Ayahuasca: Sacred Tea from the Amazon

A tea used for centuries by the Amazon Indians has a message for the world -- will we listen?


| September/October 2001



Drugs and Addiction 
Ayahuasca: Sacred Tea from the Amazon
-Jeremiah Creedon,

Honoring Our Hunger for the Ecstatic
-Fred R.

Seeking Peace in the War on Drugs
-Ethan A. Nadelmann


Discuss ayahuasca in the Currents forum at Café Utne's: cafe.utne.com
Dennis McKenna has an idea for treating alcoholics. He wants to give them drugs. To be more precise, he thinks he can help them beat their habit with a complex drug mixture. What he has in mind is no less ingenious than the multiple-drug regimens that are used today against HIV and may someday curb certain cancers, but that’s where the similarity ends. McKenna’s blend is a bitter tea called ayahuasca, used by some of the peoples of the Amazon for perhaps thousands of years. Though its importance in the region’s sacred and medicinal traditions has been well documented by Western scientists, the drink is not an accepted therapy in the United States. Along with its curative properties, ayahuasca can profoundly affect the human mind. McKenna, a trained ethnopharmacologist, has some hurdles to clear before he can test his ideas in an actual scientific study. A senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing, he’s a world authority on how plant hallucinogens have been traditionally used by other cultures, especially in South America. But those credentials are no guarantee that he’ll be able to buck a 30-year taboo against such research in this country. To pull it off, he will have to overcome a lot of resistance from federal regulators who haven’t been that interested in finding therapeutic uses for these drugs. McKenna’s first step will be to convince the government that his study has rock-solid scientific merit. Next, he’ll have to line up patients and locate a facility suitable for treating them, both with psychotherapy and with regular doses of ayahuasca. And then there’s the matter of how to clinically administer a drink its shaman inventors were known to gulp from calabash gourds while singing magical songs—then expel out either end as its serpent spirit uncoiled in their intestines. Also known as caapi, yagé, and la purga, ayahuasca can cause vomiting and diarrhea. It will never be a party drug like Ecstasy, but these messy side effects may offer a clue to how it apparently influences both body and mind. That said, ayahuasca will never be your mom’s Ginkgo biloba, either. The word itself, from the western Amazon’s Quechua language, means "vine of the soul" or "vine of the dead." It refers both to a woody liana whose bark goes into the boiled brew and to the tonic’s reputation for opening a door into "the sacred dimension of reality." Today, ayahuasca has emerged from the shrinking Amazon forest into the wider global imagination. Some say it has a message for the modern world from the planetary mind: It’s time to clean up our act. Skeptics think what ayahuasca enthusiasts really hear is the echo of their own clamor for spiritual novelty. Meanwhile, McKenna and others are straining the stuff through the fine mesh of science, trying to understand how it actually works. They are dealing with some very weird molecules that seem to know us better than we know ourselves. XFONT Scientists generally refer to psychedelic drugs as hallucinogens, though most do not induce hallucinations in a scientific sense. Scholars of religion often call them entheogens, from the term "god within." No one calls them narratogens, but that may be the most accurate term: The one thing they surely do is generate stories. For decades, ayahuasca was the stuff of legend for various wandering scientists and dharma bums, from Harvard’s famed ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes to beat poet Allen Ginsberg. In 1971 Dennis and his older brother, Terence McKenna, the influential psychedelic philosopher and raconteur, hit the trail themselves. Their trip inspired a co-written book, The Invisible Landscape (Seabury, 1975), which contains some early thoughts by Dennis on how the "tryptamine" hallucinogens like aya-huasca and psilocybin might affect the mind. Today, a doctorate from the University of British Columbia and a revolution in neuroscience later, Dennis says he mostly rejects those theories. Terence, who died last year of a brain tumor at age 53, told their story again in True Hallucinations (HarperCollins, 1993). These quest narratives once shaped what most Americans knew about ayahuasca, which wasn’t much. Thanks partly to the ease of modern travel, including ayahuasca tours to the Amazon, that has changed. A bigger factor in the growing awareness of ayahuasca is all the traffic going the other way. The Amazon region’s cultural patterns have been severely disrupted in recent decades, along with the rich tropical ecosystems that shaped