Podcast Transcript: Is Ayahuasca Tourism Doing More Harm Than Good? – Raz Degan
Please enjoy this transcript of our interview with Raz Degan.
“The Last Shaman,” executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, tells the story of a man searching for a solution to his mental health problems through the use of ayahuasca. Raz Degan, its director, talks to us about his experiences with ayahuasca, and the balance between its potential healing effects, and the dangers to the individual, our culture and the environment.
In this episode, we talk about:
- The Last Shaman follows a search for healing in the Amazon
- There are good and bad sides to ayahuasca tourism
- Not a miracle treatment, not suitable for all
00:29 Paul Austin: Hey, welcome back to The Third Wave Podcast. We have a little special bonus podcast today. It’s just a brief one. It’s maybe just 25 to 30 minutes with the director of The Last Shaman, Raz Degan, who is an actor, director, and cinematographer, born in Israel. At the age of 21, Raz became a male model, and began traveling, and now, he has released a feature-length film that is executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, and it will be released on Netflix in 2017, it’s called The Last Shaman. It was shown at Psychedelic Science back in April. I had a chance to preview it before then, I believe in March 2017. I really enjoyed the film and so I wanted to make sure that we had at least a brief podcast with the director Raz. Raz is a very, very intense dude, and we got to the core of his motivations and reasons for making the film in this brief podcast episode. So I think you guys will enjoy it. And if you enjoy the podcast, and if you get a lot of value out of it, again, we just ask you that you could please make a donation on our Patreon page and leave us a review on iTunes. And that’s it. Enjoy the podcast.
01:48 PA: Tell me a little bit about how did your interest come to be with this film, with The Last Shaman and the documentary. How did this come to fruition to some degree?
01:56 Raz Degan: I got drawn into Ayahuasca basically, after having five nights sessions with my mom and understanding the affects the medicine had my on mom. And really how it improved her day-to-day life, convinced me that there is something that I should dig myself into and investigate further. So I quit my job, went to the Amazon Basin with an idea in mind of let’s try to make a film about Ayahuasca and shamanism and how we could actually sorta heal the world. That was the first intention.
02:24 PA: Sure.
02:25 RD: Then after that, things got a little bit deeper, and I understood that flashing dollars and having a camera in my hand is not necessarily the way to highlighten this argument. Which there’s much more than what meets the eye and Ayahuasca is a more complex industry than the actual ceremony itself. And I understood that by making a movie, I might actually be harming the medicine, the people treating the medicine, the local environment in the medicine, and actually sending innocent people trying to get a bullet proof vest somewhere down where there is none. So things got a little bit more, how would I say, deeper. And I realized that I needed to find a different vehicle if I was to actually try to portray anything that has to do with this medicine. And basically, a lot of the cause and effect came to play.
03:10 RD: What is our, our being the Western world, responsibility for the changing environment these indigenous cultures are going through, and basically what is my effect on them? So not just what Ayahuasca could be the effect on me, but what’s my effect on Ayahuasca? Started to really drill in my head this whole aspect of let’s not try to be a savior of the planet but let’s just try to save what’s out there. That’s basically how it all started. And then I realized once I started investigating, the more I investigated, the more I realized that there is much more than, as I said before, what meets the eye. That I lifted the carpet and I saw that there are a lot of really unpleasant things engaged that have nothing to do with the plant itself. And I just thought that we really should claim responsibility for what we’re doing before we actually set ourselves to throw ourselves on somebody else’s lap and try to get some sort of like a baby-sitting session with someone who’s gonna heal us. It just… Everything seemed a little bit misleading.
04:09 RD: So basically, I’m not doubting or putting at doubt the power of the plant itself, that goes without saying. It’s enough. You basically respect the checklist. Meaning you have a healthy diet before you go in, you really work on your intentions before you start setting out to go somewhere. You check that you don’t have any cross indications that could harm you along the way. Meaning you taking SSRIs or you’ve taken other any other substances before you attend any ceremonies. You investigated the shaman that you’re gonna sit with. You’re in a clear set and settings where you feel comfortable and there’s no fear involved. You have no expectations really and it’s all good. But then again, these things sometimes are left sideways, and what we jump into is just looking for something that could instantly change the way I feel. And in doing so, we empower a lot of lunatics, and we hurt others without even knowing so.
