This article originally appeared on Erowid.org
I once gave a talk in Peru at the Annual Amazonian Shamanism conference on the theme "Grace and Madness." My presentation went a little something like what follows. Imagine that I'm reading this to you in a lush tropical paradise. You can hear the cicadas chirping in a weird sort of rhythm as a squirrel monkey skitters past your feet. And in the background, fireflies...
When I was invited to speak here in the Amazon, I kind of freaked out. I looked up the other presenters -- all these legendary leaders in the field who've dedicated their lives to ayahuasca, shamanism, brain science, enthnobotany, chemistry, or art -- and I thought, what can I bring to this? I'm just the Teafaerie. I write a sassy Internet column for a psychedelic information site frequented by do-it-yourself experimentalists.
Ayahuasca is a sacred mystery, and I am deeply ignorant about it. I've taken it less than a dozen times. I've read a few books, a bunch of articles, and a lot of trip reports. I've poked around on the forums. But I still have way more questions about ayahuasca than answers. I know that it's changed my life, maybe saved my life; it's healed me, it's helped me unknot some sick behavior patterns; it's opened up my body and my mind, my heart and my soul. I know that it's the real thing. It's a living magic medicine.
And my people are very sick, you know? The whole planet is very sick. So I thought: here's a chance for someone from my unique demographic to talk to some of the shamans of the Amazon and the Movers and the Shakers, to the people who work with this stuff, and to try to figure out how we can best relate to this mystery and to one another.
I don't really represent anybody, but I identify with a large and growing segment of psychedelic culture. Born when the '60s and even the '70s were already history, we were brought up pretty much soaking in it. We have virtual lives, and yet our culture is archaic: it's neo-tribal; hippies and ravers and Burners, oh my! Festival kids, the ecstatic dance culture, world-traveling spiritual seekers, and straight people who have had their lives touched by psychedelics. We don't have very much tradition to draw on, so we're often just kind of winging it. We're foolish maybe (definitely, sometimes), but we're courageous, too, and we're coming on. We're being called by this thing. I do believe that we're being called.
And suddenly, we're all finding out about ayahuasca. It's like Facebook is accelerating it, or something. It's not surprising that people are interested in it. What's surprising is how long it took the news to reach critical mass. But now it seems like every party I go to, people are talking about ayahuasca. Everybody wants to try it, all the cool kids are doing it, and if you haven't felt the wind shift here in Iquitos, then you soon will.
I don't know the best way to proceed. I mean, do you want them to come here? Can the legitimate curanderos handle that kind of a caseload? Or is it going to exacerbate the problem by providing even more incentive for opportunists who want to put a bone through their nose and send their nephews down to the airport with business cards advertising them as shamans? These guys can make a hundred bucks a pop. It's great for the economy; it's terrible for the economy; it's helping people; it's... complicated. Right? So let's go further in, and take ayahuasca in an indigenous setting. Because we know that's totally legit. But the more tourists who tramp through a village, the more it gets exposed to guns, bibles, alcohol, STDs, you name it. And while nothing's going to stop the march of progress, I don't want to be part of the problem.
Another choice, if one has heard this call, may be to find a local shaman. Or one could check out established religions such as the Santo Daime and the UDV. Or one could concoct a batch of brew one's self-countless businesses sell entheobotanicals these days, and there are a myriad of analog possibilities. Everything has DMT in it; there's Acacia-huasca, and Mimosa-huasca, and Phalaris-huasca...
I've never tried any analogs, so I can't really say much about them. I've heard mixed reviews. Maybe they're really different, with different spirits and different properties. For the sake of argument, let's just say that they're not the same thing at all. I'm still willing to bet that the wisdom surrounding how to deal with them properly is largely going to be the same.
Talking about the plants isn't enough. We also have to talk to them, and listen to what they have to say. And the last time I had a chance to talk directly to Mamma, during an ayahuasca ceremony in Canada a couple of months ago, I asked her what I should speak about when I was here tonight. And she showed me a vision of all the core lightworker Jedi master shamans of the Amazon making ayahuasca together, spending the day together stripping leaves and chopping up vine, sharing their songs and stories and dreams and techniques; and then at night they took the medicine that they had made together, and they sang a mighty song, and they cast a spell that would allow ayahuasca wisdom to metastasize and bloom. And I hope that really happens. I hope that you already do have some sort of a shamans' circle that drinks and works together. I'm given to understand that it's kind of a cut-throat business. Yet I can't imagine any power in the world that could resist the focused intent of the badasses of the Amazon if you all joined forces.
Part of the vision seemed to be about transmitting knowledge to the new wave of psychedelic explorers. People are busting this out in their Manhattan apartments. It's like when the intelligentsia lost control of LSD. Suddenly everybody is doing this, and we're like babes in the woods. Many of us are totally clueless. The monolith from 2001 has landed in our collective backyard, and we're out there scratching out heads going, "Hmm, what is it? What happens when I step inside of it?" We're like the sorcerer's apprentice, opening portals at random and yelling, "Here I am! I don't know what I'm doing! Come share my nervous system, I'm wide open!"
