Ayahuasca in the 21st Century

The following essay was written by author and Bioneers Senior Producer J.P. Harpignies. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of Bioneers.

Explore our Visionary Plant Consciousness & Psychedelics media collection >>

For the past fifteen or so years Amazonian shamanism and the use of ayahuasca have elicited a great deal of interest around the world. This has encouraged a growing number of Europeans and North Americans motivated by a spiritual quest or a desire to seek healing or by simple curiosity to travel to the Amazon region. This wave of travelers is reminiscent in some ways of the hordes of young seekers who flocked to India in the 1970s.

The birth of a broad-based environmental movement, anti-colonial struggles, and a growing thirst for more visceral, holistic spiritual teachings all also contributed to a surge of interest in the worldviews and practices of “first peoples,” many of whom, paradoxically, were being threatened with cultural extinction or at the very least facing profound crises as modernity and the worst aspects of economic globalization bore down on their ancestral lands.

No one knows exactly how old Amazonian shamanic traditions are, but it’s a safe bet that they are many hundreds of years old, perhaps a millennium, perhaps far more, and their cultural antecedents and precursors certainly go back several thousand years. There are very few places on earth where one can find unbroken links to such an ancient shamanic tradition, and one that is still very much alive and dynamic. Many in the industrialized world feel alienated from the dominant contemporary ideologies and belief systems that have severed our sense of connection to the natural world and contributed to the unprecedented global ecological crisis we are in the midst of. The worldviews of indigenous peoples characterized by their profound respect for the entire web of life and by a belief in the possibility of direct, intimate engagement with the “spirits” that animate the world, is therefore very attractive to many of us.

Amazonian shamanism had until the 1980s, outside of some small circles of adventurous anthropologists and ethno-botanists, remained largely unknown beyond the Amazon Basin. That said, indigenous Amazonian shamanic healing practices had already spread beyond native groups into “mestizo” communities in the region starting in the early part of the 20 th Century, and at least three syncretic Brazilian churches whose founders had been exposed to the use of ayahuasca while working in the jungle and for whom that plant is a central sacrament, were founded long before the 1980s. All these new faiths, legally recognized by the Brazilian government, are thriving today. The two biggest, the Santo Daimé, founded in the 1930s, and the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), founded in 1961, have spread internationally, opening new congregations in several locales in the “global North.” Also, the extraordinary and highly influential professor of botany at Harvard, Richard Evans Schultes, had done extensive research and solo traveling in the deep Amazon during the 1940s, and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg had both ventured to the region to seek out ayahuasca experiences in the 1950s (with pretty awful results). The anthropologist Michael Harner had done some more serious research on the region’s shamanic traditions in the 1960s, and slowly at first other researchers, explorers and travelers began trickling into the Amazon and publishing reports and accounts of their experiences. But despite all these forays, these traditions had remained largely unknown until roughly a quarter century ago, and have only become more widely known in the last 15 or so years.

The newfound global popularity of this hitherto obscure set of beliefs and practices, and this will surprise no one, has had both positive and destructive effects. On the one hand, as Jeremy Narby, has remarked, this is the first time since the arrival of Europeans in the “New World” that some outsiders have come to native peoples’ territories not to massacre and subjugate them, steal their land and pillage their resources, but to learn from them.

The global popularity of and interest in ayahuasca seems to be continuing its extraordinary expansion. Back in 2009 the immensely popular film Avatar was obviously heavily based on ayahuasca-induced visionary states. The sacred tree at the core of the film’s plot was even called Aya (!), but this all went over the head of nearly all those who saw the film because very few people in the general population had heard of ayahuasca then. Today though, mainstream magazines from the prestigious New Yorker to Hollywood rags that report on stars who have taken the brew, have all featured articles about ayahuasca. Hip comedians on late night television occasionally make jokes about it. More and more retreat centers are opening throughout Latin America, even beyond the Amazon region, varying enormously in price, ranging from the very rustic to the ultra luxurious. On any given Saturday night in a major North American city, a dozen or so underground ayahuasca-based ceremonies are most likely taking place, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true to a slightly lesser extent in Europe and in some corners of Asia.

This proliferation has made some of us worry about a wide range of potential problems, from the odds of eventual aggressive crackdowns by authorities to the problem of over-harvesting and depleting wild ayahuasca in the Amazon; to the emergence of more and more self-appointed, poorly trained ceremony leaders with the accompanying increased risks to attendees; to the rise of ever more half-baked ideologies generated by over enthusiastic neophytes suffering from the spiritual inflation that can accompany visionary drug use, etc., etc.

We also know that our rapidly “globalizing” planet is undergoing rapid and highly disruptive changes. The ever-growing, insatiable hunger for raw materials in “developing” countries is causing massive environmental and socio-cultural damage, and indigenous peoples are very often the main victims of these immensely powerful predatory forces. The Amazon’s forest is shrinking, and while some tribal groups have managed to organize themselves fairly effectively to defend their ancestral lands and to manage their social, cultural and political life and their “modernization” according to their own agendas, in general indigenous Amazonians are either facing difficult crises, being buffeted by forces beyond their control, or facing outright cultural extinction.

