While it’s doubtful that any movie will ever be quite as impactful as a deep psychedelic journey, Rak Razam’s new documentary Aya: Awakenings comes incredibly close. Adapted from Rak’s 2009 book “Aya: A Shamanic Journey,” it chronicles the Australian journalist’s uncanny experiences with ayahuasca and DMT in South America. Accentuating Razam’s narration with lush, vivid visuals and all-enveloping audio, the film is a multisensory, multidimensional mindblower, leaving the viewer stunned, invigorated and filled with reverent awe for the Great Mystery.

Aya: Awakenings makes its U.S. debut on Wednesday, April 17th at San Francisco’s Clay Theatre. A panel discussion featuring Razam, Richard Meech, Vance Gellert, James Oroc, Taylor Marie Milton and Robert Forte will follow the movie.

Rak sees the film’s screenings as shamanic experiences in themselves. “We usually do smudgings as people arrive at the cinema,” he explains. “The medicine is actually the film, and at the end, we have this panel which unites people to integrate their experiences.”

For those in need of reassurance that some part of us will remain after we outgrow our bodies, Razam’s trip reports can come as powerful medicine indeed. Here are some well-articulated insights from a man who has managed to sneak a peek under the skirt of existence.

Have your ayahuasca and DMT experiences affected your views on whether or not consciousness continues after physical death?  

Oh, absolutely. That’s sort of the starting point for any of these experiences. Of course, it’s very difficult to translate [the essence of these experiences] into scientific fact. The closest we came was in the chapter [of Aya] where Dr. Juan did the brainwave experiment and had the skull cap and the EEG readings [during a DMT experiment at a house in Peru called La Rosacita, which translates to “The Rosy Cross”]. We were filming that, but of course, we could only film the outside flesh body, and the miracle is as fresh as a new day on the inside. It’s all on the inside where these things happen, and science can do the MRI SCANS, they can do the EEG scans, they can measure electrical activity, they can tell whether you’re in alpha or theta or beta or gamma, but that’ s nothing. That’s just the shell. Until science can reconnect with the heart and feel what it feels like to be in theta, then it’s just missing the boat. And so I have been there, and I have felt consciousness beyond the body; consciousness returning to the source, to the Godhead, Overmind, mother-matrix union or whatever we might call it. They’re all labels, but I have felt what it feels like to be a spiritual being returning to the Source.

I thought it was incredible that the name of the site of that DMT trip translated to “The Rosy Cross.”

I know. I know. These are what we call synchronicities, [but] we need to have a deeper language for the way hyperdimensional time and space really work, because when that’s called The Rosy Cross… and funnily enough, that chapter in the film, and also in the book, was probably one of the two or three most sacred experiences I’ve ever had in my life. We captured it on film on the outside, and that’s why I hope the narration guides people through the understanding that it is a very sacred experience, no matter what the entry point to it was. But for that place to be called The Rosy Cross — I mean, it was just perfect! Everything is just perfect. I trust the universe as it unfolds, and I see the perfection.

Why do you think westerners are embracing the ayahuasca experience at this point in history?

You know that saying that every culture gets the politicians it deserves? I like to think that every culture also gets the sacraments that it needs, as well as deserves.

If we look at what’s happened in the west in the last few generations, we’ve had to go through the lab, because the western, white-picket-fence, 1950s mentality after World War II was so entrenched, and it was such an apex of dominator culture, as Terence McKenna used to call this. Ours is the culture that extinguished our connection with the earth; it extinguished our connection with the tribal peoples that it subjugated, with all the cultures that had active sacraments, like the indigenous people of South America when the conquistadors overran and subjugated all their connections with the magic mushrooms or the power plants.

Not coincidentally, we had Albert Hofmann in the labs in Basel, Switzerland, working on the ergot rye derivatives, which is natural plant material. LSD came out of the lab, and it reconnected millions of people to a different way of seeing the world and to spirituality in themselves. A generation or two after the ’60s, we had ecstasy in the ’80s, and that really opened the heart chakra. And then in the Naughts, we’re having this resurgence of plant entheogens. But I see a gradation in culture over time: I feel that the planetary intelligence or the intelligence in nature Herself wants to reconnect with the humans and get us back into a synergistic, sustainable balance.

