered in active when taken orally. How does the DMT in chakruna get into the blood when drinking ayahuasca? In the presence of the harmine (found in the B. caapi vine), DMT from the P. viridis plant becomes orally active in the body. Harmine alkaloids inhibit enzymes in the stomach that normally destroy DMT. In other words, the B. caapi vine allows the hallucinogen DMT to make its way to the brain to help induce hallucinations (Turner, 1994). Of the thousands of plants in the Amazon rain forest, only these two types of plants when combined and drank will allow the user to experience a slow, sustained release of DMT and the resulting hallucinations.

Ayahuasca: The ceremony

When I first heard about ayahuasca from the leaders of a personal and spiritual growth center called “Seven Oaks Pathwork Center,” I asked why a person couldn’t just take the drink at home instead of incurring the expense and risk of going to the Amazon. The people who had been to several ayahuasca ceremonies explained that the ceremony was as important as the plants themselves. Some even suggested the experience of the ceremony and the “processing,” or discussion and evaluation of the experience the next day, is more important than the drink itself. Still others included preparation for the ceremony as integral and essential to the experience.

Ayahuasca analogues: Chemicals without ceremony

There are a growing number of people in this country using what are known as ayahuasca analogues. These are plants, extracts, and drugs that have chemicals in them similar to those in B. caapi and P. viridis. The purpose of taking these analogues is to simulate the ayahuasca experience by ingesting similar chemicals found in plants such as Peganum harmala (with its harmine alkaloids) and the DMT containing Desmanthus illinoensis (Ott, 1993). Reports flourish on the experiences of individuals experimenting with these analogues, with the most detailed studies found in Jonathan Ott’s Pharmacotheon. This amounts to experimentation with plants having no long history of shamanic use such as ayahuasca, and for that reason it is not recommended. Ayahuasca and it’s analogues are not recreational drugs – uneducated use could be fatal (DeKorne, 1994). Although chemicals similar to those in ayahuasca can create definite physical reactions in the user, there are still some vital missing elements. For one, there is the role of the shaman.

The purpose of the shaman

To understand the ayahuasca ceremony, one must understand the role of the shaman in Indian and other societies of indigenous peoples. The word shaman comes from the Siberian Tungusic word for the person in a tribe of indigenous people who uses a type of magic to heal, foresee future events, and communicate with spirits, plants, animals, and other worlds. Shamans are most often male, and are also called medicine men, witch doctors, curanderos, vegetalistas, and other names. Shamans either receive a “calling” to their role, or they can be chosen by others. They are chosen on the basis of their knowledge, spiritual gifts, sensibility, relationship to other shamans, or some uniqueness or strangeness about them. Sometimes the shaman is reluctant to accept the role because of the physically demanding nature of the duties, but the spirit world does not let him rest until he accepts (Maybury-Lewis, 1992).

The shamans’ job is to journey into the spirit world, or non-ordinary reality, getting advice and powers to maintain the balance between the natural and supernatural (Harner, 1982) . Shamans most commonly accomplish this journey by altering their consciousness through ritual methods such as drumming, dancing, chanting, and/or the use of psychotropic plants. In the Amazon, Indian shamans use chanting and plants such as those that make ayahuasca to achieve this altered state.

Since journeys in to non-ordinary reality such as those achieved through the use of ayahuasca can be frightening, confusing, and dangerous, shamans help others with their journey. They prepare the candidates through strict diets, purging, and other rituals. The actual ceremony requires just the right location and site preparation. In other words, the set (what you bring to the ceremony) and the setting (location and ambience) are critical to the quality of the experience (Leary, Metzner, and Alpert, 1992). In Millenium, David Maybury-Lewis states:

“If drinking yage (ayahuasca) is so unpleasant and frightening, why do people persist in using it? Because they believe the terror is something a person must overcome in order to attain knowledge. Needless to say, the insights acquired through taking yage depend very much on the training of the taker. An experienced shaman can see many things while under its influence. A novice may only be suffused with panic or lost in ecstatic vision he cannot interpret.”

