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AYAHUASCA: Soul Medicine of the Amazon Jungle
A Comprehensive and Practical Guide
By Javier Regueiro
iUniverseCopyright © 2014 Javier Regueiro
All rights reserved.
What Is Ayahuasca?
The term "ayahuasca" is a Quechua name that refers to the plant Banisteriopsis Caapi, a vine native to the Amazon rainforest, as well as to any of the various infusions or decoctions prepared from the same plant used for shamanic, medicinal, religious and spiritual purposes.
The vine contains the beta-carboline harmala alkaloids and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine.
Although recipes vary from area to area, the brew known as ayahuasca (or "yagé" in Colombia) is usually made from this vine and another plant containing DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), a powerful hallucinogenic alkaloid which is active orally only when combined with an MAOI.
The most common DMT-rich plants used in the Peruvian Amazon jungle are Psychotria viridis ("chakruna" in Quechua) and Diplopterys cabrerana (also known as "chagropanga", "chaliponga", or "huambisa").
Even though according to the Western viewpoint DMT is the active principle in the brew, Amazonian shamans believe that it is the ayahuasca vine that is the real healer, "la planta maestra": traditionally the ingestion of ayahuasca is not primarily about having the extraordinary visions that have made this medicine popular and mythical, but about cleansing, healing and connecting with our own truths, wisdom and intelligence.
My own personal feeling is that the ayahuasca vine works primarily on the peripheral and enteric nervous system, a clear sign of this is the intense diarrhea it often produces, whereas the DMT-containing ingredients affect the central nervous system as indicated by the strong effects on the visual cortex, and the feeling of the medicine reaching every part of one's physical body and the not-uncommon experience of being "rewired".
The brew is prepared by cutting and smashing portions of the vine, and soaking it overnight in water together with the DMT-containing plant. They are then boiled for several hours until a thick, syrupy liquid is obtained. Each shaman will add his or her own touch to the brew, often including other ingredients to the basic recipe, such as Brugmansia/Datura (toé) or jungle tobacco (Nicotiana rustica).
Ayahuasca is commonly known in the Amazon basin as "la purga", the purge. The strong vomit-inducing properties of this medicine make it a well-deserved title.
But the purgative effects of ayahuasca do not end here. Under the ego-dissolving effects of this medicine we become once again aware that the separation between body, mind and spirit is only in our heads, i.e. a trick of the mind. And so the cleansing action of ayahuasca is one that encompasses the entirety of our being: in our physical body, in the emotional body, the mind, the soul, and the spirit. This is a reality experienced by almost every person that has taken this medicine.
Due to its cleansing properties, drinking ayahuasca involves first and foremost the openness of one's heart and mind to letting go of all those things that we carry within that may have been important or even necessary to our physical and emotional survival but no longer serve us in the present time and that have become obstacles to our very own development and evolution.
We spend all our lives gathering objects, experiences, and relationships. We also learn ways to cope with certain situations: sometimes the emotions sparked by certain experiences are too intense or painful, or the environment in which we find ourselves is not supportive of the full expression of certain emotional states, for instance in the case of the loss of someone dear. So we learn to repress certain emotions, sometimes to the point of denying them. Traumatic or challenging experiences that have not been given full permission to be experienced are left half-baked in our psyche: we carry their weight without knowing that healing and letting go are available to us if we are only shown how. Living life while carrying so much emotional and mental baggage can be difficult if not impossible: we go to this medicine asking for healing and this is what it delivers.
When I think of Ayahuasca, the most immediate image that comes to mind is that of snakes of light. The snake is a universal symbol of healing and medicine and, in the Andean cosmology, it is also the king of the underworld, which to me is everything right underneath the Earth's crust and therefore represents the immense healing and nurturing energies of the Earth itself.
As a cosmic symbol of the divine Kundalini, this snake speaks of the infinite potential and energies that lie dormant at the very base of our being. Similar to the uncoiled Kundalini that reaches from the bottom of our spine in classical Tantric descriptions, the ayahuasca vine grows from the ground towards the top of the jungle canopy where its main nutrient, sunshine, lies aplenty.
Plants have the unique characteristic of being able to synthesize from light most of the energy they need for living and thriving – they are practically made of light.