them. Rubber plantations, mining operations, logging, and oil exploration have all helped drive tribal people out of the forest and into South America’s swelling urban centers. Ayahuasca went with them. You’ll find stories about this sacred brew by both indigenous and Western users in Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine (Synergetic Press, 2000), edited by Colombian anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna and writer Steven F. White. As McKenna explains in his entry in the book, he had tried the bitter tea while doing fieldwork during his student days but hadn’t felt much. He got another chance in 1991 at a conference hosted by Brazil’s União do Vegetal, or UDV, a modern religion with Christian and pantheistic influences that uses ayahuasca as part of its services. Founded in 1961 by Mestre Gabriel, a former rubber tapper turned ayahuas-ca prophet, the UDV is one of Brazil’s two major ayahuasca religions, along with the older but smaller Santo Daime. Together they have about 15,000 members. Ayahausca is legal in Brazil when it is used in a sacred context. McKenna says the UDV congregation can be described as a diverse mix of workers and professionals with a strong commitment to hard work, simple values, and their spiritual community. The church knew and respected McKenna from his widely published research on ayahuasca’s complex preparation and biochemistry. They invited him to the gathering in the hope that he would share this knowledge with them, but ayahuasca had a thing or two to share with him. About 45 minutes after drinking what the Brazilians call hoasca with 500 others in a brightly lit UDV chapel, McKenna felt queasy but joined those lining up for another sip. Once he was back in his chair, it hit him. Closing his eyes, he was suddenly suspended in space above the Amazon basin, looking down at the vast forests veined with silvery rivers. A giant vine threaded upward toward him through a few thin clouds. "Somehow I understood—though no words were involved—that together the community of plant species that existed on the earth provided the nurturing energy that made life on earth possible," he writes. An instant later he was hurtling downward into the ground at the vine’s roots, only to begin another journey up the stem for a water molecule’s view of photosynthesis inside a leaf. Indigenous Amazonians tend to encounter local creatures in their ayahuasca visions. They have no doubt that this parallel world is real. When certain highly trained shamans—or ayahuasqueros—are visiting this dimension, they communicate with a greater intelligence that speaks to them through animals and plants. They then return with highly detailed knowledge about how to use plants—ideally, for the good of the tribe. But power corrupts, and some sorcerers (both men and women) use ayahuasca for darker purposes, including magical attacks on perceived enemies. Curiously, some peoples give ayahuasca to dogs to make them better hunters. Western minds tend to see different things while experiencing ayahuasca, but there are said to be some common motifs, including jaguars and snakes. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby interpreted his own ayahuasca vision of braided snakes as an en-counter with the mind of the double helix, an idea he elaborates in The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998). He too felt the presence of an intelligence beyond the human. Modern American brushes with the drug are documented in Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999), edited by Ralph Metzner, a professor of psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Metzner and others find in ayahuasca a psychospiritual cure for what ails the Western mind. It puts a soft eraser to the hard line between self and world, blurring the border just enough to reveal how arbitrary it is—the product of ego in an ego-driven culture. And only by melding self and world back into one again will either be healed. This belief pervades the many ayahausca narratives in Metzner’s book—and perhaps fuels the growing ayahuasca subculture in North America. McKenna doesn’t expect this activity to come out into the light of day any time soon, at least in the United States. That’s too bad, he says, because everyone who is quietly using these drugs in innovative ways, including many therapists, could benefit from the scientific rigor of open scrutiny and peer review. But what about the planetary mind? Are ayahuasca users tapping into another dimension, or do the visions arise out of their own heads? McKenna laughs. He agrees that these are legitimate questions, but as "the pharmacologist in the family," he’s not so inclined to what he jokingly calls "wild-eyed carrying on." That beat belonged to brother Terence. McKenna is a co-founder of the Heffter Research Institute (www.heffter.org), which funds the clinical study of hallucinogenic