The importance of diet

The shaman has a wealth of knowledge passed down to him over the centuries, and this information can be critical. When I first took ayahuasca, I was not aware of the importance of certain dietary restrictions. The trip leaders simply said to fast the day of the ceremony. They did not know I was taking megadoses of certain vitamins and amino acids in addition to the “smart” or cognitive enhancing drug known as Deprenyl. The shamans had no concept of people taking large amounts of vitamins and other nutrients that do not occur naturally in those quantities to enhance their physical and mental well being. Consequently, I became very ill during my first ayahuasca ceremony. What I learned only later was the potentially lethal danger of mixing certain foods and drugs with ayahuasca, and the importance of diet as prescribed by the shaman.

Ayahuasca contains harmine (found in the B. caapi vine) which is a MAO (monoamine oxidase inhibitor). MAO is found normally in the body and breaks down potentially dangerous amines from foods and other ingested substances. In doing this, it also destroys the DMT that is the driving chemical force behind ayahuasca hallucinations. When ayahuasca is consumed, the MAO inhibiting effect allows not only DMT to enter the bloodstream and brain, but also other potentially harmful chemicals present. These potentially harmful chemicals can accumulate from seemingly harmless foods such as aged cheeses, red wines, some meats, smoked fish, some dairy products, soy sauce, chocolate, avocados, sauerkraut, some soups, etc. Also to be avoided are sedatives, tranquilizers, amphetamines, tryptophan, tyramine, and phenelalanine (Turner, 1994).

The point is that one’s diet must be strictly controlled before (and immediately after) an ayahuasca ceremony to avoid potentially harmfully reactions (Lamb, 1985). These reactions can include severe headaches, elevated blood pressure, nausea, palpitations, and death! The point is that a special diet (which can include rice, plantains, and fish with no salt or spices) must be adhered to as per the shaman’s advice.

Abstinence from sex

In addition to refraining from certain foods, drinks, and spices, the shaman also abstains from sex for a period before, and sometimes after, the ceremony. There does not appear to be a medical reason for this, perhaps it is because the ayahuasca ceremony can be so physically and emotionally demanding. Some Indians such as the Jivaro or Shuar, may require novice shamans to abstain from sex for periods up to six months or they will fail to become a successful shaman (Harner, 1968). One of the trip leaders for my ayahuasca journey said she avoided being around some shamans during periods when they were preparing for and conducting ayahuasca ceremonies. She felt they had so much sexual power that it frightened her.

Cleansing the body: Drinking latex, turning blue, and mud baths

A friend, Ed Lilly, has traveled to eastern Peru four times and participated in over seventeen ayahuasca ceremonies. Most of his ayahuasca experiences have been at the camp, known as “Yushintaita,” of ayahuascero (ayahuasca shaman) Don Augustin Rivas-Vasquezs. In a recent interview, Ed described the interesting and challenging body-cleansing rituals performed at the camp as integral parts of the preparation for ayahuasca use (Lilly, 1998).

During the first day at the camp, everyone drinks a liquid made primarily of latex and evaporated milk called ojé (“oh-hay”). After drinking a cupful of ojé, participants are encouraged to drink a liter of warm water every thirty minutes for four hours. Forceful vomiting of the white liquid is not uncommon after an hour, which is followed by frequent defecation and diarrhea. The purpose, they are told, is to remove parasites and impurities from the body.

Next, everybody takes a huitol (“wee-tall”) bath. Huitol is an plant dye that turns the skin dark blue by the following morning. Since everyone remains naked during this period, they cannot hide their blue colored skin, which can take weeks to wear off. Don Augustin told the participants the dark blue color of their skin made them look like African Americans, thus creating a paradigm shift. One other possible purpose for this ritual is to create a physical change in the appearance of the body, such as the body painting rituals many endigenous cultures used prior to rites of passage or going into battle. Dying one’s skin dark blue may be symbolic of the personal battles and changes one undergoes during the ayahuasca ceremonies.

After the ojé and huitol, there are at least three types of baths whose function is to remove various perceived impurities from the skin: magnesium, red clay, and herbal. The magnesium baths are made of the white clay found several feet beneath the soil at Yushintaita. The white mud is applied to the skin from head to toe, left to dry, and later washed off. The red clay is used in a similar fashion, followed by buckets of herb laced water poured over the body. According to Ed Lilly, another benefit from these baths is that they help remove some of the dark blue huitol dye from the skin!

At any time during these rituals, Don Augustin may appear with a potion, liquid, or some other form of medicine for you. There is constant attention to diet, cleansing, purging, and healing throughout the two-week stay at Yushintaita. The point of all these rituals is preparation of the body and mind for the rigors of the ayahuasca ceremony.