05:00 PA: And so you mentioned some of these kind of things that are underground, they’re seamy, they’re part of the Ayahuasca thing that publicly maybe we wish they weren’t because they’re leading to really poor situations for certain people who are going down there.
05:13 RD: Well basically, they’re leading towards the end of Ayahuasca, the way I see it. The local people can’t even afford their own medicine. The more Yankee doodles come down to town, the higher the price is. And Ayahuasca is a vine that actually takes anywhere from 8 to 20 years to actually be ready for consumption. It requires harvest, it requires planning, and it takes time, and the demand is exceeding the supply. So I’m not saying… Don’t get me wrong that no one is not entitled to go down to Peru or wherever they want to and sit in circles and do ceremonies, and normally, the effect could be really rewarding. But I am saying, my experiences led me to understand that there is a lot of harm growing down in the Amazon with the local communities. The local environment over there is really shifting, and a lot of people these days are not really…
06:00 RD: Let’s put it this way, qualified-knowing shamans other than brujos or witchcrafters, that are trying to make an extra buck on people’s desperation basically. And people shouldn’t throw themselves in the hands of nobody without asking the proper questions, meaning, why am I going? Who am I going? Where am I going? What are the implications of this trip basically, in my life and the life of the ones that are gonna be around me in that trip? So that’s that. And also know that this is a sacred medicine we’re dealing with. So the whole argument of making a movie was, am I de-sacramenting sacredness by making something about sacredness, which is really not sacred. There’s a lot of conflict going on around before actually making this movie.
06:45 PA: And there is. And I think whenever you’re dealing with subjects like this, I think a lot of people would lead us to believe that it’s black and white, and it’s not. There’s so much nuance, and there’s so much complexity to these questions because, like you’re saying, this medicine is needed by a lot of people, and it’s needed most importantly by the people who grow it, meaning people from the Amazon. But it’s also, obviously, increasingly needed by a Western populace that is struggling with questions of connection and questions of, even on a more practical level, like depression, addiction, isolation. And so it’s not black or white, meaning Westerners shouldn’t go down there, and there should only be for the Amazonians. But it’s also like how does this get managed? As it continues to grow, how does it get managed? Because that’s a big question that I often think about is this is gonna continue to grow in popularity. And you’re right, there are a lot of negative effects because of that on the people in the Amazon.
07:34 RD: Yeah, the people in the Amazon, but also the Western culture because every second dude right now is having his own ceremony in his own backyard. And he’s putting his people outfit on, and he became the shaman. So we’re cultivating a generation of ignorance, in a sense, because the teachings are not really in the teacher. The teachings are within you. It’s sort of like the beauty of this plant, the beauty of this medicine that it seems to connect to are knowing. And it allows you to see, to unveil, to sort of clean out, these areas that have been hidden in your life and recognize that which could be worked on, and that which needs attention. And it’s not necessarily what goes down in the ceremony, as much as what you take out of the ceremony into the day-to-day life. Which will create change in yourself, in your environment, and in your loved ones, and your relationship to life.
08:24 RD: It’s not an instant cure-all, Ayahuasca. And it’s not one of those things where it’s a competition of how many times you’ve been or attended ceremonies, as I’ve seen. “Oh well, I drank 20 times.” “Well, I drank 50 times.” “Well, I drink 5,000 times.” If you drank 5,000 times and you’re still drinking, it’s a bottomless pit. Where are you going? I’ve met people, especially lately since the movie’s out, that come up to me and they go, “Well, I drank it so many… I’m still do da de a.” And, “I drank it this, and I’m still… I can’t find myself.” And, “Why is this happening to me?” It’s happening to you because you’re putting all your hopes on some external means after yourself, which… And then the minute you don’t have it, you don’t have it. It’s ridiculous. You know what I’m saying? It’s like it’s all there. Ayahuasca’s just there to remind you that you already know, and to actually start stimulating that which will create that enthusiastic approach to take action. A lot of times, we don’t wanna take action. We sorta know. Most of the time we know, but we don’t wanna do anything about it. And not doing anything about it, we’ll look for an instant miracle in order to bypass that which needs to be done.
