San Francisco Bay Guardian  March 22, 2000

Taking psychedelics seriously
Hallucinations, science, and spirituality collide at international ayahuasca conference.

By Diana Trimble

SAN FRANCISCO ONCE again proved itself to be at the forefront of consciousness research with last weekend's international Ayahuasca Conference, the first North American gathering of international pioneers in fields as varied as pharmacology, neuroscience, shamanism, spiritual healing, and ethnobotany. Participants and attendees came to the California Institute of Integral Studies-sponsored conference from as far away as the Amazon rainforest and Finland, whose University of Kuopio has become an unlikely "hotbed of ayahuasca research" according to American-born neurochemist Jace Calloway.

Ayahuasca refers to any one of a number of beverages deriving from a mixture of Amazonian plants. The name, meaning "vine of the soul," comes from the Quechua language and refers to the main ingredient, the vine whose botanical designation is Banisteriopsis caapi, the source of beta-carboline alkaloids harmine, harmoline, and tetrahydroharmine. Combined with plants such as Psychotria viridis, containing tryptamine, the entire brew, when quaffed, can induce visionary states of awareness. Exactly how indigenous peoples stumbled on this combination is "nothing short of a miracle," in the words of Calloway.

Previously, terms such as psychedelic and hallucinogenic have been used to categorize ayahuasca and other related substances, such as peyote and LSD, but those words have acquired unsatisfactory connotations in the post-'60s years, and the term of choice today – certainly the one used by most at the conference – is enthegoenic, which means "connecting to the sacred within."

Indigenous Amazonian healer Jose Campos promoted the use of the term purgative to illustrate the cleansing properties of the medicine on psychic, emotional, and spiritual levels as well as on the more obvious biological one. In the Brazilian Santo Daime religion, the brew is referred to by the word daime, which means "give me." This term reflects the idea that by praying and asking for help, we may receive insight and teaching.

In part the conference represented a search for new ways to talk about and study so-called psychedelic drugs. Rather than dismissing altered states brought on by ingesting certain substances as delusional, or valuing them only as interesting journeys into the imagination, there is a growing cross-disciplinary effort to examine these powerfully transcendent experiences.

Since the "age of enlightenment," the separation between scientific analysis and "paranormal" experiences has become increasingly misguided. The conference seems to indicate that the time has arrived for science to slough off the fear-based moralizing that has stalled the funding of serious research into entheogenic plants and chemical compounds in this country.

One of the themes that recurred throughout the weekend was the long overdue appreciation of indigenous peoples' plant wisdom and a call for scientists to take folk knowledge more seriously. As several of the presenters stressed, ayahuasca is just one of many potent plant medicines used by people of the Amazon region, itself known to be an incredibly fecund source of biological diversity.

In the West the uses and strengths of various medicines are gleaned through a scientific process of trial and error. Cultural myopia led many in the scientific community to dismiss medical discoveries made without "rational" inquiry, so acknowledging indigenous people's practical understanding of plants was never an option. Until recently there had been no serious scientific investigation into Amazonian indigenous medicine.

But there is still a communication gap between Western science and indigenous peoples. When asked how they discovered the medical uses of particular plants, Amazonians inevitably refer to spiritual knowledge. The ingestion of ayahuasca, according to these people, allows human voyagers to commune with the intelligent entities that govern the vegetable kingdom. This in fact is the core reality of Amazonian shamanism and healing: information becomes available to us through the grace of ayahuasca, which may be seen as a sort of gatekeeper to the realm of spiritual knowledge.

That is not to say, however, that there are no similarities between Western scientific inquiry and native spirituality. As the presentations of Colombian anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna, Ph.D., and Campos showed, the training and discipline a shaman must undergo are extreme and at least as rigorous as those endured by a Western medical or higher sciences student.

Constance Grauds, a "recovering pharmacist," attested to this in her presentation about moving out of the world of bottles, pills, and paper prescriptions and into a six-year apprenticeship with Peruvian curandero Don Antonio Montero Pisco. During a trip to Peru as an ecotourist, she became entranced by the locals' deep understanding of plant medicines and began a course of serious study. Undercutting the stereotypical image of jungle primitives feverishly acting out mad and impenetrable rituals, Grauds described the strict diets and disciplines necessary to shamanic training.