The ceremony

A suitable location for the ayahuasca ceremony such as a small clearing in the jungle is prepared by clearing out remaining large vegetation. Sometimes a hut or other shelter can be used. The participants sit in a circle, with the shamans sitting together on one side. Once night falls, the shaman opens a bottle of pre-prepared ayahuasca brew while he sings one of his icaros and smokes a mapacho, a large cigarette made from native tobacco. Icaros are power songs the shamans use to call in the spirits, and initiate and drive the visions. These songs are said to be taught to the shamans by the plants themselves, and must be sung perfectly for them to provide protection and bring in the proper spirits (Luna and Amaringo, 1993).

My first experience at an ayahuasca ceremony

Don Jose’ and Vladamir, the Indian shamans presiding over the ayahuasca ceremonies I attended in 1995, lit their mapachos and blew the smoke into the bottle containing the ayahuasca. We were sitting in an abandoned Indian hut just off the Amazon about two day’s journey upstream (by boat) from Iquitos, Peru. Don Jose’ sat quietly while Vladamir while began whistling the melody of an icaro. The ayahuasca brew was poured into a small, eight-ounce cup, and handed to the participant closest to the shamans. We were asked to think of a question, purpose, or intention as we drank the ayahuasca. I listened to the others choking down the liquid as I thought of my rather general intention: I wanted complete spiritual and emotional healing. I wasn’t even sure how I would recognize this type of healing, but this was my first ayahuasca ceremony and I was excited!

I watched the person next to me drink the potion. I could see the grimace on his face as he swallowed what appeared to be a black, thick liquid in two gulps. I noticed he nearly involuntarily vomited the drink back up as he handed the empty cup back to the shaman. Don Jose’ filled the cup again and handed it to me. I took it with two hands, put it to my lips, and took the brew in to my mouth as I thought of my intention. When, I tried to swallow the ayahuasca, the potent bitter taste caused my throat closed up temporarily, and I sat there with the awful liquid in my mouth. I finally swallowed it and the rest of the cupful, enthusiastic at having all my problems solved in one night.

Nothing happened for about a half an hour as I listened to the sounds of the Amazon jungle and looked at the unfamiliar stars in the clear night sky. Then, Vladamir began singing an icaro while Don Jose’ kept a rhythm going by rustling palm leaves. I noticed my hands began shaking a little, and I was glad that the potion had begun to work. After that, I lost track of time, but I can clearly remember several events. I heard one of the participants begin throwing up, and I remembered being told that some people may vomit during the ceremony. I heard my friend, Ed, begin vomiting near me and I felt sorry for him as I sat waiting for the answers to come.

Suddenly, a wave of nausea hit me fast and hard, and the vomit was leaving my mouth even before I could turn completely around to direct the stream away from the palm bark strips that made up the floor of the hut. This was no ordinary nausea. It was violent. I could feel my insides forcefully heaving all the contents of my stomach out in a projectile fashion. I sat back upright again, only to have the intense nausea return. Except for two explosive bouts of diarrhea, I spent the next three hours either regurgitating, dry heaving, or briefly recuperating from regurgitating and dry heaving. I felt I was out of control and in the hands of something much stronger than my own will. Nearly exhausted, I felt death was near, yet I was too ill to be very afraid. This was not what I asked for! Where was the spiritual and emotional healing?

Don Jose’ and Vladimir continued taking turns singing their icaros while the participants were alternately sitting quietly or relieving their stomachs of their contents. Between the nearly constant episodes of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, I had visions. It is difficult to put the feelings and sights I had that night into words. The very action of turning these concepts into language seems to somehow change or destroy the content. I traveled at light speed to my home in Virginia, where my former wife was living temporarily. I looked at the mail she piled up for me on the kitchen table, and noticed a particular magazine I thought I had cancelled (weeks later I found myself looking at the same magazine on the same table). I saw, heard, and felt two small projectiles hissing through the air and entering the back of my body. Later, the shamans claimed to have sent them in tome as part of my healing. I saw an Indian man struggling next to the hut, yet when I pointed a small flashlight at him he vanished. As the ceremony ended and we headed back to our boats at the river’s edge, I saw beautiful blue lights dancing over the waters. But most of all, I felt a loss of control over my life. In spite of all my efforts to the contrary, I had to give in to the experience completely. I felt as though my ego had been murdered. I learned to surrender.

