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,
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,
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
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
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.