Under these conditions, it’s almost impossible to find any sort of “pure” shamanism practiced even by isolated groups. Nearly all the contemporary practitioners of Amazonian shamanism have, to varying degrees, long been affected and influenced by the onslaught of modernity to their region. These ancient techniques and beliefs have been colliding with and adapting to the modern world in a wide variety of ways, so strangers coming to seek wisdom in some sort of idealized, untainted form are sure to be disappointed, and all visitors will inevitably run into a slew of intense socio-economic, environmental and cultural contradictions, not to mention the communication problems inherent in trying to reconcile very different ways of seeing the world. And the mere presence of these large numbers of visitors is adding to the disruption of local life. Their money and possessions and (perceived) sexual looseness can’t help but engender temptations in such a poor part of the world.

So, on the one hand Amazonian spirituality has never received as much attention and respect, as there are now quite a number of shamans leaving the region to lead underground ceremonies in Europe, North America and Asia, and there are even some serious international academic colloquia and conferences on ayahuasca, etc. It’s an extraordinary global diffusion of a hitherto purely regional phenomenon. On the other hand, though, the massive dislocations caused by globalization and the existential threats to the integrity of the biosphere are threatening the very existence of many indigenous peoples and if not the outright extinction at least the dramatic mutation of their cultural and spiritual practices, and the popularity of Amazonian shamanism is itself a contributor to this disruption (there have in fact even been some recent Ph.D. theses penned on the complex effects of “ayahuasca tourism” in the Amazon). These shamanic traditions are not going to disappear, but there is no doubt that they are rapidly changing and becoming hybridized.

I feel that I have to offer some words of caution to those excited by the fascinating world of shamanic practices who might be considering dropping everything and heading down to the Amazon. First it’s important to bear in mind that these traditions have been created by cultures radically different than ours, by people living in an incredibly challenging environment, so their worldviews and moral codes often vary substantially from ours. Any apprentice shaman will eventually bump up against some aspects of “black magic” that are fairly common in the ayahuasquero’s world, and very few modern Westerners are psychologically equipped to handle this sort of menace effectively.

Even those who are just going to the Amazon for a more limited experience of ayahuasca can often encounter a variety of problems. The extreme poverty I mentioned earlier as well as the legacy of racism and oppression and the level of deforestation and environmental degradation generate intense contradictions, and travelers should be prepared to navigate them. Also, the seduction of naïve young “gringas,” made even more impressionable and vulnerable under the sway of ayahuasca (one effect of which is to open the heart), by shamans and their apprentices, is in all honesty an epidemic, almost more of a norm than an exception. Because the region is changing so rapidly and dramatically, even some hitherto reputable shamans can become less reliable. Some retreat centers can become so popular with visitors that the local resources are overtaxed, the quality of attention afforded to individual seekers declines, and the spiritual integrity of the entire enterprise deteriorates.

This doesn’t at all mean that one shouldn’t visit the Amazon and that positive experiences there aren’t possible, but for those who are considering such a journey, it is important not to depend on any one book, even the best among them, because books are already a few years old by the time we read them, and the places and people described within them may have changed in the interim. Before choosing a particular retreat center and/or shaman to visit, it is wise to seek information and objective, unbiased first-hand reports that are as recent and reliable as possible.

So, yes, Amazonian shamanism is one of humanity’s great spiritual traditions, and currently an especially vibrant one that seems to be resonating globally. One can find within its folds deep wisdom, a sense of profound connection to the underlying “intelligence” in evolution and nature, some highly effective physical and psycho-spiritual healing modalities, and even authentic mystical experiences, but it is not a path free of risks, so those who want to engage with it should exert common sense and sound judgment and keep their eyes open and their intuition sharp.

Those who seek to maintain traditions in a state of pristine, unadulterated “purity” are almost always fighting a losing battle, especially in a world as rapidly mutating as ours, where, for example, “world music” features every type of fusion and mixture one can conceive of, and electronic communication penetrates to every nook and cranny of the planet. In fact change is a constant in the flow of life, and cultures have always borrowed and influenced each other. The use of ayahuasca and the spiritual beliefs associated with it most likely began with one tribal group who passed it on to another, and then to others who all probably tweaked the cosmologies and practices. Today most indigenous ayahuasqueros incorporate Christian iconography in their rituals, and, as we saw earlier, the Brazilian ayahuasca-using churches, inspired by indigenous ayahuasca use, developed their own syncretic sets of practices and their own theologies. This is the way of cultural phenomena, but the rate of disruption and change is far faster today. We are seeing ever more hybrid uses of ayahuasca as it penetrates into new populations and it interfaces with existing systems of thought and spiritual practices. Some of those fusions may turn out to be interesting and promising, many are likely to be failures or plainly silly, some may be dangerous, but there is no stopping it at this point and where it will all end up is impossible to predict.

Paradoxically, in my opinion this makes rigorous accounts of Amazonian shamanism in its “classical” forms even more precious because it really helps to have a “baseline” to compare all these new forms of ayahuasca use and this pullulation of “neo-shamanic” experiments with the long-lived traditions of the indigenous peoples who engendered them. It is inevitable that people will innovate and experiment, and cultures evolve even when their members are trying to keep them the same, but if one is a serious person, it is best to at the very least be deeply informed by the spirit and the gravitas and the rigor of those original traditions’ practices, or one’s experiments are likely to lack depth and substance and to be short-lived and of little value.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.