drugs, both in the United States and in places like Switzerland where attitudes are more relaxed. Founded in 1993, the institute is named after Arthur Heffter, the German chemist who in 1897 first isolated a hallucinogenic molecule—mescaline, the major active compound in the peyote cactus. Like many scientists, McKenna sees a need to establish a clinic for the study of the hallucinogens and their use in healing. Despite decades of research that suggested their promise in treating alcoholism and psychological disorders, the formal study of these drugs ended after the substances were outlawed in 1970. It’s as if a great rock had been dropped into the stream of inquiry, splitting it into two branches, spiritual and scientific. Somewhere in the future they’re bound to merge again, but no one knows when. The story of how ayahuasca came to figure in a new plan to treat alcoholics at the University of Minnesota begins in the mid 1980s in the city of Iquitos in Peru. McKenna and anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna had teamed up to study ayahuasca use among mestizo folk healers. Along with running what was virtually a health care system for the poor, the mestizo ayahuasqueros had become the tripmasters of a new urban shamanism. They were the ones who knew how to mix and boil down the jungle mash. They also knew how to steer the ayahuasca session with their icaros, or magical songs, almost always in the dark of night. Many Amazonian tribes were disappearing, but their plant lore had survived with these urban ayahuasqueros, along with a kind of improvised cosmology borrowed piece by piece from the different forest cultures. McKenna and Luna noted in a research paper that a heavy reliance on bioactive plants had turned these urban shamans into something more like modern pharmacologists than traditional healers. But like the forest shamans, they knew you didn’t learn the craft from someone else; you could only know it through ayahuasca. Which brings us back to the notion that ayahuasca is not one drug, but a drug mixture. Scientists had long assumed that the big vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) held the secret to the tea’s effect. Not until the 1960s did they realize that certain mild hallucinogens in the vine’s bark (first identified intriguingly as "telepathines") were only part of the equation. Each ayahuasquero tweaked the basic recipe with various other plants for different magical and medical purposes, but two ingredients were crucial: the vine, and certain leaves, most often from a shrub related to coffee (Psychotria viridis). Researchers tested the leaves and found they were dealing with a real mind bender—a powerful hallucinogen known as N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. But DMT has no effect when it is taken orally—an enzyme in the human gut called MAO quickly breaks it down. You have to shoot or snort or smoke it. So how did ayahuasca work? It turned out that those mild hallucinogens in the vine were also potent MAO blockers. The blockers and the DMT were working as a team. In other words, that brew in the gourd was a complex nanotechnology—a synergistic mix of two drugs with a flash and force utterly unlike what either packed alone. In Shadows in the Sun (Island, 1998), ethnobotanist Wade Davis writes that the intellectual process underlying ayahuasca’s creation astonished him even more than the drink itself. No one knows how the ancient inventors figured it out. Raw time may be at play; you can toss a lot of salads in a thousand years. But among the more than 70 tribes that are known to use ayahuasca, almost all have another answer: The "plant teachers" told them. If you stuck to the shaman’s rigorous training—a spartan diet, no sex, and what Terence McKenna would have called "heroic doses" of the bitter brew—well, then hearing the plant teachers was just the beginning. While they were working with the urban ayahuasqueros in Peru, McKenna and Luna couldn’t help but notice how buff these old guys were. "The ones who have the real gnosis, the knowledge, are often in their 70s and 80s and they’re really quite mentally and physically vigorous," McKenna says. They had also been drinking ayahuasca since their teens. The scientists began planning a biomedical study of them, but they never pulled it off. Part of the problem was working in a subculture where disease and misfortune were often traced back to sorcery. Asking the urban shamans for a bit of their magically active body fluids would never fly. In 1993, McKenna finally got a chance to launch another study among his friends at the UDV church in Brazil. The study subjects, all men, had been regular ayahuasca users for at least 10 years, drinking it at church ceremonies as often as twice a month. When the researchers interviewed them, they kept hearing common testimonies of men wracked by alcoholism and violent behavior who had turned their lives around, thanks both to the UDV and to ayahuasca. In his study, McKenna was trying to measure what a dose of the tea was doing to them biologically, in the short term. But in the back of his mind were those lucid and wiry Peruvian sorcerers. What about long-term ayahuasca use? Did it leave a physical marker that the scientists could trace? They were surprised to find some evidence that it did. The ayahuasca users had raised levels of a particular type of serotonin receptor in their blood platelets. That’s a fairly reliable indicator of higher receptor levels in the brain, which is what the researchers ultimately wanted to know. But they didn’t have the sophisticated equipment needed to do these brain tests. They also had no idea whether the high receptor count was a good thing or a bad thing. But it was the sort of marker they had hoped to find. The science gets complicated here. Suffice it to say that those serotonin receptors in the brain are crucial to our moods and the target of various antidepressants like Prozac. What’s more, other researchers have noted a link between reduced serotonin-receptor counts and the sort of violent and addictive behavior those UDV members had somehow managed to put behind them. "So that’s the hook on which we’re trying hang subsequent studies," McKenna says. Along with the psychological support provided by the UDV, maybe the ayahuasca is helping to reboot these guys in a biological way. McKenna is now far from the Amazon at a modern university with the neuroimaging devices and other medical technology he needs to test his theory. The research team also plans to concoct a standardized ayahuasca formulation. It won’t be an isolated compound like mescaline, but a true botanical extract, just in case there are active ingredients in the brew that modern science has yet to identify. He figures it will be at least two years before he gets the go-ahead to begin. What happens then? One scenario can be found in DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Park Street Press, 2001), Rick Strassman’s fascinating chronicle of a psychedelic study he began in 1990—the first in the United States in 20 years. A clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Strassman made it through the regulatory pro-cess and actually began injecting people with pure DMT—that potent hallucinogen in ayahuasca. Weirdly enough, DMT also appears to exist naturally in the human brain. Strassman wanted to test a theory that DMT could be the trigger for mystical enlightenment states, near-death experiences, and flashes of altered reality at other times. He stuck to a strict biomedical protocol, but the drug seemed to have had its own agenda. By the time he called a halt to his research in 1995, most of his early assumptions had been upset. It was not clear to him whether his subjects really got much benefit from the sessions, and a few had been deeply troubled. He still believes that psychedelic study has value, he writes, but not in a sterile hospital setting; a special clinic is the way to go. He’s also not sure what to make of the many participants who reported having en-counters with alien beings while taking DMT. After years of reflection, Strassman now suggests that research-ers must remain open to the possibility that alternate dimensions do exist, and that certain molecules can tune us in to them. McKenna praises Strassman as a pioneer. "You can’t really ignore this stuff," he says. "The essence of science is to explore the unknown and to ask these difficult questions." But he hasn’t been dissuaded from using a biomedical model in his own study. It’s the name of the game, and for now he’s got to play it. Anyone sympathetic to the basic idea of psychedelic research knows that it should be like ayahuasca itself, a fusion of complementary energies—both science and something more subjective. But until attitudes change, the flash and the force, the two rivers, the two serpents, will re-main unbraided. The fear of psychedelics is very old in the West, which is perfectly understandable, given how effectively they dissolve the Western worldview. But their allure is just as ancient. Aristotle implied as much in a tantalizing reference to the Greek initiates at the mysterious festival at Eleusis, who many believe were early psychedelic pilgrims. They "have to learn nothing," he declared, "but to experience something and be in a certain condition." Hamlet got the message after seeing his father’s ghost, a visit perhaps tied to a grief-induced flood of natural DMT: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The vine whispered much the same thing to McKenna in the ayahuasca chapel in Brazil, as he looked down on the Amazon forest and lamented what we’ve done to it: "You monkeys only think you’re running things." How true.

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Jeremiah Creedon is a senior editor of Utne Reader.