Ayahuasca, which in Quechua language means "spirit vine", is a hallucinogenic plant that grows in the dark and humid Amazon swamps and at the foot of the Andes, where it is considered sacred. Since the dawn of time, it has been administered by shamans, who cure their patients by putting them in contact with the Divine, through the visions induced by the brew, to identify the root cause of their problem. Ayahuasca extract has become quite popular among Westerners, who use it to experience new sensations, in the illusion to capture the soul of Amazon atavistic rituals without even knowing the social context.
We avoid being overwhelmed by New Age Influences and we reach the mother of all forests with the concentration of an anthropologist. We set off for Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon and Céu do Mapiá in the Brazilian Amazon to look for an ecological approach to self-analysis in indigenous wisdom.
Step 1: The sacred vine
To prepare the brew, the Ayahuasca vine stem bark (Banisteriopsis caapi), is boiled for many hours, until obtaining, with the addition of different extracts, according to requirements, a dense and sour liquid called Santo Daime in Brazil and Ayahuasca in Peru. This tea features a high concentration of dimethyltryptamine, but the Santo Daime's essential ingredient is Psychotria viridis, known as "Queen of the Forest", after the figure that is said to have appeared to Raimundo Irineu Serra, the founder of the ritual, during a vision prompting him to start a religious practice. Ayahuasca brew (www.ayahuasca.com) was legalised for religious use in Brazil in 1986.
According to traditional Amazonian medicine, diseases originate from an imbalance between the energies that govern the human body. Medicine's task is to restore the broken balance, and sacred plants are its main tools, among which ayahuasca stands out. According to shamans, the hallucinations caused by the plant are poetic messages sent from the heavens to the unconscious, where, if deciphered, they allow focusing on the cause of the problem and remove it. Just like a Freudian psychiatrist who analyses dreams.
Step 2: Peru
In the most touristic places in the Peruvian Amazon, we notice some signs inviting to low-cost ayahuasca sessions. We are warned that if we don't follow the traditional procedure, the ritual won't work. If we can't help smiling when the shaman checks whether the plant is happy, it means that we are not ready to compare ourselves with different civilisations. The master of ceremony must ensure the serious intentions of those who want to try ayahuasca: understand themselves in order to improve.
Iquitos is a town in north-eastern Peru, founded in 1764 along the Amazon River. It has only one road, which leads southwards and ends after 100 km in the village of Nauta. If you don't want to go up the river, you must take a plane to get there. The weather is hot and humid and we are greeted by a friendly community that recommends us a healing camp immersed in the jungle over 300km away. We sail the Aucayacu River in a canoe, among mysterious parrots and gigantic blue butterflies, with other 9 fellow travellers. We are heading for an ascetic hut.
The 10 of us start the therapy in a group session as soon as the night falls: the plant fears the light. The shaman prepares the brew, but before offering it, he explains the characteristics of each extract used. We drink the sour tea in turns. After 20 minutes, the ayahuasca enters the bloodstream. We feel alone with ourselves while the shaman starts singing. We know we must not worry if the sacred vine makes us vomit, the shaman is there with us and, from his point of view, it's just a normal purification process from all physical and emotional impurity. Everything goes smoothly, and the heroic loneliness we feel does not exclude harmony with the others. We start having the first visions and the shaman asks each one of us to describe them while the others listen. His mission is to help us decipher those images, to provide us with the clues we need to start an analysis procedure.
Step 3: Brazil
Santo Daime (www.santodaime.org) is a religious practice founded in the 30s in the Amazon state of Acre, in western Brazil. It is based on the consumption of Daime (dai-me means “give me” in Portuguese), the name that Raimundo Irineu Serra gave to ayahuasca. These ceremonies, called trabalhos (works), last several hours. The faithful drink Daime either singing hymns while dancing and playing maracas (bailados), or sitting in silent meditation (concentrações). The hymns celebrate the eternal values of love, harmony and justice through poetic metaphors.
Although sessions start and end with Christian prayers, Santo Daime practice does not forget the magical value of nature (the sun moon and stars), and it adopts the hummingbird as its totemic symbol. Spiritual beings from indigenous Amazon shamanism and from the African pantheon are also contemplated.
The capital of Santo Daime practice is Céu do Mapiá, between Boca do Acre and Pauini. The village develops along the river. Subsistence farming allows the community to live in harmony with nature and promote spiritual quest and ecological collaboration programmes. We attend to the tea preparation during a ceremony that lasts a week, the so called "feitio". Together with the other worshipers, we sing hymns and drink Daime, while the men beat the ayahuasca vine until crushing it and women select the best leaves. Hallucinations. We may be not communicating directly with the Divine, but we are indeed discovering an ancient and dignified social reality that has been massacred with the approval of the West. This is where self-analysis starts. Visions are real.
By Federico Gurgone