Throughout the past decade of working with ayahuasca, I’ve often thought of South American shamanism and the Santo Daime variety of shamanism as the yin and yang of the medicine world.
For the first four years of my medicine practice I took five trips to Peru and worked exclusively with ayahuasca shamans. The format was generally the same. There was one shaman, maybe a few apprentices present, the ceremonies happened after sunset, each person had their own mat, cushion or chair, and when the lights went out the ceremony began and the icaro melodies lifted off. There were some variations when I started practicing in the United States. There was still one shaman with apprentices, similarly done in the evenings, songs began at lights out, but with more bells and whistles. The American variety of South American shamanism often included non-native practitioners, amalgamations of north and South American Indian rituals and songs, sometimes lots of candles and trinkets, and maybe even a bonfire inside a teepee, or a central altar candle in a yoga studio. The purging and visions and group processing were mostly the same. The strength of the brews were stronger in the Amazon, generally speaking, yet the experiences were often identically harrowing, deeply personal, and similarly processed and shared within the group setting, through the help or guidance of the lead shaman.
When I began practicing with the Daime four years ago, the entire landscape of the ayahausca experience shifted. First and foremost, you didn’t call the brew ayahuasca; you called it daime, and people in the Daime tended to take exception to hearing it called “ayahuasca.” The Daime was done with all of the lights on, everyone dressed in white, with the women and men separated. The group replaced the shaman, the songs were sung in specific orders from hymnals (though no less magical), and the center point of the ritual was the central altar which was adorned with images of saints, the church patriarchs and matriarchs, and the cross. The purging was still there, and yet verbal or group or individual expressing or “processing” was discouraged in favor of “firmness.” In each daime “work” there was an emphasis placed on the teachings of the hymns and the doctrine thought to be embodied within the drink itself (the daime).
I know many people in the medicine worlds have their favorites or their criticisms of one or the other varieties of ayahuasca shamanism. In the past six months of my personal sabbatical from the medicine world, I have been reflecting holistically on all the medicine work I’ve done in the past eight years, and I keep coming back to the idea that the two types of practice are in many ways mirror images of each other, like the yin and the yang that mysteriously reflect the consciousness beyond the polarity. Before explaining further, let me first issue the qualifier that I don’t think it’s necessary to equivocate the varieties of shamanism; the differences in the medicine world are real and the diversity of the fields is equally important. I consider this article something like a medicine thought exercise I’ve been going through lately.
Ayahuasca and the Yin
Of course, both varieties of ayahausca practitioners/participants will claim that they are more in touch with the divine feminine, and to a certain extent, all varieties of ayahuasca shamanism are in touch with the feminine. The plant medicine is deeply embedded in the fibers of the earth and the earth goddess energy, and all the different medicines, in my experience, tend to address the “patriarchal” problems currently facing us on this planet. All the same, I believe traditional ayahuasca shamanism (if it can even be called that), the variety that includes a central shaman, in the dark, with icaros, etc, is the yin of the ayahuasca world. In astrology speak, I would call South American shamanism a more “lunar” phenomenon.
In all of my ayahuasca experiences in the rainforest, or with shamanic leaders, the emphasis has been placed on the unity of nature, the spirits of the animals and plants, the health and wealth of the body, the bio-matrix of life on earth, the tribal or ancestral roots of the medicine tradition, and most specifically the “return” to the earthly paradise garden, or the return to an “archaic” consciousness in modern times. Ayahuasca in the rainforest also spoke to me about remembrance–how to remember where I come from, the earth I’m standing on, and the diversity of creation that supports me. Although ayahuasca experiences in the USA sometimes felt like new age church youth groups compared to the Amazon, even in yoga studios in New York, there was an emphasis placed on unity in diversity. The sexual spectrum was blurred in the ceremonies just as light and dark swim together more fluidly under the light of the moon, and people took turns singing or tending to each other as they purged or processed aloud with the shaman.
