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The Bitter Side of Ayahuasca

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The Bitter Side of Ayahuasca

The missing piece in today’s dialogue around the rampant popularity of plant medicines such as ayahuasca and other hallucinatory rituals in the Western world is one simple word: greed. 

In our technologically driven Western culture, many push the idea that the ayahuasca experience is a gift from its spirit to humanity. They claim that the spirit of ayahuasca decided that this is the time to spread its healing wisdom to a world suffering from emotional pain and spiritual emptiness. 

Maybe. Or maybe there is another motive behind this trend. 

Greed. The indigenous want the materialistic achievements we have. We want the wisdom they live by, which is a good thing. The Andes’s Eagle and the Condor prophecy called for a new Pachacuti, a correction of time and space, as we learn to fly together in the same sky, in a dance of harmony, peace, and cooperation. 

However, we are greedily exporting the corrupted values that failed our societies to the materialistic needy, indigenous world. At the same time, we are attempting to import their ancient cultures and values to mask our emotional pain. This journey is unbalanced and complicated, as you will see.

Early in the afternoon of a Spring day in 2006, a single canoe pierced the still mirror-like waters of the Taruma lagoon on the Rio Negro in Brazil. We looked in surprise as the Tucano chief and Pajé (shaman) secured his canoe to our floating dock. This time, however, he wore a simple T-shirt and shorts. Without any customary pleasantries, he talked straight to my teacher Ipupiara, whose face became serious. 

“What wrong, what is he saying?” I asked Ipupiara, who spoke eight Amazonian dialects. Ipu turned towards us. 

“He says that the ayahuasca spirit sent the elders a strong message that it is very, very angry,” he translated. “He came specially to invite us to come back next month for an unusual ceremony that all the shamans and elders of the area are planning to hold to appease her spirit. He said it is very important.” 

“But why?” I asked him. I thought it had to do with our last ayahuasca ceremony with the Piexona elder. 

“Many shamans in the area received a similar message from ayahuasca herself, that they abuse and disrespect her. They must make an appeasement ceremony to bring back balance,” Ipupiara explained. 

The first time I participated in a natem (ayahuasca) life-changing ceremony was 1997, with the Shuar tribe in Miasal, deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, as part of a group led by the author John Perkins. That ceremony changed my life, and I am still manifesting the vision I received then. I was not aware of indigenous shamans possibly abusing the sacred Grandmother plant teacher, though I had seen it happen up north and in Europe. But I expected this behavior from people who were not as intimately connected with this medicine.

“Do you think only you gringos are inflicted with greed?” Ipupiara asked me, seeing how distressed I was. 

“Do you remember the shaman from the Amazon who was brought to the shamanic gathering at Omega Institute a few years ago?” he asked, looking at me straight in the eyes through his thick glasses. “This man who never had or needed money came back to his community with many thousands of dollars. Can you imagine?” 

“But isn’t it good?” I asked. 

“Yes, of course, but only if he had shared it with his community. Instead, he bought cows and cleared the trees to make a meadow to raise them for meat.” He looked up to see my surprised reaction. 

“But how could he have done that? Isn’t that exactly what we and the shamans always fight to keep big corporations from doing?” I asked. 

“Greed. Simply greed. It happens everywhere, even to the best of shamans. They are human too,” Ipupiara said sadly. “When one person in these communities gets rich, jealousy, envy, and violence follow, and his family starts to separate from the community. It breaks down thousands of years of community sharing and responsibility to each other,” Ipupiara said. He shook his head from side to side and continued.

“And what do you think happens in New York? You people are spiritually greedy. You are searching for something to fill your spiritual emptiness. Your religions and government failed and betrayed you. You are sick, lonely, and disconnected from the natural world. So many families are broken. You have everything, and nothing is enough for you. You are running from workshop to workshop, each one with new fancy titles. Jumping from a new star teacher to another, seeking new traditions. It’s like a fruit salad approach. Why not concentrate on one and do it well?” Ipupiara stopped. It was as though a big stone finally popped out of his chest. 

“Itzhak, tell me why do they need to drink ayahuasca so many times? Why not drink it once, listen to spirit’s messages, act on them, and integrate them into your life before you run again to take another cup? Do they believe that it makes them cooler if they brag of having hundreds of ceremonies?” He looked at me, puzzled. I felt how disappointed he was with us in the North. I did not have an answer.

My teacher Taita don Jose Joaquin Pineda warned my students and me not to drink ayahuasca. “It is very dangerous,” he said. “It can change the makeup of your brain and DNA.” 

“Did you ever take it?” I asked him. 

“Yes, once, in the jungle, that was enough. It’s for lazy people who can’t vision themselves. We learn to develop our powerful vision mind,” he said proudly. 

“What about Huachuma (San Pedro)?” I asked. 

“Sure, the shamans, we get together once a year at the San Pedro’s festival, to drink and vision the future, that’s it,” he replied.

In 2015 I took the stage at the Shamanic Lands conference in London and shared this story with a roomful of plant medicine enthusiasts. As I talked, I realized that the hall was eerily quiet. People looked at each other in disbelief. Some were noticeably upset. I noticed that one of the people who organize such ceremonies appeared angry. But I went on with my presentation, and I asked them Ipupiara’s question. “How many times do you need to drink ayahuasca?” 

