Ayahuasca is a Peruvian vine that has traditionally been used to send visionaries into “the world beyond” for shamanic and spiritual rituals. Although I was in Peru this summer, I didn’t have the opportunity to join a ceremony. Imagine my surprise when I returned to my semi-permanent home in Taiwan and found a couple of different organizations that practice Ayahuasca use.
First off, let me be clear that Ayahuasca is not a “recreational drug.” The purely natural ingredients are relatively common and easy to get. The experience – which nearly everyone agrees is profound, momentous, and possibly life-changing, and can only be described as “spiritual” – is at the same time usually pretty miserable and involves vomiting, diarrhea and feeling like death (hence one of its nick-names, “vine of death”).
Despite all this, there have been no fatalities and few serious incidents involving Ayahuasca, and it is generally seen as a “wise teacher” or “emotional/physical healer”. It has increasingly grown in visibility and popularity in the west as a kind of last resort “cure all”. In 2011 there was even a documentary made about it.
A few years ago, Benny Shanon, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, made news for claiming that Moses was high on a mind-altering drug when he had visions of God, citing his own personal experiences with the “powerful psychotropic plant” Ayahuasca.
The claim that religious founders and leaders had real, vivid, experiential episodes of some higher order of reality has led many researchers to claim that religion as a social institution may have developed from early mankind’s accidental or ritualistic of plants that affected brain chemistry in a specific way.
The interesting thing about Ayahuasca experiences is that participants all describe extremely similar visions – it is less that their minds are “going crazy” and more that they are (as they almost unanimously claim) made aware of different realities that exist but we usually can’t see. Graham Hancock’s book Supernatural explores this theme in greater detail, basically positing that if different people from different times and cultures, with none of the same technological or social inspiration, go into a vision and see similar things, than those things are either somehow programmed into our DNA or they really exist “out there”.
Interestingly, a variety of religious experience especially found in the Old Testament but also in for example Indian mythology does not seem at all like a psychotropic plant-induced vision, but more like an encounter with a superior technology. Ayahuasca users see vines and snakes, and very commonly “higher beings” who ask “what do you want to learn” and try and teach as much as possible in the brief period of contact.
Moses, in contrast, often sees Yahweh descend and ascend in great clouds of smoke, fire and noise – almost exactly like a modern day space shuttle launch.
“Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly…. Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off” (Exodus 19:18; 20:18)
In the New Testament and modern Christianity, we don’t picture God as physically moving up and down or causing such a ruckus whenever he comes and goes – but the image is ubiquitous in the Old Testament. There are also the passages of Ezekial describing “wheels” which sound eerily like UFO’s:
I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north– and immense cloud with flashing lighting and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures.
As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went. their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around. (1:15-18) When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. (1:19-20, 24,) (New International Version)
It seems then that the history of religion has been influenced by some kind of interior, mystical experience where initiates are led into “the beyond” (usually somewhere else, they have to travel to get there) and “taught” all kinds of knowledge; and on the other hand other experiences that are public, noisy, and appear to involve some kind of huge, flying crafts that look like wheels and go up and down in smoke and fire, and that give humans laws and instructions.
Parmenides: Early Greek Alien Abductee or Discoverer of Hallucinogenics?
Probably around the same as much of the Old Testament was being written, the early Greek thinker and mystic Parmenides wrote “The Way of Truth” – in the prologue, he describes how goddesses came down to pick him up and take him into the light for a bit of mystical instruction. The passage is interesting because, on the one hand it talks about a magic chariot ride in a spinning wheel and entering through a metal gate with bolts and rivets, and on the other it describes being greeted by a kind entity that promises to teach him about reality, which is very similar to hundreds of Ayahuasca experiences.
1.1 The mares which carry me as far as my spirit ever aspired
1.2 were escorting me, when they brought me and proceeded along the renowned road
1.3 of the goddess, which brings a knowing mortal to all cities one by one.
1.4 On this path I was being brought, on it wise mares were bringing me,
1.5 straining the chariot, and maidens were guiding the way.
1.6 The axle in the center of the wheel was shrilling forth the bright sound of a musical pipe,
1.7 ablaze, for it was being driven forward by two rounded
1.8 wheels at either end, as the daughters of the Sun,
1.9 were hastening to escort after leaving the house of Night for the light,
1.10 having pushed back the veils from their heads with their hands.
1.11 There are the gates of the roads of Night and Day,
1.12 and a lintel and a stone threshold contain them.
1.13 High in the sky they are filled by huge doors
1.14 of which avenging Justice holds the keys that fit them.
1.15 The maidens beguiled her with soft words
1.16 and skillfully persuaded her to push back the bar for them
1.17 Quickly from the gates. They made
1.18 a gaping gap of the doors when they opened them,
1.19 swinging in turn in their sockets the bronze posts
1.20 fastened with bolts and rivets. There, straight through them then,
1.21 the maidens held the chariot and horses on the broad road.
1.22 And the goddess received me kindly, took my right hand in hers,
1.23 and addressed me with these words:
1.24 ‘Young man, accompanied by immortal charioteers,
1.25 who reach my house by the horses which bring you,
1.26 welcome – since it was not an evil destiny that sent you forth to travel
1.27 this road (for indeed it is far from the beaten path of humans),
1.28 but Right and justice. There is need for you to learn all things –
1.29 both the unshaken heart of persuasive Truth
1.30 and the opinions of mortals, in which there is no true reliance.
1.31 But nevertheless you will learn these too – that the things that appear
1.32 must genuinely be, being always, indeed, all things.
Preparing for an Ayahuasca Ceremony
When I was younger, I several times accidentally wandered into that bizarre brain state where you see things that aren’t there and hear things that aren’t “real”. It was terrifying. I talked to priests. I read self-help books. I was convinced in the Supernatural. Over a decade later, I’m less convinced and basically believe that brains just freak out sometimes, but that it doesn’t mean anything. However, a hard-nosed skeptic and realist/naturalistic view of the cold universe is difficult for anyone interested in religious history, philosophy and humanity in general – if only because “mystical experiences” served for thousands of years as meaning-generating pragmata.
So I’m going into my first Ayahuasca Ceremony with an open mind. Close friends who have participated have told me you should go in with a question you want answered or a specific area of your life/self that you’d like to improve.
Safety-wise, because Ayahuasca depends on a natural MAO inhibitor (like many modern antidepressants), it is important to avoid certain food conflicts such as red wine, cheese, pickles etc (a long list that I’m intimately familiar with, as the same foods are migraine triggers). It is also recommended that your diet be light and healthy for a few days before the ceremony and that you fast for at least 12 hours before partaking.
So I’m basically expecting to feel like like absolute crap for a couple days. Why do it? Because if there is even the slightest possibility that there are wise beings out there deliberately instructing a select handful of individuals to receive “higher knowledge” (or even if the experience convinces me that there are!) it seems worthwhile to try and make contact.