Daime and the Yang
On the other hand, over the years, I came to resent how much duplicity seemed to grow out of the shady, lunar, nocturnal world of ayahuasca shamanism. Shamans hidden in the dark were often jerks in the daylight. People idolized the position of the shaman and romanticized the diversity of the traditions. Many people fancied themselves shamans and few seemed to use discernment, discrimination, or reason. When I made my way to the Daime, I felt as though I had found “clarity” again in the medicine world. It felt like a comparatively “solar” paradigm for practicing with the medicine. The men and women were separated to keep the energy flowing smoothly between the natural binaries in the ceremonial space. The shaman was eliminated to keep our focus on the collective, global, and personal (all equal) work of transcendence, healing, and focus. The reality of light and dark was approached head on, and although light and dark entities were dealt with in the amazon too, the metaphysics seemed clearer at the daime. We stayed focused on the light because that’s where we were heading, all of us together. We didn’t leave room for too much personal expression because it was a distraction from continuity and from singular focus. People helped each other process and purge, but even more people helped each other try to remain firm in the first place.
Both practices seem interested in personal growth, healing, and transformation. There is very little doubt about it. Both practices are interested in integrity: the integrity of the ceremony, the integrity of the leadership, the integrity of the participants, etc. Both practices are devoted to the medicine as the teacher. Both practices, though the Daime is far younger, are advanced healing technologies with strong, complex, and diverse histories and global reach.
Whereas ayahuasca shamanism might err on the side of leadership worship, blurry boundaries, the romanticization of unity in diversity, and the “everyone wants to be the next shaman” complex, the Daime could be considered to be overly rigid, dogmatic, too worldly, out of touch with nature, gender polarizing, and somewhat sterile (the founder was an ex-military man and fiery Sagittarius after all!).
The bottom line, without going too deeply into the nitty gritty, seems to be that both traditions are capable of being fairly criticized by the other.
The Yin of the ayahausca world, wherever we find it, in whatever tradition, reminds us that we are a unity in diversity, and there is an emphasis on the deeply personal space that resides in the body of the medicine FOR our diversity, for our questions as much as our answers, and for the magical reconnection to our earthly paradise.
The Yang of the ayahausca world, wherever we find it, in whatever tradition, reminds us of the laws and structures of the world we live in. The yang teaches us how to navigate toward our highest potential with single pointed focus and an acute understanding of the group intention and personal structure it takes to be “one people under god,” battling our way upward and transcending darkness as we go.
Of course, “wherever we find it,” and “in whatever tradition” means that these categories cannot ultimately be assigned to ayahuasca shamanism or to the daime. At the end of the day, having navigated both worlds and performed this yin/yang thought exercise enough times, my personal feeling is that we must continue to forge ahead in dialog with the plant spirits of our planet. These “yin” and “yangs” of the medicine world may seem diametrically opposed, wherever they appear, and often our traditions do vary greatly from one cup or brew to the next. Yet, from the tension of the opposites there always comes a “third.” Where will the ayahausca medicine spirits, the daime spirits, the UDV spirits, take us next? Will there ever be a tantric tango dance between Juramidam of the Daime and Grandmother ayahuasca of the Peruvian Amazon? Can we go beyond the “yins” and “yangs” of the various medicine communities? Until we do, or as we do, I know that I will remain deeply in love with both traditions for the magic, and the shadows, they offer!
1. Yoga Asana and Ayahuasca
2. Astrology/Star Study in Nature with Ayahuasca
3. Biological and Scientific Research with Ayahuasca
4. Personal Therapy with Ayahuasca
5. Interactive Coming of Age Centers with Ayahausca
6. Interventions with Ayahuasca
7. Gardening or Farming with Ayahuasca
8. Medical research with Ayahausca
9. High School Guidance Counseling with Ayahuasca
10. Trauma relief Teams with Ayahuasca
I’m sure the list could go on. What would you add to this list?
Image by DonkeyHotey, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.