Healing during the ayahuasca ceremony

Shamans, believing all illness and malady has a supernatural cause or component, travel to the spirit world, find the cause of the illness, and attempt to facilitate a cure (Dobkin de Rios, 1992). Both physical healing and spiritual healing are integral parts of the ayahuasca ceremony. Many factors such as the above-mentioned special diet, internal and external cleansing, and abstinence from sex contribute to healing an individual preparing to participate in the ayahuasca ceremony by helping purifying his body and focusing his intent. Another form of purification and healing occurs during the ceremony, manifested in the intense purging through vomiting and diarrhea. Shamans believe the purgative action of ayahuasca helps rid the body of various toxins, and it has been suggested the intense vomiting may also help rid the body of internal parasites. The day after taking ayahuasca, I, like most people felt energized and refreshed. Perhaps I was only feeling better compared to the previous night!

One common way shamans use their powers to heal during the ayahuasca ceremony is the removal or implanting of “psychic darts” in the body of the patient. These psychic darts or virotes can be in the form of insects, crystals, and wood, and are acquired by the shaman from the spirit world or from other shamans. He removes the appropriate dart from the patient during the ayahuasca ceremony by placing his lips on the affected area of the patient and sucking out the dart. Although the shaman may even produce a physical object to show the patient the dart has been removed, it is important to note he is working in the spirit world with psychic darts and only produces a physical manifestation of the dart to assist in the healing process. Some patients will not pay the shaman unless he produces a physical “dart”! The process of removing (and, on some occasions, installing) virotes has considerable success in healing or improving the condition of the patient (Luna and Amaringo, 1993).

I am a militant non-smoker, so it is understandable that I did not know why the shamans continuously smoked their mapachos (hand- rolled tobacco dipped in rum) during the ceremonies I attended. At first I thought they just had acquired a bad habit like so many others. Later, I learned tobacco is considered one of the most powerful medicines by shamans. Tobacco smoke is used prior to and throughout the ayahuasca ceremony to aid in the healing and purification process. Tobacco leaves are a common admixture to ayahuasca. When the B. caapi vine is found in the jungle, Indian shamans often speak to the plant to ask permission to use it before removing any sections for making ayahuasca, and then will leave tobacco leaves near the vine.

Processing: The day after the ayahuasca experience

Don Jose’ looked at my bare back and lower chest, raising my arms up and speaking with Vladimir in Spanish and Quechuan. I had just finished describing the previous night’s ayahuasca experience, telling them how awful I felt throughout most of the ceremony. The interpreter relayed this information to the shamans, who then smiled and nodded. As they spoke, I understood the words bueno, bueno, or “good, good”. The interpreter told me they said the ayahuasca was good for me, and that I should participate in another ceremony. The first words popping into my head were “no way!” I wondered how something that felt so bad be good for me? Most of the participants expressed similar concerns. They were not expecting such a violent purging. Actually, few people ever admit to having a pleasant experience with ayahuasca. Later I was to learn that the reason people submit themselves to this harsh experience is the relevance of the hallucinations for personal growth (Kensinger, 1973).

From their staccato banter of the shamans, I recognized another word – frio – cold. I certainly wasn’t cold as I sat, a bit sunburned, in the midday Amazon sun. Gerry, acting as interpreter, said Don Jose’ saw cold in my body and prescribed the chirisanango vine as medicine. I accompanied Don Jose in the jungle as he gathered the vine. Later, he cut and pounded the bark off the vine and immersed it in aguardiente’, a type of white rum commonly used by modern Amazon shamans and curanderos for creating medicinal tinctures. I was told to drink a small glass of the tincture each morning and evening, followed immediately by a shower. However, the shamans said drinking the chirisanango would prevent me from taking ayahuasca again for the next few days. I was not sure why at the time, but I waited to drink the chirisanango until later. Instead, I decided to try ayahuasca again. My experiences were similar to the first time, although not as intense.

The day after an ayahuasca ceremony, the participants normally sit together with the shamans to talk about their experiences. It is here that the shaman tells what he saw in your body or spirit during the ceremony, and offers help, suggestions, or more healing. Interestingly, the shamans respond to the questions and descriptions of each ayahuasca journey with surprisingly practical answers. I learned from my ayahuasca experiences and my survey of other ayahuasca pilgrims that North Americans and Europeans often ask questions of a personal growth or spiritual nature. The shamans on my trip struggled with these questions, as they were accustomed to providing answers to more practical matters such as illness, money, and relationship problems. Each question, though, is seriously considered and answered by the shamans who will offer advice based on their observations during the previous night’s ceremony.

