Alternative Medicine and the Amazon Rainforest

The awakening offered by ayahuasca, an alternative medicine practiced by the native tribes of the Amazon rainforest, requires deep reflection, and carries the risk of misinterpretation.

Rainforest Medicine cover

Rainforest Medicine (North Atlantic Books, 2013) by Jonathon Miller Weisberger chronicles the practices, legends, and wisdom of the quickly vanishing traditions of the Amazon rainforest.

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Rainforest Medicine (North Atlantic Books, 2013) by Jonathon Miller Weisberger, chronicles the practices, legends, and wisdom of the quickly vanishing traditions of the Amazon rainforest. The indigenous science and alternative medicine of varying societies of the Amazon rainforest and outlying regions are explored in vivid detail and authentic voice. In this excerpt from “The Gift of Ayahuasca,” the author explains the awakening and purification offered by the powerful hallucinogen.

Ayahuasca: A Medicine Capable of Inspecting the Innermost Vibrations of Mind

One wonders how people in primitive societies, with no knowledge of chemistry or physiology, ever hit upon a solution to the activation of an alkaloid by a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. Pure experimentation? Perhaps not.
— Richard Evans Schultes, An Overview of Hallucinogens in the Western Hemisphere

“In the Amazon and other places where plants hallucinogens are understood and used, you are conveyed into worlds that are appallingly different from ordinary reality. Their vividness cannot be stressed enough. They are more real than real. And that’s something that you sense intuitively. They establish an ontological priority. They are more real than real, and once you get that under your belt and let it rattle around in your mind then the compass of your life begins to spin and you realize that you are not looking in on the Other; the Other is looking in on you.”
— Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival

We are beginning to understand why ayahuasca — yagé or “Grandmother Medicine” (a modern name that indicates respect) — is considered to be an entheogen, a substance that “reveals inner divinity.” This differs greatly from a hallucinogen or a psychedelic, in that visions and experiences under the influence of ayahuasca (as well as other known entheogens used in ceremonial context) can provide deep and meaningful — oftentimes uninhibited — insights into the nature of life, illness, and well-being, including revelations about the very fabric of existence itself. Experiences are seen and felt as “real,” as opposed to flat-out hallucinations, which ultimately are of little or no consequence, as they are mere mental stimulation, no matter how amusing. It is as if upon drinking the medicine a window to other worlds is opened to realities that exist right here and now, closely alongside our own. Boundaries and egos crumble. It is without doubt a shift of viewpoint, an extension of experience beyond ordinary consciousness. Nonetheless, regardless of how “real” the experience may be, or how accurate a reflection it allows of both outer and inner “reality,” there still exists the great risk of misinterpreting these “otherworldly” experiences and how they might relate to one’s life in the everyday world.

To journey with ayahuasca is to literally inspect the deepest levels of mind, though not every drink will produce an intense vision or lasting effect, as there are many variables. For example, the results are proportional to the discipline demonstrated by the student, especially when one continues drinking. Also, the variation in experience among people consuming the same brew gives credence to the notion of “plant intelligence” — it works on each of us differently and demonstrates a limitless range of action (as compared to pharmaceutical drugs, which have a somewhat predictable and standard effect on most people).

It’s said that the medicine gives you what you need, not what you want. Sometimes it’s all about purging: vomit, shit, old stuck energy, negative thought-forms. . . All of it must be purged. This is why ayahuasca is called la purga by the mestizo ayahuasqueros of Peru. Deep purging or, stated otherwise, purification of toxins on multiple levels and the opening of energetic blockages, is the front line of any effective and long-lasting healing. At the peak of the experience, one may feel constricted and awkward; it is in these precise moments that the alkaloid-rich ayahuasca is squeezing out, on an emotional level, all kinds of impurities and toxins. When this occurs the traditional guidelines are to stay still and quiet and let Grandmother Medicine do her work. This is when people of weak disposition or with little experience in the ways of the sacred culture can literally flip, run off screaming, or start thrashing on the floor. This is not (as it may seem)“ spirit possession” — this is simply the powerful medicine of the yagé awakening one’s latent energies. Blockages have been overcome and what was once constricted is now flowing freely.

As for its ability to heal specific ailments, ayahuasca is most effective for the following conditions, among others: psychosomatic illness, depression, childhood traumas, abuse recovery; imbalances of the central nervous system; weakened function of the heart, pericardium, and the body’s thermo-kinetic system; as well as intestinal disorders and colonic illness. I would not venture so far as to say it is a panacea for all of humanity’s woes. It does, however, put people on the path to wellness, leaving the patient with a significant assignment of personal inner homework, so to say, in order to attain health and clear understanding. Not to be underestimated is the ability of this sacred plant medicine to assist in the rediscovery of one’s unadorned and true self. Today many people have let themselves become indoctrinated into a conditioned mode of existence that does not encourage optimal health or enjoyment of life’s greatest simple pleasures. A good strong dose of this medicine can help a person get back on track.

In the hands of an experienced guide, when well prepared and adequately administered, ayahuasca enters one’s heart and mind to remove all that is in between one’s true being and the celestial immortals, integrating all the scattered aspects into one new and whole being that is like a reborn child of heaven. Due to this spiritual and physical health regime, many drinkers of yagé have lived long and productive lives despite the challenging conditions of being completely self-sufficient in the remote rainforest. A shining example for me was the woman I knew as Ñeñco (“Grandmother” in Paicoca) Luisa Payaguaje of the Secoya community of San Pablo de Cantesiayá. She was the last elder woman yagé drinker. She left this physical plane of existence in 2008. I was fortunate to meet her, and even more fortunate to have participated in a ceremony with her, where she drank the medicine with us. She painted our faces before the ceremony, drank several stiff doses, and stayed still as a rock all night. At dawn she was clearing the patio with her machete and smiling.

Reprinted with permission from Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon by Jonathon Miller Weisberger and published by North Atlantic Books, 2013.