09:28 PA: Yeah. It’s the sense of guru worship almost still, where people feel like they need an external party to tell them it’s okay to do it.
09:35 RD: Yeah. There was the guru, then there was the yoga teacher and now, there’s the shaman. Exactly. So I don’t understand it in a sense that I really believe that we are at a time where I do understand that, I just don’t accept it. Let’s put it this way. We’re living in incredible times. We’re living in times where at one end of the equation, we have complete madness, tyrants as presidents, no water around, everything’s changing, there’s paranoia in the minds of the collectiveness. There’s all this thing going around the 6:00 news, and the advertisement for some sort of cure-all for any disease that you’ve basically inherited through going to the local supermarket. It’s just a never-ending kinda spiral.
10:13 RD: And then the other end, more and more people are enlightened. More and more people are being conscious. More and more people are loving actually the simplicity of being alive, and are trying to do something towards Mother Earth, Pachamama, rather than themselves. So the Yin and Yang are always in balance. Whether or not we wanna see it, that’s a different thing. The Universe is in balance, and God is indifferent, the sad truth and the honest truth. So, if it rains on your wedding day, it doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist. And then the Ayahuasca ceremony will allow you to connect to that sort of divine energy within yourself and within around us. But the work, and I go back to what I said 20 minutes ago, is within you. And Ayahuasca will only make you… Give you an indication to those areas that need to be worked on. But it’s not gonna crown you the next Messiah. It’s not gonna allow you to not do the work by preaching to others what you need to do.
11:07 PA: Sure. Because what you’re talking about is to some sense, how do we manage the ego. Because even the sense of, “I’ve drank 20 times.” “I’ve drank 50 times.” That’s ego and I think there’s a sense, from my understanding, that a big part of going through these experiences is recognizing that ego exists, but also recognizing its downfalls. Or how we can manage it to better kinda navigate life in a way, and to better navigate this reality, to enjoy the presence of being, without having to play these kind of status games to some degree.
11:34 RD: Yeah. There’s a fine line between intuition and hallucinations. So when we’re in these ceremonies we need to check in sometimes. And check in because it’s very easy to be caught in an ego ride and think, “I’m gonna be saving the world.” Or, “I know exactly what I need to do, to do, do, de, do, de, da, da, da, da.” And not really looking at the insights, the teachings. And it’s a very, very razor-sharp fine line. I’ve seen… Drink Ayahuasca once and never go back to Ayahuasca because the teaching was so clear to them. They totally got it. They will never sit in another ceremony. I’ve seen people sit few times in the ceremony, ’cause they’re dealing with heavier issues and actually taking their own actions in their hands and bettering their lives. And I’ve seen people sit there hundreds of times and get really nothing. They’re going after that sort of like DMT experience, and they get hooked on the visions. And they think the visions are gonna do the work, and it’s not exactly so.
12:01 PA: Now I remember I was… Do you know ICEERS? Are you familiar with ICEERS?
12:01 RD: Yeah, yeah.
12:01 PA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
12:01 RD: I was sitting with Ben in New York at the Q&As at the end of the film. It was quite interesting.
