About the Author: Sophia Rokhlin is an author, speaker, and nonprofit organizer dedicated to supporting the conservation of forest peoples’ wisdom and territories. Sophia is a co-author of When Plants Dream: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Shamanism and the Global Psychedelic Renaissance (Watkins, 2019). Her work has been featured in publications and podcasts including the Duncan Trussell Family Hour, The New York Times, Acne Paper Magazine, PBS, the BBC, and others.
Peering through the mists of time, we see a long tradition of ritual accompanying the consumption of psychoactive plants. The chemical compounds, spirits, or personalities of these plant medicines (peyote, ayahuasca, iboga, huachuma, to name a few) have been courted and collaborated with, often in a ceremonial context, for thousands of years.
In traditional and indigenous worldviews, these plants are seen as far more than inert matter: they are revered as sentient, spirited ambassadors to be treated with respect and dignity.
Those traditional curanderos, healers, and shamans all understood the art of coaxing spirits, invoking elements, and applying the technology of ritual to potentiate and regulate partnership with these healing plants.
Engaging with the plants is not a matter of transaction or extraction but a conversation requiring deep listening and humility. It is this engagement between human beings and psychedelic or “master” plants that sets the stage for facilitating balance and harmony between us and the greater community of life.
The term “shaman” comes from the Tunguz people of Siberia. Today, it is used to describe a person who mediates relationships between the visible and invisible, the human and the non-human, to restore health between all living communities. For ayahuasca shamans of the Amazon rainforest, “disease is viewed as cosmonomic mismanagement,” explains anthropologist Kaj Arhem. “The notions of health and curing are focused, not narrowly on the individual person, but on the natural and social whole of which the human patient is a part.”
What happens when plant medicines are extracted from their ceremonial contexts, and the role of the shaman is discarded? What becomes of the “spirit” of the plants when they are extracted and plugged into the pharmaceutical matrix?
Ceremonial techniques, indigenous worldviews, and ritual proceedings are not simply fat to be cut off; they are the key to reconnecting spiritually orphaned human beings—hooked on the single-arrow myth of progress—with the natural world. So how do we recognize and protect indigenous healers’ invaluable role and knowledge as plant medicines “boom”?
Taming the Wild for the Marketplace
Several psychedelic plants have become popular in recent years, with media outlets reporting on adventures in altered states. In this piece, I will focus on ayahuasca — a psychoactive potion made from two plants, traditionally prepared by indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest.
According to the International Center of Ethnobotanical Education and Research Services (ICEERS), an estimated four million individuals internationally have consumed the brew. Ayahuasca is now, despite its sacred air, also an exported commodity.
With the increasing popularity of ayahuasca comes its commercialization. Researchers tend to approach ayahuasca as a religious sacrament, a “drug,” or a botanical wonder—but could there be a benefit to understanding and accepting ayahuasca as it relates to the global market? The combination of a surging local and international demand for the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), which takes approximately five years to grow to ideal harvesting maturity, increases pressure to wild forage the medicine. Failing to recognize this plant as a part of a booming industry misses a big part of the emergent picture.
There is nothing novel about global “booms” of psychoactive plants. From coffee and tea to cocoa and coca, humanity’s appetite for altered states influences the organization of large-scale societies and the subjugation of original peoples. Historically, psychoactive medicines have been “discovered” by the dominant culture, extracted, and synthesized, sometimes transforming into harmful and addictive substances such as coca/cocaine and tobacco/nicotine.
“Baked into the current notion of the psychedelic renaissance is the sense that it already knows where it wants to go: more scale, more global distribution, more money, more people, more markets, more ‘social impact’,” write Alnoor Ladha and Rene Suša.
Ayahuasca is by no means immune to this trend. Yet, as we’ve seen with plants like coca—considered sacred for people of the Andes mountains—extraction and adulteration can become a force of darkness.
“Ordeal Medicine” as a Rite-of-Passage
In the growing arena of psychedelic science and media, ayahuasca is often referred to as just ayahuasca—a sludgy substance divorced from its deep cultural and ceremonial context. The global north’s cherry-picked and extractive approach has been met with the disapproval of indigenous practitioners with multi-generational experience navigating the numinous realms of sacred plant medicine.
The impetus to package and bring plant medicines to market seems to come at the cost of losing integrated healing ceremonies and traditions. Yet, as Dr. Kenneth Tupper puts it, “Ayahuasca drinking in the global north is, in a number of respects, a bourgeois phenomenon—local ceremonies typically cost a few hundred dollars per person, and a plane ticket to the Amazon [is] even less affordable.” The question of accessibility is important, and with promising results for PTSD, alcoholism, and addiction, it’s worth questioning who gets access to ayahuasca in a world where many needing healing don’t have the means to participate in an “authentic” ceremony.
Considering the disparity of access and ample opportunity to profit, entrepreneurs are working to extract and commercialize ayahuasca. Filament Health, a Vancouver-based psychedelic development company, boasts the invention of an ayahuasca pill as “the next logical progression.” Surely, plans to patent a standardized extract are on the horizon.
Yet ayahuasca is what some call an “ordeal medicine”: vomiting, nausea, and general discomfort that often come with the medicine are not erroneous or maladaptive traits to be engineered away. Instead, the rite of passage and difficulty one goes through are part and parcel of the medicine’s chemical magic. In Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World, David Maybury-Lewis contemplates why we bother with the fear and difficulty of ayahuasca. “If drinking yage [ayahuasca] is so unpleasant and frightening, why do people persist in using it?” he asks. “Because [shamans] believe the terror is something a person must overcome in order to attain knowledge.” Such a trial-by-fear offers a type of healing no quick-fix can: self-knowledge.