We’re out of balance as a species. And the plants are secreted by the planet. Many different plants, but including the psychoactive plants, are specific tools to engage our consciousness to connect with the larger Gaian matrix. But we wouldn’t have been able to go back to the garden if we hadn’t gone through successive waves of encounters with different chemicals which had to come from the lab to tune in enough of the populace to be ready to go back to the garden. So I think ayahuasca is coming to fruition now because of what’s gone before, and because things are coming full circle, and because people around the world really want something that’s an integral medicine, not a drug. They want something which has had that lineage to it, which has been held by indigenous people as a sacred substance. We’re ready for it.

I like the idea that the culture first needed a synthetic substance that could speak its language.

Well, you’ve got to be careful about that. We’ve got to step outside the box. What is a synthetic? I mean, LSD is one molecule away from LSA, which is morning glory seeds, which is completely, 100% natural. Albert Hofmann discovered this in the 1950s when he did a bio essay on the ololiúqui, which are the morning glory seeds. You look at the whole Middle Ages and St. Anthony’s fire and the hallucinogenic properties from when the bread would go off — hallucinogenic plants, properties and chemicals are in nature, and we are made from nature. And when we say “a lab” — sure, it’s a sterile western concept, but if we step back and look outside the box, everything is nature, including the lab. We’re making an artificial distinction because of our cultural bias. I understand that there is a distinction, but ultimately, everything is made by nature, through nature, with nature’s tools, including humans, and I believe there’s a planetary intelligence behind everything.

Absolutely true. These are our beehives and our birds’ nests. But human intervention seems to throw a wrench in the works somehow. One obvious example would be the difference between organic foods and processed or genetically modified foods. So I think there’s some distinction there.

Well, there is. There is. But remember, Albert Hofmann was a meticulous chemist, and there’s something about the mythic role of the alchemist that is just as mysterious as this role of the shaman. Because the west didn’t have the shamans, we still had the alchemists. All the way back through the Middle Ages, there was this idea of the magic person who would transform the base materials like lead into gold, or in the spiritual pursuit as well. It still trickles down today to the people who make certain sacred substances. We still look at them as alchemists, and it’s their intent and their integrity of how they approach their work which produces the purity of the substances.

Yes. Well said. Back to the garden: when shadow material from a person’s past arises during an ayahuasca session, do you think there’s a danger of re-traumatizing?

Well, yes and no. Even in psychotherapy, they say that when you relive it, it doesn’t mean that you have to attach to it. You can be aware of it, and in doing so, you can look at it from a different vantage point and let go of the material. It brings up one of these issues that many people ask me: is it OK to drink ayahuasca on your own? And I say, “Well, yes and no.” It’s like saying you don’t have a license to drive a car, but you know the car is there. Sure, you could take it for a joyride, but if you don’t know how to drive, not only is it dangerous, but you might not know where to drive, or you might not be able to see the best locations.

So with ayahuasca, these shadow materials can come up, and I also believe that on a different level, it’s like this Jungian analogy where there’s a level of our own unconscious — the day residues, things we go through in the dreaming — and then there’s a collective unconscious, a second, deeper level, where all of our thoughts and dreams overlap. And then there seems to be a third, even deeper level, which is like the canvas upon which these collective consciousnesses rest.

And on that deeper level, the shamanic realm or the shamanic experience shows us that there seem to be independent consciousnesses or entities, and there seem to be realms that exist independently of our own consciousnesses. And if in your journey you were to overlap and to go deep into those realms, it could be dangerous to be in that shadow realm, which is outside of ourselves as well as within ourselves. So it’s good to have a trained facilitator, especially a curandero, who knows the territory.

