Your Grandma’s Guide to Ayahuasca

Written in a kindly, didactic tone and grounded throughout in solid research, Grandmother Ayahuasca: Plant Medicine and the Psychedelic Brain is the book you would give to a starry-eyed youngster eager to set forth to the Peruvian jungle, or your grandma who just expressed interest in that unpronounceable plant you keep talking about. It is a primer: a straightforward introduction to the neurobiology, culture, history, and experience of ayahuasca.

It is, in short, highly accessible. Grandmother Ayahuasca offers up-to-date information and reflections upon the neurology of psychedelic experience, the anthropology of plant medicine use, quantum mechanics, therapeutic effects of plant medicines, epigenetics, plant sentience and sapience, and shamanic technique — along with the usual collection of “trip reports.” It concludes with a valuable discussion of the challenges of integration of entheogenic/psychedelic experience and reflections on its role in healing the anima mundi.

It also has a touch of naivete. For example, the definition of ayahuasca that the author, Christian Funder, gives in his first chapter, “The Vine of the Soul”:

“Ayahuasca is also the name of a spirit who resides in the ayahuasca vine. The indigenous ayahuasqueros of the Peruvian Amazon call her Abuela Ayahuasca or Gran Abuela (Grandmother Ayahuasca or Great-Grandmother). She is said to be a sentient mother spirit of nature who provides teaching, guidance, and healing to people who ingest this archaic plant mixture.”

Ah, if only it were possible to generalize so confidently about the plant brew! Few ayahuasqueros are indigenous (the vast majority are mestizo), the brew is more than one plant (chacruna – the DMT-containing plant often cooked with the ayahuasca vine – isn’t even given in the index), not all shamans view the ayahuasca vine as feminine (I believe it’s the reverse), and I’m not sure that they would call her a “sentient mother spirit of nature” either…

This is nitpicking, however. A big question that may arise for a reader while flipping through its pages of derivative material is: “Where is our originality? Where is the creative genius of the plant itself? Where is the wild spark and breathtaking panorama? The touch of the divine?”  

Why, in other words, is the West’s encounter with this sacred plant medicine so pitiful in its creative expression?  

Where are the august symphonies? The works of literature and cinema? The groundbreaking visual art? (Is anyone else weary of the endless Pablo Amaringo knock-offs?) The revolutionary philosophical tracts? The radical theological visions? The explosive rock n’ roll? Isn’t that what one would expect to erupt out of an encounter with the sort of intelligence that Funder is describing here?

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Perhaps Grandmother Ayahuasca’s “encyclopedia entry” feel arises from its sources. In Funder’s acknowledgments, he doesn’t cite a single indigenous/native name. Instead, he declares himself “walking in the footsteps of giants” and gives names like Jeremy Narby, Michael Harner and Luis Eduardo Luna. True, these are gifted Western researchers. Yet each of them walks in the footsteps of indigenous shamans and lineages that are going unrecognized here — and thus are in danger of being further erased from memory. 

Grandmother Ayahuasca, despite its kindly intent, might be a warning shot across our bow. As we transplant the ayahuasca brew away from its indigenous roots with our sciences and psychologies, we risk not grasping the wild creativity and power of the plant. Perhaps this outcome is inevitable and ayahuasca’s gifts to the West will be in balancing our left and right hemispheres, healing our trauma and physical disease, as well as deepening our intuitions of ontological embeddedness in the cosmos.

All good things. But can’t we hold out for more? 

Grandmother Ayahuasca: Plant Medicine and the Psychedelic Brain
By Christian Funder
264 pp. Park Street Press. $19.99.

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