Jeremy Narby

Is Ayahuasca an Antidote to Modern Life?

In 1995 I published a book called The Cosmic Serpent that dealt with ayahuasca and other subjects. The enthusiasm of many readers took me by surprise. In the book I describe ayahuasca as foul-tasting and my experience drinking it as an ordeal involving vomiting and frightening visions of serpents. Yet time and again readers would ask me: “Where can I get some?”

Before the 1990s, ayahuasca did not arouse much interest outside the Amazon. In the 1960s, a first generation of Westerners began experimenting with the natural hallucinogens used by indigenous people, such as peyote and psilocybin mushrooms. William Burroughs, a novelist, and Allen Ginsberg, a poet, were the first to write a non-academic book about ayahuasca; published in 1963, The Yagé Letters included detailed descriptions of the authors’ experiences drinking the brew; vomiting and frightening visions of death and serpents featured prominently. But their book did not set off a wave of enthusiasm. In fact, all through the 1970s and 1980s ayahuasca remained an obscure Amazonian hallucinogen.

The 1960s generation may have been anti-consumerist, but they did not seem attracted to the ayahuasca purge; in terms of hallucinogens, they tended to choose less difficult options, such as LSD, which is tasteless and does not induce gastric discomfort. But as of the 1990s, growing numbers of Westerners began to feel an urge to try the Amazonian purge.

“Ayahuasca is a powerful tool for transformation.”

In her 2010 thesis From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru, anthropologist Evgenia Fotiou provides an overview of Western ayahuasca tourists: they are mainly white, two-thirds male, and mostly professionals with the benefit of a higher education. Most are non-religious, and looking for meaning in their lives. They tend to be dissatisfied with allopathic medicine and materialism. Some are looking for alternative approaches to healing, often for ailments that Western medicine has failed to cure.

Evgenia Fotiou suggests that these individuals are pilgrims of a new kind. She points out that pilgrimage has always been about heading off to distant lands in search of self-knowledge and healing. Most of the people who seek ayahuasca in the Amazon are looking for a reconnection with nature. When asked about their motivations, they say that living in the Western urban world cuts them off from something essential. They want to reconnect with their bodies as much as with nature.

By travelling to the Amazon to meet with ayahuasqueros, they mainly find what they’re looking for: intense nature, shamanic rituals that catalyze transformtions, and powerful plants that modify human consciousness. But they can also run into trouble.

Ayahuasca is a powerful tool for transformation. As with most adventures on this planet, the ayahuasca experience comes with risks and opportunities. Like other psychedelic plants and substances, ayahuasca puts people in touch with their deep psyches and with biographical material, such as past events in a person’s life. The term “psychedelic” comes from two Greek words meaning “psyche revealing.” Depending on the person you are and the traumas you carry around, the experience can turn out more or less well. It is possible not to know how vulnerable, or even borderline, you are, until you take ayahuasca. But then it is too late to turn back.

Drum-based shamanic techniques are easier to practice. But working with shamanic plants is like learning to swim in the deep end. My advice would be: when in doubt, forbear. Drinking shamanic plant brews is like an extreme sport, akin to sailing on high seas or mountain climbing. Things can go badly wrong. To embark lightly is to invite major problems.

One important thing is to leave aside romantic clichés. The cultural interface between indigenous Amazonians and Westerners is unstable. For the first time, Westerners are coming to the Amazon and rather than telling the indigenous people that they are “ignorant sinners and devil worshipers,” as in the not-so-distant past, they are saying they want to learn indigenous knowledge and are even willing to pay dollars for it. This values the knowledge, and at the same time exacerbates local inequalities by making some individuals richer than others.

“Amazonians have their clichés about Westerners, but the converse is also true, especially when it comes to rainforest shamans. Some Westerners see them as Eastern-style gurus.”

Meanwhile indigenous Amazonians have tended to see white people as kinds of vampires or “pishtakos” bent on seeking out Amazonian people to kill them and extract their body fat. According to stories that Amazonian people tell about pishtakos, these evil white beings need the fat of indigenous people to lubricate their sophisticated machinery. Back in 1984, when I started living with Ashaninka people in a forest community in the Peruvian Amazon, it took me several months to realize that they truly believed I might be a pishtako. I went on to find that proving one is not a vampire is difficult.

