Friday, April 28, 2017

A secular commentary on Ayahuasca

Discussions about Ayahuasca often come saturated with mystical or spiritual overtones. This is particularly true of discussions that involve the discovery of Ayahuasca, the "intelligence" of Ayahuasca, and the concept of Mother Ayahuasca. In this post I'll go against the grain and take a very down-to-earth, nonspiritual approach to discussing these three aspects of Ayahuasca. (The video version of this post can be found here.)

My only goal here is to offer some different perspectives on these topics. I am no expert, and I'm not trying to prove anyone wrong, so take this for what it's worth.

The Discovery of Ayahuasca
Given that the Amazon rainforest contains some 40,000 plant species, at first glance it seems impossible that the shamans could somehow select exactly the right vine and exactly the right leaf, and boil the two together to come up with this amazing concoction known as Ayahuasca. According to my calculations, there are approximately 799,980,000 possible combinations in this scenario. When asked how they managed to discover Ayahuasca, the shamans often say that the plants taught them. Some people take this literally, in the supernatural sense, but perhaps the shamans simply mean that the idea came to them after ingesting some other psychoactive plant, for example psilocybin mushrooms.

Regardless of how exactly the shamans discovered Ayahuasca, the odds were certainly against them, but was it really an unfathomable miracle that begs for a supernatural explanation?

If people like myself, with no botanical knowledge, spent generation after generation trying different combinations of plants purely through blind trial and error, then of course we would probably never discover Ayahuasca. But the Amazonian shamans are highly knowledgeable specialists with an extensive understanding of the plants, their individual effects, their combined effects, and so forth. This accumulation of botanical knowledge would have guided them in their discovery of Ayahuasca, allowing them to proceed not through blind trial and error, but by making educated guesses and informed decisions based on past experience.

A storm brewing over the Nanay River, in the Peruvian Amazon.
As a modern day analogy, let's consider a different type of discovery — one that is even less likely than that of Ayahuasca, and yet one which happens on a regular basis: the discovery of a security hole in a computer system. Even in very simple computer systems, there are almost infinite possibilities as far as input strings and commands, and the timing thereof. In the same way that someone like myself with no botanical knowledge would almost certainly never discover Ayahuasca, so too the computer illiterate would probably never discover a security hole just through random keystrokes and dumb luck. The average person probably wouldn't even recognize a glaring security hole, much less know how to exploit it. But highly skilled hackers — analogous here to the Amazonian shamans — know what to look for. They know how to utilize their repertoire of knowledge, they know how to test theories, and every so often they discover something amazing, against all odds.

When I think of the shamans in this way — highly skilled plant specialists methodically experimenting over thousands of years — the discovery of Ayahuasca strikes me as quite impressive, but not miraculous or begging for a supernatural explanation.

Steve Beyer, a specialist in Amazonian shamanism and hallucinogenic plants, proposed a simple alternative theory. He noted that the people of the upper Amazon use a variety of different methods to regularly induce vomiting as a form of cleansing. The Ayahuasca vine by itself can induce vomiting, so Beyer suggested that perhaps the shamans were only looking for a more effective purgative when they combined the vine with the right leaves to concoct the psychoactive brew of Ayahuasca.

The "Intelligence" of Ayahuasca
Those who drink Ayahuasca often describe encountering an intelligent entity of some kind, or that the brew itself seems to be alive and intelligent. I experienced this firsthand several times throughout my experiences with Ayahuasca. I felt the invisible but unmistakable presence of something intelligent, and at certain points I even interacted with it in long, wide-ranging, and fascinating conversations. The experience felt frighteningly real, so I understand how it could convince some people that such an entity truly exists. But here's a simpler theory.

Similar to Ayahuasca, a large dose of psilocybin mushrooms can temporarily wash away my sense of self, such that I no longer identify as "Nicholas". The words "I" and "me" lose their meaning, and my experience simply becomes one of awareness, not from a particular person's point of view, but from a neutral standpoint. This is one of the most beneficial effects of psychedelics: being able to see everything — including oneself — objectively.