The pharmaceutical industry’s hard-wired propulsion to research, standardize, and profit from psychedelic plant medicines eliminates these more human healing elements. Favoring a frictionless experience, companies working to commodify these plants are misled into thinking a pill alone will heal depression, grief, anxiety, and other ailments haunting industrial cultures.
While living with Tukano indigenous communities of the Upper Amazon, anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff took account of communities’ emphasis on ritual, and its role in “unifying the social group, upon continuity, upon the close bonds of identity that unite society with the past and make it the foundation of the future.” A far cry from the individual approach to psychedelic healing blindfolded with Beethoven, ceremonies and rituals served a powerful, cohesive function that would reinforce motivating values and “strong incentives for ecological responsibility.”
Souls Love Initiation
Today, ayahuasca tends to be heralded as a silver bullet, a panacea for endemic ailments such as depression, eating disorders, addiction, and anxiety. It seems ayahuasca—and the shamanic techniques it is embedded in—supports those struggling with these ailments, which play significant roles in developing autoimmune and other diseases.
Could it be that the very model of experiencing the ceremonial “ordeal” of ayahuasca is a help? Could taking time to slow down, gather with others, and commune with nature in a ceremonial setting be a keystone in the healing potential of ayahuasca and other ceremonial plant medicines?
When asked how ayahuasca heals, indigenous Shipibo shamans (or onanyabo, wisdom-keepers) of the Peruvian Amazon might reference akinananti—best translated as reciprocity and interconnectedness.
“Disease is viewed as cosmonomic mismanagement. The notions of health and curing are focused, not narrowly on the individual person, but on the natural and social whole of which the human patient is a part,” writes anthropologist Kaj Århem. For Amazonian communities, curing affliction is a community affair involving trees, rivers, winds, spirits, dream guides, and dialogue with all creatures whose company we keep.
The over-emphasis on individual healing in the global North may, in some cases, exacerbate the loneliness, anxiety, and disease common in industrialized cultures. And while psychologists seek to alleviate mental complexes they connect to underlying trauma, shamans understand healing as a dynamic process that involves struggling with invisible forces in the spirit world.
As the global diaspora of ayahuasca drinkers expands, many claim to have a “re-enchanted” perspective on their lives, receiving visions and a renewed outlook on reality. Ayahuasca, typically served by indigenous Amazonian or Amazonian-taught facilitators, is presented not as an inert substance but as a “teacher” and “grandmother.” While some might call this simple anthropomorphization, a growing community believes in plant sentience, or as maverick psychedelic philosopher Terrence McKenna called it, “vegetal intelligence.”
In his searing critique, We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy (1992), the late eco-psychologist James Hillman scorns the modern practitioner’s impulse and emphasis on the individual for healing. “What’s left out is a deteriorating world. So why hasn’t therapy noticed that?” Hillman asks. “By removing the soul from the world and not recognizing that the soul is also in the world, psychotherapy can’t do its job anymore.”
By narrowly fixating on our individual stories, might we be turning a blind eye to the sickness of institutions, banks, schools, and ecosystems? I believe the Amazonian healers whom I have worked with would agree with Hillman when he writes,
“The depression we’re all trying to avoid could very well be a prolonged chronic reaction to what we’ve been doing to the world, a mourning and grieving for what we’re doing to nature and to cities and to whole peoples—the destruction of a lot of our world.”
Health is Relationship
Understanding that the Western mind’s hyper-individualized approach to healing is limited to its narrow perspective on the “self,” how might we practically integrate a more expansive, animate, holistic perspective to the emergent culture of psychedelic healing?
First, we must look at the deep grooves that keep us repeating the habit of extracting, synthesizing, and profiting from medicines. The holistic, animist outlook held by so many indigenous cultures is fundamentally at odds with the colonial lineage of materialist thought, which necessitates the subjugation and “dehumanization” of other creatures to win power over them.
The situation calls for a significant shift where therapists, entrepreneurs, pharmacists, and scholars consider healing beyond a narrow emphasis on the individual. Could the future of psychedelic healing include reciprocity initiatives, where profits are directed to reforestation and cultural preservation in the Amazon and elsewhere? Could leading psychiatrists go beyond their comfort zone and cultivate relationships between the last living elders of forests who steward ancient, shamanic wisdom? Might building financial systems that automate reciprocity benefit our global thriving?
I imagine bridging worlds: a new synthesis of shamanism and post-industrial society, mysticism, and science. Our consumerist tendencies can be reconciled by a conscious, coordinated effort to humbly blend schools of thought, scientific knowledge, and indigenous wisdom. This great wave of ancient psychedelics-gone-global presents a magnificent new opportunity to create practices and build systems where ecology, spirituality, and social progress all merge.
It may seem far out—but perhaps nothing less can bring about the transformation we need.
- Arhem, K. (1996). The cosmic food web: Human-nature relatedness in northwest Amazon. In P. Descola & G. Palsson (Eds.), Nature and society: Anthropological perspectives (pp. 185-204). London, Routledge.
- Tupper, Economics of Ayahuasca https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307968701_The_economics_of_ayahuasca_Money_markets_and_the_value_of_the_vine