Pishtako stories may seem farfetched on a literal level, but they work as telling metaphors. History has shown Amazonian people that Westerners can be conquistadors blinded by gold, or obsessive extractors of natural resources, such as rubber, gold, oil and wood, with little regard for human life or for other living beings. To them the Western obsession with accumulating material wealth can seem pathological, and so it makes sense that Westerners end up flocking to Amazonian shamans in search of healing and meaning.

But why do Amazonians agree to spend time with Westerners if they view them as potential pishtakos? In my view, for the same reason that they admire and fear powerful predators like jaguars and anacondas. Not so long ago Amazonian people, like the Piro of Eastern Peru, would dress as jaguars and anacondas, wearing the designs of these animals on their clothes and skin; now they wear “white people’s clothes” in order to look like “white people.”  Jaguars, anacondas and Westerners stand at the top of the food chain; they have power and they can kill you; this makes them fearsome and fascinating at the same time.

Amazonians have their clichés about Westerners, but the converse is also true, especially when it comes to rainforest shamans. Some Westerners see them as Eastern-style gurus. But Amazonian shamans have never claimed to be either wise men or saints. Their job is to bring about transformations by enchanting their clients. In the intercultural interface of ayahuasca tourism, misunderstandings abound, and it is important to be clear with oneself and with others.

Amazonian ayahuasqueros are mainly men; not only do they tend to identify with predators such as jaguars, but they have not sworn to the Hippocratic Oath. Meanwhile, Western women who consult Amazonian ayahuasqueros may view them as therapists. But when a maleayahuasquero enchants his female client, the relationship between them changes; it is no longer based on consent, but on subju- gation. Beware of sexual predation by ayahuasqueros!

As demand for ayahuasca increases, more and more ayahuasqueros have become entrepreneurs providing a service. Some do a better job than others. It is important to avoid ending up in the hands of an unscrupulous or poorly trained ayahuasquero. The practioner’s presence is crucial during the ayahuasca trance; the ayahuasquero’s songs, in particular, help orchestrate the visions. When participants go through difficulties or distress during their visions, such as experiencing their own death, the ayahuasquero cares for them, sings soothing melodies, and blows tobacco smoke and plant perfumes on them. These are the main tools they use to influence this state of consciousness.

“Ayahuasca can unleash unsuspected forces in the psyche, and this can be hard to manage for those who are unprepared.”

Westerners often approach drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon knowing little about its cultural context. If we take seriously what indigenous Amazonians say, it has a dark side, which they call sorcery or witchcraft. Much of the work that shamans do in their communities involves countering bewitchment. It is striking that when ayahuasca is imported into Western countries, there is no mention of witchcraft and everything seems to be about light and healing. Francis Huxley and I co-edited an anthology called Shamans Through Time to show the difficulties that shamans face, as well as the ambiguities of shamanism and of the entities that one meets along the way. In the indigenous context, the categories of good and evil are not the same as in Western cultures. Shamanism may be a path to knowledge that has been long ignored, but it is not an easy path.

All this does not mean that Amazonian shamans cannot help people. Their understanding of the Western world is deepening. Some are psychologically perceptive and many have adapted intelligently to their new customers. Mimicry is second nature to them. Just as Amazonian hunters learn to sing the melodies of the birds they hunt, Amazonian shamans learn to speak the language that their Western clients understand and want to hear. They are learning that Westerners have problems in their heads, a kind of disease with their own culture, or with their families. The shamans are not surprised to hear that imbalances in society affect people’s health.

However Amazonian shamans are not Western-style therapists.  In their view, the plants do the teaching and the healing, and it is up to the clients to apply what they have learned. This is fine as far as it goes, but ayahuasca can unleash unsuspected forces in the psyche, and this can be hard to manage for those who are unprepared. When Westerners return home from discombobulating ayahuasca experiences in South America, they may find themselves without anyone to talk to. Ayahuasca is not yet part of Western culture; in these circumstances, having an experienced and understanding friend can be precious; otherwise, consulting a psychologist may be necessary.

Over the years I have integrated my ayahuasca experiences alone. After travelling to South America I would return home, speak with a friend or two, and spend time by myself thinking, reading and taking notes; I never once consulted a psychologist. It’s true that as a strong-minded person I try to stand up to the brew. It is also true that I like stepping outside of my culture, visiting people in a different culture and experiencing their approach to health and knowledge. On occasion, I like working with a trained ayahuasca practitioner and consulting the plants. This allows me to see my life from another angle. I have come to appreciate as cleansing the vomiting and purging that the brew induces. I compare drinking ayahuasca to going to the dentist for a check-up; it’s an ordeal, but in the end I know it’s good for me.