The survey

Limitations of the survey

Finding people who made the journey to the Amazon for ayahuasca was difficult. After over six weeks, I connected with only twelve people willing to speak about their ayahuasca experiences in the jungle. Two of these are what I call “trip leaders” – people who take groups to the Amazon jungle to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies. I connected with the remaining ten people by networking through a local friend, Ed Lilly. Ed and I had worked together, and were in the same group when I first experienced ayahuasca in the jungle. Ed has been to the Amazon five times and participated in at least eighteen ayahuasca ceremonies, so he was able to put me in contact with a few people who were willing to speak about their experiences.

It is important to keep in mind this is not large sample. The information presented represents the opinions and data given me by people who were willing (and eager) to speak of their experiences. Not represented in this survey were people who went to the Amazon strictly on their own as did the early researchers and some educated curiosity seekers. Many of these people went on to write about their experiences and several are cited in this paper.

Also not represented are the drug users following what one trip leader called the “ayahuasca trail”. I do not wish to judge people seeking ayahuasca as a “high,” but merely distinguish them from the ones interviewed for this paper. The growing demand for finding new and exotic drug experiences in foreign lands, known as drug tourism, leads people in increasing numbers to ayahuasca (Dobkin de Rios, 1994). According to one trip leader, most of these people are disappointed with the physically demanding ayahuasca experience, and usually do not repeat the experience. Charlatans – self-proclaimed healers using ayahuasca without having undergone an apprenticeship and often without scruples – abound in cities near the Amazon. Some ayahuasceros (usually mestizos practicing ayahuasca shamanism) fall into this category, charging tourists hefty sums of money and giving them ayahuasca without proper preparation or guidance (Bear, 1997). At least one trip leader from the United States falls into this category, advertising trips to the Amazon to sample various hallucinogenic plants and substances. Trips to the Amazon jungle usually cost over $2000.00, so instead of traveling some of these people are experimenting at home with ayahuasca analogues mentioned earlier in this paper. Interviewing these people would be difficult due to their reasons for trying ayahuasca, and therefore they are difficult to locate. As for the ayahuasca analogue users, they do not meet the purpose of this paper – to answer questions on why people go to the Amazon to do ayahuasca. According to my interview with trip leader Jaya Bear, there is at least one drug addiction treatment facility in Peru using ayahuasca to help get people off highly addictive drugs (Bear, 1998).

The survey form

Below is a sample of the response form used to collect data from the people I contacted. The questions were selected to answer the questions posed at the beginning of this paper, and to locate demographic correlations in respondents’ answers. Of course, many more questions could have been posed, but not within the scope of this paper.

Question / Response Form For Ayahuasca Research Project

Question Response Form

For Ayahuasca Research Project

Name: Phone: Etc.:

Question Response

1 Reason for going   
2 Results   
3 Are you satisfied with results?  
4 How many times?
5 Do it again?
6 Previous exp. w/plant teachers?  
7 Meditate?
8 Self-help?  
9 Age range
10 Sex
11 Race
12 Ethnic background
13 General location
14 Religion
15 Income range
16 Education
17 Occupation
18 Marital status
19 Other info   

Results of the survey

The results are laid out in a table format similar to the response form, followed by discussion on relevant answers to the questions posed initially. The question is stated, followed by the response, and then the number of people giving that response.

Question

Response

Number

1 Reason for going (each respondent gave several answers). Self-exploration/spiritual growthCuriosity (heard about it from another)Healing (physical/emotional)Vacation to the jungleCleansing (mind/body/spirit)

Connection to the earth

Interest in shamanism

Becoming a shaman

At a crossroads in life

9

7

3

3

2

2

2

2

1

2 Results (each respondent gave several answers). Loss of ego/prideNo result: A process, not results orientedAlien connection/communicationFelt stronger/lighter/betterHard to explain

Clarity of mind

Intense joy

Faced/conquered fears

Appreciation for nature

Reduced stress

Tremendous & profound (not specific)

Physical ailment relieved

Became telepathic

2

2

2

2

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

3 Are you satisfied with results?  YesNoAdditional comments: “Absolutely”, “more than satisfied”, “blown away”, “wonderful”, “very happy”, “very”, “completely”, etc.