During her apprenticeship she developed an ongoing relationship with "spirit doctors." She reported that these supernatural doctors' surgeries and recommendations had observable results in the material world. Shamanic healing is based on relationships with extra-material beings and is therefore completely disregarded by Western medicine. This makes for interesting cultural collisions when verifiable healings are produced.

Jeremy Narby, author of The Cosmic Serpent, described the experiences of molecular biologists who traveled to South America, participated in ayahuasca rituals, and attempted to explore its alleged power to reveal the correct medical uses of plants. All the scientists asserted the need for further research, as they felt that the potential for this "unorthodox" method of study was immense. Narby also offered a word of warning to potential ayahuasca tourists about abuses of the drug: if you go down south in search of the miraculous, be sure you choose a worthy guide.

Ethnobotanist and author Jonathan Ott (Pharmacotheon, Ayahuasca Analogues, The Age of Entheogens), Calloway, and Charles Grob, M.D., described their research into the unusual chemical makeup of ayahuasca. It is sometimes stated that DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is the "active ingredient" in ayahuasca, but in fact some samples of ayahuasca contained very low levels. Almost all of the brews are anchored by Banisteriopsis caapi, but the additional ingredient(s) are not standardized.

One of the most unique elements of the weekend was an ongoing discussion about modern organized religions that center around the ingestion of one of the ayahuasca varietals. Known as vegetalistas in South America, the practitioners of these ritualized forms of worship include members of Uniao de Vegetal (UDV), Barquina, and Santo Daime.

Alex Polari de Alverga, author of last year's Forest of Visions, a personal account of his immersion in the Santo Daime religion, described navigating the dimensions available in a visionary state. He cautioned against becoming entangled in the projections of our minds and the conditioning of our lower selves, noting that Santo Daime rituals are designed to guide the consciousness away from harmful fancies.

On Saturday evening there was a concert inspired by ayahuasca; music and singing are central to many of the religious and healing practices associated with it. Icaros are healing songs used by shamanic practitioners of Peru. They are said to be "received" rather than written, and are tools for communicating with beings and energies of a higher order. Campos sang several icaros, beautiful and haunting odes to nature spirits. Calling the spirits to invoke their aid, Campos sang, "Material mother – I awaken to the infinite with a flower on the top of my head." More icaros were presented by Diana de la Selva, a North American woman who has studied with a Peruvian ayahuasquero for a number of years. The high pipings and trillings of the icaros recalled at times the oeuvre of "Incan princess" Yma Sumac, only without the histrionics.

This music is not for "performance" in the way that we understand it in the West. No one claims ownership of the sacred songs. They are publicly owned forms of religious devotion. Moreover, the songs are believed to contain important spiritual teachings and ideology. Among ayahuascans, the doctrine is appreciated as a living and evolving one that responds to the needs of the times and reflects contemporary cultural concerns. This is in direct contrast to the Western view of sacred texts as being immutable and unchanging over time.

California Institute of Integral Studies graduate student Susan Miller advanced an interesting theory at the conference when she talked about music and altered states of consciousness. Rather than taking the view that psychoactives such as ayahuasca distort reality, she adopted the position that they act as a microscope does in enlarging the field of observable phenomena. Psychoactives are therefore very useful, because they amplify what happens in everyday life.

Knowledge and the right to gain it through entheogenics were the main themes of the conference, but a secondary theme of even greater importance had emerged by Sunday evening: the need for an expanded eco-consciousness that will encourage us to preserve the rainforest and transform our relationship to the Earth. A panel titled "Women and the Ayahuasca Experience" deemed eco-consciousness fundamental to the teachings of ayahuasca and other sacred plants. In fact, according to Luzia Krull, who represented the Santo Daime point of view, the Queen of the Forest came out of the forest not just to spread ayahuasca but to save her home, scene of the most rich biodiversity known on the planet.

Lectures and discussions from the conference are available on cassette tape from the California Institute of Integral Studies. For more information call (415) 575-6150, or check out their website at