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Excerpt from Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond

Excerpt from Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond
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In collaboration with Bia Labate, founder of Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, Reality Sandwich is publishing an excerpt a month from the 20+ books that Labate has co-edited and authored. This is an overall effort to educate about ayahuasca and plant medicines. We are beginning with Ayahuasca Shamanism from the Amazon and Beyond, published by Oxford University Press, on May 21, 2014. This collection of essays offers a “…deeper understanding of the role of ritual in mediating the encounter between indigenous traditions and modern societies.”

This excerpt from “On the Uneasiness of Tourism,” written by Eugenia Fotiou, addresses a hot topic in the psychedelic community today– ayahuasca tourism. The central question anthropologist Eugenia Fotiou explores is: “What are the motives of Westerners pursuing shamanic experiences?”


Self-exploration and spiritual growth, curiosity, physical and emotional healing, and the desire for a vacation in an exotic location– these are several reasons why people travel to participate in shamanic ceremonies. However, the desire also speaks to the fact that indigenous rituals represent a pre-Western and pre-modern philosophy that the West have lost touch with. Westerns are seeking a kind of fulfillment that our consumerist culture doesn’t provide. In other words, Westerns have a deep yearning for the pre-industrial, natural, exotic, sacred, spiritual, and tradition.

With the rise of the industrial revolution, many Western artists and poets, even famed psychologist Carl Jung spoke about the loss of the sacred and magical as detrimental to our human condition. In a sense, in altering their state of consciousness, they were rebelling against industrialization. Traces of that sentiment may remain along with an added rebellion against Western medicine, as Westerns seek a more holistic approach. There is also the context of a ritual–which is also lacking in the West–that fosters healing. To use another word– a ritual could be called a “container”–in which the healing can occur. It’s a sacred space. And it is not dependent on a “god.” Rather, it connects the person to the divine within.

But there are two important points to keep in mind. First, there is a tendency to view indigenous cultures as culturally “intact.” They have been doing this for thousands of yearsthey have not changed–etc. That kind of logic does not reflect that cultures are dynamic and evolve. It also does not take into account the influence of the West on these cultures, or how these cultures have responded to the West. In addition, our cultures have a different worldview altogether which could result in a misinterpretation of the symbology present during a ceremony. Whereas these shamanic rituals represent a cosmological worldview, the West has replaced religion with “the psyche.” This shifts the framework of the journey. It isn’t to “other worlds,” rather into the subconscious. This is one example of how these rituals are evolving with the influx of Western tourists. –RS

On The Uneasiness of Tourism

Tourism as a research subject causes anthropologists great uneasiness, possibly because of the commonalities between anthropologists and tourists. Anthropologists have considered themselves the experts on culture who can legitimately tell stories about the “other.” With the increasing access of tourists to the “other,” however, anthropologists do not own the discourse anymore. Much of the anthropological discourse on tourism has focused on the effects of tourism rather than the motives and experiences of tourists. In this chapter, I will address some of the motives of shamanic tourists, as well as how they perceive the phenomenon they participate in, using data collecting in Iquitos, Peru, between 2003-2007…

…The question that guided my research is, What are the motives of westerners pursuing shamanic experiences? I will summarize their motives, some of which I have discussed in great ethnographic detail elsewhere. Some authors attribute Western interest in Ayahuasca to the fact that Westerners seek novel experiences not offered by their culture. Dobkin de Rios emphasizes “the empty self of the post-World War II period, a self, which is soothed and made cohesive by becoming filled up by consuming food, consumer products, and experiences. This perspective does not leave any room for the possibility that Westerners might engage meaningfully in their Ayahuasca experiences. Kristensen found four main reasons people became Ayahuasca tourists: self-exploration and spiritual growth, curiosity, physical and emotional healing, and the desire for a vacation in an exotic location. Some of these have been quoted as motives for pilgrimage as well. The common theme that one can discern in what follows is the attractiveness of anything that is perceived as the antithesis of Western Civilization: pre-industrial, pre-modern, natural, exotic, spiritual, sacred, traditional, and timeless – a yearning that runs deep in Western culture.

For many, participating in shamanic ceremonies fulfills the need to connect to an archaic past, or desire for continuity of consciousness from ancient times. The past is thought to hold what the modern lacks, and that is located in cultural others and is consumable by moderns in their search for self-fulfillment. In seeking an explanation for why there is such rising interest in ayahuasca worldwide, Ralph Metzner sees an attempt to bridge the gap between the sacred and the natural that Western Civilization has brought about with the rise of the mechanistic paradigms in science. Shamanism is seen is timeless and universal, and according to neoshamanism, every person has the ability to “remember” what Christianity has caused the West to lose.

This idea is not entirely new but was previously expressed by scholars and artists such as the romantic poets; Antonin Artaud, Aldous Huxley, and Walter Benjamin all expressed the yearning to recover the sense of sacred that European culture had lost and pursued altered states of consciousness as a form of rebellion against industrialization and to facilitate personal transformation. Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade, who lamented the loss of magic in European culture, have expressed similar ideas. Western culture is perceived as deficient in this respect, and the remedy is sought among the traditions and beliefs of indigenous peoples. There is a yearning to connect to a “tribal past,” the wisdom of the ancestors, a wisdom that is not culturally specific but rather is perceived as “universal.” Ritual is fundamental in this process, and most of my consultants have stressed the importance of context in the ingestion of ayahuasca and to the positive effects of the ritual itself. This is one of the reasons they take the expensive trips to Peru. According to them, the structure of the ritual provides a framework for healing and spiritual work, something that Western culture lacks.