Or even just in a western psychotherapy sense, if this stuff comes up, it’s good to have a facilitator there to help guide you through it or to be present with you to invoke the right responses, so you don’t get bogged down again in the same experience, but can be talked through it and learn to let go of that material.

Along that line of thinking, do you think it’s best for westerners to drink ayahuasca in the same types of ceremonies that the people of the Amazon do, or do you think it would be better for westerners to devise their own ceremonies?

It’s a bit of both, actually. This is the thing: there has to be a mature appraisal of the cultural dynamics going on. Westerners have a predilection to having a pick-and-choose ideology, especially with spirituality: “I’ll take on board that bit, but not that bit,” or “That bit’s too much hard work,” and “Do we really need that?” So I think we have to be really careful of our own insecurities and weaknesses when it comes to this potpourri spirituality.

I think the indigenous tribes hit on a modality which worked for them, and there’s a lot of wisdom in their structure. I think we need to take on the fact that there is structure.  That’s the number one thing. The different groups that use ayahuasca in South America — the Mestizo churches, like Santo Daime or União de Vegetal — have grafted on a syncretic Christian structure to the medicine which is very different from the indigenous tribal way that it’s done, and it works for them. And that’s the thing to remember: they’ve created a structure.

What we’re doing is creating a container to hold the experience. When we look at the Shipibo style, for instance, which is the one I learnt in — that’s still my preferred style, and in the west I’ve been part of many medicine circles which are done very differently: they’re done with low lighting or candles; everyone wearing white and singing medicine songs or holy songs. They’re all very good, but it’s not as deep as the indigenous method. I find the indigenous method understands it a lot deeper and practices it a lot deeper.

They do it in total darkness, because they understand that the dimethyltriptamine is in some senses negated by light. It travels down the melatonin pathways, and there’s a day/night thing happening there. And they’ve had so much deeper cultural contact with this substance, and with the spirit in the substance as well, that they understand the nuances. And the western modality is sometimes in danger of being almost like an Ayahuasca Lite: like a version which has elements of the depth, but not the full depth itself. So I think we need to retrofit what is needed in the cities and in the western mainframe, but we also need to do it in an integral way, and stop and think about it. Just because we might experience western-led circles that already exist, maybe we could look into: is this the best way to do it? Is this the most integral way, or is it just the easiest way?

What’s your opinion on TED banning Graham Hancock’s talk about ayahuasca?

I think it’s unfortunate, but in every crisis, there’s an opportunity. It’s been good, in a way, to see Graham really respond in an integral way. He often comes under attack for his work with other professionals in the arts and in the academic world, but he counters the arguments.

Like with the TED censorship issue, he went through, took their concerns and took it apart line by line and showed that that’s not what he was saying. I think TED had this issue about their own scientific integrity, and there’s an issue between TEDx and TED and what they were licensing with the talks. But what it created was a flashpoint about this censoring information about the war on consciousness, and I think on some level, that’s been great for people to have that discussion and to see that there’s this sometimes very subtle censorship culturally, and sometimes more dynamic censorship, like with the TED issues.

All of it helps to springboard wider community discussion on the war on consciousness itself. We’re really at a tipping point when there are so many A-level politicians and leaders like Richard Branson and Dr. David Nutt speaking out on the war on drugs and this war on consciousness that it really needs to shift. We need to let go, because it’s a war on people themselves. So hopefully what happened there with Graham’s work and with Rupert Sheldrake’s talks is that it draws more attention to the talks themselves, and more people can discover what these authors and these leaders have to say on the issue.

I think it’s quite negative to think of it as a war. When they say “a war on drugs” or “a war on consciousness,” it creates this black-and-white duality, when in fact what’s happening is this awakening. The subtitle of my Aya film is Awakenings, and really, people are waking up. People are getting informed; people are getting knowledge about these substances and about the way they’ve been used traditionally and how they can help heal ourselves and our connection to the planet. It’s a consciousness awakening, and any media stories will create a gravity around them which is helping this process of awakening happen.

Image by jdrorer, courtesy of Creative Commons license.