12:01 PA: Yeah. I went to the World Ayahuasca Conference in Rio Branco last October, that was going on and I remember one of the talk that one of the people that iSeries was doing and he basically talked about how there were people who would come to them and be like, “I’ve been drink Ayahuasca 30 times in the last month and I’m still having these issues and these problems, what should I do?” And they’re like, “Well you should stop drinking Ayahuasca.” Because there’s a sense of getting so obsessed with these visions and a sense of becoming so involved with this outer world and never taking the time to really self-reflect and do that inner work. Because I think it can be so daunting for some people. And if we come back to what we were talking about earlier, we don’t really have… It’s starting to develop but the support system often times for people who are coming back from these experiences or even having them in the Amazon, it’s not necessarily prevalent. It’s not as present as it should be in terms of the integration, in terms of follow-up work. I just did a podcast with a therapist, a psychotherapist who wrote this book, Listening to Ayahuasca, her name is Rachel Harris and this is a big part of what she spoke about. It’s not really just the experience, it’s like how do you integrate it? What are you doing after you go through that to really make sure that those benefits, they’re not abstract, you really can bring them back to reality.
13:41 RD: Most of the times it’s like let’s say, I’m just gonna side track for a second, there is this…
13:45 PA: Sure, please.
13:45 RD: This plant, it’s the root called Eboga or Ibogaine and that cuts any addiction within a weekend, basically. So, that’s really quicker deal with addiction, that’s the fastest route out of addiction. But if you go back to a house that everyone’s a drug addict in, obviously your addiction problems are not gonna be resolved because within a few days, you’re gonna fall back right into your habits. So if we’re drinking Ayahuasca but then in our day-to-day we’re not changing our habits, we’re not changing our routines, we’re not changing the short cuts, it’s obvious we’re gonna fall back into the old…
14:17 PA: Well, and I think most importantly it’s like sometimes it’s not changing the people you spend time with. And I think for me that’s also a big part of it, is how do we change that dynamic, right? So how do we create more community for people who are coming back from these experiences so that… Because I don’t think it’s an individual thing, right?
14:34 RD: With the over rising popularity of Ayahuasca and especially the openness of what’s going on today, there is room for communities. There is room and there are a lot less festivals and organizations. The world of spirit is really roaming free right now. The whole Burning Man community, the whole other festivals that are out there, there are a lot of ways to tap into the people that are actually experiencing the same experiences as our own. Our own personal experience normally is personal and our own, but once we actually dive into the collective, we’ll understand that everyone basically is searching actually, just for the one thing to be happy, to be healthy, to tap into their creative force and to try to be human. That’s basically, it’s pretty simple. And then all roads lead to Rome, as they say. And Rome being just being present.
15:20 PA: It is, it’s presence. I think for me, it always goes back to presence.
15:23 RD: And being present, being aware and being conscious. That’s basically it without those three things, you’re in Daleli, you’re in the Maya, you’re in the samsara, you’re in the dharma, call it what you want. And these three elements in our lives are basically our birthright and for some reason we have lost the time that we’re given when we’re born, we should be timeless. And this consumption of time by this sort of external means, especially today by all these social media aspect that is basically…
15:49 PA: Social media?
15:50 RD: Yeah, it’s time-consuming and it’s an hallucination there’s no reality in it. Has caused a lot of suffering and it’s gonna continue to isolate human beings and to create this sort of dissonance, cognitive dissonance and essentially we go through what we go through. And as I said a while back, the Universe is indifferent.
16:10 PA: It seems to be cyclical. Things happen in a cyclical nature but there seems to be this process of things are getting better. And so I am an optimist and that’s why we’re doing the work that we’re doing in it because if we weren’t optimistic there would just be a sense of apathy.
16:21 RD: But we can’t sell the miracle cure. We can’t push people into this sort of movement when the movement itself is another sort of like, it’s just another illusion. There could be a collective force which is going towards an objective, which is a peaceful objective, but it really needs to look at itself good before it does so.
16:40 PA: I’m curious more a little bit about your story. What was your Ayahuasca experience? How did you get into Ayahuasca and like…
16:47 RD: I’ve had the pleasure of falling into Ayahuasca after a long journey, I walked the Silk Road by myself for four months. I’ve been to Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, into Tibet, Nepal and I got like a broncopolmonite in my lungs, I couldn’t breathe. My brother was in Goa and he suggested I get off the mountains, I got off the mountains. There was a shaman over there who had some Ayahuasca. I’ve heard of Ayahuasca a long time ago. I’m a great fan of Terrance Luken and I’ve always been listening to his stuff. We’re talking about somewhere like 10 years ago. So I did the checklist. I wasn’t doing any drugs. I wasn’t doing any meat. I wasn’t having any sex. I wasn’t doing any of that other stuff and I just jumped in there. And after a couple of nights of drinking Ayahuasca, I basically vomited all the mucus out of my body. And I just was amazed my body’s ability to actually get rid of the sickness, the humidity. And after that, I continued drinking for a few more nights with this shaman and it opened up all these emotional blockages because of my yogi background.