10

0

4 How many times (number of times they participated in an ayahuasca ceremony)?* Respondent said he has been in over 100 ceremonies. Over 20*15 — 1910 — 145 — 91 — 4

*1

1

1

4

3

5 Do it again? YesNo# who have definite plans to return to the Amazon for ayahuasca

10

0

————

5

6 Previous exp. w/plant teachers (previous experience with hallucinogenic plants)? YesNo

7

3

7 Meditate (do they regularly practice some form of meditation)? YesNo“Kind of”

5

3

2

8 Self-help (do they get involved with other types of self- help such as seminars, books, lectures, etc.)? YesNo

9

1

9 Age range 51 — 6041 — 5031 — 40

3

4

3

10 Sex MaleFemale

7

3

11 Race White (Caucasian)Other

10

0

12 Ethnic background Scots/Irish/EnglishNorth. European (German, Danish, etc.)French/Italian—————————————————-# who said they were “part Indian”

6

3

1

———–

4

13 General location Mid AtlanticNew EnglandCentral plainsWest Coast

1

4

4

1

14 Religion (religious upbringing) CatholicBaptistProtestantEpiscopalianNone

—————————————————-

# who now claim “no standard religion”

4

2

2

1

1

———–

10

15 Income range (annual) $100K and over$80 — 99K$60 — 79K$40 — 59K$20 — 39K

$0 — 19K

1

1

2

3

2

1

16 Education Ph.D.Master’sBachelor’sSome collegeHigh school

1

3

0

2

4

17 Occupation Business owner (self-employed)Medical professional (psychologist)Holistic health (massage, acupuncture)Manager

6

1

2

1

18 Marital status MarriedSingleDivorced

5

2

3

19 Other info (comments) “Ayahuasca gets in you, in a cellular way”; “It’s a personal truth serum”; “You are throwing away psychic garbage when you throw up”.

Interpretation and summary of the survey results

Reasons given for going to the Amazon to do ayahuasca

The four main reasons given by respondents to my survey were the same as my own reasons for making this journey: self-exploration and spiritual growth, curiosity, physical and emotional healing, and the desire for a vacation to an exotic location. The yearning for personal growth and healing appears to be the central motivation for most people who participated in ayahuasca ceremonies. They learned about ayahuasca by word of mouth, usually through an acquaintance stating positive results from their experiences, and became intrigued and curious. An interest in shamanism appeared in two responses. One respondent said he was in training to become a shaman, and spent over five months studying under a shaman in the Peruvian Amazon.

Results from ayahuasca

The results were overwhelmingly positive with respondents claiming many beneficial changes in their lives after taking ayahuasca. They referred to their experiences with words like “wonderful,” “blown away,” and “very happy”. Two respondents claimed no results since they were not goal oriented. For them, ayahuasca is a process or journey, not a destination. That may explain the greater number of times they choose to do ayahuasca. Everyone was satisfied with the results, with everyone planning to do it again and half having definite plans to repeat the experiences in the Amazon in the near future. Based on this, perhaps ayahuasca is a process for all of the respondents.

Some of the results involved “alternative” belief systems such as communication with extraterrestrial aliens and telepathy. It is important to note again that the original name for the harmaline and harmine alkaloids found in the B. caapi vine was telepathine, due to reports of telepathic communication during ayahuasca ceremonies. During one of my ayahuasca experiences, I “saw” a voluptuous, nude Indian female. I mentioned the vision to the other participants on the day after the ceremony, and they were able to describe the woman before I finished! Apparently, we all saw the same woman, who the shamans later told us was the female spirit known as ayahuasca.

The alien connection to ayahuasca is commonly reported by people who already believe in extraterrestrial life, and Terrence McKenna tells of a UFO sighting in his book True Hallucinations. The shamans leading the ayahuasca ceremonies in which I participated said they had traveled in alien space ships and spoke with aliens during their ayahuasca journeys. I can only comment that during my experiences I felt the presence of something “other” than the people attending the ayahuasca ceremony.

Although not among the responses to my survey, there are many anecdotal stories of physical healing through ayahuasca with cancer remissions being the most common. One of the people answering my questions claimed partial relief from a lingering illness, while another said the stress in his life had disappeared for a while after returning. Several people spoke of internal cleansing through the cathartic action of ayahuasca. As mentioned earlier, intense purging may help rid the body of internal parasites.

