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Ayahuasca: Miracle or Madness?

Aug 17, 2007
It was 4:00 AM as I walked down the truck mounted passenger stairs and onto the runway. The air was thick with dew, and the runway lights lent a golden hue, creating a silent and poetic ambience to the likes of "Casablanca." Those were oddly my first thoughts as I landed in Lima, Peru. But there was no gin joint, no Bacal. Just Peruvian customs, and a desire to stay in the moment, to prevent the critic from gaining audience in mind. The critic who would point out the absurdity of quiting a great corporate job to do, among other things, hang out with some really poor folks in an underdeveloped country, and with the unfounded expectation that this would somehow provide the meaning and purpose and knowledge and truth, for which the land that I left could not.

As the jungle leg of the journey neared, ayahuasca became a constant topic among my colleagues. Soon I would have the opportunity to drink the "vine of the dead" with three ayahuasqeros (jungle shaman) in yet another sacred nighttime ceremony. But unlike the spiritual work I had done thus far, which invoked powerful symbolism through ritual, ayahuasca was a serious psychotropic potion that, among other things, purports to cure many ailments, impart knowledge and visions, even allow people to experience death or turn into jungle animals (shape shifting). Some also claim to travel through time and space by merely having the desire to do so while under the supernatural influence of ayahuasca. Others claim the magical elixir to be a thousand times more potent than LSD, but of course, simply impossible.

Did I mention that you have to puke?

Yes, but the jungle shamans prefer to use the more dignified term, "purge." But before I go any further, some background is in order.

Overview of Ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca (pronounced aye-yah-wah-skah) is both a plant and a potion whose use as a magical elixir goes back at least 2500 years to the Amazon regions of Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. Despite the encroachment of Western medicine, ayahuasca (also called yage, chacruna and caapi) is still regularly ingested by over seventy indigenous tribes. In the ancient language of the Inca, Quechua, aya denotes spirit or the dead while huasca means vine or rope --hence, the "vine of the dead."

Both potion and plants used to make ayahuasca are legal in most countries. However, considerable precautions should be taken before ingesting the potion, including fasting and abstaining from alcohol. Some traditions even mandate abstention from salt, sugar, oil, even sex. In addition, the potion should not be mixed with prescription medication. Consulting your physician is always a good idea.

It is customary for ayahuasca to be consumed in a shaman-lead jungle ceremony comprising three to ten participants. The ceremonies themselves are almost always held at night and typically the participants are required to fast for twenty-four hours. The shamans, called ayahuasqeros, can spend an entire day or more collecting and cooking the ingredients that will eventually become ayahuasca. They then administer the ayahuasca while acting as the spirit guide of the ceremony, often singing songs in tongues that the potion induces.

Ayahuasca's greatest reputation is as a healing agent. Many ayahuasqeros as well as Westerners who have learned the secrets of the concoction claim that it can cure numerous ailments, including diabetes, cancer, depression, epilepsy, arthritis and leukemia. Unfortunately, there has been limited clinical research to corroborate these claims. However, researchers have taken notice of ayahuasca as a potential depression inhibitor.

But ayahuasca's popularity is not constrained to its curative abilities per se. Other uses include spirit communication (where hallucinogenic visions impart knowledge for treating disease), shape shifting (some people purportedly turn into snakes and jaguars) and prophecies (receiving revelations about the future).

None of this stuff happened to me. In fact, I didn't purge either. That is not to say that it was extremely disconcerting to be sitting on the squeaky planked flooring of a totally dark circular hut somewhere in the Amazon with twenty screaming, puking, and absolutely terrified people who were so stoned and sick that they lay in their own vomit, periodically getting enough gumption to ask, "Is the beast was still out there?"

I assured them the beast had left.

Participating in a genuine ayahuasca ceremony like this -- smack in the middle of the Amazon with real ayahuasceros -- lends itself to considerable theatrical value, or "woo woo." Yet, despite the woo, ayahuasca pharmacology is well understood by modern science, and its halucinogenic effects considerably documented.

Still, when facts and mysticism collide synergistically like this, the truth may take on a more subjective tone, from which ayahuasca itself plays second fiddle to the intent of the participant. Consequently, certain phenomena simply have better conductive properties than others, and merely amplify our intent. In this context -- the context of truth itself -- there isn't much "woo" here at all.
About the Author
John David Balla is a corporate dropout freelance writer, marketer, web designer, and dabbler in mysticism. He currently lives in beautiful Sedona, AZ. He can be reached at jballa@woowoochronicles.com or by visiting his Woo Woo Chronicles website.
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