We are in desperate need of training. We know set and setting. We have resources like Erowid for specifics like dosage and preparation techniques. But we don't know the wisdom, and we don't know the songs. We don't know how to entice the spirits, or how to protect ourselves from those that we shouldn't interact with. We don't know how to tune it. We don't really even know how to swim; we're just thrashing around learning how to dog paddle. And we are learning; the plants themselves are excellent teachers. But we get it that there are many thousands of years' worth of important knowledge that we just don't have. We know that it's dangerous to proceed without it, and we know that it's not as effective to proceed without it. We really want to learn it. We want to drink with legitimate shamans from a cultural lineage who actually know what time it is.
Yet more and more, I hear people complaining when ayahuasca ceremonies are too traditional. Not here, of course. People come to Peru for the traditional thing. But where I live in California, I hear people talk about novel modalities beginning to evolve. For instance, I go to one annual ceremony, which is also a flow arts retreat, and we're allowed to stand up and spin poi right there in the maloka. We sing Daime songs and Sufi songs and Hindu songs and Beatles songs. It's awesome, it's magic. Mamma likes it, I promise you. Everybody gets good healing, good insight, good flow... and I'm really enthusiastic about it, because I think that it demonstrates that there are a number of modes that will work. While it's important to respect the original tradition, I think part of such a respect might be to refrain from doing a half-assed imitation of it. Cultures are colliding and new forms evolve at the intersections. That makes sense. So the next time you see a traditional shaman serving it up out of a Coke bottle, remember that everything is made of magic and everyone has their part to play.
The coming wave of psychedelically aware young people has an important part to play. They're well connected. They're good at disseminating information. If the truth can be told so as to be understood, it will be passed on. But in order to be understood by these guys, you're going to have to learn to speak their language. You have to know their mythos, so that you can reach them where they live. A song that was written to be played on a Shipibo instrument might still be playable on an electric guitar, but it would naturally evolve a bit in the translation. Every generation has to reinterpret the ancient stories. We can't discard them, but we've got to update them to reflect the world that we know.
In order to turn things around at this point, a lot of things have to go right really fast. We need all hands on deck. We need all lightworkers activated. This means you. We need everybody with any kind of real wisdom or real magic to be pumping it out it as efficiently as humanly possible. We can't hold back. We can't be afraid of getting it wrong. We can't try to preserve tradition while the whole thing goes up in flames. Because you know what? The Amazon is over. There's not going to be any healing in the Amazon, until there is healing in New York City, and in Los Angeles, and in Dubai. They need a hell of a lot of healing, and we don't have much time. We need warriors for Gaia right now. We need a mystical order of real live superheroes.
And that's what we want to be. It's what we've been preparing for all of our lives. Nothing is accidental. Maybe one person in fifty, or one in a hundred, has the shamanic personality type, right? And we've all been mildly activated by exposure to mythic imagery. The Star Wars generation was raised to want to be mystics. The Matrix generation is rejecting the program. We know that it's all an illusion and that this is our dreaming. The kids growing up on Avatar want to plug into the AI -- the Amazonian Intelligence -- and it's there, you know; it' all true, it's all real. It's as real as we ever could have wanted it to be. And we want it to be real. We want to take it seriously. We know that this is the end of the world. We know that a mass transformation has to occur, and if this mystery could be brought on board our lives in a way that fulfills our mythos, I think that we could be fully activated by it.
Ayahuasca is a jungle spirit, but she's a space-faring spirit as well. She's as futuristic as she is archaic. She knows everything. She's not some kind of a country bumpkin that gets confused by them-there city folk. She talks to you in whatever terms you have in your head. If your background is in jungle mythology, she might give you a giant anaconda. But if your background is in science fiction, then she'll give you Shai-Hulud, the sandworm from Dune. And maybe this is partially the same image, I don't know. But I know that when I asked the plants what I should talk to you about here tonight, they said that I should talk about founding the Jedi Temple.
So how about it? I don't really want to call it that. I'm not trying to make light of it, or trivialize it -- quite the reverse. Though I do like the Jedi Academy word praxeum, which means a temple for both learning and practice.
I know there are already partial condensations of this -- the so-called shamans' schools. And there are retreat centers that kind of sound like what I'm talking about. But I mean something closer to a real university, housing a bunch of experienced shamans-in-residence, where you could go and live for however many semesters. Sure, you might drink a lot, you'd probably stay pretty immersed, but you'd also take classes, and different shamans would teach "Defense Against the Dark Arts" or "Icaros 101?. There would be botany classes, too: "Hands-on in the Jungle" and "Ecology of the Amazon". There would be experts instructing students in brain science and chemistry and transpersonal psychology.
