We have received questions about a growing movement among “seekers” of all faiths who are traveling to the Amazon to participate in shamanistic rituals involving the ingestion of a powerful psychedelic “tea” known as ayahuaska or “yage”.
Ayahuasca is brewed from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and other ingredients which are indigenous to countries in the Amazon basin such as Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Shamans use it to access the spiritual realm and information allegedly found in the “unseen realms”, as well as for divination and healing purposes. Drinking the brew causes vomiting, which is supposed to be “cleansing”, as well as visions and hallucinations and “insights”.
Once known mostly to those living in South America, Ayahuasca Ceremonies are becoming the rage among Westerners and Hollywood stars who claim the psychedelic experiences produced by the brew can heal conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. these rituals are also sought by those who want to be physically and spiritually "cleansed", or to experience some kind of personal transformation or learn how to communicate with the spiritual realm.
Retreats to these Amazonian “healing centers” are drawing tourists of all stripes – young, old, sickly, healthy – anyone looking for a new high.
For some, it doesn’t go so well.
Kyle Nolan, an 18 year-old American was found dead on the side of a road near Puerto Maldonado in Peru in September of 2012. He had visited the Shimbre Shamanic Center and took part in a shamanic cleansing ritual using ayahuasca. The shaman in charge of the center later admitted to police that Nolan had died after drinking an excessive dose of the brew.
Henry Miller, 19, from the UK, suffered the same fate in April, 2014, when he took part in a local tribal ritual in a Colombian rainforest and had an allergic reaction to ayahuasca. His body was also found dumped by the side of the road.
Shamans claim these cases are rare, and they are, but this burgeoning new market of thrill seekers definitely has a dark side.
“Deaths like Nolan's are uncommon, but reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and inept shamans are not,” writes Kelly Hearns for the Mens Journal. “In the past few years alone, a young German woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her, two French citizens died while staying at ayahuasca lodges, and stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people losing their marbles after being given overly potent doses.”
Wherever tourism booms, charlatans come crawling out of the woodwork, which is certainly the case in the ayahuasca business. Shamans of suspicious reputation, anxious to lure more tourists to their town, are known to mix a little toe (aka “witchcraft plant”) in the brew because of its powerful hallucinogenic qualities.
“Skilled shamans use it in tiny amounts, but around Iquitos [Peru], people say irresponsible shamans dose foreigners with it to give them the Disneyland light shows they've come to expect,” Hearns reports.
Even more alarming is that excessive use of toe can cause permanent mental impairment and even death from miscalculated dosages.
Another dark side to the whole ayahuasca movement is the growth of the so-called Santo Daime church, which was founded in Brazil in 1930 by a former Catholic named Raimundo Irineu Serra. He was introduced to shamanism while apprenticing with Peruvian Indians and began to believe in the spiritism they practiced which is based in animism which is based on the belief that plants and animals have spirits which can be contacted.
During one of his “trips”, Serra claimed to have received a vision of a Divine Lady who was sitting on the moon and who told him to retreat into the forest for eight days and drink nothing but ayahuasca and eat only macacheira (boiled manic). Throughout this retreat, the “Forest Queen” instructed him to start a new religion with ayahuasca as its central “sacrament”. It was to be called “daime” which means “give me” in Portuguese. The religion is a mish-mosh of many religions, including Christian. For instance, the “Forest Queen” is the Virgin Mary, and nature is revered alongside Jesus Christ.
“Our liturgical religion, which consists in sharing the sacramental tea in appropriate dates, is called Eclectic for its roots are deeply buried in a strong syncretism of various folk, cultural and religious elements,” their website states. “We praise God, Jesus Christ, saints, angels and spiritual beings of many cultures, especially the Christian, Indigenous and African ones.”
This is the world into which curious seekers from around the world are stumbling, some of whom never come out, while others emerge in a much different mental state than when they went in. Some swear they were healed, others aren’t so sure, but many more than you might think actually go back again and again.
Spiritually speaking, we cannot over-emphasize the dangers of any involvement in this new fad and the imbibing of a brew so powerful it is illegal in most of the world. When one is in the grips of an ayahuascan trip, they are in a radically altered state of consciousness over which they have no control and are, therefore, vulnerable to any spiritual entity who may wish to influence them.