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from Chapter 2
The Psychology of Ayahuasca
Charles S. Grob, M.D.
What Is Ayahausca?
There is an important hallucinogenic drink consumed by the native peoples of the western half of the Amazon valley and by isolated tribes on the Pacific slopes of the Ecuadoran and Columbian Andes. The primary plant material used for this botanical brew is the bark of the giant forest liana Banisteriopsis caapi. This ayahuasca, as it is most commonly called, is prepared by boiling Banisteriopsis bark with the leaves of one or more admixture plants, most commonly Psychotria viridis. Although some aboriginal tribes have traditions of using Banisteriopsis solely, without any admixture plants, the predominant pattern of use has called for the addition of plants with diverse profiles of chemical constituents and psychoactive effects.
Ayahuasca possesses a unique phytochemistry. When taken alone, without the Banisteriopsis, many of the admixture plants are not psychoactive. Although Psychotria viridis is rich in alkaloids of the potent hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT), it is rendered biochemically inactive after oral consumption through inactivation by monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that degrades DMT, along with endogenous neurotransmitters. However, when Psychotria is prepared along with Banisteriopsis, which has monoamine oxidase inhibiting action, the DMT is actively absorbed, passes the blood-brain barrier, and exerts powerful hallucinogenic effects on the central nervous system. How the native peoples of the Amazon discovered this sophisticated synergistic plant biochemistry is unknown, although the reductionistic explanation asserts that through generations, even centuries, of trial and error sampling of the abundant and diverse tropical flora, the aboriginal inhabitants of the region happened upon this unusual combination. Asking the native peoples themselves, however, yields a very different response. Virtually all of the ayahuasca-using tribes of the Amazon Basin, as well as the modern syncretic churches, who use this plant hallucinogen concoction as a legal psychoactive ritual sacrament, attribute the discovery of ayahuasca, along with the mythological origins of their own idiosyncratic religious belief systems, to a form of divine intervention. However human beings happened to come upon or were directed to this unique phytochemical combination, its discovery was integral to both the development of early native cultures as well as the rise of interest in these sacred plants in our own day.
Among the diverse native peoples of the Amazon Basin, ayahuasca has been known by a variety of names, including caapi, yajé, natema, mihi, kahi, pinde and dapa. Ayahuasca is perceived as a magic intoxicant, of divine origin, which facilitates release of the soul from its corporeal confinement, allowing it to wander free and return to the body at will, carrying with it information of vital import (Schultes and Hofmann 1992). Among native peoples, ayahuasca was traditionally used for purposes of magic and religious ritual, divination, sorcery, and the treatment of disease (Dobkin de Rios 1972). Living among the Cashinahua of the Peruvian Amazon, the anthropologist Kenneth Kensinger (1973) identified ayahuasca-induced visions as integral to the genesis of volitional behavior. These visions are perceived as the experiences of an individual’s “dream spirit,” which has access to knowledge contained in the supernatural realms. Kensinger has described how the Cashinahua use ayahuasca as a means of receiving information not available through the normal channels of communication, which, along with additional information accessed through other means, constitute the basis for personal action. For the Cashinahua, however, taking ayahuasca is an unpleasant and even fearful experience, which is resorted to only when such revelations from the spirit world are urgently needed.
For the Jivaro Indians of the Ecuadoran Amazon, the supernatural realm, which can be accessed only through the door of the experience, is seen as the true reality, whereas normal waking life is simply an illusion. Michael Harner, an anthropologist who has lived among and studied the Jivaro, has understood the importance of the ayahuasca experience itself in order to fully grasp the aboriginal mindset. Although traditional anthropological observers have typically assumed a passive role in compiling and recording native habits and customs Harner elected to undergo a first-hand encounter with the object of his study. Harner has described how
for several hours after drinking the brew, I found myself, although awake, in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams. I met bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world. I enlisted the services of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches of the Galaxy. Transported into a trance where the supernatural seemed natural, I realized that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology (Harner 1973b).
Integral to the content of the realm of ayahuasca-induced visions is the cultural context in which they occur. Throughout the tropical rain forests of South America, the traditional ayahuasca-using tribal people have many shared common cultural elements as well as similar contextual themes for their mythologies and ayahuasca-induced experiences. Indeed, some anthropological observers have asserted that it is virtually impossible to separate the nature of the ayahuasca experience from its cultural context (Harner 1973a). Through contacting the supernatural realm of their ancestors, as well as their mythological deities and spirits, the ritual use of ayahuasca has served to bind the communities of disparate individuals into a cohesive collective culture. Culturally syntonic visions are induced by shamanic manipulation of set and setting to provide revelation, blessings, healing, and ontological security for those using such sacramental plants (Grob and Dobkin de Rios 1992). Within traditional contexts, shamanic initiation into the world of plant hallucinogens, including ayahuasca, have included long preparations associated with strict self-discipline, including prolonged social isolation, sexual abstinence, and diets free of meat, salt, sugar and alcohol. The collective ingestion of these ceremonial sacraments by the adult members of the community achieves an amplified degree of social cohesion and identity which has been characterized by Mircea Eliade as a periodic symbolic regression to the “powerful time” of mythical origin (Eliade 1964).
Introduction: Amazonian Vine of Visions
RALPH METZNER, PH.D.
1. Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History
DENNIS J. MCKENNA, PH.D.
2. The Psychology of Ayahuasca
CHARLES S. GROB, M.D.
3. Phytochemistry and Neuropharmacology of Ayahuasca
J. C. CALLAWAY, PH.D
4. The Experience of Ayahuasca: Teachings of the Amazonian Plant Spirits
Initiation into Ancient Lineage of Visionary Healers
We Are Experiencing the Joyful Phenomenon of Re-creation
Having So Recently Experienced My Death, It Felt Miraculous To Be Alive
Breaking from the Bondage of the Mind
A Vision of Sekhmet
The Pieces of My Life Fell Together in a More Meaningful Pattern
Knowledge Was Graciously Invoked in Me by the Plant Teacher
Here Began a Series of Teachings about the Nature of the Heart
A Vision of the Fabric That Is Woven by Us All
Ethereal Serpents Held Me in Thrall
I Was Exploring Being with Greenness
Liquid Plum’r for the Soul
I. M. LOVETREE
The Plant Spirits Help Me to Heal Myself and Others
The Great Serpentine Dance of Life
A Most Palpably Buddhist-like Experience
Journey to the Emerald Forest
The Long, Multi-faceted Journey of Jewish Experience
Teaching the Body Its Relationship to the Spirit
Ancient Augury of My Resurrection
An Entirely New World of Spirit Beings
Death and Rebirth in Santo Daime
Nature Has Embraced Me, Blown the Breath of Life into Me
The Buddha, the Christ, and the Queen of the Jungle
Agony and Rapture with Santo Daime
5. Conclusions, Reflections, and Speculations
RALPH METZNER, PH.D.
Notes on Contributors
Posted November 29, 2011
No text was provided for this review.