Translating this image on a personal level, I feel that the Ayahuasca vine is a mirror of the human condition, born in the depth of the womb and forever reaching for the Divine Light represented by the sun. For me the drinking of ayahuasca is always the ingestion of Pure Light that brings light, lightness and enlightenment to the darkest and heaviest parts of my being so I can live my life more fully and in accordance with my divine nature.CHAPTER 2
Two Ayahuasca Legends
Once upon a time there lived in the jungle a beautiful young maiden. Every day at sunset she would go to a clearing by the river to bathe and nothing pleased her more than to wash using the leaves of a chakruna bush that grew nearby.
Every day she would scrub her body with the chakruna leaves, singing and praising their qualities and soft feel on her skin.
Her devotion to that plant grew so much that one day the chakruna bush started speaking to her, thus saying: "Dear lady, you have been so nice and grateful to me that I want to reciprocate your gratitude by revealing a secret to you no other human has ever known, and one that your people will treasure forever. You see that snake-like vine wrapping itself around that tree over there? Well, if you mix my leaves with that vine and cook them for hours, you will prepare a drink that will open your spirit to the secrets of this jungle and heal your body of all your aches and ills."
And so it was that the magical mixture of ayahuasca was revealed to our ancestors in the jungle.
It is told in the jungle that a long time ago a very powerful medicine man, not content with his knowledge, which was already very vast, called his entire clan to his house. There, in front of everybody, he vowed to sit in meditation until the deepest secrets of the jungle would be revealed to him. That very night he went and sat against a tree. He sat there, motionlessly, in deep meditation. The food his family would bring to him, he would not touch and the dogs would eat. The water his beloved wife would leave by his side he would not touch. Days and weeks went by, the shaman was slowly withering until one day his breath was no longer with him and life seemed to have left his body.
Following his instructions his body was left where he had been sitting until one day, to the surprise of all the villagers, out of his limbs now decaying started sprouting the first shoots of what was to become the very first ayahuasca vine on Earth.
The Amazon jungle is a land of legends and myths. The lack of a written tradition is more than compensated for by an abundantly rich oral tradition, where wisdom, knowledge and traditions are passed down from generation to generation.
To enter the Amazon jungle is to visit another world, a different dimension where events take on different meanings than in westernized cultures.
It was during my first ayahuasca ceremony with a Shipibo shaman outside Iquitos that I realized I had to leave my westerly ways behind and embrace without judgment or preconceived ideas what was happening to me: I was entering a magic world where most of my education and thought patterns were pretty useless.
One of the questions that has haunted many, me included, is how did humans discover the recipe for the ayahuasca brew? The ayahuasca vine and the chakruna plant bear no resemblance and don't grow together. Considering the incredible variety of Amazonian flora, it would take millennia of scientific trial and error before discovering such a powerful combination.
The two myths here succinctly told give us an idea of the relationship between humans and their environment in the Amazon jungle. In the first one we become aware of a fact that is one of the principal tenets of Amazonian shamanism: plants are entities capable of communication, and often in connection with humans.
Chinese medicine and folk medicine around the world make use of the distinctive traits of each plant as a way of interpreting and deciphering their properties. Intuition is often the key in understanding the ways of Nature.
In Amazonian shamanism, in particular through the "dieta" process, the concept is taken even further: by engaging in a special diet and drinking extracts of a particular plant, humans enter in direct connection and communication with the plant, its energy and spirit.
This may be a way of not only reconnecting with plants and Nature but also with our ancestral capacity to do so, to walk upon this Earth as integral parts of it and no longer alienated from it.
The other important aspect of the first story is the fact that the main human character is a woman. Despite the fact that nowadays the majority of shamans are male, this tale reminds us that women are naturally connected with the powers of Nature.
In patriarchal cultures this original role of healers and shamans has been taken away from women, and in today's race for equality most women still struggle to reconnect with the energies of Nature that run so deeply in their very being but from which they have been long alienated in the course of human history.
In this first myth our Amazonian Eve is shown the Tree of Knowledge. This does not result in her expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but on the contrary, it leads to a deeper connection with its energies: since the beginning of its use, ayahuasca has become the key in Amazonian shamanism and culture to access both the secrets of the Forest and the mysteries of the Spirit.
