Will the Real Ayahuasca Tourists Please Stand Up?
To celebrate the publication of Adam Elenbaas' memoir, Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest -- published by Tarcher/Penguin in association with Evolver, and available in stores today -- we're presenting this article from the RS archives.
Having drunk in nearly 25 Ayahuasca ceremonies with four different shamans from three different countries on two different continents, I still do not feel capable of defining exactly what makes an Ayahuasca ceremony "medicinal" or "authentic." But I'm also convinced that I've never met an official "Ayahuasca tourist." To me, the conversation about Ayahuasca tourism is usually a cloaked conversation about what constitutes a reverent psychedelic experience verses a recreational one. It's an important conversation.
Psychedelics have always been profoundly enlightening for me and hardly ever what I would call "fun." Though I've had my share of psychedelic giggles, for the most part my "trips" have been sobering, painful and transformational. I remember the first night I ever tried a psychedelic. At the time I was addicted to morphine and methadone, was a habitual drinker and was living a sexually promiscuous lifestyle.
One evening a friend brought mescalin for us to try at my apartment in Chicago. Far from "getting high," I was taken on an intensely psycho-therapeutic journey. As the evening progressed I saw religious confusion and rebellion on my bookshelves, bursting with colors. I saw anger littered through my compact disc collection. I saw fear of my father in my toiletries. I saw drug addiction and sadness in the mirror, under my eyes, in the roots of my hair, in my dried skin and how it felt to touch my stomach and my liver. Everything was intelligent. Everything meant something. Everything was symbolic, like a small flame was given to me and a voice was calling to me, whispering, believe in yourself and wake up.
It was only several months after my psychedelic awakening that I locked myself into my bathroom to withdraw from methadone and morphine for the last time. Despite terrible nightmares and terrible fevers, my intention was clear: I want to be healthy again. Something far bigger than me had given me a vision during my mescaline journey, and I would never be the same again.
After quitting drugs cold turkey, I spent months researching the indigenous cultures that used psychedelic plants for healing and ceremony. During my research one evening in graduate school, I stumbled across a National Geographic television program that filmed an Ayahuasca ceremony at a lodge down river from Iquitos, Peru. That same night I decided that I would travel to the Amazon Jungle to drink Ayahausca.
I arrived in Iquitos, Peru some five months later and drank Ayahausca three times in the jungle. During my first three ceremonies I experienced universal oneness, I saw and spoke to Jesus, and I puked out enough drug residue to fill several puke buckets. Compared to who I was before I went to Peru, I have been relatively happy and entirely sober ever since.
In my opinion, if somebody is using Ayahuasca to heal and to grow, in order to bring more love to our planet, then, to me, it is "beneficial" and "medicinal." To me the important thing to remember is that good intentions usually dwarf small details and denominational quarrels. So on one level, my answer to the tourist question is simple: I haven't ever met an Ayahuasca tourist. I've met a lot of people with good intentions. I choose to see things that way.
However, on another level, there are many tensions about Ayahuasca and psychedelic medicines that are worth talking about. It's in my opinion that most of our differences in the Ayahuasca world come from what assumptions we make about Ayahuasca or psychedelic medicine itself.
The first of these assumptions is that Ayahuasca is a purely benevolent medicine. In other words, we believe that simply drinking Ayahuasca, under any circumstances, guarantees growth and healing because Ayahuasca is medicinal by nature. The extreme example of this generalization, one that has frustrated and even angered many devoted to the medicinal use of Ayahuasca, occurs when all psychedelics are referred to as "medicine." Many of us flash on the vision of some naked guy at Burning Man yelling out, "I'm tripping balls on this killer medicine, dude!" But if you've worked with Ayahausca in the jungle and screamed or puked your way through a childhood molestation sequence, then it's possible that something inside of you might react by saying, "It is not all medicine." Because those who have had deeply intensive healing sessions with Ayahuasca or any psychedelic medicine know that healing work can be terrifying and difficult.
On the other hand, sometimes people who are regularly involved with the ceremonial and ritual use of Ayahuasca can be holier-than-thou about other forms of psychedelic use. The extreme example of this generalization comes when you meet people who will not attend Burning Man on principle. Well that's just a hedonistic hippy parade. That's just rebellious and childish. There is no tradition. That's not sacred!
The tension between these two groups of people is never clear cut. It's impossible to say who's "authentically shamanic" and who is "posing." We can never define what makes something healing or medicinal, whether or not a shaman and ceremony are necessary, etc., but we don't give up the conversation. Tension always seems to arise whenever there is a mention of words like "unceremonious," or "medicine," and phrases like "Ayahuasca tourists."
So what do we do about our tribal conflict?
In the old days if the tribe were divided, it would be a good time for a story around the fire. So here's a story that might help shed some light on the tension.
* * *
This past April I went on a Reality Sandwich field trip to Peru. The 2008 Curandero Seminar, hosted by U.S. native Carlos Tanner, featured five different Ayahuasca shamans and a variety of interactive study sessions, including a handful of Ayahuasca ceremonies. The day before leaving to the jungle to cover the conference for Reality Sandwich, I had spoken at The Ayahuasca Monologues in Manhattan.