Reports of the loss of pride and ego after facing intense personal fears are common, and two respondents mentioned these results. I faced the terrifying fear of dying more than once during ayahuasca experiences. Shaman Don Augustin Rivas says that he has died many times during ayahuasca ceremonies. “Dying” during ayahuasca may be compared to similar concepts found in various religious and other rites of passage wherein the old self dies and a new person is born. This may explain the some of the major paradigm shifts experienced by most ayahuasca users.

Demographic information

Due to the limited sample and the difficulty in getting in touch with people who have tried ayahuasca, this data is difficult to interpret. Some of the data appears to have no pattern or correlation. Location, marital status, and religion did not appear to show any significance. I expected educational levels to be high, but almost half the respondents had only high school diplomas. I must add here that these apparently intelligent individuals were well educated in other ways, with one studying to become a shaman, and the others self- employed. I expected most people answering my survey questions would be leading alternative lifestyles and would be involved in unusual work. Instead, I found them to be quite ordinary people in areas such as occupation and marital status. Although I found more males attended ayahuasca ceremonies (at one time the ceremonies were limited to males), half of trip leaders are female. In my interview with two of these leaders, they saw increasing numbers of females coming to the ceremonies.

Several responses appear to have some significance. Most ayahuasca participants surveyed are: between 31 and 60 years of age, white, of Scots Irish, English, or Northern European extraction, and earn at least a middle income. These characteristics are similar to the group known as the “baby boomers”. Most of them are involved in some kind of self-help or personal growth, they have previous experience with hallucinogenic plants, and most practice some kind of meditation. This may describe open-minded type people who are involved with some type of “new age” practices, whether it be personal beliefs, healing or spiritual practice. All respondents said they no longer strictly adhere to the religious affiliation of their upbringing, and often described their belief system as one of their own creation. This may be one of the reasons they use ayahuasca, and do not seek spiritual growth through traditional religions.

Although almost half of the respondents claimed to have some Native American ancestry, there were no African Americans, Asians, or Hispanics in my sample. I asked several people interviewed, including two trip leaders, if they knew of anyone in either if these categories who went to the Amazon to do ayahuasca. Only two Hispanics were known to have participated in ayahuasca ceremonies, with one of these being a trip leader and shaman himself. What does this mean? I asked two trip leaders this question. One was not sure, and the other said that at this time in history some groups of people were too busy with other important issues such freedom and equality.

Summary

Ayahuasca and the ayahuasca ceremony have been described as means to contact the spirit world for guidance, healing, and personal growth. Although the chemical action of some of the components of ayahuasca are understood it is through the synergistic actions of the plants, the shamans, and what the individuals bring to the ceremony that results in the ayahuasca experience. The survey seems to indicate mostly white, middle class, middle aged people with some knowledge or experience of hallucinogenic plants and non-traditional religious views are going to the Amazon to participate in Ayahuasca ceremonies. From these pilgrimages, they are able to achieve paradigm shifts allowing healing at the spiritual, emotional, and physical level.

But why ayahuasca? Why not psychotherapy, church, alcohol, or Prozac? Although I did not ask the respondents if they had tried these approaches, I suspect they have rejected them. They apparently are not looking for traditional, addictive, or “artificial” solutions. The people who do ayahuasca in the jungle seem to prefer paths that are non-traditional, “natural” or plant-based, and exotic. Combined with an explorative curiosity, a strong desire for personal growth, and a fair amount of courage they are attracted to the ayahuasca experience.

One is often met with incredulous stares when trying to describe a personal ayahuasca experience to the uninitiated, for the experience is best described as ineffable. The most difficult part for most people to accept is why anyone would pay to experience violent purging in the jungle. I asked myself that same question many times. Is there was a masochistic component to the ayahuasca experience? Does ayahuasca attract people who feel the need to suffer while solving their problems? Based on my personal experiences and conversations with others who have worked with ayahuasca, neither of these premises are correct. Most agree the experience would be more pleasurable without the purging; however, as explained earlier, the purging is an integral part of the ceremony designed to help eliminate toxins and parasites from the body.

Ayahuasca’s connection to nature, the earth, and Native American shamanism (all of which have been experiencing increasing popularity during recent years) make the concept yet more appealing. Consider these aspects along with the fact that ayahuasca appears to have positive results for the participants, and one can better understand the growing popularity of the ayahuasca phenomenon.

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