17:43 RD: I used to be a yoga teacher. It was pretty fast, this short cut to Nirvana aspect while I was on the medicine. It was like beam me up Scotty. I was out there, after everything was cleaned, I mean after your physical was cleaned, the emotional was taken care of. The relationship with the world I live in was sort of like put in clear. Then the connection to the divine just exploded. As I said earlier, it sort of pressed on me to have an experience with my mom. So I got my mom in on it and seeing the results with her, sort of like were just what I needed in order to tip myself into this voyage. Which lasted five years in the making and now six years of making this movie. And while I was in the Amazon, I drank with over 50 shamans and sat in a few hundred ceremonies with different tribes, different set and settings. I just really wanted to experience myself and everything was going up hill until I started to flip through some cases that were not as successful as my own and investigate them. And it was almost like they say, once you open that spirit portal, you can go in but you can’t get out. And in that, there is a lot of light but there’s also darkness. So it became pretty interesting because I needed to buckle up and go into the ride really using my Skywalker and it did get a bit crazy over there for a while.
19:01 PA: And you’re talking you personally, or are you talking about…
19:03 RD: No, no, no, I’m talking me personally.
19:05 PA: Yeah.
19:05 RD: Yeah, yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. ‘Cause when you’re open, you’re open. You’re totally open, but you’re open for everything that comes your way. Unless you understand how to deal with that openness. There’s a lot of rules that are being taught, but there’s a lot of ways to basically I believe, conduct this whole questioning within yourselves before you go there. There are a set of, you could put on an armor, it’s sorta like a catch-22 because you need to be really open for that which comes in order to receive the teaching. But you also, once you start to dig really deep down inside you realize there could be a lot of things coming your way if you’re that open. So that openness does not necessarily always is a guarantee for the good to just come in.
19:44 PA: Well I mean can you make that a little bit more concrete, like was there a personal…
19:49 RD: Guys, I’m trying not to freak people out and you can say I did.
19:51 PA: That’s fine, that’s fine.
19:52 RD: Yeah, and trying basically honestly not name things or this, but I always… Okay, let me just put it this way. My suggestion to people is to always call upon the guardian angels to protect the space they’re in personally. Protect your space, not allow anyone in your space who doesn’t reveal his identity, and if something comes your way always ask its intention, that’s it. And know that you are light, and know that no amount of darkness can penetrate any light. But you could go with your light into any darkness just light a match and get rid of that darkness. So have faith in yourself, and have faith in your guardian angels, and have faith in your intentions, and have faith general. And I’m saying that because you know once you start lifting the carpet and seeing the dirt a lot of other people get pissed off ’cause you’ve seen what they’re hiding. So you’re actually going into people’s sort of livelihood. And it’s a big business out there. And I really went deep. Unfortunately I had some really bad encounters with people which fortunately shaped the film to be what it is. Because otherwise it would’ve been one film advocating one guy’s journey of awakening without the consequences of his own actions, or the actions of what’s going around in these certain settings.
21:02 PA: This film is out right, it’s been out now a month, six weeks?
21:04 RD: Yeah, the films out on… It’s doing its U.S theatrical tour which I’m really, really grateful of this possibility ’cause it’s quite a miracle to shoot a movie by yourself in the Amazon for three years, and for a story like this to hit theatrical release it’s quite… It’s also nice for the movement. As we spoke before, it’s nice to get recognition that there is an alternative way to look upon mental illness, which is so escalating these days. You know depression is the second leading cause of disability in the world today and it’s affecting everyone, and it’s affecting some people that you don’t even know are affected. It’s one of those cases where your husband, and your girlfriend, or your colleague at work, or whatever, your school mate, people could be affected by it, and it could come inside your life as a dark shadow and there’s no way out sometimes unless… And then they feed you these pharmaceutical pills which sometimes helps stabilize the mind, sometimes they do, and sometimes it’s just another pill and you get yourself deeper in the rabbit’s hole. I’m no one to say, I can’t, I can’t, this is a personal thing.
