Ancient Traditions Get New Life

Originally appearing here. Cynthia Davidson still glows at mere mention of ayahuasca, the Amazon plant known to the Indians as “the vine of the souls.” She says it gave her back her life. “The experience I had was literally like 10 years of therapy in one night,” enthused the 32-year-old Haida woman, who has struggled with chronic addiction for more than a decade. “I went from cigarettes to drinking to marijuana to snorting cocaine to smoking rock cocaine, then starting to shoot cocaine and heroin. It all just escalated. But after I experienced the ayahuasca ….” She is taken away by a reverie of the two-night event. “I was sexually abused as a child by numerous men and I knew that I always blocked out from the age of seven and under for a reason,” she explained. “Doing ayahuasca, I tell you, the visions that I got were so traumatic that I didn’t want to believe them. But I was also able to deal with them and fill that void that I was always using drugs to try to fill. That one huge void was filled. I felt like I was on Cloud 9.” The tea brewed from the ayahuasca vine and the leaves of a jungle bush opened up her psyche, Davidson said, and allowed her to deal with those lifelong secrets that scarred her childhood and left her emotionally crippled. “I had been in and out of AA meetings thinking that was the answer for 10 years,” she said. “I tried various detox and treatment – nothing worked.” Then her boyfriend and fellow addict Justin Burggraeve gave her a book – In Search of Hungry Ghosts, by Vancouver doctor Gabor Maté – which talked about a radical treatment program involving ayahuasca. The result of her participation in that, Davidson said, was “phenomenal.” “Life is great: I work; I got my eldest (15-year-old) daughter back (from government custody). From being right down in the gutter to where I am now is just amazing.” Ayahuasca is just one of several ancient traditions now attracting attention as western medicine confronts epidemic-sized populations of people struggling with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorders. These widespread ailments cry out for novel approaches given the damage they are doing to families and communities everywhere. Vancouver, with thousands of addicts and a strong counter-culture ethos, is a hub for experimentation. Like Davidson, many people are discovering the benefit of plant-based psychedelic substances such as aya-huasca, psilocybin or ibogaine, a derivative of the bark of the West African iboga shrub. These powerful psychotropics are used to uncover painful memories and, in a ritualistic setting, spark a catharsis. As a result of that unburdening, some learn to understand and control their addictive behaviours. But these approaches are not without controversy and critics question whether such substances can be incorporated into the western pharmacopoeia. The criteria for clinical trials are next to impossible to apply to anything that can’t be accurately measured, quantified and guaranteed to have the same effects every time you swallow it. As well, these substances exist in a kind of grey area, where the active ingredients are subject to criminal bans but the plants themselves can be possessed under some circumstances. A year ago, Health Canada ordered Maté to stop using ayahuasca to help chronic drug and alcohol addicts such as Davidson, or face prosecution. (A documentary on his work is available at http: // html.) A leading thinker on addiction who was the resident doctor at the Portland Hotel in the Downtown Eastside, Maté said he no longer does clinical work because he spends most of his time writing and on speaking tours. An ibogaine conference in Vancouver earlier this month was kept private to avoid contention – the residue of the bad taste left by the uncontrolled use of psychedelics in the ’60s. As a result of the clampdown that followed, scientific interest and potential was squashed too. The criminal prohibitions remain in place, research bans only slowly have been overcome and a sane discussion about the benefits of psychotropics remains nascent. Neither Maté nor anyone else who has worked with these substances holds them out as panaceas, but say they belong in the basket of solutions needed to salve some of the most intractable addiction and post-traumatic disorders – particularly given the remarkable results that have been reported. French doctor Jacques Mabit, for instance, runs a detox centre in the Amazon (Takiwasi or “The House That Sings”) and claims very positive results with ayahuasca – quadruple the average recovery rate. At the University of B.C. on the weekend, some two-dozen scholars, scientists and shamans will speak at the second annual Spirit Plant Medicine Conference to discuss the latest developments. (Maté was the keynote speaker last year, which drew about 250 people: Andrew Rezmer, a 52-year-old Polish-born engineer who runs, organized what he hopes will be an annual gathering. “Usually the medical establishment gets together and talks about different properties of different plants that could be utilized in treating certain diseases and conditions,” Rezmer said. “It’s very scientific, very expensive and designed mainly for people who are interested in exploring new therapies – like ibogaine or ayahuasca, which have been proven up to 93-percent effective in treating hard-drug addictions.” There is also a second, “more new-agey,” kind of conference involving these plants, he said. “These are people more interested in the psychedelic properties of these plants and they usually meet in some gathering outside of the city, in nature,” he explained. “Each group usually makes fun of the other. The new-agey people make fun of the doctors for trying to put aya-huasca in a pill, and the doctors make fun of the new-agers who don’t understand the crisis the medical community is trying to deal with. We’re trying to bridge those two groups.” He said the rise in scientific interest has been matched by increased cultural interest in aboriginal peoples and their traditions. Iboga, for instance, is central to the African spiritual traditions of the native people in Gabon and Cameroon. Similarly, ayahuasca is key to the