During the last decades, a visionary medicine escaped from the Amazon, spreading like a fast-moving vine across our globalized world. The growing popularity of ayahuasca is part of greater psychedelic renaissance - a new exploration of the visionary and healing properties of a class of compounds once deemed to hold extraordinary promise, then demonized for contributing to the radical turbulence of the 1960s. I was an “early adaptor” to this new phase of experimentation. I have enjoyed a front row seat, witnessing the psychedelic movement as it rapidly grows, iterates, and evolves.
In 2002, I published my first book, Breaking Open the Head, on my personal and cultural exploration of psychedelic shamanism. Before writing that book, I was a journalist and magazine editor immersed in Manhattan’s media, art, and literary worlds. After a number of years writing about contemporary art and other subjects for magazines like The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Esquire, ArtForum, and so on, I fell into a dank, miserable spiritual crisis.
I had been raised as a secular materialist who assumed that consciousness was purely an epiphenomenon caused by an accident of evolution, limited to the brain. I therefore assumed that there was no possibility of any kind of experience after death. There could be no such thing as a soul or spirit that existed beyond the physical plane. Everyone I knew in the media and cultural worlds shared this assumption.
I began to realize that this underlying belief induced collective nihilism and despair that we rarely acknowledged. Our innate sense of spiritual emptiness and meaninglessness was reflected in how we were treating each other as well as the environment. Why would we care to protect the Earth’s fragile ecosystems for future generations if life was inherently senseless and ended in total annihilation, in any case?
I recalled a handful of psychedelic experiences from college. These were wonderfully surprising openings. In those first tentative trips, I touched upon many dimensions of consciousness that I yearned to explore further. But in my culture at that time, such explorations were legally forbidden and frowned upon. I returned to psychedelic exploration as an adult, despite the taboos, because they were the only tools I had found that revealed so many hidden possibilities of psychic reality.
I began a journey to rediscover the visionary experience, going to Gabon to take a psychedelic called iboga as part of the Bwiti initiation, visiting Mexico to take mushrooms with the Mazatec indians, and also visiting the Amazon in Ecuador to drink ayahuasca with the Secoya people, a small rainforest tribe. I also explored a range of synthetic psychedelic compounds created in laboratories. I reviewed the history of Twentieth Century artists and writers who explored visionary plants or “entheogens,” including Antonin Artaud, Aldous Huxley, and William Burroughs.
During the process of researching and writing Breaking Open the Head, I underwent a conversion to a new worldview - a different way of understanding the nature of reality and the purpose of existence. Through my shamanic journeys, I had many profound insights and healings. I also encountered a range of psychic phenomena that were considered nonexistent according to scientific materialism. I became fascinated with occult philosophy, studying thinkers like Carl Jung, Carlos Castaneda, and Rudolf Steiner who saw consciousness as the underlying reality. I discovered that I was no longer an atheist.
I understood, through direct experience, that there was a deeper reality or an “implicate order,” in the coinage of the physicist David Bohm who developed the “holographic universe” theory. I became convinced that souls have a journey that goes far beyond this life. We are just at the beginning of our voyage, as a species, in learning about these subtle or “super-sensible” dimensions of reality. I find this incredibly exciting and hopeful.
Of all the substances I explored, I found ayahuasca to be the most profound and significant in many ways. Usually made from two plants brewed together - the banisteriopsis caapi or ayahuasca vine, containing MAO inhibitors and beta carbolines, and psychotria viridis, a dark green shrub whose leaves contain Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) - ayahuasca can be physically difficult, inducing nausea and vomiting; also mentally challenging, as one surfs waves of visions that can be euphoric and horrific in turn. It induces powerful insights that can be integrated in the aftermath of the journey. Another important aspect of ayahuasca is that it is usually taken in a ceremonial container. If one drinks with accomplished practitioners, you feel supported in your visionary and healing journey. Shamanic songs called ikaros, as well as any kind of music, becomes extraordinarily significant when you enter the “current” of the ayahuasca trance.
In Breaking Open the Head, I mused on the possibility of ayahuasca becoming popular to the point that it transformed global culture - much as LSD did in the 1960s. But this seemed a distant dream. It was hard to imagine modern Westerners, obsessed as they are with creature comforts, submitting themselves, in droves, to this often miserable and humiliating experience. To my amazement, however, this happened in the years after that book came out. In 2002, when I spoke at bookstores in the US or England, I would routinely ask my audience who had heard of ayahuasca. Usually it was only a tiny fraction of the attendees, if anyone. Today, ayahuasca has become a global phenomenon influencing the broader culture in ways that are both subtle and profound.