22:04 RD: It’s like Ayahuasca it could help you or it could get you in the rabbit’s hole as well. We just discussed the same thing. Essentially, we are responsible for our own actions whether they’re good or bad. But it will shine light. And this film hopefully does shine light that there are different avenues, and that there is a way that you could actually try to gain a deeper understanding of what it is being human, and your own true potential to create change in the world that we do live in. And that we’re all a part of something which is bigger than us. So I’m really happy this made theatrical. We are coming out on Netflix worldwide the first of September. They do amazing… Leonardo DiCaprio behind us executive producing in Netflix. Yeah, so this little dream of sharing something with the world, and giving hope essentially to people that are hopeless is very gratifica-ing. There’s a lot of gratitude here, ton. And you know if this film could help just to save one soul from committing an act that happens in a moment of great frustration or despair and shine light on his own soul then I would be forever grateful.
23:12 PA: Let’s continue on that just kinda one more question, we can wrap up. What do you hope is the impact of this film? Like in terms of, you were talking about if it just helps one person, great, but bigger picture, bigger vision, what do you hope in terms of this documentary it’s impact being for the Ayahuasca community, for individuals who are doing this, you know that sort of thing?
23:29 RD: I could only hope because I took so long to make this film on my behalf of the people that before they go in the jungle might wanna watch the film and get what they can from this film, and then investigate a little bit deeper into the arguments this film sorta like solicitates. I could hope that maybe this film will be considered to be screened at educational screenings throughout colleges in the United States. I could hope that maybe parents would watch this film before they start to manipulate their kids to become something, or put stress in their kids’ minds without knowing so. I could hope that we will respect more the indigenous rights of indigenous cultures, and that essentially hope that many, many, many people watch this film, especially the people seeking to penetrate Ayahuasca world, and set out on adventures into the Amazon.
24:19 RD: If I’m the big, big, big league, if I can hope that this will actually help change legislation and create legalization of hallucinogenics as an alternative means to improve mental illness, obviously yes. But so hopefully people that have that power to do so will have a look at this film and maybe that will touch them on one level or another. Because this film is not just about Ayahuasca, like really it’s a journey of awakening, and it really is a father and son movie, and it really is a movie about how we grow up in a pressure-driven society, and it really is a movie about our cause and effect, and it is really a movie about soul searching and basically respecting nature and indigenous people and asking ourselves twice before we actually do something. What’s the cause and what’s the effect of my actions?
24:50 PA: Yeah, and it was a beautiful film. You did a phenomenal job. It touched me a lot, and obviously that’s why I wanted to do this podcast and this interview. And so I just wanna thank you for putting all the time and the effort that you put into it, to making this because I think it’s an important contribution and I think it will help to shine lights in areas that have been ignored, or that maybe we hadn’t really wanted to address. And I think you’re right it isn’t just about Ayahuasca, it is about all of these other aspects of living in culture in a society that we live in and the repercussions of having lived in that culture in society, and what are now ways that we can heal from that. And what are the upsides and what are the downsides to those ways? I think it’s an honest look at all aspects. And I think that’s important because I think what’s going on right now with psychedelics there’s a lot of optimism not only with Ayahuasca, but other things as well. And for some people what that does is it’s an over-optimism and sometimes we lose sight of… There are some not so great things going on as well. And I think a big part of continuing to bring this medicine to people and this healing to people is recognizing that not everything is great, and saying we do need to continue to be active in addressing these things. And so I think you’re film did a phenomenal job in addressing all those things.
26:08 RD: Thank you. Thank you so much. I truly appreciate it.