In the second myth another very interesting aspect of the connection between humans and Nature is described. Here it is Man himself to become the first ayahuasca vine, stressing the interconnectedness between all things and creatures on the planet. In the wider vision of Amazonian spirituality there is no hierarchy between species: all creatures have their own place in the vast design of creation. It is a fluid universe where the unity of all living beings means not only their reciprocal interconnection but also facilitates their communication and identity. In the same way that a shaman can take on the appearance and moves of a jaguar or an eagle, he can also turn into a vine. And so the vine embodies the highest of human qualities: wisdom.
The myth also illustrates the deep connection of humans and the vine of ayahuasca, to the point of a total identity between the two. It indicates to which extent the use of ayahuasca is important to the people of the jungle: ayahuasca, as the transformation of a shaman, who is one of the most important figures in jungle societies, is also able to reflect back to humans their highest potential and spiritual nature. Drinking ayahuasca then becomes not only a way of connecting with a plant spirit but also with the knowledge and wisdom of all of humanity as well as the medicine people that have worked with it throughout history.CHAPTER 3
Past And Present Use: The Role Of Ayahuasca In The Amazon Basin Yesterday And Today; Ayahuasca In The World Today
According to oral tradition and the few written materials available to us today, shamans and Amazon natives have been using ayahuasca for thousands of years. Ayahuasca is the central spiritual sacrament for many ethnic groups in the Amazon basin, the main technique of ecstasy and spiritual trance for shamans all over the jungle.
It is referred to as the "Mother of all Plants" in that it provides shamans with a way of communicating and interacting with all the other plant teachers and medicines of the jungle, as well as other energies and spirits of the Earth and the Heavens.
In tribal ceremonies it is said to have also been used to create a telepathic connection among its members and the energies and spirits of the jungle – because of this, the first ethnobotanists called the active ingredient in ayahuasca "telepathine".
During ayahuasca ceremonies, the participants would connect with animal spirits to find better hunting grounds, and with plant spirits for healing, as well as the source of imbalances that may be affecting the tribe.
Another important aspect of ayahuasca use is the reconnection not only with the spirit world, populated with power animals, spirits of nature, heavenly energies and extraterrestrial beings, but also with the spirits of ancestors, and the spirit of the tribe. As an ego-dissolving substance, ayahuasca enhances the unity of the tribe members and facilitates their cohesion and sense of community.
Today mestizo communities, which account for the majority of the Amazon population, use ayahuasca mostly for healing purposes, both physical and spiritual. Sometimes it is only the shaman that drinks ayahuasca in order to find and cure the ills afflicting the patient. In other occasions both shaman and patient drink the brew.
The use of ayahuasca is definitely a science but also an art that varies greatly from region to region and even among medicine people of the same area. The people who insist on claiming to own the only way of using this medicine ought to be looked upon with some suspicion: as in all spiritual traditions, the paths differ greatly but the ultimate destination remains the same.
In the last couple of centuries and with the migration of outsiders into jungle territories, Amazon shamanism has moved beyond the boundaries of remote tribes. On the one hand there has been a renaissance in the connection between medicine people from the jungle and those from the Andean region, a connection that has always been strong since the dawn of civilization with a constant exchange of goods and knowledge, but more recently radically facilitated by improved traveling conditions. On the other hand a new breed of shamans, called "vegetalistas", has come into existence.
These are people not necessarily native from the jungle but trained in the ways of Amazonian shamanism and plant medicine. Vegetalistas are often seen working in more urban areas, both within and out the Amazon basin. By working within a different social context, their work primarily involves healing.
Another interesting phenomenon of ayahuasca use is the birth of new Christian-based churches that use ayahuasca as their main sacrament. Best-known among them are the Church of Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal, both originally from Brazil, and created by Brazilian rubber tappers working in the Amazon region. These churches have developed rituals quite different from the ones in the shamanic tradition, but seem to provide their members with a very valuable experience nonetheless.
As a matter of fact a myriad of ways of using ayahuasca have seen the light of day recently. In the wake of post-modernity and neoshamanism one can now participate in ceremonies and retreats that combine the use of ayahuasca with elements of Christian or Buddhist teachings, psychotherapy, and countless other disciplines.
Excerpted from AYAHUASCA: Soul Medicine of the Amazon Jungle by Javier Regueiro. Copyright © 2014 Javier Regueiro. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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