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In this blog, we'll peel back some of the layers of how the global embrace of Ayahuasca is influencing tribal communities and how to approach this beautiful medicine with respectful awareness. We will explore:
What are the odds that ancient peoples of the Amazon would discover two distinctly different plants, neither of which have psychoactive properties on their own, and combine in perfect proportions them to produce one of the most powerful entheogenic medicines known to man?
What are the odds that these indigenous communities, many of whom had never encountered a foreigner before, are being flooded with throngs of curious tourists hoping to get a sip?
Seemingly, the odds are 100%
If you’ve done any amount of research on Ayahuasca, you’ve surely encountered many varied opinions on how you should approach the experience, how to prepare, who to do it with, etc.
You may have also noticed that many of these ideas contradict one another. There is a simple reason for this.
The region of traditional Ayahuasca use spans the entire Upper Amazon, which encompases modern day Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiana. There are at least 90 different indegneous Amazonian tribes across this region, each with their own language, customs, and a rich herbal healing tradition of which ayahuasca is but one part.
Even the name “ayahuasca” is only used by a very small minority of people in the Amazon. Elsewhere it is called yagé, bejuco, caapi, nucnu huasca, shimbaya huasca, nishi, oni; népe, xono, datém, kamarampi, pindé, natema, iona, mii, shillinto, nepi, and many other names that have likely never been heard by western ears.
It’s important to understand that all the tribes with an Ayahuasca tradition developed their ways within the context of their own communities. Their own styles of medicine work were divinely inspired by their own unique stories, cosmic mythologies, and relations with local flora, fauna, and landscapes. There are a few similarities between tribes, especially those in close proximity, but many are completely distinct from one another. Within the philosophy of each tribe, one point remains consistent - they learned the science of plant medicine from the plants themselves.
Why certain cultural artifacts are more familiar to the West than others is less a matter of their being “more true” and more a matter of how those tribes interfaced with colonists, crusaders, anthropologists, missionaries, explorers, and spiritual seekers. Logically, traditions from areas that were more accessible to outsiders tended to be the ones we are more familiar with in the West.
Viewing the vast tapestry of the Amazonian medicine traditions while giving considerations to the broader historical context, we might find that the best way to approach ayahuasca is with an open mind, and to heed the advice around “the right way” with both respect and a grain of salt.
One of the leading beliefs about healing with Ayahuasca is that, to be done properly, it must be done with an indigenous healer. Truly, the experience of receiving Ayahuasca from someone from an indigenous lineage can be a powerful and deeply moving experience. Entering the stream of an ancient spiritual tradition can awaken the deep, forgotten wisdom within ourselves, and the importance of elevating indigenous voices to the world stage can not be overestimated.
With that being said, there are some disadvantages to working with indigenous healers, the main one being a lack of shared cultural context & language barrier. We westerners are a unique breed. So many people who seek medicine are suffering from illnesses of culture (anxiety, addictions, depression, PTSD) so facilitators coming from indigenous traditions, while still very talented, may not have the cultural context to really know where you're coming from. Not speaking the language can create challenges if you need some focused attention.
Another disadvantage of indigenous healers is larger group size. Once most of us have heard a shaman's name in the West, they often already have a strong reputation, which often means large ceremonies and a lack of individualized attention. There are many websites purporting the "right" way to do an ayahuasca ceremony is in a group ceremony of 15-50 people, as the indigenous people have done for generations. What this overlooks is that westerners are often coming down with generations of trauma from urbanization, disconnection from nature, and capitalism. It's one thing for a tribe to come together in community to clear the year's disagreements. It's another thing when a room full of westerners go into a full blown shamanic journey for the first time. Another problem with larger group size is that there's a much greater chance that someone else's difficult experience will become distracting to your process.
There are many highly skilled non-indigenous healers and therapists from all corners of the world who are doing very effective healing work with ayahuasca despite having no genetic connection to an Amazonian tradition. A non-indigenous healer might employ a variety of modalities based on your unique condition. Considering this, a reputable non-indigenous person serving ayahuasca will usually have extensive training with someone of an Amazonian lineage and part of their proceeds should support indigenous rights.
The question is less about "who his better", but rather, "who is better for YOU?" There’s no right or wrong answer, and different facilitators will work better for different people, so it’s important to get clear on your intention and what kind of experience you’re looking for.
At the end of the day, the facilitator you choose should meet 3 very simple requirements:
Another area of confusion around ayahuasca is concerning how to best prepare, particularly in regards to the diet. This is an area where we really get to observe tribal differences. Some tribes follow a very strict dietary protocol with fasting, and very light, bland food for the weeks leading up to ceremony. Others believe that feasting on meat and heavy foods before the ceremony is the best way to stay grounded and ensure spiritual protection.
Again, the best way for you may be somewhere in between. Later in this book, we will go deeper into a preparation protocol that follows the middle way. It’s certainly important to cleanse the body, especially the liver, before working with Ayahuasca, so we’ll be diving deeper into how to do that while maintaining good nutritional baseline.
The boom in Ayahuasca tourism has been a double-edged sword for tribal communities. Naturally, local families found an economic opportunity in the growing interest in Ayahuasca from outsiders. For some, it has provided an opportunity for social mobility, education and privilege. For others with less-convenient access to the medicine, they find themselves on the less fortunate end of the deal. The age-old disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” has always resulted in disharmony within communities, and the result has been the birth of a thriving ayahuasca black market.
Another issue of growing concern is around overharvesting. The banisteriopsis caapi vine used to make Ayahuasca take a very long time to grow, sometimes up to 50 years. Because of the high potential for earning, old-growth vine’s are being harvested at an alarming rate, and in some areas of the Amazon, it can no longer be found.
There are many people working to limit the impact of global demand, and there are a great number of non-profit organizations and individuals who have dedicated their lives to ensuring ayahuasca use in the world progresses with sustainability in mind. There are now many sanctuaries both in and outside of the Amazon dedicated to the ethical, sustainable practice of healing with ayahuasca to alleviate the pressure on the delicate ecosystems of plants and the people alike.
When we welcome Ayahuasca into our lives, we find ourselves in relationship with all of her cultural, historical, ecological, and spiritual relations as well. It is almost impossible to enter a relationship with Ayahuasca without her bringing some awareness to our impact on the world around us, which may be one of medicine's greatest blessings - the realization that we are a part of a sacred web, interconnected with all things - for all our relations.
Going to your first ceremony with even a little bit of pretext for where this medicine comes from, where it’s been, and where it’s going is a beautiful opportunity to experience a deeper level of gratitude, humility, and respect when it’s time to welcome Ayahuasca into your consciousness.
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