Ayahuasca is the name used for the mixture of two plants: the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriosis Caapi) and the leaf of the chacruna plant (Psychotria Viridis). Different legends try to explain how the mixture came about, as in the jungle diversity of vines and plant species it seems very improbable that this happened by chance. The truth is that it is found among different indigenous tribes, specially in the High Amazon Basin, always with strong cleaning purposes. Ethnobotanist Richard Spruce was the first westerner who, in 1851, made contact with Ayahuasca. It is difficult to date its use. For some it comes from the Incas, but each tribe has its own story about the origins of the plant – shown in dreams, gifted from the skies, the anaconda, etc.
Chacruna contains a neurotransmitter that is the key to a different state of awareness, Dimethyltryptamine or Dmt, that is found in several parts of our body, animal bodies and plants. It may well be produced by the pineal gland, recognised as the “third eye” by different cultures.
Ayahuasca is called “la purga” for its intense effects on the body, inducing vomiting and diarrhoea. As such, it allows indians to free themselves from parasites that can affect their bodies and prevent them from hunting or leading their lives in a hostile environment, filled with poisonous snakes, potentially harmful diseases and all types of ailments. So this plant is first of all a healing plant and not a recreational tool.
Many indigenous people, including from North America, traditionally fasted, took tobacco juice to cleanse their bodies, endured long retreats in isolation in the forest to achieve a state of vision. The vision showed them their purpose in life, as healers, warriors or other positions in the tribe. This mystic state is considered natural and encouraged from a tender age – sometimes as young as 8 or 12 years-old children. In our own cultures, prophets and wise men retired from society and spent time alone, fasting, for directions, dreams and guidance in their lives or the lives of their People. This is how it was done, it was the way to have a contact with the divine or other world, spirits, that could bestow on them the abundance of fish, crops, success in war, etc. All this had to come through an effort of the physical body, a purification process, a purge, to obtain clarity and direction.
The shamanic tradition of the Amazon considers the body as an holistic system where the physical, emotional/psychological and spiritual elements combine. Any healing is done on these different levels. Without a connection to the spiritual world, the tribe is helpless. Getting rid of parasites is not just a question of extracting germs, but also extracting spiritual blocks and toxic emotions. In this context, Ayahuasca works on different realms of consciousness.
It is important to recognise our inexperience and lost knowledge of other worlds or realities. The spiritual world is not the divine world. Many things dwell beneath the surface, and there is a clear line between good and bad on these realms. As westerners, we have sometimes lost a respectful awe for these things and sometimes we tend to believe that all depends on our intention or beliefs. It is not so. There are definite rules about actions and consequences, good and bad connections, a whole world to learn from cultures who have maintained a stronger link to ancient rituals, keys and pathways experimented and confirmed by generations of elders.
In this context, Ayahuasca is a vehicle. As you drink it, it is a live substance, a conscious being. It flows through your body, finding its way and opening your energetic field. It makes you aware of a world beyond your material world, it shows you an inner state, whether through visions, memories or physical sensations. Through this opening, you become more vulnerable, so that the Madre can temporarily create a state of chaos to be able to reorganise your structure and heal. As you understand better how this sacred plant works, it is easier to accept that a certain setting is necessary. If you become vulnerable throughout the journey, who will guide you? As you go through a spiritual world unknown, how are you protected?
This is where the Shaman is important. He will prepare a space where all your personal dramas can unfold and guide you through icaros, the songs he has himself received in the periods of his life where he did dietas with different master plants, to work on his own processes and learn about the rituals of Ayahuasqueros. Shamans also need a supervisor, a guide, to lead their teachings, confirming intuitions and explaining dreams. This is learned through the body, the effort needed to be in isolation, fasting and turning all the energy inside, as in an introspective psychological state, that will allow him to go deep into an altered state where teachings are revealed. The elder guide, more experienced, is there to contain the Ego impulses that could overwhelm the apprentice.
The icaros are “received” during long dietas, a melody that comes deep in the night and evolves with words and prayers. The icaros sang are in truth prayers, like the pslams from King David, asking the spirits to heal. Eventually, the songs carry the prayers high above in hope of obtaining healing and blessings for our lives. Tobacco smoke, called mapacho, carries the prayers like incense in church. Prayers where always meant to be sung, as it seems to be the usual way of contacting with higher healing spirits.
The Ayahuasca is called the mother, Madre, because it carries this unique capability of connecting us with healing spirits, master plants, ancestors. When properly used in a safe and specific context by a knowledgeable shaman, it becomes a vehicle to understand the roots of our condition, where we come from and why we carry different difficulties. We have to be able to face dark sides of ourselves and bring light, knowledge to some unknown aspects. To reach higher levels of ourselves we need to discard unpleasant shadows, and the physical purification that the Madre provides is a symptom of things to let go of.
There are also different levels of darkness and aspects to be fought with mercilessly, as we are not alone in this universe and good and bad have very precise definitions in the spiritual levels where we enter through altered states, however surprising it may appear in the current state of beliefs in our society.
Just a quick word on other common assumptions. It is sometimes said and written that the Shaman is a schizophrenic or a madman that becomes a lunatic in the West and therefore is committed to a psychiatric facility. He would reach his potential in an indigenous culture as a Shaman, where this special state would be recognised as a gift by the tribe. Nothing could be further from the truth. These assumptions clearly misunderstand or have no real knowledge about a schizophrenic state. The Shaman has to travel between worlds and be able to come back, discerning clearly what is a vision of another world and material reality. It is only through his mastering of coming and going, and being able to come out of the altered state, that he can become a healer. How much more keen must be the visions of these individuals in these realms, as opposed to a completely disorganised and undiscerning state of mental health.
Ayahuasca is also a diagnostic tool for the Shaman to discover the root of illness in their patients. Traditionally, the Shaman holds a ceremony, at night time, with people from the village, elderly, infants, adults. Not everybody drinks. The Shaman enters an altered state and is able to heal through singing. He can also see if the patient needs to do a dieta with another plant, a specialist plant. You can read more about it on our Retreats Section.
Usually, the Shaman starts by healing children from different jungle ailments, like diarrhoea or fever. He then moves on to teenagers and later on, adults.
Recent years have seen Ayahuasca going mainstream, and two worlds met: the traditional indigenous heritage and a western culture needing healing on all kinds of diseases from the soul, psychological problems and mental problems. Shamans started to hold ceremonies for larger groups of people and it became common for every patient to drink Ayahuasca.
The westerner needs explanations and references on his inner world, whereas an indian will accept a mystical experience without words. He will have to deal more with his physical health and external spiritual causes for his problems – generally psychic attacks from a neighbour, tribe or enemy. He will not look necessarily inside himself for the cause of his troubles, whereas the westerner sometimes considers himself the center of the world and thinks everything depends on himself – or his intention. These are different perspectives fostered by the environments in which both the indian or the westerners live. They are not right or wrong per se. However, we can meet halfway. We can meet psychological needs, understand there are other realities and recover universal values. The traditional context where ceremonies are held is the key to meet this challenge of the movement of Ayahuasca culture to the West. Respectfully.
Please check our Frequently Asked Questions for a variety of issues and questions asked throughout the years.