You could have a program for postulants to come and experience the medicine -- just for an exploration, or for a reset, or for healing -- and the full-time students could assist with that. The teachers could all do ceremony together, like I saw in my vision. They could take each other's classes, too. If more scientists met the plants, and if more cuanderos had a background in modern psychology or chemistry or quantum physics or even popular culture, a lot of good would come out of it. Shamans are like our doctors and our ministers and we need you to know where we're coming from and where we're going, what kind of energies are available to us and what kind of demons we're fighting. We need shamans to come to Burning Man and to New York City, because we don't even know our own songs. The patterns are all mangled and we don't know how to fix them. We need an icaro for the Internet; we need to lay song-lines through the virtual landscape and out beyond this world to the stars.
We need you to help us find the form of shamanism that's right for people like us. I don't even want to use the word shaman for the students. Shamanism is an ancient and venerable institution and I wouldn't want to trivialize it by suggesting that any kind of program could churn out a new crop of shamans every year -- that's preposterous and insulting. Shamans are going to take on individual apprentices who will go live with them in a hut in the jungle for years and really get into it, and I don't want to degrade that. But there are only so many legitimate apprentice spots open, you know? And we need to develop our collective potential as quickly as possible.
I want to make a new distinction between layperson and shaman -- an adept, maybe. It's sort of like the difference between a doctor and a nurse practitioner. I'd like to see something analogous to a pilot's license or open water certification for SCUBA divers that says you've logged however many hours, know what all the little dials do, learned something about currents and sharks and what to do in an emergency, and you've memorized all of the little hand signals, like "anaconda", "condor", "elfin swarm". Such a license would mean you're okay to go, that you can voyage with someone of your rank or higher and probably do more good than harm. It doesn't mean that you can teach people, but it means that you have a basic grounding in first principles, you have some experience, and you're a good source of information. Yes, I do know that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. But a little bit of knowledge also might save your ass and your friends' asses. An adept could be counted on to alert her community about contraindicated combinations, for instance. She could smooth the psychic waters with an ancient song, redirect imbalanced energies and generally feel into what's happening. People with such basic skills contribute toward manifesting the future that we all want.
Besides being healing nodes in their communities, these students could be ambassadors for the Amazon. Maybe we could establish a tradition where all of the money taken in for ayahuasca sessions goes back to the Amazon; or, at least part of it does. It could improve the economy in the Amazon in a controlled way. And we could have this awesome center -- maybe a bunch of them, with good libraries and cool art and big gardens and recording studios.
But it would mean evolving the tradition and doing things a different way than the way that they've always been done. Business as usual isn't going to work in the city and it's not going to work in the Amazon, either. These are extraordinary times, and they are forcing us all to adjust and evolve our practices in unprecedented ways. Taking ayahuasca the old way because that's the way it's always been done is like running DOS forever because that's the way it's always been done.
Evolving means working together, and dropping the whole "I'm the baddest shaman in the Amazon" bit. I was kind of surprised to hear about some of the infighting that goes on -- in my naive hippie idealism, I assumed that all the shamans of the Amazon would be One.
The time is here, the die is cast, the game is up, the chips are down -- this is the crucial moment for our species, and we've got to give it everything we've got. Ayahuasca just might be one of the catalysts that we need. It's moving out in the world and making new friends. It's making new covenants. We've got to negotiate a new partnership with it. Maybe it's evolving, too. Terence McKenna said that the mushroom wanted to disperse into culture. It wanted to make contact with these strange new minds and to co-evolve with us. Maybe ayahuasca wants the same thing. I'm afraid it's going to get it, whether it wants it or not. Kind of hard to imagine things not going its way, which is comforting...
We've got to talk to it. We've got to ask it what it wants. We've got to work with it. So the next time Mammahuasca picks up the phone, be a good ambassador. Tell her that a lot of strange people are coming, and ask her how we can channel this river. How can we find our way through this jungle? How can we fulfill our potential, both as individuals and as a species? How can we partner together to heal the world that we share?
I hold ayahuasca in the most sacred regard, and if at any time I have sounded disrespectful here, I humbly beg your pardon. It's a deeper mystery than I can begin to fathom. The more I commune with ayahuasca, the less I think that I know about it. All I know is that I want us to win the human race, and it looks like it's going to be pretty damn close. I want us to do everything that we can to stack the deck in our favor.
Maybe this is just what happens. Maybe this is how baby gods grow up, and we're in puberty at the moment. You know how they say that we're the children of God? But the child of a sheep grows up to be a sheep, right? And the child of a human being grows up to be a human being.
The future is trying to be born right now, and we need midwives on every corner. May the Force be with us all.
Image by PearlyV, courtesy of Creative Commons license.