Shamanism becomes the “embodiment of pre-Westernness” and “pre-modernness,” what Greene calls “the West’s historically and temporally subordinate ante-self, that perennial prior self doomed to the temporal stasis of primitivity.” Shamanism, like all traditional medicine, has been viewed as “epistemologically and practically static” in the West. These misconceptions have evolved over the years, and it is no surprise that they prevail among tourists. After all, one reason that Amazonia is so attractive to this type of tourist is that, apart from its ecological importance, it is considered to be the home to some of the last primordial peoples of the planet. Occasional articles in the press warn of the rapid disappearance of the knowledge and lore of indigenous tribes and of shamans in particular.

Earlier scholarly work has presented the indigenous peoples of the area as culturally intact; for example, Lewis and Lewis, who presented traditional Shuar medicine as the static body of knowledge, stated that “they use plans now as they have for perhaps thousands of years.” Similar comments were made by most of my consultants, who believed that the ceremonies in which they participated were identical to the ceremonies that indigenous peoples led “for thousands of years.” This point of view ignores the obvious influence of the West on these cultures, as well as the cultures’ response to that influence. In this discourse, the figure of the shaman becomes mythologized and is presented as a preserver of ancient tradition. This perspective is not particularly concerned with the reality of the present, but is more likely looking for traces of the primordial in present shamanic practices. Shamanism is therefore essentialized and removed from its historical and cultural context.

As was already mentioned, a discourse lamenting the loss of magic runs deep and Western traditions. In 1934, Jung argued that the decline of magic and religion in our society is harmful because it hinders individuation. Eliade also argued that sacred experience predominates in oral societies and that “modern man has desacralized his world. Like Jung, he argued that hierophanies, or manifestations of the sacred in nature, can help one resolve life’s critical situations. Some might relate this to the increasing popularity of ayahuasca and other entheogens among Westerners, since it provides the much-needed spiritual experiences of which people feel deprived. Many of my consultants have reported spiritual experiences with Ayahuasca, and some admit to having become more spiritual because of it. As one person put it, “It gave me a new perspective on life, on what it all is about. It resulted and enhance meaningfulness for me in many, many aspects of my personal life. It caused me to believe in spirit and God for the first time in my life.” Others have share that they met and talked to historical spiritual figures in their visions, such as the Buddha, Jesus, and even God.

Ayahuasca experiences are attractive to Westerners because, in a way, they provide direct access to the spiritual and “the divine within,” since there is no intermediary as an organized religions. For some, this is an act of resistance, rejecting organized religion and seeking out a more democratic way to spirituality. They feel that traditionally religious authorities of every form laid claim to and monopolized access to the divine, and priests became the mediators between the people and the divine. Alternative spirituality movements find these media unnecessary and look for ways for individuals to tap directly into the divine. Most of my consultants declared themselves “spiritual but-not religious.” In addition, they drew material from diverse cultural sources such as Buddhism in yogic traditions.

A majority of participants in Ayahuasca ceremonies are motivated by desire to be healed and have reported successful healing for both psychological and physical ailments. Shamanism is seen as the most radically other to Western bio-medicine compared to other traditional ethnomedical practices. It is no surprise that people frustrated with biomedicine turn to shamanism, seeking a more holistic healing that is enhanced by greater contact with nature. Thus, their quest for healing also contains a critique of Western medical knowledge.

Ayahuasca is reported to be especially effective in healing psychological trauma and depression. Cleansing or purging is very important to healing process and is perceived as spiritual, as well as physical, cleansing. When purging during the ceremony, an indispensable part of the ayahuasca experience, many have reported the feeling of purging negative things accumulated in their bodies over years, often referred to as “psychic garbage.” In the healing process, the idea that individuals are responsible for their own healing or non-healing is very important: characteristically, people would say that “everyone is their own shaman.” Healing by intervention of spirits is reported quite often as well.

Shamanic ceremonies also provide the ideal setting for the personal transformation of the participants. For some, the ayahuasca experience poses a challenge and offers a significant spiritual experience as well as a way to connect to their “inner self.” One consultant said he was attracted by the fact that ayahuasca forces one to face one’s “demons.” Many… have stressed the fact that psychedelic experience causes dissolution of the ego and is a catalyst for personal transformation, and they note that substances such as LSD have been used successfully in psychotherapy.

On the other hand, lack of context or framework for Western people for interpreting the visionary experience can cause misconceptions. In indigenous cultures, there is a very specific geography and structure of the other worlds shamans visit in their trance, a structure that is learned during their apprenticeship. Some westerners may interpret their visions more personally or psychologically, using Jungian archetypes. If this is the case, they interpret the beings or demons in their visions as manifestations of conflicts and their subconscious mind. Although traditionally shamanism was a healing force for the community, in this context it is about healing the individual. I encountered that has been called “psychologizing the religious,” using the cosmos as a tool for “therapizing the psyche,” very often in my field work. Kleinman speaks of “psychologizing process” that has affected American culture since World War I, and forms part of a “cultural transformation in which the self has been culturally constituted as of now-dominant Western ethnopsychology.” Thus the psyche replaces religion. With this movement from the cosmological to the psychological, the shamanic journey becomes not a journey to other worlds but a journey of the mind to the subconscious.

However, in the context of shamanic tourism, this is not a one-way process. Many westerners who engage with Amazonian shamanism for an extended time end up interpreting what we would perceive as psychological processes in the West using “spirit” vocabulary.

Author | Eugenia Fotiou

Source: Labate, B. C. & Cavnar, C. (Eds.). (2014) Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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