When Plants Dream is a journalistic investigation of the ongoing ayahuasca explosion. The vine continues to spread across the world, extending its tendrils into communities across Europe, South Africa, Japan, India, and many other countries. I coauthored the book with Sophia Rokhlin, an anthropologist who is program coordinator for The Chaikuni Institute, a nonprofit in Peru that supports local indigenous communities to sustainably grow and harvest ayahuasca. One of the negative outcomes of ayahuasca’s skyrocketing popularity is the increasing scarcity of the banisteriopsis caapi vines in the Amazon. It takes three to seven years for the ayahuasca vine to reach a point where it can be harvested, and over ten years before it truly reaches maturity. Western tourists have poured into the region seeking spiritual gnosis or healing, often heedless of their impact on local cultures or ecosystems. This has led to a predictable overconsumption of the plant, which becomes increasingly difficult to find in the jungle.
In the book, we look at all of the different areas of ayahuasca - in a sense, we offer an overall biographical portrait of the medicine. We look at what is known about the origins of ayahuasca, how it is used by indigenous cultures, how the modern world first encountered it (a saga involving Spanish priests, Mestizo rubber tappers, and anthropologists), what we are learning about its psychological benefits. We review scientific research happening around the world now and explore how ayahuasca synergizes with many mystical and religious traditions. We also relate many amazing stories of personal transformation and healing from the medicine.
While Sophia and I see the global spread of ayahuasca as a positive phenomenon overall, there are layers of ambiguity as well as negative consequences of its rapid spread. One issue is the increasing scarcity of the vines. A set of problems emerged from local indigenous shamans becoming stars, getting pulled out of their communities and put on the international circuit. These shamans were often the main healers in their villages, and the communities felt their loss. A number of them also ended up being accused of sexual misconduct or other types of manipulation. The Anglo and European world made the same mistake as a generation ago, when Indian gurus were in fashion. We assumed that what we consider “spirituality” involves a particular moral and ethical code of behavior. However, as Jeremy Narby points out, indigenous and Mestizo ayahuasqueros never pretend to be saints. Traditionally, they identify with jungle predators like jaguars and anacondas and see themselves as warriors. They transform their clients by enchanting them, which can give them a lot of power over them.
“Ayahuasca tourism” has also caused its fair share of problems, as hordes of spiritual seekers and desperate Westerners with illnesses that modern medicine can’t handle rush down to the Amazon for ayahuasca immersions and Dietas with other medicinal plants. While there are obvious benefits as money flows into impoverished areas, the onslaught of ayahuasca tourism often contributes to further destabilizing indigenous and Mestizo communities. On the other hand, some visitors to the Amazon end up wanting to give back by creating local industries which support indigenous communities (like the Runa energy drink, using guayusa from the Amazon, is one example) and protect the threatened rainforest.
The reintegration of psychedelics and shamanism into our post-industrial society is an ongoing process of learning, stumbling, and experimenting. As Samuel Beckett put it, “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better.” There is no doubt we have learned a tremendous amount in the last decades. Psychedelics have recovered the prominence they had in the mid-1960s, with a much more grounded and coherent foundation of knowledge and experience under our feet. The ongoing discoveries being made by institutions like Johns Hopkins, MAPS, and the Imperial College in London are enthralling. For instance, the Imperial College has made studies of brain scans, MRIs, of people on high-dose LSD and psilocybin. We have learned that these compounds cause many usually dormant areas of the brain to light up and sparks new synaptic connections between these areas. This supports the anecdotal evidence that psychedelics are powerful tools for innovative thought and creative problem-solving.
Legally, the situation is slowly changing. Psychedelics were classified as “Schedule One” drugs back in the 1960s, seen as drugs of abuse with no possible value. Ultimately, this has to change. Currently, countries like Portugal have decriminalized possession of most drugs, and US cities like Portland and Denver have issued new ordinances decriminalizing mushrooms and other psychedelics. Ayahuasca, in particular, remains in a legal limbo in many places in the world. In the US, confiscations and prosecution have become extremely rare, partly due to a few legal cases, included one decided by the Supreme Court, that defend its religious and sacramental use.
Personally, I am particularly interested in how the ongoing use of ayahuasca might support the necessary ecological, political, and economic movements emerging in our time. Unfortunately, modern industrial civilization continued a process of alienation and separation between man and nature that started with the rise of Judeo-Christian monotheism. This alienation has allowed us to exploit the Earth’s natural resources to such a degree that we are now threatened with the possibility of our own extinction in a short timeframe. For example, we deforest the Amazon jungle at the rate of seven football fields per minute. The Amazon provides 20% of the Oxygen we breathe. The warming and acidification of the oceans is negatively affecting the life cycle of the plankton which provide a large proportion of our oxygen.
Sophia and I are excited to share When Plants Dream. We hope it contributes to a greater understanding of this sacred medicine, which seems a gift from the vegetal kingdom to help us address our somewhat confused human reality. The post New Age culture of spirituality tends to focus on personal healing and “manifestation” for ego-based purposes. We have reached a threshold, however, where our collective survival is at risk and people need to overcome their personal desires to contribute to a greater mission that addresses climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, as well as social injustice and inequality.
One thing that ayahuasca can teach us is that we grow spiritually by undergoing difficult initiations and confronting our shadow material. As we clear away layers of personal and societal trauma, we can make ourselves available as vehicles assisting the larger process of collective transformation. Rather than dreading this, we can accept it as a great opportunity.