I spoke about ceremonies done all over Europe and the US with 40, 60, 80, sometimes over 100 participants who pay up to $200 for a single cup at ceremonies led by one ayahuascero with a helper, and maybe a band of musicians. 

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“How much do you pay for a ceremony?” I asked them rhetorically. “Did you ask yourself what the shaman does with the tens of thousands of dollars when he comes home to the jungle? Does he protect the forest or his community? Do you ask yourself about your own role in helping to destroy the socio-economic structure of the indigenous societies with every cup you drink? Did you ask yourself if you are participating in spiritual greed that feeds the shaman’s greed?” 

A few people came up to me later, thanking me and whispering that they feel the same, but were afraid to say it. An angry young woman, dressed in full shamanic regalia, came to reprimand me. It turned out that she trained in Peru for three months.

Let’s talk about those who administer the ceremony. Are they really shamans or ayahusceros, or are they simply plant medicine bartenders? There is a big difference. A real shaman has a lineage. He heals with the brew, skills he obtains through many years of training and experience. He is able to penetrate, through a vision, the client’s energy body, and remove those poison arrows sent by enemies, remove negative energies, and rebalance the body. Traditionally, only the shaman drank the brew, not the client. Clients drank ayahuasca rarely, only when they needed purging to clean the digestive system that holds physical and energetic problems, not for obtaining visions. Ayahusceros in many Amazonian traditions also have at least four years of monthly training to administer the brew and hold space, and they know how to intervene with spirits on behalf of the client.

Stories of plant medicine’s commercial abuse are plenty and have circulated in our community for years now. I taught at an event in Manaus, Brazil, where a blond “shaman” from San Francisco rented a hotel room, played Hawaiian recorded music, and charged 25 people $1021 each for the five hours ceremony. Across the river, an actual Tukano shaman charged $25 for a whole night. 

Foreigners and local non-tribal people venture into the Amazon jungle buying land and opening retreats. Yes, at first they employ shamans, but only until they feel they have learned how to lead the ceremonies themselves. Then the shamans are dismissed. Meanwhile, the newcomer’s presence raises real-estate prices for the natives. 

A friend brought me a DIY gift package of dry mixtures for making ayahuasca (cup included, just add water) sold in local gift shops as a commodity with no instructions. They are sold to the Westerner who profits from creating tour companies; to those who spend three months “studying” and then returning to their countries as faux certified ayahuasceros wearing colorful feathers that do not belong to them; to ayahuasceros with loud electronic music bands that have nothing to do with the traditions.

But native shamans and their handlers’ profit too. They travel the world amassing a massive amount of cash, without sharing it with their communities. Many divorces, breaking down their families. I knew of one shaman, a gold Rolex wearer, who held two or three ceremonies a day. He owned a tourist boat for transporting plant medicine tourists. He left us in the middle of a ceremony to attend his next one, leaving his sick apprentice (who ran away) and the kitchen staff to keep an eye on the gringos. Much of the time, shamans don’t participate in the integration on the following day, leaving participants confused and in despair. 

You may have heard of the shaman who hid the body of a young man who died during a ceremony. Or the numerous stories of inappropriate sexual encounters. 

For many, the ayahuasca experience is positive, instructive, and life-transforming. However, many participants don’t fare so well afterward. Without proper integration to understand the language of spirit or visions, many fall into depression, anxiety, and sometimes paranoia, unable to make sense of their images. Some take their visions literally. I know two people who were convinced that spirit told them to have a sex change, because they saw themselves as women, instead of considering that they needed to bring forth their feminine side. 

You may meet evil spirits who try to seduce you. A client of mine became paranoid and left his wife and daughter. Aliens often appear as well. How do you deal with all that if you do not have rigorous shamanic training before you take your first cup? There are no shortcuts to healing. People must learn and experience the language of shamanism and feel the connection to all elements in nature before they put their lips to the bitter cup. Indigenous societies start slowly. They have their young drink early on in order to experience and understand the world. They share their dreams in the community. They are versed in the language of spirit.

Before embarking on this medicine path, you should invest time to learn and to experience ways of working with spirit. Before you gulp down another cup, ask yourself: how did you apply the teaching you already received? Ask yourself what your intention is, and how you can honor the medicine, the rainforest, and the people who are the keepers of these traditions. Know the people who harvested the plants, who cooked and prayed over them. Know their lineage, and get to know the person who serves you, if they do it with the utmost respect, prayers, and offerings. 

Prepare your body and mind before entering into these sacred ceremonies. Ask the shaman: what does he do with the proceeds? That is a legitimate question. It reminds the shaman of his accountability and builds trust. Integrating those spirit visions and teachings into your daily life is essential to living a life of harmony. Participate in plant medicine ceremonies in the environment those plants grow in — their energy is more potent there — and not in a hotel room, class, or apartment. Hear the music of the river flowing, the murmur of the wind playing with the leaves, and the noisy cicadas. It helps connect you more deeply with their essence and the cosmos.

There is no fast track to awakening at the expense of the indigenous communities, and most importantly, the plant spirits. Enlightenment is not a commodity or spiritual entertainment.

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