Some Western psychologists may not approve of the work done by ayahuasca practitioners in the Amazon. Psychotherapy relies on spoken language, whereas Amazonian practitioners do not speak much; instead, they sing, and their visionary plants make things visible. In my view, ayahuasca visions have a deeper impact than words. Once one has seen something, it is hard to “un-see” it. Words are easier to forget.

Ayahuasca is like a specific and unpredictable person. The experience of drinking the brew will be different for each individual. My experience has been the following: those who hide things from themselves, or who have false or amplified visions of themselves, will tend to have a hard time; others, who have no experience with modified consciousness, but who are poised and generous, will tend to find that ayahuasca is generous and easy-going with them. The brew tends to show people their problems and weaknesses first. If people have lots of problems, their experience may be difficult. Obviously, people suffering from psychosis or other mental health problems should refrain from drinking the brew.

Ayahuasca tourism in the Amazon is an effervescent cultural interface in which some Westerners get transformed for the better and others end up getting confused, or worse. Rock stars, filmmakers and writers gush about their experiences, while other people return home with psychological problems. As for the Amazonians, they claim the right to conduct their business as they see fit.

There have been reports of accidents, rapes, deaths and even murders in connection with ayahuasca tourism in South America. Vigilance is required. I am no shaman, just an anthropologist, but I know that the golden rule of shamanism is: know your shaman. There are lots of charlatans in this business.

Initially, when I saw the influx of “non-anthropologists” looking for ayahuasca in the Amazon, I worried that things could go wrong. Then I came to see an interesting crisscross: Westerners saturated with technology rushing to the so-called primitive, and the so-called primitives, fascinated by Western technology, turning to the so-called modern. It is true that young indigenous Amazonians are currently more interested in computers than in shamanic plant brews. The Westerners are probably right that the Amazonians have a piece of the puzzle that they need, and the converse also obtains.

The growing enthusiasm of Westerners for ayahuasca has had the positive effect of rekindling the interest of indigenous people in their own traditions. Young Amazonians can see that knowing about ayahuasca and other plants can be a good business.

Several  factors  have  contributed  to  ayahuasca’s  recent  popularity  among non-Amazonians. In recent decades, it has become easier to reach the Amazon by commercial airliner. And since the middle of the 1990s and the growth of the Internet, people can access all kinds of information. When something interests them, they can find out about it and seek it out. The Internet has made it possible for almost anybody to look up ayahuasca and find a place somewhere to try it.

Last but not least, the efficacy of ayahuasca itself has contributed to its recent popularity. According to cognitive psychologist Benny Shanon, who has studied the experiences of ayahuasca drinkers, the brew can help people become aware of their presuppositions, and feel more connected to nature; overall, ayahuasca drinkers feel well-being, existential harmony, inspiration, wonder and enchantment.

This has led philosopher of education Kenneth Tupper to propose that ayahuasca “can reliably counteract the disenchanting effects of modern culture’s secular materialism and positivistic scientism.”

Seen in this light, ayahuasca acts as an antidote to the disenchantment of modernity. And the brew is in strong demand because modern people increasingly question the world they live in.

Excerpted from Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine,  published by Synergetic Press.


Anthropologist and writer, JEREMY NARBY has worked since 1989 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 grew up in Canada and Switzerland, studied history at the University of Canterbury, receiving a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University. Jeremy spent several years living with the Ashaninca tribe in the Peruvian Amazon, cataloging indigenous uses of rainforest resources.

Experiences with ayahuasca during his research inspired his first book, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. In the book, Jeremy proposes that indigenous people have developed a deep understanding of medicinal plants and even DNA itself, through ritualized use of ayahuasca, a theory deemed heretical by mainstream science.

Jeremy has since written three other books: Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge (2001), Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge (2005), and Psychotropic Mind: The World According to Ayahuasca, Iboga, and Shamanism (2010). He lectures worldwide and sponsors rainforest expeditions for biologists and other scientists to examine indigenous knowledge systems and the utility of ayahuasca in gaining knowledge. He was featured in the documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule.