Ayahuasca, a potent psychedelic plant medicine that has been used for thousands of years by many indigenous tribes in South America, has been gaining a lot of attention over the past couple of decades from Westerners seeking spiritual or physical healing.
More and more people are travelling to Peru, Brazil, and other South American countries hoping to find enlightenment or recover from various traumas. Ceremonies are often facilitated by expert healers, including curanderos, shamans, ayahuasqueros, and maestros, all of whom have been traditionally trained with knowledge passed down from their ancestors on how to properly facilitate healing ceremonies.
Pioneering scientific researcher Dennis McKenna — younger brother of the legendary forefather of psychedelic study and research, author, and enthobotanist Terrence McKenna — has conducted his own research on this special shamanic brew. In 2005, he published a paper in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs called “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny” that explored the relationship between the use of ayahuasca and spiritual healing and addressed the potential environmental catastrophe increased use might cause.
“[Ayahuasca is] the conduit to a body of profoundly ancient genetic and evolutionary wisdom that has long abided in the cosmologies of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon who have guarded and protected this knowledge for millennia, who learned long ago that the human role is not to be the master of nature, but its stewards,” McKenna wrote. “Our destiny, if we are to survive, is to nurture nature and to learn from it how to nurture ourselves and our fellow beings. This is the lesson that we can learn from ayahuasca, if only we pay attention.”
What Can We Learn From Ayahuasca?
So much: about ourselves, about the universe, and perhaps most importantly, about nature and the many gifts it has to offer us. Ayahuasca connects us deeply with nature and the environment, perhaps because it itself is nature.
In an interview with the Guardian, McKenna discusses the potential for ayahuasca to help the environmental movement:
What can [ayahuasca] do for the environmental movement? I think a lot of people, especially if they come to South America, come away with a really renewed appreciation for our connection to and the importance of nature. I think that ayahuasca is a catalytic influence in changing global environmental consciousness, which is something that’s got to happen if we’re going to get out of the mess we’re in. The main challenge we have as a species is – getting on the soap-box for a minute – we have forgotten our connection to nature. We’ve come to the conclusion that we own nature, it exists for us to exploit, and we’re busy doing that. We’re destroying it in the process. We’re destabilising all of these global mechanisms that keep the biosphere habitable by life. I think ayahuasca is waking up a lot of people and reminding them that, “No, that’s not the way it is. You monkeys are not running the show. The plants are running the show, by sustaining life on earth, if nothing else.” There needs to be a global shift of consciousness. People need to understand this before they can really begin to change, and so in that sense I think ayahuasca is an ambassador from the community of species. The message is basically, “Wake up, you monkeys! You’re wrecking the place!” It’s very important and interesting that so many people come away with this strong message that they’ve really been moved and touched by something that they feel is an intelligent entity – an intelligent representative of the natural world.
Is Harvesting Ayahuasca for Tourists Sustainable?
This is a very important question. Up until fairly recently, this plant was only being used ceremoniously for indigenous tribes and churches, mostly in Brazil and Peru, but now, with the boom in ayahuasca tourism, many are concerned that we might be over-harvesting and even exploiting this sacred medicine to accommodate ‘spiritual tourism.’ This is a valid concern, and that’s why it’s up to the ayahuasca facilitators, retreat centres, and users to be mindful of these factors when taking this medicine.
When asked about this important question, McKenna responded:
I think the ayahuasca tourism thing is definitely a two-edged sword. It’s having a lot of negative impacts on indigenous communities, but at the same time it’s benefitting a lot of people and, in some ways, keeping the tradition alive. But it’s also changing that tradition, as people start to cater to Western tastes and needs. So what needs to develop, I think, is some kind of a fusion of traditional and medical practices that takes the best from both and creates some kind of new paradigm. I hope that’s where it goes.
Concerns of Extinction From Over-Consumption
Because this medicine has taken Peru by storm, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find, and so ayahuasqueros are having to go even deeper into the jungle to find the plants that are suitable to harvest. Even still, those they do find are often not fully mature, which affects the efficacy and potency of the brew. While alternatives for some of the brew’s traditional ingredients have been found, many have had fatal consequences, like one substance, called toé.
How Concerned Should We Be?
Overall, I feel strongly that this plant is here as a tool or teacher that can help us face our demons, overcome our challenges, and resolve our past traumas. If used in this way, this sacred medicine has the capacity to quite literally change the world, by helping its users to make changes in their own lives, face their fears, and stop running away from their issues or escaping them through various substances or other distractions.
If one is doing this medicine with the intention to heal, then that is exactly what it is here for, and I believe it and we will be sustained through that process. This plant is intelligent if used in the right hands, and this is where research, intention, intuition, and honesty become essential.
Ayahuasca is not a fun party drug or something to try just because you’re in Peru and you see an ad for it. It’s also not going to be ‘the answer’ to your challenges or suddenly heal you, you still have to do the work.
Use of this medicine requires a lot of preparation, planning, and intention, including a proper dieta (a strict cleanse from various foods that can inhibit or negatively impact the ayahuasca experience), and should not be taken lightly. These plants are a gift from nature to assist those in need, and should be treated with respect. If used to heal and not over-used or exploited, this medicine will be around for years to come. With more awareness being raised about its healing capacity, it is my hope that we will develop sustainable harvesting practices.
If used correctly, with the right intention and in the proper setting, this plant can assist us to change ourselves and therefore change the world. But it’s up to us to ensure its survival and do the work on ourselves that the plant gives us a glimpse of.