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Ayahuasca’s Coming to Town

Two weeks ago, New Yorker Magazine (September 12, 2016) featured an article about the Amazonian hallucinogen Ayahuasca, which is fast becoming the drug of choice for psychic explorers in the current age.

This profoundly mind-altering mixture has been brewed by the indigenous Shaman for millennia, and used in a complex ceremonial ritual handed down from generation to generation. There are detailed instructions for harvesting and preparing the vines and flowers, the singing of ancient songs while the “medicine” steeps, and becomes filled with the words and the spirit of the ancestors.

I took it once in the Amazon jungles of Peru, on my continuing quest for awakening. I spent a day going up the Amazon in a dugout canoe to reach a Cocama village where a shaman, descended from a long line of practitioners, grew and prepared the medicine. Six friends and I sat all night in a hut on stilts, in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by birds, insects, and howling monkeys. The experience was intense, and one of the most astounding learning experiences in my life… but is not one I would like to repeat. I’ve written about it in detail (Hammerschlag, C.A., Kindling Spirit, 2011, p.23-25); the profundity of the experience of what it meant to truly give up control of my entire being. Trusting that somebody other than myself, could help me through the night.

Today’s Ayahuasca experience is a trendy, happening place to be… in New York and San Francisco you can find such gatherings as easily as you might a specialty coffee shop. These ceremonies are led by “shaman”, sometimes called ayahuasqueros, curanderos, vegetalistas, spiritualists, whatever they call themselves is less important than the critical question of where do they get the authority to do this ceremony?

I have worked with indigenous people most of my professional life, and Inmy experience, when a sacred ceremony becomes trendy it loses its holiness. The ritual becomes modified for public consumption, and performed by anybody who claims the authority, it diminishes its power. When you decentralize the sacred it becomes easier to abuse it, and bad things can happen.

The New Yorker article described gatherings in which violence, molestation, and even a murder occurred. It reminded me of the fraudulent Native American sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona in 2009 conducted by James Arthur Ray a motivational/self-help guru who squeezed 60 people into a faux sweat lodge that he charged thousands of dollars for, to initiate participants as “Spiritual Warriors”. Three bright, well-educated, competent people in the prime of their lives died in that faux ceremony.

I’m not saying Ayahuasca doesn’t possess awesome power for revelation, but it’s important to choose carefully those who are telling its story.  For more information on protecting yourself against charlatans visit SeekSafely.org. This organization, founded by the family of Kirby Brown, a young woman who was one of the three who died in that sweat lodge tragedy, is a forum to talk about who and what is real and what is make-believe. Let’s talk to each other so we can choose wisely who we want to accompany us on the healing journey.

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Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.