After sharing my visionary Ayahuasca story, I was greeted by a former alumni from the particular lodge I had been working at in Peru. When I told him about my trip to Peru to work with new shamans, at different lodges, he was shocked.
"Be careful of all those witch doctors and the black magic down there," he said to me.
By the time I reached Iquitos and greeted the other guests at the conference, I had formed an irrational fear in my head. Never having drank with any other shamans but those at my lodge of choice, I was afraid that I might get attacked by witchcraft in a ceremony, or that the mastery of the shamans and the strength of their mesa might not be sturdy enough to support me should I need help.
Sitting in the sun on the veranda of a café overlooking the Uycayali river in Iquitos, I quickly formed judgments about each guest of the conference and the quality of the conference itself.
"I mean, I hope this stuff works like I've read about. I want to leave my body and trip out." One young man from New York seemed like he had no idea what he was getting himself into. His only goal seemed to be "tripping out." I quickly assumed that his intentions were not good. Mechanically I began to form judgments about each one of the conference guests.
Carlos Tanner's conference introduction furthered my opinion.
"We couldn't get the hotel, so we're staying at a reservation park that has good bungalos." Only fourteen guests had arrived. The conference website had advertised nearly a hundred. Carlos and his master had a falling out regarding witchcraft, money, and the death of one of their patients. And the young conference staff, Carlos, an Aussie named Justin, and a young Brit named Ashley who was suffering from the venom of a brujo that had been hired to kill him, were scrambling to find a fifth shaman to replace Carlos's teacher.
Because of the disorganization and the disintegration of my biggest expectations for journalistically covering an important shamanic conference for Reality Sandwich, I figured that the focus of my article would be to expose "Ayahuasca tourism" at its worst. I had also decided that I would not drink in any of the Ayahuasca ceremonies for fear of my life.
However, as the week went by I befriended one of the conference guests, a psychiatrist from New York who had drank in nearly a hundred different ceremonies with a variety of shamans. One evening while we were sitting in the back of a crowded utility van driving back from the jungle to the city of Iquitos, he asked me, "You really think you'll be hurt if you drink?"
"I just don't feel like this kind of Ayahuasca shamanism is good. These guys don't have integrity. Why should their shamans?" I said.
"I've been just fine, Adam. Does that mean that I am under their spell? You came all the way down here. It doesn't seem objectively journalistic for you to formulate this opinion without at least trying it out. You can sit next to me in ceremony."
Although I was still scared, somewhere a voice inside of me said, Get over yourself and drink in the last ceremony. Nothing bad will happen to you.
The last ceremony was held at the Spirit of the Anaconda lodge with a shaman named Don Guillermo (a reputable shaman from Jan Kounen's Ayahuasca documentary, "Other Worlds"). Before the ceremony began I confessed my fear to the group, "I'm scared that I'm going to freak out again."
Several hours into the ceremony I began to cry when I heard the vomiting and purging of other conference guests in the lodge. I heard small laughter and the sounds of people receiving healing all around me. In my mind's eye I saw each guest as a child, and I saw Carlos as a child. Then from the heavens I saw pink and purple and golden star dust falling onto each one of us; blessing us. I listened to the sounds of Don Guillermo's Icaros and began to feel sick to my stomach as I contemplated the way in which my fear had separated me from being present at the conference. Inside of my stomach I felt a heavy sensation begin to work its way up and out. I doubled over and dry heaved into my bucket. Although nothing physically left my body, in my visions I saw slimy yellow ooze pouring out of my mouth.
I cried even more when I considered that my plan had been to return home and write a cynical story for the Reality Sandwich audience about "Ayahuasca tourism." I was going to say mean things about these people who were only doing their best. As I listened to each guest in the mesa purging, and as I continued to see each one of us as children, I said to myself, I don't know anything about anything.
The next morning I apologized to Carlos. "I judged you and this conference," I said. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," he replied. "It's hard working with Ayahuasca. We're all just doing our best."
"I'm sorry I didn't participate more," I said.
"Don't blame yourself. This is exactly why you came down here. You came down to learn this lesson. You're welcome back next year. Write a great story for Reality Sandwich!"
On the airplane ride home I thought, now this is a good story for me to write about.
* * *
So what does this have to do with psychedelic medicine and the tension between their sacred and non-sacred use? Everything, I think.
Perhaps in the tension we feel between what constitutes sanctity and profanity, spiritually speaking, we should be careful to explore our personal history and not pretend to be objective when we can't be. If the conversation about Ayahuasca tourism and sacred psychedelic medicine is always concerned with such outward things like ceremonial candor, ritual procedure, rank and merit, then we will have failed in the same way many religions have failed. We will allow petty denominational differences and fear-based assumptions to divide us. As the avatar of my life's tradition says, "Take the plank from your own eye before you take the splinter from your brother's."
We should stay balanced by remembering that ceremony and tradition are not always restrictive and elitist, while sanctity and healing are not always ceremonial or traditional. It's important that we learn to see the good intentions in each other, always.
On the road of life, isn't everybody a tourist anyway?
Originally published on Reality Sandwich, November 21, 2008.Tweet