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Jeremy Narby

Jeremy NarbyIndigenous wisdom about plant medicine can open the path to deep personal healing and a profound understanding of the universe, and for many people this ancient knowledge is transforming modern life.

ACQUIRING KNOWLEDGE: AMAZONIAN EPISTEMOLOGY

A shamanic brew from the deepest Amazon rainforest is now transforming the lives of people around the world, challenging Western notions about healing, art, religion, and the intelligence of nature.

Not long ago, the vine of the soul, ayahuasca, was virtually unknown outside the Amazon region. Today it attracts the attention of legions of Western seekers drawn to the prospect of deep wisdom available through indigenous shamanic practices that involve the use of psychedelic plants. Ayahuasca is revered by ancient tribal societies as a potent teacher capable of healing the body, expanding the mind, and strengthening community.

Ayahuasca is an Amazonian plant mixture that the indigenous people of the Western Amazon concocted centuries ago, if not millennia ago. It is an extremely powerful hallucinogen that tends to unleash all kinds of vivid imagery in the mind, and at the same time constitutes a kind of botanical mystery, in that it is a necessary combination of plants, one of which is a bush that contains a substance called dimethyltryptamine, which is also produced by the central nervous systems of mammals, and in particular by human brains. But this hallucinogenic substance is inactivated by a stomach enzyme called monoamine oxidase. So, you can boil the leaves of the bush and make a tea and drink it, and even though it's full of this dimethyltryptamine, you will not experience any hallucinations or visions.

The people in the Amazon figured out a long time ago that you can combine these leaves with the vine called ayahuasca, which has the same name as the mixture. The bark of this vine contains several substances that inactivate the stomach enzyme, the monoamine oxidase. So they're combining a brain hormone, which is strongly hallucinogenic but orally inactive, with monoamine oxidase inhibitors. This allows the hallucinogenic substances contained in the brew to get through the gut into the blood, and from there up into the brain. So, this is actually a sophisticated designer drug, as one could call it, or plant combination, if you object to the word 'drug'.

What is striking about it when seen like that, is that it is also neurologically compatible. In other words, when you consume ayahuasca, you are not introducing into your brain a substance that is foreign to human chemistry. In fact you are raising the level of a hormone that is already present in the brain. When you take ecstasy for example, the MDMA molecule, it's something that gets into your brain, but that is not part of natural chemistry. As we know, hallucinogenic molecules work like keys that fit into locks. The locks are the receptors on the surface of our brain cells. I think what you get with other, synthetic hallucinogens, is the feeling that your locks have been played around with keys that didn't fit exactly. What is striking with ayahuasca once you've had the experience is that the next day you actually feel better, not worse.

Now, getting away from this kind of scientific understanding, ayahuasca is a very complex thing. I mean, yes, it's a plant brew, it's a shamanic plant brew, it contains hallucinogenic molecules, as we've just discussed, but it's also one of the primary tools for knowing the world in the view of Amazonian indigenous people. From afar you could say: "So what, this bunch of barefoot Indians in the forest they're just hallucinating, and they're crazy enough to believe that hallucinogenic plants are a way of knowing the world," and you can just leave it at that and forget about it. But if you're going to climb down from the pedestal of cultural arrogance and take other cultures seriously, no matter how radically different from our own, on their own terms, what the indigenous people of the Western Amazon say, is that right at the center of how they know about plants, animals, life, the cosmos, you name it, are these shamanic plants.

How do they know anything? Their shamans take these plants, which are not just ayahuasca, but also tobacco and toé and others, and in their visions learn about the essences of life. So one could compare ayahuasca to a microscope. In other words, if you ask a scientist how they know about plants and animals, they'll point you to the biologists, and you'll ask the biologists how they know and they'll point to their microscopes. They say: "This is how we get our knowledge. We work with these tools and we go under the surface of things and we see that all beings are made of cells and that there's a hidden unity under the surface of diversity." Well, that is exactly what Amazonian shamans say. They say: "We take our psychoactive plants, and then we go under the surface of things, and we see hidden unity below the diversity."

So, ayahuasca is I think very precisely described as a key tool for acquiring knowledge, according to Amazonian epistemology.

JEREMY NARBY is an anthropologist and activist who has worked for 25 years as Amazonian projects director for the Swiss non-profit "Nouvelle Planète," backing projects for the self-determination of Amazonian indigenous peoples that involve land rights, primary education, village health, botanical knowledge, fish farms, tree nurseries, and other local initiatives. Jeremy has also written several books that explore Amazonian systems of knowledge—shamanism—and their possible interface with science, including The Cosmic Serpent and Intelligence in Nature, and he is co-editor of the anthology Shamans Through Time with Francis Huxley.

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