If I look in the mirror while under the influence of psilocybin, often times my own reflection doesn't register as "me" — I no longer identify as that person in the mirror. It feels similar to looking at a childhood photo of myself. Even though that's me in the photo, I no longer identify as that person.

A strong enough dose of psilocybin can obliterate my sense of self to the point that if I look in the mirror, I won't even recognize myself as a human, but rather as some novel apelike creature. As if it were my first time seeing such a creature, the basic anatomy astounds me: the skeletal structure that holds him upright, the muscular structure that allows him to move about, and so forth. My own reflection strikes me as unfamiliar, and I perceive it as something distinctly separate from myself.

Ayahuasca likewise obliterated my sense of self, which might explain that "intelligent entity" that I encountered: perhaps it was simply my own consciousness, but I perceived it as something unfamiliar and distinctly separate from myself. This seems likely for two reasons.

When I engaged in conversation with this "entity", I asked many questions. Dialogues usually contain brief pauses between question and answer, but in this case there was no such back and forth. The questions and answers both came to me at the same time, which perhaps indicates that they came from the same place — my own mind.

Furthermore, often times during less intense parts of the Ayahuasca experience, my own thoughts sounded foreign to me, as if I were listening to someone else thinking. This is the same basic premise: failing to recognize my consciousness as my own, attributing it to something separate from myself.

The Concept of Mother Ayahuasca
Many people — particularly Westerners, but also some shamans — describe Ayahuasca in literal terms as a female entity with human characteristics such as jealousy. Such an anthropocentric view — projecting human qualities onto a plant or onto a psychedelic experience — seems highly suspect, but the more serious problem is one of consistency. How can the "spirit of Ayahuasca" be female when Ayahuasca shamanism is rife with sexism and misogyny? To illustrate this point, below is an excerpt from a book called Singing to the Plants, by the same Steve Beyer mentioned above. He interviews an Ayahuasca shaman who says that:
for the Ayahuasca vine to grow properly, it must not be seen by a woman, especially a woman who is menstruating, or has not slept well because she was drunk. “If those women see the Ayahuasca,” [the shaman] says, “the plant becomes resentful and neither grows nor twines upright. It folds over and is damaged.” For the same reason, don Enrique Lopez says that anyone undertaking la dieta must avoid women who are menstruating, or who have made love the previous night. Menstruating women must even avoid touching or crossing over fishing equipment or canoes, lest they bring bad luck.
For comparison, here is a similar passage from a different book, which says:
Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean. If any of you touch her bed, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. If you touch any object she has sat on, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean [...]
...and so on and so forth. It continues like that for several more sentences, condemning the "filthiness" of a menstruating woman, then it talks about some other stuff before circling back around to say:
If a man has sexual relations with a woman during her menstrual period, both of them must be cut off from the community, for together they have exposed the source of her blood flow.
Those last two quotes are from a book called The Bible, specifically from Leviticus chapter 15, verses 19 through 22, and chapter 20 verse 18. In both instances, with Ayahuasca shamanism and with Christianity, these restrictions strike me not as sacred tradition worth preserving, but as the antiquated mentality of fearful, sexist men attempting to push their beliefs onto others.

The main point is this: if the spirit of Ayahuasca truly were a female entity, it seems bizarre that she would be repulsed by menstruation — a core component of womanhood — while at the same time bestowing her graces upon male shamans who propagate sexism and misogyny. So here's a different idea.

As one of its common effects, Ayahuasca often resurrects long-forgotten emotions and experiences from the past, sometimes from very early childhood, sometimes directly involving one's mother: feelings of being nursed, coddled, loved, instructed, or even scolded. Under the influence of Ayahuasca, if those emotions surfaced at the same time as the "intelligent entity" discussed earlier, and the two experiences intertwined into one, that could explain "Mother Ayahuasca" in a way that doesn't require any stretches of the imagination.

That's the way I see it, but as I mentioned at the start, I'm no expert. If you disagree or have a different theory, please leave a comment below!

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