ceremonies of the Brazilian-based Santo Daime syncretic churches. “Our kind of approach is to show how those plants have been used in a ceremonial, intentional setting not the way, say, cannabis is being used right now, as recreational escapism,” said Rezmer. A presenter at the conference, Stephen Gray, the 63-year-old author of Returning to the Sacred World (www., said interest in these substances is “expanding like wildfire.” “In terms of iboga, there are something like three million adherents to the Bwiti religion,” which celebrates iboga, he said. The Native American Church, Gray continued, which uses peyote in some of its rituals, is growing and now has some 300,000 members. “Ayahuasca shamans are travelling up and down the coast,” Gray said. “I know of a half-dozen people doing ayahuasca ceremonies. I’m coordinating an iboga ceremony on the Sunshine Coast.” There are about two-dozen ibogaine clinics operating under the official radar, too, he ventured. “We’d like to see these substances recognized for what they can do in a whole bunch of ways, narrowly in a therapeutic context and in a larger context of bringing a genuine spiritual awakening to people,” Gray said. Jonathan Dickinson, another presenter and organizer of the recent academic ibogaine conference, said about 60 people from 14 countries attended the five days of meetings. “It was quite productive,” the 26-year-old advocate for drug-policy change added. One doctor from Argentina was doing cocaine-detox with impoverished addicted children between 10 and 13 years old in the country’s slums. “He wanted to know how young can you give someon
e ibogaine? They weren’t working with ibogaine yet, but they’re dealing with this incredible problem,” Dickinson said. “There is only one clinic in Canada (using ibo-gaine) that I know of.” Dickinson insisted that the setting and a guide, such as a shaman, are critical whenever anyone has the draining physical, emotional and spiritual experience these substances trigger. “It puts you in an altered state of awareness and you see things, but they usually have very deep personal subconscious meaning, the way dreams do. They have very much the quality of waking dreams.” Davidson said that after reading Maté’s book, she was sure ayahuasca would work for her. As an aboriginal Canadian, she said she identified with a native rite from South America. “My dad, being the addict that he was, became a very spiritual man,” she said. “He’s been clean for 24 years now and he does everything traditionally – he’s a ceremonial pipe carrier, he runs sweat lodges, he does vision quests.” Her boyfriend Burggraeve decided to take ayahuasca as well. At 29 years old, he had been an addict since he was 12. Like Davidson, Burggraeve believed he used drugs to numb the pain of a tortured childhood in London, Ont. He came to B.C. several years ago to escape his past, met Davidson and the two were soon on the needle. “We both ended up homeless very shortly after that,” Burggraeve said. “We basically beat our brains in with drugs for another couple of years. It was a complete nightmare.” They tried to get sober. “Nothing worked,” he said. “It didn’t matter what we did.” The couple contacted Maté last year and he invited them on an ayahuasca retreat. Both had to go on strict diets and come off methadone and other medications. “It’s a lonely place out there when you’re an addict and being in a group setting on Vancouver Island with a bunch of people who come from where you do is pretty special,” Davidson said. You don’t drink ayahuasca until it starts to get dark, she explained. For an hour or so before, you pray or meditate on “your intention” – what it is you are going to ask of Mother Ayahuasca, the spirit of the plant, to reveal. The bitter tea takes about 30 minutes to take effect. “I saw these colours flying around me,” Burggraeve said. “We’re talking about a rainbow of colours. I couldn’t tell whether they were blue, yellow, red, white. They were colours I couldn’t quite describe because there isn’t a name for them. They started pouring out of my chest, from where my heart was, and they would surround me and I felt like I was being hugged by these colours …. All of sudden this low-life, piece-of-garbage junkie, wasn’t a piece of garbage at all; all of a sudden I’m caring, loving, compassionate, giving, just a wonderful human being who just happened to have a spiritual hole.” Davidson said she was similarly overwhelmed but her images involved her abuse. “The most traumatic experience of my life became one of the greatest things I ever could have done for myself,” she said. Both found the experience transformative. Davidson has repeated the experience twice and found it reinforcing. Unlike methadone, which is used as a replacement drug for addicts, aya-huasca is a kind of therapy aid used to achieve perspective and free ingrained thought processes. Burggraeve hasn’t done it again. Burggraeve has held a job for most of the last year, he said, and couldn’t get the time off. He, too, “had a hiccup” recently and relapsed briefly. “But I get a little better each day,” he insisted. “It’s about spiritual progression not spiritual perfection. Ayahuasca may have been the most important thing I ever did in my life.” Davidson, too, relapsed. “But I was able to pick myself up very quickly whereas before I did aya-huasca, if I tried to get clean, when I relapsed I would be out there for a couple of years again. I’ve only used one time in 14 months.” Both felt there needed to be followup support; there wasn’t. Davidson hopes to one day be reunited with all her children. Her 11-year-old daughter lives with her grandparents by choice, Davidson said, because she doesn’t like the city. Her two youngest (who are six and eight) are with their dad. “I went from living in an SRO (single-room occupancy hotel) down on Hastings for the last three years to having a one-bedroom apartment and my eldest daughter back,”she said. “You can’t imagine what that means.” The Spirit Plant Medicine Conference gathered scientists, scholars, and shamans to present and discuss the latest research results into naturally occurring psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, and ibogaine.