This past week an old friend of mine died. His name was Michael Harner. Michael was an anthropologist who in 1973 published a book called "Hallucinogens and Shamanism." It was the first time Shamanism and Psychedelics had been chronicled. He followed this with a book called the "The Way of the Shaman," which enormously influenced western culture's understanding of this hidden art. In his book Michael recalled his time in the Amazon in the 1950's with the Jivaro tribe, and his experiences drinking Ayahuasca. My friendship with Michael did not originate in the interests that I fantasized we shared, or that he taught at the graduate school I attended, but rather grew out of my willingness to put aside a New York Times for him everyday at the bookstore where I worked.
The explosion of Ayahuasca use in our culture can be directly attributed to Michael's work. By the time I knew Michael it had been thirty years since his adventures in the Amazon and he appeared to be past his interest in Ayahuasca. He had created the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and was more interested in reconnecting indigenous cultures with their ecstatic roots from which modern civilization had separated them. He thought of himself partly as the Archaeologist he had dreamed about being as a child. His preferred induction tool into the Shamanic experience was drumming, not Ayahuasca.
Michael's use of the word shamanism to describe the work of the healers in the Amazon was an interesting choice. The word Shaman has its' origins in a Siberian dialect, and was first used by Mircea Eliade in, "Shamanism: Archaic Forms of Ecstasy" in the 1940's. But the word is from a language that originates eight thousand miles from the Amazon. Before I met Michael I had met another brilliant Anthropologist named Agheahanda Bharati who had once been the head of the American Anthropological Association. He was a stickler for not mixing cultural aphorisms, because doing so lost the meaning of what they represented. He once told a story of how he was in a record store and saw an album called "Aloha Amigo", and thought that title portented the end of western civilization. He turned out to be wrong, but his point was valid. How we describe our experiences is important. What Michael encountered in the Amazon wasn't shamanism, but it was the closest word he could use to describe what he experienced. Nowadays Chelsea Handler and Lindsay Lohan discuss their "Shamans" as though they are doctors, dentists, lawyers, or skin care experts. If you know the right people, you can probably get a "Shaman" to come to your house.
I regularly receive email updates from groups leading Ayahuasca Ceremonies in places as diverse as London, Ibiza, Goa, Santa Barbara, Paris and locally in Los Angeles. Ceremonial leaders everywhere are singing Icaros (songs sung by Amazonian Healers usually in Spanish) and playing native Amazonian Instruments to facilitate psychedelic journeys. The fetishizing and appropriation of Amazonian Culture is in some ways absurd, and here's why: The psychoactive alkaloid in Ayahuasca is DMT, and it is molecularly identical to psilocin. Psilocin is what psilocybin, the active ingredient in "Magic Mushrooms" (a fungus that grows on every continent but Antartica) gets metabolized into before it passes the blood brain barrier. The only difference between the two psychedelic molecules is that psilocin has an extra hydroxene leg on it's structure that allows it to be orally active. Simply stated, Psilocybin is orally active DMT. DMT gets metabolized by the digestive process before it passes through the blood brain barrier, and requires a second agent, an MAOI inhibitor that keeps it from being metabolized. The Banisteeropsis Caapi, the famous "Vine of Souls" isn't even the plant that contains DMT. It's very dramatic looking, but the plant that contains DMT, Psychotria Viridis, looks like a million other plants. The Ayahuasca brew is the result of a mixture of two plants, but it's psychedelic catalyst is identical to the chemical that is in magic mushrooms.
A worldwide industry has risen up to monetize the interest in Ayahuasca. People put on Ayahuasca ceremonies in homes throughout the world. Every year more people travel to the Amazon to take part in ceremonies in retreat centers that are being built by the same people that invested in Yoga Studios in the 1990's. People spend thousands of dollars to travel and take part in dramatic reenactments of Indigenous Amazonian rituals. Ageahanda Bharati once told me that, "When a Japanese villager walks into a Shinto Temple, they have a totally different experience than a westerner who enters one does." Flying to the Amazon does not provide an indigenous experience of an Ayahuasca Ceremony, any more than attending a Shinto ceremony in Japan would. The sights, sounds, and emotional experience is completely different for the non indigenous. Even “La Purga” the expected mystical vomiting that expels unprocessed emotions is caused by the high acid content of the brew. Some people’s stomach’s can handle it, some cannot. Those who can’t handle the high acid content get the “La Purga” out of both ends, just like the online tourist guides promise.
The efficacy of the psychedelic experience is a separate matter altogether. During the past few years there have been numerous reports on the positive effects of Ayahuasca in both the Amazon and in the United States. People have self reported its benefits. But the scientific evaluation of it is somewhat unreliable because of the folk medicine manner in which it is administered. Studies in Brazil have shown that when Ayahuasca is given to prison inmates, their recividism rates are greatly reduced. This mirrors studies done in the United States in the early 1960's with psilocybin. In the last few years, psilocybin has been studied for its' effectiveness with a variety of ailments. At John Hopkins University and NYU, psilocybin has been shown to have efficacy in smoking cessation, moving people out of treatment resistant depression, anxiety, and end of life despair in cancer patients . Psilocybin works as a psychological, existential, and spiritual aide. It's been shown to switch up the way the brain processes information. Most surprisingly by quieting the brain activity so that different regions which which have been camoflaged from one another by habitual modes of thinking discover they can communicate with unfamiliar neuro-neighbors. Once the brain discovers new paths of communication, it lays down tracks by creating new brain cells built toward the direction of new experience.
The efficacy of psilocybin is now scientific fact. Yet pharmacological companies are in no rush to legalize psilocybin as a medicine. Its potential as a profitable product is minimal. Psilocybin isn't patentable because it occurs naturally in over 130 kinds of mushrooms. It also only has to be utilized one to two times in therapeutic dosages to catalyze changes in psychological and neurological functioning that last for months. Pharmacological companies are invested in compounds that require daily, long term usage, at great cost, that often turn out to be minimally effective.
It turns out the Ayahuasca entrepreneurs have similar motivation to marijuana entrepreneurs and pharmacalogical companies. People spend thousands of dollars to go to the Amazon and take part in dramatic re-enactments of Ayahuasca ceremonies, and the DMT in the brew does work. A new experience is provided for the brain that changes neurological and psychological functioning. But the truth is, the experience that can be had in an Amazonian Jungle at night listening to Icaros and native instruments, thousands of miles from home, is available to a person using psilocybin on their couch in Santa Monica, wearing eyeshades and listening to music that they find inspiring and moving. It's not as exotic, or as exciting as adventure travel, but once you close your eyes the experience is the same. These roads are well traveled, and they lead someplace miraculous. They've been traveled by uncountable numbers of people, all over the world. The experience of consciousness transformation doesn't need to be made more exciting than it actually is, and it doesn't require novelty. Metanoia is the most novel experience available to any human being, and it's a democracy.